National Weather Service radar imagery of the reentry trail of
"Columbia" over eastern Texas and Louisiana
A National Tragedy
On January 16th,
2003, the space shuttle Columbia launched into orbit, carrying numerous
science research experiments. Sixteen days after what was then called a
textbook launch, and only sixteen short minutes until its arrival at the Kennedy
Space Center in Florida, Columbia broke up during re-entry to the Earth’s
atmosphere on February 1st, 2003. Debris from the shuttle rained down to the ground from an altitude
of 38 miles over the state of Texas.
Immediately, a search for the debris commenced. An aerial search aided ground searchers by
covering vast areas in less manpower. Pilots and crews from across the
nation were called into the effort.
The challenge of finding
shuttle debris by spending hours at a time in the air searching a 2-mile grid
along lines marked 30 feet apart attracted many from far and wide.
Answering the Call...
A member of the search
effort for fragments of Columbia was Jules Francis “Buzz” Mier. Born in
Louisiana, the 56-year-old got his first taste for flying while in Army where,
as one of the top graduates of his pilot training class, he was sent to Vietnam,
racking up over a thousand combat hours, and earning several medals for merit
and heroism under fire. After his tour in Vietnam, “Buzz” served as an advanced
instrument flight instructor at Fort Rucker, Alabama, for nearly 20 years, while
for 10 years concurrently a member of the Alabama Air National Guard’s
1133rd Medevac Air Ambulance unit.
In the spring
of 1996, he joined 'Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters'
of Arizona to fly tourists over the Grand Canyon. He had also flown numerous
and diverse contract work flights, from work on power line and commercial film
charters, to flying Fish and Game personnel. He had over 8,200 total
flight hours in helicopters, with over 150 hours in the Bell 407, and the
loss of the Columbia led to him working a contract with the Texas Forest Service
to assist in locating and recovery shuttle debris in remote areas of the state’s
Managing the search crew
aboard the helicopter was
Born in Bay City, Texas, in 1954,
was hired in 1977 by the Texas
Forest Service and within six years he was promoted to Forest Technician III,
the highest technician level in the agency. . Married, and
with one son, he set the standard for forest technicians and was recognized as
one of his agency’s best ambassadors for working with external agencies and the
public, being decorated with the Director's Award for Field Technician in
1984, the Texas Forest Service Director's Award for Team Effort in 1989, and
was presented with the service’s Best Maintained Unit Award in 1994.
Charles was an aviation specialist and assisted in maintaining and operating air
tanker retardant plants, helo-bases and support equipment in mitigation and
fire-suppression efforts. He served as a wild land firefighter, worked with fire
prevention teams and assisted the Texas Forest Service’s incident management
team. His 26 years of overall experience would aid greatly in the recovery
Nearly two months into the effort,
about 1.3 million acres had
been searched and more than 900 items were recovered as a result of the air
On March 27th, 2003, three others would
join the pair in one of
Papillon Airways Bell 407 helicopters:
Richard Lange, an employee of the United Space Alliance at Kennedy Space
Center in Florida, who worked on shuttle pad 39A with the cold oxygen and
hydrogen tanks that give the shuttle electricity; Ronnie Dale, also of
the Kennedy Space Center, and a 12-year veteran working on quality
control for the shuttle program; and Matt Tschacher of the U.S. Forest
Service in South Dakota.
The helicopter, tail number
N175PA, took off
shortly after 3:15 PM on that March day,
near the Angelina National
Forest in San Augustine County, near Broaddus, Texas, on its second search
mission of the day, hovering about 125 feet above the ground. Over an hour
into the flight, a problem developed. Low to the ground, and nearly
brushing the treetops as it was, there was little time to react.
William Dickerson of San Augustine, Texas, said he
and his nephew were on a fishing trip and saw the helicopter fly overhead.
Dickerson said the helicopter suddenly went silent, then crashed into the trees,
according to the Houston Chronicle.
"When we heard it, we knew what it had to
be," he said. "It was just like the motor went dead." Dickerson said the
helicopter landed in a swampy area, with the motor buried in the ground and
pieces of the chopper strewn around. The cockpit section of
the fuselage was found crushed and the main cabin was mostly intact, and
the tail rotor blades were damaged, the stinger broken, and the tail
rotor gearbox was fractured.
From the crash
three in the helicopter's cabin were all injured: Dale
had a punctured lung, Lange had shoulder & hip injuries, and Tschacher suffered a spinal injury. But the occupants of the
cockpit, Krenek and Mier, were killed instantly in the crash.
Dickerson and his nephew helped the
three survivors out of the woods and to the side of the road before going to a
nearby house to call for help. From there, the three survivors
were taken to Memorial Medical Center of East Texas in
Solving the Puzzle...
Air operations of the effort were suspended for 11 days until it
was determined flights could resume under the safest possible
conditions. On April 10th, 2003, the aerial searches for debris resumed.
After the helicopter wreckage was recovered, the
engine, still largely intact and undamaged, was removed and set up in a
testing rig. During the test run, it was discovered that the power lever
angle (PLA) indicator on the Hydro Mechanical Unit (HMU) responded
erratically to normal throttle inputs when the engine was operated in
the electromechanical mode. Interestingly. the engine operated normally
in the manual mode. Further testing and evaluation of the HMU revealed
anomalies with the potentiometer component of the system.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded
that the probable cause of the accident was,
loss of engine power due to erratic fuel flow metering to the engine
resulting from the single point failure of the Position Lever Angle
potentiometer in the hydro-mechanical fuel control unit."
Contributing to the crash was the lack of suitable terrain to execute a
The NTSB went even further
as a result of the findings from the investigation, and mandated the issue of
four safety recommendations (A-03-18 through A-03-21), on May 27, 2003, to the
FAA that addressed the PLA potentiometer deficiencies. As a result, no
further problems have occurred, worldwide, with the PLA units in Bell 407s.
In its final report, issued August 23rd, 2003, the Columbia
Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) determined the cause of the Columbia's
breakup to have originated 82 seconds after launch, when a large piece of foam
insulating material from the external tank broke free and struck the leading
edge of the shuttle's left wing, damaging the protective carbon heat shielding
panels. This damage allowed super-heated gases to enter the wing structure
during re-entry into the earth's atmosphere and caused the destruction of the
The Board further found that the problem of debris shedding
from the external tank was well known and had caused shuttle damage on every
prior shuttle flight. The damage was usually, but not always, minor. Over time,
management gained confidence that it was an acceptable risk. The CAIB found that
this should not have happened.
When NASA's Mars Exploration Rover "Spirit" landed on Mars
January 3rd, 2004, it brought with it a small commemorative plaque bearing the
names of the seven astronauts. Spirit's landing area on Mars will now be known
as the Columbia Memorial Station
September 10, 2004,
Krenek was awarded the "Star
of Texas" Award by Texas Governor Rick Perry, for bravery, courage, and
determination in assisting others.
In Hemphill, Texas, a 1-ton, 5-foot-tall
column is engraved with the names of Columbia's crew: Laurel Clark, Kalpana
Chawla, Rick Husband, William "Willie" McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown and
Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut in space.
However, also recognized
at the site of the Hemphill memorial, were Charles Krenek & "Buzz" Mier.
three-quarter-ton, 2-foot-tall monument, bears thier names as well,
representative of their sacrifice during the debris search: