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Air Force High-Altitude Jet Begins a New Life in NCAR's Research Fleet

Photo of the WB-57F
The broad-winged WB-57 makes its first landing at Jeffco. (Photos by Bob Bumpas.)

Atmospheric chemists, dynamicists, and meteorologists at NCAR and at UCAR member universities will be able to soar to new heights now that the WB-57F fan jet has joined the Atmospheric Technology Division's Research Aviation Facility (RAF). The twin jet will round out the fleet owned by NSF and operated by NCAR. NOAA's Aeronomy Laboratory has also contributed significant support to the development of this unique research platform for studying the upper troposphere and stratosphere.

Representing a swords-into-plowshares conversion following the end of the cold war, the former Air Force reconnaissance plane arrived at its new Jeffco home on 21 October, flown by chief of operations Jim Ragni. His wife, RAF mission scientist Cindy Twohy, was also on board. A severe windstorm struck the WB-57's former base in Tucson, Arizona, just before the plane's original delivery date of 13 October, necessitating a reschedule.

During the next eight months, the WB-57F will be refitted with instruments specifically designed to probe the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere. This will mark the first time the NSF-sponsored research community has routine access to an aircraft that can fly from sea level to an altitude of 20 kilometers. Early missions proposed for the aircraft include local, regional, and global-scale experiments designed to study such topics as ozone depletion, water-vapor and air- pollution transport in and out of the stratosphere, and interactions between clouds and the earth's climate.

Click here for photo of Cindy Twohy disembarking after the Tucson-to-Broomfield trip.

"The biggest advantage of the WB-57F," explains Cindy, "is that it can perform experiments between 12 and 18 kilometers--a region that is not adequately covered by other research aircraft. There are lots of interesting atmospheric chemistry and climate questions that haven't been answered because scientists haven't had a platform that could fly long experiments at these altitudes with a mission specialist and heavy equipment on board." Examples of such research questions:

  • Originally built as a high-altitude espionage aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, the WB- 57F was designed to carry into the stratosphere photo-reconnaissance and nuclear- sampling payloads too large for the well-known but smaller U-2 spy plane. The new NCAR arrival was retired from the Air Force and converted into a scientific research platform to meet NASA specifications. It provided a top-of-the- atmosphere view of the earth for remote-sensing instrument development and testing.

    While flying the aircraft, the crew must wear pressure suits when mission requirements dictate profiles above 15 kilometers; oxygen masks are needed at lower altitudes. The aircraft is equipped with parachutes and rocket-powered ejection seats for both crew members. Flights can be up to seven hours, in contrast to the NSF's recently retired Sabreliner jet, which allowed for a mission duration of only three hours.

    The WB-57F presents an unusual appearance to the observer. At a gross weight of 28,600 kilograms, it is in the same weight class as many business jets, but the twin- engine jet has a comparatively broad wing span of 37.7 meters--wider than most airport runways and slightly longer than the distance covered by the first flight of the Wright brothers.
    --Joan Vandiver Frisch, Media Relations


    Click here for photo of Jim Ragni.

    NCAR's latest research aircraft will be in the capable hands of Jim Ragni, an Air Force veteran with some 8,000 hours of flight time. Luckily for NCAR, Jim flew a WB-57F (then designated the RB-57F) on a variety of air-force reconnaissance missions worldwide. Now, 21 years later, Jim and a NASA pilot based in Houston are the only pilots currently flying the two remaining WB-57Fs out of the original 21 built. Jim's experience includes 100 combat missions over North Vietnam in the F4 Phantom jet, for which he earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and eleven Air Medals. With a B.S. in economics and a master's degree in international relations, Jim also served with the State Department as the U.S. air attache in Nigeria from 1973 to 1975, logging some time in the Soviet-built MIG with the Nigerian air force.

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    Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
    Last revised: Wed Mar 29 12:20:53 MST 2000