Category Archives: Aviation

Dust to Dust

“The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos


My science fiction and fantasy tends to have theological or spiritual angles, and this post is no different.

But first, meet SOFIA:

photo credit Alexander Golz

This is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—a retired jetliner modified to carry an astronomical telescope.  Originally built to service what the airline industry calls “long, thin routes”—ultra-long-range segments that attract relatively few passengers per week, the airplane is a specially shortened version of the ubiquitous Boeing 747.  It was built for Pan Am and christened Clipper Lindbergh by none other than Anne Lindbergh on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff, destination Paris.

After service with Pan Am and United Airlines, the future airborne observatory was retired to a desert boneyard to await her date with the scrapper’s torch—but fate intervened.  In 2008, after restoration, modification, and the installation of a German-designed and -built infrared telescope, the reborn aircraft was again christened Clipper Lindbergh on the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, this time by Erik Lindbergh.

SOFIA is jointly funded by NASA and DLR, Germany’s national aeronautical and space research agency.

photo credit NASA/Jim Ross

Here you can see SOFIA in flight with the telescope port fully open.

The reason for lofting the telescope to the base of the stratosphere is that water vapor strongly absorbs the infrared frequencies of greatest interest to astronomers, and by flying at 39,000-45,000 feet above sea level the observatory eliminates 99% of the atmospheric water vapor between the telescope and the celestial objects under study.

At the center of most, perhaps all, galaxies there is a supergiant black hole.  Some are quiescent and some are quite active, and observations recently made by SOFIA enabled astronomers for the first time to calculate the median size of the dust particles being drawn into the active black holes; it turns out that they’re about the size of sand grains.

But where do these dust particles come from?  Most of the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, not the more complex atoms that fill out the periodic table and make life interesting—and possible.  It’s now generally known that the complex atoms are thrown, like grains of rice at a celestial wedding, across the galaxies by novas and supernovas.

photo credit NASA/SOFIA/FLITECAM team/S. Shenoy

Here’s SOFIA’s “before and after” portrait of supernova 2014J, the 10th supernova discovered in 2014, nestled in its galaxy.

At one time supernovas were believed to be simply more dramatic novas, but the more recent understanding is that they result from very different processes; in fact, they’re quite distinct.

Their gifts to the universe are, likewise, quite distinct.  Supernovas provide us with the heavier elements that are the building blocks of the cores of rocky planets—and a single supernova can produce enough dust to form 7,000 Earths.  Novas, by contrast, provide us with the middleweight atoms—the ones that are essential to all life as we know it.

photo credit NASA/CXO/Lau et al

Belief systems the world over are fond of telling us of one deity or another dying that we may live and be redeemed.  We now know they’re almost right about this after all:  let us reflect that stars died that we might live and that we might have a world on which to live . . . and that, in a very real sense, we and our Earth are, indeed, heavenly.

Return to Flight

Finally the stars aligned for me to regain my currency as a sailplane pilot.  The weather, the gliderport runway conditions, the two-seat sailplane and the instructor all became suitable or available at the same time!

While flying with an instructor at the start of a new season or after a long layoff isn’t really mandatory, it IS a good practice.  In this case, I took advantage of the excellent instruction provided by CFIG Keith Miller and under his watchful eye performed two complete flights and one simulated emergency:  a “rope break” at low altitude, necessitating an immediate return to the runway.

It was a good workout and Blanik 5 (a Czech-made Super Blanik L-23 trainer) is a good ship.


Seen from the flight line, this is SCOH’s L-23 “Blanik 5” on final approach.

Mountain Wave

Soaring in mountain wave is magic.  A sailplane flies forward while ascending rapidly, smoothly, silently and possibly to very high altitudes.  (For the technically inclined more info is here.)

I wrote mountain wave into my novel Downfall Tide without having experienced it until very recently.  That was at SoaringNV in Minden, Nevada. Because of wave and strong soaring conditions generally Minden is one of the premier soaring sites in the world.  Still I was lucky to be there when there was wave.


21,200′ high in a Duo Discus sailplane – with instructor Elizabeth Tattersall.


DSCN2302 (2)

Lake Tahoe off the left wing


The atmospheric conditions that produce wave often produce lenticular clouds, which are peculiarly lens- or pancake-shaped:


Lennies in Carson City the night before.

Finally Arriving

YesterdayI was flying back from Washington DC and having much less tolerance than usual for being cooped up in an airliner.  Meanwhile we were vectored so far around storms in the Northeast that it was necessary to land in Little Rock for more fuel!  I heartily commend the caution that gives storms a wide berth, but Lord, I was glad to get out of that jet in Houston.  Then I couldn’t find the baggage carousel to pick up my bag, until I realized that the carousel’s electronic signage said Continental Flight 1757 from *Little Rock.*  Oh.

Eat Your Carrots

Aviation is full of aphorisms and acronyms meant to nudge busy brains in the right direction, and most of these are applicable to other activities in life.  “Know Before You Go” is a good rule for flying and driving too:  it’s always best to study the driving directions to your destination before wandering around on strange streets, and that goes double if your route takes you within a turn or two of a bad part of town.  The acronym HALT is another good thing to keep in mind generally.  If you’re Hungry (or deHydrated), Agitated, iLL, or Tired, don’t go flying.  Don’t fly into an argument with a loved one either.  Fix HALT problems first.

Yesterday I heard an aviation aphorism that isn’t generally applicable.  “Eat the carrot.”  Say what?  Well, a windsock is usually a long orange cone.  The pointy end points the way the wind is blowing.  When you take off or land you should roll into the wind with the pointy end of the local wind sock pointing at you as you roll by.   And everybody eats carrots starting with the tender tip.  So always make sure to eat the carrot.  It’s silly, easy to remember, and a hell of a lot better than inadvertently making a downwind takeoff or landing and wrecking the aircraft-!

photo op

When John Cross of jCross Photography recently did  PR pictures for me, he had this idea about posing a woman in a flight suit with his Cessna 170. I said sure why not.  Out of the drawer came said flight suit.  He snapped pictures with great glee.  In my experience, there’s never a dull moment around pilots!

Executive Error

On Sunday I chatted with a friend who’s both an aviator and an oil industry insider.  He reminded me that most aviation accidents are ultimately ascribed to pilot error. He’s sure that’s what happened with the BP oil spill.   Not equipment or procedure failure initially, but executive error.  Somebody in a key position made a bad decision.  A mile underwater is a more hostile environment than the pilot’s sky;  the challenge of drilling for deep sea oil is more comparable to exploring space.  Bad decisions can be catastrophic.  This one sure was.

The complete picture on oil spill is hard to piece together.  One of the elements in the picture is that BP is a commercial company.  This was mentioned on NPR yesterday.  If the press asks a question such that the true answer might send BP’s stock down, the reply is “Next question.”   Not like NASA, owned by the citizens of the USA and operated transparently.  It occurs to me that in commercial space operations – now envisioned as the future of American space flight to low earth orbit – the same rule may apply.  That will be a jolt to the system of the space-interested public.  Something goes wrong (or even right), the press asks an astute question, the answer is “Next question.”

Another difference between BP (and possibly commercial space ops) and NASA:  how the latter does contingency planning.  NASA plans for things to go right, wrong, and every which way in between.  Not so BP.  It seems clear from the coverage in the media, especially the Houston Chronicle (which, serving the energy capital of the world, has had coverage in quantity and depth), that BP was not interested thorough and rigorous contingency planning.  Too expensive.  NASA’s managers, over half a century and through spectacularly tragic accidents, learned the hard way to plan  contingencies.  BP’s executives, through a rather sordid history of fatal plant accidents, oil rig disasters, and regulatory penalties, seem not to have learned the lesson. This time the consequences hit home.  I’m anxiously interested to see how commercial space decision-makers fare between the hard anvil of the unforgiving space environment and the relentless hammer of the necessity to turn a profit.

What a prop

Needing some new publicity photos and mug shots, I went to see John Cross of jCross Photography.  He does portraits and airplane/aerial photography.  He enjoys combining  these missions, which is fine by me!  Here’s one of the resulting photos – me with John’s Cessna 170.  By the way, the engine was verified to be turned off .  With some small airplanes, a stationary propeller can turn into a rapidly moving and deadly one just by moving the prop.   When I meet an airplane parked on a ramp or in a hangar I won’t touch the propeller, and you shouldn’t either.

Accident Chained

The news media are full of reports of how British Petroleum ran its deep sea drilling operations with a paltry safety budget;  tolerated various problems with the Deepwater Horizon drilling operation, including  the blowout preventer not being in top condition;  and even attracted the attention of U.S. lawmakers who tried to get the Minerals Management Service to take a hard look at the operation – back in February.

The aviation community knows that most bad accidents  do not happen with no warning.  Instead they are the dismal end of a chain of lesser things gone wrong:  the accident chain.  It can include worsening weather, a minor mechanical problem, a pilot having a head cold, even a pilot’s persistent intuition that something isn’t right.  Smart pilots look out for accident chains.  After one thing goes wrong they get very alert.  After the second thing goes wrong, they stop the chain, e.g., by scrubbing the flight that day or if already up in the air making a beeline for the nearest airport.  Many a life and airplane has been saved when a pilot recognized an accident chain in progress.

For the classic  example of an accident chain allowed to run to its catastrophic conclusion, see the Titanic. And now Deepwater Horizon.  Evidently that rig had an accident chain  rivaling the one in Dickens’  Christmas Carol, the chain carried by Marley’s Ghost!