Dryden's venerable NB-52B aircraft was recognized Dec. 17 for a career spanning nearly fifty years, a tour of duty in which the big bird played a role in airlaunching generations of experimental aircraft.
Image Right: Dryden employees welcome the NB-52B back to Dryden in November after its successful X-43A airlaunch, the final mission of its nearly 50-year career. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida
The retirement ceremony brought together people from the aircraft's past and present as it is prepared for its future as a historical monument at the Edwards Air Force Base north gate. There, it will inspire new generations of researchers and pay tribute to its role as one of the most important aircraft in flight research history.
The NB-52B's first missions were in the hypersonic X-15 program, where the aircraft launched 106 of the program's 199 flights. Appropriately, the aircraft's last mission was the airlaunch of the hypersonic X-43A, which broke records with a nearly Mach 10 flight in November.
Former Dryden pilot Ed Schneider hosted the ceremony.
"This airplane has played a pivotal yet largely unsung role in many significant aeronautics and space flight programs," Schneider told a large crowd gathered in Dryden's 4802 hangar. "I was privileged to fly her and perform some of the many tests represented by the silhouettes on her fuselage - 008 is a grand lady and always fun to fly."
Former Dryden research pilot Fitzhugh "Fitz" Fulton also recalled his experiences flying the NB-52B. He and Schneider thanked Air Force maintenance crews, from the craft's early days - and since 1976, the NASA crews - for working through the night to get the vehicle ready for pre-dawn missions.
"It was an interesting and challenging airplane to fly," Fulton recalled. "It took off faster than any other B-52 because we didn't use the flaps. It was a great feeling when you dropped a test vehicle. There was a great big thump, like dropping a bomb.
Image Right: Fullerton, left, and Fulton share a handshake under the fuselage of the venerable aircraft. NASA Photo by Tony Landis
"(When airlaunching the X-15) we listened for the rocket engine to fire up a few seconds after the drop. You could hear the rocket engine fire up, and in just a few seconds the rocket airplane would come up in front of the nose and we had the best view of the whole operation - we could see the rocket plume and the airplane accelerating at some fast speed. Then we would listen to the rest of the flight on the radio," he said.
Gordon Fullerton, current Dryden chief pilot, told the crowd he'll miss flying the historic aircraft.
"Ed mentioned when he first came up here that this is a celebration. It's a sad day - more like a funeral than a celebration - to realize that I'm not likely to crawl in 008 and go out for another flight," he said.
Fullerton, a former astronaut, said he came to Dryden in late 1986 and on March 10, 1987, flew with Don Mallick for Fullerton's first flight on the NB-52B. Fullerton has been involved in many flights since then as project pilot, flying most of the missions involving the big bird. Frank Batteas and Dana Purifoy also were qualified to fly the NB-52B.
Maintenance crews are the real heroes of the NB-52B's lore and were called on to resurrect it on more than one occasion to fly a mission. After one four-year layoff, the NB-52B was restored so it could carry the parachute test vehicle that was "a big, orange 3,500-pound box that fit nicely in the bomb bay," Fullerton said. That "box" helped to develop improvements to the F-111 crew escape system. Fullerton identified Mike Bondy and Gary Beard as key figures in returning the aircraft to flight status.
Fulton recalled a NB-52B Pegasus mission that succeeded despite unusual circumstances.
Image Right: Former Dryden research pilot Ed Schneider takes the podium to share memories about the NB-52B. Also on hand to salute the aircraft were, seated from left, Dryden Center Director Kevin Petersen, Air Force Flight Test Center Commander Brig. Gen. Curtis Bedke, former Dryden pilot Fitzhugh L. "Fitz" Fulton Jr., Dryden Chief Pilot Gordon Fullerton, and AFFTC Historian James Young. NASA Photo by Tom Tschida
Four launches were made on the West Coast, off Monterey, Calif. The fifth was scheduled to depart from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The first attempt on that mission didn't get past Barstow. After a fin problem occurred, the research bird returned to Dryden. Finally at Kennedy, the NB-52B mission called for release of the Pegasus at the altitude from which the BrazilSat satellite was to be launched into orbit.
"Bill Albrecht, the operations engineer on the airplane for many, many years, was the controller and he was in the control room, which was up at Wallops (Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.)," Fulton related. "He was the man we talked to. Jim Smolka was with me, and we got up higher than I had ever gotten with a heavy payload. I was patting myself on the back when we staggered up to 46,000 feet, thinking that was really good. We got a call a couple minutes before launch: 'No, no you're too high - go down,' so we descended. Then we got the call from Bill: '3, 2, 1 - launch!' We threw the switch and the rocket went off and launched the satellite.
"It was after landing we found out (that) at the time we heard '3, 2, 1 - launch,' all the rest of the control room behind Bill was hollering 'abort! abort! abort!' But they were hollering on a com (communications) loop that Bill wasn't plugged into. That incident is classic now on these (training) courses that have been presented by several firms on how not to do control room ops. The good news is, the rocket did fine and the call didn't really need to be made. The desired orbit was obtained and it all came out well despite the confusion in the control room," he concluded.
U.S. Air Force Historian James Young confirmed that the NB-52B participated in more aviation history than any other airplane. The eighth production model B-52B was first flown June 11, 1955. The aircraft was exclusively used for flight research and dropped only research aircraft, he added.
"At the time (it came off the production line), I'd wager, no one could have conceived that this airplane would have a remarkable 49-and-a-half-year career," Young said. "In fact, several times during that span of those 49 years there were many people who said its service life was over."
Some of the NB-52B's assignments included carrying lifting body aircraft, including the HL-10, M2-F2, M2-F3, X-24A and X-24B; carrying drones for Aerodynamic and Structural Testing; Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technology missions; tests for parachute recovery for Space Shuttle solid liquid boosters and drag chute deployment systems; and carrying Pegasus and X-38 prototype spacecraft.
Center Director Kevin Petersen said the work by NB-52B "shaped our collective ability to fly in and out of the atmosphere." The aircraft "goes out on top" just a month removed from a successful X-43A airlaunch, he added. Petersen also thanked Matt Graham, Larry Harper, Monte Hodges and Tony Landis for cleaning up the aircraft's unique markings to ensure its mission history endures forever.
"But time waits for no man or machine," Petersen said. The NB-52B, he noted, was the only JP4-fueled aircraft (at Edwards) - making its situation the equivalent of finding leaded gas for an automobile. In addition, old aircraft parts could be replaced only by old aircraft parts, making regular maintenance a challenge.
Vince Fong, from the office of U.S. Rep. William "Bill" Thomas (R-22nd Dist.) read an acknowledgement of the aircraft's successes, which had been entered by Thomas into the congressional record on the day of the Dryden ceremonies. The aircraft will have a prominent position at the Edwards north gate and eventually will be joined by other historic aircraft that make Edwards home to some of the world's most exotic experimental aircraft and early production models.
Air Force Flight Test Center Brig. Gen. Curtis Bedke concluded the event, saying, "I am sad and thrilled to receive 'Balls 8' (as it is known, for its tail number, zero-zero-eight) from NASA. We always hate to see an old explorer retired, but we're also thrilled that her final flight was how it should be - a research flight."
Special thanks to Peter Merlin, Dryden history office, and Tony Landis, Dryden photo lab, for their contributions to the NB-52B coverage.
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