Some of the finest moments of history have been very brief and poorly attended. In November of 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave a short talk that he claimed the world would little note nor long remember. Because the crowd that day at Gettysburg had been numbed by a long-winded orator, Abe's two-minute address was indeed little noted at the time, but it was certainly remembered and admired for its eloquence and brevity. Flicking forward 40 years, we come to the drifting sands of Kitty Hawk. There is Orville Wright throbbing along at seven mph 12 feet above the ground in a bi-wing contraption prophetically called Flyer I. Orville's first famous flight lasted 12 seconds and was witnessed only by his brother Wilbur and five onlookers who were not overly impressed. Like Abe's Gettysburg Address, it was one of those second-page news items that in time would become front-page history.
For dramatic brevity without parallel in the horse-drawn past—and for a sample of the sort of split-second heroics still being performed far from the madding crowd today—let us move on to Veterans Day 1977 and look upon Mud Lake, a baked clay expanse in the emptiness of western Nevada. On Mud Lake that October day were about 250 engineers, technicians, timers, military observers, aviation buffs and ordinary gawkers, all waiting for a former Lockheed test pilot, Darryl Greenamyer, to fly past in his Red Baron, a homemade, needle-nosed, snub-winged jet plane whose very looks bespeak danger.
It was Greenamyer's ambition to fly faster than any man had through the thick mantle of air that swaddles this earth. Fortunately for the crowd, the international rules for low-altitude speed attempts require the pilot to make two passes from each direction through a three-kilometer time trap. If Greenamyer had crossed Mud Lake only once, anyone reaching into a cooler for a beer might have missed his act altogether. One moment Greenamyer's Red Baron was a speck above the rusty horizon. In the next instant it was a silent blur less than 60 feet above the dry lake bed. A wink later it was gone, lost to the eye a good two seconds before its howling noise buffeted the people below.
Back in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, Orville Wright traveled 120 feet on his first 12-second flight. At Mud Lake, Darryl Greenamyer covered the same distance in less than a tenth of a second. When the clockings of his four passes were averaged out, Greenamyer had raised the low-altitude record for unlimited craft to 996 mph, exceeding by 90 mph the best mark of anyone, military or civilian, on either side of the Iron Curtain.
Measured against the absolute, Greenamyer's record at Mud Lake is not much. Astronauts have tootled along in outer space at better than 24,000 mph. In the mid-1960s, while flight-testing the world's fastest jet, the Lockheed SR-71, toward destruction limits, Greenamyer exceeded 2,000 mph in thin stratospheric air. Still, his Mud Lake record is fairly secure because it would take a specialized and costly effort to break it. The best jet craft today—with afterburner on for maximum thrust—are very inefficient when ramming through dense air close to earth. Unless drastically modified, it is doubtful if any of them could make four record-breaking passes without running out of fuel. On his successful attempt, Greenamyer went up with a full load of 1,050 gallons. The total distance four times through the speed trap was less than 7� miles, and he covered that in less than half a minute, but counting takeoff and landing and circling between runs, he traveled more than 130 miles and was aloft for nearly 20 minutes. He landed with 50 gallons to spare. At cruise speed in the stratosphere, the same fuel load would have carried him halfway across the country.
However long his Mud Lake record lasts, Greenamyer's reputation is not apt to be diminished by its passing. Despite his 41 years, Greenamyer is boyish in appearance and manner, and although he stands only 5'6", even before his jet attempt he cast quite a shadow in the aviation world. Flying a clipped-wing Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat that he drastically lightened by removing armor plate, he competed in the unlimited class at every Reno National Air Race from 1964 through 1971. In that span he won six times against about 75 different planes—Mustangs, Lightnings, Sea Furies and God knows what all. In 1969 he flew his Bearcat 482 mph to set a world record for piston machines. As a consequence, he is now in the
Guinness Book of World Records, and his beloved Bearcat is in the Smithsonian along with Lindbergh's ocean-hopping Ryan, the Spirit of St. Louis
, and the Wrights' Flyer I. Greenamyer's fame is so well entrenched that several months after his feat at Mud Lake, acquaintances were still pumping his hand and saying, "Hey, I hear you broke the world speed record. That's great. How much faster would you have had to go to break the military record also?"
Ask any 50- or 60-year-old who Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post were, and the very names will resurrect facts. It is possible to remember what Lindy, Amelia and Wiley did, what they looked like and how they lived and died. Ask the same person about Chuck Yeager. Chances are Yeager will be faintly remembered as one of the guys who led the world past the sonic barrier, a rocket jockey whose face and exact feats are now beyond recall. Behind almost every aerial achievement today are many nameless, faceless people. The pilots are now no better remembered than anybody else; the planes are a maze of disparate systems and backup systems that would flabbergast an oldtime tinkerer. Weighed against the best of the past and present, Darryl Greenamyer, the hero of Mud Lake, is a living contradiction. In spirit he is a solo artist of the old school, a tinkerer born too late but blessed with the wits to handle the complex machines of the red-hot present.
In fact, Greenamyer was more interested in hot rods than studies as a Monrovia, Calif. teen-ager. "I was academically terrible," he says, but after joining the Air Force and learning to fly in 1955, he settled down to earn a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Arizona. It wasn't until after his career as a test pilot at Lockheed—and after donating his Bearcat to the Smithsonian—that Greenamyer married 23-year-old Terri Croft. The two of them now live in Greenamyer's mobile home, parked most of the time at Verdi, Nev., though his latest endeavor is converting a surplus railroad car into a residence.
On the weekend he set the world jet record, Greenamyer's plane was troubled by a vacillating generator that, among other things, provided power to the stabilization augmentation system that would help keep him from flying into the ground. While Greenamyer was fussing with the generator circuitry, a college professor learned in the workings of the human sensory system informed him that because of the lag between eye and brain, anything he saw while traveling 900 mph 100 feet off the ground would already be 150 feet behind him. It was not the sort of grim data Greenamyer needed at the moment. As he recalls, "What the professor said, in effect, was that if I headed into the ground, I would never know I had." (The day after Greenamyer's record run, a pilot named Bob Reichardt did fly into the ground and was killed while traveling only a third as fast in quest of a limited piston-class record.)
Reviewing his flight at Mud Lake, Greenamyer says, "What were the risks? They scared the hell out of me. Flying that fast that close to the ground holds your attention, to say the least." If it was not fun, why did he do it? Although all of his feats had been a solid cut above the antics Evel Knievel has undertaken for fame and fortune. Greenamyer made his low-level attempt hoping it would earn him the financial support he needed for a loftier quest that was probably less dangerous and closer to impossible. An American last held the jet altitude record in 1961. Since then Soviets have pushed it progressively upward, from 103,400 to 123,500 feet. It had been Greenamyer's ambition for more than a decade to get the record back. The longer he had to delay, the more difficult it became. Because early metering equipment was not very exact, the rules laid down long ago stipulate that, to be recognized, a new altitude record must exceed the existing mark by 3%. As a result, to break the record, Greenamyer was going to have to poke the needle nose of his Red Baron almost three-quarters of a mile farther into the sky than any Russian had.