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Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III

Fifty-eight years ago this month, the USN/Vought XF8U-3 Crusader III interceptor prototype took off on its maiden test flight at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Vought chief test pilot John W. Konrad was at the controls of the advanced high performance aircraft.

The Vought XF8U-3 was designed to intercept and defeat adversary aircraft. Although it bore a close external resemblance to its F8U-1 and F8U-2 forbears, the XF8U-3 was much more than just a block improvement in the Crusader line. It was considerably bigger, faster, and more capable than previous Crusaders and was in reality a new airplane.

The XF8U-3 measured 58.67 feet in length and had a wing span of an inch less than 40 feet. Gross Take-Off and empty weights tipped the scales at 38,770 lbs and 21,860 lbs, respectively. Power was provided by a single Pratt and Whitney J75-P-5A generating 29,500 lbs of sea level thrust in afterburner.

A distinctive feature of the XF8U-3 was a pair of ventrally-mounted vertical tails. These surfaces were installed to improve aircraft directional stability at high Mach number. Retracted for take-off and landing, the surfaces were deployed once the aircraft was in flight.

The No. 1 XF8U-3 (S/N 146340) first flew on Monday, 02 June 1958 at Edwards Air Force, California. Vought chief test pilot John W. Konrad did the first flight piloting honors. The aircraft flew well with no major discrepancies reported. Approach and landing back at Edwards were uneventful.

Subsequent flight testing verified that the XF8U-3 was indeed a hot airplane. The type reached a top speed of Mach 2.39 and could have flown faster had its canopy had been designed for higher temperatures. The flight test-determined absolute altitude of 65 KFT was exceeded by 25 KFT in a zoom climb.

Those who flew the XF8U-3 said that the aircraft was a real thrill to fly. The Crusader III displayed outstanding acceleration, maneuverability and high-speed flight stability. Control harmony in pitch, yaw, and roll was extremely good as well.

Despite its great promise, the XF8U-3 never proceeded to production. This was primarily the result of coming up short in a head-to-head competition with the McDonnell F4H-1 Phantom II during the second half of 1958. While the Crusader was faster and more maneuverable than the Phantom, the latter’s mission capability and payload capacity were better.

Most historical records indicate that a total of five (5) Crusader III airframes were built. The serial numbers assigned by the Navy were 146340, 146341, 147085, 147086, and 147087. None of these aircraft exist today.

Posted in Aerospace

Midair! Midair! Midair!

Forty-eight years ago this month, XB-70A Valkyrie Air Vehicle No. 2 (62-0207) took-off from Edwards Air Force Base, California for the final time.

The crew for this flight included aircraft commander and North American test pilot Alvin S. White and right-seater USAF Major Carl S. Cross. White would be making flight No. 67 in the XB-70A while Cross was making his first. For both men, this would be their final XB-70A flight.

In the past several months, Air Vehicle No. 2 had set speed (Mach 3.08) and altitude (74,000 feet) records for the type. But on this fateful Wednesday, 08 June 1966, the mission was a simple one; some run-of-the-mill flight research test points and a multi-aircraft formation photo shoot.

The General Electric Company, manufacturer of the massive XB-70A’s YJ93-GE-3 turbojets, had received permission from Edwards USAF officials to photograph the XB-70A in close formation with a quartet of other aircraft powered by GE engines. The resulting photos were intended to be used for publicity.

The formation, consisting of the XB-70A, a T-38A (59-1601), an F-4B (BuNo 150993), an F-104N (N813NA), and an F-5A (59-4898), was in position at 25,000 feet by 0845. The photographers for this event, flying in a GE-powered Gates Learjet (N175FS) stationed about 600 feet to the left and slightly aft of the multi-ship formation, began taking photos.

The photo session was planned to last 30 minutes, but went 10 minutes longer to 0925. Then at 0926, just as the formation aircraft were starting to leave the scene, the frantic cry of Midair! Midair Midair! came over the communications network.

Somehow, the NASA F-104N, piloted by NASA Chief Test Pilot Joe Walker, had collided with the right wing-tip of the XB-70A. Walker’s out-of-control F-104 then rolled inverted to the left and sheared-off the XB-70A’s twin vertical tails. The F-104N fuselage was severed just behind the cockpit and Walker was killed instantly in the process.

Curiously, the XB-70A continued on in steady, level flight for about 16 seconds despite the loss of its primary directional stability lifting surfaces. Then, as White attempted to control a roll transient, the XB-70A rapidly departed controlled flight.

As the doomed aircraft torturously pitched, yawed and rolled, its left wing structurally failed and fuel spewed furiously from its fuel tanks. White was somehow able to eject and survive. Cross never left the aircraft and rode it down to impact just north of Barstow, California.

A mishap investigation followed and (as always) blame was assigned. However, none of that changed the facts that on this, the Blackest Day at Edwards, American aviation lost two of its best men and aircraft in a flight mishap that never should have happened.

Posted in Aerospace, Final Flight, History

Touching the Face of God

Ten years ago this month, Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne flew to an altitude of 62.214 statute miles. The flight marked the first time that a privately-developed flight vehicle had flown above the 62-statute mile boundary that entitles the flight crew to FAI-certified astronaut wings. As a result, SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill became history’s first private citizen astronaut.

SpaceShipOne Mission 15P began with departure from California’s Mojave Spaceport at 0647 PDT. Carrying SpaceShipOne at the centerline station, Scaled’s White Knight aircraft climbed to the drop altitude of 47,000 feet.

At 0750 PDT on Monday, 21 June 2004, the 7,900-pound SpaceShipOne fell away from the White Knight and Melvill immediately ignited the 16,650-pound thrust hybrid rocket motor. Melvill quickly then pulled SpaceShipOne into a vertical climb.

Passing through 60,000 feet, SpaceShipOne experienced a series of uncommanded rolls as it encountered a wind shear. Melvill struggled with the controls in an attempt to arrest the roll transient. Then, late in the boost, the vehicle lost primary pitch trim control. In response, Melvill switched to the back-up system as he continued the ascent.

Rocket motor burnout occurred at 180,000 feet with SpaceShipOne traveling at 2,150 mph. It now only weighed 2,600 pounds. The vehicle then coasted to an apogee of 62.214 statute miles (328,490 feet). The target maximum altitude was 68.182 statute miles (360,000 feet). However, the control problems encountered going upstairs caused the trajectory to veer somewhat from the vertical.

Melvill experienced approximately 3.5 minutes of zero-g flight going over the top. He had some fun during this period as he released a bunch of M&M’s and watched the chocolate candy pieces float in the SpaceShipOne cabin.

Back to business now, Melvill transitioned SpaceShipOne to the high-drag feathered configuration in preparation for the critical entry phase of the mission. The vehicle initially accelerated to over 2,100 mph in the airless void before encountering the sensible atmosphere. At one point during atmospheric entry, Melvill experienced in excess of 5 g’s deceleration.

At 57,000 feet, Melvill reconfigured SpaceShipOne back to the standard aircraft configuration for powerless flight back to the Mojave Spaceport. Fortunately, the aircraft was a very good glider. The control problems encountered during the ascent resulted in atmospheric entry taking place 22 statute miles south of the targeted reentry point.

SpaceShipOne touched-down on Mojave Runway 12/30 at 0814 PDT; thus ending an historic, if not harrowing mission.

After the flight, Mike Melvill had much to say. But perhaps the following quote says it best for the rest of us who can only imagine what it was like: “And it was really an awesome sight, I mean it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And it blew me away, it really did. … You really do feel like you can reach out and touch the face of God, believe me.”

Posted in Aerospace, History

XB-58A First Supersonic Flight

Fifty-seven years ago this month, the USAF/Convair XB-58A supersonic bomber exceeded twice the speed of sound for the first time. Convair test pilot Beryl A. Erickson was at the controls of the famed delta-winged beauty.

The B-58A Hustler was the United States first supersonic-capable bomber and was originally designed for the strategic mission. The aircraft was powered by four (4) General Electric J79-GE-5A turbojets generating 62,400 lbs of sea level thrust in afterburner. Maximum take-off weight was nearly 177,000 lbs.

Convair’s stunning delta-winged bomber was 97 feet in length with a wing span of 57 feet. Wing area was roughly 1,550 square feet. Aircraft maximum height was 30 feet as measured from the ground to the top of the vertical tail.

Flight crew for the B-58A consisted of the pilot, bombadier/navigator, and defensive systems operator. The crew was arranged in tandem with each crew member seated in a separate cockpit. The type carried thermonuclear ordnance. A total of 116 B-58A aircraft were manufactured.

The B-58A performance was impressive then and now. It had a maximum speed of 1,400 mph and a service ceiling of 63,400 feet. The aircraft could climb in excess of 17,000 feet per minute at gross take-off weight and up to 46,000 feet per minute near minimum weight.

On Saturday, 29 June 1957, USAF/Convair XB-58A (S/N 55-660) first attained its double-sonic design airspeed when it flew to Mach 2.03 at an altitude of 43,250 feet. This historic achievement took place on the type’s 24th flight. Mission total elapsed time was 1 hour and 55 minutes.

The Hustler had a difficult gestation due to its advanced design and demanding performance requirements. A number of aircraft and flight crews were lost due to a variety of baffling flight control and structural problems. First flight took place on 11 November 1956 with the type finally entering service on 15 March 1960.

The USAF/Convair B-58A Hustler was operational for just 10 years and was retired from the USAF inventory on 31 January 1970. The aircraft was never used in anger.

Posted in Aerospace, History