Plane of the Week #17: Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit

This week’s plane of the week is the Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

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The Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit, also known as the Stealth Bomber, is an American heavy strategic bomber, featuring low observable stealth technology designed for penetrating dense anti-aircraft defenses. It is a flying wing design with a crew of two. The bomber can deploy both conventional and thermonuclear weapons, such as eighty 500 lb-class Mk 82 JDAM GPS-guided bombs, or sixteen 2,400 lb B83 nuclear bombs. The B-2 is the only known stealth aircraft that can carry large air-to-surface standoff weapons.

AV-1 Spirit of America as it was first revealed to the public.
AV-1 Spirit of America as it was first revealed to the public.

The U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber is a key component of the nation’s long-range strike arsenal, and one of the most survivable aircraft in the world. Its unique capabilities, including its stealth characteristics, allow it to penetrate the most sophisticated enemy defenses and destroy heavily defended targets. The B-2 has demonstrated its capabilities in several combat scenarios, including Operation Allied Force in Kosovo; Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and most recently, in Libya, during Operation Odyssey Dawn.

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Development originally started under the “Advanced Technology Bomber” project during the Carter administration, and its expected performance was one of his reasons for the cancellation of the supersonic B-1A bomber. ATB continued during the Reagan administration, but worries about delays in its introduction led to the reinstatement of the B-1 program as well. Program costs rose throughout development. Designed and manufactured by Northrop Grumman, the cost of each aircraft averaged $737 million (in 1997 dollars).[3] Total procurement costs averaged $929 million per aircraft, which includes spare parts, equipment, retrofitting, and software support. The total program cost including development, engineering and testing, averaged $2.1 billion per aircraft in 1997. Ouch. Because of its enourmous costs, the project was controversial in the U.S. Congress and among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The winding-down of the Cold War in the late 80s dramatically reduced the need for the aircraft, which was designed with the intention of penetrating Soviet airspace and attacking high-value targets. During the late 1980s and 1990s, Congress slashed plans to purchase 132 bombers to 21. In 2008, a B-2 was destroyed in a crash shortly after takeoff, though the crew ejected safely. A total of 20 B-2s remain in service with the United States Air Force, which plans to operate the B-2 until 2058.

B-2 Spirit Bomber

The flying wing design helps to minimize the plane’s radar cross signature and provides a highly efficient flight envelope. However, its inherently unstable flight characteristics require a steadier hand than what a human can provide. Therefore, the B-2 uses a fly-by-wire flight control system to automatically collect environmental data, such as airspeed and attack angle, via pilot-static sensing plates and then adjust the aircraft’s flight surfaces accordingly to maintain control. The flight control system is so advanced that the pilot can toggle between three flight types: takeoff, landing, and “go-to-war” simply by flipping a switch. The computer will take care of the rest, selecting the appropriate avionics and equipment for the activity. The B-2 offers such a high level of flight and navigational automation that the two pilots can alternate duties during the mission with one monitoring the aircraft while the other cooks a meal, uses the onboard restroom, or even sleeps. The B-2 has a small kitchen, bathroom, and a cot.

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Twenty-one B-2 Spirits have been produced in the last 25 years, and not one plane has ever come under enemy fire during the 14,000 sorties covering 75,000 flying hours since. The only loss occurred in February of 2008, when the Spirit of Kansas crashed during takeoff. No other US aircraft has such an impressive safety record.

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Each  of the 21 B-2s were given a formal name and an ID code, such as AV-21 Spirit of Louisiana. All of them have “Spirit of” in the name. The name is painted on the outside of the landing gear doors. All but one of the 21 B-2s are still in operation. The Spirit of Kansas was destroyed in a crash upon takeoff. The Spirit of Washington was damaged in an engine fire but was repaired and is still in operation. There is a single mock-up in the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Next week: a missile so terrible it averaged 1.34 kills per missile.

Northrop B-2

Plane of the Week #17: Northrop-Grumman B-2 Spirit

Plane of the Week #16: Cessna 172 Skyhawk

This week’s plane of the week is the Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

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The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is a four-seat, single engine, high wing, fixed-wing aircraft made by the Cessna Aircraft Company. First flown in 1955, more Cessna 172s have been built than any other aircraft. As of 2015, Cessna has built more than 43,000 units.

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The Cessna 172 is based closely on the Cessna 170. The only major change was the conversion from taildragger landing gear to tricycle landing gear. Beyond that, it was pretty much the same. There were 19 variants, with the current one being the 172S. The changes ranged from adding a rear window and changing the shape of the tail to a new engine to landing gear shrouds. There was a diesel version built in 2014, which will be produced as the Skyhawk 172 JT-D in 2016.

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In 1955, you could buy a base-model Skyhawk for $8,995. Due to the price of inflation and the cost of the extra gizmos Cessna keeps adding, the price is now just under $400,000 for a brand new Skyhawk. $8,995 in 1955’s money is $79,106 in today’s money, so obviously a basic Skyhawk has improved immensely.

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Production of the Skyhawk and all other piston-powered Cessnas was stopped in 1986 with the Purchase of Cessna by General Dynamics. The company cited product liability as the cause. In 1992, Textron bought Cessna and, after the passing of the General Aviation Revitalization Act in 1994, resumed production of the Cessna 172, 182, and 208, all of which are still in production today.

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Other than its incredible popularity, amazing versatility, and ridiculously high production numbers, the Cessna 172 is a remarkably average plane. It doesn’t drop bombs or shoot bullets. It wasn’t sold in J.C. Penney’s. It can’t take telescopes to orbit or fly through enemy airspace undetected. It wasn’t the first or the weirdest or the fastest or the most expensive. It was just an everyday plane doing an everyday job. But that’s what makes it special. Not its incredible popularity, amazing versatility, or ridiculously high production numbers. It’s special because it’s just ordinary. A plane doesn’t have to be fancy to be the best.

Note: there was no “172O” model, perhaps because that would be easily confused with “1720”. There is no Cessna 1720, either, but no need to make people think there is, I suppose.

Official brochure: http://cessna.txtav.com/~/media/files/single-engine/skyhawk/skyhawkbrochure_new.ashx

Next week: Speaking of stealth…

Plane of the Week #16: Cessna 172 Skyhawk

Plane of the Week #15: Messerschmitt Bf 109

This week’s plane of the week is the Messerschmitt Bf 109.

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The Messerschmitt Bf 109, commonly called the Me 109 (most often by Allied aircrew and even amongst the German aces themselves, even though this was not the official German designation), is a German World War II fighter aircraft designed by Willy Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser during the early to mid-1930s. The “Bf 109” designation was issued by the German ministry of aviation and represents the developing company Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (at which the engineer Messerschmitt led the development of the plane, who later purchased the factory) and a rather arbitrary figure. It was one of the first truly modern fighters of the era, including such features as all-metal monocoque construction, a closed canopy, and retractable landing gear. It was powered by a liquid-cooled, inverted-V12 aero engine. I didn’t know any aircraft had V-engines, but I guess they do.

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In 1934, the German Ministry of Aviation (Reichsluftfahrtministerium!) issued specifications for a new fighter monoplane to replace the Heinkel He 51 and Arado 68 biplanes. It was to be equipped with at least two MG-17 7.9 millimeter machine guns, and to have the capability of utilizing the new 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled, V-engines under development by Junkers and Daimler-Benz. The request was sent to Focke-Wulf, Arado, Heinkel and BFW. Focke-Wulf submitted the Fw 159V1, Arado the Ar 80V1 and Heinkel the He 112. The Bf 109 was the winner in the trials, exceeding its nearest rival, the Heinkel He 112, by 17 mph. Only the He 112 provided any other serious competition besides the Bf 109 in the trials and ten preproduction prototypes were ordered for the Heinkel He 112 and Bf 109.

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The Messerschmitt Bf 109 is one of the few fighters ever to be developed from a light-plane design. Willy Messerschmitt’s angular little fighter was built in greater numbers than any other fighter plane, the total reaching 33,000. It also shot down more Allied planes than any other aircraft in World War Two, although, that could be just because there were so many of them. Over the years, more than 100 variants of the basic design were created, including modifications introduced on Spanish and Czech production lines after the war. Larger and larger engines were installed, along with hundreds of pounds of additional equipment. Examples from the final German operational version, the Bf 109K series, had a 2,000-horsepower engine and a top speed of 450 miles per hour, which is pretty good for a design from 1934.

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By the time of the Battle of Britain, the Bf 109 had one major advantage over its rivals. Its engine had a fuel injection system that allowed a constant fuel flow even in conditions of negative-g. This meant that a pilot could dive away at a much faster pace than his opponents could do and escape trouble. However, it also had one major disadvantage. The 109 had a limited range and it could not spend too much time over Britain protecting bombers that carried more fuel than they did. As such, their fighting time was limited. Whereas Spitfires and Hurricanes could land and re-fuel, such an option was not open to a 109. Also, 109 pilots who had to eject were captured and held prisoner for the rest of the war, while Spitfire and Hurricane pilots could be back in the air in a day or two. Of course, that applied to the pilots of all Axis pilots over Britain, not just pilots of the Bf 109.

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Interestingly, this was one of the first Axis aircraft to have fully retractable landing gear.

Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 109

Next week: the most popular airplane in the world.

Plane of the Week #15: Messerschmitt Bf 109

Plane of the Week #14: Antonov An-225 Mriya

This week’s plane of the week is the Antonov An-225 Mriya.

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The Antonov An-225 Mriya (Ukrainian: Антонов Ан-225 Мрія), NATO reporting name: “Cossack”, (because they are boring)) is a strategic airlift cargo aircraft that was designed by the Soviet Union’s Antonov Design Bureau in the 1980s. The An-225’s name, Mriya (Мрiя) means “Dream” or “Inspiration” in Ukrainian. It is powered by six turbofan engines and is the longest and heaviest airplane ever built with a maximum takeoff weight of 640 tons. It also has the largest wingspan of any aircraft in operational service. It’s wing span is shorter than that of the Spruce Goose, but that only flew once, while the An-225 flies all the time. The tail wing span is longer than the entire wingspan of a Boeing 737. The single example built has the Ukrainian civil registration UR-82060. A second airframe was partially built; its completion was halted because of lack of funding and interest.

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Initially, the main task of the An-225 was transportation of various parts of Energiya carrier-rocket and Buran space ship, which had been manufactured at the enterprises of central regions of the USSR, and final assembly should have been performed at Baikonour. Projected length of some of them reached 60 meters and diameter – 8 meters. Range of transportation was 1500-2500 km. Besides, depending to mission, performed on the orbit, Buran could only land in certain places. From those airports it was necessary to deliver it again to Baikonour, to the place of previous launch. Mriya with Buran on its external store performed 14 flights with total duration of 28 hours and 27 minutes. They had been performed from the airfields located in various climatic zones of the USSR: in Gostomel, Akhtoubinsk, Baikonour, Borispol, Vnukovo, Yelizovo, Ramenskoye, Chkalovskaya, Khabarovsk. However, after collapse of the USSR, financing of Energiya-Buran programme was terminated and the project stopped with only one Buran launched. In 2000, modernization of the An-225 was started. The aim was use of the airplane for transportation of commercial cargoes. The decision had been taken due to many applications sent to Antonov Airlines for transportation of cargoes heavier than the AN-124-100 Ruslan’s payload. Than Mriya passed certification tests and on May 23, 2001, Aviation Register of Interstate Aviation Committee and Ukraviatrans issued type certificates to the An-225. Since that till present, the airplane has been performing commercial transportations in the fleet of Antonov Airlines, transport subdivision of ANTONOV Company.

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The cargo compartment is pressurized to extend the aircraft’s transport capabilities. The airborne cargo handling equipment and also the design of the forward cargo door with a ramp ensure the quick and easy loading/unloading operations, although it takes ten minutes to raise or lower the ramp. The aircraft is capable to transport the unique cargo outside the fuselage when dimensions are larger than that of the cargo hold, like Buran. There is an appropriate load security system to attach this cargo to the fuselage.

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Mriya has made or broken 240 world records including transportation of the heaviest cargo with mass of 253 tons, the heaviest single piece of cargo weighing 1,867 tons, as well as the longest cargo having length of 421 meters. But the An-225 is mainly used for humanitarian missions. For example, in October, 2009 the An-225 performed several flights on delivery generators to Samoa. They were necessary for renewal of work of Satala electric station damaged by a tsunami. Only the huge cargo hold of the An-225 could accommodate ten 12-tons generators at once. It also delivered machinery to Japan in 2011 following the nuclear disaster at the Fukashima power plant.

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The single most amazing thing about this aircraft is its sheer size. It has a wingspan of 88.4 meters, a length of 84 meters, and a height of 18.1 meters, and a tail wing span of 32 meters, which is greater than the full wingspan of a Boeing 737. (31.09 m) It weighs 628,317 pounds empty and has a maximum takeoff weight of 1,410,958 pounds. It has 32 landing gear, 16 of which are steerable, and yet fully loaded it can sink into the tarmac on hot days. It produces so much thrust from its six engines and stirs up the air so much when it takes off that planes behind it need to wait 15 minutes for the air to settle enough for them to take off. (This forces it to land at smaller airports where a 15 minute delay will not wreak as much havoc on people’s schedules.)

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The best parts about the An-225 are that there is only only one(though like I said, a second was partially built), and that it flies all over the world, so you may actually have a chance to see it at a medium-sized airport. It’s been to Minneapolis-Saint Paul to pick up air conditioning equipment, and to New York, where the singer Bono from U2 said it was bigger than a rock star’s ego, and many places in between and beyond.

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Just imagine if The United States copied this plane and made a weaponized version of it, like the AC-130. Or worse, if Russia weaponized theirs. Of course, it wouldn’t be very maneuverable, but with all that lifting capacity, you could put a couple tons of armor in it and it wouldn’t break a sweat.

Of course, it’s cool enough as it is, so why mess with perfection?

Takeoff: (from Minneapolis!) https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=T8a1A–C1T0

Landing: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cerAdT0qT2A

An hour long movie: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eNxTq9RrOs0

A shorter, official movie, I believe from TV: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4yqnDOxlNEk

Next week: if ever there were a famous Nazi fighter…

Plane of the Week #14: Antonov An-225 Mriya