Friday, November 27, 2020

Alan Cottle: Pilot flies passengers on missions that are out of this world with NASA


When Alan Cottle flies, he often takes his passengers on missions that are out of this world.

Cottle, 59, of Lake Geneva, works as a pilot for NASA and flies the space program’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy aircraft— which is a “specialized performance” 747 airplane that is used for scientific research.

The aircraft— also known as SOFIA— takes a team of scientists about 45,000 feet above the Earth’s atmosphere to study stars, planets, galaxies, blackholes, magnetic particles and cosmic winds.

SOFIA features a telescope that is 9 feet in diameter and other specialized equipment that allows the scientists to conduct their research.

“We have the ability to look at what no other telescope can do— ground-base or space-base,” NASA pilot Andrew Barry said.

The aircraft recently was involved with a mission in which water was found on the moon; however, Cottle said he was not involved with that study.

Cottle began working as for NASA in January and served as an aircraft commanded for his first two SOFIA flights in August.

He said, as aircraft commander, he is responsible for the aircraft and its crew and making sure it is flying at an appropriate height.

“Most of my job is to fly the airplane smoothly, get it as high up as we possibly can, so we can see good and hold good, and maintain speed,” Cottle said.

He said, during one mission, scientists studied the magnetic fields of dust clouds located in the Orion constellation.

“They believe these magnetic fields are forming stars,” Cottle said.

During another mission, crews studied different galaxies and blackholes.

“Quite frankly, sometimes they’re looking at things I don’t understand,” Cottle said. “It’s so complicated.”

Cottle said most SOFIA missions last between eight to 10 hours. He said, despite being about 45,000 feet in the air, the crews do not have to wear any special equipment.

“We all wear flight suits and the NASA stuff,” Cottle said. “Some of the scientists just wear regular clothes.”

The SOFIA program is based out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. The aircraft’s flights take off and return at an airbase facility in Palmdale, California.

“We’re not flying from L.A. to Chicago. We’re not flying from Point A to Point B,” Barry said. “We’re just taking one big sweeping arch across the sky. We’re just looking at one celestial object or a couple.”

Cottle said because of the coronavirus several safety precautions have been put in place for each flight.

He said each flight is limited to 14 crew members, and they are required to wear face masks during the entire flight, and only one crew member can get something to eat or drink at a time.

Cottle said— before each flight— crew members are required to have their temperature taken and they have to complete mask-wearing training.

“It’s NASA, so you can imagine that it’s pretty technical,” he said.

Raquel Cottle, Alan’s wife, said she is proud of her husband flying for NASA, as she feels it is a great career opportunity for him.

She said her husband has shared stories of his flights when he has returned home.

“It’s exciting for us,” Raquel Cottle said. “It’s NASA. His father did some work for NASA, so it’s kind of full circle for him.”

Cottle said he has enjoyed flying for NASA and working with the scientists and other crew members.

“It’s a great organization,” Cottle said. “I don’t think I’ve been involved in any other organization where you look around and you see the quality of pilots, flight engineers, scientists and trainers. They’re tip-top.”

Cottle said one of the more difficult aspects of the job is when the aircraft hits turbulence, which shutdowns the telescope for several minutes and causes scientists to lose sight of the object they were researching.

“If you’ve been waiting five years to do this and you lost 10 minutes of your time, you’re upset,” Cottle said. “That 10 minutes may have been the only time that thing in space was available to you, and you can’t get that time back.”

Cottle said he flew the final SOFIA mission of the year in August. He said the aircraft currently is in Hamburg, Germany for maintenance work and will remain stationed there until the program’s next mission next spring.

Cottle said he is set to fly the spring mission, which will include NASA scientists and scientists from Deutsches Zentrum fur Luftund Raumfahrt, which is Germany’s aerospace program.

He also will pilot a SOFIA mission during the summer, which will fly out of Christ Church, New Zealand.

Before working for NASA, Cottle was a fighter pilot for the U.S. Airforce for about six years, then worked as a commercial pilot for American Airlines for about 24 years.

Cottle said he learned about the SOFIA program from pilots he worked with in the U.S. Airforce.

“They said, ‘You should really come out and try this,’” Cottle said. “I didn’t think I would have a chance to get hired. I mean it’s NASA. I was fortunate enough to get invited out, and they hired me.”

Cottle began training as a NASA pilot in January.

Barry said, as part of the training— which takes about four weeks to complete— pilots attend classroom instruction, practice in a simulator and fly with an instructor.

He said most NASA pilots have previous flying experience with the military or a commercial airline.

“That’s the norm rather than the exception,” Barry said. “People come here with thousands and thousands of hours with flying dozens of planes under their belts.”

Barry said he has not had an opportunity to fly with Cottle on a mission, but he has worked with him on a flight simulator.

“He has a wealth of experience as do all of our pilots,” Barry said. “I look forward to returning to normalcy, like we all do, and getting to know him better as an individual and fly with him.”

Cottle said he became interested in working as a pilot during his childhood when his father worked as an aerial space engineer for NASA’s Mercury and Gemini projects.

“So this has been my whole life,” Cottle said. “This is like a 50-year realization of a dream for me.”

Raquel Cottle said she and her husband met while she worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines.

She said even though Alan Cottle can be gone for about a month because of his work with NASA, she realizes it is a part of the job.

“We’re use to it. We’ve both worked in the airline industry,” Raquel Cottle said. “Working for NASA, it’s kind of the cherry on top of his career.”

Besides working for NASA, Cottle conducts charter flights for businesses and corporations.

Cottle and his wife also operate a farm in Lake Geneva, in which they raise horses, mules, chickens and cattle.

“I ride my horse on my off days, and I ride a 747 on my work days,” Cottle said.

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