Sunday, November 24, 2013

Shangri-La, we have a problem . . .


Watching an episode of that marvelous show QI with Stephen Fry, there was a reference to a incident concerning astronaut James Lovell (1928 - ). Lovell was the commander of the ill fated 1970 Apollo 13 mission that malfunctioned on its way to the moon yet managed to come home safely. He was played by Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13.

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By the way:

Lovell did not say “Houston, we have a problem.” 

Not only did ho not say it, he wasn’t even the first to not say it.  That honour belongs to fellow astronaut John Swigert Jnr. 

The actual wording was:

Swigert: 'Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here.' 

Houston: 'This is Houston. Say again please.' 

Lovell: 'Houston, we've had a problem. We've had a main B bus undervolt.'

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Lovell was also the command module pilot of Apollo 8, the first Apollo mission to enter lunar orbit, and one of only 24 people to have flown to the moon. He is the first of only three people to have flown to the moon twice, and the only one to have flown there twice without making a landing. Lovell was the first person to fly in space four times.

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President Clinton poses with actor Tom Hanks (left) and former astronaut James Lovell in the Oval Office on July 26, 1995, after presenting Lovell with the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.

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About the incident I mentioned . . .

After finishing university, Lovell joined the US Navy and became a pilot, flying Banshee night fighters.

In his book, Lost Moon, Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell tells of a close call he had while flying a Banshee off the aircraft carrier Shangri-La in the Sea of Japan. 

It was a very dark night and the problem was that when it came close to the time to land he couldn't find the carrier. He was following a homing signal but instead of leading him to the carrier it was leading him away from it. The homing signal that he was following was a different signal that originated on the mainland of Japan and it was broadcasting on the same frequency as the carrier's. 

When he realised that he wasn't where he was supposed to be, Lovell turned to his knee board. Back then pilots used to have a little board that they attached to the top of their knees. On it was written all the day's communication codes. Those codes were given to the pilots just before they took off and Lovell needed some of the codes to communicate with the carrier. 

The problem was that the codes were written in such tiny print that in the past Lovell had had trouble reading them in the dim light of the cockpit. Lovell had therefore devised what he thought was an ingenious invention. He had collected some spare parts and made up a little light that he attached to his knee board. He could plug it into the airplane's electrical receptacle and all he had to do was flip a switch, it would then give him enough light to read the knee board. This would be his first chance to try out his invention. 

When he flipped the switch there was a brilliant flash of light and everything went black. Lovell had overloaded the circuitry and it had shorted itself out, losing every bulb in the instrument panel. He quickly got out his tiny flashlight to look over his instrument panel. He knew that he was in a lot of trouble and thought that he might have to ditch in the sea. After a few seconds he switched his flashlight off and contemplated what he was going to do. 

That's when he saw, far below, a faint greenish glow that formed a shimmery trail in the water. The propellers of the aircraft carrier had disturbed some phosphorescent algae in the water and churned it so that it glowed faintly. Lovell followed this trail and soon found his carrier. He later said that if his cockpit lights had not have shorted out, he never would have seen the phosphorescent trail, it could only be seen in the pitch dark. The shorting out of his instrument lights had actually saved him. 

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The following account of that incident is from the Apollo 13 movie:

Television Reporter: Is there a specific instance in an airplane emergency when you can recall fear?

Jim Lovell: Uh well, I'll tell ya, I remember this one time - I'm in a Banshee at night in combat conditions, so there's no running lights on the carrier. It was the Shrangri-La, and we were in the Sea of Japan and my radar had jammed, and my homing signal was gone... because somebody in Japan was actually using the same frequency. And so it was - it was leading me away from where I was supposed to be. And I'm lookin' down at a big, black ocean, so I flip on my map light, and then suddenly: zap. Everything shorts out right there in my cockpit. All my instruments are gone. My lights are gone. And I can't even tell now what my altitude is. I know I'm running out of fuel, so I'm thinking about ditching in the ocean. And I, I look down there, and then in the darkness there's this uh, there's this green trail. It's like a long carpet that's just laid out right beneath me. And it was the algae, right? It was that phosphorescent stuff that gets churned up in the wake of a big ship. And it was - it was - it was leading me home. You know? If my cockpit lights hadn't shorted out, there's no way I'd ever been able to see that. So uh, you, uh, never know... what... what events are to transpire to get you home.

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That, however, was not the end of it. 

Lovell managed to make it back to his aircraft carrier without instruments in a blacked out cockpit by following the faint phosphorescent trail of the disturbed algae but he still had to land his plane on the carrier’s deck. 

On first approach, without instruments, believing that he was approaching the deck at 75 metres/250 feet, he realised at the last moment that he was actually only 6metres/20 feet above the water. 

Hauling back hard on his stick he screamed back up in the Banshee. On the next approach he came in at 150metres/500 feet, higher than the norm.  He decided to drop to the deck rather than possibly slam into the stern of the carrier. 

The landing worked but was hard, slamming into the deck and blowing two tyres. His skidding aircraft came to a violent stop when the tailhook caught the last cross-deck cable.

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