August 2, 2014 - Les Schneider is a 75-year-old pilot from Chesterfield, Missouri. He’s attending his first AirVenture.
"It's been one of my bucket-list things. And my son decided to bring me here for my 75th birthday present."
What’s he think so far?
"It is overwhelming. I mean I've heard about it, but you can't understand what it's like until you're here and walk around."
Les is here with two of his children, his 30-year-old son Andre, and his 13-year-old son Troy.
Les has been in aviation for most of his life. He spent six years as a U.S. Air Force rescue pilot back in the '60s. He flew rescue missions aboard C-130 aircraft in the Okinawa region, and he served in Vietnam.
During his time in the Air Force, Les performed all sorts of important rescue missions, but in the spring of 1966, it all went to a new level.
“One of our primary functions in rescue, any time there was a space capsule in orbit, we would be on standby at different places around the world, in case of a contingency landing.
“Up till this point that had never happened.”
“I was sent to stage in Okinawa with my crew. We were on alert in case something happened with Gemini 8.”
“Gemini 8 had Neil Armstrong and Colonel David Scott. They were practicing docking maneuvers.”
But there was a very serious problem. And the astronauts needed to come down early.
"We only went on duty at 7:00 a.m.,” says Les. “At 7:20 the Klaxon horn went off.”
“At first we thought it was just a drill. To get us out to the airplane, then back in for another boring day on alert.”
Well that wasn't the case.
“We got in the airplane, cranked it up and headed to the runway. They're feeding us the splashdown area, the time, the coordinates.
“We took off, hardly believing that it was really happening. I asked my navigator for a heading, he said, ‘Just head east, it's all I got right now.’ Well, it turned out he put us right on the spot.”
Les and his crew were on the scene, and the whole world was watching.
The returning spacecraft went into its normal radio blackout period, and no one was certain when, or even if, it would make it down.
Radar from the approaching rescue ship picked up the spacecraft, and radioed the position to Les’s plane.
"It looked like we were gonna be right underneath the capsule,” says Les. “So I did a 90-270 turn, and as soon as I rolled wings level, there was the capsule on my nose. Level with me at 9500 feet. It was so close.”
His plane was less than 200 yards from the descending chutes.
"We were hooked directly into NASA. I hit my transmit button and I yelled, ‘I got it!' That went straight back to them. That was the first time they knew—and all the media and everybody else—that it had made it through the reentry.
"I put the capsule on my left wing, and I went into an emergency descent, a spiral to stay with it.”
After the spacecraft hit the water, Les and his crew began dropping rescue swimmers.
"I had three pararescue men. I dropped one on each pass. After they got safely in the water by the capsule, then I had to go by and drop the flotation collar.”
After securing the spacecraft and its passengers, Les and his crew remained over the spacecraft until the destroyer U.S.S. Leonard F. Mason arrived to recover the astronauts.
"It was nine hours from start to finish," he says.
"It was exciting. We had a very young crew. When you're in the middle of a mission, you're concentrating on the mission. But when we got back to Okinawa we sat down and took a big deep breath and thought about what had happened.”
“We were all young guys. I was 26, my copilot was 25. One of the pararescue guys that jumped was 19 years old, on his first mission. It was a young crew that all of a sudden got handed a lot of responsibility. They all came through. It all worked right."
After his service Les went to work for an airline where he flew Boeing 707s, 727s, the MD-80 and the DC-9.
He retired from airline flying after 30 years, had a brief stint working for the FAA, and then went to work for FlightSafety. He was part of a team that started a program in St. Louis to train pilots in the Embraer 170/190.
That was 10 years ago. Les is 75 and he’s not slowing down.
"I will probably never retire."
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