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“The Righteous Stuff” – Chapter 18

November 6, 2009

The Righteous Stuff

by Jeffrey D. Waggoner

based on characters and situations in the

“Domination of the Draka” novels written by S.M. Stirling

 

CHAPTER 18

Excerpt from The X-Planes: America’s Dark Guardians, by Elliott Miller

San Diego University Press, 1968

The XB-60 was a technology without a mission; it was conceived during the Eurasian War, but not ready for testing until early in 1952. By then the unmanned jet-powered bomb was so highly developed that the US Government phased out most plans for high-speed manned bomber runs into Draka territory. “Cruiser bombs” could travel at over Mach 1 long enough, and low enough, to elude the shoreline electrodetection apparatus, and they were cheap enough that saturation bombing was considered practical. Granted, Air Force General Curtis LeMay lobbied for a large manned supersonic bomber force, but he was overruled by the Joint Chiefs, the President and the Senate. (It is widely thought that his run as an America First Party Presidential candidate in 1956 was a direct result of his frustration with his superiors over the Strategic Bomber Command issue.)

By the time the mission changes were made, development of the Mach 3 bomber was well advanced. All the wind tunnel work was complete and the prototypes were under construction in Oakland, California. The Joint Chiefs decided to complete the two test articles and use them for testing of materials and unique wing structure in the high supersonic realm.

It is unknown how such a secret aircraft could have become known to so many, even before a single plane had been built. Rumors flew up and down the West Coast, and were even repeated in Aviation Week before their offices were reportedly visited by the OSS. Finally, the Pacific Aircraft test group at Rodriguez Dry Lake was able to persuade the Air Force to release one of the planes for use as a carrier for the hypersonic planes.

The plane was the largest supersonic manned aircraft built until 1977; it was over 200 feet from nose to tail, with a wingspan of 115 feet when the wingtips were fully extended. It was originally powered by six Curtiss and Whitney turbojets of 32,000 pounds of thrust each. The nose was over thirty feet above the ground when at rest. The engines were upgraded on tail number 77542, the second prototype. It received structural strengthening on the top of the delta wing and a 45-foot mount for the X-14. The improved Curtiss/Whitney RX-37K engines were capable of 38,000 pounds of thrust at 104 per cent power, with afterburner. Weighing just over 200 tons fully fueled, the plane had to lift the weight of the 40-ton X-14 as well. Unloaded it could fly over 2,000 miles an hour at over 70,000 feet.

Unique to the XB-60 were articulated wingtips, which could drop as far as 65 degrees for flying at Mach 3. The aircraft was among the first to use “compression lift,” in which some lift was generated by the shock wave created by the plane in supersonic flight. (A similar effect was later used in the generation of “shockrider” hypersonic aircraft).

Unfortunately, the size of the aircraft generated tremendous stress on the airframe, and the wafer-thin stainless steel and titanium honeycomb structure deteriorated rapidly. 77541 was retired in June of 1956 after only 98 test flights. 77542 was used in the X-14 program until it was destroyed in August of 1955.

 

USAF EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT TEST FACILITY

RODRIGUEZ DRY LAKE

CORUM, CALIFORNIA

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

APRIL, 1953

 

“Piece of shit,” muttered Bob Hoover under his breath. “Come on, goddamn it, fly, you mother.” He was hunched over the little sidestick controller in the XB-60 in an awkward posture, as if he could pull the plane from the ground by body language alone. He hated the –60, more than he ever hated anything. He was a fighter pilot, for gossake, not some delivery boy. And this was the ultimate delivery wagon, Two hundred feet long, painted gleaming white, roaring like a sonofabitch as it tried to gain enough lift to take off. Hoover was convinced this plane would kill him, not because he was stupid–he was never stupid–but because it was a horrible, demonic piece-of-shit hardware.

The plane shuddered as it ran over a ripple on the lake bed. Such imperfections on the dry lake were few and far between, but this plane was so ungainly that driving it over a cockroach would probably knock it over. It had been rolling on full afterburner for almost a mile, and still hadn’t reached takeoff speed.

“Three hundred. Steady on, there, Bob, and you’ll have her off the deck in no time,” reported Northfield, much more cheerfully than Hoover liked. Like he could do anything else. Keep her nose on the white line, mash the throttles to the wall, and pray. That’s what this one was about.

“Three twenty. Three twenty-five…you could give it a try now, you know.” Northfield was the right-seater for this trip, but had never flown the beast. Shut up, Al, thought Hoover. I know what I’m doing.

“Give me a minute. She doesn’t feel like she’s pullin’ away yet.” Bob Hoover was said to have a sixth sense about planes, He could feel them, without looking at a single gauge. He was almost never wrong, whether he was estimating Gs on a turn or rate of descent. He was the most intuitive pilot ever to show up at Rodriguez, and still knew the technical stuff cold as well.

Finally he sighed, relaxed a bit, and leaned back. He tapped the controller lightly with his left index finger, and the delta-winged giant leaped into the air. Right where I knew it would be.

“Flight says 6,500 feet of runway. And I read three-forty on the airspeed.” Northfield wrote the numbers on the notepad strapped to his thigh. “Nice job, Bob.”

“She still wallows like a damn cow,” Hoover grunted. “The rate of climb stinks, and I feel her starting to slip again. Let’s drop the wingtips.” The XB-60 had a tendency to sideslip at subsonic speeds, and again at over Mach 2. No one knew why. Current engineering theory was that the delta wing and engine configuration below it was creating some sort of turbulence. She always slipped to the left, though, and that made it all the more confusing. Dropping the 20-foot articulated wingtips seemed to help, a little, as well as providing more lift. He would have taken off with the wingtips down, but they would have dragged in the lake bed…

“Still climbing. Heading of 22 degrees, rate of climb just over 700 feet per minute,” Northfield called out, to verify the telemetry the computer was sending to the base. At this rate it would take over an hour to climb to the bomber’s operational altitude. They had fuel for maybe two hours, a little more if subsonic. “Four hundred.”

The plane looked like an equilateral triangle with a thin tube on the front end. The huge delta wing, over a hundred feet in span, with the six huge jet engines enclosed in two boxy enclosures formed the main fuselage of the aircraft. The long, thin neck and its two small trapezoidal canards looked like an afterthought. The nose actually drooped, and would be raised in a few minutes to cruise mode. Right now it was addingslightly  to the lift the plane needed to climb.
“Gear up. We have a green gear up light. Tips at fifteen degrees.” The plane made so much noise, and was so long, that the crew had no idea if the gear was up or down. It handled so slowly, with so much time lag, that the drag caused by the extended gear was impossible to detect. “Chase plane verifies gear up.”

The plane was still climbing, but the slideslip continued to force the plane to the left. Hoover fought to control it, nudging with the slightest movements of the sidestick. He preferred the old-style stick used in the fighter planes he was trained in. The feedback was almost undetectable with this controller, and that could spell disaster. Hoover knew he was the best choice for pilot for this flight, with his ability to fly by the seat of his pants in the largest of aircraft. He just didn’t have to like it.

“I’m trying to keep from overcontrolling this pig, and it really needs the feedback loop redone. I can barely feel it at all. Tell those guys this just will not work once we put the Demon on it.” Hoover kept looking at the artificial horizon indicator, since the nose was so long his view of the real horizon was completely obstructed.

“The Demon?” Northfield raised an eyebrow.

“It needs a name. It looks like the meanest flyin’ thing ever, and is supposed to fly like a bat outa hell. Only problem’s the dummy is painted white…I hope they paint the real thing black.”

“They’ll have some good reason to paint it orange, or purple, or something.” Northfield was trying to see over the long, pointed nose. Even in drooped position it was hard to see the horizon. “Demon is a pretty good name for that one. Funny nobody’s used it before.”

Hoover snorted. “Nothin’ was that mean before. Five-fifty, isn’t it? Let’s get the nose up a little.” He flipped the toggle on the panel. A simple “UP” and “DOWN” were painted there. The nose only had two positions, and only one speed as the hydraulics struggled against the airstream outside.

“Rate of climb is increasing. She’s running a bit more efficient. I can’t wait to see how it’ll handle with the…Demon on top.” He flipped the toggle off as the nose came all the way up. That made it harder to see. “You know, this would really be a horrible bomber. You can’t see anything. Without the chase planes, we’d be completely lost!”

“When you pack nukes, nobody argues much about where you drop them. The way this thing handles, I’d just as soon drop ‘em in Oakland.” Curtiss-Convair had a huge factory complex outside of the city, and both XB-60s were built in Hangar 13–not a good sign, if you asked the pilots. “Altitude?”

“Twenty-eight thousand. Airspeed six-ten. Should be getting bumpy soon.”

The big bomber did start to shake about then, and continued to wobble a bit until it passed Mach one. Then it smoothed out, and Hoover finally relaxed somewhat. “Check with the chase planes and get me a heading. I suppose we should try to maneuver this witch sometime.”

As the aircraft gained altitude and speed, both pilots felt more at ease. The ride was better, even though the vibration from the six engines could be felt over a hundred feet away in the cabin. The turns Hoover executed were smooth and accurate, and he began to feel as if he was flying a real, responsive aircraft again.

“Time for the speed run,” Hoover told his copilot. “Let’s open her up and see what this beast can do.”

Slowly he pushed the throttles forward, not to the afterburner position, but to full normal throttle. The plane seemed to ignore him at first. Slowly, both men began to feel acceleration. It was somewhat like riding in a large autosteamer. They were pressed back into the ejection seats, but not slammed into them they way a fighter, or even a normal bomber would.

Northfield called off Mach numbers every thirty seconds or so, and made his written notations. At Mach 2.4 Hoover called for the full extension of the wingtips. Again, no real change in motion could be detected by either man. The wingtips slowly extended to a downward angle of 65 degrees. Twenty feet of wingtip on either side of the plane–forty per cent of the wing span–was now hinged downward. The plane was moving faster now, appreciably so, from the Mach meter notations Northfield was making.

Northfield looked thoughtful. “Looks like the guys from Convair were right. This baby does fly better at maximum speed. The lift effect really does work!”

“Just so I can still handle her with this stupid stick,” grumbled Hoover. “I still hate this thing. I hope they fix the feedback loop, or whoever has to fly the stack’ll be in big trouble.”

“Ridley always said that’s been the biggest problem he’s had to handle, no matter what he’s been flyin’,” replied the copilot. “He thinks it’s the computers–he thinks we just don’t have the computer power to really make this feedback thing work.”

“I don’t doubt it. Everything we’ve been doin’ for the last five years has been hurry-up, hurry-up. We always get the right hardware one plane behind. Mach number?”

“Two point nine. Throttles at a hundred per cent.”

“Crap. She’s supposed to make Mach three at full normal.”

“The chase planes let us go. They can’t keep up. They’ll pick us up in Utah.”

Hoover looked over at Northfield. “Full afterburner?”

“OK. I’ll watch the meters.”

Hoover pushed the throttles to full afterburner, theoretically 110 per cent of full power. The plane kicked ahead and the vibration they felt through the seats changed.

“There you go, Bob. Mach three point zero. But you know, we’re eatin’ fuel like a sonofabitch.”

“Good thing this plane don’t have to get to Africa…she’d never make it. I’m not crazy about flyin’ her over the Gulf, though, to drop the Demon.”

Northfield laughed. “The Demon’ll never make orbit, Bob. Too heavy, by probably fifteen per cent, easy. Unless they come up with some kind of miracle airframe, or somethin’.”

“You never flew the X-6, did you? I swear that ’chine was bewitched. Too hot for anybody to fly but Ridley…and that’s sayin’ a whole lot. Most guys wouldn’t even try to fly her. Ridley almost killed himself every time, smackin’ his head on the canopy…anyhow, the experimental skin on that thing was damn spooky. All silvery, sorta smooth. Warm, not cold, like metal. Dornberger never did tell us what it was made of. I’m backin’ her down, now. Let the chasers catch up.”

The pilots brought the airspeed to just under Mach 1 for the one-eighty that would take them back to the dry lake. The plane turned smoothly with the wingtips back at 25 degrees. Hoover pushed it back up to Mach 1.8 and ran some maneuvering tests on the way back to Corum. Finally, he lined the plane up with the runway with the help of the chase planes. He still couldn’t see much with the long nose in the way.

“Bob–Clint in Chase One says we don’t have the gear down.” Northfield was studying the lights on the panel.

“I put ‘em down. Cycle ‘em again.”

Northfield flipped switches. “Main gear are still up. Nose gear is still up. Aux gear down switch has no effect. Wait one–info from Flight.” He was all business now, speaking in the clipped pilotese that only seemed to show up in times of real trouble. “Flight thinks it’s a circuit breaker. I’ll go look. Get on channel six so the chase planes can turn you. We’ll make another pass.” He climbed between the seats, musing that even in a two-hundred-foot aircraft, there was no room in the cabin.

Past the cabin there was a narrow passageway. The passageway ran about forty feet back down the fuselage, with cables and pipes running under the floor grid. There was supposed to have been a flight engineer station here, but since the plane was retasked and not longer considered a real bomber, the panels were never installed. A navigator station was half-completed just past the bulkhead, which struck Northfield as a stupid place to put the only guy who knew where they were going, but he knew he was just a pilot, and nobody ever asked pilots anything when planes were designed. Well, Ridley, sure, everybody talked to Ridley. All the engineers talked to him about everything. They almost considered him one of them. Al Northfield wondered if he would ever get the same kind of attention. After all, he had a damn engineering degree too. It wasn’t as if he was trained in architecture, or something like that…

He came to the electrical breaker panels. He had no idea why they were here, either. He opened the third box and hunted for breaker 347. Sure enough, it was popped open. He flipped it full open, then closed, and watched it for a minute. It didn’t move. He made his way back to the cockpit.

Hoover barely glanced back at him. “Chase planes say nothin’. Nothin’ at all. And we got about eighty thousand pounds of fuel left. We’d make a hell of an explosion, comin’ in on our belly. Wait–come here. Talk to Flight.”

Northfield wrapped himself halfway around the seat, shoved his helmet on his head so he could hear through the earphones. He frowned. “Huh? Are you guys serious? With what? We don’t even have a tool kit on this plane!”

“What do they want, kid?” Hoover asked, as he make yet another left bank to bring the plane around.

“Aw, crap. Lemme see what I got here.” Northfield dragged his flight case out from behind his seat, and started rummaging around. “Flight? Nothin’ Nothin’ at all.”

Northfield turned to Hoover. “They want me to short circuit the gear wiring, back in the junction box aft of the breaker panels. Trouble is, no one thought to give us any tools, any wire, anything!”

Hoover laughed. It was a strange sound, Northfield thought, for this particular spot they were in. “Wire. All you need is a li’l bita wire?”

“Paper clip!” Northfield pulled out a wad of papers, grabbed an extra-large paper clip off it. He tore the helmet off, pitched it onto the seat, and dove through the hatch.

Of course, the panel he needed to open was almost–but not quite–impossible to get to without tools. He finally bent the clip into a U shape, and squeezed it into the gap. The space was so small he had to take off his gloves. He wrapped the clip in a piece of paper, all he had with him. Now all I need is to be electrocuted, he thought. Three-cent paper clip, half-billion dollar airplane. Right. He jammed it into the spot the flight director had told him to. He was rewarded with a large blue spark. He almost dropped the clip as the shock bit him in the hand. He felt no rumble, and of course could hear nothing but the roar of the engines. The main gear were still about seventy-five feet behind him, and thirty feet below, in the main fuselage. He held the clip in place for a count of sixty, then climbed back to the cockpit.

“They’re down! Chase One says gear down! I don’t know if they’re locked, but we’re goin’ in! Strap in, boy! Oh…and thanks!” It was the most animated Northfield had ever heard Hoover, who had that good-ole-boy drawl down pat, just like Ridley. Of course, he was a Tennessee boy. If only I was from “Ohiah,” south of Co-lumbus, thought Northfield. Then I would sound like the guys with that righteous stuff.

“Tell Clint Baker to stay the hell away!” Hoover was suddenly angry. “He’s too close! We don’t know what kind of turbulence this thing creates!”

Northfield passed on the information, and the chase plane slowly backed off. Northfield apologized for the pilot. “He was just watching the gear, you know.”

“I know. But this wing isn’t like anything else I’ve ever flown, and he could get pulled right into it! He needs to stay away!”

As the bomber touched down, Hoover let out a sigh of relief. The gear were locked down fine, and the drogue chutes deployed on time. The bomber still took over ten thousand feet of runway to stop, but it was smooth as could be. Hoover still grumbled about the brakes. “Gotta be careful, boy, with them brakes. Gotta touch ’em real light, take ’em real easy.”

Yeah, thought Northfield. Touch ‘em real light, take ’em real easy. Piece of cake, Bob.

 

Jack Ridley watched the fire trucks pull up to the bomber, a half-mile away on the glaring white runway. “You know, Walter, we may just be back on schedule after all.”

Dornberger was visibly agitated. “No, it is too fast, too fast! We cannot check out each aircraft enough! And this should prove it to you! We almost lost the plane and the crew, and years of work! Five hundred million dollars in design and construction! This pace is impossible, with the few people we have to check everything over!”

Stoddard looked at the other two men. “He may be right, Jack. We don’t know if that problem was a design flaw, a manufacturing defect, or…”

“I know, I know, sabotage.” Ridley waved his hand, as if waving off the idea. “You see saboteurs behind every bush, Nate. I know it’s what you do, but this could be just a lazy technician in Oakland, you know. And,” turning to Dornberger, “I still think we’re on schedule.” He turned and walked back to the hangar.

Dornberger shook his head. “He is driven by the desire to be the first in orbit. They all are. I want them to get there, too. But you know, Mr. Stoddard, I spent a good portion of my life designing and building machines that killed people. Some died accidentally, many more as a direct result of my skills. I have to live with that for the rest of my life. I want to put Ridley and his friends into orbit. I have the dream, too. But I also have other dreams…dreams I would like to make go away. It is most likely my penance that they never will. And I still think the pull to the left is dihedral effect…” He turned, muttering to himself, and walked away.

Stoddard kept looking at the white plane on the runway, surrounded by crash trucks that, this time at least, were not needed. “And I have no dreams left, except to keep my country safe. I guess that’s good enough for me.”

He turned, and went back to work. The X-14 would arrive in less than thirty days.

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