- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

The record-setting speed by the X-43A experimental scramjet engine on Tuesday marked the final operational mission for NASA’s B-52B test aircraft.

“This was the last research mission for NASA’s B-52,” said X-43A project manager Joel Sitz. “It’s been a great airplane. I couldn’t think of a better airplane to carry us for our final mission.”

Former astronaut Gordon Fullerton, who commanded the final research flight, said, “It was a very smooth operation. The airplane was flawless — the experiment and the rocket. [I] just went down the checklist all the way to throwing the switch.

“Bittersweet’s the word,” Mr. Fullerton said of piloting the last flight. “It’s been [the carrier for] a lot of different projects in the years I’ve been here. Very satisfying to be able to support them, but to realize that there aren’t anymore is sad.”

The B-52B was built in 1952, one of the first B-52 bombers off the assembly line, but has never dropped a bomb on any enemy target. Instead, it has been used as a research aircraft carrying a variety of test aircraft, prototype spacecraft and operational air-launched vehicles.

The Air Force used the B-52B for tests for several years, then turned it over to NASA in 1959.

Although it’s the oldest B-52 still flying, it has been flown the least because it was used only for test flights. The aircraft has clocked only 2,450 flight hours in its 52 years in operation. Including checkout flights, it has made only about 1,050 takeoffs and landings — an average of just one two-hour flight every two weeks over its five decades in use. Though it’s rarely flown, those flights are important engineering tests.

The main modification to the B-52 is a pylon under its right wing, where the test aircraft is mounted, and a V-shaped notch in the wing to provide enough room for the tails of the test aircraft.

NASA’s first use for the B-52 was the X-15 rocket plane program, the only time a winged rocket with a pilot aboard has ever reached hypersonic speeds and, until recently, the only rocket plane to reach high enough altitude for its pilots to qualify for astronaut wings.

The B-52 has been used as the carrier aircraft for a variety of experimental aircraft drop tests to check out parachutes for the shuttle’s solid-fuel rocket boosters, unmanned drones and other vehicles.

In the mid-1970s, the B-52 dropped the X-24B lifting body aircraft, which proved that an unpowered aircraft with a small wing could make precision landings on a concrete runway. That experiment was important to show that the upcoming space shuttle could land on a runway after completing a mission.

One of the final X-24B flights was piloted by Dick Scobee, one of the first shuttle-era astronauts. He died in the Challenger accident in 1986.

Besides its many drop tests, the B-52 also was used to check out the space shuttle’s drag parachute, which helps it slow down after landing, in unusual tests where nothing was mounted underneath the B-52’s wing.

The highest-speed vehicles launched from the B-52 were the commercial Pegasus, three-stage rockets, which use an aircraft as an airborne launch platform. A modified Pegasus first stage was used for the X-43 flights.

The B-52B is scheduled to make one more flight but again without anything under its wing. That flight will deliver it to the museum that is selected for its permanent display.

Many would prefer that the aircraft stay at Edwards Air Force Base in Lancaster, Calif.

Mr. Fullerton said, “It’s lived all of its life here; that’s where it ought to stay. It doesn’t represent the bomber fleet at all. This is its natural home.”

He also noted on the B-52’s retirement: “It’s hauled a lot of vehicles. They certainly got their money out of it.”

One of the key reasons for retiring the B-52B is the lack of spare parts. Many items, such as water-injected J57 turbojet engines, are obsolete. In some cases, the mechanics had to raid museums to find such old parts as fuel gauges, which no longer are manufactured.

NASA searched for a more current version of the B-52 still in use by the Air Force so it could continue testing experimental vehicles that have to be dropped from a high altitude. A B-52H in active service was found and, though it has more flight time, it isn’t as old as NASA’s B-52B.

It’s only 42 years old.

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