My Other Vehicle Was a Spacecraft

Now that the space shuttle has retired, astronauts are rediscovering the joys of flying airplanes

(Robert Seale)

Astronauts can’t stay astronauts forever. These days, the space shuttles are being readied for display in museums, and commercial space vehicles are years from being able to carry humans to orbit. Though nothing can match the rush of a rocket ride, ex-astronauts continue to experience the thrill of flight by turning to the thing that got many of them hooked on space travel in the first place: the airplane.

Today, even active astronauts—yes, those enviable pilots who routinely get to take one of NASA’s T-38 Talons out for a spin—can find fulfillment by flying low and (relatively) slow. Which airplanes are astronauts turning to? Some of their choices may surprise you.

Leroy Chiao (pictured) is crazy about his Grumman AA-5B Tiger. “It has a sliding canopy—kind of sexy for a little airplane,” he says. “It’s got something about it. I like its handling qualities. It feels good, so intuitive. It’s been a great airplane.”

He’s owned the Tiger for 12 years, and before he and his wife had children, they flew it everywhere. She loved it too, he says. “One incident: We were flying to her brother in Atlanta. Over the mountains we descended in the goo. All of a sudden, the stall warning horn starts going off. I looked at the airspeed, and the airspeed is fine. So I reached over and pulled the fuse out to stop it. The micro-switch had failed. She thought that was great fun.”

Now they have five-year-old twins. “After the twins, the superstition thing kicked in,” says Chiao, who flew on three space shuttle flights and was the commander of a mission aboard the International Space Station before leaving NASA in December 2005. “She said, ‘I used up all my luck, and I don’t want the kids to go up.’ ” So he promised to keep them out of the Tiger, though he expects they’ll start clamoring to fly soon enough. “They are interested in airplanes and rockets,” he says.

Chiao, now a speaker and aerospace consultant, flies his airplane about once a month, usually to attend a business meeting. But when the weather is nice, he takes the Tiger for an occasional joyride. His dream aircraft? A single-pilot business jet.

Phil Scott is the author of seven books, most recently Then & Now: How Airplanes Got This Way (Sporty’s, 2011).

Robert Seale is a Houston photographer who specializes in portraits of athletes and celebrities. Recently, he has been photographing aviation personalities, including the Doolittle Raiders (“The Raiders Remember,” Sept. 2011). His dream is to photograph Chuck Yeager.

Bill Anders - North American P-51

Bill Anders
(Erik Hildebrandt)

What does Bill Anders love about his P-51 Mustang? Speed. He also finds the Mustang fun to fly in formation. Takeoffs, though, can be tricky due to the aircraft’s high-torque engine, says Anders, who was part of the three-man Apollo 8 crew that circled the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

After Anders purchased his P-51, he oversaw a restoration that lasted several months and included rebuilding the engine and installing avionics. A U.S. Air Force pilot before he entered NASA, Anders decided to paint the Mustang in the colors of one of his old fighter squadrons, the 57th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, which was based in Iceland. Since his wife’s name is Valerie, he named the aircraft Val-Halla.

Anders flew Val-Halla for five years at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, before donating it to his family’s Heritage Flight Museum in Bellingham, Washington. At $2,500 an hour, the Mustang is not a cheap ride. Fortunately for Anders, he can still fly Val-Halla at airshows.


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