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NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, supported a Kelly Space and Technology, Inc. (KST)/U.S. Air Force project known as Eclipse, which demonstrated a reusable tow launch vehicle concept.
The purpose of the project was to demonstrate a reusable tow launch vehicle concept that had been conceived and patented by KST. Kelly Space obtained a contract with the USAF Research Laboratory for the tow launch demonstration project under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The USAF SBIR contract included the modifications to turn the QF-106 into the Experimental Demonstrator #1 (EXD-01), and the C-141A aircraft to incorporate the tow provisions to link the two aircraft, as well as conducting flight tests. The demonstration consisted of ground and flight tests.
These tests included a Combined Systems Test of both airplanes joined by a tow rope, a towed taxi test, and six towed flights. The primary goal of the project was demonstrating the tow phase of the Eclipse concept using a scaled-down tow aircraft (C-141A) and a representative aerodynamically-shaped aircraft (QF-106A) as a launch vehicle. This was successfully accomplished.
On December 20, 1997, NASA research pilot Mark Stucky flew a QF-106 on the first towed flight behind an Air Force C-141 in the joint Eclipse project with KST to demonstrate a reusable tow launch vehicle concept developed by KST. Kelly Space and Technology hoped to use the data from the tow tests to validate a tow-to-launch procedure for reusable space launch vehicles. Stucky flew six successful tow tests between December 1997 and February 6, 1998.
On February 6, 1998, the sixth and final towed flight brought the project to a successful completion. Preliminary flight results determined that the handling qualities of the QF-106 on tow were very stable; actual flight-measured values of tow rope tension were well within predictions made by the simulation, aerodynamic characteristics and elastic properties of the tow rope were a significant component of the towing system; and the Dryden high-fidelity simulation provided a representative model of the performance of the QF-106 and C-141A airplanes in tow configuration. Total time on tow for the entire project was 5 hours, 34 minutes, and 29 seconds. All six flights were highly productive, and all project objectives were achieved.
All three of the project objectives were successfully accomplished. The objectives were: demonstration of towed takeoff, climb-out, and separation of the EXD-01 from the towing aircraft; validation of simulation models of the towed aircraft systems; and development of ground and flight procedures for towing and launching a delta-winged airplane configuration safely behind a transport-type aircraft.
NASA Dryden served as the responsible test organization and had flight safety responsibility for the Eclipse project. Dryden also supplied engineering, simulation, instrumentation, range support, research pilots, and chase aircraft for the test series. Dryden personnel also performed the modifications to convert the QF-106 into the piloted EXD-01 aircraft. During the early flight phase of the project, Tracor, Inc. provided maintenance and ground support for the two QF-106 airplanes.The Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC), Edwards, California, provided the C-141A transport aircraft for the project, its flight and engineering support, and the aircrew.
Kelly Space and Technology provided the modification design and fabrication of the hardware that was installed on the EXD-01 aircraft.
Kelly Space and Technology hopes to use the data gleaned from the tow tests to develop a series of low-cost reusable launch vehicles, in particular to gain experience towing delta-wing aircraft having high wing loading, and in general to demonstrate various operational procedures such as ground processing and abort scenarios.
The first successful towed flight occurred on Dec. 20, 1997. Prior to this first tow test flight, the C-141A and EXD-01 were used to conduct a series of tethered taxi tests to validate the tow procedures. Before these tethered taxi tests, a successful joint flight test was conducted in late October 1996, by Dryden, AFFTC, and KST, in which one of the Dryden F-18 chase aircraft flew at various ranges and locations behind the C-141A to define the wake turbulence and wingtip vortex environment. This flight test was replicated in July 1997, with an unmodified QF-106 flight proficiency aircraft.Eclipse Project Home Page