Dec 06, 2011

For Test Pilot, Space Was the Final Frontier

By Elena Watts
For Reporting Texas

Before computers came along, James “J.D.” McEachern was a chief test flight engineer and pilot who controlled airplane operations that are automatic today. Throttle speed. Gas flow. Landing speed. He worked for Consolidated Aircraft and its successors, Convair and General Dynamics, in Fort Worth for more than 50 years and was considered a pioneer.

For all his accomplishments, McEachern (pronounced mic-ack-urn) harbored an unfulfilled dream, which surfaced in a Forth Worth hospital as the 89-year-old pilot lay dying of cancer. He had regretted not ever traveling into space. McEachern never told his 62-year-old son Eric why he only made it halfway through America’s first astronaut-training program in the 1950s, but Eric assumed it had something to do with his age — he was nearly 40 at the time.

Whatever the reason, the younger McEachern made a vow. “I’ll get you into space, I told him, don’t worry about it,” Eric said. When he learned that Space Services Inc. could blast his father’s cremated remains into space on a rocket, he knew what he had to do. Eric booked his father’s ashes on the company’s “pioneer” flight. “Most people told me I was crazy,” Eric said. “They said, ‘You’re doing what?’ I’m sending my dad into space.”

J.D. McEachern was a flight engineer who wanted to become an astronaut and make it to outer space. (Photo courtesy of the McEachern family.)

On May 4, 2010, in Las Cruces, N.M., a capsule containing 1 gram of J.D.’s remains was shot into the weightlessness of space. The 15-minute “Earth Rise” voyage released J.D. at least 70 miles up before it came back to Earth.

“You’ll never go to a funeral where there’s so much high-fiving and cheering, you just won’t,” said Charles “Charlie” Chafer, chief operating officer of Space Services. “We know how compelling and fulfilling it is for people to help someone they loved achieve a dream.”

For J.D. McEachern, it was a dream that took flight in Presque Isle, Maine, where he earned a Canadian pilot’s license in a wartime air-training program while still in high school. After graduation, he hitchhiked 3,400 miles to San Diego, where he attended Consolidated Aircraft’s flight engineer school. When World War II broke out, the U.S. military assigned him to ferry PBY Catalinas, American flying boats, from California to Hawaii. When he tried to join the Canadian Royal Air Force to fly combat planes, he was rejected.

“They sent him a letter that said the U.S. government says we can’t let you come into Canada because they need you,” Eric said. “He got really upset about that.”

When McEachern wasn’t in his flight suit, the green-eyed, 6-foot, 160-pound pilot resembled crooner and movie star Bing Crosby in his smart suits and neckties. Until his last day, gray never tinged his dark, wavy hair. No hair dye under the bathroom sink, just good genes, Eric said.

The McEachern house turned into a toy store every Christmas, Eric said. J.D., who grew up dirt-poor and supported his parents from the age of 18, lavished his three boys, Jimmy, Alex and Eric, with cars, motorcycles, go-carts and horses.

“Santa really showed up,” Eric said. “Dad’s parents couldn’t afford anything, so he was reliving his childhood — it was great.”

It was normal for Eric to have breakfast with his father before school and then return home and not see him for days. Years later, Eric learned from declassified documents about his father’s disappearances:  J.D. made crash landings. He performed winter tests in Greenland. He flew a B-58 around the world.

“They’d do high-speed tests down the runway for weeks before they ever flew the airplane just to make sure it wouldn’t fall apart once it got off the ground,” Eric said. “So back in the glory days, it took a lot of courage or stupidity to crawl in those things and try to fly them.”

Howard Hughes was central to one of the few stories J.D. liked to tell. He bought the Houston oil tool magnate a milkshake in a Las Vegas airport terminal when the two, along with an Air Force general, made a pit stop while on a whirl in one of J.D.’s employer’s airplanes. They had many dealings over the years because Hughes purchased planes for his airline from Convair. Hughes never carried cash on him, and the general couldn’t let the military pick up the tab for their refreshments because it wouldn’t look right, Eric said. So J.D., frugal to the core and tight with his dollars, forked over the cash.

“This guy was worth millions of dollars, and here I am, a little flunky out here flying airplanes,” Eric’s father said to him and anyone else listening. “He got me for a buck and a quarter.”

McEachern’s friends also included test pilot Beryl Erickson (who made B-36 and B-58 bomber maiden flights), Chuck Yeager (famous for breaking the sound barrier), and Charles Lindbergh, who became a national hero after completing the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic. The thrill of being first to do something pulled the pilots, who always lived near each other in either Texas or California, toward the riskiest work. The B-36 and B-58 test runs took off in Fort Worth, and the dangerous flights happened above no-man’s land, California’s Edward’s Air Force Base, where a crash wouldn’t kill anyone on the ground, Eric said.

Aviation remained central to J.D.’s life in retirement. He and Barbara, his wife of 71 years, became social butterflies. They purchased a private airplane, joined flying clubs and flew around the world. When they were too old to fly, they flitted coast-to-coast from one party to the next in their motor home.

J.D.’s final journey into space came courtesy of Celestis Memorial Spaceflights, a wing of Space Services, located near Houston’s Rice University. Its seven employees have gathered hundreds of survivors from around the world at its California and New Mexico launch sites. The cost ranges from $995 for a short trip like J.D.’s to $12,500.

Memorial spaceflight has appealed to those who feel a connection to the cosmos, Space Services’ Chafer said, like space travel dreamers, starry night-gazers, and astronomy and science fiction aficionados. About 20 percent more men than women have taken flight. Their 600 passengers have ranged from stillborn babies to 90-year-olds.

“You couldn’t ask for a nicer group of people. I mean, they seemed very sincere — they are also aviation fanatics,” Eric said of the Space Services team. “Dad would have been elated that he finally made it to space, dead or alive.”