11 February 2010

Max Meets IT

The KC-135A was a work horse in Southeast Asia, just as its upgraded version is in the current wars that plague the Middle East.

I don't know about living conditions in the Middle East, but conditions in Southeast Asia were nothing to write home about. Snakes and bugs abounded, and the heat humidity were oppressive. I can remember seeing cabin temperatures of 140° Fahrenheit prior to takeoff. Needless to say, the aircraft were left open as much as possible to dissipate the heat, but it also was an invitation to rats, cats, bats and whatever other fauna that could find its way aboard. It also lead to more than one tanker departing with the over wing hatches still lying on the cargo deck. The aircraft doesn't pressurize very well in that configuration, and installing a hatch in flight, we found out, was an invitation to dropping it – or maybe yourself – out of the aircraft. The following incident began on the takeoff roll departing Takhli RTAFB.

Late in the takeoff roll, Max, the navigator, felt something hit him on top of the head. Since there was storage cabinet just above his head, he thought the cabinet door had popped open, and he reached up to close it. He discovered that it was already closed. For three or four seconds, Max wondered what had hit him on the head; then he felt something doing a many-legged soft shoe number on the top of his head. Instinctively, he swung at IT and knocked IT on a tumbling trajectory toward the boom operator. IT landed in the boomer's lap. Now, the boomer had an unpleasant experience several years earlier at Takhli, when he had to bail out of a burning KB-50. He had to spend some time in the Thai rain forest before being picked up by SAR; he had not been on friendly terms with insect life ever since. IT landed in his lap and leered up at him with two bulging many-lensed eyes. The boomer wanted no part of IT and frantically gave IT a slap shot which sent IT tumbling tail over teacup toward the pilots. IT landed on the control pedestal; in fact, IT landed smack on the rudder trim knob.

IT was the biggest praying mantis anyone either side of the International Dateline had ever seen. Descriptions of IT, given later, left you with the impression of IT being big enough to rip a man's arm off – well, maybe a finger. IT was hunkered down of the rudder trim knob, with those vicious-looking forelegs tucked under its chin, and alternately eyeing each pilot with those huge goggley eyes.  The pilots were scrunched in their seats as far away from IT as their lap belts and shoulder harnesses would allow them to scrunch. "Get that damned thing out of here!" the pilot bellowed.

Gingerly, Max reached forward with a gloved hand and grabbed IT from behind. So grabbed, IT could not struggle. Max then unstrapped and took IT up to the sextant port and held IT up to the opening where the sextant normally fits. With a deft flick of the wrist, Max opened the sextant port, and cabin pressure neatly popped IT out into a 300 knot slip stream.

With that bit of excitement behind them, the crew went off to war.

08 February 2010

Rocket Ride

Most of us are never going to get the chance to go into space, much less get near something that is capable of taking us there. Even if you are tight with the Rutan brothers your chances of going to the edge of space are pretty slim. There is, however, an alternative that will at least give you the sensation of going into space. No, it is not a rollercoaster or anything like that. It is located at an amusement park, of sorts: Epcot Center at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

There is a "ride" there called Mission: SPACE. It is a very convincing simulation of a space shuttle launch -- at least the first couple of minutes of the launch. I read a review about the ride before I actually experienced it. The review was written by a shuttle astronaut, and his description of the accuracy of the experience was the most interesting part for me.

There were six of us the day we visited Epcot and we made a beeline for the Mission: SPACE ride. The first thing we saw was a bit confusing: the signs talked about a "spinning" and a "no spinning" option. Wife was leery about things involving spinning since she inherited her mother's tendency for motion sickness. She and our daughter decided they would go the "no spinning" route. Son-in-law, the granddaughters, and I decided to GO FOR IT. Spinning it would be, whatever that was.

I kind of had a notion what "spinning" was going to be just from the astronaut's review of the ride. I was right. After you walk through the inevitable Disney maze just to get to the ride you are confronted with a three-seat cylinder with an instrument panel of sorts you sit in front of. The two granddaughters and I entered a cylinder and pulled the horse collar restraints down over our heads; then the door of the cylinder slid shut. There is a video display in front of you and Gary Sinise is there explaining to you that this is a simulator run and what will happen. So far, so good. A minute or so into the experience your video shows some clamshell doors opening and your space craft starts being erected to a vertical position. You feel a bit of lurching and rumbling, which turns out to be the initial spin-up of the centrifuge you are sitting in. As your eyes tell you that the space craft if now vertical, the centrifuge has you spun up to one transverse 'g,' that is, you feel as if you are lying on your back. On your video monitor you see blue sky and clouds; there is even a sea gull flying overhead. All of this is background to a countdown to launch.  The visual and kinetic senses reinforce each other.

At engine start there is more lurching and rumbling; the centrifuge is beginning to spin up to as much as 2.4 g. The video shows you that your solid rocket boosters have fired and you can see that you are rising through the clouds. The g-forces quickly increase. Being an old aviator, I can vouch for the authenticity of the sensation. You are called on to perform some simple tasks such as flipping switches and pushing buttons. It turns out to be a challenge under the force of 2+ transverse 'g's. Your video shows you quickly leaving the atmosphere and heading for the Moon. Once the boost phase is over you are reduced to one-g acceleration; it briefly feels as if you are in micro-gravity.  After that it gets a bit hokey, but by the end of the five minute, or so, ride you've gone from standing still on Earth to coming to a screeching halt on Mars.

We did the ride several times and the sensation didn't get old; and Wife did the ride under 'g' forces and didn't get sick. I did notice that some people really do experience motion sickness on the ride: One time we had to walk around a puddle of vomit upon leaving.