As the sun rose over Washington Dulles Airport (IAD) on the morning of Tuesday, April 17, preparation was underway for the arrival of space shuttle Discovery riding atop NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (N905NA), a converted Boeing 747-100. The general aviation ramps were filling up with transient aircraft bringing passengers to view the historic event including nearly 30 Bonanzas and Barons from a National club. At 8:39 a.m., the first T-38 taxied off the ramp and headed to meet the Shuttle then about 100-200 miles away. Soon after, the second T-38 taxied out to begin the escort mission to Dulles before carrying on to Washington D.C.
The first glimpse of the shuttle came at 8:58 a.m. as it entered its holding pattern to the south of Dulles while the T-38’s joined up for its fly over the east side of the airport. It leveled off and performed its pass over its new home at the National Air and Space Museum – Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The airport was crowded – every ramp, road, parking garage and service road had a line of onlookers waiting to catch a glimpse of the shuttle on its last flight.
After its pass over Dulles, the flight took Discovery to the north before intercepting the Potomac River for its journey to the Nation’s Capital. The flight path passed over the monuments on the National Mall, Regan National Airport (DCA) and other sites in the DC/VA area. With several holds performed over the city, it gave the spectators multiple chances to see the spectacle. Photographers took advantage of the great photo ops with the Washington Monument, Capital and White House with the most served shuttle overhead. Space Shuttle Discovery made 39 trips to space and it was on its final journey.
After 45 minutes, with the bright landing lights visible on an extended final for 1R at Washington Dulles. The crowds at Dulles began cheering as the aircraft came into view. With my eye in the viewfinder, I noticed they had another pass in store for us at Dulles. I quickly grabbed my camera and sprinted across the ramp to get that “perfect shot” as it passed overhead. They made a right turn, joined a right downwind for 1R again, and executed a spot landing in front of the MWAA (Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority) viewing stand. The heavy 747 rolled out in full length giving great perspective at only 200 feet away. Up close, you can see the evidence of the numerous trips into space with the burnt tiles and dirty appearance.
The carrier crossed the ramp and came to a stop in front of the main terminal for a photo op for the media and airport before making its way to its unloading site on the west side of the airport. The National Air and Space Museum is ready for the removal of Enterprise (delivered to Washington Dulles in June 1985) this weekend in a ceremony where the Enterprise will roll out and Discovery will roll into the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar.