Touch & go on the Shuttle Landing Facility

Playing with flight simulators has allowed me to realise at least one previously thwarted ambition – doing touch & goes on the Shuttle Landing Facility.

I learned to fly at a small airstrip a short hop from Merritt Island, Florida. As well as being home to a lovely general aviation airfield (where I made my first solo), the more northerly part of the island is better known as Cape Canaveral, much of which is buried under NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Along with all the launch pads, the Cape boasts one of the longest runways in the world – all 15,000ft of it. To put that in context, that is 7.5x longer than the runway at the airstrip where I was based. It had to be that long to allow safe landings by the Space Shuttle which, on its return journey, was a glider with, as the saying goes, the aerodynamic qualities of an oven-ready turkey.

Back in 1989, when I was training, NASA would actually let private pilots, and even students, do touch & goes on the Shuttle Landing Facility, if you asked very nicely. The other proviso was that there couldn’t be a Shuttle mission in progress.

Alas, there was.

On 22 Nov 1989, STS-33 lifted off carrying a classified payload – and ruining my chances of doing touch & goes on that huge strip. (I’ll have more to say about that day in a future post but, quick spoiler, I saw the launch from the air, and it was at night.)

The great thing about flight simulators, though, is that you don’t have to worry about NASA, the FAA or ATC. If I want to do touch & goes on the Shuttle Landing Facility, I’ll damn well do it.

My instructor back then, Dale, had always wanted to see how many touch & goes he could get in during one pass down the runway. The rule was you had to climb to at least 50ft after each touchdown.

My first attempt was using the default scenery in X-Plane 11, which is pretty disappointing to be honest. All you get is the runway. But that’s enough for our purposes.

First attempt in the Grumman

I flew it first in a Grumman AA-5 Traveler, for reasons that will become apparent in future posts. The initial attempt was pretty ropey, to be honest – just two touchdowns before I lost my nerve.

I then loaded up the KTTS Shuttle Landing Facility scenery pack by ‘meikelm’, which is apparently going to be included in X-Plane 11 as standard in the next update. This adds a whole lot more detail, including launchpads and, most significantly for me, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

After landing in the Grumman. There’s an awful lot of runway left. Pay no attention to that centreline – it’s not important.

This vast construction is so huge that you can see it from a vast distance, if you’re in the air. This proved useful when I was training as it was relatively close to my home field. After bumbling around the Florida skies for an hour or so, I could always find home plate by scanning the horizon for the VAB – which NASA had kindly painted bright white – and then looking a little south. That saved my bacon a few times.

Unfortunately, this brings up one of the real limitations of flight simulators. Detailed scenery has a tendency to ‘pop’ into view only when you get close enough. And so it is with the VAB; it’s invisible until you get within a few miles, and even then spends life being strangely see-through for a while. Oh well, so much for my landmark.

Another try in the Cessna.

Anyway, time for another go at the Shuttle Landing Facility. I moved into the Cessna 172SP, just to change things up a bit. With each landing, I used only the first stage of flaps, so that I could get airborne quickly again without waiting for flaps to retract. I made my initial approach as low and slow as possible. Then it was a case of touch down (all three wheels, those are the rules), power on, haul back on the stick, hit 50ft then kill the power. Rinse and repeat.

This time I managed three landings and I think I could have gone for a fourth. Maybe I’ll dial in a bit of a headwind and have another pop at it…

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