It seems everyone has a desire to fly but most will not attempt to do so because of the cost, the time, or both. My friend Jose, who was an electronics engineer working with a government agency in Washington, had the desire late in life but did not hesitate to act once he decided that aviation, was his true passion.
Jose left his job in DC, went to Embry Riddle in Daytona, and before I knew it I had an email from him telling me he was back home in Dallas working as a Flight Instructor. He had included his new cell phone number in his email so I gave him a call just to catch up. Here is some of what he had to say:
“Yea man I was sitting alone one Friday night in my little DC apartment when I yelled out for all to here – F#### this place and everyone in this God#### city. I don’t belong here, I hate my job, I hate being locked in my basement office for ten hours, and I am tired of living so far away from my son. Yea man, I had enough and I knew what I had to do. I resigned the following Monday, left DC with what little bit of stuff I owned, and headed back to Texas. I moved in with my old roommate from college, worked a few short term contracts for cash, and spent weekends with my son. Then, I did it – I enrolled in Embry Riddle using my 401K money, finished up the two year program with all of my ratings, and now I am home, flying as an instructor part-time, working short term contracts with Verizon putting up cell towers, and I think I have a lead on a contract flying airplanes in Colombia.”
It was about this time that I asked Jose how he was able to compete for a contract internationally as a low time newbie. “No problem,” he responded. An old friend from DC has hooked me up with his old boss who now runs a beltway company selling airplanes to foreign governments. Selling airplanes? “What kind of airplanes,” I asked. They are Schweizers. I then commented that Schweizer makes sail planes and I don’t think there is a future in commercial aviation for pilots who are flying sail planes for a living. Jose quickly responded by saying, “No man I think you are right but I am too old for the airlines considering I will be in my 50s by the time I have enough time to compete…….I think I am going to have fun and just do the not so ordinary flying.” OK, well let me know because I will be in Colombia later this year flying with a group that supports Plan Colombia at the Embassy. OK man, I will send you the link on the airplane and then call you when I have something firm in hand. Sounds good and stay in touch.
After the call I figured Jose was chasing his tail but it turns out the opportunity developed in to a real job and the airplane, as I found out later, was as unique as the pilot flying it, so let’s talk a little more about Jose’s background.
Jose was from Puerto Rico and most of his family still lived there. The family’s business was coffee and had been for 100 years. Jose was the by-product of a good Catholic education through grade 12 and finished college in Texas with a degree in electronic engineering. His first job was with Verizon working cell towers and technology upgrades. He was married soon after completing college, had a baby boy, and became a workaholic. His passion for his work soon ended his marriage, and out of desperation, he applied to one of the three letter government agencies and was hired as a communications guy. Jose did a lot of different jobs for this agency but when he was assigned to a secure communications room isolated in the basement, with no windows, that is when the problems started. You know what happened next so let’s talk a little about the airplane from Schweizer.
The airplane, which Jose always simply called my long wing, was designated as the Condor SA2-37 by Schweizer and has been sold to US agencies, US Military, and foreign governments.
Below is a brief overview of the airplane taken from open sources on the web:
Designed from the outset as a covert day/night surveillance platform, the RG-8A Condor Schweizer SA2-37B does not look like a covert spy plane. However, its sophisticated suite of FLIR, EO and electronic sensors, large payload, long endurance and low acoustic signature, enable this unusual aircraft to provide a comprehensive surveillance capability at relatively low cost.
To enable the Schweizer SA2-37B to operate effectively it was designed to fly quietly, using minimum power to reduce noise and this works so effectively that above 2000 feet the aircraft is virtually undetectable from the ground. The reduced acoustic signature was achieved by a clever aerodynamic design which carefully matched the propeller, engines and various sound muffling devices. Powered by a Lycoming T10-540 engine rated at 250 hp, in quiet mode the engine can be throttled back to between 1,100 – 1,300 rpm, generating just 65 hp which is sufficient to keep the aircraft flying slowly.
The clever aerodynamics and engine efficiency also gives the aircraft an excellent endurance of 12 hours or a radius of operations of 200 nautical miles while remaining on station for 7 hours. Generally the aircraft operates below 5000 feet, to give the optical sensors the best possible views, but it also has a 24,000 feet service ceiling and can undertake high level missions.
The SA 2-37B can carry up to 510 pounds of sensors and associated equipment in a 70 cu ft. payload bay in the fuselage. The payload bay was designed to accept modular systems enabling different sensors to be changed quickly.
Three Schweizer SA2-37Bs have been operated by the US Coast Guard for a number of years supporting anti-drug smuggling operations. A further 3 aircraft are believed to be operated by the CIA in support of various clandestine operations and one of these aircraft is believed to have provided support for the Peruvian government on 22 Apr 97, when terrorists seized 72 hostages in the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima.
To provide an additional surveillance capability in their continual fight against the narcotics trade, in 1999 the Colombian government placed an order for a single Schweizer SA 2-37B as part of a joint US/Colombian project known as LANAS – Low Acoustic Noise Signature Airborne Surveillance; a further four aircraft were funded directly by the USA . The Colombian aircraft rolled off the production line in 2000, was certified on 7 Jun 00 and given the registration N2601L (c/n0015). The installation of the various sensors took a year and the in late 2001 the aircraft departed for Colombia. The unique capability this aircraft offers has considerably enhanced the ability of the Colombian government in their ongoing battle against the countries cocaine smugglers.
Now, back to our story……….
Jose’s connection got him in on the delivery, and training, of the aircrews operating in Colombia. This is where I found Jose about six months later except he actually found me. One morning, when I was flying out of Bogota in support of Plan Colombia someone tapped me on my shoulder and said, “Hey man – can I get a ride to TQ?” It was Jose – Imagine that.
TQ is short for Tres Esquinas, a Colombian Air Force Base about 250 miles South of Bogota, and this is where Jose was doing the training.
It was a bit of surprise to see Jose, but at the same time it was a real pleasure to see an old friend. He had unofficially gotten approval from the office we flew for to catch a ride so he, and three Colombian military officers, were loaded on to the King Air and off we went. I dropped the military officers off in the small town of Florencia, and then it was just Jose and I in the airplane on the leg to TQ. Jose gave me the background on the program and told me he would give me a flight in his long wing if I had time. Sure, why not. Are you sure that won’t be a problem with the Colombianos? I am sure because they haven’t accepted the airplane yet so that means it belongs to me and the company I work for. After arriving at TQ I had about three hours before my passenger, which I had dropped off the day before, would be ready, so Jose and I had a quick bite to eat and then headed for the airplane. The airplane was different, to say the least, but when Jose handed me a parachute to wear I looked at him and said, “Are you trying to tell me something?” Jose laughed and pointed to the seat and advised that this would be my set cushion. OK, that’s different. Taxi and takeoff was normal but cruise was a little different…..Jose said, “Watch this.” The RPM came back to1100 and the airplane slowed to around 90 knots at 3000 feet. We were hanging on the prop but it was quiet. We maneuvered around, stalled the wing and recovered it in about 25 feet, and then took it back for a few landings. Jose made the first two landings, spoilers fully extended for landing by the way, and then it was my turn. OK, I think I prefer the King Air.
Jose was training six guys to fly the airplane as well as instructing them on flying NVGs (Night Vision Googles). He advised that he would be in country for the next ninety days and then asked, “You want me to get you a job working the program with me?” I deliberately paused for a few seconds and then said, “I may consider giving you a call when my tour in Bogota is up, but I find it hard to get excited about flying a single engine airplane over triple canopy jungle at night.? Hey man, you can’t live forever. I agree but I would like to live long enough to enjoy my retirement.
The next time I saw Jose he was back in Bogota and he had invited me to have dinner. I met Jose at a restaurant called 1492 in the Zona Rosa which is an area in Bogota where all the gringos hang out. Kind of spendy, but the food is good and the beer is cold.
We both enjoyed our dinner and when we ordered coffee the conversation turned to airplanes and the future. Jose was having a good time free lancing but he wanted something full time and of course he wanted to fly bigger and faster airplanes. The possibilities are endless but the thing you have to worry about is working for slave wages to build time. You have spent too much money on your education to work for nickels and dimes. Jose agreed and then asked the big question.
I think you and I could develop an airplane to compete with Schweizer for less money and more capability – what do you think? My answer was the obvious one – Hell Jose, I don’t know anything about acoustic technology, infrared sensor systems, and signal intelligence. You are the engineer; however, I would think the biggest problem is investment capital. Then Jose quietly said, “Let me tell you a story about an airplane used in Vietnam.
Jose proceeded to tell me about an airplane called the Quiet Star, but instead of me piecing together his story I have an article from the web that will tell the story.
Lockheed Missiles & Space, based in Sunnyvale, California, had never built an airplane before. The division had produced the Polaris missile, designed for launch by nuclear submarines, and the first generation of spy satellites. But there was a war on, and Sunnyvale’s advanced programs group decided to take on the problem of detecting the Viet Cong. The group began by analyzing the available sensors and their ranges, and then the ranges at which various aircraft could be heard by the enemy. They discovered the problem: The VC could always hear an aircraft coming before the crew on the aircraft could hear or see the VC. What was needed, the Lockheed guys decided, was a super-quiet airborne sensor platform. They studied balloons, sailplanes, and conventional airplanes with mufflers, but found them all lacking. Then Don Galbraith, head of advanced design, suggested a powered sailplane, one with a muffler and an oversize, slow-turning propeller. Halfway around the world from young Lieutenant Horn, and about half a year earlier, Lockheed Missiles & Space had reached the same conclusion.
Lockheed project manager Stanley Hall, the designer of several sailplanes and known in the national soaring community, was pulled off a satellite project to supervise the quiet airplane. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, tossed in a meager $100,000 to build two proof-of-concept aircraft and sent Les Horn to be its representative at Lockheed. Horn arrived when construction was already under way; he thought he’d died and gone to R&D heaven. The tiny budget turned out to be an advantage. Because the project was so small, the military and corporate bureaucracies didn’t bother with oversight. The team set up shop behind a plywood partition in the back of the Lockheed executive hangar at the San Jose airport. Engineers and mechanics came from all over Lockheed, including the famed Skunk Works, where the exotic U-2 and SR-71 spy planes had been designed and built. But this spy plane was going to be a different: simple, designed to fly low and slow, and built and tested on the cheap.
For the airframe, Hall chose a well-known commercial sailplane, the Schweitzer 2-32. His team took an ordinary 100-horsepower Continental O-200 engine and mounted it behind and slightly above the cockpit, so it made a bulge in the top of the airframe, like a camel’s hump. The propeller shaft ran above the canopy, outside the airplane, to a vertical pylon attached to the nose. They tested several propellers and chose an eight-foot-diameter model with four wooden blades. To quiet the engine further, the Sunnyvale team lined the inside of the cowling with fiberglass batting and ran the exhaust through a muffler from a 1958 Buick. Instead of using noisy gears, they connected the engine to the propeller shaft with V-belts, similar to fan belts. Les Horn recalls that it was the “only aircraft flying that was powered by rubber bands.” But the engineering and workmanship were first-rate. The prototype aircraft were designated QT-2: “2” for two-seater, and “QT” for “Quiet Thruster,” officially, though everybody knew it also stood for “on the Q.T.” (On the sly). The first flight was set for August 15, 1967, at an isolated municipal airport in Tracy, California, about 50 miles from San Jose.
Being modified sailplanes, the QTs had a single main wheel mounted in the center of the belly, two tiny wheels under each wing tip to keep the tips from dragging, and a small nose wheel. When the test pilot, Quint Burden, started the engine, he taxied down the runway listing to port until, at around 15 knots (about 17 mph), he had enough speed to level the wings. After he took off, he circled the field, the big wooden propeller turning at a leisurely 800 rpm, about a third the speed of a normal prop for an engine of that size. “This was a really quiet airplane, I tell you,” recalls Hall, who was there for the test flights “We could fly it at 250 feet and barely hear it at all. At 800 feet it was completely silent” to ground observers. There had been a few studies of techniques for quieting airplanes, but for the most part the Lockheed team had to figure out acoustic stealth for itself. There was ground-level masking noise, to start with—crickets and frogs in the countryside, or the background sounds of a small town late at night, which Lockheed pegged at 50 decibels. Lockheed found the QT’s overall sound level was 70 decibels at 1,000 feet.
Then there was the QT’s acoustic signature, which was different from other aircraft. And it was so close to the threshold of hearing that it was perceived in very different ways. Hall thought it was “the gentle rushing sound of the ocean surf” while Burden, the test pilot, described it as an almost subliminal thub, thub, thub. Others were reminded of tires on a distant highway, the whirring of an electric fan, or a flock of birds overhead. The heart of acoustic stealth, the Lockheed guys discovered, is a widely observed but imperfectly understood relationship between detecting noise and perceiving and identifying its source. If you didn’t suspect an airplane was above you or notice that a few stars were being blocked and then reappearing, you might not be aware of anything at all—even if a QT-2 were only a couple hundred feet overhead. Further tests revealed the QT was best flown cautiously, straight and level. A yaw, or turn on the vertical axis, could develop into a larger yaw than expected because the area around the nose pylon was so large it counteracted the stabilizing effect of the vertical tail. A banked turn could lead to a phenomenon called yaw-roll coupling; in a slow roll, which nobody ever tried, once upside down the wings would probably fall off. “It was a very tender aircraft,” says Les Horn, who notes that the original Schweitzer has an 8-G rating, while the QT-2, weighed down by an engine and other gear, had a rating of barely 2.4 G. They needed a long runway for takeoff, and then the airplanes could slowly climb to 5,000 feet and cruise at 110 knots. For minimum noise, though, the best speed was down around 70 knots, which was just one knot over the stall speed. In this so-called quiet mode, the craft required only 17 horsepower to stay aloft, according to the tests.
Toward the end of August 1967, the brass arrived at Tracy for a night demonstration. Asked to find the airplane, they peered upward and strained to hear something. Suddenly a bright light appeared directly above them, and the pilot boomed into his mike a single word, “Gotcha!” which was amplified, of course, through strategically placed loudspeakers on the ground. Members of the delegation were suitably impressed. Further modifications were made—portholes in the sides to improve visibility for the backseat observers, a bigger vertical tail to offset the effect of the nose pylon, self-sealing fuel tanks, and military avionics. They received a couple of Starlight Scopes, and training began.
The U.S. military simply didn’t have the capability to fight at night. But the potential was clear enough to James McMillan, science advisor to General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. McMillan summoned Les Horn to Saigon and, giving him almost no time to prepare, told him to brief Westmoreland on the project. When Horn walked into the briefing room, “it was like a Time magazine centerfold,” he remembers, with not only Westmoreland but the U.S. ambassador, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others. McMillan introduced Horn as the project officer for what he felt was his most significant science achievement in Vietnam. Horn started his briefing, knees shaking, with a grease pencil and a board. Before the briefing was over, Westmoreland was standing with him at the board, sketching surveillance missions that he wanted to run. The prototype quiet spy plane had passed its test, and now it was time to develop its successor.
Back in California, Lockheed had already used its own funds to build what it called the Q-Star. A radiator from a Chevrolet Corvette sat in the nose, and the thing was even more peculiar-looking than the QT-2. The radiator cooled an exceptionally quiet marine Wankel rotary engine. When Curtiss-Wright, which owned the rights to the Wankel engine, decided against manufacturing an air-cooled version for aviation, the Q-Star became a footnote. Lockheed agreed to Stanley Hall’s proposal to develop the more conventional aircraft that became the YO-3A. (“Y” indicated preproduction; “O” stood for observation; and the meaning of “A” was unclear, possibly indicating later “B” and “C” models that were hoped for but that never materialized.) The YO-3A had a 220-horsepower Continental engine mounted in the nose and an ordinary propeller shaft in the traditional location but driven at low rpm by quiet rubber belts. It had retractable landing gear mounted inboard on the wings. The observer sat in the front under a large bubble canopy and the pilot in the back. The engine compartment had several kinds of acoustic insulation and a muffler mounted on the starboard side of the fuselage. It had a brand-new sensor package, including a laser target designator that was not compatible with anything the military services had at the time. But what really set the YO-3A apart from its predecessor was that, at $11 million dollars, the program was big enough to trigger every kind of corporate and military oversight, procurement headache, and interservice backstabbing imaginable. “We could have done better,” says Stanley Hall, nominally in charge of airframe design, in reality a man whose design decisions were overruled by higher-ranking executives. The YO-3As were not only much heavier than the QT-2s (3,700 pounds versus 2,500 pounds) but also a lot noisier, with a quiet cruising altitude of 1,500 instead of 800 feet.
After the Vietnam War, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries acquired some of the YO-3As, using them for several years to catch poachers. Most of the aircraft were bought by the FBI, which used them for about a decade for surveillance. Today NASA owns one YO-3A, currently mothballed, for making acoustic measurements of other aircraft. Most are in museums, and one is in a private collection awaiting restoration.
The two original QT-2s were sent to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. The school had already bought some Schweizer 2-32 sailplanes and had designated them X-26As, to appear to be experimental, even though they were not, in order to get around complicated procurement regulations. The QT-2s were redesignated X-26Bs, and their strange front pylons turned out to have a practical use after all, giving student pilots a chance to learn at very low speeds about yaw-roll coupling, which also affects supersonic jets.
After digesting the facts for a few minutes I asked Jose where he would go for an airframe. Jose said, “Not sure yet, but Europe is a possibility.” The bigger problem, I think, is the controlled technology. How do you handle that issue? Jose did not hesitate for a second and said, “My boss has the contacts.” We both agreed to do a little research but for me I just can’t imagine trying to compete with Schweitzer or Lockheed. Perhaps if I knew all that Jose knew I could feel more confident but for now I think I will stay doing what I am doing.
Jose never got the project off of the ground and sadly he was killed a few years later. He had taken a short term contract flying a Robertson helicopter for the US Forestry Service doing a survey out West. I am not totally sure what happened but I was told he lost power, and when he tried to land in a small open area things went bad. Jose was only fifty, maybe fifty two, but he had followed a road less traveled and lived his life, his way. He was a great guy and will be missed by all who knew him.
God Bless you Jose and I hope your son will follow your road less traveled. The world of aviation needs more people like you, to point to, and perhaps others will follow your example and make their dreams a reality.