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Cosmic Canberra

Roger Cook looks at the most unique aircraft to visit the UK in a long while, the NASA WB-57F at Mildenhall. Pictures by the author, Gary Stedman and Matthew Clements

To the delight of many aviation enthusiasts in the UK, the much-anticipated and long-awaited NASA WB-57F arrived at RAF Mildenhall on the evening of 11 October.

While in the United Kingdom the aircraft will carry out at least four missions to collect samples of cosmic dust from the upper atmosphere, flying at altitudes up to 65,000 feet as part of the Airborne Remote Earth Sensoring Program (ARES) to build a worldwide database of cosmic dust present in the atmosphere. Most of the United States has been sampled, but the scientists are now looking to see if the levels of dust are evenly spread throughout the atmosphere round the world. The aircraft carries two under-wing pylons, each with four collectors that are deployed when the aircraft has reached altitude. The samples collected are sent back to the Johnson Space Centre at Houston, Texas for analysis. The aircraft has a two-man crew; a pilot and a systems operator, both of who wear high-altitude pressure suits when flying on the collecting missions. The pilot station has all the essential equipment for flying the aircraft with an upgraded glass cockpit while the sensor operator station contains both navigational equipment and controls for the operations of the various payloads carried.

Mildenhall was selected as the United Kingdom base as it has all of the facilities to support the NASA missions - the aircraft uses JP-8 fuel and also requires a supply of liquid oxygen for cooling of the avionics, and Mildenhall also has a runway of suitable length and with suitable hangarage. To support the aircraft operations NASA had a motorhome flown in by C-5 Galaxy, which acts as a mobile office escorting the aircraft to the runway for final preparations before take off. Each mission takes about four hours preparation time before the aircraft can get airborne and each mission last between four and five hours. Cruising at 65,000 feet with a 4,500 pounds payload, the WB-57 has a range of 2,500 miles.

Registered as N928NA, NASA 928 was built as a B-57B and entered service with the USAF serialled 52-1536. It, along with twenty other B-57Bs, was converted to a WB-57F in 1963 and was re-serialled as 63-13298. The primary user of the WB-57F was the 58th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and these aircraft were used extensively throughout the world to sample the upper atmosphere for nuclear debris where there was suspected atmospheric testing of nuclear devices. Wing spar corrosion cracks were discovered in the aircraft and it was decided to replace the wing spar and ribs with a different type of aluminium, but it was not financially feasible to replace the entire fleet and nine aircraft were put into storage. Shortly thereafter, the 58th deactivated the remaining aircraft in 1974.

57 varieties
Museum pieces

Shortly before this in 1968, NASA contracted with the United States Air Force to operate an RB-57F, which flew many missions as part of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite program. In 1972 the Air Force thought the expense was too high, and transferred the aircraft to NASA. This aircraft was re-numbered NASA 925 (ex 63-13501) and operated until 1982 when it was retired. This machine is currently on display at the Pima Air Museum, Tuscon, Arizona.

When the 58th WRS high altitude program was cut in 1974, they also transferred NASA 926 (ex 63-13503) to Houston. While this aircraft was out of service for some time due to budget restraints, it is still flying today, alongside NASA 928, operating out of Ellington Field in Houston, Texas.

During the conversion of the aircraft to WB-57F models only the fuselage, landing gear, and horizontal tail surfaces were kept from the original aircraft. Although the original Canberra design had excellent high altitude performance it was significantly improved by addition of greater wing area and extra engine thrust. Two Pratt and Whitney TF33 turbofans were fitted, each rated at 18,000 lbs static thrust, almost doubling the power of the original B-57. The wing was replaced by a completely new three-spar wing, incorporating honeycomb construction with a marked anhedral, and of almost doubled span of 122 ft 5 in. The fuselage tank was deleted to allow a pallet system for the various sensors to be carried, with all fuel now carried in the wings outboard of the engines.

NASA 928 will remain at Mildenhall until 22 October before returning home to Texas. With its new wing spars and new avionics upgrade NASA has no plans to retire 928 and will continue to fly it alongside 926 for the foreseeable future. Further visits back to the UK are anticipated, so if you missed it this time, don't despair!

With thanks to Lt Jamie Humphries, 100th ARW Mildenhall and to all the NASA personnel.

 

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