The world was stunned when Francis Gary Powers was downed over the Former Soviet Union flying the Lockheed U-2 in 1960. In context, the U.S. has conducted more than 50,000 such ‘surveillance’ flights since WWII, using aircraft carrying national colors and designations (U.S. Air Force, Navy, etc.), flying ‘mostly’ in international airspace. The U-2 was an unmarked spy plane. Dangerous stuff. I can’t say more: this arena remains highly classified. The CIA, who commissioned the U-2 in 1955, and its brilliant designer Kelly Johnson at Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’ in Burbank, California, thought its ability to fly high would keep it safe. True, for a while. The Soviets knew it was there, from their radar. They bagged it with SAMs—surface-to-air missiles. While learning, they … [Read more...]

The Space Shuttle: Going, going . . .

Let us now mourn the end of an era: the Space Shuttle. With the 2011 Atlantis launch, it’s over. It was the E-ticket ride of a lifetime, atop millions of Newtons of main-engine thrust, including rocket energy from the two solid-state boosters that launched it. The experience was memorable and engaged hundreds of millions of earthbound mortals and a few lucky astronauts. This pilot was fortunate to see one small step in its history. “. . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . we have liftoff”—familiar words in my headset. I am about to fly the world’s biggest and costliest glider, the billion-dollar Space Shuttle—well, actually, the Shuttle Mission Simulator, or SMS—at NASA-Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center. The SMS, a core element in astronaut training, … [Read more...]