NASA Turns US Navy’s F/A-18 Fighter Jet Into A ‘Chase Master’; Will Be Used To Track & Click X-59 QueSST

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) is on the brink of achieving flight certification for a “rejuvenated F/A-18D aircraft,” which will assume a crucial role in monitoring the supersonic X-59 and capturing breathtaking visuals. 

In a recent press release, NASA announced that a F/A-18 aircraft, acquired from the U.S. Navy in 2021, has undergone an extensive rejuvenation process.

The aircraft has been adorned with NASA’s distinct colors and is now in the final stages of obtaining flight certification at the AFRC.

With assistance from the U.S. Air Force Corrosion Control Facility, commonly referred to as the Paint Barn, located at Edwards Air Force Base, the F/A-18D aircraft, now known as NASA 862, has undergone a transformation to reflect NASA’s distinctive colors.  

This rejuvenated aircraft is slated to become part of the Armstrong Flight Research Center’s fleet and will be primarily utilized to track or “chase” the supersonic X-59 aircraft.

NASA 862, which is an F/A-18D, departs with its fresh colors from the U.S. Air Force Corrosion Control Facility on Edwards Air Force Base in California for its nearby home at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.
NASA 862, which is a F/A-18D, departs with its fresh colors from the U.S. Air Force Corrosion Control Facility on Edwards Air Force Base in California for its nearby home at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

Additionally, NASA 862 will serve as a platform for videographers and photographers to capture captivating footage and images during flights. 

NASA is currently in the process of developing the supersonic X-59 QueSST aircraft, demonstrating its commitment to advanced aeronautical research. 

In November 2022, the project achieved a significant milestone with the installation of an engine in the X-59. 

Furthermore, in Jan 2023, it was announced that the first flight of the X-59 is scheduled to occur before the end of 2023, marking a major step forward in NASA’s pursuit of supersonic flight capabilities.

As an experimental aircraft, the X-59 is specifically designed to operate at significantly higher altitudes compared to conventional commercial transport planes while maintaining safety standards consistent with supersonic passenger aircraft designs. 

This unique capability can potentially establish a dedicated “highway” in the sky for future supersonic commercial aircraft. 

In 2021, NASA also revealed its plan to employ an F-15 Eagle fighter jet to track and measure the sound waves produced by the X-59 during supersonic flight. 

Two of NASA’s F-15 research aircraft take off supporting the agency’s Shock-Sensing Probe (SSP) research flight series at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

This tracking process is facilitated by a specialized tool called the Airborne Location Integrating Geospatial Navigation System (ALIGNS) installed on the F-15. 

The ALIGNS system includes an antenna that enables the fighter pilot to accurately coordinate their movements while pursuing the X-59, ensuring precise data collection and analysis. 

However, in addition to the F-15 Eagle, F/A-18 aircraft will also be deployed to chase the X-59 during its supersonic flights. 

Journey Of Acquiring F/A-18 Super Hornet

The journey to acquire and prepare the F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft commenced in 2020, marking a significant milestone for NASA.

Troy Asher, the Director for Flight Operations at NASA Armstrong, initiated the process of replacing the center’s outdated two-seat F/A-18B models with newer aircraft.

To fulfill this objective, Asher assigned the task to Jack Ly, a flight operations engineer at NASA Armstrong, to evaluate various aircraft options that align with the center’s mission.

After careful consideration, Ly identified the F/A-18D, subsequently designated as NASA 862, in May 2021 at its original location, the U.S. Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

Ly led a team to thoroughly inspect the aircraft, including its airframe and component records, ultimately recommending its selection. While the F/A-18D may be considered aged by military standards, it is relatively more modern than the F/A-18B, and its components are more readily available.

U.S. Air Force Corrosion Control Facility’s Shelby Youngo paints tail art onto NASA 862, which is F/A-18D based at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

Over four months, the military equipment on the aircraft was removed in preparation for its transfer to NASA Armstrong.

The aircraft was delivered to NASA Armstrong in October 2021, and subsequent arrangements were made to send it to the Naval Air Station North Island Base near San Diego in June 2022 for extensive depot-level maintenance.

The funding for the rejuvenation of the aircraft was provided by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate and NASA Armstrong.

To facilitate its participation in NASA Armstrong missions, the aircraft underwent an overhaul procedure necessary after a specific number of flight hours. This involved removing the wings, conducting corrosion inspections, modernizing systems, and carrying out other vital inspections and servicing.

Additionally, technicians installed full aircraft controls in the rear cockpit, allowing dual-pilot training and proficiency maintenance. The maintenance performed on NASA 862 is expected to extend the aircraft’s lifespan to approximately 40 years based on NASA Armstrong’s usage.

File Image: NASA

In February 2023, NASA 862 returned to NASA Armstrong and subsequently underwent sanding, masking, and preparation for painting at the Paint Barn in March.

It later returned to the Paint Barn to receive the distinctive NASA Armstrong paint scheme, along with the final application of safety decals and NASA and Armstrong identifications. The aircraft made its way back to NASA Armstrong on May 15.

NASA entered the aircraft into its Aircraft Management Information System and conducted weight and balance checks. The initial airworthiness review for the aircraft is expected to be completed this month.

Once finalized, Asher will sign the airworthiness certificate and submit it to Center Director Brad Flick for final approval, paving the way for the aircraft to commence its flights.