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Rodney Kreimendahl

Rodney Kreimendahl

My father came from a broken home in Westfield, MA. He was one of those that was greatly influenced by Lindberg’s success. He loved airplanes but was not a pilot. He was an avid modeler and won several awards for this creations and construction skills as a young man (I believe my mother still has a couple of trophies he won for modeling). He was also an Eagle Scout. Because of his family’s circumstances he was not able to go to college and became a draftsmen for Chance-Vought. However, one summer he won a scholarship to Northeastern University. When Lockheed won the Hudson contract with England prior to WWII he was recruited as a structural designer to Burbank, CA. While working on the design of the YP-38 boom he met my mother who was secretary for the lead Stress man on the project.

The Cleveland air races prior to WWII were a BIG thing for aviation enthusiast. After the war a new class of racers was started called Goodyear racers or as we called them when I was a kid…midgets. There was a design team at Lockheed already starting to design a plane, which eventually became know as the Cosmic Winds. The group already had enough members so my dad started up a new group, which put in $1 per week.

My dad did the configuration and all the design work on the midget racer which…when my mother was asked what should it be named, came up with Shoestring, because it was built on a shoestring. Eventually the plane was built without an engine, the most expensive single item, but first flew in ’49 with an engine loaned by the first race pilot Bob Downey. My father would take my brother and I to the airport on many a Saturday.

Because of my father’s natural talent and love of aircraft he worked for Kelly Johnson on the X-7, F-104, Vertical Riser, and then the U-2.

I remember my father as a loving man even though he took the strap to me more than once. I can remember one specific incident related to his nature. I was sick with the flu and ended up throwing up right on top of the floor furnace (can you imagine cleaning that up?).

My father asked me angrily why I had not picked a better location? A few moments later he came and hugged me and apologized for his outburst and told me he loved me.
I’ll always remember that. He and I joined the YMCA Indian Guides together and we had a couple of fun outings together. We won the highest flying and the biggest kite trophy one year. I was Little Red Fox and he was Big Moose. I think for any young boy a father is a hero.

My father usually left for work before we were up in the morning. In those days people car-pooled a lot and I can remember my mother had a little dittle she would say as he walked out the door…badge, bag (lunch), zipper, (and something else). On the day of the airplane crash all I can remember is that someone came and fetched me out of school and when I got home there were a lot of people in the house (I would imagine mostly relatives). I was told to go outside and play. It did not take long before I began to feel as if we, my mother, brother and sisters, were all now DIFFERENT. Not a bad different, but different. Shortly after my father’s death I was on an outing with other young boys. One boy told me that if you saw a hay truck pass, made a wish, and did not look back to see the same hay truck again, the wish would come true. Shortly a hay truck passed and I wished I could be just like my dad. I refused to look back and to this day I don’t know if the wish came true or not. In some regards I hope it did not. During periods of uncertainty in my life where I have felt I needed a little help, I have repeated this “wish” technique (still don’t know if it works).

The whole experience was very hard on my mother (and I am sure us kids did not make the situation better). She has told me how grateful she is for the help and guidance that was provided her from people within our church and relatives (primarily my grandfather). At the time of the crash my older brother was 11, just coming of age, and the loss of my father had perhaps a more profound affect on him then I. My younger sister was 7. The youngest sister was only 3 and she never got to know anything of my father first hand. I think she is the one that has been effected most. In the ’50s, single parent households were not common. In today’s world there are many young children that grow up knowing only one parent. We were never told what my father was working on but it was known that it was a TOP SECRET project.

Eventually, I became use to the idea that a life without father was the way it was going to be. My grandfather or uncle would take my brother and I to Father-Son banquets and such. A nice fellow from church, Dewit Casson, would take my brother and I to high school football games. When Gary Power’s U-2 was shot down in 1960, my uncle told me that that was the airplane my father was working on when he was killed. As I find out today, this was just conjecture on my uncle’s part, however, he was correct. My mother has told me recently that Kelly Johnson did come to our house a couple of times to talk with her but never mentioned what he was working on.

Growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s in the San Fernando Valley, cars were everything to most young men. I found that I had an interest in making things and wanting to know how things worked and why someone did this or that that way? My first job out of high school was in a machine shop. One summer I did work for Lockheed. I was out looking for work and mother asked me if I had tried Lockheed. The next day I went over to Lockheed and was told that no jobs were available. When I got home and told my mom she suggested that I call Neil Harrison, one of four individuals that had driven out from the East Coast with my dad. The day after the call, Lockheed called and said they had a job for me. I worked the summer as a draftsman doing engineering change orders. It was excellent experience but I thought that I did not want to work in the aerospace business. The next year I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (state college) and with my inheritance (I received $9000 when I turned 21 as a result of my fathers death) earned a BSME degree. It cost me $3000/yr to go to college. When I graduated my starting salary was $12000/yr and I thought I was rich. Little did I fully understand the workings of cost of living.

In 1965 a National Airlines pilot bought my fathers racer and asked the other two people involved the project, Carl Ast a talented mechanic, and Paul Jones a top notch pilot and sheet metal sculptor extraordinaire (WWII B-25 instructor), to campaign the racer for one year. The airplane was brought back to Van Nuys airport. My brother and I helped out and attended every race. Eventually the crew got the airplane in winning condition once again and we had success at winning several races that year. Being older with an understanding of mechanics, I would ask myself why did he, my dad, do things that this or that in the design. Eventually the airplane was returned to the East Coast and the guys decided to build a new racer for themselves. By now I was a college graduate with an engineering degree. A talent designer by the name of Art Willians designed the new racer, which was to become know as “Stinger.” I made much of the tooling for the second racer “Falcon.” One of the secrets to making a midget racer go is the propeller. My father told me once that as a child making models that they would have to cut their own propellers. He understood prop design and did an excellent job such that the racing prop was kept in our hall closet and we were told to never show it to anyone. On this new racer they tried to duplicate Shoestring’s prop. I had found my father’s original curve that detailed the twist distribution. With an engineering education I started to read up on prop design.

About the same time I started to fly sailplanes. Eventually I ran out of money, but not wanted to stop I ended up volunteering to crew for someone. I ended up with an individual, E.C. Welch, who eventually introduced me to Henry Combs. As it turns out Henry Combs was the deputy project manager on the original U-2 and eventually became the father of the A-12 titanium structure (SR-71, YF-12). Henry Combs confirmed that my father had worked on the U-2. Once while my wife Linda and I were crewing for Henry he pointed out Mt Charleston as the crash site. During the first gas crunch I got laid off and Henry was good enough to give me a job. At the time I thought I had a lot to offer the L-1011 project, but Henry brought me directly into ADP (Advanced Development Projects aka Skunk Works). Even though Henry has been retired for several years now we remain great friends taking our annual vacation together going to the Reno air races and then fishing together. I will go bird hunting with him this coming summer.

When I first started in ADP (once I had received a clearance) I thought I was walking into the chapel of the airplane Gods. I worked on Have Blue with the original Skunk Work crew (in the original Skunk Works, everyone had a nickname, mine was “snotty nose kid”) and was the lead Structures engineer on the F-117A fuselage midbody. I flew to the test site (we call it 22) several times. During one return flight in the B737 we were hit by lightening. Just recently I asked my mother if she knew I was going to Area 51 and she said no (I thought maybe Linda has said something). I had thought of climbing Mt Charleston and even mentioned it to my brother once, but that was as far as it went. After is interview for the local TV station, the U-2 project gave me enough copies of the original top drawing my father did of the U-2 horizontal tail one each for my brother and sisters.

It has been so long now since my father’s death that it almost seems that it should have been no other way. As a matter-of-fact, November 17th would have come this year without much thought of the incident. You know, sometimes I have sat on top of a mountain and have thought how I could take this rock and throw it to the bottom. I could smash it into little bits if I wanted. But you know, in the end it will still be here and I will not. Therefore, it’s just such a great idea to pay recognition to these 14 individuals with a monument. I know that each of the families involved will be greatly honored for the recognition this would provide for all those that made sacrifices.

Like I said, this year could have passed with little thought. Now we have been forced to think about what this has all meant. I wish I could have known my father as a man. And maybe someday I will.

This photograph was taken in 1951 at the National Air Races. To the left is my dad, engineer and creator of the midget racer Shoestring. In the middle is Carl Ast, my father’s partner. Carl did a lot of the fuselage fabrication work and did all the mechanical work on Shoestring. To the right is John Paul Jones, or “Jonessy” as we called him. He was an extraordinary race pilot. When the crew went back to Cleveland in 1952 to defend their title the race developed into a dead heat. Jonessy was forced to fly extremely low on the course to pass the leader. He was eventually disqualified for flying too low.

The colored picture of Shoestring (as seen above) was taken circa 1950. It’s design is considered a classic of the era and type of aircraft. Go to any EAA authority and they will know of this airplane. The colors are Cadillac Chartreuse and Chinese Red. The last owner of the Shoestring gave me a list of all the airplane’s wins and claimed it… “the aircraft with the most wins in aviation history.”

After the 1952 race, my dad and Carl put the racer up for sale. My youngest sister was on the way and we needed a bigger house. My dad designed and started building a new house in 1954. He was killed during its construction. Mom was able to find the people to finish the house and it was sold before we ever lived in it.

Bryan Kreimendahl (son of Rodney Kreimendahl)

Rodney’s wife, Elizabeth Lee Boydston Kreimendahl

© 2011 Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Monument
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