Testbeds, Motherships & Parasites: Astonishing Aircraft from the Golden Age of Flight Test
Author: Frederick A. Johnsen
Publisher: Specialty Press
As long as aircraft have existed, there have been test planes. After the Second World War, the world entered into a new age of flight test as humans set their sights higher, faster, and further, ultimately leading into space itself. While many aircraft were purpose-built for these tests, another common occurrence was the conversion of existing airframes to function as either test aircraft themselves or support aircraft assisting other test vehicles. This book takes a look at these converted aircraft, filling an important hole in the historiography of test aircraft.
The book begins with the early history of parasite aircraft, going back to the Curtiss Sparrowhawk and the USS Macon dirigible before the Second World War, and the German Mistel and Japanese Betty/Ohka combinations that showed up towards the end of the war. After the war, the United States took on this idea of parasite aircraft with the XF-85 Goblin and FICON designs. Both saw tests with the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and Convair B-36 Peacemaker, including belly tests and wingtip tests.
Next up in the book are the bombers modified for testing purposes. These ranged from obsolete WW2 bombers such as the B-17 and B-24 as well as new designs coming off the assembly line, like the B-45, B-47, and B-52. Using existing airframes to test different components simplified testing procedures, so it is no surprise that these aircraft were pressed into work testing new engines and other easily transferred technologies. Along the same lines, transports were similarly converted into testbeds, such as the Boeing 707 and 747.
Following these big testbed aircraft, the book then delves into the test aircraft from the neighbor to the north, Canada. Like the United States, this country impressed into service many existing aircraft as testbeds. The book covers such common types as the Beech 18 and the Vickers Viscount, but probably the most interesting from these aircraft would be the Canadian B-47 Stratojet, replete with a large turbojet mounted on the rear fuselage.
Motherships are the next area of interest, and it is here that we see some of the more interesting test aircraft. Not necessarily in the motherships themselves, but in what they carried underneath. Here you will find the B-29 and B-50 motherships to the X-1 and X-2 program, as well as the lesser known Orbital Sciences Lockheed L-1011 mothership. The most renowned mothership, though, would have to be the B-52 Stratofortress, from which we saw the X-15 shoot to new altitudes and speeds, and lifting bodies fall powerless to earth, both of which helped guide the next aircraft carried by a mothership: the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle and its 747 carrier aircraft gets its own chapter and rightfully so as it was unique in so many ways. The book finishes up with interesting under-wing subjects such as drones, the latest Scale Composites motherships, and miscellaneous smaller converted test aircraft throughout the decades.
This book offers up an interesting history of these aircraft, and the photos throughout help bring them to life. The text, though, is particularly enjoyable to read, made all the more so for me as I've had a passing acquaintance with the author. In fact, my first memory of Mr Johnsen would be a vague recollection as a small child, of a station wagon parked out back by my parent's garage as he and my dad chatted away about various bits and pieces of airplanes found in junkyards across the American West. The result of that meant that as a kid I got to hold original WW2 gunsights and even a P-63 spinner. That history of aviation archeology exhibited by Mr Johnsen has definitely carried over into his writing, and the result is a story that is both thorough and passionate in its telling.
My thanks to Specialty Press for the review copy. Visit their website to order this and other quality publications.