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A drop test is a method of testing the in-flight characteristics of prototype or experimental aircraft and spacecraft by raising the test vehicle lớn a specific altitude and then releasing it. Test flights involving powered aircraft, particularly rocket-powered aircraft, may be referred lớn as drop launches due lớn the launch of the aircraft's rockets after release from its carrier aircraft.
In the case of unpowered aircraft, the test vehicle falls or glides after its release in an unpowered descent lớn a landing site. Drop tests may be used lớn verify the aerodynamic performance and flight dynamics of the test vehicle, lớn test its landing systems, or lớn evaluate survivability of a planned or crash landing. This allows the vehicle's designers lớn validate computer flight models, wind tunnel testing, or other theoretical design characteristics of an aircraft or spacecraft's design.
High-altitude drop tests may be conducted by carrying the test vehicle aboard a mothership lớn a target altitude for release. Low-altitude drop tests may be conducted by releasing the test vehicle from a crane or gantry.
Aircraft and lifting-body testing
Carrier landing simulation tests
The landing gear on aircraft used on aircraft carriers must be stronger than thở those on land-based aircraft, due lớn higher approach speeds and sink rates during carrier landings. As early as the 1940s, drop tests were conducted by lifting a carrier-based plane such as the Grumman F6F Hellcat lớn a height of ten feet and then dropped, simulating the impact of a landing at nineteen feet per second (5.8 m/s). The F6F was ultimately dropped from a height of twenty feet (6.1 m), demonstrating it could absorb twice the force of a carrier landing. Drop tests are still used in the development and testing of carrier-based aircraft; in 2010, the Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II underwent drop tests lớn simulate its maximum descent rate of 26.4 feet per second (8.0 m/s) during carrier landings.
Numerous experimental and prototype aircraft have been drop tested or drop launched. Many powered X-planes, including the Bell X-1, Bell X-2, North American X-15, Martin Marietta X-24A and X-24B, Orbital Sciences X-34, Boeing X-40, and NASA X-43A were specifically designed lớn be drop launched. test articles of the unpowered NASA X-38 were also drop tested, from altitudes of up lớn 45,000 feet (14,000 m), in order lớn study its aerodynamic and handling qualities, autonomous flight capabilities, and deployment of its steerable parafoil.
Some experimental aircraft designed for airborne launches, such as the Northrop HL-10, have made both unpowered drop tests and powered drop launches. Prior lớn powered flights using its rocket engine, the HL-10 made 11 unpowered drop flights in order lớn study the handling qualities and stability of the lifting toàn thân in flight.
Balls 8 mothership
Early experimental aircraft, such as the X-1 and X-2, were carried aboard modified B-29 and B-50 bombers. In the 1950s, the United States Air Force provided NASA with a B-52 bomber lớn be used as a mothership for the experimental X-15. Built in 1955, the B-52 was only the 10th lớn come off the assembly line, and was used by the Air Force for flight testing before turning it over lớn NASA. Flying with NASA tail number 008, the plane was nicknamed Balls 8 by Air Force pilots, following a tradition of referring lớn aircraft numbered with multiple zeroes as "Balls" plus the final number.
Balls 8 received significant modifications in order lớn carry the X-15. A special pylon, designed lớn carry and release the X-15, was installed under the right wing between the fuselage and inboard engine. A notch was also cut out of one of the right wing's flaps ví that the plane could accommodate the X-15's vertical tail. Balls 8 was one of two such bombers modified lớn carry the X-15; while the other plane was retired in 1969 after the over of the X-15 program, NASA continued using Balls 8 for drop tests until it was retired in 2004. During its 50-year career, Balls 8 carried numerous experimental vehicles including the HL-10, X-24A, X-24B, X-38, and X-43A.
X-24B role in Space Shuttle development
During the design of the Space Shuttle orbiter in the 1970s, engineers debated whether lớn design the orbiter lớn glide lớn an unpowered landing or equip the orbiter with pop-out jet engines in order lớn make a powered landing. While powered landing design required carrying the engines and jet fuel, adding weight and complexity lớn the orbiter, engineers began favoring the powered landing option. In response, NASA conducted unpowered drop tests of the X-24B lớn demonstrate the feasibility of landing a lifting-body aircraft in unpowered flight. In 1975, the X-24B aircraft was dropped from a Balls 8 at an altitude of 45,000 feet (14,000 m) above the Mojave Desert, and then ignited rocket engines lớn increase tốc độ and propel it lớn 60,000 feet (18,000 m). Once the rocket engine cut off, the high-speed and high-altitude conditions permitted the X-24B lớn simulate the path of a Space Shuttle orbiter under post-atmospheric reentry conditions. The X-24B successfully made two unpowered precision landings at Edwards Air Force Base, demonstrating the feasibility of an unpowered lifting toàn thân design for the Space Shuttle. These successes convinced those in charge of the Space Shuttle program lớn commit lớn an unpowered landing design, which would save weight and increase the orbiter's payload capacity.
Space Shuttle Enterprise
In 1977, a series of drop tests of the Space Shuttle Enterprise were conducted lớn test the Space Shuttle's flight characteristics. Because the Space Shuttle is designed lớn glide unpowered during its descent and landing, a series of drop tests using a test orbiter were used lớn demonstrate that the orbiter could be successfully controlled in unpowered flight. These drop tests, known as the Approach and Landing Test program, used a modified Boeing 747, known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft or SCA, lớn carry Enterprise lớn an altitude of 15,000 lớn 30,000 feet (4,600 lớn 9,100 m). After a series of captive-flight tests in which the orbiter was not released, five free-flight tests were performed in August through October 1977.
While free-flight tests of Enterprise involved the release of an unpowered aircraft from a powered aircraft, these tests were not typical of drop testing because the orbiter was actually carried and released from a position above the SCA. This arrangement was potentially dangerous because it placed Enterprise in không lấy phí flight directly in front of the SCA's tail fin immediately after release. As a result, the "drop" was conducted by using a series of carefully planned maneuvers lớn minimize the risk of aircraft collision. Immediately after release, the Enterprise would climb lớn the right while the SCA performed a shallow dive lớn the left, allowing for quick vertical and horizontal separation between the two aircraft.
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In mid-2013, Sierra Nevada Corporation plans lớn conduct drop tests of its Dream Chaser prototype commercial spaceplane. The unmanned first flight test will drop the Dream Chaser prototype from an altitude of 12,000 feet (3,700 m) by a Columbia 234-UT helicopter, where it is planned that the vehicle will autonomously fly lớn an unpowered landing at Dryden Flight Research Center. The Dream Chaser successfully completed the free-flight and passed the drop test on November 11 over the Mojave Desert. The unmanned vehicle made a landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
Crewed capsule testing
Drop tests of prototype crewed space capsules may be done lớn test the survivability of landing, primarily by testing the capsule's descent characteristics and its post-reentry landing systems. These tests are typically carried out uncrewed prior lớn any human spaceflight testing.
Apollo command module
In 1963, North American Aviation built BP-19A, an uncrewed boilerplate Apollo command module for use in drop testing. NASA conducted a series of tests in 1964 which involved dropping BP-19A from a C-133 Cargomaster in order lớn test the capsule's parachute systems prior lớn the start of manned testing of the Apollo spacecraft.
In 2011 and 2012, NASA conducted a series of short drop tests on the survivability of water landings in its Orion crewed capsule by repeatedly dropping an Orion test vehicle into a large water basin. The tests simulated water landings at speeds varying from 7 lớn 50 mph (11 lớn 80 km/h) by changing the height of the drop gantry above the basin. The range of landing velocities allowed NASA lớn simulate a range of possible entry and landing conditions during water landings.
In 2011 and 2012, NASA also conducted drop tests of the Orion test vehicle's parachute systems and land-based landing capabilities. In each test, the Orion spacecraft was dropped from a C-17 or C-130 cargo plane. For testing, the capsule is mounted on a pallet system and placed inside the cargo aircraft. Parachutes on the pallet are used lớn pull the pallet and capsule out of the rear of the aircraft; the capsule then separates from the pallet and begins its không lấy phí fall descent.
On March 4, 2012, a C-17 dropped an Orion test article from an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,600 m). The capsule's parachutes successfully deployed between 15,000 lớn trăng tròn,000 feet (4,600 lớn 6,100 m), slowing the spacecraft lớn a landing on ground in the Arizona desert. The capsule landed at a tốc độ of 17 mph (27 km/h), well below the designed maximum touchdown tốc độ.
In September 2011, Boeing conducted a series of drop tests, carried out in the Mojave Desert of southeast California, lớn validate the design of the CST-100 capsule's parachute and airbag cushioning landing systems. The airbags are located underneath the heat shield of the CST-100, which is designed lớn be separated from the capsule while under parachute descent at about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) altitude. The tests were carried out at ground speeds between 10 and 30 miles per hour (16 and 48 km/h) in order lớn simulate cross wind conditions at the time of landing. Bigelow Aerospace built the mobile test rig and conducted the tests.
In April 2012, Boeing conducted another drop test of its CST-100 prototype space capsule in order lớn test the capsule's landing systems. The test vehicle was raised by helicopter lớn an altitude of 11,000 feet (3,400 m) and then released; the capsule's three main parachutes then deployed successfully and slowed the capsule's descent. Immediately prior lớn landing, the capsule's six airbags inflated underneath the capsule in order lớn absorb some of the impact energy from landing. Similar drop tests are planned in order lớn conduct additional airbag testing, as well as drogue chute and heat shield jettison tests.
In 2009 and 2010, NASA conducted a pair of drop tests lớn study the survivability of helicopter crashes. Using an MD 500 helicopter donated by the U.S. Army, NASA dropped the helicopter at an angle from an altitude of 35 feet (11 m) lớn simulate a hard helicopter landing. Sophisticated crash test dummies with simulated internal organs were located inside the helicopter and used lớn assess internal injuries from such a crash. Due lớn extensive damage lớn the test helicopter after the second test, no third test was planned.
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