USA September 2012 ‘The Big Endeavour’ Tour Part II
En route to Houston i had heard about a possible delay in the departure of the NASA B747SCA and Endeavour from KSA, and on arrival at IAH this was confirmed, due to thunderstorms forcast along the intended route. With quite heavy rain on my arrival, this brought home the reality that the big day here wasn’t going to happen, at least in the morning. Initialy, the delay was just for 24 hours, but then for 48 hours with no expected improvement in the weather on Tuesday either. At this point, my concern became serious that the Houston leg of the trip could be a disaster, with the original plan of catching the arrival on Monday and departure on Wednesday in tatters.
With huge relief, Wednesday was then confirmed a ‘GO’, so at least i was to catch the arrival, before returning to California with a flight to LA late Wednesday. Again, making plans to try and see this thing has always been fraught with danger, with even the ferry flights affected by things like the weather, never mind a launch where a thousand things can ruin your day. ‘He who dares wins’ though, with no greater reward than witnessing and photographing this event…and this was the last chance…
DAY 4 MONDAY 17TH SEPTEMBER
With no Shuttle on the way, the plans for the next two days were now going to change, and on waking and looking out the window at the gloom and rain, i thought ‘sod it’ and went back to bed, to catch up on a few more hours sleep. Houston IAH is not exactly my cup of tea anyway, being almost totally made up of modern airliners, and regular ones at that. So on checking out, it was straight off, down to Houston Hobby, which offers a lot more for those looking for something a bit more interesting. Over the next three days i was to spend a lot of time here, and was grateful for this other option in the Houston area, with other time of course spent at nearby Ellington Field, the NASA base that was awaiting their big moment.
Houston Hobby (HOU) is dominated by Southwest Airlines, with a handfull of other carriers operating the usual shorthaul stuff. At least with Southwest there are the special schemes to look out for, with the old B737-300’s still good to see, and for the time being, B717’s and B737’s in Air Tran colours. The big draw here though is the busy biz-jet scence, with quite a few FBO’s and private company facilities providing many movements and aircraft present, including a lot of Mexican registered movements. Highlights photographed today after a first drive around the perimeter included Gulf 150 N1FS of Gulf States Toyota, Learjet 25D N251AL, Cessna 550 Bravo N990TC operated for the Texas Childrens Hospital (in loud ‘Kangaroo Crew’ colours), and five Mexicans… CL604 XA-EVG of Aerovena, Hawker 800XP XA-GMM of Multi Taxi SA, Global Express XA-PIL of Aerolineas Mexicanas (ex N1SA), Cessna 680 XA-RTS of Servicios Aereos Textra (last photographed at Opa Locka) and PC-12 XA-UES. Also, several vintage Gulfstream’s based here are a rare Gulf 2TT N72BP, Gulf 2 N3LH of Lockton Enterprises, which being c/n 5 is obviously one of the oldest Gulfstreams flying (and looks great with pearlescent green stripes), Gulf 2SP N417EK which is up for sale by Omni Jet Trading, and Gulf 2B N712MQ of ABCO Aviation. This registration expired in March this year, after the aircraft had been retired for several years, with the remaining fuselage (without fin, wings and engines etc) now laying on the ground after being used for parts.
Hobby has a few runways, with ‘04 being the main landing runway this afternoon. A few hours spent shooting landing traffic then provided Beech B200 N173TX of Texas Dep of Transportation, Southwest B737-300 N334SW ‘Shamu’ logojet, Hawker 4000 N440MB, Cessna 750 N953TJ of Texas Jacobson Aviation (fitted with winglets) and Cessna 680 N680GR. As the sun got around the light was becoming less favourable, so i decided on a first visit to Ellington Field, the short distance SE off the Gulf Freeway. A classic on display here, thankfully in a public area, is NASA KC-135A N930NA ‘Weightless Wonder IV’. AKA the ‘Vomit Comet’ or zero-gravity simulator, this was retired in 1995 after 22 years in service with NASA (being replaced by N931NA) and put on display in 2000. Although designated a KC-135A, there was never a boom installed, and infact began life being used by the FAA as N98 in 1960 to check nav aids and prove airways across the Pacific. Taken on by NASA here in 1973, it flew around 58,000 parabolic patterns (rollercoaster manouvers to achieve weightlesness) over the years, aswell as being used on Shuttle support programmes, and in the filming of ‘Apollo 13’. After shooting this, a short time was then spent checking out good photospots for landing shots, prior to Wednesdays big day. Runway 35L was the planned arrival runway, and was in use today, with Gulf 150 N8821C of Chevron USA arriving from Midland, and NASA T-38N N902NA returning from Maxwell AFB, with a couple of circuits before landing.
Returning to Hobby for the last couple of hours sunlight of the day, they were now using runway 30L as the main landing runway. This was great for nice sunlight on the aircraft on finals, with shots ideal from the official viewing area at this end. A similar viewing area, even closer to the perimeter fence is at the other end of this runway, and would be a good photospot if Runway 12R (or 17) was in use, in the afternoon. Around an hour spent at ‘30L provided… Beechjet 400A N422FL of Flight Options as OPT422 from Cape Fear, NC, Hawker 800XP N800XM of Donjon Marine Co/Jaw Aircraft from Lehigh Valley, PA, Phenom 300 N394AS of Executive Airshare Corp as XSR394 from Quad City, IL, and Learjet 55 N575GH of American Jet Int (in demo colours) from San Antonio, between the many Southwest arrivals.
DAY 5 TUESDAY 18TH SEPTEMBER
Another ‘free day’ in Houston then, was to be spent totally at Hobby. Ironically, after the Shuttle flight was delayed by bad weather, yesterday had turned out beautifull in the end, and today was going to be the same. First stop was to photograph a couple of retired classics at the AIM- Aviation Institute of Maintenance school, located along the Northern perimeter road. Star here is 1966 vintage Jetstar I N124RM, which is outside and fully intact (despite being de-registered in 2004 as ‘destroyed’), along with the nose section of ex FedEx B727-025F N507FE ‘Samuel’, which was broken up at Mojave and is outside the front of the facility here. Aswell as a few tins, twins and small choppers, i was also expecting to see the nose section of an old propliner here, as visible on google earth. But not to be, with no sign of it… although i was to discover this elsewhere on the airfield later. A quick drive around the perimeter FBO’s then provided some nice biz… CL604 N91MG of Milam Aviation, Hawker 900XP N251SP of Sonoco Products Co, Falcon 900EX N410KA of RB Aircraft Leasing (now with winglets fitted, this was previously the original N288Z, until traded in to Bombardier for Chamarac’s first Global Express in 2002) and Falcon 2000 N1128B of Nextera Energy.
With Runway 04 again in use this morning, i then returned to the same photospot to chill for the next five or six hours. Just in position to catch a real beauty, the following highlights ended with something even sweeter… Cessna 510 N369MU of Buckeye Aviation inbound from San Antonio, Sabreliner XA-INM (still no id on this yet, but looks like a 65 series), Cessna 550 N280TA from Atlanta-Fulton County, Beech B200 N118SB of Seven Bar Flying Service from Dallas-Love Field, Hawker 800XP N880SP of AVN Air, Beech C90A N446AS of Executive Airshare as XSR446 from Fort Worth-Meacham, Phenom 100 N196EC of Progressive Aviation (delivered recently, ex G-RAAS of FlairJet), Hawker 900XP N955SE of Spectra Energy Corp, Beech B200 N318BF of Beau Aviation from Shreveport, LA, Cessna 750 N732FL of Flight Options as OPT732 from Dallas-Love Field, Learjet 25D N25HF of HHF Aviation from Nashville, Pa46-350P N372DG of CES Contractors from Corpus Christi, Cessna 501SP N74HR of GAR Aircraft from 74 Ranch Airport (near Campbellton, TX), Learjet 31A N996JS from Hammond Regional, LA, 31 year old Falcon 50 N78LF, Falcon 2000 XA-HHF of Aerotaxi Grupo Tampico, Cessna 650 N397DR of Club Air from Amarillo, Beech A45 (T-34A) N663DB painted as US Navy 53-4119/63, Learjet 31A N631SF of Sanderson Farms from Hesler-Noble Field, MS, 34 year old Cessna 550 N848D of Carter County Bank from Elizabethton Municipal, TN, PC-12 N10DF of Gulf States Toyota from Little Rock, Beechjet 400A N471LX of Flight Options as OPT471 from San Antonio, Cessna 680 N387QS of NetJets, Cessna 525B N111KJ of Citationshares as FIV499 from Washington Dulles, Challenger 300 N400CH of Clean Harbors Enviromental Services from Hanscom Field, MA (recently replaced a Hawker 800XP), Learjet 31A XA-RAN (c/n 179), Hawker 800XP N819LX from Monterrey-Del Norte Int, Mexico, Cessna 560XLS N563WD of CWD Exploration from Yellowstone, WY, Falcon 50 N228FJ of Falcon Hunter as HRC228 from Fort Worth-Meacham, Global Express N720WS of American International Group, CL604 N713HC of HHC Aviation, CL605 N605HC of CFS Air, Hawker 750 N327MP of Simsco as GCT27 from Washington Dulles, Beech B200 N1559G of Goldsmith Team, TBM700 N555TQ of Wrenn Aircraft from Asheville Regional, NC, and star visitor, 1978 built Jetstar II N900DB of 5161 Romeo LLC arriving from its Chicago-Midway base. I almost dropped the camera when i saw this on approach, and is the first Jetstar i have shot in the air for a LONG time (the first on digital). Awesome. Also, just the one airliner of note, between the plethora of Southwest, the special pink ribbon American Eagle ERJ-145LR N690AE (‘Susan G Komen for the Cure’).
Again, with the sun getting around, it was time to make a move and find another photospot with better light. One place still to visit here, which was open today, was the 1940 Air Terminal Museum. Open Tuesday-Saturday, the museum is housed in the original 1940 art-deco airport building of the then Houston Municipal Airport, which is being restored and operated by the very friendly HAHS group. Outside (groundside) are a few donated aircraft, with a couple of tins, and nice 1969 vintage HS125-400A N400PR. At the rear of the building there are a few seats for viewing the airport movements, with photography possible through the perimeter fence. Shots are slightly easier through the larger gaps in the turnstyle, which is used during the monthly Wings and Wheels Open House, when the immediate airside area is used for small static displays, with public access. Certainly a good time to visit Hobby, also for great shots of the airport movements. With runway 30L in use as the main departure runway this afternoon, take off shots are good from here, with an hour or so producing a few highlights… Learjet 31A XA-RAN (shot arriving earlier), based Gulf 3 N477WG (previously USCG 01), Beechjet 400A N429JG of G&J Aviation and Hawker 800XP N475HM of General American Enterprises.
As well as the 1940 Air Terminal, the area on this side of the airport has a few other historic buildings present, including the restored 1928 Carter Field Airmail hangar which is maintained by the HAHS guys, with the nearby foundations still visible of Howard Hughes old hangar. After being offered the chance to look in the old Airmail hangar, i jumped at the chance, with a few hidden gems in there. It was here the ‘missing propliner’ from the AIM School was discovered, with the nose section of DC-6BF N841TA being donated to the group. Actualy registered to HAHS- Houston Aeronautical Heritage Society in 2004, it is now looking better, cleaned up with the large forward door re-fitted. Asking about the identity, the guys weren’t sure, so i was given the OK to clamber inside to photograph the cockpit in the dark. Looking at the flash-lit shots later, i could show them the identity on the left side instrument panel. For those that may have been lucky enough to have visited Florida in the 90’s, should be familiar with TAL- Trans Air Link and their fleet of DC-6 Freighters at their Miami base. After ending its TAL flying days parked up at Melbourne, N841TA was seen there by Elbow and myself at the end of 1999, before ending up here in Houston.
Also present in the hangar and registered to HAHS, is their beautifully restored 1942 Lockheed 18-56 Lodestar (Super Ventura) N31G. Donated by Barnhart Co, after flying Texas oil company executives around since the 50’s, the aircraft is not currently airworthy due to some leading edge damage to the left wing. Alongside was another rare gem, with Cessna T-50 (UC-78B) Bobcat N78UC. Less than twenty of these ‘Bamboo Bombers’ are left in the world, and this one is mint, restored in its vintage yellow colours. Finally, another surprise was nice 1957 S-58B N887, still in the the blue and white St. Louis Helicopter colours.
Certainly well chuffed after stopping by there, another drive around the FBO’s was then done before the end of the day, with early CL600S N399WB (which has some familiar history… HB-ILH etc) and fantastic Sabreliner 65 XA-GAP of Commander Mexicana SA photographed. On the lookout for a certain four-engined ‘all time classic’ biz-jet, not yet seen departing… there it was, about to taxi! Not being far from the line-up end of runway 30L, the mad dash down there got me in position to catch Jetstar II N900DB departing to Van Nuys, CA. While there, another classic departed, with based Sabreliner 65 N57MQ leaving for Yampa Valley, CO. Gotta love Hobby!
DAY 6 WEDNESDAY 19TH SEPTEMBER
Thankfully, with no further bad news of delays to the Shuttle departure, i checked out of the hotel and headed straight off to Ellington Field. With a mid-morning arrival expected i had checked out a good photospot on the Eastern perimeter fence, ideal for a touchdown shot. At that point the local cops had just arrived to secure the minor road, and after a call to their chief, were told a deffinate no to a request to stay there. Dagnabbit! Not all was lost though, as the great folks from NASA were going to be allowing the public access airside onto the edge of the ramp, next to Hangar 990 for the arrival. That’s more like it! With an airshow-like crowdline set up, i got in the queue early and after being let in at 0930, made sure of a good front row spot. With plenty of other chances to get airborne, fly-by and landing shots of the ‘stack’ along the route, this was a unique chance to get up close to them on the ground, taxying in around a hundred feet away. H-Town showing how it should be done!
Following the use of ‘Pluto 95’ for Discovery’s ferry flight to Dulles, ‘Astro 95’ was being used for this delivery, with B747-123SCA N905NA and Space Shuttle Endeavour (OV-105) wheels up off KSC- Kennedy Space Center at 0722L, strangely with a flight plan as Nasa905 to Houston IAH. Not to fool anyone trying to track the flight (with live tracking blocked anyway), this was just the destination airport in Houston for the first fly-by. And so, after take off and fly-by along the Space Coast, the Flight then headed West for fly-by at NASA Stennis in Mississippi (where the Shuttles main engines were tested), before onto the agency’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans (where the external fuel tanks were made) for a low pass. Then, after arriving over the Texas Gulf Coast area, and fly-bys at IAH, Hobby and downtown Houston, a few orbits were of course also made over ‘Mission Control’ at JSC- Johnson Space Center, before inbound to Ellington. First down, was NASA ‘Pathfinder’ DC-9-33RC N932NA ‘Weightless Wonder VI’, after leading the Flight to the Houston area, taxying in with the Stars and Stripes out of the Captains window, followed by escort T-38N’s N915NA and N921NA. After this, two USAF F-16CM’s of the 125FS/138FW OK ANG ‘Tulsa Vipers’ taxied out for take off, just as the Stack was approaching (intentional timing?!), with 89-2138/OK and 89-2142/OK based here on fully-armed 24-7 standby Air Sovereignty Alert detachment.
Then, following two fly-by’s, to the cheering, whooping and ‘U-S-A’ from the large crowd gathered, ‘Astro 95’ touched down at 1040. The next ramp along from the crowdline was occupied by an AH-64 Apache unit (that i totally forgot to photograph!), and after turning off the runway and taxying by towards us, a few hundred of the units personnel rushed out to view and photograh the Stack taxying by, as the Texas flag was held aloft from the B747SCA. The upside down flag was seen as an ‘epic fail’ by some, with others suggesting it was a subtle objection to the fact that Endeavour wasn’t staying in Texas! Then, turning right in front of us and parking side on was as good as anyone could have hoped for… a truly amazing sight. Before heading off, another arrival was based USCG MH-65C 6538 ‘Houston’, while also present throughout all this was Amerijet ‘Zero-G’ B727-200F N794AJ ‘G-Force One’ (which now also fly’s under contract to NASA).
Unfortunately, i wasn’t able to be at Ellington tonight, when the public were allowed access until 2100, for the rare chance of some night shots of the Stack, so got away almost straight away, after joining the queues of cars that had the same idea. Heading straight back to Hobby, i had almost five hours there before i needed to return the rental and check in for the flight to LA. So, a drive around the FBO’s first provided a nice Guatemalan biz-jet, with Learjet 31A TG-MYS (c/n 067 ex TG-AIR), which was recently replaced by a Learjet 60XR as TG-AIR, and a couple of Falcon 50’s, with N115SK of Vesey Air and based 50EX N950H of Island Aviation. An hour or so at the runway 04 photospot then provided… Gulf 4SP N403TB of Knickerbocker Aviation (pardon?), Learjet 45 N450JG, Beech B300 N536MR of CFS Air, PC-12 N10DF of Gulf States Toyota, Beech B200 N300AJ of Synergy Aviation, Learjet 55 N551MF of Blankenergy Aviation, Gulf 4 N501RB of Lone Star Land & Cattle Co, CL604 N456HK of Hawk Aviation, Pa-31T XB-LHJ (c/n 31T-7920062, ex N78CA), Beech 200 N602CN of the Chickasaw Nation, Falcon 2000 N826KR (nice colours), Southwest B737-700 N713SW ‘SeaWorld Shamu’ logojet, Cessna 525C N94JW and another nice Mexican, BAe125-800A XA-GCC.
Again, as the sun got around, it was time to make a move, and for something different, found a good photospot for take off shots at the end of runway 12R for another hour or so… Cessna 550 Bravo N550KL of Trinity Aviation, Learjet 45 N654AT of ATS/RBJ Industries, Falcon 2000 XA-HHF of Aerotaxi Grupo Tampico, Cessna 650 N55SC of Fifty Five LLC, Cessna 510 N510CJ of Third Segment Aviation and Learjet 60 N9CU. Then, driving around the perimeter for one last look at the FBO’s, i noticed a Gulfstream on approach to ‘04… as it got closer… all red? Pulling off the road for a VERY quick shot, Gulf 550 N500RD of Oakmont Corp is indeed all red (wings and everything) with a dark green stripe. Art or cheese?… money doesn’t buy taste! Apparently the reg is personalised for CEO Robert Day (and has been a visitor at Newcastle in 2006 & 2008). Looking for the Gulf parked up, it wasn’t on for a shot, though rare USAF ‘AMC’ C-21A 84-0101 of the AFFSA/375AW (one of two based at Will Rogers, OK), vintage 1976 Falcon 20F-5 N632PB of Modern Transport Co, Falcon 2000EX N620MS of Air Kaitar, based Gulf 4SP N9106 and City of Houston Police Bell 412EP N412F were photographed before i called it a day.
The three days in Houston had certainly paid off, and was now more than happy (not to mention relieved!), to have included this in the schedule. Checking in for Southwest flight SW2265 to Los Angeles, it was nice to see ‘old’ B737-300(WL) N602SW at the gate, for the three hour flight, off at 1800 and landing at 1900L. Collecting the rental, a Chevy Equinox SUV for the final three days in the States…