The class of Aviation Explorers pose in a delta formation at the nose gear wheel stop for the last mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011. The runway at Kennedy Space Center is 15,000 feet long and 300 feet wide.
Imagine flying from Orlando to Los Angeles in two and a half hours.
On Saturday, Aug. 26, I learned that dream is well on its way to becoming a reality in my lifetime. The Sonic Booms in Atmospheric Turbulence (SonicBAT) is a NASA project that is studying the effects of low-altitude turbulence on sonic booms as the noise reaches the ground.
NASA hopes the research will help make supersonic aircraft much quieter and more acceptable to the public.
The project involves flying a NASA F-18 at supersonic speeds after it takes off from the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s own Aviation Explorer Post 747, youth ages 10-15, visited the SLF Saturday. We met the SonicBAT research team, toured the Reusable Launch Vehicle hangar (RLV) and got an up-close look at two NASA F-18s being used for SonicBAT research.
I have flown F-18s in a simulator before, but being up-close and right next to the real thing was incredible.
The first stop on our tour was a mission briefing. I had read about mission briefings many times but until that day I had not yet experienced one. During the briefing, I learned shockwaves cause the thunder-like boom when a plane flies faster than the speed of sound.
My mind started overflowing with questions: What type of software was installed on the F-18s? Did they have to file an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan? Was a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) put in place during testing? Brett Pauer, an Aeronautics Project Manager and Aeronautics Mission Directorate at the Armstrong Flight Research Center, answered my questions and we moved right along to our next stop, the RLV at the SLF.
As we walked out to the RLV, we were all talking about how exciting the day was going to be. As soon as we walked in the door, our faces lit up. Immediately we saw the TG-14 motor glider. To our right, we saw several F-104 Starfighters, and to our left, an F-18 was being rolled out to the tarmac. It was a future pilot’s dream come true.
We learned about how the TG-14 is equipped with special microphones used to record the sound of the sonic boom. We peered into the cockpit of an F-104 and saw the rustic steam gauges, throttle and stick. It felt like we were staring into history.
We walked from the RLV hangar to the tarmac where we walked around two F-18s. We talked with engineers and asked them questions about the planes. They even allowed all of us to pose with an F-18 for a photo.
After walking outside the RLV hangar, I recognized the STS-107 mission patch painted onto the front of the hangar. On February 1, 2003, the crew of STS-107 lost their lives when tragedy struck. Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into the
The RLV hangar was used to lay out the parts recovered from the accident and investigate the cause. It was thought-provoking to learn this and helped me realize the history behind the hangar in which we were standing and the sacrifice made by the brave men and women of the Columbia crew.
Our bus drove out to the SLF runway. As we rode along the 15,000-foot runway, we learned that the center of the runway was two feet higher than the sides. We stood on the spot where Space Shuttle Atlantis’ wheels came to a stop to conclude STS-135, the final space shuttle mission. It was incredible to be standing on another piece of history.
We also saw launch pads 39A and 39B, crew headquarters and the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).
Aspiring aviators saw the future in action on Saturday. Observing the SonicBAT research helped inspire me to learn more about NASA’s other aeronautics research projects. It was a life-changing experience that will continue to inspire my
passion for aviation.
The moment I got out of the car and saw NASA’s Mercury-Redstone rocket, I knew this was going to be a trip to remember. From the private bus leading to a special hangar visit, to witnessing the sound barrier being broken by a NASA F-18, these amazing things I am about to share comprised my experience with the SonicBAT testing taking place at the Kennedy Space Center.
We were whisked away on a private bus transporting us to a hangar near the end of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway. The plan to make air travel faster and making the sonic boom quieter was the ultimate goal of the tests. Ever since Chuck Yeager proved it possible for people to achieve supersonic speeds, we have been testing the boundaries and limits of flight. As the host continued to explain the things we were going to be viewing, and our role as future aviators, my mind began to soar. I then saw her in the middle of the hangar. I then saw the freshly polished black paint of the F-104 Starfighter in the middle of the hanger. Its swept back wings are perfectly designed to slice throught the air the way a hot knife goes through butter. Although not part of the NASA tests, I envisioned myself strapped in, grasping the joystick, as I prepared to guide her through the limits of the sound barrier.
I had to pull myself away so that I could share my attention to the NASA F-18s, the refurbished Vietnam helicopters, and the TG-14. Each aircraft boasting of its own history and uniqueness that played a part in the advancement of aviation. And I was here with my group Aviation 747, becoming a part of history because every testing meant we were one step closer to a break through. The hopes that our young minds would be inspired and challenged to assist these engineers with their goal.
By the end of the trip, I had found myself flat on the toasty runway angling my phone to take a picture of the 15,000-foot long runway, though I knew it would do it no justice. I still needed to capture the moment. But we were not done, the very thing we were there for, the highlight of the trip, was witnessing the boom. We were ushered to a safe space, while the pilot boarded the aircraft and prepped for flight. We were not able to see the aircraft take off but we were able to witness the TG-14 disappear into the clouds ready to collect data. There was a short wait when a loud boom filled the atmosphere, and a few moments later, a
quieter boom followed.
It is a boom I would never forget, always echoing through every endeavor that I partake in through aviation. It would guide my continued fascination with the SR-71 and every other aircraft that influenced aviation. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the newer and more exciting adventures yet to come.