The C-141 Starlifter That Had A Mission To Catch The Space Shuttle

When two space-age technologies come together…almost (The KAO and the Space Shuttle)


The Gerard P Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) C-141 – Note the opening forward of the wing for the telescope.

The C-141 Starlifter That Had A Mission To Catch The Space Shuttle — – We Love All Things Aviation

The best, deep-space optical observatories are mounted high in tall mountains. This is to avoid the light distortion caused by denser atmosphere at lower levels. Even so, infrared light—light that travels easily across vast distances in space—is quickly absorbed by slight amounts of water vapor. To get the clearest infrared images without actually going into space is to mount a telescope on an aircraft that can operate above 41,000 feet above sea level.

In 1965, NASA converted a Convair 990 airliner, the Galileo Observatory, for astronomical observations. In 1973, that aircraft was destroyed in a mid-air collision during a landing at Moffett Naval Air Station (Moffett Federal Airfield today).

Later that year, NASA selected and specially modified and outfitted a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter (N714NA, S/N 6110) with a 36-inch optical telescope mounted on a stabilized platform to serve as a high-altitude observatory. The aircraft was named the Gerard P. Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO).

This was at the same time that the Space Shuttle Columbia was preparing to make its first orbital flights. Concerned about the heat of reentry, it was determined that the KAO C-141 could be used to take “Infrared Imagery of the Shuttle” (IRIS) to collect high resolution infrared images of the Shuttle’s underside during reentry to obtain accurate heating data.

Read more and see more photos:

Note: I have recently been asked to write articles for an aviation blog. Some of you who follow my blog may share my interest in aviation; if so, and if you are not familiar with, you may want to check it out.

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Balls Eight – The B-52 That Was The Mother of Mother Ships

How engineers used a B-52 to rapidly advance our understanding of supersonic flight


NB-52A-0003, takes off with an X-15 mounted under the right wing.

The Challenge: The engineers have designed and developed a new aircraft that can fly five times the speed of sound (Mach 5), but it does not carry enough fuel to take off from a runway and climb to its operational altitude.

The Answer: launch it from another aircraft—the “mother ship”—that will carry it to its operational altitude so it can begin the flight from there. This article outlines a brief history of two B-52 aircraft that would support the X-15 program, one of which would continue in the role as a “mother ship” for another 35 years.

NB-52A High and the Mighty

NB-52A Preparing for an X-15 flight early in the program.

While the B-52 was not the first “mother ship” (a modified B-29 Superfortress bomber was used to launch the Bell X-1 and Chuck Yeager on the first supersonic flight in 1947), this is a brief history of two B-52s that defined and lived the role for nearly fifty years.
By the time the North American X-15 hypersonic test aircraft was ready for testing, the B-52 Stratofortress was available, and two B-52s were transferred to Edwards AFB to act as mother ships for the X-15.

Read More…

Note: I have recently been asked to write articles for an aviation blog. Some of you who follow my blog may share my interest in aviation; if so, and if you are not familiar with, you may want to check it out.

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Jefferson or Hyacinth Bean…

Plant and Stand Back!

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Hyacinth Bean Seed Envelope

Don’t have a green thumb? I think I have found the answer.

Early this summer, on a trip to Thomas Jefferson’s summer home, Poplar Forest, I picked up a package of seeds from the gift shop. Jefferson was interested in many things, plants being one of those interests. The gift shop sells seeds from plants that Jefferson had presumably selected for Poplar Forest or Monticello. Having no idea what I might be getting, I bought a pack of Hyacinth Bean (Dolichos lablab) seeds.

I had a small bed around the flagpole in front of the house that needed something, so I planted the seeds there. There were eight seeds in the pack. Each seed was the size of large pea.

It was not until that afternoon, after planting the seeds that I thought to do a little research. Easy to find, the description told me that it was an ornamental vine with pinkish-purple flowers.

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After about Three Weeks, Sprouts are Reaching for Something to Climb

A few more sentences suggest a “sturdy support” because the plants would grow 10 to 15 feet tall and a “sturdy trellis” was suggested. I have no trellis, but the flag pole would certainly support one or two plants.

I collected some green fencing wire that had been used for climbing beans, and cut enough to make a column about three feet in diameter and set the ring down over my rain-gauge post. I retrieved three beans from the flag pole garden and planted them inside the fence ring. Although not very tall, I guessed it would give the vine a little space to grow and keep the blooms at eye level.

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Old Telescope Used as a Flagpole Garden Feature for the Hyacinth Bean

The plants sprouted within a matter of days, and within two weeks the vines were searching for something to climb. I set an old telescope in the flagpole garden. The telescope is now barely visible, and the vines are easily 15 feet up the flag pole.

As advertised, the blossoms are light purple to pink and they resemble bean flowers in their shape and arrangement. They are supposed to bloom well into September.

After several weeks, reddish-purple bean pods began to appear. I will let them reach full size, then collect the beans and begin thinking about where I can plant them next year.

The beans are supposed to be edible, but a word of caution, they can also be poisonous—they have to be cooked properly to be safe to eat. I do not plan to supplement my garden harvest with hyacinth beans—not this year, anyway!


Hyacinth Bean Flower

According to one source, “Thomas Jefferson’s favorite nurseryman Bernard McMahon sold hyacinth bean vine plants to Jefferson in 1804. Because of this, the hyacinth bean is also known as Jefferson bean. These fabulous heirloom plants are now featured at Monticello in the Colonial kitchen garden.”

Based on some quick research, the best time to harvest the bean seedpods is just before the season’s first frost. Seeds can be removed from the pods easily. Store seeds in a paper envelop (not a plastic baggie) in a cool dry location for planting the next spring.

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Young Hyacinth Bean Pods

Plant seeds in good average soil, in full to partial sunlight. Provide a trellis or fence or other support—up to 20 feet tall—for the vines. I saw no signs of insect damage, and we had a problem with Japanese beetles elsewhere in the yard this year).

For these and other heirloom seeds of both annuals and perennials, check out “The Shop” at Monticello ( ) for next year.


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The Forks Inn: “…confluence of Highland hospitality and comfort.”

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We recently traveled to West Virginia for a family reunion, and I took the initiative to arrange lodging since we decided not to take the camper. Wanting to avoid the numbered motels, I was looking for something unique to the area. A quick online search led me to the Forks Inn.

Although the Shavers Fork Riverside Cabins sounded ideal, it was clear they were designed (and priced) for larger groups. The phrase that caught my attention was “…5 beautiful guest rooms with million dollar views.”

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The Forks Inn (upper level) and Restaurant (lower level)

A quick phone call and the room was arranged.

When we arrived, there was no one on the property, but they had arranged for us to have a key and access to the room. The room was very nice, especially after the relatively poor experience we had the night before at the Grayson Inn in Grayson, Kentucky.

Really, this is a good, above average comfortably furnished hotel/motel room, on the second floor above the The Forks Restaurant below.  Because the building is built into a hillside, there is parking just outside the room door.

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The “Million Dollar View”–It was very nice.

As for the “million-dollar view,” well it was quite nice. And the deck outside the back of the room made it easy to enjoy—a perfect place for that early morning cup of coffee. The deck faces due east and the sun rose over a mountain top each morning, every morning was different, but always worth getting up for.

All of the rooms had recently been renovated with new beds and down-alternative bedding, new flooring, new fixtures, all decorated in what call casual, mountain decor. It was comfortable. And the daily maid service included breakfast pastries and plenty of coffee. (That bed was really comfortable.)

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The Room was Quite Comfortable

The Forks Restaurant, downstairs, is a wholly unique experience, from the atmosphere to the service and exquisitely prepared meals. When asked where we were staying by family members at the reunion, each one responded by saying “They have the best restaurant in the area.”

We have two perspectives on the cost of food when traveling. First, most of our traveling is in our camper with good homemade meals at a modest cost. Our second perspective is from the twelve years in New Jersey, where any really nice meal for two people was almost certainly in excess of $100. The Forks fits comfortably between these two extremes. An excellent steak can be had for $20. Of course, if you add drinks, appetizers, etc., the tab is likely to be around $75.00 for two. Reasonable, especially for the quality of the food and service.

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The Forks Inn Outside Dining Area

If you find yourself headed to the Elkins area of West Virginia, I highly recommend considering staying at, and most certainly dining at, the Forks Inn and Restaurant.

For more information on The Forks Inn go to:



Forks Inn Gallery

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To the High Falls of the Cheat River…

On the New Tygart Flyer. DSC_0212 (900x602)


Two years ago, we traveled to West Virginia and stayed in East Fork Campground. That year we rode the Durbin Rocket. This year, we went to Elkins, West Virginia, some 40 miles north of Durbin, and rode the New Tygart Flyer. This four-hour trip was an entirely different experience.

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The New Tygart Flyer at the Station

The Tygart Flyer is a restored General Motors Electro Motive Division (EMD) FP7 1,500 horsepower diesel locomotive produced between June 1949 and December 1953. This engine type was used for both passenger and freight service. Engines like these were seen frequently at what is today One Station Square in Elkins. The engine is accompanied by a second engine for additional pulling power. This second engine is controlled by the front engine.

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Interior of Car C. Comfortable Seating, Casual Dining, and Viewing

We arrived at the station about an hour before the 10:45 boarding time, allowing plenty of time for photos. The entire train consisted of the two engine units and six cars. The cars include a parlor car—imagine “first class” on a train. There was also a kitchen car in which fresh, hot meals can be prepared enroute. This car is used on special dinner excursions. The remaining cars are standard passenger cars, except that the typical train seats have been replaced with tables and chairs.

We boarded on time, through the parlor car and made our way back to car C.

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The Trip Includes Many Views of the Cheat River

After leaving the city limits of Elkins, the tracks begin their climb up the mountain. The incline is not noticeable, and the diesel engines pulled us effortlessly up the mountain. The first tracks were laid between 1900 and 1905. Originally, these trains ran throughout the Monongahela Mountains to carry timber and coal out of the mountains. Passenger service came later.


The trip up the mountain passes over a bridge and through a tunnel and dense woodland, by fishing camps and mountain towns, and then along the Cheat River, offering many, changing vistas through the large rail car windows. The route also crosses an abandoned railroad bed and by an abandoned bridge.

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Abandoned Railroad Bridge, built c. 1905

Photography through the windows is remarkably clear and sharp, more affected by the train’s motion than the clean glass.

On the trip up, a buffet lunch is served in the dining car for passengers to take back to their seats. The meal included a good selection of lunch meats and cheeses, bread, and sides so that each person could assemble his or her lunch. Desserts, cookies, and beverages are included. And the buffet remained opened the entire trip.

At the top of the mountain, the train stops and passengers have the opportunity to deboard to explore the High Falls of the Cheat River.

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Passengers Deboard to Explore the High Falls of the Cheat.

There are several viewing levels above and below the falls with walkways and platforms. The hour set aside for the falls is sufficient to explore all levels of the falls, take photos, or just relax by the rapidly flowing river and enjoy the cool, fresh air.

Water drops about ten to twelve feet over the falls that are about 100 yards wide. The train or a three-mile uphill hiking trail are the only access to the fall. Tent camping is permitted near the falls, and campers can make arrangements to ride the train to the falls, and camp for one or more nights, and ride the train back.

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High Falls of the Cheat

Throughout the trip, our hostess explained many interesting facts about the train and the history of the area, pointed out common wildflowers visible from the train, and even conducted a brief sing-along on the return trip.

The entire trip was thoroughly enjoyable. Having experienced rides on several restored trains, one thing I have noticed—each train is a unique experience.

Trip Gallery

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Flying Buzz Saw – Literally

It was a quiet morning in the mountains…

I had selected a room at an inn on what should have been a quiet mountainside for our trip to West Virginia. The mountain vista from the balcony was the perfect accompaniment to an early morning cup of coffee. It was not entirely quiet because because of a moderately busy highway several hundred yards below the inn, but trees muffled the sound to an acceptable level.


Quiet View from Inn Balcony

Inside, refilling my coffee, I could hear the sound of an approaching engine. I assumed it was a heavily laden gravel truck using his Jake Brake to control speed down the steep grade. Soon, however, the sound was directly overhead, and clearly a low flying helicopter.

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McDonnell Douglas Helicopter – the Source of the Noise

I can’t resist aircraft noise. I grabbed my camera and headed out the front door in time to see the flying hedge trimmer!

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Helicopter with 40-ft Tree Trimmer Clearing Tree Limbs from Power Line Right-of-Way

Above the trees, directly across the road, a helicopter was hovering with a huge string of rotating saw blades suspended below the chopper. The  pilot was working the blade up and down, and forward trimming tree limbs back from the power lines.

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Gas Powered Tree Trimmer Suspended from Helicopter

It was clear to me that it would have been impossible to trim the trees on this rocky slope any other way, except to cut down whole trees. After about an hour of trimming, the power lines were bordered by neatly square-trimmed trees.

To see this saw in action–like I did–go to: .







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The Aviation Museum of Kentucky

Serendipity – While planning a trip to a family reunion, I discovered an aviation museum within minutes of our planned route. It was a well-timed and worthwhile side-trip.

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The Aviation Museum of Kentucky is set in a rolling bluegrass landscape, adjacent to the Blue  Grass Airport terminal in Lexington. This 12,000 square feet of space, includes two hangars and a gift shop. First opened in 1995, the hangars are packed with an eclectic assortment of historic and memorable aircraft—from classic pre-World War II and home built airplanes to an F-14 Tomcat (think Tom Cruise in Topgun) surrounded by a diverse collection of other aviation artifacts.

We were greeted by Shelly (Sheldon). He collected our admission and briefly explained the layout of the hangars, connected by a wide hallway that houses their Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame Awards. Across the lobby from the entrance is a well-stocked gift shop with books, aircraft models, along with clothing, hats, mugs and toys.

There I was…

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Navy A-4 Blue Angels Aircraft

Stepping into the first hanger, you are immediately greeted by an Air Force Thunderbird T-38 Talon advanced trainer and a Navy Blue Angel A-4 fighter.

The Northrop T-38—more than 1100 were produced between 1961 and 1973—is a supersonic, advanced jet trainer. As of 2015, the T-38 has been in service for more than 50 years. The fighter version of the same aircraft was designated the F-5, and this aircraft was the primary fighter of many smaller countries. From 1974 until 1983 the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team flew the T-38.

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A Homebuilt Polywagon Two-Seat Airplane

At about the time the T-38s joined the Thunderbirds, the McDonnel Douglas A-4 Skyhawk became the Blue Angels aircraft. It has since been replaced by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.

Suspended above the T-38 is the Polywagon, based on a design by Alverez Polliwagen, it was a home-built aircraft powered by a Volkswagen engine. It could cruise at 154 mph and carry two people 1000 miles. Built from plans, it was of mixed construction, including a composite (fiberglass and foam) fuselage, metal, and wood.

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A Full-Sized GE Turbofan Engine for the Initial Boeing 747

Directly under the Polywagon is a preproduction model of the General Electric engine to be used on the Boeing 747 airliner. This particular model traveled around the world to the headquarters of major airlines to show off the proposed engine as part of Boeings sales pitch.

There is no right way to explore the museum—simply wander from one aircraft or display to another. For example, the front wall has many images of military aircraft nose art from aircraft such as the Memphis Bell, Enola Gay, and Bockscar.

However, the “elephant in the room,” “hidden” behind several other aircraft and “tucked” away in the corner of the first hangar is an F-14 Tomcat. All of the other aircraft in the hangar are dwarfed in comparison.

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F-14 – One of the Navy’s Most Powerful Fighters.

The Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame was founded by the Museum and honor Kentucky sons and daughters who have influenced the world of Aviation. Beyond this area is the second hangar, filled with an equally diverse collection of aircraft and artifacts, including a Link instrument flight trainer and a Pratt & Whitney 36-cylinder engine used to power large transports and bombers.

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Sellers Quadraplane with four wings flew successfully in 1908

One of the more interesting displays is the Sellers Quadraplane—a four-wing aircraft designed and built in Kentucky.  This exhibit is a replica of the aircraft he built and flew in 1908—just five years after the Wright Brothers’ flight. The aircraft is also noted for being the first airplane to have retractable wheels—the Quadraplane had no brakes, so the wheels could be raised so the aircraft could land on skids to shorten the landing distance. The aircraft is mounted above a replica of Sellers’ workshop. There is also video of the aircraft being flown by Sellers.

Two aircraft, an F-4 Phantom and an RF-101 Voodoo fighter aircraft are parked on the airport ramp beside the museum. The RF-101 was a reconnaissance aircraft equipped with cameras and other sensors for gathering intelligence information. Both aircraft were flown extensively during the Viet Nam conflict.

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A Marine F-4 Fighter on Display Outside

The Aviation Museum of Kentucky is well worth the time. Allow four hours if you want to really dive into aviation and aviation history and read all of the placards and view all of the videos that are provided, in addition to the more than two dozen aircraft on display. Staff members, all aviation veterans, eagerly offer informal guided tours.

One display that many airman will appreciate is the Van Meter statue and associated artifacts. Van Meter, a Kentucky native, invented and patented the first functional parachute, which is on display. His prototype parachute, on loan from the National Air and Space Museum is also on display.

For more information, go to:

The Aviation Museum of Kentucky, Blue Grass Airport, 4029 Airport Road, Lexington, Kentucky 40510

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