September 6 - 10, 2004
Monday was a holiday, so there was no flying going on then and Tuesday I had to cool my heels while most of the rest of my class got to fly. One of the hazards of being near the end of the alphabet. . . While they were out flying, I attended the usual weekly staff meeting and went to a "T-38 instruments refresher " class. It is something that all astronauts have to do yearly. Granted, one could ask if I were ready for a "refresher," but it is a class that has to be taken eventually, so I have gotten it out of the way for the next year.
So, now it is Wednesday . . . (drum roll please) . . .time to fly . . .
Oh my, what a kick! What an absolute blast! How can I even describe the experience?
We first started with an hour and a half pre-brief. Normally, the pre-briefs are an hour or less, but since we are going through the training syllabus, our briefs are a bit longer to make sure that everything about the flight is covered thoroughly. We talked about what we were going to do in the flight, what some of the critical emergency procedures are, who is responsible what when, etc. The purpose of this first flight is purely familiarization. In fact, in our training syllabus it has a point in the "conduct of flight"(what the training requirements are for the flight) for the Mission Specialist to "observe, relax, and enjoy the ride." That I did.
After the pre-brief we proceeded to get our gear (flight harness, helmet, and mask) and head out to the plane. We did a preflight and then strapped in. The strap-in portion was very carefully checked to make sure I did it correctly. One of the ground guys who assists with the jet start up made sure that I had everything buckled and connected properly. Then we ran through a couple of the pre-start checklists and then cranked up the engines. Wow! What a feeling of power rumbling behind you. We got our clearance and then taxied out to the runway.
After that, well, I had a little problem. It is rather embarrassing to admit this, but here is what happened. The T-38s have canopies that are hinged in the back and you pull down on them to close the cockpit (the front seat and the back seat have separate canopies). Apparently, they can be a little ginchy. What we had been told in our training was that you have to hold the canopy crank handle with our right hand at the same time you have your left hand on the canopy above your head since you will likely need to give the canopy a slight jiggle to get the hinge mechanism out of their over center locked position. Sounds great in theory. We had been given the clearance to take off and as we are rolling to the runway, we were to close the canopies. I very quickly discovered that it is quite a stretch for me to reach the handle and the canopy at the same time. The harness limits my range of motion a little bit. But, the real problem was that I couldn't get the canopy to budge. It was as if it had settled in and just wasn't going anywhere. I couldn't get the crank to move no matter how much I tried to wiggle the canopy. We had to delay our take off. I tried again. And again. And again. Then we had to put a hold on our take off so we could taxi back to the line. Sigh.
Of course, once back at the line the ground guys can't help until you shut down an engine. With an engine running, they cannot safely put the ladder up on the side of the plane - things would be sucked in. So, we shut down an engine. I was certainly off to an auspicious start, don't you think? The maintenance person was able to get the canopy to move. Note: after that, I had no problems working the canopy. I guess he loosened it up for me. . .
Now that the canopy problem was solved, we cranked the engine back up and taxied back out to the runway. We got our flight plan going again and finally took off. Yes, indeed, we took off into the wild blue yonder. I am not sure I can adequately describe the feeling of sitting on the runway with the brakes on, cranking the throttles up all the way until the afterburners kick in, letting the brakes go, and shooting down the runway. The power. . . the rush. . . the excitement. . . I highly recommend the experience. In just a snap of the fingers, we were cruising along at over 300 knots and 26,000 feet. We headed out to the NASA training area (W-147C on the maps - over the Gulf, just east of the Palacios TACAN).
Once in the area, the pilot showed me all the fun stuff a T-38 can do . We went supersonic. We did a zero-g arc. That was really neat because I could feel myself floating and could see things floating in the cockpit. We did some steep turns, built up some g-forces, and then did a loop in which we got about 4.5 g's. I even got to fly a little bit. Then we headed back to Ellington. Once near Ellington, we toured the area a bit. We took a look at the ground reference points that are used to navigate to Ellington visually. We did some touch-and-go's (with all the appropriate military breaks). And, then, the flight was over. It was about an hour long. What a ride! I feel obligated to point out that I was not just a sack of sand in the back that the pilot was toting around. Because of my private pilot instrument experience, the instructor figured I could handle some of the duties right off the bat, so, I did most of the radio talking for the flight. Guess my canopy experience didn't affect his assessment of me too much (whew!).
Thursday was another non-flying day for me. I spent most of the day in the office studying. Friday I had my second flight. This flight was much like the first except it was designed to be an introduction to instrument navigation and procedures (i.e., how to use all the fancy equipment that is in the cockpit). Instead of going out to the training area, we cruised over to Lake Charles, did some touch-and-go's there, then came back and did some touch-and-go's at Ellington. It is pretty wild to be able to get to Lake Charles and back with touch-and-go's at both ends and still only fly for about an hour. This plane zips.
And, what a hoot this flight was! As we were doing the pre-flight of the plane at Ellington, a T-38 was doing a touch-and-go. However, what they did, rather than just doing a normal climb after touching down, they cruised down the runway just off the ground and built up speed. Once at the end of the runway they pointed their nose straight up and shot up in the air very quickly. I made the offhand remark to my instructor that I would like to do that. So, when we got back to Ellington, we did. More than once. After just kissing the ground with the tires, we would hurl towards the end of the runway just a few feet off the ground. Then, in no time at all we were at the 1600 feet pattern altitude and the pilot would crank the plane over and turn downwind at the same time. I swear we it seemed like we were somehow going upside down, but we weren't. I do know that we did have a good view of the ground out the top of the canopy during those maneuvers. I also know that we were going at least 250 knots at the end of the runway when we would go streaking up, away from the ground. It was an amazing rush. I could do that all day. Next week we are traveling, so I won't get to fly again until we get back. I am definitely ready to go again.
© Shannon Walker 2004
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