Dropping In: NACA and NASA Research Aircraft during the Cold War

 General, History

To be precise, it was NASA’s predecessor organization, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics that led the way in American transonic aircraft research up until 1958 when NASA was formed in response to Sputnik. Readers will be familiar with the exploits of Chuck Yaeger and Scott Crossfield as depicted in the film “The Right Stuff” with B-29 bombers dropping the bullet-shaped rocket-propelled research craft. Taking their cue from techniques developed by Nazi Germany whose air force dropped V-1 cruise missiles from under the wings of Heinkel 111 bombers, the tests of the “X Planes” continued well into the 1970s when B-29s and X-1s were replaced with B-52s, X-15s and NASA lifting bodies (again, we all are familiar with the opening sequence of “The Six Million Dollar Man” programme).

I was traveling in Florida and stopped by Kermit Weeks’ fantastic “Fantasy of Flight” facility. And, stashed away in his storage facility were the components of the US Navy/NACA’s P2B-1S (US Navy for B-29 Superfortress) dubbed “Fertile Myrtle.” This particular aircraft was the carrier aircraft for the Douglas D-558 supersonic research aircraft. These swept wing bullets, like the Bell X-1 were used to compile a plethora of critical data necessary for improving existing jet fighter designs in the waning days of the Korean War, and later on acquiring information necessary for the development of space planes which in turn evolved into the Shuttle Transportation System. Indeed, during the Cold War, information ruled. The better your weapons systems, the more likely the deterrent system was likely to deter, and if necessary, prevail in a confrontation with the Soviet Union. “Fertile Myrtle” and her relations played a supporting but crucial role in this effort. And, we should not forget, all of these efforts had a significantly positive impact on flight safety which still affects us today as we travel by air.

“Fertile Myrtle” is in pieces undergoing restoration. Notably, the fuselage was autographed by Brigadier General Paul Tibbits, as well as by test pilot Scott Crossfield. You can clearly see the modular construction of the B-29, with its pressurized pods on either end of the bomb bay, which has a tunnel to connect them. If you look through the cockpit windows you can clearly see the red drop levers. When completed, hopefully to flyable status, this very special Cold War artifact will join two other flyable B-29s in existence.

The X-15 programme relied on similar processes. The NB-52 Stratofortress “High and Mighty One” performed the same function. It is currently located in Arizona at the Pima Air Museum. You can see, like “Fertile Myrtle” the number of drop tests recorded on her fuselage.

Oh by the way: a little what-might-have-been. I was reading an interesting book called “Empire of the Clouds” by James Hamilton-Paterson. This history of British high speed aeronautical development points out that there was a British programme which produced the experimental Miles M.52 design in 1945-46. The UK M.52 is almost identical to the US Bell X-1 except that it employed a “reheater jetpipe,” better known as the afterburner. Three were built but in days before the first X-1 test flight, a M.52 test shape dropped by DeHavilland Mosquito bomber blew up after launch……then the programme was shut down.


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