STS-135 and the USA’s return to space

Big weekend for space exploration coming. I’m super excited about the Space X/NASA Crew Dragon launch, the USA’s first crewed spaceship to fly since the last Shuttle launch, STS-135 Atlantis, on July 8, 2011.

Somewhere round here, sooner or later, you’re going to see a spaceship

I was there for that, thanks to my buddy Geezer Dave’s staff travel concessions on American Airlines, flew to Orlando on July 7. There was an unbelievable storm overnight with raindrops the size of golfballs and howling winds, indeed Atlantis herself was struck by lightning. Nonetheless, we got up at 4a to drive out to the Space Coast (area code 321, genius). Even though mission control in Houston only gave a 30% chance of launch, they started fuelling the Shuttle at 6am and put the astronauts into their suits. Not until 8am, only two and a half hours before launch, the rain stopped although it was still very cloudy and hotter and more humid than hell itself. Me and Geezer Dave (who is not on FB alas) were on a fishing boat because the launchpad has a five mile exclusion zone and we thought being on a boat would guarantee an unobstructed view. Houston raised the chance of launch to 60%. “The weather is still very dynamic but we think we might have a shot at this.” I really felt the decades of experience going back to Apollo, Gemini and Mercury, to the start of the Space Age, influencing the decision-making process.

Miss Cape Canaveral, our ride out into the Atlantic to the edge of the five mile exclusion zone surrounding launchpad 39A

At 10am, T minus half an hour, go for launch. I almost felt guilty because I know people who have travelled thousands of miles for a launch and only experienced a mission scrub. In fact I know of one guy, father of a famous drummer actually, who made four such trips and never saw a launch.

We couldn’t receive the NASA radio feed so we didn’t know the countdown stopped at T minus 31 seconds because there was an indication a hose hadn’t disconnected; mission control checked using CCTV to confirm that it was just the indication that was faulty, and after two and a half minutes, the countdown started again. Aboard the Miss Cape Canaveral, we had no way of knowing, and when nothing happened at the appointed minute, I thought it was a last-minute mission scrub. I looked away for a second, then someone shouted, there she is!

Liftoff for STS-135

The haze on the horizon vividly lit up, and a spear of fire erupted. Even from five miles away it was enormous, by far the most fire I’ve ever seen, and white hot, not yellow as it looks in pictures. I was amazed by how fast it was racing upwards towards the clouds, only visible for about ten seconds. The cloud bank flared with light as Atlantis flew into it. A few seconds later I saw her through a gap in the clouds going like the clappers, much higher. And then she was gone, and, six minutes after liftoff, was in orbit.

Ad astra!

I am from a spacefaring family so to be there for a launch was a pivotal moment in my life. I’m not convinced of the pragmatic purpose of space exploration, especially with sustainability not achieved here on Earth, but for the abstract reasons – to help us understand our place in the universe, because it’s really cool – there is definitely a case for it. So I wish Space X and NASA a successful mission, putting the USA back in the crewed space travel business after a nine year absence. Go for launch!

The pillar of smoke and steam hung in the air for ages after the Atlantis herself was in orbit

Arthur Stevens: flying in Africa in the 1960s 2

In 1968, at the age of 9, I was sent to boarding school in Rhodesia from my home in Malawi. This period of my life was underpinned by my very regular flights to and from school and my early acquaintance with the Vickers Viscount and Rolls Royce Dart turboprops.

My junior school was in the mountains outside the border Rhodesian town of Umtali – present day Mutare. Although there were the occasional road trips from our home in Blantyre, these trips were infrequent as they involved a gruelling all-day dirt road trip through Mozambican territory, across the massive Zambezi river (and in those early days this was achieved via an extremely dodgy ferry boat system), branching through Villa Peri (present day Chimio) and on into the Vumba Mountains. Having dropped me at the school, my parents would then have to retrace their steps the following day.

It was clearly much easier all round to fly and, as the budding avgeek that I was, I thoroughly agreed! But even this was not necessarily an easy achievement – there was no commercial airfield at Umtali so no scheduled flights could take place. Occasional charters were undertaken by my Malawi-based friends – destination would have been the Grand Reef airfield just outside Umtali which later became a military airfield supporting the Rhodesian war effort against the Mozambique-based guerrillas after Portugal dramatically gave up its colonies in 1975. Alas I never had the pleasure of flying out of Grand Reef!

Instead – along with my school friends – I would fly from Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre, and my favourite all-time airport, Chileka, to Salisbury, Rhodesia. With three terms per year, this meant a minimum of six annual flights for the next nine years, in addition to the various family holiday flights we made to surrounding countries of Mozambique, South Africa, Kenya, Mauritius and the United Kingdom. And having arrived in Salisbury we then still had to make our way on to Umtali – a distance of some 270 km. This we made by train – on board Rhodesia Railways second class carriages overnight, a very exciting journey for us schoolboys! We were joined at the Salisbury rail station by our school friends from Zambia as well as around Rhodesia and an aura of great excitement built as the time to depart at 11.30pm approached. And having pulled into Umtali station in the early hours of the following morning, we still had to gather together for the hired buses from the station up to our school – a journey that took at least three hours. Whilst we were excited to travel outbound, that was nothing in comparison to the excitement generated for the return journey, backtracking down the mountain, the train ride, the wait at the airport, the connection to the plane, and the flight home.

And that forms the most fantastic memories for me. By 1968 the federal airline Central African Airways (CAA) had been dissolved and three separate airlines formed in its stead – Air Malawi, Air Rhodesia and Zambia Airways. Air Malawi retained relations with Air Rhodesia while Zambia Airways made steps out on its own, effectively cutting relations with Rhodesia. Air Malawi started with a small fleet inherited from CAA – two Vickers V700 Viscounts (7Q-YDK and YDL), two Douglas DC-3 Dakotas, and a pair of de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beavers. The Viscounts formed the mainstay of our flights to and from Salisbury, the journey taking an hour and 20 minutes for the 480 km direct flight. Yes – our Viscounts were indeed comparatively slow – but were also very reliable! 7Q-YDK was the main aircraft used by Air Malawi (7Q-YDL operated in Air Malawi colours but was in fact under subterfuge in sanctions-busting flights for Air Rhodesia) and was the original Viscount owned and operated by CAA. She first flew in 1956 as VP-YNA and named Lord Malvern. Following Air Malawi’s upgrading of its fleet from 1969 she reverted to Air Rhodesia and flew on with that airline until her ultimate retirement to the museum at Gwelo/Gweru.

The very distinctive sound of the Rolls Royce Dart engines on start up will forever be a memory for me. Carrying 56 passengers plus two flight crew and two cabin crew, as a Malawi resident my favourite was clearly to travel with Air Malawi as opposed to Air Rhodesia – my perception being that it was friendlier! Nothing could beat the pull of the engines straining on take off, the gradual climb out of a full aircraft on a hot day, taking at least 20 minutes to reach our cruising height. Our Viscounts flew at comparatively low levels in comparison to today’s airlines – 15-16,000 feet above sea level, and some of our flights were quite exciting in bad weather. I remember quite clearly a battering received by a Viscount from a hail storm (I wasn’t on board!). Recognising the rivers as they passed below us culminating with the massive Zambezi as we passed overhead Tete in Mozambique. Then the right turn as we descended over the Shire River in Malawi before settling onto finals for Chileka. Magical times!

A couple of incidents stick in my mind. On a flight up to Blantyre with an Air Malawi Viscount – travelling on my own as a schoolboy – I was invited to the cockpit by the crew for a look around. Obviously a massive excitement for me as a growing enthusiast. However, whilst standing in the cramped cockpit I asked the Captain if our aircraft had a hooter. Probably somewhat surprised he nevertheless took this in his stride and obligingly tweaked a couple of buttons that produced a very convincing hooter sound! On another occasion and still on the Viscounts, as a family we had flown on an Air Rhodesia aircraft back from Salisbury to Blantyre. As an avid observer of all activity related to flying, I noted that we were not climbing as fast or as easily as usual. And sure enough as we turned back our captain announced that we were returning to Salisbury with an engine problem, and our number one engine had indeed been feathered. Very exciting for me – somewhat less so for the other passengers…! But of course we made it safely, deboarded into the transit lounge to await a replacement aircraft which duly took us once more on our journey. Finally, whilst waiting at Salisbury for our flight back to Blantyre returning from school in Umtali, I was very excited to see an unusual aircraft sitting on Salisbury’s apron. This was an El Al Boeing 707 that had suffered an engine problem en route from Johannesburg to Tel Aviv and had put in to Salisbury to effect repairs. She remained on the ground for several days and sadly I didn’t get to see her take off.

Initial Viscount services were once a day in each direction by each of Air Malawi and Air Rhodesia – but as sanctions began to bite, frequencies rose to four a day and sometimes more with additional charters. For a brief period in the early 1970s through to the closure of Mozambican airspace in 1976, Chileka Airport in Blantyre was literally buzzing as the connection for flights from Zambia, Mozambique, East Africa into Rhodesia and South Africa. And during this time, Air Malawi’s fleet update saw my travel changing – with the introduction of Hawker Siddley 748s, BAC 1-11s and Britten Norman Islanders. Stay tuned…!

Arthur Stevens: flying in Africa in the 1960s 1

I have always had a fascination for aircraft and aviation. In fact this avgeekery stretches back to even before I can remember, providing an early reference point that has led to a lifelong hobby. As aviation itself has expanded and developed over the past 60 years – technology as well as in travel volumes and purposes – so too has the capacity to record and participate in the sector at a whole range of different levels. Significantly for us avgeeks this has been facilitated by the ability to travel (at least, until the onset of COVID-19), and especially the rapid technology advances in photography. It is now so easy to record our travels and experiences; and this contrasts to the early days when cameras were unreliable, expensive and very limited in application.

So my early experiences of aviation – are just that – anecdotal before becoming recorded for posterity. I was born in Nyasaland, specifically the British Protectorate of Nyasaland, back in 1958, an era that had much evolution geographically, sociologically and historically. In the very early 1960s – when I was perhaps 2½ years old – we had moved for a spell to Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, as my father had been unwell. We lived in the suburb of Belvedere, beneath the flightpath of Salisbury airport. Although of course I have no immediate recollection, my mother remembers clearly that when the BOAC Comet passed overhead I would run out into the garden shouting, “Go! Go!” – my earliest manifestation of the love for aviation.

As time went on, more and more instances became embedded into my conscious and sub-conscious mindset. We had moved back to Nyasaland by 1962, my father being closely involved with the tobacco industry in Southern Rhodesia. With grandmothers in Dublin and in Hove (near Brighton) in England, there were occasional visits back. The earliest I don’t recall, a BOAC Britannia from Salisbury to London Heathrow probably in late 1962. But the next one I most certainly do, a magnificent BOAC Vickers VC10 from Salisbury to London in 1965. I was aged just 6½ by then and had just the one younger sister Patsy (Deirdre didn’t come along until 1967). My memory of this flight was marked especially by the take-off run, the first jet powered take-off I had ever experienced. The power of the aircraft, the noise and the excitement made it seem to me as if we were traveling uphill. And of course we were – the steep take off being completely new to me. Patsy and I were recovering from Whooping Cough at the time – which must have endeared us to our fellow travelling passengers…!

My early flights were few and far between, although by comparison to many contemporaries I was relatively well travelled at an early age. Nevertheless I do recall some special incidents of the time. One of these was the arrival at Blantyre’s Chileka Airport in 1964 of a BOAC Bristol Britannia carrying Princess Margret marking the occasion of Malawi’s independence from Great Britain. The airport’s quite short runway had had to be extended to accommodate this arrival (and was further extended in 1966 to accommodate the newly introduced services by East African Airways de Havilland Comet 4s – but that is another story for another time!). I had watched the royal arrival from Chileka’s famous balcony – a far more memorable experience for me than the royal party.

Another incident that I do recall was my first flight aboard a DC-6. This would have been in 1965 and followed the introduction by Central African Airways (CAA) of a leased Alitalia DC-6 aircraft the previous year. CAA operated services on behalf of the three countries that made up the Federation of Rhodesias and Nyasaland, the Rhodesias being Northern and Southern Rhodesia. CAA continued to operate these services through independence to March 1967 when it was dissolved and replaced by the constituent airlines of Air Malawi, Zambia Airways and Air Rhodesia. My DC-6 experience came about as this aircraft operated scheduled services originating in Salisbury and transiting Blantyre on their way out to Mauritius. We had started in Salisbury for our 1½ hour flight to Blantyre. I clearly remember the hold for engine runs prior to takeoff, as well as holding at the departure point. While holding I was treated also to the arrival of a TAP (Transportes Aereas de Portugale) Boeing 707 en route to the Mozambican capital Lourenco Marques.

Mozambique was also my first real memory of a complete journey by air. This would have been from later in 1965 aboard a DC-3 of Air Malawi, who operated services with DC-3s as a subsidiary of CAA. As a family we had travelled from Blantyre’s Chileka Airport to the Mozambican resort city of Beira – a subsequently familiar destination over the years. We were accompanied by another family at this stage, with my contemporary friend Lars and I sharing the Dakota seats. I recall vividly with fascination the bubbling of oil within a glass globe of some sort atop the Dakota wing. My mother did not share my fascination – her reaction being more consternation!

My regular flying started in early 1968 with my going to boarding school in Rhodesia. This was marked by flights there and back by mainly the Vickers Viscounts of Air Malawi and Air Rhodesia – at least 6 flights a year. Subsequent years through to 1976 when I left school were aboard also the Hawker Siddley 748s and BAC 1-11s of Air Malawi. Flights on the Air Rhodesia Viscounts continued through to March 1976 when the Mozambicans closed the border over which we flew between Malawi and Rhodesia. This led to my first flights aboard the Air Rhodesia Boeing 720s as we were obliged to re-route through Johannesburg instead. But – again these stories will continue in future blogs!