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NASA 747 moves to Palmdale
Retired NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 911, one of two modified Boeing 747 jetliners that ferried NASA’s space shuttles for decades, moved to its new home at Joe Davies Heritage Airpark, Sept.12. The City of Palmdale, Calif., constructed a concrete bridge allowing SCA 911 to cross the natural revetment in the ground at U.S. Air Force Plant 42 where the plane has been stationed since the end of the shuttle program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rebecca Amber)
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NASA's shuttle carrier aircraft settles down in Palmdale

Posted 9/17/2014   Updated 9/19/2014 Email story   Print story


by Rebecca Amber
Staff writer

9/17/2014 - PALMDALE, Calif.  -- Retired NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft 911, one of two modified Boeing 747 jetliners that ferried NASA's space shuttles for decades, moved to its new home at Joe Davies Heritage Airpark, Sept.12. The 747's final journey was a ground tow from the NASA Armstrong aircraft operations facility less than a mile away on U.S. Air Force Plant 42. While NASA will retain ownership of the aircraft, it is on loan to the City of Palmdale for long-term public display in the park.

According to NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center director, David McBride, SCA 911's primary purpose for NASA is a parts repository to support the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy - SOFIA. Over the course of SOFIA's 20-year life span, NASA will continue to use flightworthy parts from the SCA 911 in Palmdale as well as SCA 905, which is on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"Having it here is great for us. It will be tended by the City of Palmdale, just a five minute drive to come and get a part if we need it," said McBride. "We'll keep the parts replaced in a viewable state in this airplane as well, but usable flightworthy parts will end up supporting SOFIA. It'll have a lot of life in it for NASA and it's really a convenient place to keep it and free up some space."

Steven Schmidt, NASA Armstrong's assistant center director, added that the City of Palmdale put a lot of work into preparing the pathway for the shuttle carrier's trek through the desert. In addition to compacting the dirt path, they built a concrete bridge to cross a natural revetment in the ground. Joe Davies was closed to the public during the move because the fence separating the park from U.S. Air Force Plant 42 had to be torn down to allow the aircraft entry.

"[Receiving SCA 911] is significant because it ties us in with all the space shuttles, which were built in Palmdale. It's part of our history, people around the world, everybody knows the space shuttle and it's been in Palmdale," said John Mlynar, City of Palmdale communications manager. "We don't have the space shuttle here, but we have the airplane that carried it around. It's a connection with it and so many people in this valley worked on the shuttle or know someone who did."

Mlynar added that the city will create a plaque for the 747 and then host a ribbon cutting when the display is finalized. The NASA 747 will join a wide variety of aircraft on display at Joe Davies like the adjacent retired Boeing B-52D bomber. That same day, the park received a Lockheed X-55 Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft, which was towed in just minutes before SCA 911.

"Some of these planes are from the World Wars, the Vietnam War; It's like you're going through time and this is the next step," said Mlynar.

William Brockett, retired NASA research pilot, and Frank Batteas, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center associate director for flight operations, have found themselves behind the throttle of SCA 911. Both pilots recalled their time in SCA 911, which they last flew in 2011.

"That was when they started marshalling the remaining engine life. We had both tail numbers, eight engines and four of the engines were getting really high on time and there wasn't much life in them," said Brockett. "The end of the shuttle program was pretty much on the calendar."

When SCA 911 was first brought into the program in 1989, two carrier planes were necessary to support the number of shuttle missions that were flying.

"911 didn't have nearly the long history that 905 had, but it was the newer, kind of sleeker airplane and a slightly more modern version of the 747. It had slightly bigger wheels and better brakes on it, but otherwise it was essentially the same thing," said Brockett.

When Brockett started training to fly the 747 in 2000, he feared he would never get a chance to use his training.

"There hadn't been a shuttle landing at Edwards in a couple of years," said Brockett. "The shuttle landings in Florida had become so reliable they just weren't coming to California anymore and the only real ferry missions that used the shuttle carrier aircraft anymore were the ones where they brought an empty shuttle back out to Palmdale for overhaul and upgrades."

Brockett was proven wrong when he was pulled from re-current training in Denver, Colo., to ferry the shuttle back to Florida after landing at Edwards AFB. That was only three months after qualifying in the 747, and within that first year, he had flown three ferry missions.

"My concerns about training up and not getting to actually fly, what we call 'type-three ferry missions,' that is with the shuttle on board, were completely unfounded - it was a pleasant surprise."

Batteas first flew a 747 SCA in 2007, which was in preparation for his assignment to the 747 SOFIA telescope aircraft.

"I was flying to get ready for that test program, but after Gordon Fullerton retired, I was asked to support the shuttle carrier aircraft as one of the SCA pilots with Bill [Brockett]," said Batteas.

With or without a shuttle on top, the pilots practiced the unique take-off procedure for the carrier aircraft. What the pilots learned early on is that the shuttle would create a higher center of gravity for the aircraft.

"We modified how you put the power up, how you advanced the throttles," said Brockett. "If you push the power up and release the brakes, the airplane would pop a wheelie and the nose gear would come up off the ground. Because of the thrust, the engines are down low and that big weight is up high and it just rotates the airplane; so it comes off the ground and that makes it very difficult to see."

Instead, the pilots would start out at a very low power setting, release the brakes and increase the power a little at a time. The other element that was different about the take-offs from any other airplane they had flown was the "really long take-off throw."

"There were days at Edwards AFB where the plane was taxiing at 10,000 feet before it came off the ground. Most runways around the country are not even 10,000 feet long," said Brockett.

But even more challenging than the take-off was the scheduling. While the shuttle was built to go orbital and re-enter the atmosphere at a very high rate of speed and gain heat as it slows down, it was very susceptible to damage in poor weather.

"The amazing thing to me is how delicate and fragile the shuttle was when it was on top of the shuttle carrier aircraft," said Brockett. "It's only going about 300-350 miles per hour at best and we couldn't fly though any visible moisture. We couldn't fly though a cloud with it; not one cloud because the little tiny rain drops in the cloud were enough to sand blast the thermal protection system on the shuttle."

Batteas' shuttle book shows 87 missions where the shuttle was ferried from California to Florida and SCA 911 flew 17 of those missions.

"The thing that distinguished [ferrying the shuttle] from any other flying I've done is the reaction it got wherever you took it. I think it was a unifying experience for everyone who saw it," said Batteas. "If we landed at a remote Air Force base and they had an hours' notice that we were coming, the fences around the airport would be lined with people who just wanted to get a glimpse of it."

Brockett added, "I think it's sad to see an airplane like SCA 911 not flying anymore, but I'm very happy to see it's staying in the Antelope Valley where it will be on display for everybody."

The Joe Davies Heritage Airpark, located along Rancho Vista Boulevard just west of 25th Street East in Palmdale, features almost 25 historic aircraft and related artifacts in an outdoor park-like setting. Designed to highlight the aerospace heritage of the Antelope Valley, it is open to the public free of charge from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Guided tours are also available Monday through Saturday upon request. For more information, visit: http://www.cityofpalmdale.org/Airpark.

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