Former State Senator Tilman Bishop had submitted the name and application of Maurice Dale to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Mesa State College.
It’s the highest alumni honor they award. For a while, there was no word. Then a letter dated May 15, 2008, arrived from Douglas A. Thomason, president of Mesa State College Alumni Association and the president-elect, Jill L. Derrieux. Maurice Dale had been selected to receive the honor. He was invited to receive his award and recognition during Mesa State’s homecoming celebrations. Those will be held Sept. 25-27. The award banquet will be held on Friday, Sept. 26, at Liff Auditorium. The letter concluded, “It is with great pride that we congratulate you and look forward to presenting this much deserved award.”
Dale says, “I’ve already made arrangements to have my shirt and socks washed.” That is an example of Dale’s quick, self-effacing humor.
But the recognition and acclaim he will receive soon is a change of pace for someone who spent much of his life working on top secret projects. He couldn’t tell anyone what he worked on for decades, but now he can share some of his accomplishments.
Maurice Dale was born in Bartlett. This eastern Colorado town was blown away in a tornado, and never rebuilt. His family moved to Paonia in 1934. His father, Merle, owned the International Harvester business on Grand Avenue. He sold trucks, tractors and farm equipment. The building still exists. It’s called the Harvester Building now. Above the hallway is the original neon sign from his father’s business.
Dale graduated from Paonia High School in 1949. He majored in engineering at Mesa State College, graduating in 1951. He spent the next three years serving in the U.S. Air Force.
Then began 33 years working as a conceptual mechanical design engineer and a senior conceptual mechanical design engineer for top national defense contractors like North American Aviation and Lockheed Missiles and Space Corporation.
At North American he designed Air Force and Navy fighters, bombers and experimental aircraft and the first commercial nuclear power reactor and the first one in space. He designed the internal configuration of the Apollo Command Module, 11 of the 12 F-1 and J-2 engines on the Saturn Five rocket to the moon. He worked for four different divisions at North American.
He designed nuclear power reactors and fossil fuel power plants for Bechtel Corporation, while completing his education at night school.
He worked the next eight years with Halliburton Services designing machinery and improving plant production systems.
After North American Aviation, Dale designed the Agena rockets for Lockheed Missiles and Space Corporation in California. The Agena rocket puts communication and military satellites in orbit. He designed deep diving search and rescue submarines, known as the DSRV (Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle). He designed deep ocean oil drilling service modules which were much further out than the oil rig platforms. He worked on Vietnam air base perimeter security systems.
Later in his career, Dale would return to work for Lockheed. He designed a spy plane which tracked night troop movements of the Vietcong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“We were doing this spy plane for Vietnam, and we were pledged to secrecy,” Dale recalls. “They wouldn’t even let us work in the main Lockheed plant because they didn’t want the other employees to know. I had to go through five digital security things just to go to the bathroom. One morning a picture of our plane was in the paper, The San Jose Mercury. The San Jose Mercury has a very excellent air craft reporter. We came to work, and I thought they were going to fry us because they wanted to know who had leaked out this information. But nobody did. They finally nailed [the reporter] down and asked him. He had suspected we were doing something. We had to truck our planes at night, undercover, up to Moffat Field. The country club for Sunnyvale, Calif., is right next to Moffat. So, I guess, for four or five nights he slept on the roof of the country club just waiting to catch one. And he did.”
The spy plane was called the “Poor Man’s U-2.” The U-2 flew at 80,000 some feet. The little spy plane’s operating altitude was 150 feet, right along the treetops. Two people flew the plane. “It was way ahead of its time because you couldn’t hear it. It could fly over you at 150 feet and you wouldn’t know it flew over you. It was totally quiet.” Dale added, “It helped us immensely, and we never lost one.” It had electronics on it that could tell where a truck had been up to 45 minutes after it had left.
Another plane, the swept wing Aquila, took off from the back of a 3/4-ton pickup truck and landed on the back of a 3/4-ton pickup. It had a 12-foot wingspan. It was designed in the early 1980s. “It was quite accurate. In those days it had no weapons and no armor. It was all made out of Kevlar. Fully armed and ready to fly, it weighed about 275 pounds.”
The recovery work for the spy plane was done in Germany by Dornier. The plane would fly into a huge net and would be caught. It didn’t have landing gear. “We caught it in a net. You’d reach in there and pick it out with a crane and set it on a catapult and shoot it off from another pick up. There was another truck with a command center on it. A guy would sit inside and control it.”
The plane was designed for the U.S. Army Field Artillery. It was to take the place of the forward observer in World War II. The forward observer was a soldier who would sneak behind enemy lines and climb up a tall tree or a church steeple and direct artillery fire on to the enemy. “He had a very short life. Well this plane was to take the place of that guy. There was nobody in it. It did well. We took great tests in it. There toward the end we could be accurate within 10 inches on a tank. You would send down a laser beam to what we were going to hit and the Army would fire off a copperhead missile, which is laser guided, and it would get in on that beam and follow it right into the target.”
There is one left today on display at the Intelligence Museum. Dale’s work is also on display in the Pima Air and Space Museum, which is one of the largest aviation museums in the world. On a recent trip to the museum in Tucson, he counted 21 airplanes that he had helped design. One of the spy planes he built for Vietnam is down there, but they don’t have it put together yet. The museum director took Dale to see it and asked if he had the correct color for the plane. Dale told him he did, except the spy plane was flat black, not gloss black. “I should know. I wrote the EO [Engineering Order] that painted it.” Dale told the director that for display purposes, the gloss looked better. In its real life, the spy plane was flat black so it would not reflect.
“I was very fortunate. I got spread around real good on different projects.” Dale acknowledges he did not achieve success on any of these jobs alone, but always as a part of a project design group.
During his career, he worked from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. — all over the country and also in Germany. He was set to go to Vietnam once and even had 27 vaccinations, but then solved the design problem in the states and didn’t have to go.
When he came home to Paonia after retirement in 1987, his mother told him that was his 40th move. “I lived in the house my dad and I built in 1946, and nobody else has ever lived there except our family.”
He’s been a member of the Paonia Masonic Lodge for 55 years. He’s been the president of the Paonia Rotary Club twice.
Dale laughed while saying he has tried marriage a few times. He has two great kids. They are both senior design engineers in California, although his daughter went back to school and is now a clinical psychologist.
“If I was given the opportunity to go back in time. I wouldn’t change a thing. I loved every minute of it. There were good times, and there were bad times but the good times so out weighed the bad times it doesn’t matter. It was a wonderful life. Those companies treated me really good. I used to always get my jobs done ahead of schedule and under budget, and they loved it.
“I never had any flubs. I had to change direction some times. But I had a boss one time who told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to change direction. I don’t count that against you. If you find out you are going in the wrong direction, don’t keep going and making changes to try and cover it up. Stop instantly. Change direction to what it needs to be and do it right. That will impress me more than anything else.’ I always remembered that, and it worked. I always found success worked good. I cleaned up a lot of other guys’ messes too.”
He has a book full of letters of recommendations to prove it.
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There’s one other accomplishment, Maurice Dale is proud of — climbing the 14,501-foot Mt. Whitney twice. It’s the highest mountain in the continental United States, located in the Sierra Mountains in California.