Cliff Fleming

December 1, 2004

The whole thing started out looking like that scene from the movie Apocalypse Now. Except Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries wasn't blasting from loudspeakers. And no jungle or ocean below, just the Utah desert. So maybe it resembled a similar scene from Black Hawk Down, but without soldiers sitting on the dusty skids. There were four helicopters flying on this hot September day anyway: a news chopper, a military Black Hawk, and two Eurocopter AStar AS-350 B2s. The second one, a backup, was flown by Dan Rudert, and the first one, the most important one (from the standpoint of this mission anyway), was piloted by Cliff Fleming. The target: Genesis, a space probe, which had been orbiting between the sun and the Earth, capturing solar wind. It was too delicate to touch down even gently on Earth with a parachute. So Fleming developed the catch method (he was going to snatch Genesis out of thin air using nothing more than the helicopter and a grappling hook) and sold the program to NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Fleming and Rudert took up station 7.5 miles from the re-entry point, and waited. In a way, though, the 54-year-old Fleming had been waiting for this big grab most of his life. In the early 1970s, just after graduating from college, Fleming joined the Marine Corps and found himself in naval flight school, in the cockpit of a fixed-wing trainer. He also trained in helicopters: Bell UH-1H Hueys, Kaman HH-43 Huskies, Boeing CH-46 Sea Knights, pretty much the entire American rotary-wing arsenal. But two weeks before he got his wings the United States began pulling out of Vietnam. Fleming was transferred to San Diego and stayed in for a few more years.

Then he took a job with a construction company in Long Beach, slinging air-conditioning units to the tops of high-rises, building power lines, and putting out the occasional forest fire. In 1979, the Ford Motor Company decided to film a commercial in which a helicopter carries one of its trucks in a sling, and the ad agency picked Fleming to do the deed, since he already had displayed the necessary skills with those high-rise air-conditioning units. The commercial qualified him for a Screen Actors Guild card and Fleming moved into television-series work. Remember CBS' Airwolf, starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine? Or ABC's short-lived answer to that, Blue Thunder, with Dick Butkus and Dana Carvey? No? Well Fleming does — he flew for both. And the more realistic, more memorable China Beach, the television series with Dana Delany. The same year shooting began on that series, 1988, Fleming flew his first movie, Midnight Run, starring Robert De Niro.

Six years later he became an aerial coordinator, starting with 1994's The River Wild with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon, filmed on a remote river. "For two to three months we transported everything from people to cameras and equipment, and I did some of the stunt work on it." Since then there's been Con Air, Dante's Peak, Courage Under Fire, Rules of Engagement, We Were Soldiers, Seabiscuit, S.W.A.T., and The Incredible Hulk. Fleming finished shooting Batman 4 in Chicago before flying to Utah.

As for the capture method, this wasn't the first time that someone tried snatching something from space with an aircraft. In the 1960s, U.S. spy satellites ejected film canisters into the atmosphere, which Lockheed C-130s hooked in mid-descent and winched aboard. "At a high speed it's not a delicate maneuver — sometimes they would rip right through the parachute. But it was successful at that time." Fleming and backup pilot Dan Rudert were even more successful: Over five years they attempted 17 practice captures and snagged the target every time.

Fleming and Rudert hovered in their AStars for around 30 minutes, waiting for the word to come from JPL. They started tracking the re-entry module, getting readings on its location, and then.... "[It] comes to this," he rues. The module's parasail never deployed, and it spun and wobbled past the helicopters and straight into the ground. Bam.

Fleming's a little disappointed about Genesis. "It was a big project," he says. Another satellite, Star Dust, has been out following comets and collecting molecules. "It's landing in January of 2006," Fleming says. "They're talking about having us involved in that."