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The lifting body concept evolved in the late 1950's as researchers considered alternatives to ballistic reentries of piloted space capsules. The designs for hypersonic, wingless vehicles were on the boards at NASA Ames and NASA Langley facilities, while the US Air Force was gearing up for its Dyna-Soar program, which defined the need for a spacecraft that would land like an airplane.
Despite favorable research on lifting bodies, there was little support for a flight program. Dryden engineer R. Dale Reed was intrigued with the lifting body concept, and reasoned that some sort of flight demonstration was needed before wingless aircraft could be taken seriously.
In February 1962, he built a model lifting body based upon the Ames M2 design, and air-launched it from a radio controlled "mothership." Home movies of these flights, plus the support of research pilot Milt Thompson, helped persuade the facilities director, Paul Bickle, to give the go-ahead for the construction of a full-scale version, to be used as a wind tunnel model and possibly flown as a glider. Comparing lifting bodies to space capsules, an unofficial motto of the project was "Don't be Rescued from Outer Space -- Fly Back in Style." The construction of the M2-F1 was a joint effort by Dryden and a local glider
The prototype of a 21st Century spacecraft required the fabrication of hundreds of small wooden parts meticulously nailed and glued together. It was a product of craftsmanship that was nearly obsolete in the 1940's.
Final assembly of the remaining components (including aluminum tail surfaces, push rod controls, and landing gear from a
In the meantime, other NASA engineers devised a special M2-F1 flight simulator, and a hot rod shop near Long Beach souped-
The M2-F1 did not have ailerons. Instead, it had elevons which were attached to each of the two rudders. A large flap on the trailing edge of the body acted as an elevator. This unconventional arrangement prompted the engineers to rethink the flight control system as well. They eventually devised two schemes. One system was fairly traditional. It used rudder pedal inputs to move the rudders for yaw control, and stick inputs to provide differential deflections of the elevons for roll. The other system
Milt Thompson tried both systems in the simulator, and surprised the design team when he said he preferred system number
This was the system that Thompson practiced with on the simulator, and he used it during the initial automobile tows.
On April 5, 1963 Thompson lifted the nose of the M2-F1 off of the ground for the first time on-tow. The speed was 86 miles per hour. The little craft seemed to bounce uncontrollably back and forth on the main landing gear, and stopped when he lowered
Looking at movies of the tests, project engineers decided that the bouncing was probably caused by unwanted rudder
Speeds on-tow inched up to 110 miles per hour, which allowed Thompson to climb to about 20 feet, then glide for about 20 seconds after releasing the line. That was the most that could be expected during an automobile tow.
In the spring of 1963 the M2-F1 was shipped to Ames Research Center, where it was mounted on 20-foot poles inside the 40
A NASA C-47 was used for all of the aerotows. The first was on August 16, 1963. The M2-F1 had recently been equipped with
Forward visibility in the M2-F1 was very limited on-tow, requiring Thompson to fly about 20 feet higher than the C-47 so he
Tow release was at 12,000 feet. The lifting body descended at an average rate of 3600 feet-per-minute. At 1000 feet above the ground, the nose was lowered to increase speed to nearly 150 miles per hour, flare was at 200 feet from a 20-degree dive. The landing was smooth. The lifting body program was on its way.
The M2-F1 was flown until August 16, 1966. It proved the lifting body concept and led the way for subsequent, metal "heavyweight" designs. Chuck Yeager, Bruce Peterson, Don Mallick, Donald Sorlie, and Jerry Gentry also flew the M2-F1.