Edward A.Gillespie 1928-2015
Fleet duty as carrier based F2H Banshee pilot, Ed covered several oceans and as many ships during the next three years, including 80 combat missions in Korea. As the high man in the F2H he also served as technical director and pilot for four USN training fly on to fly the Banshee. This assignment almost cost him his life during filming of an intentional inverted spin when he finally regained level flight barely above the ocean. At that time he was still so naïve that he didn’t know the contractor had not yet successfully tested inverted spins in this airplane!
After three years of squadron duty, Ed was offered the very envious choice of either joining the Blue Angles or attending the US Navy Test Pilot School (TPS). He decided it would be better for his career to know more about aerodynamics instead of joining the air-show circuit, and subsequently graduated in TPS class Eleven in early 1954. From there on Ed was test flying continuously until he was in his 70’s. Ed flew every propeller or jet attack / fighter airplane in the navy’s inventory while serving as a test pilot at the Naval Air Test Center. An example was the infamous F7U Cutlass. Before it entered the fleet, Ed was one of the high time USN pilots in the unusual fighter. Unlike some of the other pilots, he almost began to enjoy the airplane and he believes that it’s rugged airframe later saved his life on at least two occasions.
Following his 1956 graduation from the USN Line School in Monterey, CA, Ed left active duty Navy and began to work for North American Aviation in Columbus, OH as an experimental test pilot. He found that he still had to deploy regularly as more than half his time was spent flying contractor test flights at NATC Patuxent River, NATF Lakehurst, NAWC China Lake, Edwards AFB, or NASWF Albuquerque.
In 1964 he applied for the Astronaut Program when it first opened to civilians but was disqualified because he was few months older than the maximum age limit, which was 36 at the time. That year he also became the Chief Test Pilot at North American Aviation, unfortunately due to the tragic death of one of his best friends during a test flight. For the next 24 years Ed continuously performed almost daily experimental flying in all series of Trojans, Buckeyes, Furies, Vigilantes, Savages, Broncos, Phantoms, Voodoos, and other lesser known, but just as demanding, types. Hundreds of these flights were at or approaching the structural/aerodynamic limits estimated for the aircraft. He further completed USN helicopter training and qualified in AV-8 Harriers and the X-22, both also vertical risers.
Shortly after becoming a civilian, Ed also wanted to continue to serve his country. He missed the tradition and camaraderie of the Navy. He joined the USNR and stayed active in the Reserves for the next 26 years. He eventually commanded an A4 Skyhawk, squadron, tested Phantoms at NAS North Island, performed carrier suitable tests in maximum gross weight Vigilantes at NATF Lakehurst, and instructed at the US Navel Test Pilot School as part of his Reserve commitment. His last assignments were Annual Training as the Commanding Officer of NAS Brunswick, NAS Oceana, and NAF Loges (Azores). In 1982 he retired as a Captain with 36 total years of service in the Navy.
After also retiring from North American Rockwell in 1988, Ed thought his test flying was over…thinking who would want to hire an aging test pilot? It so happened that there were jobs where experience was appreciated and he was soon employed to establish a test program and fly the structural and flutter flight tests on a major modification of the Air Force T-37. In order to satisfy the Air Force that a senior citizen could still safely fly a jet, he completed a three-month training program in the airplane at age 62. This made him the oldest graduate of pilot training ever at Randolph AFB! After two years with the T-37 Tweet, he did test work on a French designed amphibian biplane. Most of this was done while flying from Canadian lakes and seemed to be more fun for Ed than dangerous, however, two other pilots were later killed in the airplane and the effort ended. He also flew first flights in some WW1 replica biplane fighters. This lasted for another two years and proved to Ed that the airplanes of that day were indeed structurally limited, and marginally stable.
In the middle 90’s he began a lengthy flight test program on a civilian single-engine jet the BD-10J. It looked like a small F-18 and climbed like one! It was powered by a 3,000-lbs thrust engine and the airplane weighed only 4000 lbs. Needless to say it was a real screamer and provided plenty of unwanted scares and adrenaline rushes. Most of the testing was done at the Civilian Flight Test Center at Mohave, CA. Ed did all of the first flights (five different wing/tail configurations) and demonstrated the capabilities of this airplane to the US Military at several military installations. A fatal crash of a skilled, but impatient, ex-fighter pilot almost ended the program. With increased emphasis on engineering, and a steadier paycheck promised, Ed resumed testing a modification of the airplane with another company near Lake Tahoe, NV. Unfortunately, due to a mechanical failure, the president of the company was also killed in the airplane, which ended this promising program.
Ed was elected a Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots in 1977, but has never been in the right time frame or position to participate in any high visibility programs such as Space. On the contrary, he was always a work-a-day test pilot who always managed to complete the often “hairy” mundane test tasks and deliver the necessary engineering data without ever losing an airplane.
Capitan Gillespie served in the US flight test community longer, continuously, and successfully, than any other civilian or military pilot. He was very proud of the fact that he always landed every airplane that he took of in. Some were not all in one piece or they were on fire, but they all got back. Having been within microseconds of death several times during his long career, he credited his survival on a combination of good flight planning, conservative flying, moderate skill and lots of luck! Ed had 15,000 hours of flight time, most in single pilot military airplanes.