The NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) is an aeronautical research center operated by NASA. Its primary campus is located inside Edwards Air Force Base in California and is considered NASA’s premier site for aeronautical research. AFRC operates some of the most advanced aircraft in the world and is known for many aviation firsts, including critical support for the first crewed airplane to exceed the speed of sound in level flight with the Bell X-1, highest speed ever recorded by a crewed, powered aircraft (North American X-15), the first pure digital fly-by-wire aircraft (F-8 DFBW), and many others. AFRC also operates a second site in Palmdale, Ca. known as Building 703, once the former Rockwell International/North American Aviation production facility, next to Air Force Plant 42. There, AFRC houses and operates several of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate aircraft including SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy), a DC-8 Flying Laboratory, a Gulfstream C-20A UAVSAR and ER-2 High Altitude Platform. David McBride is currently the center’s director.
On 1st March 2014, the facility was renamed in honor of Neil Armstrong, a former test pilot at the center and the first human being to walk on the surface of the Moon. The center was previously known as the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC) from 26th March 1976, in honour of Hugh L. Dryden, a prominent aeronautical engineer who at the time of his death in 1965 was NASA’s deputy administrator. It has also previously been known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Muroc Flight Test Unit (1946), the NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station (1949), the NACA High-Speed Flight Station (1954), the NASA High-Speed Flight Station (1958) and the NASA Flight Research Center (1959).
AFRC was also the home of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a modified Boeing 747 designed to carry a Space Shuttle orbiter back to Kennedy Space Center if one landed at Edwards.
Until 2004, Armstrong Flight Research Center operated the oldest B-52 Stratofortress bomber, a B-52B model (tail number 008) which had been converted to drop test aircraft, dubbed ‘Balls 8.’ It dropped many supersonic test vehicles, ranging from the X-15 to its last research program, the hypersonic X-43A, powered by a Pegasus rocket. The aircraft was retired and is currently on display near the North Gate of Edwards.
NASA’s predecessor, NACA, operated the Douglas Skyrocket. A successor to the Air Force’s Bell X-1, the D-558-II could operate under rocket or jet power. It conducted extensive tests into aircraft stability in the transsonic range, optimal supersonic wing configurations, rocket plume effects, and high-speed flight dynamics. On November 20th, 1953, the Douglas Skyrocket became the first aircraft to fly at over twice the speed of sound when it attained a speed of Mach 2.005. Like the X-1, the D-558-II could be air-launched using a B-29 Superfortress. Unlike the X-1, the Skyrocket could also takeoff from a runway with the help of JATO units.
Controlled Impact Demonstration
The Controlled Impact Demonstration was a joint project with the Federal Aviation Administration to research a new jet fuel that would decrease the damage due to fire in the crash of a large airliner. On 1 December 1984, a remotely piloted Boeing 720 aircraft was flown into specially built wing openers which tore the wings open, fuel spraying everywhere. Despite the new fuel additive, the resulting fireball was huge; the fire still took an hour to fully extinguish.
Even though the fuel additive did not prevent a fire, the research was not a complete failure. The additive still prevented the combustion of some fuel which flowed over the fuselage of the aircraft, and served to cool it, similar to how a conventional rocket engine cools its nozzle. Also, instrumented crash test dummies were in the airplane for the impact, and provided valuable research into other aspects of crash survivability for the occupants.
SR-71 Blackbird – NASA
During the 1990s two SR-71 Blackbird aircraft were used by NASA as testbeds for high-speed and high-altitude aeronautical research at Dryden. The aircraft included an SR-71A and SR-71B (the trainer version), loaned to NASA by the U.S. Air Force.
The SR-71, the most advanced member of the Blackbird family that included the A-12 and YF-12, was designed by a team of Lockheed personnel led by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, then vice president of Lockheed’s Advanced Development Company Projects, commonly known as the “Skunk Works” and now a part of Lockheed Martin Corp.
The Blackbird design originated in secrecy during the late 1950s with the A-12 reconnaissance aircraft that first flew in April 1962 and remained classified until 1976. President Lyndon Johnson publicly announced the existence of the YF-12A interceptor variant on Feb. 29th, 1964, more than half a year after its maiden flight. The SR-71 completed its first flight on Dec. 22nd, 1964. More than a decade after their retirement the Blackbirds remain the world’s fastest and highest-flying production aircraft ever built.
The Blackbirds were designed to cruise at Mach 3.2, just over three times the speed of sound or more than 2,200 miles per hour and at altitudes up to 85,000 feet. The extreme operating environment in which they flew made the aircraft excellent platforms for conducting research and experiments in a variety of disciplines: aerodynamics, propulsion, structures, thermal protection materials, high-speed and high-temperature instrumentation, atmospheric studies, and sonic boom characterization.
SR-71 activities at Dryden were part of NASA’s overall high-speed aeronautical research program and involved other NASA research Centers, other government agencies, universities, and commercial firms. Data from the SR-71 research project will aid designers of future supersonic/hypersonic aircraft and propulsion systems.
Research at Mach 3
One of the first major experiments flown on the NASA SR-71 involved a laser air-data sensor. The sensor used laser light instead of air pressure to generate airspeed and attitude data such as angle-of-attack and sideslip, data normally obtained with small tubes and vanes extending into the airstream or from tubes with flush openings on an aircraft’s outer skin. These flights also provided information on the presence of atmospheric particles at altitudes above 80,000 feet, where future hypersonic aircraft will operate. The system used six sheets of laser light projected from the bottom of the airplane. As microscopic-size atmospheric particles passed between the two beams, direction and speed were measured and processed into standard speed and attitude references. An earlier laser air-data measurement system was successfully tested at Dryden on a modified F-104 testbed aircraft.
The first of a series of flights using the SR-71 as a science camera platform for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, was flown in March 1993. From the nose bay of the aircraft, an upward-facing ultraviolet video camera recorded data on celestial objects in wavelengths blocked to ground-based astronomers by Earth’s atmosphere. In another project, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles used the SR-71 to investigate the use of charged chlorine atoms to protect and rebuild the ozone layer.
As part of NASA’s commercialization assistance program, the SR-71 served as a testbed in development of a commercial satellite-based, instant wireless personal communications network, called IRIDIUM. The IRIDIUM system was developed by Motorola’s Satellite Communications Division and during developmental testing, the SR-71 acted as a surrogate satellite for transmitters and receivers on the ground.
Because of its high-speed capabilities, scientists used the SR-71 in a project to study ways of reducing sonic boom overpressures that are heard on the ground much like sharp thunderclaps by aircraft exceeding the speed of sound. Aircraft designers have used data from the study in efforts to reduce the “peak” of sonic booms and minimize the “startle effect” they produce on the ground.
In 1997 and 1998 the SR-71 carried the NASA/Lockheed Martin Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE). The LASRE test apparatus was a half-span scale model of a lifting body with eight thrust cells of a linear aerospike engine, mounted on the back of an SR-71 aircraft during flight at high speeds and altitudes. Outfitted with the test fixture, the aircraft operated like a kind of flying wind tunnel that allowed engineers to gather aerodynamic data under realistic flight conditions.
By the time the Air Force loaned the two SR-71s to Dryden the Center already had a decade of past experience with the Blackbirds. Three of the aircraft were flown at the facility between December 1969 and November 1979 in a joint NASA/Air Force program aimed at learning more about the capabilities and limitations of high-speed, high-altitude flight. The first two were YF-12A prototypes of a planned interceptor aircraft based on the initial A-12 design that ultimately evolved into the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft. While plans were under way to add another aircraft to the fleet, one YF-12A was lost in a non-fatal mishap in 1971. The third aircraft, an SR-71A that was given the designation YF-12C for administrative purposes, soon took its place.
NASA researchers used the YF-12s for a variety of experiments involving aerodynamic and thermal loads, aerodynamic drag and skin friction, heat transfer, airframe and propulsion system interactions, inlet control system improvements, high-altitude turbulence, boundary-layer flow, landing gear dynamics, measurement of engine effluents for pollution studies, noise measurements, and evaluation of a maintenance monitoring and recording system. On many YF-12 flights medical researchers obtained information on the physiological and biomedical aspects of crews flying at sustained high speeds. Research data from the YF-12 program also validated analytical theories and wind-tunnel test techniques that will improve design and performance of future military and civil aircraft.
From February 1972 until July 1973, one YF-12A was used for heat loads testing in Dryden’s High Temperature Loads Laboratory (now the Thermostructures Research Facility). The resulting data helped improve theoretical prediction methods and computer models dealing with structural loads, materials, and heat distribution at up to 800 °F, the surface temperatures reached during sustained speeds of Mach 3.
SR-71 Specifications and Performance
Two Pratt & Whitney J58 axial-flow turbojets with afterburners, each producing 32,500 lb of thrust, powered the Blackbirds. Less than 20 percent of the total thrust used to fly at Mach 3 was produced by the engine itself, however. During high-speed cruise conditions the balance of total thrust was produced by the unique design of the engine inlet and a moveable conical spike at the front of each engine nacelle. Under these conditions, air entering the inlets bypassed the engines, going directly to the afterburners and ejector nozzles, thus acting as ramjets.
The airframes were built almost entirely of titanium and other exotic alloys to withstand heat generated by sustained high-speed flight. Capable of cruising at Mach 3 continuously for more than one hour at a time, the Blackbirds provided a unique research platform for thermal experiments because heat-soak temperatures exceeded 600 °F.
The aircraft was 107.4 feet (32.73 meters) long, had a wingspan of 55.6 feet (16.94 meters), and stood 18.5 feet (5.63 meters) high (from the ground to the top of the rudders when parked). Gross takeoff weight was about 140,000 lb (52,253.83 kilograms), including a fuel weight of 80,000 lb (29,859.33 kilograms). Aerodynamic control surfaces consisted of all-moving vertical tail fins above each engine nacelle and elevons on the outer wings and trailing edges between the engine exhaust nozzles.
NASA crews flew four Lockheed SR-71 airplanes during the 1990s. Two were used for research and two to support Air Force reactivation of the SR-71 for reconnaissance missions. Although the Air Force retired the Blackbirds in 1990, Congress reinstated funding for additional flights several years later. SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844) arrived at Dryden on Feb. 15, 1990. It was placed into storage until 1992 and served as a research platform until its final flight on Oct. 9th, 1999. SR-71A (61-7971/NASA 832) arrived at Dryden on March 19, 1990, but was returned to Air Force inventory as the first aircraft was reactivated in 1995. Along with SR-71A (61-7967), it was flown by NASA crews in support of the Air Force program. SR-71B (61-7956/NASA 831) arrived at Dryden on July 25th, 1991, and served as a research platform as well as for crew training and proficiency until October 1997.
Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment
LASRE was a NASA experiment in cooperation with Lockheed Martin to study a reusable launch vehicle design based on a linear aerospike rocket engine. The experiment’s goal was to provide in-flight data to help Lockheed Martin validate the computational predictive tools they developed to design the craft. LASRE was a small, half-span model of a lifting body with eight thrust cells of an aerospike engine. The experiment, mounted on the back of an SR-71 Blackbird aircraft, operated like a kind of “flying wind tunnel.”
The experiment focused on determining how a reusable launch vehicle’s engine plume would affect the aerodynamics of its lifting-body shape at specific altitudes and speeds reaching approximately 340 m/s (760 mph). The interaction of the aerodynamic flow with the
Lunar Landing Research Vehicle
The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle or LLRV was an Apollo Project era program to build a simulator for the Moon landing. The LLRVs, humorously referred to as “Flying Bedsteads”, were used by the FRC, now known as the Armstrong Flight Research Center, at Edwards Air Force Base, California, to study and analyze piloting techniques needed to fly and land the Apollo Lunar Module in the moon’s airless environment.
Lockheed Martin X-56
The Lockheed Martin X-56 is an American modular unmanned aerial vehicle that is being designed to explore High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) flight technologies for use in future military unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.
The X-56A first flew on 26th July 2013, flying from Edwards Air Force Base; twenty flights were to be flown on behalf of the Air Force Research Laboratory before the aircraft would be handed over to NASA for further testing.
The first X-56A unmanned aircraft was severely damaged in a crash shortly after takeoff from the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB, California, on 19th November 2015, on its first flexible-wing flight to test active flutter suppression. The aircraft had previously made 16 flights with stiff wings to prove its operating envelope.
The second X-56A unmanned aircraft flew for the first time on 9 April 2015 while under operation by NASA. The aircraft flew eight flights with the stiff wings to clear its operating envelope. The vehicle then completed its first flight with the highly flexible wings on 31st August 2017.
One instability mode, body freedom flutter, was shown to be actively suppressed by the digital flight control at 110 kn (200 km/h), within its normal flight envelope. Slender, flexible and lighter low-drag wings would be enabled by flutter suppression.
NASA’s X-56B unmanned air vehicle was destroyed in a crash on 9th July 2021 after suffering an “anomaly in flight”
NASA X-57 Maxwell
The NASA X-57 Maxwell is an experimental aircraft being developed by NASA, intended to demonstrate technology to reduce fuel use, emissions, and noise. The first flight of the X-57 is scheduled to take place on 24th February 2022.
The experiment involves replacing the wings on a twin-engined Italian-built Tecnam P2006T (a conventional four-seater light aircraft) with Distributed electric propulsion (DEP) wings each containing electrically driven propellers. Test flights were initially planned to commence in 2017.
The first test phase uses an 18-engine truck-mounted wing. The second phase will install the cruise propellers and motors on a standard P2006T for ground- and flight-test experience. Phase 3 tests will involve the high-lift DEP wing and demonstrate increased high-speed cruise efficiency. The leading-edge nacelles will be fitted, but the high-lift propellers, motors and controllers will not be installed. Phase 4 adds the DEP motors and folding propellers to demonstrate lift-augmentation.
Lockheed Martin X-59 QueSST
The Lockheed Martin X-59 QueSST (“Quiet SuperSonic Technology”) is an American experimental supersonic aircraft being developed at Skunk Works for NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator program. Preliminary design started in February 2016, with the X-59 scheduled for delivery in late 2021 for flight tests from 2022. It is expected to cruise at Mach 1.42 (1,510 km/h; 937 mph) and 55,000 ft (16,800 m), creating a low 75 Perceived Level decibel (PLdB) thump to evaluate supersonic transport acceptability.
Dream Chaser is an American reusable lifting-body spaceplane being developed by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Space Systems. Originally intended as a crewed vehicle, the Dream Chaser Space System is set to be produced after the cargo variant, Dream Chaser Cargo System, is operational. The crewed variant is planned to carry up to seven people and cargo to and from low Earth orbit.
The cargo Dream Chaser is designed to resupply the International Space Station with both pressurized and unpressurized cargo. It is intended to launch vertically on the Vulcan Centaur rocket and autonomously land horizontally on conventional runways. A proposed version operated by ESA would launch on an Arianespace vehicle.
Towed glider air-launch system
Towed glider air-launch system (abbv. TGALS) is a NASA-designed two-stage air-launched reusable launch system currently in development at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. The system uses a glider, tow plane, and rocket and is designed to carry small satellites to orbit. Both the glider and tow plane are reusable.
The system, compared to other designs such as Swiss Space Systems’ SOAR spaceplane and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle, is launched from a glider. This design emulates an air-launched multistage rocket with two recoverable stages: the tow plane and the glider itself.
NASA 1/72nd scale models available to pre-order from Flying Tigers
Check out the latest Century Wings 1/72nd scale SR-71 Blackbird now available to pre-order from Flying Tigers.
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Hobbymaster models due at end of October now delayed to Mid November.
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Corgi Aviation Archive new model now in stock !
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