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Stunt Pilot Swoops In for NASA Role

Hollywood helicopter ace and his crew will try to hook a payload of stardust in midair.

August 17, 2004|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Hovering 4,000 feet above brown salt flats in Utah, Hollywood stunt pilot Cliff Fleming and a cabin full of NASA contractors scanned for any sparkle in the sky.

The payload master pointed to the top of the helicopter's windshield.

"Tallyho! Tallyho!" Fleming hollered.

Fleming makes his living as a movie pilot. He has swooped after sky surfers in the action movie "XXX" and towed actor Pierce Brosnan through the air in "Dante's Peak."

But at this April exercise, at a military training range 70 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the 54-year old ex-Marine pilot was preparing for a different star event -- snagging a space probe full of solar ions as it returns to Earth.

On Sept. 8, Fleming aims to hook in midair a 450-pound reentry capsule from NASA's Genesis probe. Aboard the capsule are 0.4 milligrams of oxygen, nitrogen and other particles blown by the solar winds. Studying the samples will help researchers learn how the objects in our solar system formed billions of years ago.

So sensitive are the delicate instruments and plates used to collect the particles that scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena decided they could not risk a bumpy landing on Earth. Instead, they are relying on Fleming's skill to grab the package with a 20-foot-long hook from his helicopter.

When he first heard the idea six years ago, Fleming said, all he could think was: "You've got to be kidding."

Now, he has completed dozens of practice runs in preparation for Genesis' return. Catching a capsule in midair will never be a routine maneuver, but Fleming now deems the stunt "feasible."

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Catching stardust is a tricky operation whether in Earth's atmosphere or in space.

The $260-million Genesis probe is NASA's first effort to bring chunks of space back to Earth since the 1970s, when U.S. Apollo flights and Soviet Luna spacecraft brought back moon rocks.

Launched in 2001, the craft spent 28 months collecting solar particles about 91 million miles from the sun.

Oxygen, nitrogen and 60 other elements, heated to about 180,000 degrees, bombarded five collector plates and a separate collector designed to funnel the particles into a concentrated sample. The particles embedded themselves into lattices of ultra-pure silicon, sapphire and other materials.

This April, a cover closed over the collectors, and Genesis turned back for Earth.

Now -- the really tricky part.

Early on Sept. 8, Genesis' reentry capsule will hit Earth's atmosphere at 24,700 mph.

About 6 1/2 minutes into its descent, a rectangular parachute, or parafoil, will pop out, slowing the craft to about 25 mph. NASA engineers will aim for an ellipse about 16 miles by 26 miles above Utah.

An Air Force dispatcher will bring helicopters within about seven miles of the returning capsule. Fleming is the primary catcher, with a second helicopter, piloted by Dan Rudert, following as a backup.

Once Fleming spots the canister, he will close in behind it as his payload master lowers a pole fixed with a hook at the end. Fleming's goal is to hit the parafoil just off-center.

If he misses, he and Rudert can keep trying until the canister drops to 1,500 feet above the ground. Then, the capsule will have to float down on its own.

After catching the probe, he will carefully lower the canister to the ground at the Utah Testing and Training Range, avoiding possible unexploded bombs that litter parts of the area. A crew from a second helicopter will snip off the parafoil, then Fleming will take the load aloft again and fly it about 30 miles to a clean room at Michael Army Airfield in Utah.

Fleming, a chummy teddy bear type who takes on the glare of a gunfighter when piloting his helicopter, said the maneuver rates "an 8 or a 9" out of 10 in difficulty.

"My part is simple," said Fleming, whose company is being paid $500,000 for its part in the six-year mission. "It's NASA that has to get the capsule to me. It's like I'm waiting for a pop fly."

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Fleming is squeezing the midair capture of Genesis in between filming for "Batman 5," starring Christian Bale, and the second "XXX" movie, starring Ice Cube, due out in 2005.

He figures he has worked on about 100 movies, 25 television episodes and hundreds of commercials. He has chauffeured cameramen filming Billy Crystal on horseback in "City Slickers" and helped Meryl Streep navigate whitewater rapids with lines attached to a raft in "The River Wild."

Catching things in the air is not in his usual repertoire.

The technique was perfected by the military, which has been catching things midair with planes and later helicopters since World War II.

In the 1960s, the Air Force used midair retrievals to recover reconnaissance data. But the military lost interest in the maneuver by the mid-1980s as surveillance drones became more sophisticated and satellites gained the ability to digitally transmit their images.

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