Tales from Area 52*

1/72 USN C-13S White Swan

Gallery Article by Alvis 3.1 on Jan 9 2012

Silly Week 2012


Seeing the USAF and NASA forging ahead with the STS Shuttle system in the 70s, the USN realised they would be left out of the space game if they weren't careful. Skillful manueverings in backrooms lead to Rockwell winning the contract for the Navy's C-13S (Space) Orbital Cargo Vehicle. Four vehicles were built, all secretly funded by the Carter Administration as a covert program to counter the Soviet Union.

Based on the wings from their shuttle design, and the fuselage from the recently cancelled B-1, Rockwell was able to start with a fresh set of design parameters. The OCV would be boosted into orbit by a now fully engined ET and four (4!) SRBs. The OCV retained an uprated SSME as the main Orbital Maneuvering Engine, giving it the ability to rapidly change orbits, something the Shuttle was unable to do. It could also be fired after reentry, to extend the glide range. Overall, it was a logical next step in the shuttle design. The designers and crew began calling the vehicle the "White Swan", both as a compliment of its' graceful lines, but also how it differed from the "Ugly Duckling" Shuttle.


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First launching Johnston Atoll in 1983, the "White Swans" were initially used to place RORSAT reconnaissance satellites in orbit, as well as beginning the construction of the US Navys' Orbital Research Platforms. Manned recon missions were flown, and there was one instance where a joint Shuttle/ C-13 mission was flown to deploy an orbital ICBM Launch Detection Array.  With the loss of the shuttle Challenger in 1986, the USN C-13 became more heavily utilized, but was limited by the smaller payload bay. Flying normally with a crew of three, two could do an EVA while one maintained systems aboard. A remote manipulator arm was usually carried and was used to assemble Space Platform components and retrieve recon satellites. It is not known if any foreign satellites were "abducted".

Launches usually took place at Johnston Atoll, as it was decently remote, and most landing were at Edwards AFB at night. Carried to the launch site atop a modified 747 had some security risks, but the overall shape was close enough to the Shuttle, so it was deemed secure, although routes were often planned to allow for night flights and airliners were often mysteriously diverted to avoid any accidental photos.

Ironically, the C-13s wound up deploying the entire series of prototype Orbital Space Beam Weapons, AKA "Ronnies' Rayguns". These single shot Anti-ICBM weapons were instrumental in preventing WWIII from breaking out on three known occasions, twice where rogue states fired short range nuclear warheads, and once where an SLBM was accidentally launched from a SSBN on a training mission. The Red Phone got a workout that day! While no country was ever named, a check of who had what at sea in April of '92 makes it easy to guess. 

Yes, it's all made up. In case you're wondering, it all started back in 1989, when I had a couple Airfix B-1 bombers, and had no idea what to do with them, since they aren't exactly accurate. I had also recently obtained a partially built 1/72 Revell Shuttle, and it wasn't salvagable as a shuttle, so my mind began whirling along. Years later...*DING!* I had the plan. I never throw anything out, much to my wifes' annoyance.

Since both vehicles were designed at Rockwell, the two designs actually seem to blend together reasonably well. There wasn't much filler needed to blend the wings into the body, and the nose contours filled in easily too. Now, if only I had a couple 1/72 Shuttle stacks laying around to do a launch configuration...4 SRBs! Wow! The crew came from a Revell SR-71, the egress stairs were scratch built, as was the Remote Manipulator Arm and the "Ronnie's Raygun". ZAP ZAP! Decals were mostly from my trusty rusty ole inkjet printer and the spares bin.

The vehicle reminds me of a fixed wing B-1. That's something I may tackle one day with the other Airfix B-1, it would make a nice looking SST!

*Area 52 is where all the real secret American vehicles are flown and tested. Area 51 is just where they keep the paperwork!

Alvis 3.1

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Photos and text by Alvis 3.1