NASA's B-52B Quietly Retired
Klyde, the only ant in aviation, doesn't fly just anything. For
instance, he flew on SpaceShipOne when it garnered the X-Prize. And
he was on board the venerable B-52B known as "Balls Eight" when it
made its last flight for NASA.
Balls Eight was built in 1952, a battle plane at the dawn of the
Cold War. But the B-52B never dropped a single pound of ordnance.
The AIr Force used it for seven years as a test bed, then sent it
to NASA in 1959.
That's where the modification perhaps most critical to Balls
Eight's mission was made -- the installation of a pylon on the
underside of its right wing and a notch on the trailing edge. Those
were made to accommodate the many test aircraft Balls Eight has
carried aloft in its 45 year history with the space agency. After
that, Balls Eight spent much of its time over the Mojave Desert,
chaperone to the world's oddest and most potent test vehicles.
For instance, there was the X-15, the world's first -- and only
manned -- hypersonic airplane.
The B-52B also dropped a variety of appliances for tests. Among
them: solid fuel shuttle boosters. Balls Eight's mission was to
test the boosters' parachutes. Also, Balls Eight was the drop
platform for the X-24B lifting body, which looked eerily like the
spaceship flown by My Favorite Martian in the original TV series
(you don't think.... naaaaw. Couldn't be).
Balls Eight's last mission again involved hypersonic flight.
This time, it was a Pegasus rocket boosting the X-43A, a concept
aircraft that, at almost Mach 10, broke all records for speed in
"Bittersweet's the word," said former astronaut Gordon
Fullerton, who piloted Balls Eight on its last operational flight.
"It's been [the carrier for] a lot of different projects in the
years I've been here. Very satisfying to be able to support them,
but to realize that there aren't anymore is sad."
Soon, Balls Eight will go west, where every drop is a clean
separation and every test a raging success. The aircraft will make
just one more flight -- to its final resting place, which has yet
to be determined.