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John A. Weeks III
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Aviation History And Aircraft Photography

Atlantis On Final

Airplane Photo

  • Type:   Boeing 747 / Rockwell OV-104 Space Shuttle
  • Venue:   Palmdale Airport
  • Location:   Palmdale, California
  • Date:   October 18, 1992
  • Camera:   Minolta 7000i 50mm/f1.4 Fixed
  • Film:   Fuji ASA 400 Color Print Film
  • Full Size Photo (~250kb)

While at the Edwards AFB open house and airshow in October, 1992, there were rumors going around that the space shuttle Atlantis would make a fly-by on the back of a NASA 747. I was really disappointed when it was announced that the fly-by was canceled due to bad weather in Houston. Since the 747/Shuttle combination flies at low altitude, any rain storm could severely damage the fragile shuttle heat tiles.

After the airshow, I went in search of the Blackbird Airpark at the Palmdale, CA, airport. When I finished taking pictures of the SR-71 and A-12, I still had about an hour of daylight left. I decided to scout around the airport to see what else was there. My plan was to kill this hour before heading off to the motel.

While driving around the far east side of the airport, I found a bunch of people parked along the edge of the road—about 75 cars. This was too many cars just for people to be watching commercial airplanes, so I stopped and asked what was going on. I was told that the shuttle was coming in, but nobody knew exactly when. In fact, nobody was even sure that the 747/Shuttle combination had actually left Houston.

We waited and waited. The sun was sinking lower and the sky was getting darker, but still no shuttle in sight. The person who parked behind me had a scanner. Finally at about 5:45PM, we heard the call “NASA Five Oh Five Heavy Inbound Palmdale”. They were at 9000 feet and about 10 miles out. A few moments later, someone spotted the marker lights on the plane. If the plane flies straight in, I might still be able to get a photo using 400 speed film.

The Palmdale tower cleared the NASA plane for a direct approach. When the plane was about 2 miles out, someone noticed that it was not a 747, but rather, it was probably a C-141 cargo aircraft. A few seconds later, it clearly looked like a C-141. It was the NASA pathfinder aircraft. The pathfinder flies a few miles in front of the shuttle carrier. It has the job of handling communications and clearances to keep the workload down in the cockpit of the shuttle carrier. It also watches the weather, giving the shuttle carrier enough warning to turn around in the event of rain or strong winds.

This was bad news in that I now had no hope of getting a photo of the shuttle (it would be dark by the time it arrived), but it was also good news since it did confirm that the shuttle carrier actually took off from Houston.

As the C-141 landed, the runway and taxiways lit up in a sea of red flashing lights. A dozen or more fire and rescue trucks were rolling out to take up positions. Since the C-141 did not call an emergency, we speculated that this was evidence that the shuttle carrier was due in shortly.

At about 6:10PM, the call came over the radio, “NASA Niner One One Heavy Inbound Palmdale”. Everyone recognized the tail number as the NASA 747. The tower and NASA 911 exchanged quite a bit of information on wind, weather, and air traffic. We found all of the traffic that the tower pointed out, but we still could not see the 747. The 747 said that they were 8 miles out at 6800 feet. The shuttle carrier then called Palmdale and requested clearance to “tour the valley”. After several exchanges, they settled on a plan to fly down Avenue K, turn south and fly along the Antelope freeway, then circle back and land on the long runway. This was a full 360 degree circle around the Palmdale airport.

My now remote chance of getting a photo had all but evaporated since the tour of the valley would take at least 10 to 15 more minutes, and it was almost totally dark out. The only chance I had was to use the fastest film I had, the 400 speed I had loaded earlier, and the fastest lens I owned. That was a 50mm tourist lens that happened to be f1.4. It would pull in the most light, but the image of the aircraft would be tiny on the print without being able to use a big zoom lens.

We spotted the 747 when it was about 5 miles out. As promised, they flew past the airport on the north side, then turned and flew along the freeway. The sun had dropped below the mountains about 10 minutes earlier, so the 747 with Atlantis on its back was visible as a black silhouette as it flew across the bright orange sunset. The shuttle carrier turned towards the East and made a sweeping turn around the south and east sides of Palmdale. They turned final about 3 miles out and headed in for the landing. As they passed the crowd, the 747 was about 2000 feet north of us and about 1000 feet in the air. A large cheer went out as the 747 passed bye. Everyone said that it was well worth the wait.

As the cheer rang out, I tried 3 desperation attempts at a photo. The camera shutter stayed open for an eternity, it seemed like 2 seconds or more for each shot—all the while the 747/Shuttle combination was moving faster than 200 miles per hour. To compensate, I tried to turn my head to match the movement of the aircraft. Two of the shots were blurred so badly as to be junk. The middle shot did, however, turn out, and it turned out almost perfect. There is almost no blur on the marker lights on the aircraft. Yet you can see the amount of blur of the lights on the ground, which shows how far I moved the camera to get this shot. It is amazing how far a little bit of luck can go when you really need it.

Because it was getting very dark, and there were so many fire trucks, it was not possible to see what was going on after the 747 touched down. I suspect that they just pulled onto the ramp and parked.

On my way out of Palmdale on Monday, I drove past the Rockwell plant to see if I could see anything worth photographing. The shuttle was already demated at noon, both the shuttle and the 747 were parked next to the crane.

Well, I have seen the shuttle “fly” at last. Even though I have seen the shuttle and 747 combination fly with my own eyes, I still think it is too large to actually fly. It must be another one of those NASA tricks....

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