Pilot Gives His Account of Witnessing Antares’ Failure from the Air
The private pilot who shot the video of Tuesday’s Antares launch failure out the window of his Cessna said the explosion, while spectacular, looks much bigger in his video than it looked to his naked eyes — a difference, he said, that helps account for the video’s popularity (over 220,000 views on YouTube as of midday Wednesday).
We reached out to the pilot, Ed Sealing of Columbia, Maryland, for his firsthand account of how he came to witness Antares’ failure while flying just west of Wallops at about 900 meters.
Here, with minimal editing, is what Sealing wrote back:
My father and I share a 1977 Cessna 177B Cardinal (we’ve both been pilots for [about] 10 years now). We are based out of W29, Bay Bridge Airport. I saw an article on Google News saying that [Monday’s] launch had been scrubbed, but there was a 95 [percent] chance of good weather for a 6:22 p.m. launch [Tuesday]. I called him around 3 p.m. to see if he wanted to fly out to Wallops Island to see the rocket launch from the air. I have never seen a rocket launch before (and at this rate, probably never will), and figured seeing it from the air would be a great experience. It was a 45-minute flight to get out there, cruising at 3000 feet. We contacted Wallops Flight Center on the radio when we were getting close to see if there were other aircraft in the area and validate that no [Temporary Flight Restrictions] had suddenly appeared. There were three other aircraft in the area: two helicopters operating south of the R-6604 airspace at 500 feet, and a [general aviation] plane at 2000ft.
We slowed down to [about] 90 knots (normally cruise at 115 knots) and did some slow turns for about 10 minutes while waiting for the launch time. My father is big on safety (for good reasons, as I am still learning), so we actually stayed 5-6 miles outside of the restricted zone, putting us about 8-9 miles from the launch site. I would definitely consider that a safe distance. The Wallops tower announced launch warnings on the radio (2 min., 1 min., 30 sec). I use an iPad Mini with ForeFlight for navigation, so turned the camera on with it and started filming the launch.
The explosion (which was very unfortunate) was a pretty spectacular and unexpected site from the air. I will say that glare of the window and the low lighting make it look a lot bigger than it was seeing it with your eyes (probably why the video spurred so much hype). For safety reasons, as soon as the rocket exploded, we turned tail and headed back to home base, so as not to interfere with any of the damage assessment and clean-up operations.
I truly hope that Orbital Sciences is able to recover from the Antares incident and continues building and flying rockets, and that the Government doesn’t take any irrational measures as a result of this. I’m an avid believer that this world needs more private industry in the space program, and that is the only way to spur innovation and exploration. And I’m sure I’m not the only General Aviation member to feel this way.
SpaceNews intern Jonathan Charlton is a senior at Boston College. He blogs about aviation on Aviation.com.