It’s hard to find a vantage point anywhere on the U.S. Naval Academy grounds without a view of a monument or memorial of some type. There are historic aircraft, cannons, torpedoes, and bells; the Herndon obelisk for plebes to climb, the path of Albert A. Michelson’s Nobel Prize–winning speed-of-light measurement, the Tripoli Monument (the country’s oldest national war monument), and countless other ornate structures crafted in stone. Midshipmen cannot get to class from their rooms in Bancroft Hall without walking past several reminders of the deeds of their forebears. It is an excellent connection to their past.
Each memorial has a story, whether it’s a trophy of war such as the Macedonian Monument or one to honor a heroic act like that of William Lewis Herndon. Despite this wealth of history, the most personal and inspiring of all the Naval Academy’s monuments isn’t even on the “Yard.” It sits atop a short hill off a gravel path up from a small road. In this secluded section of the Naval Academy’s cross-country course resides a touching memorial to Commander William “Willie” McCool, U.S. Navy. The story of the Willie McCool Memorial weaves a path from his days as a midshipman, through his time as a naval aviator, and to his final acts as a NASA shuttle pilot—a path that reveals a constant thread of determination and perseverance.
Willie McCool was just one of the herd at his first Naval Academy cross-country practice in the summer of 1979. He was an accomplished high school runner, but so were most of his classmates on the team. When the freshmen first met the rest of the team after plebe summer, the upper class couldn’t tell them apart. They all stood there wide-eyed, lanky, and sporting the same haircut.
McCool soon distinguished himself among his peers, although perhaps not in the best way. Head Coach Al Cantello’s earliest definitive memory of McCool was yelling at him about a bad workout.1 A poor performance is merely part of athletic development, and it was not going to stop McCool. By his 2/c (junior) year he was a determined athlete. His father later observed, “Long distance running became Willie’s concentration, his focus, his drive, initiative . . . everything that later made him a good astronaut and supreme Navy pilot.”2
Many considered McCool too innocent or naïve until they learned that he was just genuinely humble, positive, and kind. His teammates remember that, despite his extreme focus in everything he did, McCool never appeared stressed or unwilling to give his time to others. These traits and his immense talent made him the clear choice for team captain his 1/c (senior) year.3
That year’s Navy Invite, on 2 October 1982, was particularly competitive, with ranked Georgetown and Syracuse attending. Coach Cantello hated small meets with easy wins. He wanted to challenge his runners against the best. Jim O’Connell of Syracuse was an entirely different pedigree from everyone else on the starting line that day. He already had four All-American honors (and he’d earn another two before graduating). McCool knew that even if he couldn’t win the race individually, his team still could.
It was in the low 60s with a slight breeze when the gun went off—as ideal as it can get in Annapolis, Maryland, in October. The challenge before McCool didn’t stress him. After four years of racing the course, he knew every inch intimately. McCool ran a 24:27, or 4:53 per mile, over eight hilly kilometers that day. It was one of the fastest midshipman performances on the course at the time. O’Connell had to set a new course record to win the race—one that stood for almost 25 years. However, McCool still won the day by leading Navy to an upset victory over Georgetown and Syracuse.4
After graduating second in his class in 1983 and getting a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Maryland, McCool started flight school. He graduated at the top of his class and had his pick of aircraft to choose from. He surprised his roommate by selecting the EA-6B Prowler. When asked why, McCool simply responded, “It would give me greater command opportunities.”5
The Prowler had been the Navy’s carrier-based electronic warfare aircraft for almost 20 years at this point. The twin-engine, midwing aircraft originally was developed off the A-6 Intruder airframe. To manage the extensive electronic warfare systems, Prowler pilots flew with three electronic countermeasures officers.
After two tours with Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ) 133, McCool was selected for Test Pilot School. In June 1992, he graduated top of his class—an honor now recognized with the Commander Willie McCool Outstanding Student Award.6 As a test pilot with Strike Aircraft Test Squadron 23 (VX-23) at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, McCool managed upgrades, studies, and flight testing the advanced-capability (ADVCAP) EA-6B.
On the morning of 11 March 1993, McCool took an EA-6B out for a simple training flight to do a series of approach-to-stall maneuvers in preparation for an upcoming modification performance test with Northrop Grumman. He had Lieutenant Nancy Fechtig as the naval flight officer to his right, Commander Carl Reiber behind him, and Marine Second Lieutenant Robert Shibe in the back right seat.
McCool flew the Prowler through a couple of slow-speed, high-angle of attack maneuvers to evaluate the aircraft as it approached stalling. On the third run, the compressor on the left engine stalled. They were at around 18,000 feet—8,000 feet above where the emergency procedures directed the crew to eject. As the aircraft started falling, one of the crew’s Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) books floated up. Fechtig scooped it up as the Prowler started to spin.7 The stalled left engine, the thrust from the right, and the high angle of attack that already sliced to the left sent the aircraft into an erect spin with a 15–20 degree nose-down attitude. “The earth is just spinning in the windscreen,” recalled Fechtig.8
Prior to this flight, only ten Prowlers had experienced a spin like this, and all required the crews to bail out. One was lost to a spin just a few months earlier at Whidbey Island. The crew ejected and survived, but one lost a hand in the process. After that, anti-spin procedures were fresh on everyone’s minds.9 Calmly, McCool called out his actions for the crew as he confirmed their situation. The aircraft recently had had a small gauge installed that indicated the turn rate in degrees per second. McCool and Fechtig both saw this indicator, which maxed out at 100, was pegged and that the angle of attack also was pegged at 30 degrees.
McCool began their recovery procedures. He placed throttles vertical and announced “Going to extended throws” as he toggled the ASSIST SPIN RECOV switch. With a greater range of manipulation, McCool put the rudder at full opposite the spin and pulled the stick aft and toward the spin.
The 31,000-pound aircraft continued to spin as Fechtig called out the dropping altitude.
McCool wasn’t ready to give up. There had to be something else wrong. He double-checked the procedures and realized the extended throws indicator wasn’t illuminated. He retoggled the switch. The light went on. McCool pushed his rudder pedals and pulled back the stick again. “There was no way I could have caught a slowing in our spin rate just from the visual cues,” Fechtig remembered. As the view rapidly changed out the windscreen, “We both stared at that tiny indicator.”10
With the nose now pointed straight down, Fechtig reported they had dropped below 10,000 feet—the ejection threshold. McCool responded, “I’ve got it.” The spin was decreasing, and after a few thousand feet more, McCool leveled the Prowler. In a 40-second eternity, the aircraft fell almost 12,000 feet as McCool fought to recover the Prowler. With a cool head and intimate knowledge of the aircraft, he again turned an apparent defeat into a victory. As McCool and Fechtig celebrated, from the back seat, Shibe asked, “Willie, can we go home now?”11
A Determined Reaction
McCool soon returned to Whidbey Island and joined VAQ-132. While on board the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) for a predeployment at-sea period in April 1996, NASA notified McCool of his selection to the astronaut program.12 By August 1996, he had reported to the Johnson Space Center for astronaut training.
McCool’s first mission assignment was as pilot for the space shuttle Columbia (OV-12) for mission STS-107. Hubble telescope repairs, International Space Station emergency resupplies, and cracks found in Columbia’s engine flow liners kept bumping the mission back and gave STS-107 one of the longest training periods of any shuttle crew. They were a close-knit team after two years of practicing together.13
Columbia took off on its 28th mission on 16 January 2003. McCool had his wife and kids, his parents, his old roommate, Coach Cantello, and others in attendance to cheer him on. Even with all those eyes watching Columbia rise into the sky, none could have seen the piece of the external tank’s insulative foam break off and strike the orbiter’s left wing. This seemingly inconsequential incident, however, doomed the space shuttle’s crew.
Just over two weeks later, the crew had completed 80 experiments and prepared to return home. McCool started Columbia’s deorbit burn at GMT 13:15:30 on 3 February 2003. As pilot, he sat in the front right seat next to STS-107 Commander Colonel Rick Husband, U.S. Air Force, in their cramped cockpit. It originally was designed for astronauts to wear flight suits for takeoff and entry, but after the 1986 Challenger space-shuttle disaster, astronauts wore the orange Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES). Unfortunately, the controls and displays were not redesigned to account for the bulky pumpkin suits. About 20 minutes after starting the deorbit burn, Commander Husband accidently bumped a control that changed the digital autopilot from “auto” to “inertial”—a fairly common accident in the ACES suits. This initiated an alert, which Husband quickly corrected before it was a problem. Everything on Columbia appeared to be working just fine, even when things went wrong.14
At GMT 13:44:09, Columbia descended to 400,000 feet. They were traveling faster than Mach 24 and were still 32 minutes and 4,300 miles from landing. Outside, the orbiter’s nose and the wings’ leading edges reached temperatures greater than 2,800° F. Reinforced carbon-carbon tiles protected the shuttle through the extreme conditions. Inside, crew members started experiencing heaviness, dizziness, and mild nausea as drag increased, but spirits were still up. When McCool pointed out the glowing orange plasma in the windows, Husband joked, “You definitely don’t want to be outside now.” Seated behind Husband and McCool, Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla responded, “What, like we did before?” Unknown to the crew, the left wing started shedding debris, but not enough to affect telemetry yet.15 Everything continued to be fine.
A few minutes later, McCool performed a roll to the right for energy management. At GMT 13:50:30, the aft fuselage center bottom bond line indicated a normal temperature increase. This was the start of an anticipated ten-minute period of peak heating. The shuttle still was traveling at Mach 24, although now down at 243,000 feet. Meanwhile, the left wing continued to degrade. This asymmetric increase in drag caused the orbiter to yaw to the left. To compensate, the Flight Control System fired Reaction Control System (RCS) jets and adjusted the aileron trim. This was Columbia’s first response to the change in aerodynamic properties. Mission Control Center personnel were unconcerned since Columbia’s flight path still remained within normal parameters.16
Moments later, the left main landing gear brake line registered an unusual temperature rise. A minute later, one of the left wing’s hydraulic return line temperature sensors dropped off the scale. Then another. Then two more. In only 26 seconds, four sensors were off scale low. Previous missions had lost sensors—off scale low usually meant a sensor or wiring failure—but simultaneous failures in multiple sensors from redundant systems was something novel.17
As the sensors failed, Columbia crossed the California coastline going Mach 23 at 231,600 feet. Fifty-nine seconds later, Columbia was over Nevada. McCool’s parents watched Columbia fly overhead from their Las Vegas home and called his sister in Florida to tell her “he’s on his way.”
But somewhere over California, the first visible debris was captured by ground-based video. Likely in response to the debris shedding, two of the rear right-facing RCS yaw jets began firing.18
At GMT 13:56:30, McCool executed the first planned roll reversal from right wing low to left wing low to flip the orbiter’s bank angle direction and keep them on course. Columbia cruised on at Mach 20.76 with no indication to the crew that anything was wrong.
Two minutes later, the onboard Backup Flight Software monitor chimed and lit up with the first of four fault messages about a pressure loss on the left main landing gear tires. This was the first event to alert the crew to a problem. In training, they reacted to a circuit breaker trip that disabled half the tire pressure sensors, but four failures in only one set of landing gear was different. Immediately after the fourth tire pressure fault message, the landing gear position indicator signaled an indeterminate landing gear position. Telemetry had it down while other sensors showed it stowed.19
While the crew diagnosed the problems, another small light—the right yaw indicator—illuminated on the commander’s F6 panel because RCS jets were firing continuously. The aileron trim could compensate no longer for the drag created by the deteriorating left wing. The RCS jets that typically pulsed for small corrections were doing everything possible to keep the orbiter on track.
As Columbia’s crew worked, they shot over Dallas at Mach 18.1 at 200,700 feet.
At GMT 13:59:32, Mission Control Center received a broken, “Roger, uh . . .” from Columbia in response to a question. Dropped communications was expected, but the growing list of discrepancies made the situation distressing. If the landing gear issue proved real, there was still time to develop a workaround. The shuttles changing drag, however, was something serious. Those at Mission Control couldn’t have expected that broken response would be the final signal they would receive from Columbia.20
A recovered computer showed that a failed wire bundle set off the master alarm a second later. It was yet another oddity Columbia’s crew had to race to understand. Unknown to them, a third and fourth RCS yaw jet started firing continuously. Within only a minute, the first of the four tire-pressure alerts sounded, the landing gear appeared indeterminant, and the fourth RCS jet began firing continuously.
From the ground, Columbia brightened. A larger section of the left wing separated. The orbiter’s fiery trail corkscrewed and puffed as more elements shed off. Inside Columbia, the changing forces pulled the crew away from their seats and to the right. Like in that spinning Prowler years earlier, the view outside rotated dramatically. Columbia was in a flat spin rotating 30–40 degrees per second with the belly toward the velocity vector.
The falling insulation at takeoff had degraded the left wing’s integrity. The heat and stress of entry allowed hot atmospheric gases to enter and destroy the internal structure, which caused hydraulic systems to fail. Without hydraulics, elevons and the body flap put Columbia into a pitch-up spin while flying Mach 15 along an uncontrolled ballistic trajectory.
The spin quickly brought the crew from .8G to 3G. McCool had to brace himself and fight through increasing nausea and disorientation. This was beyond any scenario the crew ever had rehearsed.
Recovered data shows McCool and Husband continued responding to fault messages as they tried diagnosing the cascade of failures.21 Like in McCool’s earlier Prowler spin, there had to be something that was overlooked. Among the alerts, he may have thought he found a solution. The orbiter’s three auxiliary power units (APUs) were running, but there was no pressure and nothing in the reservoirs for all three hydraulic systems.
From McCool’s perspective, the APUs might be the culprit. On the R2 panel to his right, he attempted restarting APU 2 and turned on the circulation pumps for hydraulic systems 2 and 3. These pumps are barely powerful enough to maintain reservoir pressure and keep hydraulic fluid thermally conditioned while in orbit. This step was not in NASA’s emergency procedures, but it was one of the only options left to regain the hydraulic pressure necessary to recover the spinning.22
McCool and the rest of the crew didn’t know the cause of Columbia’s failure or that the orbiter was beyond recovery. As they hurtled across Texas, McCool continued fighting the problem. Just as he had done as a midshipman racing down one of the country’s best runners. Or as he had done pulling the Prowler from its spin. Despite McCool’s efforts, Columbia could not be saved. The orbiter broke up at GMT 14:00:18—16 minutes from the scheduled landing.
On 2 December 2007, dozens gathered to dedicate the Willie McCool Memorial on that discrete little hill on the Naval Academy’s cross-country course. McCool’s family was there, as were cross-country team alumni, fellow aviators, NASA astronauts, and other dignitaries. Syracuse’s Jim O’Connell even returned.
The memorial is a large granite tablet with seven stars for the seven astronauts of STS-107 spread around the base. The side facing the road features a bronze image of McCool racing the course. Emblazoned on the reverse, in large bold letters, is “16 MINUTES FROM HOME.” The memorial sits where McCool would have been eight minutes and 27 seconds into his 1982 race, or 16 minutes from the finish line.23
Before the launch, McCool had written to Coach Cantello, “Your coaching laid the foundation of discipline, drive and passion that carried me across the many milestones of my life.”24 McCool’s dedication and grit seen on the cross-country course and in the Prowler cockpit were part of the same indomitable spirit that never gave up on trying to recover Columbia.
McCool’s memorial is almost a third of the way through the five-mile course, after a lonely, steep hill and a series of rolling hills. As the next generation of runners crests each of those hills, they catch glimpses of the memorial. Then, when they are where McCool was, 16 minutes from finishing, the memorial is in full view—challenging them to do the same.
1. Steve Friedman, “Special Feature: 16 Minutes from Home,” Runners World, 28 January 2016.
2. Karin Slyker, “A Father’s Pride: Remembering the Columbia Tragedy,” Texas Tech University, 1 February 2013.
3. Mark Donahue, interview with the author, 8 September 2022; Mark Patterson, interview with the author, 22 September 2022; Ronnie Harris, interview with the author, 29 September 2022; and Mark Patterson, Willie McCool Memorial remarks, 2 December 2007.
4. Mark Patterson, Willie McCool Memorial remarks.
5. Craig Williams, interview with the author, 6 September 2022.
6. Slyker, “A Father’s Pride.”
7. David Brown and Robert E. Pierre, “On Land and in the Air, It Was Always Cold Running,” The Washington Post, 8 February 2003.
8. Nancy Fechtig, interview with the author, 9 September 2022.
9. Brown and Pierre, “On Land and in the Air, It Was Always Cold Running”; Fechtig interview.
10. Fechtig interview.
11. Fechtig interview.
12. Scott Shane, “A Service for One Who Dared to ‘Soar Through Outer Space’,” Baltimore Sun, 1 March 2003.
13. Slyker, “A Father’s Pride.”
14. U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report (Houston, TX: NASA, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, 2008), 1–6.
15. NASA, Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 1–77; NASA, “Columbia Video,” Associated Press Archive, 28 February 2003.
16. NASA, Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 1–44.
17. NASA, Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 1–10.
18. NASA, Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 1–50; Slyker, “A Father’s Pride.”
19. NASA, Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 1–13.
20. NASA, Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 1–58.
21. NASA, Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 1–70.
22. NASA, Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, 3–70.
23. Harris interview.
24. Mark Patterson, Willie McCool Memorial remarks.