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19/09/2013 17:45 | By Mark Bursa, contributor, MSN Innovation

The amazing Nasa high-altitude spyplane

After 40 years in storage this incredible high-altitude spyplane is flying again


Nasa’s 'new' WB-57F (© Paul Filmer Global Aviation Resource)

After four decades in storage, Nasa’s 'new' WB-57F took to the air on 9 August 2013

Often, in James Bond movies there’s a scene where 007 has given up the spying game and is living in quiet retirement with only a Martini for company. But then M persuades him to renew his licence to kill.

Well, here’s a spyplane that’s just landed a similar role. For an astonishing 41 years, the former US Air Force Martin WB-57F number 63-13295 has been sitting in open storage in the Arizona desert. But now it’s back in the air again, and it’s about to return to work for Nasa, carrying out high-altitude atmospheric research. And as we’ll find out, there’s a sting in the tale too.

British Canberra bomber (© Wikimedia Commons)

The WB-57F is a development of the British Canberra bomber – the prototype first flew in 1949

Stunning achievement

The WB-57F is a remarkable machine. It’s a development of the first British jet bomber, the English Electric Canberra, which was built under licence by Martin in the US. Our plane was built as a standard B-57B in 1955, and was one of 21 aircraft converted to WB-57F standard in 1964 – when Sean Connery’s 007 was doing battle with Goldfinger.

This was effectively a complete rebuild. Massive new wings, nearly double the span of the original Canberra, were fitted. These allow the aircraft to generate enough lift to keep airborne in the thin air of extreme altitudes above 63,000ft – that’s around 12 miles (19km) high, around twice the altitude of a regular airliner and 12,000ft higher than Concorde. A bigger tailfin was also fitted, and new turbofan engines doubled the aircraft’s power.

Officially, the US Air Force used the WB-57F fleet for weather research – but during the Cold War, the planes were used as high-altitude spyplanes over Eastern Europe, and to monitor nuclear tests in the Pacific. By 1972, though, they’d been replaced by purpose-built spyplanes such as the Lockheed TR-1 and SR-71 Blackbird.

Most were scrapped, but Nasa needed an aircraft capable of flying very high and carrying sensors and monitoring equipment in support of satellite launches. So two of the planes joined Nasa, and a few others, including the 63-13295, were placed in storage at the vast Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) storage facility at Davis-Monthan airbase, near Phoenix, Arizona.

The WB-57F (© Paul Filmer Global Aviation Resource)

Carefully preserved, the WB-57F sat for 41 years in the Arizona desert before being returned to flight

Preserving the past

Many planes go to AMARG to die, but those that are still of value are very carefully mothballed. Their engines are drained and inhibited, and their Perspex cockpits shrouded in a rubberised mask that protects them from intense sun, wind and dust. Don’t worry about rust – it rarely rains in Arizona.

Meanwhile the 63-13295’s two sisters, now known as Nasa 926 and Nasa 928, have been very busy indeed. So busy that Nasa needed another WB-57F – the call went out to reactivate the 63-13295. So in May 2011, the aircraft was examined, dismantled and transported to Colorado Springs, where a lengthy and comprehensive rebuild was completed last month.

On 9 August 2013, the aircraft flew for the first time in 41 years, and is now undergoing flight tests before it’s handed over to Nasa, where it will join the other two WB-57Fs at Ellington Field, Texas. It’s been allocated the number Nasa 927, in between its sisters.

The WB-57F (© Nasa)

Nasa has operated two WB-57Fs on scientific high-altitude research programmes for more than 40 years

An all round performer

What’s so special about the WB-57F? It has the ability to fly long and high, with missions of up to 6.5 hours and a range of 4,000km. And as it’s based on a bomber, it can carry a hefty 6,000lb payload in its bomb bay and mounted on external pylons. This means a variety of scientific instruments can be flown to extreme altitudes and controlled in real time by a sensor equipment operator (SEO) as part of the two-man crew.

Climate research is a major part of the WB-57’s work. Recently Nasa used the aircraft to fly above hurricanes, carrying a hurricane imaging radiometer (HIRAD) to help determine the strength and structure of hurricanes. HIRAD collects wind speed data by measuring microwave radiation emitted from the ocean surface as winds move across the surface. By capturing that microwave energy, scientists can work out how powerfully the wind is blowing, and predict the behaviour of the hurricane.

The WB-57F (© Nasa)

The WB-57F carried underwing equipment pods through ice clouds as part of the MACPEX programme

Flying high again

The WB-57s have also been flown through high-altitude cirrus clouds as part of the Mid-latitude Airborne Cirrus Properties Experiment (MACPEX), a Nasa programme to investigate cirrus cloud properties and how they impact on solar radiation.

Nasa pilot William Rieke says: “The WB-57 aircraft is a very good high-altitude platform. In flight, the WB-57 has the capability to communicate via radio or satellite phone to the mission scientist on the ground to communicate the real-time weather picture. With their input, the aircrew then plans an appropriate course.”

The aircraft have also been used to collect 'space dust' – Cosmic Dust Collector (CDC) missions collected the remains of small meteorites or asteroids that accumulate in the upper atmosphere in boxes mounted under the wings. And the WB-57Fs were used to film the space shuttle at high altitudes to observe its behaviour under re-entry from space, in order to find out what went wrong when the space shuttle Columbia broke up.

The WB-57F (© Paul Filmer Global Aviation Resource)

The WB-57F has a massive wingspan of 122ft – it needs big wings to gain lift at high altitude where the air is thin

A risky business

It’s risky work – especially flying through high-altitude clouds, which can cause icing. The WB-57 has engine anti-ice capability, but doesn’t have wing de-icing capability, as the wings need to be 'clean' to have maximum efficiency at high altitude. “When ice forms on the wings in flight, aircrew has to rapidly exit the icing conditions by climbing or descending several thousand feet. Normally, this will clear the icing conditions,” says Rieke.

It’s not certain whether Nasa 927 will replace one of the other WB-57Fs or remain part of an increased fleet. Our bet is the latter. Remember we said there was a sting in the tail? It seems the WB-57s haven’t just been carrying out scientific research. Just like James Bond, it seems the old spyplanes have been tempted back into service.

These days, the US Air Force uses satellites and drones for most of its airborne surveillance, but it doesn’t have anything big enough to carry heavyweight communications equipment. So both the 926 and 928 have been loaned back to the US government, for deployment over Afghanistan as Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) aircraft.

The WB-57F (© AR15.com)

Back in the spying game: the WB-57F fitted with BACN system ‘lumps and bumps’

Information technology

BACN connects different incompatible radio systems and datalinks and allows them to transfer information and communicate. For example, the US Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighters cannot communicate directly with the US Air Force B-52 bombers. The BACN-equipped WB-57F simply flies above them, converting and relaying incompatible data to the different aircraft and to controllers and patrols on the ground.

This high-tech equipment, and the scientific gear that the WB-57Fs carry in their Nasa day jobs, are way beyond the technological abilities of 50 years ago. But it seems the basic aeroplane that’s needed to carry them hasn’t been bettered, and the WB-57F's distinctive bat-wing profile will be gracing the skies for some years to come.

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