The story of how the Starfighter was used to train future astronauts.
Being the first operational aircraft able to reach and maintain a speed of more than Mach 2.0, the Lockheed F-104 was a huge leap forward when strictly compared to the contemporary subsonic jets.
Thanks to its performance, the Starfighter was chosen to train test pilots destined to fly the X-15, a winged spacecraft that was air-launched by a B-52 Stratofortress, flew into space and then landed conventionally.
The major modifications to the Starfighters consisted in the addition of a 6,000 pound thrust rocket engine at the base of the vertical tail, reaction control thrusters in the nose and in each wing tip, a larger vertical tail, increased wing span, tanks to store the rocket propellants, provision for a full pressure suit, a cockpit hand controller to operate the reaction control thrusters, and modified cockpit instrumentation.
Moreover, the unnecessary equipment, like the gun, fire control system, tactical electronics, and auxiliary fuel tanks, was removed.
The Starfighters with these modifications were renamed NF-104s. They entered in service in 1963 and their pilots could zoom to more than 100,000 feet in a full pressure suit, experience zero “g”, and use reaction control to handle the aircraft.
Only about 35 students had the privilege to fly the NF-104 and each pilot had to be prepared for these “space flights” by using standard Starfighters. The first mission was a pressure suit familiarization flight, with the F-104 flown to high altitude with the cockpit depressurized allowing the student to experience a flight in a fully pressurized suit. To practice the zoom profile, the second flight was conducted in a two-seat F-104, with the instructor that showed to the student how reaching an altitude of 70-80,000 feet performing a 30 degree climb, while the last three missions were made in a single seat Starfighter increasing the climb angle to 45 degrees and reaching an altitude of 90,000 feet.
After these five preparation flights, the student finally performed the two programmed NF-104 missions.
After two minutes the Starfighter passed through 80,000 feet, the jet engine flamed out, the rocket engine ran out of fuel and the pilot began a parabolic arc to the peak altitude.
It was during the parabolic arc that the pilot experienced “weightlessness” for about one minute and used the side stick to fire the reaction control rockets to control the aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw motions.
Once at a lower altitude, the pilot restarted the jet engine and made a conventional landing: the whole mission lasted about 35 minutes from taxi to landing and was performed in a full pressure suit.
One NF-104 was destroyed on Dec. 10 1963. The plane was piloted by legendary Col. Chuck Yeager at that time the Aerospace Research Pilot School Commander. Yeager was attempting to reach an altitude record and after a 60 degree climb, while he was at 101,595 feet, the Starfighter experienced an uncontrollable yawing and rolling motion.
Yeager wasn’t able to recover the plane and was forced to eject at 8,500 feet.
During the separation from the ejection seat the rocket nozzle hit his face shield breaking it, while the combination of the red hot nozzle and oxygen in his helmet produced a flame that burned his face and set several parachute cords on fire.
Yeager was able to extinguish the flames with his glove hands and after the accident was hospitalized for two weeks.
The accident was depicted in the book (and film of the same name) “The Right Stuff”.
Another NF-104 flight almost ended in disaster on June 15, 1971, when Capt. Howard Thompson experienced a rocket engine explosion while trying to lit it at 35,000 feet and Mach 1,15: luckily Thompson made a safe lading to Edwards AFB using the normal jet engine.
The program was terminated when it was decided that the aerospace training mission would be performed by NASA and the last NF-104 flight was performed in December 1971.
During its service with the U.S. Air Force the highest altitude reached by an NF-104 was 121,800 feet, achieved by Maj. Robert Smith during acceptance testing.
Today the last of the NF-104s is on static display in front of the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB.
It integrates FLIR (Forward Looking Infra Red) and DAS (Distributed Aperture System) imaging, night vision and a virtual HUD (Head Up Display) that makes the F-35 the first front line combat plane without a “conventional” HUD: the main flight and weapon aiming information are projected onto a virtual HUD on the visor.
As explained when we saw one for the first time at Farnborough International Airshow in 2012, the helmet system collects all the information coming from the plane’s sensors along and fuses it with imagery fed by a set of six cameras mounted on the jet’s outer surfaces.
In this way, the HMDS provides the pilot with a X-ray vision-like imagery: he can see in all directions, and through any surface, with the HUD symbology he needs to fly the plane and cue weapons, through the line of sight imagery.
No matter where the pilot turns his head, the most relevant data he needs follows his eyes.
Needless to say, as many other F-35’s systems, the HMDS has suffered issues: whilst jitter and latency problems have been solved, there is still concern with turbulence and buffeting, that can cause display issues (particularly dangerous when the JSF is maneuvering to evade an enemy missile shot), decreased night-vision acuity, and information sharing when 3 or 4 aircraft fly together.
First Italian F-35A rolled out of Cameri facility.
On Mar. 12, the first F-35A Lightning II destined to the Italian Air Force rolled out of the Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility at Cameri, in northwestern Italy.
The aircraft, designated AL-1, is the first F-35A assembled internationally, the first of eight aircraft currently being assembled at Cameri, that will perform its first flight later this year.
The Italian FACO, a 101-acre facility including 22 buildings and more than one million square feet of covered work space, housing 11 assembly stations, and five maintenance, repair, overhaul, and upgrade bays, is owned by the Italian Ministry of Defense and is operated by Alenia Aermacchi in conjunction with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. According to Lockheed, the current workforce consist of more than 750 skilled personnel engaged in F-35 aircraft and wing production.
The FACO will assemble the first 8 Italian F-35As and the remaining F-35A and F-35B (for a total of 90 aircraft planned that should be procured by the Italian Air Force and Navy), will build F-35A for the Royal Netherlands Air Force and it was selected in December 2014 as the European F-35 airframe Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul and Upgrade center for the entire European region.
On a recent flight in a Block 40 F-16 with our squadron’s weapons officer I was introduced to the new pilot-activated recovery system (PARS). Starting at about 20,000 feet (FL 200) we rolled inverted and started a rapid 30 degree nose-low dive. The pilot pressed a button initiating the PARS. Immediately the aircraft’s computer took command of the flight controls and we experienced a very intense 180-degree roll until wings level followed by a 5-G pull-up at 4 G’s/second until we were again flying straight and level. On the second demonstration we put the aircraft in a 30-40 degree nose-up attitude. After PARS initiation, the Viper went into autopilot controlling the roll and yaw of the aircraft while allowing the nose to slice down until we were again straight and level.
This PARS feature is part of the F-16’s newest upgrade to avoid mishaps due to controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). The entire fleet of F-16’s in the USAF received this important upgrade during the 2014 calendar year. This is incredibly EXCITING news for the fighter pilot community and hopefully will translate into hundreds of lives and billions of dollars saved. CFIT occurs for a variety of reasons and plagues aviation taking the lives of hundreds of military and general aviation pilots each year. Aside from PARS, the other application of this new capability is the Auto-GCAS (Ground Collision Avoidance System). Auto-GCAS provokes inputs to the flight controls similar to the PARS feature described above, but happens automatically without pilot initiation. The technology relies on sophisticated computer software, terrain maps, GPS and predictive algorithms that will ‘take the jet’ from the pilot when CFIT is predicted to be imminent.
A video HUD demo of the Auto-GCAS can be seen directly below, and further below a NASA video discussing how the GCAT technology was developed and works.
A Brief History of GCAT
The GCAT software was developed by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, in partnership with the Office of the Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the Air Force Test Center (AFTC) and Lockheed Martin. The technology began development in the 1980’s and was ready for testing by the late 1990’s. By 2009, the Ground Collision Avoidance Technology was incorporated into an upgraded USAF Block 25 F-16D and underwent further testing at Edwards AFB, CA.
According to NASA: “The team conducted more than 556 test maneuvers during 49 flights, some of which involved diving at the ground and toward the sides of mountains. Key objectives included demonstrating that Auto-GCAS could significantly reduce the number of mishaps resulting from pilot spatial disorientation, loss of situational awareness, gravity-induced loss of consciousness, and landing-gear-up landings.”
Air Force officials announced in 2013 that an operational Auto-GCAS system would be installed in the F-16 fleet and this largely took place throughout the 2014 calendar year. At the base I am currently stationed, we received the upgrade in Sep-Oct 2014. The application has also been tested for general aviation. In 2012, Auto-GCAS was adapted for a small, unmanned research aircraft and implemented as a smartphone application using the Android operating system linked to the aircraft’s autopilot. There remain plans to develop similar systems that can be incorporated into the F-22, F-35, and F-18.
Strengths & Limitations of GCAT
Two of the most common human factors conditions that lead to death or loss of aircraft in combat aviation are spatial disorientation and G-induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC). Spatial Disorientation is the inability to determine one’s position, location, and motion relative to their environment, and is covered in greater detail in a separate post. There are three types of Spatial D: Unrecognized, Recognized, and Incapacitating. The Pilot-Activated Recovery System (PARS) will save pilots suffering from recognized and capacitating Spatial-D as long as the pilot remains able to activate the technology. If a pilot is spatially disoriented but remains unable to initiate PARS, Auto-GCAS should theoretically still save him/her from CFIT. The other big killer, the notorious G-LOC (For more info on Pulling G’s see this post), is expected to occur less frequently with incorporation of the newer, more effective G-suit called ATAGS, but Auto-GCAS will also play a role to save pilot and aircraft if G-LOC were to occur. Lastly, gear up landings in any aircraft utilizing this technology should no longer occur.
Ground Collision Avoidance Technology has some significant software and hardware limitations. For example, the system is not able to make inputs on the throttle. If the throttle is in idle upon activation, the aircraft will quickly lose maneuverability and control authority. This will limit the efficiency and ability for inputs of the flight controls to produce their desired effect. In other cases, a reduction in power may be required for the optimal recovery. Pilots have been trained on this new system and are aware of these limitations. If the GCAT systems find that they are unable to initiate recovery due to the current throttle setting, all it can do is notify the pilot.
Although this technology will undoubtedly give fighter pilot spouses reason to sleep more peacefully, possible exceptional circumstances in which the Auto-GCAS cannot prevent CFIT still exist. The recent loss of an F-16 and death of Capt. Will “Pyro” DuBois after installation of GCAT remains a tragic example of the fact that even though new technologies are creating significant strides in safety, the risk inherent to combat aviation will always be present.
An F-35 Lightning II has endured extreme weather temperatures to certify the capability of the Joint Strike Fighter to deploy to any place of the world.
An F-35B, a STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter jet, from the F-35 Patuxent River Integrated Test Force in Maryland has undergone extreme weather testing at the U.S. Air Force 96th Test Wing’s McKinley Climatic Laboratory located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida according to a release by Lockheed Martin.
The testing is aimed to validate the capability of the plane to operate in the meteorological conditions representative of all the locations from which the aircraft is going to operate: from the Australian Outback and the U.S. deserts, to the Arctic Circle, above Canada and Norway.
The F-35B has been ferried to Eglin AFB in September 2014 and it is expected to remain at the airbase in Florida until March 2015: a six month assessment of the Joint Strike Fighter’s performance in wind, solar radiation, fog, humidity, rain intrusion/ingestion, freezing rain, icing cloud, icing build-up, vortex icing and snow.
According to F-35 test pilot Billie Flynn, the aircraft is being pushed to its environmental limits, ranging from 120 degrees to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (49 to – 40 degrees Celsius) and so far it has met expectations.
The press release comes few weeks after an Air Force press release, reported that fuel trucks at Luke Air Force Base, in Arizona, where temperature can reach beyond 110° F (43° C) in summer months, were given a new look, by applying a two layer coating, dubbed “solar polyurethane enamel”, in order to prevent fuel stored in the tanks from over-heating: the Lightning II engine has a fuel temperature threshold and may suffer shutdowns if the fuel is delivered to it at high temperature.
Image credit:Michael D. Jackson, F–35 Integrated Test Force