Above the Clouds

09/30/2022 02:03 AM By Lisa Anderson
Feature Story
Carl Schneider
Carl Schneider
Story by Cynthia McFarland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

Above the Clouds

Celebrating a Career Dedicated to Flight

On a clear summer morning in Ocala, Florida, Carl Schneider checks the battery in his Eflite Extra 300 before sending the meticulously-crafted remote-control plane soaring into the sky. After 30 years in the aerospace industry, Carl’s passion for flight and technology is still flying high. 

Family Inspiration

Carl was directly inspired by his father’s adventurous spirit and love of flying. “My dad, Samuel Schneider, gave me a great legacy. When he started in aviation, he was a barnstormer,” says Carl, who was born October 10, 1944, in Clewiston, Florida, where his father served as a flight instructor for the Royal Air Force (RAF) at a secret Army Air Corps training base. 

“In 1949, he was recruited by the new state of Israel to help organize the Israeli Air Force. They have such a reputation of having a great Air Force and my dad had a lot to do with that,” says Carl.
Carl Schneider

Life in Israel

Samuel Schneider left for Israel in 1949; his family followed in 1950. Carl was 6 and didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. “It’s amazing how quickly a child picks up a new language.”

In a radical change from life in America, the Schneider children lived with Israeli families at a kibbutz in Mishmar Hasharon. “On the kibbutz, kids live and sleep in a dormitory. Their parents get together with them in the afternoons and evenings. There were sheep, goats, donkeys, and we even had a hidden area where we were raising a few pigs,” recalls Carl wryly. 

With his father totally engrossed in aviation, his parents’ marriage deteriorated, and they eventually divorced. “The law in Israel was that the mother gets the daughter, and the father gets the sons. My mother and sister left Israel and went to New York; my brother and I stayed with Dad,” says Carl.

“My dad was a national hero and wanted to remain in Israel, but he left the decision about moving with my brother and me,” Carl states. “We wanted to move back to America, because it had the Howdy Doody Show.” He was 11 when they left the Middle East.

“It was a very unusual experience, but I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it,” he says of those five years spent in Israel.

Return to the U.S.

Back on American soil in 1955, Carl settled into school. His father became a flight instructor for Army Aviation at Fort Rucker, Alabama. 

During Carl’s senior year of high school, he heard an announcement over the PA system that the U.S. had launched Alan Sheppard into space. “That was the spark that led me to join the space program for the rest of my professional career,” he says. 

At the University of Alabama, Carl majored in Aerospace Engineering. In his sophomore year, he enrolled in the Co-op Program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama. Similar to an internship, the program incorporated work with school. Carl participated all four years.

“I worked at MSFC under Werner Von Braun in developing and testing the gigantic F-1 Rocket Engine that was used to launch the Apollo Program to the moon,” says Carl. 

Von Braun developed rocket technology in Nazi Germany. After surrendering to the Americans at the end of WWII, Von Braun was sent to the U.S. to work on rocket development for the U.S. Army as part of a military operation known as “Project Paperclip.” 

Looking back, Carl believes a mutual passion for science overrode any possible awkwardness about a former Nazi and a Jew working together. “It was more ‘here and now’ than what happened before,” says Carl about learning under Von Braun. “He developed that rocket technology for the Nazis but wasn’t a devout Nazi; he was more a technology geek.”

Carl’s experience in the program paved the way for a pivotal job after graduating college in 1968. “I was offered a development engineering position at Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, California. Rocketdyne was NASA’s contractor to design, develop, test, and manufacture the F-1 engine,” he notes. “As the Apollo Program matured, I was selected to participate in the design, development, and testing of the space shuttle main engines.” 

Learning to Fly

In 1970, Carl got his pilot’s license at Van Nuys Airport, which was the country’s busiest civilian airport at the time. He bought his first plane—a Cessna 172—before he even got his pilot’s license and would own six planes through the years, including an experimental one he built.

“Aviation was a big part of my life living in California,” he adds. “I got my instrument rating and joined the Flying Samaritans, an organization that flew doctors, nurses, and dentists to remote areas of Mexico to set up medical clinics. One of the nurses I kept flying with was Jo Ann from Los Angeles.” Carl and Jo Ann married in 1989.
Carl Schneider

NASA Calling

Directly because of Carl’s experience with rocket engines during 18 years at Rocketdyne, he was recruited by NASA Headquarters to help in the investigation of the 1986 Challenger accident. 

“The investigation took 1-½ years and concluded that there were no design deficiencies in the space shuttle. The cause of the accident was determined to be a flawed decision-making process that allowed the shuttle to be launched from Cape Kennedy on a 27ºF morning,” explains Carl. “This cold temperature prevented the O-rings from sealing in the hot gases on the solid rocket booster.”

Carl relates that President Ronald Regan was eager for the Challenger’s launch, because he hoped to announce the Teacher in Space Program in his State of the Union address. “Basically, there were a lot of ‘paper pushers’ but there was no technical person to say, ‘No, it’s too cold to launch,’” says Carl. 

Carl’s NASA career accelerated, including promotion to the position of Director of Reliability and Quality Assurance. “This position was specifically created to make sure something like the rushed decision to launch the space shuttle never happened again,” says Carl, who pulled the best talent from NASA Centers around the country to form his team.

He established numerous safeguards to minimize launch risks during succeeding launches. In 1989 and 1990, Carl’s NASA team identified potential problems and stopped two shuttle launches that were ready to go. 

The highlight of his career was meeting President Reagan in 1989, when he and the senior engineers who worked on the Challenger investigation were invited to the White House. “That’s something I will cherish forever,” says Carl of the memorable evening in the Rose Garden.

Still Flying

After he retired in 1998, Carl and Jo Ann lived in St. Augustine for eight years before moving to On Top of the World in 2018, a move inspired by the fact that the community has a world-class RC flying field.

Although he doesn’t climb into the cockpit any longer, Carl still takes to the skies regularly, flying remote control planes, a hobby he’s been passionate about for many years. “Building and flying RC planes keeps me very busy.” Carl says he has about a dozen. “That number can diminish when one crashes, but the beauty is that there’s no blood involved.”
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