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Royal International Air Tattoo
Royal International Air Tattoo
Royal International Air Tattoo
Royal International Air Tattoo

When The Space Shuttle Visited RAF Fairford

Published: 17 May 2019   updated: 20 May 2019

This week we're looking back 36 years to a time when RAF Fairford hosted the Space Shutte Enterprise.

Fairford was, for many years, a Launch Abort Site, the only one ever to operate in the UK. A number of sites, known as Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites, across Europe and Africa had NASA personnel on site, ready to react at a moment's notice and fly in to wherever the Shuttle might land. Fairford didn't have this NASA support and so the team on the ground needed to be prepared to facilitate a safe Shuttle arrival at a few minute's notice.

Whilst NASA would always endeavor to recover the Shuttle back to the USA, there comes a point in its launch where reaching the American mainland isn't possible. For this reason, a number of airfields with trained personnel were set up, to help give the Shuttle crews ample opportunity to return to Earth in the event of a problem. 

TALs included Lajes in the Azores, Zaragoza and Moron in Spain and Istres in France. Fairford fitted the bill due to its runway length, and the fact that it already hosted United States Air Force and is a relatively quiet airfield. Subsequently the Fairford fire crews were trained in the proper NASA procedures for dealing with the Space Shuttle; which, if it landed, would do so with a cocktail of dangerous substances on board. 

Melanie Blackwell

Fairford's window of usefulness was for a period of minutes into the Shuttle's launch and teh team would be stood down as the spacecraft passed overhead. Former Airfield Manager, and now RIAT Air Operations Manager Tony Maycock described what life was like during Shuttle launches. "We were in constant contact with NASA in Houston and I had access to the live launch footage to give us as much situational awareness as possible.

"We started preparing a month in advance to make sure shift patterns were properly staffed and crews were up to speed on emergency checklists. The process often involved late nights and cancellations as weather at the launch site would preclude events." Tony admitted, "It would have been amazing to see the Shuttle land at Fairford, but for it to do so you know there would have to have been a problem - so in many respects I'm glad it didn't."

When the Shuttle visited Fairford

On the 20 May 1983, the Shuttle did land at RAF Fairford, on its way to the Paris Air Show. Arriving on the back of a Boeing 747-100 known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), the Space Shuttle Enterprise was a huge draw and people flocked to Fairford from far away. Another Air Tattoo team member Melanie Blackwell was a youngster at the time and remembers seeing it depart, shown in the photo above.

We were also sent photos by Andrew Smith who came to watch the arrival. His photos below show the scale of the Shuttle on the back of the 747 and the fuselage mounting brackets.

The SCA was limited to around 1,000 nautical miles of range with the Shuttle payload, so stops were made in Goose Bay, Canada, Keflavik, Iceland and Fairford, enroute to Paris.

Andrew Smith

How would the Shuttle leave Fairford?
The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft would need exceptionally good weather in which to fly - which isn't always the case in the UK. The Shuttle could either be dismantled and flown back to the USA aboard cargo aircraft like the C-5 Galaxy, or lifted onto the back of the SCA. Tony Maycock explained, "In order to get the Shuttle onto the SCA three cranes would arrive. The smallest would be used to build the medium crane; the medium crane used to build the large crane, with that crane then lifting the Shuttle onto the SCA."

All in all a, big process! If you are interested in space and want to learn more about what the United Kingdom's space sector is doing - you can visit the Air Tattoo this July and see. 

Space at RIAT 2019
The 2019 Air Tattoo is being held over the weekend of the first Moon Landing's 50th anniversary and we have a lot planned to celebrate past achievements and inspire the future of the UK space industry. Visit this page of our website to learn more about what we've got coming - including the rocket that put the UK's first satellite into orbit and Astronaut Tim Peake!

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