Monday, February 25, 2013

John M. 'Jack' Conroy 1920-1979

Born in Buffalo, NY in 1920 and later attended high school in Sand Springs, OK. Upon graduation he hitched a ride on a freight train to Hollywood, CA, where he landed bit parts in movies during the years of 1937-1940 under the screen name of Michael Conroy, since John Conroy was taken.In 1940, against the advice of his agent who said "the big parts are coming", he hopped a freighter to Honolulu, HI, where he learned to fly and made his first solo flight in 1940.

He was working at Pearl Harbor as a civilian digging underground fuel tanks on Sunday 7th December 1941. After witnessing the Japanese attack he immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corp. He was part of the 379th bombardment group of the Eight Air Force, out of Kimbolton, England during WWII. In 1942, just months past his 21st birthday, became a 2nd Lieutenant, pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress and put in charge of a 9-man crew. After training in the U.S., he flew his B-17 across the North Atlantic and eventually racked up 19 missions over Germany. On his 19th mission on November 30, 1944, his aircraft was shot down over German farmland. After his crew bailed out he was blown out of the aircraft. He parachuted, dislocated shoulder and broke right arm, was captured and made a prisoner of war at Stalag North 3 on the Baltic until the end of the war.

He remained on active duty with the USAF until 1948, serving as a special air mission pilot and as an instructor in a Reserve Training Unit. Following an honorable discharge from the service, he spent 12 years as an airline pilot. After returning from the war, he continued to fly with non-scheduled airlines and joined the Air National Guard in Van Nuys, CA. On May 21, 1955, Jack, then a 1st Lt attached to the 115th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, California ANG completed "Operation Boomerang" world record. This involved flying coast-to-coast and return in one day during daylight hours. He flew an F-86A Sabre from San Fernando Valley Airport in Van Nuys, California to Floyd Bennett Field, New York with return using fuel stops both ways. A decade later in 1965, Jack Conroy with co-pilot Clay Lacy achieved another record breaking flight in a Learjet. Operation "Sunrise Sunset" completed a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to New York and back, and the flight marked the first time a business jet made a round-trip flight across the U.S. between sunrise and sunset on the same day.

 The Pregnant Guppy had a humble beginning on the proverbial cocktail napkin. One evening friends Jack Conroy, Lee Mansdorf and others were discussing the problems NASA was having transporting the rocket booster stages aboard ships through the Panama Canal and the Gulf of Mexico. Mansdorf had recently purchased several surplus Boeing Stratocruisers but wasn't really sure what to do with them. Conroy figured they could take one of the Stratocruisers, enlarge the fuselage big enough to hold a rocket booster and contract with NASA to fly the boosters from California to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Conroy's drive to build the aircraft was so great, that when financing ran out, he did not: "conditions reached the point where Conroy no longer owned his house, cars, or furnishings." By flying the Guppy on borrowed aviation gas to the Marshall Space Flight Center, Conroy was able to test fly the aircraft with Wernher von Braun. On the basis of the test flights, contract negotiations with NASA began in earnest. The "Pregnant Guppy" aircraft first flew on September 19, 1962, piloted by Jack Conroy and co-pilot Clay Lacy (see When Van Nuys traffic control realized that Conroy intended to take off, they alerted police and fire departments to be on alert. However the huge aircraft performed flawlessly, the only difference in handling being a slight decrease in speed caused by extra drag of the larger fuselage. Wernher von Braun stated that "The Guppy was the single most important piece of equipment to put a man on the moon in the decade of the 1960s." Conroy then developed the Super Guppy, which flew on August 31, 1965 in Van Nuys, CA. The Mini Guppy was built in Santa Barbara, CA, and was christened "Spirit of Santa Barbara", on May 24, 1967. Two days later, the Mini Guppy was carrying cargo to the Paris Air Show.In 1967 Aero Spacelines was purchased by Unexcelled Chemical Inc. Conroy resigned from Unexcelled Chemical in 1968