Dubbed “Black Beauty” the Starfighters’ TF-104 is a former two-seater retired by the Italian Air Force almost 20 years ago.
Based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and operating under authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, Starfighters Aerospace is a company that carries out a variety of missions for government and commercial customers. And, above all, it operates the world’s only fleet of flight-ready F-104 Starfighter jets.
The company, that currently has four airworthy aircraft out of a planned fleet of seven, has purchased five F-104s from the Italian Air Force after the service retired the type from operational service in 2004 (with a last flight in July 2005), including three TF-104G-M two-seat trainers. One of these, with civilian registration N991SF, operated for more than 30 years as MM54258 with the 20° Gruppo (Squadron), the Italian Air Force’s F-104 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) based at Grosseto.
The N991SF/MM54258, which has been given an overall matte black paint scheme and sports the logo of KANON Loading Equipment, one of the Starfighters Aerospace’s sponsors on its tail, eventually returned to the air for some functional flight checks on Jan. 26, 2021, piloted by Starfighters Aerospace’s founder, Rick “Boss” Svetkoff.
On the following day, Starfighters Director of Flight Operations and former Italian Air Force F-104 pilot, Piercarlo Ciacchi, flew the aircraft from KSC.
And we’re airborne! Fantastic first flight of the Blackbird. More flights and check outs to come before making her full operations capable. pic.twitter.com/u75M1Gn1xo
— Matt Haskell (@mhaskellphoto) January 27, 2021
“I was extremely surprised how well the airplane performed after quite some time on time ground. She was very reactive, precise in its controls and still incredibly fast. The Starfighter still is an amazing airplane after so many years!”, Ciacchi commented according to Warbirds News.
The legendary F-104, that made its first flight in 1954, is still a remarkable aerial platform 67 years later. As already reported, Starfighters says the aircraft can carry out:
- Captive carry of payloads and test articles
- Microgravity experiments
- Pre-launch space payload testing/qualification
- Suborbital spaceflight simulation
- Air-launch of microsatellites
- Human factors and flight physiology research
- Avionics testing/qualification
- Flight suit testing/qualification
- Sponsored video production
- Surveillance and intercept
Interestingly, the aircraft can also be used for jet warbird type training and familiarization for pilots: licensed pilots can get flight training in the F-104 Starfighter at KSC with Starfighters Aerospace.
“The F-104 is a remarkable aerial platform, capable of putting research projects into microgravity, high altitude, high speed, and high G environments. The jets can mimic the ascent, descent and flight profiles of spaceflight vehicles and high performance military aircraft, and — according to NASA estimates — can provide between 60-90 seconds of microgravity during parabolic maneuvers,” Starfighters website explains.
By the way, the company has dubbed the new overall black F-104, “Black Beauty”. However, we can’t but notice that another Starfighter, a single seater of the 9° Gruppo (Squadron) of the 4° Stormo, got that nickname in 2003. Here’s the story of that special colored F-104S/ASA-M.
CRAIC Plans 3 Versions Of Its New Widebody: The ‘CR929’
The vast majority of modern airliner families feature more than one variant of the aircraft in question. This gives operators greater flexibility in tailoring their fleet to their specific needs by choosing variants that best correspond to them. Whether an airline favors range or capacity in a particular airliner family, there will generally be a variant that suits them. The upcoming CRAIC CR929 is also set to have multiple variants, but how do they differ?
What is the CRAIC CR929?
The CRAIC (China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation) is a joint-venture project between two Chinese and Russian manufacturers. These are COMAC (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China) and UAC (United Aircraft Corporation), the latter of which is a consolidation of companies including Ilyushin, Irkut, Sukhoi, and Tupolev.
Together, the companies are planning to design and produce a long-range, twin-engine widebody airliner. This will take the name ‘CR929,’ with the latter two numbers referring to its proposed 290-seat capacity. COMAC is also thought to be considering a larger 390-seat C939.
It will be interesting to see what kind of an impact the aircraft has when it enters service in the mid to late-2020s. CRAIC is targeting a 10% share of the long-haul widebody market with the aircraft, an area dominated by Airbus and Boeing. However, the latter is taking competition in the narrowbody market from the COMAC C919 seriously, so these established manufacturers may also find themselves wary of this larger design.
The standard version
According to COMAC, the standard version of the aircraft will be the CR929-600 model. This variant will have a capacity of 280 passengers, and a range of 12,000 km (6,480 NM). In terms of capacity, this puts it in a similar ballpark to aircraft such as the Boeing 787-9 ‘Dreamliner.’
The Airbus A330neo (-900 variant) can also hold a similar number of passengers. However, these established aircraft both have the edge over the CR929 in terms of range. They can fly for 14,140 (7,635 NM) and 13,334 km (7,200 NM) respectively.
Extra range or capacity, but not both
UAC also reports that there will be a short-fuselage version of the aircraft, known as the CR929-500. Naturally, this will have a lower capacity than the standard version, seating around 250 passengers, but with a greater range of 14,000 km (7,560 NM).
This means that it will marginally outperform the Boeing 787-8 in both of these fields. However, the Airbus A330-800, which also has a similar capacity, outranks it in terms of rage, reaching 15,094 km (8,150 NM).
For airlines facing higher demand, size matters. Such carriers may find that they are tempted by CRAIC’s stretched CR929-700 variant. This will have an enhanced capacity of 320 passengers, but a lower range measuring 10,000 km (5,400 NM).
This capacity is similar to the Boeing 787-10 and Airbus A350-900. However, neither of these compromise on range in the way that the CR929-700 does. The stretched Dreamliner can fly for 11,910 km (6,430 NM), while the A350-900 clocks in at an impressive 15,000 km (8,100 NM).
Therefore, on the whole, it seems that the different CR929 variants generally cannot match their Airbus and Boeing rivals in terms of these key specifications. Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to find out which versions are most popular among the airlines that do place orders for the type.
Which version of the CRAIC CR929 do you believe will be the most successful? Have you ever flown on an aircraft produced by either COMAC or UAC, the two manufacturers involved? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
Video: Flying during the Pandemic
From Quest Means Business:
Hotel lockdowns, passenger-less flights, and frequent testing: That’s the new normal for pilots in the pandemic. Several tell CNN what life’s been like these past months, and how they’ve been navigating national restrictions.
SAS February Traffic Figures Down Double Digits From January
Even though there is a faint glimmer of a recovery in the number of people flying now that COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) traffic figures are down double digits from January. During February, SAS carried 225,000 passengers, a decrease of 20% compared to a month earlier and down 89% yearly.
Meanwhile, the Nordic airline continued to adapt to capacity (ASK) due to decreased demand. Compared to the previous month, ASK declined 16%, a number almost 81% lower than the same period in 2020.
“The travel restrictions continue to put pressure on demand, which has resulted in further adjustment of offered destinations and departures in February. Strong demand for cargo services has enabled SAS to maintain parts of its intercontinental production, though this has resulted in a low overall passenger load factor of 26%. However, the load factor for our Scandinavian and European operations has stabilized at around 40% and even increased 4 percentage points for the month compared with January.”
1 Change compared to the same period last year. p u = percentage units
COVID-19 mutations are the new worry
Currently, the worry surrounding COVID-19 is a growing concern about new mutations of the coronavirus that is causing governments worldwide to implement stricter travel restrictions than we saw in the spring of 2020. Because of the ever-changing situation, SAS is forced to adapt capacity to meet a weak demand.
On a brighter note, SAS feels that moving forward, there is a pent-up need to travel and as more people get vaccinated, it should be easier for governments to ease restrictions. With this in mind, SAS plans to restart 180 routes for summer 2021, mainly within Scandanavia, and Europe provided that travel restrictions are lifted.
SAS is flexible with ticket rules
To gain public confidence during these uncertain times, SAS has introduced flexible ticketing rules that include rebooking alternatives. In a statement published on February 25 that was seen by Simple Flying, the Solna, Sweden-headquartered airline says there no restrictions apply for rebooking or canceling Plus tickets. In addition to this, tickets for international travel can be rebooked free of charge up to three days before departure.
Like every other airline worldwide, SAS hopes that vaccinations will be the key to getting people to fly again. If proof of being vaccinated is all you will need to fly, we could see a bumper summer in air travel.
What do you think about SAS’ February numbers, and do you think they will improve as the year progresses? Please tell us what you think in the comments.
Cool: Video Shows NASA’s Super Guppy Landing At Mesa Gateway Airport
On Thursday, March 4th, NASA’s Super Guppy completed two flights. One flight was from Wichita (Kansas) to Phoenix’s Mesa Gateway Airport (Arizona) and another from Mesa Gateway to Palmdale (California). Local Phoenix news channel ABC15 had its helicopter in the air and captured some great video of the peculiar-looking aircraft performing its first landing of the day at Mesa Gateway. See if you can spot the difference in how this aircraft lands compared to other planes…
The flight and video
The landing, captured on video by ABC15 and posted to Twitter, took place on March 4th at about 13:08 local time, according to data from RadarBox.com.
ABC15 Arizona reported that Mesa Gateway is often the Super Guppy’s airport-of-choice for a refueling stop while it’s transporting pieces of the Orion heat shield. However, the purpose of Thursday’s stop went undisclosed.
Whatever the stopover at Mesa Gateway airport was, the aircraft’s landing sure made for a cool video-, especially with the local media’s helicopter in the sky:
— ABC15 Arizona (@abc15) March 4, 2021
Below is the flight path from Wichita to Phoenix. The aircraft spent just under 90 minutes at Mesa Gateway before continuing on to Palmdale, California. It reached its final destination at 15:07 local time.
The ‘atypical’ landing
From the video embedded above, we can see that the Super Guppy actually landed with its nose gear wheels touching down first. Shortly after, the aircraft’s main landing gear hit the surface of the runway and bounced back up. The second moment of contact between the main landing gear and the runway surface was more successful as the aircraft stayed ‘down’ after that.
For those that have done any flying at all- or have even just watched aircraft landing in person (or by watching video) – you’ll know the majority of planes commonly land with their rear wheels touching the runway first, with the aircraft’s nose pointed up.
In what is known as a ‘flare,’ the aircraft’s nose is raised. This allows the plane to land softly, with a slower rate of descent. However, this is not the case for the Super Guppy.
With the Super Guppy – an aircraft that is a heavily modified KC-97 Stratotanker – a nose-first landing is necessary. This is because the aircraft has a tendency to enter into a stall if the nose is brought up too far up.
This is something that was also noticed among Boeing 377 Stratocruisers (a close relative of the KC-97 Stratotanker). Without getting too technical, it’s been said that the aerodynamics of the plane were such that it just wanted to plant the nose wheel down first.
Have you ever seen an aircraft land by having its nose wheel touch down first? Let us know in the comments!
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