Mt. Rushmore, Needles Highway, Custer State Park, the Stratobowl. The what?
Yep, the Stratobowl. A trip to South Dakota’s Black Hills is not complete without a trip to the Stratobowl – at least for me. This is where my husband’s eyes roll and he goes, “oh, that place again.” Located right off of US-16 as you enter Black Hills National Forest, most tourists drive right by, not knowing the historic spot they’ve just missed (just past Putz & Glow Indoor Mini Golf – I had to add that…).
The Stratobowl was home to a dozen manned research balloon launches from 1934 through 1959. The large depression was selected to help with the launches, shielding the balloon from wind gusts as it was prepared for lift-off. If you look at a Google Map of the area, you’ll know when you’re near: Strato Bowl Drive, Stratosphere Lane, Gondola Road. The bowl itself is private property, but there is a gravel public road that will take you to the bottom.
The best view of the Stratobowl isn’t in the bowl itself, but from the ridge above. There is a national forest gravel trail that will take you to the same overlook constructed in the 1930s for balloon launch viewers. If you go, there isn’t a parking lot. Look for a gate and possibly some vehicles parked off of the side of the road (we had 2-3 dog walkers and other hikers when we visited). It’s a beautiful view and you’ll also see a National Geographic plaque and granite stones for each of the launches from the bowl. From the lookout, you’ll also see the trout stream that pilot Maj. William Kepner noted would be ideal for a launch site.
On your way there, visit the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth AFB in Rapid City. In addition to having a great museum, check out their Stratobowl exhibit.
View from the trail
A view of the Black Hills
View of the bowl
There is a series of granite slabs, each with the story behind each launch at the Stratobowl.
Sadly, they’re all behind a fence, making them hard to read. National Geographic Society Plack for 1935 Explorer II launch
Airman Magazine has an extensive collection of photography on Flickr.com for download. Recently, they posted an issue from August 1957, including a blub on Iven Kincheloe being awarded the Mackay Trophy. Kinch earned the trophy for his altitude breaking flight in the X-2 in September 1956 :
My favorite artist (and interior decorator, lol) is Mike Machat. He recently released a book with stories behind his paintings – including many of his X Plane/Edwards AFB pieces…and more. I just finished reading the book and highly recommend you pick up a copy (available at SpecialtyPress.com).
For the Toward The Unknown fans out there, Mike talks about all of the hidden TTU scenes in the “The Golden Age of Flight Test” mural at the AFFTC Museum.
An often forgotten flight test movie is finally coming to DVD May 10 – On the Threshold of Space. Released in 1956, it’s essentially a story based on John Paul Stapp & all the fun stuff he was involved with at Holloman AFB: rocket sleds & high altitude balloons. Rumor has it it will be pan & scan vs. the original widescreen – hope not. Learn more at ClassicFlix.com.
I love the old television game shows – Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, What’s My Line, and The Name’s the Same. While they sometime make the rounds on DVD or late night on the Game Show Network, YouTube is a great source for these shows. I was happy to run into a YouTube channel last night full of You Bet Your Life shows. What’s even cooler about these shows is that they were on TV during the golden age of flight test. It’s not uncommon to find episodes with record breaking test pilots of the time.
This particular clip is not of a test pilot, but someone just as famous and important, Lt. Col. (and later Col.) John Paul Stapp. In this episode is from March 29, 1956. Lt. Col. Stapp gets grilled by Groucho about his “big run” at Holloman in 1954.
For the aviation movie buffs out there, A Gathering of Eagles is finally on DVD. I’ve seen the movie a number of times off of VHS and I think half the time scenes were cut or there was a million commercials. Odd to finally watch a movie that’s complete and looks great. Widescreen as well. I’m half way through the movie and aside from Mary Peach coming off whiny, it’s a good watch & authentic – real B-52s, real missiles.
Toward The Unknown is my favorite movie. Yeah, you probably know that already. It’s always interesting at work when you have a meeting icebreaker and you go around the room and say your favorite movie. While most folks mention some movie that came out last year that you never heard of, I mention my fav and have to append an elevator speech to it: “A 1956 movie about a rocket plane and test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base. William Holden’s in it.” The millennials go “oh” and the other folks go “ah” when they hear William Holden.
60 years ago this Fall, Toward The Unknown was released in theaters. 60 years later, I think it’s safe to say that folks haven’t forgotten about the movie. I can base that on all of the emails I’ve received over the years. Many remember watching it on the Late Late show, others looking for a copy.
For years, many folks tried to get TTU on DVD. Finally, around 5 years ago, WB released it. Soon after that, TCM started showing it, and in HD. To this day, I record it each time it’s on – and even have a locked, saved copy on our DVR at all times. Watching it in HD, I’m always watching the background for little details like names on lockers and models on desks.
Edwards AFB has been having fun with the anniversary too, showing behind-the-scenes photos on social media – even stuff I haven’t seen. Yep, leave it to Carrie to get all excited over a 60 year old picture she’s seeing for the first time.
Anyhow, watch the website & blog for more info this year!
In mid February, my website hosting company informed me of “strange” traffic to the X-2 Photo Album and they shut the entire website down. After blocking suspicious IP addresses and various other hoops requested by the host, they finally told me I had to take the album down. I was utilizing an album that they offered, but neglected to offer updates for (nor inform their clients when no longer supported).
I’m working at rebuilding the album now through Adobe Lightroom. What’s taking time is going through backups and databases to restore the photo captions and any other descriptive copy. It’ll take some time, but it will all be back soon.