Neil Armstrong and the Pickle

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

While the world was mourning the passing away of Neil Armstrong - the first man to set foot on the Moon - as an outstanding test pilot and astronaut, the soaring community is also remembering him as an accomplished soaring pilot. He was not your proverbial brash test pilot; he shunned publicity and was sometimes described as "geekish" before this became an endearing term. To the chagrin of the media, he was more like Charles Lindberg than Chuck Yeager and guarded his privacy to the extent of being labeled a "recluse".

Neil Armstrong was a very active test pilot at Edwards in the late 50s and early 60s, flying among other planes the X-1B and the X-15. To the extent that these two rocket planes were powered gliders, he was already getting into gliding then. But even the longest free X-15 flight lasted only 12.5 minutes and it is not clear whether a drop launch from a B-29 or B-52 would count as an aero-tow.

But Neil was getting seriously into soaring in 1964 when he joined a partnership for a 1-26A, actually the seventh production number. This was no. 007, aka the Pickle (because of its green color). The "007" may also have been a nod to the first James Bond movie, "Dr. No", which started the amazing James Bond movie series about then.


Neil did not waste any time - in 2 flights from Marfa (a 3 hour flight in April and a 7.5 hour, 174 mile O&R flight in September) he gained his Silver badge (no. 819), then got his Gold altitude at Colorado Springs (in another 1-26, in December 1964) and then in 1965 his Gold distance (and Gold badge 217) . He almost got his Diamonds, too, in the 1-26, except for the altitude.

While Neil pursued his astronaut career, the Pickle continued on its own path to glory when it ended up in the Mockler family and was used for a total of 5 US championship wins (in the 1-26 class), probably unmatched by any other glider. And now it is the prized possession of Bob Breidenthal, who keeps it safe and secure in his hangar.

After Neil Armstrong commanded the historic Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 missions, he joined a Libelle partnership although he did not have too much time for soaring. But in 2005, at the age of 75, he regained his currency as soaring pilot. This took place at the

Seminole airfield in Florida and was part of a CBS "60 Minutes" production. And in the interview at the end of this production he made these remarks about sailplanes and soaring that speak to the heart of every soaring pilot:

"Gliders, sailplanes, they're wonderful machines. It's the closest you can come to being a bird."

What does he get out of gliding?

"Oh, it is self-satisfaction. A sense of accomplishment at trying to do a little better than you think you possibly can."

R.I.P. Neil!