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The lifting body is a type of aircraft without wings, that derives its lift from the shape of its fuselage. It therefore is the opposite of a flying wing, in the sense that rather than being all wing and no body, it is all body and no wing. The intent was to increase the structural integrity over that which the standard wing-fuselage combination could achieve (the join between wing and body being a natural stress point), as part of a larger effort to develop a vehicle that could survive re-entry from space and land like an aircraft.
The US conducted the lifting body program as a joint venture between NASA and the U.S. Air Force from 1963-1975, starting with the wood glider prototype the Northrop M2-F1. From this design came the similar working model the M2-F2, and the more radical Northrop HL-10.
The HL-10 suffered from several problems on its first flight and was grounded for over a year while its design was adjusted. The revised HL-10 proved to be the most successful of the lifting bodies, enjoying greater stability and control dynamics than its predecessor and operating for 36 flights between 1968-73.
The M2-F2 suffered from stability problems that led to Pilot Induced Oscillation, or "dutch roll", and on its 16th flight in 1967 crashed in a spectacular accident that was caught [on film]. Pilot Bruce Peterson rolled in the M2-F2 six times and was seriously injured, ultimately losing sight in one eye. Present at Edwards AFB that day was aviator and novelist Martin Caidin, who would be inspired to write a fictionalized account of the event.
The M2-F2 was rebuilt as the M2-F3, which adopted some characteristics of the HL-10 (note that as prototypes, there were only ever one of each aircraft, thus "The M2-F2" not "an M2-F2") which flew 27 times as the modified HL-10's contemporary. Meanwhile yet more radical designs were developed, namely the Martin Marietta X-24A in 1969, and in 1972-3 its striking evolution the X-24B.
Use on The Six Million Dollar Man
The original telefilm The Six Million Dollar Man (1973) mixed archival footage of two lifting bodies, and this usage was followed by several others:
- The telefilm intro (Wine, Women and War and The Solid Gold Kidnapping)
- The series intro seen for the five seasons of weekly episodes
- The Deadly Replay
- "The Moon and the Desert," the re-edited version of the first telefilm
- Flashbacks such as in "The Bionic Woman (episode)," The Bionic Boy and Dead Ringer.
The use of archival footage gave the show a verité quality that effects shots would have failed to convey, yet the mixing of the two lifting bodies was always apparent. This was necessitated by the destruction of the M2-F2, which dictated that the lifting body depicted in the accident would not be available to the production team. The HL-10 was available, and footage of this lifting body was added to the archival mix to "tie in" to the footage shot by the production with the HL-10.
- Footage of the M2-F2 is used for the “dutch roll" sequence where the “bathtub" shape can clearly be seen.
- The footage of the crash itself, as well as the interior over-the-shoulder camera of the crash, are of and from the M2-F2.
- All production footage from the original telefilm and The Deadly Replay was shot using the HL-10. If Lee Majors is in the shot, it’s the HL-10.
- Footage of the HL-10 is seen while attached to the B-52 mothership.
- Footage shot from above while detaching from the B-52 in the pilot is of the HL-10 - this is the image seen at the beginning of the series' show intro during the line "We have seperation."
Fictional Lifting Bodies
- Before the first telefilm, author Martin Caidin wrote the novel Cyborg, on which The Six Million Dollar Man was based. In the novel, Steve Austin is flying a fictitious lifting body, the M3-F5.
- In Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, an Air Force General mentions Steve's M3-F5 accident, the fictitious lifting body first referenced in "Cyborg," which counters the onscreen mentions in The Deadly Replay of the HL-10, but at least moots the mixed footage in the pilot telefilm by essentially refusing to settle on either of the real lifting bodies.
LegacyAlthough the Space Shuttle is largely a delta wing derivative, it incorporates aspects of the lifting body, deriving lift from its fuselage and thereby reducing stress on the join between wing and body. The project is unquestionably the culmination of the larger effort of which the lifting body experiments were a part.
More recently, NASA began developing the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle as an evacuation alternative for the International Space Station in the late 1990s. The X-24A lifting body was the basis for this design. The last of the lifting bodies, it was developed in conjunction with European and German space agencies. It was cancelled in 2002 due to budget cuts.
For more on lifting bodies, visit the Dryden Flight Center for information and media:
More reading on lifting bodies: