<span class="italic">Columbia</span> Recovery Air Search Operation Overview

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Release date: 
March 23, 2003
Release Number: 

Lufkin, TX -- The Texas Forest Service working with The U.S Forest Service, manages Space Shuttle Recovery Air Operations by virtue of their extensive experience and their history of success. The air search has been an integral part of the recovery process from the beginning of the operation.

"When we began the search process to retrieve shuttle material, we realized the extraordinary land mass upon which debris from the Shuttle Columbia may have fallen and therefore would require an air search operation," said NASA Oversight Manager, Lufkin DFO, Allen Flynt. "The air operation is making a very important contribution to the recovery outcome," he said. "We are especially appreciative of the effort put forth by the Texas Forest Service."

"We rely on air operations to fly search area grids, complementing our ground search crews," said NASA Air Boss Butch Wilmore. "We are using 36 helicopters that are contracted through the U.S. Forest Service. They are all highly skilled and committed to this work."

On an average day, a helicopter can search 900 acres of a 3,300-acre search grid. The grids, set up by NASA, define the search area for land and water operations as well as the air operations component. If a grid is found to contain too much canopy (tree cover) or is too close to residences or livestock, the flight crew advises ground search personnel who cover the area.

Each helicopter has a crew that includes a pilot, who has the singular responsibility of flying the aircraft; an aircraft manager, who has responsibility for communicating with the base and other aircraft in the area, and for providing search coordinates for the pilot, using a global positioning system receiver; and a NASA spotter, who has responsibility for searching the ground using gyro-stabilized binoculars. A second spotter is often on-board if weight limits and room allow.

"With the helicopters we are able to search a considerable amount of land in a relatively expeditious manner," said Charles "Boo" Walker, Air Boss for the Texas Forest Service. "We cover outlying areas that have indicated the probability of debris, though not in great quantity. Because the helicopters fly about 20 feet off the ground at a speed of 5-10 knots, they are finding small pieces as well as large pieces. The spotters are doing a great job."

Complementing the search of the helicopters are fixed-wing aircraft. Ten of these aircraft, two of which are operated by the U.S. Forest Service, the others are contracted, fly above the helicopters serving as spotters and a communication link with the airport. At low altitude, the helicopters lose direct communication with the airport authorities. "Fixed-wing aircraft coordinate the air space for the helicopters, for local traffic, for the DC-3 surveys and for news helicopters," said Bruce Wicks, U.S. Forest Service Aviation Coordinator. "It is a matter of safety."


  • Fixed-wing aircraft fly at 2,000 to 5,000 feet.
  • Aircraft log between 200 to 250 hours a day.
  • Aircraft fly out of Angelina County Airport, Palestine Airport and Lubbock Airport.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration is providing two portable control towers for the search.
  • To date, approximately1.3 million acres have been covered by air teams and more than 900 items have been recovered.
Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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