Frank Batteas, right, presents Bill Brockett with an award for exceptional leadership in the Airborne Sciences program. (Submitted Photo) NASA Airborne Science program officials recently honored Dryden pilot Bill Brockett 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 Dryden's Science Mission Directorate in the nominating letter.
Brockett had no idea he had been nominated for an award even on the day he received it at a briefing for a DC-8 mission.
"I should have been suspicious because my boss, Frank Batteas, had suggested that when we departed on our deployment to Chile, that his wife was going to come by and just take a look at the airplane and see us off and he'd be happy to pick me up and my wife could come too. I never saw it coming. I was completely surprised," Brockett said.
The pilot has always been fascinated by 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," he said.
His knowledge of aircraft and how they can be used for science is invaluable.
"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 hundreds of flight hours in science-platform aircraft.
Brockett has worked on numerous science platforms, including 100 missions with NASA's C-141 Kuiper Airborne Observatory, or KAO, the predecessor to the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. In fact, Brockett flew the SOFIA during its flights in Waco, Texas, and on many test flights at Dryden, and he intends to pilot additional flight tests and become part of the pilot rotation when the science testbed is fully operational.
He first joined NASA as part of the staff at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., in 1987. He flew the KAO until the aircraft's retirement in 1995. Brockett flew C-141 Starlifters for more than 16 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, so the assignment fit his experience.
At Ames he also piloted the C-130B, which was used by NASA as an Earth science research platform, and the DC-8. He flew the C-130 in the Air Force and gained experience with the DC-8 during a previous job working for a cargo carrier. The C-130 was used as a platform for scientific experiments and equipment that looked at geology, vulcanology, biology and vegetation studies.
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.
Recently, he also has participated in deployments of the G-III involving use of the Uninhabited Air Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar, or UAVSAR. The aircraft flies as a surrogate unmanned aircraft system to test the instrument. The DC-8 originally validated and flew an earlier-generation synthetic aperture radar. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena developed both radars. The G-III UAVSAR can fly repeat passes days, months, years or decades apart within five meters of the original track and detect tiny changes, Brockett explained.
Six such flights were recently flown from the Big Island of Hawaii and over the chain of islands from Maui to Oahu to observe volcanic regions, coastlines, oceanic processes and land development. Previous missions in the spring of 2009 looked at Greenland and Iceland to gather baseline information with the UAVSAR on glaciers and ice caps, areas that will be over-flown again over time 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 during the flight. 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.
Regardless of which aircraft Brockett flies, he looks forward to helping map the next chapters in science discovery on the Earth and the heavens.