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NASA Facts Flight Research What is Flight Research

NASA Facts Flight Research What is Flight Research

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Published by Bob Andrepont

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Published by: Bob Andrepont on Jun 21, 2011
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National Aeronautics andSpace Administration
Dryden Flight Research Center
P.O. Box 273Edwards, California 93523AC 805-258-3449FAX 805-258-3566
NASA Facts
Flight Research
What Is “Flight Research?”
n 1901, Wilbur Wrightargued that to really learnabout flight, one had to“mount a machine and becomeacquainted with its tricks byactual trial.” That argument stillholds true today in the uniquediscipline of flight research, thespecialty of NASA’s DrydenFlight Research Center,Edwards, Calif. In flight re-search, new aeronautical con-cepts and new aircraft designsare flown and tested usingactual aircraft. In other words,flight research is that pointwhere the rubber meets theroad, where the aircraft, humanand real-life flight conditions
First flight of a piloted aircraft, Dec. 17, 1903, withOrville Wright at the controls.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress 
come together for the first time. It providestechnology with a moment of truth, wheretheory and reality come face to face; where itsparticipants “separate the real from the imag-ined,” as Hugh L. Dryden, former NASADeputy Administrator and NASA Dryden’snamesake, once said.
he unknown is inherently unpre-dictable. Wind tunnels, simulators andcomputers can only model what isknown. That became clear by the mid-1940s asengineers began to probe the technologicalchallenges of piloted, supersonic flight. Datafrom transonic wind tunnels was inconclusive,and the practice of near-supersonic dives inproduction aircraft was too dangerous. It be-came apparent that to push the boundaries of knowledge, to see what lay beyond the currentFS-1997-07-035-DFRC
Origins of Flight Research
frontier, someone actually had to go there. Itwas clearly the time for specially built, experi-mental airplanes.The National Advisory Committee forAeronautics (NACA), the prime United Statesgovernment agency responsible for aeronauticalresearch, began work with the armed services todevelop the first research airplanes capable of supersonic flight. By early 1945 the world’sfirst experimental airplanes were under devel-opment: the rocket-powered XS-1 (later desig-
nated X-1), built under Army sponsorship byBell Aircraft, and the turbojet-poweredD-558-1 constructed by Douglas Aircraft underNavy patronage. The XS-1 broke the soundbarrier on Oct. 14, 1947, and a later version of the D-558-1 (the D-558-2) became to firstaircraft to fly faster than twice the speed of sound.The research techniques pioneeredduring those early programs were perhaps evenmore important than the airplanes’ achieve-ments. The XS-1s, for example, carried exten-sive quantities of NACA-supplied instrumenta-tion, which allowed engineers to collect com-prehensive data in the transonic region. Suchaeronautical information resulted in a total of 90 NACA reports about the X-1 family. Datafrom these reports provided the basis forsubsequent transonic and supersonic aircraftand helped lay the foundation for America’sconquest of space. Thus the XS-1 programhelped pioneer the process of discoverythrough flight research.
The Tools of Aeronautical Research
light research is one of the four basictools of aeronautical research. The otherthree —computational fluid dynamics(CFD), wind tunnels and ground-based flightsimulators — are used in cooperation withflight research to help engineers understand theperformance of the flight vehicle. Flight re-search represents the final step in any researchprogram though.Aerodynamic forces are predictedthrough computational fluid dynamics, or“analysis.” Simply put, it is the process of computing what a molecule of air does as itmoves from the nose to the tail of the aircraft;if done for enough molecules, it can forecastthe total flow patterns and forces around theaircraft.Wind tunnels provide a means to testaccurate scale models and full-sized aircraft,over some of the normal speed range encoun-tered in flight. These are carefully controlledtests, using a calibrated airstream rushing past amodel or an aircraft mounted in the tunnel.Accurate balances measure the forces, andcomputers translate those measurements of pounds of tension and compression into coeffi-cients of lift, drag and pitching moments. Liftis the aerodynamic force that supports anaircraft in flight, due to the airflow over thewings or body. Drag is the resistance a vehiclemoving through the air experiences, and pitch-ing moments are a result of aerodynamic forcesthat make the nose of an aircraft move eitherup or down.The simulator offers a third approach to
Computational fluid dynamics model of ascramjet engine and exhaust.
NASALangley photo L-91-16133 
NASA’s 30- by 60-foot wind tunnel.
NASALangley photo L-92-12858 
research. Driven by com-puters that calculate thebehavior of an aircraft andpresent it in a display, thesimulator provides a way to“fly” an aircraft before it isbuilt. The characteristics of the vehicle, determinedfrom drawings, analysisand model tests, are pro-grammed into the com-puter. As pilots and engi-neers fly the new design, itsgood and bad qualities arerevealed. The simulatoralso can be used to dupli-cate an existing aircraft’sflying qualities and topresent dangerous flightsituations in a safe environ-ment for crew training. Itcan refine an airplane design before finalproduction drawings are released. It also helpsto study the effects of minor or major changesin the aircraft’s components, powerplant orother systems.After research has been performedusing the other three tools, one step remains:flight of the vehicle itself. NASA researchpilots, who also are engineers, conduct a
Dryden’s X-33 Advanced Technology Demonstrator flightsimulator.
NASA photo EC97 44008-2 
meticulous program that gradually probes anaircraft’s envelope (capabilities), edgingtoward the speed, altitude and load limits thatwill define the final performance of an aircraftor concept. This full-scale research furnishesanswers that will verify, extend and perhapscorrect the inputs from analysis, wind-tunneltests and simulation. It is the final, essentialstep in the development process.
Experimental Research Aircraft
light research involves doing precisionmaneuvers in either a specially builtexperimental aircraft or an existingproduction airplane that has been modified.Research aircraft are the tools for explorationand discovery. Each is instrumented to acquiredata about the aircraft, its systems and even thesurrounding environment during researchflights. Originally, they often were called“flying laboratories.”Until the 1970s, experimental planes(designated “X”-planes for “experimental”)were the chief research tools simply becauseresearch at Dryden probed flight regimes thatwind tunnels, simulators and production air-craft could not approach. For example, beforethe XS-1 broke the “sound barrier” in 1947,there was no proof that the best availablesupersonic wind-tunnel data was reliable. Thevast amounts of data that the X-1s and otherearly research airplanes obtained were impor-tant for validating the new wind tunnels (par-ticularly the ventilated-throat transonic tunnels)under development at the time. One of thegreatest benefits was intangible; the confidencegained at the time by the achievement of safe,controllable supersonic flight.The X-15s of the 1950s and 1960shelped verify theories and wind-tunnel predic-tions concerning hypersonic flight (at speedsgreater than Mach 5). The X-15 programcollected data that contributed to more than750 research papers and reports. It had real-lifeapplications as well, like the practical, full-

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