On Tuesday April 17th I had the chance to photograph a piece of history. The Space Shuttle Discovery made it’s final flight piggybacked on top of a specially designed NASA Boeing 747. It flew from Cape Canaveral Florida to Dulles Airport in Chantilly Virginia. Once it got into the Dulles Airport airspace it made a loop around the DC Metropolitan area and then landed for the last time at Dulles Airport to become part of the Smithsonian’s collection at the Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum annex located at Dulles Airport.
What made this event even more special for me is that I got to witness it from the ‘Front Row’ without having any type of media credentials. I was only 100 yards away from the runway that the Discovery landed on, and right across from the media conglomeration situated on the adjacent runway which was there to video the landing. I was one of only a handful of people that were able to capture this historic event from the angle that I did.
How did I manage such a feat? I was working at my day job at the time if you can believe this. I work for one of the top Power companies in the United States, and because we ‘feed’ the airport I need to be badged to have access within the airport property to help maintain our equipment and keep them ‘with lights’. It turned out that on that Monday we have a small project that needed to be done at our substation on the airport property, and that project would most likely take 3-4 days to complete. When I was told of this news I was ecstatic which surprised the two supervisors who had decided that this was going to happen because they had no idea that the Space Shuttle Discovery was going to be landing on that Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning I brought to work with me my Nikon D3S and my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR with a 2x tele. As I drove to work that morning I tried to keep my expectations low because I know that anything can happen when you work for a utility, and with the event of the day happening at the airport I didn’t know if the ‘Powers that Be’ had gotten wind of it and decided to keep us away. I also didn’t know if the airport security would be tightened down and try to keep the whole area ‘sterile’.
At 9:40am we decided to head out of our secure substation with our trucks to see what it was like along the road. That was when we heard the NASA T-38 Talon rocket by. We looked to our left and there they were making a flyby the airport. They were only about 150ft off of the deck as they cruised over top of the runway. What a grand sight that was! So as they flew off we all raced out to the road excited that we were mere moments from seeing them land.
When we got to the main access road it turned out that few handful of Dulles employees were there parked along the side of road next to the runway, and so we drove to the middle-ish south end of the runway feeling relieved that we were not going to be bothered with the airport security (which by the way are Federal Police). Once parked we climbed on top of the trucks which gave us a great sightline above the fence and we were set to watch history happen.
At the time we thought we were going to see them land shortly, but it turned out that because they were almost a half an hour early it gave them time to give the DC region a better show. So they flew out of our sight for nearly an hour as they flew over the landmarks of DC. That gave me the needed time to situate myself and prep for how I was going to shoot this and remain safe without falling off of the truck. We were about 12-13 feet off of the ground and the wind was blowing at a good steady 15-20mph, and because I wanted to have a clear sighline of the entire landing it meant that I was going to be on the edge of the top of the truck. So what I did was wrap my leg around one of the secured ladders that was on the side of the truck. That gave me the needed security of safety and it allowed me to brace myself when I was shooting to help give me a steadier hand.
Then around 10:40 we saw them flying south of the airport making their way for a final flyby of Dulles before landing. Those final moments watching the 747 line up for the runway was amazing. Seeing the landing gear down knowing that “this was it” had my heart racing. I had gone over all of my settings and checked them 3 times so that I would not miss this opportunity.
It was truly amazing. What a rush being there live to see this that I feel my words do not do it justice. I know several days afterward I was still floating around about this that it got me thinking. Why was it such an euphoric event for me? I grew up here and have seen many things happen, but what made this one so special. I believe it was because I had a special seat, which gave me a unique vantage point to photograph from. The only other images from this side of the landing that I have seen were taken by NASA. I know there were a handful or two of others who had their cameras out shooting, but I can pretty sure gaurantee maybe on one or two had the lens that I had to get the clear shots that I got. Then as I was thinking about this I realized why the real reason is that I loved this SO much. It is what I had always wanted to do, be a photojournalist. That gave me the greatest satisfaction, being there to capture the event.