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The World's Greatest Piggyback Ride

    Imagine flying from California to Florida with nowhere to sit, no 
air conditioning, no place to store your bags -- not even a 

The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft touches down at Kennedy Space Center with 
Shuttle orbiter DiscoveryImage to left: Space Shuttle Discovery, atop 
the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), touches down at NASA Kennedy Space 
Center's Shuttle Landing Facility on Aug. 21, 2005 after a ferry flight 
from Edwards Air Force Base in California. Image credit: NASA/KSC

NASA keeps two 747s, known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), set up 
this way on purpose. The downstairs passenger area of these jetliners 
are kept as hollow inside as possible in order to carry a special cargo: 
a Space Shuttle orbiter.

One of these specially-modified SCAs brought the orbiter Discovery home 
to Kennedy Space Center in Florida after completing the historic Return 
to Flight mission. The SCA ferried the orbiter from Edwards Air Force 
Base in California, where it landed Aug. 9.

Ferry flights are few and far between these days, but don't let the 
light work schedule fool you: These aircraft have to work twice as hard 
as a normal 747 to get the job done.

"It's brute force that keeps us flying," explains Larry LaRose, a flight 
engineer on the SCA. "When we're carrying an orbiter, we have to use 
twice the power and a lot more fuel to maintain flight."

The passenger area has been stripped of many creature comforts, such as 
galleys, carpeting and even part of the inside temperature ductwork -- 
all for the sake of reducing weight. But the planes still weigh more 
than 250,000 pounds, and the drag created by the shape and weight of the 
orbiter -- 176,000 pounds or more, depending on any onboard payload -- 
negates the small amount of lift it adds.

The downstairs portion of the 747, stripped of seating and other 
passener equipmentDuring a normal flight, the SCA might use 20,000 
pounds of fuel an hour; with an orbiter on its back, that number doubles.

Image to right: The hollowed-out downstairs portion of the Shuttle 
Carrier Aircraft used to hold passenger seating, galleys, luggage 
compartments and more. It has been stripped of creature comforts to 
reduce the plane's weight.
NASA/KSC image courtesy of Lynda Warnock

The piggyback arrangement might look cumbersome, but how does it fly 
compared to a normal 747?

"It handles remarkably the same," says SCA pilot Gordon Fullerton. As 
chief pilot at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, his daily job 
involves flying jets for high-performance aircraft research. But 
Fullerton's experience with the orbiter and SCA dates back nearly three 
decades. In addition to being a Space Shuttle commander and pilot, he 
was one of four NASA astronauts to land the Enterprise during the Space 
Shuttle Approach and Landing Test program in 1977.

"It's obvious [the orbiter] is up there, because there's a constant 
rumble that you can feel because of the wake of the orbiter hitting the 
vertical stabilizer of the 747," Fullerton says of ferry flights. But 
other than long takeoff rolls and the need for some extra care in steep 
turns, "it's pretty much the same."

Flight Engineer Larry LaRose inside the SCA cockpitImage to left: Inside 
the cramped cockpit of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, Flight Engineer 
Larry LaRose sets up the pilot's seat for departure from Kennedy. 
NASA/KSC image courtesy of Lynda Warnock

A small team of six specially-trained pilots and four flight engineers 
has the critical task of making sure this precious cargo has a safe trip 
from alternate landing sites.

Those who serve on SCA crews are former military aviators who are 
qualified to fly several types of aircraft, such as the Shuttle Training 
Aircraft, Super Guppy, zero-gravity aircraft and T-38 jets. Most are 
based at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, although LaRose is 
stationed in El Paso, Texas, and two are based at Dryden. Since ferry 
flights are seldom required, crew members train twice a year using 
simulators belonging to United Airlines.

Perhaps the biggest challenge the crew faces during a ferry flight is 
the weather. The orbiter cannot be exposed to moisture, turbulence or 
temperatures below -9 Centigrade and these restrictions determine the 
flight path and altitude. To meet those conditions in the winter months, 
they sometimes fly as low as 10,000 feet.

A "Pathfinder" aircraft, usually a U.S. Air Force cargo plane, flies 100 
miles ahead of the SCA carrying weather officers and Space Shuttle 
personnel from Kennedy. Also onboard is an experienced SCA pilot, whose 
expertise helps the ferry flight crew keep to the safest route.

Sunrise at the Shuttle Landing Facility, where the SCA waits to 
departAdverse weather came into play on Discovery's recent ferry flight. 
Storms and hail at Edwards kept the piggybacked pair grounded for a few 
extra days. But every step of the way, people gathered to catch a 
glimpse of the odd-looking duo.

Image to right: Sunrise at Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility reveals 
the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft preparing to depart on Aug. 24. The plane 
carried the orbiter Discovery on a ferry flight to Kennedy from Edwards 
Air Force Base in California, arriving Aug. 21, 2005. NASA/KSC image 
courtesy of Lynda Warnock

"You don't sneak into town with an orbiter," LaRose says, grinning. "It 
brings out a big crowd everywhere we go. It's a life experience for a 
lot of folks who have never seen something like this before."

Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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