Tag Archives: Final Flight

9 October 1999

9 October 1999: At a Saturday air show at Edwards Air Force Base, California, NASA Research Pilot Rogers E. Smith and Flight Test Engineer Robert R. Meyer, Jr., flew Lockheed SR-71A-LO 61-7980, NASA 844, on what would be the very last flight of a Blackbird. Although it was scheduled to fly again for the Sunday air show, a serious fuel leak prevented that flight.

61-7980 (Lockheed serial number 2031) was the final SR-71A to be built.

NASA 844 was retired after the final flight and placed in flyable storage, but in 2002, it was placed on static display at the Dryden Flight Research Center,¹ Edwards Air Force Base, California.EC92-02273 

¹ In 2014, DFRC was renamed the NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC).

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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3 October 1967

Major William J. Knight, United States Air Force, with the North American Aviation X-15A-2, 56-6671. (U.S. Air Force)

3 October 1967: The 188th flight of the X-15 Program was the 53rd for the Number 2 aircraft, 56-6671. It had been extensively modified by North American Aviation to an X-15A-2 configuration following a landing accident which had occurred 9 November 1962. The fuselage was lengthened 28 inches (0.711 meters) to accommodate a liquid hydrogen fuel tank for a scramjet engine that would be added to the ventral fin, a new tank for additional hydrogen peroxide to generate steam for the rocket engine turbo pump, and external propellant tanks to allow the rocketplane to reach higher speeds and altitudes. The entire surface of the X-15 was covered with an ablative coating to protect the metal structure from the extreme heat it would encounter on this flight.

Minor issues delayed the takeoff but finally, after they were corrected, and with Pete Knight in the X-15’s cockpit, it was carried aloft under the right wing of Balls 8, a Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress, 52-008.

At 45,000 feet (13,716 meters) over Mud Lake, Nevada, the X-15 was droppeded at 14:31:50.9 local time. Knight fired the Reaction Motors XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine and began to climb and accelerate. After 60 seconds, the ammonia and liquid oxygen propellants in the external tanks was exhausted, so the the tanks were jettisoned to eliminate their weight and aerodynamic drag.

The X-15A-2 climbed to 102,100 feet (31,120 meters) and Pete Knight leveled off, still accelerating. After 140.7 seconds of engine burn, Knight shut the XLR99 down. He noticed that thrust seemed to decrease gradually and the X-15 continued to accelerate to 6,630 feet per second (2,021 meters per second), or Mach 6.72.

North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 is carried to launch altitude under the right wing of the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 is carried to launch altitude under the right wing of the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008. The scramjet is attached to the ventral fin. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 immediately after being released from the mothership, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008, Balls 8, over Mud Lake, Nevada, 3 October 1967. The steam trail is hydrogen peroxide used to power the rocket engine turbopump. (U.S. Air Force)
North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 immediately after being released from the mothership, Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress 52-008, Balls 8, over Mud Lake, Nevada, 3 October 1967. The steam trail is hydrogen peroxide used to power the rocket engine turbopump. (U.S. Air Force) 
The North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 ignites the XLR99 engine after being released from the mothership, Balls 8, 3 October 1967. (U.S. Air Force)
The X-15A-2’s XLR99-RM-1 rocket engine ignites after release from the mothership, Balls 8, 3 October 1967. (U.S. Air Force) 

Shock waves from the dummy scramjet mounted on the ventral fin impinged on the fin’s leading edge and the lower fuselage, raising surface temperatures to 2,700 °F. (1,482 °C.) The Inconel X structure started to melt and burn through.

Pete Knight entered the high key over Rogers Dry Lake at 55,000 feet (16,764 meters) and Mach 2.2, higher and faster than normal. As he circled to line up for Runway One Eight, drag from the scramjet caused the X-15 to descend faster and this set him up for a perfect approach and landing. Because of heat damage, the scramjet broke loose and fell away from the X-15.

Knight touched down after an 8 minute, 17.0 second flight. His 4,520 mile per hour (7,274 kilometers per hour) maximum speed is a record that still stands.

Firefighters cool down the ventral fin of the North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 after its last landing on Rogers Dry Lake, 3 October 1967.(U.S. Air Force)
Firefighters cool down the ventral fin of the North American Aviation X-15A-2 56-6671 after its final landing on Rogers Dry Lake, 3 October 1967.(U.S. Air Force)

The X-15A-2 suffered considerable damage from this hypersonic flight. It was returned to North American for repairs, but before they were completed, the X-15 Program came to an end. This was 56-6671’s last flight. It was sent to the National Museum of the United States Air Force where it is part of the permanent collection.

In a ceremony at the White House, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Harmon International Trophy to Major William J. Knight.

The Harmon International Trophy at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)
The Harmon International Trophy at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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27 September 2008

Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV, 68-8284, “Cowboy 26,” prepares for its final combat mission, Iraq, 27 September 2008. (A1C Jason Epley, U.S. Air Force)

27 September 2008: A United States Air Force Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV special operations helicopter, serial number 68-8284, assigned to the 20th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron, flew its final combat mission before being withdrawn from service and retired after 40 years and 12,066.6 flight hours.

“Cowboy 26” was flown by Major Philip Cooper, Captain Peter Hettinger, and Colonel Scott Howell, with Technical Sergeant Henry Woodie, Staff Sergeant Shawn Lewis, Senior Airman Eric Harp, and Airman 1st Class Joshua Lucas.

68-8284 was built by the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation at Bloomfield, Connecticut, as one of 40 HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giants for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). It was delivered to the Air Force in August 1968. 68-8284 was assigned to the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron  at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base, 1971–1972. It operated as “Jolly Green 55.”

On 5 September 1971, with flight crew Major Jerry R. Thompson, Gary L. Gamble (CP),  FE Raymond Duarte and PJs William D. Brinson and Michael D Vogele, it rescued the survivors of “Knife 33,” a 21st SOS CH-3E that went down in Laos. On 19 December 1971 (Capt Harold O. Jones (P), David G. Daus (CP), FE Jerrold T. Dearmans, with PJs Leon Fullwood and William D. Brinson, the crew of Falcon 74, a 13th TFS/432 TFW F-4D Phantom II which had gone down shot down 17 December by a SAM near Ban Poung Ban in northeastern Laos. Maj. William T. Stanley, Capt. Lester O’Brien were safely recovered.

A U.S. Air Force Sikorsky HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant hovers to hoist a pararescueman with one downed pilot, while a second waits on the ground, 16 June 1967. The blade tip vortices are visible because of the high humidity. (This image has been reoriented and cropped from the original photograph.) (National Archives at College Park)

8284 was later assigned to the 67th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (39th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing) at RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. 68-8284 has been constantly modernized and upgraded. It was initially converted to the MH-53J Pave Low III/Enhanced configuration by the Naval Air Rework Facility, NAS Pensacola, Florida, in the late 1980s. The helicopter was further modified to the MH-53M Pave Low IV configuration at the Naval Air Depot, MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina.

The MH-53M Pave Low IV is designed for operations in darkness. (Staff Sergeant Aaron Allmon, U.S. Air Force) 080927-F-7823A-433

The MH-53M Pave Low IV is a variant of Sikorsky’s S-65 heavy-lift military transport helicopter series.  The MH-53M is a single main rotor, single tail rotor, twin-engine helicopter. It has a crew of six: 2 pilots, 2 flight engineers and 2 gunners. The Pave Low IV is equipped with Terrain-Following Radar and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) for low-level operations in darkness and low visibility.

The MH-53M fuselage is 67 feet, 2.4 inches (20.483 meters) long, and the helicopter has a maximum length of 91 feet, 11.34 inches (28.025 meters) with rotors turning and the refueling boom extended. The height to the top of the main rotor pylon is 17 feet, 1.68 inches (5.224 meters). The maximum height (rotors turning) is 24 feet, 10.88 inches (7.592 meters).

Sikorsky HH-53C 3-view illustration with dimensions. (Sikorsky Historical Archives)

The fully-articulated 6-blade main rotor has a diameter of 72 feet, 2.7 inches (22.014 meters). The main rotor turns counter-clockwise at 185 r.p.m. (100% Nr), as seen from above. (The advancing blade is on the helicopter’s right.) The main rotor blades are built with titanium spars and have -16° of twist. The semi-articulated four-blade tail rotor has a diameter of 16 feet, 0 inches (4.877 meters) and is positioned on the left side of the tail pylon. It turns clockwise at 792 r.p.m., as seen from the helicopter’s left side. (The advancing blade is below the axis of rotation.) The gap between rotor arcs is just 4.437 inches (11.270 centimeters).

Empty, the MH-53M weighs 32,000 pounds (14,515 kilograms). Its maximum takeoff weight is 46,000 pounds (20,865 kilograms).

Its two General Electric T64-GE-100 axial-flow turboshaft engines have a Normal Continuous Power rating of 3,810 shaft horsepower at 85 °F. (30 °C.), Military Power rating of 4,090 shaft horsepower, and a Maximum Power rating of 4,330 shaft horsepower. The T64-GE-100 is 79 inches (2.007 meters) long, 20 inches (0.508 meters) in diameter and weighs 720 pounds (327 kilograms). Output (100% N2) is 13,600 r.p.m.

Two Sikorsky HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giants of the 39th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing fly in formation over Goose Bay, Canada, 11 June 1978. 68-8284 is the ship closest to the camera, painted gray. (TSgt. Robert C. Leach/U.S. Air Force)
Two Sikorsky HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giants of the 39th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing fly in formation over Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada, 11 June 1978. 68-8284 is the ship closest to the camera, painted gray. (TSgt. Robert C. Leach/U.S. Air Force)

The MH-53M has a maximum speed of 196 miles per hour (315 kilometers per hour) and a service ceiling of 16,000 feet (4877 meters). It carries two 450-gallon (1,703 liter) jettisonable fuel tanks under each sponson.

The MH-53M is armed with two M134 7.62mm miniguns and a GAU-18/A .50 caliber machine gun.

A Sikorsky MH-53J Pave Low III Enhanced from the 16th Special Operations Wing ready to refuel from a Lockheed MC-130E Combat Talon, 21 October 2001, classified location Operation Enduring Freedom. (TSGT Scott Reed, USAF) U.S. National Archives 6523525

At the time they were retired, the MH-53Ms were the fastest, heaviest, most powerful helicopters in the United States Air Force inventory.

After leaving Iraq, 68-8284 was transported by C-17 Globemaster III to England. It was loaned to the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, where it is on display.

Sikorsky MH-53M Pave Low IV 68-8284 with another Pave Low IV on their final mission . 27 September 2008. (U.S. Air Force 080927-F-7823A-409)

Recommended: On a Steel Horse I Ride: A History of the MH-53 Pave Low Helicopters in War and Peace, by Darrel D. Whitcomb. Air University Press, Air Force Research Institute, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, September 2012.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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8 September 2001

Special Air Mission 27000, a Boeing VC-137C, 72-7000, on final approach for landing.

8 September 2001: Special Air Mission 27000, a Boeing VC-137C, serial number 72-7000, served as an airborne office and transport for seven United States presidents over 29 years. It made its last flight from Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland to San Bernardino International Airport, California, where technicians from Boeing disassembled the aircraft and transported it in sections to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum at Simi Valley, California. It was reassembled and is on display inside the Air Force One Pavilion.

Aboard for its final flight were Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche, Vice Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Lance W. Lord, U.S. Air Force, and former First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan.

The VC-137C was a specially-built Model 707-353B four-engine jet airliner. Known by the call sign Air Force One when the President is aboard, it otherwise is referred to as Special Air Mission 27000. Its sister ship, 72-6000, is at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, where it recently was returned to display after renovation.

Boeing VC-137C 72-7000 on display at the Air Force One Pavilion, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, California. (Wikipedia)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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8 July 2011, 15:29:03 UTC, T minus Zero

The flight crew of Atlantis, STS-135. Left to right: COL Rex J. Waldheim, USAF, LCOL Douglas G. Hurley, USMC, CAPT Christopher J. Ferguson, USN, and Sandra Hall Magnus, Ph.D. (NASA)

8 July 2011: At 11:29:03 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time, the Space Shuttle Atlantis (OV-104) was launched on Mission STS-135 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. This was the very last of 135 flights for the United States space shuttle program. The mission was to carry assembly modules and supplies to the International Space Station in Low Earth Orbit. The mission had a total elapsed time of 12 days, 18 hours, 28 minutes, 50 seconds. Atlantis arrived at the Shuttle Landing Facility 21 July 2011 at 09-57 UTC.

The mission commander was Captain Christopher J. Ferguson, U.S. Navy, on his third space flight. Atlantis‘ pilot for STS-135 was Lieutenant Colonel Douglas G. Hurley, United States Marine Corps, on his second shuttle flight. Mission specialists were Sandra Hall Magnus, Ph.D. and Colonel Rex J. Waldheim, U.S. Air Force. This was Dr. Magnus’ third space flight. She spent a total of 157 days, 8 hours, 42 minutes in space. Colonel Waldheim, the mission flight engineer, was on his third shuttle mission.

Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis first flew 3 October 1985 and made 33 space flights. It spent 306 days, 14 hours, 12 minutes, 43 seconds in space. Atlantis orbited the Earth 4,848 times and traveled miles 125,935,769 (202,673,974 kilometers) When it was retired at the end of STS-135, Atlantis had flown just one-third of its designed operational life. The space ship is on display at the Kennedy Space Center.

Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-135) launch from Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 15:29:03 UTC, 8 July 2011. (NASA)

© 2020, Bryan R. Swopes

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