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Former Test Pilot with Claremore Ties Inducted into Aerospace Hall of Fame


Note: Cynda Thomas, Dick’s wife, is a Claremore resident and author. She has written three books, one being Dick’s story as a pilot. She will be at Boarding House Books on Saturday, November 21, during Dickens on the Boulevard, available for book signings. Great Christmas ideas for either the book lover or airplane enthusiast in your life! 

thomasFormer Antelope Valley test pilot Richard “Dick” Thomas, who flew secret tests of a revolutionary aircraft codenamed Tacit Blue that had a direct influence on the design of the B-2 stealth bomber, has been inducted posthumously into the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame.

A Lancaster resident from 1963 until his death at age 76 in 2006, Thomas was Northrop Corp.’s deputy site manager for operations at the secret Groom Lake test center in Nevada, as well as project test pilot for Tacit Blue. He flew Tacit Blue on its maiden flight on February 5, 1982, and the next three flights as well, going on to pilot 70 of the airplane’s 135 flights.

“According to the U.S. Air Force, Tacit Blue was one of the most successful high-technology demonstrator programs ever conducted. It had a direct influence on the design of the B-2 stealth bomber including development of the flight control system, low observables shaping and materials, propulsion installation, and electronic systems,” the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame said in its induction Saturday at Nellis AFB. “Carried out in total secrecy, the Tacit Blue program was not declassified until 1996 when the airplane was publicly unveiled at the U.S. Air Force Museum (now National Museum of the U.S. Air Force) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

In a 1996 interview with the Antelope Valley Press, Thomas said learning how to keep an aircraft secret was easy – just say nothing.

“You learn to keep your mouth closed and your tongue under control,” Thomas said.

That included keeping his work secret event from his wife, Cynda, as he’d leave for Nevada for a week and a half at a time.

“She knew I was working on a classified program,” Thomas said in the 1996 interview. “From 1979 to now I have not said anything.”

The Nevada Hall of Fame is intended to bring attention to contributions in Nevada to the development of aviation and aerospace science, of which many were conducted in secrecy due to security reasons.

Cynda Thomas, who attended Saturday’s ceremony, sold their Lancaster home in 2009 and now lives in Oklahoma, where she was born. She and daughter Velvet co-wrote a book called Hell of a Ride about Richard Thomas’ career.

Born April 2, 1930, in Chautauqua, N.Y., Richard Thomas first flew in an open cockpit Stearman biplane at Parks College, St. Louis University, where he received a bachelor of science degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1952. A graduate of the Reserve Officer Training Corps program, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force that same year. He earned his wings in 1952.

In the Air Force, he flew F-80 and F-86 fighter jets.

He left the regular Air Force in 1956 for a flight test job with Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, where he conducted production flight testing of nearly all Beechcraft products, including the Model 18, Model 35 Bonanza, Model 50, and King Air. He also joined the Kansas Air National Guard as a member of the 127th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and flew the T-33 and the F-86D until 1961.

In 1958, he went to work for Boeing and in January 1959 started “flying chase” – piloting T-33, F-86, F-100 and F-101 jets accompanying Boeing B-47 and B-52 bombers on test flights. That same year, Boeing assigned him to fly the ERB-47 and B-52H and G models. He conducted flutter tests in the B-52H with Skybolt missiles attached to wing pylons, and helped develop a maneuver for the release of nuclear weapons from an altitude of 55,000 feet. In 1962, the company sent him to U.S. Navy Test Pilot School, where he graduated as a member of Class 31.

DAYTON, Ohio -- Tacit Blue Whale at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)
DAYTON, Ohio — Tacit Blue Whale at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Thomas left Boeing for Northrop in 1963, and served as test pilot for the T-38 trainer jet and all models of the F-5 fighter. During 107 spin tests, he developed ways to recover from end-over-end tumbles. His hazardous high-angle-of-attack stall and spin testing in the F-5 established procedures now followed by fighter pilots around the world.

On one F-5 test flight in 1965, a mechanical problem forced him to eject over Mount Whitney. He landed on the mountain’s south side at roughly 11,000 feet.

He also flew the X-21 laminar flow control testbed aircraft.

In 1977 and 1978, Thomas spent time in Madrid, Spain, helping the Spanish Air Force flight test the CASA C-101 trainer aircraft. Then in 1981, the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command had Thomas evaluate its Red Flag Aggressor Training Program at Nellis Air Force Base to identify ways to reduce departure/spin accidents associated with the program.

After piloting Tacit Blue, Thomas stopped flying in 1986, but continued his career with Northrop Grumman as technical director on the B-2 program, developing flight techniques in the simulator prior to the maiden flight.

He retired from Northrop Grumman in 2000. During his career, he logged 8,000 hours, flying more than 116 different aircraft. He died June 19, 2006.

-from Antelope Valley Press

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