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The B-52 that launched a thousand ships.

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On the ramp at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, the ancient B-52B, tail number 008, squats, its eight J57 Pratt & Whitney turbojets throbbing in their slim nacelles in preparation for its first flight of the millennium. From the outside, NASA’s oldest airplane looks tired. Primer peeks through patchy paint. A notch has been bitten out of the right flap. The billboard-size fuselage is stenciled with faded silhouettes of the hundreds of aircraft and other objects air-launched from its wing over the past four decades. But it’s inside the cockpit that the airplane really shows its age.

Here, NASA research test pilots Gordon Fullerton and Frank Batteas confront dozens of antiquated analog gauges and clunky mechanical contrivances that date from the days when cars sported tailfins, computers ran on punch cards, and the only creature with any immediate prospect of going to the moon was Alice Kramden. “It’s pretty awful from a human-factors standpoint,” Fullerton, a former astronaut with two space shuttle missions in his log, says cheerfully. “Everything in here is somewhat obsolete. After a couple of hours of flying, you really feel like you’ve earned your pay.”

This particular B-52, which answers to zero-zero-eight, double-oh-eight, and balls-eight, is the mother of all motherships. Starting in 1960, it ferried the X-15 under its wing for air launches that would send the rocket plane into space. Later this year, it will do piggyback duty for the X-43/Pegasus, also known as Hyper-X, a NASA research craft designed to test scramjet engines originally envisioned for the X-15. During the intervening 41 years, 008 has played a critical role in 13 major programs. The wrinkled fuselage bears the icons of five lifting-body aircraft (M2-F2, M2-F3, HL-10, X-24A, and X-24B), horses (Pegasus, which powered the first air launch of a satellite), parafoils (the X-38 vehicle for returning space station crews), parachutes (F-111 crew escape module), and even an Alfalfa Impact Study (marking the crash site of a drone in an alfalfa field). There’s also an icon connoting the Dumpster Impact Study, a spot on the aircraft that had to be patched after a wind gust blew an errant dumpster into the fuselage.

Nothing special is scheduled for this crisp January morning, just a few touch-and-gos to keep the pilots current and a quick test flight to check some recently completed repairs. On the ground, crew chief Dan Bain shuts the hatch to the fuselage. In the cockpit, the light indicating that the hatch is open continues to shine. Bain tries again. And again. “We’ve still got a light,” Fullerton calls over the radio, no longer quite so cheerful. It seems preposterous that a machine as sophisticated as a B-52—it cost $8 million when it was built—could be grounded because a door won’t close.

“Dan’s going to get his wand,” says electrical technician Gary Beard, who’s inside the belly of the dark, surprisingly cramped beast, trying to help Bain lock the hatch. Magic wand notwithstanding, the locking bolts won’t engage properly, and there’s no thought of flying until the hatch is properly secured. “One time,” Beard recalls with a laugh, “the slight increase in cabin pressure when we started up the air conditioning system blew the hatch off on the ramp.”

My-kingdom-for-a-horse squawks are by no means unique to NASA, of course. But they’re a special problem for 008, which, for the past quarter-century, has remained operational only by virtue of a resourceful brand of scavenging, jury-rigging, and ingenuity. This is the nation’s last flyable B-52B. In fact, every other A, B, C, D, E, F, and G model B-52 has long since been dispatched to museums or boneyards. The Air Force still flies 94 H models, but these have virtually nothing in common with 008 other than the airframe.

“A lot of these parts just aren’t made anymore,” Bain says. He admits that he can’t remember where this particular hatch came from—possibly from the D model displayed in the Edwards museum. “Take the autopilot. It’s the last of its kind. Gary Beard was trained on it at Tinker Air Force Base in ’93 by the last guy who’d worked on it, and that guy was already an old man about to retire, and he hadn’t worked on it for 25 years.”

Zero-zero-eight manages the neat trick of being just about the oldest airplane in the Air Force inventory as well as the youngest—oldest because it’s been flying since 1955, youngest because it had amassed only 2,384.5 hours during 1,014 flights through 2000. The Air Force tried to retire it in 1975, and NASA, which has had it on loan at the nearby Dryden Flight Research Center ever since, has been trying to replace it for at least a decade. A B-52G was evaluated in 1994 but rejected. An H model is supposed to arrive later this year, but it may not meet all of NASA’s mission requirements. Meanwhile, 008 just keeps on going, and going, and going. “Every time we fly it, we continue to contribute to its history,” says B-52 project manager Roy Bryant, who first became acquainted with the airplane when he was working on the X-15.

The mothership concept isn’t unique to big, old bombers and Edwards Air Force Base. Parasite airplanes were fitted to larger aircraft and airships as far back as the 1920s, and NASA uses two modified Boeing 747s to ferry space shuttles from coast to coast. (The Soviets carried their Buran shuttle on an Antonov An-225.) But the modern air launch concept was hatched for the Bell X-1’s assault on the sound barrier in the late 1940s, and it was perfected on the desolate dry lakes of the Mojave Desert.

Because the rocket planes of the 1940s and ’50s had such limited fuel capacity, they were carried aloft by B-29s and B-50s and dropped from the bomb bays (see In the Museum, p. 14). But the X-15 was significantly larger and heavier than earlier rocket planes. A more substantial mothership was required, and the obvious choice was Boeing’s new B-52 Stratofortress. Designed to deliver nuclear weapons to every corner of the globe, the Buff—an acronym for Big Ugly Fat Fellow (or something like that)—would have no problem lifting a 50,000-pound payload.

Double-oh-eight—that is, the eighth production Buff—was delivered to Edwards in 1955. Originally designated an RB-52B reconnaissance/bomber, the airplane was used to test bomb navigation systems until it was selected for the North American Aviation X-15 program. In 1958, it was sent to the North American plant in nearby Palmdale, where a pylon equipped with a heavy-duty hook assembly was mounted underneath the right wing, between the fuselage and inboard engines. The structural support for the pylon and the supporting systems forced the removal of one of four main fuel tanks, two of four ancillary tanks, and both external drop tanks. Also, a notch had to be cut in the right flap to accommodate the tail of the X-15.

The first X-15 air launch was performed by 008’s sister mothership, an A model B-52 known as 003. Double-oh-eight got into the act on January 23, 1960, when Air Force Major Fitz Fulton flipped the switch that opened the hooks suspending the X-15 from the pylon of the B-52 and North American test pilot Scott Crossfield lit the eight chambers of his XLR-11 rocket engines while crooning “Back in the Saddle Again” over the radio. During the eight-year program, 003 and 008 performed 199 launches, typically at Mach 0.82 and 45,000 feet, with the X-15 maxing out at 53,100 pounds. Yet the Buffs got little of the glory and produced none of the drama associated with the high-profile, high-speed, high-altitude program. “Very rarely has a mission been aborted because of the B-52,” says Bill Albrecht, a one-time X-15 engineer who continues to ride herd on 008 as Dryden’s assistant director of operations. “When it’s been called on, it’s been there.”

As befits a leviathan with a wingspan so broad—185 feet—that the wings are fitted with outriggers, 008 handles like an oceanliner. To compensate for the asymmetrical load produced by an object attached to the pylon, the fuel cells are filled—or partly filled, as the case may be—to balance the airplane, and the copilot adjusts the fuel flow from tank to tank during flight to keep the Buff properly trimmed. “When we dropped the X-15, the airplane would roll about 15 or 20 degrees, but it was easily controlled with the aileron,” says Fulton, who first flew the XB-52 in 1953 and was still flying 008 when he retired from NASA in 1986. “It was just like dropping a big bomb.”

The trickiest aspect of flying 008 stems from the fact that flaps, which extend the wing area and allow controllable flight at slower speeds, aren’t used because the inboard right flap had to be mutilated to accommodate the X-15. “An operational B-52 won’t take off without flaps,” Fullerton says. “And technically, a no-flaps landing is considered an emergency.” While standard Buffs take off in a level attitude, 008’s nose gear has to be yanked off the runway and the airplane takes off nose-up. Landings are hot—at least 35 mph faster than with full flaps—and the pilot can’t do much to prevent the airplane from slamming down on the nose gear after the rear trucks hit the runway. “At times,” Fullerton admits, “landings can be teeth-jarring.”

After the final X-15 flight, in 1968, 003 was retired, eventually finding a home in the Pima County Air Museum in Tucson. But 008 continued to serve as the mothership for the lifting body program. When the last of those wingless wonders flew in 1975, the Air Force planned to put 008 out to pasture. But NASA still had some use for the airplane, so in 1976 a loan agreement was negotiated, and 008 went back to work.

Since then, 008 has been the biggest component of myriad programs studying everything from high angles of attack to atmospheric conditions. Some, such as tests of the space shuttle drag chute, required only eight flights. Tests of the F-111 crew escape module, on the other hand, extended over parts of two decades. But it was a program to develop the parachute recovery system for the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters that gave 008 the sportiest moment in its career. The hooks failed to open fully during a test flight, leaving a 50,000-pound dummy cylinder with a parachute on one end only partially attached to the pylon. When Fitz Fulton couldn’t shake it loose, he returned to Edwards—avoiding populated areas—and carefully set the airplane down, going easy on the brakes to avoid any damage from the loose payload.

Between 1990 and 1994, 008 launched the first six Pegasus rockets. (Since then, Orbital Sciences has used its own modified Lockheed L-1011.) In 1998, the B-52 returned to the X-plane business with the first drop test of the X-38, the vehicle to be used to return the space station crew in an emergency (it was recently put on the back burner). The X-43 Hyper-X program should take 008 well into the 21st century. Even if NASA gets its promised H model, that airplane would require millions of dollars’ worth of structural modifications to carry the 42,000-pound Hyper-X.

Which brings us to the most delicious irony about 008: Obsolete or not, it’s still uniquely suited for mothership duty. Yes, its J57s are ridiculously inefficient, but the turbojets enables the airplane to fly higher than H models equipped with turbofans. Also, H models use spoilers rather than ailerons, and Fullerton fears they may not provide enough lateral control to counteract the roll produced when a heavy payload is dropped. Last but not  least, though 008 is older than some of its pilots, the airframe is a spring chicken compared with H models that have flown as part of an operational squadron. “The biggest problem we have with the airplane,” Albrecht says, “is that it’s so hard to find replacement parts.”

Considering that 744 B-52s came off the Boeing assembly line before production ceased in 1962, there ought to be no shortage of components. And in fact, 008 has been retrofitted with hundreds of bits and pieces salvaged from Buffs in museums—a practice now prohibited by Air Force edict—and boneyards, most notably Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Moreover, the crew has amassed a sizable inventory of spares.

Then again, many parts arrive at Dryden marked “Condition Unknown,” and the only way to test them is to install them and hope for the best. Other components, meanwhile, are simply irreplaceable. A few years back, for example, the airplane was out of commission for 11 months while a leaking fuel cell was repaired. But the biggest headache is what Fullerton calls “the infamous bleed air system.”

Many jets use high-pressure bleed air from the engines to run the air conditioning. But 008, like all early B-52s, is packed with hundreds of feet of ducting through which bleed air drives not only four alternators but also 10 hydraulic packs that power the landing gear, spoilers, trim tabs, and vertical stabilizer. (Thanks to the clever aerodynamic design of the control surfaces, the cables that manipulate the ailerons, rudder, and elevator don’t require any hydraulic boost.) Besides being extinct, these hydro packs are notoriously temperamental, so the maintenance crew has had to develop its own test rig.

With all of the modifications made over the years, 008 might be best described as a B-52B-plus. The fuel gauges are from a C model,  the ejection seats from a D, the drag chute, landing gear, and brakes from a G. The height of technological wizardry in the cockpit is an off-the-shelf GPS unit you might find in a Cessna. Oh, and there’s a homely digital timer originally designed to keep track of turkeys and pot roasts. “Well, at least we’ve got a VHF radio,” Batteas jokes. “Sometimes,” says Ken Wilson, a member of the ground crew, “I feel like a museum curator.”

The fact that 008 continues to thrive is a tribute to a cadre of workers who have made the airplane their life’s work. Beard, for instance, has been assigned to it since he graduated from high school 20 years ago. Bain, meanwhile, is only the fourth crew chief since the mid-1960s. He can’t help but regard 008 as more than the sum of its fragile and obsolete parts. “I’ve got the best job in the world,” he insists.

Wearing a bandana, the tattooed Bain gazes fondly at 008 while he smokes a cigarette outside the trailer the maintenance crew uses as its office. “I love this plane,” he says. “It’s like a classic car. There’s no reason it can’t fly for another 10 or 15 years. They tried a G model but we got rid of it. Now they’re talking about an H, but we can carry more and we can go higher. Besides,” he adds with a wicked grin, “we don’t want a new car. The old one’s already paid for.”

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