Joe Edwards

Photography: Nicholas Pascarella | James Woodard


Full Disc Aviation had the privilege of enjoying astronaut Joe Edwards' routine at the Leaseweb Manassas 2018 Airshow, and he was gracious enough to give us a bit of his valuable time to answer some questions after his practice performance. Joe performs in his navy blue T-28 at airshows across the country and we were honored to meet him near his aircraft on the hot ramp and shake his hand as the sun beat down on us. This was a particularly reverent moment for us; Joe has hundreds of arrested carrier landings flying F-14s and on the 1998 NASA mission STS-89 he piloted the space shuttle Endeavor to the Russian space station Mir and back. That May afternoon, peering through sunglasses in his blue flight suit and leaning on the hot ramp fence, he gave us a glimpse into his aviation life. Special thanks to Cindy Monohan for the assistance, and our sincere thanks goes out to Joe for taking some time to chat with us.

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FDA: Did you always have a fascination with aviation as a kid? What drew you to the Navy and not the Air Force?
I always did, but my father was in the Air Force, which leads to your question... so I grew up around it from the time that I was born. I actually had the choice of going to the Air Force Academy or the Naval Academy. A couple things about the Navy that I thought would be really interesting; one is flying off the ship, but also when there's a crisis in the world, whenever a war kicks off or a crisis kicks off, it's always the Navy that is there first, and I found that very attractive.

FDA: When you got through the Naval Academy what was the plane you flew first?
In Navy flight training the first airplane I flew was a T-34C Turbo Mentor, basically a Beech Bonanza with two tandem seats, but the first airplane I ever flew was a Varga Kachina, ever seen one of those? It's kind of looks like a small T-34.

FDA: While you were in the Navy, what specialized training schools did you attend?
Well, I went through basic flight training, intermediate jets, advanced jets, the F-14 training squadron... a year after I got out of that and after a year of flying off the boat in an operational squadron I went to the Navy fighter weapons school called Top Gun, that was in 1984...of course no one knew anything about that at the time, the movie came out two years later. And then by the time the movie came out in 1986, I went to Navy test pilot school, so those were the formal schools.

FDA: Other than the F-14, what was your favorite thing to fly? What was most challenging?
To me, anyway, all of them are challenging to fly very, very well, but saying that, the conditions that we flew off the boat, which for me was almost all flying in the F-14 Tomcat, you know, landing on the boat in thunderstorms at night, tanking in the clouds, wondering if you have enough gas to do an approach, combat flying and all of that, that was all very challenging. The F-14 was a challenging airplane to fly well in air combat maneuvering, more challenging than a lot of other airplanes that are out there, so that gave us a great sense of satisfaction to master it and really put it through its paces as we were flying the thing operationally.

FDA: What was the reason that was more challenging than some of the other aircraft?
Well, for me anyway, the most challenging flying was flying off the boat and air combat, if you're a Navy pilot, you want to be able to fly and fight the airplane from zero airspeed all the way up to mach 2.4 and that's a pretty large skill set; to fly it well and to be respected by your peers, and to be prepared to fight an adversary. Our big adversary back then was Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran and what have you, the F-14 was an airplane that had a very wide flight envelope and was very fast, but it didn't have the advanced computer controls that you're able to put into some things like the [F-18] Hornet, that we put in the F-15 Eagle and what have you.

FDA: So it was more stick and rudder?
Yeah! It was more stick and rudder kind of flying, that's a good way to put it. (the crew came over to tow his T-28 to the hanger) That's a good lookin' airplane.

FDA: It is a very good lookin' airplane! Do you feel comfortable talking about your F-14 convertible landing? The radome broke off, correct?
Yeah, there was a locking mechanism at the 6 o'clock position underneath the fuselage on the F-14 where you lock the radome down...radome is radar dome...there's a flat radar antenna back behind there, and the locking mechanism had corroded and actually fell out into the ocean. We started the day with an ACM engagement about 25-35 miles from the ship with the CO of my squadron – Dick “Weasel” Gallagher. I ran the Operations and Maintenance departments for him during my department head tour in VF-142. Weasel is a great American and a great friend and we always had a fine time wrestling with each other during close-in dogfighting. Most importantly, I was flying that day with Scott “Grundy” Grundemier, a Naval Academy classmate of mine (and also a former squadron-mate, as was Weasel, in VF-143 a few years before this). Grundy was of the finest RIOs the Navy ever had, and his experience, headwork and decision making skills were critical to our ability to safely land the airplane on IKE. It's too lengthy a story to tell here, but after landing on the ship, I found that my eye’s iris had prolapsed and extended out of my eye through a 3 mm cut in the cornea. I was medevac’d to the International Hospital of Bahrain where surgery was performed on my eye. I was released 10 days later. Anyway, we started an ACM engagement and as soon as I got a little G on the airplane, that [radar dome] failed..the hinge for the radome is at the 12 o'clock position and it was put there so that you could raise that thing up and sit it back on top of the airplane on a crowded carrier deck or hangar deck, so when that thing failed it rotated on its hinge and if you ever go to the [Udvar Hazy] Air and Space Museum here at Dulles, and you look at that radome [on the F-14] and you turn it 180 degrees, you see that the angle of attack probe is right in front of the pilot's face, so that's what hit me. It crashed through the canopy, that hit me in the face and took out my right eye, broke my collarbone...

FDA: What speed were you flying when that happened?
Ground speed we were going about 600 knots at 28,000 feet, so it was a loud boom, explosive decompression and the airplane was damaged, a lot of glass in the cockpit, a lot of glass in my at 28,000 feet I didn't have any oxygen and I didn't realize it at the time. When it hit me in the face I'd probably be severely disfigured today had I not been wearing an oxygen mask; the plastic form of the oxygen mask was intact but I lost the hose, so I didn't have any oxygen, I was breathing ambient air. So I quickly circled down, pulled the throttles to idle, put the boards out, circled down, didn't have any canopy around me, couldn't see out of the front of the airplane because the plexiglass was so cracked with pieces missing...the captain of the ship was a guy named Bill Cross and he became an admiral after that tour, and Admiral Cross...when I came by the ship at flight deck level, I couldn't talk to anyone of course because I didn't have any communications fittings going up to my microphone that's still in the hard shell of my I dropped the gear, dropped the flaps, lowered the tailhook, came up the side of the ship to tell them I needed to land immediately, and Bill Cross immediately started turning the carrier back into the wind to give me a chance to recover the airplane. Of course I couldn't talk to anyone, and I didn't even know the nose of the airplane was missing because you can't see it from the cockpit; it's a Navy airplane, gotta be able to see the ship when you're landing. So I did two practice approaches in the 10 minutes it took the aircraft carrier to turn around and steadied up on a base recovery course 322 degrees and I flew an approach and landed on the ship; trapped...that was my last carrier landing; I knew it was going to be because I was blind in my right eye, and I knew I'd never fly again. But, they medevac'd me out after a few hours and the helicopter landed there at night, I had two IV's swinging, I was laying wrapped in stokes litter when a Navy nurse from San Diego, California, named Gail Little...met me at the helo, and we were on this ambulance riding through the narrow middle eastern streets like we were in the move "Raiders of the Lost Ark", I actually told Gail to tell the ambulance driver I'm not going to die on the way to the hospital, but I might die if he wrecks the ambulance, he needs to slow down [laughter] so he slowed down, took me right into surgery...they sewed up a 3mm cut with six stitches and four years later I showed up to Johnson Space Center as an astronaut. We used to say sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

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FDA: You hold the unofficial low altitude high speed record, is that something you can talk about?
This phrase came about one day while talking to a reporter about the performance of the F-14, particularly with the General Electric F-110 engines that were installed in the F-14B and F-14D models beginning in the late 1980’s. I had had a memorable multi-bogey engagement off NAS Oceana while in the Ghostriders – I think it was during our work ups just before DESERT SHIELD. Having just come off a tour flight testing the F-14B (which was actually designated the F-14A(Plus) at the time), I was pretty familiar with the airplane. Well, on this the last engagement of the day, our division blew through a group of five or six F-5’s, A-4’s and F-16’s. We shot a few of the bad guys and with all four of our airplanes intact, we bugged out, turning left and heading north in the general direction of Oceana. The F110’s were fantastic motors and while we left most of the bogey formation at the merge, one F-16N did their best to cut the corner and chase us down. I unloaded the airplane while slamming the throttles forward into full afterburner and we headed for the deck, accelerating through Mach 1 as fast as that airplane could take us. During the flight debrief, the VF-43 aggressor squadron crews were quite impressed with how quickly we left the fight, particularly Skip Zobel, a good friend who was flying the F-16N trying to catch us. (The F-16N was a lightweight, particularly high performing version the Viper.) During the debrief, no one but myself seemed to catch the digital readout of the airspeed and Mach number of our airplane displayed on the big screen, but we were flying at 935 knots calibrated airspeed (1.35 true Mach number) on the deck during the bugout. The book’s redline airspeed of the Tomcat was 780 knots. Anyway, I told that story to the reporter years ago and he remarked, “You know, I think that is an unofficial low altitude airspeed record!” So, that’s how that rumor came about, I think. Not that I need a reminder, but it is good [to] reminisce about the great friends we had in the fighter community – people who worked, played, deployed, fought and flew together. These were great people and I was so fortunate to be a part of that community.

FDA: And how low were you?
On the deck. [laughter] So, way outside the envelope of the airplane. When I came back to the squadron, I went back and looked at the airplanes airspeed indicator and [it was the] first time I realized that at 800 knots there was a little peg on the airspeed indicator to stop the thing from goin’ any farther. [laughter] So honestly, I really enjoyed flying that airplane.

FDA: When you got into NASA was there anything you had to 'un-learn' that you learned in the Navy?
Nope, NASA was a lot like the Navy...practicing space shuttle landings was a lot like bouncing for the boat, field carrier landing practice. Sometimes the Air Force, back in those days, used to call NASA the Navy Aeronautics Space Administration, but nope, I would say it was actually the opposite, and I'd say it's been true since the original seven [astronauts] were selected; our experience brought a lot to NASA, and the kind of experience that we had, the people that reflected that [who] showed up there, was the kind of experience that was applicable to going and flying the space shuttle and other spacecraft.

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FDA: The approach in the shuttle is fairly steep, correct? Is that unlike much else you'd done?
Joe: approach to land like that flying a 20 degree dive on final at 300 knots equivalent airspeed at 2000 feet, and then you shallow from a 20 degree dive to a 1 degree glide slope, and then you flare at about 50 feet. Now it's like flying a glider, if you did everything right, when you burned for your de-orbit burn, you would have the perfect amount of energy having traveled thousands of miles through space and the atmosphere, to cross the threshold of Kennedy Space Center or wherever it is you wanted to an analogy, at the ship, think of the 180, you know, it being your point of intended the ship we were at 600 feet, 90 degrees off our point of intended landing, we were 450 feet and we'd roll into the groove to land on the ship, be about 40-45 seconds away from landing at 325 feet. The space shuttle, [180 degrees of] our point of intended landing, we were at 28,000 feet, 20,000 feet at the 90, and 16,000 feet in the groove on a 20 degree dive to land, but it was all very similar. The only analogy to really add to that, you know, flying military airplanes there's a strafe pattern; practicing strafing is usually on a 20 degree dive, only going 300 [knots].

FDA: How was space? The smells, the toll on your body, using the bathroom, what was the most notable thing about space?
My first 30 minutes in space I remembered something that you guys think you remember but you really don't, and I would've told you that I remembered it; I reconnected with what it was like to be a five year old boy again. Where everything is new. The food is new, the environment is new, all that stuff I guess is stored in your brain, and I remember when I was five years old, this is what it was like. So, in many ways, it's the greatest experience you can have but there have been civilians who have flown in pay $20 million or $50 million, and you never hear from them again, no one knows their name...and actually flying in space is great, but it pales in comparison to taking seven of your best friends into orbit and getting everyone back safely. And doing your mission perfectly, you know for 10 days.

FDA: Did going into space change your perspective on life?
When I came back from STS-89, my cousin Jane and her husband met me and my family, and after the doctors were done with us we went out to eat. We went to a sushi restaurant, and I could tell as everyone was machine gunning questions at me, I could tell Jane wanted to say something. Finally there was a lull in the conversation and she said, "Joe, did you feel any closer to God up there?" and I told her the truth, I said "You know Jane, three hours before I launched, I put on an orange pressure suit, and manned up a four and a half million pound bomb...and the three main space shuttle engines that burn for eight minutes and thirty two seconds to get us into orbit burn a swimming pool's worth of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at a temperature of about -300 degrees every second to get us safely into orbit," and I told her "I thought it was best for me to be intimately familiar with the almighty before those engines lit, rather than waiting until after."

FDA: Getting outside of the atmosphere and looking back on Earth as you would Mars or Venus through a telescope, your perspective has to shift I would imagine.
It's the prettiest view you'll ever see, and it's astounding; you don't feel like you're 250 miles up, you feel much lower because everything is so clear. You're looking down on the atmosphere, not through the atmosphere. We saw a carrier battle group steaming off Australia, couldn't see the boat but you could see the wakes...I've seen that a million times in my life. The view that we had flying around's the most beautiful thing you'll ever see. It's interesting, you've got a cadre of combat veterans, some scientists in the space shuttle, even a Russian cosmonaut, and everyone is just stricken with the beauty as we were flying 200 feet away from the Mir space station. We're doing what would look like a loop in orbit; every two and a half hours orbiting the earth twice, and seeing the sun glint off the solar arrays of that vehicle, and the stark white of the tiles and the thermal insulation on the orbiter itself, it's quite a view.

FDA: Can you see the stars well or is the sun's glare difficult?
Well you're in 46 minutes of orbital day and 46 minutes of orbital night every pass, so orbital night, yeah. You see more stars than you can actually imagine; makes it difficult to find Polaris or the constellation Orion because there's so many stars out there... and if you have the opportunity to stare out the window for a few minutes, which rarely happens on space shuttle missions, if you stare long enough, you begin to resolve some of those stars and you see that they're actually galaxies.

FDA: When you retired from NASA, when did you realize, 'hey, I wanna buy a T-28 and fly at airshows'?
A few years later I lost my mind...completely, [laughter] no, well my daughter was on the way, my first and only child, the kind of timing that is serious about life...after I left NASA, six years later, I flew out to Camarillo, CA, flew the airplane once, flew to French Valley to get my check ride; I had never flown the airplane before...flew back to Camarillo and the next day left on a cross country; flew at 5500 feet west coast to east coast...but it's been a great airplane, you guys can tell, it's a very beautiful airplane, and for it's vintage, it's relatively high performing. [The] T-28 will out turn and out climb a [P-51] Mustang as an won't outrun it, but it'll out climb and out turn it. You have great people like Cindy [Monohan] who runs the marketing, a lot of our multimedia, and Rob Thornbush, he's my copilot; recently acquired his private pilots license, starting to work up to get his instrument rating, and we'll eventually get him checked out in the T-28.

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FDA: What year is your T-28?
It was built in December of 1954, and it was bought by the Navy in January '55; it was the 17th to the last T-28B they built and looking at the records, which are not all complete because of the classified war that was being conducted in Laos with the CIA and the Air Force, it kinda looks like all the rest of the T-28B's went to Vietnam, those last 16, I guess. But this one never did; never flew in combat.

FDA: If you had a different plane to fly at airshows, what would it be?
F-14? [laughter] That'd be nice! We were working on that! A Bearcat or a Corsair. I'd love to have a Grumman Bearcat; [to] have a Grumman airplane like the Tomcat, set my feet on a pair of rudder pedals with the Grumman bird on there, and you know, 2300 horsepower on an airplane that weighs as much as a T-28, so if anyone out there's interested, we'd love to campaign it for you on the east coast.

FDA: Any modern aircraft you're interested in?
Oh, of course, I haven't flown the F-22, haven't flown the F-35, probably never will, but I'd love to fly each of those airplanes. The F-35 has a landing capability that is now called “magic carpet” because it makes the airplane so easy to land on the boat, but actually I was working on [that] at the Naval Air Test Center in PAX River; back then I was a test pilot...1987, but yeah, I probably wouldn't turn down some time at the controls in anything with wings...and it doesn't even have to have wings, actually.

FDA: Any memorable airshow moments that stick in your mind? Any incidents or special moments?
Nothing that was negative, we've been flying this airplane at airshows for 12 years now, almost 12 years, and we've enjoyed every minute of it. We enjoy the flying, we enjoy having the time to spend with other pilots, other performers, learning things from them, maybe passing on some things that we've learned, and we really enjoy spending time with the sponsors which are really important to a show like this, certainly with the media like you guys, but also the attendees, the crowds, as well. So when we come to an airshow, we Endeavor, if I may say, [laughter] we do try to ensure for that the time we are there, we bring to the best of our ability, the complete package for the folks that organized the they can reap the benefit of time we spent flying on active duty, the time we spent flying at NASA, and the opportunity for the crowd to see, you know, a relatively well-flown T-28.

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FDA: Where do you see the future of airshows?
I think it's getting even stronger; there are over 300 airshows in the US and Canada each year. The number of airshows are not decreasing, and actually the number of airplanes that are available is going up...we're pulling airplanes off the ocean floor, people are taking data plates and building airplanes around them...for naval aviation, I believe that airshows are particularly important because there are only a fraction of airplanes that go to an airshow, and only a small fraction that actually fly naval aviation airplanes, so for a young lady or young man whose father didn't grow up on an Air Force base or military base like I did, this may be their only opportunity to get a taste of military aviation, of aviation at all, but certainly naval aviation. So when we come to these events, whether we like it or not, the things that we do, the way that we fly, the way we conduct ourselves...we're representatives of naval aviation. And we want people to know what a fantastic, cool profession it is, from someone that actually has had the opportunity to be a part of it in the past.

FDA: For the younger generation, what advice do you have for getting into aviation?
You know, I think there are a lot of really special professions out there, but I don’t think there is another like aviation. Of course, I may be biased. All aviation – and spaceflight – asks of you, “demands” would be more accurate, is complete and total dedication. It’s that simple. If you are willing keep your end of this bargain, you will be greatly rewarded and have opportunities to do things very few people will have the opportunity to do.