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NASA PLANE CRASH LANDS ON FREEWAY.

Byline: Charles F. Bostwick Staff Writer

An unmanned NASA airplane crashed on Interstate 40 east of Barstow, missing traffic but damaging the experimental aircraft.

The single-engine Perseus B, one of several aircraft being evaluated under NASA's Environmental Research and Sensor Technology program, crashed onto the westbound freeway lanes after escaping the control of a pilot on the ground at Edwards Air Force Base.

``There was evidently a big rig and a motor home that swerved to miss it,'' California Highway Patrol Officer Mitch Cox said. ``Other than that it didn't hit anything or cause any damage.''

NASA officials said they have not determined what caused the crash, said to have done moderate damage to the craft, but it followed an electrical power fluctuation that interfered with communication with the pilot on the ground.

``They don't know why, there isn't enough information yet, but there was a power fluctuation that caused it not to communicate well,'' said Leslie Mathews, a spokesman for NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

Perseus B and other unconventional aircraft in the ERAST program are being evaluated for possible future use in scientific and environmental research.

High-flying and slow, the aircraft could be used to track storms, take samples from high in the atmosphere, monitor agriculture and natural resources, even serve as a flying relay platform for telecommunications systems.

About the same length and weight as a Cessna 172 but with nearly twice the wingspan, Perseus was built to fly as high as 62,000 feet - nearly twice as high as a jetliner - and in production versions to stay aloft as long as 24 hours. It would cruise at only 60 mph.

It is controlled by a pilot on the ground, linked by radio and video signals to the aircraft.

Perseus B had taken off at 6:30 a.m. Friday from Edwards Air Force Base and was about two hours and 15 minutes into a flight aimed at reaching its altitude goal of 62,000 feet, when it ran into problems, officials said.

The plane was flying under the guidance of controllers from Aurora Flight Sciences Inc. of Manassas, Va., the plane's builder and operator.

Cox said the plane appeared to have damaged its nose and landing gear when it crashed near the offramp to the Marine Corps Logistics Base outside Barstow, but did not explode or catch fire.

NASA officials drove from Dryden to examine the aircraft and hauled it to the Marine base.

Friday's crash was not the plane's first mishap. In 1996 it was damaged in a hard landing on a dry lake bed after a failure of the shaft driving its two-bladed propeller, which is mounted at the plane's extreme rear.

Perseus B was rebuilt with a longer wingspan and other improvements.

One of two Perseus A airplanes - which have a similar appearance but different landing gear and engine - was destroyed in a crash.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, map

Photo: (1 -- color -- ran in AV edition only) Workers dismantle a downed Perseus B research aircraft that crashed east of Barstow.

Steven K. Doi/Associated Press

(2 -- ran in Valley edition only) An unmanned Perseus B research aircraft rests on westbound Interstate 40 east of Barstow Friday.

Lara Hartley/Desert Dispatch

Map: Perseus crash
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 2, 1999
Words:545
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