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Neil Armstrong's wrecks and near wrecks

Professor's superb piloting skills served little purpose in unmanned car

by Deborah Rieselman

Neil Armstrong's ability to maneuver out of harm's way in the sky led NASA officials to praise his piloting skills numerous times. Unfortunately, such skills were of no use in protecting his car while it was parked on the University of Cincinnati campus.
Soon after he started teaching aeronautical engineering at UC in 1971, Armstrong received a personal visit from Ed Bridgeman, Ed ’76, M (A&S) '83, the UC police chief at the time (and now coordinator of the UC Clermont College criminal justice program). "I said there was a problem with his car and asked him to walk with me to there," Bridgeman says.

Shortly before the visit, Bridgeman had heard a call on the police radio about a car having run over an embankment and crashing into another car. (See photos at right.) The responding officer ran the license plate number through the system and gulped when he saw the name "Armstrong, Neil A."

Bridgeman says he notified the officer, "I'm responding. Don't do anything until I get there." After talking to a couple of students who saw it happen, the chief realized that the former astronaut forgot to set his emergency brake.

The car had been parked in an area of temporary parking lots created when row houses were torn down on Woodside Drive to build Langsam Library. "There were drop-offs from where the houses had been while everything was going through an approval process at the state," Bridgeman recalls, "and his car went over one."

When they reached the disturbing sight, Armstrong uttered a simple "oops," and that was it.

Armstrong would frequently forget things that were common sense to others, Bridgeman adds. "His mind was always going, but he existed on a different plane."

UC spokesman Greg Hand also recalls an incident in which a crane from the Langsam Library construction fell on Armstrong's car while it was parked. It's interesting that parking lots ended up dangerous to a man who had traveled safely outside the Earth.

Korean War anti-aircraft fire

During 1951 combat in the Korean War, Armstrong was making a low bombing run when anti-aircraft fire hit his F9F Panther. He lost control and collided with a pole, which sliced off three feet of his right wing. Armstrong flew the plane back to friendly territory, intending to eject over water, but his ejection seat was blown back over land. Rather than getting the expected Navy rescue, a roommate from flight school picked him up as he passed by in a jeep.

Gemini 8 malfunction

In 1966, Armstrong's first space flight took place in Gemini 8. While he was docking with an unmanned Agena rocket (history's first successful docking of two vehicles in space), a malfunctioning thruster sent the interlocked space vehicles tumbling uncontrollably. Armstrong calmly disconnected the two vehicles, brought Gemini 8 back under control and made a safe emergency landing in the Pacific. NASA officials said he exhibited “extraordinary piloting skill.”

Lunar landing vehicle explosion

In 1968, more than a year before the moon landing, Armstrong came close to death in the lunar landing research vehicle (LLRV) at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston. On a simulated lunar descent, leaking propellant caused a total failure of flight controls.

About 200 feet above ground, he employed "the Weber ejection seat — not by choice," as he later noted. The quick action saved his life as the vehicle crashed and went up in flames seconds later. (See photos at right.)

Subsequent analysis suggested that if he had ejected 0.5 seconds later, his parachute would not have opened in time. As it was, his only injury was a hard tongue bite. (See silent video.)

The ejection-system manufacturer, Weber Aircraft, awarded Armstrong with the ejection handle handsomely mounted on a simple plaque. The presentation honored his entry into the Turtle Club, made up of other aviators who had safely ejected from their aircraft, says former student Ralph Spitzen, Eng '74, MBA '76.

Eagle nearly didn't land

In 1969, landing on the moon was not something that could be totally simulated on Earth. With no atmosphere and only one-sixth the Earth's gravity, the moon presented unique operational challenges, NASA had said.

Although Armstrong had trained for years in every iteration of lunar-landing device from early test helicopters to the final Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, last minute adjustments caused him to set down the Eagle about 4 miles downrange from the predicted touchdown point to avoid a crater. The powered descent he used ran 40 seconds longer than preflight planning, leaving he and Buzz Aldrin with only about 25 seconds of fuel left.

Armstrong described the lunar deceleration and landing as being akin to "trying to stop a downhill putt on a fast green."
After he had contacted Mission Control in Houston with the famous words, "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." And Houston replied, "Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot."

In later moon space flights, NASA included slightly more fuel for landing and altered some controls.

One day, Armstrong would comment: “All our training was based on the premise that we would have at least 14 things going wrong at any given instance — about 1,000 separate identifiable failures during the course of every mission. As it happened, the hardware worked far better than we had a right to expect.”

(First-man-on-the-moon and former UC professor Neil Armstrong died Aug. 25, 2012, at 82 years of age.)