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Schmitt in cockpit
As part of the astronaut training of the 1960s, Harrison Schmitt had to go through flight school and learned to fly a number of aircraft, including the T-38. (credit: NASA)

Flight training for Apollo: An interview with astronaut Harrison Schmitt

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Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was selected by NASA as a scientist-astronaut in 1965. Unlike the Space Shuttle era, all astronauts at that time had to qualify as pilots. Trained as a geologist and having never flown an airplane before, he joined a class of cadets for the year-long Undergraduate Pilot Training program at Williams Air Force Base.

“But being a requirement doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it, and I enjoyed not only the training, but the flying career I had for ten years very much.”

The syllabus began with small propeller planes, later moving on to jets, including the supersonic T-38 Talon. Schmitt would have a long relationship with the T-38, as NASA astronauts used them for pilot proficiency and travel. He also received helicopter training that was overseen by the Navy.

Schmitt eventually flew as lunar module pilot on the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. During the liftoff from the Moon there was a communications problem, and it was his job to solve it. I spoke with Dr. Schmitt about his experiences learning to fly, and how they impacted his actions during his flight to the Moon.

Jason Catanzariti: Was this something you wanted to do, or did you view flight training simply as a necessary task?

Harrison Schmitt: It was clearly a requirement to qualify for spaceflight assignment as one of the original scientist-astronauts. I certainly understood that going in, as did my colleagues. But being a requirement doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it, and I enjoyed not only the training, but the flying career I had for ten years very much. I was very, very impressed with the professionalism of the air training command that existed at that time, and I hope still exists in the Air Force. They really were consummate professionals.

JC: They started you in the T-41, the military version of the Cessna 172…

HS: It was hardly worth calling it a military version: they just put a T-41 name on it, but it was still a Cessna 172!

JC: Then the T-37 and T-38. How was the transition between those aircraft?

HS: Well, I don’t recall that it was a major jump. In the T-37 your instructor is side-by-side, which makes some difference rather than behind you [as in the T-38]. You’re dealing with a significantly higher performing aircraft in the T-38, but on the other hand the T-37 allowed us to get spin training, which was not possible in the T-38. So all in all I thought the transition went fairly well. Mine was interrupted because in a pickup basketball game I broke my elbow. So I had to sit down for six weeks and then catch up again. Although it was not fun to sit and watch everybody else fly, on the other hand they flew me much more frequently to catch up. That makes it a lot more enjoyable, when you can really go through the syllabus much faster than was planned.

JC: Do you have any particular recollections of your first solo flights in any of those aircraft?

“I’ve always had the impression that my scientific experience probably made it more difficult to learn to fly instruments.”

HS: I do, and also of the helicopter that I flew with the Navy down in Pensacola. In each case, in spite of reservations at the beginning of the training program prior to solo – which I think everybody has – by the time I reached that point I certainly felt ready. And I’m sure that was an outgrowth of a very mature training program that the Air Force had put together. So I felt, as I recall, very comfortable about soloing the four aircraft that I ended up flying. I think I particularly had reservations about flying the helicopter after eight hours of instruction. That seemed to be a bigger jump than changing fixed wing aircraft and soloing in those. But the Navy had an excellent syllabus and a very professional approach.

JC: Did your background as a scientist impact your flight training?

HS: My guess is that it did. But it’s hard to separate that from being ten years older than the other people that were in pilot training, and potentially not having quite as flexible a mind as they did. But I’ve always had the impression that my scientific experience probably made it more difficult to learn to fly instruments. I don’t think it had any effect on flying per se, but flying the instruments requires you to not focus on any one thing more than a second or two. Whereas in science, particularly in the fields of science I’ve been in, you tend to focus on one item until you’ve understood it and then you go on to the next. I think that contrast in discipline was probably a negative aspect of learning to fly instruments.

I never felt uncomfortable flying instruments, but learning that very rapid scan was a new skill set that I had to master. You can’t just ignore one instrument and focus on another.

I think being willing to accept whatever risks exist is something you have to be willing to do when you take up flying. But as a field geologist in many out of the way places I guess I had learned to accept the risks of my profession.

JC: When you flew the T-38 with other astronauts did you tend to fly back seat or front seat, or did it depend on the person you were flying with?

HS: An awful lot of my flying was solo. Whenever we needed to fly together we usually worked out that on the outbound leg one would take the front seat and maybe the other would get instrument time in the back seat, or vice versa. You’re always trying to get instrument time because there was never enough weather, actual real weather, to fill the requirement for instrument time every six months. We not only traded off on who flew under the hood [on instruments, with no outside visual references], but I would go out on weekends and look for weather, just to fill that proficiency.

JC: During the ascent from the Moon on Apollo 17 there was a temporary loss of communications. You handled that in a businesslike manner, much as one would in an aircraft. Do you have any recollection of how you were feeling at the time?

“I am a great advocate of all astronauts—scientists, engineers, what have you—having a base of flight instruction. I really think that there are many, many benefits of having that kind of experience.”

HS: The whole training was focused on being able to operate the spacecraft without communications. We were basically monitoring what the computer was doing versus what the flight instruments were telling us, and comparing that profile with what we expected. So communications were not absolutely necessary. The main thing you wanted them for was in case there was a cabin leak that they could pick up, or that the engine was not performing as they expected, etc. We were not getting that, although they were hearing everything we were saying, as I recall.

The planners—including ourselves—missed it, but they had a ground station handover right at the instant of our liftoff. And that handover didn’t go well. All we had from the ground was a lot of static. I was continually trying to get the high gain antenna in an optimum position to pick up a signal. Well it turns out there wasn’t a signal to pick up.

JC: Do you recall any anxiety?

HS: It was my job to try to restore communications if I could, and I just kept working the problem. I was also monitoring the abort guidance system, comparing it with what the primary guidance system was telling us was happening. Those were our two main references. They were in continuous agreement, so there was no reason to be concerned about the rendezvous sequence.

JC: Do you still fly today, or is that something you’ve left behind?

HS: I left it behind. I was getting involved with management and then I got into politics. I always felt that I needed to be flying a lot in order to maintain proficiency at the level that I wanted to maintain it. So when it became clear that I was not going to be able to do that, and flying was no longer a part of my profession, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and that I should probably not continue to fly.

I am a great advocate of all astronauts—scientists, engineers, what have you—having a base of flight instruction. I really think that there are many, many benefits of having that kind of experience. It carries through to the discipline you need to have in operating in space. As Deke Slayton [Director of Flight Crew Operations during the Apollo program] often said, the airplane is our only dynamic simulator. If you make a mistake you’ve got to get out of it, or solve the problem. You can’t reset the computer.

I have, for forty years, tried to convince NASA that they should not have given up pilot training for all astronauts. The new astronauts, if they’re not professional pilots, do get a significant amount of back seat time, but it’s not the same. You need that command responsibility. I would hope that when we have a more dynamic space program than we have right now and really focus on deep space exploration, that the agency that does that. I hope NASA realizes that it is very important and much more efficient in terms of other training to have that flight experience shared by everyone.

JC: You seem to be saying that flight training transfers to other aspects of training. Is that fair to say?

HS: It definitely does. The best example I have of that is helicopter training. The more time I was getting in the helicopter, the better I could fly certain aborts that might result from an under-burn while going into orbit around the Moon. In that situation you have all the spacecraft docked, and may have to use the lunar module engine to get out of lunar orbit. And you don’t have enough time to do anything more than establish error needles to fly, and with a major offset in the CG [center of gravity] of the combined spacecraft that is a challenge. It’s a hand-eye coordination challenge that I felt was significantly enhanced by staying very, very current in the helicopter.

JC: I hope it was a bit different for you to talk about flying today rather than just your lunar visit.

HS: I enjoyed flying very much. I did a lot of it, and I think it was a very important part of the Apollo program, both from a systems and an operational point of view.