Encounter With Apollo 8
Thirty years ago, on Christmas day 1968, I hurried the family through a very early gift exchange and headed for Base Operations at Patrick AFB, FL to file my clearance for a flight to the Pacific for the purpose of photographing Apollo 8 upon its return from the moon. The plane was a C-135 (a Boeing 707 in the civilian world) with a very large camera mounted on the left side of the fuselage; the whole system being called "ALOTS," (Airborne Lightweight Optical Tracking System). We had used it very successfully for photo coverage of space flight launches, but no one had thought seriously of using it to photograph a re-entry until this flight was conceived.
Now flying an airplane to the Pacific at that point in my flying career was not an overly exciting event (particularly on Christmas Day), but the idea of an intercept between two vehicles with such a tremendous speed differential added a sense of urgency and a touch of drama from my point of reference that I would always remember. I had a feeling of "come on fellas let's get going, they're coming." And when I would actually think of how fast they were coming and how slow we were moving it only heightened the anxiety, Lt. Col Walt Milam was the co-pilot and Maj. Charlie Hinton (the world's greatest navigator) was giving the directions. Additionally, there was an ALOTS crew of about five members to operate the camera from its remote control station back in the fuselage of the aircraft.
We were required to take a minimum crew rest after arriving at Hickam AFB (Honolulu International Airport), but that feeling of "let's get going" persisted because the Apollo 8 crew was certainly not doing any crew resting. Well, a remarkable thing happened about midnight as we gathered for departure from our downtown hotel; the crew transportation arrived on time, no traffic jams were encountered getting to the base, the weather was beautiful, and all four engines started with no problems (the latter not always being a given when you were really in a bind) and we were airborne on time for the final leg of our rendezvous with Apollo 8. We flew to a position about 1,200 miles west and a little south of Hawaii climbing eventually to 43,000 feet. It was a beautiful clear night in the Pacific.
Charlie Hinton gave me a heading change from southwest to north east precisely as he had planned. I held that heading for approximately two minutes, much like a holding pattern, and then Charlie said, "Look to your left, they should be there right - now-w-w." It was a moment I will always remember. It should not have surprised me, but it did. They were there, over my left shoulder I could see a faint light coming from the west at horizon level, getting noticeably brighter with each passing second. It seemed unreal. Could this be happening?
In the fashion of a Bob Newhart comedy routine it could have been made to sound humorous, e.g. - You are where? You say you are in the center of the Pacific in the middle of the night, at 43,000 feet, and you are going to photograph this space ship coming back from the moon, you see it now? etc.
The initial shock was over and I got back to business hurriedly because Apollo 8 was really moving. It was still bothering me however, that it was coming from just over the horizon. Some how coming from the moon I expected it to arrive from somewhere "up there" . The space craft was really getting bright. The sky began to light up as the command module separated from the service module. They arched apart much in the same manner as the old Roman candle fireworks tubes would send their discharged balls arching though the night.
It was difficult, but at that moment I had to quit being a spectator and get back to flying the airplane and commence the required right turn so as to keep the camera on the passing spacecraft. This necessary action caused me to miss the real spectacular of the service module breaking up with the attendant generation of light that turned night into day momentarily. All of the other crew members in the cockpit got to enjoy it however. The camera crew in the back of the plane became so fascinated with the big flash of the service module that they even centered the camera on it momentarily rather than on the command module which was our primary target.
I had started making my turn using the auto pilot but because I had become overly fascinated watching the spectacular light display or perhaps I simply underestimated the crossing speed (it wasn't a thing that you got to practice) I quickly realized that the maximum 38 degrees of bank that the auto pilot was providing was not going to give a sufficient rate of turn. I punched off the auto pilot and started increasing the bank.
Now at 43,000 feet that old girl did not have a lot left over and objected to that steep turn I was forcing her into. She let me know about it with a shudder or so. The crew was so fascinated with the whole show that I could have probably slow rolled it and they would not have noticed.
I was able to get off of the gauges again and followed visually its diminishing light into an eastern horizon that was just beginning to show the faintest indication of the coming day and the successful return of Apollo 8. It was a very memorable experience. I considered myself very fortunate to have been on the scene of such an eminently successful achievement; man returning from the moon for the first time. The fact that I had known Col. Borman, the Commander of the mission, when we were test pilots at Edwards AFB earlier in our careers, made the event even more meaningful.
This article is from "The Intercom" of Cape Canaveral Chapter of TROA, and is written by Lt. Col Robert Mosley, Retired.
Submitted by Charles Hinton