Don Nolan-Proxmire
Headquarters, Washington, DC June 9, 1995
(Phone: 202/358-1983)

Don Haley
Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA (Phone: 805/258-3449)

RELEASE: 95-89


    Life hasn't "just begun at 40" for NASA's oldest aircraft. It keeps getting better.

    It's been four decades since the first flight of NASA's B-52. Built as a bomber, the aircraft was the eighth B-52 assembled by Boeing. It rose into the air for the first time on June 11, 1955.

    But the aircraft didn't become a Cold War weapon like its sister ships. Based at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA, since mid-1959 and on extended loan to NASA since 1976, it has, instead, been a vital part of many projects that have kept the United States at the forefront of aerospace development. This role has quietly made the aircraft, tail number 008, the most celebrated B-52 of all -- and the oldest one on flight status anywhere, and the end is not yet in sight.

    On the right side of the aircraft's fuselage, scores of symbols stenciled on the aluminum skin record the aircraft's history and mirror many significant projects of the past.

  • After a four-year tour as an Air Force test aircraft, 008 became one of two B-52s modified as aerial launch platforms for the X-15 research program. Of the 199 flights in the highly successful program, 106 originated from the wing pylon of 008. It's been 26 years since the final X- 15 mission at Dryden, but the rocket-powered aircraft still holds the speed (4,520 mph) and altitude records (354,200 ft) for winged aircraft. The other B-52, tail number 003, was retired from service in 1968.

  • Using the same pylon from 1966 to 1975, 008 was the launch aircraft for 128 of the 144 flights of wingless lifting bodies that contributed to the development of the Space Shuttle.

  • In 1977 and 1978, and again from 1983 to 1985, 008 was the launch aircraft to test and develop the parachute recovery system on the Space Shuttle's solid rocket booster casings.

  • Space Shuttle drag chute tests were conducted by 008 in 1990, broadening the operational capabilities of the reusable Orbiters.

  • 008 was the launch aircraft for several remotely piloted aircraft flown at Dryden in the 1970s and 1980s to study spin-stall, high angle of attack, and maneuvering characteristics. They were the sub-scale F-15 spin research vehicle; the HiMat (Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technology) research aircraft; and the DAST (Drones for Aerodynamic and Structural Testing), used to study the ability of advanced flight control systems to control wing flutter conditions.

  • Over a period of 15 years, 008 was used to drop F- 111 aircraft crew escape module test articles to help develop and certify the operational life of the modules' parachute recovery systems.

  • 008, as the launch platform for the first six Pegasus space booster missions, is the first aircraft to send a satellite into Earth orbit.

    "It's a special treat to be able to fly a famous airplane like this," said Gordon Fullerton, former astronaut and one of three NASA pilots at Dryden who fly the eight-engine aircraft. "It's a straight-forward and honest airplane. It's a challenge to fly, but there's a lot of satisfaction in flying it, too."

    The other two B-52 pilots are Ed Schneider and Jim Smolka.

    Schneider says being an amateur historian gives special meaning to his B-52 piloting job.

    "This airframe has transcended four decades, through the Korean War and the Cold War, and it's still a very productive airplane," reflects Schneider. "Being able to fly it is very special for me."

    Today, the big swept-wing aircraft, 156 feet long with a wingspan of 185 feet, is being used in a high atmospheric research project.

    The future for 008 is also bright. It is being studied as the launch platform for tests of the X-35, a planned piloted reusable spacecraft to give astronauts a quick and easy way to return to Earth from the future Space Station.

    Roy Bryant, Dryden's B-52 project manager, calls 008 "a very versatile and accessible aircraft, with the capability of adding greatly to the nation's technology base to the end of the decade."

    "Other heavy-lift aircraft can carry more weight and fly faster," said Bryant, "but our modifications -- the ability to air launch research vehicles and test articles -- make this airplane special. It's a very big part of NASA's history."

    Crew chief Dan Bain said the maintenance team looks at the aircraft with pride because of its historical significance.

    "It's the last of its kind and we're all real proud to work on it," said Bain. "It's an honor because there's no other airplane like it in the world."

    Research pilot Jim Smolka echoes the praise for the B-52 maintenance effort.

    "I have a lot of respect for the maintenance guys. It's not an easy airplane to maintain," said Smolka. "There are many old parts on it -- tubes instead of transistors -- and some parts have to be scavenged from museum B-52s around the country. But we very seldom have a problem with the airplane."

    Not bad for middle age. But then 008 has only 2285 hours of flying time, the lowest in the entire B-52 fleet. If 008 was ever found on a used airplane lot, it would be the best buy in town.

- End -

Digital photos are available at the Dryden World Wide Web home page at URL:

in the "Dryden Research Aircraft Photo Archive" in the "Dryden News and Feature Photos" file.

Images to illustrate this release are available for news media representatives by calling the Headquarters Broadcast and Imaging Branch on 202/358-1900. Photo numbers are:

90-HC-559 color 90-HC-612 black and white 89-HC-42 color

NASA press releases and other information are available automatically by sending an Internet electronic mail message to In the body of the message (not the subject line) users should type the words "subscribe press- release" (no quotes). The system will reply with a confirmation via E-mail of each subscription. A second automatic message will include additional information on the service. Questions should be directed to (202) 358-4043.

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright 2004

Archives D