02One Small Step.lt1
[headline: No such thing as good enough]
[subhead: One small step for model aviation, one giant leap for NASA]
[Author: Kaitlin Wright]
[Photos as noted, no photo credit line needed]
[No extra things (yet)]
On October 22, 1998, Orbital Sciences Corporation launched the Pegasus rocket into orbit. With it, NASA’s Pegasus Hypersonic Experimental Project (PHYSX), a specially contoured “glove” attached to the Pegasus wing, measured laminar and turbulent flow at speeds reaching Mach 8.
While the rocket blasted off the coast of Cape Canaveral in Florida, researchers on the opposite side of the country at NASA Dryden on Edwards AFB in California waited to hear of its success. Little do most people know that one such researcher began her NASA career by flying and designing model aircraft.
In years leading up to the Pegasus launch, Lesli Monforton and a team of other technicians worked on the predecessor to the final glove. Searching for ways to solve a problem where air flow tripped over the surface area and produced inaccurate temperature, air flow, and pressure data, Lesli and a fellow technician spent hours and hours polishing the nickel-plated steel surface to a thickness of 35 micro inches.
Gerald Budd, PHYSX project manager, remembers peering over the smooth metal surface with Lesli and one of NASA Langley’s chief scientists, Dennis Bushnell. In a moment of captivated silence, Gerald noticed both the text on the insulation of the 40-foot ceiling and Bushnell’s atypical smile of satisfaction. Lesli’s designs and craftsmanship often elicited awed reactions, and this time was no different. Gerald later remarked, “Lesli was obsessive ... there was no such thing as good enough.”
Getting her start in aviation by toying with model airplanes, obsession is what took Lesli’s model-making hobby to penultimate levels of aviation achievement. While she was growing up, Lesli’s father worked for Hughes Aviation Company in Glendale, California. She started flying model airplanes as a teenager and her fixation with flight was a motivation for the rest of her life.
After high school, Lesli, who at the time was known as Ronald Gilman, joined the Navy. In 1967 while stationed at Lemoore Naval Base in California, Lesli went through Electronic Systems Training for the A-7s. The Navy didn’t have plans for Lesli to fly, but that is all she really wanted to do.
Lesli’s passion was obvious and after her training officer, Ron Scaggs, saw Lesli flying model airplanes around the base, efforts to get her transferred from an Aviation Technician (AT) to an Aircrewman (AW) went into full power.
While stationed at Lamoore, Lesli and Ron frequented a local coffee shop and soon introduced the coffee shop owner’s son to RC racing. Modeling offered the two military members the opportunity to be creative in an otherwise regimented world, and they loved teaching others about their passions.
Rusty Van Baren, designer of the Miss Ashley II seen at competitions today, said that Lesli took him through the steps of building his first RC airplane. “We learned a lot together, [Lesli] taught me skills that a lot of people don’t realize ... she taught me to design airplanes of my own.”
Lesli was always willing to try something new and Rusty took this maxim to heart. “She thought outside the box, in another paradigm, so to speak. Her craftsmanship and skills were second to none,” shared Rusty.
After serving aboard an aircraft carrier and then ending her enlistment working with the P-3s in Hawaii, Lesli completed her bachelor’s degree in accounting at California State University, Fresno. But accounting didn’t have a hold on her like aviation did.
She began working at California Model Supply in Van Nuys and building airplanes for competitive Pylon Racing contestants. Her work eventually landed her a job as president of one of the most well-known hobby shops in the West.
Bill Bennett of Circus Circus Hobbies hired Lesli to handle import and export of model supplies. Additionally, she designed and piloted airplanes for Bennett’s Circus Hobbies competitive RC Racing team.
After she was hired, Lesli told Bill that to be successful, the team needed Rusty to call for them during the races. As the first fully sponsored team in model racing, Circus Hobbies competed across the country. Lesli designed a pink, white, and blue DeNight Special and flew it under the Circus Hobbies memorable clown insignia from 1978 to 1981.
Lesli’s racing career had many high points, including a race in which she broke the world record for Formula 1 racing by 7 seconds. She lapped two previous national champions and shattered the world record time so drastically that other competitors wondered if she missed one of her 10 laps.
Further investigation revealed that the meticulous design of Lesli’s hand-carved propellers were the secret to her impressive success. “She was very meticulous and built planes that were better, straighter, and faster,” commented Jim Kimbro, who competed against Lesli into the late 1980s.
The innate craftsmanship that Lesli carried with her caught the attention of many well-known model aviation figures, including Joe Bridi of Bridi Airplane Kits. Bridi knew Lesli for 20 years when she was known as Ronald Gilman. She built some of Birdi’s prototypes including the Dirty Birdy. Bridi said, “As far as building airplanes, there was nobody better than [her]. The work was first class all the way around.”
In 1990, competing with an F-86 Sabre Jet, Lesli won Top Gun as well as the award for Best Color and Marking at the contest in Mesa, Arizona. Lesli perfectly replicated the patriotic Skyblazers colors on her model all the way down to painting the actual pilot’s name on the canopy skirt. Details such as this proved Lesli’s commitment to design and did most of the necessary negotiating when it came to later securing a job with NASA.
NASA Project Manager Gerald Budd brought one of Lesli’s model planes to work one day and set it on the NASA center director’s desk without saying a word. The model’s extremely smooth finish and impeccable design was all the evidence the center director needed; he hired Lesli within the month.
Lesli had the special gratification of being able to do what she loved and essentially never working a day in her life. Transforming a hobby into an influential career, Lesli once said, “Growing up, I started flying models and I said ‘well geez, we ought to be able to put these to work.’ Models are cheaper and they add a level of safety that you can’t get using manned vehicles.”
Lesli promoted the work she did through organizations such as the Muroc Model Masters RC club that is affiliated with the Academy of Model Aeronautics. Because of its location on Edwards AFB, many young airmen show an interest in the club. Ron, former president and current instructor, thinks, “these kids are our most valuable resource ... an important resource for the United States.”
Like Ron, Lesli believed in cultivating young people’s interest in aviation. One of her favorite things was working with Dryden’s chapter of the NASA Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience (INSPIRE) program, which allows high school students to flight-test an aircraft from design to flight. “These gifted students … will have a great future,” she said in an interview about the program.
With model airplanes always by her side, Lesli’s life experiences led her to research some of aviation’s most revolutionary ideas. She had the unique opportunity to take the skills she learned modeling and apply them to larger-scale aircraft such as the Sensor Integrated Environmental Remote Research Aircraft (SIERRA).
As a principle designer and chief pilot on the medium-class, unmanned aircraft, Lesli, under the Naval Research Lab and NASA Ames Research Center, piloted the airplane to the Arctic, Antarctic and other remote regions of the globe.
With the ability to pilot and design, Lesli’s breadth of knowledge was unusual in a career of high specialization. Mark Sumich, another chief pilot on the SIERRA, mentioned that Lesli held her own in spirited technical discussions and at the same time did beautiful composite work. “It looked like a work of art by the time she was done,” Sumich revealed.
The SIERRA contributed to Earth science research by providing high-resolution images, taking measurements, and performing atmospheric gas sampling. Lesli’s work on SIERRA’s unmanned missions demonstrate the value of a remotely piloted aircraft in such situations as long flight durations, or where remote or harsh conditions place pilots and expensive aircraft at risk.
Lesli’s skills as an RC pilot and modeler helped her contribute to aviation safety by providing comprehensive data applicable to large-scale counterparts. One of the last projects she worked on for NASA was the Dryden Remotely Operated Integrated Drone (DROID), an ordinary radio-controlled model aircraft transformed into a high-tech research instrument. Researchers fitted the DROID with Automatic Collision Avoidance Technology (ACAT), specifically the Ground Collision Avoidance System (GCAS) to demonstrate the life-saving and aircraft-saving capabilities of the software.
Acting as the safety pilot during testing, Lesli was stationed at a lookout point to rescue the airplane should the system fail. As the DROID hurled itself towards the ground and at local hills, Lesli watched as the Auto-GCAS system successfully took over flight control moments before collision seemed imminent.
Equipped with a world terrain database, the Auto-GCAS software can be integrated into large-scale UAVs and has been developed into a smart phone app for general aviation pilots. The capabilities of this software will save pilot lives.
Lesli cared deeply about aviation and her modeling experience helped NASA advance aviation technology. Currently, NASA is developing a rocket launch technique that uses a glider towed by a remotely operated drone. Using the DROID again, and taking on possibly the most difficult engineering puzzle of her career, Lesli helped develop the novel rocket-launching technique that NASA calls the Towed Glider Air-Launch Concept.
Sending satellites into orbit is costly and inefficient, and this new launch concept aims to improve those factors. The proof-of-concept model, displayed at last year’s 15th annual AMA Expo in Ontario, California, showed a glider with a 24-foot wingspan and twin fuselage. The model, constructed in the NASA Dryden model shop, flaunts Lesli’s design talent due to her invention of a mechanism that connects the twin-glider airplanes.
A combination of Lesli’s modeling experience and drive for perfection propelled her from model airplane enthusiast to leading-edge NASA researcher. Securing a legacy of flight through a hobby many enjoy, Lesli proved the power of following one’s passions.
Even after being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, Lesli stayed involved in her work at NASA because she wouldn’t have wanted to spend her last days doing anything else. Lesli passed away before she could see the Towed-Glider Concept reach fruition, but in honor of the woman who demanded perfection, the twin-fuselage glider will be christened Lesli Ann.
Lesli stretched the boundaries of model aviation and her design contributions will live on as the Towed-Glider one day launches satellites into orbit.[dingbat]