Posted by: blogengeezer | June 16, 2009

Space Shuttle Piggyback

(This is from the NASA pilot who just ferried the Shuttle back to Florida. It was his first ferry flight.)

  Well,  it’s been 48 hours since I landed the 747 with the shuttle Atlantis on  top and I am still buzzing from the experience.  I have to say that  my whole mind, body and soul went into the professional mode just before  engine start in Mississippi, and stayed there, where it all needed to  be, until well after the flight…in fact, I am not sure if it is all  back to normal as I type this email.  The experience was  surreal.   Seeing that “thing” on top of an already overly  huge aircraft boggles my mind.  The whole mission from takeoff to  engine shutdown was unlike anything I had ever done.  It was like a  dream…someone else’s dream.   
  We  took off from Columbus AFB on their 12,000 foot runway, of  which I used 11,999 1/2  feet to get the wheels off the  ground.  We were at 3,500 feet left to go of the runway,  throttles full power, nose wheels still hugging the ground, copilot  calling out decision speeds, the weight of Atlantis now screaming  through my fingers clinched tightly on the controls, tires heating up to  their near maximum temperature from the speed and the weight, and not  yet at rotation speed, the speed at which I would be pulling on the  controls to get the nose to rise. 

 I just could not wait, and I  mean I COULD NOT WAIT, and started pulling early.  If I had waited  until rotation speed, we would not have rotated enough to get airborne  by the end of the runway.  So I pulled on the controls early and  started our rotation to the takeoff attitude.

  The wheels  finally lifted off as we passed over the stripe marking the end of  the runway and my next hurdle (physically) was a line of trees 1,000  feet off the departure end of Runway 16.  All I knew was we  were flying and so I directed the gear to be retracted and the flaps to  be moved from Flaps 20 to Flaps 10 as I pulled even harder on the  controls. 

 I must say, those trees were beginning to look a lot  like those brushes in the drive through car washes so I pulled even  harder yet!  I think I saw a bird just fold its wings and fall out  of a tree as if to say “Oh just take me”.  

Okay, we cleared the  trees, duh, but it was way too close for my laundry.  As we started  to actually climb, at only 100 feet per minute, I smelled something that  reminded me of touring the Heineken Brewery in Europe…I said “is that  a skunk I smell?” and the veterans of shuttle carrying looked at me and  smiled and said “Tires”!  I said “TIRES???  OURS???”   

They smiled and shook their heads as if to call their Captain an  amateur…okay, at that point I was.  The tires were so hot you  could smell them in the cockpit.  My mind could not get over, from  this point on, that this was something I had never experienced.   Where’s your mom when you REALLY need her?
  The  flight down to Florida was an eternity.  We cruised at 250 knots  indicated, giving us about 315 knots of ground speed at 15,000′.   The miles didn’t click by like I am use to them clicking by in a fighter  jet at MACH .94.  We were burning fuel at a rate of 40,000 pounds  per hour or 130 pounds per mile, or one gallon every length of the  fuselage.  

The vibration in the cockpit was mild, compared to down  below and to the rear of the fuselage where it reminded me of that  football game I had as a child where you turned it on and the players  vibrated around the board.  I felt like if I had plastic clips on  my boots I could have vibrated to any spot in the fuselage I wanted to  go without moving my legs…and the noise was deafening. 

 The 747  flies with its nose 5 degrees up in the air to stay level, and when  you bank, it feels like the shuttle is trying to say “hey, let’s roll  completely over on our back”..not a good thing I kept telling  myself.  SO I limited my bank angle to 15 degrees and even though a  180 degree course change took a full zip code to complete, it was the  safe way to turn this monster.  
  Airliners  and even a flight of two F-16s deviated from their flight plans to catch a glimpse of us along the way.  We dodged what was in reality very  few clouds and storms, despite what everyone thought, and arrived in  Florida with 51,000 pounds of fuel too much to land with.  

We can’t  land heavier than 600,000 pounds total weight and so we had to do  something with that fuel.  I had an idea…let’s fly low and slow  and show this beast off to all the taxpayers in Florida lucky enough to  be outside on that Tuesday afternoon. 

 So at Ormond Beach we let  down to 1,000 feet above the ground/water and flew just east of the  beach out over the water.  Then, once we reached the NASA airspace  of the Kennedy Space Center, we cut over to the Banana/Indian Rivers and  flew down the middle of them to show the people of Titusville, Port  St.Johns and Melbourne just what a 747 with a shuttle on it looked  like. 

 We stayed at 1,000 feet and since we were dragging our  flaps at “Flaps 5”, our speed was down to around 190 to 210 knots.   We could see traffic stopping in the middle of roads to take a  look.  We heard later that a Little League Baseball game stop to  look and everyone cheered as we became their 7th inning stretch.   Oh say can you see…
  After  reaching Vero Beach, we turned north to follow the coast line back up to  the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).  There was not one person  laying on the beach…they were all standing and waving!    “What a sight” I thought…and figured they were thinking the same  thing.  

All this time I was bugging the engineers, all three of  them, to re-compute our fuel and tell me when it was time to  land.   They kept saying “Not yet Triple, keep showing this  thing off” which was not a bad thing to be doing.  However, all  this time the thought that the landing, the muscling of this 600,000  pound beast, was getting closer and closer to my reality.  I was  pumped up!  

We got back to the SLF and were still 10,000 pounds too  heavy to land so I said I was going to do a low approach over the SLF  going the opposite direction of landing traffic that day.   So  at 300 feet, we flew down the runway, rocking our wings like a whale  rolling on its side to say “hello” to the people looking on!  

One  turn out of traffic and back to the runway to land…still 3,000 pounds  over gross weight limit.  But the engineers agreed that if the  landing were smooth, there would be no problem.  “Oh thanks guys, a  little extra pressure is just what I needed!”  So we landed at  603,000 pounds and very smoothly if I have to say so myself. 

 The  landing was so totally controlled and on speed, that it was fun.   There were a few surprises that I dealt with, like the 747 falls like a  rock with the orbiter on it, if you pull the throttles off at the  “normal” point in a landing and secondly, if you thought you could hold  the nose off the ground after the mains touch down, think again…IT IS  COMING DOWN!!!  

So I “flew it down” to the ground and saved what I  have seen in videos of a nose slap after landing.  Bob’s video  supports this!  :8-)
   Then  I turned on my phone after coming to a full stop only to find 50  bazillion emails and phone messages from all of you who were so super to  be watching and cheering us on!  What a treat, I can’t thank y’all  enough.  

For those who watched, you wondered why we sat there so  long. Well, the shuttle had very hazardous chemicals on board and we had  to be “sniffed” to determine if any had leaked or were leaking.   They checked for Monomethylhydrazine (N2H4 for Charlie Hudson) and  nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4).  Even though we were “clean”, it took  way too long for them to tow us in to the mate-demate area.  Sorry  for those who stuck it out and even waited until we exited the  jet.
  I  am sure I will wake up in the middle of the night here soon, screaming  and standing straight up dripping wet with sweat from the realization of  what had happened.  It was a thrill of a lifetime.  Again I  want to thank everyone for your interest and support.  It felt good  to bring Atlantis home in one piece after she had worked so hard getting  to the Hubble Space Telescope and back.
  Triple  Nickel
  NASA  Pilot



  1. My family was on vacation in Florida when the shuttle was being returned. Hearing about it on the news that morning, my husband who is a big NASA follower, said, “What I’d give to see that!” After dinner that night, we were driving from Cocoa Beach to Daytona. My son suddenly screamed, “Dad, there it is!” The airplane with the shuttle passed right in front of our vehicle. My daughter said she had prayed all day that her dad would get to see it because she knew it would make his day. It certainly did! Good work!

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