LANCASTER — Robert Rahn remembers the first time he saw a jet airplane as he taxied down a runway in 1940. Little did he know then that within 10 years he would be one of the nation's first pilots to fly one.
"I saw them placing blocks underneath the wheels of this strange aircraft," Rahn said. "What's that?" he asked, calling down to a ground crew member, who told him, "It's a jet airplane."
"That's nice," Rahn recalled saying. "What's a jet airplane?"
Rahn, 73, was one of five decorated test pilots inducted Sunday into the city of Lancaster's Aerospace Walk of Honor in a ceremony that featured "Star Trek" legend Leonard Nimoy, who separated Mr. Spock's fictional heroics from the work of real heroes.
"I believe in the Aerospace Walk of Honor because I believe in history," Nimoy said. "History begins with the willingness of one person to do something first. To boldly go where no one has gone before," he added, borrowing the now-famous phrase from the popular television series.
Along with Rahn, Air Force Col. Charles C. Bock Jr., Herman Richard Salmon, Maj. Gen. Robert A. Rushworth and Alvin S. White were honored at the fifth annual awards ceremonies at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center.
The inductees join 20 test pilots who have been honored since the city began the awards program in 1990. Together, the pilots honored Sunday logged more than 40,000 hours of flight time, carried out hundreds of combat missions and flew some of the first jets ever built.
"It means an awful lot because of all the past honorees, some who I've known for 50 years," Rahn said. "Jimmy Dolittle was a hero of mine."
Salmon, a gifted test pilot who, it was said, could "feel with the plane," and Rushworth, who flew the X-15 rocket research aircraft 34 times, were honored posthumously and their awards were accepted by family members.
Bock participated in the SR-71 Blackbird Test Program in 1965, and flew more than 70 aircraft as well as flying more than 100 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam.
When he tested the XF4D Skyray, a prototype Navy fighter jet, Rahn became the first man to break the sound barrier and perform a spin and recovery maneuver in a delta wing aircraft. He is also the only Army pilot honored in the Navy Test Pilot Hall of Honor.
At a reception before the ceremony, Rahn marveled at the changes in aviation that have occurred since he left the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School in Lancaster nearly 50 years ago.
"In 50 years, we went from 15,000 pounds of thrust for an entire plane to 90,000 pounds of thrust--and that's just one engine in a commercial airliner," he said. "It's just phenomenal."
Alvin S. White, a World War II combat veteran, was honored for his work as an engineering test pilot. He also helped design parachutes used on the ground to slow aircraft, and ejection seats.
White took two experimental aircraft to a speed of more than 2,000 m.p.h. while working as the chief test pilot for North American Aviation.
White, 76, also told a tale about how he survived a midair collision during an experimental flight in the final stages of testing for the XB-70, a bomber developed to replace the B-52. The plane was later used as a research aircraft.
After his plane scraped wings with an escort fighter, the bomber went into a spin and fell 20,000 feet before he was able to escape in an ejector seat, White said. "We got hit at 30,000 feet, and I got out about 10,000 feet," White said. "My co-pilot was killed."