Disaster, The Inspiration for The Six Million Dollar Man!

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A Brief History

On May 10, 1967, an experimental “lifting body” aircraft created by Northrup for NASA, the M2-F2, made its 16th and final flight, crashing into the dry lake bed on the desert floor, ruining the aircraft and severely injuring the pilot, Bruce Peterson.  The unfortunate, though spectacular crash, was used as the inspiration for the novel Cyborg, by Martin Caidin, and the television program, The Six Million Dollar Man.  Film footage of the crash of the M2-F2 was used in the opening sequence of the television series!

Digging Deeper

The horrific crash scene of the M2-F2 rolling over and over gave plentiful fodder for the imagination of the novelist, Caidin, as it seemed any pilot lucky enough to survive such a crash would have to be horribly mutilated and injured, thus requiring massive high technology reconstruction in order to return to society as a functional person.  The 1972 novel was in turn the impetus for the made for television movie, The Six Million Dollar Man, and then the subsequent series by the same name, starring Lee “I married Farah Fawcett” Majors.  (The 2 actors were married from 1973 to 1982.) The premise of the novel and television show was that a test pilot grievously injured in a crash was put back together with the latest high technology (as in incredibly expensive) as a hybrid man/machine that could outperform any normal human.  From 1973 to 1978 Colonel Steve Austin saved America again and again, once a week on television!  (That show in turn spawned a feminine spin-off, The Bionic Woman.)

The M2-F2 was an odd looking sort of airplane, triangular but thick and stubby, with 2 vertical stabilizers/rudders in the back.  Although equipped with an 8000 pound/feet of thrust liquid fueled rocket motor, testing was done by carrying the M2-F2 aloft courtesy of a modified B-52 bomber and then let loose at high altitude in order to make a glide, unpowered flight and landing.  In fact, all 16 flights of the M2-F2 were unpowered glide flights, the experimental aircraft reaching speeds of around 450 mph.

As the body of the aircraft was intended to provide the lift normally provided by wings on conventional aircraft, the M2-F2 had little wiggle room in the control department and was finicky in flight to say the least, tricky and unforgiving.  On its final flight, pilot Peterson had trouble controlling the roll rate on landing approach and also had trouble discerning his actual height above ground, the test plane suffering from pilot induced oscillation (PIO).  Peterson made the necessary corrections, but then saw a helicopter in his landing path and was distracted enough to lose control of the plane and his situational awareness, drifting off his intended landing pattern to a part of the lake bed not clearly marked, exacerbating his problem in judging his altitude and relative position to the landing area.

In the final stages of the landing, the now highly concerned test pilot fired his rocket motors for more lift and control but failed to get his landing gear all the way down before contacting the surface.  The expensive rocket plane with its precious human cargo made a spectacular, though sickening crash landing in which it rolled over 6 times, ending up on its back in the desert.  Rescue crews raced to pull Peterson from the wreckage and get him to a hospital, where he made a complete recovery except for losing the vision in one eye due to an infection of a wound in that eye.  (The mythical Colonel Steve Austin had one eye replaced by a bionic eye of fantastic capability.  The real Bruce Peterson was not retrofitted with a bionic eye!)

Not only was the test pilot more or less fixed, the M2-F2 was rebuilt with a third vertical stabilizer and renamed the M2-F3.  The idea behind the lifting body airframe was to create a reusable spacecraft (such as the Space Shuttle) that could make a reentry into the atmosphere and make a controlled landing on land using its own body for lift rather than incorporated drag inducing wings.  The idea proved problematic to engineers for several reasons, including finding it difficult to provide adequate fuel storage, although several practical space ships were indeed built and used with the lifting body principle.  Along with the M2-F2, several other NASA experimental aircraft were built and tested with the lifting body concept.

We have previously discussed the highly dangerous profession of “test pilot” and our hats are off to the brave and skilled men and women that have practiced this daring career for the benefit of the rest of us.  We end by noting a quote showing rare insight into test piloting by aviation pioneer Harry Copland (1896-1976), “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”  Harry first flew an airplane in 1911, so he must have known something about the dangers of flying!

(Note: Wall Street has a similar adage, “There are old traders and bold traders, but there are no old, bold traders.”  Something similar can probably be said for many other occupations.  Which ones would you adapt this quote for?)

Question for students (and subscribers): Would you like to be a test pilot?  Why or why not? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Caidin, Martin. Cyborg. Warner Paperback Library, 1972.

Hastings, Christopher. The Six Million Dollar Man. Dynamite Entertainment, 2020.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by NASA of the M2-F1 lifting body aircraft resting on the sun-baked floor of a dry lake bed located out in the Mojave Desert at the Dryden Flight Research Center, California, is in the public domain in the United States, because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“. (See Template:PD-USGovNASA copyright policy page or JPL Image Use Policy.)  This image or video was catalogued by Armstrong Flight Research Center of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Photo ID: E-10628.  This image or video was catalogued by Great Images in NASA of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Photo ID: GPN-2000-000082.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.