first met Evel Knievel
by Douglas Malewicki, December 26, 2007
After Evel passed away at age 69 on November 30, 2007, I decided to sell some of my X-1 Skycycle memorabilia on eBay. As a result, I was getting quite a few questions regarding "How I met the super famous daredevil". I decided to document that here as best as I can remember... some 35 years later.
It was just a five months after his famous December 31, 1967 horrific, near fatal, crash while attempting to jump the fountains at Caesar's place in Las Vegas, NV. At the time, I was working as Chief Rocket Design Engineer at Centuri Engineering in Phoenix, Arizona. Evel was in town promoting his upcoming jump of May 25, 1968 at Beeline drag way in Arizona. I heard (or read?) that his canyon jumping rocket was on display at the local Ford dealer. Being a rocket engineer nut and already a fan of sorts of the man and his canyon jumping quest, I thought that would be interesting to go look at the actual machine. The head artist at Centuri, Tom Cameron, also wanted to see it, so we drove to that Ford dealership together. This is the machine I saw on display:
The above is what was on display. I instantly realized that the machine was 100% bogus!
#1 - The claimed jets were instantly recognizable as Turbonique of Florida monopropellant rocket motors. You can see these bottle shaped thrust units mounted on each side of the rear wheel. Typically a high pressure nitrogen tank would be used to push the special Turbonique Thermolene monopropellant from its tank into the combustion chamber (the bottle shaped motors). Instead, plumbing lines were routed directly from the motorcycle gasoline tank to the rocket motors. There were NO nitrogen or monopropellant tanks!
#2 - The machine's "supposed" wings were mere thin plates instead of true airfoils. They had a useless aspect ratio and worse were mounted at an angle-of-attack of about 45 degrees - way past any feasible stall angle-of-attack! All they would do is add a lot of aerodynamic drag and provide a useless amount of lift.
#3 - There was no way this contraption could fly through the air in a stable manner. Nothing to provide either pitch OR yaw stability.
I made those observations to Tom Cameron and was ready to leave, when Tom suggested I leave Evel a letter describing what I had figured out. I thought that would be being presumptuous, but Tom kept bugging me. A few minutes later I yielded. Tom & I went to the receptionist at the dealership, got a few sheets of paper and borrowed her pen. 20 minutes or so later I gave her 3 pages of scribbling and my Centuri business card and the receptionist put it in an envelope and said she would give it to Mr. Knievel.
Surprise, surprise. The very next afternoon, I get a call at the office from Evel. He actually started the conversation by chewing me out which was kind of astonishing to me - the young, kind of shy, nerdy engineer. I don't think he wanted to admit his canyon jumping machine was bogus, but he knew that I knew. After he was done berating me, I told him I could help design him something that would fly properly. I next said I said I could show him how it could be done safely and volunteered to build a small version and launch it for him. This would be a small two wheeled rocket that would demonstrate stable flight and full parachute recovery. He was intrigued and asked how long would it take to build one? Told him it would just take a couple of days. It was then his idea to have me launch it as part of his motorcycle jump show the following Saturday at Beeline Drag way.
This is a photo of the actual launch ramp and dual solid propellant rocket motor powered model we built and flew for Evel at the Beeline drag strip on Saturday May 25, 1968. The two solid propellant rocket motors were ignited electrically. The two rods shown guide the model while it accelerates to a speed where the air flowing over the three rear fins is fast enough to provide the needed aerodynamic stability through powered flight and coasting (works just like an arrow). Performance calculations were also required to establish the optimum time to deploy the parachutes. Too early and the parachute could be ripped off from excessive speed. Too late and you could be too close to the ground when the nose cone was blown off and the parachute ejected to enable full inflation and deceleration for a safe landing.
It was already dark when we were asked to launch the rocket. It made a bright streak across the night time sky as it streaked upward (imagine a meteor in reverse). The parachute deployed and inflated and the model gently floated to earth. BUT Evel missed the show and only heard about the flight second hand. Unfortunately, Evel was in the hospital! While rehearsing that very afternoon, Knievel crashed and ended up breaking his right leg and foot. He was NOT at the drag way that evening, he was in a hospital bed!
That night may 25, 1968, the crowd of 10,000 spectators that paid to see Evel jump were not informed of Evel's mishap till around 9 PM, some time after we launched the demo canyon jumping rocket down the center of the drag strip. In Evel's place, his colleague in self administered mayhem, Jack Stroh had the jumping honors. Jack had never jumped this far. They reduced the 15 Mustangs to 10. He totally cleared the distance and landed beyond the ramp. The motorcycle bottomed out and made a torrent of sparks and smoke upon impact with the asphalt. It looked like Jack was fine, but slowly, ever so slowly, the bike leaned more and more to the left as it rolled along and ended up drifting off the asphalt road, onto the grass. It fell over in a cloud of dust a hundred yards beyond the landing point. It turned out that Jack was dazed and almost unconscious from the landing impact because his head hit hard into the motorcycle's instrument panel. His chin was sliced pretty bad, so the ambulance crew drove him away to Mesa Lutheran Hospital where, preceding him, the maestro already lay.
I can't remember if it was the next day or a couple of days later that I got a call from Evel. He got the word from his associates that our canyon jumping model flew perfectly and and wanted to talk further. He invited me to visit him at the hospital. That afternoon I drove there and was greeted by his lovely wife Linda Knievel, sitting in a chair outside his room. She beckoned me to go in. Wouldn't you know it - a gorgeous blonde go-go show girl was sitting at Evel's bed side. More CLASSIC Knievel. He promptly shooed her out so we could talk. Within a half hour of chatting, I became the official Evel Knievel canyon jumping rocket motorcycle engineer! Little did I know what an interesting adventure this first face-to-face meeting would lead to for the young nerdy rocket engineer - me!
There is a famous John Lennon quote "Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans." It sure applies to me. I never would have been associated with Evel Knievel without the intervention and prodding by Tom Cameron to leave Evel that technical letter at the Ford dealership...
Now comes the fun part... Centuri Engineering was a manufacturer of all kinds of small model rockets that young students all over the USA flew in aerospace educational classes. No real spaceships at all! Hah! I guess I was no different than the fictional model aircraft engineer in the movie "The Flight of the Phoenix".
I have to point out that the physics of flight and stability, structural loads and stress analysis is same the same for model planes and rockets as for their full size brethren. Anyway, I previously worked on the real Polaris Missiles and Apollo Spacecraft plus had degrees in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Illinois (BS) and Stanford (MS), so this kind of rocket engineering was already my specialty.
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