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Former Chautauqua resident remembered for test pilot career

July 6, 2016
By A.J. Rao - , Westfield Republican

In the early 1980s, a revolutionary and highly secretive aircraft known as Tacit Blue took its first-ever test flights over the Nevada landscape.

Curved, stealthy and straight out of a science fiction movie, the aircraft was an aberration of its time, a cross between an alien spaceship and an upside-down bathtub with wings.

Though just a prototype, Tacit Blue was a game-changer, a pioneer in radar and stealth technology that ultimately influenced the much-celebrated B-2 Stealth Bomber.

Article Photos

Submitted photo
Richard “Dick” Thomas

When declassified in 1996, a decade after the Tacit Blue program ended, those involved with the aircraft, including its pilots, were revealed.

One of them was Richard "Dick" Thomas, a former Air Force officer, who, much like the movie-esque Tacit Blue, looked very much the part of a courageous, steely-eyed test pilot.

A veteran of the skies, Thomas was a passionate aviator. And according to his wife, Cynda, the passion started early in his childhood, while living in Chautauqua County.

In the 2008 biography of her late husband, entitled "Hell of a Ride," Cynda Thomas recounts her husband's journey from Mayville High School graduate to experimental test pilot.

Born in 1930, Thomas was raised to be a baseball player by his father, an avid fan of the sport. The younger Thomas, however, had other ambitions, attracted more to the planes that would fly over the baseball games they attended.

Graduating from St. Louis University in Missouri, Thomas was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force and earned his wings in 1952. After multiple assignments, Thomas left the Air Force in 1956 to become a test pilot, a risky occupation that would have him test-flying aircraft from Beech Aircraft, Boeing and later Northrop for the next several years.

The work, according to Cynda Thomas, would have "petrified" her had she known about it. Instead, she said, she was kept in the dark.

"It was not just top secret, it was passed top secret," she said. "The guys that worked out there could not even speak to each other if they met each other in a store or the same restaurant. It was weird. I knew (my husband) was doing something top secret, but I didn't think it was flying."

As Northrop's Deputy Site Manager for Operations at Groom Lake, Nevada, and Project Test Pilot, Thomas led the flight-testing of Tacit Blue, piloting 70 of the aircraft's 135 flights.

According to the U.S. Air Force, Tacit Blue was one of the most successful high-technology demonstrator programs ever conducted, influencing the B-2 Bomber's flight control system, low observables shaping and materials, propulsion installation, and electronic systems.

In 1996, the Tacit Blue was publicly unveiled at the U.S. Air Force Museum, now the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Thomas stopped flying in 1986, but continued his career with Northrop Grumman on the B-2 program, developing flying techniques in the simulator prior to the maiden flight. He retired from Northrop Grumman in 2000. During his career, he logged 8,000 hours of flying more than 116 different aircraft.

He passed away in June 2006 after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease.

In 2015, Thomas was inducted into the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame. According to Cynda Thomas, her husband's contribution to the aerospace world helped balance those times when he was away or missed family get-togethers.

"It was tough on the family at times, but I knew he loved whatever he was doing," she said.



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