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X-31 aircraft in flight

X-31 in flight, Herbst maneuver

Movie Number   EM-0036-01
Movie Date   1990s
Formats   160x120 15-fps QuickTime Movie (1,817 KBytes)
320x240 30-fps QuickTime Movie (910 KBytes)
320x240 30-fps MPEG-1 Movie (4,939 KBytes)
X-29 Still photos of this aircraft are available in several resolutions at

Two X-31 Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability (EFM) demonstrators were flown at the Rockwell International Palmdale, California, facility and the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, to obtain data that may apply to the design of highly-maneuverable next-generation fighters. The program had its first flight on October 11, 1990, in Palmdale; it ended in June 1995.

The X-31 program demonstrated the value of thrust vectoring (directing engine exhaust flow) coupled with advanced flight control systems, to provide controlled flight during close-in air combat at very high angles of attack. The result of this increased maneuverability is an aircraft with a significant advantage over conventional fighters.

"Angle-of-attack" (alpha) is an engineering term to describe the angle of an aircraft body and wings relative to its actual flight path. During maneuvers, pilots often fly at extreme angles of attack--with the nose pitched up while the aircraft continues in its original direction. This can lead to loss of control and result in the loss of the aircraft, or both.

Three thrust-vectoring paddles made of graphite epoxy mounted on the X-31 aircraft exhaust nozzle directed the exhaust flow to provide control in pitch (up and down) and yaw (right and left) to improve control. The paddles can sustain heat of up to 1,500 degrees centigrade for extended periods of time. In addition the X-31 aircraft were configured with movable forward canards and fixed aft strakes. The canards were small wing-like structures set on the wing line between the nose and the leading edge of the wing. The strakes were set on the same line between the trailing edge of the wing and the engine exhaust. Both supplied additional control in tight maneuvering situations.

The X-31 research program produced technical data at high angles of attack. This information is giving engineers and aircraft designers a better understanding of aerodynamics, effectiveness of flight controls and thrust vectoring, and airflow phenomena at high angles of attack. This is expected to lead to design methods that provide better maneuverability in future high performance aircraft and make them safer to fly.

An international test organization of about 110 people, managed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), conducted the flight operations at NASA Dryden. The ARPA had requested flight research for the X-31 aircraft be moved there in February 1992. In addition to ARPA and NASA, the International Test Organization (ITO) included the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, Rockwell International, the Federal Republic of Germany, and Daimler-Benz Aerospace (formerly Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm and Deutsche Aerospace). NASA was responsible for flight research operations, aircraft maintenance, and research engineering once the program moved to Dryden.

The No. 1 X-31 aircraft was lost in an accident Jan. 19, 1995. The pilot, Karl Heinz-Lang, of the Federal Republic of Germany, ejected safely before the aircraft crashed in an unpopulated desert area just north of Edwards.

The X-31 program logged an X-plane record of 580 flights during the program, including 555 research missions and 21 in Europe for the 1995 Paris Air Show. A total of 14 pilots representing all agencies of the ITO flew the aircraft.

In this 40-second movie clip the X-31 aircraft is shown performing the "Herbst maneuver," which is a rapid, minimum-180-degree turn using a post-stall maneuver flying well beyond the aerodynamic limits of any conventional aircraft. Named after Wolfgang Herbst a proponent of using post-stall flight in air-to-air combat.

Keywords   X-31; Enhanced Fighter Maneuverability; EFM; Rockwell International; Palmdale; NASA; Dryden Flight Research Center; thrust vectoring; maneuvering; canards; strakes; international test organization; Advanced Research Projects Agency; ARPA; U.S. Navy; U.S. Air Force; Federal Republic of Germany; Daimler-Benz Aerospace; Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm; Deutsche Aerospace; Karl Heinz-Lang; Edwards Air Force Base; Herbst maneuver; Wolfgang Herbst
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