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Two X-29A aircraft, featuring one of the most unusual designs in aviation history, were flown at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., as technology demonstrators to investigate a host of advanced concepts and technologies. The multi-phased program, conducted from 1984 to 1992, provided an engineering data base that is available in the design and development of future aircraft.
The concepts and technologies the fighter-size X-29 explored were the use of advanced composites in aircraft construction; variable camber wing surfaces; the unique forward-swept wing and its thin supercritical airfoil; strake flaps; close-coupled canards; and a computerized fly-by-wire flight control system to maintain control of the otherwise unstable aircraft.
Research results showed that the configuration of forward swept wings, coupled with movable canards, gave pilots excellent control response at up to 45 degrees angle of attack. During its flight history, the X-29s were flown on 422 research missions -- 242 by aircraft No. 1 in the Phase 1 portion of the program; 120 flights by aircraft No. 2 in Phase 2; and 60 flights in a follow-on vortex flow control (VFC) phase. An additional 12 non-research flights with X-29 No. 1 and 2 non-research flights with X-29 No. 2 raised the total number of flights with the two aircraft to 436.
Overall, VFC, like the forward swept wings, showed promise for the future of aircraft design. The X-29 did not demonstrate the overall reduction in aerodynamic drag that earlier studies had suggested, but this discovery should not be interpreted to mean that a more optimized design with forward swept wings could not yield a reduction in drag. Overall, the X-29 program demonstrated several new technologies as well as new uses of proven technologies. These included: aeroelastic tailoring to control structural divergence; use of a relatively large, close-coupled canard for longitudinal control; control of an aircraft with extreme instability while still providing good handling qualities; use of three-surface longitudinal control; use of a double-hinged trailing-edge flaperon at supersonic speeds; control effectiveness at high angle of attack; vortex control; and military utility of the overall design.
The X-29 was single-engine aircraft 48.1 feet long. Its forward swept wing had a span of 27.2 feet. Each X-29 was powered by a General Electric F404-GE-400 engine producing 16,000 pounds of thrust. Empty weight was 13,600 pounds, while takeoff weight was 17,600 pounds.
The aircraft had a maximum operating altitude of 50,000 feet, a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, and a flight endurance time of about one hour. The only significant difference between the two aircraft was an emergency spin chute deployment system mounted at the base of the rudder on aircraft No. 2. External wing structure was primarily composite materials incorporated into precise patterns to develop strength and avoid structural divergence. The wing substructure and the basic airframe itself was aluminum and titanium. Wing trailing edge actuators controlling camber were mounted externally in streamlined fairings because of the thinness of the supercritical airfoil.