12. April 2005 · Comments Off on Pilot’s Logbook: An Extraordinary Journey · Categories: General

The entry in my logbook dated March 20, 1982 is very simple, and doesn’t stand out from any other. In fact, had I not been remembering just how unique and wonderful the flight had been, I wouldn’t even have picked it out for writing about it.

In the “Remarks” section of the log, it says, plainly, “Nite VFR – chk shuttle.” It shows that I flew a Cessna 172, tail # 20565 (Which was mine at the time) from Fernandina Beach, Florida (55J), to Titusville, Florida (TIX), a flight which took 2.0 hours. It shows a landing at TIX, and a return to 55J later that took 2.0 hours. Both flights were VFR at night and from the logbook looks unremarkable. But the REST of the story is something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life, an event that no one would ever be able to do again in this post 9/11 world of aviation. You see, what we did (I had two guys with me) that night was to orbit over the Space Shuttle at 3,000 feet, looking down on it! I mean we were right over it, going around in a circle! Wow, what a terrific thing to get to do!

It was a Friday night, and my wife was gone on a camping trip with her Girl Scout troop. So, I was a bit restless. We had a fish fry at church, and while eating fresh-caught catfish and perch, sitting with a couple of my friends, I mentioned that it would be a good night to go flying. No particular destination was in mind, but my plane was based at Fernandina Beach, about 20 miles away, and no one else was flying it at the time. So down we went, preflighted and took off. I headed south, and someone – I don’t know who – mentioned that the shuttle was scheduled for launch in a few days. All of us thought it would be neat to go down and take a look, as it was on the launch pad and I had seen on TV that it was lit up at night, a pretty sight.

When we got close, figuring that the airspace would be restricted (It is today, R2934 on the chart.) and we would have to stay about 5 miles away. That would have been fine. But when the FAA controller at the ARTCC asked my intentions, I said, “We’d like to get as close as possible to the shuttle, to take a look at it.” You could imagine my surprise, I would’ve been easily knocked over with a feather when the controller said, “I can take you right over it. Cleared into the launch area. Maintain 3,000 or above.” I even had to ask for clarification, as I thought I was hearing things. But, yes, the controller said we could fly right over the top of the thing, only 3,000 feet away!

Now that was exciting! No one had a camera, as it was night and we had not expected this! It was a joy and a privilege, to be able to observe the newest thing in space exploration that close. In fact, I think this was only about the 3rd shuttle launch coming up.

My family and I had watched the first one, Columbia, from a distance of about 3 miles, having spent the night on a shrimp boat that belonged to one of my customers in Port Canaveral. My daughter, about 14 at the time, was in that growing up stage where she was always “bored” with anything her parents did. But she has always said that this was one time she was not bored! You know that “crackle” you hear on the TV when those rockets fire? That’s not distortion of the audio, that’s real, it’s just how it sounds. The sound waves hit you in the gut and you em> feel the power of that monster as it lifts off! It is the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed! I mean, people got emotional. You couldn’t do anything but yell, and sob in joy, as the fire-breathing rockets punched you all over the place with the roar. There was a crowd all over the marina; we had been awakened by feet stomping all overhead on our boat, had to get up and run them off, but there were lots of people gathered there, and many were screaming, “Go!” or “Yeaa!” It was just unbelievable. Everyone was just jumping up and down!

There wasn’t a lot of talk on the way home. We had taken a break, landing at Titusville for a cup of coffee, a bathroom stop, and a short respite before taking off for home. It was a quiet flight, I let one of the guys handle the plane in level flight – I love to do that, to show people just how easy and how much fun it is to fly a plane – and we all came away with a memory that will last a lifetime. The restrictive atmosphere of flying today, with all the TFR’s, the restricted airspace, and other requirements, prevent some of the free, fun flying we did in days pre-9/11. I guess it’s the price we pay for having enemies who want to kill us all. But nothing can erase from my mind the sight of a space shuttle sitting on a launch pad just under my airplane!

What a night! It was about midnight when we got home, and the next day we told our story to others who hadn’t been fortunate enough to be sitting with us that night at the fish fry!

And here, 23 years later, it’s just an unremarkable, simple entry in my logbook. But what a story behind such a simple entry. And now, you know it too!

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