8 min read

Owning an airplane pretty much obligates one to be looking for the next chance to use it. The worst thing for an airplane (or a pilot) is to stay on the ground and never fly. Therefore, when my son indicated an interest in seeing the launch of Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), I seized the opportunity. As you may know, EFT-1 was the maiden voyage of America’s next human-capable spacecraft called Orion. The unmanned mission made two orbits of the Earth while attaining a peak altitude of 3600 miles and reentering the atmosphere at 20,000 mph to test the new design. This is about 80% of the speed the Apollo astronauts were travelling on return from the Moon. The launch was originally scheduled for 7:05 EST on December 4. Our plan was to fly down on the 3rd and land at New Smyrna Beach (EVB) just north of Titusville.

All went well until about 50 miles out. Daytona Approach said to expect the RNAV (GPS) Runway 2 approach at New Smyrna Beach and let them know when I had the New Smyrna weather. We were in clear air as I dialed up ATIS and heard something about “ceiling 200 broken.” It took several seconds for this to sink in because nothing of the sort had been forecasted. My LNAV-equipped airplane was only good for a 700-foot MDA, so landing at New Smyrna was definitely not going to happen. All thoughts of landing at Daytona Beach were quickly banished when I learned that the field had just gone IFR and was reporting 500 broken.

Sunrise at the Cape

A beautiful sunrise, but no launch.

Looking to the east I could see a low-lying cloud layer that stretched out to sea. How low would it get, and how fast? I did not want to find out the hard way. Inland, however, the weather was fine. Time for Plan B (or was it Plan C?). I knew I wanted to just land somewhere and then sort out the ground transportation issues. Pulling up the sectional on my iPad revealed an uncontrolled airport not too far to the west of EVB. I cancelled IFR and headed for Deland-Taylor (DED). Runways appeared in the windshield a few minutes later. It wasn’t the best landing ever, but we got back on the ground safely.

Fortunately for us the fine folks at the Deland-Taylor FBO had a rental car available, so we ended up being only about an hour behind schedule. I considered that a small price to pay given the circumstances. We got to our Titusville motel and bedded down for a very short night. We had been told to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex at 3 am to catch a bus out to the launch viewing area. Upon arrival at KSC we saw hundreds of people boarding dozens of buses. We got in line and were soon on our way to the Apollo/Saturn building. This is a separate facility away from the main visitor complex. It is an excellent vantage point for Pads 39A and 39B, which were used to launch the shuttles. The Delta IV Heavy vehicle boosting the Orion capsule was situated on a pad much further south. The pre-dawn hours were spent admiring the majesty of the Apollo/Saturn hardware. I feel fortunate to have lived during that time even though I never saw a Saturn V launch in person. Although the Delta IV Heavy is the largest rocket currently operating, it pales in comparison to the Saturn V. The Delta first stage has three engines which together produce 2 million pounds of thrust. The five first-stage engines of the Saturn V produced 7.5 million.

The eastern sky started to brighten as night became day, and anticipation began to build. Loudspeakers were broadcasting the launch control communications so we were up to the second on what was happening. The first glitch came when a boat wandered into the recovery area, so that was “hold and recycle” number one. Time passes and the countdown begins anew. Just as we think it is going to go, someone on the radio says “hold-hold-hold.” A computer has detected exceedance of a preset wind limit and stopped the clock.

Astronaut Jerry Ross (seven shuttle missions) is on hand to explain the wind limits are there to keep the rising rocket from being blown into nearby structures. More waiting and the countdown is restarted. We get to about the same point in the sequence then the same thing happens again! Will this bird ever get off the ground? The sun is fully up now. The launch window is nearing an end for the day but they try one more time. Now there is talk of stuck propellant valves. Maybe this is because of all the recycling. Astronaut Ross is not optimistic, and sure enough they scrub the launch.

Atlantis exhibit

Entrance to the Atlantis exhibit – an impressive sight.

Back on the bus, my son and I debate the wisdom of coming back the next day. Neither of us wants to get up at 2:15 a.m. again. It is finally decided to get up later and go to a viewing spot that does not require a bus ride to get to it. The rest of the day is spent at the KSC visitor complex. I highly recommend it, especially now that they have the retired shuttle Atlantis wonderfully showcased in its own $100 million building. The space shuttle was an amazing vehicle. It had a launch weight of around 4.5 million pounds (a fully-loaded Airbus A380 takes off at 1.2 million pounds). The shuttle returned to Earth from an orbital speed of 17,500 mph, and became a 200,000 pound glider on landing. It truly was in a class by itself. Seeing the Atlantis close up brings these facts into sharp focus.

The next morning we arose at a somewhat more civilized hour and headed east from Orlando back to Cape Canaveral. An hour later we took up a position along the 528 causeway with the other faithful who were gathering to see the launch. This site actually afforded a better view of the pad. The Delta IV vehicle was clearly recognizable with a good set of binoculars. It was a different feeling from the previous day because the crowd was less concentrated and the atmosphere more casual. This time the countdown went like clockwork (which it was) and right at 7:05 EST on December 5, a bright light appeared to our northeast. All too soon the brilliant trail of fire disappeared into the 6,000 foot overcast and about that same time the sound arrived. I have never heard anything else like it. This all-encompassing sound left no doubt that a very big rocket had just left Mother Earth. That by itself was worth the trip, as I don’t know how that much acoustic energy can be captured electronically.

Orion liftoff

Liftoff at last!

The big event now over, we headed back to Orlando and spent the rest of the day and next at Universal Resort. More on that in a bit, but I want to skip ahead to the flight home. When we got to Deland-Taylor for our return flight, it was sunny with scattered clouds. A plane had just unloaded its cargo of skydivers who proceeded to fill the sky overhead with open canopies. By the time we were ready for takeoff there was a 2,000-foot overcast. We departed VFR and picked up our IFR clearance once airborne. A cruising altitude of 4,000 feet put us just on top of the clouds and beneath the stronger headwinds above.

The clouds eventually gave way to clear air and stayed that way until almost at our destination. While enroute I was able to occasionally receive a cell signal strong enough to get AeroWeather updates on my phone. Call it a poor man’s ADS-B “In.” The METAR and TAF for home base remained stuck at 1200 overcast the whole way. As we got closer I kept wondering “where are those clouds, anyway?” They did not appear until getting handed off to Approach Control. The scattered layer quickly became broken and then solid as we were vectored to the ILS, but a non-eventful approach was followed by a non-eventful landing.

The quickly changing weather conditions on this trip gave me pause for thought on selecting airports. The departure and destination points are usually a given in the planning process, but what about fuel stops and alternates? A small plane can land at almost any public-use airport, so one is as good as another, right? Why not just pick the place with the best fuel price? There are reasons why avgas prices vary wildly between airports. I have come to think of it like the three rules of real estate: location, location, location. Which airport do you think will generally have the higher fuel price: the one with approach radar, a control tower, weather reporting, weather forecasting, instrument procedures, and a 24-hour FBO, or the one with none of those? Of course, there is everything else in between these two extremes. The decision is not always easy. I tend to go for the lower fuel price but it is always a good idea to know: (1) where the good weather is, and (2) where the nearest precision approach is.

One last note: In case you were wondering whatever became of Jimmy Buffet’s Grumman Albatross, it has become a permanent resident of Margaritaville at Universal:

Wasting away

Dan Littmann
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1 reply
  1. Andrew Patterson
    Andrew Patterson says:

    Dan, Enjoyed your story… like you, I lived through NASA’s glory years including the Apollo missions but I never got to witness a Saturn V launch, despite being fascinated as a child and teenager with the technology and adventure of space exploration. I can only imagine the thunder that incredible machine produced.

    A few years ago, I did fulfill a bucket list item by, while on vacation in Florida from my home in Maine, watching the next to last Space Shuttle launch from a great vantage point on the Titusville shoreline. The sight and especially the sound, just as you described with EFT-1, was truly magnificent.

    So congrats on what sounded like a fine outing to Florida and to the Space Coast with your son. And as with virtually all flights, it appears that it provided you with a learning experience and an opportunity to refine your flight planning and piloting skills, what with dealing with the below minimums weather along the coast and the balancing act of finding cheap gas versus an easier flight!

    I hope to fly myself down to Florida from Maine at some point — in my pokey VFR Warrior, it will be a rather slow ride but I figure that will make it all the more enjoyable and memorable. After all I own an airplane, so I should use it, right?

    Oh and BTW… I enjoyed a nice dinner at Margaritaville on Univeral’s City Walk just a couple of months ago while on vacation with my family and I, too, admired Jimmy’s Hemisphere Dancer. I couldn’t find any bullet holes on her though… guess he must have fixed ’em :^)

    Thanks again for sharing your story,


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