Nov 20, 2012

Posted in Features

Endeavour: The Long Flight Home

Endeavour: The Long Flight Home

by RADM Jon Lane, USS Angeles

Itwasn’t just once in a lifetime; it was simply…well…once in forever.

Not only was the Space Shuttle Endeavour being flown thousands of miles across the country, but it was also coming to my hometown, landing just a few miles away from where I live and then being transported 15 miles along surface streets to its new home at the California Science Center.  How could I miss this???  I wanted to be there when Endeavour landed at LAX and then a few weeks later when it was transported through West Los Angeles and Inglewood.

Of course, with millions of people in L.A., my best chance of being in the right place at the right time was to plan for both these events in advance.  Initially for Endeavour’s arrival, I’d hoped to get a viewing perch at the Proud Bird restaurant, which is located directly under the southern landing strip along Aviation Blvd.  I went there about two weeks early to see if they were taking reservations for the morning the shuttle was to land at LAX.  Yes, they were…but they already had the maximum 450 people reserved, and I was way too late (and begging didn’t help).

So instead, I decided to get there early and simply stand on a nearby street and watch.  Of course, parking was a huge challenge.  I ended up driving about a half mile away to the L.A. Courthouse on La Cienega just south of the 105 Freeway.  Walking back toward Aviation, I took a shortcut through a parking lot to 111th Street, and I knew I’d found my spot!

Space Shuttle Endeavour en route to it’s home (Photo: Jon Lane / USS Angeles)

Crowds were everywhere, but this small area of the side street had a wide sidewalk where lots of early birds had parked their cars in rows…and many car radios were tuned to the news, letting us know where the shuttle was.  Also, we had an unobstructed view stretching from the Hollywood Hills to the runway, blocked only at the runway’s edge by some trees.  This was an awesome spot!

I waited with the crowd of hundreds along 111th Street, with thousands more along Aviation, others standing on top of nearby office buildings along Imperial Highway, and even folks who’d stopped their cars along the 105 and were standing on the elevated freeway looking out at the runway!

While we waited, I got friendly with several other onlookers, some of whom had driven from as far away as Phoenix to see this historic event.

Finally, after listening to updates from 1070 News Radio for over an hour, at 11:48 a.m. we got to see our first glimpse of the Endeavour on the back of a modified 747.  The moment felt electric as crowds began cheering, even though the shuttle was little more than a speck way over by the Santa Monica Mountains.

We wondered if we’d get a chance to see the shuttle again prior to its actual landing, and eight minutes later, we got our answer.  Endeavour and the 747 came back our way and flew over LAX’s north runway, close enough for us to hear the roar of the engines and see the two F-18 escort fighter jets flying alongside.  So now that we knew Endeavour was crisscrossing L.A., we wondered how many more times we’d get to see it.

A few minutes later, just after noon, we saw Endeavour once again in the distance, making its way toward the Getty Center and its other planned flyovers at Universal Studios, JPL, and downtown L.A. (to name a few).  Ten minutes later, someone shouted, “There it is!”  And as we all looked eastward, we realized we’d had our first false alarm.  It was just a normal plane coming in for a landing.

Space Shuttle Endeavour landing at LAX. (Photo: Jon Lane / USS Angeles)

But at 12:33 p.m., we had the real thing again…along with our most exciting flyover yet!  This time, the airborne convoy flew over the south runway, buzzing it at what looked to be barely 150 feet off the ground!  Not only did we hear the jet engines, we felt them!  It was so low that many of us thought the 747 was landing, but the speed was too fast, and the landing gear was up.  The cheers were louder than ever as we watched the 747 bank to the left and fly back eastward.  We assumed it was now heading for its planned flyover of Disneyland and, later, Long Beach before returning to LAX for a landing.

That landing happened at 12:45 p.m. as we watched the 747 and Endeavour descending much more slowly, this time with landing gear clearly down.  I zoomed my camera close and just filmed the entire approach until the three planes and shuttle disappeared behind the trees.  All the while, the crowd yelled and cheered, and all I could do was cheer along with them and just say “Awesome!”  There was really no other word for it.

A few weeks later, it was time to transport Endeavour from LAX to the California Science Center, and this space shuttle would become the largest vehicle to ever be driven along Los Angeles streets.  The trip would start early on Friday morning, October 12, when Endeavour would be moved from the hangar at LAX to a staging area in a huge mall parking lot on the corner of Manchester and La Tijera near the airport.

This time, I didn’t scope the area first but rather made plans via e-mail and phone with longtime USS Angeles member Goldie Chaikin.  She’d be coming from work, and I’d be coming with my son Jayden from his Friday gymnastics class (Jayden wasn’t at LAX for the landing).  Goldie and I decided to meet on the corner of Manchester and Belford (a few blocks east of the mall parking lot staging area) at 1:00 p.m.

Space Shuttle Endeavour en route to it’s home (Photo: Jon Lane / USS Angeles)

Unfortunately, street closures and traffic snarls messed things up a bit.  Goldie decided to see if she could get a little closer to La Tijera, but I wasn’t able to follow suit.  So I parked and wandered over to the corner where we’d originally planned on meeting, thinking I could just walk the stroller westward along Manchester to meet Goldie (who by this point was at the staging area).  But the sidewalks were now closed to pedestrians.  However, Jayden and I had a perfect spot standing in a strip mall parking lot on the corner, just back from the sidewalk and therefore allowed to watch from there by the cops.  Although Goldie and I regretted not being able to get together in person, she’d be able to see Endeavour earlier and then head home, so she was happy and satisfied.  Meanwhile, although Jayden and I had to wait a little longer to see the shuttle, the spectacle of watching it in motion, just a few yards away from us, was breathtaking.

We actually didn’t mind the wait, which was a little under 90 minutes before the shuttle came into sight, because we got to watch the activity and excitement building.  We saw LAPD on foot, bicycle, in squad cars, SUVs, and even in a golf cart.  We watched as the helicopter count increased from one to two to three to four to five hovering over us simultaneously.  We chatted with friendly people standing with us on the corner, watching the crowds grow steadily.  We watched the special trailer bed that would be used to carry Endeavour over the 405 overpass drive past us on the empty avenue.  We noticed a gaggle of media people setting up their tripods and cameras in the middle of the street as they waited for their first glimpse.  We saw people walking along with tall sticks measuring the height of power lines.  And believe it or not, we even saw a bulldozer drive by (still not exactly sure why).

At about 2:10 p.m., Goldie called me on my cell to tell me that Endeavour had just started moving out of the parking lot.  I informed the crowd around me, and we all craned our necks to look westward on Manchester Avenue up a slight hill, hoping to be the first to spot it.  All the while, Jayden stayed in his stroller and played Curious George, Count TV, and Angry Birds on my iPhone.

Then I saw it for the first time.  For a few seconds, I didn’t even realize that I was looking at Endeavour because my mind couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing.  There was a six story building on the opposite side of Manchester, and as I looked at the nose of the shuttle coming from La Tijera, this vehicle was nearly as tall as the building itself!  “It’s…it’s…too big!” I said before I even realized what I was saying.  I didn’t mean it was too big for the street.  It was more that the image I was looking at was something too big for my brain to process.  Watching something as tall as a six-story building rolling down the street toward you is a totally surreal experience.  It just doesn’t happen!

But it was happening, and this behemoth was moving toward us all at 2 miles an hour.  We could barely perceive it moving.  I raced to shoot photos and video, but after 10 minutes my view of the shuttle had hardly changed, and I was no longer in such a rush.  One picture looked pretty much like another as Endeavor crept along, covering the half-mile or so between the staging area and the corner where I stood watching.  We were all still excited, but we knew things would get much more interesting the closer it got.

A half hour after we first spotted it, everything changed from growing anticipation to outright elation.  Endeavour was now crossing the street just west of us, barely 50 yards away!  People started cheering, and activity was everywhere as hundreds of city officials, engineers, law enforcement personnel, and technicians filled the streets in front of us.  The sound grew louder as we heard the diesel of the flat-bed transport driving along underneath the shuttle.  The helicopters got louder and louder.  And Jayden, sensing that there was something he couldn’t see (too many tall people), for the first time in this two years of life asked to be put on my shoulders (“Daddy, shoulders?  Daddy, shoulders?”)

With Jayden straddling my neck and gripping onto what’s left of my hair, I quickly shifted back into camera guy mode.  What started as a leisurely process of a few photos here, a few seconds of video there, had suddenly shifted into a manic maelstrom of activity as the shuttle reached our corner.  Jayden kept yelling “Wow!” as the massive machine maneuvered past us so closely that, if I had been holding a beach umbrella, I could probably have whacked the edge of the starboard wing at it passed by (and likely gotten arrested for it!).  I rapidly switched back and forth from still photo to video, zooming so closely that I could see the tiny white numbers on each of the black heat tiles covering the bottom of the orbiter.  I could read the yellow rectangular sign under the cockpit that said CUT HERE FOR EMERGENCY RESCUE.  I could actually look inside the huge conic engines that helped launch Endeavour into orbit.  The noise, the people, the activity, the excitement!  It was like watching a Christmas parade and suddenly seeing Santa Claus go by on the most elaborate float you’ve ever seen.

Jon and Jayden Lane pose with Space Shuttle Endeavour. (Photo: Jon Lane / USS Angeles)

And then, just like that, Endeavour had passed us completely.  I got a few extra photos of the back of the shuttle, and I also shot some video of the dozen or so vehicles that were driving behind Endeavour.  The whole entourage was still moving at 2 miles and hour, so I had a few more minutes to gaze at the back of the shuttle as it receded down the avenue.  Endeavour was now a good quarter mile away, but it still towered above the trees and power lines and two- and three-story buildings along the way.  And then slowly, like the sun coming out after a huge storm, things began to get quiet again.  The street was all but empty in front of me, and I put Jayden back down into his stroller and rolled it into the center of Manchester Avenue, watching the procession inching away from us from directly behind the shuttle.

Then a police officer asked me to please make my way back onto the sidewalk.  The streets around me were calm again, the crowds dissipating, and I thought of all the thousands of other onlookers further down the route who were in for the experience of their lives.  I buckled Jayden into the car and rushed home as fast as I could, eager to download the countless photos and videos from my camera.

But for all my digital recordings of these two spectacular events, nothing can truly compare to the memories etched into my mind of the shared energy and camaraderie of these experiences, standing surrounded by so many other people who, like me, wanted to be there to witness, up close and personal, history being made right here in Los Angeles.