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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

As a result, by the time NASA began planning Genesis' return in the late 1990s, there were few military pilots left with the necessary experience. There was no way to guarantee that those who were around would still be based in the Southwest by the time Genesis returned, said Roy Haggard, who designed the system NASA will use to retrieve Genesis.

When Haggard, chief executive of Vertigo Inc., an aerospace research company based in Lake Elsinore, Calif., began looking for pilots who could pull off the maneuver, he realized that stunt pilots had the right stuff. "These helicopter pilots fly down a curvy road down the back of a convertible, carrying a camera and staying close to a car. That's not that different from midair retrieval," he said.

Haggard asked directors and stuntmen for recommendations. They kept pointing to Fleming.

Standing inside South Coast Helicopters' hangar at John Wayne Airport, Fleming explained that there were a few key differences between flying movie stars and snagging space capsules.

First, there is the altitude issue. Most helicopter pilots fly about 500 feet above the ground, but this mission would require flying at about 4,000 feet, where pilots have trouble spotting landmarks that help determine altitude and speed.

Second, he has to fly much slower than the typical helicopter speed of 85 mph. At some points, the helicopter would slow its forward motion to a wobbly 25 mph.

Haggard and the helicopter pilots have practiced hitting the parafoil with just the pole 60 times and hooking the parachute 11 times. Only once did they encounter problems catching it: The parafoil came close to hitting the rear rotor of Rudert's helicopter the first time he tried to hook the practice capsule.

"I won't miss," Fleming said.

*

If all goes as planned, Caltech geochemist Donald Burnett, the principal scientific investigator on the Genesis project, will open the capsule to reveal traces of what could be the material that gave birth to all the objects in our solar system.

The solar system was created about 4.6 billion years ago out of a homogenous cloud of interstellar gas, dust and ice known as the solar nebula. Over time, these materials came together and formed the planets, moons, asteroids and comets.

But what exactly was the makeup of this interstellar material?

"Every moon and every asteroid we know is different," Burnett said. "But diversity started from an environment where everything was homogeneous. What Genesis tells us is the starting composition. It is the basis of theories about how the solar system got to where it is today."

Burnett has been working on this project for 21 years, and now, everything rides on the reliability of the capsule's parachute system and the skill of the helicopter pilots.

Fleming admitted he is a little nervous about the high-stakes mission. "That's a pretty pricey piece of merchandise," he said.

Fleming has seen snippets of himself in movies. He is usually faking a fiery crash into a skyscraper or spinning his helicopter in an inevitably tragic spiral.

But with the Genesis retrieval -- every second of which will be filmed by a chase helicopter -- he is hoping for no Hollywood drama.

"A lot of people will be watching us," he said. "You can either be a hero or a schmo."

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