A MOON SHOT
by Dick Hefton
Reflections? An assignment to look back.
I watched a documentary the other night on ABC, “1969,” which featured Man’s First Walk on the Moon, a peerless accomplishment in socially turbulent times which added even greater significance to the wonder of the ages.
I was not on scene for Apollo 11, at the Cape the July day Michael Collins dropped off Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for the moon landing but the film struck a nostalgic note for that momentous event had inspired me to experience the drama at the launch site – an idle wish which would soon be forgotten but destined to happen!
It was mid-November, ’69 when moon trip # 2, Apollo 12, was scheduled and with less than 10 days prior to launch a serious thought of actually attending appeared possible. At the time I was spending most all my free time serving as a flight leader in an Air National Guard fighter squadron nervously awaiting a call to Vietnam and serving as publisher-GM of the McAlester News Capital, Speaker Carl Albert’s hometown. My new wingman, Bob Haney was fresh from a combat tour in Nam (surely more nervous than the other pilots) came back to be publisher-editor of The Latimer County Tribune in nearby Wilburton.
Out of the Blue, so to speak, Haney asked why we didn’t try to make the launch and the plot began to jell! Back to our regular jobs next day, we both put in a call to Charley Ward, Mr. Speaker’s chief of staff, to ask if he could arrange press credentials to the Cape Canaveral launch. Charley was aghast but offered to ask NASA press relations to make an exception which they did but warned that auto into the area was prohibitive and commercial and private air into the area would be impossible.
Undeterred, as weekend flying in the squadron was used for individual training. We both needed instrument flying upgrades so were assigned a two-seater jet for a weekend practice and once approved we hurried to contact Patrick Air Force Base at the Cape for landing clearance there on Saturday. Traffic reservations were restricted to, diplomatic, Air Force One and the Special Air Mission. Schedulers never requested citation or special orders and readily assigned our aircraft a 5-minute landing envelope set about 3 hours before launch which we nailed.
Out of our flight suits, we caught a ride to the press entrance and found our seats in the partially covered bleachers some 3-miles from the gantry where the bemouth stood. Pre-launch delay turns to a gay mood there with all the veteran national correspondents upstaging one another. As a coastal storm cell gathered over the cape several more delays began to hint at cancellation. But hope at launch control was focused on both a cancellation and a disappointed President Richard Nixon and his daughter. (to be the first president to view a launch, since Nixon had not been down for Apollo 11, but arrived to meet the team on their own arrival.)
Rain and clouds had dropped ceilings to about 100 -feet, all but the gantry was totally hidden. Last chance time passed, seemingly scuttling the launch, but in an instance the countdown began. The gantry lit up furiously, the roar overwhelmed, bracing fell away amid the inferno. Storm clouds amplified the horrible unseen sound and quickly illuminated the cover. Just as fire was leaving the gantry in the midst of chaos two symmetrical bolts of lightning shot down on the wasted gantry. Simultaneously, radio communications were lost with Apollo; the unseen vehicle along with the amplified sound stated the convincingly the missile had turned on the crowd. The once sophisticated veterans (as well as the novices) in our midst were screaming and diving under the crude built-in work tables. But Illumination and noise reduced and in minutes communication was restored. The show was virtually over.
But not for us. Our problem of getting back to the airbase became front and center. As we walked the long line of television crews loading equipment we stopped and asked the NBC crew for a lift. They were full but offered to let us ride on the tailgate allowing they had another stop at NASA headquarters to film the president. a crowd there was cordoned off for arrival of Marine One and two escort helicopters. Nixon and his daughter arrived and were escorted into the building. As they departed a Marine escort pilot walked nearby and we showed him our military ID and asked if he was headed to Patrick, which he indeed was, as he too had a trip assigned. The side trip was to meet cabin crew of the vice president’s aircraft on the once active “Skid Strip” used to recover early recoverable missiles.
The VEEP’s crew boarded; we and the crew enjoyed a 20-minute aerial tour of the entire Kennedy space center, including circles over the smoking gantry.
A change to flight suits, a quick instrument flight clearance approved – winding west, a Fond Farewell to the Cape, facing training requirements in much the same weather presented us by the astronauts.