Although he is a rare creature, Greenamyer is downright commonplace compared to the Red Baron, the extraordinary plane he assembled with his own hands. If King Khalid of Saudi Arabia wanted a plane just like Greenamyer's, he could not buy one, not for all the oil in his country and all the gold at Fort Knox and all the coffee in Brazil. The Red Baron was truly one of a kind—and there never will be one like it because nobody, not even Greenamyer, is sure just where all the junk in it came from. Greenamyer is certain there were parts of at least a dozen other planes in it—five dozen is probably a closer figure.
At first sight, any aviation buff would have instantly identified Greenamyer's Red Baron as a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a craft that since its debut nearly a quarter of a century ago has received what theatergoers would call mixed reviews. (The F-104 was glamorously described early on as "the missile with a man in it." After scores of fatal crashes, many of them of craft purchased by the West German air force, latter-day nonbelievers called it "the widowmaker.") In basic configuration and gross capability, the Red Baron certainly was a Lockheed F-104, but just what sort? An F-104-A or an F-104-B? It was part A and part B, and a hell of a lot else.
To be honest and give every material contributor his due, the Red Baron would be designated today as a USAF GE-powered Greenamyer-Lockheed F-104-A-B-C-D-G Starfighter Junkyard Special, and therein was its particular glory. Compared to Greenamyer's dedication, the Wright brothers' effort back in 1903 was slapdash indeed. Orville and Wilbur did not start building their Flyer I until 14 months before it flew. Greenamyer began collecting and putting together the myriad parts of his Red Baron 13 years ago. From year to year he roamed the land, from junkyard to junkyard, from one Air Force dump to another, from one Lockheed surplus-parts bin to the next, picking up pieces large and small. The cockpit side panels and some control column bearings of the Red Baron came from the very first production F-104-A, which crashed in Palmdale, Calif. 22 years ago. The tail of the Red Baron, minus stabilizers, came from a junkyard in Ontario, Calif. The stabilizers and some nose wheel parts were from scrap piles in Tucson and Homestead, Fla. The idler arm for the elevator controls, the ejection seat rails and some electrical relays came from an F-104 that crashed and burned at Edwards Air Force Base on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Greenamyer got his throttle quadrant from a Tennessee flying buff he met at the Reno National Air Races (the Tennessean had been using it as an office decoration).
The trunnion mounts for the nose gear, some of the cooling-system valves and a few relays on the Red Baron were no doubt the most unusual parts on any interceptor plane with front-line capability. To get those items at Eglin Air Force Base in north Florida, Greenamyer had to pay $7,500 for a 25-ton pile of junk that included ammo cans, missile cases, several segments of a helicopter, a Continental piston engine and a refrigerator. What Greenamyer got out of all this was a badly dented F-104 fuselage section that he hoped to patch up and smooth out.
In this day when legal harpies abound and anybody who kisses his mother runs a risk of being sued for doing so, liability naturally is a concern of the government and large corporations building supersonic machinery. For example, back when Greenamyer was trying to soup up his Grumman Bearcat for a go at the piston world record, he suspected that Pratt and Whitney, manufacturers of the engine, had done destruction tests on it. Indeed they had, but they were not willing to let Greenamyer have the data. "If you don't tell me," Greenamyer said, "I will have to find out for myself." Injecting nitromethane into his fuel and exceeding prescribed manifold pressure, he found out what he wanted to know by blowing up three engines, two of them in flight. On the worst occasion, from an altitude of 10,000 feet, he made it dead-stick nearly 40 miles back to a safe strip with 1,000 feet to spare.
There is no law, other than that of logic, to keep anyone from trying to build a plane like the Red Baron. The government, however, is against the idea of civilians possessing such evil war machines, and for that reason, whenever a craft is obsolete or too badly damaged or worn to warrant repair, the major sections of it are usually cut up in such a way that piecing them together would be harder than starting from scratch. As a consequence, in building his Red Baron, Greenamyer had a harder time coming onto major components than the little bits and pieces.
Eight years ago, while he was still casting about for a forward and central fuselage section on which to hang wings and other such necessities, Greenamyer got a hot tip from a Lockheed technical representative. An F-104 of the Puerto Rican Air National Guard had run off a strip in Savannah. After being shipped back to Puerto Rico, the plane was deemed too far gone for repair. Assured that he could have the fuselage. Greenamyer packed suitable work clothes and flew from his home, which was then in Sun Valley, Calif., to San Juan. When he arrived, the Guard commander—a Colonel Guillermo or Guillermini, as Greenamyer recalls—was partying with friends. "They continued to party for three days." Greenamyer remembers. "I drank so much rum, after three nights of two hours sleep I was a basket case." To ease Greenamyer's impatience to get at the rumpled F-104, the colonel promised to have the fuselage stripped, crated and shipped to California. Two days after returning home, Greenamyer heard from the colonel. "Gee, Darryl, I gave you that fuselage," the colonel said, "but I forgot to tell the fire marshal, and he just burned it for fire practice." As consolation the colonel added. "Don't worry, Darryl. We'll probably crack up another one, and I'll save it for you."
If the world altitude record was to be broken in any kind of F-104 (an F-104-C once held it at 103,400 feet), Greenamyer was the man to try. Before becoming an experimental test pilot in fancier stuff, he was a production test pilot who flew more than 100 F-104s. "That kind of a job is essentially to nitpick about everything," he says. "I fired the guns, checked the radar, checked the max speed acceleration, the air conditioning, the emergency gear extension, literally everything except the ejection seat." To attempt the altitude record, in his words, "I would travel at 38,000 feet at 2.6 mach [about 1,550 mph]. Then I would rotate upward pulling three Gs until I got a 12-degree angle of attack on the wing. I would hold a 12-degree attack angle until I got a 60-degree climb angle, and I would hold 60 degrees until I got back to a 12-degree angle of attack. Then I would hold the 12-degree angle and it would lead me over the top." Increased thrust would come from a fuel additive of Greenamyer's own conception, and a water-injection system at the engine inlets that, in effect, fools the machinery into thinking it is flying in cooler, more efficient air. Twenty-two miles up there, losing power with very, very little thin air flowing over his control surfaces, a little too much of this or that at the wrong instant and the plane might flop over. If that were to happen, it would tumble six or seven miles back down out of the sky before Greenamyer could have any chance of controlling it.
This was the plan last February: if he failed in his attempt at the record the first time, Greenamyer would tinker with the Red Baron and try again. After so many years and so much effort, his only real way out was up.
So four months after Darryl Greenamyer broke the world low-altitude speed record, friends were shaking his hand again—only this time they were offering condolences. He had made four test flights in his Red Baron in preparation for a try for the altitude record. On the last of these flights, toward dusk, he went up from the Mojave airport to test the power-boosting water-injection system. It worked flawlessly. Exhilarated, Greenamyer made one low, slow pass for photographs: then with 20 minutes of fuel left on the downwind leg of his approach, he lowered the landing gear.