NASA trains pilots to fly high

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To achieve their dreams of space flight, NASA astronauts must overcome many challenges — challenges they can only receive at one place.

Whether they are a pilot, navigator or mission specialist, Ellington Field, Texas, is the proving ground where astronauts earn their “wings” through the expert guidance of Air Force experience.

Most of the training astronauts receive at Ellington Field is led by former Airmen.

“I shared the dream of many young men and women to become an astronaut,” said Jack Nickel, an aerospace engineer and research pilot for NASA at Ellington Field. “There are many retired Air Force people here. We draw on our military background to be instructor pilots and pass on our experience.”

Mr. Nickel is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew the F-4 Phantom, the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. He applied to be an astronaut himself but never made it. Today, he is one of several former Airmen training for NASA.

Astronauts training at Ellington Field must become familiar with a wide variety of aircraft. The aircraft includes the T-38 Talon, primarily used for pilot and navigator training; the G-2, a modified aircraft used to teach pilots how to actually land the space shuttle; the C-9, used for zero-gravity training; and a modified Boeing 747, used to carry the space shuttle.

Similar to the Air Force as a whole, NASA is also modernizing its fleet to help improve the training and mission effectiveness. Its current modernization effort is focused on its T-38 fleet.

“We are in the process of converting those to what we call EFIS, electronic flight instrumentation system, which is a ‘glass cockpit,'” Mr. Nickel said. “Instead of having round dials — what we call steam gauges — we are now converting our T-38s with these new types of displays. And that is modern, up to date and state of the art. We just modified all of our space shuttles recently in the last five years to that same type of display. And we also modified our shuttle trainer aircraft on the astronaut side of that cockpit.”

This modernization has an effect beyond normal training.

“It not only helps with training, but also (it helps with) the mentality of the pilot and navigator and our mission specialists,” Mr. Nickel said. “When we modernize our aircraft to match that type of environment, we are only helping them, preparing them for their mission to go into space.”

While modernization is important, much of the Ellington Field fleet relies on their expert maintainers. Most of the maintainers at NASA are former Airmen. But, they don’t try to set themselves apart. Instead, they fit into the NASA team and help ensure that any mission they work on is a success.

“They are some great guys. But, I don’t look at people as being military or not and that may be because I’ve never been in the military,” said Jesse Perez, a T-38 avionics technician who previously worked as a maintainer for a major airline. “I have never had any problems working with ‘Air Force’ maintainers here at NASA. All of their training is very good and they fit right in here.”

It is their Air Force drive for mission success, whether they are trainers or maintainers, that helps NASA achieve its own mission success.

“We don’t generally get anything that is new,” Mr. Nickel said. “But, we have the best maintenance in the world right here and, of course, our maintainers are prior Air Force and Navy. It is their expertise brought to us here at NASA. We can’t fly these missions without them. They maintain and modify these planes to do the mission we do in such a marvelous way. We never hop on board a plane with anything in the back of our minds worrying about how that plane is going to perform.”

Matthew Rosine


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