Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Launchpad Patrol

A one-of-a-kind perspective on NASA’s shuttle missions

The Skymaster used to monitor Kennedy Space Center has a remotely operated camera turret with high-resolution infrared cameras.
As I continue flying circles around the complex, I'm reminded of the history that has been written at this place. When I gaze upon Complex 39B, I'm looking at the spot where Apollo 11 departed Planet Earth on its way to mankind's first landing on the moon. Complexes 39A and 39B were built to launch the Saturn V moon rockets, but after the Apollo program, they were converted to support shuttle launches. The first shuttle launch was on the 12th of April, 1981, when Columbia was launched from 39A. On the south side of my orbit, I can look out my right window, and see what's left of Launch Complex 34A, the site of the Apollo 1 fire. It's no longer in use, and has been left as a memorial to the three crew members who died on that tragic day in 1967.

Shortly before my shift ends, we're informed that it's time for the flight crew to be transported to the shuttle from a building near the VAB. At that point, our task is to provide over-watch for the transit as we escort a small convoy of vehicles, including the coach carrying the crew, to the launch complex. We fly a spiral pattern over the convoy as they proceed slowly toward the shuttle, watching the road ahead and the surrounding brush for any sign of trouble.

After the crew convoy reaches its destination, we have time to fly only a few more laps around the complex before we hear our sister ship on the frequency announcing they're inbound to relieve us. As our other company crew takes up the orbit we've been maintaining for the last two hours, we say goodbye and turn out to the west for the short flight back to Titusville. By that time, the fog has burned off, and we're able to make a visual approach. The sky is clear, the sun is shining, and it looks like it will be a great day for a launch.

After landing and refueling, my crewmates and I are on standby. We'll fly another shift if there's a delay in the countdown. If there are no delays, we'll watch the launch from the ramp in front of the hangar, which is a good vantage point, but the best possible view will belong to the crew who just relieved us. A few minutes before the countdown reaches its end, the crew on duty will move the aircraft to a holding pattern over our "mission support point," which is a waypoint designated for our use by NASA inside the restricted area, at a safe distance from the launch complex. The trick then is to time your turn so that your nose is pointed toward the pad as the engines light off, so the pilot can watch the action as the camera operator records video of the liftoff. Unless you're lucky enough to have a seat in the VIP bleachers, I don't think there's any way to have a better view of a launch.

Airborne over our mission support point is an especially good place to view a night launch. The show starts with a very rapidly expanding, almost explosive, billowing cloud of smoke and steam under and around the base of the platform the shuttle is standing on. The instant the shuttle leaves the pad, you see that the cloud of smoke and steam contains a baby sun that appears to be lifting the shuttle skyward. As it climbs, the brilliant white light beneath the shuttle is so intense that it illuminates the entire Cape and the east coast of Florida as brightly as daytime, as if it were indeed a small sun rising. A friend of mine said it makes you feel as if you're witnessing a supernatural event.

Back at the airport as the countdown continues, my crewmates and I grab some coffee and relax in our company offices as we watch the video transmitted by our sister ship. It has been a long night, and could also be a long day if the launch is delayed.


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