SCA Crews Focus on Ferrying Shuttles Home
Space shuttle missions came to an end in 2011, it's true, but that doesn’t mean that the shuttles have stopped flying.
Space shuttles Discovery, Enterprise and Endeavour will each take to the air one final time in 2012, bound for their retirement destinations aboard a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or SCA, a modified Boeing 747 jet.
The trio will travel piggyback on NASA 905, the first of two SCAs NASA acquired during the Space Shuttle Program. NASA 905 has been assigned to 65 ferry missions.
Discovery's trip from Kennedy to Washington Dulles International Airport in Sterling, Va., is planned for April 17. NASA 905 will arrive in Florida a week before to allow plenty of time for mate/demate operations with the spacecraft.
NASA's specially trained SCA pilots and flight engineers keep their skills sharp with practice flights in an SCA about every three weeks and simulator training twice a year.
Pilot Jeff Moultrie will serve as the commander of the flight crew for Discovery's ferry flight and will deliver 905 to Kennedy on April 10. He is prepared for any contingency.
"In the simulator, we only practice problem scenarios," Moultrie said. "We have two of the best pilot and engineer instructors in the world: Tom Speer and Tim Sandon. They have a world of experience and are an integral part of our program."
The prime flight crew for Discovery’s upcoming ferry also includes SCA pilot Bill Rieke and SCA weather pilot Arthur "Ace" Beall.
"The simulator has a software program installed to simulate the flying characteristics of a mated SCA," Beall said. "It's very realistic. The instructors simulate a variety of emergencies during the three-day sessions. System malfunctions and engine failures are practiced repeatedly, including two-engine flights, approaches and landings."
Beall will analyze weather conditions aboard a "Pathfinder" aircraft which flies about 100 miles ahead of the SCA.
"The weather pilot advises the SCA crew via radio of the flight conditions on the ferry route," Beall said. "Describing the situation and explaining the alternate route is a dynamic situation, something that is usually changing all the time."
The main weather hazard is rain.
"The mass of a raindrop at the speeds being flown will damage the shuttle tiles in a matter of seconds," Beall explained, "so if any rain is encountered or observed, the weather pilot offers alternate routes and altitudes to the SCA crew.
"Additionally, the SCA does not have much extra fuel to maneuver significant distances around rain, so finding the most efficient, rain-free route in a short amount of time can be challenging. Turbulence is also a factor."
During a normal flight, the SCA might use 20,000 pounds of fuel an hour; with an orbiter on its back, that number could double.
The SCA program now has six pilots and two flight engineers, "some of the best crew members that I have ever worked with," Moultrie said.
"We also are very lucky to have top-notch flight engineers Henry Taylor and Larry LaRose who do a great job running the systems on the airplane and keeping the pilots on the 'straight and narrow.' "
Taylor, the most experienced member of the SCA team, will be at Kennedy as he celebrates his 60th birthday April 16, preparing to do one of the things he does so well.
Once Discovery arrives safely in Virginia, NASA 905 will give the shuttle prototype Enterprise a lift to the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Later this year, NASA 905 also will support the last-ever shuttle ferry flight when it transports shuttle Endeavour to the Los Angeles International Airport.
"When flying a mated SCA, there are plenty of eyes watching us," Moultrie said. Crowds often turn out for the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime sight. "From a pilot's perspective, we always want (to execute) a nice landing."
NASA retired its only other SCA, NASA 911, in February. After it was commissioned in 1990, NASA 911 performed 20 of the 85 ferry flights to date.
Although less utilized, NASA 905 may have had the more "exotic" career, however, teaming up with Enterprise between February and November 1977 for the shuttle program's Approach and Landing Tests at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California. NASA 905 also accompanied Enterprise on a European tour in 1983 that included runway viewings for the public in Germany, at the Paris Air Show and outside London.
The traveling companions returned home to the U.S. amid much fanfare, with thousands turning out in the heat at Dulles for a glimpse from a distance.
Perhaps some of those same fans will show up at Dulles on April 17 to welcome Discovery "home" nearly 29 years later.
For more on the history of the shuttle's ferry flights, visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/flyout/ferryflight.html.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center