Flight Test Files: Martin B-57B Canberra

In this NASA Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility photograph taken in 1982 the B-57B Canberra is shown making atmospheric measurements near a mountain range The Martin B-57B Canberra light bomber was used on several flight test programs at the NASA Flight Research Center and other NASA Centers. The two-seated aircraft was powered by two J56-W-5 turbojet engines. The atmospheric part of the research program provided information on mountain waves, jet streams, convective turbulence, and atmospheric contaminants.
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During the early 1970s, a Martin B-57B Canberra (ex USAF 52-1576) took part in several NASA joint flight test programs at their Flight Research Centre within Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert. This particular Canberra was involved in numerous research endeavors with both NASA and it’s forebear, the N.A.C.A., but in 1974-75 it played a role in proof-of-concept testing for the Viking Mars landers, a cooperative effort with NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

A converted Martin B-57B Canberra medium bomber sits on the ramp at NASA’s Flight Research Facility, Edwards AFB, California. Instrumented with a data acquisition system, the rugged NASA aircraft flew from this facility in the early 1970s to learn more about the atmosphere. The Canberra’s pilots measured atmospheric conditions and clear-air turbulence at various altitudes and sampled the upper atmosphere for various aerosols. The research – to give scientists a better understanding of mountain waves, jet streams, convective turbulence, clear-air turbulence, and atmospheric contaminants – was sponsored by NASA’s Langley Research Center, the University of Wyoming, and the Department of Transportation. The aircraft was retired from flight status in 1987. Photo NASA


With completion of the Viking parachute tests, which took place at the Joint Parachute Test Facility in El Centro, California, the B-57B flew from Edwards a number of times to measure/analyze atmospheric turbulence as part of NASA’s effort to develop models for predicting what the Viking Mars lander might encounter during its decent in the Martian atmosphere. Additional atmospheric testing provided samples of aerosols for the University of Wyoming and clear-air turbulence data for the Department of Transportation.

This is a photograph of the Martin B-57 Canberra in flight during its time as “NASA 809”. The aircraft has a bare-metal finish at this point. The “V” insignia on the nose came from the airframe’s use in the Viking Mars Lander parachute test program. Earlier in its career, the aircraft also flew as NASA 237 and NASA 516. Photo NASA

The aircraft was tested over a span of many years at Edwards Air Force Base by various NASA centers for other types of research. This particular Canberra also took part in a number of important flight tests at other N.A.C.A./NASA establishments. Perhaps the most important of these took place during Project Bee with the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory at Lewis Field in Cleveland, Ohio. These experiments proved that conventional jet engines could successfully operate with liquid hydrogen as a fuel source.

As the NASA archives record: “On 13 February 1957, the first of three successful flights was made and the fuel system worked well. The transition to hydrogen was made in two steps. The hydrogen lines were first purged, then the engine was operated on JP-4 and gaseous hydrogen simultaneously. After two minutes of operations on the mixture, Algranti [the pilot] switched to hydrogen alone. The transition was relatively smooth and there was no appreciable change in engine speed or tailpipe temperature. The engine ran for about 20 minutes on hydrogen. The pilots found that the engine responded well to throttle changes when using hydrogen. When the supply was almost exhausted, the speed began to drop. As this became apparent, Algranti switched back to JP-4 and the engine accelerated smoothly to its operating speed. The engine burning hydrogen had produced a dense and persistent condensation trail, while the other engine operating on JP-4 left no trail.”

Interestingly, Project Bee served as an important milestone in convincing NASA that liquid hydrogen would be a safe fuel for the Saturn V rockets which would serve the Apollo lunar missions of the 1960s and 70s.

Later, in 1982, the B-57B aircraft returned to the (then) Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility (since renamed for lunar astronaut Neil Armstrong) for more Langley-sponsored turbulence testing. These experiments provided data on mountain waves, jet streams, convective turbulence, and clear-air turbulence; valuable details for improving airliner operational safety.

Martin B-57B Canberra 52-1576 retired from flying duties in 1987, and is now in storage within the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards AFB.

NASA 809 on display at the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards AFB. (AFFTM photo)


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