Curtis Peebles, the X-15 and Angela’s Ashes

Frank John Reid
Magonia 89, August 2005

I’d just dragged myself through Frank McCourt’s depressing Angela’s Ashes when I read Curtis Peebles’s 'The Case of the Vanishing X-15 Pilot'. I grew up Catholic in the 1940s and 50s, in an American Church that rather envied the holiness of Ireland, and so was able to understand, McCourt’s reminiscence of rushing around Limerick, tearing one page out of an issue of John O’London’s Weekly which his employer had earlier distributed, because that page discussed birth control. And so I was able to understand Peebles’s article.

Here is the paragraph from page 236 of Ann Druffel’s Firestorm that concerns the X-15 story:

“He called Dr. Bob Wood next, who was more than willing to participate but needed to ask his superiors if he could state his affiliation with McDonnell Douglas. If not, he would speak as an independent scientist. Wood thought there was a 50% to 75% chance that the company would okay it. He also told McDonald about an intriguing report he’d heard from a source he considered very reliable. It concerned Gene May, a Douglas test pilot, who had been involved with the X-15 experimental aircraft for several years. According to the story Wood heard, May had taken the experimental craft for a flight five to eight years ago with 15 minutes’ fuel in the X15′s tank. Yet May didn’t land back at the airfield until three hours later.

May allegedly reported he’d been taken aboard a UFO, X-15 and all! As a consequence, he was examined by psychologists at Edwards AFB. Wood’s reliable source was a colleague who worked at Vandenberg AFB who knew Gene May well. McDonald tucked the story in his journal, to be checked out later. [footnote]“

And that is ALL that’s in the entire book about the tale. (The footnote merely references McDonald’s fourth journal notebook.)

I can’t see the wretched ‘uncritical acceptance’ committed by ‘believers’ in this. I’m unable to see how the grand exopolitical claims of Michael Sala and Alf Webre give us insight into the paragraph. I can’t even see any ‘believers’ in it.

Peebles admits (and how easily ‘reluctantly’ can slide into this sentence) that: “Ultimately, the story is a side issue. It did not play a role in the development of the flying saucer myth. The story also does not seem to have been repeated in any later publication.”

So it would seem that Dr. Wood hasn’t much told, avowed, written, broadcast, publicised, disseminated or promulgated the story in all the years after he told it to McDonald in 1968. Could it be he had his doubts? Perhaps it’s shown up in one of the MJ-12 documents so fascinating to him (but which bore me), and he puts faith into it now. But Mr. Peebles wouldn’t think of asking him, would he?

Yes, it would have been virtuous for Dr. Wood to research and deflate the story before passing it to McDonald. It would be virtuous for me to research the Grapefruit Diet before telling you Mr. XYZ says he’s now Mr. X because of it. But do you execrate me for not doing so? Looking-into was McDonald’s forte.

Should Ann Druffel have researched? How the hell is she obliged to, before telling us of one small item in a long, complex biography which the man put aside to look into later on? Can we fault McDonald for jotting the few lines Peebles quotes, on a wild but circumstantial and namespecific story, to later look into? Only if the essence of historical method is reception of the received version.

My mother and stepfather [a staunch union man] both told me that poor workmanship and obstructive union work-rules resulted in “lots of liberty ships falling apart in mid-Atlantic,” during World War II. I knew shipyard unions were harshly criticised (we had a box of WWII Reader’s Digests), but I thought the shipping losses had to be mere war rumours. But it’s come out in the last decade that, in the first years of America’s war, the U-boats were much too efficient at sinking U.S. shipping for the good of public morale. So the news media [under coerced voluntary censorship] didn’t mention things like body parts washed up on Atlantic beaches. My parents, who for all I know got it all from the Wood family, were right about the ship-losses, wrong about the causes. And I was not skeptical enough.
The X-15 business is more ambiguous than Mr. Peebles’s
ringing sermon would have it.
I find real history (like real life) oft annoying that way

What Mr. Peebles means by “uncritical acceptance” of the “flying saucer belief system” is not having the instant abhorrence of heresy and/or occasion of sin that moves you to rip out the filthy birth control page yourself before reading it through. (Where are some stones, that we may kneel on them?)

Had Peebles gloved-up to query CUFOS, we impenitents would have sent him a copy of the original: Graham Doar’s “The Outer Limit,” which appeared in the December 24, 1949 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, as reprinted in Groff Conklin’s anthology, Big Book of Science Fiction (Crown Publishers, New York: 1950).

(The SatEvePost was a weekly, massive in size, page numbers, circulation, and influence – Secretary of Defense Forrestal leapt to order Air Force co-operation for their two-part flying saucer article, earlier that year. Doar’s issue was probably still on news stands when Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers Are Real appeared in the January, 1950 True magazine. Doar’s story may have been adapted for radio, or for one of the early SF television series now forgotten because they were filmed in black and white.

In Doar’s story, a test pilot – he’s given the rank of Captain: but no name but “Bill” – drops the parachute equipped, jet-engine first stage of a new rocket plane, then goes much higher and faster. He sees a “metallic elipsoid” (which never appears on radar) above him and goes all-out to reach it.

Bill makes several passes under it at 200,000 feet and 4,000 mph. “There was a humming sound – a kind of gentle vibration – and I blacked out,” he says. “….I thought – I felt it coming for a split second – I thought …” (Magonia may class this as doorway amnesia, but it’s simply an adaptation of the hero not being able to get out of the bar before the chloral hydrate downs him.)

He awakes inside of a ship filled with machinery and noise, surrounded by ‘presences’ he can’t see. These aliens by telepathy tell him they made an arduous trip in order to A) warn us they absolutely forbid atomic weapons, and have scaled us off until we become more sane; enforcing this by B) seeding our upper atmosphere with something that the daughter-elements of a nuclear explosion will catalyze into a novalike fissioning. (Parenthetically, Doar has his aliens report that an apt human messenger is rare indeed; they killed or brain-scrambled all earlier subjects.)

His Colonel and Major Donaldson, a psychiatrist, debrief Bill (who delivers the threat, and points out it also makes the planned atomic spaceship impossible). They sedate him, send him to bed, and plan the psychotherapy they hope will help him. But the psychiatrist then says, “Oh, Colonel. There is one thing. It’s outside my field, but I’m curious. I low did he keep that plane in the air for ten hours – with only ten minutes’ fuel?”

I suspect this ‘snapper’ ending was a worn cliche. But the story’s a possible influence on the similar threat with which Space Brother Klaatu ends The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Now Doar’s story hands us a little problem:

1) In 1950, had anyone – an insider, or just an assiduous reader of public rocketry info – wanted to take Doar’s story as a roman a clef, or just fiction about a real person, a reasonable candidate for ‘Bill’ would be: Gene May. Of course there are fictionalizing differences (e.g., the near future; Bill’s much younger than May; etc.). But Peebles tells us May “was also involved in the initial test flights of the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. This aircraft used both a jet engine and a rocket engine, and was designed to fly above Mach 4 … May made a total of 133 flights in the Skyrocket. His last test flight was made on December I. 1949. in a D-558-IL” May then left (light testing, but Peebles says it’s unclear (ah-ha!) whether he’d had enough risk or he’d failed a physical exam.

2) In the early 1960s, a speaker at the annual Giant Rock contactee/New Age circus transformed the more-flight-than-fuel tale into an X-15 incident claiming to have been in the ground crew. According to Peebles’s source the pilot wasn’t named. But an insider/fan wouldn’t guess Gene May, who was long out of the game – he’d opt for one of the publicised X-15 pilots. (By the 1960s, why would anyone intelligent go to Giant Rock for UFO information? It would be like reading The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to find out why anyone objected to Communism.)

3) In 1968, an apparently reliable colleague from Vandenberg Air Force Base told Dr. Wood the X-15 version. So how did Gene May – whom the ‘colleague’ claimed to know, having details of his career right – climb back into the cockpit? Magonians may conjecture mental portmanteauing schemes. but a more parsimonious explanation is: malice. It might be joker’s malice, no more than the urge to twit. It might be that someone hated Wood’s guts, and wanted him to embarrass himself – or hated McDonnell-Douglas, Wood’s employers, who may have been wise in forbidding Wood to participate in Congressional hearings. Or it may have been the pale malice of an Intelligence asset supplying disinformation.

Is that last one extravagant? Well, thirty-odd years ago a Polish-born girl and other motives had me attend demonstrations over ‘Captive Nations’ (Soviet satellites). On the fringes, always. was a certain Latvian wearing photogenic sandwich-boards, trying to promote anti-Semitism (yeah, he sold the Protocols too). Some Baltic types had got friendly with him. and told him confidential news from the Old Country – and soon the Communist authorities there were demonstrated a dismaying knowledge. I don’t know it that cured anyone’s anti-Semitism: but a very decent, Jew-respecting Latvian-American named Tedis Zierins openly denounced the fringe guy as a Communist agent in everything. So yes. there are low-level Intelligence assets, and it’s just possible Wood ran into one.

The X-15 business is more ambiguous than Mr. Peebles’s ringing sermon would have it. I find real history (like real life) oft annoying that way, and God’s motto seems to be “What?”