Shuttle Discovery Makes its Last Trip Home
Friday, April 20, 2012

Photo taken by Steve Martin, Dulles Tower member

NATCA’s motto, “We Guide You Home,” took on additional meaning this week as union members at Washington-Dulles Airport (IAD, Potomac TRACON (PCT) and other facilities up and down the East coast helped guide the Space Shuttle Discovery along its final journey to retirement.

On Tuesday, the Discovery, the most-traveled manned spaceship in history, was hitched to the top of a modified Boeing 747, and flown from Cape Canaveral, Fla. to Dulles. It will become a museum relic, on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum annex in nearby Chantilly, Va.

The jet carrying the Discovery wowed residents in the Washington area by doing three fly-bys around the National Mall before it headed west towards Dulles for the final approach.

IAD Facility Representative Scott Starkey said the landing was a product of months of planning between the FAA and NATCA, along with IAD, Washington-National ATCT (DCA), PCT and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He credited IAD support specialist Donna Polinsky, also a NATCA member, with having taken the lead role in coordinating plans across northern Virginia.

The airport was under a ground stop for commercial traffic, so the various facilities had to coordinate holding other planes in the region, keeping both passengers and the Discovery safe.

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi, himself a former Dulles controller, and IAD facility representative Scott Starkey wanted to reward some of their longest-serving union brothers in the 100 percent union facility by granting them the memorable experience of guiding down this most precious cargo.

“We wanted people who had been at Dulles for 20 years or more, to give them this great moment they’ll never forget as sort of a wonderful cap to their careers,” Starkey said. “I bet they will be showing audio and video of this landing for the next couple of decades.”

Greg Horne and Brad Sturman, both NATCA charter members, were given the honor of helping land the plane. While Starkey said the general logistics of the landing were planned out well in advance, the minute details weren’t hammered out until the day of the event.

“Our staff briefed us about an hour before the landing because so many things were changing rapidly and it wouldn’t have made much sense to brief us much sooner,” said Horne, an FAA controller for 29 years.

To add to the frenzy, the Smithsonian and NASA had camera crews set up to film both the controllers in the tower and Starkey on the ground while the landing was in progress. In addition, there were four helicopters with cameras closely flanking the 747; to ensure everyone’s safety, the controllers routed the shuttle’s final approach over Virginia State Highway 28 and told the helicopters to stay on each side of that road.

“By and large, the landing was similar to what we do every day, but we never have four helicopters right next to a plane,” Sturman said.

“The standard operation was normal, but with the added media helicopters and such filming the whole thing, it kind of added a different layer than you see every day,” Horne added.

With the cameras rolling, Horne and Sturman, with Starkey providing ground support, made sure the plane landed safely and that the airport could re-open as soon as possible. In addition, one of the escorting jets was on dangerously low fuel as Discovery landed, and the controllers had to get it to the ground quickly after the shuttle touched down.

Discovery’s flyover of Washington and the suburbs ran about 20 minutes longer than schedule, but Starkey said the commercial jets pilots who were delayed didn’t seem to mind getting a great view of the Discovery as it taxied.

“We were ground stopped but we only had two real delays because nobody wanted to leave anyway,” Starkey said. “Normally, all these planes would want to get out as soon as possible, but they kept telling us, ‘hey, take however long you need, we’re loving this view.’”

The delay did create a glut of traffic overhead, and Starkey said it was the airport’s busiest traffic day of the year to this point. He credited his fellow NATCA members at Potomac TRACON with ensuring a smooth traffic flow.

Audio and video from the landing will be part of a NASA and Smithsonian documentary film as well as an exhibit accompanying the shuttle at the Air and Space Museum annex, and all three men said they would cherish this day for a long time to come.

“Getting to see the shuttle, to help land it, is obviously not something you do every day,” Sturman said. “To see the excitement of people who have no connection to aviation makes you realize just how special of an experience this was.”

And for Horne, the memories are even more personal.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said, “to know that my son Craig, who is a NATCA member at Hartford, and my daughter in college are proud of me."

Brad Sturman (left) and Greg Horne (right), who helped land the Discovery

FAA ATO Communications