A Day at NASA Dryden Research Center (#NASASocial Part 5): Triple Play

Lloyd Proffitt

In last week’s post (with links to the whole series), we covered the aircraft and other artifacts that are on display at Palmdale’s Joe Davies Heritage Airpark and Blackbird Airpark—the first two parts of our Palmdale Trifecta. This week, we’re returning attention to Blackbird Airpark because, in addition to the static aircraft on display, the facility also has a museum on the premises. More importantly, the museum was staffed by two docents, Lloyd Proffitt and Ray Vonier. As we often discuss at Lofty Ambitions, it’s the stories told by people about the technology they had a hand in creating that breathes life into machines, which would otherwise be merely static displays, immobile and inanimate.

When Doug spoke with Lloyd and Ray, each of the men was generous with his time and spoke freely about his lengthy aerospace career and his current involvement as a volunteer at the air park.

The history of the aviation industry, particularly in defense- and space-oriented Southern California, has been of cycles of boom and bust. Lloyd spent forty-seven years with Boeing, retiring in 2009. Layoffs and moving from one aerospace company to another, following whoever had just signed a large contract, has been commonplace for employees in the aviation industry. That Lloyd was only laid off once—for a brief two months—and spent his entire company with a single company is rather remarkable.

Ray Vonier

Lloyd started his career in aerospace as a Flight Test Engineer working on the Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM) program. Lloyd’s position involved base activations—essentially all the work required to introduce and deploy the missile from a new sight—at Air Force bases all around the country. Lloyd’s travels began in White Sands, New Mexico, and saw him pass through K.I. Sawyer AFB (now Sawyer Airport) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (a place where Doug and Anna once took a behind-the-scenes tour) and Griffis AFB in upstate New York. A highlight in Lloyd’s later career was working on Air Force One, the plane on which the President of the United States flies. Lloyd has been a volunteer at Blackbird Airpark’s museum and gift store for two years, and he says he did it because he wanted to “give back a little bit.”

While Lloyd’s aviation career covered an impressive timeframe, he has a way to go in terms of volunteering at the museum before he catches up with Ray Vonier. Ray has spent nearly a whole career as a volunteer at Blackbird Air Park: twenty-one years.

Ray’s contributions have touched upon nearly every aspect of the airpark and museum. He helped to restore both the A-12 and SR-71 aircraft there. One of his many tasks included replacing one thousand screws in the SR-71 during a year-long restoration. Another project that Ray took on was to build a number of SR-71s and A-12s as model airplanes. Each of the model aircraft he built is on display in a case behind the museum’s gift store counter. Each is a faithful replica of a specific aircraft, and most are signed by Blackbird pilots who flew the actual aircraft. Also in the model display case is a remarkable toy reconnaissance pilot in a pretty faithful-looking yellow pressure suit. When Doug asked Ray where he got it, he replied that they were long out of production but that they occasionally showed up on internet auction sites. Ray hastened to add that they weren’t cheap.

Ray spent his career as an electrician and one of the programs he worked on was shuttle. He specifically contributed to the building of two orbiters: Atlantis and Columbia. Ray insisted that it was a privilege to work on shuttle and that “they didn’t have to pay me.” He added with a very earnest smile that he had “a lot of memories on that program.” Intriguingly, Ray ended our conversation by mentioning that he’d worked at “The Area”—Area 51, the secret military base—for a year, but he couldn’t talk about that particular time in his career.

At Lofty Ambitions, it’s pretty clear at this point that we like airplanes. A lot. For various reasons, intellectual and aesthetic.

We also like people. Their stories are the meaningful context for the aircraft. These stories add a dimension to the aircraft, one that you couldn’t see even if they still flew. People poured their lives into creating these machines, and those stories are every bit as important as the flight characteristics and operational history.

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