For most of us, history is kind of a remote thing corralled into books or shallow films. Interesting, maybe, but too distant to rise to the definition of firsthand relevance. So I’m lucky to have, by sheer happenstance, clapped eyes on this photo recently. It was posted on Facebook by one of my distant cousins. The arc of my uneventful life intersects with one of the men in this photo. Without intending it, he ignited my interest in aviation. His own arc intersects directly with what happened in a barren patch of New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945.
He’s easy to pick out. He’s the guy in the black shirt standing behind the man in the bespoke double-breasted suit. He’s my second cousin, Louis M. Bertorelli; Louie. He bore a striking resemblance to Clark Gable. I know where the photo was made because I have been through those double doors many times. It’s the entrance to the terminal building at what is now Martin State Airport but which was then the storied Glenn L. Martin Co. on Middle River in Baltimore. The date of the photo is unclear, but it was before Dec. 7, 1955, when at least one of the men in the photo died in a flight test accident.
But I do know why Louie was in the photo and what he was doing at the time. He was a flight test engineer on one of the military’s oddest—you could say most desperate—aircraft programs—a turbojet powered, nuclear capable seaplane called the SeaMaster. The P6M, as it was known, hasn’t exactly been lost to history, but even aviation nerds don’t know the details nor, especially, the origins. It was a creation of interservice rivalry. It was also an expensive, troubled program that Louie survived only by the random chance of a coin toss.
The SeaMaster was born of what became known as the Revolt of the Admirals. During the precipitous defense draw down after World War II when the U.S.’s nuclear doctrine was anything but well formed, the nascent Air Force believed nuclear weapons had fundamentally changed warfare and that its control of their delivery rendered the entire Navy an anachronistic, unnecessary drain on the defense budget. Alfred Thayer Mahan be damned, days after its keel was laid down in 1949, a mega carrier to be named the United States was canceled. That ship was a flush-deck behemoth with a retractable island meant to launch large nuclear bombers. But even Dwight Eisenhower deemed the Navy’s role in national defense as minimal. Determined to have a nuclear hand to play, in 1951, the Navy gave Martin a specification for a seaplane strategic bomber that could be fueled and armed at sea by surface ships or submarines.
The P6M was neither a fast nor easy developmental program. Despite Martin’s long experience in seaplanes, jet engines were still new and no one had ever fitted them to a large airframe where water ingestion would be an issue, not to mention the exhaust torching the fuselage skin. To clear the tail of jet exhaust and spray, the SeaMaster had a towering t-tail of the sort Martin had used on its P5M Marlin piston seaplane. But the SeaMaster was much faster and susceptible to compressibility, where the plodding Marlin wasn’t.
Flaws in the tail and trim system proved fatal on Dec. 7, 1955. The first prototype suffered a catastrophic control failure that pitched it into a 9-G dive that tore the engines from the hull and clapped the wings together, destroying the aircraft. All aboard died and one of them was Herb Scudder, the tall man immediately to Louie’s left. Both Louie and Herb did the same job on the four-man crew, which was probably data collection and reduction. Louie and Herb were close friends and partners in a seaplane they built and kept along the Middle River. Both wanted the SeaMaster engineering seat that cold day on Middle River so they flipped a coin.
Herb Scudder won the toss.
The crash was a jolting experience for Martin and a personal tragedy for Louie and my two cousins Susan and Robert, who still remember Herb Scudder, just as we all remember the vivid players from our formative years. Susan flew in the seaplane once, enticed by a promise of a can of cold Squirt. After the crash, Martin reworked the SeaMaster’s controls and hydraulics, but the airplane wasn’t tamed yet. Eleven months later—Nov. 9, 1956—a test aircraft over Delaware Bay broke up in an uncommanded outside loop, the result of a hydraulic design flaw in the T-tail. Someone had gotten the load calculations wrong and the ratio of hydraulic power available versus what was required was a mismatch. The crew ejected safely. Louie missed that ride, too, but think about the risks these pilots and engineers assumed. Flight test throughout the 1940s and 1950s remained a harrowing trade, aggravated by a lack of experience with jet engines, compressibility and flutter risks.
The Navy didn’t cancel the project on the spot, but it reduced the order from 24 aircraft to 18, then to six. It was canceled outright in 1959, as the nuclear Navy emerged and sea-launched ballistic missiles rendered a strategic seaplane bomber obsolete. Even its role as a high-speed mine layer was better accomplished by submarines.
The SeaMaster was the last clean-sheet airplane Martin designed and built. In 1960, it expanded its work in the missile and satellite business, built the first Mars lander—nice resonance there with another famous seaplane—and subcontracted on the Apollo program. Martin built the Titan missiles that lofted 19 Gemini missions into orbit. Louie worked on those projects, too.
My indelible firsthand encounter with aviation was in 1962 as a callow yout of 12 and it was in cousin Louie’s Baltimore living room, where there was an impressive scale model of the SeaMaster in full throat roar for takeoff. I had a lot of questions. Louie had a lot of answers. I was in my model building phase—I was terrible at it—and Louie could patiently explain where I was going wrong. By then, the SeaMaster program was three years dead, but he had fresh memories of what a flight test engineer did. How I regret now not knowing the right questions and not, during the 1970s when I began flying myself, sitting down with him for a day with a tape recorder.
This photo is both a quaint anachronism and a window that reveals how brief the history of aviation really is. Born in 1886, Glenn L. Martin was a contemporary of the Wright Brothers, displaced by but a handful of years. He built his first airplane in 1909, just months after Wilbur Wright electrified the world with his demonstration flights in France. By 1912, at the tender age of 26, Martin was setting records in seaplanes of his own design. The connection was direct by 1916, when Martin merged his first Glenn L. Martin Co. with the Wrights to form Wright-Martin Aircraft. It was short-lived. The following year, he left to form the second Glenn L. Martin Co., which cousin Louie joined just before World War II. Post-war mergers eventually produced Lockheed Martin, a defense behemoth as influential as the original company was at the height of World War II.
After the Lockheed merger, the company remained on the original site in Baltimore for many years, manufacturing missile systems. In early 2021, the company said it would close the site and will complete the phaseout by June 2023. A possible tenant for at least some of the facility is the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum, which is already on the airport, but in need of more space.
The airport itself remains an active reliever and GA hub, with that same single runway butted up to the Middle River that cousin Louie would have used many times in his test work. Those very same steps still exist today and if you’ve been to Martin, you’ve bounded up them into the refurbished terminal building. Next time I do, I think I’ll reflect on the impact a casual flip of a coin had on my life.