over 10 years now RAF Fairford has been a “Trans Oceanic Abort
Landing” (TAL) site for NASA’s orbital vehicle, the Space
Shuttle, and is now the only NASA diversion site in the UK.
Previously RAF Upper Heyford was also a divert site.
As well as having a long runway for an abort landing Fairford
has NASA trained fire and medical crews on site ready to
deal with a shuttle landing.
The decision to divert to Fairford
would depend on the vehicle’s launch angle/inclination and the
suitability of other diversion sites.
In recent years with most shuttle missions heading for the
International Space Station Fairford has seen more than its
usual share of ‘standbys’.
The shuttle would make it’s landing approach approximately 35
minutes after launch having jettisoned the booster rockets,
dumped as much internal fuel and propellants as possible and
configured itself for landing. An emergency clearance corridor
through England’s air traffic would be opened up allowing the
shuttle to glide supersonically towards Fairford. Unlike normal
air vehicles it would have no engines or thrust available to it,
all movements would be at the expense of airspeed, a finite
resource that has to last until touchdown. There would also only
be one attempt at the approach, it would have to be right first
time, although it is something that is well practiced by the
shuttle pilots in NASA’s simulators.
The runway requirements for an aborted landing are around 9000 feet
and with Fairford’s runway at 10,000 feet the shuttle’s
would touch it down at the start of the runway to allow it to
use every inch of tarmac. With an
approach speed of 250 knots the computers would also use the brakes
and braking chute to maximum effect aiming to slow the Shuttle
down in the same distance as a normal aircraft would use.
Once the vehicle has stopped the area is made a bio control zone
with medical staff responsible for sampling air quality and
looking for signs of personnel contamination.
The shuttle would begin “venting”, a process where fuel tanks
and the crew compartment are depressurised to
reduce the risk of an explosion, the same as many other aircraft
would do. Light signals between rescue
and shuttle crews would determine whether an assisted emergency
egress is needed or a slower and less dramatic exit is
The biggest hazard to the rescue crew would be some of the
chemicals the Shuttle carries. With space being a vacuum the
propellants are designed to burn without oxygen or have their
own source making any attempts to extinguish them difficult. With
the impact of a crash landing being so strong care would also
need to be taken with the internal tanks, although the very
nature of the Shuttle’s mission means these tanks are a lot
stronger than usual.
Although the Shuttle is an unusual aircraft for Fairford to deal
with NASA only make the base a diversion site because of the
preparation and training they have given people at Fairford.
Regular exercises, training courses in the US and visits by NASA
officials mean nothing would come as a surprise to the people at
RAF Fairford should the Shuttle ever appear and once it had
landed a world class recovery effort would get the crew to
safety. The same applies for the Shuttle’s crew, they are
trained in simulators and training aircraft to land the Shuttle
away from home safely and have practiced such landings many
landing area has been made safe NASA would then begin to arrange
transfer of the shuttle back to America. Several cranes would be
bought in to lift dismantled parts of the shuttle on the back of
a special 747 before they are carried back to Edwards AFB for
repair and re-assembly.
diagrams were from NASA’s web.