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NASA Proves Emergency Landing System

December 9, 1995

Release: 95-39

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NASA has demonstrated a new control concept for landing jet airliners using the aircraft's engines for control in the event it looses its regular flight controls.

A landing in August used just the engines instead of conventional hydraulic controls (the rudder, elevator, and ailerons). The pilot, however, still had to hand-flythe aircraft. Since that time, the system has evolved so that the software works directly with an instrument landing system, and relieves the pilot of virtually all manual manipulation beyond activating the auto-land control.

The chief of Dryden's Propulsion and Performance Branch, Bill Burcham, commented that, We started working on the system five years ago and it is now working better than we had ever hoped.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA, initiated research into this propulsion controlled aircraft technology five years ago following a series of about ten military and civilian incidents over a 20-year period in which there were some 1,200 fatalities caused by the loss of the primary flight control system in the aircraft. NASA sought to develop a backup system for landing a jet using only the throttles for control.

In landings at Dryden on Nov. 28 and 30, a McDonnell Douglas MD-11 transport aircraft demonstrated software used in the flight control computer that essentially landed the MD-11 without a need for the pilot to manipulate the flight controls and without the use of conventional, hydraulic controls.

In partnership with McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, with assistance from Pratt & Whitney and Honeywell in designing the software and from NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA, in performing simulations, Dryden developed this system to permit safe landings when hydraulically-activated control surfaces are disabled.

Flights on Nov. 29 and 30 with pilots and observers from several airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense (DoD) on board, culminated five years of development and a series of earlier flights. These included the landings by NASA research pilot and former astronaut Gordon Fullerton of a NASA F-15 research aircraft using a similar system in April 1993 and of the MD-11 on Aug. 29, 1995, with a prototype system that required him to use the cockpit knobs and thumbwheels aided by a still-developing software system.

Capt. Tom McBroom, chief technical pilot for American Airlines, commented after a Nov. 30 flight: "I was favorably impressed with the handling characteristics of the airplane on the flight today. The loss of hydraulics would not present such an insurmountable problem [as it did before]. The airplane would remain controllable and able to fly to an airport where a landing could be made."

Other officials on the flight were similarly impressed, but there has yet been no commitment by any aircraft firm or the DoD to install this equipment on a production aircraft. The technology is capable of being used on current, production and future aircraft with digital flight systems but not on older aircraft with analog or mechanical flight systems.


Note to Editors: Media representatives interested in images accompanying this release may call the Dryden Flight Research Center at 805/258-3446. Photos are also available on the Internet at: /centers/dfrc/Gallery/Photo/index.html Photo numbers are: EC95 43355-1, EC95 43355-2, EC95 43355-3. A video about the Nov. 30 flight and landing will be aired on NASA Television at 9a.m., 12 noon, 3, 6 and 9 p.m. PDT on Mon. Dec. 11. NASA TV is carried on Spacenet 2, transponder 5 (Channel 9) at 69 degrees west longitude. The frequency is 3880 MHz. Polarization is horizontal and audio is monaural at 6.8 MHz.

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