Sunday, December 27, 2009

Merry Christmas (Belated)!

A belated Merry Christmas to all of you! The kids and Evie are spending the holidays with us here in Burbank (and Disneyland!). Nicky, our Russian Blue, is having fun, too...we think.

More photos to follow later. In the meantime, may all your holiday wishes come true and may you spend it with friends and family who care if they do!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

White Knight Two

White Knight Two is the follow-on to White Knight One. It is bigger, more powerful and can carry the larger SpaceShipTwo rocketship that will carry paying tourists on a suborbital flight. The first customer/operator is Sir Richard Branson and his specially formed Virgin Galactic company. The first SS2 is named Eve, after Branson's mother. The first SS2 was christened VSS (Virgin Space Ship) Enterprise (cue the Star Trek music). Branson expects to have a fleet of six SS2s in operation from the New Mexico Spaceport in a few short years. Burt Rutan, whose company Scaled Composites (now part of Northrop Grumman) built both vehicles, foresees a market for 40 to 50 SS2s. Commercial space tourism is on the cusp of reality.

It was a special thrill to see WK2 make a fly-by at this year's Edwards AFB open house. Not only did it do an nice 360 degree photo pass, but it landed and went on static display next to WK1.

Since I was at the South Base media site, I got these images of WK2 as it passed overhead. The first shot shows the art on the unside of the wing and fuselages. The second photo is a top-rear quarter view that highlights the arched center wing section where SS2 will be carried. Again, another in a long line of weirdly neat designs from the house of Rutan.

Incidentally, the silhouettes on the bottom of both fuselages are those of historically significant flying machines. They are, in order from the aft-most image: Icarus; the Wright Flyer; the Spirit of St. Louis; The Bell X-1; Boeing 707; Grumman Lunar Lander and finally Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Reprise: Whirly-Bird Roost

Well, I was going to post an image of White Knight Two today, but Aviation Week and Space Technology just published their annual photography issue and I got an honorable mention. So I thought I'd jump for joy and reprise the entry that made the cut. Yes, of the ten images I submitted, the pigeon beat them all! For those of you who get the magazine, it is on page 70. For those who don't, I will post the link momentarily. I do want to add that three other pictures of mine made the final round, too. I will link those as well.

I feel very pleased, proud and fortunate to be able to make the finals with any pictures at all, much less get one published. There were 1,213 images submitted from 157 photographers from around the world, many of them full-time pros. There are some incredible shots there and I encourage you to check them out.

On the other hand, I can't help but laugh. To think that that silly pigeon - another one of those "oh, what-the-heck" last second additions to the submission list that I seem to make every time I enter - would make the cut over so many others, strikes me as hilarious. All I can think of is the judges must have wanted some levity in the proceedings. But an honorable mention is an honorable mention and I'll take it gladly.

As in most contests, there are a couple of photos that bring a "WTF-over?!" response. I do have some subversive satisfaction in knowing that I probably have one of them for this year and hundreds of readers are scratching their heads at this very moment saying "why?"

We should all be so lucky.

The links to the specific images are (for the pigeon):

The other links are:

The link to the overall photo contest gallery is:

The link to the issue is (subscription required for full entry):

I recommend cut and paste to your browser. That should make it easier.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Laminar Flow

This is a close-up of the package under the White Knight One as seen at this year's Edwards AFB open house. Apparently it is some sort of laminar flow experiment. Laminar flow is, simply put, the smooth flow of air over a surface, usually a wing. The smoother and more continuous the flow the more drag is reduced and the greater the lift produced by that surface, creating greater flight efficiencies and so forth.
As you can see, laminar surfaces have interesting shapes. The whole process of aeroscience research is to eek the most performance out of the functional designs, sometimes with different goals getting in each others way. For instance, the most efficient low observable design may not be the most aerodynamically efficient design. The operational purpose of the airplane ultimately dictates a distilled balance of these competing criteria.
Of course, real-world necessities have a way of intruding on theory. It always amuses me to see how much sweat goes into creating the most efficient wing shape only to have ungainly pylons with even less streamline ordnance hung off of every available hardpoint despoiling the whole effort. Even stealth vehicles with internally carried weapons face this challenge with antenna, pitot tubes, navigational aids and other paraphenalia important to modern flight.
Nevertheless, continuous process improvement (to use an industry buzz-word) is an on-going goal, hence the shape under WK1. Incidentally, I can't help put in a plug for our shop - we did the logo markings for the experiment. They came out pretty nice.

As a side note, I added Chad's photo of me surrounded by some of our models as my official blog photo. While there is a company policy that says we shouldn't broadcast our affliation with Northrop Grumman (the better to counter espionage, etc), I figured that having my face published with such a direct link makes it ridiculous to deny the fact. So why not acknowledge what is already known? Besides, Chad did a nice job and I really like the picture - one of the few times I've actually been happy with an image of myself.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

White Knight One

As I said, Rutan designs are truly weird. But the lines do flow, albeit in strange and unconventional ways. Form does follow function, though, as White Knight One is a mothership with a hardpoint on the centerline just aft of the crew pod. The arch in the wing shape allows carriage of thick objects such as SpaceShipOne or experimental packages in the center. This does away with the asymmetric drag and weight penalties incurred by off-set pylons like on the old NB-52B.

In this particular case, WK1 is carrying a joint industry/university/DoD project exploring aerodynamic laminar flow shapes. It makes for a neat addition to the sweeping lines on the aircraft.

The photos were shot on the Friday media event at the Edwards AFB open house this past October.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rutan Knows Jack

Okay, I'm going through's time for some more airplane pictures.

The fascinating thing about Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites company is the wild and weird shapes they come up with in their aero designs. They are very organic-looking and almost alien. But it's the wonderfully curved lines and flowing shapes that really appeal to me. In some ways it's as appealing as the 1930s designs with their cross between art deco and streamline modernism. They all project a sensuality you can almost feel.

The close-up of White Knight One, above, shot at this year's Edwards AFB Open House media day, exudes all of that and more. In particular the round windows give an exotic, almost insectoid appearance to the crew area and cockpit. It definitely has a high coolness factor - heightened in this case by the humorous pitot tube covers: a pair of Jack-in-the-Box Jack heads; one on either side of the nose. One can clearly state that unlike Bo, who don't know Diddley, or someone who doesn't know Jack, Scaled and Rutan most decidedly DO know Jack!

I wonder if they could get a sponsorship for that?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Yosemite Death March - Epiloge

Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, "what does not kill me, makes me stronger." That may be so. Unfortunately neither is fun to experience at the time of occurrence. But we did survive, even though we could barely walk the next day. Amazingly the four of us did the circuit again the next year, with Christie and Mike in tow. I think it was mainly at the behest of the kids because they wanted to see what we saw. So we did, just to show we could do it better the second time around, I suppose. It was still a tough hike for us, but we were better prepared and we managed a lot better.

Regardless, that first trek was a memorable event, and not just for the mortality part. The back country of Yosemite is amazing and I'm glad I got the chance to hike it. I had done high Sierra hikes with the Boy Scouts before where we did part of the John Muir trail, but I was young and perhaps did not appreciate what I was seeing as much as I should have. I did take photos from those trips, though, and will post at a later date. The comparison should be interesting.

But there is something special about Yosemite. That view as you start down from the Glacier Point trail head, as shown above in a photo I took that day, is spectacular. Half-Dome is on the left. In the lower center is Vernal Fall and above it and to the right is Nevada Fall. Illilouette Fall is off the edge of the photo to the right between that big wall of rock in the foreground, across the gorge from where I'm standing. Once we got down to Illilouette, we had to hike up and over that wall to get to the top of Nevada Fall. You can also see how steep the terrain is down the left side of Nevada, and then further on down as you descend the Mist Trail on the right side of Vernal. The footbridge crosses the Merced at the bottom of the Mist Trail and the path continues down to Happy Isle. Allegedly it is about a 10.4 mile hike. I think that must be as the crow flies, because it sure seemed a lot longer than that with all the switchbacks along the way. I've always harbored suspicions about Forest Service mileage markers ever since I was in the Scouts; this only reinforced them.

The view below is on our climb out of Illilouette Fall. At that point you can see across the Yosemite Valley to Yosemite Fall. Glacier Point, where we started our hike, is that big wall of rock on the left. At the base you can see the debris field from the scaling event, or slide, that occurred a week earlier.

The photo below is a close up of the damage. You can see the swath of downed trees and how close it came to the Happy Isle building. You can also see the pulverized granite at the base of Glacier Point. What you can't see is how much of that dust coated the opposite side of the valley from the slide, especially along the trail between the footbridge and Happy Isle. Believe me, it was amazing to see how thick it was on the trees and ground.

This certainly was a vivid reminder of the power and unpredictability of nature. Yosemite is a wonderful place, but you have to respect it. Indeed, even in the comfortable climes of Burbank, in the heart of earthquake country, you have to respect nature. We lull ourselves into believing we are in control of our environment and we aren't, really. We just like to think we are. And then, BOOM. Reality strikes. And if we're lucky, it makes us stronger.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Yosemite Death March - Part Five

When last we left our intrepid heroes they had managed to stagger down the Mist Trail in the lowering light, as seen in the above photo, to the bottom of Vernal Fall and on to the Happy Isle shuttle stop. This is a shot along the Mist Trail that late afternoon, with Roy closest to the camera and Aida and Tina further down the trail. I, of course, was straggling behind, using the photo op to catch a brief rest. It didn't help.

Camp Curry was the place Roy and I started to go into shock. Both of us were drained to the core. We somehow ate our dinner - an unexpected challenge and probably our first clue that our bodies were shutting down for the night. We began to shiver uncontrollably and stiffen. When it came time to make the last push for the campsite we could barely move, much less walk.

At that point Tina and Aida decided to hike back to Housekeeping and get the car. There was nothing else to do. So they set out in the pitch blackness towards the camp. It was so dark they could barely see the road. Indeed, Aida said they only knew they were on it because if they drifted to the right or left they could feel the dirt of the shoulder under their feet.

Bears are a real presence in Yosemite. And they've basically lost all fear of humans. Park regulations prohibit any overnight food or drink storage in vehicles or unprotected outdoor facilities. Bears will open cars up like pop-top containers to get to the goodies inside. They even recognize that ice chests are food containers and will rip car doors and roofs off to get at them.

There is the oft-cited safety precaution in bear country that if you make enough noise they will hear you coming and back off. Bears may not be afraid of humans, but they don't necessarily like to meet them. At the same time, you don't want to startle a bear. Loud talking or even singing will be fair warning for all parties to avoid chance meetings.

As such, Aida decided singing at the top of her lungs was the best way to keep the bears away during the march back to camp. So picture this, if you will: two very tired and sweaty women marching down the middle of the road in the pitch-black night - one of them singing, "does your chewing gum loose its flavor on the bedpost overnight" very loudly and very off-key, over and over and over.

I'm glad I missed it and will be forever thankful that Tina braved the bears and Aida's singing to get the car. After what seemed like an eternity, they arrived and rescued us. I slept very long and very hard that night.

Next: the aftermath, debris photos and the Death March redux.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Yosemite Death March - Part Four

"Water, water everywhere; and not a drop to drink." Vernal Fall, like all Yosemite waterfalls in the height of the runoff season, disgorges a tremendous amount of water. The Mist Trail is so heavy at times hikers wear ponchos or other rain gear to keep themselves semi-dry. It is especially important if you are carrying a camera that is not waterproof. This shot, taken on our first visit to the Mist Trail, captures the force of the fall. The trees and rocks are almost in silhouette and it reminds me of the stylized Chinese or Japanese art.

The Falls were just as spectacular during the Death March, but by the time I reached the footbridge at the base of the Mist Trail, I was done and the scenery was the least of my concerns. It was only with massive cajoling and threats by my companions that I continued. By this time, Tina's and my water bottles were empty. It was still a good 1/2 mile to the trailhead and the promised shuttle bus to Camp Curry. But night was coming on rapidly. We had to get down before it was too dark to see the trail, which was covered in a thick coat of granite dust from the rock slide a few days earlier.

I had no idea how I was going to make it. But we staggered on down the trail as best we could. Fortunately Roy and Aida had a ace up their sleeves. They knew that part way down the trail there was a natural spring that emerged a few feet up the slope from where we would walk. Despite the warnings, we were reasonably sure that if any water was going to be amoeba-free, it would be at the point were it emerged from the ground. So we drank, and drank, and drank. The water was incredibly sweet. I thought I'd never get enough.

There was only one other time that water has tasted that good to me, and that was also from a natural spring, one on the trail up to the top of Mt. Baden-Powell here in the Angeles National Forest. My Boy Scout troop knew of it's location and made a point to visit it every time we hiked Baden-Powell. Like the Yosemite spring, I could not get enough to drink.

In any event, that small, trickling spring, emerging magically out of the powdery dust on that mountainside, saved me. It was still a long haul, but we eventually made it to the shuttle stop in total darkness. Ironically, there was a couple of hikers behind us and they caught up with our party at that point, but not before spooking Aida into thinking we were being stalked by bears. This will become important later.

I can't really remember the shuttle ride to Camp Curry. My memory says we missed the last shuttle and had to walk. Everyone else says we did make the last shuttle. Perhaps my brain had shut down by then. I do remember making it to the cafeteria at Camp Curry and just getting our order into the kitchen before it closed. The pizza was hot, but I could barely taste it; I was shivering and my body was shutting down. Unfortunately, we still had 3/4 of a mile to go to our camp site. But like any good serial, that part will have to follow later.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Yosemite Death March - Part Three

Sorry for the long intermission, but I was intensely involved in a special project for work. Essentially I was making a year-end report for our home department as a five-minute music video - yes, it's a long story. And yes, it's my first attempt, so you can imagine the compressed learning curve. Regardless, it is 98% complete and well before the Thursday deadline, so I can relax a bit and get to blogging again. But what would a serial be without intermission, eh?

When last seen, we were at the top of Nevada Fall preparing to head down to Vernal Fall. The trial was steep and strenuous, but I was still lively enough to stop for pictures (I have not scanned those slides yet, but will sometime soon). I also was not feeling the effects of dehydration yet. We stopped at the top of Vernal Fall and rested. Then we proceeded down the Mist Trail.

The start of the trail from the top of Vernal is a bit nerve-racking for someone like me who has a touch of acrophobia. While I'm not particularly nervous about heights, I do get twitchy when I feel precarious and unsteady at a height. I like to feel secure underfoot. That's why it took me several years to learn to ride a bicycle and why I never learned to skateboard or ice skate. I barely could roller skate. The first several hundred meters or so down the trail is against a rock wall. The narrow, deep steps are carved out of the rock and there is an iron handhold that is not very secure keeping you from toppling over into the abyss. If you think I exaggerate, the shot above (from a different trip) was taken at a more secure part of the trail as it wended its way down the gorge. I kept expecting to see llamas in Incas along the way. Yes, that part was an exaggeration, but not by much.

As I intimated, the composition of the bulk of the Mist Trail was stone steps. Many were natural, but some were shaped into platforms. They were irregular in width, depth and length. Going up is arduous; going down is treacherous - and very, very tiring for someone not used to working those muscle groups involved in the act of stepping down between 18 to 24 inches average at a time for over a mile. Add to that the heavy mist of the fall, which was quite plentiful this trip, and you can see how slow the going was for me. Don't forget, I was carrying 50+ pounds of camera gear in a not so secure pack (that would come in a later trip). The fear of a shifting load throwing me off balance and causing me to fall was ever-present on my mind.

By the time I hit the bottom of the Mist Trail, I was spent. The shot below, taken on an earlier trip (same day as the photo above), shows Vernal Fall from near the foot bridge as it crosses the Merced. If you look to the right of the fall, you can see the rock face that comprises the last part of the trail. Unlike this photo, it was dusk when we got down there. We still had about a half mile to go to get to the shuttle bus stop a Happy Isle.

There is the old movie cliche' of the wounded soldier saying to his comrades, "Leave me, save yourselves!" I literally said that to Tina, Roy and Aida. My legs felt like quivering tubes of Jello and I could barely stand. We were out of water (ironic, since we were next to a river - but again, we were warned of parasitic amoebas) and night was falling fast. The landscape beyond the foot bridge was covered in a thick layer of pulverized granite from the Glacier Point slide and looked like the very picture of devastation.

Roy and Aida threatened to drag me down the trail by my feet, so I rose after an all-to-brief respite and staggered on. But you'll have to wait for the next installment to hear the remaining story. That's why it's called a "serial." :-)

For those who are interested in learning more about the Mist Trail, here's a link to the Yosemite website on the subject, with photos:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Yosemite Death March - Part Deux

Continuing our saga, we visited Yosemite for a few days just about a week after the huge scaling (slide) event off Glacier Point that nearly took out Camp Curry and closed the Happy Isles area in July of 1996. We were more fit in those days than we are now, so we were up for an adventure. Roy and Aida were with us and we conceive of a hike that would take us from Glacier Point down to Illilouette Fall, back up over a ridge then down to Nevada Fall, down the North side of the Merced River to Vernal Fall, then following the Mist Trail back to Happy Isles, Camp Curry and on to the housekeeping camp area where we were staying.

Part of the reason we wanted to do this was to see what the damage was from the scaling, in which 78,000 cubic yards of granite face fell off from an area between Washburn Point and Glacier Point. The Mist Trail heading up to Vernal Fall was closed in that direction, but oddly, hikers going the other way were not restricted. That, in part, decided our route.

We figured it would be about 10.4 miles from the Glacier Point trailhead to the Happy Isle bus stop. We started relatively early in the morning (it is about an hour's drive from the valley floor). Roy and I were carrying about 50-60 lbs each in camera gear, plus water. Tina and Aida carried packs of food, jackets and water. We had plenty...or so we thought. More on that later.

The first part of the trip was uneventful. It's mostly downhill to Illilouette Fall from Glacier Point and the trail was moderate to good. We lunched at Illilouette and then began the trek to Nevada.

I don't do well going uphill...I never have. When I did all those long hikes in the local mountains and in the Sierras as a boy scout, you could hear me puffing up a hill from miles away. I usually always made it, but on my own schedule and pace.

The slog up from Illilouette was no different. What was troublesome was the trail was in the sun and we began using a lot of water. By the time we crested the ridge we were getting low.

We could also begin to see the damage. A huge swath of pulverized granite dust coated the valley floor near Happy Isle and up the canyon towards Vernal Fall. It looked like the color of the moon.

That part of the trip was still hours ahead of us. For now we made the downhill march to Nevada Fall, where we stopped. There was a water fountain at the top of the fall where we hoped to fill our canteens/water bottles. Alas, the piping must have been damage by the granite fall because it was shut off when we got there. Due to the concern of parasitic amoeba in the water, we were stuck with what we had, which wasn't much. And that's when things started to go south in a hurry.

The story will continue in a later post. In the meantime, I took this shot from the top of Nevada Fall looking towards what I believe is Liberty Cap. This is the same peak that can be seen in the last post, but now we are on the other side of the Merced. I like the mirroring of Liberty Cap in the small boulder in the foreground. But so much for now, stay tuned for Part Three: same Bat time, same Bat channel.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Yosemite Death March - part 1

These next few posts will be like the old fashioned "Perils of Pauline" serial, mainly because I've been so busy at work doing the department year-end video (my first) that nearly all blogging has come to a screeching halt. Nevertheless, this is a cautionary tale, in line with the last entry's reference to "suffering for one's art."

I truly do use the phrase with some jest. As I mentioned, some people feel the need to "experience" life (read "suffer") in order to gain an appreciation of it for their artistic expression. I do agree that experience is invaluable, and unfortunately a lot of experience comes with some pain. But I don't see the need to actively seek it out purely on the excuse that it'll necessarily make you a better writer/painter/musician/artist. There is enough real suffering out there through wars, accidents, crime, disease and the other social/political/economic travails inherent in life to make actively seeking such experience seem naive at best and foolish at worst.

Indeed, my experience has taught me that pain and hardship are ready companions at the slightest whim and arrive when least expected. So it was on the Yosemite back-country trail Tina and I half-kiddingly refer to as "the great Death March." The photo above, of Nevada Fall, was part of that hike, and a subject to be continued on the next post.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Suffering for Art

There is this idea that you have to "suffer" for your art. I once had a girl friend who adamantly believed in that philosophy. As a result she left home as soon as she was 18, rented a room in somebody's finished garage and proceeded to do some really reckless things that could have lead to bad things happening to her. All this in pursuit of "life" and life's experiences.

The whole exercise was kind of lost on me. while I do appreciate the value of experiences, I think imagination and the ability to place yourself in the shoes of others is equally valuable.

Yet, there are indeed times when one must suffer for ones art. The above photo was taken knee-deep in the Merced River several years ago. While it was technically summer, the water was snowmelt, so cold was an understatement. Much like the Tioga Pass photo, I spent nearly an hour in that frigid river shooting Half Dome photos into the twilight.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Black Talons - Holloman AFB

As I mentioned in an earlier post, The Northrop, now Northrop Grumman, T-38 Talon celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first flight earlier this year. Not only is it still in operational service training future fighter pilots for the U.S. Air Force, it is revisiting an old role of playing "Red Air."

The initial Navy Adversary and Air Force Aggressor units flew T-38s in Soviet-style tactics to give our pilots simulated air combat training, hence the appellation Red Air. Complimented by, then later replaced with Northrop F-5E Tiger II's and Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, the Talon performed well enough, but returned to it primary mission when it became clear more capable jets were needed to play the role.

However, with the F-22A Raptor replacing the F-117 Nighthawk at Holloman AFB, the T-38 has once again returned to the combat training aggressor role. This is mainly due to the fact that Aggressor units are stretched too thin and Holloman is a bit remote from the major Red Air operating sites (Nellis AFB foremost among them).

Usually, ACC (Air Combat Command) T-38s have the same paint scheme as their parent squadron. In other words, the T-38 companion trainers for the 509th Bomb Wing, which flies B-2s, are painted B-2 grey. The T-38s at Holloman were painted black to match the F-117s. They decided to leave them black when they took on the Red Air role against the F-22s because black was harder to detect in the air, or so our host told us when we visited the 7th CTS (Combat Training Squadron) during Phancon this year.

Incidentally, the tail band now has little F-22 silhouettes. When they were the companion trainers to the Nighthawk they had little F-117s.

One last note, the 7th CTS was called the Screamin' Demons when the F-117 was there. I assume they are still called that, but lately they have taken on a new, unofficial nickname. It is a play on the HO tail code on the jets. Believe it or not, they are affectionaly called the "Black HOs."

Politically correct it ain't. But it is descriptive and literally accurate.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Extreme Catnapping

Sleeping cats and babies must be the most limber beings on earth. Cats especially are positively boneless when it suits them. I stumbled upon this scene last Saturday. Nicky, our part-Russian Blue, part Siamese, decided the chair in the living room was the perfect, sun-drenched spot to stretch out and nap. Except somewhere in the doing he got folded up like a jack-knife. Did it bother comrade Nikolai that he was bent over like an old, discarded soda straw? Not a bit. He sleep soundly even as I crept up and snapped a few blackmail pictures of his twisted body. Ah, youth; ah, wild, haphazard, misspent youth!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Phantom Phollies, part 3

"Then God's countenance shone upon the phace of the Phantom, and Lo, it was good." Well...okay, a bit overly dramatic, but there is something magical about the brilliant shafts of sunlight that burst through the openings in clouds. Called appropriately enough "God-rays," these beams give a punch to an otherwise drab image.

In this instance, one of the sucker holes happened to be positioned just right and these three F-4s parked off the main ramp were the beneficiaries of this special effect. The dilemma was whether to get closer and isolate the aircraft from bothersome distractions (e.g. telephone wires) and wait for a stronger, more direct God-ray or get images of the other aircraft on the ramp before our time was up. I chose the latter. But there were a couple of other shooters who did try to wait it out for a more dramatic picture. Hopefully we'll see their results sometime in the near future on the Society's webpage (

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Phantom Phollies, part 2

Sucker holes do occasionally pay off, albeit for a brief period of time. As I mentioned yesterday, the window we got lasted about 20 minutes - enough to capture about ten Phantoms. Then the sun went away for pretty much the rest of the day...or at least it was gone when we were on the ramp. It did pop out for a time while we were inside a hangar inspecting the F-22 sans cameras. Yes, it was laughing at us.

This F-4E (serial 71-1075) looked very pretty with its orange wingtips and tail and shark mouth markings.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Phantom Phollies, part 1

The F-4 Phantom II Society held it's annual convention at Holloman AFB, NM, this past week. Holloman averages 360 days of sun a year, or so they say. We had about 20 minutes of sun on Wednesday, the first day of the convention, and lots of clouds. It rained in nearby Alamogordo and the surrounding mountain ranges were dusted with snow.

Thursday was better, but very cold. Showers and clouds occurred most of the day, but we did have some sun.

The above image of the QF-4 Phantom was taken on Wednesday. The opening in the clouds on the right is the so-called "sucker hole." A sucker hole is what fakes the photographer into believing his subject will be bathed in glorious light if he only just waits a little bit longer. More often than not the crossing light never appears where you need it to or the hole closes up and it disappears entirely. In this case I decided the sucker hole would make a very nice atmospheric image rather than the more documentary type that I was originally trying to take.

This is also known as "making lemonade." I am quite pleased with the result.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bone Tired

The last in the triumvirate of current U.S. operational strategic bombers is the Rockwell B-1B Lancer. This sleek, powerful swing-wing aircraft began life as a series of studies dating all the way back to 1961. The long gestation produced a number of program acronyms, but no hardware, for many years after, the most notorious of which was AMSA (Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft). This was soon perverted by North American (later bought by Rockwell) engineers as "America's Most Studied Aircraft."

Even after four prototypes of the supersonic B-1A were ordered, the program troubles were not over. First flown in 1974, it was canceled under President Carter then restarted as the B-1B under President Reagan. A hundred aircraft were built.

The B-1 gave up its nuclear strike role several years back under treaty obligations and has become a very effective conventional weapons carrier. However, its days appear to be dwindling down. Several have been retired already due to budget shortfalls and the remaining 60 or so aircraft in service are hampered by spare parts shortages. It is rumored the rest of the fleet will be retired by 2012, leaving only the B-52 and the twenty B-2s as America's long-range manned strike force.

I shot this rather tired looking B-1 as it took off at the recent Edwards AFB open house. Incidentally, while "Lancer" is the rather dull official nickname of the B-1; Bone is the unofficial nickname. That, according to an apocryphal story, occurred when a news reporter wrote B-one instead of B-1 and referred to the airplane as "the Bone." Thus a name was born.

Or so they say.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Buff Chute

The venerable Boeing B-52 Stratofortress made its first flight in 1952. The last of the 744 production airplanes rolled off the assembly line in 1962. This is an old airplane. Even so, it's still an effective combat aircraft, although I wouldn't want to go penetrating any heavily defended airspace in it. That's the B-2's job these days.

I always thought the drag chute on these bombers was cool. It added a touch of color to the otherwise camouflaged Buff. The NASA NB-52 had a white chute, thought, so they must be color coordinated to some degree. Regardless, it was fun to get this H model at Edwards last week with its chute out during its landing roll on Saturday.

Some folks are probably wondering why I used the word Buff in the title of this post. Buff, or more accurately "BUFF," is an acronym for the B-52 that was bestowed on it by the crews and maintainers. It stands for "Big Ugly Fat F...," well, in polite society lets just say the second F is short for "Fellow." We all know what is really meant. Yes, it is a term of endearment. Crew loyalty to this airplane is legendary. There is even an apocryphal story that says airplanes are handed down from father to son to grandson. I suppose it is possible, but probably not the same serial numbered aircraft - at least not to grandsons.

But you never know. It is an old airplane; one scheduled to serve perhaps another 20 years or so. Maybe great-grandsons will fly in it?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pedal to the Metal

The Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor flew a demo program both days. This shot was from the Saturday performance. The original aircraft had a mechanical problem and was replaced by the aircraft that was supposed to fly in the AFFTC "Pass in Review." Needless to say, the demo (and heritage flight) was deemed more important.

The Raptor performance was nothing short of spectacular! I have never seen a large fighter do the moves this one did! And they have added new twists to the routine since I last saw an F-22 demo at Pt. Mugu over a year ago. It was absolutely breathtaking.

The advantage of being on the South Base media area is three-fold: proximity to the main runway; having the sun at your back instead of in your eyes and having the aircraft fly close and overhead during some of their maneuvers. The photo above is one such example. I absolutely love catching fighters in full afterburner! The twin spikes of flame with their shock diamonds are cool looking.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Spirit of New York

The 2009 Edwards AFB open house was yesterday. I went to the media day event on Friday and then yesterday's show. Part of the media experience is the opportunity to go to the edge of the main runway along South Base and be away from the crowds and blaring music and announcers and enjoy the roar and proximity of really impressive jets! Here's a sampler shot, more will follow later. This is B-2 "Spirit of New York." Yes, we were that close! I finally got decent taxi, take-off and landing shots of the Stealth Bomber! Yee-haw!!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Voice From Beyond

I think most photographers, including me, harbor a secret fantasy of taking an iconic image. I'm sure it's part of that immortality drive that I've touched upon in earlier posts. I mean, how cool would it be to be linked to a particular photo like Ansel Adams is to "Clearing Storm" at Yosemite's Inspiration Point?

But the reality is that connection very rarely happens. Even photographers fortunate enough to capture something special tend to fade to anonymity even if the image lives on. How many people, besides serious students of photographic history, remember who shot pictures like the marines raising the flag on Iwo jima, the sailor kissing the nurse on V-J Day or the Afghan girl that was on the cover of National Geographic? (Joe Rosenthal, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Steve McCurry, respectively.)

If we're lucky we are able to capture shots that please a few people in the here and now, which is especially important if one is making their livelihood as a photographer. Even then, it's difficult to really know how much your image touches someone.

But every once in a while....

I shot the above image as an afterthought. I was at the 2002 Edwards AFB Open House watching this glider perform an aerobatic routine for the crowd. I rarely shoot gliders, but the graceful patterns the pilot made with his wingtip smoke intrigued me, so I took a couple of quick snaps.

Later, as I prepared to enter the 2003 Aviation Week photo contest, I asked Tina what my tenth entry should be. She chose this one. I sent the slide in and out of the ten I submitted it was the one picked for an honorable mention that year.

After the photo issue was published, I got congratulatory calls from people at work. One of them said, "was that Dave Lazerson flying that glider?" We quickly deduced that it was indeed Dave as his routine was a fixture at the Edwards show for many years. It turns out Dave was Deputy Director for the Joint Strike Fighter Combined Test Force, which is why so many folks at work knew him.

It was only a few days later that Dave was killed in a mid-air collision over the Tehachapi mountains.

Almost immediately I got the request from his Northrop Grumman friends and co-workers to use my photo as part of a memorial gift for Dave's widow. That was one request I could not refuse. As soon as I could get my slide back from Aviation Week we set out to create a fitting tribute. Our shop was given the job and this is what we designed and made.

I find it so ironic that this spur-of-the-moment shot became one of the most emotional photos I ever took. But I guess that's how it is sometimes. All I know is that it made me appreciate the power of photography. That one simple image, that one simple throw-away image, became a means of comfort and commemoration for a man who was obviously respected and loved by his family, friends and co-workers. It was an honor for me to contribute that photo, and I shall be forever humbled by it.

There is also a surreal element to this incident. A couple of days after we learned Dave was killed, and before the people at Edwards and Palmdale finalized their decision to make the gift using my photo, I got a call from an Aviation Week representative. It seems a reader had seen their photo issue and liked my entry. He wanted my contact information to see if he could get a print of my shot. Aviation Week was calling to give me his name and phone number so I could get in touch with him. The name of the reader was Dave Lazerson.

I like to think that somewhere he's smiling.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reprising a Moment in Time

The beauty of photography, and the feature that gets harped on to the point of cliche', is the fact that every shot captures a moment in time. While it can be debated that a lot of moments are imminently forgettable, and preferably so, there is no doubt that many of those images become as universal and timeless as any petroglyph or pictograph on a rock wall.

I first realized that quality in pictures when I was engrossed in reading about the American Civil War and World War II as a kid. The old Matthew Brady photos of Yankee soldiers during that terrible war are just as poignant as those of American troops on landing craft heading for Normandy or the German paratroopers preparing to jump over Holland. What struck me was a recurring series of expressions in many of their faces: apprehension, fear, resolve, courage, resignation and above all impossible youth. The dread realization that many of those staring back at me through the lens did not survive the coming battle or the war was sobering. It certainly affected my understanding of war and mortality as an impressionable pre-teen. That same quality affects me still when I look at current images from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Every once in a while, though, we get an opportunity to revisit those past images and celebrate both the passage of time and survival. So it was with Bob Goebel, a young U.S. Army Air Force pilot in World War II. Bob became a fighter ace in the P-51 Mustang and had his achievement commemorated in the above photo by an unknown Army photographer. Almost 60 years later, Bob attended the 2003 Hawthorne Air Faire as a guest, selling copies of his book about his exploits in World War II. Also in attendance was a P-51 warbird in the markings of his aircraft. I was volunteering as a photographer for the Western Museum of Flight that weekend and took the opportunity to shoot Bob in the cockpit of the Mustang. I had seen his old photo and tried to replicate the shot. While not perfect, it was close enough. It made a nice bookend to an eventful part of his life.

Indeed, through the power of photography, we all can look back over our lives and see images of ourselves locked forever in time. From the mundane to the extraordinary, photographs mark our existence in the world. It is a small measure of immortality for future generations to ponder when they stumble upon our traces.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Images Past

I've had some fascination with prehistoric European cave art for many years, but I never had as much interest in American petroglyphs and pictographs for some reason. I suspect it's because I never really saw any in situ until our trip to Moab. That changed my appreciation for it very quickly.

Spread throughout the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks are several sites of well preserved examples of Native American art, some dating back a couple thousand years or more. Like the better known cave paintings in Spain and France, there are some fairly accurate representations of local animals that were hunted by the indigenous peoples. But also like the European art, there are fascinatingly surreal figures interspersed among the recognizable fauna.

I mentioned in the previous post how humans were subject to wild flights of fancy. These images seem to confirm that. Technically called "shamanistic figures," they certainly look like the results of a fevered dream or trance. Indeed, I can relate to those grotesque visions.

When I was very little I had a couple of bouts of bronchitis and fever. I distinctly remember the hallucinations I got when I was very sick. Objects and people grew ponderous and distorted and everything moved in slow motion. A sense of confusion and even fear became palpably real and very little could be done to calm me down when I was caught in the throes of those images.

Could it be that these ancient etchings represent very real emotions rather than just shamanistic symbolism? I would venture it was a combination of both: a very real attempt to explain our fears and put them into concrete form. Indeed, how very different are the two, really?

At the same time it makes me acutely aware of the universality of our human experience. Gazing at these figures and what they might represent makes me wonder how much has really changed over the millenias. The attempt to explain our world is as old as humanity itself. Our quest to do that, our ability to reflect on the past and to project into the future - in essence to dream - is both a gift and a curse.

At the same time, those rock images were, in a very large sense, an attempt by their makers to create something beyond themselves and their fragile lives. Whether through the cave paintings and rock art of the past or through the fine art or pop art or even the graffiti of the modern age, the urge for some form of immortality is still very much alive and part of the human psyche. We each, in our own ways, want to leave our mark on the world. Why else do so many of us make art, take photos and write blogs?

And perhaps, like the annoymous artists of the past, we will do just that, becoming in the process the annoymous artists of the future, whose immortal marks will be nothing less than the continuation of the human spirit.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Goblin Valley Reprise

Here is another look at the weird formations at Goblin Valley State Park, UT. As I mentioned in the previous post, walking among the eerie shapes would have to be an other-worldly experience at night. Humans are prone to wild flights of fantasy at the slightest provocation to begin with. Imagine what those fantasies would be like in the flickering moonlit shadows of the valley floor. The silent pillars with their helmeted caps would surely come alive and glower at every turn. And what could we mere mortals do then but stand in awe at the power of the mind in the face of untamed nature. A little humbling would be good for us.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Goblin Valley

Goblin Valley: the very name inspires wild imaginings of weird and wondrous things. The reality does not disappoint. Spread out in a modest valley are some of the most bizarre natural formations to be found anywhere. Hoodoos and goblins abound in dazzling number and everywhere you turn strange sights greet your eyes. The photo above shows a small portion of the valley, looking to the south-southeast from a knoll in the midst of the formation. One can almost see the ranks of the Goblin army assembling for battle.

At ground level the illusion is even more striking. The mushroom-like pillars stand about 12 feet tall. It is truly impressive to walk among the stone ranks. Goblins are an apt name, but visions of the little Chinese mushrooms from Disney's Fantasia also intrude into my consciousness, with Tchaikovsky's energetic score from his "Nutcracker" ballet riffing in my brain. Both work for me, but goblins are more...romantic. It would be fascinating to stroll among then during a full moon.

The tall, twisted spires - called Hoodoos - are equally impressive. This must have inspired much of Disney's Frontierland landscape. I remember thinking when I was little how outlandish and unbelievable those formations looked. Little did I know they paled in comparison to the real thing. This is alien landscape at it's most surreal.

And speaking of alien landscape, this is the location for the Beryllium Sphere mining scene in the movie "Galaxy Quest." Right in the middle of the shot above is where the mining camp structure was erected. The cast rolled the spheres past the goblins on their way back to the shuttle and Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) fought the rock monster amongst the hoodoos and mushroom pillars.

Galaxy Quest was probably one of the most accurate portrayals of science-fiction fandom and incredibly spot-on homage/parodies of the Star Trek phenomenon ever made. And it was absolutely hysterical, too.
Some of the best lines in the movie occurred during this sequence at Goblin Valley (MINERS, not MINORS! - Did you guys ever WATCH the show? - Let's get out of here before one of those things kills Guy!).

Unfortunately it probably only spoke to a limited audience as it apparently did not do that well at the box office. Too bad, because it was really well done. But it has become a cult classic, which is reassuring, and is one of our favorite movies.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon

Slot canyon photos, especially of the Antelope Slot Canyon in Arizona, are classic landscape icons - almost to the point of being cliche'. But there is an allure about them that makes people continue to shoot them.

I finally got my chance to visit a slot canyon in April of 2008 during a family vacation in Moab, Utah. One of the side trips our friend Roy and I took while we were all there was to Goblin Valley State Park, also in Utah. Unbeknown to us until we got there, about 7 miles to the west of the Goblin Valley is Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon, in the San Rafael Swell.

Slot canyons are carved by flash floods and are deadly in the rainy season. Fortunately we were there in good weather, so we made the trek up the lower third of the three linked sections. It's not a difficult walk, but it did have its challenges.

As you can see, the canyon got real narrow in spots. Footing was tricky at times because the floor wasn't wide enough for our shoes. More than once I had to lean over to the side to walk. At one point I got wedged between the walls and had to take my camera pack off and turn sideways to squeeze through.

Even though it got claustrophobic, it was amazingly beautiful. The swirling patterns in the rock were gorgeous and the color incredible. Even though we were there around two in the afternoon not much light was getting in. Setting up the tripod was a challenge in spots, but well worth the effort.

Naturally, on a couple of shots, a whole group of people started coming through the canyon heading back the way we came just at the same time I was ready to press the shutter release. It was like Grand Central Station there for a few minutes. It never fails. It's like that shooting planes at air shows, too.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Legendary Lost Rhino Graveyard - Found

"But wait," you say, "These are just junky airplanes!" Well...yes; and no. Let me explain....

The mighty McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, affectionately called "Rhino" by ground crews and air crews and all fans of Mr. Mac's "phantastic Phantom." was one of the best fighters of its day. Ungainly looking but powerful, the airplane was capable of Mach 2+ speed in a clean configuration (which wasn't often - a lot of ordnance can get loaded on this bird). Over 5,000 F-4s were built and they served in three branches of the U.S. military and in several foreign air forces. Some are still in active service, but most have been retired. Those in the U.S. inventory that haven't been turned into target drones are parked here, in the expansive grounds of Davis-Monthan AFB, outside of Tucson, AZ.

I got to visit DM for the first time last October as the F-4 Phantom II Society held its annual convention that year in Tucson. DM is legendary among aviation aficionados as the last stop for most military aircraft types. If you are shooting the entire career and life-cycle of an airplane, a trip to DM is a must as it represents the end of the line.

Personally I don't normally shoot dead airplanes. I find it too sad. I prefer planes in active service; full of purpose and alive - and a Phantom in full roar is indeed alive! Unless there are specific types I'm following or a certain unit or serial number I'm after, I usually pass on getting slides of mothballed or junked aircraft.

But it is truly amazing to behold acres and acres of America's finest resting quietly in the desert sun. Cocooned against the elements in case of further need or just to preserve them for parts until they are finally cut-up and disposed of, they stand as silent sentinels to the dedication and ingenuity of the U.S. aerospace workforce. One of the great untold stories of our age is the cost and sacrifice made regularly by the engineers and assembly line mechanics during the course of the Cold War and beyond. Perhaps one day people will know.

Or perhaps not. As time passes, both aircraft and builder become more and more forgotten by the public at large. Hence my reference to the "legendary lost Rhino graveyard." Whether we admit it or not, we are in some way duty-bound to preserve and remember the past - or to at least learn from it. For how else will we know what path to take in the future if we don't know where we've been?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Whirly-Bird Roost

Last January, while visiting the kids and Evie in Colorado Springs, we took a day-trip to Pueblo, CO. Among the activities that day was a stop at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum, next to the airport.

For those who've not been, it's pretty good. A lot of neat stuff is inside a large hangar, with larger vehicles parked outside in an enclosed yard. Among them was this Piasecki H-21 Shawnee. After Piasecki left his namesake company in 1956, it was renamed Vertol. Boeing later acquired Vertol in 1960.

The H-21, also called the "Flying Banana," is one of those funky twin-rotor helicopters. The successful CH-46 Sea Knights and CH-47 Chinooks were further developments of that basic design.

While the H-21 is pretty neat to shoot by itself, this pigeon resting on the aft rotor hub made me laugh. Yes, I know, I'm easily amused, but it tickled my fancy. I liked the idea of a feathered wing resting on a metal wing (the helicopter's blades are essentially rotating wings); the animate at peace with the inanimate. It seemed so...lyric. Especially with the way the bird looked at me in this shot. It's almost like he's saying, "what?"

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Balls Eight

The photo of Scaled Composites' White Knight in one of my previous posts brought to mind the retirement ceremony I attended of the principle NASA launch aircraft for the last several decades. The Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress - affectionately called "Balls Eight" because it's serial number ended in 008 - carried aloft a great multitude of important research vehicles, including the North American X-15, Northrop HL-10 and M2-F2/3, Martin X-24A/B, Rockwell HiMAT and NASA X-38 and X-43 Hyper-X.

The venerable aircraft was retired in a ceremony held at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, fittingly on 17 December 2004, the 101st anniversary of the Wright brothers first flight. It entered USAF service in 1955 and was shortly thereafter converted to an X-15 launch vehicle. It dropped it's first X-15 in 1960. By the time of it's retirement, Balls Eight was the longest serving B-52 and had been active nearly half of the history of powered manned flight, a remarkable achievement.

I normally like to shoot aircraft with the sun at my back, but the layout of Balls Eight and the hangar made that too difficult and cluttered. I chose instead to try an artsy shot of the sun just breaking the edge of the nose of the airplane. I was quite happy with the result. It seemed appropriate for the occasion.

Later on I got the opportunity to go inside the airplane. This is the cockpit of Balls Eight. After I took the shot, I sat in the pilot's seat. It was the second time I've been fortunate enough to do that, and as before, I could feel the history around me, it was that palpable. It was a privilege few people get to experience.

Balls Eight is now on display outside of the Edwards AFB North Gate, off HWY 58 between Mojave and Boron.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

High School Eden

Returning to the scene of the Ring Cycle paint-out, one of the things I eluded to in the previous posts was the beauty of the Maranatha High School campus. Here are a couple of photos of the grounds to show what we saw. I'm not sure if it was a central "quad" area or just one of the pathways through the school, but it sure was pretty. I mean, how many campuses have multiple waterfalls and Koi?

All in all, not a bad way to matriculate. I wonder if the students have a hard time concentrating because of the beauty or if they are so jaded by the atmosphere they don't even see it anymore? Judging from the angst in my teenage years, my guess is for the most part, daily life overtakes the scenery. Then again, if you're depressed by grades or classes or teachers or dating, a little serenity might help you get through it all.