Archive for September, 2012

Endeavor’s Final Flight

Posted in Aviation, Blog, Journalism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on Monday, 24 September 2012, by Stan

Endeavor and 747 SCA final flight. Over Palmdale, California. (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

September 21, 2012

Palmdale, California – “Houston, it’s been a great ride. California, here we come!” If Endeavor could speak, those would’ve been her last words. The space shuttle program’s youngest ‘child’ took to the skies for the last time today, departing from Edwards Air Force Base and embarking on an aerial tour of California.

As the spacecraft was ferried piggyback (doing so bolted atop a specially-modified Boeing 747 called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft or SCA) cross-country from Florida to its hometown, she provided farewell flyovers en route. This provided one final opportunity for those who worked on her and her siblings to see their hard work in flight. The flight path of the Los Angeles leg had Endeavor and the shuttle carrier fly over several Southern California landmarks and attractions. So convoluted was the route that it resembled the Green Lantern ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

ImageBefore it reached the greater Los Angeles area, it flew over the Antelope Valley. In Palmdale, thousands of residents lined several streets to watch the shuttle stack: 40th Street East, Avenue N – on both ends of the runway at Plant 42, and Avenue O. Sierra Highway looked like an overflow parking lot at a huge outdoor event. Actually, it was a huge outdoor event; Endeavor was making its final flight and would be saluting the residents of the Antelope Valley along the way. And few fortunate residents had to do nothing more than step outside and look up to witness history fly by them.

After an hour delay to wait for fog to burn off in San Francisco, the 747 SCA, with its precious cargo secured on top, lifted off from Edwards. Someone with a radio excitedly announced, “It just took off!” The news spread quickly through the crowd. Spectators craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the iconic pair. Then keen eyes spied Endeavor and 747 SCA out over the water tanks along Avenue M. Through the haze it was difficult to make out; just a small object off in the hazy distance. But it was moving.

That moving object got closer – and larger. And it had a companion; one of NASA’s F/A-18s was multi-tasking in the roles of chase plane, escort, and photo platform. The team made a 135-degree turn and headed toward Plant 42, putting it on a path to cross over the crowd. The first cheers erupted as the aircraft-spacecraft duo passed overhead and the crowd took in the size and significance of the shuttle stack.

Endeavor continued its majestic parade through these famous skies, turning east now, paralleling Plant 42. ImageLooping back toward Plant 42, the place of its ‘birth’, the most breath-taking part of the flyover was yet to come. Now lined up along the 12,000-foot runway, the pair dipped down almost low enough to scrape the shuttle carrier’s belly. There the half-million-pound combo stayed for several seconds, seemingly motionless. Rising to clear the fence, the 747 nudged Endeavor upward and continued a slow climb. As it crossed over the onlookers at Sierra Highway and Avenue N the second time, another round of wild cheering and applause broke out among those who could. Those who couldn’t just stared, mouth agape, completely awestruck. The planes banked northward, headed over to Lancaster, Rosamond, toward Mojave, and on to Northern California. In this statewide airshow of sorts, the NASA SCA pilots saved the best for first.

ImageEndeavor landed at LAX around 12:50 pm, putting a period on the fact that the United States’ shuttle fleet will never again leave the earth. She is currently being lifted off her perch atop the workhorse 747 SCA and will be lowered onto a specially designed, computer-controlled transporter; in effect, trading a set of wings for a set of wheels. In three weeks, she will be towed through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center, it’s permanent retirement home. Of Endeavor’s remaining family, only Atlantis has yet to move in to its final resting place.