Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Kennedy Space Center, Florida – 12 April 2012
Today is April 12, 2012. This interview with Ron Feile is being conducted
for the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft [SCA] Oral History Project at the
Kennedy Space Center [KSC]. The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal,
assisted by Rebecca Wright. Thanks again for taking time to meet with
us today and sharing this lovely conference room with us. We certainly
pleasure, it’s always fun.
I thought we’d start out by having you give us a brief overview
of your NASA career.
been a contractor since I came here 30 years ago. I came in 1982 as
a security and fire and medical dispatcher, because of my radio experience
with the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] as an air traffic controller
for a lot of years prior to that. In 1982 I started there, but only
stayed with that group a short time because of the opportunities that
arose when NASA turned the Shuttle Landing Facility over to the contractor.
They had run it prior to January of 1983 on their own, with NASA oversight.
That contract was called the BOC, the Base Operations Contract.
They turned the facility over to that contractor, EG&G [Inc.],
in 1982, and then they needed personnel with aviation backgrounds
to assist with the operation of the facility. That later turned into
the opportunity for positive control. The air traffic control side
had never been instituted at KSC until after 1983, but there was a
plethora of air traffic controllers that were available after the
strike firings of 1981 and quite a few of them ended up on the staff
of the Shuttle Landing Facility. There was a lot of talent that wasn’t
being used for the air traffic control purposes anymore until we all
assembled here. NASA realized the value of having positive control
on their runway at that time and instituted and purchased an air traffic
control tower, and we started using positive control for separation
Can you tell me what positive control is?
are a lot of smaller airports and some larger airports that don’t
have the number of traffic count that justifies positive control,
or air traffic controllers telling pilots specific instructions for
how to enter the pattern, how to land, how to take off, and maintaining
the FAA’s separation standards for those aircraft coming and
going. So by instituting positive control here, they actually had
a lot more control, and increments of safety stronger for the separation
of their NASA aircraft and any other approved aircraft that were landing
here after 1984. It worked out pretty well.
We started and instituted that, put our own radio hardware in, and
started off with that kind of separation for the runway. I think the
astronauts have appreciated it over the years, especially given the
extensive amount of training that they’ve done here as well
as the landings and takeoffs that got to be much more frequent over
Tell us about the facility itself. How long is the runway, how wide?
facility is one of the largest paved runways in the world. It’s
15,000 feet of concrete, 300 feet wide. Most airports are 150 or 200
feet wide, and very few are larger than 15,000 feet. There’s
an additional 2,000 feet of length included in to make it 17,000 feet,
with the additional 1,000 feet paved weight-bearing overruns that
are on both the north and south end of the runway. So the total is
actually 17,000 feet, more than three miles long, of paved surface.
It’s pretty extensive, and the runway is one of the thicker
runways in the world. When it was engineered by NASA it was done right.
It has served the program very well with extremely low numbers of
maintenance and improvements required since it was instituted and
built in 1976.
What sort of aircraft besides the SCA and orbiter fly in and out of
got pictures. In fact, I have a video presentation of slides of former
aircraft, including a lot of aircraft that were here before my time,
that time between 1976 and 1983. There seems to have been a lot of
interesting aircraft that have floated around. The first aircraft
that landed here was the [KSC] Center Director Lee [R.] Scherer in
1977, when they christened the runway. The presentation that I have
would include a lot of the videos that the NASA library archivists
put together regarding those kinds of aircraft.
The ones that I’ve seen since I’ve been here have been
primarily dedicated to the program. When I came in 1983, the program
only wanted to use the runway for Shuttle program aircraft. They weren’t
even allowing the Shuttle Training Aircraft [STA], NASA aircraft from
Houston [Texas], to land here at that time. They were deploying those
aircraft from Ellington [Field] in Houston up to Patrick Air Force
Base [Florida] and starting their Shuttle training missions off Patrick
Air Force Base.
Finally, smarter heads prevailed and allowed a lot more of the NASA
aircraft to use the facility. Not just for the potential of Shuttle
landings and the return to launch site after launches but also for
their T-38 [aircraft] transitions with the astronauts and the Shuttle
training that was going on. A lot more activity was instituted, and
that was an evolutionary process from 1984 and ‘85 on when the
contractor took over. We were able to influence them, I think, and
encourage them to get more use out of the asset that they owned.
Has the number of air traffic controllers changed over the years as
yes. There were only four or five at the beginning, and then before
the end of the Shuttle program we were as high as 12. The reason we
got as high as 12 is because we were doing additional work besides
working for Shuttle. The most modern air traffic control tower, the
one that was built by 2006, now houses the military radar unit air
traffic controller, who is employed by the institutional support contract,
our group, but is actually paid for by the United States Air Force
so that they can watch the airspace of the Eastern Range. That responsibility
in the control tower has a separate position using the radar to keep
the good guys in and the bad guys out. It’s basically there
to survey a much larger airspace than that which would just normally
be controlled by the air traffic controller for the runway.
Our involvement as air traffic controllers—for every launch
of an expendable rocket now, as well as for Shuttle for so many years—was
to leave that seat and go over to the United States Air Force Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station area to join up with their surveillance
team and take care of all of the aircraft that are associated with
the , and Shuttle launches and landings. We actually interfaced as
part of the Air Force team to make sure that the airspace was clear,
and that there were no obstructions on the range to make a hole in
the sky for the rockets to launch into. We’re still doing that
to this day.
So you’re keeping busy then, with the closeout of Shuttle?
keeping busy even with the closeout of Shuttle, yes. There are a diverse
number of things that we do here besides the air traffic control functions
and the military radar unit functions. It’s also that same team
that does the daily operations on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway
as far as inspecting and instituting the maintenance and making sure
that everything is taken care of for the continued readiness of the
runway for whatever mission NASA decides for us.
How many people work out here in total?
number of air traffic controllers we were talking about went from
a low number to twelve, but then after the Shuttle program we backed
off to eight because we cancelled one of the shifts. We were doing
two shifts of air traffic controllers a day at the control tower and
around-the-clock protection of the Eastern Range airspace while Shuttle
was still active, until after the Shuttle program in August and September
of 2011. Then we cut back to eight controllers because those two shifts
were lost. Our team is also comprised of aircraft servicers who handle
taking care of the ramp and the aircraft—fueling, baggage handling,
marshalling, and any of the servicing that’s required for whichever
aircraft do come here.
Let’s turn to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, which is what we’re
interested in today. What role do you play in the Flight Readiness
Review for an SCA?
really don’t have a role on the readiness side, other than to
state that the runway has no limitations for what they need for arriving
or for towing and mating or demating. That’s the only issues
that we have, and the rest of the conditions are taken care of by
the flight crews of the aircraft that are involved.
What do you have to do to prepare to accept the arrival of Shuttle
Carrier Aircraft out here?
got one of the largest runways in the world, and one of the smallest
ramp areas for the type of work that we do. So we have to be very
careful to exclude any of the other aircraft that are too large or
not suited to the requirements of Shuttle carrier operations. We dedicate
the entire ramp area to handling the Pathfinder aircraft that precedes
it, and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft itself, which is huge, and any
of the other associated support aircraft that might be involved with
the actual ferry. Primarily that’s T-38 activity, with the astronauts
that are coming or media-related to the operation itself.
We make sure via PPRs, Prior Permission Requests, that we deny anybody
that doesn’t need to be here and make sure that we have properly
planned for everybody that does need to be here. Quite often parking
scenarios get to be unique because of the number of aircraft or the
type of handling that we do. We’ve had different sizes of Pathfinder
aircraft before, and sometimes the parking spaces are so premium that
we have to do some towing or relocating of aircraft in order to make
sure everything fits on the postage-stamp-sized ramp that I have.
When you’re referring to the ramp, is this the space out here
The ramp area is the area that lies just east of the runway, and the
edge of that is where the mate-demate structure was built. So you
can roll right off the ramp and into the structure with the Shuttle
Carrier Aircraft or with the orbiter, depending on which process you’re
doing—either the mating or the demating.
Do you have to do any checks of the runway itself, or do you have
to have any special equipment?
obligated by contract to provide a daily inspection of the runway
to make sure it’s clean and ready to go, and we also physically
walk down the runway prior to orbiter launch and landing events. We
also have mechanical sweepers, actual physical sweepers that come
out and sweep the runway to make sure that it’s clean for not
only the landings, but also the towing back to the Orbiter Processing
Facilities so that they can start the processing all over again for
the next mission. While those orbiters are rolling around, we have
to make sure that the tow ways and runways and ramp areas are all
clean for no tire damage en route.
If an SCA flight was expected, say on a Tuesday but they had weather
problems and you had to delay for a couple of days, did that ever
present any problems for your facility here?
been through some extensive delays with orbiters coming across country
with the Shuttle carrier in the past. There are always weather systems
or mechanical issues. They’ve lost engines on departure coming
off Edwards Air Force Base [California] before. [It] causes them great
grief. You can get up to a week or two delay over issues like that,
and mostly it’s just a day or two that’s involved with
the process of getting it across country. They use an alternate number
of civilian and military bases to avoid the weather, and sometimes
you never know which one they’re going to before the actual
weather itinerary is decided upon.
Based on where they go, sometimes they can’t make it from there
to here in one hop, so there’s another stop involved, and that
can take another day. It can take significant amounts of coordination
in order to prepare for the fuel loads that they need and the Pathfinder
requirements that are involved with whoever is leading the aircraft.
The Pathfinder does an important job of not only toting the hardware
and people back and forth, but also to preview the weather conditions
en route all the way across the nation.
Since you have to keep that ramp free and tell people that they can’t
that reason we have to do that. Plus it’s a realignment of our
own staffing, because a lot of times when they came the process started
immediately to do the offload. Sometimes that runs a third shift through
the night, significant amounts of people and shop support in order
to provide the lighting and the generators and all of the ground support
equipment that’s required to do the job.
How do you stay in contact with the SCA? Do you know where they are
from the minute that they’ve departed Edwards?
recently, in the last few years, there’s a much more significant
flight tracking capability available. In the past it had always been
through the Houston team, who provided the pilots. They’re technically
responsible for the aircraft. We kept in touch with them explicitly
to know what changes and modifications or what weather they were encountering
to impact their itineraries as they came across country. They had
a flight operations group at what used to be Ellington Air Force Base
[now Ellington Field] in Houston.
So you just talk with them on the phone or get an email?
the past we had talked with them, but now we can get more web-related
information for tracking the aircraft and the Pathfinder across country.
In the more recent years we were able to accomplish that and then
just supplement that information with the information that was going
back and forth. We started this process without ever even having cell
phones invented, so you can imagine how the world has changed since
the Shuttle started doing the Shuttle carrier operations without any
mobile phone capability in your pocket whatsoever.
When you came, you had mentioned that originally the facility was
run by NASA. Did they have a process and procedure in place for accepting
the SCA that you just then adopted, or did you scrap that and start
out with your own set of procedures?
procedures were all put in place by NASA in conjunction with, I think,
the first contractor that was in charge of the orbiter handling. The
separation of those contracts are probably noteworthy insofar as NASA
handed off this facility to the Base Operations Contract owner, EG&G,
in 1983. Prior to that the Orbiter Processing Contract was owned by
Lockheed [Corporation] and then later by United Space Alliance [USA].
They always maintained the responsibility for the maintenance of the
mate-demate device as well as the procedures by which the orbiters
It was kind of a hand-in-glove thing when USA and its predecessor,
Lockheed, were interfacing with us in order to make sure—together—that
we were ready to not only get the aircraft in but also to conduct
the entire process to get it processed after the demate and back out
here. A lot of people think that it’s just like one-stop shopping,
but both of the different contractors had to take care of different
preparations in order to make sure that the things went well as soon
as the aircraft landed.
I don’t know what they did before 1983, but NASA had already
handled five of the Shuttle missions, and all of those Shuttle missions
had landed at Edwards Air Force Base, or [NASA] White Sands [Space
Harbor, New Mexico] for the STS-3 mission. All of those returns on
the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft had been conducted successfully and carefully
before my time.
You mentioned that you would stay in touch with people out at Aircraft
Ops [operations] out at Ellington. When did you finally get in contact
with the crew as it came in? Was it pretty close, like Orlando [Florida]?
would call when they got back on the ground at their end-route destinations
and give us a heads-up on their progress and any modifications to
their status. Continuing to have healthy aircraft is important. You
don’t want to be halfway across country and have major issues
with a bad aircraft because you’re stuck in the middle. The
Air Force bases that they used across country were there to help them,
just to remain overnight or until the weather improved. Those things
were important to those flight crews.
When they called us they told us that they were devising a new flight
plan, and they would give us a new expected time of arrival. We would
push the support requirements forward accordingly. We did that mission
after mission. Then finally it evolved to where the Shuttle Landing
Facility became the primary landing site, and things happened a lot
less often because of the frequency with which we were able to safely
land here, which was always the intent of the program from the start.
When were you in contact with them by radio?
actual radio contact didn’t come until they had gotten within
20 to 30 miles of the field. Then it was usually a matter of flying
around the Kennedy Space Center and the central Florida area, including
[Walt] Disney World [Resort], just to show off the national asset
that was provided by our taxpayers. They did have a lot of fun doing
that up and down the coast from Vero Beach to Patrick Air Force Base,
Cape Canaveral to here. The visitors complexes are always an attractive
area to get a lot of visibility in Orlando and, like I said, Disney
World even sometimes.
Did you have to provide any sort of security measures when the SCA
would come in with the orbiter on its back?
was always aboard the Pathfinder because of the security requirements
that you might run into across country, not knowing where you were
going to land if weather became an issue. Those security teams were
always in touch with the landing-site personnel across country. Then
there was always a significant amount of security here at the gates
to prevent people that weren’t related to the mission from getting
in and impacting or threatening the orbiter and the Shuttle Carrier
Aircraft as a national asset. Those things were always put in place
and understood in advance by everybody that was mission essential.
Once the SCA lands you have to shift gears. What’s your responsibility?
hot orbiters that came in after space missions were always still loaded
with partial loads of hazardous propellants, so the issue is you have
to make sure that none of those fuel tanks have been corrupted or
leaked across country. If they were dripping on the Shuttle Carrier
Aircraft, they could create quite a hazard for whoever was in the
aircraft as well as for anybody on the ground that would have to handle
it while it was in the slings of the MDD [mate-demate device].
The standard practice was to stop the orbiter and Shuttle Carrier
Aircraft a thousand feet from the end of the runway, where there’s
nothing out there but canals on both sides, and have a sniff team
actually sniff the orbiter and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to make
sure that there were no detectable hydrazine leaks or any other ammonia
issues around the aircraft to make sure that it was safe to bring
in. Then they wouldn’t start the engines again, they would just
hook up the tow bar, use the tug, and drag the aircraft in from a
thousand feet from the south end of the runway. That final quarter-mile
leg was always accomplished via tug and tow bar.
Once it was a safe aircraft, then there was always a VIP [very important
person] mission and a media mission for coverage that was accommodated
in NASA. As long as the orbiter and the Shuttle carrier were safe
they would pre-stage the media for the events, and sometimes they
invited the entire KSC population of badged personnel. They were in
the area for the first-time arrivals. The most notable was the last
orbiter, the Endeavour, which was one of the most recent that I can
remember. A significant amount of KSC personnel were here for the
orbiter arrival at that time.
Did you ever have some instances where there had been some leaks of
hypergols [hypergolic propellant] or hydrazine?
Feile: I don’t
remember any. I don’t remember any issues that they encountered
between the time they left California or White Sands and got here.
That probably would have created a significant impact. They would
have had to put personnel into SCAPE [Self Contained Atmospheric Protective
Ensemble] and then safely go in and secure that. I don’t know
how they would do that with the Hi-Rangers and such that would be
required to reach the orbiter sitting on top of the Shuttle Carrier
Aircraft with a leak of that nature. That would have been an interesting
operation, and I don’t recall that ever happening.
Yes, that probably would stand out in your memory.
Tell us, if you would, is there a difference between landing an SCA
with an orbiter on its back versus another type of aircraft that you
might see come into the facility, or the orbiter itself?
the orbiter was always the more exciting because it always seemed
that there was a potential for more to go wrong when the orbiters
landed. They’ve always mentioned the possibility of using other
facilities because of a skip that they might get off the atmosphere
on reentry or some other navigational problem that they might have
coming en route, so we always were concerned about that.
We’ve had instances where the orbiters have changed the end
of the runway that they used within the timeframe of them coming back
into the atmosphere. In the last 10 or 15 minutes of the flight, if
the Shuttle Training Aircraft, which was diving at the runway in advance
of the Shuttle carrier coming back, encountered anything that they
didn’t like, like turbulence or unexpected shower development
or wind direction changes, then they would actually go through CapCom
[capsule communicator] in Houston and advise the orbiter to change
the destination runway.
The common means of getting here, the alignment, is to fly over the
runway and then do a 270-degree turn back to one end of the runway
or the other. That was commonly accomplished, and it always threw
the convoy group that was ready to meet the orbiter off. They have
it already aligned in two particular directions, one to come forward
and one to come aft of the orbiter after the wheels stop. As soon
as they changed the runway it would put the wrong group in the wrong
place, because the forward group would be aft, and it was too late
to change any of that. It always made life interesting for the people
that processed the orbiter after it landed.
As far as the rest of the Shuttle carrier landing techniques and things
like that, the runway had to be prepped according to the documentation
that was out there for the program. It’s different for orbiters
than it is for Shuttle Carrier Aircraft only because of the different
types of handling processes and the equipment that needs to meet each
is different. There’s a much smaller team that handles the Shuttle
carrier arrival, and there’s a smaller amount of urgency involved
with the Shuttle carrier than there is with the orbiters.
In comparison to other aircraft that we’ve handled—we’ve
handled Russian Antonovs [AN124 Ruslan] of considerable size and Ilyushin
[Aviation Complex] aircraft from Russia with their payloads and administrative
agreements. We’ve had the Russians come over to sign the agreement
whereby the United States and Russia would combine their efforts and
have joint use of the Mir [space station] when the Mir was hot, and
so those aircraft have landed here.
We’ve had a lot of larger VIP aircraft and other hardware deliveries.
We had Boeing 747 and C-5 and C-17, so we’ve had domestic and
international arrivals for payloads. We’re still doing that
with some of the payloads and payload fairings that are required now
for the other missions of Atlas and Delta [rockets] and SpaceX [Space
Exploration Technologies Corporation]. We’re still handling
flight hardware deliveries, and there’s never two the same.
Preparations are always unique for one reason or another, based on
size or weight or hazards involved, so we have to treat every event,
including every Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, as pretty unique as far
as the planning of hardware requirements for their support.
Is it different accepting an SCA that doesn’t have an orbiter
on its back?
SCA without an orbiter is just another Boeing 747, so the answer is
not usually. It’s usually a much more benign operation, a lot
easier to handle.
Does it come out here to this ramp or does it go somewhere else?
Shuttle carriers have landed empty when they’ve come to mate
with the orbiters to take them back out to Edwards and Palmdale [California]
for maintenance. Those are the events where they would frequently
come empty. I can’t remember any event that they ever came that
didn’t involve either bringing or prepping to take out, so they
never had an administrative mission or any kind of cargo delivery.
Those kind of things were always handled by other NASA aircraft, usually
Our most frequent events were the Shuttle training that was required.
Every pilot and every commander had to have a significantly higher
number of Shuttle training dives, and the ideal place to practice
is the place you intend to land. As we evolved into the primary landing
site, the number of Shuttle training events that came down here was
much more significant. We knew all the astronauts, and we dealt heavily
with the planning and staging for that, because they would come and
all of those sorties involved 10 dives at the runway by each aircraft,
sometimes two aircraft at a time. That was more labor-intensive from
a planning standpoint because of the lighting that had to be correct.
We usually transitioned from nighttime into daylight or vice versa.
There’s a lot of shops involved with making sure that everything
was ready on the runway for those kind of things.
We were also involved a lot in the modifications to the runway. We’ve
created 50-foot asphalt shoulders on both sides for a total of 400-feet-wide
paved in order to keep the ground traffic off and also to have a weight-bearing
capability on the sides of the runway in case an orbiter ever should
digress off the runway. They could actually get off the runway and
perhaps recover back onto the runway without folding a gear, which
is what would have happened if it had been grass or had been not weight-bearing.
They were put on as an afterthought project that NASA decided upon.
We modified the surface at least once or twice, and we’ve also
paved the thousand-feet asphalt overruns. We’ve instituted a
centerline lighting system, which was never part of what Shuttle wanted
from the beginning. They did a very unsafe thing by putting the centerline
lighting system in the original plans for the runway and then realized
that the light covers on that centerline were so much higher than
the runway that it would create a bad harmonic on the nose wheel if
the nose wheel ever landed on them. They would be bumping over the
centerline lights every 50 feet for the entire length of the runway.
We recognized that was unsafe for the nose wheels, so they took them
all out and put steel plates down to make them flush to the runway
surface. Came back about 15 years later and said, “Now that
the technology’s improved, we think we’d like to go back
and at least put in a partial centerline light system.” I was
instrumental in getting that going. Myself and one of the astronauts,
Mike [Michael E.] Fossum, decided how best we could do that and how
many lights we needed.
They put in a partial system so that the descending orbiters could
have both longitudinal and directional guidance from the centerline
light system. Instead of every 50 feet, we only put them in every
200 feet because they could get pretty much the same guidance with
that kind of a separation on the runway. That served them well for
the last 10 or 12 years of the program. They had a few crews that
did night landings, and as soon as you descend through the Xenon searchlights,
the 8-billion-candlepower searchlights, and have them behind you,
your shadow creates such a long obstruction in front of you that you
actually obliterate all the centerline guidance that you would have
with the orbiter landing. That’s why the centerline lighting
guidance was put in, so that there was no chance of being too far
off centerline to recover.
You’ve got to understand too that back in the early part of
the program, the first five or six landings, there was no nose-wheel
steering and there also were no parachutes. So any increment of bad
direction that you might incur from wind gusts, crosswinds on your
orbiter in the last throes of being airborne, would throw you left
or right of the centerline. Then you would have to recover using the
brakes, because the brakes were the only means of steering the orbiter
that they had. The nose-wheel steering was not instituted nor were
there parachutes, so your speeds were guaranteed to be higher the
further you went down the runway.
When they finally figured that out, they had a gap of time between
the time that the Challenger [STS 51-L] accident occurred and the
time we got back to flight. They used that wisely to modify the surface
of the runway and to consider other improvements so that the rest
of the program would have a safer series of landings and improve their
chances of not blowing tires and such.
They actually did blow a tire on the last Shuttle landing before the
Challenger accident, and they were fortunate that it was within the
last couple hundred feet of positive wheel stop so that it didn’t
become a real danger to the mission. If it had been at a higher speed,
it could have folded a gear and cartwheeled somewhere into the canals.
The fact that they were able to survive that was a good thing. They
learned a lot from that mistake, which could have been much more costly.
You mentioned that the runway had been grooved before Challenger,
and then it was modified.
the runway was completely grooved when it was constructed. Those grooves
were there because of the rapid drainage that they needed for the
tropical situations they had here but nowhere else, because of Edwards
and White Sands being so dry. They wanted to make sure that it drained
correctly. The macro surface of the runway was so rough that they
were losing way too many ply of tire as the orbiter mains touched
down. They were coming back from space static and cold when they touched
down, and then the friction of the rapid spin-up at 160 or 180 miles
an hour—they were losing so many ply of tire that it became
dangerous for them to continue doing that.
So the first 3,500 feet of both ends of the runway, they completely
removed the grooves from that surface and made it much more smooth.
Actually, we instituted a corduroy effect on the runway in the other
direction in order to make sure that those ply weren’t lost
in the touchdown phase. Then if they had issues with skidding or concern
for water, the center 8,000 feet was their braking area, and that
was still grooved. With the additional ply that they had left on those
tires, it was a much more safe operation as they braked.
Was there an issue for SCA tires, or was it only an issue for the
was really only an issue for orbiter tires. We’ve never had
serious rubber issues here, only because you can afford to stay in
the air as long as you can to make sure that you’re not left
or right gear low, and you can slow it down as much as you need to
with the luxury of length that we provide to all the aircraft landing.
Those aircraft with engines are much more capable of making a smooth
landing and not ripping up so much tire, so it was only the crucial
landing locations and times for the orbiters that were of concern
to the program.
If you would, tell us about preparing for a departure from this facility
with the SCA. If you want to give the example of this current ferry
flight [ferrying Discovery to Washington D.C.], what has to be done?
What do you have to do? What do the pilots have to do? Do they have
to file a flight plan with you?
The day before the ferry the Flight Readiness Review takes place,
and all of the prominent players speak to their preparations to make
sure that the aircraft is ready, the orbiter is properly mated, the
weather has been assessed, the destination is ready. Those kinds of
critical things are spoken to, to make sure that everything is properly
Then on the day of departure we take care of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
flight plans and filing them. We obtain the clearances, give them
to the pilots, make sure that their clearances are good. Then the
actual handling of the aircraft as far as marshalling and engine start
and the fire extinguisher (bottle) handling—those kind of things
are all handled by our staff of aircraft servicers, who take care
of making sure that the aircraft transitions are safe all the way
out to the runway, and then handed off to the air traffic controllers
for positive control and departure. The actual clearance to go is
given by our team, and then safe departure transitions are important.
We do the bird control and the animal control. That’s more important
than you think when you set this much concrete down into an official
wildlife reserve. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is doing
everything they can to encourage all those transient birds. Both the
native and the migratory species are all out there at different times
of the year, and we’re at cross-purposes—with them encouraging,
and us trying to keep a safe flight environment for arrivals and departures.
We’re all tasked and provided with shotguns and .22-caliber
blanks and screamers and pistols, and now we have a gas cannon system
which makes noise to scare birds. Every effort’s undertaken
in order to keep the birds away from the actual aircraft transitions.
That’s another task that we’ve evolved into over the 25
and 30 years that we’ve been working here.
Do you have problems with gators [alligators]?
are very few small critters that we ever see as far as possum or raccoon
or whatever, because the runway’s completely surrounded by canals.
Nobody in the animal world likes to swim except the gators, so we
don’t have issues with them. All of our canals are completely
surrounded by animal-control fences. It’s been a relatively
safe environment except for the population of alligators which are
in the canals, but you look at them as an asset rather than a danger
most of the time because they eat what tries to get across the canals,
so they’re part of the animal control also.
The times that they do get on the runway—I can handle those
on probably 10 or 15 instances in the 30 years I’ve been here,
and primarily that’s mating season. They don’t like to
use the runway as a resting spot for basking in the sun. Even though
the runway is very hot in summertime, they also don’t like to
get that far away from their comfort zone of the water. The distance
between the canals and the runway are important, because the gators
don’t like to get that far away from the water. So all told,
we usually don’t have issues like that. We see snakes on the
runway on occasion, a lot of rattlesnakes at times, and there are
a lot of snakes on the perimeter of the runway but not that often.
Primarily it’s the birds, and the birds are taken care of. And
now we have assistance. Just recently, the Kennedy Space Center group
has obtained their own USDA [United States Department of Agriculture]
wildlife biologist, and he’s here to assess and assist and take
whatever means are necessary to make sure that the critters are properly
planned for and handled in a real-time environment for safe aircraft
transitions too. That’s a good thing, takes a little of the
pressure off our team.
Interesting, something I hadn’t considered.
are some stories that go along with that too, as far as pulling them
off. We’ve had good fun with that. Since 2008, NASA has evolved
into inviting commercial teams onto the runway. There are R&D
[research and development] teams and laser teams. We’ve hosted
a NASCAR [National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing], IndyCar,
and most recently the Audi team from Germany for their R&D testing
for their vehicles on the runway. The critters are just as much a
problem for the cars as they are the airplanes. We’ve taken
out a rattlesnake and one of the blue herons on the runway with a
race car, the bird just happened to be flying too low at the time.
The hazard is not just endemic to the aircraft, it’s also to
We’ve actually had bird strikes on our own airport vehicles,
because there’s no posted speed limit out there. We’re
traveling at high speeds to get from one end of the runway to another
end of the runway for success of aircraft operations when we were
required to be there for Shuttle training, and a lot of times those
high-speed transitions involve bird strikes themselves with just airport
SUVs [sport utility vehicles]. The danger is there, and we’re
just trying to keep an element of control for it.
We’ve actually struck birds with the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
departing the runway. That was an interesting story. When the orbiter
was going back to California, it was back for maintenance. The departure
was routine in our eyes from an operational standpoint and from an
air traffic control standpoint, and the Shuttle processing team came
to us two or three hours later and said, “We think you had a
bird strike.” We said, “Why would you think so?”
They said because when the orbiter landed its first location en route,
they found that they had feathers here and a mess here. They went
back and actually had a public affairs video footage of the departure.
The right wing of the orbiter, not the Shuttle carrier, had struck
an osprey on departure at less than 1000 feet off the runway. It took
the bird from flying to a dead standstill, and then a vertical drop
right past the engines of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft below it.
We were able to go out two or three hours later with the USA or Lockheed
team that was responsible for the orbiter, and we actually found the
bird, identified the species, and knew what size and what problems
they might have. They could have busted an orbiter wing tile or whatever
with the carcass of the bird. So we took care of that, and that was
kind of a surprising thing to actually have the video footage of the
strike because it happened so fast.
Do you remember which vehicle it was?
I don’t. It could have been the Enterprise that was leaving
for the Smithsonian [National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.],
which was 1985. If not, it was one of the other orbiters going to
the West Coast. Then it would have stopped at an interim location
for fuel, and that’s when they determined that they had had
a problem. Nothing that we noticed from the tower because the aircraft
would have been up and gone by then, but the carcass was still on
the field. It had hit it on the departure end of the runway and left
it near the underrun at the other end of the runway.
How did you guys keep up to date with handling an SCA when it came
in? As you pointed out, over the years things moved eastward. Originally
most of the stuff was done out in California—most of the landings,
all of the orbiter maintenance—but then it moved out here to
Florida and it was occasionally landing out in California. How did
you keep up those skills?
harder skill set was to be prepared time after time for the orbiter
events. We had to be ready for the orbiter landing not every end of
mission, but every launch day also for the event of an RTLS [return
to launch site abort] if there was ever a problem on ascent.
I was working in the control tower area for the Challenger accident.
That day, which was shortly after we had instituted positive control
of the runway, we weren’t sure what we had when we had the Challenger
accident. We didn’t know from the initial footage whether it
was possible to recover from that and actually make an attempt to
land the orbiter. Of course that was an impossibility. We weren’t
sure at the time. There was a period of uncertainty in there on the
air traffic control side where we really had to prep for [a landing].
It only took 15 to 20 minutes to realize that there was no coming
Those are the kind of things that we do have to prep for, and that
the air traffic control team works to a document as far as the readiness
of the runway and the events. It got to be an understood routine of
what you could expect, because the Shuttle Training Aircraft departed
and did actual dives to the runway, not only before the landings but
also before the launches. They had an actual position to be in for
the launch, and a different position to be in for the landing so that
they were out of the way of the descent of the orbiter. The orbiter
would be coming back from over the ocean on a problem on an ascent,
and if that was the case they would be coming from the east. Normal
arrivals are from the west for end of missions.
All of that choreography is actually accomplished well in advance
and understood by the pilots and the controllers alike. We’re
also watching NASA video footage of the CapCom and everybody else
in the decision-making process to confirm that the weather is good
enough and that the runway of intent to land is decided upon at the
right time. Whoever figures out exactly when that orbiter is going
to be here is darn accurate. We haven’t had any problems with
that, other than the OV- arrival [STS-107 Columbia accident],
which made it to within 15 minutes of Kennedy Space Center before
we lost it over Louisiana and Texas.
But all of the other preps are pretty much understood. All the support
aircraft have positions to be in. The helicopters provide security
support. The T-38s are up first to assess the weather, and then the
same pilot of the T-38 jumps into the STA. Then the STA does the dives
and assesses the runway condition, advises Houston of that. Then the
Houston team makes the decision for the landing in conjunction with
the weather personnel, and once that decision is relayed to the orbiter
they process through the computers how they want to do the de-orbit
burns, which happen at a precise schedule.
All of that’s understood well in advance by the control team,
so we can track along to make sure that everything is occurring in
the proper step sequences and at the proper times in order to make
those landings. We’ve gone through a lot of landings that had
one or two revs [revolutions], and we’ve lost a lot of first
revs because of weather. Then you just cycle yourself into another
90-minute schedule for one more orbit of the Earth to see if the second
rev is applicable or not. It was a regular routine, and most of the
guys knew that and were prepped for what it took.
Any memorable or challenging SCA landings or takeoffs, other than
did have one that completed a 3,000-mile journey, and then on the
last 10 miles of the flight they ran into a shower. The shower’s
about the worst thing you can do, to run an orbiter through precipitation
at high speeds. They did a significant amount of tile damage just
by hitting that shower nearly in the pattern here at Kennedy Space
The job function of the Pathfinder is to determine the weather in
advance of the orbiter to keep them out of the rain or the potential
for precipitation, and of course the Pathfinder’s already on
the ground by 10 or 15 minutes when the orbiter’s in the area.
It was a fluke shower apparently that got that orbiter, but that 20
or 30 seconds in a light shower is 20 or 30 days on the ground of
tile replacement, so that had a significant impact. That was a long
time ago in the program, I can’t even remember when that was.
Those kind of things are those unfathomable events that you run into
in the program that just turn into problems, but we never had any
unsafe transitions. We’ve never lost any aircraft nor endangered
anybody on the runway with preparations that we’ve always accomplished
first. Safety’s always been the priority, and it’s worked
for us very well.
Have your procedures for accepting the arrival or departure of an
SCA changed over the years?
been pretty consistent. The progression has always been toward tweaking
and improving, and there hasn’t been much that needed to be
done. Of course, we as the contractor had already had five or six
of those already behind us, including the unique departure off White
Sands, which was before our time. All of those were already in the
bag by the time we got here. The process was already in place, and
we, as the new contractor, just had to plug into what had already
been revised by the time we got here. We just had to know what our
role was, and that was an evolutionary process that we were able to
accomplish as airport operators and eventually as air traffic controllers.
In 2001 there was a simultaneous ferry of the orbiters. Can you talk
about that and any challenges that might have posed?
was rather unique I think, because it involved that additional element
of complexity. Because it was wrapped around a launch, the program
really got in a quandary as to where to put what, and it ended up
that both of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft ended up at the Cape Canaveral
Skid Strip, not here, at one time. That was good because they had
to sit and wait until we had a successful launch before they could
jump nine miles and get here and start the process of getting them,
[the orbiters], off.
All those things were going on, and we had to do some significant
coordination for that. I remember that that was particularly intricate.
I can’t remember whether we had any delays in the launch, which
would have just snowballed into more complex Shuttle carrier planning,
but I remember it was a significant event. It was really quite a mess
trying to make sure that everything got done for both in sequence.
It involved more flight crews, more personnel, and certainly a more
elaborate schedule for being ready to handle all of it.
Any funny stories about the SLF and SCA?
of them involve the crews, ground crews and flight crews, more than
they involve the actual aircraft handling. It was usually business
priority here when we were doing those offloads.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the story about the wrench—it’s
that other contractor that’s actually handling the de-mating
process. We merely provide them the opportunity to take care of that
in the MDD. It’s the United Space Alliance or Lockheed’s
operation to handle orbiters, and we keep track of how long it takes
them sometimes and how that all works. They ran into a situation where
they had a Shuttle carrier come across country, and they got into
the offloading process and realized that they didn’t have one
of the only two tools in existence that they needed. They were both
That quandary ended up with a deployment of a T-38 out of Houston
to go get it, throw it in the pod, and bring it cross-country in order
that they could resume the operation. That took almost a shift I think,
so they actually went about a shift down in order to find a pilot
to make that transition, 1,500 miles to get the wrench and 3,000 miles
to bring it here before that operation could continue. So all of that
planning kind of goes dormant, you might as well just sit and wait.
That has happened on only one occasion.
Then the rest of the routines, everything is pretty much accomplished
in advance. The Shuttle program is well documented in their step-by-step
plans for getting everything done, from launches to landings to Shuttle
carrier events. When they get it down to a science, they document
it well and remain prepared for the next time it happens. I’ve
been impressed by that from the start. There’s been very few
deviations from that or any unsafe condition or any real scheduling
conflicts. There’s a significant cost involved with the number
of people that are involved in every operation, the amount of man
hours that have gone into the planning for it, so they like to plan
it down to the nth degree as best they can in order to make sure it
stays as economical as possible.
This is one of the last times that there will be a ferry of an orbiter
out of this facility. What are you feelings as Discovery is getting
ready to be mated to the plane and leave for Virginia?
sad of course, to have the end come like that, but it’s still
exciting to be a part of it and involved with it, and I’ve enjoyed
it for as long as I have. It’s been really great. We know that
there’s another one behind this, and we may be involved. There’s
going to be flight coverage even for the Atlantis transition down
the street to our Visitor Complex, so there’s always going to
be something in the offing. Other than that elemental sadness—there’s
always that, plus we’re resigned to the fact that this program
has ended and the next one is out there somewhere.
We have an option to have the next generation of manned vehicle have
a rubber side down also. If it has a rubber side down they’re
going to need a runway to land on, so we know we’ll be here.
Even the hardware handling of the flight segments, those kind of things,
there’s always going to be something that’s going to be
necessary. I know that KSC is resigned to the fact that the runway
is an important asset that they own, and that they intend to manage
it as best they can and offer it up. With the commercial diversification
that we’ve been into now, there’s a lot of future here.
The Morpheus program is coming this summer. There are other customers
that are out there that are interested in the place, and a lot of
different diverse approaches have been offered up to NASA for the
continued use of the runway in one form or another. Instead of one
big bag of money that Shuttle provided, there seems to be a lot of
smaller opportunities out there that, if managed correctly, will provide
for the continuation of the runway operation. And not just for the
aviation environment, but also for its unique characteristics. Because
of its length and its location, it provides a great opportunity for
a lot of programs. So I think the future is good for us. It will be
sad to see the orbiters go, but it’s part of the natural change.
Rebecca, do you have any questions for Ron?
don’t think so. You’ve answered all the ones that I had,
so thank you.
Is there anything that I may have overlooked or that you think we
should talk about?
I think we’ve covered most everything.
Well, we certainly thank you for your time and offering office space
today. We appreciate that.