23 decades

The Mississippi Rifles by Ken Riley

Under the command of Colonel Jefferson Davis, the Mississippi Rifles fight off the large Mexican force at Buena Vista, February 23, 1847.

A decade earlier, Jefferson had married Sarah Knox Taylor against the wishes of her father, Zachary Taylor, who would be his commanding officer at Buena Vista. Sarah died tragically at only 21, and Davis had since remarried, but after his performance that day, Gen. Taylor reportedly apologized for his opposition with the line "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.“

(National Guard)

10

     On January 23, 2015, after decades of storage, the M2-F1 finally went on display in a museum. She found her new home at the Air Force Flight Test Museum on Edwards Air Force Base, California. Before that, she was stored in a hangar at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, only seen by the occasional tour group. I was fortunate enough to photograph her at this previous location before the big move. The first four photos show the aircraft in its former storage area. The final six photos show the aircraft on display at its new location.

     When she arrived, I had the privilege of dusting her off, working as a volunteer for the Flight Test Museum. My first job was cleaning planes at the local airport as a young teenager. At my former job, I never cleaned anything as interesting as this and nothing gave me as much pride. For a brief moment, I felt like I was part of the lifting body story. I felt a connection to the NASA engineers who volunteered their time during construction to keep costs down. Volunteers worked to restore the aircraft in the 1990’s. We all volunteer for the same, simple reason; because we care about aviation.

     The story of the lifting body research vehicle had humble beginnings, starting with the M2-F1. NASA wanted a reusable spacecraft that could glide to and land on a conventional runway once it reentered the atmosphere, rather than splashing down in the ocean directly under its point of reentry like the Mercury spacecraft of the day. Wings are vulnerable to the intense heating and structural loads of launch and reentry. Additionally, wings are heavy; it seems a shame to drag them through an entire spaceflight, sacrificing cargo weight, only to use them for a few minutes at the end of the mission. Given the right shape, the fuselage alone could create enough lift to glide to a safe landing, or so they thought.

     Before a lifting body could fly in space, NASA had to figure out how to fly it in the atmosphere. Only $30,000 of discretionary funds were allocated for the construction of the vehicle. An additional $10,000 would later be spent on a crew ejection system. The Briegleb Glider Company constructed the bird of aluminium and wood in an area nicknamed the “Wright Bicycle Shop” at El Mirage Airport. In this shop, NASA engineers and technicians volunteered their time to construct the low budget aircraft.

     Starting on March 1, 1963, the M2-F1 began flight attempts while towed behind a brand new Pontiac Catalina convertible. When the car was hot-rodded, it reached speeds of 110 mph which was fast enough to lift the M2-F1 into the air. On August 16, 1963, the aircraft would be towed aloft by a C-47. Before air tows began, the aircraft was outfitted with an ejection seat and a small solid rocket motor that could offer up to five seconds of thrust. This rocket could be fired if landing sink rate was too high just before touchdown. The system was dubbed “Instant L/D”.

     Ten individuals piloted the M2-F1 during its research program. Fred Haise and Joe Engle each had one flight towed behind the Pontiac. They both would later become astronauts and fly the Space Shuttle. Air Force test pilot Brigadier General Chuck Yeager flew the M2-F1 five times, towed by the C-47 aircraft.

     Knowledge gained in this program was applied to the design of the Space Shuttle. Although the Shuttle had wings (added for extended cross range capability), its fuselage is a lifting body. The goal of the program was to put a lifting body shape on a spacefaring vehicle and this dream was realized. Now she’ll remain at the Air Force Flight Test Museum as an example of a humble vehicle that would ultimately change the world.