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NASA’s White Charger To The Rescue

January 18, 2011

Employees at Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., must have been surprised last November to see a late-model Dodge Charger chasing a NASA aircraft down the runway. Looking closer, they saw that the white sedan with blue trim was clearly marked as a NASA vehicle equipped with emergency light bar affixed to the roof and NASA logos all around.

The aircraft is a NASA ER-2, a civilian version of the Air Force’s high-altitude U-2S. Based at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, the two ER-2s have flown for the agency since the 1980s, conducting Earth science research.

Landing an ER-2 can be tricky. Its wings give the aircraft glider-like qualities and the aircraft is sensitive to crosswinds. Both the ascent and descent rates are fast and steep. Moreover, even normal operations in the ER-2 are difficult for the pilot encased in a pressure suit.

This is where the white Charger comes in. The 2010-model car, driven by another experienced ER-2 pilot called a mobile pilot, literally “charges” down the runway in high-speed chase of the ER-2. Communicating with the aircraft pilot, the mobile pilot calls out the distance in feet from the landing gear to the runway in an effort to help the pilot make a smooth landing.

“The Air Force has used chase vehicles for a number of years,” said former Air Force U-2 pilot and current Dryden research pilot Nils Larsen. “NASA Dryden only hires experienced U-2 pilots (to fly the ER-2), but the decision was made to follow the military lead in this safety measure.”

The Charger allows the mobile pilot to support the ER-2 pilot during all ground operations. His timely calls to the ER-2 pilot can make the difference in avoiding a mishap ““ whether it is from a ground taxi obstacle, hung pogo (auxiliary wheels) on takeoff, excessive crosswinds, engine malfunction or hydraulic failure.

“A chase vehicle has been historically proven to make the difference between a mishap and no mishap,” said NASA ER-2 lead pilot Tim Williams.

NASA Dryden’s Airborne Science program has leased the government-owned Charger for five years. The Charger has a standard police package ““ tires, engine and spotlights ““ while Dryden technicians added a light bar and aircraft radios.

“The Charger has added an extra value of safety when conducting our ER-2 flight operations,” added Robert Navarro, NASA Dryden’s ER-2 project manager.

Beth Hagenauer, public affairs, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

Image 1: NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft is guided to a safe and smooth landing by voice commands radioed from an ER-2 mobile pilot driving a NASA Dodge Charger chase vehicle. The aircraft and its chase car are based at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. (NASA Photo / Tony Landis)

Image 2: As one of NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude science aircraft descends toward the runway, mobile pilot Jan Nystrom accelerates NASA’s Dodge Charger safety chase vehicle after it. The mobile pilot follows the aircraft to landing, calling out the proximity to the ground from wheels to runway to the aircraft pilot. (NASA Photo / Tony Landis)

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