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 Larry LaRose is being
conducted for the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft [SCA] Oral History Project
at the Kennedy Space Center. The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal,
assisted by Rebecca Wright and Sandra Johnson. Thanks again for taking
time out of your day to meet with us and giving us that great tour
of the SCA.
I’m glad to do it.
We appreciate it. Give us a brief history of your career at NASA.
I started with NASA in 1979, come onboard around September, and I
started on the Zero-G [gravity] program on the KC-135 [aircraft] as
a flight engineer. Then shortly thereafter, about December of that
year, I was selected to go to the STA Program, the Shuttle Training
Aircraft, and I stayed with that program until I retired in 2008.
In 1989, I was selected to transfer from Johnson Space Center to El
Paso, Texas [Biggs Army Airfield], to assume the responsibility of
the El Paso FOL [forward operating location] manager. What we had
out there was the STAs flying, and we also had T-38 [aircraft] depot
maintenance. We started out with 5 contractors and 1 civil servant,
and I think we had 42 contractors and 2 civil servants by the time
I left in 2008.
That’s a little bit in a capsule where I was at and what I did.
And all the time I still maintained my currency as a flight engineer,
but then I took the role on as being a manager. I certainly liked
the role of being a flight engineer. I like flying a lot more than
I do managing.
Tell us about the role of the flight engineer on the SCA.
That is a field that I love dearly, because that was what I trained
to in the Air Force as a panel engineer on [Lockheed] C-141s [Starlifters].
When I first come to work for NASA on the KC-135 and the [Grumman]
Gulfstream II, that really wasn’t a panel engineer position.
They called it a flight engineer, but it didn’t really have
a panel. When I got selected to do it for the [modified Boeing] 747
[SCA] in 1989, it was like going back to my old roots. It was fun
to be part of that program, and it’s still a real pleasure to
be doing that type of work. That’s how I got selected.
Tell us about your responsibilities for the plane.
We go out, pre-flight two hours prior to the mission, and walk around
the airplane and make sure that all the cowlings and the doors and
everything is closed up, and make sure that we don’t see any
maintenance that hasn’t been closed out that will be closed
out before flight. If it’s not working, then we’ll go
back and make sure that it does get closed out properly.
That’s on our walk-around outside, then we basically do the
same thing inside. We do a walk-around just like you saw down there
on the lower deck. We’ll make sure that no loose materials are
floating around when we get ready to take off. We want to make sure
everything is attached, like on a passenger [airline] you get your
seatbelts on. We have to tie it down because we don’t want anything
moving around when we’re taxiing or taking off.
Then we go up in the cockpit, and we check all the systems and make
sure that before the pilots arrive the radios and the flight controls
and the systems are up and running prior to takeoff. Again, we don’t
want to wait until we go for the first time and power things up. For
example, coming out of Edwards [Air Force Base, California] we had
a fuel boost pump failure. Fortunately for us, our MEL [minimum equipment
list] allows us to take off with a failed boost pump, but it allowed
us to make a decision 2 hours prior versus 15 minutes before we start
engines. Sometimes if you delay that, then you don’t have any
time to recover and save a mission. That’s why we do the pre-flights.
Then it comes times to start the engines, and we start running checklists.
The FE [flight engineer] runs a checklist, and we assist the other
crewmembers on getting the engines started and getting all the systems
up and running. From that point on we call the taxi checklist and
the before-takeoff checklist, and just kind of be a third set of eyes
and do our duties as assigned.
When we were up in the cockpit there’s room for three people,
but you have two flight engineers. Tell us about how that’s
different from a normal crew.
Well, it gives us some capability that if we get into an emergency
situation we have another set of eyes. It allows that engineer to
go downstairs and fight a fire, emergency, or whatever else. Remember,
we’re not carrying maintenance or anybody else with us, so we
need somebody to be mobile to go down and do what we need to do downstairs
and look at the condition of the orbiter.
I told you earlier how much I can see—it’s not a whole
lot. There’s not a whole lot I can do even if I did see something,
because there’s no way I can get out. We just have to land and
figure out what our problem is and also help when we have to. If we
lose an engine on takeoff, to help dump fuel to lighten our load so
we can get down on the ground or continue to fly. Being so heavy,
if we lose an engine it’s a handful to keep it in flight with
the weight that we are. We’re trying to reduce the weight as
much as possible and maintain flight.
Have you ever lost an engine in flight?
I’ve never on my watch. They did at Edwards. I think it was
1996, I have to go back and look at the archives. The crew had just
lifted off from [runway] 04 Edwards, and I think it was the number
three engine that caught on fire, and they basically just teardropped
back to runway 22. It was just fortunate for them they were all cleaned
up and engines were at full power and flaps were up and the gear was
up, so they didn’t have a lot of drag out there. If you’re
going to have an engine fire—nobody wants one, but if you’re
going to get one that would be the best time to have it.
They basically started dumping fuel and dumped what they could until
landing, and [it was] pretty uneventful. The engine fire light stayed
on even through taxi roll, but everybody got home safely and the orbiter
was safe. We didn’t do any serious damage, other than we had
to change an engine before we went to go fly.
How long of a runway does the SCA need to take off?
Very long. We like to look at Air Force bases 13- to 15,000-foot of
runway. This, KSC, is 15,000. Edwards is 15. But most SAC [Strategic
Air Command] bases are anywhere from 12 to 14 to 15,000 feet of runway.
We need a fairly long runway because of takeoff roll. It depends on
temperature and conditions, but Tuesday’s flight [ferrying Discovery
to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia]
will probably be 9,500 to 10,000 foot of runway takeoff for a ground
roll. I’ve had ground rolls sometimes 11, 11.5. It takes a lot
of runway because it takes a long time to get a lot of speed because
you’re so heavy. That’s why we pick Air Force bases, because
they have long runways.
By comparison, how much runway does a Continental [Airlines, Inc.]
or a Southwest [Airlines Co.] flight need?
They’re typically anywhere from 10 to 12,000 foot of runway.
At El Paso there’s one runway that’s 9,000 feet, and they
don’t need that much. They’ll lift off at 4,500 to 5,000
feet. Again, it all depends on weight. The lighter they are, the shorter
the runway they are. When we’re not carrying the orbiter, we
lift off at 2,500, 3,000 feet down the runway. We’ve got a lot
of power but not a lot of weight, so we just jump off the ground.
It’s all depending on the temperature of the outside and the
weight of the vehicle, what our performance is.
About how long does it take you to get off the ground when you’ve
got an orbiter attached?
Well, it seems like it’s forever, especially when you push the
power up. You just lumber down the runway. As you pick up speed and
get to that magical number of rotate speed, you look at the other
end and say, “I’m glad it got to that speed,” because
now you’re running out of runway. Like I said, 11,000 foot of
On this situation we’ve got 15,000 foot of runway. We’ve
still got 4,000 foot remaining, but there’s been some runways,
like 12,000 foot at Barksdale [Air Force Base, Louisiana], that when
we have those long rolls, we use almost—not every bit of it,
not to a danger point where we know that we’re not going to
get rotate speed and safely lift off, but there’s not a lot
of runway to play with.
You mentioned in the note that you sent me that one of your biggest
challenges is engine power. Would you talk about that?
What I mean by that, and this is just me—one of the critical
phases of flight is power with this airplane. If you lose any power
it’s detrimental to flying. So I think that’s a critical
phase, especially on takeoff. If you lose an engine, it’s a
handful to get it in the air. There’s a lot of things happening,
and it’s that crew coordination to make it work.
We train to do that in the simulator. We have three engine B-1 cuts,
and we train to lose an engine and safely get it off the ground. We
demonstrate it in the simulator, but nobody really wants to have that
happen. In my mind, that’s the critical phase of flight, I don’t
want to lose an engine. Nobody does—that’s the one thing
that we don’t want to happen.
What kind of engines do you have on the SCA?
We have JT-9J engines. They produce approximately 49,000 pounds, almost
50,000 pounds of thrust, so we’ve got over 200,000 pounds of
thrust on takeoff for the 747-100s. The original ones were 7-As, and
they produced about 47,000 pounds. We upgraded them to the 7-Js, which
gives us an additional 12,000 pounds of thrust combining all four
engines. You can never have too much power, that’s how I look
at it. If you can give me more power, that’s what I need as
an engineer. The more power the better.
Tell us about crew training. You mentioned that you train in the simulator,
and you also take the plane out.
Yes. I was intimately involved in training because I set up for crews
to go to training centers. When we lost a contract at Pan Am [Pan
American World Airways] in Miami [Florida], we went out looking for
another training site. We run upon a training site up at Denver [Colorado]
at United Airlines [Inc.], so I had a chance to meet with the very
talented crew up there that was willing to take us on and provide
us a good service. They provided it until the time that United retired
their sim [simulator], and we’re still now using the United
sim. A great bunch of people up at the Denver site.
We had been training up there—I think we started there in the
mid ’90s, ’95 timeframe. [Arthur C.] “Ace”
[Beall], myself, and Bob [Robert] Zimmerman were the last crew that
went through there for SCA training. I think it was the third week
in March. So that will be it for them as far as SCA crew. We’re
still using that simulator for SOFIA [Stratospheric Observatory for
Infrared Astronomy], but it will be the last time we use it for Shuttle
Our requirements were we had to do two sims a year, where a normal
cargo or commercials only have to do one sim a year. Because we flew
it so infrequently, that’s the reason why our standard operation
procedures tell us we had to go twice a year. That meant usually four
days, two days of ground and two days of sim. The ground was to talk
about systems and malfunctions and abnormals. Then we actually get
in the simulator, and they give us the sims.
We also had the capability of having software that we could simulate
the Shuttle on top of the 747 to give us that drag, to give us that
feel of what it would be with the orbiter on top if we lost an engine
or we had a malfunction or hydraulic problem. So we had that capability
to really have a true simulator of what it would be with an orbiter
That’s interesting. So you had people who were experts in 747s
but not SCAs.
Oh, yes. When I say “experts,” they had a lot of expertise
in the 747 performance of the simulator. They provided us a lot of
information, but we also had to provide them the information for our
unique flying too. It was a good tradeoff for both organizations.
We were very lucky to tag on with the folks up at United Airlines.
When you do that kind of training, are you normally training with
the pilots that you would fly with? This last time you mentioned you
flew with Ace and Bob Zimmerman. Would you normally fly as a group
when you were on the SCA, or would you fly with some other people?
It just depends on the rotation and the selection. On the first flight
[to Washington, D.C.] I’m going to fly with Bill [William E.]
Rieke and Jeff [Jeffrey L.] Moultrie, but that was just a matter of
a draw. It could have been with Jeff and Bill when they were up doing
the simulator. It just depends on schedules. They wanted to go early
because they had a lot of preplanning to do, and since they were running
it Jeff, Henry [T. Taylor], and Bill got the first selection, and
then we got what was left over. That’s just the way it happened.
We all trained. The syllabus is the same; we don’t do anything
different as far as crews. When it comes to crew selection, it very
well could have been Ace and Bob, or Bill or Frank [W.] Batteas. It
just depended on how the crew selection was made to go fly.
Tell us about that crew selection. How was that made?
Back when we were ferrying on a regular basis, it used to be that
if I flew last then I’d be the last in the rotation, first out,
last in. Especially when we were having to deal with launches. A lot
of us were multi-qualified in different programs. If I was tasked
to be on a launch and there was a ferry mission, then probably I was
not going to be in the rotation. Or somebody would have to replace
me in the STA, and then I’d have to go fly the SCA. A lot of
it was crew availability, if you weren’t on another project
or the rotation. If I flew the last leg on the last ferry mission,
then I’m going to be the last one in the rotation on the next
one. There was six pilots and four flight engineers at that time,
so we had that complement to rotate from.
You mentioned that you actually got to put in requests for certain
ferry flights. Would you talk about some of the flights that you put
in requests for?
One of the ones that I really wanted to be involved with was the ferry
mission of the Columbia back to Palmdale [California], but we went
through Salt Lake [City, Utah]. The reason for that was I’m
originally from Wyoming, and my folks still live in Wyoming. My wife’s
family lives there also, but a lot of her family lives in Salt Lake.
So it was an opportunity to be able to take the Shuttle up into the
Rocky Mountains and up west, because they don’t experience launches.
They don’t know what an orbiter is. They see it on TV, and it
We had a lot of problems getting out of here because of delays, and
then we had some instrument problems shortly after takeoff. We were
working those issues, and the tower come back and said we hit a bird.
We didn’t know where, and we didn’t feel it. I was asked
to go back and look and see if I could see anything on the orbiter,
and I couldn’t see any damages. When we landed at [Naval Air
Station Joint Reserve Base] Fort Worth [Texas], we ended up taking
some damage on the left wing leading edge and took out some tiles,
so they had to do a repair before we could take off.
That was a delay, so we thought we might not be getting to go to Salt
Lake that night. Well, they got it fixed fairly quickly. They were
starting up the Pathfinder, and they had some engine start problems,
so now we’re going to have to find another jet to be our Pathfinder.
The word went out and there was a lot of anticipation, a lot of anxious
moments in Utah that they really wanted that vehicle up there. I think
there was some telephone calls to the Utah Air National Guard, and
they had happened to have a KC-135 in the air so they diverted them
down to be our Pathfinder to Fort Worth. They got a briefing from
the pilots of what this required, and we also had one of our pilots
with them so they knew where they had to be at in the reporting back
to us for the Pathfinder.
It come time to go fly, but we were getting late in the day and one
of the requirements in the ferry missions is that all our operations
has to be day VFR [visual flight rules]. We don’t want to fly
at night. We want to be able to see out there. We want to see clouds
and we want to be able to see other traffic, so we have a mission
rule that we have to be in day VFR. We can go up to the sun’s
starting to go down, half hour after the sun, but we really don’t
want to do that. Then you would have to get a waiver.
As we got a little closer in to Utah, I remember coming over the mountains
of the Wasatch [Range] and dropping over Spanish Fork [Utah]. I’m
familiar with that area, so I know where we’re at when we’re
dropping in. We dropped in over Spanish Fork and then up through Provo
[Utah], and then we were kind of tracking on I-15 and just going around
Thanksgiving Point [Lehi, Utah] and then up through Sandy [City, Utah]
and Salt Lake. It was very interesting because the sun was going down,
and you could actually see people on their roofs flashing flashbulbs
at us as we’re going up. I’m not sure what the pictures
Also what was interesting was seeing people pulling off the side of
the road on I-15. I could also see the Highway Patrol trying to get
them to move, but they weren’t moving. We’re watching
all this going on as we’re making our turn back up towards Ogden
[Utah]. Same thing as we were going through Salt Lake. Off to our
left, we could see the [Salt Lake City] International Airport, and
you could just see it flashing because there was lots of folks there
waiting on the ground for us to land. Two of those folks were my parents.
But we flew past it. We flew up to Ogden and flew over Hill Air Force
Base and then hooked it back toward Salt Lake. It was quite the arrival.
It was fun.
You guys were celebrities that day I suppose. Lots of media interest
Oh, very much. I got a chance to give a tour to my wife’s family
and to my folks, and while I was doing that my mother was tugging
at me. She says, “You have somebody that’s along with
the tour.” I did not know that somebody had joined us. Well,
it was Senator [Edwin Jacob] “Jake” Garn. So my mother,
“Well, he needs to come up here.” I said, “No, this
tour’s for you. If he wants to follow along, that’s fine.”
She was nervous the whole time, and I said, “Mom, it’s
okay.” That was kind of funny.
The next morning—and this was another one of these things that
you don’t think about until it approaches you—we were
about an hour from takeoff, and I got this special request. I’m
not even sure who it was from the airport side, but they said, “We
have this elderly lady that would like to go aboard the 747,”
and could we do that. The last time she had visited the airport was
to come see Charles [A.] Lindbergh in the late ’20s. How can
you refuse something like that?
She was in a wheelchair, so I said, “Sure, we can. We’ll
figure out some way to get her aboard the airplane.” We got
her aboard the airplane and talked a little bit about what we did.
She was very appreciative, and she told me as a little girl the last
time she was at the airport was to come to see Charles Lindbergh.
This was just as proud a moment for her as it was for us.
Neat history. You’ve flown some other historic flights, one
of which was a simultaneous ferry of Columbia and Atlantis. Would
you tell us about that?
Well, it wasn’t much different from any other ferry mission.
They had us at different sites. One took off from Palmdale, and I
was the one that went out of Edwards, on the Atlantis. I think our
first refuel spot was at Wichita Falls, Texas [Sheppard Air Force
Base], and I think the other one went to Dyess [Air Force Base], Abilene
[Texas], so we had them in different locations. There was some concern
that they did not want to have both orbiters in the same location
for safety. They didn’t want to be able to destroy two orbiters
at the same time, so if they kept them separate they wouldn’t
run that risk.
It took a lot of resources, and all of the crew members got involved
with that because we needed all of them. There was two engineers on
each airplane and then we had the additional six pilots, two on the
airplane and one on each of the ferry aircraft. We used the entire
crew complement on it, so there was no rotation. Everybody got a leg
on it. That was the fun part. One of the things I remember is when
we got here everything was uneventful. I think I was on the crew that
landed first, and we unloaded. Henry, I think, had to go home, so
I ended up getting to jump over to the skid strip to do the short
flight from here to SLF [Shuttle Landing Facility], or X-ray 60 as
we call it, for the unloading.
You have to go back in the archives, but you can see it was really
blowing that day. We had a lot of crosswind. You can go back and look
at the Florida Today, and it was one of these things that looked like
it was a near disaster. The right wing tipped down and we almost struck
a pod. It wasn’t that bad, but the picture looked like it was
pretty bad so there was a lot of wringing of hands and saying, “How
close was it?” Yes, we had a lot of crosswind, but we got down
safely. It was blowing pretty good out there at that time. You have
to go back and look at the picture; it looked pretty bad.
Were you involved with the Phantom Ray flight?
No, I was not. I did the security checks, and it looked like I was
going to be part of the crew, but when they decided they were only
going to do one leg that eliminated me. They didn’t need a third
FE to do a crew swap wherever they were going to stop at, so no, I
wasn’t involved. I was helping for the training up to that point,
but when it came time to fly the mission, no, I didn’t do it.
In August there was actually a formation of the SCAs flying together
out at Edwards, which seems to be very unusual.
Especially that big of an airplane. It was quite a moment, I’d
never experienced something like that before. I’ve been part
of formation flights, but nothing like that. Two 747s, I mean, that’s
pretty unique. I was flying on [SCA] 911, so I got a chance to see
Jeff in [SCA] 905 come up from behind us and to our left wing. To
see such a big piece of metal coming towards you, it got your attention.
It was fun to watch that and be part of that. From the videos I got
to see from the F-18s [aircraft] and some of the ground shots, it
was a pretty good photo op [opportunity].
Was there any discussion about where you would fly and how you would
Yes. We had a pre-brief before we went to go fly, and basically Jeff
choreographed what we needed to do with both sets of airplanes and
what he was planning on doing and how long we were going to be up.
We also had to have the F-18 be part of that briefing, because when
we’ve got three ships up there you want everybody to be on the
same page of music.
How long did you fly in formation?
Probably 30 minutes, I don’t remember. We couldn’t spend
up very long, because 905 was very limited on aircraft time that it
could fly because it was on a check flight and they were doing some
engine monitoring stuff. They were very limited on their flight time,
so it wasn’t very long.
Tell us, if you would, about your role as flight engineer in the flight
readiness review [FRR].
Because I’m living in Las Cruces [New Mexico], I don’t
get involved with the flight readiness review. Back in the early days,
yes, there was a couple things that I would provide, but it really
was a pilot brief. They really wanted information from the FEs about
who the crews were going to be in selection and performance. They
needed to know if we could use the fields that were picked from the
Department of Defense [DoD].
We had some DoD representatives at JSC that would go out and review
these fields that were available to us for landing sites. Then what
we’d also have to do is find out if we could use them. I was
telling you about our performance. We’d look at runway length
and that particular time of the season and the temperatures and see,
with the weight of what we had, if we could use those runways.
We would provide that information for the FRR and say, “Okay,
if we got in there at sunset or close to sunset, then we’d have
to spend the night due to temperatures,” or vice versa. The
fuel load that we could put on to get us to our next destination,
or we could put enough fuel if we spent the night to go past another
destination and go a little further. Those discussions were made on
the FRR in our range and in our capability. But again, I’ve
been retired so I don’t have to do that stuff anymore. I just
come fly, which is a good thing.
Can you give us a sense perhaps of how ferrying has changed over the
years since you’ve started?
I don’t think it’s changed. I mean, this [ferry] is going
to be a little bit different because it’s what is classified
as not a live orbiter, so we don’t have the hypergolic fuels,
and we don’t have to supply the power for the minus-10 restriction.
So this will be different from what we have normally have seen in
the past, but over all the 20 years of ferrying I haven’t seen
much of a change. It was the same as it was when they started back
in the early ’80s, at least from my vantage.
Tell us about the fact that you’re working out in El Paso. Most
of the people who flew or were flight engineers were based out of
JSC, but then I understand you also had a pilot or two at [NASA] Dryden
[Flight Research Center, Edwards, California]. Tell us about how all
of that worked.
When I lived in El Paso I still belonged to Johnson Space Center.
That was a JSC facility, just like White Sands Test Facility [Las
Cruces, New Mexico] is still part of Johnson Space Center. We had
a crew that had flight engineers and pilots at Dryden, but in the
’80s we eliminated the engineers and just went with the pilots.
The reasoning for that was that if for some reason we needed to move
the airplane and the JSC pilots—it takes them a day to sometimes
a day and a half to get there, depending on T-38s or if we had a commercial
[flight]. But we still had to provide an engineer, so it still was
a day for me to get out there from El Paso. It give us flexibility
that if it needed to be moved or we needed to position it somewhere,
we had a crew that was there to make that happen.
So you would fly from El Paso out to Dryden?
I fly to L.A. [Los Angeles, California] and then have to get in the
L.A. traffic, and sometimes that was longer than the flight from El
Paso to L.A. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been
stuck in traffic in L.A. for two or three hours just trying to get
across the mountain, painful.
Tell us a little bit about the plane. The plane is kept at Dryden,
but it’s JSC property, so one of the questions one of the Dryden
historians asked me is are people possessive of that plane? Do people
at Dryden think it’s their plane, people at JSC say it’s
The best way I can explain it is it’s part of Shuttle operations,
and Shuttle operations is JSC flight operations. That airplane was
in direct support of the orbiter. That’s why it had a 9 serial
number, versus an 8 from Dryden. That’s the reason why it belonged
The other thing is it was a great place to maintain an airplane because
it was a high desert, not a lot of humidity and corrosion. That’s
a big enemy, especially for airplanes like that. That’s one
of the reasons why we used to have the Guppy at Houston, and now the
Guppy is in El Paso because of the desert and the low humidity. You
really want to do that, so that played into it too. Plus that’s
where we landed, so that’s another reason why the 747 is at
Edwards, because if we’re going to land we might as well have
it in position ready to go.
You mentioned for a time 911 was out in El Paso. Would you talk about
It showed up at our doorstep in 1990, and we deconfigured it. What
I mean by deconfigured it, we took all the passenger seats out and
the luggage racks and the galleys and lavatories and reduced the weight,
did a little bit of the work before it got to the Wichita, Kansas,
Boeing facilities for modification.
It was originally assigned to El Paso because it was classified a
national asset, so we had to keep the vehicles away from each other.
Just like we were talking about that dual ferry, they didn’t
want to have one asset be destroyed at the same time as the other
one. That’s probably the other reason why the Rogers Commission
[Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger
(STS 51-L) Accident] said if you lose one, then the program’s
down for two years while it’s being modified.
The original plan was to assign one at El Paso, and we would rotate
them. 905 would come to El Paso when 911 would come operational. I
think that went on for a couple years, maybe three. I’d have
to go back and look and see exactly when we decided to make the move,
but it had a lot to do with the contract out at Evergreen [Air Center]
at Marana [Arizona]. What we decided to do was while one airplane
was in maintenance the other would be at Edwards Air Force Base. There
really wasn’t a need now to have a permanent station at El Paso,
so they elected to just rotate the airplanes through Marana. That’s
kind of how that happened.
Would you do maintenance on the plane?
Oh yes, we had our own maintenance crew. We had three mechanics that
were assigned to the 747. It was a little easier for the Houston crews
and myself to fly in El Paso than it was L.A., because it’s
now two legs to get to Edwards, but it’s only one leg from Houston
to El Paso. That was the training site for the STAs. The astronauts
used to come out in the morning to go fly a morning flight, or [in]
the afternoon, because it’s only an hour and a half away. So
when it come time to go fly the SCA, the pilots in Houston loved it
because it was just an hour and a half away, and we jumped on an airplane
and then go home at night. Versus a day, day and a half, sometimes
two-day trip to get to Edwards to go fly a two-hour mission. It was
convenient, it really was a nice thing to have at El Paso.
Where would you take the plane out when you flew it from El Paso?
Most of our locals were done at Biggs Army Airfield. Again, that was
a fairly long runway, 13,000 feet, and it got us away from the El
Paso International Airport. They don’t like a large airplane
in their traffic pattern when they’re trying to land Southwest
Airlines and American Airlines. And they loved it because Biggs didn’t
get a lot of work. The tower operators really liked for us to come
over there and work in their pattern because it give them training
and it give us training too. It was a good working relationship with
Biggs Army Airfield.
Those aircraft are nearly 40 years old. They’re old, as we noticed
when we went in them today. You told us about some of the mods [modifications]
for the vehicle, but what upgrades have there been for the aircraft?
Henry probably could talk to you, because he controlled the service
bulletins and the ADs [aviation divisions]. I don’t remember
a whole lot of modifications. I mean, new equipment aboard the airplane—I
remember deactivating center tanks and scavenging pumps when that
TWA [Trans World Airlines] problem occurred with explosion in the
fuel tanks [TWA Flight 800 accident]. But we just deactivated, we
didn’t put in any new equipment.
The only modification that comes to mind on 905 was autobrakes. We
didn’t have autobrakes on 905 when I first come onboard, so
we made that modification. I just can’t think of anything off
the top of my head that in the 20-some-odd years that we ever did
any mods. We did maintenance and changed components out, but nothing
new as far as systems aboard the airplane that I can recall.
Tell us about the maintenance of the plane. Would you as a flight
engineer tell the mechanics out at Dryden, “Hey look, there’s
some issue with the plane”?
Well, the flight engineers—I’ll tell you a little history—when
we were hired on, we were hired on as quality assurance flight engineers.
So we took on that role, not so much directing but just making sure
the quality was done. Our bosses at that time said, it’s good
for our flight engineers to be part of the quality system. Who better
to watch and make sure that the job gets done, because they’re
the ones that are going to have to get aboard the airplane and go
fly. That was one of the thought processes why they selected us to
do quality and flight engineering both.
The other thing was that, yes, I was involved with maintenance decisions
and making those calls. The contractors are the ones who do the maintenance,
so we let the contractors make the calls on the maintenance. They
discuss it because they belong to the NASA operations, so they run
everything by us, and if we object then we’ll talk about it.
That’s kind of how the process works.
Is there a regular maintenance schedule for the vehicles themselves?
Oh yes, because it’s just like any other airplane. Sometimes
scheduled maintenance gets in direct conflict with operations, so
sometimes you have to make that decision. We’re here to fly
airplanes. It’s a tradeoff and you have to say, “Okay,
we’ll have to defer it.” But when the operations stop,
then you do know that that airplane goes down and we have to do the
maintenance before we go fly again. Sometimes the tempo of operations
conflicts, so you have to make the adjustments to make it all work.
That’s the things I don’t miss. I don’t miss those
discussions at all.
Would you tell us about some of those discussions?
Oh, it’s just pilots want to fly and the operations want to
fly, and maintenance, “We’re held to a schedule. If something
goes wrong, then we’re responsible.” It’s one of
those things that sometimes you just have to lay the law down, say
that this has to get done. They’re good about it too. They know
that there’s some things that you just have to bite the bullet
and do the maintenance.
We’ve been talking today about 905 and 911. What planes fall
in between 905 and 911?
Well, NASA 910 was a T-38, so it just depends on what the number is.
When I come onboard—the STAs, the first one was 946 and -47.
We tried to find the serial numbers or the production numbers as close
to those airplanes as possible at Gulfstream [Aerospace]. Their serial
number was 146 and 147, so that’s how they got NASA 947 and
946. They just put the 9 on it because Johnson uses 9 and Dryden uses
8, and I think Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California] uses
7. Every Center has their own number. Those numbers are picked, like
I said on 146, due to the uniqueness off the production line.
The next STA was NASA 944 and then 945, but it didn’t come sequentially.
They were later than -46 and -47, but because their serial number
was earlier that’s why they picked that. Sometimes they try
to go in order, but sometimes that doesn’t work either. You
look at 905 and 911, it’s a 747, but there’s a couple
T-38s in between them.
How did NASA decide which SCA it was going to fly for the ferry flights?
Well, like I was talking about the maintenance schedule, if the one
was in scheduled maintenance in Marana—the 905 was not going
to go fly, 911’s available. It was just whatever airplane was
up at that time was the one we used, it was just a matter of the maintenance
schedule and where it was at at the time.
Your baby has just been retired, 911.
I know, it’s a sad moment. Henry did me a favor. I was pre-flighting
905, and we were going to fly both airplanes. One was going to take
off and go straight to Palmdale, and I was going to stay back and
do a local with Bill Rieke and Bill [William F.] Brockett. Henry come
up and he says, “You need to go do a walk-around one more time
on the airplane before we can call it quits.” That was kind
Is it the newer of the two?
Well, it was the latest of the two. It’s not the newer, because
it had more flight time on it than 905. When we got 905 I think it
had a little over 10,000 hours on it. When 911 came onboard it had
over 30,000 hours on it. So 911 had a little more passenger time on
it, but for ferry time, I would say 905 had more ferries than 911.
You’d have to go back and look at the archives, but I’m
almost positive it did. When I come onboard on the SCA in the ’90s—I
think I was involved with over 30, 35 ferry missions, and it was a
lot more before I come onboard. Do you know what the total is?
I think it’s 55 ferries from Edwards.
Well, then I guess I did more than I thought. I was thinking there
was 50 before I come on, but I don’t know. I didn’t do
any counting until we got to looking at the numbers.
Why did NASA decide to retire her instead of 905?
You know, I wasn’t part of that discussion. They just picked
911 to be the one that goes down. They took, I think, two engines
that had better time and condition on them and put them on 905. I
think I was told that we had some gear-overhaul issues and some time-change
issues that it was too expensive to get repaired and modified, so
they decided just to take the one down. I think that’s what
I remember in the discussion.
As you mentioned, a lot of the early missions landed out at Edwards,
and there were a lot of ferry missions back here, and then of course
taking the orbiters from here out to Palmdale. As time went on, there
were fewer and fewer flights. What impact does flying the plane less
and less have on the aircraft itself?
As I told you earlier, we’re multi-qualified and so we kept
our hands in other projects. When the ferry mission come along, you
found any way to get off the other schedules to get back. They were
few and far between, so you really worked the schedule to make yourself
available to go fly. We were still required to go out every three
weeks to fly our locals and keep our landing currencies going and
then going to the simulator twice a year, so that’s how we maintain
our currency. When it came time for ferry mission, yes, it was pretty
exciting times to get back to rolling again.
Does it have any impact on the aircraft itself, though? Because I
know if you don’t drive a car on a regular basis it’s
Yes, they’re very temperamental. If you don’t use them
and you sit for a while, the systems just don’t want to go.
Once you get up and running and work them, yes they work, but that
initial get them moving is tough sometimes. We found that especially
when we were out at Marana. When those airplanes were down for three
months at a time and there was no flying done on them, when it was
time to roll out we had all kinds of issues. But you work through
them. Nothing major, it’s just pain to try to get it going because
it just doesn’t want to leave the parking spot.
Are there any funny stories you can share with us about some ferry
flights or the planes themselves?
No, not really. Great moments, great guys to fly with. [Francis R.]
“Dick” Scobee; Joe [Joseph S.] Algranti, the first guy
that I went to work for; [C.] Gordon Fullerton, great guy, great individual;
and just the people that I’ve been involved with. With the 747
and the orbiter on top, you don’t sneak into town with that.
It just brings everybody out, and you get to meet the different folks
and see their smiling faces. Especially at Fort Campbell [Kentucky],
taking thousands of those students through, busload after busload.
I’d love to go back and see how many students we touched, that
really wanted to stay with NASA and stay with math and science and
do those kind of things that we’re doing right now. I’d
love to go back and see if any of them did take the challenge. Those
are the good moments.
Talk to us about that ferry flight.
We got into Fort Campbell and I think the hurricane was Hurricane
Ivan. It was stirring up in the Atlantic, so there were some concerns
that if we got in [to KSC], could we get it offloaded and get it to
the [OPF, Orbiter Processing Facility]. Or do we just need to sit
away here and let it come in and then pick up the pieces and figure
out when we need to bring it back in. Well, they elected to just set
it out. If I remember right I think it went northeast, kind of went
up and petered out and never even come close, but it ended up delaying
us. I think we ended up staying there four days.
The NASA managers at the time decided this was a great opportunity
to open it up. But we were being hosted by an Army base, Fort Campbell,
so they had to run it by Fort Campbell PAO [public affairs office]
and the commander to find out if we could have schools around Kentucky
and Tennessee come in and view it and have a few of us, just like
on media day, answer questions. We started early in the morning until
it was dark. You just saw busload after busload, and you kept thinking,
“Where are they finding all these kids?”
It was great. Some of these kids had never even seen an airplane before,
and now you’re bringing the Space Shuttle. They’ve heard
about it, so it was pretty emotional sometimes, and they brought me
right down into it. It was great to be part of it, those were fun
times. Not saying that this mission here is not going to be fun, it
is. Some of those folks up in D.C. I’m sure haven’t seen
some of this stuff either, especially doing the fly-bys. A lot of
folks are going to be looking up.
What sort of emotions or feelings do you have now that you’re
Sad, sad. It’s an era that’s treated me very well. Like
I said, I started in the late ’70s, but I’ve been retired
for about four or five years now. It was kind of a unique experience
when I landed here and saw a lot of activity on the ramp. About six,
seven, seven o’clock, we were driving back to Cocoa Beach [Florida],
and to drive by the [OPF] and the launch sites are all gone and not
see any activity, it’s hard for me to grasp the program is coming
to an end. It’s hard.
Yes, it is tough. Rebecca, Sandra, do you guys have any questions?
I’ve got a couple. One, when you were giving us the guided tour,
we found another classic piece of equipment onboard. It was a microfiche
reader. Can you share why that is still there, and did you ever use
Yes, we still use it. It has our maintenance manuals and our parts
catalogues and such. That’s old technology. You got to remember
that’s a 1971 airplane, so a lot of the manuals—we have
hard copies of the manual, but we have microfiche. It’s hard
to get updates on the microfiche, but we still get some. Sometimes
old technology is good technology. Just because it’s new doesn’t
necessarily mean it works well.
Before we got started, you mentioned that today about one o’clock
you were going to go through some fire training. Are there specific
types of training that you go through?
Yes. Some of the things are unique to this airplane, because we stripped
out a lot of stuff. A lot of those crew doors don’t have slides
and don’t have emergency escape exits, so we deactivated them.
What we have to do is show the fire department which doors are activated,
what doors have slides, what doors don’t have slides, how to
get us out of the seats if we become incapacitated, and we can’t
get out. We have to show them how to get us out of there, how to shut
the airplanes down. They can get the electrical power off and shut
the engines down if we can’t do it. Those are the kind of training
things we do, and we tell them how many crew members are onboard the
airplane and where they’re going to be so during a fire, smoke,
they know where to go.
I’ve got another crew coming in at one o’clock, the second
shift. We had first shift yesterday and then third shift will be tomorrow.
It’s great. That’s sort of like giving tours too. The
fire guys don’t get to do this kind of stuff, so they’re
kind of taken away. If you give a little extra time and tell them
what you do and what the mission requires, it’s a good working
relationship with those guys. They don’t know that kind of stuff,
and it’s kind of fun to talk to those guys, especially the ones
that are going to have to come and get you if something goes wrong.
Are there other types of those safety trainings?
Oh, yes. Typically if we’re going to spend any time, like at
Fort Campbell, before we started the tours we had the fire department
come out because if we have an emergency we want those folks to know
what we have to do to save people, and to save the airplane if we
Just one more. As a flight engineer walking around a few hours before
everybody’s ready to go, you really do have that option that
if you see something that’s a showstopper, you have to call
it. Did you find yourself in that position during those 30, 35 flights?
I’m sure I did. I’m trying to remember. I’ve had
some issues when we got on the airplane that it was a no-go, but it’s
been one of these things that we can talk about and we can go with.
I’ve had a generator that didn’t come online. It give
us an option in what we call our MEL, our minimum equipment list,
that basically says you can take off with three generators versus
four, but this is what you have to do in order to safe the CSD [definition?].
We had to disconnect the CSD before we went to go fly.
It wasn’t a showstopper, but yes, we had a malfunction and we
had to take care of it. You hate to know that if you took off with
something that you weren’t supposed to go fly with and then
you were in the air and—whoops. Those are the kind of things
you want to talk about and discuss before you get in the air, because
in the air you don’t have any options.
Just one other question. Tell us what it’s like flying inside
that 747 once you’re up in the air and how different it is.
Oh, it’s pretty awesome. You got the thing [orbiter] strapped
to you and you know it’s there. I mean, you could hear the vibration
of it. Especially when you get close to towns—well, you don’t
have to get close to town. You can be up flying and you hear airliners
talking to ATC [air traffic control], “Where’s the Shuttle
at?” They’ll call them in and give them our clock position
and tell them where we’re at, and sometimes we’ll see
them come in on us to let passengers see it. You look out, and you
see it. I’ve never been able to have good enough eyesight to
see passengers looking at it, but you know they’re there. One
of the pilots one time rolled the wing. He said, “That’s
everybody going from the right to the left.” I kind of laughed
and chuckled, “Yes, okay.”
Is there something that we may have missed that you thought we should
No, I think you got it pretty well covered. Sorry about getting a
little emotional, but that’s the way it is.
We understand. Well, thank you very much for your time today.
Dryden at the time, the lakebed was full of water so we knew well
in advance that we were going to land at White Sands Missile Range
[New Mexico]. A lot of the equipment showed up early on by train.
When it come time for landing the 747 out there, it was like landing
on a runway. The first inch was gypsum, kind of soft, but when we
broke through that soft gypsum it was like a hard concrete. The handling
characteristics were no different, and the wife really didn’t
really understand. “Was that a one-inch of mud?” No, it
was just a crust. It was really just like a hard surface, and we knew
that we could land the Shuttle the same way. They had load testers
out there at White Sands that could test that surface so they could
maintain it and it wouldn’t sink or rut or veer off the side
of the runway. We had a good understanding.
My involvement was not with the SCA at the time. I was flying the
weather flight with John [W.] Young and Dave [David] Mumme. When we
waved off the first day, there was some concerns because our forecast
didn’t look like it was going to be much better the next day.
There was a lot of discussion because, remember, we were still in
flight test mode on STS-3 and we weren’t going to be out of
flight test mode until -5 or -6. If I’m not mistaken, I think
we went up to -8 before we really got out of flight test mode.
Our requirements were to land on a lakebed. Well, we didn’t
have many lakebed options. We only had White Sands and Edwards, so
we said, “Okay, we need to have an alternate in case we can’t
get into White Sands.” They didn’t have a lot of expendables
on fuel because it was just a two-man cockpit and they were only going
to be up for a short period of time. So they were making a decision.
Well, we’re going to have to support KSC, so we sent one of
the SCAs down. I stayed in White Sands and flew the weather flight
the next day. The winds were pretty high, but nothing like it was
the first day. The sand and the dirt was up to 5,000 feet and kicking
up, and you couldn’t see any visibility the day before. The
next day most all the sand was gone, but the winds were still pretty
high. They were right down the runway, so we eventually landed.
The biggest thing that come afterwards—in the spring in El Paso
and Las Cruces you’ve got a lot of blowing dirt. That’s
the only thing you’ve got to put up with out in the Southwest
is high winds in the spring. I like the falls, and if you can stand
the heat—it’s a dry heat, but that’s the only thing.
We don’t have tornadoes or hurricanes and torrential downpours
or anything like that, we just get the wind in the spring.
To make a long story short, because we had a lot of wind and the gypsum
was blowing all the time, it blew in between the tiles and it caused
a big problem with cleaning the orbiter once it got here. That rumor
got out that we really don’t want to land at White Sands anymore,
but they made some corrections and built a hard stand, and they were
going to build a temporary cover to put over it if we ever had to
use White Sands again. That’s a little quick history of being
involved with the landing, but I was not part of the SCA crew to come
in and pick it up. I was there to help a little bit with the logistics.
That’s the short story of how I got started.