Space shuttle's carrier aircraft makes final flight

NASA 911, one of two Boeing 747 jetliners modified to carry the old space shuttle fleet across country, made its last flight on Wednesday, Feb. 8. It flew from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB to Drydens's Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California.

NASA 911 started its life in 1973 as a jet for Japan Airlines, but was purchased by NASA in 1990 and made its first flight for the agency the following year, when it carried Space Shuttle Endeavor across country. As it ended its time in service, NASA 911 has logged 33,004.1 flight hours.

Typical of the sideline role the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCAs) played for 20 years, NASA 911 made its final 20-minute flight without fanfare. NASA 911 and the original SCA, NASA 905, were modified to carry the 172,000 lb (empty weight) shuttles from the alternate bad weather landing site at Edwards AFB in California to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

To prepare NASA 911 and 905 for their duties, the interior of the planes were stripped of extra weight behind the forward fuselage doors, and reinforced to bear the spacecraft, The tops were equipped with a dock and two vertical struts to keep the shuttles stable in flight.

Mounting a shuttle on top of the jet required finesse. The orbiter would be picked up from the top by a massive crane that resembled a gantry laid on its side. Once lifted up, the 747s would be rolled under for the docking.

In order to make sure the attachment would go smoothly each time, the ground crew attached instructions that reminded handlers to "Attach Orbiter here. Note: Black Side Down," as seen in the gallery below.

You'd be right in thinking the ride across country was far from normal. With such a massive structure mounted on the top it creates a significant amount of drag, thus limiting the range of the 747s. The range with a shuttle perched on top was around 1,000 nautical miles compared to a normal range of 5,500 nautical miles.

Taking a shuttle across country would take about 12 hours — spread out over two to three days.

In retirement NASA 911 will be used for parts for the original NASA 905 which will carry the shuttles to museums, and for the 747 that carries the 100-inch telescope called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) in the air.

So it seems even in retirement, the faithful partner to the shuttle program all these years still has a lot to give. The phrase, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother" would be a fitting tribute to this NASA workhorse.

NASA, via Space.com

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