I went to watch and shoot the space shuttle Discovery arrive as it was being ferried to Dulles airport. I had planned to go to the National Air & Space Museum Steve F. Udvar-Hazy Center to watch. I tried listening to the Dulles info radio station at 1660am, but it was useless. It was just a repeating loop of a non-professional speaker fumbling through a standard announcement. The local traffic and news station WTOP said that Udvar-Hazy (UH) had 2000 parking spaces and opened at 8:00am for an expected 10-11:00am arrival.
By the time I got to UH a little before 9:00am, it was full. So I continued down the road to Costco which is also right in line with the approach to Dulles that Discovery was likely to use. Along the way, I saw a bunch of people at Sully Plantation which is right across the road from UH. It looked like Sully was the designated bailout area.
WTOP kept directing people to UH well after it was full. I wonder if anybody ever told WTOP. I started to, but I was driving in traffic and didn't want to make the call in those conditions. Also it was their prerecorded loop about the event so they may not have changed anything anyway.
After the crowds at Udvar-Hazy and Sully. I was surprised at the lack of traffic to Costco. I got there about 9:05am and it was wide open. There were a lot of shuttle watchers but there was a lot of room too. It also didn't cost $15 to park there, unlike UH.
I tried to get LiveATC.net on my Android phone but had issues and gave up quick. There's an app for that but I wasn't going to pay $2.99 for my limited use (now if I was on the TSA watch list...). There were rumours that the feed was blocked anyway. I may later because it sounds like a cool app.
I had a little time to kill, so I cleaned lenses and prepped my carry gear. As with any capture (photography, videography, MP3 ripping, PCap of an attempted DDOS attack, the hottie at the end of the bar, etc), what you intend to do with the take should dictate how you collect it. Since I am mostly into still photography and a little interested in video, I wanted a way to do both. Shooting stills at an event requires a lot of attention and the shuttle was not going to wait for me to juggle cameras so I had thought a little about how to implement a dual camera rig. I came up with something usable and inexpensive. More on that later.
After I had my gear set, I scouted the location. Then I realized I had screwed up. The Shuttle is expected to arrive at Dulles for a flyby, make a tour of DC, then return to Dulles for another fly-by and landing. The fly-by and landing are presumed to be on runway 1R or 1C. The approach is South to North, several hundreds of feet East of my location. Throw in that the shoot will be an hour or 2 before noon, on a heavy overcast day and I have a huge back lighting problem. I don't think my speedlight will provide enough fill-flash at that range to be useful (I love dry understatement). I should be farther East on the other side of Rt28 in the Dulles Expo Center parking lot, or Sully Plantation. I don't know what space is like over there or how long it will take to get there given the circumstances. So, I stay.
As I'm thinking this through, I notice the airspace is clear; there is no air traffic. This is Dulles International Airport. A major airport. The 21st busiest airport in the US. Given the tight interconnections of air schedules across the nation, taking Dulles out of the grid for a few hours is huge! The ripple effects will go across the world. That's an interesting investigation and discussion by itself.
Anyway, I have as good a location as I am going to have so I start looking at the people that are around. There are a lot of families with kids not in school yet. Lawn chairs, catch football game, a lot interesting looking cameras, then an old guy with a large handheld radio. Ham written all over him. I wander over and ask if he's monitoring ATC (air traffic control) channel KIAD. Yep. He could chase channels as the shuttle moved into different areas but he'd prefer to stay on KIAD so he doesn't miss anything important.
I have a choice of lenses, my wide angle and my tele. They overlap a little but I am not going switch lenses mid approach. I would like to use the tele but given the size of the subject and the expected distance, I am not sure that I will be able to catch the whole thing in frame at the tele's widest. Knowing that I will have a second chance after the DC tour, I go with the wide for the first pass with the option of tele later.
There is an air of growing expectation and excitement as time goes on. Then, way off, blurry, there it is! It seems to be just hanging out and not making an approach. After a while, it turns to and we lose it behind buildings. The excitement grows.
All eyes are scanning South over the Costco building. Fingers go up and calls go out "There it is!". "What's that other airplane? " "It's got a fighter escort! " Arg. Idiots! (Yes, I'm being much too harsh. So?) That's not a fighter escort, it's a chase plane. NASA owns a number of Northrop T-38 Talons ("T" for "trainer") for various uses. At any rate, it is not a fighter, it is a trainer. There is a single-seat fighter version of the plane called the F-5 (technically, the 2-seat T-38 is a trainer version of the F-5). The updated F-5, the F-20 was in competition with the F-16 to become the US's primary export fighter. Chuck Yeager was the celebrity rep. Politics killed it. Northrop may have been robbed. But I digress. A chase plane is used to watch the plane it's chasing to provide close exterior visual observation at need. At the first space shuttle landings, an observer in a T-38 chase plane called altitude in single digits of feet till touchdown of both the main gear and the nose gear. Kind of hard to do that from any other kind of vehicle. But I still digress (get used to it).
It appears that the Boeing 747 SCA (Shuttle Carrier Aircraft) with Discovery riding piggyback are lined up right on me and getting closer. The angle makes it seem slow. Random cheers get drowned out as it passes almost directly overhead. I am shooting as fast as my card will take the data. I get a great picture of a light pole as I track the shuttle through my viewfinder. Damn.
The shuttle, SCA, and the not a fighter escort are close overhead for just a few seconds and then are gone behind CiCi's Pizza. A lot of random shouts of excitement break out. I'm not the cheer kind of guy. I have a huge grin. I think I cheer too. That was very cool. People who have never met before start talking excitedly to each other. The big lens crowd is reviewing their shots. I check mine along with the video from my dual rig. BTW, the dual rig worked. I determine that I can use my tele on the next pass. People are listening to radio stations call out where the shuttle is and I go hang out with the group around the ham.
I wander around to various clusters of people and listen to their stories. The space shuttle has a lot of meaning to a lot of people and it shows in the comments. When I was a kid, my dad worked at Barksdale AFB. BAFB has a big runway. 11,777 by 300ft. That's a little longer and twice as wide as IAD's 11,500 by 150ft. BAFB was a designated emergency landing area for the shuttle. In 1982 space shuttle Columbia was being ferried to Kennedy and stopped over at BAFB. My Dad got some nice photos from somebody of the shuttle and SCA from a few nice angles. He probably got the flight crews autographs as well. Hell, knowing him, he was probably angling for a space-A hop to Kennedy.
When the word went up that the shuttle was returning, I get back to my area to wait for it. Same thing, first sightings, lined up right on me, a few seconds overhead, lots of cheers. Someone points out that the SCA gear was up so it must not be landing and it will make another pass. Cool. A little while later we can see it way off in the distance to the West and I imagine it runs a race track pattern over Ashburn, Arcola, South Riding, and Centerville before turning on final. This time the SCA landing lights are on and gear is down. This is the last pass. When it is done, there are more cheers and then the crowd breaks up.
It was bittersweet.