Major Donald Jay Grassell

Publication Date: October 30, 2008

Don Grassell

October 30, 2008 7:44 AM

On 10/22/08 Don passed away suddenly of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. He was a loved husband and father. He was born on 9/11/1924 in Neenah, Wisconsin and grew up in Milwaukee. Don served his country as a fighter pilot during WWII and the Korean war and ultimately retired as a Major from the USAF. He attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering, graduating as an electrical engineer in the late 1950's. At the same time a surprise named Sputnik led to a long career in air and spacecraft inertial guidance, first with AC Spark Plug and ultimately with Delco Electronics in Goleta, CA. He was involved in the Gemini and Apollo space programs.

Don met his wife, Marie, in 1948 and they married in 1949. They celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary on 9/3/08, having also reconsecrated their marriage vows several years prior. Their son, Jay, is a former Air Force physician who now practices in Yuba City, CA. Don is also survived by a brother, Ron, and sisters Beatrice, Shirley and Norma (Delores and Connie having passed previously), as well as by many friends and colleagues.

Since retirement, Don treasured his time spent restoring old farm equipment and tractors at the Stow House Ranch in Goleta. Several years ago, Don fulfilled a long time wish to be baptized as a Catholic. A special thanks from our family to Father Bruce and Sister Mina as well as the physicians and staff at the Sansum Clinic and Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the building fund of St. Raphael's Church (5444 Hollister Ave., SB, CA 93111).

A funeral mass in celebration of Don's life will be held on Thursday 10/30/08 at 10 am at St. Raphael's with reception to follow in the Parish hall. Arraignments by Welch - Ryce - Haider with burial at sea to follow.

Vieau Elementary School, Milwaukee, WI, Class of 1938

Boys Trade & Tech High School, Milwaukee, WI, Class of 1942

Milwaukee School of Engineering, Milwaukee, WI, Class of 1957

Millville Army Airfield Replacement Training Unit (RTU)


Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Hi Alan
Thanks for sending that great story. It brought back a lot of memories to me. Keith is about my age and his early life isn't that much different than mine. You asked if I ever did that. Every Military pilot can rattle off a few hairy tales. I dont know if we ever got around to trading war stories or not, but at the risk of boring you , I'll rattle off a few off the top. I too lost a canopy in flight, not in the scary way he did , mine popped off as I was making a high speed letdown from altitude. When the canopy went, so did my helmet and oxygen mask. These things happen so fast and unexpectedly that it's always a blessing if you have a little air under you. Outside of taking a beating from rushing air, I wasn't too bad off, and got the bird (F-80) down in one piece. Not so lucky with next one. I had a midair collision at angels 30 in the soup when my wingman crashed into me. A wing tore off, the aircraft(f-86) went into a rapid spin with negative G- forces. When I blew the canopy for bailout, I couldn't get my head down far enough and the canopy struck me, knocking off my helmet and oxy mask and rendering me unconcious. Luckily I had my left hand on the seat ejecter handle and when the seat hit me, the reaction was to push me backward and pull the handle. Thank goondess this happened as high as it did since it gave me a little time to come back into the world again. The ceiling that day was at 5000' and when I broke out of the clouds, I had enough wits about me to pull the ripcord. The chute opened, I landed ok, and after a trip to the the Doc to have my head sown back on, the excitement was over and I chalked up another one. If I' m not boring you too much, I'll give you one more. Our Squadron was invited out to the Northrop plant in Ca one time to do a little work with our F-89 Scorpions. We had a lot of problems with those aircraft, such as wings and tails falling off in flight, and engines failing. We had with us the Northrup Tech Rep to baby the aircraft if need be. We left from Volk Field in northern Wis. When I ran up the engine for takeoff, the tailpipe temp was high, bordering on out of spec limits. I had the choice,should I go or abort. I wanted to make the trip bad enough that I made the decision to go.The first refueling stop was in Witchita. When we got there, I wrote up the overtemp and had the Tech Rep run it up and check it. He did and declared the engine ok. For the next takeoff, the engine again ran hot but I decided that it must be ok and we'll pull the engine after we get back home. On the next leg, the engine again ran hot all the way to Albuqerque. After landing, I was getting a little concerned so had the Tech Rep again check it out and again he gave his assurance that it was all right. The takeoff from Albuqurque was the end of the line. since on takeoff, about 100' in the air, the left engine exploded and wiped out the right engine with it. Fortunately the runway was long enough that I could cut power and belly in on the runway. As we were sliding along, I could see fire coming up from under the wings, so I knew this had to be a quick exit. By the time it stopped sliding, I was ready to jump out of the cockpit, run down the length of the wing and make a mad dash for the hinterlands. After I ran about a hundred feet, I stopped and looked back, to behold the entire aircraft totally engulfed. So, there was another statistic to take back to the manufacturer, and chalk up another one.These tales aren't as hairy as Keith's but they're not too bad. I was lucky enough to have three serious accidents and walked away from them all. Enough said. Keep in touch. Condolences on your loss.

Ohio Ejection

Date: Sun, 11 Aug 2002 03:20:55 EDT
Hello Alan:

I worked in the Dept of Delco that interfaced with the Apollo Engineering Dept of the Instrumentation Lab at MIT [my note: the Instrumentation Lab later became Draper Laboratory]. We had about a hundred people from Delco at the Lab at the start of the Program. The Scientific Wizards of MIT were developing the basic concepts of space navigation for many years before we arrived on the scene and had some very general ideas but nothing in finalized form. The majority of the Delco people, including myself spent a little over a year at the Lab working with the Developement Engineers taking the control concepts and converting them to electronic and mechanical systems. We then took the basic ideas and systems back to Milwaukee and further refined the systems into useable hardware. The majority of my effort involved the electronic systems that interfaced the inertial and guidance computer generated steering signals with the main engines and the thrust vector control thrusters. Our G&N Sytem was installed on both the Command Module and the Lunar Lander. The systems were basically similar with some differences as required by the different engine useage. Thank goodness for the similarity or we would never have gotten Apollo 13 back home. After the Apollo Program was in full production, the guidance system was revised & modified for other experimental programs. The first that I worked on was the first fly-by-wire system. It was installed in a Navy Crusader aircraft at Edwards AFB and proved the concept, which of course is used universally now in all hi performance aircraft. The next program I was involved in was the US/Russian Space Lab which used a variation of the Apoll G&N. I worked with those programs and other more minor variations for about fifteen years. I never worked on any other program that was as interesting or satisfying as Apollo. The only part that was left undone was that I never got my trip to the Moon.

I hope that in your working life, you find an equally satisfying period.
Best wishes:
Uncle Don
Aunt Marie says "Hi Y'all"

NASA Fly By Wire F-8C Crusader
NASA F-8C Fly-By-Wire Testbed
Skylab/Salyut Circa: 1972

Monday, January 03, 2005 1:30 PM

Hi Alan

Sorry for the long delay in answering your mail. I don't use the computer much any more, so when I do I have a total wastebasket of spam mixed in with the mail, so I don't have a great deal of enthusiasm to dive into the mail. Enough of excuses. Interesting friends you have, with plenty of interesting stories. I did fly the 'Bolt in those bygone days but my time in Germany took place after the shooting was over. I received my wings in November 1944. By the time I completed RTU and was combat qualified, the need for fighter pilots in Europe had depleted so I was sent to a Replacement Depot in Salt Lake City for the Far East where I cooled my heels without even an airplane to keep me happy. After a couple of months the need for replacements in the far east dwindled and I was sent back to the east coast to fill the need for the Army of Occupation in Europe. I was finally sent to Germany (Furstenfeldbruck) where I spent about six months before the squadron was transferred to Nordholz (526th Sq. 86th ftr Gp ) for a short period before returning to the USA for separation. Our function while in Germany was mostly (1) patrol over northern Germany and (2) have a great time flying the "JUG" . The best part of it was that there were no flight restrictions, so we practiced combat procedures on real targets. (Train strafing and dive bombing large Industrial complexes). I managed to see a bit of the countryside, and a few of the great old cities, what was left of it. It was a great life, too bad it couldn't have been a little earlier.Now that I have a working address for you, I'll touch base every now & then.

Have a great ' 05

Uncle Don

Neubiberg 526FBSquadron

Sunday, January 09, 2005 10:14 PM

Hi Alan

It's always interesting to hear from you. You have much more interest in aeronautics and aeronautical history than I have or ever have had. That's good, hang in there.

As present day P-47's are concerned, you're right there are not many left. After WW-2 they were sold to small countries the world over, particularly South America and Africa. The third World countries gobbled them up fast as the price was right for them, bordering on no cost. The US was only too happy to close out the excess hardware from the war and we had no use for the P-47. The reason that you see so many P-51's around is that it was the premier fighter at war's end and so it was maintained in the active inventory. When the Air National Guard was formed shortly after the war's end, the -51 was supplied to the fighter units. My introduction to the -51 was when I joined the Guard in MKE at Gen Mitchell Fld. If my recollection is correct, it was not named Gen Mitchell at that time. We formed a full Squadron which was designated the 126th Fighter Sq. We eventually formed a group Hq designated 128th Gp Hq. In time, another squadron was formed and stationed at Truax Fld in Madison. And later a Wing Hq was formed and also stationed at Truax Fld. The designation was 128th Wing Hq. As I recall, this all took place in the 1947- 1948 time span. We reveled in having the -51 available any time the urge arose to tear up the sky in that beautiful bird, and soon the squadron was formalized and organized into a standard US Army Air Force Unit and tactical flying became the norm. Life couldn't be better, we organized into the standard four Flights and regular flight schedules were fixed for the weekends, since we were civilians. Flights A and B flew Sat morning (A) and Sat aft (B), Flights C and D flew Sun morn and aft. As I mentioned, the rest of the week was available for everything and anything. We called it our flying club. Along about 1949 or early 1950 we converted from the -51 to the f-80. This being the first of the front line jet fighters, it was a real hoot and if we thought the -51 was a going machine we had a big surprise with the first takeoff of the f-80. The feeling was that life couldn't be any better than that. We kept the f-80 until we were activated in early 1951 when we converted to the f-86.and thats another story. All in all, there just is nothing in life as wonderful as the honor of flying high performance fighter aircraft. Sometimes I lean back in an easy chair and dream of those wonderful times and wonder how I was so blessed to live that life and what I did in life to earn the honor. Maybe the good Lord has something in store for me. Hope I can take your Auntie Marie along with me! Alan, when I looked back and read what I had written, I must have fallen into a dream state and relived those days. I can't remember going back over those times before.

In answer to your question on the Astronauts, I personally met one of them, can't remember which one, but the meeting was informal -------- he and I were using adjacent urinals in the mens room and struck up a conversation. Other than that the Astronauts and those designing and building the flight hardware travelled in diferent circles. There was at least one article in the paper concerning a race I was scheduled for. It unfortunately never came to pass because on the way to California, my wing man and I ran into some hellacious weather in the vicinity on Albuqerqe and to make things worse the aircraft my wingman was flying was a spare we were taking along in case I needed it. The only problem was that the spare was equipped with a VHF radio and my a/c had a UHF radio so we could not communicate. This meant that we had to remain VFR (no instrument letdown) . These were A Model f-86 a/c with non- sophisticated instrumentation and along with the bad weather it was not the best of situations. To top everything off ,one of the external tanks on my wingmans a/c was not feeding and he was running low on fuel and had to land kinda like "right now". We were on top of the weather at angels 35 and I looked around for a hole to dive thru and when i did, we rolled over , opened speed brakes and went " hell for leather" thru that hole, pulled up when the ground rushed up only to discover we were in a valley surrounded by some fairly high mountains. We followed the valley till we reached open land and looked for landmarks------ found none. Wingman now desperate to land. Saw fairly straight two lane highway below, gave wingman hand signal to land on highway, he did and I followed. We both safely landed without hitting a vehicle on the road and so ended any thoughts I had of entering the race from Ontario, Ca. to Detroit Mi. My heart is pounding, I'd better knock this off. I'll talk to you again.

Uncle Don

The New Mexico Incident New Mexico Incident

F-89 New Mexico Incident

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