The View From the Cockpit

[As you might have been able to guess, access to the Internet can get spotty as you’re hopping from airfield to airfield all across the country. This is the first of two posts I wrote along the way, but wasn’t able to post.]

All together we’ve got four NASA pilots flying the SCA 747 this time; Charlie Justiz, Frank Marlow, Jack Nickel and SCA Chief Pilot, Jeff Moultrie. These guys are former military aviators and are based out of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. (We also have one more SCA pilot, Bill Brocket, who’s based out of Dryden. He wasn’t able to make this trip.) Together, these four have logged a whole lot of hours of flight time in everything from shuttle training planes to T-38 jets to the Super Guppy. They definitely know what they’re doing.

I found out that the number of SCA refueling stops, like this one at Lackland, depends on the weight of the orbiter on top and the weather along the way, but the carrier must stop to refuel at least once on its trip to Kennedy. During a normal flight, the 747 can use 20,000 pounds of fuel an hour. With Atlantis on its back, the SCA uses twice as much!

While we had some time here in San Antonio, I had a chat with NASA pilot, Charlie Justiz. I wanted to hear what he had to say about what it takes to fly a 747 with a shuttle strapped to your back.

Here’s a piece of my conversation with Charlie.

Atlantis Leaving Mississippi — May Visit the Beach?

The Atlantis Ferry Flight will depart Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi at approximately 3:40 pm CDT and arrive at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at approximately 6:30 pm EDT. Pilots will do a fly-by of the beach if weather permits.
Earlier this afternoon, a huge crowd of well-wishers gathered at Columbus to welcome Atlantis when it landed en route from San Antonio. The stop in Mississippi allowed refueling and a weather briefing before resuming the trip to Florida.
Stay tuned — recap photos and videos are on the way after Atlantis lands at Kennedy Space Center!

Atlantis Takes Off for Columbus Air Force Base

Space shuttle Atlantis is on its way to its second stop today in its cross-country ferry flight, Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.


Atlantis and its modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft departed Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas at about 12:37 p.m. EDT (11:37 a.m. CDT). The flight is expected to take about two hours.


Once Atlantis gets to Columbus Air Force Base managers will assess the weather and determine what the best route is to arrive at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida this evening.

Texas — Part 2

We just landed here at Lackland Air Force Base’s Kelly Field. I scrambled off the C-9 and made it out on the runway in time see Atlantis/SCA’s second Texas landing. We’ll have video soon!

The 37th Training Wing here at Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas, is the largest training wing in the Air Force. Kelly Field is the longest continually used runway in the Air Force (since 1917) and population wise is the largest Air Force base in the United States.
Ben, our photographer caught this cool shot of Lackland AFB 2nd Lieutenant, Natassia Cherne taking a moment after the landing.

We’ll refuel here, take a minute for lunch and to get one last check of the weather forecasts and then be on our way to Mississippi.

Oh, and I’ve noticed in the comments several people are asking about why it is that the orbiter can’t fly in the rain since it’s not a problem if the orbiter gets rained on when it’s sitting on the launch pad. The answer is that the rain hits the orbiter’s tiles a lot harder when we’re flying over 300 mph than it does at the pad. At those speeds the rain would be like a shotgun blast to the tiles. (Have you ever held your hand outside your car window when you’re driving through a rainstorm?)

Putting Together the Flight Schedule Puzzle

Right now the team is hunkered down in a conference room here at the hotel pouring over data sheets and weather charts. Underneath the chatter of the discussions you can hear them clicking and clacking away at laptop keyboards and calculators. So far everything is looking good and we should have a flight route for tomorrow soon.

I’ve been reading the comments and one of the most popular questions is, “when is Atlantis flying over my town?” It’s not as easy as you might think to answer that question. In order to get the shuttle home to Kennedy Space Center, we have quite a few rules and restrictions we have to follow.

First of all, we have to be very careful about the kind of weather we fly into and out of and through. And as you all know, forecasts change all the time. Flying from Southern California to Central Florida we are really dealing with weather planning across the entire southern half of the US — and meeting all our other strict constraints on temperature, clouds and precipitation. Put all of that together and you can see why it’s tough to say where we’re going to be and when we’re going to get there.

Today’s first leg flight is a perfect example of how crazy the scheduling challenges can be. We had originally planned for just a fuel layover in El Paso, then added an option to go north to Amarillo instead of El Paso and finally needed to pick just stopping at El Paso for the day.

Here’s what Ferry Operations Manager, Don McCormack said about it. He can explain it better than I can…

This is a good question that doesn’t have a quick easy answer.

First of all, we start with a list of airfields (about 20), primarily military bases that are on an approved list of airfields to be used during a ferry mission.  Each of these bases has agreed to accommodate an SCA/Orbiter landing and each has personnel trained to do so.  There is a very specific set of requirements that must be satisfied by each base.  These requirements include providing security for the Orbiter, providing a safe place to park an Orbiter that still has highly toxic commodities on board, has ground support equipment that can reach the Orbiter on top of the SCA if it is required, and not least of all, is willing to accept the disruption to normal operations that is caused when we arrive.  In addition, if the ferry stop is overnight, the base also arranges for transportation and lodging of the ferry team.

Second, the Orbiter has a very restrictive set of atmospheric/weather requirements.  We must, at all cost, avoid rain in flight.  Flying through rain will damage the Orbiter’s thermal protection system and result in a costly and long delay before the Orbiter’s next flight.  We also try very hard to avoid exposing the Orbiter to severe weather on the ground, which could also cause damage.  The Orbiter cannot be exposed to temperatures less than 15 F either in flight or on the ground and the Orbiter cannot fly at an altitude where the pressure is less than 8 psia.  These requirements typically limit our altitude to an 11,000 to 16,000 ft range.  So, the SCA/Orbiter route is largely driven by the bases that are available and the weather en route.

In addition, the SCA has a very limited range when ferrying the Orbiter.  That range depends primarily on the weight of the Orbiter and the air temperature.  Winds are also a factor.  The heavier the Orbiter is, the less fuel we can load into the SCA, pure and simple.  Without going into a lot of technical details, hotter air is less dense air and that too significantly impacts the performance of the aircraft.

Finally, hardware issues can also impact our route selection by causing delays.  During delays, the weather changes and often times so does the route.

So, there are many factors that drive the route we take with weather being the big one.  And as everyone can understand, predicting the weather is not an exact science.  That’s the biggest reason that it’s often the morning of the flight before we can say, with certainty, where we’re going.

I told you he knew his stuff.