|Experimental Aircraft||page 1|
Ever since the Wright Brothers first got off the ground people have been trying to make bigger, better, and faster aircraft. To do this takes planning, money, building and experimenting (trying out new aircraft in the air). Over the years this experimenting process has split into two divisions. The first catagory is centered around the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). This is a group of flying enthusiasts whose main interest is designing and building their own flying machines. The second catagory is centered around professional research, mostly financed by the U.S. government and controlled by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Association).
First we'll look at the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) that was established in 1953. This is a group of aviation enthusiasts (people who enjoy flying) whose primary interest is homebuilding airplanes. The association also represents owners of warbirds, antiques and classics, ultralights and amateur aerobatic pilots. This is a private (non-governmental) group founded by Paul Poberenzy. His wife, son and some staff run the association which has expanded worldwide to nearly 700 EAA chapters. Local chapters put out newsletters and hold meetings at which home based airplane builders exchange ideas and information. Many of these chapters hold "fly in's". (Homebuilt airplanes are brought together for show.)
To qualify as a true homebuilt aircraft the builder must do at least 51% of the work. Most of the builders have a passionate interest in building their own aircraft. These people are willing to put in as many hours as it takes to finish the aircraft. Some people will put in up to 5000 hours, over a 10 year period, to finish their project. The plane can then be officially certified as "an amateur built aircraft for recreational purposesi". Homebuilts cannot be flown for hire, used commercially, rented or leased.
Each year the EAA sponsors an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. This goes on for one week during the month of August. More than 500,000 people attend from around the world. Those days are spent browsing (looking) through the rows of airplanes on display around the grassy fields. Fellow builders and pilots exchange ideas and tips. This is called a "fly market" where all kinds of aviation related memorabilia (objects from old aircraft) may be purchased. There are also exhibit halls where homebuilding suppliers sell everything from landing gear legs to upholstery and plans.
The fun at Oshkosh wouldn't be complete without an airshow. Every afternoon some of the best known pilots in the business put their aircraft through dazzling routines. There are also pyrotechnic (fireworks) displays, mass fly-pasts, aerobatic routines and various stunts (tricks) that change from year to year. At this time of the year the Oshkosh airport is the busiest in the world. The Oshkosh air show is a tribute to the love of flying by the thousands of EAA members.
Most of the aircraft built at home are built by one or two people over a long period of time for fun and recreation. The aircraft used by the military and commercial airlines must be built more quickly and pass much higher standards of flight and endurance. These are called "research" aircraft. Research airplanes are built to explore new areas in the science of flight or to learn how to design airplanes that will fly faster. Some are designed for learning how to develop airplanes than can take off from a space as small as a parking lot instead of a long runway.
Today, research aircraft are designed with the help of computers. The use of computers allows engineers to find out how a new or modified airplane will fly even before it is built. Once a good design is devloped, a large scale radio-controlled model of the real airplane may be built. After many tests a research airplane may be built.
Flying a research plane is not easy or safe. Only the best, highly trained pilots are candidates for the job. Years of hard work and millions of dollars are at stake. The test pilot must be able to feel every movement of the plane and sense potential problems immediately. If the first flight goes as planned it will be a simple take-off, a gradual climb, some easy maneuvers and a modest landing. After a few flights like this and careful checks by mechanics and engineers the plane will be flown at its full performance levels.
Past research has centered around high-speed airplanes. The "sound barrier", 750 mph at sea level and 650 mph at high altitude, is what forced designers and engineers to build pure research airplanes. On October 14, 1947 Army Air Force Captain Charles E. (Chuck) Yeager flew the Bell XS-1 (later called the X-1) at 700 mph, becoming the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1). Six years later on November 20, 1953 test pilot Scott Crossfield flew an airplane at Mach 2 (1,291 mph).
Another area of research aircraft is that of the V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) plane. This plane eliminates the need for long runways. It works both like an airplane and a helicopter. V/STOLS may be powered by propellers or jet engines. Such machines can take off straight up in the air or after only a very short stroll down a runway. They are very useful for supporting ground troops in battle.
When discussing research of airplanes one must mention the NASA Ames Research Center, Dryden Flight Research Facility. Located on the western edge of the Mojave desert, it is the site of high performance aeronautical flight research. This place has a 500 mile high-speed flight corridor and almost ideal (perfect) weather. The Dryden Research Center has become a huge success in pioneering aeronautical research.
The Dryden Research Center is now more than 50 years old. It has been involved in the development and testing of many advanced aircraft, much of it leading to the development of the U.S. Space Shuttle program. Dryden is used as one of the landing areas of the space shuttle. After landing, the shuttles are serviced and carried back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida piggyback atop the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
How was the space shuttle developed? Much of it came from the "X-plane projects". The X-planes began with the idea of designing an aircraft that could fly faster than the speed of sound. When this was accomplished other projects began:
Later X - planes explored such areas as jet-powered vertical takeoff and landings.
The most successful of the X-planes, however, may be the X-15. First flown on September 17, 1959, the X-15 explored high-speed, high altitude manned flight. The X-15 proved that manned flight near the Mach 5+ speed at altitudes over 250,000 feet were possible. Later, the X-15 would set an altitude record for aircraft at 317,750 feet and reach a top speed of Mach 6.7 (4,520 mph). The information gathered from the X-15 flights helped the U.S. space effort. The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft all used various X-15 technologies. The X-15 showed that going into space and returning to a horizontal landing on Earth was possible. From this concept evolved the space shuttle.
Today, the engineers at Dryden are still designing and testing new technologies and new aircraft. For example:
With each of these projects many new and difficult problems arise. This is to be expected in the field of experimental aircraft. Computers have played a large role in this field. More aircraft design and flight simulation has been made possible. For most modern aircraft, computer software is a necessity. This is has created some unusual possiblities for experimental aircraft.
In August, 1996, NASA and the U.S. Air Force introduced a jet-powered aircraft equipped with state-of-the-art flight control technologies that showed a computerized flight control system that "learns" as it flies. These new systems are called "neural networks". Neural networks are computer systems that actually learn by doing. The aircraft control system learns by mimicking the pilot. If all goes as planned, the program could eventually find its way in to commerical, general and military aircraft.
The field of aviation changes and improves through the efforts of
amateur homebuilders or by the work of the professional engineers
working with research aircraft. Experimental aircraft and science will
forever be linked.
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