Our First View of Kitt Peak

by Helmut Abt

Reprinted from "Prime Focus" (a Kitt Peak staff newsletter), Volume 5, No. 1, January 1983

When we started a search in 1955 for a site for the National Astronomical Observatory, we were concerned with several requirements: a mountain between roughly 6,000 and 8,000 feet in elevation in the dry southwest, with enough developable land on top, and far enough away from city lights. Most of those requirements were flexible and no site was likely to be perfect in all ways.

map Identifying mountains more than 6,000 feet high (to get better "seeing" associated with less overhead turbulence that one has on mountaintops) but less than roughly 8,000 feet (above which winter weather and access can be a problem) was easy: consult the regional aeronautical maps.

Then, since Aden Meinel and I were based partly at the McDonald Observatory in Texas, we located a pilot to fly me over and around the selected mountains. John O. Casparis in Marfa, Texas was a local colorful, experienced pilot. He had logged an incredible 33,000 hours of flying, going back to World War I. He would routinely hunt eagles (on which there was a bounty in that sheep-raising region) by flying next to the cliffs, shooting them from his plane, and picking them up on foot later. He had a Cessna 140: a two-passenger plane with a single 4-cylinder engine. He offered to fly me around for 10 cents a mile, including plane, gas, and his time. We covered 2,000 miles in three days.

The first day was spent around the lonely mountains in southwest New Mexico between Interstate 10 and the Mexican border, and in southeastern Arizona. We landed for gas in Bisbee, but they had none. We then tried Nogales, where we had better luck, and filled up. For lunch there were only two machines in the airport, so Casparis had a 5 cent cup of coffee and I had a 5 cent candy bar.

map Near the end of the day we circled around the Tumacacori Mts., Baboquivari Peak, and past Kitt Peak on the west and north. Our views of Kitt Peak were promising: good ground cover, no competing installations or even a road to the top, plenty of room for telescopes and support buildings, far enough from Tucson, and still the first high peak east of the extremely dry (and hence generally clear) desert area centered on Yuma. My notes, written poorly in a vibrating, gyrating plane, said in part, "Looks better -- more trees. Investigate [from the ground]."

After three days of flying over mountains and forests with no emergency landing areas, we headed back to Texas. Near El Paso the engine started to miss. Casparis landed at an uninhabited emergency strip and radioed his wife to drive to meet us. By the time she arrived two hours later, Casparis had found and cured the trouble: both (two for redundant safety) spark plugs on one cylinder were fouled. But I rode back to Marfa with Mrs. Casparis (for company?) while he flew back. We arrived after dark, Casparis first. His technique for landing at night was to fly low over the town of Marfa and turn his engine off and on repeatedly so as to alert friends of his to drive to the landing strip and turn on the lights.

Later Aden and I hiked up Kitt Peak and camped overnight to assess the light problem from Tucson. Because of the difficulty of hiking through the manzanita at the upper levels, we only reached the ridge north of the (current) lake by dark. Later trips were arranged by Harold Thompson (a born cowboy at heart) on horses with Papago guides, starting from San Vicente just north of Kitt Peak. From then on it was all downhill. Uphill? Whatever.

Kitt Peak 40th

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