Pilots

Eileen Collins

July 1, 1996

Like most pilots with both civilian and military ratings, Eileen Collins has logged a variety of aircraft types: Cessna 150, Northrop T-38, Cessna T-37, Lockheed C-141, Schweitzer 2-33, and McDonnell Douglas F-4. Despite more than 4,000 hours of flying time in 30 different types of aircraft, the 39-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel has no trouble singling out the logbook entry of which she is most proud: Date, Feb. 3-11, 1995; AC Type, Space Shuttle; Serial No., 103; Duration, 198.5 hours.

Collins is justly proud of her mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Shuttle Transport System 63 was the first mission of the new joint Russian-American space program. And it was the first shuttle flight to rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station. It was also the first time that a space shuttle had been piloted by a woman.

Although more than a dozen women have flown as mission specialists, Collins is the only female to fly as a shuttle pilot. She credits those mission specialists with breaking down any gender barriers that may have existed in the space program before she arrived at NASA in 1991.

In space jargon, the pilot is actually a copilot, sitting in the right seat and backing up the commander. During STS-63, Collins assisted Cmdr. Jim Wetherbee as he manually flew Discovery to within 40 feet of Mir. Collins got her turn at the controls of Discovery later when she and Wetherbee flew several practice rendezvous with a satellite that they deployed and then retrieved.

"The hand-eye coordination is very similar," said Collins in comparing flying the shuttle to piloting an airplane. But the flight control systems are quite different. The shuttle has computerized fly-by-wire controls that fire one or more of 44 small thrusters in response to movements of the yoke. These jets, which are located strategically around the shuttle fuselage, nudge the spacecraft in the desired direction.

Once the shuttle reenters the Earth's atmosphere and slows below Mach 1, it behaves more or less like an aircraft with normal rudder and aileron control. "It becomes a glider in the sense that it doesn't have an engine, but it is very different from a glider in that it sinks like a brick," she said.

In the early stages of the space program, as related by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, many test pilots whose egos were bruised when they were passed over for the Mercury program had difficulty acknowledging astronauts as true pilots because of the extent to which computers fly the spacecraft. Collins, who was a flight instructor at the Air Force Academy and graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School, disagrees.

"Everything I ever learned — every flight instructor I ever flew with, every airplane I ever flew, and every airport I ever flew into — has come together in my job today," she said. "The ultimate test pilot job is to be an astronaut."

The journey that eventually took Collins into space began when she was a teenager at summer camp near her hometown of Elmira, New York. She was fascinated by gliders at the nearby Harris Hill glider port. The aviation seed was planted, and at 16 she begin saving for flying lessons.

Between her junior and senior years at Syracuse University, where she joined Air Force ROTC and studied mathematics and economics, Collins put her $1,000 savings into an account with the FBO at the Elmira/Corning Regional Airport.

Before she could take her FAA checkride, the Air Force asked her to report for pilot training in August 1978 at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. After receiving her wings with the third Air Force pilot class to graduate women, she stayed on as an instructor.

It wasn't until the mid-1980s that Collins finally had the chance to strap into a sailplane and obtain her glider rating. At that time, she was serving as a C-141 commander at Travis AFB in California, where she met and married fellow transport pilot Pat Youngs. They now reside near the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He is a pilot for Delta Air Lines.

"The two of us love to fly," said Collins; their careers keep them too busy to own a private aircraft, but they plan to purchase one after she retires from the Air Force and NASA, which is "off in the future."

In the meantime, Collins maintains her proficiency by flying 15 hours a month in a T-38 and occasionally still gets a chance to fly a Cessna 172. When she is not training for her next shuttle flight, Collins serves as capsule communicator at Mission Control, handling communications with shuttle crews during their flights. Sometime in 1999, she probably will become the first woman to serve as commander of a space shuttle.

Interviewed in November 1995, Collins reflected on what the space program has in store for her and the next generation. She predicts that future shuttle flights will focus on building the space station. After that, NASA will look at returning to the moon and, eventually, sending people to Mars.

"To me, that's very exciting, and I think that our young people today can get excited about math, science, and technology, and learn what they need to help our country reach those goals," she said. "It's so inspirational to think that one of our young people may be able to fly a spaceship to Mars."

And as it did for Eileen Collins, that young person's journey into space may just begin at the local airport, watching airplanes take off and land.