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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Our Visit to Edwards Air Force Base: Part 2

After Don’s talk in the museum, we got back into the tour bus and traveled further onto the base.  He asked the driver to stop at times to point out specific buildings, show us "The Right Stuff" movie locations, and give us a better view of Rogers Dry Lake Bed.  It’s such a large, flat, and clear area, that astronauts can see it when they’re in orbit over Guam, six thousands miles away (or ¼ across the Earth). 

Of course, aircraft outnumber spacecraft by a significant margin, and everywhere we went, we saw planes parked in lots or set out on display.  After awhile, the bus driver stopped outside the main runway, got out to check the tires for any rocks or other debris they might have picked up, then drove the bus forward a few feet, and performed a second inspection.  Don explained that this precaution was due to the speed at which the planes took off and landed.  Imagine the damage to the aircraft, or bystanders, that a pebble could cause, if a speeding plane rolled over it, or the air disturbed by its passage picked it up, and flung it across the runway.  As if to reinforce this point, a street-sweeping vehicle, capable of sucking loose debris into its vacuum, rolled past.

As we rode along in the bus, we saw planes parked on the tarmac, or in the hangers.  Many were fighter jets, like the new F-35 Lightning II, and older, more time-tested models like the F-16 Fighting Falcon.  We also saw larger planes, such as the C-17 Globemaster III military transport.  We stopped by a hanger where retired volunteers were rebuilding older airplanes, such as the F-80 Shooting Star, and a mockup of the X-15 rocket plane.  One of the volunteers told us how they go about rebuilding the airplanes they’ve managed to reclaim.  As amazing as it seems, they sometimes find these magnificent planes rusting away in backyards.  Depending on a given plane's size and condition, they may have to close roads, and tow it along, usually at night, until they got it back to the base.  

Along the runway again, Don showed us one building he called the "Bad Comb-over" building.  Apparently, it was used for Tony Stark’s headquarters in the movie “Iron Man.”  He pointed out red painted lines on the runway, and said that anyone who crossed them, either in a vehicle or on foot, would be punished severely, if not shot.  (But they’re only painted lines, Don!)  As he was a big, well-rounded man, he showed us a building he used to work in, and said that he had spent many happy moments at its snack bar/refreshment area.  Yes, good times, Don.  Good times.

At one point, Don's voice rose, and he urged us to look out front.  We watched as a fighter jet landed ahead of us, and slowed as it neared.  Designated a F-22 Raptor, it’s a newer fighter jet the Air Force is still working the bugs out of.  As the plane rolled past, everyone on the bus waved, and a chill rippled down my spine.  I wondered what the pilot was testing on his fighter jet.  Some new components to make the plane more reliable, or systems designed for some other purpose?  This was what Edwards Air Force Base was all about.  It wasn’t like Top Gun, where they taught pilots how to dogfight.  This was Flight Test, where they tested out planes, parts, and systems that might later be used by pilots in combat situations.

More Tomorrow.

Dragon Dave

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Our Visit to Edwards Air Force Base: Part 1

Planes parked outside the check-in building

I was a little disheartened when I received confirmation of our scheduled tour date, as the invitation stipulated that no cell phones or cameras would be allowed on Edwards Air Force Base.  Here I was, planning a weekend away around this tour, and I wouldn't be able to take any photographs!  Nonetheless, this was a place where history was made, and where important work was still being carried out.  It was a place I had wanted to visit since reading Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff.  So I ignored my first impulse to cancel the trip, and continued to plan a weekend trip around our tour of the base. 

As we checked in that morning, I was surprised by how many people spoke languages other than English, and presented different colored passports (instead of drivers licenses) for their identification.  Clearly, many visitors had come from farther away than San Diego to tour the base.  We walked around, studying some of the planes that sat outside the welcome center while the staff finished checking everyone in.  Then our tour guide, Don, called us over to the bus.  After we climbed aboard, the engine rumbled into life, and the bus rolled past the guard shack.

Planes sat outside the museum, and our time there was unstructured, allowing us to inspect the planes, or wander inside to watch a video, peruse the displays, and see the other aircraft inside.  There weren’t many of the latter, but Chuck Yeager’s familiar orange Bell X-1 hung from the ceiling, and its rocket engine sat on the floor with its housing removed so we could see all its component parts.  More engines and plane components were on display, as well as flight suits and uniforms from notable test pilots such as Yeager.  The video showed important moments from the past, and discussed how the base had evolved.  Models of all the experimental planes that had been tested there filled one wall.  Then we wandered outside to inspect the planes.

As the weather was pleasant, I hadn’t brought a cap with me.  I had brought a rolled up knitted hat in case my head got cold, after all.  I soon discovered this was a mistake.  The sky was so clear, and the sunlight so bright, that even with my sunglasses on, I started to get a headache.  I held a hand over my eyes as I squinted at some very cool planes, including a SR71 Blackbird, and a B52 Stratofortress.  Someone had thoughtfully set up a concrete picnic table beneath the B52’s wing, but lunchtime was hours away, so after inspecting all the planes (and a few helicopters), we headed back inside. 

After the tour, when we got the camera,
and (more importantly) my hat, out of the car.
Can you see how I'm looking down?
Even with my cap and sunglasses, I'm squinting.
Salt: Ooh, it's so bright, I can't see!
Pepper: Switch optical sensors to maximum polarization.

Shortly thereafter, Don began his talk, and we all took to the chairs as he told us about the base.  Rogers Dry Lake bed was the perfect place for Flight Test, as the area was remote, and the ground was relatively flat for such a large area.  Approximately half of the forty-four square miles are used as runways.  Larger aircraft like a B52, or (in past years) the Space Shuttle, are heavier, and land on one of the paved runways.  But the clay suffices for most of the lighter aircraft, so the Air Force merely paints a long, straight line of paint, and adds a few lights, to create additional runways.  With an average of 350 days of bright, clear skies each year, and all that hard, flat clay to land on (whether a plane lands as scheduled, or performs an emergency landing on unmarked ground), it’s the perfect location for testing experimental aircraft designs and equipment. 

More tomorrow.

Dragon Dave 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Daleks On Vacation

Recently, we took two of our Daleks with us on a weekend excursion.  They are named Salt and Pepper.  As this was their first trip away from home, they were understandably excited.

Salt: Long John Silvers, home of master's favorite fish!
Pepper: Remain calm.  Daleks do not get excited.

Salt: You don't think they'll shake us, do you?
Pepper: I hope not.  If my gun goes off, 
I might accidentally exterminate their food.

Salt: Mountains!  I see mountains!

Pepper: Joshua Trees really put the yuck in Yucca.

Salt: What are you researching, master?
Dragon Dave: Just our itinerary for tomorrow.
Pepper: Could you tell us a story before we go to sleep?
Dragon Dave.  Sure.

The Bears of Muroc: A Bedtime Story for Daleks

Once upon a time, three pioneers traveled into the wilderness.  Their names were Clifford Corum, his wife Ellie, and Clifford’s brother Ralph.  They settled on Rogers Dry Lake, built a house, and operated a store and post office.  When the Post Office objected to them naming their store and local post office Corum, they reversed the spelling, and called it Muroc.

Salt: Were they related to Corum Jhaelsen Irsei?
Dragon Dave: No, that's a character Michael Moorcook created for his novels. 
Pepper: Wasn't he an aspect of the Eternal Champion?
Dragon Dave: That's right.  Now shh. 

A few years later, a family of bears traveled to Rogers Dry Lake.  Their names were Army, Air, and Corps.  They had visited other dry lake beds, but either they found the dry lakes too small, or the clay of the beds was too soft.  They decided that Rogers Dry Lake was just right.  Initially, the bears used it for bombing practice, but later they used it for testing experimental aircraft, which they called Flight Test.  The bears called their new home Muroc Army Air Field, after Clifford, Ellie, and Ralf.  Later, they renamed it Edwards Air Force Base, in honor of Glen Edwards, who died testing an experimental Flying Wing bomber.  This was where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in his Bell X-1 rocket plane.  Later, the X-15 rocket plane helped the Bear family with the space program.  They also tested experimental lifting bodies, like the Northrop M2-F2, which helped NASA, one of the Bears’ children, design the Space Shuttle. 

Salt: The M2-F2 was the “flying bathtub” that Steve Austin crashed in, 
before he received his bionics arm, legs, and eye, right?

Well, the real pilot was Bruce Peterson, and while he lost sight in one eye, he didn’t get any bionics replacements.  It sometimes bothered him that the TV show featured his crash in the opening scene, but he kept a good attitude about it, and often joked that he should be called “The Five Million Dollar Man.”

Pepper: What happened to the Bears?  

The descendants of the original bears still live there.  The two oldest brothers are called Edwards and Dryden. 

Salt: And that’s where we’re going tomorrow?  

Only if you get your rest, and we can smuggle your guns past Security.

Salt: We will sleep!  
Pepper: Agreed.  Daleks will sleep!

Dragon Dave 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Aliens of the Hyborian Age

Marvel Comics Vol. 1, Issue 116, of “Conan The Barbarian,” contains the story “Crawler in the Mist,” written by Len Wein (along with some help from J. M. DeMatteis).  Conan falls off his horse, is bitten by a snake, and manages to suck out most of the venom before he passes out.  When he awakens, he finds himself shackled to a scrawny, old trader named Rasto, who intends to take him to the market, where he will sell him as a slave.  Conan quickly reverses Rasto’s perspective as to who holds the power over whom in the situation.  It’s an example of one of the things Conan does so well, by showing how the laws and customs we so carefully construct often fail to protect us, distort our concept of justice, and dull our sense of compassion.

There’s another aspect of Conan I love, and that’s how the Hyborian Age often combines Fantasy and Science Fiction elements in a weird yet compelling way.  The two men arrive at a city haunted by “a hideous creature that prowls its streets by night.”  This creature, beautifully drawn by John Buscema and Neal Adams, and colored by George Roussos, knocks Conan down, grabs Rasto, and carries him off.  True to his sense of justice and responsibility for others, Conan takes off after the creature, to free his would-be captor from its clutches.  He discovers that the creature is not a mindless beast, but a sentient being from another world, who has traveled to Earth for a complex and noble purpose.  The monster even reveals that it is more humane than the majority of humans, when Conan discovers how it cares for the aging and infirm people in the city.

This willingness to confront complex issues, and combine different literary genres, is not original to Wein, but can be traced back to Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard.  In “The Tower of the Elephant,” (one of the first handful of Conan stories Howard wrote), Conan is a young man visiting the city of Zamora.  Taurus of Nemedia convinces Conan to partner with him, sneak inside the tower, and steal some of the tower’s fabled jewels.  Conan fights off the expected, normal dangers, as well as ones familiar to traditional Fantasy.  But when he reaches the heart of the complex, he discovers a humanoid biped with a head, ears, and trunk like that of an elephant.  The monster tells Conan he hails “from the green planet Yag, which circles for ever in the outer fringe of this universe.  We swept through space on mighty wings that drove us through the cosmos quicker than light…but we could never return, for on earth our wings withered.”  The creature describes his former civilization, relates the history of his people on earth, and tells how he has been captured and tortured by the human wizard Yara to secure his own power.  Leave it to Conan to restore justice to the situation, even if he must flee the tower no richer than when he arrived.

Just like good Fiction, people are often more complex than they appear.  Individuals that look plain and ordinary often hide a wealth of complexity.  Sometimes, others seem so alien that they might as well hail from another planet.  The refined view is that it’s safer and better to leave them to their own kind, and not “get involved.”  But Conan is simple, and because he is simple, he sees through the web of deceits that often obscure a situation.  He may not be an angel, but unlike many more complex people, he usually acts to resolve the problem, prompted by his notion of justice, and his sense of compassion.

Maybe that’s why Conan, for all his rough edges, has become such a beloved character in books, comic books, on TV, and in the cinema.

Dragon Dave

P.S.  The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, a collection of Robert E. Howard’s early Conan stories, was edited by Patrice Louinet, and contains beautiful illustrations by Mark Schultz.  If you’re new to Conan, have only encountered him through comic books, have only read the stories written by others, or read the stories edited (and in some cases finished) by L. Sprague de Camp, you owe it to yourself to check out this volume and discover the pure, unadulterated Robert E. Howard.  I think you’ll like him.