Monthly Archives: November 2012

The First A in NASA Stands for Aeronautics – My Visit to Dryden Flight Research Center

When most people think of NASA, they think of the “S” in the acronym, however the first “A” in NASA stands for Aeronautics. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established in 1958, by replacing its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which had been formed a decade after the dawn of human flight in 1915. Since that time NACA, then NASA, has been doing groundbreaking research on Aeronautics.

On May 4th, I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of social media users treated by NASA to a day at the Dryden Flight Research Center located on Edwards Air Force Base in California. Edwards was founded in the 1930s because of its ideal location to test aircraft far away from the population centers of Southern California. Dryden is now the NASA’s primary center for aeronautical research. We were the first group of social media users invited to tour Dryden and we were given an amazing experience while there.

The morning started at the gatehouse for Edwards Air Force Base, where we all checked in and were given our passes to drive on to this secure military facility. Dryden is a tenant of Edwards Air Force Base, so there were rules we had to follow and procedures we had to go through. No pictures of the flight line, only drive where authorized, etc.

Arriving at Dryden, I parked and went in to the auditorium. I picked a prime location and set up my computer. I then headed back outside to the static aircraft display to meet Dr. Christian Gelzer, the chief historian at Dryden. We walked among some amazing aircraft, including a SR-71 Blackbird and the first “fly-by-wire” aircraft, among others. Dr. Gelzer is a tremendously interesting and engaging gentleman who knows his aeronautical history.

We went back inside and were greeted by Kevin Rohrer, our host for the day. He introduced David McBride, Dryden’s Director who welcomed us and turned us loose. Dr. Gelzer followed Mr. McBride and gave us a great presentation of the history of Dryden and the aeronautics research that has been done there.

Next came Edward Haering, who gave us a presentation on sonic boom research. To get past the speed of sound takes a lot of fuel and makes a lot of noise. Researchers at Dryden are trying to find ways to reduce both of those so that the efficiency and time of cross-country flights can be reduced safely without causing collateral damage to the properties that get hit by the boom. This picture is amazing, it’s the actual shockwave of a sonic boom as cause by a Navy F/A-18.

We then heard about some research being done regarding collision avoidance for aircraft. Current collision avoidance systems give the pilot a warning to fix the problem, which adds second to the time required to avoid a collision. The system being worked on by Dryden briefly takes control of the aircraft and automatically avoids the collision. They started the research using military aircraft with high-powered computers on board. However, the researchers wanted the system to be able to be used by aircraft that don’t have the same type of computing power on board. So, they made a version of the program that runs on an android smart phone, connected that to the controls of a smaller aircraft and it worked. How cool is that!

After taking a short break, we headed out on tour of the facility. Did you ever watch “I Dream of Jeannie”? Do you remember the building that was the headquarters at Cape Canaveral? Well, it was actually the main administration building at Dryden. Does this look familiar?

While outside, one of Dryden’s F/A-18 research aircraft flew over us and actually made a sonic boom. It was an awesome experience and we could feel and hear the boom even though the place was flying at 40,000 feet. The pilot then came down and did a low flyby over us, it was truly awesome!

Next we saw a true piece of history. When the Apollo astronauts were training to land on the moon, they trained for landing on the Lunar Landing Research vehicle, which was basically a jet engine strapped to a frame with a seat attached. The astronaut sat at the controls and took off, then did simulated landings. I think this piece of equipment was used by all of the Apollo commanders and lunar module pilots. How cool is that?

We then headed to the flight line and saw the global hawk. This is a remote operated aircraft that is about the size of a regional commuter jet. It was amazing to think that this aircraft is flown by joystick!

From there, we went to a different hangar and saw the Ikhana, a slightly smaller drone that has been used for several operational missions, including forest fire surveillance in coordination with the US Forest Service. The Ikhana is the civilian equivalent of the reaper drone used by the military.

We headed back to the auditorium and had lunch. After lunch we got some more amazing presentations by Dryden staff. First up was a presentation on aircraft pressurization, which included a demonstration of a pressure suit. If you fly too high, your blood will start to boil, so you wear a pressure suit, which keeps the atmospheric pressure around your body at a more ground like level. Pilots who fly above the Armstrong limit, where pressure gets so low it hits deadly levels, wear these suits. The Armstrong limit is between 62,000 and 63,500 feet above sea level.

We then got a great presentation about Dryden’s specialized fabrication shop. The scientists and pilots at Dryden do a lot of research on different flight parts, which the fabrication shop makes solely for research. When asked to make two of something, they often ask why so many. This gives you an idea of the specialization of the shop.

We then headed over to a different hangar and got to walk among some of the aircraft that Dryden uses to do its research. We saw two F/A-18s, the X-48C, a Vietnam era spy plane that flies so quietly it is used to test the sounds made by different airplanes, and a gulfstream type plane.

We then headed to the Crew Transport vehicle used by crews returning from orbit on a space shuttle. If you’ve ever been to Dulles airport, this is a modified mobile lounge used to load an unload passengers from their flights. In the case of Dryden, the flights were arriving from orbit and so this one had special facilities on board. There was a medical suite, and some great comfy seats for the crew to relax in. They also changed from their launch and entry suits in to more comfortable clothing in this vehicle.

This was the end of our tour, and it was a great day. Though it has been months since my visit, the thing that still stands out in my mind about my visit is the dedication of the folks working there and the good work that they’ve done for aeronautics. They work to make air travel safer and more efficient. They’re dedicated to the work they do.

Visiting Dryden was an amazing experience and I’ll never forget it. Thanks to NASA for giving me the opportunity to visit!

See the Flickr set of my photos from the visit!

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