I don’t know why, with my fighter and trainer background, I should be drawn to this old Buff, but it fascinates me and I come back to it again and again.
The oldest Stratofortress in existence, it’s the last of three B-52A models built in the early 1950s and used by Boeing in testing. This aircraft, known as “Balls Three” for its 52-0003 serial number, was modified in 1959 as an NB-52A (“N” for “special test”), becoming a launch mothership for the North American X-15 rocket project. In all, Balls Three carried X-15s aloft on 93 of the program’s 199 test flights at Edwards AFB, California.
In addition to sharing information about interesting aircraft at Pima Air and Space Museum and other aviation museums, I like to showcase my own photos in these Air-Minded photoblogs, but the one above outdoes any of my own. If anyone knows who the photographer was, please let me know so I can credit him or her. The photo was taken some time ago, when Balls Three was still on display at Pima Air and Space Museum.
The museum towed this historic aircraft into the restoration yard more than three years ago to strip and repaint it. Once they started work they found damaged panels on the bottoms of the wings, and what was meant to be a routine touch-up has turned into a major restoration project. Today, Balls Three can be viewed only from the other side of the fence separating restoration from the main museum, and from a seldom visited, not easily accessible back lot at that. Seldom visited except by me, that is: I make my way to the back lot on a regular basis to stand in the weeds against the fence and check on the progress of restoration projects. Here’s Balls Three as of yesterday. Sad to say, there’s been no visible progress on it for the past year or more, and I have no idea when it might be done and put back on display. In all three photos, by the way, you can see the carry cradle for the X-15 mounted under the B-52’s right wing.
Earlier in October, a pair of F-15C Eagles arrived from the Boneyard next door. I’ve learned they’re to be put on static display at Tyndall AFB in Florida, and won’t become part of PASM’s collection. One of the Eagles, tail number 79-069, is credited with an air-to-air kill during the Gulf War.
I’ll round out this photoblog with a few other interesting and historical aircraft. First, PASM’s Grumman F9F Panther, which I revisited Monday morning after watching William Holden fly one in the 1955 movie The Bridges at Toko-Ri (available for streaming on Amazon Prime).
This Sikorski Dragonfly, of course, is a sister to the Panther’s non-speaking co-star in the same movie, complete with a rescue hoist. It lacks only Navy markings and a Mickey Rooney-sized mannikin in the pilot’s seat, wearing a green top hat and scarf.
There’s a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine in the nose of this Grumman AF-2S Guardian, built as a Navy torpedo bomber and later converted to a firefighting “borate bomber.” I learned just now that Grumman built three mixed-power (piston & turbojet) prototypes of this plane, designated XTB3F-1, which never went into production. Click here to see my earlier Air-Minded post on mixed-power aircraft.
Another big boy, a Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, the USAF’s heavy strategic airlifter of the pre-jet era, introduced in 1951 and fondly (yeah right) known as “Old Shaky.” Impressive no matter how unpleasant it must have been to fly in, it could carry 200 troops or 68,500 pounds of cargo in its unpressurized aft section. In addition to the clamshell doors and ramp in the nose, it had a cargo elevator on the belly just aft of the wing, which lowered to the ground on cables and had a platform big enough to park a Jeep on. You can get a glimpse of the cargo elevator in use in one of the scenes of another 1955 movie, Strategic Air Command (also available to stream on Amazon). And hey, Jimmy Stewart … need I say more?
This is the trainer version of Convair’s F-102 Delta Dagger interceptor, the TF-102. In the 1950s, delta wings were scary and new with, perhaps, as yet unknown and treacherous flight characteristics (turns out delta wings fly just great), so the trainer version was built with side-by-side seating for the upgrading pilot and instructor. These aircraft were also used to train Strategic Air Command bomber pilots to fly the supersonic B-58 Hustler in the 1960s.
Last, the sole surviving Budd RB Conestoga, a stainless-steel cargo aircraft built for the Navy in WWII by a company known for manufacturing railroad cars and bodies for automobiles, buses, and trucks. Twenty were built; three were test aircraft and the remainder went to the Navy, which did not employ them in combat during the war. Post-war, the Conestogas were sold as surplus and used to carry freight in South and Central America, and in the USA by National Skyways, later named the Flying Tiger Line.