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The Mighty SeaMaster

Fifty-five years ago this month, the U.S. Navy’s first production Martin P6M-2 SeaMaster flyingboat took-off from Chesapeake Bay on its maiden flight. Martin chief test pilot George A. Rodney was at the controls of the 4-man, swept-wing naval bomber as it took to the skies on Tuesday, 17 February 1959.

Featuring a fuselage length of 134 feet, wingspan of 102 feet, and a wing leading edge sweep of 40 degrees, the P6M-2 had a GTOW of about 175,000 lbs. Armament included an ordnance load of 30,000 lbs and twin 20 mm, tail-mounted cannon. Power was provided by a quartet of Pratt and Whitney J75-P-2 turbojets; each delivering a maximum sea level thrust of 17,500 lbs.

The SeaMaster’s demonstrated top speed at sea level was in excess of Mach 0.90. This on-the-deck performance is comparable to that of the USAF/Rockwell B-1B Lancer and USAF/Northrup B-2 Spirit and exceeds that of the USAF/Boeing B-52 Stratofortress.

P6M pilots reported that the swept-wing ship handled well below 5,000 feet when flying at Mach numbers between 0.95 and 0.99. While designed for low altitude bombing and mine-laying, the aircraft was flown as high as 52,000 feet. As a result, the Navy even considered the SeaMaster as a nuclear weapons platform.

Despite the type’s impressive performance and capabilities, the SeaMaster Program was cancelled in August of 1959. Budgetary issues and the emerging Fleet Ballistic Missile System (Polaris-Poseidon-Trident) led to this decision. Loss of the P6M SeaMaster Program was devastating to the Glenn L. Martin Company and resulted in this notable aerospace business never again producing another aircraft.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The Flight of Friendship 7

Fifty-two years ago today, Project Mercury Astronaut John Herschel Glenn, Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn’s spacecraft name and mission call sign was Friendship 7.

Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) lifted-off from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 14 at 14:47:39 UTC on Tuesday, 20 February 1962. It was the first time that the Atlas LV-3B booster was used for a manned spaceflight.

Three-hundred and twenty seconds after lift-off, Friendship 7 achieved an elliptical orbit measuring 143 nm (apogee) by 86 nm (perigee). Orbital inclination and period were 32.5 degrees and 88.5 minutes, respectively.

The most compelling moments in the United States’ first manned orbital mission centered around a sensor indication that Glenn’s heatshield and landing bag had become loose at the beginning of his second orbit. If true, Glenn would be incinerated during entry.

Concern for Glenn’s welfare persisted for the remainder of the flight and a decision was made to retain his retro package following completion of the retro-fire sequence. It was hoped that the 3 straps holding the retro package would also hold the heatshield in place.

During Glenn’s return to the atmosphere, both the spent retro package and its restraining straps melted in the searing heat of re-entry. Glenn saw chunks of flaming debris passing by his spacecraft window. At one point he radioed, “That’s a real fireball outside”.

Happily, the spacecraft’s heatshield held during entry and the landing bag deployed nominally. There had never really been a problem. The sensor indication was found to be false.

Friendship 7 splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean at a point 432 nm east of Cape Canaveral at 19:43:02 UTC. John Glenn had orbited the Earth 3 times during a mission which lasted 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds. Within short order, spacecraft and astronaut were successfully recovered aboard the USS Noa.

John Glenn became a national hero in the aftermath of his 3-orbit mission aboard Friendship 7. It seemed that just about every newspaper page in the days following his flight carried some sort of story about his historic fete. Indeed, it is difficult for those not around back in 1962 to fully comprehend the immensity of Glenn’s flight in terms of what it meant to the United States.

John Herschel Glenn, Jr. will turn 93 on 18 July 2014. His trusty Friendship 7 spacecraft is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Convair XP-81 Escort Fighter

Sixty-nine years ago this month, the Consolidated Vultee XP-81 made its flight test debut at Muroc Army Air Field, California with Vultee test pilot Frank Davis in the cockpit. The XP-81 was a prototype long range escort fighter powered by a combination of single turbojet and single turboprop engines.

The XP-81 was designed to serve as an escort fighter for long range bomber aircraft. Its mission was to defend bomber formations from attack by enemy fighters. To fly and fight, an escort fighter had to match the range and endurance capabilities of the much larger bombers it was assigned to protect.

The military wanted an escort fighter with an operating range of 1,250 miles and a maximum speed of 500 mph. Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (Convair) chose a bi-mode propulsion system to meet these requirements. The idea was to combine the excellent fuel economy of a turboprop with the high-speed capability of a turbojet. The turboprop was intended for cruise while use of the turbojet was reserved for takeoff and high speed flight.

The XP-51 was a big airplane by fighter standards. It measured almost 45 feet in length and had a wing span of 50.5 feet. Gross take-off and empty weights were 19,500 and 12,755 lbs, respectively. The type’s predicted range was estimated to be 2,500 miles at 275 mph and 25,000 feet. Service ceiling was rated at 35,500 feet.

Convair built a pair of XP-81 aircraft. Ship No. 1 (S/N 44-91000) and Ship No. 2 (S/N 44-91001) were completed in 1945 and sent to Muroc Army Air Field for flight testing. Ship No. 1 made the type’s first flight on Wednesday, 07 February 1945 with Vultee test pilot Frank Davis at the controls. With the exception of rather marginal directional stability, Davis found the handling characteristics to be quite good.

Testing of the XP-81 prototypes consisted of just 10 hours in the air. While the aircraft showed decent promise, the entire program was cancelled in May of 1947. With VE having occurred in May of 1945 and VJ in August of 1945, the need for a long range escort fighter simply went away.

Following program cancellation, the XP-81 aircraft served for a season as photo targets on the Bombing Range at Edwards Air Force Base. Eventually they were rescued from that inglorious state and sent to storage at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Posted in Aerospace, History

YF-16 “Official” Maiden Flight

Forty years ago this week, the USAF/General Dynamics YF-16 Lightweight Fighter (LWF) took to the air on its official first flight with General Dynamics test pilot Phil Oestricher at the controls. The YF-16 would go on to win the Air Combat Fighter competition following a head-to-head fly-off against Northrop’s YF-17 Cobra.

The YF-16 was General Dynamics entry into the USAF Lightweight Fighter Program of the 1970’s. Its basic design was based on USAF Colonel John Boyd’s Energy Maneuverability (EM) Theory which posited that an aircraft with superior energy capability would defeat an aircraft of lesser energy capability in air combat. To achieve such, EM Theory dictated a small, lightweight aircraft having a high thrust-to-weight ratio, which permitted maneuvering at minimum energy loss. The YF-16 was an embodiment of this requirement.

The official first flight of the YF-16 (S/N 72-1567) took place on Saturday, 02 February 1974 at Edwards Air Force Base, California. General Dynamics test pilot Phil Oestricher (pronounced Ol-Striker) did the piloting honors. The nimble aircraft performed very well and was a delight to fly. Oestricher landed uneventfully following a brief test hop that saw the YF-16 reach 400 mph and 30,000 feet.

Interestingly, the real first flight of the YF-16 inadvertently occurred on Sunday, 20 January 1974 during what was supposed to be a high-speed taxi test. As the aircraft accelerated rapidly down the runway, Oestricher raised the nose slightly and applied aileron control to check lateral response. To the pilot’s surprise, the aircraft entered a roll oscillation with amplitudes so high that the left wing and right stabilator alternately struck the surface of the runway.

As Oestricher desperately fought to maintain control of his wild steed, the situation became increasingly dire as the YF-16 began to veer to the left. Realizing that going into the weeds at high speed was a prescription for disaster, the test pilot quickly elected to jam the throttle forward and attempt to get the YF-16 into the air. The outcome of this decision was not immediately obvious as Oestricher continued to struggle for control while waiting for his airspeed to increase to the point that there was lift sufficient for flight.

When the YF-16 finally became airborne, it departed the runway on a heading roughly 45 degrees to the left of the centerline. Oestricher somehow maintained control of the aircraft during the rugged lift-off and early climbout phases of flight. The pilot then successfully executed a go-around, entry into final approach, and landing back on the departure runway. A tough way to earn a day’s pay by any standard!

History records that the YF-16 went on to win the Air Combat Fighter (ACF) competition with Northrop’s YF-17 Cobra. The production aircraft became known as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, of which more than 4,500 aircraft, in numerous variants, were built between 1976 and 2010. The now-famous aircraft has clearly fulfilled the measure of its creation as evidenced by its presence in the military inventory of more than 25 countries worldwide. Significantly, America’s Ambassadors in Blue, The United States Air Force Thunderbirds, have flown the F-16 in air demonstrations since 1983.

While its initial foray into the air did not necessarily lend confidence that such would be the case, the YF-16 did survive its flight test career. Aviation aficionados may view the actual aircraft at the Virginia Air and Space Center located in Hampton, Virginia.

Posted in Aerospace, History