NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (Part 1) – Interview with SCA Crew Chief Pete Seidl

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Everyone knows that the orbiter of the Space Transportation System (or “STS,” and more popularly called the “Space Shuttle) doesn’t always land back at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Sometimes, it lands at Edwards Air Force Base and, if needed, it could land at White Sands or one of several other emergency landing sites around the world.

That’s great, but it puts the orbiter several thousand miles away from its launching facility at the cape.

So how does the orbiter get around? Most of you know that the answer is that you mount it on the top of a specially-modified Boeing 747 called a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft or “SCA.” But, if you’re like me, you probably didn’t know much about the SCAs. How are they different from a stock 747? How many are there? What’s it like to maintain an aircraft like that? What’s it like to fly it?

Well, if there’s one thing you know about Airspeed, it’s that we never pass up the opportunity to go right to the source to get real answers from the people closest to the aircraft. And that’s just what we did for this special two-part series.

First, a bit about the SCAs. There are two of them. NASA 905 (tail number N905NA) is a Boeing 747-100 and the other, NASA 911 (tail number N911NA) is a short-range Boeing 747-100SR.

The two aircraft are very similar and have nearly identical operating characteristics. If you happen to be lucky enough to see one on the ramp but can’t see the tail number, NASA 905 has two upper-deck windows on each side while NASA 911 has five.

The SCAs have a maximum gross taxi weight of 711,000 pounds. A stock 747-100 weighs about 380,000 pounds empty and an SCA weighs even more than that. Once you add 180,000 pounds or more for the orbiter, you have less than 140,000 pounds or so left for fuel and other stuff. And there’s precious little other stuff because even using the entire remaining 140,000 or so pounds for fuel only gives you about a 1,000-mile range.

That’s actually a little gratifying, because these are some of the same concerns that those of us who have flown ultralights, Cessna 152s, or light sport aircraft know a thing or two about. If you’ve ever left your flight bag, spare change, and shoelaces back at the FBO and still had to closely manage the amount of fuel in the plane to get two average-sized guys into a C-152 under max gross, you’ve had the same thing on your mind – at least at some scale – that our guest today deals with very frequently.

We start off the series on the SCA by talking to SCA crew chief Pete Seidl. Pete started working with the SCAs in 1979. He’s an employee of Computer Sciences Corporation (or “CSC”) under contract to NASA’s Shuttle Support Operations Office at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California. He heads a team of five at NASA Dryden that does the regular maintenance on the two SCAs. Among other things, Pete was on the crew that took NASA 905 and the Enterprise orbiter to the Paris Airshow in 1983.

Before we get going, a couple of notes for non-space-junkies.

You’ll hear us talk about hypergolic fuels. Hypergolic fuels ignite immediately when the two components of the fuel come together. They’re very reliable, even if their components are sometimes highly toxic. Examples are hydrazine paired with nitric acid and monomethylhydrazine (MMH) paired with nitrogen tetroxide, the latter pair of which is used in the space shuttle’s reaction control system. Early uses included a critical application for the Apollo program’s lunar modules.

One other insider point. Moving orbiters is complex enough with a crack team, lots of support, and only one orbiter at a time to move. But, in early 2001, NASA came within 37 minutes of having a formation flight of the two SCAs, each with an orbiter aboard.

On February 20, 2001, Space Shuttle Atlantis unexpectedly had to land at Edwards. Atlantis needed to be received, processed, and ferried back to the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Space Shuttle Discovery was undergoing upgrades at Boeing’s facility in nearby Palmdale and needed to be at the cape in preparation for launch by March 8. NASA 905 was already in Palmdale awaiting mating of Discovery for the ferry flight, but NASA 911 was at Evergreen Air Center in Marana, Arizona undergoing maintenance.

Two orbiters, two SCAs, an almost simultaneous deadline, and not much time to organize and carry out an amazingly complex set of operations. Pete and his team faced an unprecedented challenge. But, on March 1, 2001, the two SCAs, each with a national treasure mounted atop it, launched for Kennedy Space Center with NASA 905 and Columbia taking off at 11:00 a.m. local and NASA 911 with Atlantis taking off at 11:37. Although each encountered bad weather and other difficulties, each made it to Florida in time.

The aircraft took separate routes and a formation flight would have been impractical and beyond the mission risk profile, but at least I’m not the only one to have allowed the thought to enter my head and think that that would have been a deeply moving picture.

Anyway, on to the interview. We caught up with Pete Seidl at an office at NASA Dryden a mere 150 feet from the nose of NASA 905.

[Interview audio.]

Many thanks to Pete Seidl for taking some time out of his day to talk to us.

Tune in next time for the view from the cockpit of the NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with SCA pilot, project pilot, former astronaut, Shuttle Approach and Landing Test pilot, STS-3 pilot, and STS 51-F commander Gordon Fullerton.


A special note of thanks from the Airspeed crew goes out to a heroic listener who works for Apple. We redirected the feed for the podcast on Labor Day weekend over to Libsyn from a prior RSS provider. Apparently, whether due to a glitch in the RSS provider’s system or iTunes, when we let the old forwarded feed go away, we winked out of existence on iTunes. Thanks to some fast footwork on the part of a listener and the willingness of the folks at iTunes to hustle the re-listing of the podcast through, we got back online quickly and lost little, if any, or our subscriber base that subscribes through iTunes.

Thanks to Apple and to that heroic listener for helping us keep Airspeed up and available.


Image used per NASA’s policy entitled Using NASA Imagery and Linking to NASA Web Sites (October 13, 2005) located at

See more pictures of the SCA at

Air Traffic Control with Terminal Controller Mark Schad

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An air traffic controller gave me a number to copy the other day. And it was a good thing.

I spent a little time this week on the phone with Mark Schad, who is a terminal area controller for the area surrounding Lambert-St.Louis International Airport. 13 million passengers went through the airport in 2004. Besides being the airport featured in Planes, Trains & Automobiles and a Seinfeld episode, it has 25 separately-charted approaches, including simultaneous close parallels. And that doesn’t include all the satellite airports for which St. Louis approach provides approach and departure control. More than enough for any controller or pilot to shake a stick at.

Mark is also a pilot with enough ratings to have to get a separate bag for his logbook, and his perspective as both a provider and a customer of the air traffic control system is invaluable.

I called Mark at the control facility this week and we spent some time demystifying the men and women at the scopes and talking about what it’s like at a workstation, how best to interact with a controller, what happens in an emergency, and lots of other good pilot talk. So, if you’ve copied your ATIS (and, for the love of Pete, copy your ATIS when you’re in Mark’s airspace!), let’s go to the interview.

Mike Agranoff and The Ballad of the Sandman

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Sometimes, it’s good to stir things up a little.

This episode has nothing to do with aviation, aerospace, jet fuel, or tearing up the sky. If you’re in the mood for an aviation-related episode and don’t want to listen to anything else, please skip this episode and pick us back up in January. If you’re tuning in ffor the first time, my apologies. This really is an aviation and aerospace show and you can check out prior episodes for your aviation fix until the first new episode of 2007 comes out.

But we’re going to change things up this time. Airspeed is about to pay an homage that the podsphere owes to a very special medium and a very special time.

Airspeed is finishing out a great first year. A year in which we’ve met lots of new people, flown in a lot in different aircraft, and realized the dream of the podsphere – Ordinary people making the closest thing they can to art and reaching out to touch other ordinary people.

If you’re older – over 40 or so – and you lived close enough to a metropolitan area – and you had an FM radio receiver in the mid to late 1960s – and if you were very lucky – you had a front-row seat for one of the most magical times in all of media before or since. When FM radio reached its critical mass and a backwater of the electromagnetic spectrum leaped up and captured imaginations and expanded horizons.

By the 1960′s AM radio was a homogenious morass of largely mediocre programming. Relatively few people had FM receivers and FM radio stations were relatively few and far between, so you pretty much listened to what was on AM or you didn’t listen at all.

Then, in the mid to late 1960s, guys like Jonathan Schwartz on WNEW FM in New York City started playing eclectic but carefully-chosen music and put out programming of a kind that you just can’t get on the radio any more. It wasn’t long before the iron heels of the program directors homogenized the airwaves and turned FM into the stereo version of AM that continues through to today. But, for a short time, there was a renaissance on the airwaves.

Podcasting brings back a little bit of what it was like during those pioneering years. It’s as though your radio dial has grown by thousands of stations and, if you look, you can find places in the podsphere that are as eclectic, entertaining, and inspiring as the airwaves were in the late 1960s.

All of which is by way of introduction of what you’re about to hear.

This, by very special permission, is The Ballad of the Sandman by Mike Agranoff. Mike is a folk musician from New Jersey who plays a mean fingerstyle guitar, concertina, banjo, and ragtime piano and sings. I have seen him live at a library, in a church basement, and in a community center and he is the consummate journeyman purveyor of melodies, spoken word, and traditions new and old.

I heard this piece for the first time in 1998 or so on public radio in Detroit. Mike has been kind enough to perform this at every show that I have attended. He does it entirely from memory and with a conviction that puts you in the darkened studio of the narrator.

The airing of this piece around the end of the year has become a tradition on WION in Ionia, Michigan, where this podcast also airs as a radio show. And it’s always a part of my listening around the same time. I hope that you will adopt it as your own as well.

So, without further ado, let’s let the podsphere pay tribute to the magic of the radio – Magic that once was and magic that can be again.

Here’s Mike Agranoff with The Ballad of the Sandman.


The Ballad of the Sandman, (c) by Mike Agranoff. Used by permission. Thanks, Mike!

Mike’s website:

Mike’s e-mail address:

Text of The Ballad of the Sandman:

Airspeed Temporarily Off iTunes

No idea what’s going on here, but it appears that Airspeed is temporarily off iTunes. Some problem with WebPasties, my former RSS provider (who supposedly forwarded the feed over to Libsyn) when I requested it. Thought I had left these giys for good, but they apparently still have some hooks into my feed.

Anyway, it’s completely gone from iTunes. Crap!

I resubmitted the podcast to iTunes a moment ago, but it will likelytake a few days to re-populate. In the meantime, please stay subscribed or re-subscribe. I’ll try to get this fixed.

- Steve

Airspeed – Music (Part 2)

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Today we’re going to revisit one of the most important aspects of flying – And that’s the music you listen to while you do it!

Sure, there are more important things – like safety – but the fact remains that putting together the right soundtrack can make your flying even more inspiring. If you have an audio input to the intercom in the aircraft you fly or otherwise have a means of listening to music while you fly here’s some music that you should consider adding to your playlist.

Bear in mind that safety comes first. If the music results in any chance of discraction or a miscommunication or failure to give or receive a communication necessary for the safety of the flight, leave your music player at home. But if you can manage the volume of the player, not have to fumble with it when your should be doing other things (playlists are helpful here), and satisfy yourself as pilot in command that you can hear and be heard in the cockpit and at the controller’s workstation (such as by using a squelch or cutout feature like I use), by all means add a soundtrack to your flight.

Here’s what has been in my iPod while I fly.

Eric Johnson has a way with the Fender Statocaster that is unlike that of any other player. He’s melodic and heavily jazz-influenced. Music from his Ah Via Musicom and Venus Isle albums got lots of airplay in the 1990s and he has toured with the likes of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and recently hit the road with Sammy Hagar. This is All About You from Venus Isle. Note the arpeggios and underlying drive. Really good for high airwork.


(Buy Eric Johnson albums, DVDs, and other stuff at

I’d be really surprised if composer and conductor John Williams isn’t a pilot. I promised myself that I would use the word “evocative” only once in this episode, and this is it. I put this on one of the first flight mixes I ever made and it was one of the first tunes that jumped off the CD player and became a soundtrack for what I was doing at the time. It was on short final at Lapeer in southeast Michigan. Nothing quite like Williams to swell up when you’re locked in to approach and have your attitude and airspeed nailed.

This is, of course, Flying from E.T., The Extraterrestrial. Those who fly aircraft with yokes instead of sticks will have an easier time imagining that they’re holding on to bicycle handlebars, but both should avoid the temptation to strap a milk craft to the cowling for your little buddy to ride in.

This version comes from John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra’s album, The Classis Spielberg Scores.


(Buy the album at

No playlist is complete without some heavy metal. And there’s none heavier than Iron Maiden. This is Aces High from 1984′s Powerslave. Great driving metal groove and lyrics that tell a story of aerial combat in World War II.


(Buy the album at

Unless you count the diggery-doo, the English accordion, or the great highland bagpipes, there is probably no more technically ungainly instrument than the bassoon. It’s four or five feet tall and has a double-reed that begs to sqwawk and evade the player’s efforts to control it. There’s an old joke that the definition of an optimist is a bassoon player with a pager.

Well, if there’s one guy who can carry both a bassoon and a pager with confidence. He’s Paul Hanson. Paul has taken the bassoon into jazz and other circles with amazing aplomb. He can out-sasxophone a saxophone and it all sounds completely organic. Ever run into one of those phases in your training when the controls seem to defy you, nothing goes the way it’s supposed to, and you’re constantly behind the aircraft? Usually right before you solo or right before get the hang of the landing flare or just before you start to nail your instrument approaches? This one is for you, my brothers and sisters.

Let Paul remind you of what can happen with even the most ungainly of hardware if you train hard and believe that the music will come. This is The Gold Coast from Voodoo Suite. It’s in 7/4 and he’s playing a bassoon and yet it sounds great. Yeah, your first full-procedure VOR approach is going to be ugly, but that’s okay. Listen to how you’ll feel on your 50th . . .


(Buy the album at

We started with one guitar god and we’re going to end with another. When Sony went looking for a great song to use in its ads celebrading the 20th anniversary of the compact disc, it looked no further than Joe Satriani’s Summer Song from his album, The Extremist. This is great music for whatever you want to do while listening to it. It has energized me in the wee hours studying for exams and it has caused more than a few oscillations over the speed limit out on the highway. Now I’m no A&P and this is largely unscientific, but I’ll bet that, if you plug Summer Song into the intercom of your aircraft, you’ll get two or three additional knots of airspeed. Airplanes love Joe Satriani! Sound crazy? Well, it’s a lot cheaper than wheel fairings!

(Buy the album at

That’s it for this installment of what should be cranking while you’re turning and banking.

Got your own suggestions? E-mail us at Links to information about the artists and how to buy this music are on the blog at Although we might

As always, this is not flight instruction or a recommendation about how to operate an aircraft. Consult a qualified instructor, obey the regulations, and, above all, fly safely!

[Illustrative musical snippets used as permitted by 17 USC § 107 (—-000-.html) for criticism and comment and as otherwise permitted by applicable law.]