Airborne Awesomosity

Balls 8

Eight Pratt & Whitney J57-19 turbojet engines come to life. The pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and others are strapped in to their seats. The first streaks of dawn’s light are showing in the sky over the dry lake bed. The air is still. The behemoth begins to roll, accelerating slowly at first. After rolling down the black stripe on desert floor she breaks free from the ground’s hold.

She’s not the only one of her kind. Boeing continues to churn out copies to support Strategic Air Command. She is, however, the only one with a black rocketplane hanging under her wing.

It’s June 1959. The plane known as Balls 8 is technically listed as a Boeing NB-52B. That N, which replaced her previous designation beginning with an R, notes to the world that she is serving in the NASA fleet. She lumbers aloft and reaches an altitude determined by the test engineers. They are sitting at a control console in the cavernous belly of this aluminum and steel bird monitoring the systems on the black spear about to be dropped from the mothership.

Balls 8 returns home. A successful launch of the X-15. She would make 158 more flights for the X-15 program. After that she would go on to support many other research programs including the lifting body aircraft, the X-24, the X-43 and the Pegasus rockets. She also helped in the testing of the shuttle parachute systems.

She would be one year shy of her 50th birthday when is retired in 2004. She was the only B-52 Stratofortress flying that wasn’t an H model. She was the oldest flying B-52. She had the fewest flight hours of any flying B-52. She also had the coolest stories of any other B-52 to ever fly. Ever.

[Image Credit: NASA]

  • pj134

    I love me some gigantic bombers.

  • texlenin

    Anyway to learn all the mods this airframe received? Camera in tailgunner's
    position, etc?

    • NASA Dryden's website may have some information. It was an RB-52B at first, so it carried a reconnaissance pod in the payload bay. This, obviously, would have been removed when it was put on NASA duty. It also appears from the photos that the rear gun turret was removed. It's very possible that there are cameras in that rear fairing. Cameras (still and video) as well as floodlights have been added over time for various program.

      The very first modifications were to add a pylon for the X-15 and cut a notch in the aileron to clear the tail of the X-15. A monitoring and control system was also added for flight test engineers to monitor the X-15 and control its release. These systems were modified for each new program, so the full modification history would be pretty extensive.

  • The Professor

    That's beautiful. The X-15 was my favorite program when I was younger. I wish that they had something like that going on today that wasn't classified.

  • <img src="; width="400">

    This made me wonder what happened to it. Apparently it's sitting at the north gate to Edwards.

  • FЯeeMan

    Well written, 'Neerd!

    Massive, lumbering, lovely BUFFs they are

  • CA 1984 we were parked at some road construction in the Rockies. One came over us not more that a few hundred feet above our elevation. IT WAS LOUD!