Twenty-five years ago today, I was learning to fly the A-7 Corsair. My base was NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville, FL on this particular day in 1986 and I would finally have a chance to watch one of the Shuttles fly live with my naked eye. The Shuttle launch complex was 117 nautical miles from where I sat studying; it was a beautiful clear day with great visibility after a cold front passed.
(Found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfnvFnzs91s.)
As the countdown clock ticked off the seconds, my classmate and I studied our NATOPS manuals. As the moment for lift-off neared, we took a few minutes to wander to the south side of the hangar bay to view the launch.
A few minutes after the media reported the launch, we saw the trail of the vehicle racing for the heavens. As we watched, the plume suddenly split into two directions. “That didn’t look right,” I said. He agreed as he turned back to his studying. I looked at him and said, “I’m going over to the ready room to see if they have any information.
“Be back in a moment,” I said as I started down the ladder to the hangar bay.
As I crossed the hanger to the eastern side where the ready room and the offices were located, I was aware of the chill in the air.
I walked into the ready room to find all the other pilots standing around the television quietly and subdued. This was not right; these guys were usually loud and boisterous all the time. Now they were almost silent, talking in low voices, most quietly gazing at the TV screen. I joined them.
Just as I looked at the television, there was a replay of the last few seconds of the Shuttle Challenger’s flight—and the explosion.
I could not believe what I just saw on TV.
I realized this was one of those moments in history; I knew I would always remember this instant of time exactly as it unfolded and was seared forever into my mind. Just like for my parents, Pearl Harbor. For the first time for me, the day Kennedy fell in Dallas. There would be other temporal markers I would come to know later – the moment the Twin Towers fell and the fall from the skies of the shuttle Columbia.
For the rest of the day on January 28, 1986, studying my manuals proved to be difficult. My mind just was not with it.
For all those souls lost, from Apollo to Columbia and beyond, rest peacefully.
© 2011 J. Clark