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It seems to me that if you look long enough, it’s possible to find a connection between yourself and anything.

In the 1950s Bell were closely associated with military aircraft. The fame and gloss of having the first aircraft to pass mach 1 was wearing off, and the X-15 monster was charging, but Bell knew there was a place for them in aviation.

And that place was in vertical flight.

Bell developed the X-14 to investigate the vertical portions of the flight envelope. Perhaps because of that they chose existing airframe parts (mainly a Beech T-34 Mentor) for the basic aircraft. In that way, basic flight was assured and their engineers were free to concentrate on the vertical lift aspects.

Unlike the X-13, the X-14 used horizontally mounted jet engines and vanes to deflect the thrust from the vertical to the horizontal. The engines exhausts were placed at the aircraft’s center of gravity. This meant that, when deflected directly downwards, only small amounts of power were required to stabilize and control pitch, roll and yaw. This control was achieved through compressed air blasted through nozzles on the wingtips.

Bell kept the weight of the overall aircraft to a minimum, a mere 3,100lb. This may have contributed to the decision to use an open cockpit, unusual for a jet. The aircraft’s low inertia helped controllability. Over time the weight crept up and more powerful engines were installed.

After two years at Edwards with the Air Force, the X-14 was transferred to NASA Ames.

NASA pilots Ron Gerdes, Terrell Feistel, and Fred Drinkwater did extensive testing in the aircraft for vertical flight as well as early thrust vectoring. Experience from this aircraft went on to be used in the Harrier Jump Jet, the only truly successful application of this technology until recently.

The X-14 was modified several times. Flight control computers were installed that could vary the handling qualities. It was partly this that gave the X-14 a moment of glory in the Apollo program when, configured to act as the lunar lander, Neil Armstrong used it to practice final descent maneuvers.

The X-14 continued to be a vertical lift workhorse through until 1981, when a software error caused a hard landing, retiring it permanently.

Fifteen years later, in that heartless way of government contracting, the X-14 was sold as scrap metal. Fortunately the Ropkey family saw it listed and bought it. The aircraft is now being restored and on view at the Ropkey Armor Museum. A place that looks like its worth a visit if you’re ever passing Crawfordsville, Indiana.

I guess you’re wondering how I’m connected with the X-14. Well, I’m not. I’ve never seen it, but the guy at Up-Ship has. If you read his article you’ll see the museum’s cat. Their cat has an uncanny resemblance to a cat I once owned, called Tiger. Tiger was also into vertical flight, only in his case he had no wings, instead he made do with drape-assisted acceleration. Equipped with four legs and some serious claws he was capable of a thrust-to-weight ratio well in excess of 1. In fact, if there hadn’t been the troubling issue of a ceiling for him to deal with, I’m sure he would have easily achieved vertical flight and a soft landing on all fours. The drapes on the other hand, didn’t make out so well …

What about you? Can you connect yourself with the X-14 in some way? The more tenuous the link the better.

And no, reading this blog doesn’t count!


(images courtesy of NASA and the USAF)

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