NASA Dryden Flight Research Center Report

Thursday 31st January 2013

Famous for their exploits in space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been the driving scientific force behind some of the most significant developments in aircraft technology since 1958. Operating out of California, the Flight Research and Air Operations Facilities are a fascinating world of Scientific and Technological innovation. Dryden is a place where dreams really do come true.

Andy Evans reports for UK Airshow Review from the world of X-planes after spending Thursday 31st January 2013 as a guest of NASA Dryden, visiting both Edwards AFB and "Plant 42". Additional photography by Lee James.

NASA's Dryden Flight Research Centre has been based at Edwards AFB for over 65 years and has been witness to some of the most significant flight test programmes in aviation history. However, what many people don't realise is that Dryden's operations are split between two very different, but equally famous sites. Thirty five miles down the road from Edwards AFB is a little airfield called Palmdale Regional Airport, known to the US Air Force as "Plant 42". Whilst Palmdale Regional Airport or "Plant 42" may not be the most famous names of this airfield, it is more well known to the aviation enthusiast community due to a factory located on the airfield. Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works.

Whilst the vast majority of the current activities at Palmdale are highly classified, others are in the public eye such as testing and developing the latest F-15 variant, the F-15SA for Saudi Arabia and the Global Hawk. Indeed, a short look on Google Maps shows an F-22A, Global Hawks and the X-47A Pegasus UCAV on dispersals around the airfield. Of course, the most famous Skunk Works program of all time was the F-117A Nighthawk however the airfield has a history of producing some of the most advanced aircraft ever seen. This has included the Space Shuttles, the XB-70 Valkyrie and the SR-71 Blackbird.

Palmdale is home to Dryden's Aircraft Operations Centre located in hangars once used as the B-1B final assembly line. The centre is home to NASA's fleet of specialist scientific aircraft and supports a wide variety of scientific research projects around the globe. This facility is home to the jewels in the crown of NASA's fleet, the ER-2 pair (modified U-2 Dragon Ladies), the DC-8 Airborne Science Laboratory, Gulfstream UAVSAR and the SOFIA Boeing 747. Of these perhaps the most unusual of these aircraft is SOFIA.

SOFIA or Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is a heavily modified Boeing 747-SP fitted with a large highly advanced gyroscopically controlled Infrared telescope in the rear fuselage. The fuselage has been heavily modified with a large door to allow the telescope to see the sky when in operation. Why build SOFIA over a ground based system? The weak infrared emissions from the deepest (and oldest) parts of the universe are absorbed by moisture in the lower atmosphere. In order to get the best image, you must get above the moisture; the next stage is a space based telescope which is much more expensive and not as flexible. The aircraft is rarely seen in the sky, due to the nature of its mission it almost exclusively flies at night, returning at dawn.

Of course a short trip down the road leads to the legendary Edwards AFB and the headquarters of Dryden, their Flight Research Centre. Where Palmdale is primarily geared towards Scientific Research, Edwards is geared towards pushing the boundaries of flight in both the military and civilian worlds. Indeed, whilst the author was on site NASA were using their F-15B Eagle to test fly a brand new classified aerofoil configuration, designed for an upcoming new Business Jet.

Edwards is the home of NASA's fast jet and UAV fleet; currently residing at the facility are two F-15 Eagles and a number of F-18 Hornets that have been demilitarised and transferred from the Military Branches. These fast jets are used as test platforms and chase/photo planes for the variety of experimental flights that happen on a daily basis. These are not the only fast jets at Dryden, a few test research aircraft are also stored on base including the uniquely shaped F-16XL and the unusual canard/thrust vector equipped F-15 STOL/MTD (commonly known as ACTIVE). Supplementing the fast jet fleet is the UAV fleet consisting of a mixed fleet of specialised Global Hawk and Predator aircraft. The Global Hawks are used for high endurance research and surveillance of significant events such as Hurricanes/Tropical Cyclones anywhere in the world. In support of the UAV operations is a small fleet of T-34 mentors to act as chase and control aircraft.

Of course, no visit to NASA could go without mentioning the X Planes. The X designation is given to aircraft that push the boundaries of our understanding of flight, developing a new generation of technology. Perhaps the most famous examples are the X-1 and X-15 that gave us the understanding of supersonic flight and spawned a number of generations of fighter aircraft. Today, there is one X Plane currently flying on a regular basis, the X-48. This scale UAV is testing the principal of the blended wing/body aircraft, a design that is considered the future of airliners and military transports. Essentially turning the wings in the fuselage and vice versa, much more than a flying wings. The design increases the efficiency of the aircraft whilst at the same time vastly increasing storage/cabin capacity.

The future of NASA’s operations may be unclear with the ever looming presence of sequestration and what it means to their budget. To mitigate this threat, NASA has started to diversify and has begun to undertake developmental research work for private clients in an effort to gain revenue. At the centre of this effort is the ever expanding fleet of Gulfstream aircraft, some virtually new, some inherited from branches of the military. The spacious fuselage allows them to be easily modified to take sensors and recording equipment quite easily, an excellent asset. Joining these assets are three early model Global Hawks that have been donated to NASA from the USAF. The long term plan is for these to join the existing NASA fleet however, budgetary constraints mean they are currently in storage, still in their Beale AFB markings. When will they fly? No-one knows.

UK Airshow Review and the Author would like to extend their thanks to Grey Creech for taking time from their busy schedule to escort us round both sites; the passion they showed for this organisation was inspirational.