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Research Pilot Milt Thompson in M2-F2 Aircraft Attached to B-52 Mothership Research Pilot Milt Thompson in M2-F2 Aircraft Attached to B-52 Mothership

Photo Number: ECN-1146
Photo Date: February 28, 1966

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NASA research pilot Milt Thompson sits in the M2-F2 "heavyweight" lifting body research vehicle before a 1966 test flight. The M2-F2 and the other lifting-body designs were all attached to a wing pylon on NASA’s B-52 mothership and carried aloft. The vehicles were then drop-launched and, at the end of their flights, glided back to wheeled landings on the dry lake or runway at Edwards AFB. The lifting body designs influenced the design of the Space Shuttle and were also reincarnated in the design of the X-38 in the 1990s.

NASA B-52, Tail Number 008, was an air launch carrier aircraft, "mothership," as well as a research aircraft platform that had been used on a variety of research projects. The aircraft, a "B" model first flown on June 11, 1955, was used on some of the most significant research projects in aerospace history. The aircraft was retired on December 17, 2004 in a ceremony at the Dryden Flight Research Center, after nearly 50 years of flight test and research. It was both the oldest B-52 still on flight status, and had the lowest flight time of any B-52.

Some of the significant projects supported by B-52 008 included the X-15, the lifting bodies, HiMAT (highly maneuverable aircraft technology), Pegasus, validation of parachute systems developed for the space shuttle program (solid-rocket-booster recovery system and the orbiter drag chute system), and the X-38.

The B-52 served as the launch vehicle on 106 X-15 flights and flew a total of 159 captive-carry and launch missions in support of that program from June 1959 to October 1968. Information gained from the highly successful X-15 program contributed to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo human spaceflight programs as well as space shuttle development. Between 1966 and 1975, the B-52 served as the launch aircraft for 127 of the 144 wingless lifting body flights. In the 1970s and 1980s, the B-52 was the launch aircraft for several aircraft at what is now the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California, to study spin-stall, high-angle-of attack, and maneuvering characteristics. These included the 3/8-scale F-15/spin research vehicle (SRV), the HiMAT (Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technology) research vehicle, and the DAST (drones for aerodynamic and structural testing). The aircraft supported the development of parachute recovery systems used to recover the space shuttle solid rocket booster casings. It also supported eight orbiter (space shuttle) drag chute tests in 1990. In addition, the B-52 served as the air launch platform for the first six Pegasus space boosters.

During its many years of service, the B-52 underwent several modifications. The first major modification was made by North American Aviation (now part of Boeing) in support of the X-15 program. This involved creating a launch-panel-operator station for monitoring the status of the test vehicle being carried, cutting a large notch in the right inboard wing flap to accommodate the vertical tail of the X-15 aircraft, and installing a wing pylon that enables the B-52 to carry research vehicles and test articles to be air-launched/dropped. Located on the right wing, between the inboard engine pylon and the fuselage, this wing pylon was subjected to extensive testing prior to its use. For each test vehicle the B-52 carried, minor changes were made to the launch-panel operator's station.

Built originally by the Boeing Company, the NASA B-52 was powered by eight Pratt & Whitney J57-19 turbojet engines, each of which produced 12,000 pounds of thrust. The aircraft's normal launch speed was Mach 0.8 (about 530 miles per hour) and its normal drop altitude was 40,000 to 45,000 feet. It was 156 feet long and had a wing span of 185 feet. The heaviest load it carried was the No. 2 X-15 aircraft at 53,100 pounds. Project manager for the aircraft was Roy Bryant.

Another B-52 (an A-model), Tail Number 003, also flew as a mothership, launching the X-15 and lifting bodies.

Keywords: B-52; Boeing; Pratt & Whitney; X-15; SRV; lifting body; HiMAT; DAST; high angle of attack; Space Shuttle; Pegasus; turbojet; Roy Bryant; M2-F2; lifting bodies.

Last Modified: February 6, 2002
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