Shuttle Makes Near Perfect Landing
As with most test flights, the preparations took days of hard work at all levels. The event came alive in the early morning of 12 August. At 3 a.m., the first reporters left Lancaster and Palmdale for the lakebed. Once again, the night was perfectly clear; after driving up 120th Street through the base gate, the cars made their way to the FAA radar facility by Hospital Road on old South Base, turned right, and drove through an Air Police checkpoint. Those with authorizations continued on toward the runway site or the lake.
The lake was better, at least for those with a handle on the past and an awareness of the present. Eerily quiet and still, the lake seemed unconnected with civilization. Further away could be seen the night lights of the mines at Boron and the bustle of activity at Dryden. The Air Force side of the field was still and dark, except for watchlights and the tower and runway lights. Finally all was ready, and the 747-Enterprise backed out of the mate-demate gantry at Dryden, ran up its engines, and began the long taxi. The Air Force Huey still clattered above.
The first of the T-38 chase planes whistled aloft. The 747-Shuttle reached the east end of runway 22, turned, and held for the last checks. At 8 a.m., right on schedule, Fulton called up full power; the combination, with surprisingly little noise, began to roll and nosed aloft, followed by two T-38s. The aircraft climbed into the prescribed racetrack pattern, joined by the other three chase T- 38s. On the ground, the reporters waited for the big moment. The air launch had been scheduled for 8:45. In fact, higher-than normal temperatures at altitude caused the climb to take longer than planned. The 747-Shuttle moved majestically around the racetrack, plainly visible most of the time from the lakebed. The low sun obscured the view of its approach to launch, but video coverage from one of the T-38s outfitted with a portable camera was stunning. The formation continued over Saddleback Butte to the Edwards bombing range. Roughly 48 minutes into the flight, the 747-Shuttle was due east of Rogers lake, at an altitude of 8654 meters. Fitz Fulton nosed into a shallow dive.
Fred Haise radioed Fulton, "The Enterprise is set; thanks for the lift." Then he punched the separation button. Seven explosive bolts detonated and the Shuttle was flying on its own at 7346 meters. The 747 pitched down slightly and rolled into a diving left turn, and Haise briefly pitched up to the right. He initiated a practice landing flare at about 460 kilometers per hour and made moderate lateral control inputs to evaluate the Shuttle's response. The big delta handled well. Because of the Shuttle's low lift-to-drag ratio, it would remain aloft only for about five minutes. Later, after removing the drag-reducing tailcone, the Shuttle would sink to earth in about two minutes, a descent rate similar to the X- 15's. On the ground, the separation had been seen by some with binoculars and sun shields. Soon, it became visible to all. The 747 flew alone, trailed by a single T-38, while to the northeast a white speck could be seen growing in size at what seemed a remarkable rate, attended by four T-38s.
The cameramen started clicking furiously, and exclamations sounded on all sides. The Shuttle descended over Leuhmn Ridge, passed across Highway 58 at Boron, turned west toward Peerless Valley, swung around over North Edwards, and lined up on runway 17. Houston's Mission Control radioed Haise that the Enterprise had a lower lift-to-drag ratio than predicted by tunnel tests. In fact, however, the ratio was just as predicted; Houston had miscalculated. The error caused Haise to fly the final approach at a higher speed, conserving energy to prolong the glide. As a result, the Shuttle was "high and hot" on its final approach. Realizing that the Enterprise would land long, Haise deployed the craft's speed brakes from 30 up to 50 percent. At 275 meters altitude, Haise began the landing flare. As the Enterprise leveled out, he deployed the landing gear. The Shuttle landed long by about 900 meters at 340 kilometers per hour, nearly 5 1/2 minutes after launch. The Shuttle coasted for over 3 kilometers before stopping on the south lakebed; as it slowed, its T-38 chase planes streaked by. Soon the 747 and its lone chase plane swept majestically over the landing site. The first Shuttle free flight had been a success.
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