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Chalmers H. 'Slick' Goodlin, 82; Dispute Cost Him Chance to Break Sound Barrier

October 28, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Chalmers H. "Slick" Goodlin, a test pilot who took the X-1 aircraft to near-supersonic speeds but became a footnote in aviation history when he lost his cockpit seat -- and the right to shatter the sound barrier for the first time -- to a young Chuck Yeager, has died. He was 82.

Goodlin, who flew military planes for three countries, died of cancer Oct. 20 at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., his family announced.

After 26 test flights in the X-1, Goodlin was on the brink of making the first supersonic flight when he resigned over a contract dispute. Bell Aircraft Corp., the plane's manufacturer, refused to pay him a $150,000 bonus for the milestone flight.

The military subsequently took over the program, and Yeager achieved stardom on Oct. 14, 1947, at Muroc Army Air Field (now Edwards Air Force Base) by becoming the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound. He did it for his regular captain's salary: $3,396 a year.

For the rest of his life, Goodlin remained bitter about the lost opportunity, and he and Yeager feuded publicly.

Goodlin accused the Air Force of using the disputed fee as a reason to take over the program from Bell, wanting the credit for breaking the sound barrier after he had done the "dirty work" of shaking down the plane.

Yeager said he took the risky assignment -- an earlier attempt at supersonic flight had killed a British pilot -- because it was his duty as a military man.

Goodlin was a good pilot who could have broken the sound barrier, Yeager told the Dallas Morning News in 1992.

"I couldn't understand why Slick began to delay the program and hold out for more money," said Yeager, who was by then a general.

Goodlin made his stand for the bonus -- an unprecedented amount -- at the wrong time, said Raymond Puffer, an Edwards Air Force Base historian.

"When this flap over money came up, it was a perfect occasion to suggest to Bell that the Air Force take it over," Puffer said. "Goodlin was the man who made the biggest social faux pas at the banquet, and he was touchy about it."

Goodlin later was angered by his portrayal in the 1983 movie "The Right Stuff," based on the Tom Wolfe bestseller, and threatened to sue over it.

In the film, Goodlin is depicted as a cocky, hard-nosed negotiator who says the $150,000 is nonnegotiable. In the next scene, he flicks cigarette ash to the ground as Yeager shears through the sound barrier in the X-1.

"I'm so livid about that," Goodlin told the San Antonio Express-News in 1997. "I wasn't anywhere near [the base] that day, and my portrayal in the movie was completely false."

Puffer confirmed that Goodlin was not present when Yeager made the historic flight.

After his jet-fighter days were over, Goodlin owned a firm that bought, sold and leased aircraft.

For 40 years, he championed the unorthodox aircraft designs of Vincent J. Burnelli, who died in 1964. The fuselage of a Burnelli was double the width of a normal airliner's, and its wings, which carried the fuel, were designed to break off in a crash to prevent the passenger compartment from catching fire.

Goodlin was convinced that Burnelli's radically different design would save 85% of people killed in conventional airliner accidents and lobbied for its acceptance.

"He tried to keep the memory of Burnelli alive, and that's what kept him going all these years," said Philip S. Dockter, a family friend. "He was quite a guy and a great person."

Born Jan. 2, 1923, in Greensburg, Pa., Goodlin began weekly flying lessons at 15 and delivered the newspaper by airplane.

In 1941, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, hoping to get some combat experience -- the United States had not yet entered World War II -- and went to England. The U.S. Navy recruited him as a Navy test pilot in 1942.

Bell Aircraft chose him as the primary test pilot for the X-1 in 1943 because he was considered, as Wolfe put it, "the best of the breed" of ex-military pilots.

At the suggestion of a friend, Goodlin joined a group of pilots who flew Spitfire fighter planes in 40 missions in defense of Israel in 1948 and 1949. He also became a test pilot for the Israeli Air Force.

He continued to fly until the early 1990s, when he suffered a stroke, but he took as few commercial flights as possible because he considered the aircraft too dangerous.

Goodlin is survived by his wife, Aila Kaarina Vainio, a brother and a sister.

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