On July 13 the NASA Glenn Research Center bade farewell to the Lockheed S-3B Viking as aircraft N601NA departed the Center’s base at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. It was bound for California, where it will be displayed at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
As the U.S. Navy drew down its Viking fleet NASA acquired four S-3Bs from 2004. Of these tail number N601NA (formerly military BuNo. 160607) was used on an almost daily basis on a range of research programs. Following acquisition from the U.S. Navy, it was put through a conversion program in 2006 that removed all military equipment and installed civilian avionics, GPS, racks for research equipment in the former weapons bay, and satellite communications systems. One of its most important projects was helping define the communications standards that can be applied by the FAA to unmanned aircraft systems operating in U.S. airspace.
“This old aircraft has been a huge part of ushering in the future of aviation,” said Mike Jarrell, lead of NASA’s Command and Control project. “The S-3B has been a perfect match for our research. It has a nice flat bottom where we can mount a variety of antennas; it flies steady and goes low and slow so we can communicate with ground stations.”
During its NASA career, the S-3B conducted research flights over every type of terrain encountered in U.S. national airspace, including mountains, hills, over water, plains, and deserts. The results provided NASA, the FAA, and commercial partners a path to provide secure, reliable command-and-control radios used for communication from the ground to unmanned aircraft systems. Another important mission for the Viking was monitoring algal bloom growth in Lake Erie, using hyperspectral sensors.
Despite the usefulness of the aircraft it became increasingly difficult and expensive to support. “This was the last S-3B flying anywhere in the world,” said Jim Demers, Glenn’s flight operations manager. “It’s been a workhorse for NASA, but we just can’t source its unique parts anymore.”
Lockheed first flew the S-3A Viking prototype on 21 January 1972. The type became the U.S. Navy’s carrier-borne anti-submarine warfare aircraft, entering service in February 1974 to replace the Grumman S-2 Tracker. Production totaled 188. Over 100 were later upgraded to S-3B standard with improved equipment and the ability to carry the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile. Others were modified in small numbers as the ES-3A electronic surveillance platform and US-3A carrier onboard delivery aircraft. With the end of the Cold War and the subsequent reduction of the submarine threat, the S-3B fleet was re-tasked with anti-surface warfare, surveillance, land attack, decoy launch, and inflight refueling.
The S-3B was withdrawn from Fleet service in January 2009, but three aircraft were retained for use as range control aircraft over the Pacific Missile Test Range off the Californian coast. They were based at NAS Point Mugu with VX-30 before retirement in January 2016, leaving NASA Glenn as the last remaining operator.