Above & Beyond: Mission X

Above & Beyond: Mission X

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(Continued from page 1)

Climbing to test altitude, I turned toward the supersonic corridor, the airspace designated for supersonic flight tests. Upon reaching 25,000 feet, I stabilized briefly, then advanced the throttle to full afterburner. As the afterburner engaged and the aircraft rapidly accelerated, I was pressed back in the seat. I watched the head-up display on the windscreen to make sure that I was maintaining level flight, but mostly I focused on the airspeed indicator. As the airspeed passed Mach 1.0, I adjusted the throttle for Mach 1.05, the target speed for the test. In the cockpit, the transition through the sound barrier was barely noticeable.

Now two of three Mission X events were complete—just one more to go. As I started slowing down for the next test point, I checked fuel and time. It was getting close, but there was still enough time to get everything done before the field closed. I set up for the next event, a set of slow-speed flying-qualities tests. These test points consisted of performing pitch, yaw, and roll evaluations at speeds of about 140 knots (160 mph) and below. It took about 10 minutes to complete the set. Checking fuel and time again, I realized that we probably didn’t have enough of either to complete the last set of tests. After a quick discussion with the test conductor, we decided to head back to the field to set up for the vertical landing.

I began the descent and turned the airplane back toward the runway. Passing through 5,000 feet I slowed below 200 knots, converted the aircraft back to STOVL mode, and began my final approach. Once over the runway, I started the deceleration to the hover. I gradually moved the TVL aft, increasing the angle of thrust from 0 degrees (thrust straight aft) toward the hover setting (thrust about perpendicular to the ground). I adjusted the rate at which I moved the TVL by visually judging my deceleration rate as I approached the desired hover spot. The process is somewhat analogous to adjusting pressure on a car’s brake pedal to stop smoothly at a traffic light. The aircraft responds to control inputs in a hover the same as it does in forward flight. Left stick banks and moves the airplane left. Forward stick pitches the nose low. Increasing and decreasing the throttle controls altitude. I set up to come to a stop just short of the landing pad, which was just off the runway at about midfield. I brought the aircraft to a hover over the runway, stabilized for a few seconds, and began to cross over to a position above the landing pad. Once the aircraft was centered over the landing site, I reduced the throttle slightly to begin the descent. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the many spectators in the observation area. No one was running away from the airplane—a good sign.

The aircraft firmly touched down and I quickly chopped the throttle to idle. “Touchdown,” I called over the radio. Mission X was complete.

During the taxi back to the ramp, I completed the after-landing checklist and had a few minutes to let the events of the past hour sink in. As I began the process of shutting down the airplane, I glanced outside at the crowd that was approaching the airplane and finally started to relax. Things had gone well: We had accomplished most of our test points and made it back before the field closed. By completing Mission X, the X-35B had just made aviation history, with me in the driver’s seat. I glanced at my watch before getting out of the cockpit: just before 10 a.m. All things considered, not bad for a morning’s work.

—Major Arthur Tomassetti, U.S. Marine Corps

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