Thursday, October 08, 2009

Full of Hot Air: A NASA F/A-18 at the Balloon Fiesta

Finding the NASA exhibit at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta isn't difficult. Just look for the inflatable airplane.

At an event featuring hot air balloons, NASA appropriately has an F/A-18 half-scale blow-up model airplane that makes the way to the agency's exhibit more obvious.

"The main objective is for the F/A-18 to draw attention to the NASA tent that has a number of aeronautics displays. NASA is not just space, but also aeronautics," said Mary Ann Harness, public outreach specialist and exhibit coordinator at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

"We try to bring the F/A-18 inflatable aircraft to events where we can't bring one of our research aircraft," Harness added. "NASA Headquarters provided it to us several years ago and it has been a wonderful tool and exhibit piece."

NASA uses F/A-18s obtained from the U.S. Navy between 1984 and 1991. Two have a two-seat cockpit while the others are single-seat aircraft. Based at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., the versatile aircraft are used both for research missions and for mission support.

NASA Dryden uses F/A-18 aircraft for integration of experiments such as test fixtures, sensors and subsystems and for researching such equipment in flight conditions. Sometimes the aircraft's flight control systems or vehicle structure, or both, are extensively modified to validate new configurations, integrated designs and research objectives.

The High Alpha Research Vehicle, Systems Research Aircraft and Active Aeroelastic Wing projects are examples of how NASA has used F/A-18 aircraft to redefine the cutting edge of flight research.

Over the course of 385 research flights conducted from 1987 through 1995, the High Alpha Research Vehicle, or HARV, F/A-18 demonstrated that it was capable of flight at angles of attack between 65 and 70 degrees using thrust-vectoring paddles to direct engine thrust and forebody strakes on the forward fuselage to create side forces that helped control vortices generated at high angles of attack.

The Systems Research Aircraft F/A-18 enabled government and industry to focus on integration, ground test and flight validation of such breakthrough technologies as vehicle management systems, advanced air data systems, photonic based systems, electric aircraft concepts and flight test techniques.

The Air Force Research Laboratory-funded Active Aeroelastic Wing project demonstrated roll control provided by active control of wing flexibility on a modified F/A-18 at transonic and supersonic speeds - a modern outgrowth of the "wing warping" technique used by the Wright brothers to maneuver their first aircraft.

NASA chase pilots in F/A-18s keep in constant radio contact with research pilots and provide an extra set of eyes to monitor key parts of the flight, an important safety feature of research missions. Chase aircraft are used as camera platforms for research missions requiring photos and videos. Aeronautical engineers extensively use photo and video coverage of the flights to monitor and verify various aspects of a research project.

No matter what their use, the F/A-18 plays a key role in NASA flight research.