Space flight!

A retired Northwest Airlines pilot recalls his adventures in NASA’s first shuttle simulator

Inside the cockpit of NASA’s first space shuttle simulator was a dizzying wall of controls.
Inside the cockpit of NASA’s first space shuttle simulator was a dizzying wall of controls.

All airline pilots “fly the simulator” once a year as part of their recurrent ground training. An exact mock-up of an airliner cockpit, the simulator presents realistic emergency situations for the pilot to control.

Retired Northwest Airlines Capt. Ron Kenmir once “flew” in a very different kind of simulator.

Carol: What, when and where, Ron?

Ron: The NASA Space Shuttle simulator — 1979 — the Rockwell International facility in Downey, California, just south of Los Angeles.

C: Was this the simulator for the space planes used in the Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavor missions?

R: That’s the one, alright.

C: Surely not just anyone would be allowed this privilege. How’dja pull it off?

R: The invitation came through my dad, who also was a pilot but who was unable to use it himself. Having flown Northwest military charters to Vietnam, I had the required high-level security clearance. And I was on a long airline layover in Los Angeles.

C: I imagine once inside the Rockwell facility you had to go through layers of security?

R: Well, actually, a man wearing a big Texas floppy-brimmed hat — and chewing on an unlit cigar — came looking for me. He stuck out his hand and said, “Howdy, I’m the chief research pilot for the program.” I can’t recall his actual name, but at that moment he became “Tex” to me.

Though the simulator was bolted to the floor, today modern airliner simulators move on hydraulic actuators. Photos courtesy of Ron Kenmir

C: Tex sounds like Slim Pickens from the movie Dr. Strangelove.

R: Well, it just gets better. Loping over to the simulator room, he said, “C’mon in.” And there it stood — the eerie big box containing man’s latest tech shrine. Once inside it, with Tex in the left seat and I the right, he spun his index finger to the ceiling at three waiting men, wearing white coats, and shouted, “OK guys, let’s take her for a spin!” With that, instrument flags disappeared. A symphony of clicks and hums came from the myriad panels in front of us. And — bingo! — we were tipped upside down, and going backwards in orbit, virtually!

C: Wow! How did that feel?

R: It’s a thrill that’s hard to explain, except to say that I felt freed from the earth as it got smaller and I watched our speed displayed in feet per second.

C: Describe the return to earth.

R: Tex fired the reentry jets and twisted the joystick on his left. Noticing the primary instrument cross-hairs were not precisely centered, I said, “Don’t you have to be more accurate than that?” “Nah, not at this altitude. It just doesn’t matter,” he replied, dashing my expectation of cutting-edge science precision!

C: What happened next?

R: Tex got precise coming through 250,000 feet. And then, abruptly, the ride was over. I’d entered God’s playground. I’d flown copilot inside the highest pinnacle of man’s longest reach to the stars! I’d done it! I flew in space!

C: Has anything since topped the thrill of space flight?

R: Well, as a matter of fact, that very evening, I attended a movie premiere for star Laurence Olivier, thanks to an invitation from some Hollywood friends.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected].