NASA Research Pilot Bill Brockett – Knowledge of, Passion for Science
"I'm the kind of guy who if, waiting at the barber shop, is not looking at the fishing magazines. I'm looking for a National Geographic, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, or Science Today or something like that, which I find more interesting. If I had not become a pilot, I probably would have been a scientist."
So says NASA research pilot William F. "Bill" Brockett, who was recently honored by NASA Airborne Science Program officials with an Honor Award for Leadership for his role in providing flight capabilities for the Earth science community for more than 22 years.
"Brockett's leadership skills, calm demeanor and sincere commitment to the goals of the Airborne Science program have established confidence and trust in the researchers, the flight project team and all participants on our campaigns," wrote Bob Curry, director of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in his nominating letter.
Brockett has always been fascinated by science, and his knowledge of aircraft and how they can be used for science is an invaluable asset to NASA and the science community.
"I see their challenges in terms of how the pilot can use the aircraft as a tool to capture their objectives. I want to see them be successful," said Brockett, who has worked on dozens of science mission campaigns and has multiplied hundreds of flight hours in science-platform aircraft.
Brockett has flown numerous NASA environmental and space science aircraft, including 100 missions of NASA's C-141 Kuiper Airborne Observatory, or KAO, the predecessor to the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. Brockett flew the SOFIA during its initial checkout flights in Waco, Texas, following major modifications to carry its 2.5-meter infrared telescope. He has continued to fly many SOFIA test flights after the aircraft was delivered to NASA Dryden at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and intends to pilot additional flight tests and become part of the pilot rotation when the SOFIA is fully operational.
Brockett joined NASA as a member of the flight operations staff at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., in 1987. He flew the Kuiper observatory until the aircraft's retirement in 1995. Brockett had flown C-141 Starlifters for more than 16 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, so the assignment fit his experience.
While at Ames he also piloted a C-130B used by NASA as an Earth science research platform, and NASA's modified DC-8 flying science laboratory. He had flown C-130s in the Air Force and gained experience with the DC-8 during a previous job working for a cargo carrier. He continued to serve as NASA's senior DC-8 pilot after it began operations from Dryden, during its years based in North Dakota and upon its return to its current home base at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif.
Brockett also has participated recently in deployments of NASA's Gulfstream III Earth science research aircraft that carries the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar, or UAVSAR, developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The aircraft flies as a surrogate unmanned aircraft system to both test the instrument and acquire precise radar imagery of features of the terrain almost eight miles below. Thanks to a sophisticated precision autopilot developed by NASA engineers at Dryden, the G-III can fly repeat passes days, months, years or decades apart within five meters of the original track and detect tiny changes, Brockett explained.
Radar imaging missions were recently flown by the modified G-III over Central America and the island of Hispaniola following the Haitian earthquake. A half-dozen flights were flown over the Hawaiian islands from Maui to Oahu to observe volcanic regions, coastlines, oceanic processes and land development last fall. Previous missions in the spring of 2009 looked at Greenland and Iceland to enable the UAVSAR to gather baseline information on glaciers and ice caps in areas that will be over-flown again in the future to look for changes.
"I find it fascinating, and having this full access to the scientists who develop instruments to pursue experiments on the frontier of science is a pretty good fringe benefit," Brockett said. "Going to these spectacular places is frosting on the cake."
The flying is meticulous, demanding and requires concentration, and it is not often known what science is achieved while the flight is in progress. The biggest challenge for a pilot, Brockett said, is making the call about what to do when things don't go as planned. It is the pilot who can decide whether a mission should be abandoned, or if there is a way -- safely -- to make everything work out.
One example involved a KAO mission Brockett piloted in which researchers wanted to view Pluto's pass in front of a star -- called an occultation -- to determine whether the planet had an atmosphere. The mission had been planned for more than two years, but an aircraft mechanical problem discovered just before takeoff nearly kept it from even leaving the ground.
The maintenance crew resolved the problem without having to shut down scientists' instruments, but the challenge caused delays. Strong headwinds that were not in the forecasts also threatened to keep the aircraft from making up the eight minutes lost on the ground. A rare opportunity was in jeopardy. Brockett managed to get the aircraft into position and, unlike with many science flights that require post-flight data analysis to determine whether a mission was a success, celebration broke out in the aircraft as scientists confirmed in real time that Pluto had an atmosphere.
"That was a real thrill," Brockett said.
By Jay Levine
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center