Tag Archives: Edwards Air Force Base

Dutch F-35A With Special Tail Markings Unveiled At Edwards AFB

The 323 TES (Test and Evaluation Squadron) “Diana” celebrates its 70th anniversary with F-35 F-002 in special tail markings at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

“Three two three”, Royal Netherlands Air Force’s first F-35 squadron, operates two Lightning II aircraft, examples AN-1 (F-001) and AN-2 (F-002), at Edwards AFB, California. The Squadron, is responsible for the Operational Test and Evaluation Phase (OT&E) as part of the Joint Operational Test Team, which lays the foundation for the RNLAF’s commissioning of the F-35.

On Nov. 15, 2018, the squadron, that was established in 1948 and has changed designation (including Fighter Weapons School, Tactical Training, Evaluation and Standardization Squadron, etc.) several times through the years, celebrated its 70th anniversary, an achievement commemorated by applying special markings to the tail of one of the two Dutch F-35s: aircraft F-002 was given a Diana “Godness of the Hunt” (symbol of the squadron) artwork along with the silhouettes of all the aircraft that the unit has flown in the last seven decades and the text “70 years”.

The artwork was created by artist Christy Tortland.

It looks like the markings are applied on panels attached to the rudder and fin; however, according to the artist, this was just for the photo shoot as the aircraft should be painted later.

The special tail on AN-2 (F-002) with the silhouettes of all the 323 TES (previously Sqn) aircraft in the making. It looks like the markings are applied on panels, making them removable.

The first eight F-35A are being assembled at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth facility in the U.S. with the two F-35s already used for testing at Edwards AFB, California, and the rest heading to Luke Air Force Base for pilot training beginning in January 2019.

AN-9, the ninth of the Netherlands’ 37 F-35A CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) stealth jets on order, will be build at Cameri FACO, in Italy and will be the first F-35 to be delivered in the Netherlands: the aircraft is expected to roll off the production line in February 2019. It will undertake test and acceptance flights in Italy before moving to Leeuwarden in October 2019. It will be taken on charge by the first operational squadron based in the Netherlands, 322 (RF) Squadron.

This is not the first time an F-35A is given a special tail: in June 2017, Italian Air Force F-35A belonging to the 13th Gruppo (Squadron) sported celebratory 100th anniversary markings on the left tail.

Group shot at Edwards AFB.

Image credit: 323TES and Christy Tortland

Everything You Need To Know (And Probably Don’t) About The X-15 Flight Shown In The Opening Scene Of “First Man”

There is much more in Neil Armstrong’s flight, the longest X-15 flight in the entire research program, than a movie can show.

If you haven’t done it already, I would suggest you to reserve a few hours and watch “First Man”.

The movie opens with a pretty intense scene showing Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) piloting a North American X-15 during a test flight. Although the hypersonic rocket-powered research aircraft built in three examples and capable of Mach +6 speed appears only for a few minutes at the beginning of the movie, I think most of our readers will find it interesting to know something more about the opening scene’s flight.

Beware: spoilers ahead.

The first question that came to my mind during the movie were: what was the goal of that test flight? and, did the test go exactly as depicted in the movie?

In order to find an answer to these questions I asked some help to Paul Raveling, who runs an extremely insightful website at sierrafoot.org, with a section completely dedicated to the X-15 Hypersonic History. I was already in contact with Paul, who had provided a lot of interesting information about Delamar Dry Lake and the other emergency landing sites for the X-15, so it was natural to me to ask him for additional details.

This U.S. Air Force photo shows the X-15 ship #3 (56-6672) in flight over the desert in the 1960s. Ship #3 made 65 flights during the program, attaining a top speed of Mach 5.65 and a maximum altitude of 354,200 feet. Only 10 of the 12 X-15 pilots flew Ship #3, and only eight of them earned their astronaut wings during the program. Robert White, Joseph Walker, Robert Rushworth, John “Jack” McKay, Joseph Engle, William “Pete” Knight, William Dana, and Michael Adams all earned their astronaut wings in Ship #3. Neil Armstrong and Milton Thompson also flew Ship #3. In fact, Armstrong piloted Ship #3 on its first flight, on 20 December 1961.

Let’s start from the very beginning. The so-called “Neil Armstrong’s reentry skip” was flight “3-4-8” on Apr. 20, 1962.

Flight “3-4-8” means these three things:

  • X-15 #3 (USAF contract & tail number 56-6672)
  • 4th free flight of this X-15 (#3)
  • 8th flight of this X-15, counting all three types of flights: Free flights (launched), captive carries, and aborts (not launched, returned to landing by the B-52 )

“On my web page I also called it Flight 51, the 51st X-15 free flight, but 3-4-8 is the proper designation. Neil Armstrong noted that point when I exchanged email with him for his review of that flight’s page on sierrafoot.org. Being correct and precise goes with the job in engineering, and Neil was well qualified as an engineer,” says Raveling in an email.

“Flight 3-4-8, which was the first one I documented on sierrafoot.org”, he explains. “Despite plans to document at least a couple dozen “X-15 adventure” flights, I got busy with other things after doing only that one flown by Neil and the first X-15 free flight, the glide flight flown by Scott Crossfield. There’s also a PowerPoint presentation for Bob White’s FAI world altitude record flight. The center of that presentation follows the flight in real time: It took 10 minutes 20.7 seconds from launch to touchdown, covered about 315 miles horizontally and 110 miles vertically. It’s challenging to narrate that, someday soon I should record narration in the PowerPoint file.”

“Flight 3-4-8’s major lasting legacy was that it changed the plan for how to do winged reentries safely from orbit. In trying for a planned test point for G limiting by the MH-96 that didn’t work, Neil demonstrated that maneuvering vertically can very easily produce a skip off the aerodynamically usable atmosphere and loss of control at a critical time. That X-15 flight triggered changing plans for how the then-future Space Shuttle would do reentry energy management — the “skip” risk was eliminated by using roll reversals. There’s a follow-on story about how we nearly lost Columbia on STS-2, in an automated reentry. Because of the time required for a fix to go through software QA, ex-X-15 pilot Joe Engle flew that reentry manually — the only time it was done in Shuttle history. (Some web sources whose authors are unaware of that exception say incorrectly that the Shuttle never flew a manual reentry.)”

Neil Armstrong after flight 3-4-8. Image: NASA via sierrafoot.org

This page on Paul’s website provides tons of information and geeky details about that mission, including the pilot’s report.

First of all, it lasted 12 min. 28.7 sec: the longest X-15 flight of the entire research program. The rocket burned for 82.4 sec and the maximum speed the X-15 reached is Mach 5.31. The peak of the test flight was at 207,500 feet. Then, flight 3-4-8 was the first flight using the ball nose (“q-ball” air data sensor), and initial checkout of the MH-96 flight controller. Here’s what does this mean according to what reported at sierrafoot.org:

The MH-96 was an experimental adaptive controller on the #3 X-15. The first two X-15’s gave the pilot a right-hand sidestick and a center stick for aerodynamic flight controls, a left-hand sidestick for reaction controls outside the atmosphere, and a separate stability augmentation system. The MH-96 integrated all of these functions into one device, controlled by the right-hand sidestick.

The MH-96 noted how responsive the aircraft was to aerodynamic controls, using stabilator and rudder to control attitude, and adaptively changed control response to suit flight conditions. In dense low-altitude air it used low gains: A given stick movement produced a relatively small control surface deflection. In the thin air of high altitudes it produced larger control surface deflection for the same stick input. When the air was too thin for these controls to work it used the same sidestick to operate reaction controls, the small hydrogen peroxide thrusters located in the nose and the wings. While leaving or reentering the atmosphere it automatically balanced and blended use of the two types of controls.

The plan was called for a step up in altitude to 205,000 feet following the preceding flight’s top at 180,000 feet. The air launch occurred over Mud Dry Lake, in Nevada, from a NB-52B “mothership”. Interestingly, as many as 4 chase aircraft supported the X-15 throughout its mission: 3x F-104s and 1x F-100.

Almost everything went as planned until the X-15 started descending. Here’s an excerpt from sierrafoot.org:

As the X-15 descended through about 160,000 feet a warning light came on indicating low hydrogen peroxide supply for the #1 APU.  Armstrong initiated  transfer of residual hydrogen peroxide from the engine turbopump supply, and the warning light extinguished at about 115,000 feet.  At about 90,000 feet smoke poured into the cockpit from above the instrument panel as atmospheric reentry heating burned off paint.

Neil Armstrong did additional stability and control checks as the X-15 re-entered the atmosphere, testing roll maneuvers at high angles of attack (AOA).  He flew about 15 to 16 degrees AOA as forces built to 4 g’s.  The MH-96 has a load limiting function that should trip in the range of 4 to 4 1/2 g’s, commanding a reduction in pitch attitude to avoid excessive g forces.  In Armstrong’s own words

I elected to leave the angle of attack in that mode [15-16 degrees] … it wasn’t obvious that we were having any g limiting so I left it at this 4 g level for quite a long time hoping that this g limiting might show up.  It did not and apparently this where we got into the ballooning situation.

Due to maintaining a high angle of attack the X-15 pulled up and essentially skipped off the top of the atmosphere, returning to space.  In this near-vacuum there was insufficient drag to slow it and the wings could not develop enough aerodynamic force to turn it.  Back to Neil Armstrong’s description

At this point I heard the second transmission from NASA 1. …I expected from my simulation work ‘you’re about 20 miles north,’ but the transmission I got was “turn hard left.

“…With the left turn command which I followed with 60 degrees left bank angle and 15 degrees angle of attack, I did not properly appreciate the altitude I was at.  I was apparently at an altitude above that which I had expected to be and which caused me to go sailing merrily by the field.

X-15 approaches normally were from the north, with a 360-degree spiral to final approach starting from about 20,000 to 30,000 feet and ending with a touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake.  On this flight the X-15 cruised by with excess energy, too high and too fast to enter the approach spiral. Going south past the base at about 1 mile every 2 seconds, the flight path passed the Mojave Desert towns of Lancaster and Palmdale. Beyond Palmdale are the San Gabriel Mountains, and beyond them is the Los Angeles basin.As I saw Palmdale going by I was in a 90 degree bank angle and essentially full deflection on the stabilizers… We were having no heading change.  The proper thing to do at that point would have been to roll to a greater bank angle [than 90 degrees, rolling somewhat inverted] and try to get that thing down to a lower altitude so I could turn faster. However, my indicated airspeed said 190 knots and that seemed from my past simulation experience to be what should have been adequate to turn the heading but it really wasn’t.  Finally I did allow the nose to drift down and picked up approximately 350 knots indicated airspeed and was able to get about 3 g at this point.


Armstrong quickly considered and rejected the long runway at Palmdale, El Mirage Dry Lake to the east, and Rosamond Dry Lake to the West.  He settled on stretching his glide to the south lakebed at Edwards.  Two chase planes joined up as Armstrong was lining up for a straight-in approach, aiming for the middle of the south lakebed. The farther they went, the shorter it seemed the glide would be.  The X-15 finally landed successfully on the lakebed — and when one of the chase pilots was asked how much clearance there was with the Joshua trees at the edge of the lakebed his answer was “Oh, at least 100 feet … on either side”.

You can find the planned versus actual flight path on Raveling’s website: you will easily notice how flight 3-4-8 skirted Los Angeles Basin area, flew over Pasadena and the Rose Bowl, some 45 miles south of Edwards AFB and easily understand why it turned into the longest X-15 flight ever….

“In general the First Man movie got important details of Flight 3-4-8 right but did Hollywoodization of turbulence and showing Neil barely clearing the crest of the San Gabriel mountains,” Paul Raveling explains. “My offhand guess is that his crest-crossing would have been at perhaps 50,000 feet, some day I’ll work up a simulation for that. Neil actually couldn’t tell exactly where he was because downward visibility was so crummy from the X-15’s cockpit.”

Actually, the movie was also wrong about the year the “Neil Armstrong’s reentry skip” occurred: the text says 1961, but the event occurred in 1962.

Neil Armstrong’s flight depicted in the movie, “3-4-8”, did not occur in 1961, as the movie says, but in 1962. (Screenshot: credit Universal Pictures).

Moreover, “Hollywood missed one real thing that should have been a natural: Neil reported smoke emanating from above the instrument panel at about 90,000 feet during reentry. That apparently was fairly normal due to some paint burnof, especially in the area to the nose gear well, immediately ahead of the cockpit. The nose and leading edges heated up to a peak of about 1,200 degrees on X-15 reentries from high altitudes. X-15 reentries took up to about 30 seconds, usually starting around 160,000 feet at a bit over Mach 5 and finishing around 60,000 feet.”

Indeed, we have published images that document the damaged caused to the X-15A-2 serial number 56-6671 by the Mach 6.72 mission on Oct. 3, 1967: the aerodynamic heating almost melted the airframe…

The nose of the North American X-15A-2 serial number 56-6671 damaged after the record setting mission on Oct. 3, 1967.

“The most important thing the First Man movie got right was Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Neil’s character traits. The movie does note appropriately but barely that he was an engineer. It would be appropriate to say engineering was his prime passion, though that point was more evident to other engineers than it would be to most in the public. His favorite quote was “Science is about what is, engineering is about what can be”. Neil also considered science to be an integral part of engineering,” says Paul Raveling.

It’s worth mentioning that X-15-3 (56-6672) made 65 flights during the program. It reached attaining a top speed of Mach 5.65 and a maximum altitude of 354,200 feet. Out of three X-15s built by North American for the program, Ship #3 is the only X-15 that has not survived, as it was lost on Nov. 15, 1967, when it entered hypersonic spin at Mach 5 and broke apart killing USAF Test Pilot Maj. Michael J. Adams.

Top: composite image made of screenshots (credit: Universal Pictures).

What’s this mysterious aircraft spotted at Edwards AFB? The secretive B-21 Raider, the RQ-180 drone or “just” a B-2?

The U.S. Air Force says it’s a “standard” B-2, but a pretty detailed analysis and some subtle details seem to suggest it might be something else.

The photographs you can find in this post were taken by three of our readers (Sammamishman, Zaphod58 and Fred) who have recently returned from a trip to monitor activities at Palmdale and Edwards Air Force Base, California.

These guys are not the average avgeeks. All the three either worked or are currently working around aircraft (one has worked on an Air Force Base ramp for many years and is well-respected as an aircraft guru, another works as an air medic and one is in the aerospace industry involved in advanced space and defense-related components) and they are extremely familiar with aircraft they observe and photograph with some high-end equipment. Sammamishman is the reader who sent us the video and photographs of the F-117s flying over Tonopah Test Range in 2016.

Among the things the trio photographed, there is also an unknown large flying wing type aircraft, hooked to a ground power unit, sitting on an apron located at Edwards South base between the hours of 10PM and 1AM on July 24-25, 2018.

The three spotters sent the images to the Air Force to determine if it is a classified article and subject to DoD censorship. After reviewing the images for a few days, the Air Force responded it was a B-2 Spirit.

“I however disagree with this story for several reasons that I will go into,” says “Sammamisham” in an email.

“Upon initial examination of the photos that night when we took them, it looked like a B-2 but under closer examination the proportions and fuselage configuration didn’t look right for a Spirit”.

The group has indeed produced an analytical analysis done on the shots that, provided it is correct, seems to indicate that the aircraft they observed that night at Edwards is not a B-2 Spirit.

The analysis is based on a stack of 40 separate images, assembled to reduce glare, taken from a distance of over 10 miles.

Here are the reasons why they believe it’s not a B-2.

– The spacing and size of what is assumed could be engine nacelles on either side of the center fuselage.
– Other bumps on the fuselage back that are odd or don’t seem to match the B-2.
– The larger pair of bay doors visible. The B-2 has multiple smaller bay doors for the bomb bay and engine access.
– The seemingly odd landing gear configuration.
– The slender wing section that curves oddly. The B-2’s wing should appear relatively thinker and straight at that view angle.

“Using the ground power unit, sitting next to it, as a measuring metric, (the AF uses Essex B809B-1 units with a 103″ length), we are able to estimate the height of the aircraft at 12.4′ and a wing span of around 130ish’. The B-2 is 17′ and 172′ respectively,” Sammamisham explains. “I also did a view angle comparison to the B-2 which also showed a difference in the wing tip flaps between this aircraft and the B-2. This aircraft was only out during the night hours. We returned the next morning to verify it was or wasn’t a B-2. The aircraft was no longer there (I have pics taken showing it gone). This, in my opinion, also lends credence to it not being a B-2 since it would be odd to pull a B-2 out to do ground tests during the night and early morning hours only.”

Using an Essex BD series power unit as a measuring tool it is possible to roughly determine the dimensions of the aircraft.

Let’s speculate. In fact, what at first glance seems to be a B-2 might really be something else considered we are basing our analysis on a cropped, blurry image taken at night from extreme distance (10 miles). Dimensions aside, there are some details that appear to be quite different from a standard Spirit stealth bomber: obviously we can’t rule out it’s a matter of perspective, objects in the line-of-sight, etc., but the differences in the spacing and dimensions of the engine nacelles (provided they are nacelles) are somehow evident.

The mysterious aicraft appears to be similar to a B-2. But our readers highlighted several alleged differences.

So, assuming the wing span is really 130ish and the aircraft is NOT a B-2 (as mentioned we are just speculating here), what is it?

We have a couple of options here but the one that seems more reasonable given its estimated dimensions, location and operating hours, is that the one depicted in the grainy shots is a secretive B-21 Raider bomber. The next generation long-range stealth bomber is known to be heading to Edwards AFB (so much so a B-21 Combined Test Force patch was already available on eBay months ago) for testing and the concept model of the B-21, has a lot of things in common with the B-2, including the position of the engine nacelles. Based on the B-21 Raider artwork released so far, the aircraft should be much similar to the B-2: the main difference is the “W” shaped trailing edge of the Raider that is an evolution from the Spirit’s sawtooth trailing edge.

Artist rendering of the B-21 Raider. (Wiki/NG)

The B-2’s wingspan is 172 feet, the B-21 has a payload requirement said to be between two thirds and half that of the B-2. That’s why the Raider will probably be lighter featuring a wing span smaller than that of the Spirit.

If you combine all these things and assume the measurements are correct we might be looking at an early Northrop Grumman B-21 article.

The location of the aircraft was: 34.903609, -117.873366
Our reader’s view spot was here: 34.761176, -117.800955

Less likely, it may also be a Northrop Grumman RQ-180.

In the Dec. 9, 2013 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Pentagon Editor Amy Butler and Senior International Defense Editor Bill Sweetman revealed the existence of the RQ-180, a secret unmanned aerial system (UAS), designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, and scheduled to be operational with the U.S. Air Force by 2015.

Developed by Northrop Grumman since 2008-2009, the stealthy RQ-180 is designed to operate in “contested” or “denied” airspace, as opposed to the non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk that are intended for “permissive” scenarios.

In their analysis back then, Sweetman and Butler said: “It is similar in size and endurance to the Global Hawk, which weighs 32,250 lb. and can stay on station for 24 hr. 1,200 nm from its base. The much smaller RQ-170 is limited to 5-6 hr. of operation. […] The aircraft uses a version of Northrop’s stealthy “cranked-kite” design, as does the X-47B, with a highly swept centerbody and long, slender outer wings. Northrop Grumman engineers publicly claimed (before the launch of the classified program) that the cranked-kite is scalable and adaptable, in contrast to the B-2’s shape, which has an unbroken leading edge. The RQ-180’s centerbody length and volume can be greater relative to the vehicle’s size.”

Aviation Week worked with artist Ronnie Olsthoorn to construct concept images of the RQ-180 based on its attributes, including its “cranked kite” design, but these artworks seem to have little in common with what our readers spotted at Edwards.

Nevertheless, considered the quality of the photographs we can’t completely rule out the aircraft is the new stealthy drone that was given a couple of fuselage humps/nacelles similar to the B-2’s.

A pretty famous Northrop Grumman artwork shows an airframe adaptable for bomber and transport roles that was patented in 2012: it bears resemblance to both the B-2 and the X-47B’s shape. If that is the real shape of the RQ-180, then the one at Edwards may well be the new stealthy drone, 4 or 5 of those are believed to be operational somewhere in the U.S.

Northrop Grumman was awarded a patent in 2012 for an airframe adaptable for bomber and transport roles. (Credit: U.S. Patent Office via AW&ST)

That said, let me say that the first time I saw the images I thought it was “just” a B-2 but further observations and Sammamisham’s account have made me a bit dubious. What do you think? It’s a B-2 or something else? Let us know using the comments section below or our Twitter, Instagram or Facebook pages.

Update Aug. 24, 15.30 GMT

Thanks to a Twitter follower (@Kiendl28) we have got a satellite image showing the aircraft on the apron at 18:05Z on Jul. 25. The resolution does not allow a clear identification but the fact the aircraft is parked in daylight seems to suggest there is nothing to hide and points towards the “standard” B-2.

The aircraft on the apron at Edwards at 18.04GMT on Jul. 25. The aircraft can be seen in the same position also on Aug. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. (Image credit: PlanetScope).

Image credit: Sammamishman, Zaphod58 and Fred for The Aviationist

Watch A Dutch F-35A In CAS “Beast Mode” Configuration Fly At Low Level In the Sierra Nevada

The Dutch F-35 based at Edwards Air Force Base has carried out tests with the Lightning II in “Bomb Truck”/”Beast Mode” configuration lately.

323 TES (Test & Evaluation Squadron), the Dutch unit based at Edwards Air Force Base and responsible for the F-35 Operational Test and Evaluation Phase (OT&E) as part of the Joint Operational Test Team, has carried out a series of tests with external weapons last month.

Some of the missions flown by the RNlAF (Royal Netherlands Air Force) F-35A Lightning II involved the use of GBUs and AIM-9X AAM (Air-to-Air Missile).

World-renowned photographer Frank Crebas went to California to catch some cool images of the Dutch F-35s at work with the heavy load-outs.

Here it is:

As you can see, the aircraft was flying with 4x GBU-12 500-lb Laser Guided Bombs and 2x AIM-9X Sidewinders on the external pylons.

“I shot the video and photos on Thursday Jul. 26 at the Needles Lookout in California”, Crebas told us in a message. “This location is a navigation point on the famous Sidewinder low flying route of which the JEDI transition a.k.a. the Starwars Canyon is also part of. It was the very first time that the Dutch OT&E unit flew with a full external load out after they previous few with just the AIM-9X and ‘just’ two GBUs. The jets where flown by Colonel Albert ‘Vidal’ de Smit, the commander of the Edwards detachement and Lt Col Ian ‘Gladys’ Knight who is the commander of 323 TES. 323 is participating with just two aircraft and only 52 personnel in the F-35 OT&E at Edwards AFB alongside the US and UK.”

The external weapons configuration tested by the Dutch F-35 is also known as CAS (Close Air Support) “Beast Mode” (or “Bomb Truck”) configuration. Others call any configuration involving external loads a “Third Day of War” configuration as opposed to a “First Day of War” one in which the F-35 would carry weapons internally to maintain low radar cross-section and observability from sensors. However, as a conflict evolves and enemy air defense assets including sensors, air defense missile and gun systems and enemy aircraft are degraded by airstrikes (conducted also by F-35s in “Stealth Mode”) the environment becomes more permissive: in such a scenario the F-35 no longer relies on low-observable capabilities for survivability so it can shift to carrying large external loads.

In “Beast Mode“, exploiting the internal weapon bays, the F-35 can carry 2x AIM-9X (pylons), 2x AIM-120 AMRAAM (internal bomb bay) and 4x GBU-31 2,000-lb (pylons) and 2x GBU-31  PGMs (internal bay).

Lt Col Ian “Gladys” Knight preflying his jet ahead of a “Beast Mode” test mission. (Image credit: F. Crebas).

In January 2019 the first new Dutch F-35’s will be delivered to Luke AFB for training. These aircraft will be build by Lockheed Martin in Ft Worth. In November the first F-35As will be delivered for the first operational squadron based in the Netherlands, 322 (RF) Squadron at Leeuwarden Air Base. These aircraft will be build at Cameri FACO, in Italy.

That Time the Luftwaffe Experimented with a Rocket-Launched F-104G Starfighter

“Zero Length Launch” Was Tested in Germany on an F-104G. Here’s the Video.

Almost every aviation enthusiast has probably seen the famous June 1957 test videos of a North American F-100 Super Saber being launched from a portable trailer using a large rocket booster.

The origin of “Zero Length Launch”, often called “ZeLL”, was the perceived necessity that aircraft would need to be boosted into flight after available airfields and runways in Europe were destroyed in a nuclear attack. Using motor vehicle highways as improvised runways, often practiced by NATO and former Warsaw Pact air forces, may not have worked as well since the aircraft would be more vulnerable to air attack. With the Zero Length Launch concept, aircraft could actually be boosted into flight using a disposable rocket booster from inside a hardened aircraft shelter, presuming no one else like hapless ground crew were inside the shelter at the time of launch.

“ZeLL” was an interesting, if ultimately impractical, concept. It could be argued that the “ZeLL” concept somehow validated the need for V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) aircraft such as the Harrier and, decades later, even the F-35B Lightning II.

What many aviation history buffs don’t know is that the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, experimented with a Zero Launch System on their F-104 Starfighters. The concept made more sense with the F-104 Starfighter, an aircraft conceived almost purely as an interceptor.

Rocketing the F-104 into flight as a sort of “manned missile”, the interceptor would rapidly climb to altitude and engage an approaching bomber formation. The Starfighter was a suitable candidate for ZeLL launch operations since it began setting altitude records as early as May, 1958, when USAF test pilot Major Howard C. “Scrappy” Johnson zoom-climbed to an astonishing altitude Record of 27,811m (91,243 feet, or 17.2 miles high) from a conventional take-off.

Interestingly, Germany had tested a rocket-powered, vertical launch interceptor during WWII called the “Bachem Ba-349 Natter”. The aircraft would be fired from a launch tower, fly to the allied bomber formations using rocket boosters and engage them with unguided high velocity aircraft rockets (HVARs) mounted in the nose. If all went according to design, the aircraft and pilot would then recover to earth using separate parachutes. The concept did not do well for the Germans in WWII, with the only manned test flight ending in disaster and the death of Luftwaffe test pilot Lothar Sieber.

Apparently undaunted by their WWII experiences with the Ba-349, the modern Luftwaffe working in collaboration with the U.S. Air Force, used a single F-104G Starfighter to test the ZeLL concept in 1963. Oddly enough, the German F-104G version of the Starfighter was a multi-role aircraft evolved from the original pure interceptor design mandate of the F-104.

Unlike its early, distant predecessor the Ba-349, the Luftwaffe F-104G Starfighter ZeLL launch tests went well. Lockheed company test pilot Eldon “Ed” W. Brown Jr. remarked after the first of eight ZeLL take-offs at Edwards AFB in California during 1963 that, “All I did was push the rocket booster button and sit back. The plane was on its own for the first few seconds and then I took over. I was surprised at the smoothness, even smoother than a steam catapult launch from an aircraft carrier.”

Lockheed company test pilot Eldon “Ed” W. Brown Jr. flew the initial Luftwaffe F-104G ZeLL tests at Edwards AFB. (Photo: Lockheed)

The first Luftwaffe F-104G used in the ZeLL test program wore a distinctive and sensational looking test paint scheme, one of many beautiful and unusual liveries the F-104 Starfighter wore in its career. The first launch aircraft was coded “DA-102” and was natural aluminum metal on the bottom of the aircraft with a brilliant high visibility orange horizontal and vertical stripe and a bright white upper surface except for the nose, which had a flat-black anti-glare panel. It also wore the modern Luftwaffe insignia crosses, making it appear all the more remarkable.

The ZeLL F-104G was moved to Germany for a total of seven ZeLL test launches at Lechfeld AB between May 4, until Jul. 12, 1966, when the program was abandoned. The German ZeLL flights were flown after the test aircraft was repainted in a more operational German camouflage scheme. The aircraft would end its career as a static display.

The Soviets tinkered with their own version of ZeLL on a MiG-19 beginning as early as 1955, but the idea died in the test phase for most of the same reasons the NATO interest in ZeLL waned.

If nothing else, ZeLL was a sensational and adventurous idea. The results were remarkable to see, confirmed by the tens of thousands of video views of the ZeLL tests using the U.S. F-100 Super Sabre today on YouTube. But the German F-104G ZeLL tests have, somewhat oddly, received far less attention. Until today.

The Luftwaffe F-104G ZeLL test aircraft was eventually turned into a static display with its unique German camouflage livery. (Photo: German Air Force)