the CIA declassifying Projects Aquatone and Oxcart at Area 51 has emerged
stories of startup companies and obscure companies fronting for other companies
in the interest of secrecy and national security. Among such companies was
Firewel, who pioneered the development of high altitude oxygen systems, testing
them on monkeys and advancing to pilots in the X-15, U-2, and A-12. Until now,
Firewel has been a footnote in the emerging legacy of the Roadrunners of Area
51. The employees of the company, being a proud component of Roadrunners
Internationale, with the following account establish the legacy of Firewel.
In 1946 two Scott Aviation alumni glanced around the basement of their home at 135 Aurora Street in Lancaster, New York and decided it would be a good place to launch a company they named Firewel. Philip Edward (Ed) Meidenbauer, Jr. was the President, Donald Nesbitt, a ceramics engineer, was the Vice President. Ed, a self-taught mechanical engineer, had been Director of Oxygen Research at Scott Aviation, where he developed the original Air-Pak. Ed's brother, Clifford Meidenbauer, a Signals Corp officer during World War II, joined Ed and Donald as the financial officer of their new company, Firewel.
Operating from the basement amidst Lois Meidenbauer's home-canned peaches and jellies, near the old furnace, and around the corner from her laundry room, the company began building furnace burners that would convert old coal furnaces to oil or gas. Workers trooped into the house and down the cellar stairs where they hammered out the burners. Buyers and suppliers conducted their business with the company from the living room sofa, often charmed by Ed's youngest daughter who loved to toddle to them and crawl into their laps. By 1947 the company had advanced from coal furnace conversions to a full line of furnaces.
On the outside events were occurring that would eventually drastically change the company. In March 1946, the first US-built rocket left earth's atmosphere, reaching an altitude of 50 miles at about the same time Ed was leaving Scott. A month later in April, the US Navy revealed it had created an 8,000 horsepower aircraft rocket engine. On August 27, a pilot ejector seat was tested successfully at Wright Field.
In October 1947, the US Air Force became independent of the Army and on the 14th Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, reaching 600 mph in a Bell X-1 rocket plane. On February 28th, 1948, Yeager exceeded the speed of sound again in a Bell XS-1. And on August 8, 1949, pilot Frank Everest climbed to 63,000 feet in the Bell X-1.
Because of their technical background, Firewel's principals decided to add a corporate focus on future of high altitude military flight, where innovative kinds of breathing apparatus would be needed. Ed, Don, and Cliff saw this as a means of expanding their business and contacted various individuals they had known during the war. Their original development contract was for $80,000 followed by an additional $70,000 extension.
In 1951 Ed and Firewel were contacted to solve problems with the regulators for the prototype Navy space suit being developed by David Clark Company and the BF Goodrich Company. Designing and manufacturing small valves, regulators and system, Firewell advanced application and technology of an aircraft mounted regulator to pressurize the facepiece and capstans of early partial pressure suits. The partial pressure suit was used to provide counter pressure to the torso and facepiece of a pilot if exposed to the barometric pressure at altitudes of 40,000 feet or higher. Firewel equipped the space suit with the instrumentation and controls, oxygen breathing and ventilating systems that automatically protected the wearer from the elements and hazards of space. The suit design was designed for such hazards as blood-draining acceleration, blood-boiling low pressure, and from cosmic rays and extreme temperatures.
The Model 1-A, a prototype stratospheric suit, was designed with a Firewel regulator that supplied an oxygen and air mixture on demand or pure oxygen under pressure. Breathing of oxygen was accomplished through a mask attached to a standard naval aviator's crash helmet.
In 1952, seven years after much of the patented technology groundwork was laid, President Ed Meidenbauer died. He was succeeded by Donald Nesbitt with Clifford Meidenbauer continuing to handle financial matters. By 1956 Firewel employed 140 people and was a multi-million-dollar corporation.
By the mid-1950?s, Firewel's specialty of high altitude regulators was exceeding the production of all their larger competitors. The company's aeronautical division with only one-third of the employees, accounted for almost 70 percent of the firm's business. In part, this was attributed to Firewel's new concepts in oxygen equipment and survival system that were integral to the pilot's personal flight gear and part of the state-of-the-art military planes being developed at the time.
Firewel had designed new valves and incorporated them into the pilot's parachute pack rather than the instrument console. Oxygen hoses and radio communications wiring were miniaturized. Firewel developed delicate silicon diaphragms strengthened with nylon filament. The switch from regular to bailout oxygen was made automatic rather that manual upon pilot ejection. This was a new concept in oxygen equipment and survival systems, whereby the equipment was an integral part of the pilot's personal flight gear. Firewel first developed the miniaturized mask-mounted oxygen system for the US Navy pilots flying the A-3D Skywarrior, F-4D Skyray, and the F-8U Crusader. Firewel became a major player with the Air Force and Navy in the development of breathing apparatus for high altitude flight. The Firewel-built survival kit was a soft pack interfaced with the aircraft oxygen supply and connected to the pilot by two hoses. One hose provided breathing oxygen from the miniature regulator to the facepiece and chest bladder, the other was connected to the capstans of the partial pressure suit. Microphone and earphone wiring harness as well as power to heat the facepiece of the partial pressure suit was integrated into the hoses of the survival kit. The emergency oxygen supply in the survival kit was manually actuated by pulling a cable that terminated in a green ball commonly referred to as "the green apply". The soft pack survival kit was used because the earlier versions of the U-2 aircraft did not have an ejection seat. The soft pack survival kit thereafter evolved into a rigid hard shell kit and was used with all century series aircraft. Field service representatives, trained and deployed from Area 51 "Watertown" with the original three detachments of the U-2 programs in 1956. Subsequent deployment of Air Force programs was similarly staffed at all locations as these programs evolved.
By the late 1950's the Firewel production line was producing a 100 man oxygen regulator, oxygen bottle and mask, anti-g gloves, a "Global Survival Kit," for pilot ejection seats, pressure regulators for flight suits and helmets, a back pack oxygen manifold, "Get Me Down" oxygen supplies, a back pan oxygen assembly, disconnect couplings, oxygen gauges, and a space vehicle pressure reducer. It was during this time frame that the company became involved with design of high altitude breathing apparatus and life support for the ultrasecret Lockheed U-2 CIA spyplane being test flown at Area 51.
After 12 years as a discrete company, Firewel was sold in 1958 to Aro Equipment Company of Ohio. At the time Firewel had 440 local employees.
In 1959, Aro-Firewel-designed environmental regulating system successfully sustained monkeys Able and Baker in a space capsule launch to research biological effects of flight. The company's oxygen high altitude regulators had been used in every record flight since 1951 and were now being tested by Neil Armstrong in the X-15.
In the early 1960's, ARO/FIRWEL was again contracted to design and develop a complete respiratory life support system for the various versions of the Blackbird. Specifications for the oxygen supply systems and pilot respiratory equipment required redundancy. Therefor complete dual systems were created. They included dual oxygen supplies, a dual oxygen control panel, a dual ejection seat disconnect, dual supply hoses to the pressure suit, a full pressure suit controller with redundant back up, and a dual helmet mounted breathing regulator. Additionally the survival kit contained dual emergency oxygen supplies, regulators and hoses that interfaced with the pilot. The pressure suit employed on these aircraft was of the full pressure type where the pilot was totally encapsulated in the pressure suit that maintained an absolute pressure of 3.5 psi at altitudes of 35,000 feet and higher. Total encapsulation necessitated the need for body cooling therefore an adjustable flow control valve was provided to regulate the engine bleed air used for suit ventilation. Dual emergency oxygen supplies were incorporated into the rigid survival kit. Actuation was automatically upon ejection or manually. The aircraft oxygen supply was originally specified as compressed high pressure, however the systems were converted to low pressure liquid oxygen. ARO/Firewel also provided large 100-liter liquid nitrogen systems used for fuel inerting.
In 1968, Aro moved production to its Ohio headquarters, but let the aerospace engineering and development entity remain in western New York. In 1985 Todd Shipyards bought the business from Aro. Ingersoll Rand took over the group in 1990. Carlton Controls, which was founded by a former employee, bought the aerospace aspect of the business in 1993, and continues to produce devices for high altitude and space flight.