About David Lee

DavidLee2Zero G

It’s still called the vomit comet. It doesn’t fly out of Wright Patterson Air Field in Dayton any more, and it’s a better aircraft than the out KC 135 that flew us around for three long weeks. But it still flies 35 second parabolic arcs, just like the trajectory of a high fly ball. And the people and stuff inside still experience 35 seconds of weightlessness, just like an astronaut in space. It’s like a very long roller coaster just passing over the crest.

Gordon Reiter and I flew in this nausea inducing chariot for two days to learn what it was like. Gordon handled the analysis and I did the design of a very complicated experiment. A 40% scale model of the Able V satellite, which spun around its vertical axis and had a liquid fuel engine. The fuel was stored in a big sphere. As the engine burned the fuel level fell, and the fuel could slosh around. This sloshing, if bad enough, would tilt the spinning cylinder off its axis. If bad enough and long enough the thing would go into a flat spin, like a propeller blade. Not good. No orbit, no mission.

This all happened around 1960 and computers were limited. Today there are programs that could handle this situation. But not then. So the Air Force gave TRW a contract to conduct an experiment in their Zero G airplane. Gordon and I ended up with the job.

Before going off to Dayton for our two days of weightlessness, Gordon and I had to go through MATS survival training. Government regulations. Anyone flying in a Military Air Transport System plane had to know how to survive. Our first stop was the El Segundo Air Force Base medical center, which probed us and measured us, even took our barefoot footprints. Why? “Sometimes all we get back is a boot.”

Then three or four days at Edwards Air Force Base in Lancaster. We learned how to trap rabbits in the dessert, how to locate hidden water, how to dig down a few inches and sleep during the day and travel only at night. We experienced hypoxia in a vacuum tank, losing our ability to write or think as the oxygen level fell. We went through explosive decompression; the sudden loss of pressure like when a window in a plane would pop. For a month afterwards I could feel airflow through my Eustachian tubes when on an escalator. They dunked us in a pool to learn how to inflate a life raft after a crash. Courses, multiple choice tests, you name it. I still remember a lot of the stuff we learned. After completing the training, Gordon and I went off to Wright Patterson for two days of zero G. The first time was the worst for me. Nearly barfed. After that it was better. Then back home, for the design of the equipment.

The 40% scale model of Able V had to accurately simulate weight and six other rather complicated mass properties, meaning how the weight was distributed. We did it. I designed a turntable to spin up this unwieldy space age garbage can. The instrumentation group supplied a huge rack of equipment that received radioed information from the spinning can. It was a very complex setup. I remember unpacking all this stuff at Wright Patterson. We had a large audience. They assured us that is would never work. They were wrong. It worked perfectly.

Gordon and I were never supposed to go back to Wright Patterson to fly that experiment. We were to train technicians to run the experiment… Technicians cost a lot less than engineers, and are usually much better at running equipment. But, as the boss explained to us, there wasn’t enough budget to send two technicians through MATS training. It was cheaper to send us. And that’s what they did. This was BS. The number crunchers based their decision on a week flying the gadget. We were there three weeks. Bad move. But Gordon and I were stuck with it. Three weeks in a converted KC135.

Now the KC135 is a very remarkable plane. Boeing designed it to refuel B52 bombers. Ordinarily it carried a huge fuel tank, along with a flying boom for the refueling. The whole thing was funded by the Air Force. By some coincidence, the exact same plane was ideally suited for carrying passengers. Just add windows, add seats and a galley and the other stuff that goes into a commercial jetliner. They called it the 707, which dominated passenger aircraft for years. Clever Boeing.

Here’s a picture of the Able V experiment crew along with the KC135:


————————–Captain Garland, the pilot.             Me.                                         Gordon Reiter

Captain Garland was an incredibly good pilot. He would literally fly this huge plane around the spinning test model. He watched a small TV which showed the model in the cabin. If the model started to rise he would give the plane a little lift. We usually got five or ten seconds before the spinning garbage can hit a wall. One time we hit 17 seconds. More than enough.

Captain Garland loved to fly. He flew that KC135 all morning long, starting around 7:00 AM. Eleven traverses of the range. Three parabolic arcs per traverse, 11 traverses, 33 arcs. As soon as we were through we all strapped in and the Captain literally dove that plane back into a landing. Like it was a fighter plane. He would have a brief lunch, then fly other aircraft all afternoon.

Gordon and I split the tasks. One of us minded the spinning model, and grabbed it as soon as it hit a wall, then dragged it back to the turntable. It was easy to get a bent thumb or finger. The other minded the complex instrumentation rack, made sure the gain levels were right and the wiggling recording needles stayed on track. Also turned things on and off. Not easy. The plane started each manoeuver by descending at around 12 degrees. Then a sharp pull-up into the parabola, at around 2 g’s. I remember standing at the controls, ready to flip the switches, suddenly weighing twice as much as usual. A bit hard on the legs. Somehow we survived. The experiment was very successful.

A few memories.

Sitting in our seedy Dayton motel on a Sunday afternoon pouring some weird Bromine salt into a tub of water to make the purple fluid that simulated the rocket engine fuel. The reaction was endothermic, so the water got real cold. Which was welcome on that hot Dayton afternoon.

Doing some work on our equipment in the aircraft on a Saturday with internal temperature of at least 120F. Gordon and I angrily yelling at each other in total frustration. I wanted to hang it up and rest. Gordon insisted on a last minute tweak.

Climbing from the tarmac into the cockpit by way of the tiny vertical crew access tube when my hand slipped off the ladder. I would have fallen all the way back down except for Shorty, our navigator, who was waiting for up me in the cockpit. He grabbed me and kept me from falling. Later Shorty told me that the aircrew were always thinking ahead, imaging all the possible disasters that could occur and mentally rehearsing the rescue scenarios. He was ready for me to slip off that ladder.


For some reason which I can’t remember, we made a few runs with the plastic fluid tank only. Here’s a photo:























Dayton was only around 400 miles from Chicago. On weekends I visited my mother there. It was very pleasant.

The experiment was a total success. Gordon and I wrote it all up in a highly technical paper. I made a presentation to some group or other showing what we did, along with a most entertaining short film of the adventure. Unfortunately the film has been lost. It was a dinner meeting and my wife Vicki and her father Clyde were both with me. The talk was very successful, and they were proud of me. The two drinks I had during dinner seemed to help the quality of the presentation.

– David Lee

TrueFortune Cookies did not come into being by accident or a fluke.

TrueFortune Cookies was conceived, created, designed and brought to life by a man who not only is a visionary but a rocket scientist, mechanical engineer, designer, psychologist, marriage and family therapist, hypnotherapist, counselor, marketing executive – and entrepreneur.

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As long as I can remember my entire adult life has been productive.  I have designed innumerable rather complicated machines and patented more than some, spent years as a licensed counselor with a practice in Beverly Hills, and in general been responsible and relatively inoffensive.  With a few lapses. The TrueFortune cookie is my very first venture with no purpose, no redeeming value, and no prospect of remuneration.  Call it a vagary of my senescence.  I’m old enough to have given up saving for my old age, old enough to have more sense, and old enough to stop giving a damn.  So let’s have some fun.


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