On Thursday July 15th, 2011, the NASA Academy received a first-class tour of Dryden Flight Research Center. This NASA center, located on Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, is the premier center for atmospheric flight research and operations. The location of Dryden was chosen for the large remote lake bed and excellent weather conditions, which allow for a myriad of unique air vehicles to take flight.The tour was led by Curtis, a NASA Historian of eleven years who truly loves his job. For the tour the Glenn Space Academy was joined by both the Glenn Aeronautics Academy and the Ames Space Academy. Curtis led the group into a field speckled with magnificent jets. Among them was the last SR-71 Blackbird to ever fly as it took-off from the Edward’s Air Show in 1999. Curtis commented that with two turbo ram jet engines capable of cruising at Mach 3, the SR-71 was the highest performance production aircraft ever designed and built. We learned that the SR-71 is considered the world’s first stealth aircraft, operation from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, and that it creates such high temperatures that food can be cooked on the windshield. The aircraft surrounding the Blackbird were a pair of F-8 Navy Air Cruisers, one which utilized super-critical wings to delay the onset of sonic drag, and another that was the first aircraft to incorporate a Digital-Fly-By-Wire (DFBW) system. This system replaced traditional mechanical controls with an electronic flight-control system that ran with only a 32 kB computer. The last plane Curtis talked about before moving on was the X-29 experimental aircraft. This jet is unique because the wings are swept forward instead of backward. The two X-29s that were built flew 422 research missions and proved that this radical design was promising, but had some unwanted effects regarding twisting and drag.
After a short walk, the tour continued as more exciting aircraft were displayed. Curtis talked about the F-104, which was the first aircraft fly at Mach 2 for a sustained period of time. Next was the X-15, which flew 199 times and proved that flying men into space and then back to ground via a precision landing was possible. In fact, many pilots were given astronaut wings for exceeding 50 nautical miles from the Earth during flight. The X-1E was the next jet explored, and this aircraft provided an excellent example of how flight research has evolved. In order to reach speeds up to Mach 2, this plane was modified to include newer and thinner wings, as well as a new cockpit. Curtis then talked about current methods of flight research, which include remote piloted research vehicles that are dropped from B-52s and land with skids on the lake bed.
While walking to the next tour stop, the hangar, Curtis pointed out building 4800. This building was erected in 1954 as the California home of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Edward’s Air Force base used the facility as a pilot training base, and it even appears in the opening sequence of “I Dream of Genie.” Once in the hangar, the Academy got a close look at a variety of planes and jets including a demilitarized F-18 used for live imaging, a Beach King prop plane, and a powered glider used for acoustic testing. Out behind the hangar, the tour continued as the Academy looked out over 44 square miles of silt that provides the most perfect landing field in the world. In the distance, beyond the lake bed, a hill known as Rocket Ridge is used for test firing rocket engines. Curtis then showed the group the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that can carry the Space Shuttle back to Kennedy Space center after the Shuttle uses its backup landing facility, Edwards AFB. The tour included a look at a T-34, which is a prop plane used to train Navy pilots and chase down low speed UAVs.
For the last stop of the tour, the Academy was taken to see both the M2F1 and the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV). The M2F1 is often referred to as the Grandfather of the Space Shuttle, because it was the first lifting body design to take flight. A lifting body refers to an aircraft that generates lift from its fuselage instead of traditional wings. Therefore, the M2F1 looks much like a flying bathtub. The M2F1 was not powered and its first flight tests were launched from a Pontiac convertible being driven at speeds of 120 mph. The success of the design led to powered lifting bodies, and eventually the Space Shuttle. Beside the M2F1, the LLRV was built to study and analyze piloting techniques needed to fly and land the tiny Apollo lunar module in the Moon’s airless environment.Overall, Curtis provided an unforgettable tour that gave everyone a peek inside the world of flight research testing, which is continually propelling the world of aviation into new territory.