SR-71 “buzzing the tower” of the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.

Observable in the second gif are, I believe, flameouts made possible by the fact that the aircraft is in a high alpha turn, thus limiting the capability of the engine inlets to receive air.

  • baby:a...a...
  • mom:ah?
  • baby:Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
  • And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
  • Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore.
  • Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
  • And in the doubtful war, before he won
  • The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town;
  • His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine,
  • And settled sure succession in his line,
  • From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
  • And the long glories of majestic Rome.

    The Mojave Desert is home to Joshua trees, blistering sun, sandstorms and many bizarre-looking airplanes. The HL-10 qualifies as one of these strange desert birds that we love so much. She was the first Heavyweight Lifting Body to break the speed of sound and would go on to literally and figuratively change the shape of aerospace.

    She was delivered from Northrop to NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (now Armstrong) in January 1966 to join NASA’s fleet of Heavyweight Lifting Bodies, an idea fathered by R. Dale Reed in 1962. Reed realized that wings are not ideal for spaceflight because they are heavy, vulnerable and cumbersome at hypersonic reentry speeds. His idea was to create a reentry vehicle that had no wings, but could create enough lift from the fuselage alone to land on a conventional runway at relatively safe speeds. He imagined these vehicles as small personal spacecraft. This idea was embedded in the HL-10 name, standing for “Horizontal Landing”.

    The HL-10, along with other Heavyweight Lifting Bodies, had to be initially taken aloft to 45,000 feet by a B-52 mothership, then dropped into the wild blue yonder. The first drop was performed on December 22, 1966, piloted by Bruce Peterson. On this first flight, the HL-10 had no engine installed, so she simply glided back to a landing on Rogers Dry Lake adjacent to Dryden. The tenth flight, on September 24, 1968, included an XLR-11 rocket engine as part of the kit, but it wasn’t fired until the twelfth flight which took place on October 23, 1968. On this mission, the engine malfunctioned and Jerauld R. Gentry was forced to land on Rosamond Dry Lake, just west of Rogers.

    Finally, on May 9, 1969, flight number seventeen, John A. Manke became the first man to break the sound barrier in a Lifting Body. Flight thirty-four, February 18, 1970, went down in the history books as the fastest lifting body flight when Peter C. Hoag punched through Mach 1.861. Nine days later, Bill Dana took the thirty-fifth flight to an altitude of 90,300 feet, the highest flight of the lifting body fleet.

    She finally took her thirty-seventh and final flight on July 17, 1970, with Hoag at the controls. By this time, she handled like an F-104 Starfighter, better than the rest of the NASA Lifting Bodies. Dale Reed pushed for plans to launch an HL-10 on a Saturn V rocket and allow it to reenter, first unmanned, then with a brave astronaut aboard. He even spoke with Wernher von Braun who was happy to set two Saturn V vehicles aside for these flights. This plan was never realized.

    To prepare the HL-10 for spaceflight would have, of course, meant preparing the vehicle for the intense heating of reentry. Many major design modifications would have been required. One interesting problem was the windscreen; it is a curved bowl at the nose of the vehicle. During reentry, this area would have become the hottest surface, heating to approximately 3,000 °F. No transparent material could have withstood this heating, so the windscreen would have required relocation. This wasn’t all bad, though, because the curved windscreen created a fisheye effect, which made landings difficult, let alone the fact that they were touching down at a speed of 200 mph on a uniform dry lakebed surface which makes it hard to judge altitude. Overcoming these challenges speaks volumes about the engineers and pilots who work in this field.

    The HL-10 stands as a trophy of accomplishment in front of NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Today, lifting body designs are being considered for travel to Low Earth Orbit, all thanks to the fleet that flew from Dryden.


     F-104N 812, originally called 012, served NASA from 1963 to 1987, retiring after 4,442 flights. After that, she was stored at Edwards Air Force Base and used for spare parts for NASA’s growing fleet of eleven F-104 aircraft. After retirement, 812 went on display in the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards AFB. In 1997, she was moved to the Lockheed Palmdale plant, and converted to look more like an XF-104, with her inlet cones, top fairings, and paint removed. In 2005, she was painted to resemble her original 1963 markings, but still lacking inlet cones and top fairings. She rests on display in front of the Lockheed Skunk Works at Palmdale, California.

     812 is one of three F-104N aircraft in total; 811, 812, and 813, manufactured by Lockheed specifically for NASA flight research. These three aircraft met different fates. 813 was lost in a tragic accident on June 8, 1966, while flying in close formation with an XB-70 for a photo shoot. The F-104 collided with the XB-70, causing the loss of pilots Joe Walker and Carl Cross. Pilot Al White ejected from the XB-70, but was seriously injured. 811 was flown by a NASA Dryden test pilot who would eventually become the first man to set foot on the Moon. After that, the Dryden facility has been renamed, “NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center”. 811 is now on display at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.


     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.