Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cracking the Dawn with Stargazer

Orbital Sciences satellite launch aircraft Stargazer, one of the few Lockheed L-1011s still flying, returned to Mojave Thursday evening, and parked for then night in the helicopter transient parking area. When dawn broke Friday morning, under a quartering moon, I was reminded of why I like the desert so much....

On October 19, Stargazer launched the 26th successful Pegasus mission, which carried NASA's newest astronomical observatory into space. The Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, satellite will study the boundary region between the solar system and interstellar space, known as the heliopause. The launch took place high over the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific's Marshall Islands, where many Pegasus rockets are sent into space. When not soaring over the tropics, however, Stargazer calls the Mojave Spaceport home.

Friday, October 24, 2008

FTA Completes Citation Re-engining Flight Tests

On October 16, Mojave's Flight Test Associates (FTA) completed a Cessna Citation re-engining flight test program for Clifford Development Group. Clifford is acquiring FAA Supplemental Type Certificates to re-engine Cessna Citation II and SII business jets with Williams FJ44-3A engines, replacing the aircraft’s original Pratt & Whitney JT-15 turbofans. The flight test program contract was originally awarded to FTA in March, 2007.

According to Bruce Wilcox, Chief Operations Officer for Clifford, installation of the FJ44s results in a thrust increase of 300 pounds and up to a 27% fuel burn reduction. The re-engining package rebuilds and strengthens the engine pylon structure and replaces Cessna’s original engine control cables with a FADEC system. The new engines allow the aircraft to be certified to Stage 4 noise criteria.

Flight Test Associates was selected by Clifford to perform the flight test data collection and analysis required by the FAA for STC approval. The testing involved two aircraft, a Model 550 Citation II and a Model S550 Citation II/S, which together flew about 80 flight hours, according to FTA's John Ligon. FTA developed and installed the digital data acquisition systems, which interfaced with the engines' FADEC system, and fed flight performance data to a laptop computer on board.

Great Lakes Aviation of Kalamazoo, Michigan, will perform the conversions, and with the awarding of the FAA STC imminent, work has already begun on the first customer’s aircraft. Dan Buzz of Great Lakes stated that there is a potential market for over 800 conversions.

FTA's website

Clifford Development Group's website

Great Lakes Aviation website

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Spartan in the Desert

The Army and Air Force's newest cargo aircraft, the GMAS C-27J Spartan, paid a visit to Mojave, where it will be based for the next few days during a short flight test program. The Spartan is an updated version of the Italian Alenia G.222, which won the competition for the services' new Joint Cargo Aircraft, or JCA.

The G.222 dates back to 1970, when it made its maiden flight. The type was designed to meet a NATO specification, although initially only Italy operated them. In 1990, the USAF bought ten G.222s, designating them the C-27A, for their "Rapid-Response Intra-Theater Airlifter" program, but they were withdrawn from service nine years later due to high maintenance costs. In 1997, Alenia teamed with Lockheed Martin to propose an updated version of the aircraft, powered with two of the Rolls Royce AE2100 engines used on the C-130J Hercules, for the Army/Air Force JCA program. The deal fell through, though, when LM pulled out and offered the C-130J as a competing contender (for comparison, besides having half the engines of the C-130J, the C-27J carries about 3/5 the cargo).

Alenia then teamed with L3 Communications and Boeing, with the alliance going under the name Global Military Aircraft Systems, Inc. The plane visiting Mojave is registered to GMAS and is flown by a joint L3 and Alenia crew (in an interesting comparison of cultures, the L3 guys were standard green flight suits, while the Alenia folks were a stylish red/black suit that you'd more expect to find being worn by a Formula One racing team!).

The Army took delivery of their first flight test aircraft on September 25. The aircraft visiting Mojave is a civilian-registered ship that serves as the programs testbed aircraft. As such, there are a number of differences between it and the actual JCA aircraft, which will begin delivery after the first five test birds are received. The Georgia Air Guard is slated to receive the first production aircraft in 2010, and will likely deploy fairly quickly to Iraq or Afghanistan. All in all, it's quite an impressive little aircraft - and even smells like a new car inside!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Victorville Visit and Herd Count

I had the opportunity last week to fly over to Victorville, and spend some time there in the pattern. Victorville, the former George Air Force Base, is also in the Mojave Desert (a desert that's a lot bigger than some people realize), and so when unknowing news media refer to airliners parked in the Mojave Desert, they can be refering to Mojave or Victorville.

Because of some agressive marketing on the part of VCV's management, who have styled the place as the "Southern California Logistics Airport" (and has embraced airliner storage, whereas Mojave has somewhat discouraged it), VCV has superceded Mojave in numbers of planes stored, so it's always interesting to see what's currently "in captivity". Two companies perform airliner services, Victorville Aerospace and Southern California Aviation.

Like Mojave, Victorville is also a place where old airliners are cut up, and there they're done by Aircraft Recycling Corp on an innovative concrete pad (right) built by the airport so that the process doesn't contaminate the underlying soils.

Victorville is also the home of 10 Tanker Air Carrier, the company responsible for developing Tanker 910, the first DC-10 fire fighting airtanker. It has been so successful that the State of California granted 10 Tanker an exclusive use contract for the plane. One air drop of retardant from the DC-10 is equivalent to twelve drops from an S2T tracker. 10 Tanker has been working on a second aircraft, Tanker 911, which was also present at Victorville the day I was there. On one pattern, we had to extend downwind because Tanker 910 was departing to make a run on the fire burning over in the Porter Ranch/Simi Valley area.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Salute as XCOR Completes Flight Testing, Sets Records

The flight test program at XCOR Aerospace for their version of the Rocket Racer has drawn to a close with a flurry of flights that set several informal records at the Mojave Air and Space Port. 

On October 1, the XCOR team flew the Rocket Racer seven times, setting the unofficial record for most flights of a rocket-powered aircraft in a single day. According to XCOR's research, the previous record was three flights in a day by a German ME-163 Komet rocket-powered fighter aircraft during World War II. (In an interesting rocket-world twist, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who was the money behind Rutan's SpaceShipOne, purchased one of the surviving ME-163s back in May, 2005...I guess the guy really likes rockets!) 

The seven Rocket Racer flights put Mojave on the map as the site of more manned rocket-powered flights this century than any other locale in the world; in fact, with 51.3%, it's more than all the other places combined. (And for the record, Kennedy Space Center is second with 19.5% and Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is third with 13.5%.) In her enthusiasm, one XCOR teammember summed it up nicely:  "Seven rocket flights in one day: unofficial record. Mojave Spaceport rocks!"

The XCOR team has the turn-around process down to an art, and can refuel the Racer with kerosene, LOX and helium in under 8 1/2 minutes. 

On the very last flight, pilot Rick Searfoss pushed the Racer higher and longer than on any previous flight, reaching 10,000 feet and lasting 20 minutes, with two mid-flight relights. At that distance, the plane itself disappeared from view, with only the tiny bright star-like rocket plume to marks its place in the sky.

For the XCOR team, completion of the Rocket Racer program means that they can now focus their attention on what XCOR CEO Jeff Greason calls their "third generation rocket-propelled vehicle", the Lynx, a two-seat sub-orbital rocket plane, with which they hope to break into the commercial space tourism market. And to talk to the team, they seem quite excited about moving on to this. Searfoss summed up the customer's experience in the Lynx nicely when he said, "...the best part of it all is that you’ll ride right up front, like a co-pilot, instead of in back, like cargo."

The future of the Rocket Racer is in the hands of the Rocket Racing League, which has carefully stage-managed all media access to their program. Original indications were that both the XCOR and the Armadillo engines would be available to the race teams. Oddly, when RRL announced that the Armadillo test aircraft had finally gotten airborne, the media release read (which you can read in full here) "The Rocket Racing League today announced the successful results of the first seven test flights of the Bridenstine DKNY Rocket Racer® conducted at the Oklahoma Spaceport (OKSP), a leading facility specializing in horizontal takeoff and landing of Reusable Launch Vehicles, in Burns Flat, Oklahoma." 

The release made no mention whatsoever of the XCOR program, which has been flying for a lot longer than Armadillo's, and it sound like the Bridenstine DKNY Rocket Racer itself had been taken to Oklahoma and re-engined. The release went on to quote Bill Khourie, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority (OSIDA) saying, “We are thrilled to have been selected as the facility of choice by the Rocket Racing League for its initial flight test program.” Initial? No, that's been under way right here in Mojave for months, folks. Quite clearly, Oklahoma is trying to posture itself as giving Mojave some competition, although with the records just set, Mojave doesn't have to look over its shoulder just yet....

(Note: the photo of the Racer climbing inverted was from a July test flight, and the two photos of the XCOR engine were taken during XCOR's open house during the Rutan Birthday Bash.)

XCOR Press Release

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Crane Visit

While the 2008 fire season has been pretty mild in this part of the state, we nonetheless got an up-close-and-personal visit with one of the frontline wildland firefighting tools, an Erickson Air Crane S-64E. Heading home from Washington State to Hemet, the crew of Tanker 744, nicknamed ''Jerry'', stopped by Mojave for some gas today.

Considered a "Type 1" helitanker, the Aircrane can carry up to 2,650 gallons of water. The helicopter's flexible snorkel uses a high pressure impeller, and can draw water from a source as shallow as 18 inches, and can fill the tank in 45 seconds

The Aircrane / Sky Crane has a long history. Sikorsky started work on the type in 1958, and the first prototype, which Sikorsky called the S-64, flew May 9, 1962 (three days after I was born, for the record). In all, six pre-production aircraft were built, which the Army designated as YCH-54. Meeting with approval, the CH-54 Tarhe went into production, with the Army buying 105 of them. (The helicopter's namesake, Tarhe, was a Chief of the Wyandot Tribe in the Ohio area, and lived from 1742 to 1818. His nickname was "The Crane".) In addition to the military aircraft, Sikorsky also built a small number of civilian certified S-64s Skycranes, but did not seem terribly interested in aggressively marketing the model.

The CH-54 was phased out of Army service, being supplanted by the Boeing CH-47 Chinook, but found a unique niche in the civilian world, where it was quickly recognized as a useful tool as a helitanker for aerial firefighting. In 1992, Erickson Air Crane purchased the FAA Type Certificate from Sikorsky, thus becoming the Crane's manufacturer, as well as the largest operator of the type. Erickson has "remanufactured" old military-surplus airframes, as well as built brand new ones.

Jerry started life during the Vietnam era as a CH-54A, serial 68-18450, but was then rebuilt by Erickson as a civilian certificated S-64E, serial 64052.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Only in Mojave: Ford vs Chevy, NASA vs XCOR

Only in Mojave . . . do Ford and Chevy trucks go head-to-head in their towing duties, as big dollar NASA/Boeing/DARPA meets innovative XCOR Aerospace.

The Boeing X-37 is being prepped for a flight under White Knight as XCOR's EZRocket is towed to the runway for it's record-setting cross country flight to California City in December, 2005.