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High-Flying Scientist : Aerospace engineer rejoices in her role as the first female crew member on NASA's SR-71 Blackbird, a recycled spy plane.

August 07, 1992|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laminar flow research. Gust gradient evaluations.

Like other aerospace engineers, Marta Bohn-Meyer conducts highly technical, and somewhat dry, experiments. Unlike other aerospace engineers, she conducts them while hurtling through the stratosphere at three times the speed of sound.

Bohn-Meyer works at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Facility and recently became the first female crew member on the SR-71 "Blackbird," a former spy plane that serves as the space agency's supersonic laboratory. Taking off from Edwards Air Force Base, the jet can climb to an altitude of 85,000 feet with blurry acceleration and travel faster than 2,200 m.p.h.

"When you put your hand against the window," Bohn-Meyer said, "it feels hot."

It is Bohn-Meyer's job to be navigator--feeding crucial information to the pilot--and scientist, conducting and recording aerodynamic experiments. The test flights last less than 90 minutes--roughly the time it takes to drive from the Mojave Desert air base to Santa Clarita--but they are hardly commuter hops.

"In that time, the SR-71 will have gone across Nevada, southern Utah, then out over Arizona making a big turn over the western portion of New Mexico and then it will come straight back here," NASA spokesman Don Haley said. "That's a lot of territory to cover in a little over an hour."

As Bohn-Meyer explains it: "I'll look out and we'll be over California and the next time I look, we'll be over Utah."

Such work has thrust Bohn-Meyer into the predominantly male arena of high-performance flight, an environment that the U.S. Navy's ongoing "Tailhook" controversy has proved can be hostile to females. But the 34-year-old New Yorker said she has yet to encounter any discrimination. "If anything, my entire flying career has been people giving me more opportunities because I'm a woman," she said. In addition, she has a strong ally: husband Bob Meyer is the flight engineer on another NASA SR-71.

"There's a lot of synergy between the two of us," Meyer said. "We talk to each other about things we've learned, about how to do things on the airplane."

Lockheed Corp. began developing the Blackbird for the U.S. Air Force in the late 1950s, under extreme secrecy. According to folklore, the delta-wing jets were originally called the RS-71, but President Lyndon B. Johnson transposed the letters when he publicly announced the plane's existence in 1964. Not wanting to embarrass the President, Lockheed quickly changed the name.

Blackbirds are extremely high-tech, sleek and black, constructed mostly of titanium and powered by twin turbojets that produce 32,500 pounds of thrust. They are not the fastest plane ever--that distinction belongs to the X-15, a rocket-propelled jet that set a record by sizzling across the California desert at 4,520 m.p.h. But the SR-71 is the fastest production plane. In 1990, it set a record of its own by flying from Los Angeles to New York in 1 hour and 7 minutes. At that speed, it takes roughly two states to complete a turn.

The Air Force retired its 20 Blackbirds (32 were built and 12 were lost in crashes) several years ago, shipping them to museums and hangars across the country. Three ended up on loan to NASA, and Bohn-Meyer was waiting to greet them.

She has been flying since age 14, when her parents said they would support whatever hobby she chose to pursue, and she chose airplanes. Her first solo flight came at age 16 and she got her pilot's license before her driver's license.

The natural progression was to study aerospace engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. And during an internship at NASA's Hampton, Va., research facility, she ran into an engineer who was working in the wind tunnel next door.

"We met in the parking lot in a discussion over his plane," she said of her future husband and his Pitts Special biplane. "At first, I liked his airplane better than him."

Soon, however, the two were married and assigned to Dryden. Many of their duties were, and still are, confined to the ground. But they have remained avid private pilots and have sought more experience with the variety of jets at NASA.

The space agency uses it airplanes to conduct research in such areas as aerodynamics, propulsion, thermal protection and sonic boom characterization--research that can be used to design future government and private aircraft.

However, the engineers who design these experiments aren't always brought along on the flights. But Bob and Marta compensated for their lack of flight time by hitching rides with pilots making solo training runs. They got into the habit of checking the schedule each morning.

"Marta has always been aggressive about that," said Thomas McMurtry, Dryden's chief of flight operations. "She likes the flight environment."

And flying biplanes in stunt competitions got Bohn-Meyer acclimated to performing under the strain of G-forces. "Once you get used to that," she said, "you can concentrate on the technical stuff."

So the husband and wife were natural choices when experimental flights required an engineer to come along and twist knobs, flick switches and read gauges. And when the SR-71s showed up, "there was no question that they were the best-qualified people for the job," McMurtry said.

The jet's capabilities make it perfect for conducting high-speed, high-altitude research. But because the Blackbird is expensive to fly, and the experiments are complex, Bohn-Meyer has only gotten four opportunities to slip into her pressurized flight suit and helmet and take off since October. Sometimes, she said, it's tough to stay patient.

"That's why I fly the biplanes on weekends," she said. "You can never get enough flying."

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