The Life and Times of Don McCusker

I got an email from a reader a few months ago who was particularly pleased that an old post mentioned his father, Don McCusker. McCusker was a North American Aviation test pilot and one of the few men to fly the full scale Gemini manned Test Tow Vehicle (TTV), the full scale Gemini spacecraft mated to the paraglider wing. Some research in unusual places, and a fascinating correspondence with his wife Helena, gave me fairly good picture of McCusker’s life. So while my research isn’t quite finished, I thought I’d write a short overview of the very interesting life of a test pilot that almost no one knows about. (Left, the Martin-built B57 that was used in research and development tests of a guidance systems. Don McCusker is on top, at the time serving as manager of the simulated MACE program. USAF.)

Don McCusker was a Naval aviator serving in the reserves when he graduated college at 29 in 1953. In July 1954, he graduated alongside John Glenn in a class of 12 from the Navy’s Test Pilot Training school at Patuxent River in Maryland. After completing her own college degree in math, McCusker’s sweetheart, Helena Mehlhorn, joined him In Maryland. In October, the two Maine natives, he was from South Portland and she was from Brunswick, returned to their home state to marry.

The newlyweds returned to Baltimore right after the wedding where McCusker had a job flying for Martin. Helena began working for the same company as a mathematician and computer programmer. They worked in the same building, though rarely crossed paths during the workday; Helena ran calculations about aircraft rates of speed for engineers while her husband pushed the aircraft’s limits in the air. When Helena became pregnant with the couple’s first child, she made the career change from mathematician to mother. Between 1954 and 1962, the McCusker family gained four new members.

In 1962, McCusker left Martin and began working as test pilot for North American Aviation. Along with the change came a move from Baltimore to Columbus, Ohio. McCusker went first, the rest of the family joining him a few months later. By the end of the year, they were living in the house Don and Helena built themselves. (Left, the Gemini TTV in flight. 1964.)

McCusker’s position with NAA didn’t last long; he was let go in 1963. But in the summer of 1964, the aviation company called with a job offer. NASA was working on a paraglider system to land its Gemini spacecraft, and NAA was building the full scale flight hardware. It needed a test pilot to fly the Gemini TTV and the job McCusker’s if he was willing to make the move to Edwards Air Force Base. He was.

McCusker moved before his family, arriving in California in the summer of 1964. That July, Charles Hetzel made the first successful TTV flights. It started with air tow tests that had the spacecraft hanging below a pre-inflated wing ended with a smooth runway landing. In August, Hetzel lost control during another test flight and was forced to bail out of the vehicle. It sustained heavy damage as it crashed into the desert floor. Hetzel sustained broken ribs.

Just before Thanksgiving, McCusker returned to Ohio. He and Helena found renters to move into their house, packed up the family that by this time had its seventh member on the way, and moved to California. By the time McCusker returned to Edwards, the Gemini TTV had been rebuilt and ready for flight tests.

On December 18, McCuker called Helena at their home in Fullerton from Edwards. She was anxious for him to come home. Christmas was fast approaching and she wanted his help preparing for the holidays and doing last minute shopping. He promised he’d be home the next day just as soon as the TTV test flight was finished.

When the doorbell rang the next day, it wasn’t McCusker at Helena’s door. It was a man, an NAA employee, dressed in a suit. Don wasn’t coming home, he told Helena. He was fine, but the TTV had crashed and he was in the hospital at Edwards. The man also brought back Don’s car for Helena. A few days later, still in a brace and not feeling quite right, McCusker was transferred to a hospital in Fullerton. Another NAA employee, this time a family friend, took Helena to visit her husband. (Left, the Gemini TTV currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Credit: Smithsonian.)

NASA ended the paraglider program shortly thereafter. NAA’s priorities had changed, just one contributing factor to the paraglider’s overall failure. In 1963 it had won the contract to build the Apollo Command and Service modules and was focussing its efforts on the lunar spacecraft. More damaging to the paraglider was the continual setbacks from failed tests, which made runway landings lose their priority status for the Gemini program. By the time to program ended, McCusker had made eight flights in the TTV and fellow NAA pilot Jack Swigert made five flight in the vehicle.

In 1966, McCusker and Swigert were both awarded the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautic’s 1965 Octave Chanute Award for notable contributions to the field of aerospace sciences for their paraglider flights. That year, Swigert joined NASA’s astronaut corps — he ended up flying in space once as the Command Module Pilot on Apollo 13 — and McCusker returned to Columbus. Again, he moved in advance of his family; Helena stayed in California until the end of the school year for the sake of her children who were enrolled in the local school. The McCusker’s were reunited that summer when they moved back into their original house. By chance, the renters were ready to leave. (Right, an article from a 1966 NASA newsletter announcing McCusker and Swigert as recipients of the Chanute Award. From left to right are Swigert, McCusker, and another famous North American Aviation pilot Scott Crossfield.)

At this point in his career, McCusker started his own company. Aircraft Delivery Corporation saw he and a friend deliver airplanes from Ohio to Germany for NAA. But business was slow, forcing McCusker to make the switch from career pilot to real estate agent. His love of flying never wavered. He regularly answered ads in trade magazines in the hopes of finding another job as a pilot. Just as he was closing the deal on his first house, he got an answer from one of his applications. A man from Greece called, offering him a job as the pilot of a private amphibian plane pending an interview and checkout in the airplane.

The job turned out to be piloting Aristotle Onassis’ private plane. The Greek tycoon, who was married to but contemplating a divorce from President Kennedy’s widow Jackie, was planning to sail from Greece to the United States on his private yatch in the summer of 1973. Part of his cargo was the amphibious Piaggio that he ostensibly used to jet from the mid-Atlantic to a meeting in London or dinner in Milan. In reality, the plane was too small to make such long journeys and couldn’t safely land or take off in open waters. (Left, Alexander Onassis.)

McCusker arrived in Greece on January 22, 1973 and met Onassis’ son Alexander and the Piaggio’s former pilot Donald MacGregor who had been forced to give up flying for medical reasons. Onassis planned to make one flight with McCusker at the control before leaving him with MacGregor. MacGregor would have a week to show McCusker the ins and outs of the Piaggio before the latter would become its prime pilot.

As the checkout flight began the morning of January 23, Onassis was sitting in the right hand seat reading the pre-flight checklist to McCusker who was flying the plane from the left hand seat. MacGregor sat in the back. As the plane took off, it banked steeply to the right. McCusker’s attempts to level out the plane were ineffectual as turning the controls to the left seemed to make the bank worse. Just fifteen seconds after takeoff, the right wing hit the ground and, still angled steeply to one side, the plane crashed. In the right hand seat, Onassis bore the brunt of the impact. His skull was crushed at the temple rendering him in a vegetative state; he died in hospital days later. McCusker and MacGregor were fine, though both had sustained serious injuries. In McCusker’s case he was confined to hospital in Greece for weeks and suffered amnesia about the events surrounding the accident.

But injuries were the least of McCusker’s problems. Aristotle Onassis was bent on blaming someone for the death of his son, and the plane’s pilot was his choice. He sued McCusker for manslaughter, and while the pilot was confined to hospital Onassis had Greek police confiscate his passport so he couldn’t leave the country. Helena flew overseas to join her husband and sought legal council with the help of a family friend. The couple did everything in their power to clear McCusker of all charges. It would be nearly impossible for him to find another job flying with a manslaughter charge on his record. And Onassis had the power, and influence, to make the charge stick.

To cut a long and fascinating story short, McCusker had his passport in hand and free to return to America 176 days after arriving in Greece. The formal accident investigation had turned up serious mechanical failures. The Piaggio’s aileron controls had been hooked up backwards after the plane’s previous maintenance check. When McCusker tried to turn left to level out the plane he was unknowingly turning it further to the right. For whatever reason, Alexander Onassis hadn’t checked these controls before takeoff. and the charges against the pilot were quietly dropped in November of 1977. (Right, Aristotle Onassis’ Piaggio.)

The same year the charged against McCusker were dropped, the family once again found renters to take over their house and moved to South Dakota. McCusker had a job there flying for South Dakota State University and Helena began working as a teachers’ aide at the high school where her three youngest children were enrolled. The family stayed there until 1985 when Don’s run as the University’s pilot ended.

In 1986 McCusker retired. He and Helena made one final move back to Columbus and back into their original house where she still lives.

Suggested Reading

Stuart Speiser, The Deadly Sins of Aristotle Onassis. ACW Press. 2005.

6 thoughts on “The Life and Times of Don McCusker

  1. I suspect “Glendale Martin” should really be “Glenn L. Martin” which was then the name of the company (and it’s founder)…

  2. Fascinating story. I really like these small personal accounts to the big picture that is space history. You did a good job on this.
    Is the pictured Gemini test vehicle the one that is also known as “El Kabong”?

  3. Just this last year, a bunch of us paraglider pilots here in Arizona built our own payout tow winch, and spent months learning how to tweak it, and tow behind it safely and efficiently out in the desert. The forces of pulling a pendulum glider like this can become very “interesting” very quickly.

    It’s astonishing to see these guys were doing this way back when. I am sure there were many interesting discussions around the dynamics of the tow operations I would have loved to sit in on – I am amazed they had the successes they did as pioneers back then, without all the additional understanding we have now.

  4. Another fascinating post, with terrific original reporting… This is the kind of story that really helps me to understand the real lives of the people who do the hard work that takes place ‘behind the scenes’ as the space program takes each step forward, as well as the lives of those who love them. It’s also really well written!

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