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- For the first time in more than four decades, three WB-57 aircraft flew together on Thursday. Here‘s a view from the ground at Houston‘s Ellington Field. Eric Berger
- No pressure suits needed today because the pilots were only going up to about 30,000 feet. Eric Berger
- The WB-57 is a stubby aircraft, with a 37.5-meter wingspan and just a 20-meter length. Eric Berger
- The goal for Thursday‘s flight was to show the three aircraft off to Houston during a one-hour flight around the city. Eric Berger
- Each flight has a pilot, forward, and sensor operator. Eric Berger
- The first WB-57 begins taxiing. Eric Berger
- The second WB-57 follows the first down the long runway at Ellington Airport, which the city of Houston hopes to turn into a spaceport one day. Eric Berger
- The first WB-57 begins to take off from the ground. Eric Berger
- The first WB-57 is away. Eric Berger
- And then there were two. Eric Berger
- And finally, the third bird joined its two companions in the air. Eric Berger
Update: This week, Ars staffers from across the country gather together in real life for our annual meeting, Technicon. We‘re supposed to be talking more than typing, so we‘re resurfacing a few classic Ars stories just in case the front page gets lonely. This one, which originally ran on November 22, 2015, centers on a few aviation/space pioneers and feels particularly apt for Veterans Day weekend. It appears unchanged below.
The last three flightworthy WB-57 airplanes in existence arrayed themselves on a runway near Johnson Space Center in Houston this past week, as if they were dinosaurs brought to life. The long-winged aircraft look something like prehistoric creatures, too, measuring just a stubby 21 meters long compared to an overly broad 37.5-meter wingspan. It had been four decades since as many as three of the great, superannuated birds soared together.
But then they did. One by one, the WB-57s slowly rolled down the runway at Ellington Airport and then began a slow climb upward into resplendent clear, blue skies. They flew again, thanks to a restoration program by NASA to bring a third WB-57 back from its boneyard. “It’s quite a day,” Charlie Mallini, who manages the for NASA, told Ars.
Since 1972 NASA has flown WB-57s as part of a broad ranging science mission. Recently two of the aircraft flew high above hurricanes Joaquin and Patricia, major storms in the eastern Pacific Ocean. They have also flown missions as varied as collecting cosmic dust samples from comets and asteroids in Earth’s upper atmosphere, investigating clouds and studying the environmental effect of plumes from the Titan, Space Shuttle, Delta, Atlas and Athena rockets on the stratosphere.
The B-57 line of aircraft dates back to 1944, when the English Electric Company began developing the plane. After the Royal Air Force showcased the B-57 in 1951 by crossing the Atlantic in a record 4 hours and 40 minutes, and becoming the first jet-powered aircraft to span the Atlantic without refuelling, the United States Air Force began buying them to replace its aging Douglas B-26 Invader.
The aircraft performed bombing missions in Vietnam and other military campaigns, and a variant that later became the WB-57 was designed with longer wings that could fly even higher, up to 62,000 feet. This proved useful for weather reconnaissance and, around the world, to sample the upper atmosphere for evidence of nuclear debris where US officials suspected the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
- Before a high-altitude flight the pilot, left, and sensor officer must don their pressure suits. Here‘s a look at how the process goes. Eric Berger
- The suits come in 12 different sizes and then are modified further to fit each crew person. Eric Berger
- NASA, and the Air Force, are big on checklists. This emergency checklist is conveniently located in case the crew have to eject from the aircraft. Eric Berger
- Best to make sure the helmet has a tight seal. Eric Berger
- The suits need to be fully inflated to test their integrity. Eric Berger
- Always good advice when you‘re working with pure oxygen. Eric Berger
- When fully inflated the pressure suits are rigid, like an overfilled balloon. Only these suits don‘t pop. Eric Berger
- How do you eat in a pressurized suit? Through a tube. After six hours of flying, 10 cups of coffee‘s worth of caffeine in a tube comes in handy. Eric Berger
- Don‘t worry. If you don‘t like caffeinated chocolate pudding, there are a bunch of other flavors. Eric Berger
As the Air Force began phasing out the planes in the early 1970s, NASA was interested in using them for its programs to study Earth. NASA acquired its first WB-57 in 1972, which was retired in 1982. It later obtained two more, which have continued flying until today. Then, in 2013, NASA found a third WB-57 in the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. After two years of restoration, it returned to flying status. This plane, now known as NASA 927, set a record—more than four decades—for the time between its mothballing and return to flight. For some replacement parts, Mallini said, NASA had to go to museums.
Finally, last week, all three aircraft were ready to fly in tandem around the city of Houston, not at 62,000 feet, but at a much lower altitude so they could buzz the space center, downtown and the Astrodome. Under clear skies they put on a spectacular show. After the fun, science missions resume next week.
Listing image by Eric Berger