Most mountain-area residents lose altitude on the way to work. Conifer resident Tim Sandon commutes up. Way up.
“I have the greatest job in the world,” Sandon smiles. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
In fact, Sandon has two great jobs. For about one week out of every month he can be found at Evergreen Rentals, the business he owns on Bryant Drive in Evergreen. The rest of the time he’s either preparing for his next mission at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) facility in Palmdale, Calif., or sailing across the awesome deeps of the sky.
Growing up in Detroit as the 10th of 11 children, Sandon had a fondness for airplanes and few opportunities to get inside one. As a young man he got by working jobs from automotive repairto machine rebuilding to home maintenance; and when Michigan’s economy tanked (the first time) in the mid-80s, he used his suddenly-abundant down-time to good advantage.
“I went down to the local flight school and traded labor for flight lessons,” Sandon recalls. “I swept floors, emptied the trash, whatever they wanted. I didn’t want to waste time just because I was laid off.”
He turned that sweat equity into a private pilot’s license and at the age of 24 joined the United States Air Force. Hiring on with the world’s largest air fleet, Sandon could almost have walked to his first post.
“I joined the Air Force to see the world; and they sent me to Wurtsmith AFB in Oscata, Michigan, about three hours away.”
Starting out in aircraft maintenance, Sandon soon rose to B-52 crew chief before transferring to the B-1 program at McConnell AFB in Wichita. Alas, with plenty of college under his belt, but no degree, an officer’s rank and a pilot’s seat stood just out of his reach. Prior to mustering out as a staff sergeant in 1991, he earned a flight engineer rating.
“Before microprocessors somebody had to manage all the systems on a large, complex aircraft,” Sandon explains. “Electric, hydraulic, pneumatic – from the engines to the air conditioning, the flight engineer’s job is to manage those systems. When there’s a problem, he identifies, isolates and secures that problem.”
A civilian once again, Sandon joined the Air Force reserves and began testing the wind to see whom among his former employers could use a better-than-average flight engineer. As luck would have it, he made a perfect 3-point landing at Peterson AFB in Colorado Springs and spent the next 14 years working in C-130s, the mighty “Hercules” workhorses of America’s aerial fleet. Much of his time was spent flying MAFFS – the Modular Airborne Firefighting System. It was … um … interesting duty.
“It’s everything you don’t want to be in an airplane – low, slow, heavy and dirty.” (For what it’s worth, “dirty” references the drag experienced when flying with the flaps all the way down). It was also necessary work in fire-prone Colorado and priceless professional experience. “I went from the B model to the H3 model,” says Sandon. “There was quite a change in technology during the time I was there.”
There was also quite a change in Sandon’s personal situation. It was at Peterson that he met and married his wife, Cheryl. In 1997 the Sandons made a short hop to the north. Cheryl hired on as a software engineer for Lockheed Martin. Tim went to work at the United Airlines training center in Denver, earning a civilian flight engineer turbojet rating and getting up to speed on the Boeing 747.
Then he started training 747 flight engineers for such diverse organizations as General Electric, Dubai Air Wing and NASA. He also trained those flight engineers tapped for the cockpit of the Air Force’s mammoth 747 E4-B, also known as the Advanced Airborne Command Post, and those of a sleek VC-25A commonly referred to as Air Force One. When United scaled back its training operations in 2004, Sandon kept training those same clients as an independent contractor, which left some small gaps in his professional calendar.
“Cheryl said I ought to get a real job,” Sandon laughs. “I’d always wanted to be my own boss, so when I saw that Evergreen Rentals was for sale, I bought it.”
Fact is, Sandon’s leap from the flight deck to the tool room was shorter than one might expect. “I was a regular customer for years, and with all the jobs I’ve done I’d personally used about 80 percent of the inventory at one time or another.”
When United finally grounded its Denver training operations in 2008, Sandon made a hard turn to starboard, becoming the go-to flight engineer for NASA’s two 747s configured as SCA’s – Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. NASA didn’t piggyback its shuttles around any more than it had to, but when it did, it relied on Sandon to ensure a smooth trip. Typically, when foul weather prevented the shuttle from landing at Cape Kennedy it would divert to Edwards AFB, and Sandon would be tasked with helping ferry the behemoth back to Florida.
Since the shuttle program was cashiered in 2011, Sandon’s duties with NASA have grown even more interesting. These days he earns most of his flight-hours in the cockpit of the agency’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy – SOFIA. Equipped with a massive infrared telescope, the converted 747 cruises high above the Earth’s atmospheric veil probing the anatomy of the cosmos.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for the scientific community to get a very clear view of the skies that you can’t get from ground level,” Sandon says. “Not long ago we observed a molecule that’s been predicted for a long time, but has never been seen because it doesn’t exist on Earth. SOFIA usually flies in long arcs, because you have to compensate for the Earth’s rotation and keep the telescope oriented toward what the scientists are trying to see. It’s very exciting, and very challenging.”
Spending most of every month away from home can also be challenging, but anytime Sandon starts feeling the burn he just remembers a certain SCA flight he once made. A pair of shuttle astronauts had decided they wanted to accompany the spacecraft on its trip to Florida. Strapped in near Sandon’s post, when the 747 pilots hit the throttles the two men lit up like kids seeing Disney World for the first time.
“They were loving it,” Sandon grins. “I thought to myself, ‘My job is so cool even astronauts think it’s cool.’”