Online Extras

E-mail Article to a FriendPrint ArticleBookmark and Share

NASA's airliners

In the October 2010 FSM, Frank Cuden built a DC-8 in NASA service. In addition to space exploration, NASA is involved in all kinds of aerospace research. A lot of that work has included test flights aboard airliners. Here’s a list of the commercial jets used by NASA during the last 40 years. All photos courtesy of NASA.
By Aaron Skinner
Published: September 2, 2010
A remotely piloted Boeing 720 controlled-impact demonstration aircraft flying above the “cutters” it will soon strike at Edwards Air Force Base in 1984.
Boeing 720 – This aircraft may be noteworthy for the spectacular end of its short life with NASA. To test a fuel additive it was hoped would make jet fuel less flammable in a crash, NASA and the FAA teamed up to crash a remotely piloted Boeing 720 airliner. The test aircraft erupted into a fireball on impact, proving the additive wasn’t effective. However, NASA collected a lot of data on crashworthiness during the test. The aircraft was built for Braniff, but not delivered, instead going to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Modeling: 1/144 scale Welsh Models (No. SL 61; vacuum-formed). Otherwise, it is possible to kitbash one in 1/144 scale with parts of Revell and Minicraft 707 kits, or in 1/72 scale with parts from a Heller 707 and AMT’s KC-135. There are no decals available.
NA5A 515 posed for this picture over NASA Langley Research Center in 1989.
NASA’s Boeing 737 test aircraft during a braking test on a snow-covered runway at Brunswick Naval Air Station, Maine, in March 1985. This test was part of a joint NASA-FAA-Industry Winter Runway Friction Program, which included FAA test aircraft and seven different ground-friction measuring devices.
NASA Langley Research Center’s 737 “flying laboratory” during testing of wind-shear detectors.

Boeing 737-100
– The 737 has been in NASA service since 1974, and has served as a test bed for many advances in aircraft safety, efficiency, and capacity. Initially used to demonstrate the idea of fully electronic instrumentationor “glass cockpit,” in 1974 and 1975, Aircraft 515 was used to test microwave landing systems, precision flare control, profile descent programs, GPS navigation, and other automated systems, many of which have become standard on commercial airliners. One of the most important programs tested wind-shear sensors; several serious aircraft accidents in the 1970s and ’80s had been attributed to wind shear. The airframe is the first Boeing 737 built and was used by Boeing to qualify the type for airline service. It was based at NASA Langley Research Center until 1997, and is now on display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Modeling: 1/144 scale Airfix Boeing 737-200 would need to be shortened. Decals are available from Hawkeye Models Australia, (No. NAS-13).

NASA’s first 747, N905NA, trails smoke from several smoke generators during a wake-vortex test in 1974. The aircraft still has American Airlines cheatlines, and the airline’s titles are still visible on the forward fuselage. DRAW Decal, has a sheet that includes markings for both SCAs in their current livery.
Space shuttle Endeavour, mounted securely atop N911NA, NASA’s second shuttle carrier aircraft, leaves Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., at sunrise on June 28, 2002.
SCA N905NA transports space shuttle Discovery in August 2005.
Shuttle Columbia travels from Palmdale, Calif., to the Kennedy Space Center in March 2001.

Boeing 747
– This may be one of NASA’s best-known aircraft because they are used to transport the space shuttle. The first, a 747-100 obtained from American Airlines in 1974, was initially used for wake-vortex tests. After modifications at Boeing, the aircraft took on its role as shuttle transport (SCA), starting with approach and landing tests in 1977. The obvious external differences between the SCA and a normal 747 airliner are three struts protruding from the top of the fuselage to which the orbiter is attached, and two additional vertical stabilizers, one on each end of the standard horizontal stabilizer, to enhance stability. A second SCA entered service in 1990 after a former Japan Airlines 747SR-200 was converted.

Modeling: Revell produced a 1/144 scale kit of the SCA and space shuttle in the early days of the program. It has been reissued a couple of times, but not recently. Academy has a 1/288 scale kit. Revell and Airfix have early 747s in their catalogs that could be converted to SCA standard.
NASA’a SOFIA 747SP flies over Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., in January 2008.
NASA’s SOFIA aircraft takes off on its first flight test to verify flight performance in October 2007.
The high-tech, German-built infrared telescope and its associated lower flexible telescope cavity door are rotated upward to their maximum 58-degree vertical position in this photo taken during the last flight in the SOFIA’s flight-envelope-expansion test series. A pilot in a NASA F/A-18 keeps a close watch on the airborne observatory while flying in tight formation during the tests.
The 100"(2.5 meter) primary mirror on NASA’s SOFIA reflects faint specks of starlight during ground testing of the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) in May 2010. The line operations tests at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., enabled the SOFIA aircraft, telescope, and FORCAST teams to prepare for the flying observatory’s upcoming “first light” science flights.

Boeing 747SP
– Known as SOFIA, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy uses a modified 747SP fitted with a large infrared telescope in the rear fuselage. A rotating door on the port side of the rear fuselage opens to give the telescope almost 60 degrees of view. The aircraft is in the final stage of testing before starting scientific missions; the goal is to fly three or four nights a week when operational. NASA’s 747SP entered service with Pan American World Airways in 1977, then was sold to United Airlines in 1986. In the mid-1990s, the aircraft flew its last revenue flight before being sold to NASA.

Modeling: Welsh Models produces two kits of the 747SP in 1/144 scale, but they would have to be modified to produce the SOFIA aircraft. I haven’t seen decals for it.
With its Eastern Air Lines “hockey stick” livery still visible, NASA Langley Research Center’s 757-200 taxis in 1998. The aircraft was later painted with a blue cheatline on a white fuselage.
NASA’s 757 in flight in 1996.
NASA’s 757 takes part in joint runway-friction tests in 1999.

Boeing 757
– NASA used a 757 to continue the airliner testing, evaluation, and research started with the 737. The aircraft, N557NA, the second 757 built was acquired by NASA after Easter Air Lines bankruptcy in 1991. lines. NASA acquired it after Eastern’s bankruptcy.

Modeling: Minicraft recently released a 1/144 scale 757 (No. 14600) with the last scheme worn by Langley’s aircraft. DRAW Decals has markings for the aircraft (No. 44-757-5).
NASA’s Landing Systems Research Aircraft Convair 990 on the apron at Dryden Flight Research Center in 1992.
The Convair during shuttle landing-system tests in 1993.
NASA’s 990 touches down during a shuttle landing-system test in 1992. Note the shuttle gear between the airliner’s main gear legs.
Shuttle main gear leg under the Convair’s fuselage.

Convair 990
– NASA used several Convair 990s as medium-altitude research aircraft, but the most notable was used to test space-shuttle landing gear and braking systems. Dubbed the Landing Systems Research Aircraft, it was fitted with components of the shuttle’s landing gear between its own main gear bays under the rear fuselage. During tests, the landing gear unit was lowered by a high-pressure hydraulic system after the  990’s main landing gear contacted the runway. The tests allowed engineers to assess and document the performance of the space shuttle's main- and nose-gear systems, tires, and wheel assemblies, along with braking and nose-wheel steering. Built in 1962, the Convair flew revenue service with American Airlines and Modern Air Transport before being acquired by NASA in 1975. After testing, the aircraft was moved to the front gate of Mojave Air and Space Port.

Modeling: Revell, Monogram, and Aurora released box scale kits of the 990 in the 1960s. More recently Welsh released a 1/144 scale multi media kit. I am not aware of any NASA decals for any of these kits.
DC-8 Airborne Laboratory in flight, February 2000.
DC-8 takes off from Kiruna, Sweden, for the second flight of the SAGE III Ozone Loss and Validation Experiment (SOLVE) in February 2000.
DC-8 Airborne Laboratory over NASA Dryden in February 1998. Note the shuttle-carrying 747 on the apron.

Douglas DC-8-72
– Part of NASA’s Airborne Science Program, the DC-8 collects data for experiments in support of scientific projects serving the world’s scientific community, including NASA, federal, state, academic and foreign investigators. The jet has been used for studies in archeology, ecology, geography, hydrology, meteorology, oceanography, volcanology, atmospheric chemistry, soil science, and biology. Among its features are: wing pylons for aerosol sampling; a gyro-stabilized pointing and tracking mirror system; a dropsonde delivery tube; atmospheric chemistry sampling probes; and multiple reinforced ports that accept experiments that can be aimed in virtually any direction. Experiment-support capabilities include weather radar, an integrated navigation management system, a satellite-based time code generator, a stand-alone Global Positioning System, and a weather-satellite receiver system. Built in 1969 as a DC-8-62, the aircraft served with Alitalia and Braniff Airways before being fitted with CFM engines and converted to -72 configuration in 1986, the same year it started service with NASA.

Modeling: Minicraft’s 1/144 scale DC-8s are hard to beat. DRAW Decal has markings for the aircraft (No. 44s-DC-8-8).
NASA’s current C-9B Nightingale climbs steeply at the beginning of a weightlessness parabola over the Gulf of Mexico in January 2006. The aircraft is based at Ellington Field near the Johnson Space Center.
On the other side of the climb, the C-9 drops steeply.
Astronauts Pamela A. Melroy, STS-120 commander, and George D. Zamka, pilot, pose for a photo in the cockpit of NASA’s DC-9 during a Heavy Aircraft Training (HAT) session August 9, 2007.
NASA’s longtime Vomit Comet, a KC-135, climbs during a training flight.
DC-9-31F used by NASA in the 1990s for weightlessness training.

Douglas DC-9-33F/C-9B Nightingale
– In 2005, this plane replaced KC-135s long-used for weightlessness training as part of the Reduced Gravity Research Program. After a short, steep climb, the aircraft are put into an elliptical trajectory that creates zero gravity for several seconds. Unofficially known as the Vomit Comet, NASA prefers the term Weightless Wonder. The aircraft is also used for Heavy Aircraft Training and as a ferry aircraft for support crews, often accompanying the space-shuttle transporter. NASA’s C-9B started life as a DC-9 with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in 1970. The airframe was transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1989, then to NASA in 2003. In the mid-1990s, NASA used another DC-9 for weightlessness. That aircraft started life with Trans-Australia Airlines, then flew with Sunworld and Midway, before NASA. The aircraft was destroyed in a crash in Mexico in 1999 while being operated by TAESA.

Fly Models, part of MPM, released three 1/144 scale DC-9 kits including one in NASA colors. Airfix and AZ Models also have DC-9-30s. I am not aware of any aftermarket decals.
A transport aircraft lands for the first time under engine power only, as this McDonnell Douglas MD-11 touches down August 29, 1995, at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. The milestone flight was flown by NASA research pilot and former astronaut Gordon Fullerton.
Bearing the logos of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Orbital Sciences Corporation, Orbital’s L-1011 Tristar lifts off the Meadows Field runway at Bakersfield, Calif., on its first flight May 21, 1997, in NASA’s Adaptive Performance Optimization project.
The Tupolev Tu-144LL lifts off from the Zhukovsky Air Development Center near Moscow, Russia, on a 1998 test flight.

Other aircraft
– Over the years, NASA has been involved in other tests with aircraft manufacturers to develop and test new systems. Among them was a McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 used for Propulsion Control Aircraft tests. The system being tested allowed pilots to land an aircraft by manipulating the engines rather than moving control surfaces. The Propulsion-Controlled Aircraft (PCA) system uses standard autopilot controls already present in the cockpit, together with the new programming in the aircraft’s flight control computers. The PCA concept is simple – for pitch control, the program increases thrust to climb and reduces thrust to descend. To turn right, the autopilot increases the left-engine thrust while decreasing the right engine thrust. The initial Propulsion-Controlled Aircraft studies by NASA were carried out at Dryden with a modified twin-engine F-15 research aircraft.

NASA also conducted the Adaptive Performance Optimization project, designed to reduce the aerodynamic drag of large subsonic transport aircraft by varying the camber of the wing through real-time adjustment of flaps or ailerons in response to changing flight conditions. It was hoped that reducing drag will improve aircraft efficiency and performance, saving for the nation's airlines hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Flights for the NASA experiment were made over several years on a modified Lockheed L-1011 Tristar owned by Orbital Sciences Corp., with all flights flown out of Bakersfield’s Meadows Field in California. The experiment is part of Dryden's Advanced Subsonic Transport Aircraft Research program.

Perhaps the most exotic of NASA’s airliners is the supersonic Tupolev Tu-144, modified for research flights. Using the Tu-144LL to conduct flight experiments allowed researchers to compare full-scale supersonic aircraft flight data with results from models in wind tunnels, computer-aided techniques, and other flight tests. The flight experiments provided unique aerodynamic, structure, acoustic, and operating environment data on supersonic passenger aircraft. Six flight and two ground experiments were conducted during the program’s first flight phase, which began in June 1996 and concluded in February 1998 after 19 research flights. A shorter follow-on program involving about seven flights began in September, 1998, and concluded in April 1999. All flights were conducted in Russia from Tupolev’s facility at the Zhukovsky Air Development Center near Moscow.
Related Issues
Get Our Free Newsletter
Get our twice-monthly newsletter delivered to your inbox
Expand Ribbon
close logo