Richard E. Lawyer
Colonel, United States Air Force
This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Thursday, November 24, 2005.
By ALLISON GATLIN
Courtesy of the Valley Press
Former test pilot, astronaut-select and flight instructor Richard Lawyer, 73, died November 12, 2005, at his home in Palmdale, California, of a suspected blood clot.
The retired Air Force colonel's flying career spanned more than 50 years, beginning with his Air Force pilot training in 1955 to his most recent occupation as an instructor at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, a position he had at the time of his death.
"He led a charmed life," flying from the moment he first fell in love with flight, said Gayle , his wife of 23 years. "His wings were never clipped."
Lawyer had assured her years ago he would walk away from airplanes at the very first indication that his flying was not up to his high standards, she said, a promise he thankfully never had to fulfill. Lawyer was in the cockpit three days before his death and was scheduled to fly for the test pilot school November 14, 2005.
Born November 8, 1932, in Los Angeles, the University of California graduate entered the Air Force in 1955. His flight test career began three years later when his fighter squadron was selected to test the F-105B.
He was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Fighter Weapons School and of the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School (now the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base).
His Air Force career included two combat tours during the Vietnam War, as well as a time as chief of fighters at Edwards.
One little-known facet of Lawyer's career was his selection in 1965 as one of the first astronauts to the Air Force's classified Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. This program, later canceled without sending any astronauts into space, was to man a military space station with Air Force astronauts using a modified Gemini spacecraft.
Even after the program was canceled, Lawyer did not discuss it, still feeling the obligation to honor its secrecy.
"They made a vow; they never were released from that," Gayle said. "That was huge. He was a man of honor."
After his Air Force retirement in 1982, Lawyer served as flight test manager for Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin Corp.) at Edwards.
He then went on to join the National Test Pilot School and later another Mojave Airport business, Flight Systems Inc. There, he served as chief test pilot, piloting the first flight of the QF-4 drone.
Lawyer retired from Flight Systems in 1998 but continued at the test pilot school and as a self-employed consultant and test pilot. He most recently flew the F-100 for Flight Test Associates' tests of Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Guardian airliner defense system.
Lawyer was a fixture at the Mojave Airport, known for driving his truck around the airport to visit friends after work at the test pilot school.
"Dick Lawyer has known a lot of big names in aviation history," said friend and Mojave Airport tenant Cathy Hansen . "He was a big name himself, but he just didn't know it."
"He was very humble, quiet and soft-spoken," she said. "He had a dry sense of humor which I thought was just hilarious."
Hansen's husband, Al, credits his license to fly his F-86 jet to Lawyer's cockpit checkout.
"Dick was one of two people Al let fly" the F-86, she said.
In addition to flying, Lawyer had a passion for hunting and fishing, his other life-long love.
"When the day came flying was over, he was going to do even more hunting and fishing," Gayle said.
Lawyer had just returned from an elk-hunting trip to Colorado when he died. He had also already begun planning his annual Alaskan fishing trip.
His other great joy - one he found unexpectedly later in life - was his nine grandchildren, ages 18 months to 11 years old.
"He adored his grandchildren," Gayle said, introducing the older ones to fishing and flying. They were a "joy in his life he knew would be there when the day came that he might no longer be able to do the things that filled his life with joy."
In addition to Gayle and the nine grandchildren, Lawyer is survived by sons Tim Lawyer of San Luis Obispo and James Lawyer of College Station, Texas; daughter Lisa Burr of Austin, Texas; stepdaughters Casey Hinds of Lexington, Ky., and Halya Mugglebee of Sherman Oaks.
"He was very much a family guy," Cathy Hansen said.
Cathy sent Lawyer an e-mail, apparently one of the last he read, that talked about living life to the fullest.
"He had. He was living proof of that," she said.
Lawyer will be remembered by family and friends in a memorial service at the National Test Pilot School on Dec. 17. For aviators like Lawyer, the date holds special significance as the anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight.
He will also be paid tribute with full military honors in a burial at Arlington National Cemetery on January 5, 2006.
It was Lawyer's wish that, in lieu of flowers,
donations be made to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots Scholarship
Foundation or to the Air Warrior Courage Foundation of the Red River Valley
Fighter Pilots Association.
Following the cancellation of the MOL programme
he remained with the Air Force and returned to active flight duty. He is
currently Deputy Commander, Test Evaluation Directorate, Air Weapons Center,
Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
Richard E. Lawyer, 73, passed away on November 12, 2005, the day after Veteran's Day. The apparent cause of his death was a deep vein blood clot. His death was peaceful but completely unexpected; he was sitting at his desk at home. Dick Lawyer was born November 8, 1932 in Los Angeles and served his country as a test pilot, as a designated astronaut who never flew in space due to circumstances beyond his control, and as a senior officer in the Air Force.
The retired Air Force Colonel still taught at the National Test Pilot School at the Civilian Flight Test Center in Mojave, California, still conducted flight tests, and was scheduled to fly this week, according to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
Lawyer remained healthy and active, holding a Class 1 medical certificate till the day he died. Indeed, the F-100F pictures, taken earlier in 2005, show Col. Lawyer (below, front seat, blue helmet) and a flight test engineer conducting calibration test flights at Mojave earlier this year. The purpose was to get valid data up to Mach 0.90 in support of a Boeing 737 flight test program, so the intrepid duo passed by the Mojave tower at 70 feet AGL at speeds up to M0.90 which is 560 kts. Not many septuagenarians are doing that, but then, there was only one Dick Lawyer.
As well as the F-100, Dick Lawyer was actively flying T-33s, F-86s, and QF-4s for a variety of contractors at Mojave Airport. During his Air Force career he'd flown F-80, -86, -100, -101, -102, -104, 105, and -106 fighters, T-6, T-33 and T-39 (Sabreliner) trainers, and U-2 and B-57 reconnaissance aircraft.
Colonel Lawyer first came to the attention of Aero-News in June, when we ran an article on the discovery of a spacesuit with his name on it at Cape Canaveral. His relatives sent him that article, which upset him, because it mentioned that we tracked him down to the NTPS and they didn't respond to our email (it turns out we used an old address that isn't monitored). That article is here. ("NASA Finds 1960s Spacesuits," 17 June 05). He was upset at the idea that people would think him unresponsive, which illustrates a little something of his character -- the humble, friendly test pilot -- not exactly a stereotype.
When he did get in touch with us, he was very complimentary about the article, and a little bit bemused that anyone even cared about the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, forty years later. "While it contains a few minor errors, is the most accurate and detailed article of all those that have appeared," he said. To us, that comment was worth more than a Pulitzer Prize.
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory, announced in 1963, had some of the features of a space station. A crew of two would launch in a modified Gemini capsule, the Gemini-B, and on reaching the desired orbit, would be able to go through a hatch in the back of the Gemini into the MOL's work and accommodation spaces.
After spending thirty days in space, the crew would climb back into the Gemini-B capsule and deorbit. At a relatively low altitude, under 100 miles, the orbit of the MOL would decay and it would soon be destroyed by re-entry.
Then-Captain Richard E. Lawyer was selected for the MOL in its first group of pilots -- they avoided the word, "Astronaut" -- selected. That group was announced on November 12, 1965 -- forty years to the day before Lawyer would pass away. The original MOL pilots were all USAF Test Pilot School or Naval Test Pilot School graduates. Lawyer mentioned to us with some pride that he graduated the USAF TPS, but he -- characteristically -- never got around to mentioning that he was distinguished graduate of his class, we had to learn that elsewhere. It probably helped him that he started his Air Force career with an Aero Engineering degree from USC -- but he never mentioned that to us, either.
When the program was cancelled, officers under 35 years old were permitted to sign on as NASA astronauts. All did, and all went on to fly in the Shuttle program -- one went on to be NASA Administrator. But then-Major Dick Lawyer was a few months too old. He, like the other "overage" pilots (except for one who took a non-astronaut position with NASA), returned to the USAF where he served in numerous assignments with distinction before retiring in the early 1980s as a Colonel. His last assignment was deputy commander of Eglin Air Force Base, at the time a significant test center.
Characteristically, Colonel Lawyer expressed no bitterness at the cancellation of the MOL, or the bureaucratic rule that would have let him go into NASA had he only been born in 1933, not '32. When we pressed him, he admitted being "disappointed." And after that disappointment he, again characteristically, bounced back.
We maintained an interesting correspondence with Colonel Lawyer for a while as a result of his long-lost space suit resurfacing. It turns out not to have been at all unusual for his name to be on a space suit -- he was the MOL astronaut charged with pressure suit development. "I was the main suit subject (or should I say Guinea Pig?). When we needed 2 subjects, I enlisted the aid of another MOL Pilot. At various times Mac Macleay, Jack Finley, or Bob Overmyer would join me."
The MOL program indeed pushed pressure suit design farther forward than contemporary NASA or USAF programs. We have provided Col. Lawyer's comments on pressure suits (edited from several email messages), and his corrections to our MOL article, as separate sidebars to this article.
Lawyer believed he knew why there has been
no book about the MOL program -- and it isn't just the classified nature
of the mission. "MOL did not seek publicity, in fact we all tried to avoid
it. Our General told us that in his career, he had dealt with the media
on a number of occasions, and came off second best on every one of those
To the very end, Colonel Lawyer kept his vow to keep his country's secrets. While very forthcoming about other aspects of the MOL program, he would not say a word about its mission. We at Aero-News reported it as a surveillance platform, a forerunner of spy satellites, and we stand by that report; but when he contacted us, Col. Lawyer said at the very beginning, "I am not at liberty to deny or confirm the reported mission for MOL." So we steered away from that subject with him. Only later did we learn that he used the exact same words with his numberless civil aviation friends, and even his family.
While Dick Lawyer loved to fly, he also loved the outdoors. We found the picture of Dick with a Halibut he caught in 2003 on the charter operator's website. Characteristically -- that word again -- he had finished planning next year's fishing trip just before he passed away, according to Cathy Hansen in the Mojave Desert News.
Dick Lawyer is survived by his wife Gayle and a constellation of kids and grandkids, and an orbit of friends that seems to encompass all Mojave Airport, and others far beyond. He was irrepressible and is irreplaceable.
The nation will express its gratitude and respect for Colonel Lawyer's service on January 5, 2006, when he will be interred with full military honors -- taking his secrets honorably with him -- at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the river from the Pentagon, on the former grounds of Robert E. Lee's country home.
The National Test Pilots School will honor Lawyer with a memorial service on -- appropriately enough -- December 17th, the anniversary of powered flight. You can bet there'll be a jet in the air.
Note: ANN extends our prayers and sentiments to Col. Lawyers family and friends... we see too few of his ilk... and we are all the poorer for his passing. Fair winds, Colonel...--Jim Campbell, Aero-News Network, E-I-C