31 August 2010

American Airlines Picks the DC-10

American Airlines' involvement in the development of the Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas widebody trijets was extensive. It all goes back to when George Spater took over the reins of the airline from the legendary C.R. Smith.  In the 1960s, Spater was faced with trying to decide between the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. By some accounts, it was probably the most difficult decision Spater had to make while at the helm of American, all while living in the shadow of C.R. Smith.

Back in 1966, American's VP of development engineering, Frank Kolk, was worried about the frenzy surrounding Boeing's launch of the 747 program with order committments from Pan Am. Many airlines besides American began to wonder if they could fill 400 seats and at American, it was Kolk who sounded the alarms to C.R. Smith. "C.R., it's just too damn big for our route network!" he'd exhort every chance he got. But because American's transcontinental 707 services boasted the highest load factors in the airline's network, the 747 order was placed anyway. But, since C.R. Smith found Kolk's arguments compelling, he sent Kolk to talk with the major airframe manufacturers about a smaller widebody jet.

Boeing wasn't interested as it was immersed with the 747 and the 727/737 production lines were running at maximum capacity. The manpower just couldn't be spared. Douglas was also not interested as it had its own financial problems that would result in its merger with McDonnell the following year- the DC-8 line hadn't recouped its costs yet and the company was scrambling to pacify its DC-9 customers who were upset with production problems and delays (at one point Eastern even filed suit).

Lockheed, however was very receptive and went to work immediately on a design based on Kolk's specifications for a twin-aisle twinjet that carried 250 passengers and could operate out of New York La Guardia. But other airlines, once briefed on Lockheed's work, didn't like two engines. United, in particular, wanted four but could live with three engines. Eastern would accept no less than three engines as the overwater flight rules of the day dictated that a twin jet could not fly further than 60 minutes from a diversion airport. With many of its destinations in the Caribbean, a three or four engined jet could fly direct over the Atlantic from the Northeastern United States. As other potential customers like TWA provided their opinions, the consensus over-ruled American Airlines and the Lockheed widebody jet would be a trijet.

With Douglas financially invigorated after the merger with McDonnell, in-house studies to Kolk's initial brief would become the DC-10 to compete with what would become the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. American now faced a choice between two very similar widebody trijets. But there was a hitch- American preferred the new Rolls-Royce RB.211 engine, but the RB.211, being a more compact design thanks to its three-spool system, was too short for the DC-10 tail nacelle. As advanced as the Tristar was, Spater and the American engineering staff preferred the DC-10. Though C.R. Smith himself expressed a strong preference for the Tristar, it was Spater's call to make. Some accounts on this period in American's history point to the experience with the Lockheed Electra having biased the airline against Lockheed despite the more advanced features of the L-1011 Tristar.

Spater even talked with the head of Rolls Royce about modifying the RB.211 for the DC-10, but given that American was the only airline making the request, no guarantees could be offered to American.

There was even consensus among the various US airlines that there wasn't a sufficient market to justify two competing widebody trijet designs and there were even discussions between Spater and other airline presidents about settling on a single type. Many analysts crunching the numbers for the airlines pointed out that both aircraft being produced would eventually (and prophetically) be detrimental to the future of the commercial aircraft manufacturing at both Douglas and Lockheed. When Delta, Eastern, and TWA ordered the L-1011, the assumption was that American and United would follow suit. But United refused to accept a British engine and ordered the the DC-10 with the General Electric CF6 engine. With what was thought to be a unified front shattered by United's surprise decision to break ranks, Spater felt more comfortable and went ahead and sign a launch order for  25 DC-10s along with United Air Lines with ordered 30 aircraft. On 29 July 1971 at a joint delivery ceremony at Long Beach, the first DC-10s for United and American were handed over together.

Source: Eagle- The Story of American Airlines by Robert Serling. St. Martin's Press, 1987.

25 August 2010

The U-2's Antecedent: The Martin RB-57D Canberra

In the early 1950s the Strategic Air Command asked Martin, the American license builder of the English Electric Canberra as the B-57, if a modified version of the B-57 could be built that would operate at altitudes in excess of 60,000 as a reconnaissance aircraft. Though not as radically modified as the better-known RB-57F (which were stock B-57s modified by General Dynamics), the RB-57D was unique in its own right and set the stage for high-altitude reconnaissance operations by its successor, the Lockheed U-2. To operate in the rarefied air of the stratosphere, the most noticeable change in the RB-57D was its enlarged wing which resulted in an increase in wingspan from 64 feet in the standard B-57 Canberra to 106 feet. Special lightening measures were taken from skinning over the bomb bay doors to reduce weight and the bomb bay was used to house the reconnaissance equipment. In addition, enlarged nacelles replaced the B-57's Wright J65 engines with Pratt & Whitney J57s (as were used on the KC-135) which offered a 6,000 lb thrust increase and better high altitude performance. 

Despite the massively enlarged wing, an empty RB-57D weight not much more than an empty B-57 due to the lightening measures taken. The most extreme measures were taken with the wings which were thin metal honeycomb sections that formed a full wet wing (even in the leading edges). To avoid the weight of rivets, the wings were assembled with a special glue and the wing skin was waxed for aerodynamic smoothness. With a surface skin of only 0.010 inch thick, even dropping a small tool on the wing could damage the skin. Even deicing fluid used on the aircraft could potentially cause the glue used to lose strength!

Only twenty RB-57Ds were built, but they were built in four groups, each group had a unique set of mission equipment and capabilities that were practically custom-made for missions in specific parts of the world. The first group of RB-57Ds were called "Group A" and "Group B" and only differed in the Group A aircraft being capable of inflight refueling. Four optical cameras were carried in the forward fuselage and a large optical viewfinder was installed in the cockpit for the pilot to use for both navigation and as a viewsight for the cameras. Thirteen aircraft (seven and six respectively) were built to Group A and Group B standards.

The next version was the single Group D RB-57D built which was also single seat and designed for electronic reconnaissance with a nose mounted radar and SLAR built into the lower sides of the fuselage. Capable of inflight refueling, the sole Group C aircraft flew most of its missions over Europe, using its powerful SLAR to peek deep into the Soviet bloc. 

The final variant were the six Group C RB-57Ds which were two seaters with a pilot and electronic warfare officer. These RB-57D were designed as electronic ferrets to collect enemy radar emissions for later analysis in the development of electronic countermeasures. These aircraft were also capable of inflight refueling. 

In 1956 the newly-formed 4028th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron was assigned to the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing to operate the unique RB-57Ds. In the space of a year the 4028th SRS would be moved from Lockbourne AFB in Ohio, to Turner AFB in Georgia, and finally settled down at Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas. Despite being moved three times, the squadron would become fully operational with its first six RB-57Ds only 120 days from the delivery of its first RB-57D. Those first six aircraft, all Group A RB-57Ds, deployed to Japan in late 1956 for reconnaissance missions over what is presumed to be China, North Korea and the Soviet Union. A year after the Japan deployment, three of the Group A RB-57Ds were sent to Taiwan wearing Republic of China markings for further missions over China during the Taiwan Straits Crisis. Flown by USAF pilots, two Taiwanese pilots were preparing to fly RB-57D missions after only 30 days of training, but the plans came to end when both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan began dogfighting each other over the Taiwan Straits. 

In  1958 the first atmospheric samplings missions were flown by RB-57Ds in support of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, the high flying capability of the RB-57Ds allowed them to get particle samples from high in the atmosphere as part of the post-detonation analysis. At the same time, Several Group B and the sole Group D aircraft were deployed to Europe for missions over Eastern Europe. 

The pace of missions put a strain on the delicate wings of the RB-57D and the first aircraft were put into storage by SAC following two incidents when the wings outboard of the engine nacelles cracked and fell off during landing. Martin had designed the wings for only 500 flight hours and many of them had already exceeded that limit but strategic necessity resulted in the RB-57Ds still flying missions. At this point the USAF was planning for the arrival of the Lockheed U-2 and the Air Defense Command took over the remaining RB-57Ds to act as high altitude targets for the supersonic interceptor force. Fitted out with electronic countermeasures, the 4677th Defense Systems Evaluation Squadron at Hill AFB, Utah, was formed to operate 12 of the 20 RB-57Ds. Martin modified the wings to extend their surface life. However, the high flying capabilities of the RB-57Ds meant that the 4677th DSES was always asked to send aircraft in support of nuclear testing. 

By 1963 wing structural problems cropped up again when one of the RB-57Ds lost its wing at 50,000 feet. But the ADC still needed a high altitude target aircraft and since the last US atmospheric nuclear test had taken place in 1962, Martin agreed to modify the remaining RB-57Ds for another 3,000 flight hours. Upgrades to the electronic countermeasures to challenge the ADC interceptor crews resulted in these aircraft being designated EB-57Ds and they served in this role along with other testing roles until the mid-1970s. 

The big wing and engine power of the RB-57Ds in many ways prepared pilots for what it would be like to fly the Lockheed U-2. On takeoff, only 50% engine power was necessary for takeoff which only needed a ground roll of about 2,000 feet. Climbing at 25-30 degrees, the RB-57Ds could reach 50,000 feet in only 15 minutes. Maximum cruise altitude was 65,000 feet and the pilots wore full pressure suits that were improved for the U-2 and SR-71 programs. With over 200 gallons less than a stock B-57, the RB-57D could fly twice the duration, approximately seven hours compared to four hours for a B-57. Landing was challenging as the big wing didn't lose lift easily. Even with the engines at idle, it was still too much power for landing. Even with the spoilers out and landing gear extended, the plane still had a very low sink rate and pilots resorted to actually holding the RB-57Ds into a series of slight stalls to get the aircraft down to the runway!

Source: Martin B-57 Canberra: The Complete Record by Robert C. Mikesh. Schiffer Military History Press, 1995, p132-141.


24 August 2010

Frontier and the Boeing 737-200

There was a time in the 1970s when Frontier Airlines was the one of the most significant operators of the Boeing 737 and it was on the dependable 737-200 that the airline rose to prominence to challenge the established major carriers of the day. To go from humble beginnings flying second-hand Douglas DC-3s to having the second largest route network in the United States when the first 737-200s arrived at the airline is a story that for the most part has remained hidden to history, overshadowed by the storied legacies of larger airlines like American, Delta, or United.

Frontier's first jets were actually 727-100s styled as "Arrow Jets" which first entered service with Frontier in 1966, becoming the first local service carrier to fly the 727. Route expansions (aided by the acquisition of Fort Worth-based Central Airlines in 1967) and further route authorities granted by the Civil Aeronautics Board brought about the move in 1968 to larger 727-200s. Only a year later in 1969 Lewis Dymond, president of Frontier, retired- at the helm of the airline since 1962, Dymond did much to restore the airline to profitability through the latter half of 1960s that allowed the acquisition of jet equipment. Replacing Dymond was E. Paul Burke. Burke only served at the helm of the airline for a short two years, but his legacy to the airline was his realization in 1969 that the 737-200 was far more suited to Frontier's network than the 727s. The first five 737-200s were ordered as one of his first acts as president of the airline and the 727-100s were traded in to Boeing as part of the payment for the first 737s.

The 737-200s could serve even smaller airports than the larger 727s and this allowed Frontier a more flexible aircraft for its route network- the new jets were at home flying to smaller cities like Scottsbluff, Nebraska or Grand Junction, Colorado just as easily as larger cities like Dallas or Denver. By the time the first 737-200s were delivered, in terms of cities served, Frontier had the second-largest route network in the United States.

The first 737-191s arrived in April 1969 and by 1970 had 10 737-200s on strength with the airline. By the time of Burke's departure from the executive suite in 1971, the 727s were being phased out, with the last of the 727-191s sold in 1972 and as well as the sale of the larger 727-291s to Braniff International. Succeeding Burke would be Frontier's greatest president, Al Feldman. Under Feldman's tenure from 1971 to 1979, Frontier standardized its jet equipment on the 737-200 and entered a period of impressive expansion, profitability and rise to prominence as one of the largest regional carriers in the United States. By the time of the introduction of the final Saul Bass colors in April 1978, Frontier had 32 737-200s on strength with 10 more on order. Frontier's western route network stretched into both Canada and Mexico, from California and Washington in the West to as far east as Michigan and Georgia. Denver Stapleton became one of the few three-airline major hubs of its day, with Frontier ably holding its own against incumbents Continental and United. Undoubtedly it was the flexible operating economics of the 737-200 that allowed Frontier to weather the economic turmoil that hit the industry in the early 1970s.

One item of interest was the introduction of first-class legroom in coach class on Frontier's 737-200s. The aircraft were configured for 106 passengers in a single-class layout and it proved to be immensely popular with passengers. It was just one of the many changes Al Feldman implemented in Frontier's service image that formed the foundation for its impressively profitable growth during the turbulent 1970s.

Just to think that there was a time in the 1970s when Frontier flew their 737s into cities in Colorado like Durango and Grand Junction and cities in Nebraska like Scottsbluff and Grand Island- cities that today rate only small regional prop service if at all! A lot of Frontier's 737 destinations in those days today have only small regional prop service. Quite a change from just 30 years ago for these communities!

Source: Boeing 737 (Crowood Aviation Series) by Malcolm L. Hill. Crowood Press Ltd, 2002.

22 August 2010

The Beriev A-150

During the 1960s a strategic shift was taking place in nuclear deterrent doctrines as the United States Navy began putting to sea increasing numbers of Polaris sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) aboard nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines beginning in 1960 with the first deterrent patrols of the George Washington-class. With improvements in the Polaris missile coming rapidly that bestowed even greater range, the Soviet Union, lacking a blue-water navy in the 1960s looked to unique if not creative answers to seek out and destroy the American SSBNs which no longer needed to lurk close to Soviet shores to reach remote ocean areas not normally patrolled by the Soviet Navy.

In 1965 the Beriev OKB was tasked with developing one of the most impressive unbuilt flying boat designs that had as its core mission to seek out and destroy the SSBNs in remote ocean areas. The Beriev A-150 built on the design bureau's already extensive expertise in flying boats that included the jet powered Be-10 that saw limited service with the AV-MF (naval air force) in the 1950s. The A-150 was to have been a multi-role amphibian with a large delta wing that bestowed on it a large internal volume for missions that not only included long range anti-submarine warfare, but also anti-suface vessel warfare, maritime reconnaissance, search and rescue and an inflight tanker. In addition, Beriev developed transport variants that not only had military roles, but could also have been used for resource development in the Soviet Far East where ground networks of roads and rails were near non-existent.

The A-150 would have been 163 feet long with a wingspan of 137 feet. Paired nacelles above the wings would have housed Kuznetsov NK-8 turbofans (used on the Il-62 and Tu-154 jetliners). In addition, twelve Kolesov RD36 lift engines would have been installed in the leading edge roots to help shorten the takeoff run of the A-150. Inside the wing center section on each side of the fuselage were equipment bays that could accommodate interchangeable mission pods depending upon the mission tasking. Each bay and mission pods had standardized connections allowing the A-150 to be retasked in minimal time. Each pod had a volume of just over a thousand cubic feet. Some pods were weapons bays, others included ASW equipment like dunking sonar, sonobuoys and torpedoes. With a crew of 5 and a range of nearly 11,000 miles, the A-150 would have been an impressive machine.

Beriev also developed the A-150DT version which had a larger fuselage and a clamshell "tailgate" that allowed heavy loads to be driven directly into the fuselage cargo deck. The total cargo capacity of the A-150DT was nearly 70,000 lbs and it had 16 instead of 12 RD36 lift engines to handle the increased weight. There was even exploration of a VTOL version with 32 lift engines! The A-150DT was intended as an assault transport but its capabilities also made it useful in Siberian resource development and supporting the Soviet fishing fleet at sea. The assault transport version also had two twin-cannon turrets, one for the tail and one in the nose section.

Ultimately Beriev's ambitious A-150 proved to be too much aircraft for the prevailing technology of the day and the Soviet answer to the American SSBN fleet was to increase its own fleet of nuclear-powered hunter killer subs (SSNs).

Source: Beriev's Jet Flying Boats (Red Star Volume 28) by Yefim Gordon, Andrey Sal'nikov, and Alexandr Zoblotskiy. Ian Allan/Midland Publishing, 2006, p96-97.

20 August 2010

The Dismal Career of the Chinese Mosquito

During the Second World War, a second De Havilland Mosquito production line was set up at the De Havilland Canada facility at Downsview Airport in Toronto. A total of 1,133 Mosquito aircraft were built at the Canadian production line but when the war ended in 1945, there were 100 aircraft completed at Downsview that had not yet been accepted by the Royal Canadian Air Force. These aircraft were put into flyable storage and joining them were another 110 surplus Mosquito bombers that were part of a larger group that were excess to the end of the war effort and were divided up amongst several storage sites across Canada. The Globe and Mail newspaper ran a story on 20 May 1947 about the stored aircraft at Downsview that were worth approximately $30 million and would be sold to the highest bidder or scrapped.

In the late summer of that year, a delegation arrived in Toronto wanting to purchase the Mosquito aircraft. They were the Chinese Nationalist,s dispatched by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, that were in the midst of a civil war against the Communists led by Mao Tse-Tung. Interestingly Chiang had sent a group to Downsview in 1944 to evaluate the Mosquito but no sale resulted. Now fighting a bitter conflict for control of China, the Mosquito bombers represented an irresistible deal that would give Chiang the most modern and still in those days, fast bombers available. Though the details of the transaction have been lost to history, the estimate is that for $5 million the Chinese Nationalists got approximately 300 aircraft, though most were to be obtained to act as spare parts for the flying aircraft. Four hundred spare Merlin engines were also included in the deal which included disassembly of the aircraft for transfer to China and then reassembly there for the Chiang's forces. De Havilland Canada would also provide training for the first cadre of pilots at Downsview. 

By October, an assembly bay at the plant was turned over to a "disassembly" line as the aircraft were taken apart and crated for transport to China. Given the political sensitivities of the time, the sale was noted by the Canadian government as a "commercial sale" and all publicity of the transfer was discouraged. The first group of fifteen Chinese pilots to be trained at Downsview started their conversion in February 1948 with former RCAF Mosquito pilots as instructors. Having previously flown B-25 Mitchells, the Mosquito was quite a handful for the Chinese pilots and in short order seven had to be written off. To avoid any publicity, the training program was quickly shifted to China and that first group of pilots ended up writing off another nine aircraft, resulting in the Mosquito being nicknamed "Lin Tai Yu" by the Chinese, after an empress who was beautiful but wicked. 

Chinese flight training began with the second group in April 1948 and very quickly another 13 accidents occurred, this time with fatalities. Despite the presence of numerous De Havilland Canada technical specialists and ex-RCAF pilots in China, the accident rate continued. A second training unit set up by Chiang's forces resulted in the write off of five aircraft in only five days. Many of the accidents were in ground handling, so De Havillland's technical staff built a taxi trainer that had struts on the rear fuselage to prevent ground looping. The Chinese even managed to wreck that trainer! The Mosquito force that Chiang Kai-Shek wanted spent more time in training than in actual combat missions. Some of this was the quality of his pilots, but a lot of it was that the Mosquito was simply too much airplane for what was a Communist guerrilla insurgency. With the Communists advancing and gaining control of more of China, the Canadians noted the deteriorating situation as the local currency was falling and non-Chinese citizens were leaving the country in droves. 

On 10 December 1948 the capital, Peking (now Beijing) fell to Mao's forces and the De Havilland team was ordered to depart immediately. Most of the team managed to escape via Hong Kong, but some of the lead engineers found themselves "retained" by the Nationalists to help keep their aircraft flying. De Havilland Canada's management arranged for a special DC-6 flight to get this last group out of China. Nationalist soldiers refused to allow the Canadians to depart, but gunfire on the airfield perimeter from advancing Communist forces provided a distraction for the Canadians who managed to successfully depart as the airfield came under attack. 

Needless to say, much like the less-than-salutory operational career of the Martin B-57 by the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1965, the career of the otherwise brilliant De Havilland Mosquito in China was very much a failure and an unusual footnote to the history of the Mosquito. 

Source: De Havilland in Canada by Fred W. Hotson. CANAV Books, 1999, p120-121. 

18 August 2010

The Australian Canberra in Vietnam

Monday I'd posted about the South Vietnamese Air Force's brief, if not flawed, operation of the Martin B-57 Canberra during the Vietnam War. They weren't the only nation outside of the United States to operate the Canberra in Southeast Asia. In 1967, the English Electric Canberra Mk.20s of the Royal Australian Air Force's No. 2 Squadron arrived at Phan Rang AB, which at the time was home to the USAF Martin B-57 operation under the aegis of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing (an F-100 Super Sabre outfit). At the start of combat operations, the eight Canberras were assigned to night attack missions where they made bomb drops from 20,000 feet under direction of the Combat Sky Spot ground radars that would direct the bombers when to make their drop. While the strikes were very accurate and effective, a better role was soon found for the Australians. 

By mutual agreement with the Seventh Air Force and No. 2 Squadron, the RAAF Canberras would mount eight sorties a day against up to 16 targets, seven days a week. All the targets were within South Vietnam to minimize the anti-air threat and make best use of the Canberra's visual bombing equipment. Their radio call sign in Vietnam was "MAGPIE" from the squadron's crest. As the Australians were trained exhaustively on visual bombing, most of the targets assigned to No. 2 Squadron were in the Mekong Delta region. Often the targets were shifted to targets of opportunity spotted by airborne forward air controllers and with the Canberras at altitude, little to no warning proceeded the bombing runs as the bombardiers used Second World War-vintage precision visual bomb sights to hit targets from 20,000 feet that were normally hit at lower altitudes by USAF crews. The Australian crews quickly developed a reputation for pinpoint bombing and were the only combat aircraft in the entire Vietnam theater for the entire duration of the war that employed level bombing with visual bombsights from altitude. 

By 1969 approximately 70% of No. 2 Squadron's targets were in the Mekong Delta where the level visual bombing technique was best suited. With most of the Delta region flat and at sea level, it made the job on the Canberra's bombardier easier. Since the English Electric Canberra Mk.20 didn't have underwing hardpoints like the USAF B-57s, the wing tip tanks were removed and replaced with bomb racks to supplement the bomb bay load. Since most of the targets weren't far from Phan Rang AB, the extra fuel in the tip tanks wasn't needed. 

On 3 November 1970, after three and a half years of combat operations without a single loss, the first RAAF Canberra was lost on a Combat Sky Spot radar bombing mission near Da Nang. MAGPIE 91, flown by Flight Officer Michael Herbert with Pilot Officer Robert Carver as bombardier, executed a near perfect bomb drop from 22,000 feet at night and were lost without a trace after their run. On 14 March 1971 another RAAF Canberra was lost to a SAM missile while on a mission to the northwest corner of South Vietnam. Although the crew were rescued the following day, the Seventh Air Force directed that no aircraft should operate near known SAM zones without adequate electronic countermeasures equipment. By 1971 nearly all of the northern quarter of South Vietnam had been infiltrated by NVA units with portable surface-to-air missiles. By this point in the war, the USAF B-57 operation was winding down and with the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing leaving Phan Rang as part of the "Vietnamization" of the war, there was no point in No. 2 Squadron remaining behind. 

No. 2 Squadron flew its last combat mission in Vietnam on 31 May 1971, making it the 11,963 mission flown by the Australian Canberras in Southeast Asia. Within a week the Canberras were refitted with their wing tip tanks and returned to RAAF Amberly via Darwin to become a reconnaissance and target towing squadron that would eventually be disbanded in 1982. In 2000, the RAAF reformed No. 2 Squadron to operate the Boeing 737 AEW&C Wedgetail. 

Source: Martin B-57 Canberra: The Complete Record by Robert C. Mikesh. Schiffer Military History Press, 1995, p116-119.

16 August 2010

The Very Brief Career of the B-57 with the VNAF

In April 1964 the 8th Bomb Squadron and the 13th Bomb Squadron arrived at Clark AB in the Philippines as tensions in Indochina began to escalate. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was still four months away when the Martin B-57 Canberra jet bombers of the two squadrons took up residence at Clark. In the following month, it was decided that a select group of three South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) officers led by Major N. N. Bien would begin introductory training on the B-57 with the two USAF squadrons at Clark. At the time there was a great deal of hesitation on the part of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson on supplying the B-57 to the VNAF as it was thought that it would unnecessarily escalate tensions in the area. Despite the prejudicial stereotypes of many USAF personnel of the day on the quality of the pilots of the VNAF, this first group of three pilots turned out to be remarkably proficient and experienced in combat operations as they had all flown combat missions in A-1 Skyraiders and had jet experience from their flight training in France. 

As this first group of VNAF pilots were winding up their training at Clark AB, the Gulf of Tonkin incident took place in August 1964 that would bring American combat forces into direct confrontation with the North Vietnamese for the first time. The 8th BS and 13th BS alternated rotations to Bien Hoa AB outside of Saigon and the presence of the B-57s was thought might offset the presumed presence of North Vietnamese Ilyushin Il-28 light jet bombers. The next group of three VNAF pilots were then slated to take "Familiarization Training" with whichever USAF B-57 unit was on rotation at Bien Hoa who would fly their B-57s to Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon. Unlike the first three VNAF officers who were proved to be highly competent, this next group of three pilots were more for show than anything else as they were the flamboyant General Nguyen Cao Ky, head of the VNAF (and later Premier of South Vietnam), and two officers that were subordinates of General Ky, one in charge of Ky's security and the other in charge of the VNAF command post in Saigon. Their training was considerably abbreviated and consisted of only three days of ground school, a day and a half of aircraft familiarization on the ramp at Tan Son Nhut, and another three to four days of flying with an American pilot in the back seat of the B-57. As as typical for General Ky, on the the completion of their "training" he took the USAF instructors tiger hunting on elephants in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam!

It wasn't until August 1965 that the formal announcement was made that the B-57 was going to be operated by the VNAF. At a formal ceremony on 9 August 1965 at Tan Son Nhut, a USAF B-57 was flown in and repainted with VNAF insignia and a prominent South Vietnamese flag on the tail. The "U.S. Air Force" titles were removed but were obvious from the shiny areas left behind where the lettering had been buffed off. This B-57 was displayed with all the various armament stores it could carry, including one inadvertently armed 500-lb bomb! Before the ceremony, three dual trainer B-57Cs were flown in from Clark AB in the Philippines and repainted with VNAF markings. General Ky, who by now was the Premier of South Vietnam, and the previously trained pilots were given quick familiarization training to perform a fly-by during the ceremony. Having taken off before the ceremony, each pilot had an American instructor in the back seat. During the formation fly-by, Ky himself had to relinquish control of "his" B-57 to his instructor as he had not been present during all of the previous day's familiarization training. After a spirited fly by and landing, once the B-57Cs landed and were at the far end of the runway and out of sight of the assembled guests, the USAF instructor pilots climbed out of their back seats and the three jets were taxied to the ceremony area by their VNAF pilots and Premier Ky, which of course had the desired propaganda effect. As soon as the ceremony ended, the three B-57s had their USAF markings reapplied and were flown back to Clark AB. 

Major Bien of the VNAF, officially in charge of the VNAF portion of the B-57 training, brought another group of 12 pilots and 12 navigators to Clark to begin actual bona fide training in the B-57. Of historical interest, there were also two Philippine Air Force navigators in the group as well as a "gesture of thanks" to the Philippine government for allowing their country to serve as a vital rear logistics area for the war effort. As each VNAF pilot and navigator completed their training at Clark, they were then sent to Bien Hoa with either the USAF 8th Bomb Squardon or the 13th Bomb Squadron (whoever was on rotation at the time) and were paired up with either experienced USAF pilots or navigators to fly combat missions. There were VNAF-marked B-57s based at Bien Hoa AB, but they were few in number and always flown under USAF command.
At this point Premier Ky felt that the VNAF B-57 program was not getting the visibility he desired and wanted in order to boost the morale of the South Vietnamese military. On 29 October 1965, the Armed Forces Day for South Vietnam, five B-57s were flown in from Clark and repainted in VNAF markings. Fully armed and fueled and crewed entirely by USAF personnel, the five Canberras took off from Da Nang, struck a suspected Viet Cong base and then flew 300 feet at nearly 300 knots up the main boulevard in Saigon and over the Presidential residence. This gave Premier Ky his propaganda coup even though not one crewman on that mission was a VNAF officer!

Despite this, morale amongst the VNAF contingent in the Philippines was low and USAF instructors were constantly being frustrated by the lack of discipline of the second group which included frequent claims of illness and even complaints about the extreme maneuvers needed in exploiting the B-57's strengths. Matters came to a head when one VNAF pilot crash landed his B-57 at NAS Cubi Point while doing touch-and-gos. But before the issue of morale and discipline could be sorted out, the charismatic leader of the VNAF contingent, Major Bien, was killed in a freak accident when his B-57 diverted to Pleiku AB. Unable to restart his engines due to the inexperienced VNAF ground crew installing the engine starter cartridges incorrectly, the ground crew elected to manually push his B-57 to another area of the ramp for further attention. Unfortunately, the engines powered the hydraulic system and the brakes were inoperable. The ground crew lost control of the B-57 and in an effort to avoid getting injured, Major Bien jumped from the open cockpit only to be run over by one of the main wheels. 

With Major Bien's death, the rest of the VNAF contingent at Clark refused to continue with the B-57 program and the USAF closed down the VNAF B-57 program on 20 April 1966, only seven months after the program was publicly announced. The remaining VNAF B-57s were repainted in USAF markings and returned to service with the 8th and 13th Bomb Squadrons in USAF markings and American crews. The most potent aircraft that the VNAF had been given had been an utter failure, a victim of political grandstanding by the South Vietnamese government. 

Source: Martin B-57 Canberra: The Complete Record by Robert C. Mikesh. Schiffer Military History Press, 1995, p99-104.

15 August 2010

The Multinational NATO E-3 Sentry Force

In the 1970s the NATO military alliance directed studies that looked at ways to improve the air defenses of the member nations. With the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft entering service with the USAF in 1977 with the 552d Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing at Tinker AFB, the E-3 and its capabilities became the default candidate to meet the air defense needs of NATO. The NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF) was created in January 1980 and granted full command status in October of that year by the alliance headquarters. The NATO E-3 force would be based at the former RAF airbase at Geilenkirchen just 50 miles from Cologne. The base had once been home to fighter squadrons assigned to RAF Germany from the end of the Second World War to 1968, at which time the base was handed back to the Germans to house a Pershing IRBM wing. With the arrival of the first NATO E-3 Sentry aircraft in 1982, flying operations started in earnest in February 1982 with then-West Germany handing over Geilenkirchen to NATO the following month. Full operational capability of the E-3 Component came in 1988.

The NATO E-3 Component of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (NAEW&CF) is the first postwar military unit manned by a multinational force from what started out as 11 nations. Today, 18 nations participate- Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States. Crews and personnel from the contributing nations not only fly and man the 18 E-3 Sentry aircraft based at Geilenkirchen, but also the support personnel of the base as well. The component commander is usually a brigadier general and the five wings of the force (Operations, Logistics, Base Support, Training, and Information Technology) are each led by a colonel from one of the contributing member nations. Only Luxembourg and the UK do not provide any personnel to the E-3 Component. Luxembourg's main contribution is the registration of the aircraft as belonging to Luxembourg and the UK has its own Sentry AWACS force based at RAF Waddington which operates under the command of the NAEW&CF.

In addition to the 18 Boeing E-3A Sentry AWACS aircraft, three ex-airline Boeing 707-320Cs were purchased as 707 Trainer Cargo Aircraft (TCA) in the late 1980s to support NAEW&CF operations. One E-3A was lost in a crash in 1996 at Aktion, Greece, due to a bird strike. There are dedicated forward operating bases (FOB) at Trapani, Italy, Aktion, Greece, and Konya, Turkey. In addition, there is a forward operating location (FOL) at Orland, Norway, and is designated differently as a formality as Norway does not allow foreign bases on its territory.

At first the E-3As were procured to fill radar gaps in the NATO alliance's radar coverage but have also served as an air battle management station (such as during the Balkan conflicts) and as a flying command post (such as in covering a major diplomatic event). The E-3 force regularly conducts counter-terrorism patrols in the Mediterranean and provides a complete maritime surveillance picture for the NATO command. During high visibility events such as summits or major sporting events like the World Cup, the E-3As act as an airborne adjunct to existing local radar networks. The powerful radar of the Sentry can detect low-flying aircraft and any unidentified aircraft not transmitting transponder squawk codes.

In the near future, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has requested the presence of the NATO E-3s there, but the diplomatic details of a basing location nearby are still being worked out.
Source: Combat Aircraft, August 2010, Vol 11, No 8. "NATO's Flying Saucers" by Frank Crebas, p56-61.

12 August 2010

Project Stormfury 1962-1983

I had posted the other night about the first serious effort at weather modification, Project Cirrus. Despite the termination of Project Cirrus in 1952 due to a stalemate on the validity of the data between the project scientists and the US Weather Bureau, efforts at weather modification didn't quite end. The chief scientist of Project Cirrus, had many adherents in the aviation and meteorology disciplines willing to continue his work. During the mid-1950s, a series of destructive hurricanes hit the United States. During the 1954 Atlantic hurricane season, Hurricanes Carol and Edna both hit New England and Hurricane Hazel left a path of destruction from Haiti to as far north as Toronto, Canada. Several other storms followed in the few years following, but none were as destructive as the three storms of the 1954 season.

Irving Langmuir's work with Project Cirrus was resurrected in 1962 when leaders in Washington launched Project Stormfury with the cooperation of the US Navy and the US Department of Commerce (the cabinet department that the US Weather Bureau belonged to). This time, however, with memories fresh of the 1954 hurricane season, the mission would be to send aircraft deep into hurricanes to seed them with hopes of weakening their destructive forces. Project Stormfury missions were some of the most dangerous yet- aircraft like the hurricane hunting Douglas DC-6s of the US Weather Bureau and US Navy Lockheed WC-121 Warning Stars (later WP-3A Orions) were sent into the fiercest part of the hurricanes, the eyewall, in hopes that cloud seeding would weaken the hurricane. Various support aircraft flew on the periphery and even above the storms. Government scientists flew on the Stormfury missions as well to gather data on the internal dynamics of the hurricanes. At the peak of Project Stormfury in 1969, over $2 million was being spent a year on the missions, a hefty sum in those days for a project that still sat on dubious scientific ground.

Scientists had developed 130-pound bombs that contained silver iodide crystals to seed lower altitudes from safer altitudes higher up. Special silver iodide flares were developed that burned for over 30 seconds as they fell through the clouds. Many of Stormfury's scientists were convinced that concentrating the seeding on the eyewall would result in the energy being expended as rain. The tighter the eyewall, the stronger the winds. By flying around the eyewall at certain altitudes, the seeding methods would dissipate the eyewalls clouds as they released their moisture as rain. If they could "loosen" the eyewall as much as 10 miles outward, that corresponded with a significant decrease in the storm's destructive power.

Because of the size of hurricanes, the seeding missions often required approximately 10 aircraft flying laps around the eye within the turbulent eyewall. Radar was used not only to guide the aircraft day or night in the eyewall, but also to assist with coordination and station keeping as the seeding drops by all the aircraft had to be coordinated. It seemed the the seeding operations were working- the eyewalls of the storms "attacked" appeared to widen and the storms would drop in intensity. But keep in mind that these Stormfury flights were also gathering data on the internal dynamics of the hurricanes as well.

As the data was compiled, seeding came under closer scrutiny. Pilots before each mission were randomly given one of two envelopes- one that ordered them to seed the eyewall and one that had them fly the mission, but to not seed the storm. The blinded experiments set up by the US Weather Bureau showed that the Stormfury scientists weren't able to reliably determine if the storm had been seeded or not. In the early 1970s, the Atlantic hurricane season was unusually quiet and not enough storms developed within range of Florida for seeding experiments to be conducted. Once the hurricane seasons intensified again, political pressure prevented Stormfury missions from being flown again. Some of this was the post-Vietnam era environment of budget austerity; some of it was pressure from politicians from states like Florida that feared getting struck by a storm that had been modified and had inadvertantly gotten stronger. Stormfury's scientists then tried to get the missions flown in the Pacific, but the governments of China, Japan, and Australia were very explicit that they didn't want weather modification experiments in their part of the world.

The final nail in the coffin of Project Stormfury came in 1983 when several scientists, some of which were Stormfury participants, wrote a scientific analysis that showed that hurricane eyewalls cyclically weaken and intensify on their own, what we today call the "eyewall regeneration cycle" or ERC. In addition, their work also showed that the necessary ingredient for successful seeding, supercooled water, was several orders of magnitude less than what Project Stormfury's scientists had assumed. In their review of 21 years of seeding missions and the data collected, not a single storm had been conclusively disrupted and any decreases in strength were likely part of the observed eyewall regeneration cycle. That year, the Department of Commerce canceled Project Stormfury for good.

All wasn't lost, though. All those missions into hurricanes in the 21 years of Project Stormfury generated reams of data that gave meteorologists insights into the dynamics and mechanisms of hurricanes that improved weather forecasting. The data might otherwise not have been collected at the rate it was were it not for the intensity of the Stormfury missions that not only carried silver iodide, but also scientists and data-gathering equipment. Today, despite the fact that the US population on the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts has exploded exponentially, the risk of dying from a hurricane is less than 1% of what it was in 1900.

Source: Air & Space Smithsonian, July 2010, Vol. 25, No. 2. "Climate Control: Irving Langmuir tried to change the world one storm at a time" by Sam Kean, p55-57.

11 August 2010

How American Airlines Saved the MD-80

When McDonnell Douglas launched the MD-80 the first aircraft were rolling of the Long Beach line in the midst of the financial turmoil in the airline industry right around the time of deregulation. This led to disappointing initial sales for the aircraft, with only 62 aircraft delivered in the first two years of production and none of them from one of the US majors. The board of directors then authorized the price of the aircraft to dropped to the breakeven point just to move planes and if that wasn't enough, there was quite a bit talk about closing the MD-80 production line. Airlines simply didn't have the capital to spend on new planes during the years following deregulation.

In 1984 Robert Crandall was the then-new head of American Airlines and found the airline saddled with increasing inefficient gas-guzzling 727-100s and 727-200s. At one point he even considered getting them re-engined to improve their fuel economy- but those plans were shelved when McDonnell Douglas came to him with a ground-breaking plan that would allow Crandall to replace the 727s while at the same time keep the MD-80 production line open. McDonnell Douglas salespeople pitched a 20% improvement in operating economics over the 727, but Crandall wanted more than just better economics.

McDonnell Douglas was desperate for a major order- by this point the industry was rife with rumors of the cancellation of the MD-80 program and with the rocky financial picture of the company at the time, those sort of rumors began a vicious cycle as major airlines began to shun the MD-80 series and give McDonnell Douglas salespeople the runaround in corporate headquarters worldwide.

McDonnell Douglas then did something that would change the way the industry purchased and operated aircraft- they offered American 20 MD-82s on a five-year lease with options for extension. With as little as 30 days notice, American could return the aircraft at a cost of less than $2 million per jet. In return, no money would be required up front. McDonnell Douglas hoped that American's operation of the MD-82s would lead to firm sales later on. With the lease payments arranged coming out to less than the interest on a new aircraft, American agreed to the lease terms which included a share of the profits for the manufacturer if the aircraft proved highly productive for American Airlines.

Under this arrangement, those first 20 MD-82s led to an American order worth $1.35 billion for an additional 60 MD-82s with options for another 100 MD-82s for a total potential sale of over $3 billion. Production rates in Long Beach were increased from an abysmal low of three jets per month. American's first MD-82s entered service in May 1983 and proved to be more efficient than advertised- 37% better than the 727s they were replacing. American would eventually become the world's largest MD-80 operator, with over 300 aircraft (prior to the TWA acquisition).

This ground-breaking agreement changed the way the industry re-equipped and allowed cash-poor carriers to to ditch their older gas-guzzling jets. TWA followed American with an initial 15 aircraft lease similar to what McDonnell Douglas had set up with American and by the mid-1980s, the MD-80 was on the order books for other airlines as well such as Alitalia and Finnair, ensuring the long-term future of the MD-80 series. Had American not come through with its orders, the MD-80 production line likely would have been shut down (possibly for good) at the end of 1982 with an order backlog of only 7 jets. There would eventually be 1,125 MD-80 series jetliners built, 710 of which are still flying today. From the MD-80 family came the MD-90 (117 built, 105 still flying) and the 717 (which was designated the MD-95 prior to the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger; 156 built, 144 still flying). Quite a turnaround for a program that was on the verge of shutdown had it not been for American Airlines!

Source: Douglas Twinjets: DC-9, MD-80, MD-90 and 717 (Crowood Aviation Series) by Thomas Beecher. Crowood Press, 2002.

09 August 2010

Irving Langmuir and Project Cirrus

By the end of World War II, Irving Langmuir was already a well-known industrial chemist with impeccable credentials that went as far back as before the First World War when he worked with GE and Thomas Edison to improve the incandescent light bulb, the basis of which led to his 1932 Nobel Prize in chemistry, becoming the first industrial chemist to win the prestigious award. But he had other pursuits and mind, having become interested in weather phenomena before the start of the Second World War. Not only was Langmuir interested in the weather, he saw a chance to even control the weather. At the time, the idea of weather modification and control had been established in the realm of pseudoscience practiced by half-crazed individuals. But in Langmuir, suddenly the field of weather modification had the clout of a prominent scientist. He successfully persuaded his employer, General Electric, to team up with the US Army Signal Corps and the Office of Naval Research in 1946 to start Project Cirrus.

Lanmuir teamed up with a GE machinist, Vincent Shaefer and a chemist, Bernard Vonnegut (author Kurt Vonnegut's older brother) to start some basic work in a research lab to determine the best way to cause precipitation to fall out of a cloud. Dry ice was found at first to be useful, but work also proceeded on silver iodide that was created by Vonnegut. In November 1946 the first aerial cloud seeding in history took place under Langmuir's direction near GE's headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Using a rented Fairchild 24 converted for crop dusting, a four mile long altostratus cloud at 4,000 feet was seeded with dry ice pellets fed into a funnel by Vincent Shaefer in the back of the aircraft. Within minutes, snow fell but evaporated at 2,000 feet. Undeterred, Langmuir tried a more ambitious experiment the following month using a bigger load of dry ice the following month. No precipitation resulted, but the following day upstate New York and Vermont were hit with the biggest snowstorm of the winter season that shut down business and caused accidents throughout the area. Though no connection could be made, many residents of upstate New York blamed Langmuir's experiments.

The US Weather Bureau (predecessor of the National Weather Service and part of the Department of Commerce) and its scientists, though, weren't convinced as no causal relationship could be drawn between that December seeding and the snowstorm the following day. Despite this, GE lawyers got spooked by the potential liability and insisted that Langmuir get the full cooperation of the US military as it was better shielded from the sorts of lawsuits GE feared. Military cooperation benefited Project Cirrus as more powerful aircraft with better load carrying capacities were no available. Boeing B-17s were first used which could seed as much as 80 pounds of dry ice pellets on each pass through target clouds. In October 1947 a USAF B-17 took off from MacDill AFB in Tampa to seed a weak hurricane that was stalled out off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. Langmuir felt that seeding the rain bands of the storm with silver iodide would weaken it further. For whatever reason, the hurricane inexplicably strengthened, speed up, and struck Savannah, Georgia, causing several deaths and $34 million in damage. Once again, Project Cirrus was blamed for the strengthening of the storm even though the scientists of the US Weather Bureau insisted otherwise.
GE's legal department got spooked again and Project Cirrus was moved to New Mexico to try and create rain in the arid climate. For two years Langmuir's team seeded clouds with silver iodide crystals. Langmuir boldly announced to the press after two years that "only a few cents' worth of silver iodide could initiate dozens of rainstorms." He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine as a "rainmaker" and he quit his position at GE to speak throughout the country on the potential of rainmaking. Soon private pilots throughout the US started up "rainmaking" operations and cloud seeding took place over a six-state area, spurring Congressional hearings as local tourist attractions accused the seeding activities of affecting their businesses.

Even worse, the US Weather Bureau's scientists were busy debunking Langmuir's work. The New Mexico storms were usually the result of warm fronts that pumped Gulf moisture into the area. Study of hurricane records showed that the Savannah hurricane followed the same track as a storm in 1906, calling into question what if any effect had been caused by the seeding of that storm. Project Cirrus ended in a stalemate with the US Weather Bureau and in 1952 GE was more than happy to pull the plug on the project. Langmuir died in 1957 of a heart attack, but the work in the United States on weather modification hardly died with the death of its greatest champion.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this story!

Source: Air & Space Smithsonian, July 2010, Vol. 25, No. 2. "Climate Control: Irving Langmuir tried to change the world one storm at a time" by Sam Kean, p52-55.

08 August 2010

The Shuttle Training Aircraft

Because of the unique and challenging flying qualities of the Space Shuttle Orbiter when it returns to Earth as a very heavy glider, NASA has had four Gulfstream II jets that have been modified to train Shuttle commanders and pilots in the complex task of bringing the Orbiter to a smooth landing after reentry. To accomplish this unique task, the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) has a number of modifications that set it apart from a standard GII business jet. The most important of these modifications is of course, internal, with the Advanced Digital Avionics System (ADAS) that replaces some of the seats (leaving nine seats) on the right side of the forward cabin. The ADAS takes in variables such as the weight of the Orbiter on return to Earth, runway and direction/elevation of the field in question and then moves the flight control surfaces and throttles of the STA to simulate how the Orbiter would respond to control inputs from its pilots.

The trainee pilot sits in the left side of the STA cockpit which has all the necessary instrumentation and heads-up display (HUD) as used on the Shuttle as well as the Orbiter's left hand stick controller. The front and side cockpit windows on the left side of the STA cockpit are also partially masked to give the pilot flying the simulation the same angular field of view as if he or she were on the Orbiter's flight deck.

The right side of the cockpit is occupied by the instructor who also has a HUD but is otherwise has stock GII instrumentation. The nosewheel steering has been relocated from the left side to the right, and there is a button that the instructor can press to exit the simulation and return the STA to the standard flight characteristics of the Gulfstream jet.

Externally, to make the Gulfstream fly like the Orbiter, the wings have been modified with three flying surfaces instead of the just two (flaps and aileron) used on the standard GII. The third surface is inboard section of the flaps and is a direct lift flap that can deflect up 30 degrees (this kills some of the wing lift and better simulates the aerodynamics of the Orbiter) and down 20 degrees as a standard flap. The ADAS also moves the flaperon (what was once the flap) and the aileron to faithfully replicate the flight characteristics of the Orbiter. The direct lift flaps are fast acting and also work in concert with the engines. Unlike a standard GII which has clamshell bucket reversers on the engines, the STA has cascade reversers installed that can be used in flight and if they fail, they automatically stow. The wings have also been structurally strengthened and the vortex generators just behind the leading edge are nearly full span to help the airflow stay attached to the wings during the extreme maneuvering performed by the STA. On the stock GII, the vortex generators are only outboard of the wing fence.

Each STA sortie consists of 10 simulated Orbiter approaches, starting from 35,000 feet. The speed is then set at 250 kts (the speed limit of the main landing gear extension) and the main landing gear is extended to create more drag for the steep approach of approximately 20-30 degrees. The ADAS also activates the thrust reversers as needed to maintain the fidelity of the simulation. The descent is flown at 300 kts at 20 degrees which translates to approximately 12,000 feet per minute descent rate. At this point, the pilots are literally hanging forward in their harnesses and only the ground fills the cockpit view. At final approach, the STA is at 250 kts and the instructor lowers the nose gear just in case the trainee pilot inadvertantly lands the STA. In the Orbiter, the point of touchdown corresponds with the STA still about 20 feet off the ground. At that point touchdown is considered to have been made the instructor exits the simulation, takes control and takes the STA back up to altitude for another simulation run.

Most STA flights take place at White Sands, New Mexico, with the aircraft based at El Paso International Airport. Three runways are marked out in the dry lakebed to simulate the runways at Edwards AFB, Kennedy Space Center, and the trans-oceanic abort landing sites at Istres AB, France, Zaragoza AB and Moron AB, both in Spain. Trainee pilots start off with a foundation of 20 STA flights and at this point become competent enough to assigned to an Orbiter crew. Once assigned to a crew, both the pilot and mission commander will fly the STA once a month. Nine months out from launch the STA flights are made every other week and then three months out the STA flights are made weekly. Previous pilots and mission commanders who have already flown to space start their every other week ramp up in the STA at six months out from launch. At three months from launch, the some of the weekly STA flights are made at Edwards AFB and at the Kennedy Space Center as well. Extra flights can also be requested by the trainee pilots.

Two weeks before launch two STAs are flown to the Kennedy Space Center and daily STA training flights are made, one of which is done in the full spacesuit for added realism. By the time a first time Shuttle mission commander blasts off, they will have made approximately 1,000 practice approaches in the STA. First time Shuttle pilots will have made a minimum of 500 STA approaches. With the Shuttle program winding down, no decisions have yet been made on the future of the STA aircraft.

Source: Air International, July 2010, Vol. 79, No.1. "NASA's Unique Approach- Space Shuttle Landing" by Dino Carrara, p82-91.

07 August 2010

The Spiroid Winglet

In the late 1990s Aviation Partners Inc. (API), the developer of the blended winglet, began to flight test on a Gulfstream II a completely different winglet shape than anything that had flown before, the spiroid winglet. The original patent of the closed-loop shape winglet was originally filed in 1992 by one of API's founders. The basic idea of the spiroid winglet is to take the benefits of the blended winglet to their fullest by essentially bringing the blended winglet to loop back onto the wing. The vortices that stream off the wingtips of aircraft are a major source of drag and in the blended winglet, they have resulted in 5-7% increase in fuel efficiency by attenuating those vortices.

The first version of the spiroid winglets flown in the 1990s on the Gulfstream II were more circular in shape than the current incarnation. Flight testing of the first version resulted in refinements to the design that leads to more of an arch design with the inboard section of the spiroid moved farther aft and outboard to bring it closer to the wingtip vortex. The resultant design is now in flight testing on a Dassault Falcon 50 and the winglets and structural strengthening needed add 500 pounds to the empty weight of the jet. It was this Falcon 50 that made its first public appearance at the recent Oshkosh air show. Constructed of polished aluminum and approximately six feet in height, the new spiroids are not just intended to attenuate the wingtip vortex but to attempt to eliminate them altogether. Should this be the case, the leap in fuel savings and efficiency would be tremendous- on the order of 30% over the existing blended winglet design.

One of the side benefits of the spiroid winglet's possible ability to nearly eliminate the wingtip vortex would be in air traffic flow management at major airports. As it is right now, aircraft spacing is necessary to allow for wake vortex dissipation for the following aircraft. Aircraft with spiroid winglets would allow following aircraft to be spaced closer, in effect easing some of the congestion at major airports and improving flow efficiency.

The Dassault Falcon 50 testbed is to begin its formal flight test program this month to explore flutter, stability, and allow precise measurements of the degree of drag reduction. The aircraft will be initially limited to 250 KIAS and 0.70 Mach but as the tests progress, the flight envelope is anticipated to be expanded and may include icing tests.

Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology, August 2, 2010. "Head Turning Tip" by William Garvey, "Inside Business Aviation" column, p60.

05 August 2010

The History of the TWA Moonliner

In the fall of 1955 a new Disneyland attraction opened to great fanfare as the centerpiece of Tomorrowland. Designed by Disney imagineer John Hench, the TWA Moonliner stood 76 feet tall as a 1/3 scale replica of what a 1986-era Moonliner was conceptualized to look like. Hench worked with the NASA rocket scientists Werner von Braun and Willy Ley in creating the Moonliner. Early in the design process, Ralph Damon, the president of TWA, was brought in as part of a classic marketing coup by Disney to sponsor the Moonliner attraction. At the time, TWA was the official airline of Disneyland, and TWA's classic red stripes on white would adorn the new Moonliner. The Moonliner stood eight feet taller than Sleeping Beauty's castle that formed the centerpiece of the Disneyland park.

Inside the main attraction housed next to the Moonliner, Disney visitors entered a futuristic ticketing and boarding area complete with flight attendants and gate agents in futuristic TWA uniforms. TWA signage adorned the simulated terminal area and large viewscreens and animated models demonstrated to waiting visitors the workings of the atomic-powered Moonliner and the planned routing to visit the Moon after liftoff. The passenger compartment of the attraction featured one of the first uses of air jackhammers and hydraulics to heighten the sensation and simulation of a rocket launch and spaceflight while two large screens displayed the progress of the flight. The PA system featured a baritone voice announcing himself as "Captain Collins, welcome aboard the TWA Moonliner 'Star of Polaris' for our flight to the Moon."

Once visitors exited the ride, they were ushered through what Disney called "Hobbyland" where they could buy toys and models of the TWA Moonliner and other space-themed attractions at Tomorrowland. Disney inked an exclusive deal with Strombecker Models to create the models and toys to be sold next to the attaction in the first widespread instance of what we now call cross-marketing that features so prominently with today's movies and television shows. At the same time Disney opened the TWA Moonliner, their Sunday evening television program featured a three part series titled "Man in Space" in which one part of the feature used scenes shot at the TWA Moonliner.

One year after the opening of the TWA Moonliner attraction, Howard Hughes had a 22-foot replica of the Moonliner added to the roof of the TWA headquarters building in Kansas City, Missouri at 18th Street and Baltimore. When Howard Hughes sold his stake in TWA in 1962, not only was this replica Moonliner removed and sold to a local company, but TWA also ended its sponsorship of the Moonliner attraction and Disneyland. It became the Douglas Moonliner when Douglas Aircraft Company became the attraction's sponsor and the Moonliner itself was repainted in Douglas' blue and red colors with the company name running down the side. With the merger of St. Louis-based McDonnell Aircraft Company and Douglas Aircraft Company in 1967, sponsorship ended and the Moonliner was taken down. In 1975 the Flight to the Moon attraction itself became the Mission to Mars attraction.

In 1997, a Missouri-based collector of Disney memorabilia purchased the deteriorating Moonliner replica that sat atop the TWA headquarters building. After a long restoration process, it now sits as part of the Airline History Museum's display at Kansas City's Wheeler/Downtown Airport. In 2006, a real estate development group bought the old TWA headquarters building and remodeled it as part of a new arts district. As a tribute to the building's past history as TWA's Kansas City headquarters, a slightly smaller but fully lit TWA Moonliner replica was built atop the building.

Source: From Props to Jets: Commercial Aviation's Transition to the Jet Age 1952-1962 by Craig Kodera, Mike Machat, and Jon Proctor. Specialty Press, 2010, p70-71.

04 August 2010

Twilight of the Mighty Hunter

I had posted back in December about one of the obscure roles performed by the BAe Nimrod during the 1982 Falklands War. More often with ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, maritime patrol aircraft like the Nimrod and the Lockheed P-3 Orion are finding themselves performing missions they were not initially designed to perform. During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the onboard high fidelity EO systems of the Orion proved valuable to US Special Forces teams fighting the Taliban. With long endurance, extensive sensor and communication suites and larger crews able to handle multiple tasks, maritime patrol aircraft became ideal in the role of overland ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance).

In 2003 the RAF issued an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) to equip several Nimrods with a late-generation EO sensor system, the Wescam MX-15. Four aircraft had the sensor turret mounted in a fairing installed under the starboard wing just inboard of the pinion tank and deployed to Saudi Arabia to assist joint UK-US-Australian special forces teams in scouring the western deserts of Iraq for Scud missile launchers. After the fall of the Iraqi regime, the Nimrods returned to their home base of RAF Kinloss, but were soon recalled to Iraq in the summer of that year to assist in the fight against the insurgency under Operation Paradoxical. Since the RAF didn't yet have any UAVs in the same class as the MQ-1 Predator, the Nimrods with the MX-15 EO system provided high-fidelity overhead real-time ISR for the coalition forces involved. At the time, an early version of the ROVER (Remote Optical Video Enhanced Receiver) called Longhorn was in use that allowed, with much effort and technical issues, troops on the ground to see what the Nimrod overhead was seeing. The current ROVER system is much more user friendly.

In the spring of 2004 British forces in Basra found themselves battling the militia fighters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and once again the MX-15 equipped Nimrods provided overhead ISR for the troops on the ground. At the culmination of the effort against the Sadr Militia, an overhead Nimrod provided targeting information to an orbiting AC-130 Spectre gunship. As Sadr Militia units dispersed throughout the back streets of the city of Al Amarah, the Nimrod crew used the MX-15 system to identify the militia and then hand off the coordinates to the Spectre for destruction.

In the latter half of that year following the stabilization of the Shiite south, the Nimrods shifted their attention to Baghdad in an effort to combat the increase in Sunni insurgent bombings there. A Nimrod would forward deploy from Oman to Basra International Airport with a British army liason officer aboard. Flying almost nightly from Basra, the small Nimrod force was flying over 200 hours a month.

In the overland mission, the Nimrod's three acoustic sensor operators rotated shifts operating the MX-15 turret. The ESM and Searchwater radar operators were in charge of deconfliction over the crowded airspace over Baghdad. Army liason officers worked with the mission commander at the master display to coordinate and disseminate the information from the EO operators on the nine-hour missions. The MX-15 had three cameras- one narrow band, one wide band and one in infrared that were selectable by the operators. The best image is then displayed on a larger monitor over a moving map display that allowed ground units to easily relay to the operators where to look.

In July 2006 the MX-15-equipped Nimrod force switched its attention to Afghanistan in the intensifying effort against the Taliban. With a grueling schedule divided between Iraq and Afghanistan, the Nimrod force finally gave way with the loss of XV230 in September in 2006 with all of its 15 crew being lost. The cause was traced to persistent problems with the Nimrod's air-refueling plumbing system adjacent to hot air ducting. With 11 aircraft remaining in the overall fleet, the UK Ministry of Defense put those aircraft through a modification project that was completed in 2009, but the Nimrods never returned to Afghanistan, their role being taken up by a trio of new RAF aircraft, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, Beechcraft Shadow R.1 ISR (based on the Beech King Air) and the new Bombardier Sentinel R.1 SAR surveillance aircraft (based on the Global Express business jet). In March 2010 the Nimrod MR.2 aircraft were official retired, ending some 30 years' service which began in the icy waters of the North Atlantic hunting Soviet subs and ended over the harsh terrain of Afghanistan hunting insurgents. It's replacement, the Nimrod MRA.4, won't be due to enter service until 2012 at the earliest.

Source: Air Forces Monthly, July 2010. "Secrets of the Nimrod at War", by Tim Ripley, p38-42.