Neil Armstrong’s Dyna-Soar abort training aircraft being restored for Moon landing anniversary
A piece of Neil Armstrong’s pre-astronaut space history is being restored in preparation for next July’s 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The Armstrong Air and Space Museum in the astronaut’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, is restoring the Douglas F5D Skylancer aircraft that he flew as part of his training for the Dyna-Soar project, which was cancelled in December of 1963. Armstrong had been named to NASA astronaut group three in October of that year.
The Skylancer has been on outdoor display in front of the museum since its opening in 1972. Naturally, the years and the elements have caught up with the aircraft, which has been repainted only twice in the 46 years it has been on display.
On longtime loan from NASA since its arrival at the museum, last year ownership was transferred to the Ohio History Connection—the operator of the museum—so the Skylancer could remain a permanent part of the facility. Funds from the non-profit Ohio History Connection were raised last year to restore the Skylancer in time for the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Restoration is being performed by the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA), a regional art conservation center based in Cleveland, Ohio. The project is being carried out in two parts, with the aircraft’s exterior being restored by Thomarios in Copley, Ohio, while the aircraft’s cockpit is restored by ICA’s Mark Erdmann, a specialist in restoring fine metalwork.
Thomarios has a history of restoration work on vintage aircraft and spacecraft, including the restoration of the giant Saturn V rocket that is on display at the Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Erdmann is restoring the cockpit interior as part of the plan to construct a new exhibit that showcases the aircraft’s cockpit. The plan is for the aircraft itself to return to its outdoor concrete display stand, but the cockpit interior will be displayed separately inside the museum where visitors can get a closeup look at the various instrument panels and the ejection seat.
“I spent three days sitting in the cockpit with my tools, pulling one by one the instruments and gauges out,” Erdmann told Spaceflight Insider. “I tried to be as careful as I could. The ejection seat was already out. I sat in there on a stool.”
The F5D Skylancer was an all-weather fighter interceptor developed by the Navy. Only four experimental aircraft were ever built. The Navy decided the aircraft design was too similar to the Vought F8U Crusader, so the Skylancer never went into production. NASA obtained two of the remaining aircraft for experimental purposes. The aircraft identified as F5D Skylancer NASA 802 was used in connection with training for the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar project.
Dyna-Soar (Dynamic Soarer) was an Air Force program to develop a spaceplane that could be launched into orbit atop a Titan II or Titan III missile to conduct various military space missions, such as reconnaissance, bombing, satellite maintenance, and enemy satellite interception. When re-entering the atmosphere, Dyna-Soar could use the lift from its wings to redirect its glide angle to a number of possible landing sites, depending on the mission and the location.
Launching Dyna-Soar atop a Titan missile made an abort system essential, in case of an explosion on the pad or early in the ascent. Armstrong recognized that the planned ejection seat and parachute method for Dyna-Soar was problematic. If an anomaly occurred on the pad, the ejection system would shoot the pilot out only a hundred or so feet above the ground, leaving barely enough time for a parachute to successfully open and save the pilot from impact. Instead, Armstrong argued Dyna-Soar must have an abort system and procedure that carried the vehicle away from the rocket.
The plan was that Dyna-Soar would have a small rocket that kicked it away from the Titan booster. Dyna-Soar would then climb, complete a roll, and glide to a landing at an airstrip near the launchpad. But the procedure needed to be tested. It was Armstrong who recognized that the F5D Skylancer had a wing platform very similar to what was projected for Dyna-Soar, and so he went about preparing a set of abort procedure tests using the Skylancer as the training aircraft.
Armstrong went to Cape Canaveral, figured out the layout and measured the distance from the launchpad to the airstrip. He then laid out a similar course on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Armstrong flew the Skylancer about 200 feet (61 meters) above the desert floor at a speed of 575 mph (925 kph), then pulled the aircraft into a steep vertical climb up to about 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) where he rolled the plane over on its back, brought it around upright, then glided it down to the part of the lake bed he had outlined like the landing strip at Cape Canaveral.
Armstrong was named a NASA astronaut shortly after these tests, and the Dyna-Soar project was cancelled just two months later. The Skylancer was used for a number of other tests until it was retired by NASA in 1970, and ultimately put on loan to the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in 1972.
The restoration on the aircraft is expected to be completed sometime by Summer 2018. The more detailed and intricate restoration of the cockpit will take much longer, but is expected to be ready for incorporation into its new display in time for the 50-year anniversary in July 2019.
Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”