Nov. 24, 1998 A NASA ER-2 aircraft set a new world altitude record for medium weight aircraft on Nov. 19, 1998, reaching 68,700 feet, almost twice the cruising altitude of most airliners.
The new world record was made by an ER-2, tail number 806, based at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA, and occurred during an airborne science mission to measure different components in the atmosphere, such as water, ozone and other atmospheric particles. The new record surpassed the old record of 62,500 feet, which was flown by a Canadian P-42 aircraft in 1988. The record was for the aircraft medium weight class of 26,455 to 35,274 pounds at takeoff.
This record flight was not the first time the ER-2 has achieved such a high altitude. The aircraft, a close relative of the U.S. Air Force U-2, routinely operates between 65,000 and 70,000 feet. But this is the first time the ER-2's performance has been documented and made public.
"This flight had two purposes," said Dryden ER-2 pilot Jim Barrilleaux, who flew this historic mission. "The science goal is the principle reason we flew the aircraft. But achieving the world altitude record verifies all of the outstanding efforts by the people who have worked on the NASA ER-2s and U-2s throughout the years -- designers, builders, operators, maintainers and scientists. This flight provides public acknowledgment of their good work. I personally feel that I am doing this on their behalf and in their honor."
An official from the National Aeronautics Association (NAA) observed the record-setting event and will process the formal certification with the Federal Aeronautique Internationale (FAI). The FAI is the international organization responsible for the coordination of competition and certification of all world aviation records. The NAA, as the U.S. representative of the FAI, is responsible for coordination and certification of all aviation records in the United States.
NASA owns and operates two ER-2 aircraft for its Airborne Science Program. Built by the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, the aircraft collect information about our surroundings, including Earth resources, celestial observations, atmospheric chemistry and dynamics and oceanic processes. The aircraft also are used for electronic sensor research and development, satellite calibration and satellite data validation.
A NASA ER-2 recently concluded a six-week hurricane study originating from Patrick Air Force Base, FL, designed to improve scientists' ability to forecast, track and measure the intensity of hurricanes. As part of the mission, the ER-2 flew above Hurricane Bonnie, collecting valuable information that could ultimately save lives and money.
In 1981, NASA acquired its first ER-2 aircraft. The agency obtained a second ER-2 in 1989. These airplanes replaced two Lockheed U-2 aircraft, which NASA had used to collect science data since 1971. The U-2s, and later the ER-2s, were based at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, until 1997, at which time the ER-2 aircraft and their operations moved to Dryden.
Since the program's inaugural flight on Aug. 31, 1971, NASA U-2s and ER-2s have flown over 4,000 data missions and test flights in support of scientific research conducted by scientists from NASA, other government agencies, universities and the private sector.
For most missions, the ER-2 operates at altitudes between 65,000 and 70,000 feet. Depending on aircraft weight, the ER-2 reaches a cruise altitude of 65,000 feet within twenty minutes. Typical cruise speed is 470 miles per hour. The range for a normal six-hour mission is approximately 2,500 miles, which yields five hours of data collection at high altitude. The aircraft is capable of longer missions of more than eight hours and ranges of more than 3,400 miles. The ER-2 can carry a maximum payload of 2,600 pounds, distributed in the equipment bay, nose area and wing pods.
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