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Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Old Dogs, New Tricks

 Aerospace Perceptions closed out 2022 acknowledging the final Boeing 747 ever built, while looking back at some of that great platform’s many variations.

So, it seems appropriate enough to start 2023 with a look at one more 747 variation – one I was happily reminded of during an early 2023 commercial broadcast during Monday Night Football.

GE Aerospace has long depended on the 747 platform for in-air engine testing. In fact, the 2018 retirement of GE’s first 747 test aircraft marked the conclusion of that plane’s 49th year in the skies, as it was the last flying example of the very first 747 model. That hardy 747-100 flew for Pan Am from 1969 until 1991, when it “retired” into a life with GE for 24 more years!


One of these engines is definitely not like the other one. The modern GE9X engine undergoes flight testing mounted to the inboard positions of GE’s Propulsion Test Platform 747 test plane. Photo: GE Aerospace


More recently – and starring in GE’s current round of broadcast commercials – the aerospace company relies on the “GE Propulsion Test Platform” seen above. Acquired by GE in 2001, this 747-400 served as the testbed for the state-of-the-art GE9X jet engine powering Boeing 777X aircraft. The expanded dimensions of this large turbofan engine are easily noted in the photograph, with the GE9X dwarfing the outboard standard-size 747 engine.

A thirsty F-35 has a rendezvous with one of Omega’s tanker aircraft. In addition to the Boeing 707 platform seen here, Omega also fields DC-10 tankers with a greater fuel capacity. Photo: US Navy


Amazingly, there are even variations of older-yet-fully-reliable aircraft still regularly pressed into service, like the above jet operated by Omega Aerial Refueling Services. Omega is the first commercial entity to offer air-to-air refueling services, and among its fleet is the “Omega Tanker” seen here. Yes, it’s based on the venerable Boeing 707, an aircraft which first entered commercial service back in 1958. Omega supplements the refueling capabilities of our armed forces, providing support to Navy and Marine Corps aircraft ranging from the F-35 to the V-22 – and even the unmanned experimental X-47B.



GE Aerospace GE9X Engine: 

GE Aerospace broadcast commercial (15 seconds):

Omega Aerial Refueling Services: 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

All Hail the Queen

The Boeing B-52 is the seemingly eternal king of the military skies for the United States Air Force. Introduced into service in 1955, the B-52H models that currently make up the USAF fleet will soon be receiving upgrades – and likely new model letter designations – that will see them continuing to serve through at least 2050, if not longer.

Equally regal – at least in the commercial realm – is the aircraft long known as the Queen of the Skies: the Boeing 747. Officially entering into service in January, 1970, the 747 has not been flying quite as long as the B-52, but the lengthy career of this aircraft is no less astonishing.

Last call for a legend. The final Boeing 747 emerges from Boeing's assembly facility on December 6, 2022. Boeing's media release made some odd choices when describing the aircraft's payload capacity, noting it's "enough to transport 10,699 solid-gold bars or approximately 19 million ping-pong balls or golf balls." Photo: Paul Weatherman/Boeing

Last week a brand new 747-8 freighter completed its final assembly phase and rolled out of Boeing’s Everett Washington plant. It was, as always, a proud moment – but also a bittersweet one, as this marked the end of the 747 program after nearly 55 years of production.

In that time the design of the 747 has been proven to be remarkably durable and flexible, adapting to various purposes.

Over 1500 747s have been produced across multiple variations of the original aircraft, with that first commercial flight for Pan Am signaling the arrival of the “Jumbo Jet” era – large jet aircraft designed to carry hundreds of passenger in comfort on long-duration flights.

A Boeing 747-400 operated by UPS soars majestically through the twilight.
Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

The 747 proved equally valuable as a large-capacity cargo aircraft. In fact, 747 passenger usage in 2022 has dwindled to just a few aircraft for airlines including Korean Air and Air China. Lufthansa fields the largest fleet of 747 passenger jets, with more than two dozen still in service.

But despite diminished passenger flight usage, the cargo realm remains the domain of the 747. In fact, as I write these words no less than 20 Boeing 747-400s are in the air over the United States. They belong to the shippers almost everyone is familiar with – United Parcel Service and FedEx – as well as numerous specialized shipping firms like Kalitta Air, Sky Lease, Atlas Air, Magma Aviation, and Cargolux.

Revolutionizing the transport of Volkswagen Beetles. In 1972 Lufthansa shows off the cargo capacity of its then brand new 747-200 freighter. Photo: Boeing

Cargo 747s have adapted to their commercial environments, with noses that open and flip upward to allow bulky shipments to be more easily loaded into the aircraft. In the case of the 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter developed in the 2000s, the aircraft fuselage in front of the tail swings open for loading.

The Dreamlifter may appear ungainly, but it boasts an astonishing 65,000 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Photo: Atlas Air

The swing-tail variation aircraft, more casually referred to as the Dreamlifter, has a massively expanded body that increases its capacity to three times that of a standard 747-400 freighter.

Beyond the obvious passenger and cargo implementations of the 747, several unique and specialized uses have been seen over the decades.

Air Force One rises into the skies over the United States Air Force Thunderbirds at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on September 17, 2022. President Biden was traveling to the funeral ceremonies for Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Of course, the most widely recognized of these 747 variations is the VC-25A, the airplane most people immediately think of when they hear the designation Air Force One. In reality, any USAF aircraft bearing the president becomes Air Force One, no matter the size or model. Joint Base Andrews outside Washington DC is the home of the VC-25A aircraft, operated by the 89th Airlift Wing.

The test orbiter Enterprise arrives over New York in style aboard a 747-SCA on April 27, 2012. Enterprise was heading to its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in Manhattan. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Two 747s were modified to become Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. The SCA played a pivotal role in the space shuttle program development, carrying the prototype orbiter Enterprise in approach and landing tests in the 1970s. Both SCA planes had long careers carrying all five of the space-flown orbiters that came after Enterprise.

There’s even been a firefighting 747 modification. The 747 SuperTanker joins fellow wide-body passenger jet airframes including the DC-10 and MD-11 modified to battle blazes. But the 747 holds the crown as the aircraft with the greatest firefighting capability, able to haul up to 20,000 gallons of water or fire retardant.

The infrared telescope of SOFIA can been seen in this 747's custom fuselage opening. Though seen here in daylight, SOFIA conducted its scientific observations in darkness. Photo: NASA

Ironically, late in 2022 as the final 747 was built in the state of Washington, another 747 with a NASA connection came to the end of its service life. Starting out life as a Pan Am Boeing 747, this aircraft took on a new purpose and a new name: Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. SOFIA was modified to carry a special telescope to study infrared astronomy, something best accomplished from platforms high in the atmosphere. This 747 became just that platform, carrying the 38,000 pound, 100-inch telescope in search of new discoveries, including confirmation that water molecules exist on the surface of the Moon. SOFIA’s first full science flight took place on November 30, 2010.

It's somehow fitting that as the final Boeing 747 prepares for a long commercial life after marking the end of 747 production, SOFIA’s scientific career also concludes. SOFIA will soon be on display at Arizona’s Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson. But really, with such a landmark existence in the realm of aviation, any Boeing 747 is worthy of such appreciation.


With that in mind, happy holidays from Aerospace Perceptions!

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Stepping on Stage

See what's under the covers on December 2, 2022. Image: Northrop Grumman

Back in early June Aerospace Perceptions covered a B-2 flyover at Dover Air Force Base as well as information about the B-2’s planned successor, the B-21 Raider.

Tomorrow, December 2, 2022, the all-new B-21 will be the star of a public unveiling at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale California facility. “This changes everything” the aerospace firm notes in a post offering a ten-second video promoting the event on Facebook, and that’s an accurate assessment. Though the B-21 may at first glance resemble the B-2, this new smaller aircraft boasts the same long-range capabilities as its predecessor now made even more potent.

It’s been more than 30 years since the U.S. Air Force implemented a new bomber aircraft, so the growing excitement over the B-21 rollout reflects that decades-long expanse. The Raider stands as a major advancement in stealth technologies and in the digital methodologies used to discover, design, and then test those enhanced approaches to masking aircraft operations. Speculation has also focused on whether the B-21 will be operational without a crew onboard, in addition to configurations hosting humans playing traditional roles.

Northrop Grumman has announced the unveiling is scheduled for 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST. The following link has been provided for viewing the event:

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Swimming with C-130s


Being aviation obsessive, I’m pretty fortunate to have the skies of Historic New Castle, Delaware, over my head. Moments ago, I photographed a KC-135 refueling an F-15, the action visible from my upper deck. This afternoon I can travel less than ten minutes see President Biden depart New Castle’s airport via the fleet of Marine helicopters with a V-22 Osprey or two thrown in to the mix for good measure. And being 40 miles or so up the road from Dover Air Force Base means it’s not unusual to see C-17s and C-5M Super Galaxies majestically cruising on by, often at low altitudes.

Most frequent performers at the Aerospace Perceptions Backyard Airshow? The Lockheed C-130s of the 166th Airlift Wing at New Castle Air National Guard Base. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Here at Aerospace Perceptions, though, there’s an even greater soft spot for the Lockheed C-130H Hercules. The 166th Airlift Wing and their beautiful prop aircraft are based at New Castle Air National Guard Base – just over a mile away from Aerospace Perceptions headquarters. To call the engine rumble of the C-130 a soundtrack to life around here is not an exaggeration, and to this day if I can I’ll drop whatever I’m doing to watch one of these big aircraft soar overhead, stars of the backyard airshow.

The C-130 is certainly one of the USAF’s “old reliables,” a tactical airlifter having flown thousands upon thousands of missions. Simply put, it’s an aircraft that can be counted on in critical situations.

One of the essential benefits of the C-130 is its very special ability to land in challenging environments. In fact, about the only landing target that is off-limits is water. But that may be just about to change.

A tropical setting potentially offers a new environment for C-130 operations, although Lockheed did pitch a C-130 with a hull-like fuselage years ago. Image: AFSOC

The Air Force Special Operations Command – led by Commander Gen. James Slife – has studied the possibility of adding amphibious capabilities to the AFSOC variation of the C-130, the MC-130. Basically, a special kit will be implemented in the field to allow take offs and landings on water. AFSOC anticipates proof of concept testing to begin as soon as next year.

“We're going through the wave tank testing right now,” Gen. Slife explained during a discussion on September 7 at the Air and Space Force Association’s Warfighters in Action event in Arlington, Virginia. “We started out with a number of digital designs. We ran through a series of testing to figure out, ‘Do we want to do a catamaran or a pontoon or a hull applique on the bottom of the aircraft?’ We went through all the iterations of that. And we settled on a design that provides the best trade-off of drag, weight and sea-state performance.”

A cutaway image reflects the 3-D virtual studies that will soon yield to physical proof of concept testing, perhaps as soon as 2023. Image: AFSOC

Gen. Slife envisions one particular example of a C-130 with amphibious capability supporting Naval special operations, landing SEALs close to an operational target then being able to extract them. Many other potential uses for the modified MC-130s are seen on the horizon, dovetailing with the air forces of other countries placing a renewed focus on water operations performed by cargo aircraft.

Perhaps someday in the not-too-distant future I’ll hear a C-130 landing at the nearby airport on my left, and a C-130 landing on the Delaware River a few blocks to my right – stereo!


To read more of Gen. Slife’s thoughts – and see him explain in a video how aircraft prefixes like the “C” in the C-130 should not restrict thinking about creative airplane applications – visit:

An in-depth look at the aquatic planning for the MC-130 and cargo aircraft operations on water:

Monday, September 12, 2022

The "Off Nominal Situation"

Shortly after 10:30 am EDT this morning, the aerospace world received a stark reminder that launching spacecraft can be a risky proposition with unexpected results.

64 seconds into the 23rd flight of Blue Origin’s New Shephard program – so named for pioneering US Mercury program astronaut Alan Shephard – the unmanned vehicle failed and was quickly enveloped in a column of flame as the capsule escape system initiated. The rocket had just passed through the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure, accelerating at over 700 mph and nearing 28,000 feet in altitude.

The first sign of trouble as the New Shephard rocket's plume takes on an uncharacteristic form just after Max-Q, where aerodynamics forces on the vehicle reach their peak. From Blue Origin video feed.

Before today, New Shephard had been viewed as a consistently reliable, single-engine rocket. Media coverage had normalized launches of the vehicle from Blue Origin’s West Texas base in the wake of its first manned flight just over a year ago. That initial crewed launch sent Amazon magnate and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, along with three others, on a suborbital trip that climbed to 66 miles in altitude, with the entire flight clocking just over ten minutes from launch to landing. Since that first manned venture, 27 more passengers – including William Shatner – had ridden in a New Shephard capsule, known in part for its space-tourism-friendly large windows. Todays uncrewed flight was described by Blue Origin as a mission to “loft 36 payloads from research institutions and student organizations, half of which are funded by NASA.

Here the crew escape system has separated the capsule from the rocket, the vehicle still climbing before descent initiates. From Blue Origin video feed.

The good news: it may have been totally unplanned, but it appears the crew emergency separation system did exactly what it was designed to do had this been a manned flight. Of course, how this will impact the costly desirability of riding a rocket in pursuit of the ultimate tourist adventure remains to be seen.

The capsule's drogue parachutes were functional before giving way to the main parachutes seen here, used to slow the capsule to its final landing speed. From Blue Origin video feed.

You can watch video of today’s “off nominal situation” on YouTube. Fast forward to 1:20:14 for the final 30 seconds of the countdown followed by the aborted launch.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Potential for Domestic Bliss

NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in coastal Virginia has not seen the launch of an Antares rocket since early this year, on February 19. That day, a Cygnus vehicle placed into orbit carried well over 8000 pounds of equipment, experiments, food, and other important supplies to the International Space Station, docking safely on February 21.

Almost immediately after that Russia initiated that country’s attempt to conquer Ukraine, and the ripples of that assault soon washed across the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in a significant way. That’s because the Antares 200 series rocket - which had performed successfully in its launches to the ISS – is a first-stage assembly that depended on the power of Russian RD-181 engines of Ukrainian manufacture.


Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket on Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. Photo: Northrop Grumman


Obviously, this dependence has been a massive cause for concern at Northrop Grumman, the US space company that is responsible for the Antares program.

This week, however, a more solid footing for the future of Antares was announced by Northrop Grumman and its new partner in rocket power, Firefly Aerospace. Firefly is a relatively new company founded in 2017 and based in a suburb of Austin, Texas. While Firefly has aspirations for vehicles ranging from winged rockets to lunar landers, it is engine technology that has led to their partnership with Northrop Grumman. The new Antares 330 first-stage vehicle will be powered by seven of Firefly’s Miranda engines, making this new generation of Antares a fully domestic launch vehicle. Significantly, launch site upgrades will be minimal as Firefly’s technology will utilize the same propellants that have powered the most recent Antares generation.


Initial engine testing performed by Firefly Aerospace, an early step on the path to this week’s partnership with Northrop Grumman. Photo: Firefly Aerospace


This alliance is certainly good news for the Antares program, which can now return its focus to future operations without a dependence on products from a region suffering through dynamic conflicts and upheaval.


For more information on Firefly Aerospace:

For more information on Northrop Grumman:

Friday, July 22, 2022

Supersonic Visions

The Twitter presence of United Airlines aspires to establish the airline as your pal, with a “personality” that ranges from wry to whimsical. “Drop your perfect vacay using emojis only and we’ll guess the destination!” the account playfully instructs its followers in one tweet this week. Another – dispatched on Wednesday - confesses, “Our hearts went BOOM!” accompanied by a smiley face with hearts for eyes.

This latter tweet, of course, serves to herald the airline’s upcoming plans to deploy a fleet of Overture airliners – the new supersonic concepts being brought to reality by Denver’s Boom Supersonic. United joins Japan Airlines as the initial commercial customers for this new aircraft.

The vision of commercial supersonic travel was brought into reality in 1976 by the Concorde, an aircraft documented in dozens of books, but none more beautiful than this oversized publication by Frederic Beniada and Michel Fraile. It is seen with commemorative materials given to Concorde passengers. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

It’s been nearly two decades since the last flights of the Concorde, the incredibly graceful airliners that brought supersonic travel into reality from 1976 to 2003. And looking through the stunning photography in the beautiful book Concorde by Frederic Beniada and Michel Fraile, it’s little wonder that this aircraft had dedicated fans of its futuristic stance.

An Overture depicted in the thin air of its cruising altitude, 60,000 feet. Image: Boom Supersonic

Overture’s design hallmarks certainly call to mind its predecessor. The long, thin body following a needle nose ready to pierce the sound barrier, the wide sweeping wings with engines mounted below. But naturally, a closer look reveals significant differences, including a subtle gull-wing design to reduce noise and stress from the four engines.

All dressed up: Overture in the livery of United Airlines. United will purchase 15 aircraft from Boom Supersonic, with an option for 35 more. Image: Boom Supersonic

Of course, lighthearted tweets from corporate airlines do little to dim the glaring suspicion of many raising environmental concerns about the implementation of a new supersonic aircraft, particularly in the midst of a week that has seen scorching ambient temperatures baking vast stretches of the upper half of the planet. But United’s media materials are quick to note that Overture’s propulsion is vastly different from the 1960s technology that was the hallmark of Concorde. The airline’s announcement of its partnership with Boom Supersonic stressed: “Once operational, Overture is expected to be the first large commercial aircraft to be net-zero carbon from day one, optimized to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)… United and Boom will also work together to accelerate production of greater supplies of SAF.

The first flights of an Overture aircraft are planned for 2026, with commercial air fleets taking to the skies within three years of the test program.


For more information: