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Flying High and Fast
Charlie Justiz standing in front of a T-38 airplane

Retired NASA pilot Charlie Justiz flew more than 100 different types of aircraft including the T-38 astronaut aircraft. Image Credit: NASA

Name: Charles R. Justiz, Ph.D.
Job Title: NASA Pilot (retired)
  • University of Houston, Ph.D., mechanical engineering, June 1991
  • University of Houston, M.S., computer and control systems engineering, June 1986
  • United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., B.S., aeronautical engineering, June 1974
NASA Center: Johnson Space Center, September 1980 - June 2010
Hometown: Miami, Fla.
Hobby: Cycling, golf, writing science fiction, author of "Specific Impulse"

Throughout his 30-year career as a NASA pilot, Charles Justiz flew more than 100 different types of aircraft. These include the T-38 astronaut aircraft; the Shuttle Training Aircraft used to practice landing the space shuttle orbiter; and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, which brings the orbiter home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida after it lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He also piloted NASA's "Weightless Wonder" reduced-gravity airplane, used to conduct microgravity research. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who later earned master's and doctoral degrees in engineering, Justiz spent part of his NASA career training astronauts to pilot some of these same aircraft.

What attracted you to a career as a pilot?

When I was 14, my father began taking flying lessons. I told him that I was interested in flying, and he took me to the airport for an orientation flight with his instructor. I became hooked immediately. I quit the Boy Scouts and joined the Civil Air Patrol that next week and began doing odd jobs to raise money for flight lessons.

What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?

Charlie Justiz in the cockpit of an airplane

Charlie Justiz spent part of his career training space shuttle astronauts how to fly various NASA aircraft. Image Credit: NASA

I had a great many fun, exciting and challenging opportunities in my career. I've been fortunate enough to log more than 15,000 hours across a 40-plus-year career. I’ve instructed every space shuttle astronaut, been the instructor pilot on more than 15,000 shuttle approaches in the Shuttle Training Aircraft, flown more than 10,000 parabolas in the NASA reduced-gravity aircraft, carried shuttles across the country in the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, and flown more than 8,000 hours in T-38s. However, the most memorable part of my NASA career was joining with and chasing 13 space shuttles after their re-entry.

What prepared you for your job?

There is no question that the incredible training from both the USAF (Air Force) and NASA were central to the success of my job. NASA, especially, ensured that I always had the training needed. Even more, if there was some training that I felt that I needed to do my job, I would request it and it was never turned down. NASA has always been very supportive of flight crew training.

What is the fastest you have flown in an aircraft?

While I was stationed at the 3246 Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base (in Florida), I got a chance to go a little over Mach 2 (about 1,400 miles per hour) on several occasions. I did this in both the F-4 and in the F-111. Both of these were for the purpose of performing a flight test. However, we tried not to go that fast very often because you ended up burning a lot of fuel and flying a very short mission. Incidentally, the highest I ever flew was 67,700 feet in NASA's WB-57 high-altitude aircraft. We required a spacesuit to fly this high.

Is it scary to fly that fast or to fly in any of the aircraft you piloted?

I am asked that a great deal, and I'm also asked if I ever get airsick. During flight tests and also as a research pilot for NASA, I had a great deal of training. Invariably, if a situation occurred, the training kicked in and I always had 100 percent confidence that I could recover myself and/or the aircraft to a safe situation. All of the aircraft I flew either had a great deal of redundancy (airliners and corporate jets) or they had an ejection seat (fighters). I never felt any apprehension whether I was flying fast or slow, high or low.

Also, I have never gotten airsick, but I certainly see how that could happen. People ask if I ever felt queasy while flying the reduced-gravity parabolas on the NASA KC-135 or the NASA C-9. After all, it is called the "Vomit Comet." The interesting thing about those profiles is that you are flying the aircraft very aggressively from one edge of the performance envelope to slightly outside of the other edge of the performance envelope. Your absolute concentration is essential or you risk the safety of the mission. In fact, my concentration was so extreme that I was occasionally surprised at how quickly the mission went. I would ask the crew, "Where did those two hours go?"

Is there a funny or interesting astronaut story that stands out in your memory?

Tons. I have to admit that I was very fortunate in that you tend to strike up a conversation when you are stuck in a cockpit together with another crew member.

I cherished hearing astronaut Deke Slayton talk about his missions in Europe in a B-25 during World War II and about the (bad) handling qualities of the P-51. I enjoyed hearing how astronaut Story Musgrave ran off to join the Marines and be an airplane mechanic in Korea when he was a kid, how he worked on figuring out the terminal velocity of a free-falling human, and how he got his 10,000-plus hours in a T-38. I loved to hear astronaut John Young talk about bouncing around the moon in the rover and what a crazy ride it was.

And I enjoyed the frank conversations of the crew members about each of their spaceflight missions. For example, I had never heard astronaut Neil Armstrong talk about the actual landing on the moon. Neil is a very reserved person. When he talked about engine stop on the moon and looking out the window at the dust that the engine kicked up shooting out to the horizon (there's no air to slow it down and not much gravity to pull it back to the surface), you could have heard a pin drop in that room. That was with a room full of hardened astronauts and research pilots. He had us riveted.

What did you train astronauts to do?

The space shuttle orbiter atop another aircraft in midair

Space shuttle Atlantis is carried by one of NASA's modified 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft over California's high desert on a ferry flight back to Kennedy Space Center. Image Credit: NASA

I was an instructor pilot in the Shuttle Training Aircraft responsible for teaching astronaut pilots how to land the space shuttle. We would take them up to 35,000 feet and enter simulation. The main gear were down: the engines were in reverse; and the flaps on the wings would move to the "up" position to help dump some of the lift. I was also an instructor pilot in the NASA T-38 as part of the Astronaut Spaceflight Readiness Training program. There we would teach the astronaut pilots and mission specialists the principles of crew resource management and of flight safety principles. We had an admirable safety record and an excellent training record. I also flew the NASA C-130, WB-57, KC-135, C-9, and 747 Shuttle Carrier, but those did not directly support the astronaut training program.

What advice would you give to students interested in a career as a pilot?

The most important thing to do is to just fly. Go out and get your private license as soon as (you) can and fly as much as you can. Get your instrument rating and your commercial rating. Learn as much as you can. Getting an instructor rating and teaching is an excellent way to more thoroughly learn flying and an excellent way to build quality flight hours. If you don’t become an instructor, just remember that every hour of experience that you build in the air will give you that many more tools in your skill set when the time comes to turn pro.

On the Web:
› Shuttle Training Aircraft Preps Astronauts for Landing
› Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
› T-38 Image Gallery
› KC-135 History   →
› C-9B History   →
› WB-57 High Altitude Research Program   →
› NASA Kids' Club: Let's Fly Away

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services