Archive for April, 2010

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Brush with Greatness

April 20, 2010

By Andy Evans

Several club members met this weekend with E.R. “Pony” Maples.  Pony
was a highly prominent figure of our radio club in its early years.
He specialized in the “wireless” era with an emphasis on military
items and was known for his flawless restoration of such.

Pony exited the radio collecting hobby several years ago with the
selling off of his collection to pursue the construction to spec. of a
P51 Mustang aircraft. “A money pit” he described this weekend.  In
times when both real estate and stock markets were having stability
issues, Mr. Maples put his retirement nest-egg into an aircraft
instead.  It was the near completion of the P51 and an opportunity for
radio club members to reconnect and “catch up” with Pony that prompted
this weekend’s meeting.  The P51’s construction by Tri-State Aviation
in Wahpeton North Dakota has been a multi-year journey for Pony, with
scarce airworthy parts being sourced world wide. Pony traded an
enormous Wimshurst machine for a transmission in Texas, a still crated
Rolls Merlin engine was found in Sweden via EBay, an original window
glass was found and buffed out, etc. The P51 still awaits the
construction of its wings, but the fuselage, propeller, and tail
assembly are all completed and separately tucked away in Pony’s
basement, which serves as awe inspiring WWII aviation museum.

It was at the completion of our tour of the museum that I asked Pony
about the Corona Project. It was his involvement with this project
that afterwards would lead to him to a stint with the JPL and the
position of Launch Commander for the Apollo program.  He was also
placed on the Apollo 204 Review Board that investigated the Apollo 1
disaster.  As a member of the review board, he had the unpleasant task
of listening to the tape recording of the astronaut’s voices during
their fiery deaths and explained that the spacesuits prolonged their
agony by resisting heat and slowly cooking them inside their suits.
But let us get back to the Corona Project.

The Corona Project was a CIA ran satellite reconnaissance program
which operated from 1959 to 1972 and was officially secret up to 1992.
This was the days before technology existed that was capable of
transmitting high resolution images from space.  Instead, Hasselblad
cameras fitted with extra large film magazines imaged the Soviet Union
in flyovers.  When the film ran out, or the need for the gathered
intelligence urgent, the film and camera were ejected from the
satellite (later in the program after Pony left, only the film was
jettisoned.)  The next part was tricky, recovery!  This is where Pony
was involved.  Stationed on Tern Island, Pony worked for Bendix Field
Engineering who had been granted a secret contract.  His job, using an
auto tracking quad element antenna, was to locate the tracking beacon
and then radio guidance information to the pilots of five C119s.
There would be a C119 at 50,000 feet trailing a loop from the cargo
door attached to a high speed winch and rigged with fish hooks.  Shark
hooks, Pony recalled.  The C119 would then attempt to snag the
parachute of the falling canister.  Should that fail, there was
another C119 flying behind and 5,000 feet lower, and another one below
that one.  They had five chances total to snatch it from the air
before they had to get the boat out.  The canister was designed to
float, but the beacon did not work in the water.  Pony says in two
years he was involved in the project, from 1960 to 1961, they made
about 8 recoveries and never had one hit the water.

Pictures in the slideshow below

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