Slick Deserves His Due


Last October, when I wrote a commemorative on the anniversary of the Bell X-1’s exceeding Mach 1, I spent many minutes contemplating my office wall. Or more precisely, what’s on my office wall. It’s one of a short list of my possessions that spark Kondo-esque joy: a fabulous pen-and-ink illustration of the Bell X-1 cockpit by Belgian-American artist Jean-Luc Beghin.

I grabbed a Post-It note and wrote “X-1 video” reasoning that there’s enough source material to pull together a nice video on the X-1, one of history’s most interesting airplanes. I figured I could knock it out in three days. A week into it, halfway done isn’t in sight, but I’ve accumulated a small library on X-1 lore. The more I learn about it, the more I wonder how anyone survived flying the damned thing. You know all about the late Chuck Yeager, but about a dozen others flew the X-1 series, if not X-1 number 1.

Beghin’s drawing prominently features Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin standing outside the cockpit alongside Jack Russell, the program’s crew chief. You may or may not know who Goodlin was. He was one of a handful of Bell test pilots who spirited the early X-planes through their initial testing before handing them off to the Air Force for completion of the assigned research programs.

When I phoned Beghin to ask about his illustration, he mentioned something I’ve heard before. Goodlin was always unhappy with the way he was portrayed in the “The Right Stuff,” both the book and the film version. Both depicted him as a money-grubbing mercenary who would only take the X-1 to Mach 1 and beyond if he was paid $150,000. While that was true, it’s also true that civilian test pilots were routinely paid bonusses for dangerous flight test work in those days.

And boy, was the X-1 series dangerous. Fires, explosions, malfunctions and gear collapses were common. Of the seven X-1s built for the first- and second-generation programs, three were lost to fires or explosions. One, on the ground, took the EB-50 launch ship with it. Two had to be jettisoned over the desert only to explode on impact. The X-1 pictured in Beghin’s drawing caught fire during a press demo and had to be repaired. (It’s 6063, the number 2 X-1, not the one Yeager flew on his Mach 1 flight.)

In his well-detailed “Into the Unknown,” author Louis Rotundo tells of several harrowing flights which put Goodlin close the edge. In one, he ran out of oxygen and had to breath cabin air, albeit at low altitude. Unbeknownst to him, the windshield de-icing system—which never worked very well—was leaking isopropyl alcohol and caused him to lapse into semi-consciousness on approach. The airplane bounced and skidded, collapsing the nosegear—a common occurrence—but Goodlin survived and emerged groggy but in one piece.

Bell X-1 cockpit by Jean-Luc Beghin

On another flight, Goodlin had to cope with frozen ailerons. Bell built the X-1 to an astonishing 18-G load limit and so little was known about shockwave propagation, that they tried to think of every possibility. One was flutter, so the ailerons are fitted with flutter dampers using a silicone oil. At altitude, the oil thickened and combined with ice, it locked them against flutter, but also movement by the pilot, too. As so many of pilots of his day had to do, Goodlin prevailed.

Although Yeager gained the fame, Goodlin and the other Bell test pilots—Dick Frost, Jack Woolams, Tex Johnston, Jean Ziegler—were probably Yeager’s equals, although Yeager had a better mechanical background. Like Yeager, Goodlin was a World War II pilot trained by the military—Navy in his case—to be a test pilot. He began work with Bell in 1943.

Although taking research aircraft to the ragged edge was done by military pilots, the Bell pilots endured just as much risk in testing new aircraft that had never been flown before. They had to do considerable envelope expansion to satisfy the terms of their contracts and sometimes they did repeat tests after the airplanes had been handed over.

In the X-1s, just flipping the engine switches on was an exercise in blind faith. The Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket engine proved to be a reliable performer, but reliable is relative. It blew up a lot. An RMI test engineer described developing it as “hellishly dangerous” and crouched behind a concrete wall wearing a football helmet during test runs. Yeager once said he was relieved when he switched on a chamber without an explosion.

By the time Goodlin handed the first X-1 to Air Force, most of the Gremlins had been chased away—and at no small risk and with considerable skill. It’s too bad Tom Wolfe had to paint Goodlin as a heavy. He was in fact a consummate professional.

Beghin’s illustration was done in 1997 for the 50th anniversary of Yeager’s flight. Beghin had hoped to work with Yeager but he wanted a lot of money for the help. As he always had, Slick Goodlin stepped up. He gave freely of his time and loaned Jean-Luc his flight helmet and checklist, which you see sitting on the seat. I never met Goodlin, but others who have say he was approachable and a genuinely nice guy. He died in 2005. I’m happy to say my print is signed by both Goodlin and Jean-Luc Beghin.

And you know, sometimes it’s just worth saying exactly that. While I’m at it, I’ll put in a plug for Jean-Luc. His drawings are fabulous and not expensive. You probably want one for your own office wall. Find them here.

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  1. Everybody understands the dangers of the X program, and even that it was customary for civilian test pilots to be paid bonuses. But, two stories in my mind cement the auras around Yeager – and of Goodlin: firstly, as the story goes, after being asked what he wanted for flying the X-1, Yeager offered to do it for his usual (captain’s, I believe) military pay – which is to say, no bonus at all. Secondly, when he asked Goodlin for a briefing on the X-1’s flight characteristics, Goodlin refused (VERY poor form), to which Yeager replied, “Hell, if you can do it, I can do it,” – and walked out. Maybe both stories are apocryphal, but that cements Charles Yeager’s place as my personal hero. Goodlin? Not so much.

  2. I had the privilege of communicating with Goodlin just before his passing. He was clearheaded and sent me several interesting comments about his time with the X-1. And yes, he was still very sensitive to the way he was portrayed in “The Right Suff.” As for his alleged conversation with Yeager, there were considerable summaries that Goodlin had written concerning his experiences with the X-1 after each flight.

  3. History is not written by the victors; it’s written by authors based on the stories of the victors. I know from personal experience that Yeager could be both a genial paterfamilias and a flaming anus, both within a matter of minutes. If what you know of him comes primarily from “The Right Stuff”, carefully edited interviews, and spark-plug ads, it’s unlikely you’ve seen his sharper edges. He was highly competitive and supremely self-confident, two traits that don’t tend to be used in the same sentence as “team player”. History may ultimately conclude that Yeager’s greatest advantage was not his eyesight but blind luck.

  4. I didn’t see Hoover’s name mentioned. He doesn’t need to be more well known, but it seems like you should have mentioned him in the story above?

    • Yes, he does. Most won’t know the name, but Herbert Hoover was a Bell test pilot most involved in the very early design and testing phases of the X-1 series.

    • Gen Bob Cardenas — pilot of the B-29 Mothership — was no slouch as a test pilot back then, either. That’s why the centerpiece of MY aviation memorabilia is the AC Delco poster signed out to me by the three principals of the X-1 feat: Yeager, Cardenas and Hoover. I named it, “The Men of Mach 1.” Had they discovered that Yeager had broken ribs from his fall off of a horse at Poncho Barnes ranch, Hoover was the backup pilot and would have flown the flight.

  5. Paul–thank you for the “unsanitized” review of Yeager, Goodlin, and the X-1. Fascinating reading–it would make a great book–or at least an expanded magazine article. (“The ‘almost-correct’ stuff”?)

    I also didn’t realize that “Tex” Johnston (he of the 707 barrel roll fame) was a Bell test pilot!

    • The X-plane programs, especially the early ones, are peppered with little surprises. The X-1B, still powered by the XLR-11, was built to investigate skin and surface heating. In 1957 and 1958, it was flown four times by a little known NACA pilot named Neil Armstrong.

  6. I respect all test pilots for their knowledge, skill, and bravery. But Mr. Yeager sort of “sticks in my craw” I have a hat, upon which I have collected autographs for my grandson (should he become interested in flight). It is signed by Erik Lindberg, Bob Hoover, Brian Shul, Hoot Gibson, Darryl Greenamyer, Bill Anders, and others. At Oshkosh, with a polite explanation, I asked Mr. Yeager to sign the hat as I walked next to him in a private area before the show opened to the public. His response was “How much will you pay me?”

  7. As a rule, aviation art (paintings, photographs, illustrations, film footage) is either military propaganda,
    commercial advertising, or unabashed hero-worship disguised as “historical documentary.” There is no
    detachment, no emotional distance between artist and subject, and (aside from spectacular crashes) no
    sign of anything less than glorious about either the technology or those who operate and maintain it. The same holds
    for astronauts and space voyages. Nearly everything we see is either hagiography or self-congratulation, devoid
    of humor, insight, or any sense of tragedy, unless it be “the mystery of Amelia Earhart” or something that
    is easily exploited, either for its “schlock value” or for pious sentiments and tearful nostalgia. Despite over a century of activity, aviation has
    yet to have a J.M.W. Turner or a Winslow Homer, whose respective
    depictions of ships at sea (in the harbor, approaching a port,
    engaged in combat, facing the dawn, catching fish, wandering
    off course, or simply sailing through the clouds; boats lurching
    and heaving in a storm, sailors on deck, bailing water, rowing,
    capsizing, rescuing their mates, watching them go overboard
    and disappear beneath the waves, pursued by sharks) alike
    combine magisterial sublimity with terror, horror, and the
    constant awareness of the imminence of death. The result is
    a cathartic experience for the viewer, akin to watching Greek or Shakespearean tragedy unfold on canvas, rather than on stage.
    Likewise, there is nothing comparable to the wry humor and slyly subversive antics of the flatboat men whose ribald tales, card games
    and calm amid chaos bespeak joy in living despite fatalistic resignation,
    captured in Caleb Bingham’s paintings of mariners on the Mississippi River during the ante-bellum era–unforgettable frontier-era scenes,
    reminiscent of Brueghel the Younger’s naughty villagers, alternating between work and play, hope and sorrow,
    while struggling to survive in a hostile and fallen world. “Aviation art” is not a contradiction in terms,
    but until it transcends its subservience to warfare, commerce, and insidious myths of progress, it will remain earth-bound, incapable
    of illuminating the heavens, where every soul hovers close to hell.

    • Dennis, you make a valid point and do so artfully. With that I must say that Jean-Luc Beghin’s black and white simplicity in contrast with his pen and ink complexity for me do “transcend subservience to warfare, commerce and insidious myths of progress”.

      And then there is Paul Bowen who, yes, did commercial photography for the OEMs but also did so much more. For example, he dedicates his coffee table book Air To Air to Gail with the photo of a bizjet emerging through cloud trailing a gaggle of vortices, not unlike perhaps a Winslow Homer “ship at sea simply sailing through clouds”. Never mind that the aircraft pictured is a Lear 31. That’s totally irrelevant. A few pages in from his dedication to Gail are the weathered faces of a Brazilian peasant farmer as well as a la anciana stringing red peppers into a Santa Fe ristra. It’s what Paul does well. He provides compelling context of who else walks the earth on which OEMs and those of us who fly ply our trade. And if process means anything in art, I would suggest there’s probably no better loft from which to create good photography than Paul Bowen’s B-25 tail turret.

  8. I remember attending hangar meetings at Oshkosh 1997, the 50th anniversary year of Yeager’s Mach one flight. Col. Yeager had some interesting recollections of Chalmers Goodwin that left a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, my memory is somewhat vague of the specifics. I have tried to obtain video of these presentations from EAA to no avail. Surely these exist.

  9. “The Golden Years” of flight testing done at Edwards AFB (then Muroc AAF) are defined as the period 1946 to 1975 (the end of WWII to the end of Viet Nam). I was quite literally the wild west of flight testing within the USAAF cum USAF. Having spent 27 1/2 years of my aviation life there, I more broadly define it as the period from October 1942 to 1975 because the Bell XP-59A ‘Airacomet’ — America’s first jet aircraft — first flew on October 1, 1942 piloted by another Bell test pilot. Robert Stanley. The airplane was officially flown the next day by America’s first military jet pilot, Col Laurence Craigie. That airplane isn’t the world’s first jet aircraft … it was actually the fifth … even the Italians flew a jet airplane before the U.S. did. It used copies of the British Whittle W.1 engine built by GE in Lynn, MA. Not widely known, the first airplane was surreptitiously built in an unused Pierce-Arrow auto plant in Buffalo by Bell to hide it AND when it was outside, a dummy wooden prop was hung on its nose to hide it’s true propulsion method. It was moved to what is now ‘North Base’ at Edwards by train. Unsure of how the jet engine would handle the jostling during that move, they installed motors on the jet engines to turn them during the journey.

    There’s a book written about those years, “Flight Testing at Edwards: Flight Test Engineers’ Stories 1946-1975.” It’s written Reader’s Digest style by many of the unsung hero’s of much of the testing … the flight test engineers. There are some mighty interesting stories in that book if you can find it. I see someone is trying to get $1K for one on Amazon: GREAT reading, made all the more poignant to me because I knew most of the authors. I didn’t know I was rich … I have two copies of it.

    Point being, while Chuck Yeager gets much of the credit for his infamous flight and put Edwards on the public map, there’s an army of other people who supported — some critically — all of that work at the Base … which continues to this day. The Base used to be called the Air Force Flight Test Center but is now referred to as the Air Force Test Center because the work at Arnold AFB, TN and Eglin AFB, FL have been rolled into its mission. Each of those locations likewise have unique missions and stories, as well. E.G., the B-25 crews that flew the Doolittle raid trained at Eglin AFB. Arnold AFB is the most advanced and largest complex of flight simulation test facilities in the world. The center operates 58 aerodynamic and propulsion wind tunnels, rocket and turbine engine test cells, space environmental chambers, arc heaters, ballistic ranges and other specialized units. Combined, these three locations are evolutions of what began with the Bell XP-59A and the Bell X-1A.

  10. Thank you, Paul, for the nice article about Slick. Stories about him tend to obscure the excellent fellow he was. The Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls, where I volunteer, has a nice exhibit dedicated to Slick Goodlin’s career. After he passed away, his widow donated some of his personal belongings to the museum including the helmet, goggles, and checklist with the stopwatch that you see in Jean-Luc Beghin’s rendering of the X-1 interior included in your article. (I can send a phot if you are interested.) We even have the boots he is wearing in the background of that painting! (I assume that is Slick.) Nicely done. Thanks!

  11. Thanks. Nice article and comments that add more to the story. Another book that is great is Dark Eagles: A History of Top Secret U.S. Aircraft Programs by Curtis Peebles. Maybe has been talked about before on this site??