The last three flightworthy WB-57 airplanes in existence arrayed themselves on a runway near Johnson Space Center in Houston this past week, as if they were dinosaurs brought to life. The long-winged aircraft look something like prehistoric creatures, too, measuring just a stubby 21 meters long compared to an overly broad 37.5-meter wingspan. It had been four decades since as many as three of the great, superannuated birds soared together.
But then they did. One by one, the WB-57s slowly rolled down the runway at Ellington Airport and then began a slow climb upward into resplendent clear, blue skies. They flew again, thanks to a restoration program by NASA to bring a third WB-57 back from its boneyard. “It’s quite a day,” Charlie Mallini, who manages the WB-57 program for NASA, told Ars.
Since 1972 NASA has flown WB-57s as part of a broad ranging science mission. Recently two of the aircraft flew high above hurricanes Joaquin and Patricia, major storms in the eastern Pacific Ocean. They have also flown missions as varied as collecting cosmic dust samples from comets and asteroids in Earth’s upper atmosphere, investigating clouds and studying the environmental effect of plumes from the Titan, Space Shuttle, Delta, Atlas and Athena rockets on the stratosphere.
The B-57 line of aircraft dates back to 1944, when the English Electric Company began developing the plane. After the Royal Air Force showcased the B-57 in 1951 by crossing the Atlantic in a record 4 hours and 40 minutes, and becoming the first jet-powered aircraft to span the Atlantic without refuelling, the United States Air Force began buying them to replace its aging Douglas B-26 Invader.