While NASA is best known for the work it does in connection with space travel and exploration, every day the agency’s engineers, researchers, and other staff work hard to make advances in the field of aeronautics as well.
One of NASA’s divisions responsible for that is the Armstrong Flight Research Center – known until 2014 as Dryden Flight Research Center. As its name suggests, it counts the first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, among its alumni.
The research center is primarily located inside Edwards Air Force Base. That said, it also runs extensive operations out of Building 703 at Palmdale Airport where many of its airborne research aircraft are based.
NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center Building 703
From the outside, Building 703 looks very unassuming. Perhaps the only thing that suggests it’s not just a regular hangar is the iconic NASA logo on its facade.
Inside the hangar, a collection of state-of-the-art airborne research aircraft can be found. That is, unless they are out in the skies, collecting data to help advance our understanding of the Earth, and even the universe.
The 425,000 square feet facility at Palmdale Airport started its life as a manufacturing plant of North American Aircraft and Rockwell International. Before NASA took it over in 2007, it briefly served as a film studio where – among other movies – parts of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Terminal were filmed.
Currently, hundreds of people call Building 703 their workplace, and the hangar is home to a variety of NASA’s airborne research aircraft.
The State-of-the-Art Fleet Based in AFRC Building 703
While these are not the only aircraft that the Armstrong Flight Research Center operates, there are currently five aircraft – all heavily modified to be suitable for airborne research – based in Building 703.
Below, I take a brief look at each one of those.
Boeing 747SP Airborne Observatory (SOFIA)
The largest – and my favorite – aircraft in the hangar is SOFIA, a Boeing 747SP equipped as an airborne observatory. Besides being an incredibly valuable science research platform (among other achievements, it recently helped discover the universe’s very first type of molecule), it is also one of the last 747SPs still in service.
The aircraft started its life back in 1977 when it joined Pan Am’s fleet as its sixth 747SP. Once Pan Am was acquired by United Airlines, it was transferred over and re-registered from N536PA to N145UA. United retired and stored the aircraft in 1995.
After several years in storage, NASA acquired the aircraft and equipped it with a 100-inch telescope during a decade-long modification process. Now, the aircraft helps astronomers see further and clearer than land-based observatories thanks to the lack of water vapor at the altitude SOFIA flies at.
I had a chance to fly onboard one of its missions during its deployment to New Zealand last year, so if you are interested in learning more about the aircraft, make sure to check the series I wrote about the experience:
- Introduction: Experiencing SOFIA’s Southern Deployment 2018 in Christchurch
- From a Learjet to SOFIA: A Brief History of the World’s Largest Flying Telescope
- “Per Aspera Ad Astra:” The Complexities of Operating SOFIA
- NASA 747, Cleared for Take-Off: Observing a SOFIA Mission
Douglas DC-8 Flying Laboratory
Another classic airliner turned into a high-tech research lab in the hangar is a Douglas DC-8 registered N817NA. The aircraft can be equipped with a variety of instruments that scientists onboard use to research the Earth’s surface and atmosphere among other things.
It was originally delivered to Alitalia as I-DIWK back in 1969. After close to a decade of hauling passengers between Italy and the United States among other routes, Braniff International Airways purchased the aircraft and re-registered it to N801BN.
Braniff used it for a few years before withdrawing it from use in mid-1982. At that time, the aircraft was still a DC-8-60 equipped with four Pratt & Whitney JT3D engines. It joined NASA’s fleet in mid-1980s after being converted into a DC-8-70, a version of the type sporting newer and more fuel efficient CFM International CF56 engines.
As I had a chance to fly on the DC-8 back in April, I will be writing more about the aircraft – including a detailed report of the mission I was on – soon.
Gulfstream C-20A Environmental Science Research Aircraft
Besides the two airliners above, NASA also operates a Gulfstream C-20A registered N802NA out of the airport. The aircraft – a military version of Gulfstream III business jet – is perhaps the most elegant one in the hangar thanks to the Gulfstream’s unmistakeable shape and its light blue belly.
The C-20A is currently being used to validate UAVSAR – Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar – which was developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in cooperation with the Armstrong Flight Research Center.
Lockheed ER-2 High-Altitude Platform
The last two aircraft that call Hangar 703 their home are Lockheed ER-2s. The type is a research version of U-2, a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft used by the United States Air Force. When I visited the hangar, both of the ER-2s were in the middle of maintenance.
Thanks to the fact that the type is capable of flying as high as 70,000 feet, its able to collect data above vast majority of the Earth’s atmosphere which in turns allows scientists to test instruments in conditions similar to satellites in orbit.
One thing worth mentioning about the aircraft, though, is that while at altitude it offers its pilots amazing views of the Earth, when landing that’s not the case.
The view out of the cockpit during landing is so bad, in fact, that the aircraft requires a chase car with another pilot onboard to guide the flying pilot safely to the ground. That helped the type become the topic of both a Top Gear (ER-2) and a MythBusters (U-2) episode.
A 747-Sized Empty Spot in the Hangar
To finish off this article, I want to mention that in the past, another 747 – one of the two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft – used to be based in the hangar as well.
The aircraft, as its name suggests, used to ferry Space Shuttles between wherever they landed and the Kennedy Space Center where they operated from. With the Space Shuttle program’s end, though, it became obsolete.
Currently, its is displayed in Joe Davies Heritage Airpark not far from Building 703.
Unfortunately, the museum was closed during my visit, and so I wasn’t able to see it from up close (I caught a glance of it from the road as I was heading to Building 703, though.)
On the other hand, the fact that the Space Shuttle Carrier was retired allowed me to see the world’s last airworthy Aero Spacelines Super Guppy – an aircraft that NASA uses to transport parts of satellites and other bulky cargo.
The aircraft is based in Texas, however, at the time of my visit to Palmdale, it was undergoing maintenance in Building 703 as there wasn’t enough space to do it at its home base.
Of course, the Super Guppy was occupying the space that the Shuttle Carrier used to.