Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Wright Stuff, Part 3: Turbines, Stealth, Twins, and MiGs

Korean War, Southeast Asia, and Cold War Galleries

The conclusion of World War II ushered in the age of turbine power. While I have always felt a greater connection to piston powered aircraft from the first half of the twentieth century, there was still plenty to catch my eye in the subsequent hangars.

The start of the jet age did not mean that all piston-driven aircraft simply disappeared. In some cases they took on more specialized roles. Equipped with massive radomes both above and below the fuselage, the Lockheed EC-121D was a specialized variant of a standard Constellation (or "Connie") that served as airborne radar sentinels until they were replaced by purpose-built E-3 Sentry AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft in 1978.

The need for unmanned aerial relay stations resulted in modifications to civilian Beech A36 Bonanzas to create the Beech QU-22B. The odd hump on the top of the cowling housed a generator to power its electronics (note the little lightning bolt on the spinner). The aircraft could loiter for six hours while manned or ten hours when configured for remote control, though the latter control system was notoriously unreliable.

The highly advanced Lockheed F-22 Raptor is perhaps a little out of place here, an active duty fighter displayed in a gallery of retirees. Highly maneuverable due to vectored thrust and noted for its stealth ("low observable technology") capability, the F-22 was truly a next generation aircraft when introduced in 2005.

The North American F-82G Twin Mustang was the last piston-driven fighter purchased in large quantities by the USAF. Intended to fly long range bomber escort missions, the aircraft seated a pilot and co-pilot/navigator in separate cockpits to provide crew redundancy and counter fatigue. Although it resembles a pair of Mustangs simply glued together, it was a purpose-built clean-sheet design merely based on the original Mustang. Though introduced too late to escort B-29s in WWII, it served until 1953.

Only five twin Mustangs are known to exist, making it remarkable that the USAF museum has two on display. This one, the F-82B "Betty-Jo" flew 5,051 miles from Hawaii to New York in 1947, setting a still-standing record for the longest flight by a piston-powered fighter.

Not All Thunderbirds Are Claymation

I have always liked the looks of the North American F-100 Super Sabre ("Hun") and my interest in the airplane was further deepened this winter when I got to sit in one. The F-100 was the world's first production fighter capable of level, supersonic flight. Super Sabres were flown by the USAF Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team from 1956 to 1968.

In 1982, the Thunderbirds transitioned to flying the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon (immediately preceded by the F-4 Phantom and T-38 Talon). The displayed aircraft flew as a Thunderbird until 1992.

I very much wanted to climb into this F-16 cockpit, but it looked like a tight fit under the canopy and my first goal of the day was to avoid head trauma.

A "Tail" of Two Thunderbirds

From Our Good Friends at the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau

From the MiG-15 introduced during the Korean War to the fictional "MiG-28" (that was actually a US-built Northrup F-5) of the original Top Gun film, MiGs have represented adversary aircraft for decades. The USAF museum shows a progression of Mikoyan-Gurevich jet fighters across the decades.

The MiG-15 is the world's most produced jet fighter, though this number is still pretty insignificant compared to the number of Cessna 172s built. During the Korean War, it would have faced off against the North American F-86 Sabre. This particular MiG-15 came into US hands after a defecting North Korean pilot flew it to South Korea in 1953.

The MiG-17 was a faster, more maneuverable iteration of the MiG-15 design. It would have fought against US F-4 Phantoms and F-105 Thunderchiefs. Whereas the US aircraft were faster and better equipped for long distance engagement, the MiG-17 was more agile and a better dogfighter. The aircraft on display was a gift from the Egyptian Air Force, though it is painted in North Vietnamese Air Force markings.

The delta-winged MiG-21 is the world's most produced supersonic jet fighter.

MiG-23s featured a variable geometry wing and are the most produced swing-wing fighters in the world. (Does anyone see a trend here?) At one time, the USAF flew this specific aircraft in exercises against USAF, Navy, and Marine Corps pilots to simulate realistic encounters with representative foes.

Whereas early MiGs were built with a philosophy of somewhat crude utilitarianism, the MiG-29A has a more elegant aspect. It was designed in the 1970s and intended to counter US aircraft such as the F-15 and F-16.

Is That Why They Were Called the "Swinging 60s"?

The General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark featured an early swing wing design; straight out for take-off and landing, swept back for cruise speeds in excess of Mach 2. Originally under development for both the USAF and Navy, the Navy lost interest in this aircraft and invested instead in the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. This was good because Top Gun would have not been same movie starring an Aardvark in place of a Tomcat.

Unusual for a fighter aircraft, the pilot and weapons officer sat side by side.

This particular Aardvark is a Desert Storm veteran. I am genuinely confused by some of the markings, however. Did this Aardvark blow up cats?

A Face Only Its Creator Could Love

At one point, I came face to face with this absolutely hideous helicopter. Wow, that's ugly, I thought. It must be a Sikorsky. I was right, it's a Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV.

Da Bomb(ers)

I always thought that the late World War II monstrosity that is the Convair B-36 "Peacemaker" was a bit euphemistically named. This odd hybrid aircraft boasts six P&W 3,800 HP R-4360 radial engines arranged in a pusher configuration plus four jet engines to turn airspeed up to eleven as needed. When this B-36 arrived at Dayton in 1959, it marked the last time in history that a B-36 was airborne. This is one of only four B-36s still in existence.

Each monstrous wing of the B-36 carries a pod of two jet engines plus three enormous pusher radials.

Love Shack, Baby

To me, few things symbolize the Cold War more than a Boeing B-52D Stratofortress. In addition to its size, what is most impressive to me about the B-52 is that it was introduced in 1955 and remains operational to this day. Note by comparison how tiny the T-28 Trojan (hanging far left of frame, an aircraft in which I have previously flown) appears next to the Cold War behemoth.

Do the Hustle!
(You just whistled the melody under your breath, didn't you?)

The Hustler was Convair's delta-winged, supersonic bomber that operated from 1960 to 1970. B-58s set 19 different speed and altitude records, three of which were recorded by the aircraft on display. The Hustler's top speed was 1,325 mph with a service ceiling of 64,800 feet. This version obviously came equipped with a child car seat for those "Take Your Child To Work" days.

Here, Bogdan tried to out-hustle the Hustler! He won on account of the fact that the B-58 wasn't moving.

From above, the delta wing configuration of the Hustler becomes more obvious. It is also obvious that said delta wing is overdue for a dusting.

The supersonic, variable wing geometry, B-1B Lancer heavy bomber was designed by Rockwell International (now Boeing) to combine the speed of the B-58 Hustler with the range of the B-52 Stratofortress. The aircraft type is still in service and expected to retire in 2036.

In another excellent example of repurposing capable aircraft built for different missions, the B-29 Superfortress of WWII was reimagined as the WB-50 that flew high altitude weather reconnaissance missions. Equipped with Doppler radar and high altitude air samplers, the aircraft was even used to probe for radioactive atmospheric particles indicative of nuclear weapon detonation by the Soviet Union. The displayed aircraft was the last WB-50 to be retired from service in 1965.

Sure, it's just a DeHavilland Beaver with a military designation (U-6A). But I think that Beavers are cool and I had never seen one on skis before.

Sabre Rattling

North American produced the capable F-86 Sabre as a swept wing jet fighter intended to counter the prolific and deadly MiG-15. This F-86H is displayed with its skin removed to reveal the dense inner workings lurking beneath the surface.

"It's Not a Tumor!"

What is the bulbous protrusion on the side of this Sabre? The bulges accommodated film magazines for the vertical cameras employed by this reconnaissance RF-86F "Haymaker" version of the Sabre. With cameras replacing guns, phony machine gun ports were painted on the Haymakers to give an impression that they were not defenseless. I was not fooled.

Speed, Altitude, and Stealth: Legacy of the Skunk Works

The U-2 spy plane was one of the first declassified products of the Skunk Works, Lockheed's black project development division originally led by Kelly Johnson. The U-2 was designed to surveil at such a high altitude (initially 55,000', but later 70,000') that the airplane would be untouchable. High altitude operation informed its high aspect ratio sailplane-like wings. 

When Francis Gary Powers was shot down while peeping on the Soviet Union in 1960, the resulting international incident confirmed the existence of the clandestine aircraft and unscored the need for something that could fly a little bit higher. In addition to inspiring the name of a pretentious rock band, the U-2 has also been used for atmospheric study, mapping studies, and gathering crop and land management data for the Department of Energy.

Though no longer in active service, the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird was the U-2's successor and remains the fastest (Mach 3.2), highest-flying (85,000+ feet) manned, air breathing jet aircraft known. The purpose of the SR-71 was to surveil with impunity because it flew too high and too fast to ever be shot down. It carried no weapons (mostly).

The displayed Blackbird has 2982 hours of flight time and flew more sorties than any other SR-71. The extra nose section on display demonstrates that the SR-71 had swappable schnozes depending on the avionics needs of any given mission.

The last Blackbird to enter retirement, the world's only SR-71B, resides at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo. I recently wrote about the Blackbird after a 2020 visit to explore the storied spy plane's cockpit for the first time.

The Lockheed D-21B was a reconnaissance drone developed from some of the design principles of the SR-71. Never truly successful, the program was shelved after four flights. 

Photo from 28 May 2006 of a D-21 mated to a Blackbird at the Museum of Flight.

The Museum of Flight in Seattle displays an M-21 mothership (an SR-71 modified to carry the D-21) mated to a drone. I even have the picture to prove it.

Skunk Works struck again with the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter. Nearly invisible to radar, the stealth fighter was designed to deliver targeted strikes while evading detection. The Nighthawk was the first truly stealth aircraft produced and its design principles have been refined and implemented on newer generation aircraft. I was recently privileged to lay hands on an actual F-117A while doing some restoration work on the aircraft at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo.

A panoramic of the Cold War Gallery.

No Vampires Here

A small number of aircraft sit outside and we explored them just after lunch.

Speaking of lunch, I have often commented that 21st century museums seem to have really upped their culinary game since the dreadful museum cafeterias I remember from childhood. As superlative as the National Museum of the USAF is, its on-site lunch offerings are not a dimension in which this institution is a national leader.

A pristine example of a Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft. Clearly, the birds have not gotten to this one yet.

We were all feeling small next to the C-17. Dan questioned how one pre-flights the tail surfaces. We had no answers for him beyond half-hearted quips about really tall stepladders.

Finally, this is a Boeing EC-135E "Aria" intended for mobile tracking. They missed a huge opportunity not naming this the "Durante". This aircraft, "Bird of Prey", with a huge seven foot antenna dish in its "droop snoot" was used to monitor Apollo missions. 

With that, we headed back inside to explore the Space, R&D, and Presidential collections.

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