Michael's Dispatches

Sniff Test


Published: 09 December 2008

Here is a rare and curious thing: an antique British [WB-57] bomber flying over Afghan skies. These planes flew in the 1950s and 60s, performing top of the atmosphere reconnaissance. The U.S. Air Force retired the WB-57 decades ago.  But NASA owns two, which it uses for an odd group of missions, including collecting cosmic dust from extremely high altitudes.  It seems doubtful that NASA came all the way to Afghanistan to collect cosmic dust, but this would be an interesting region in which to search for traces of nuclear debris, drifting upwards from Iran, Pakistan, various Central Asian states, China, or India.

This story can also be found covered at Pajamas Media.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    jtb · 11 years ago
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    Cecil Trotter · 11 years ago
    I believe that would be a WB-57 as used by NASA, B-57 as used by the USAF and the Canberra as used by the British. Officially, none are in use by the RAF, or any other air force, either.

    Could it be an IL-28? But then, none of those are supposed to be in operation in that area of the world either. Curious.
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    Jerry Albrecht · 11 years ago
    These are WB-57s a modification of the Air Force B-57. The modifications are to enhance high altitude atmospheric sampling.
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    Joel · 11 years ago
    Error and additional infoMichael,
    First off that plane isn't a WB-17, as it would be referring to a Flying Fortress of WWII era, rather it is a variant of the English Electric Canberra, the WB-57. Some additional information about it's doing there is that it's part of the USGS 5-year program (that was started in 2004) in natural resources/hazards assessment for Afghanistan and is part of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Program.
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    Gismo Fly · 11 years ago
    Oh! Bugger! The old Acme instant stealth paint has washed off again!
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    JJR2 · 11 years ago
    These high-altitude versions of the Canberra often operate out of Ellington Field in the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas, flying for NASA. It's an incredible sight over the neighborhood with those gigantic wings.
    I have heard somewhere that these were originally a temporary measure while the U-2's were in development. I think they had some operational problems, including wings falling off---fortunately on the ground. I guess they eventually fixed that.
    I haven't heard of the USGS application, or whether they're sniffing for nukes over Asia. I wonder if they would tell us if they were....
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    Former Air Force · 11 years ago
    It is not a WB-17 and the rear stabilizer is much bigger than most B-57 Canberra. In addition the wing appears to drop slightly and the B-57 had a rise in their wings angle. There was a rare model B-57F that could very well be this aircraft. I don't have a current photo of one but I suspect it is the "F" model. There was only a very small number of the F model built. Less than five as I recall.
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    Solomon2 · 11 years ago
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    Cecil Trotter · 11 years ago
    If you Google "Afghanistan WB-57" you'll find a number of pictures of this NASA WB-57 operating in Afghanistan. It has been conducting high altitude mapping ops.The NASA logo has been removed from the vertical stab but you can make out the blue stripe on the forward fuselage in Michael's picture above.

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    Peter Curtis · 11 years ago
    Peru stills flies them. And of course NASA has some still actively used for research. RAF retired them in 2006 & India Air Force in 2007. Gave more than fifty years orf service. It set an altitiude record in 1957 of 70,000 + ft. Have you noticed how similar it is to the U2? I believe the Lockheed Skunk works under Kelly Johnson used B57's to research and test U2 components at high altitudes. The U2 flew and still flies much higher of course.
    There are a few in private hands in UK and are apparently still available for specialized contract work.
    Excellent aircraft. Its's only vice is if you have an engine failure on takeoff. There is USAF archive footage of a B57 with engine failure rolling in and crashing in a ball of flames at the side of a runway. I met someone who survived a Canberra engine failure and he told me the RAF pilot managed a safe landing, not withstanding that all inside the aircraft were reduced to shivering, gibbering wrecks for a while after they were taken off the aircraft.They all knew what a close brush with death they had had.
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    Bill Cooper · 11 years ago
    In 1968, NASA had contracted with the Air Force
    to operate an RB-57F, which flew many research missions as part of the Earth
    Resources Technology Satellite program. In 1972, the Air Force thought the
    expense was too high, and transferred the plane to NASA. This aircraft was
    re-numbered NASA 925. This plane operated until 1982, when it was retired.
    It currently resides in the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
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    Chris Hughes · 11 years ago
    A pal of mine who was out there a couple of years ago came down with a nasty throat infection. On seeking medical treatment, he was told that 25% of all particles in the Kabul fresh air are human faecal matter...

    All I can say is that changing the filters on the RB-57 "sniffers" must be a sh*t job!!

    The WB-57s have been seen here in Mildenhall (UK) this year.
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    John Egel · 11 years ago
    This link explains all, sort of.

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    blacktie · 11 years ago
    I worked on the Anti Ballistic Missile test program at Kwajalein Test Range in the early 70s and there were RB57 flying in support of that program
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    Render · 11 years ago
    Bill Cooper is correct about NASA's WB-57F NASA Earth Survey Three, tail Registration N925NA. It's currently residing at Pima, in pieces.

    Pg. 178 of the official Pima Air and Space Museum book.

    USAF also used two B-57E's for the Compass Site program in 1969. Designed to act as airborne relays for real-time video reconnaissance. Although the system was successful the two aircraft were never deployed to Vietnam. One of those aircraft also resides at Pima after having been dropped from inventory as surplus in 1980.

    Pg. 176 (above)

    Although both were English Electric products, they were actually assembled in 1956 by Glenn L Martin Aircraft in Baltimore Maryland.


    India grounded and then retired the last of its recon Canberras in 2005-06. In theory.

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    C. D. Anderson · 11 years ago
    The NASA Johnson Space Center at Houston, Texas had the last two flyng WB-57F aircraft, so this just about has to be one of them. One was configured for air sampling, the other for photography, radar and thermal. I flew 1500 hours as a navigator/special equipment operator (back seater) in the NASA WB-57F program from 1972 to 1982 when the program was temporarily shut down. Our usual mission altitudes were 60,000 to 65,000 feet and we wore the David Clark full pressure suit. I was in it twice when we took it to 70,000 just so that we could say we had been there, although, had it not been limited by weight and balance constraints, it could have cruised at 70,000 the same as the U-2. It has a wingspan of 122 feet and is powered by two TF-33 engines. Two optional J-60 engines could be attached for the 65,000 foot air sampling missions that were flown for the AEC and later DOE. Although the U-2 could maintain 70,000, the WB-57F could carry six times the U-2 payload and did not require the exotic fuel and logistics that the U-2 needed. I'm glad to see the grand old lady is still flying. It was a great job and I still miss it. The view from twelve miles up is fantastic.
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    skyscope · 11 years ago
    As someone said NASA still does operate two of these aircraft out of Ellington Field in Texas NASA 926 and NASA 928 and they claim that they are the only two WB-57s still flying in the world today. You can get some info about their operations at their website

    Canberra info

    However, with that said if you look closer at the picture, you can see that the paint scheme does not entirely match that of the two NASA aircraft and it is missing any trace of the logo and the aircraft and the paint is more of a grey/silver and not closer to the NASA polar white paint, not entirely sure of the sun angle and time of day. You can also see that the landing gear is also down so it was landing somewhere near where the picture was taken which is probably why they were able to get a picture of the aircraft at all, at their typical operational altitude you would need a telescope lens. You can also see a yellow stripe near the front which is similar to some of the USAF marking schemes but that may be a stretch.

    I really doubt that that aircraft is one of the NASA craft, but it is somewhat similar to several of the older Air force versions of and it might probably some other departments aircraft or even another country's. They built over 1300 of this aircraft in many different variants, so there are still quite a few in government and private service.

    Last year it seemed that there was some type of WB57 flying in Afganistan, as mentioned in this web post. It has some interesting speculation

    Here is an interesting possibilty to speculate on.... India and Pakistani both used to operate these aircraft in the past, just about all of Afghanistan is within operational range of both of those countries with that type of aircraft. Both India and Pakistani both had reconnaissance versions of this airfcraft, and India only recently "retired" their aircraft in 2007. It could be possible that either countries recently restarted operations with it because of the recent escalation of problems that they are having with each other, and who knows where this pic came from but there have been reports of something that looks like a WB-57/Canberra seen in the region over the last few months..... A little recon never hurtsƒ??.
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    C. D. Anderson · 11 years ago
    There seems to be more confusion about the WB-57F. Back in the early 60s, the Air Force had money for aircraft upgrades but none for new models of aircraft. They took 22 of the basic B-57 aircraft fusulages and replaced just about everything else. The empenage, wings and nose were replaced. They effectively doubled the thrust, the wing and empenage areas and nearly doubled the altitude. Any comparison of the basic B-57 to the WB-57F is rather like comparing a Model A to a supercharged T-Bucket roadster. Unfortunately they retained the basic B-57 landing gear and the brakes were the range limiting factor. Although the WB-57F had fuel capacity for over eight hours, we could not fuel it for much over six without exceeding the braking limits imposed by the minimally adequate brakes. As I stated before, NASA had the last two that were still flying, Unless someone reclaimed one out of the boneyard, this photo has to be one of the NASA aircraft. NASA 926 was the photo plane and it was painted white. NASA 928 was the air sampling version. Exclusive of the markings, it was not painted. At 60,000 feet they cruised at 420 knots true airspeed and 134 indicated and .78 mach. They were mach limited to .82. At mach .85 it would go into a nose down mach-tuck attitude which was not recoverable. I think I see a horizontal yellow stripe on vertical stabilizer of the aircraft in the picture. That was the typical NASA marking. If you could see that bird up close, I bet it would have NASA 928 on the tail.
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    Cecil Trotter · 11 years ago
    From recent comments I'd have to guess that the posters aren't bothering to read previous comments.

    The aircraft in the picture is definitely one of NASA's WB-57's. It's been photographed on the ground in Afghanistan. See the link below which I posted days ago:

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    Render · 11 years ago
    The comments are chronologically backwards, this might throw some people off a bit, including me.



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    Morgan · 11 years ago
    If I were manning a Stinger, I would have engaged it. Looks like a Frogfoot to me.
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    Peter T. Pomonis · 11 years ago
    I was a Photo-Navigator flying in B-57A's from 1955-1956 at Shaw AFB, S. Car. The B-57A was used for Photo-Reconaisance. I again flew in the B-57A at Yokota A.B., Japan in 1956-1957. Our mission in Japan was to take high altitude air samples over Japan After the Chinese tested atomic bombs. We would take the air samples while the nuclear clouds drifted over Japan in the jet stream. We would fly at 50,000 feet because that was our maximum altitude without high altitude pressure suits. The B-57B model's were extensively used as low altitude bombers in Viet Nam in the late 1960's. In the early 1960's the Air Force put more powerful engines and longer wings on it and designated it the B-57D. Rumor was that it could fly at 70,000 feet plus. The airplane in that picture is definitely a B-57. It was agreat airplane with many uses.

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