Thursday, February 5, 2009

NTPS' Turbine DC-3 Crashes on Take Off

The National Test Pilot School's Douglas DC-3PT TurboDak crashed on take-off at the Mojave Air & Spaceport yesterday, February 4, although both crewmembers on board walked away without injury. The instructor pilot for the flight was veteran test pilot and head of NTPS, Sean Roberts. Witnesses said that the aircraft climbed to about 100 feet before descending and then veering off to the right of the runway into the soft desert dirt. 

Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo had been scheduled to make its second test flight shortly afterwards, and the Mojave Airport fire/crash crews were staging to support WK2 when the crash occurred. Additionally, Kern County Fire Engine 14 was arriving at the Voyager Restaurant for breakfast and so was also able to quickly respond (with all the rescue equipment occupying the runway, WK2's test flight was cancelled for the day).

The DC-3 had been formerly operated by the South African Air Force, who had modified the aircraft for maritime patrol with Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67 turbo-prop engines, sophisticated multi-mode radar, a forward-looking infrared system, GPS, Doppler navigation and a host of other electronic systems. Most of the systems were retained, and NTPS used it as a flying classroom in which flight test engineers learned how to acquire and analyze systems test data. 

In 2003, a crew of three ferried the venerable aircraft from South Africa to Mojave, headed by Terry Donovan, a flight test instructor at NTPS, on a flight that lasted over 68 hours. . Joining him were Dave Stock, a 1992 NTPS graduate and currently a Captain with South African Airlines, and Clive Turner, a retired South African Air Force Colonel.

In order to make the long hops required for the ferry flight, the cabin of the aircraft was stuffed with 18 45-gallon drums and three 90-gallon ferry tanks. This arrangement allowed for about a 16-hour range. While two of the crew members flew, the third was in charge of monitoring the fuel transfer from the cabin ferry tanks to the wing tanks.

The aircraft left Cape Town, South Africa on January 28th, flew to Namibia where the tanks were topped off, then on to Accra, Ghana, and 11-hour flight, where they spent the night. Early the next morning, after refueling, the flew another 11 hours to Sal, Cape Verde Islands for a two day rest layover. Leaving Africa behind, the next hop of 13 ½ hours took the Douglas over the Atlantic Ocean to Barbados, where they spent another night. From there it was a 12-hour flight on to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where they cleared customs and spent the night. Hoping across the US from Ft. Lauderdale to Austin TX, Tucson AZ and Bullhead City, the plane and a very tired crew finally arrived at Mojave on February 6th.

Donovan commented that the turbo-prop powered aircraft handles about the same as the “traditional” DC-3/C-47, but has a bit more power. The decades-old aircraft held a true airspeed of 170 knots, and due to the headwinds, a ground speed of 140 – 160 knots.

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