Faithful test plane retired by Rockwell Collins

1964 North American Sabreliner headed to Oregon aviation museum

The Sabreliner 50 is towed out of the hanger as current and former Rockwell Collins employees say goodbye to their test
The Sabreliner 50 is towed out of the hanger as current and former Rockwell Collins employees say goodbye to their test aircraft at the Eastern Iowa Airport. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The old gal sat stoically in the Rockwell Collins hangar as several dozen of her dearest friends ate a buffet lunch nearby.

The white bulbous nosecone of the 1964 North American Sabreliner 50 test aircraft showed some wear, but the front edge of her wings still shined shiver. In a matter of minutes she’d be winging her way to McMinnville, Ore., and a permanent home at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, never to fly again.

“That’s a little sobering,” admits Ivan McBride, director of flight operations for Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids who has 1,500 hours of flight time in the plane. “It’s a delight to fly. It’s a very forgiving aircraft.”

Good thing, because this jet has been through some rugged testing in its 49-year life, flying through storms to test weather radar and mimicking impending head on crashes, since it was acquired by Rockwell International for testing in California.

It came to Cedar Rapids a dozen years later, in 1976, and has served the Collins division well.

That’s why Rockwell Collins, knowing it was time to retire N50CR — its tail number — contacted several museums and chose Evergreen for its retirement. The plane will join other historic aircraft including the Spruce Goose, the giant transport plane built by Howard Hughes and flown only once, in 1947.

Putting some numbers to N50CR, it has flown 8,000 hours with more than 5,000 landings. The equipment tested on it includes Rockwell Collins’ Multi-Scan Threat Detection System that’s on 5,000 aircraft around the world.

Its continued service to test upgraded equipment has led to delivery of about 40,000 similar systems for air transport, business and military aircraft.

In addition, this plane was used to test the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TACS II) developed by Rockwell Collins which alerts pilots to potential mid-air collisions.

“A good airplane will communicate with you through the controls,” said Barry Brown, senior captain with about 5,000 hours in N50CR. “This is such a plane.”

Brown, who first flew the Sabreliner 50 in 1980, fondly remembers the drills testing the mid-air collision technology. N50CR would be in the air with one or two other planes, the pilots monitoring the equipment as they’d intentionally fly directly at each other.

“It’s the only time,” he said, “I’ve ever heard the engines of another plane over the ambient sound of my aircraft.”

The testing took place using highways as a ground-reference grid, whether that be Interstate 80, I-380 or Highway 20 near Manchester.

“In those days we’d get a few calls relayed by the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office,” he laughed. “They’d say, ‘It appears there are airplanes out here trying to run into each other.’”

As pilots, engineers and support staff signed one of N50CR’s interior panels, Brown prepared to climb into the cockpit with John Kelchen for its final flight.

“We won’t do anything crazy,” Brown said. “It’s been my favorite airplane for a long, long time.”He paused momentarily and smiled. “I’m going to miss it. I’ll probably give it a kiss before I go.”

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