Caught In Action Over Southern California
Copyright © 2006-2009, B. Vanderkolk - Updated 060424 - visits:
The StoryUPDATE 060425:
Several days ago I had sent an email to Ken Cockrell, NASA's WB-57 program manager, asking questions about the aircraft's mission. Turns out he was the pilot!! Here's his reply.
Brian,Now that I know the aircrafts actual altitude, I can use that number to further calibrate my optical system. My altitude determination of 70,000 feet is obviously due to the angle at which I was looking at the plane. It was not straight up. So my result was actually the range, which would be the hypotenuse of a triangle. The other two sides of the triangle would be the planes actual altitude and the cross track distance between my observing location and the plane's flight track.
I have determined that the specific plane was NASA926. I also found this aircrafts flight track archived at FlightAware. I have added the flight track image to the bottom of the page.
Originally, I had thought this plane was an ER-2 - the NASA version of the famous Lockheed U2-TR1. But several people suggested it may instead be a WB-57. Upon further analysis, I have concluded that it is indeed a WB-57.
Over the past few weeks I had been catching a glimpse of one of NASA's WB-57 high altitude research aircraft from my north Orange County, CA location. The Martin WB-57 is a variant of the English Electric Canberra, but with a much longer wingspan.
Being an avid amateur astronomer and aviation buff, I'm always looking up. I'm pretty familiar with the usual routes aircraft take over the Southland. The first sighting caught my attention because it wasn't in the usual place in the sky, was moving quite slowly, and was pulling an unusually thin vapor trail. Since then I've seen it on at least two more occasions.
Usually I would only catch it in binoculars. A couple times I dragged my telescope out and viewed it that way, trying in vain to catch it with my camera. But every time I would catch it too late and in my rush to get everything setup, the plane would be too far away and I did not have time to get a proper focus.
On Thursday, April 13, 2006, I had yet another chance. Like before, I was caught by surprise and was barely able to get my telescope and camera ready in time. I did get some images, but the plane was already moving away. However, being such a clear day, I decided to follow it visually through the telescope to see how far I could follow it. I watched as it flew westward off the coast and made a lazy left turn back inland. Knowing how high this plane usually flies, and judging by its altitude above the horizon, it was probably down towards San Diego. Visually it was hard to see, but through the scope it was clear as a bell. Moving so slowly it was easy to track the plane as it continued eastward inland.
Just as it got to my south-eastern horizon where I was about to lose it behind buildings - it was probably in Arizona by now - I noticed it was changing directions. Yes, it was turning left. Turning northward. Perhaps back towards Palmdale or Edwards? I did not dare look away from the eyepiece for fear of losing sight. It was barely visible now even through the telescope at 30 power. It flew northward for a few moments then, yes, it started to turn again. Left again. Back towards me! Was it coming back for another pass? WOO HOO!! Was I excited!
This time, knowing it was coming back, and having all my equipment out already, I could get prepared. I dragged out a small TV monitor so I could view the image easier once I remounted the camera on the telescope. Being a digital camera I was doing eyepiece projection, where the camera views the image through the eyepiece just as a person normally would. Since the plane was coming almost directly towards me from the east to pass just south of me high overhead, I had plenty of time to track the plane, watching the video monitor and getting the sharpest focus.
As the plane approached zenith at perhaps no more than 10-15 degrees from straight up, I started snapping pictures. I watched the quick view on the monitor to see how my settings were. I was taking the pictures in manual mode. After a few test shots I had the right exposure settings. At closest approach I was able to get several good pictures and a quick video. My digital camera (Nikon Coolpix 4300) can take a 40 second MOV file at 320x240 resolution.
The plane was following the same path as before. Perhaps it was on a predetermined course for whatever subject it was studying? I thought, maybe, it might come around yet again. Since I had my pictures I removed the camera and started following the plane visually again. As expected, the plane followed the same left turn back inland towards Arizona and turned back again for another pass near my location. Again, I took more photos and another video. Afterwards I followed the plane again, but lost it when it was out near Arizona as there were some high clouds off in the distance. I lost the vapor trail amongst the clouds. However, having caught three passes of the plane it was obvious it was on a half hour repeating track. I waited another 30 minutes for the plane to return, but it did not. It's mission was apparently finished and presumably was returning home.
I have performed photogrammetry on the zenith image below (6th one down) and have determined the plane was at it's normal altitude of about 70,000 feet.