DARKSTAR COMPLETES MISSION; SUCCESSFUL TEST FLIGHT OF 2ND PLANE BOOSTS IMAGE.
Lockheed Martin Corp.'s second DarkStar unmanned spy plane made a successful first flight Monday, giving the program a boost before Congress resumes debate on the aircraft's future.
Restarting a flight-test program that had been on hold for more than two years after the crash of the first aircraft, the second DarkStar took off from Edwards at 6:13 a.m. and flew for 46 minutes.
The DarkStar reached an altitude of 5,000 feet and completed all of its preplanned flight maneuvers, company officials said.
``The contractor team of Lockheed Martin and Boeing have produced a fully autonomous flight vehicle,'' said George Zielsdorff, Lockheed Martin's DarkStar program manager. ``The support and contributions of (NASA's) Dryden (Flight Research Center) and Edwards Air Force Base personnel are greatly appreciated, and went a long way toward making the program recovery successful.''
Congress will take up debate on the program in mid- or late July. In its version of the defense authorization bill, the Senate rejected a $40.5 million request for DarkStar testing and development. The House of Representatives' version of the bill includes DarkStar funding.
DarkStar is intended to be the ``eye in the sky'' for battlefield commanders, transmitting video and radar information to ground forces. The stealthy, high-altitude aircraft is designed to be able to linger over a battlefield for more than eight hours and cover more than 14,000 square miles.
DarkStar will fly preprogrammed flights, conducting its entire mission without additional commands from the ground.
DarkStar is intended to be more economical compared with other spy planes. It is projected to cost under $2,000 an hour to fly vs. the $30,000 per hour the triple-supersonic SR-71 Blackbird had cost and the $6,000-an-hour tab for the U-2.
The first DarkStar aircraft made a successful first flight March 19, 1996, but was destroyed next month on takeoff during its second flight April 22.
The crash investigation resulted in an extensive redesign of the flight-control and landing-gear systems, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works officials said.
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works and its partners in the project, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are building two more DarkStar aircraft under a $58.4 million contract with the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, the same Pentagon organization that initiated the F-117 stealth fighter program in the 1970s.
PHOTO (Color) Lockheed Martin Corp.'s DarkStar passed Monday's flight test.