You Are Now Free to Move About the Observatory

Collin Anderson / The Avion Newspaper

An Indepth Report on a 10 Hour Mission Aboard SOFIA

Collin Anderson/News Editor

On Tuesday, October 3, at 6 p.m., I reported to Sheltair Daytona for the experience of a lifetime: flying a ten-hour mission onboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). After meeting three other media personnel, we were all escorted into a conference room and went through egress training. We then went out to the aircraft. They showed us everything, both inside and out, and explained both what we were going to see and what to expect. We then proceeded back to Sheltair for the crew briefing. Led by pilots Dean Neeley and Manny Antimisiaris, the whole flight crew, including media, were told the flight route and timeframe. We were scheduled to be wheels up at 8:56 p.m. At the conclusion of the briefing, I shook hands with Embry-Riddle alumni Dean Neeley and explained that I was with the Avion. In response, he invited me up to the cockpit for takeoff.

The crew, which included scientists, flight personnel, and mission directors made their way to a bus waiting on the tarmac. The bus dropped us off at SOFIA and we boarded the plane. The pilots were some of the last to board. Manny conducts his preflight ritual of tapping SOFIA on the right side of the door before walking in. Two men from DLR, the German Aerospace Center, were also onboard. After getting settled, Mission Director II Karina Leppik said that I could proceed up the spiral staircase to the flight deck. The first thing that surprised me was that there was no cockpit door. But then again, why would there be one? The flight crew was comprised of three people despite the recent upgrade to a glass cockpit. I sat in the observer seat and did just that. Seated next to me was flight engineer Matt Pitsch. Upon completion of preflight checklists and obtaining clearance from the tower, we proceeded to taxi along Taxiway Alpha to Taxiway November and then to Runway 7L. I’m not sure if it was being in the flight deck or being on the second floor of a 747, but every movement of the rudder felt exaggerated. We were told to line up and wait and then were cleared for takeoff at 8:56 p.m.

We flew over Jacksonville and then executed a right turn to go over the Atlantic. Shortly after, the mission director, Nancy McKown, told the flight deck to open the telescope door. I asked the pilots what they felt when the door was opened, and they explained that the aerodynamics don’t change when the door is opened and that they don’t feel anything. They proceeded to commend the engineers who had designed the door as almost all aircraft are not designed to open at 43,000 feet. The pilots had also explained to me that the mission director tells the pilots what heading to fly and what speed to maintain once airborne in order to ensure mission success.

I decided that it was best to leave the flight crew to their jobs and go downstairs to see who I could interview first. Karina Leppik was the first one available. Because of how loud the aircraft is during flight, we conducted the interview over headsets. She started as a science flight planner on SOFIA about six and a half years ago before becoming mission director almost five years ago. Leppik earned her B.S. in physics from Kenyon College and then received her M.S. in astronomy from Swinburne University in Australia. Before SOFIA, Leppik worked on the South Pole Telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica and then the Oberlin College Planetarium.

Seated toward the front of the aircraft were the flight safety technicians DJ Catlin and David Viera. In an interview with Catlin, he explained that he received his B.S. in applied physics from Morehouse College before enlisting. After six years in the Air Force, Catlin began his career at NASA conducting flight research with F-18’s. He then became a sensor operator on the Global Hawk before joining SOFIA about two years ago. Viera went to a tech school and obtained his A&P then worked at Los Angeles International Airport for five years as an aircraft maintainer. He joined SOFIA four years ago and loves it.

After interviewing the flight safety techs, Manny Antimisiaris made his way down from the cockpit. Antimisiaris attended Rutgers and was with AFROTC Detachment 490. In 1984, he became a B-52 navigator and then became a pilot for the same aircraft in 1989. He flew the E-3 from 1992 until 1995, worked for the Air Force Research Lab for three years before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1998. He worked as an airline pilot for about seven years prior to becoming a navigator for three years on SOFIA. In 2010, Antimisiaris became a pilot for SOFIA, or as he likes to put it, “I went full circle twice.” In the middle of this interview, at around 12:15 in the morning, we flew over the 21-mile long island of Bermuda. Seeing a few specks of light in the middle of an abyss of open water and clouds really put into perspective exactly where we were.

After Manny returned upstairs, flight engineer Matt Pitsch came down. Pitsch began his career as an Air National Guard flight engineer. After his service, he obtained an art history degree from The Ohio State University. He worked for the airlines before working on SOFIA for 15 years.

Bernie Walp was the last interview I conducted. For five years, he has since been working as a telescope operator on SOFIA. Walp started a career in politics before realizing that he did not enjoy it. As a child, he loved the stars and astronomy so he decided to go back to school and obtain a B.S. in mathematics. Afterwards, he worked at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii as well as an observatory in Chile. Around 3 a.m., I had to take a 30 minute power nap. When I woke up, the temperature had dropped by at least 15 degrees. Nicholas Veronico, the manager of SOFIA communications, had advised I bring a hoodie, and I’m glad I did. The other three media personnel were still sleeping when I woke up and walked around. For every member of the crew, this was like a normal workday. Everyone was staring intently at monitors and talking to each other over the headsets. Almost all of them were wearing sweatshirts too. I looked at the mission director’s screen and saw that we were completing the final stretch of the journey and about to make the turn towards home. I decided to crouch by a window and look out over the wing. The moonlight glistening off the two engines and leading edge of the wing with the stars peppering the black void of the night sky is an image that will remain in my head until the day I die. At around 6:20 a.m., the Florida coast came into sight and at 6:45 a.m., we touched down and the mission was complete.

I asked all of the crew I interviewed was what advice they would offer any student at an aerospace-focused school like Embry-Riddle. They all said very similar yet different things. Karina said, “You never know where life will take you,” DJ said, “Stay persistent and open,” David said, “Don’t worry about your starter job,” Manny said, “It’s a great time to be in the aerospace industry,” and Matt said, “You’re not gonna get there overnight.” But it all boils down to this. All of these people of different backgrounds, different stories, different creeds, and different nationalities were working together and achieving a common goal. All of them want to help humanity better understand the galaxy that we consider home. That night was truly amazing in more ways than one. I got to witness the ultimate team.