An Airplane Geek for All Seasons

By Robert Mark on January 27th, 2017

An Airplane Geek for All Seasons

I’ve always found keeping up with the demands of social media to be work, quite a bit of it actually. But I think Scott and I also see the work as a necessary effort. Who else is going to dig between the cracks of the aviation industry for stories you won’t hear anywhere else?

Blogging specifically, is an effort that’s come to feel a bit like AirVenture to me. We work to create great content, but what really keeps us going are the people our work brings us together with.

(left) Take this guy, Micah Engber.

We met after Micah, an avid listener to The Airplane Geeks, another growing chunk of social media I’m part of, sent a question about the Kestrel single-engine turboprop project at the old Brunswick Naval Air Station near his home in Maine. Micah mentioned that his 77-year old mom Harriet listened to the show too and in my inimitable way, I managed to stick a shoe-covered foot in my mouth with a comment about her being the oldest listener we’ve ever had … or something like that.

In a response the following week, Micah must have said something that made feel extremely guilty, because the next thing I knew, both Micah AND his mom Harriet were guests on the show. They both turned out to be lovely, devoted airplane geeks and good friends. I began calling him Micah … our Maine man, a title he seems to be wearing rather proudly ever since.

The rest has been history. Although Micah’s mom passed away a few years ago, an item we took note of on the show, he’s gone on to record a number of really solid industry commentaries for not only the Airplane Geeks, but for other shows including the Airline Pilot Guy, Plane Talking UK, the Plane Safety podcast, Aviation Xtended and even the Plane Talking Safety Tau Crazy Airline Pilot Geeks Spectacular Christmas Extravaganza Live

In my life as pilot and a journalist, there are but a hand full of people whose work I truly admire and Micah’s name has certainly been added to that list.

He produced this piece last week for the Airplane Geeks about the passing of Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon. Having been lucky enough to meet Gene a few times myself, I can only wish to have expressed what I felt the way Micah does in this segment that I wanted to share with Jetwhine readers/listeners.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to give it a listen. You won’t be disappointed.

Rob Mark, Publisher

___________________

God Bless You Gene Cernan, by Micah Engber

Before relating this to you I’d like to offer a brief acknowledgement and a quick disclaimer. First, I need to thank Ray Davis, a listener in the Sydney Australia area. He and I were chatting via Twitter when the news came in about Gene Cernan’s passing. I was lamenting his loss when Ray said “It sounds like you have a story there.” That’s when I realized, I did.

Secondly I need to defer to our historian David Vanderhoof and friend of the show, NASA historian Bill Barry regarding any inaccuracies. Some of the history I’ll relate here may be apocryphal, but it’s how I remember it. So without further adieu, here’s what I call …

God Bless You Gene Cernan

Not sure what to say exactly. The last man on the moon just died. Now both the first and last are gone. We’re fortunate enough to have some in‑betweeners left, 6 to be precise, but these men are both literally and figuratively a dying breed.

Yes, Gene Cernan is dead. At just less than 83 years old the last man on the moon has left earth for his final flight, this one goes west. I didn’t really expect his passing to effect me like this, but it did, and does. Another childhood hero is gone, and one whose name may not be as well known as some others, but a man I’ve always admired and respected.

Sure, I was saddened when we lost John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. Geez, I was upset when Wally Schirra passed. I mean I’d once met Wally Schirra, had him autograph a box of Actifed for me which made him laugh out loud, but still, there’s something about Gene Cernan’s passing that just leaves me melancholy.

I always wanted to meet Gene Cernan, had hoped to do so one day. Everything I ever heard about him from people that knew him said he was a real mensch, a stand-up guy and a pilot’s pilot. I heard him talk, watched him on TV, he knew he was good at what he did, and also knew he was lucky. He suffered a bit from survivors’ guilt. He felt awful that his compadres from flight school were flying off carriers, and sometimes losing their lives in Vietnam, while he had a cushy job with NASA. Cushy job, yea sure.

He started his career in 1958, when he became a Naval Aviator, flying the FJ-4 Fury, which if you think of as a carrier version of the F-86 Sabre you wouldn’t be too far off. After the Fury he moved to the A-4 Skyhawk in Attack Squadrons 126 and 113. When he finished there in Miramar, he then completed his education in 1963 at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School with a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering. It was then he became a part of Astronaut Group 3, the 1963 Astronaut Class that included Buzz Aldrin, Al Bean, and Michael Collins among ten others.

Cushy job! He flew Gemini 9A with Tom Stafford in command, a disaster of a mission in so many ways, but one we learned a lot from. The prime crew, Elliot See and Charlie Bassett died in a plane crash leaving the back‑up crew, Stafford and Cernan, up for the flight. The first launch attempt was scrubbed due to a computer glitch and they lost the launch window. Then their docking target’s payload fairing failed to separate, so the planned rendezvous and docking had to be aborted. And then there was the EVA, a space walk.

Gene Cernan completed a two hour EVA that almost killed him. His space suit cooling system just couldn’t keep up with his body temperature. His visor fogged up, he couldn’t see, he was only able to get through it by regularly clearing small parts of his visor with the tip of his nose. At one point his heartbeat rose to 180 beats per minute. Overheated and with a racing pulse the flight surgeon monitoring from the ground was sure Cernan was going to pass out, but he didn’t.

But you know what the bravest thing of all was? Remember, this was only the USA’s second space walk, and was in fact the third ever in history. Cernan knew going into it that when he left the tiny cabin of the Gemini space craft, and I mean tiny, think a bit smaller than the front seat of an old Volkswagen Beetle, well Cernan knew he might not make it back in. He and Tom Stafford also knew that NASA might not survive the bad publicity if Stafford had to cut Cernan loose to save himself and the spacecraft, so they agreed ahead of time that if Cernan could not get back into the capsule, they would make the re-entry with the astronaut still tethered by his umbilical, even though it would have resulted with them both dying. Talk about the Right Stuff!! Some cushy job huh?!?!

Cernan flew Apollo 10 as Lunar Module Pilot, paired again with Tom Stafford as Mission Commander. John Young was the Command Module Pilot. This was the flight before Apollo 11, the first one to land on the moon. This mission’s primary objective was to test the Lunar Module, and calibrate its guidance system by bringing it less than nine miles from the lunar surface.

There was a crazy part to this mission too! NASA knew what hotshot pilots both Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford were, and being that they were so close, given the opportunity they might just land on the moon, so NASA purposely short-fueled the LEM. NASA made sure that these pilots knew that if they set down on the moon, they wouldn’t have enough fuel to return to the Command Module and earth. Thinking about that gives me shivers and makes me smile at the same time.

Then came Apollo 17, Gene Cernan’s last space flight and our final flight to the moon. For three days Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt lived on the moon, walked on the moon, drove on the moon, and prospected on the moon. For three days!! And then he left, Gene Cernan’s footsteps are the last on the moon.

But before leaving he did something very special. Before climbing into the Lunar Module for the last time, before saying the final words of man spoken from the moon, “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” Before saying that he wrote with his finger, in the dust on the moon, the initials TDC, for his daughter, Teresa Dawn Cernan.

Gene Cernan witnessed and was a major part of the greatest days of NASA. But then he lived and died during what may be some of NASA’s worst times. I just feel awful about that. Look at how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve drifted back. No one has been to the moon in 45 years. The USA no longer has manned spaceflight capability. We’re back to being happy when rockets don’t explode on the launch pad trying to lift a satellite into orbit. It’s like we’re back in the 1950’s again.

And what did we get from the space program some ask? Sure, those who depreciate NASA say I use butter anyway, I don’t need Teflon, or I don’t need a computer in my pocket so exponentially more powerful than those found on the Apollo missions that it’s not worth comparing. But think about some of the other things we have.

Personally I’ve had several magnetic resonance imaging scans, better known as MRI’s that have allowed doctors to see the tissue and joints inside my body without cutting me open. Likewise I’ve had joint repairs and soft tissue repairs completed by doctors without opening me up. For heaven sakes, I’ve watched along, on color high definition TV, as a doctors shoved a tiny camera up my…well shall we say flew it in some highly restricted air-space to check and see if I had colon cancer and while there, removed anything that might become cancerous. So we can say that NASA and the space program has helped keep us alive and well.

Gene Cernan fought to get us back on the moon. He fought for more NASA funding. He testified before Congress, he wrote books, he made films, he did what he could. But it was beyond even his abilities. Here we are in a world where the USA has no manned space capability.

But thank you Gene Cernan. I know if I thanked you in person you would say “I was just doing my job.” I’m sure of that, but your job meant a lot to me and still does. Thanks for doing your job and in this, your final flight, please keep an eye on us if you can.

For the Airplane Geeks here in Portland, Maine,

This is Your Main(e) man,

Micah

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