Experimental jet's success vindicates its Md. 'father' X-29 was designed to try out technology

January 13, 1993|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Staff Writer

Norris J. Krone Jr. can still remember the skeptics who viewed him as the snake oil salesman of the aviation industry.

Dr. Krone, president of the Maryland Advanced Development Laboratory in Greenbelt, is perhaps best known as the father of the X-29, that strange-looking experimental jet with the wings on backward.

Now that the plane has completed a successful seven-year test program and is going into storage at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Dr. Krone said he's hearing from those doubters once again. This time, however, they're saying things like: "You really had something there, but we didn't realize it."

"It's my baby," he said of the plane that was born on a drawing board at the University of Maryland's aeronautical engineering department two decades ago. The satisfaction of the test program "is overwhelming."

He said the tests exceeded his own expectations and that the craft, which took to the air for the first time in December 1984, "performed better than anticipated."

The X-29 was built by Grumman Corp. Following its maiden flight, Charles Sewell, the company's chief test pilot, said it performed better in the air than the training simulators had operated on the ground.

Grumman eventually constructed two of the experimental planes with wing parts produced at the company's machine shop in Glen Arm.

"They have been put into flyable storage at Edwards Air Force Base," Glenn L. Spacht, Grumman's chief engineer, said of the jets that captured the fancy of the aviation world.

At least one of the two crafts, he said, would probably end up at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington. It was also possible they would be put back into service at some point.

The secret to Dr. Krone's design? Forward-swept wings make a plane more aerodynamically efficient. There's less drag, and this means the plane uses less fuel.

The design also increases maneuverability, meaning it can turn faster than other planes.

The X-29 was not designed to be mass-produced. Instead, its role was to test new technologies for potential use on high-performance fighter planes.

In addition to the new wing shape, the X-29 tested a fly-by-wire control system. The pilot's controls transmitted signals to three computers that controlled the plane by making as many as 40 adjustments to the wing surfaces per second.

While forward-swept-wing technology has not yet been applied to a fighter plane, Dr. Krone noted that it is used on the military's new advanced cruise missile.

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