December 6, 2010 12:29 AM   Subscribe

The X-37B OTV has landed. (previously) and (previously) Launched in late April the space plane was tracked by amateur astronomers and sky watchers during its 7-month stay in orbit. The X-37 has he capability to maneuver changing orbit, track, and altitude. This led to a cat and mouse game with the earthbound skygazers. The X-37B is one of the latest in a series of experimental aircraft known as the X-planes.

The X-planes have a long and storied history. From the original sound barrier breaking X-1, to the original space plane the X-15, the X-series of aircraft have represented the cutting edge of aeronautical innovation for the last 65 years.

Accomplishments of the X-Plane family have been many. The program included: (1) the first aircraft to break the sound barrier; (2) the first aircraft to use a variable-sweep-wing in flight; (3) the first to fly at altitudes in excess of 30,000, 60,000, and 90,000 m (100,000, 200,000 and 300,000Êft); (4) the first to use exotic alloy metals for primary structure; (5) the first to test gimbaled jet and rocket engines; (6) the first to use jet-thrust for launch and landing; (7) the first to fly three, four, five, and six times the speed of sound; (8) the first to test boundary-layer-airflow control theories over an entire wing at transonic speeds; (9) the first to successfully complete a 180-degree turn using a post-stall maneuver; and (10) the first missile to reach an intercontinental flight range.


X-1, X-2, X-3, X-4, X-5, X-6, X-7, X-8, X-9, X-10, X-11, X-12, X-13, X-14, X-15, X-16, X-17, X-18, X-19, X-20, X-21, X-22, X-23, X-24, X-25, X-26, X-27, X-28, X-29, X-30, X-31, X-32, X-33, X-34, X-35, X-36, X-37, X-38, X-39, X-40, X-41, X-42, X-43, X-44, X-45, X-46, X-47, X-48, X-49, X-50, X-51, X-52, X-53, X-54, X-55

There are also several series of X-planes that preceded or paralleled the current X naming scheme.

XA series - Prototype or experimental attack aircraft

Stearman XA-21, Douglas XA-26;A;B, Vultee XA-31A;B;C, Brewster XA-32;A, Beech XA-38 Grizzly, Vultee XA-41

XB series - Prototype or experimental bomber aircraft

North American XB-25E;F;G, Martin XB-26H, North American XB-28, Boeing XB-29, Lockheed XB-30, Consolidated XB-32 Dominator, XB-34 - not used; see B-34 Lexington, Northrop XB-35, Convair XB-36, XB-37 - not used; see B-37, Boeing/Lockheed Vega XB-38, Boeing XB-39, Boeing/Lockheed Vega XB-40, Consolidated XB-41, Douglas XB-42 Mixmaster, Douglas XB-43 Jetmaster, Boeing/Pratt & Whitney XB-44, North American XB-45 Tornado, Convair XB-46, Boeing XB-47 Stratojet, Martin XB-48, Northrop XB-49, Martin XB-51, Boeing XB-52, Convair XB-53, Convair XB-58 Hustler, Convair XB-60, and my personal favorite X-Plane the North American XB-70 Valkyrie with bonus pics 1(with the X-15), 2, 3, 4

XC Series

LTV XC-142, Convair XC-99

XF Series - This series covers post-World War II fighter development when the newly independent USAF changed the "P" pursuit designation to "F" for fighter.

Convair XF-81, Bell XF-83, Republic XF-84H Thunderscreech, McDonnell XF-85 Goblin(you may remember seeing this here), Curtiss XF-87 Blackhawk, McDonnell XF-88 Voodoo, Northrop XF-89 Scorpion, Lockheed XF-90, Republic XF-91 Thunderceptor, Convair XF-92 Dart, Republic XF-103 Thunderwarrior, Lockheed XF-104, North American XF-108 Rapier

XP Series - This series covers fighter development up to the end of World War II.

Boeing XP-4, Boeing XP-7, Boeing XP-8, Boeing XP-9, Curtiss XP-10, Thomas-Morse XP-13 Viper, Boeing XP-15, Curtiss XP-17, Curtiss XP-21 Hawk, Curtiss XP-22 Hawk, Curtiss XP-23 Hawk, Curtiss XP-31 Swift, Bell XP-39, Seversky XP-41, Curtiss XP-42, Curtiss XP-46, Douglas XP-48, Lockheed XP-49, Grumman XP-50 Skyrocket, North American XP-51 Mustang, Bell XP-52, Curtiss XP-53, Vultee XP-54 Swoose Goose, Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, Northrop XP-56 Black Bullet, Lockheed XP-58 Chain Lightning, Bell XP-59 Airacomet, Curtiss XP-60, Curtiss XP-62, McDonnell XP-67 Bat, Curtiss XP-71, Republic XP-72, Hughes XP-73, Bell XP-76, Bell XP-77, North American XP-78; redesignated XP-51B, Northrop XP-79 Flying Ram

U.S. Navy "X" designations

Boeing XF8B, Curtiss XF14C, Grumman XF5F Skyrocket, Grumman XF10F Jaguar, Bell XFL Airabonita, Bell XF3L, Ryan XF2R, Chance Vought XF5U, Lockheed XFV, Convair XFY-1, Convair XF2Y-1 Sea Dart


Bell XV-15, SAX-40

Non-"X" designations

AstroFlight Sunrise, Boeing Bird of Prey, Boeing Skyfox, Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket, FALCON, Goodyear Inflatoplane, Lockheed Have Blue, Lockheed P-175 Polecat, NASA M2-F1, NASA AD-1 Oblique Wing, Northrop HL-10, Northrop M2-F2, Northrop M2-F3, Northrop Tacit Blue, HiMAT, Roton ATV, Boomerang, Proteus, ALTUS, Pathfinder, Helios
posted by AElfwine Evenstar (46 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
oh. oh yeah. we have (had) robots in orbit. With payload and "eyes".
frikkin props aelfy
posted by clavdivs at 1:08 AM on December 6, 2010

Awesome post, thank you. Something I always wanted to see was a 'family tree' of X-planes. Meaning some of these are direct descendants or siblings of each other. For example, the X-30, the DC-X and the X-33 (and others I am surely forgetting) were all part of the Shuttle replacement efforts, which kind of defaulted down to the X-37B.
posted by costas at 1:14 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

X-cellent post.
posted by sien at 1:23 AM on December 6, 2010

I do so like these best post months.
posted by wilful at 1:23 AM on December 6, 2010

{Homer Simpson donut voice}

" It...uses a hydrazine monopropellant rocket."
posted by clavdivs at 1:30 AM on December 6, 2010

That is one hell of a post.
posted by CRM114 at 2:12 AM on December 6, 2010

Great post.
So after 4 years of development and 109 million dollars of NASA funding the project is classified and transferred to the Dept of Defense. Hardly seems fair.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 2:15 AM on December 6, 2010

Looks like a big bomb to me, even more since the DoD has it now. Wonder who the plan on dropping it on?
posted by Old'n'Busted at 4:51 AM on December 6, 2010

You need to talk to someone in the nuclear submarine arena psycho-alchemy. It'll make the space plane people look a lot more laid back.

"Do they paint them gray?" "I'm not allowed to answer that question."
"Do they really go underwater?" "I'm sorry, that information is classified"
"Is today the sixth?" "I can neither confirm or deny..."

I mean I understand that keeping their location a secret is a big portion of their power as a deterrent and that defense analysis is all about gleaning big secrets from a bunch of little details but there comes a point where you've crossed a line into rampant paranoia.

The preceding was somewhat tongue in cheek for humorous effect. Somewhat."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:05 AM on December 6, 2010

Goddamnit, I don't have nearly enough time to go through all these links.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 5:07 AM on December 6, 2010

I don't know what this aircraft does to the enemy, but by God it terrifies me...

"The XF-84H was quite possibly the loudest aircraft ever built, earning the nickname "Thunderscreech" as well as the "Mighty Ear Banger". On the ground "run ups", the prototypes could reportedly be heard 25 miles (40 km) away. Unlike standard propellers that turn at subsonic speeds, the outer 24–30 inches of the blades on the XF-84H's propeller traveled faster than the speed of sound even at idle thrust, producing a continuous visible sonic boom that radiated laterally from the propellers for hundreds of yards. The shock wave was actually powerful enough to knock a man down; an unfortunate crew chief who was inside a nearby C-47 was severely incapacitated during a 30-minute ground run. Coupled with the already considerable noise from the subsonic aspect of the propeller and the dual jet turbines, the aircraft was notorious for inducing severe nausea and headaches among ground crews. In one report, a Republic engineer suffered a seizure after close range exposure to the shock waves emanating from a powered-up XF-84H."

A project of uncommon fail. Worth reading the whole article.
posted by Devonian at 5:11 AM on December 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

The basic capability of the X37B is to bring a small amount of cargo up and also bring some back down. That second part, also called downmass, is the critical capability that we are losing with the retirement of the shuttle. Without it, we can only bring back from orbit a hundred pounds or so in the Soyuz capsules, basically what they can fit in the returning cosmonauts' laps.

Tomorrow morning, SpaceX will be testing their Falcon 9 / Dragon system for the first time, and that will be the key to restoring downmass capability for the US. You might want to watch NASA TV starting at 9am on Tuesday ...
posted by intermod at 5:16 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

The "Missing Designations" page is really interesting and something I've always wondered about. (I found it via the X-52 but it may be up there elsewhere)

I also wonder about the ones that don't sound that exciting and have really vague descriptions because we all know what was wedged in between the U-1 and the U-3.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:24 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ye gods, what a post. Well done!
posted by jquinby at 5:55 AM on December 6, 2010

Devonian: pair the XF84h with the X-6/Project Pluto and you've got yourself a winner!
posted by Old'n'Busted at 6:01 AM on December 6, 2010

amazing! thanks for all the great info
posted by zombieApoc at 6:13 AM on December 6, 2010

wow! great post!
posted by rmd1023 at 6:53 AM on December 6, 2010

"I do so like these best post months."

Much better than the worst post months.
posted by Eideteker at 8:27 AM on December 6, 2010

Very neat. Brings back fond memories; I was once hired to do a penetration test of a NASA contractor where the objective was the plans for the X-33. Anybody want some blueprints?
posted by scalefree at 8:43 AM on December 6, 2010

Someone really wants to win the "best post in December" contest.

Well, my day is shot hitting all these links. ;-)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:48 AM on December 6, 2010

Death from Above.
posted by mecran01 at 9:00 AM on December 6, 2010

I really hope you didn't type this entire post out by hand.

But of course I only make the best handcrafted posts for metafilter. :) Actually to be honest I began by assembling my list for the current x-plane series from these sites. I was also going to include the navy and non x designations that I knew about when I stumbled across the list from wikipedia and decided that they had better layout and presentation than any of the other sites. So to make a long story short I typed out the original list by hand and some of the other x series until I found the wikipedia list and began crosschecking and using that one as my guide.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:47 AM on December 6, 2010

There is much awesomeness here.

But I have one question about the X designation. Missiles like the X-11 and X-12 clearly aren't planes, they aren't even piloted. How did these rockets rate an X Plane designation? It appears these two USAF missiles became standard NASA Atlas rockets used in the Mercury program, losing their X-Plane status.

If I had to guess, it would be that the X-11 and X-12 started as USAF projects and they didn't have any other designation for miscellaneous experimental projects. It reminds me of Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, which detailed how the USAF had a parallel space program based on the X-Planes that competed with NASA.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:39 AM on December 6, 2010

It's a damn cryin' shame they don't build planes as awesome looking as the XB-70 Valkyrie anymore.
posted by PenDevil at 11:10 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hydrazine is NAZI JUICE!
posted by Artw at 11:14 AM on December 6, 2010

It's a damn cryin' shame they don't build planes as awesome looking as the XB-70 Valkyrie anymore.

It was the basis for the American SST before they cancelled that as well, so it could have been an airliner!
posted by Artw at 11:17 AM on December 6, 2010

But I have one question about the X designation. Missiles like the X-11 and X-12 clearly aren't planes, they aren't even piloted. How did these rockets rate an X Plane designation? It appears these two USAF missiles became standard NASA Atlas rockets used in the Mercury program, losing their X-Plane status.

If you follow the first link from the more inside section you will be taken to a .pdf monograph which is titled: "American X-Vehicles: An Inventory X-1 to X-50". Here is an excerpt from the introduction.

There has been some criticism that the use of X designations has been corrupted somewhat by including what are essentially prototypes of future operational aircraft, especially the two JSF demonstrators. But this is not new—the X-11 and X-12 from the 1950s were going to be prototypes of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile, and the still-born Lockheed X-27 was always intended as a prototype of a production aircraft. So although this practice does not represent the best use of “X” designations, it is not without precedent.

My use of the term x-plane is not technically correct, but it is the popular term used to describe the series. As the linked .pdf illustrates the technically correct term is x-vehicle. Normally x-vehicles were not prototypes for future production vehicles but rather test beds for proving new technological advancements. As pointed out by the excerpt this has not always been the case as evidenced by the X-12, X-13, X-27, X32, and X-35.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:37 AM on December 6, 2010

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the Goodyear Inflatoplane.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:39 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kid Charlemagne: "we all know what was wedged in between the U-1 and the U-3"

Oh, I can't wait for the next conversation in which the U-2 comes up, so I can arch my eyebrows and say "U-2? I flew the U-3!"
posted by pjern at 11:41 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the effort. I look forward to leisurely perusing this.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:30 PM on December 6, 2010

Great post.
posted by hamida2242 at 1:06 PM on December 6, 2010

Favorited merely for what An Awesome FPP This Is!
posted by IAmBroom at 1:50 PM on December 6, 2010

Could they please add some (useless) windows? That blank fuselage gives me claustrophobia.
posted by Cranberry at 1:53 PM on December 6, 2010

Superb post, AElfwine. Absolutely superb. I'm bookmarking it into my vehicle reference image file.

Man, I dunno why, but I love me that XB-58 Hustler. It is just one mean, badass looking airplane!
posted by zoogleplex at 8:41 PM on December 6, 2010

check out the WS-110A.
posted by wilful at 8:55 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I dunno, that one looks kinda wispy and graceful in the same way the XB-70 does. Don't get me wrong, both planes are sinister in their own way, but they've got a kind of swan-like feel to the shapes.

The B-58 looks like it's heading to a street fight and expects to take a few punches before it knocks the other guy down with a couple of massive haymakers and a chair to the head.

Of course, if you want a really fierce, tough-looking bulldog of a jet fighter, you want this one here. (Not an X-plane by any stretch.)
posted by zoogleplex at 9:36 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I rather like the V bombers myself.
posted by Artw at 9:38 PM on December 6, 2010

This one (the X-55) appears to be winning the prize for ugliest, or least graceful, aeroplane.
posted by wilful at 9:51 PM on December 6, 2010

I rather like the V bombers myself.

Artw, then you will like this: an Avro Vulcan was just restored and here is an article with video of its first flight. Here is their official website.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:18 AM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Growing up I lived on a hill in Bedfordshire overlooking an airbase - 2 airbases actually, but the one to the north was a US one and had a giant Echelon spy antenae and no planes - anyway, every year the RAF airbase we overlooked would put on an airshow and we'd be right under the flightpath for planes. It was great, and the nest bit would always be when the Vulcan flew overhead, really, really low to the ground. Those things were huge, and it would seem to be traveling quite slowly, so it was like an Imperial Star Destroyer going overhead. The sound was like nothing else.
posted by Artw at 6:01 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of course, having those airbases were a mixed bag, in that we kids were all dead certain that should there be a nuclear war we'd be a target twice over and therefore get nuked first.
posted by Artw at 6:29 AM on December 7, 2010

We had XH-558 (that charlie don't surf links to above) do a couple of low passes over our house last year (we're near the Yorkshire Air Museum), very nostalgic.

Unfortunately to preserve the engines and airframe it can't do the kind of display they used to do, but if it keeps it flying for a few more years I can forgive them.
posted by hardcode at 7:24 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

it can't do the kind of display they used to do

Wow! That's some expert low speed manuvering. Thanks for the links.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:43 AM on December 8, 2010

That's the sort of thing. Absolutely amazing to be under it when it's passing low like that.
posted by Artw at 10:46 AM on December 8, 2010

After the Helios crashed, Bruce Sterling remarked "Well, at least they had a solar-powered robot drone to crash."
posted by lodurr at 12:34 PM on December 10, 2010

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