It’s that time of year. Crisp autumn weather means it’s harvest time. Backyard gardens enjoyed a good growing season hear in the Midwest, leaving us with an abundance of produce. What hasn’t been used already is being saved by drying, freezing or canning. There’s even a shortage of canning supplies at the local hardware store.
That got me thinking about glass jars and outer space. Stay with me and I’ll explain.
A few years ago, I visited the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, Colorado. Our daughter and her family live in Denver, so it’s a regular stop for us when traveling. The museum is housed in one of the historic hangars that were once part of the former Lowry Air Force Base. Much like the Glenview NAS, the area has now been redeveloped with housing, restaurants, and other businesses replacing the runways. Today, a B-52 bomber sits outside the hangar’s main entrance.
While exploring the museum, a familiar logo caught my eye, but it was in an unaccustomed place: the nose of an experimental jet airplane. It was the Ball logo that I had seen on canning jars over the years.
So, how does a company go from glass jars to jets?
Curiosity lead me to doing some research. I learned that the company founded by five Ball brothers in Buffalo, New York, in the 1880s had a fascinating history. Family owned for 90 years, the four main components of their core product, canning jars and lids, were glass, zinc, rubber, and paper. This lead to expansion. The brothers purchasing a zinc rolling mill to manufacture lids and then a paper mill to fabricate the necessary packaging. In time, they also acquired tin, steel, and plastic companies.
During World War II, the company shifted their manufacturing facilities to producing shells and machine parts for the military. Near the end of the 1940s, Ball’s businesses became the focus of an antitrust case that ultimately hindered their ability to acquire other glass manufacturers and glass-making machinery, leading to the company’s first ever net operating loss. It became clear that the company needed to diversify in order to grow.
In 1956, the company formed the Ball Brothers Research Corporation in Boulder, Colorado, to build pointing controls for sounding rockets that carried scientific apparatus aloft in sub-orbital flights. The company eventually built seven of NASA’s early earth-orbiting satellites, making them a member of the aerospace industry.
Around the same time, the company was joined by a talented engineer, biplane enthusiast, and skilled aerobatic pilot by the name of Otto “Pete” Bartoe. In 1973, Bartoe (by then President of Ball Research) convinced the corporation to enter into a joint venture with his alma mater, the University of Colorado, to build what became known as the Ball-Bartoe Jetwing, an oddly shaped, single-engine, single-place aircraft with a stubby wingspan of only 21’9”. Bartoe designed it as a “low-key, low-cost” research vehicle that utilized unique design concepts along with conventional aircraft parts that included a Cessna tailwheel, Bonanza wingtips, and a Citation air intake. The idea was to entice military and commercial contracts with its unique technology.
The Jetwing was a jet powered taildragger with a “blown wing” that diverted the exhaust through wing root nozzles over the top sections of the wing’s leading edge to improve short field takeoff and landing capabilities. Its single Pratt & Whitney engine produced 2,050 pounds of continuous thrust. Tests proved that the “upper blowing surface” technology produced twice the lift of a conventional wing of the same shape and size. A secondary “augmentor” wing mounted just inches above the main wing added a low-pressure slot to guide the exhaust across the wing and draw in additional air to increase lift. Large flaps on the trailing edge effectively created a “bend” in the airstream above the flaps, providing a simple use of downward thrust that enabled the Jetwing to fly as slow as 40 mph. Notably, the aircraft lacked a tailpipe.
The first flight took place in 1977 at the Mojave Airport, with test pilot Herman “Fish” Salmon at the controls. At low speed, the aircraft flew so slowly that Bartoe used his Super Cub as a chase plane.
Following a number test flights, Bartoe himself flew the Jetwing back to Boulder for more testing. The belly tank only held 106 gallons, which required eleven fuel stops to be made enroute. Because of a scarcity of jet fuel along the way, a mechanic chased the flight in a pickup with a container of Jet A in the back.
In Bartoe’s words, “As long as the engine was running, you couldn’t stall it. Landings were interesting: The jet blast came off the deployed flap, bounced off the ground, and forced the tail up. If you reduced power, the tail would come down suddenly, just as the wing was losing lift. But everything happened at such a slow forward speed that it was manageable.”
In 1978, after being unable to attract outside investment, the Jetwing was donated to the University of Tennessee Space Institute. However, interest in the aircraft increased in 1980 when the Navy considered developing it for use on short aircraft carriers. A new series of test flights were carried out. Despite its top speed of 350 mph, the Navy was able to land the Jetwing in a mere 300 feet.
Ultimately, the Navy discontinued blown-wing research in favor of vectored thrust technology. The Jetwing was returned to its original home in Colorado, where it took its place in history among other aircraft at the Wings Over the Rockies museum.
Continued success at Ball led to its expansion into avionics and aerospace systems. In the early 1990s the Ball Corporation spun off its home canning business. An independent company now retains the license to use the Ball trademark on its own canning product line. Now headquartered in Westminister, Colorado, the Ball Corporation no longer makes glass but is a leading manufacturer of plastic and metal food and beverage containers.
Meanwhile, in 1995, Ball Brothers Research Corporation became Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ball Corporation. Today, Ball Aerospace continues to develop innovative equipment and services to the aerospace industry.
Long-time EAA member Otto E. “Pete” Bartoe was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Historical Society Hall of Fame on October 30, 2004. He lives along the front range mountains of northern Colorado.
Epilogue: The Skyote biplane
As an aerobatic pilot, Pete Bartoe dreamed of the ideal biplane. Something with the responsiveness and strength of a Bucker Jungmeister and the low-speed characteristics and fuel economy of a Rose Parrakeet. In the early 1970s, Pete designed and built his dream and named it the Skyote (rhymes with “coyote”). Its first flight was in 1976. Stressed to +9G and -6G, it can fly as slow as 38 kts and fast as 137 kts, with a 1,500 fpm rate of climb and a gross weight of 900 lbs.
In 1976, none other than Bob Hoover took it for a test flight and reviewed it for Sport Aviation. He offered this assessment: “I can only say that it was a rare experience to fly an airplane that exhibited such delightful flying qualities, along with an immense amount of creature comfort. The slow flight feature also provides short field performance that makes any little grass strip quite suitable. The Skyote gets off as quickly as a Super Cub—maybe quicker!”
Pete Bartoe’s personal Skyote is on display next to the Jetwing at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. Plans and components for Skyotes are available from Aircraft Spruce, and an active Skyote type club is based in Grayslake, Illinois. At 2016’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, a Skyote built by John Roberts won the Homebuilt Plans Champion Award. Further information and photos can be found at Skyote.org.