Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Texting from a B-52?

By Jennifer Hogan

Boeing has designed this text-messaging capability for the B-52 to allow communication via satellites when line-of-site radio communication is not possible.

For most people who exchange brief text messages on their phones and other portable devices, a common communication might be “whats 4 dinner?” or “luv u.” But U.S. Air Force Lt. Steve Adelmund, a flight engineer at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., texted a very different message when an engine on the B-52 bomber he was flying in was shut down unexpectedly.

Adelmund and fellow crew members, part of the 49th Test Squadron, were conducting a test flight last September with Boeing’s new Evolutionary Data Link (EDL). The EDL is a satellite-enabled texting capability that is used when line-of-sight radio communication is unavailable, which often happens on long missions over the Atlantic Ocean. After successfully testing EDL over a remote area in Montana, the generator on the B-52’s number-five engine failed.

"We had just finished final test points and the overheat light came on for generator number five," said Maj. Steve Waldon, the aircraft’s commander. "We tried decoupling the generator from the engine and we weren’t able to verify that it was successful. Our tech order states we must shut down the engine if decoupling is not verified to keep the generator from catching fire."

The engine, which controls all of the hydraulics on the right side of the aircraft, was shut down, leaving the crew with only half of its braking capability and limited steering ability.

“Because the crew was able to send us a text message, we pre-coordinated the emergency landing and were ready for them when they arrived.”
The crew was three-and-a-half hours from its home base and needed to notify its command of the need for an emergency landing. The plane was out of radio range, so the only way to communicate was by text-messaging on the EDL laptop.

The U.S. Air Force plans to buy enough laptop kits to give the entire active B-52 fleet this capability.

"Because the crew was able to send us a text message, we pre-coordinated the emergency landing and were ready for them when they arrived," said Rick Westerfield, a Boeing field service representative stationed at Barksdale.

While a generator failure is not uncommon, it requires that the plane land on a dry runway to maximize the braking performance of the wheels that still have hydraulic braking available.

"To fly back to line-of-sight and then begin communications would have really lengthened our time in the air by an hour before the base could prepare for our landing," said Waldon. "If the runway had been wet, then we would have been diverted to another base. Knowing ahead of time we were not going to be diverted helped us to manage our fuel and have a better game plan."

The crew landed the B-52H safely at Barksdale, experiencing firsthand why warfighters need technology like EDL.

The Air Force currently has 19 EDL kits, which are shared among its 76 B-52s. The Air Force plans to buy enough additional kits from Boeing to equip the entire fleet by the second quarter of 2012.

"Having more kits will allow all B-52 crews to have this capability," said Westerfield. "It will also decrease the workload of maintainers and increase the durability of the equipment because the hardware will no longer be moved from aircraft to aircraft."

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