In my previous life as an air traffic controller, one of the benefits I used to enjoy was something we referred to as a “Familiarization Flight.” We would actually ride the jump seat in the cockpit of that McDonnell Douglas DC-10 or Boeing 737 while you were bouncing around back there in economy class. There was a catch, however. We were technically on duty, we were classified as part of the crew, and we had to file a written report on our experiences and what we learned upon returning to our duty station. The other thing that made flying in the cockpit a chore was when we had a cockpit crew with a beef against air traffic control in general and controllers in particular. In that case you wound up listening to a nonstop litany of gripes, bitches, moans, and complaints. The pilots of American Airlines were the worst; Continental’s weren’t bad, and Southwest’s were usually the greatest. It wasn’t always fun and games, however. There was a controller riding the jump seat when Aloha Airlines Flight 243 suddenly became a convertible at 24,000 feet. Another controller was killed on a fam when USAir Flight 1493 landed atop the Metroliner (SkyWest Flight 5569) he was aboard.
All that ended on a Tuesday morning in September, 2001. After that we were barred from the cockpit of any civilian airliner, a silly restriction that is still in affect to this day. I mean, really, if you can’t trust an air traffic controller in the cockpit, why the heck would you trust your life to that same controller when they’re in the tower or working a radar scope? Fortunately, we still could “Fam” in military, general aviation, and other aircraft. In my case, I was afforded the opportunity on more than one occasion to fly in the cockpit of the NASA Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA), a highly modified Gulfstream II in which the left side of the cockpit is a replica of the instrumentation and flight controls used in the Space Shuttle.
A normal mission profile called for the STA to launch out of El Paso International Airport and turn north on a heading for the White Sands Test Facility. The Gulfstream is climbed to an altitude of 20,000 feet. At approximately fifteen nautical miles from the Northrop Strip located at the White Sands Space Harbor, the main landing gear are lowered (the nose wheel gear strut remains retracted), the engine thrust reversers are engaged, the aircraft is nosed over into a steep descent, and the Shuttle pilot-in-training takes the controls.
Most jet aircraft approach for landing at a mild 3° descent angle and a leisurely 140 knots or so. Not so the STA. That baby drops out of the sky at a pulse-pounding 20° drop while doing 300 knots. Only once the STA descends below 1,700 feet does the pilot initiate a flare (nose-up attitude) to decrease the glide angle and reduce the speed. At 150 feet the nose wheel strut is lowered and, at a ridiculously low 20 feet above the runway, the instructor disengages the simulation mode, retakes control of the aircraft, and climbs the aircraft back up for another run. A typical training mission calls for around ten approaches.
The following pictures were taken by yours truly on a flight profile I flew in May of 2005. Yes, I was standing up unrestrained. Yes, I was actually looking over everybody’s shoulders. Yes, that’s a real live astronaut in the left seat (Jim “Vegas” Kelly training for STS-114, just in case you were wondering). Yes, it’s darned hard to maintain your balance when thrust is reapplied and the STA is nosed skyward in a hard, banking turn. No, I did not lose my lunch. Yes, I did think about it. After just four or five such descents, you do start to get a bit queasy.
The covers you see being installed by Jim Kelly are used to simulate the view from within an actual Space Shuttle. The left-side instrumentation and controls are similar to those on the Shuttle, while the right-side controls are more typical of a standard Gulfstream. The pictures of the desert floor show the actual Shuttle landing strip (used for at least one Shuttle landing back in March, 1982) and the visual markings to the runway.
I hope you enjoy the show: