Category Archives: World

Sniper at 12 O’Clock!

Last weekend I flew a glider for the first time in a long time.  (In 2007 I  had to go inactive in the Soaring Club of Houston and hadn’t flown for a while even before that.  It was a long hiatus due to having a novel published, writing two more novels, having a parent diagnosed with Alzheimers and then relocating out of an apartment complex being sold to developers.  Life happens.)

So I went up with a glider flight instructor and did better than I thought I would.  I flew two flights from tow to full stop,  without the instructor having to take the controls except when I forgot to plant the tail wheel after the first landing.  They say it’s like riding a bicycle – you get rusty but you probably won’t crash into a tree if you haven’t ridden a bike in forever.  Likewise flying skills stay with you even though finesse definitely does not.

The instructor gave me some memorable landing advice.   He reminded me to pick a landing spot to aim for, then once in ground effect – a wing length or so above the ground – to look at the end of the runway.  Like a lot of other things, landing an aircraft is done best when your attention is not overly immediate.  You need to be taking in the whole view of the runway;  it’s vital.  The instructor said, “Pretend there’s a Nazi sniper in the trees at the end of the field and look for him!”

Pretend there’s a sniper in the trees at the end of the runway. I won’t forget that.  It’s the best kind of flight instruction admonition:  pithy and funny enough to stick in a busy brain and be recalled when it’s needed most.

A couple of days ago I discovered the origin of the word sniper. It was in a recent re-edition from Oxford University Press of a classic cookbook written for British housewives in 19th-century India. (!)  Snipe entered in as wild game that might end up on the dinner table.  They are wary marsh birds.  A sniper is a hunter skilled enough to shoot a snipe.

OK, that makes a memorable lesson and a half.  Look for the sniper in the trees to make sure your eyes are where they’ll do you the most good in the last moments of a landing.  And practice toward a snipe-hunting level of accuracy!

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!

Leak proof

The Houston Chronicle is evidently very irritated with BP for restricting media coverage of the oil spill.  There’s an editorial to that effect today, in which the Chron snipes,  “BP officials seem to be more adept at cutting off information flows than oil leaks.”  The editorial makes an excellent point – that it’s the vital job of journalism to document this catastrophe and to give the public credible and timely information along the way.

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.

tattoo who?


My collleague Tiffany enjoyed the TATTOO AND BODY ART EXPO over the weekend.  It was at Reliant Stadium.   I had no idea there could be a tattoo convention that big.  The Reliant Web site billed it:  “The Largest Tattoo and Body Art Expo in the World! This is a clean, safe, family oriented, tattoo convention and party.”  Body art means tattooing, piercing, implanting crystals, and other sorts of corporeal decor. 

Tiffany observed that  unlike the tattooed or pierced folk you might see in public who have an offputting attitude or get bristled up if you stare at them, everyody with fancy body art at the Expo wanted people to look, see and ask questions.  Just like science fiction conventions – everybody feels more at home in the midst of their tribe!

Perfect Storm

Sebastian Junger made  “perfect storm” famous in his book with that title.   He derived it from a conversation with a meteorologist.  Essentially it doesn’t mean a  purebred colossal storm. It means a conjunction of meteorological events that add up to something uncommonly bad.  By extension, it can be a conjunction of  meteorological and other events (or it can depart from the meteorological and take off into the metaphorical.)

Well, here’s one that we can hope and pray we don’t see.  The notorious oil spill is still bleeding like a cut artery in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  What happens if a hurricane comes along?  NPR did a segment on this, and the prospects are awful.  By darkening the water, and causing the water to heat under the sun, the oil might make a hurricane more severe.  Or a hurricane might drive the oil much deeper into the salt marshes than it would have gone on its own.  Or shove the oil at Florida.

It’s beside the point to say this is an impossibly unlikely scenario.  By the reckoning of BP, the oil industry in general, and the Federal MMS agency that was way too cozy with the industry, the spill itself was impossible!

American Gothic too

On the door and window of Dr. Chandler Davidson’s Fondren Library – Rice University office:  all of these satiric, whimsical, or (depending on what kind of deadline the illustrator was under) desperate riffs on Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic!

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!

Lobster Dinner

My colleague Rebecca has been having a highly unwelcome episode of dental trouble that necessitates a strict soft food diet.  Tired of the usual choices, she asked her boyfriend, Daniel Atjai (a professional chef) for some sushi.  Here’s what he came up with:  fresh tuna, seasoned soft tofu, and mashed avocado – a  nice nutritious meal – arranged to look like a lobster and anointed with soy sauce.  Now that was art with a heart!