September 20, 2011
1.30pm CEST: Sofia is carefully towed out of the large hangar at Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, California. The flying infrared observatory, which is operated jointly by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, has already been airborne 75 times. But today will be something special.
2.00pm: The sun is slowly rising in the Californian desert, which is nine hours behind German time. NASA technicians have begun to refuel Sofia. The converted Boeing 747SP needs exactly 140 tonnes of aviation fuel before it can set off on its first ever flight to Germany. The take-off weight for the journey to Cologne has been calculated to be 361 tonnes. “Don’t worry, Sofia was just as heavy during some of our tests – and everything went OK,” pilot Troy Asher assures us. The refuelling takes about an hour.
4.30pm: Crew briefing. Everyone who wants to fly with Sofia has to attend the meeting. The room on the first floor of the NASA hangar is full of people; around 50 men and women will be on board today’s flight. Yesterday, technicians fitted some extra seats. The radio equipment in the cockpit is also new – otherwise Sofia would not have been able to head for European airspace.
6.43pm: Asher, one of NASA’s most experienced test pilots, switches on the “Please fasten your seatbelt” sign. The jumbo bumps along to the take-off runway.
7.08pm: Eight minutes behind schedule, Sofia gives full thrust on runway 25 at Palmdale Regional Airport. The plane seems heavy, the acceleration sluggish – almost as if it will never end. Finally, the airborne observatory manages to leave the ground. Its route will initially take it due north, almost to the North Pole.
7.16pm: Sofia’s crew and the specialist telescope technicians are wearing beige overalls made of fireproof material, the scientists working with the German instrument Great (German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies) are wearing blue shirts embroidered with Sofia’s logo. As soon as the pilot, Asher, switches off the seatbelt sign, the two groups mingle with each other: all of Sofia’s take-offs so far have been at night. But now, during the transfer flight to Europe, the engineers and researchers use the remaining hours of daylight to take a few souvenir photos of the Californian desert.
9.30pm: Sofia enters Canadian airspace. Troy Asher turns the dial of the autopilot slightly and steers the plane onto a new course. The plane is 34 years old, the cockpit is full of switches, knobs and round instruments. A crew of four and a navigator are needed to fly the jumbo jet over the Atlantic. The flight engineer neatly keeps a record of the fuel consumption – with pen and paper.
11.07pm: Waiting for the sunset. Some of those on board are reading, others sleeping or racing cars on their iPad.
0.14am: Almost unnoticed, the crew has opened the flap, which has an area of several square metres and protects the telescope mounted in the rear part of the fuselage during take-off and landing. “If we didn’t know the hatch was open, we wouldn’t notice it,” says Asher. “The aerodynamics engineers have done a fantastic job.”