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.