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Valiancy in the Air

Thirty-six years ago this month, the valiant crew of a USAF KC-135 Stratotanker performed multiple aerial refuelings of a stricken USAF F-4E Phantom II over the North Atlantic Ocean. Conducted under extremely perilous flight conditions, the remarkable actions of the aerial tanker’s crew allowed the F-4E to remain aloft long enough to safely divert to an alternate landing field.

On Monday, 05 September 1983, a pair of USAF F-4E Phantom II fighter-bombers departed the United States for a routine flight to Germany. To negotiate the trans-atlantic distance, the F-4E’s would require aerial refueling. As they approached the refueling rendezvous point, one of the aircraft developed trouble with its No. 2 engine. Though still operative, the engine experienced a significant loss of thrust.

The problem with the Phantom’s engine caused it to lose speed and altitude. Further, its No. 1 engine began to overheat as it tried to keep the aircraft airborne. As if this were not enough, the aircraft’s starboard hydraulic system became inoperative. Coupled with the fact that the fuel gauge was edging toward empty, the specter of an ejection and parachute landing in the cold Atlantic looked all but certain for the F-4E crew.

Enter the venerable KC-135 Stratotanker and her crew of Captain Robert J. Goodman, Captain Michael R. Clover, 1st Lt Karol R. Wojcikowski and SSgt Douglas D. Simmons. Based with the 42nd Aerial Refueling Squadron, their immediate problem was two-fold. First, locate and navigate to the pair of F-4E aircraft flying somewhere over the open ocean. Second, get enough fuel to both aircraft so the latter could complete their trans-atlantic hop. Time was of the essence.

Following execution of the rendezvous, the KC-135 crew needed to get their steed out in front of the fuel-hungry Phantoms. The properly operating Phantom quickly took on a load of fuel. However, the stricken aircraft continued to lose altitude as its pilot struggled just to keep the aircraft in the air. By the time the first hook-up occurred, both the F-4E and KC-135 were flying below an altitude of 7,000 feet.

Whereas normal refueling airspeed is 315 knots, the refueling operation between the KC-135 and F-4E occurred below 200 knots. Both aircraft had to fly at high angle-of-attack to generate sufficient lift at this low airspeed. Boom Operator Simmons was faced with a particularly difficult challenge in that the failed starboard hydraulics of the F-4E caused it to yaw to the right. Nonetheless, he was able to make the hook-up with the F-4E refueling recepticle and transfer a bit of fuel to the ailing aircraft.

The transfer of fuel ceased during the first aerial refueling when the mechanical limits of the aircraft-to-aircraft connection were exceeded. The F-4E started to dive as it came off the refueling boom. At this critical juncture, Captain Goodman made the decision to follow the Phantom and get down in front of it for another go at aerial refueling. As the second fuel transfer operation began, the airspeed indicator registered 190 knots; barely above the KC-135’s landing speed.

While additional fuel was transferred to the F-4E, it was still not enough for it to make the divert airfield at Gander, New Foundland. The KC-135 performed two more risky aerial refuelings of the struggling Phantom. The last of which occurred at an altitude of only 1,600 feet above the ocean. At times during these harrowing operations, the KC-135 actually towed the F-4E on its refueling boom to help the latter gain altitude.

At length, the F-4E manged to climb to 6,000 feet and maintain 220 knots as its No. 1 engine began to cool. Able to fend for itself once again, the Phantom punched-off the KC-135 refueling boom. Goodman and crew continued to escort the F-4E to the now-close landing field at Gander, New Foundland. The Phantom pilot greased the landing much to the relief and joy of all.

For their heroic efforts on that eventful September day over the North Atlantic, the crew of the KC-135 received the USAF’s Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of 1983.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Celestial Bull’s Eye

Thirty-four years ago today, the USAF/LTV ASM-135 anti-satellite missile successfully intercepted a target satellite orbiting 300 nautical miles above surface of the Earth. The historic test was the first and only time that an aircraft-launched missile successfully engaged and destroyed an orbiting spacecraft.

The United States began testing anti-satellite missiles in the late 1950′s. These and subsequent vehicles used nuclear warheads to destroy orbiting satellites. A serious disadvantage of this approach was that a nuclear detonation intended to destroy an adversary satellite will likely damage nearby friendly satellites as well.

By the mid 1970′s, the favored anti-satellite (ASAT) approach had changed from nuclear detonation to kinetic kill. This latter approach required the interceptor to directly hit the target. The 15,000-mph closing velocity provided enough kinetic energy to totally destroy the target. Thus, no warhead was required.

The decision to proceed with development and deployment of an American kinetic kill weapon was made by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Carter’s decision came in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s successful demonstration of an orbital anti-satellite system.

LTV Aerospace was awarded a contract in 1979 to develop the Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle (ALMV) for the USAF. The resulting anti-satellite missile (ASM) system was designated the ASM-135. The two-stage missile was to be air-launched by a USAF F-15A Eagle executing a zoom climb. In essence, the aircraft acted as the first stage of what was effectively a 3-stage vehicle.

The ASM-135 was 18-feet in length and 20-inches diameter. The 2,600-lb vehicle was launched from the centerline station of the host aircraft. The ASM consisted of a Boeing SRAM first stage and an LTV Altair 3 second stage. The vehicle’s payload was a 30-lb kinetic kill weapon known as the Miniature Homing Vehicle (MHV).

The ASM-135 was first tested in flight on Saturday, 21 January 1984. While successful, the missile did not carry a MHV. On Tuesday, 13 November 1984, a second ASM-135 test took place. Unfortunately, the missile failed when the MHV that it was carrying was aimed at a star that served as a virtual target. Engineers went to work to make the needed fixes.

In August of 1985, a decision was made by President Ronald Reagan to launch the next ASM-135 missile against an orbiting US satellite. The Solwind P78-1 satellite would serve as the target. Congress was subsequently notified by the Executive Branch regarding the intended mission.

The historic satellite takedown mission occurred on Friday, 13 September 1985. USAF F-15A (S/N 77-0084), stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, California and code-named Celestial Eagle, departed nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying the ASM-135 test package. Major Wilbert D. Pearson was at the controls of the Celestial Eagle.

Flying over the Pacific Ocean at Mach 1.22, Pearson executed a 3.8-g pull to achieve a 65-degree inertial pitch angle in a zoom climb. As the aircraft passed through 38,000-feet at Mach 0.93, the ASM-135 was launched at a position 200 miles west of Vandenberg. Both stages fired properly and the MHV intercepted the Solwind P78-1 satellite within 6-inches of the aim point. The 2,000-lb satellite was completely obliterated.

In the aftermath of the stunningly successful takedown of the Solwind P78-1 satellite, USAF was primed to continue testing the ASM-135 and then introduce it into the inventory. Plans called for upwards of 112 ASM-135 rounds to be flown on F-15A aircraft stationed at McChord AFB in Washington state and Langley AFB in Virginia. However, such was not to be.

Even before the vehicle flew, the United States Congress acted to increasingly restrict the ASM-135 effort. A ban on using the ASM-135 against a space target was put into effect in December 1985. Although USAF actually conducted successful additional ASM-135 flight tests against celestial virtual targets in 1986, the death knell for the program had been sounded.

In the final analysis, a combination of US-Soviet treaty concerns, tepid USAF support, and escalating costs killed the ASM-135 anti-satellite effort. The Reagan Administration formally cancelled the program in 1988.

While the ASM-135 effort was relatively short-lived, the technology that it spawned has propagated to similar applications. Indeed, today’s premier exoatmospheric hit-to-kill interceptor, the United States Navy SM-3 Block IA anti-ballistic missile, is a beneficiary of ASM-135 homing guidance, intercept trajectory and kinetic kill weapon technologies.

Posted in Aerospace, History

X-1A Highest Flight

Sixty-five years ago this month, USAF Major Arthur W. “Kit” Murray set a new world altitude record of 90,440 feet in the rocket-powered Bell X-1A. In doing so, Murray reported that he could detect the curvature of the Earth from the apex of his trajectory.

The USAF/Bell X-1A was designed to explore flight beyond Mach 2. The craft measured 35.5 feet in length and had a wing span of 28 feet. Gross take-off weight was 16,500 pounds. Power was provided by an XLR-11 rocket motor which produced a maximum sea level thrust of 6,000 lbs. This power plant burned 9,200 pounds of propellants (alcohol and liquid oxygen) in about 270 seconds of operation.

Similar to other early rocket-powered X-aircraft such as the Bell XS-1, Douglas D-558-II, Bell X-2 and North American X-15, the X-1A flew two basic types of high performance missions. That is, the bulk of the vehicle’s propulsive energy was directed either in the horizontal or in the vertical. The former was known as the speed mission while the latter was called the altitude mission.

On Saturday, 12 December 1953, USAF Major Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager flew the X-1A (S/N 48-1384) to an unofficial speed record of 1,650 mph (Mach 2.44). Moments after doing so, the X-1A went divergent in all three axes. The aircraft tumbled and gyrated through the sky.  Control inputs had no effect. Yeager was in serious trouble. He could not control his aircraft and punching-out was not an option. The X-1A had no ejection seat.

Chuck Yeager took a tremendous physical and emotional beating for more than 70 seconds as the X-1A wildly tumbled. His helmet hit the canopy and cracked it. He struck the control column so hard that it was physically bent. His frantic air-to-ground communications were distinctly those of a man who was convinced that he was about to die.

As the X-1A tumbled, it decelerated and lost altitude. At 33,000 feet, a battered and groggy Yeager found himself in an inverted spin. The aircraft suddenly fell into a normal spin from which Yeager recovered at 25,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains situated northwest of Edwards. Somehow, Yeager managed to get himself and the X-1A back home intact.

The culprit in Yeager’s wide ride was the then little-known phenomenon identified as roll inertial coupling. That is, inertial moments produced by gyroscopic and centripetal accelerations overwhelmed aerodynamic control moments and thus caused the aircraft to depart controlled flight. Roll rate was the critical mechanism since it coupled pitch and yaw motion.

In the aftermath of Yeager’s near-death experience in the X-1A, the Air Force ceased flying speed missions with the aircraft. Instead, a series of flights followed in which the goal was to extract maximum altitude performance from the aircraft. USAF Major Arthur W. “Kit” Murray was assigned as the Project Pilot for these missions.

On Thursday, 26 August 1954, Kit Murray took the X-1A (S/N 48-1384) to a maximum altitude of 90,440 feet. This was new FAI record. Murray also ran into the same roll inertial coupling phenomena as Yeager. However, his experience was less traumatic than was Yeager’s. This was partly due to the fact that Murray had the benefit of learning from Yeager’s flight. This allowed him to both anticipate and know how to correct for this flight disturbance.

Murray’s achievement in the X-1A meant that the X-1A held the records for both maximum speed and altitude for manned aircraft. It did so until both records were eclipsed by the Bell X-2 in September of 1956.

Kit Murray was a highly accomplished test pilot who never received the public adulation and notoreity that Chuck Yeager did. He retired from the Air Force in 1960 after serving for 20 years in the military. Murray went on to a very successful career in engineering following his military service. Kit Murray lived to the age of 92 and passed from this earthly scene on Monday, 25 July 2011.

Posted in Aerospace, History
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