A NASA Pilot Returns To RC

At a recent meeting of my RC club, I was approached by Jeff Moultrie, an aspiring member who wanted more information about one of my models. I initially shaped my responses with the typical layman’s terms and generalizations that any of us would use when explaining model aviation to the uninitiated. It was quickly apparent however, that this guy knew his stuff and I would not need to filter my vocabulary for him. I learned that Jeff is just now returning to RC after a lengthy hiatus… a hiatus spent building his career as a full-scale pilot for NASA! The tables were turned with this revelation and Jeff politely answered all of my questions, with his terminology appropriately simplified to ease my understanding.

I later met with Jeff to learn more about his career and how his interest in RC played a role.

TD: Jeff, you’re one of very few pilots qualified to fly NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA). What’s it like to fly this unique Boeing 747 with, and without the Shuttle, bolted on?

JM: The SCA is a highly modified B-747-100. Although the structure of the aircraft is quite different than the original Boeing airliner, the cockpit is essentially the same. The handling characteristics are remarkably similar to the original airplane when unmated, or without the Shuttle on its back. When we are carrying a mated Shuttle, the additional weight and drag greatly degrades climb performance along with an accompanying slower throttle response. Another big difference is the 250 KIAS speed restriction placed on the aircraft because of the modified structure and tail section. Although flying the airplane takes some getting used to, it is very predictable and a joy to fly.

TD: I assume that the SCAs will be used to deliver the Shuttle orbiters to their respective museums around the country. What do you think you’ll be feeling as you touch down on those final ferry flights?

JM: The entire SCA ferry team feels privileged to be tasked with delivering the Shuttles to their new museum homes. Our team includes pilots, flight engineers, many ground engineers, maintenance crews and a big management input. Some members of our team have been with this program since its inception and will be retiring from NASA at the same time the Shuttles retire. I feel that these guys always demonstrate true professionalism and we will all be sad, but also very proud, when the program is complete.

TD: What other aircraft do you fly for NASA and which is your favorite?

JM: As a NASA instructor pilot, our primary aircraft is the T-38. These airplanes are used every day for Astronaut Spaceflight Readiness training. Our Commander and Pilot astronauts fly them to maintain proficiency in high performance aircraft while the mission specialists are trained to perform communication, navigation, checklist usage, crew concepts, and cockpit resource management. We fly with the entire astronaut staff doing both training flights and check rides.

I also fly the C-9 “Vomit Comet” used for Zero G research. This airplane is a modified C-9 previously flown by the U.S. Navy and was obtained to replace the aging KC-135 aircraft. This airplane is used to fly parabolas in which a portion of the maneuver is performed in a zero-gravity environment. This type of flying is challenging because of the added physical stress on the body while doing continuous cycles between positive and negative Gs.

The only other airplane I fly is the SCA Shuttle Carrier. I’ll have to say that it’s my favorite for several reasons. First off, the basic B-747 is a classic, historic aircraft. Although both the SCA’s we have are over 30 years old, there is really nothing else like this aircraft. I think that any airplane buff from young to old can identify a B-747.

TD: You mentioned that you flew RC as a youngster. Do you think that your experience with RC inspired you to pursue a career in aviation, or was RC simply the first logical step for a kid born with an itch to fly?

JM: I started flying RC as a teenager with a lot of help from club members at the local flying club in Huntsville, Alabama. I was fascinated with RC and became sort of addicted to the sport and the idea of pursuing full scale flying in later life. I was an avid RC flyer for several years until the age of 15 when I started taking full scale flying lessons. Upon entering college, the money ran out and I didn’t fly until after graduation when I joined the military to fly. In looking back on my life and career, I feel that RC flying played a big role in molding my ideas and skills to want to pursue aviation. With the Shuttle program winding down, I recently renewed my interest in the sport and am joining the Johnson Space Center RC Club.

TD: RC flying has changed significantly since you’ve been gone. What differences strike you the most?

JM: I recently went to a “Huck Fest” and was amazed to watch those great pilots perform all their 3D maneuvers. I didn’t know that airplanes could do that!! What a change since I was last involved in the sport. It seems everything has improved since those days, from building materials, power plants, radio equipment and piloting skills.

The biggest change for me has been the advent of really great RC simulators for the PC. When I was a kid, crashing a plane meant a huge loss and required me to work and save for many months to have the funds for another plane. With the new simulators, I can practice maneuvers that I would be afraid to try with a real model without any fear of crashing. After my first attempts at hovering and harrier rolls in the simulator, I thought that these maneuvers were going to be impossible for me. But after many hours of practice and many crashes, I actually got the hang of it and have, over time, developed the muscle memory required to perform these 3D maneuvers. For me, having a really good simulator has made all the difference.

Thanks for sharing your story with me Jeff. I look forward to seeing you at the flying field.


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