SpaceX Kicks Off New Era for Kennedy Space Center

CRS-10 lists off from lc-39a (NASA)

It was as routine as it was historic. You may not have realized it, but when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center carrying a Dragon cargo resupply ship bound for the International Space Station at 9:38 a.m. ET on Sunday, February 19th, 2017, a whole new era in American spaceflight launched with it.

The flight was a series of firsts: The first commercial flight from KSC, the first daytime recovery of Falcon 9's first stage, a first flight with a new autonomous flight safety system, among others. More than just taking off from hallowed ground, SpaceX CRS-10 was the first of what NASA hopes will be dozens - hundreds? - of routine commercial flights from America's premier spaceport.

I was lucky to be chosen to be a part of the NASA Social group for this flight. Thanks to the hard-working public affairs staff at KSC, the dedicated docent staff, and the generosity of all who work at KSC, I had a front-row seat for whirlwind weekend of events.

It started with the "What's On Board?" news event, which indeed proved much more interesting than I thought. Then it was over to one of the old Orbiter Processing Facilities, where Astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded the final Shuttle flight in 2011, showed us around his new digs at his new job as Director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing's Commercial Crew Program, the Starliner.

Chris Ferguson Boeing Starliner
Chris Ferguson Boeing Starliner

But the big story, at least from my perspective, came mid-day Friday at a briefing involving two NASA figures about the future of KSC - the 20-Year Master Plan, as it were. Why a bigger deal has not been made about this is beyond me.

NASA Social Kennedy Space Center
NASA Social Kennedy Space Center

It's not news in the traditional sense - this plan has been around since 2012. But the launch of SpaceX CRS-10 from LC-39A, which Elon Musk's company has extensively invested in to accommodate its needs, marks the transition of KSC from a NASA-only facility to a true civilian spaceport.

Sidebar: I'd venture a guess that most of the American public doesn't understand that Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station - from where most Atlas, SpaceX and Titan launches take place - are two different places. As such, where you launch from carries with it different sets of rules and regulations for flight operations. Given that CCAFS is run by the Department of Defense, and KSC is run by a civilian agency, this makes moving your launch ops up the coast a few miles an economically attractive proposition for the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, et al.

This is something of a fulfillment of the original plans for KSC. Back in the day, NASA envisioned as many as four or five launch complexes to support manned missions in the Saturn Era:

Kennedy Space Center

Things are already moving. In addition to SpaceX squatting on 39A for the next two decades:

  • Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser will launch aboard ULA Atlas V from SLC-41 at CCAFS, but will land at the old Shuttle Landing Facility. SNC will also share the Operations and Checkout facility with Lockheed-Martin on the KSC campus. Dream Chaser's first orbital flight will be an operational one, scheduled for 2019 under NASA's CRS-2 contract.
  • Boeing is already using one of the old OPFs as a garage for Starliner, which will fly aboard Atlas V from SLC-41. First unmanned flight is slated for June 2018, with a manned test two months later, and operational flights scheduled to start in December of that year.
  • Blue Origin will manufacture its New Glenn launch vehicles on KSC's campus. Launches will take place from SLC-36 at CCAFS, but the massive rocket's first stage is expected to be recoverable. I couldn't find any word on exactly where Blue Origin expects to land its stages.
  • Don't forget about NASA's own SLS, which may be about to undergo some changes to its schedule.
  • SpaceX, true to form, is first open for business at KSC. Pad 39A is essentially slated for both Falcon Heavy and crewed Dragon launches in the coming years. They also plan expansion of their facilities around LZ-1 to accommodate landing Falcon Heavy boosters and second stages, plus propulsive landings of the manned Dragon V2 spacecraft.

In another presser we attended Friday at Pad 39A, SpaceX's CEO, Gwynne Shotwell, was more than confident in SpaceX's flight manifest for putting people on Dragon in 2018 (Pay close attention at 16:08):

So the news is that SpaceX flew a Falcon 9 with a Dragon resupply ship from historic Pad 39A on its first flight from Florida since the accident last September on the pad, and recovered another first stage - this time in daylight.

But the story is that Kennedy Space Center is officially open for business.

VIDEO: What Do All Those Runway Markings Mean?


As you know, I'm not a pilot, nor do I play one on TV. But I've always wondered what all those runway markings and taxiway markings mean at airports. Thankfully, someone made a series of videos about that. Thanks to the YouTube user doofer911 for creating this series of videos about runway markings and other rules of the road at airports. This is pretty basic stuff, but for a non-technical n00b like me, I thought it was pretty interesting. Here they are in sequence:

Runway Markings Explained

Runway Lighting Explained


Taxiway Markings, Signs and Lights


Airport Aprons Explained

When Is America's Next Manned Spaceflight?


Just before 5 a.m. Eastern on July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center for the final time. No American manned spaceflight has taken place since:

Currently, it has been more than five years since the Space Shuttle program came to a conclusion.

"That's terrible! NASA's fallen down on the job! Blame Obama!" you say. But you miss the context. The United States of America has gone even longer without sending a person into space from its shores.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, the final Apollo spacecraft flight, splashed down after a nine-day mission on July 24, 1975. Precisely 2,089 days later (5 years, 8 months and 19 days), Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral on the inaugural Space Shuttle flight, beginning the orbiter program's 30-year career.

For America's current manned spaceflight drought to last that long, we'd have to go without a manned flight through April 9, 2017.

VIDEO: Watch Alan Shepard Pilot Freedom 7 from Launch to Splashdown


Check out this excellent video of Alan Shepard's sub-orbital hop aboard Freedom 7, as he became America's first man in space on this date in 1961.

Many thanks to Matthew Travis for putting this together. As you can see, Travis took the on-board cameras, synced them to the mission audio, and added some animation to show the spacecraft's attitude during the 12-minute flight.

The full audio loop is outstanding to listen to. You can hear Shepard's back-and-forth with his CAPCOM (and good friend) Deke Slayton clearly throughout.

Also interesting is the view of Shepard's console, where you can see the step-by-step tests he had to carry out in the minimal time he had in flight, including testing the manual controls for the Mercury capsule, observation experiments using the periscope ("What a beautiful view!"), and monitoring the spacecraft's automatic controls.

Shepard's flight was met with great fanfare, although in retrospect, it wasn't much of a technical leap. His maximum altitude was 101.25 nautical miles, while Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1 flight just a few weeks earlier achieved a maximum height of 177 nautical miles.

After Freedom 7, Shepard would not fly again until Apollo 14 in 1971. He and Slayton ran the Astronaut Office throughout the Gemini and Apollo programs after both were grounded (Slayton with an irregular heartbeat, Shepard with Minear's Disease).

Above all, Shepard was a pilot's pilot. It's worth spending the 90 minutes and listening to this interview with Shepard from C-SPAN about his career:

As the title implies, this was Shepard's last interview. He died of Leukemia in 1998, not long after this video was shot.

Interestingly, Shepard does discuss how he nearly made one final orbital Mercury flight to close out the program (Freedom 7-II), but was vetoed by NASA head James Webb and President Kennedy.

It may be Cinco de Mayo, but around here, May 5th is Alan Shepard's day.

Today Marks 35 Years Since Columbia's First Flight


At three seconds after 8 a.m. Eastern time on April 12th 1981, the brand-new Space Shuttle Columbia launched off Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on STS-1, the first flight of America's newest space vehicle, with John Young and Bob Crippen aboard. Today marks 35 years since that historic flight. Crippen and Young executed a perfect test flight, and returned to Earth at Edwards Air Force base two days, six hours, 20 minutes and 53 seconds later.

The playlist below is a 16-video full recap of the flight, assembled by Simon Plumpton's phenomenal YouTube account lunarmodule5 (You should see all of the other stuff there). Yes, it's lengthy, but if you're a super space nerd, it's like good background music. It's very much worth the watch for the launch (embedded below) and landing alone:

The video is a compilation of official film and computer animation, painstakingly synchronized with audio recordings edited for times when the shuttle was out of contact (this was before TDRS satellites were around).

My first exposure to Columbia's first flight was much shorter, in the official documentary, "Space Shuttle: A Remarkable Flying Machine." You can see that here if 16 videos is too much for you:

Interesting Facts About Columbia's STS-1 Flight

  • Previous American manned spacecraft were flown unmanned before we put astronauts into them. Columbia's first-ever flight was manned.
  • Initially, Columbia's first flight was to be a launch-and-return simulation of an Abort-RTLS (Return To Landing Site), where the shuttle would ride its solid rocket boosters, then flip around and fly back to the Cape. But many engineers back then - as well as throughout the Shuttle's history - thought that an RTLS Abort would be a suicide mission. John Young himself said they shouldn't try it, saying, "RTLS requires continuous miracles interspersed with acts of God to be successful." He overruled the RTLS mission profile, saying, "Let’s not practice Russian roulette, because you may have a loaded gun there."
  • Those tiles that proved to be Columbia's demise were troublesome on its first flight. Several tiles flaked off during launch, particularly on the engine pods.
  • The SRBs proved troubling, too, producing more vibration than was anticipated, and an overpressure wave from them caused damage to Columbia's body flap - a movable control surface located below the main engines. According to the official STS-1 Anomaly Report, the flap was forced to an angle greater than its hydraulic lines were supposed to tolerate - although it somehow did. Had those lines been damaged, Columbia would have been virtually uncontrollable during descent.
  • The band Rush was inspired to write their song "Countdown" by the flight. Here it is:

As of this writing, John Young, who is the only man to fly on Gemini, Apollo (walking on the Moon) and the Shuttle, is 85 years old and living near the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. He was the Chief of the Astronaut Office from 1974-87 (Deke Slayton's old job) and retired from NASA in 2004. Young flew one more shuttle mission (STS-9) and was supposed to fly on the mission to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope 1986, but the flight was delayed after the Challenger accident, and Young never flew into space again.

Bob Crippen, who is now 78, flew three more shuttle missions before moving his way up through NASA's executive ladder to be the director of Kennedy Space Center from 1992-1995. He then went into the private sector before retiring in 2001.

The sad part is we probably remember Columbia's ill-fated last flight more than her first, but on this anniversary, we should pay deference to the Greatest Test Flight - and those who made it happen.

VIDEO: Aboard the Space Shuttle During Launch


If you've ever wondered what it was like to be inside a Space Shuttle at launch, here's your chance to see it, thanks to a hand-held video camera aboard STS-65 when Columbia launched into space at 12:43 p.m. ET on July 8, 1994:

This video is incredible. My palms get sweaty just watching it.

It was taken from one of the backseats on the flight deck during launch, so it's a really good representation of what it's actually like on board during a liftoff. The crew up front was Robert D. Cabana in the Commander's seat (a Marine on his third of four Shuttle flights) and James D. Halsell, Jr. (an Air Force guy on his first of five flights) in the Pilot's seat.

A few notable moments:

  • Things really start happening at 3:45 with ignition. You can hear Cabana saying something inaudible, followed by "Here we go!" I would be freaking out.
  • Launching a space shuttle is a violent act. Bear in mind that TV makes things look less shaky and violent then they actually are.
  • Aside from the comm loop, that's ambient noise during the launch. It sounds like that inside.
  • At 4:25, you can hear things speeding up and getting noisy as the shuttle goes supersonic leading up to Max-Q.
  • At 5:15, you hear the call for throttle-up, and as the atmosphere outside gets thinner, the atmosphere inside suddenly starts getting a lot less noisy and violent.
  • At 5:55, things get a lot smoother as the SRBs jettison with a flash and a "CLUNK."
  • 6:30 - "Columbia, performance nominal." "Awesome."
  • Not long after, the commander tells the crew they may open their visors if they want. I don't know about you, but I'd be keeping that thing shut and locked until we were all the way up.
  • At 7:15, they reach 50 miles altitude, meaning they're essentially in space. Two of the crew in front of the camera perform an awkward spacesuit high-five.
  • The rest of this is smooth and boring, ironically, until 12:20, when the shuttle throttles back to idle, and the astronauts are tossed lightly forward in their seats at main engine cut-off. "Welcome to space, guys!"
  • 13:45 - "I can't believe I'm here! This is unbelievable!"

Thirty-five years ago this week, John Young and Bob Crippen took Columbia to space for the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle program. Since then, the Shuttle was as routine as space travel has ever gotten (if the word "routine" could ever be used to describe space flight), and that is certainly reflected here by the calm and professionalism with which the crew handled these moments. Like I said above, I'd be losing my marbles in the back if I were there, but for these guys, it's a job - a set of pre-planned events that they monitor and make sure happen on time.

For another fun view of a different flight, check out Discovery DashCam:

America's Next Manned Space Flight

For all those naysayers bemoaning the end of the Shuttle program, it should be noted that on April 12, 2016, the 35th anniversary of Columbia's first flight, it will have been 1,721 days since the last American manned space flight.

To put that into context, it was 2,089 days between the landing of Apollo-Soyuz on July 24, 1975 and Columbia's maiden liftoff on April 12, 1981.

For the moment, NASA's next manned space flight is scheduled for 2021, to an asteroid aboard the new Orion capsule. An unmanned circumlunar flight is projected for 2018 aboard the SLS launch vehicle.

But SpaceX is planning a manned launch of its Crew Dragon spacecraft for March of 2017. SpaceX has already received its order from NASA for six crewed ISS resupply flights.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner is expected to make an unmanned flight to the space station in April of 2017, with a crewed flight scheduled for three months later.

Of course, we all know the tragic fate of Columbia some nine years after the video above, but for that moment, she gave us all a glimpse inside at what it was like to go for a ride in the World's Most Remarkable Flying Machine.

"Warbird Pilot" is As Beautiful As It Is Brilliant

Stop everything you're doing right now and give yourself ten minutes to watch "Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor," a short documentary film about John-Curtiss Paul's journey to piloting some of America's oldest flying aircraft:

It's been a rough time of late for aviation documentaries. Aside from the quality work from National Geographic (like their recent two-hour piece on the 747, which I felt delved too long into averted disasters), since the death of the Discovery Wings channel, we've been subjected to a lot of dreck in the aviation documentary space over the last decade or so.

But since the advent of digital filmmaking, we're seeing a resurgence in the quality of video storytelling. This film is an example of that.

I'd like to see more of this going forward, especially combined with a bent on explaining engineering a-la the Moon Machines series from Science Channel. The technology is there to do what great programs of the past, like "Wings" and "Reaching for the Skies" could not: Combine history and narrative with modern technology to help people like me visualize and understand the stories behind

One last thing on the film: It was shot, edited and directed by Rob W. Scribner, who I had the good fortune of meeting face-to-face at my regular job at Full Sail University (Rob is a Full Sail graduate).

Rob is an Air Force guy who worked on avionics for the F-16 and later the F-35 before leaving the service and going into film. After graduating from Full Sail, Rob went into business with John-Curtiss Paul (the subject of the film) to form Sky Tower Productions. "Warbird Pilot" is the labor of love that put it on the map, as it was named a Vimeo Staff Pick. These guys know what they're doing.

I'm looking forward to more like this from this particular crew. In the meantime, enjoy the film!

What the Air Force Needs is a New B-52


The Doomsday Clock has been ticking on the Boeing B-52 almost since the first three B-52As rolled off the line in Seattle back in 1954. It has withstood the trisonic XB-70, the Mach 2 B-1A, the less-supersonic-but-more-stealthy B-1B, and the ultimate weapon, the B-2, not to mention ICBM-laden C-5s and countless other designs that looked formidable on the drawing board but never got further than that. Now comes word that the final nail in the Stratofortress' coffin may finally come in the form of the LRS-B, or Long Range Strike Bomber, but not until at least the 2020s. Northrop-Grumman won the contract in October, but if recent events are an indication, you can plan on waiting longer than that for the Air Force's new toy to do what it is supposed to do.

In the meantime, the remaining 80 or so B-52Hs continue to rack up flight hours and combat sorties over the Middle East. In its service over Afghanistan, the big bomber has come full-circle in some respect. Originally designed (as its nickname implies) as a high-level nuclear bomber, dropping megaton-yield H-bombs on Soviet facilities and cities from 50,000 feet, the advent of SAMs in the '60s forced the B-52 down to low-level bomb runs, and in Vietnam, mid-level conventional bombing. Finally, in the second half-century of its existence, the B-52 is back flying higher than the highest, but dropping precision-guided conventional munitions in concert with ground forces. It is, in short, the ultimate bomb truck.

With an unrefuelled range approaching 10,000 miles, it can loiter for hours, waiting for the call. This of course, with eight jet engines, the last of which were produced in 1985. Those engines are getting old too, and it seems the Air Force can't quite get around to replacing them. Eight Pratt & Whitney TF33 engines burn on the order of 3,000 gallons of fuel per hour, and that's not a cheap gas bill.

But the B-52 isn't still around because it's cheap. It's still around because it does the job better than anything else. The job of hauling conventional bombs halfway around the world to drop them down the chimneys of tribal warriors in the Middle East doesn't require stealth. It does, however, require efficiency and the ability to carry lots of bombs.

So instead of waiting for the LRS-B to get off the ground, why not ask the boys at Boeing to dust off the old blueprints, load them up in the computers and build a batch or two of brand new, updated B-52s?

This has happened before. The TR-1 was an updated U-2, put back into production nearly 25 years after the first U-2 took to the air.

Of course, designing a "new" B-52 from old plans will require some serious re-engineering. Fortunately, Boeing is already pretty good at this in another market - the commercial market.

737s and 747s have been rolling off the lines for years in various updated configurations. Look at a 737-9 from today and you'll see some exterior differences (notably engines) from the first 737s, but although they may look generally the same, they are completely different on the interior, from airframe construction and materials to avionics.

So not only can this be done - it should be done.

The Proposal for a New B-52

An updated B-52 model - Let's call it the B-52J Super Stratofortress - is going to need a few things, so let's list the big ones right here:

New Engines

Like we mentioned earlier, the B-52H's TF33 turbofans were discontinued three decades ago. The ones that remain aren't going to last much longer. So it's high time for a replacement.

Needing eight engines is a wasteful thing of the past. So a new B-52 should have four high-bypass turbofans that are more efficient, quieter, and more powerful than the current octet - and that's before taking into account the famous smoke issue:

B-52 takeoff smoke

The Air Force has explored re-engining its B-52s on and off for years now, including fairly recently, according to Foxtrot Alpha. And more than a few times, B-52s have been called upon to serve as testbeds for new engines, like this JB-52E (57-0119) that served as the guinea pig for the Pratt & Whitney JT9D under development for the 747:

Boeing JB-52E JT9D

Here are some potential options:

Rolls-Royce RB-211 - A product of Allison, bought out by RR some time ago, this engine has been earmarked for the B-52 in almost every re-engining proposal for years. Boeing has used these in 757s.

Pratt & Whitney PW4000 - P&W's older successor to the 747's ground-breaking JT9D, used in the 747-400, 767, and KC-46 tanker.

Pratt & Whitney F117 - The military variant of the PW2000, already in use on 757s and the C-17.

General Electric GE90 - GE's biggest engine, used on the 777.

General Electric GEnx - GE's top-flight new engine, used in the 787 Dreamliner and 747-8.

General Electric F138 - Also known in civil parlance as the CF6, this is already in use on the new C-5M Galaxy, as well as Air Force One and military variants of the 767.

Here are some interesting comparisons between the above engines (in sets of four) and the current engines (in a set of 8):

[table id=2 /]

One of the primary issues is ground clearance for the outer engines, given the foreign object debris issues, drooping wings and outrigger wheels.

Another sticky wicket would involve the engine-out characteristics of a four-engined B-52, as Bill Sweetman alludes to here. But two possible solutions in a new variant would be (1) an automatic flight control system that helps keep the aircraft straight and level autonomously, and (2) going back to the old tall fin from the B-52A-F models, providing greater surface area, and thus better lateral stability.

Given these considerations, as well as the power and weight specifications for the engines themselves, the Pratt & Whitney F117 seems like it may be the best option. Four of them are lighter than even the eight current engines, would provide a nearly 20% increase in total thrust, and are only 10 inches or so wider than the RB-211s, which have been given serious consideration.

But smarter people than me may arrive at a different conclusion.

Strengthened Airframe

Composite construction - Lighter than aluminum, but stronger than steel. That's what composite construction is.

A lighter aircraft allows more spare power, and that allows more payload. More payload equals more stuff to do. It's simple.

The B-52's wings have always been a point of concern. Using advanced materials like that used in Boeing's construction of the X-32 JSF demonstrator may help solve the Stratofortress' wing fatigue issues for once and for all.

Mind you, the plane should not be completely constructed of composites, but key areas in the fuselage, as well as the wings, should be strengthened through composite construction.

Winglets - They're a small aerodynamic adjustment, but as Boeing's airliner fleet has found out, this small adjustment could result in as much as a further 4% savings in fuel. Sign us up.

Modern Avionics

Oh my God, look at this cockpit:

B-52 Cockpit

Holy pressure dials, Batman.

Boeing has already upgraded the B-52's communications systems for the first time in nearly 50 years, installing the CONECT system. But there's so much more that can be done, including:

Fully glass cockpit - Again, everything can be seen on command here.

Automated Flight Control System - These things are still flying thanks to gears and pulleys. Fly-by-wire has been around a while, and in a new aircraft that may or may not have control issues in emergencies, an automatic flight control system would be a tremendous help to the crew, not to mention how hard it is to steer the B-52 around in its current configuration:

Upgraded radar and combat avionics - You can't hit what you can't see. The BUFF's radar has needed an upgrade for years. Newer models compatible with CONECT can further enhance the 52's combat capabilities. Add GPS navigation and targeting and the 52 can finally catch up to our cars.

These innovations may enable the Air Force to reduce the crew needed from five to possibly as few as two, a-la the B-2. There's a further savings in weight.

Here's what it won't need: Stealth or any other low-observable tech. The B-52 is not designed to get into and out of places undetected. It's supposed to stay up there and blow things up when needed because the bad guys can't get to it.

What might it look like? Well, here's a look at BRAVO464's speculative prototype on DeviantArt.


A B-52H in today's dollars would cost about $82 million per unit flyaway. Given updated materials, electronics and engines, we're probably looking at $100-125 million a piece for a B-52J.

Yes, that's a lot. But the LRS-B's unit cost is projected right now to be in the range of $564 million in 2016 dollars.

So I propose ordering a batch of 50 brand new B-52Js at $100 million a piece, and using them to retire both the B-52H and B-1B by 2020.

Proven technology is something the DoD tends to shy away from. In the era of sequestration, let's give it a second look. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Well, get some newer ones, but don't go into debt getting the shiny new thing. Use what works and build upon it. No aircraft in the inventory can do that better than the B-52.

What I Really Want to See at the Reno National Air Races


Add this to the bucket list: Going to see the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Now, I was always aware of the Air Races in Reno since I saw "Reaching for the Skies" on TNT:

That quote from Alan Preston is priceless:

"This is like he world's greatest flying museum. You know, you go to a wonderful museum, it's like having stuffed dogs. They don't bark, they don't eat. But when you come out here, these hummers work."

It's been a bumpy ride for the Races since the Galloping Ghost accident in 2011, but they continue to survive, even if, according to some, the fan experience has been tempered somewhat due to added safety regulations.

What I want to see

Obviously, the airplanes are the stars, especially those in the main event every year, the Unlimited Class. These are heavily modified World War II vintage aircraft - mostly P-51 Mustangs and Sea Furies, with the occasional other types thrown in.

There are almost no restrictions on the aircraft, aside from these:

  • Only piston-engined, propeller-driven aircraft.
  • The aircraft must be able to pull 6 G's.

Most of the aircraft that come out to Reno are privately-owned display aircraft, but the serious ones are highly modified all-out racers. The ones I want to see are:

Rare Bear

F8F Bearcat Rare Bear

Probably the most famous Unlimited Class racer of all time. Owned by Rod Lewis as part of his vintage collection, this heavily modified Grumman F8F Bearcat holds the World Record for piston-driven aircraft over a 3km closed course at 528.33 mph (!). She runs on a Wright R-3350 radial in place of a Bearcat's standard Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp. Just listen to this thing:

Precious Metal

P-51 Mustang Precious Metal

There are plenty of P-51 Mustangs that show up in Reno each year, but only one has a contra-rotating propeller. That's Precious Metal, owned by Warbird Adventures in Kissimmee, Florida, and flown by Thom Richard.

Now, I love Merlin engines. There is nothing on this Earth that sounds like a Merlin. But put TWO props on it, and HOLY CRAP:

Who I want to meet

The pilots of these aircraft skirt the razor-thin line between bravery and insanity. Just take a look at this clip from 2013 of back-to-back Unlimited Class champion Voodoo, and try not to break a sweat:

But the one pilot I'd love to meet is Capt. Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson:

Robert Hoot Gibson Pilot

Air and Space Magazine called him "The Man Who's Flown Everything."

A lot of people have flown a lot of different aircraft. Capt. Gibson has actually flown everything, including the F-4, F-14, and the Space Shuttle.

What I wish I could see

P-38 White Lightnin

In the Reaching for the Skies video, there were a few shots of a P-38 Lightning racing at Reno. She's not there anymore.

Turns out the aircraft, named "White Lightnin'," was previously owned by Lefty Gardner, but he sold it to Red Bull in 2005.

What really would be cool is if someone else could get their hands on a P-38, and modify it with a pair of Merlin engines, rather than the Allison V-1710s they regularly use.

Word is that Kelly Johnson did have an inkling to produce a Merlin-engined Lightning during the war, but since the Merlins were government-furnished (and slated en masse for the P-51 anyway), the Army said no. In addition, the Army was also reluctant to put the brakes on the entire P-38 production line to allow it to re-tool for Merlin installation, given how critical the Lightning was at the time to both the European and Pacific theaters.

But that doesn't mean some enterprising air racing enthusiast with a couple million to spare cannot do that. Would be interesting, no?

Anyway, I'm not going to get there this year. But one day, I will, and I'm taking my son with me. That experience alone will be worth it.

The 2015 National Air Races will be held September 16-20 at Reno Stead Airport.

The U.S. Needs to Build More A-10s, Not Retire Them


Death, taxes, and the A-10 getting the axe in the most recent U.S. budget proposal. You can almost set your watch by it. The United States Air Force is trying to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, better known as the Warthog, for the umpteenth year in a row. But the USAF's case to retire the A-10 is taking on water, and they've recently been shown to have "cherry-picked" data to make the A-10's performance in the Middle East look bad.

Yet, in the same breath, they sent A-10s to the Middle East to help combat ISIL in October of last year, and now they are sending a few more back to Eastern Europe in case the Russians get too frisky with Ukraine.

As this article on Foxtrot Alpha declares in no uncertain terms, the USAF's case for retiring the A-10 is:

" bulls**t and both the American taxpayer and those who bravely fight our wars on the ground should be furious."

Tyler Rogoway has gone so far as to declare it "sabotage." And he's right. The A-10 is, contrary to what the Air Force wants you to believe, a cheap and deadly multi-role aircraft that can do the jobs that nothing else can do.

This is par for the course for the Air Force brass, who cannot make a halfway logical procurement decision if it meant saving their own lives. Retiring the A-10, so they say, will save the USAF $4.7 billion over five years - $4.7 billion that could go to bringing the F-35 along, as though that's all it would need.

Avenger Cannon A-10

First flown in 1972, and introduced into service in 1977, the A-10 is unquestionably the greatest close support attack aircraft ever produced. So great is the A-10 at its job that, nearly 40 years after its service introduction, it still flies in front-line service, and has outlived its original manufacturer, Fairchild-Republic.

That, the Air Force says, is the problem. They want to shut down the last 315 Warthogs still flying to clear room in the budget for their beloved and problematic F-35 jobs program Joint Strike Fighter.

Truth is, the USAF is right. The A-10 is approaching 40 years old. There is only so much upgrading the Air Force can do to a four-decade-old airframe before the airframe itself is simply done. It does need to be retired.

But here's the issue: What the Air Force needs to replace the A-10 is...wait for it...more A-10s.

The F-35 can't do what the A-10 does


Fairchild-Republic built 716 A-10s. It was the last production military aircraft built by the storied stable that also produced the P-47 Thunderbolt, F-84 Thunderjet and F-105 Thunderchief - all tough aircraft that were built to get dirty and help the grunts on the ground. The A-10 was the next logical step in that evolution, and embodied everything that Republic stood for from World War II on.

Now that we're in 2015, there have been a number of technical advancements that the A-10 has simply missed out on. What has held up over time is its legendary toughness, maneuverability, and the deadly accuracy and hitting power provided by its GAU-8 Avenger cannon.

But the aircraft the USAF wants to replace the Warthog with - the problematic F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the A-10:

  • Being a stealth aircraft, it's designed to evade radar detection. Where the A-10 flies, among the weeds and behind hills, the concept of radar evasion is irrelevant.
  • The A-10 was built around its gun and a titanium "bathtub" in which the pilot sits. The F-35 doesn't have that armor.
  • The F-35 is designed to be supersonic. The A-10 most certainly was not. In fact, its lack of speed is an asset, in that it is a stable platform to aim its weapons from.
  • The A-10 is highly maneuverable, with its long, straight wings and dual tailplane. The F-35's high wing loading reduces its maneuverability to a point that air-to-air tests are showing it's a serious problem.
  • The A-10 costs $18.8 million per copy in 2004 dollars. A single F-35A - the Air Force version - costs $114 million per copy.
  • The A-10 has 11 external hardpoints, which can carry up to a maximum of 16,000 pounds of ordnance, although usually it carries less than that. The F-35 can carry 18,000 pounds max, but on only six hardpoints, plus two internal bays, so it can carry heavier loads, but not as much stuff in one go.
  • The A-10 has two engines arranged on pylons at the rear, such that it can get home on one of them if the other gets blown up. The F-35 has one engine, so if you knock that out, you knock out the whole plane.

If the USAF decides to replace the A-10 with the F-35, it will be a multi-billion-dollar mistake. It's already shied away from it once because the F-35 couldn't "generate enough sorties" to replace the Warthog. So what the hell good is a front-line close support aircraft that can't get into the air enough when things go sideways?

Reopen the lines

The Air Force should not buy the F-35 to replace the A-10. Instead, it should re-open the production lines and buy more A-10s.


This is not unprecedented. The U-2 was initially produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When the USAF needed more U-2s, they asked Lockheed to re-open the lines to produce two new variants, the TR-1 (later U-2S) and U-2R. Production ended in the mid-1980s, 25 years after the first U-2s rolled off the line at the Skunk Works.

There is only one snag in doing the same with the A-10: The original manufacturer, Fairchild-Republic, no longer exists. Currently, Northrop Grumman is the owner of all A-10 assets, having purchased them from the dying firm in 1987.

A new A-10 variant - let's call it a Northrop Grumman A-10D Super Warthog - as speculated in this article from War is Boring, would retain the A-10's rugged survivability and performance, while adding these new things the pilots want:

  • Upgraded engines from the old and tired TF34 turbofans. Currently, the A-10 has a hard time taking off with a full modern weapons and fuel load. A little more speed always helps too.
  • Better avionics and weapons equipment, like infrared sensors, cockpit displays, and as suggested, Northrop-Grumman's own LITENING II targeting equipment.
  • Better defensive systems, like missile warning and electronic warfare equipment.

Should a new A-10D variant come on line, it should have these and more and still remain under $20-25 million a piece. If it did, the Air Force could save the taxpayers a lot of money and re-focus the development of the F-35 to replace just the F-16 instead.

In addition, there could be some new customers.

An A-10 for the Marines

If the Marines had waved a magic wand in the early 1970s and said, "Give us an attack aircraft," they would have gotten the A-10.

They probably wouldn't have gotten the AV-8B Harrier II, which, despite its remarkable ability to take off and land without a runway, is highly vulnerable and occasionally unreliable.

But the Harrier's best advantage is that it can operate very close to the battlefield and from ships, like the Marines' Wasp-class amphibious assault carriers.


Now the Marines want their own variant of the F-35, the F-35B, complete with weight-costly and vulnerable STO/VL technology, to replace the Harrier. For a service hell-bent on reliability and toughness, the F-35B sure looks like it's full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The F-35B is also slated to replace the F/A-18 in Marine service, and perhaps it can as a lightweight multi-role fighter. But for close air support, again, what the Marines need is their own version of the A-10.

Marines F-35B

Let's say we re-opened the lines again for a Marines version of the A-10. It should be just as tough as the USAF version, but let's see if we can do something really fun: make it carrier-capable.

The message board folks have already speculated about it on occasion, but let's think about it seriously. A theoretical A-10E Sea Hog close support carrier-capable aircraft would require more than a few modifications:

  • Folding wings for storage on a carrier.
  • Heavily strengthened undercarriage to handle violent carrier landings and take-offs.
  • Arresting gear to land on the carrier.
  • It might be interesting to see if an A-10 could take off from a carrier using a ski-jump (like the British and Russians) with a full load and without a catapult. The Marines do not have ski-jumps on their carriers for the Harriers, even though the Royal Navy does.

This image is not real. But if it were, it would be very cool:

A-10 Warthog Carrier Landing

As it is, if the USAF doesn't want their remaining A-10Cs anymore, the Marines should take them off their hands. Heaven knows they'd be all too happy to do so.

Could there be room for the A-10B?

YA-10B Warthog

In 1979, The USAF converted one A-10A with a second seat, as the YA-10B. The plane was designed as a Night/All-Weather attack aircraft. Trials were successful, but Congress did not fund production of the A-10B, so the program was abandoned.

But now would be an interesting time to resurrect the A-10B concept. While night and all-weather chores can be handled by single-seaters thanks to the march of technology since 1979, a two-seat A-10 might be a useful prospect in areas like the Middle East, where forward air control and counter-insurgency aircraft would be needed. In addition, the A-10B would also be a useful tool in the Air Rescue Escort role, a-la the old 'Sandys', the A-1 Skyraiders, in Vietnam.

The A-10 now

All of this is speculation and wishful thinking. For the moment, the A-10 will remain in service until at least 2019 if retirement is to commence, but if Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona, a former A-10 driver, gets her way, the Warthog will be around until 2028.

Also coming to the aid of the Warthog are numerous veterans, who say they owe their lives to the A-10 and its pilots.

Ultimately, the truth is that the USAF doesn't have a replacement for the A-10. The F-35 can't do it. And for that matter, the F-35 cannot do what the Marines want it to do either, at least not in comparison to existing hardware, like the Harrier or the A-10 itself.

As we said above, the only realistic replacement for the A-10 is the A-10, and it will continue to remain so until the chiefs either come up with a cheap alternative, or take the not-unprecedented step of re-opening production of the Warthog.

The Lost Designations: Republic F-96 Thunderstreak

This is the first part in a series I'm doing on designations of aircraft that should have been, but were not, for whatever reason. Conveniently, the first three happen back-to-back-to-back in the U.S. fighter series. The first one is arguably the most successful in terms of aircraft produced. If you've never heard of the Republic F-96, that's okay. The fact is that the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak, arguably the most successful variant of the venerable F-84, initially had - and should always have carried - an entirely new designation. Ironically, the initial F-96 prototype had a lot more in common with its straight-winged forebears than it did with the swept-wing machines it presaged.

Almost as soon as the first Republic XP-84 Thunderjet made its initial flight on February 28, 1946, Alexander Kartveli and the team at Republic knew it was outdated.

Republic XP-84 Thunderjet

Data recovered from captured research facilities and scientists in Nazi Germany at the end of World War II indicated that designers there found advantages from swept-back wings, particularly at high speed. With the F-84B already in production by late 1947, Republic were now having to scramble to save the straight-winged Thunderjet from a short service life.

Republic YF-96A Thunderstreak

Republic developed several variants of the F-84 with various aerodynamic and propulsion upgrades in desperate attempts to keep the Thunderjet project alive for the USAF. However, by 1949, it was clear that a swept-wing aircraft would have to be developed if republic were to remain competitive with the likes of North American with their F-86, McDonnell's F-88, and Lockheed's F-90 - all of which employed swept wings.

Alexander Kartveli approached the problem from the simplest angle possible: Take a standard F-84E fuselage, and attach 38.5-degree swept wings and tailplane. This approach was an efficient one - It enabled quicker production due to not having to re-tool the factory (the new plane would have 55% commonality with the F-84E), and permitted the possibility of modifying existing straight-wing machines to the new standard.

As is custom, the Air Force provided Republic with a new designation for the aircraft - F-96. Republic dubbed it 'Thunderstreak.' The first was ready for flight in June of 1950.

The YF-96A, s/n 49-2430, made its maiden flight on June 3rd, 1950. Performance turned out not to be up to the levels Republic was hoping for. The YF-96A topped out at 693 mph, while the straight-winged F-84E had a top speed of 613 mph. In addition, like its predecessor, the YF-96A's performance died as it climbed, with a ceiling under 40,000 feet. Compared to the F-86 Sabre, which was capable of breaking the sound barrier in a dive, the F-96 looked headed for cancellation.

Then, on June 25th, 1950, everything changed. On that day, North Korea invaded South Korea, and the Korean War was on. With it came drastically expanded military funding, which had floundered in the draw-down after World War II. And with it, the YF-96 had new life, if its technical shortcomings could be solved.

The main drawback was the engine. The YF-96A was powered by the same Allison J35 engine as the F-84E. The swept surfaces did allow for some additional speed, but to reach the heights hoped for, the type needed a more powerful engine.

The Air Force asked Wright Aeronautical to build the British Armstrong-Siddely Sapphire turbojet engine under license in the U.S., under the designation J65. this engine, which already powered the Gloster Javelin and Hawker Hunter, could crank out more than 7,000 pounds of thrust, compared to the J35's 5,500 pounds. This new engine would be installed in the new Thunderstreak.

But there was a problem. The J65 was slightly larger than the J35, and required a greater volume of air than the F-96's circular nose intake could provide. The lack of air to the engine resulted in drastically inferior power and performance, despite the type's first flight with it in February 1951. So Republic had to go back to the drawing board. Kartveli's solution was to add a seven-inch length-wise plug into the fuselage, giving it a fatter, ovular cross-section.

As a result, most of the tools that Republic hoped to re-use to build F-96s would have to be tossed out, resulting in massive production delays. Consequently, the commonality factor with the straight-winged F-84s was dramatically reduced from 55% to just 15%. Two more prototypes were ordered, each with its own revised design to accommodate the new power plant.

Re-designation to YF-84F

By now, Congress was getting impatient with the F-96 program. It had staved off cancellation with the outbreak of the Korean War, but enthusiasm still waned. So Kartveli decided to play salesman.

He submitted to the Air Force that the XF-96A be re-designated YF-84F, hoping that selling Congress that this was a new sub-type of an existing aircraft would be more palatable than buying a completely new aircraft, despite the fact that the new type was only 15% similar to its predecessors. Congress fell for it, and the Thunderstreak was ordered into production as the F-84F.

In the meantime, Republic also pitched and got an order for an improved straight-win F-84 variant, the F-84G, to be produced quickly while the F-84F was ironed out. More than 3,000 F-84Gs would roll off the line at Republic - the most of any F-84 model.

The first YF-84F, s/n 51-1344, with its ovular cross-section, was flying by the end of 1951.

YF-84F Thunderstreak

The second YF-84F, s/n 51-1345, represented a radical redesign. Instead of the nose intake, this machine was completed with wing root-extension intakes and a needle nose. However, the new intakes did not allow enough air to get to the engine as was needed, and power losses were dramatic compared to the nose-intake model. So the F-84F would go into production with a nose intake.

F-84F intake

However, at this time, the Air Force was looking for a swept-wing upgrade from its straight-winged Lockheed RF-80 Shooting Star reconnaissance aircraft. Although the F-84F had lackluster performance for a fighter at high altitude, its low-level performance was rock solid in ground attack roles, and by inference, the type would make an excellent choice for low-level reconnaissance.

YF-84F Republic

YRF-84F Thunderflash

The solid-nosed variant also permitted the installation of cameras. So a new prototype was ordered, s/n 51-1828, with an enlarged, aardvark-esque nose section to accommodate camera packages. The first pre-production YRF-84F flew for the first time in February 1952.

RF-84F Prototypes

YF-84J Thunderstreak

Republic attempted one last push with the F-84F design in its YF-84J. The F's fuselage was enlarged once again, along with the nose intake, to accommodate the General Electric J73 engine, which produced a maximum of 9,500 pounds of thrust. This development finally achieved the performance that Kartveli had envisioned for his swept-wing fighter, as one YF-84J broke the sound barrier in level flight in April of 1954. But the cost of converting the existing F-84Fs to F-84J standard, coupled with the coming emergence of the Century Series fighters like the North American F-100 Super Sabre, spelled the end of the F-84J project.


FICON Prototype

There was one last task for the original YF-96A prototype to undertake. In preparation for the FICON project, 49-2430 was modified with aerial coupling gear and a drooped horizontal stabilizer in order to be mated with a B-36 mother plane to test the concept. The tests with the B-36 proved that the system could indeed work for roles including aerial reconnaissance and even nuclear strike. 25 RF-84Fs were ordered to be converted to RF-84K standards, with coupling gear and anhedraled tailplanes, to be paired with 10 modified GRB-36D mother ships. After service with SAC's 99th Strategic Reconaissance Wing (B-36s) and 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, the project was suddenly abandoned in April of 1956. While the difficulties in operating parasite aircraft operationally were unquestionably a factor, it should also be noted that the U-2 spy plane entered service with the CIA and SAC in January of that same year.

Convair GRB-36F coupling in flight with the modified Republic YRF-84F (49-2430), formerly the YF-96A. (USAF Photo)

The original YF-96A (described as the YRF-84F FICON) sits on display in the Research and Development Galler at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. It is the only one of the swept-wing F-84 prototypes to still exist. All the others have been scrapped.


Ultimately, given how much of a departure it was from the original F-84, the F-84F probably should have kept its original F-96 designation. Indeed, the original prototype's sleek form represents the highest refinement of aesthetics for a plane that had the unflattering nickname of 'Groundhog.'

Should-have-been equivalent designations:

  • F-84F - F-96A (21 different sub-types)
  • RF-84F - RF-96B
  • YF-84J - YF-96C
  • RF-84K - RF-96D
  • XF-84H - XF-96E

But Alexander Kartveli's decision to fold the plane's number in with the original type likely enabled it to become the great plane that it was, rather than being relegated to history's boneyard. It was a bold and cunning decision, but one that surely helped keep him, and Republic itself, in good stead with Air Force leaders heading into the mid-1950s, and the development of the F-105, which would prove troublesome. In this respect, Kartveli's genius as a businessman, in addition to a designer, cannot be overlooked.

VIDEO: 'Last Flight of the C-133 Cargomaster'

This incredibly well-produced video from the production team known as INVERSION documents the final flight of a Douglas C-133 Cargomaster on its trip from Alaska to its final resting place at Travis AFB in California on August 30, 2008.

The C-133 in question, USAF S/N 56-1999, was the last flying Cargomaster in the world. It had been flying Alaska Pipeline cargo around in the great north for a company called (adventurously enough) Cargomaster Corporation since 1975, four years after the retirement of the type from USAF service.

The C-133 was the first turbine-powered strategic airlifter. The first one flew on April 23, 1956, and the Air Force flew 50 of them with the Military Air Transport Service, and later, the Military Airlift Command. They were mostly used for carting ICBMs around to the various SAC bases around the country, but also lugged other loads back and forth to Vietnam. Their service life was short, as the T34 turboprops proved problematic, and the airframe suffered from fatigue problems. Over its service life, 10 of the 50 Cargomasters built were lost for a variety of reasons. The Air Force has to scramble to keep its C-133s flying until the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy came on line in June 1970. The Cargomasters were all unceremoniously retired within one year.

Sadly, the final service flight of a C-133 was from Travis to the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona in 1971. So bringing this gentle giant back home to go on display 37 years later it was a fitting way to conclude its career.

Another look at the landing from Don Von Raesfeld, one of the reported 8,000 spectators at the base that day, reveals two things:

First, these airplanes were LOUD. We normally think of turboprops like the C-130 Hercules as quiet giants these days. The Cargomaster was powered by four Pratt & Whitney T34 turboprops, churning out as much as 7,500 horsepower each. Back in the 1950s, when the Cargomaster was developed, noise was not of great concern. They just wanted to get the darn things to work properly. As the C-133 passes by the camera, it's so loud that it overmodulates the considerable gusts of wind in the microphone.

Second, if you look closely at the right inboard engine at about 16 seconds, you notice a puff of black smoke from the powerplant's exhaust, as well as another one at about 33 seconds. I am unable to decipher from the other video whether or not this was the engine giving the crew trouble on final approach, but it looks like that was likely the case. Nonetheless, the airplane landed safely.

Following its ceremonious final flight, the airplane was restored to its former glory with the livery of the 60th Military Airlift Wing, and sits on display at the Travis AFB Heritage Center in Fairfield, California, about mid-way between Oakland and Sacramento.

Regardless, this gorgeous video is a fitting tribute to one of the great unsung aircraft of the Cold War era. So sit back, relax, and turn the volume up, as you listen to what one of the first turboprop aircraft really sounded like back in the day.

C-133 Cargomaster
C-133 Cargomaster

The USAF's Trio of Turboprop Testbeds: The YC-97J, YC-121F and YC-124B

The video above is the only video evidence I've seen of the existence of three of the United States' first turboprop aircraft. They were all testbed variants of three of the most successful piston-engined cargo aircraft of the time: The Boeing C-97 Stratofregihter, the Lockheed C-121 Constellation, and the Douglas C-124 Globemaster.

Turboprops are fairly commonplace these days, particularly in the civil market. But in the 1950s, they were a newfangled technology, and to the USAF at the time, it must have seemed like they'd never work.

The idea of a turbine-driven propeller engine was first formulated in the 1920s, almost at the same time Frank Whittle devised the turbojet. No one actually got around to building one until the 1940s, and it was not until after World War II that the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union began seriously investigating the idea.

The first American turboprop engine was the General Electric T31 of 1945, which was little more than an experimental design. This was at a time when plenty of designers still felt warm and cozy with propellers powering anything, and the lack of reliability of pure jet power provided them ample reason for feeling that way.

The Trouble with Turboprops

Initially, turboprops were considered a logical transition stage from piston engines to jets in the late 1940s. Pure turbojets were not powerful enough to reach the performance levels that designers intended, and piston engines had reached the absolute limits of their potential. The U.S. Navy in particular spent a lot of time, money and resources investigating turboprops, since they could both provide the power of a pure jet with the take-off and landing performance of tried and trusted piston engines - quite helpful in the days before steam catapults, angled decks and mirror landing sites.

So various combat aircraft proposals used turboprops, as it was theorized that they provided the best of both worlds. Among the combat aircraft that used turboprops were several notable and spectacular failures:

As jet engines improved significantly through the 1950s, the idea of using turboprops as a bridge to power fighter and bomber aircraft was abandoned. But the initial teething troubles with complex engines like Allison's cantankerous XT40 were eventually overcome with the introduction of simpler designs, like the Pratt & Whitney T34 and Allison T56.

Meanwhile, as pure jet power was pushing fighter and bomber types to the performance levels initially promised, it did not quite provide the level of efficiency needed for large transport aircraft. This provided a golden opportunity for turboprop designers.

Multi-engine aircraft also naturally have a margin of safety much greater than single or twin-engine types. An in-flight failure in one troublesome engine would not prove fatal to an aircraft with four of them. So turboprops could lift greater loads than piston engines at a time before high-efficiency turbofan engines.

The USAF's crop of piston-engined transports at the time, led by the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, were at their performance limits. The Globemaster's four Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial powerplants maxed out at 3,800 horsepower each. However the T34, from the same stable, could top out at more than 5,000 horsepower (and in the case of the T34-P-9W, at a phenomenal 7,500 hp). So the technology was there to enable massive gains in payload, range, speed and altitude.

But of course, in an era before computer simulation, the only way to test these ideas was to put then engines on a plane and go fly it. So both the Air Force and the Navy put three of their most venerable piston engine-powered transports, installed T34s on them, and used them as all-turboprop testbeds in the early 1950s.

Boeing YC-97J Stratofreighter

Boeing YC-97J
Boeing YC-97J

Boeing had prodded the Air Force for some time in the early 1950s to develop a turboprop-powered variant of their successful C-97, itself a transport development of the B-29, and powered by the same Wright R-4360 radial engines as the B-50. With the advent of aerial refueling, it became clear that piston-engined tankers, like the successful KC-97, were shown to be inadequate for refueling pure jet-powered combat aircraft, being barely able to reach a maximum speed greater than the stalling speed of the jets.

In 1955, Boeing finally got the go-ahead to convert two KC-97G airframes (52-2693 and 52-2672) to YC-97J standard, powered by four Pratt & Whitney YT34 turboprops (JP Santiago notes that the Air Force considered re-designating these machines as YC-137s, but relented)

From the day of the first flight on April 19th, 1955, the performance differences were immediately obvious. The YT34s made the YC-97J 5,000 pounds lighter and much more powerful - 5,700 hp per engine, compared to the R-4360's 3,800. As a result, top speed jumped from 375 mph to 417 mph, and the time the plane took to reach 20,000 feet altitude was cut from 50 to just 14 minutes. Boeing's official proposal to the Air Force called for the C-97J to carry up to 53,600 pounds of cargo - a dramatic improvement of the standard C-97's 37,500 pounds.

YC-97J Boeing
YC-97J Boeing

While the YC-97Js showed much promise, they were already obsolete. Almost exactly one year before the first YC-97J flew, the famous 367-80, the prototype of the 707 airliner, was rolled out in Seattle, and flew for the first time on July 15 of that same year.

It is reported that, upon seeing the 'Dash-80' during its flight trials in 1954, Gen. Curtis LeMay, the head of SAC at the time, convinced the government to order its first fleet of jet tankers from Boeing, rather than wait for Lockheed to produce its as-yet unbuilt Constellation II - the winner of a government competition - as the USAF's first all-jet tanker aircraft. The KC-135 was ordered on September 1, 1954, and the Dash-80 conducted its first refueling test with a B-52 on October 5. The first KC-135As went into service in 1956.

Boeing would flirt again with turboprops with its XC-127 tanker/transport design, a further development of the YC-97J, but this was not proceeded with.

Super Guppy
Super Guppy

The immediate success of the all-jet KC-135 spelled the end for the C-97J before it started. The two examples built soldiered on as transports and occasional engine testbeds until 1964, when AeroSpacelines purchased both of them. One was converted into a Turbo Super Guppy and used to transport parts of rockets cross-country for the Saturn rocket program, and the other was cannibalized for parts to support the first airframe. The NASA Super Guppy (formerly 52-2693) rests on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona.

Douglas YC-124B Globemaster II

Douglas YC-124B
Douglas YC-124B

At about the same time, in 1950, the Air Force announced it would proceed with development of a turboprop-powered variant of its larges strategic transport at the time, Douglas' massive C-124 Globemaster II. The new C-124B, it was said, would have double the horsepower, giving it greater speed, range and payload. Like the YC-97J, it would also be powered by four T34 turboprops, and would be available in a tanker/transport configuration.

Both Douglas and the Air Force harbored great enthusiasm for the improved Globemaster, given how the production version, powered by four R-4360 piston engines, had proven highly effective. The prospect of 'Old Shaky' getting an upgrade must have been a welcome prospect to the troops in Korea who ferried back and forth aboard the big transports. However, more than three years would pass before the new plane actually took to the air.

The lone YC-124B produced (serial no. 51-072) made its first flight on February 2, 1954, flying from Douglas' Long Beach plant up to Edwards AFB. In addition to the new engines, the vertical stabilizer was enlarge, and the cabin was pressurized, permitting operation at higher altitudes, and thus higher efficiency from the engines. Speed also increased, from 298 mph to 375 mph, and in fact, the YC-124's cruising speed was higher than the top speed of the production version.

YC-124B Douglas
YC-124B Douglas

By the time the YC-124B flew for the first time, the C-130 Hercules was already taking shape. The Lockheed plane would fly in August, and with its STOL potential and a rear-loading ramp enabling the kinds of in-flight drop-offs that the front-loading C-124 could not, the Air Force decided to go with the new plane over an improved old one.

XC-132 Douglas
XC-132 Douglas

The YC-124B would provide much helpful data to both Douglas and the Air Force un until its retirement in October 1956. Much of that data would inform Douglas' follow-on XC-132 program, a swept-wing heavy lifter which was to be powered by four massive Pratt & Whitney T57s, a turboprop development of the successful J57 engine which was supposed to crank out an incredible 15,000 horsepower. A C-124C was tested with a prototype XT57 installed in an unusual arrangement in the aircraft's nose. It was this machine that revealed problems with the big engine, and when the T57 failed to materialize, the XC-132 (ostensibly to be nicknames Globemaster III) went with it, not getting past the mock-up stage.

C-124C XT57
C-124C XT57

Had it been built, the C-132 would have been the largest turboprop-powered aircraft of all time, being 50 feet longer than a standard C-124. However, this failure would inform Douglas' concurrent and successful C-133 Cargomaster program.

Lockheed YC-121F/R7V-2 Super Constellation

Lockheed YC-121F
Lockheed YC-121F

Of the three four-engined turboprop testbeds, of the 1950s, Lockheed's adaptation of the Constellation probably came the closest to entering production.

It was the Navy who first ordered two R7V-1 transports (Bu. Nos. 131660 and 131661) to be pulled from the assembly line and converted to R7V-2 standards in 1954, powered by four Pratt & Whitney T34 turboprops. These were given the company model number L-1249A, and the first one made its maiden flight on September 1, 1954. They were delivered to the Navy ten days later, and eventually were handed over to the Air Force.

Lockheed R7V-2
Lockheed R7V-2

At virtually the same time, the Air Force became intrigued, and ordered another pair of R7V-1s to be pulled from the line and upgraded as their own L-1249As. The first YC-121F flew on April 5, 1955, and the Air Force took delivery of the pair that July. All four machines were tested successfully, with all four spending time alongside the YC-97Js and YC-124Bs with the Service Test Squadron (Turboprop) of the 1700th Air Transport Group of the Military Air Transport Service at Kelly AFB near San Antonio, Texas.

Again, the performance upgrades were noticeable, particularly in the speed department. The YC-121F's cruising speed was 421 mph, almost double that of the production RC-121D aircraft. Top speed in testing peaked at 479 mph, making it the world's fastest transport aircraft in service at the time (The C-135 had not come on line yet).

Despite this, no YC-121Fs were ordered into production. Lockheed did propose a turboprop-powered Constellation in the USAF competition for its first AWACS aircraft, losing out to what would become the Boeing E-3 Sentry. Interestingly, the EC-121 Warning Star development of the Constellation, used in the preceding "Big Eye" early radar warning role in Vietnam, would be powered by the standard model's piston engines.

EC-121L Warning Star
EC-121L Warning Star

Lockheed also proposed a civilian version, dubbed L-1249B. It was to be powered by four  Pratt & Whitney PT-2F1 turboprops (the civilian version of the T34), and with a top speed of 415 mph, it was supposed to fly London-New York in nine hours. However, the airlines were not convinced that turboprops were reliable enough at the time, and preferred to stick with piston-engined transports until the new jets arrived.

One Turbo Connie would serve its manufacturer in testing the Allison 501 (military designation T56, also used in the C-130) engines that would eventually be used in the new Lockheed Electra airliner (as can be seen in this video). This testbed was briefly given the unofficial portmanteau 'Elation.' But in the end, all four turboprop-powered Connies would be scrapped.

While none of the above types would go into production, in no way should they be considered failures. The data that each of these aircraft provided contributed greatly to the development of the USAF's later successful turboprop transports - the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster, and the ubiquitous Lockheed C-130 Hercules. While Russia enjoyed early successes in the development of large turboprop engines, culminating in the Tupolev Tu-95 'Bear' family, American turboprops would gain a reputation for performance, low noise, and most of all, efficiency. The advent of engines like Pratt & Whitney's T34 and Allison's highly successful T56 helped ease the growing pains from those early failed attempts. Today's American turboprops owe their existence to these old, long-forgotten test machines.

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Pratt & Whitney J58: The SR-71's Secret Weapon (VIDEO)

This is one of the coolest videos I have ever seen on the web yet. It's from Tech Adams Laboratories on YouTube, and it's a fantastic animation of the SR-71's massive Pratt & Whitney J58 engine, and how it works. If you've ever really wondered how the thing worked, watch this and it will all be so much clearer.

The J58 was less an engine than a system of aerodynamic components - of which the engine was a part - that enabled the Blackbird to cruise at Mach 3.2 efficiently. And that's the key. When you're cranking full afterburner, you're burning a lot of fuel. But for long-range reconnaissance missions, you have to fly really fast for a long time, and that means re-thinking your propulsion system. P&W and Lockheed collaborated on creating the only engine of its type in the world at the time - what the video called a turbo-ramjet, or what we might call today a combined-cycle engine. Lockheed's experience with ramjets in the X-7 project no doubt enabled them to work closely with Pratt & Whitney on the incredibly complex aerodynamics taking place in and around the J58's massive inlet spike, enabling the engine to do what it was intended to do: push the airplane to incredible speed, and more importantly, stay there.

Though the J58 was proposed for use on a number of other high-performance aircraft in the 1960s, only the Blackbirds carried it in flight. Perhaps one day, when higher performance is again the goal for an aircraft, we'll see a propulsion system that is a direct descendant of the J58. But for now, we can admire it in silence, in museums, usually parked next to one of the retired Blackbirds.

Tech Adams has a bunch of other neat videos on the Blackbird and aviation history in general on his YouTube channel, so it's definitely worth checking out. Personally, I'm jealous that he has been to the National Museum of the USAF and I have not - yet.

VIDEO: Watch Streak Eagle Smash Time-to-Climb Records in 1975

Check out this old USAF film (split into two parts) documenting Project Streak Eagle, when a stripped-down, souped-up F-15A Eagle smashed eight time-to-climb records in the span of two weeks - and six of them in one day - in 1975 at Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota. Thanks to YouTuber shaunhill13 for the find and the post.

F-15 Streak Eagle
F-15 Streak Eagle

In 1975, the U.S. Air Force knew their then-brand new Eagle, first flown just two and a half years earlier, was a hot ship, but wanted to win a little bit of propaganda by showing off how hot it really was. What better way to prove that than by chasing down the standing time-to-climb records owned by two airplanes: the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom, which the Eagle replaced in the USAF inventory, and the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25 Foxbat, which the Eagle was designed to beat out in the air superiority arena. The reason the Air Force could to do this was simple. The F-15 was the first combat fighter to have a thrust-to-weight ratio of greater than 1. The F-15A's two Pratt & Whitney F100 engines combined for almost 48,000 pounds of thrust with full afterburner, while a fully loaded Eagle itself weighed around 44,500 pounds. So theoretically, the Eagle didn't need its wings to go straight up. It should be noted that time-to-climb performance is arguably the most critical performance parameter for interceptors. After all, an interceptor is only as good as its ability to to meet high-flying enemy aircraft at a point as far from base as possible, in as little time as possible. This was the F-15's primary job. A full year before the Eagle entered service, the seventeenth Eagle produced was taken straight off the McDonnell-Douglas line and sent to Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota, where cold January weather would be favorable for record-breaking. Three pilots, Maj. Roger Smith, Maj. Dave W. Peterson, and Maj. William R. "Mack" MacFarlane were sent there with it and told to go re-write the record book.

F-15 Streak Eagle Pilots
F-15 Streak Eagle Pilots

The Eagle in question, No. 72-0119, was stripped of its radar, flaps, air brake, guns and fire control system avionics, and left unpainted in order to save weight - 1800 pounds worth compared to the garden variety F-15A, according to Joe Baugher. Operation Streak Eagle commenced in January 1975.

F-15 Streak Eagle in flight
F-15 Streak Eagle in flight

To further optimize the Streak Eagle's weight for each flight, the plane was only loaded with as much fuel as it needed to make each record attempt. For takeoff, the plane was taxied to the end of the runway at Grand Forks and hooked up to a hold-back bar, as can be seen in the video. The pilot then throttled the engines to full afterburner, and at the precise moment, the bar was released, and the Streak Eagle launched. Even given the lightness of the airframe and the power of the engine, it's still remarkable to see how quickly the Eagle would lift off the runway after an incredibly short takeoff roll of about 400 feet. Between January 16 and February 1, Majors Smith, MacFarlane and Peterson would make good on their orders to re-write the time-to-climb record book eight times over. Among the highlights from the video:

  • The Streak Eagle knocked off five records in three flights in the span of six hours on the first day, January 16.
  • The second flight on that day broke three records: 6,000m, 9,000m and 12,000m.
  • The third flight reached 15,000m (just under 50,000 feet) in one minute, 17.2 seconds, which was a faster time to that height than the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo program.
  • On the final flight, to 30,000m (just over 98,000 feet) on February 1, Major Roger Smith pushed the Streak Eagle over the top at a maximum of just over 102,300 feet, in what the video calls a "nearly ballistic trajectory."

Anytime you can use the words "ballistic trajectory" when flying a fighter plane, you're doing something awesome. The film above is in two parts in the embedded playlist, and shows each of the six record attempts in real time, which is quite amazing to watch in itself. And the music is so 1970s.

Streak Eagle's records would not stand forever. Some eleven years later, the Sukhoi P-42 - a prototype of the Su-27 'Flanker' with a thrust-to-weight ratio of nearly 2:1 - would systematically erase the Streak Eagle's marks. You can see a short video of that here. The Streak Eagle, now with a fresh coat of paint to cover its previously unkempt hide, sits quietly in storage today at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. But over those two weeks in early 1975, the Streak Eagle laid claim to one of the most phenomenal record-breaking sprees for one airplane in history.

F-15 Streak Eagle USAM Museum
F-15 Streak Eagle USAM Museum

What Airlines Can Do to Serve the 21st Century Customer


THIS POST IS UPDATED BELOW. American Airlines’ highly responsive Twitter account sent me this message in response to one of my tweets the other day:

Sure, no problem. Thanks for asking.

First, some background:

My wife and I celebrated our Honeymoon by flying to Hawai’i. We flew American round trip, with connections. That wasn’t a problem. But I thought their Boeing 757s seemed a tad bedraggled, and smelled like they were still recovering from cigarette smoke that filled their cabins in the 1980s. Whatever, probably just a fluke.

Then I flew American again on a business trip to Chicago aboard an MD-95, or DC-9, or 717, or whatever the hell it’s called these days. And I was outright astonished at how the flight attendants on the flight weren’t just openly mean to people – They didn’t give a crap about it either.

Sure, here comes story #572,489 about how crappy flying is. Fine. But no one offers real solutions, and nothing bothers me more than offering problems without offering solutions.

So, AmericanAirlines, here’s my response to you:

Nope, you can’t help me. Because I’m not flying your airline anymore. But I’m a benevolent creature by nature, so here’s some advice.

You’ve been taking a beating of late. And it’s well-deserved, because right now, you have not caught up to the rest of the world. It’s time to build not the first, but the best 21st Century airline.

Flying sucks. It’s expensive, it’s long, and most of the time, it’s boring as hell. So your job should be to do the opposite of what you have been doing of late, and make making flying fun your first, last, and every priority. That means customer service.

So here’s what I’d do on day one as your new CEO:

1. Free Wifi for everyone. End of story. If Starbucks can do it, so can you.

2. Free personal entertainment for everyone. Like I said, flying is boring. But nothing takes the edge off of sitting in a chair for 1-6 hours like watching some TV. Here’s where you can take some noted from your competitors at JetBlue, who offer personal TV through DirecTV. If I’m going to sit in a 757 for 6 hours going from Dallas to Maui, as my wife and I did a few months ago, at least give me ESPN. And while you’re at it, give us some On Demand movies as well. Netflix can give it to my phone, for crying out loud.

I also want these channels: A zoom-able real-time map with speed, altitude, range to destination and flight time remaining, and a camera showing us the skies ahead (perhaps a GoPro or similar camera at the top of the tail or in the nose). Take the magical mystery out of the experience for those who want to experience it more.

By the way, the next step? Interactive touch-screen games played between passengers in the plane. It will happen. You should be the first to make it happen.

3. Make your food worth eating. Instead of rubber turkey on a plastic bun, hook up with a restaurant chain and figure this thing out. If they can find out how to get TGI Friday’s potato skins into a frozen dinner I can pick up at Publix and have it be halfway decent, I’m sure you can get this done.

Here’s my best suggestion: Get together with the good folks at Darden (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, Longhorn) or Brinker (Chili’s, Maggiano’s), and come up with a menu of food that is tasty, easy to store and cook, and, oh yeah, tasty. You can even cut costs by allowing them to market with you. This seems too easy.

And I don’t mind paying for the food, too. As long as we have a nice menu we can order from, and it comes out nice and hot in a few minutes. Not a problem. That way, people actually feel like they’re getting a decent product for the money they’re paying. Drinks should still be complimentary, sans booze. Don’t change that. But the food needs help, and it’s easy to help it.

4. Teach your flight attendants customer service. Seriously. It just seems like they hate doing what they do, but they do it because it pays well. If they don’t like their job, they should leave. Offer them the buyout.

Instead, hire young, optimistic, eager people out of college, pay them a decent wage, and use your flight attendant program as a springboard for their careers. Acknowledge that most of them will (and probably should) leave after four or five years for bigger and better things. But in the meantime, give them free travel wherever they want while they work for you, so they can see the world, and let them learn the ins and outs of customer service while flying for you. And when they leave, after a certain level of service, they get half-price wherever they want. Let American be the Disney of airlines when it comes to internal brand development.

And lastly, let them actually have a personality. They can be funny, they can even be a tad sarcastic, but they cannot be stuffy. And above all, they must be nice at all times. Trust me, it helps a lot. Just ask anyone who’s flown Southwest. Those people get it.

5. And while you’re at it, ditch the silly uniforms for your flight attendants. They’re not pilots, so don’t dress them like them. Polo shirts and khakis. It’s cheaper, it’s professional, and it looks like you’re not trying to fool us, yet they look like they still actually work here.

6. Show me your pilots. These people are faceless creatures who talk occasionally over the loop. You should make them an integral part of the brand. They are experienced professionals who quite literally hold hundreds of lives in their hands every day. So when the flight is pulling out of the gate, and while we’re seeing the video demo on our seat-back video screens, we should also see a little greeting from the pilot and co-pilot, telling us their names, where they’re from, how long they’ve been flying, what other flight experience they have (Are they a veteran?) and other stuff that proves to us that we’re in good hands. Put a face on these guys.

7. First check-in bag flies free. Period, end of discussion. If not, get someone at Boeing to design and install larger overhead bins, so we can carry on more.

8. More footroom, and slightly wider seats please. I’m talking six more inches. Don’t worry, it’ll be worth charging a tad more when everyone realizes they can put their seat back a tad more and feel more comfy. And why is it that an Airbus A340 has nice, comfortable, wide seats for transatlantic flights in coach, but 747s feel like sardine cans? I can’t figure this out. The Europeans are winning that one. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Comfort wins every time.

Now here’s a radical potential solution that may enable you to change the model entirely:

9. Eliminate First Class altogether. If you’re offering all of these perks to get people to enjoy flying, then why discriminate based on how much you paid for the ticket. Have your 737s, 757s, and 777s arranged in this new format. Song Airlines tried this long ago, and it was working until the geniuses at Delta committed good-idea-infanticide.

But your high rollers still want the treatment? Fine. The answer is the Embraer ERJ145XR. You know, the ones you had flying American Eagle regional routes. If you want to fly from Miami to JFK First Class, then you fit out your ERJs to be first-class express jets, with traditional first-class level service, and you charge those flyers first-class prices. But the heavies should be all-coach, and as I’ve elucidated, coach shouldn’t feel like coach anymore.

Here’s how you market this: On American, everyone flies first class. It writes itself.

You have the power to be the Apple of airlines. People will pay a little more for a good product. If that’s what you offer, and you stick your neck out the way Domino’s Pizza has (“Hey, we used to stink, so you know what, we own it. And now we’re changing, because we’re listening, and we want you to trust us”). There is no industry more ripe for this than the airlines, and you have the potential to do it.

Yes, it takes changing a lot of hearts and minds, and some decisions will be painful. But you’re fighting for survival. Big problems call for big solutions, and I just showed you what I, someone who despises flying, want in an airline. And I’m not alone.

So please, heed this advice, and do it whatever way you can. After all, you don’t want to go the way of Pan-Am and Eastern, do you?

UPDATE: Looks like American Airlines may have been paying attention. Watch:

(Video from American Airlines via NYCAviation)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article previously appeared on my personal website.

Is the Boeing 737 the Greatest Airliner of All Time?


In the history of aviation, few aircraft types have been so good at their designed task that they are simply taken for granted. Such is the case with the Boeing 737.

Boeing has dominated the airliner industry for a long time, and now they have announced the new 737 Max, a new development of their most successful domestic airliner, the 737.

Here’s Boeing’s video news release announcing the 737 MAX:

Expected to go into service later this decade (around 2017), the 737 MAX will have more fuel-efficient engines, better aerodynamics, and more space for passengers.

It was initially believed that the 737 would be replaced by a completely new short-haul airliner as part of Boeing’s Yellowstone Project. But the smarter people in Seattle realized that, if it ain’t broke, we shouldn’t fix it. So the 737 MAX looks to be the replacement of older variants of its own type, including the even more recent 737 Next Generation

When you look at the development of the 737 over the years, calling it the most successful commercial airliner of all time becomes less and less far-fetched. The first 737 made its initial flight a little over 45 years ago, on April 9, 1967. Since then, Boeing has churned out 737s non-stop. As of December 2011, Boeing has delivered more than 7,000 737s, and at least 2,300 more are on order. It stands to reason that, with the advent of the 737 MAX, the 737 will be the first airliner to eclipse 10,000 production units.

Forty-five straight years of production is unheard of for any particular aircraft type. It has even outdone the famed 747, which was first ordered in 1969, but has recently seen a slow-down in production (2010 was the first year since 1969 that no 747s were delivered). According to Boeing, more than 5,500 737s are still in service – more than one quarter of the worldwide fleet – with 358 airlines in 114 countries.

Over the years, the 737 has been re-designed, re-engined, stretched, and re-designed again. It was initially designed as a supplement to the 727. In fact, the original 737 fuselage used the same fuselage design as the 727. But the 727 was phased out of wide-scale use by the 757 in the mid-1980s. In fact, the 757′s ubiquitous design – a clean aerodynamic fuselage with twin engines set on pylons on the swept wing, a departure from the clean-wing, tri-engine planform of the 727 – was borrowed from the 737. The soundness of the initial design has withstood the test of time.

The first 737 MAX is due for delivery in time for the type’s 50th anniversary. To put the 737′s longevity into perspective, consider this: The legendary Boeing B-17 made its first flight in July 1935. Had the B-17 stayed in service in its roles as long as the 737 has to this point, SAC would have retired the last B-17s in 1980 – five years before the B-1B came into service.


That’s not to say the 737 hasn’t served the U.S. military – indeed it has. It has been used as a navigation trainer (T-43), transport aircraft (C-40), and more recently has even put on its war colors, in the form of the P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine and ELINT platform, replacing the venerable Lockheed P-3 Orion. Almost half a century after its peaceful origin, the 737 is being developed as a weapon of war, equipped with anti-shipping missiles, mines, and torpedoes.

But the 737 was, is, and will foremost be designed to carry people. Southwest Airlines just debuted its newest 737 variant, the 737-800, at BWI airport. It’s big, at almost 20 feet

longer than the 737-700. On top of that, America’s most trusted airline just placed an order for 150 737 MAXes, with an option for 150 more, on top of 78 737 NGs. The rest of America’s airliners would be smart to take note. But then again, no one has seemed to learn from Southwest – much to their detriment.

The 737 has never gotten the credit it deserves. 737s have carried everything and flown everywhere. Chances are, you’ve flown on one, just like your parents, and likely your grandparents. And chances are your kids will fly in one, and now, maybe their kids as well. After all, they'll be flying in the most successful passenger aircraft of all time.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article previously appeared on my personal site.