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It was the day the FG-1 was to take the air. Minutes would tell the worth of Akron's first fighter plane.
All eyes were on the Goodyear Aircraft Corp. product as it roared into life with a terrific propeller blast.......and on it, R.L. Stephens, chief test pilot, as he climbed into the cockpit.
Through the ranks of spectators ran comment on the raw courage of a man who would climb into an untried plane, his life hanging on the workmanship of hundreds of designers, engineers, riveters, welders, machinists, and men and women who a few months before did not know a rivet gun from a fuselage.
Few in the crowd knew R. L. Stephens. Most of them pictured a daredevil test pilot out for a thrilling afternoon. But in the plane, now slowly rolling to the far end of the field, sat a serious-faced, level-headed 42 year-old veteran of the airlanes who regarded aviation as a business on which the life of the nation depends, rather than some kind of sport.
And not many in the crowd realized, as the FG-1 swung into the wind and roared back up field with a terrific blast that drowned out all applause, that this husky six-foot, 190-pound, gray-eyed pilot with light brown curlyish hair was not only the father of two grown-up girls but one of the few, if any, grandfathers testing America's warplanes.
He was a pilot of 6,300 flying hours, a holder of ratings to fly anything from a single engine or multi-engine craft to a flying boat, a pilot who had flown madly zooming dive bombers and lazy gliding airships that gently lifted the Goodyear plane off the ground, circled the field and dipped his wings in salute.
After the test flight, Stephens, stern of countenance as usual but with a slight smile playing in the corners of his mouth, delivered back the ship and congratulated in a semblance of military air the company officials who flocked would like to dig into his life's history.
BUT STEPHENS-- whose first name, by the way, is Roma—is no stuffed shirt. Any one of the 175 men under him, as chief of Goodyear Aircraft's flights test division, will tell you Steve, as they call him, is “one swell guy.” and the 16 test pilots in the division swear by him.
Stephens, who accepted the position July 15, 1942, was born in Montpelier, Ind., August. 7, 1901.
When the desire for flight seized him, Stephens was a youth of 18 at Kokomo, Ind., with less than a year's high school to his credit and four years' experience with an auto manufacturer and a rubber company.
The aviation bug with Stephens was no boyish fancy. This he proved when he worked seven months for the Curtiss Indiana Aviation Corp. in order to get eight hours' flying instructions.
Because he proved a good student, he never even got that. After three hours and 45 minutes' flying time, his instructors decided flying was second nature with him and he was allowed to take his solo.
STEPHENS REMAINED A pilot for Curtiss Indiana for a year and a half, and then something of a varied career followed, during which he helped organize the aviation squadron of the Indiana national guard, did a good deal of barnstorming, stunt flying and racing, attended army schools in aviation engineering and flight testing at Wright and McCook fields in Dayton, was pilot and sales manager for an Atlanta, GA., aviation firm, flew mail between Atlanta and New York City under one of the first air mail contracts issued, was private airplanes chauffeur for a wealthy Indiana industrialist, and for a year was employed by Curtiss Wright at Indianapolis as engineer and flight tester.
During this period of about eight years, Stephens added to his original licenses---issued him in 1920 by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale and the Aero Club of America—a transport pilot's license, rating as an army flier—he was in the air corps reserve from 1922 to 1939—and ratings to fly single -engine and multi-engine craft and flying boats, and any aircraft from “zero to 7,000 horsepower.”
For the 12 years prior to coming here, from 1930 to 1942, Stephens was with Civil Aeronautics association, being detailed at different times to virtually every CAA area in the country.
FOR ALL THE YEARS he has spent in aviation, in perilous flight tests, in stunt flying and racing events, the Goodyear ace has never received a scratch and that despite two crack-ups.
His first crash landing occurred in 1927 in a Wisconsin pasture after the engine had failed. The plane, coming down close to the edge of the pasture, tore madly into a thicket and finally was hurled into a creek.
His second accident came two years later, immediately after he had taken off in an army plane. The plane streaked across a stretch of farmland, smashed into a garage, a chicken house and another small building. This crash, Stephens smiles, resulted in two casualties—two old hens in the chicken house.