By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: One of the reasons we like flying our Cheetah out of Ellington Field is the variety of aircraft we see on a regular basis. Recently there has been a lot of clamoring about the contrails left by a NASA high altitude test plane. Numbers 926 and 928, the 49-year-old WB-57F Canberras, are operated by NASA for experiments and high altitude astronaut training. They are the only two B-57s still flying today, and both are based at Johnson Space Center facilities at Ellington. We often see them in NASA’s hangar, on the ramp, or doing takeoff and landing practice at the field. I don’t know what experiments they were performing last week, however, I do know they are up there all the time. The vast amount of moisture left in the air by Tropical Storm Hermine could account for the more noticeable contrails.
NASA also operates the ER-2, another high altitude aircraft. The ER-2 has been deployed from Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California to Ellington Field when requested by NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, to monitor, map and photograph the oil spill in the Gulf.
The ER-2 is a variant of the famous U-2 spy plane, one of which was piloted by Francis Gary Powers who was shot down over Russia in 1960. Powers was later returned to the U.S. in exchange for a Russian spy we arrested.
Another of the flying tubes we see on a regular basis is a Boeing 727 used for zero-gravity training. When this airplane is pitched nose up at a 45-degree angle above the horizon followed by a steady push over to a nose down position in a parabolic arc with just the right measure of force, temporary weightlessness ensues and its occupants “float” for up to 25 seconds at a time. Nausea often being the result, these planes are sometimes called the “Vomit Comet.” A previous aircraft used in this role, a Boeing KC-135, NASA number 930 now sits silently on a pedestal like a sentry at the entrance to Ellington after it performed more than 58,000 of these arcs.
Linda: The astronauts have T-38s, training jets, and I’d guess there are about 20 or so kept at Ellington. The fast jets fly 1,500 feet above the ground in a standard traffic pattern altitude when flying in to Ellington. At most airports light airplanes (the ones with propellers) would be flying a traffic pattern of 1,000 feet, but unique to Ellington, they enter the pattern at 600 feet. That has made for some fun departures when I’ve taken off with Texas Air National Guard’s F-16s or the NASA T-38s crossing overhead. There is never a dull moment at Ellington, a well-managed airport inhabited by real aviation enthusiasts who promote it well.
Again this year Bill Roach, the top dog at Wings Over Houston, donated four tickets to the Liberty-Dayton Chamber for the annual auction. The Thunderbirds are back this year, along with Sean D. Tucker, Debby Rihn-Harvey, and a host of other great airshow performers. If you’ve never been to the show, this is your year. You can get up close to some incredible machines, many of historical significance. If you have been before, you know what a great show it is – and you don’t want to miss it: October 23-24. www.WingsOverHouston.com.