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Forty-eight years ago this week, NASA’s experimental M2-F2 lifting body flight research aircraft was demolished in a horrific landing mishap on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base. Although critically injured, NASA test pilot Bruce A. Peterson survived the mishap.

A lifting body is a wingless aircraft wherein the aerodynamic lift required for flight is derived solely from the fuselage. Interest in such a configuration stems from the type’s inherent suitability for lifting atmospheric entry from space. The primary attributes of same being favorable cross-range capability and aerodynamic heating performance.

Lifting body concepts date back to at least the 1950’s. From 1963 to 1975, both NASA and the United States Air Force conducted a number of manned lifting body flight research programs. The aircraft involved were the M2-F1, M2-F2, M2-F3, HL-10, X-24A and X-24B. All were flown out of Edwards Air Force Base between 1963 and 1975.

The favorable hypersonic flight performance of lifting bodies comes at a price. Specifically, lifting bodies are not particularly good subsonic aircraft from the standpoint of lateral-directional handling qualities. The type also falls like a rock in the approach and landing phase. Due to characteristically-low values of subsonic lift-to-drag ratio, touchdown speeds can exceed 250 knots.

The M2-F2 was the first of the heavy weight lifting bodies. It measured 22 feet in length and 9.4 feet in span. The aircraft had an empty weight of 4,630 pounds. The M2-F2 had boosted hydraulic 3-axis flight controls and a stability augmentation system. The vehicle was also configured with a quartet of hydrogen peroxide rockets rated at 400 pounds of thrust each.

On Wednesday, 10 May 1967, the M2-F2 (NASA S/N 803) fell away from the fabled B-52B (S/N 52-0008) launch aircraft at an altitude of 44,000 feet. NASA test pilot Bruce A. Peterson was at the controls of the M2-F2. This was Peterson’s 3rd flight in the M2-F2 and the aircraft’s 16th overall. It would be the last research flight for both man and machine.

The early part of the mission was unremarkable. Then the flight test gremlins made their presence known. Passing through 7,000 feet in a steep glide, Peterson pushed forward on the control column and brought the M2-F2 to quasi-zero angle-of-attack. The aircraft quickly entered a Dutch Roll which resulted in extreme, rapid lateral excusions.

Peterson increased angle-of-attack to arrest the wild lateral-directional motions of the M2-F2. However, he was no longer pointed toward Runway 18 on Rogers Dry Lake as intended. The ground was coming up rapidly and he would have to land the M2-F2 on a part of the lakebed that did not have the typical visual aids required for correctly judging height above surface level.

Peterson might have gotten himself and the M2-F2 on the ground in one piece except for the helicopter that now loomed directly ahead in his landing path. Not that it was the helicopter pilot’s fault. It was just that the M2-F2 had strayed so far from its intended flight path that the helicopter was suddenly a navigational hazard.

Managing to somehow avoid a collision with the flight support helicopter, Peterson now fired his landing rockets in an attempt to stay in the air a little longer. He then hit the landing gear switch. In 1.5 seconds the gear would be down and locked. Unfortunately for Peterson, there was only one second of flight time remaining before touchdown.

As the M2-F2 contacted the lakebed at 220 knots, its main landing gear was jammed back up into the fuselage. That was the end of the ball game. Sickeningly, the M2-F2 tumbled end-over-end across Rogers Dry Lake shearing off the canopy, main gear and right vertical tail. The battered and twisted airframe finally came to rest inverted on the ancient lakebed.

Incredibly, rescue crews found Bruce Peterson still alive as they came upon the crash scene. He was even conscious. However, the pilot was terribly hurt. Peterson’s oxygen mask had been torn off as the M2-F2 tumbled six (6) times before coming to a stop. He received severe facial injuries due to repeated impact with the lakebed surface. In addition, Peterson suffered a fractured skull, severe damage to his right eye and a broken hand.

Bruce Peterson came back from his brush with eternity. He needed extensive reconstructive surgery on his face and lost the sight in his right eye. Peterson served as a project engineer for a number of NASA flight programs and even flew as a Marine reservist. He later served as a safety officer on the B-2 flight test effort. Bruce Peterson passed away at the age of 72 on 01 May 2006.

For those who remember, “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” was a television series about a fictional test pilot who had been badly injured in an aircraft accident. In the storyline, the fictional character was “rebuilt” by doctors using bionic technology. Trivia buffs may be interested to know that the basis for “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” was Bruce Peterson’s M2-F2 experience.

For those that remember, the “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” was a televison series about a fictional test pilot who had been badly injured in an aircraft accident. In the storyline, the fictional character was “rebuilt” by doctors using bionic technology. Trivia buffs may be interested to know that the basis for “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” was Bruce Peterson’s terrifying M2-F2 crash.

Posted in Aerospace, Final Flight, History

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