Monday, May 29, 2006

Airspeed - Take Your Kids to the Airport

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I want to talk to you about three kids.

The first took a ride in a Ford Tri-Motor in Warren, Ohio in July of 1936 a little before he turned six years old. By the time he turned 15, he was working to earn money for flight training, putting in almost twenty-three hours to pay for each hour of flight training in an Aeronca Champ at $9 an hour.

The second attended a summer camp in Elmira, New York, from which she could see sailplanes taking off, soaring above, and landing.

The third went to a scout meeting in the summer of 1980 that was not well attended. His assistant scoutmaster decided to take everyone who showed up out to the airport he got a 30-minute ride in his assistant scoutmaster’s Cessna 172.

There’s a common thread here. Not hard to guess, really. Each of three kids exposed to aviation and aerospace early in life. It makes an impression on each. It ignites a fire in the belly that grows over the years. It becomes more intense and inspires each to make aviation and aerospace a part of his or her life. And math. And physics. And physical activity. And poetry. And literature. And, to one extent or another, their lives are a little broader, a little grander, and a little more inspired. Some more than others, but none of them is unchanged by the magic.

It’s spring where I live. Everything is a little greener, school is letting out, and kids are looking forward to summer. It’s also becoming prime time to expose kids to the wonder of aviation and its related sciences. I took my kids to the airport again today. Cole is an old hand. He sits in the right seat of a Cessna 172 on the flight line, holding the yoke in his right hand. He turns the yoke and watches the ailerons move on either side. He pulls the yoke and watches out the back window as the elevator moves. I turn on the battery side of the master switch and he reaches for the lever and moves the flaps down and then up. Cole is four and we’ve been coming to the airport and ramp-flying the plane for the last two years.

It’s Ella’s first time to the airport since she started walking a couple of months ago. She’s seventeen months old. By the way – her first and middle two names are Eleanor Ann Arroway – after the protagonist in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact. Heavy burden for the shoulders of a little kid? If Ella knows it, she doesn’t show it.

Cole climbs into the back seat and I put Ella in the left seat with the seat all the way forward. She can barely reach the yoke, but she’s instantly all hands. She turns, pushes, and pulls the yoke. She reaches out and fiddles with the knob on the ADF. At one point, she’s sitting there with her left hand on the yoke and her right hand on the throttle and she looks absolutely natural doing it. She can’t see over the yoke, much less over the dash, but I can’t help visualizing her actually flying the plane.

When I was in my early twenties and just getting started professionally, I worked with a guy named Frank. He was a great guy in almost every way. Intelligent, kind, diligent, and everything. He was a senior manager at the company where I worked. We had just finished having lunch one day and we were walking out of the restaurant. The talk had turned briefly to space travel and I let slip a little of my enthusiasm. I said that I would be really disappointed if my grandchildren did not walk on Mars. He looked at me at though I was from Mars. The conversation just stopped. One of the other guys laughed uncomfortably. We walked back to the car in silence. I got the message loud and clear that I had just crossed a line somewhere and that such sentiments were not proper for right-thinking people who worked for pillars of the community like our company.

Whether that particular response was real or just in my head, there’s no shortage of sentiment out there that space exploration – and aerospace in general – is something purely for dreamers or the history books. The United States has fallen in a mere two decades from number one in granting scientific and technical degrees to number five. We have been content for more than thirty years to launch manned missions only as far as low earth orbit and we leave the truly new frontiers to robots. I’m not saying that the Mars rover and similar programs haven’t been great and that there aren’t dedicated and forward-thinking people at NASA, the European Space Agency, Scaled Composites, and elsewhere who have dedicated blood, sweat, and tears to pushing our horizons, but I can’t believe that we could look at ourselves now through the lens of the late 1960s and not be sorely disappointed.

So I do what I can. When I talk to my congressman or senator, I make it a point to tell him or her that I consider the NASA budget just as important as any other program and that I support as much funding as the budget can stand. I subscribe to Scientific American. I’m just coming to the end of a list of books I started four years ago on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. And I fly single-engine airplanes and will talk with great animation about it to anyone who will listen.

But my ace in the hole is my kids. And yours. My eligibility for the astronaut corps runs out at the end of the year, when I’ll be too old. Not that there’s any chance that I’ll come up with a technical bachelor’s degree or a few thousand hours in high-performance turbine aircraft before then.

But my kids and yours are just starting out. Their whole lives are ahead of them. They will make of this world what they see fit and it’s up to us – the intervening generation between Apollo and the next step – to show them why it matters.

So I take my kids to the airport. We go ramp-fly whatever’s on the line at Tradewinds, where I train. I take them to the open house every year at the airport. I take Cole to Thunder Over Michigan at Willow Run every year. I got to take them to Kennedy Space Center in January. I’m going to take them to the airshow next year at Selfridge Air National Guard Base.. I sometimes read Robert A. Heinlein’s The Grand Canal or The Green Hills of Earth to Cole at bedtime and I’ll start with Ella soon.

These are small things, but each kid is going to grow up knowing that aviation and space travel are very real things and that each of them can have a role in it if he or she wants to. They’ll also know that I think it’s important and worth their time and energy, even if I seem a little too enthusiastic at times. They, and kids like them, are our next and best hope. Like all kids are at every moment in history.

Like the three kids I mentioned at the beginning. The five-year-old in the Ford Trimotor was Neil Armstrong, who grew up to be the first human on the moon. The girl at the summer camp was Eileen Collins, who grew up to fly on shuttle missions STS 63, 84, 93, and 114 – the second two of which she commanded.

And the last one? The last one was me. I grew up to be a technology and aerospace lawyer and – thanks to the inspiration of the other two and many like them – a pilot. Not that I belong in a class with Armstrong and Collins – the point is the power of the dream.

Flight is a heritage and an obsession. A proper obsession. It is the stuff of our dreams and it drives us to achieve things that the workaday world passes by.

There are going to be plenty of people like Frank in your kids’ lives. People who can’t see past the ends of their noses. People who would never have launched the first satellites, much less sent emissaries to another world. Sadly, the Franks vastly outnumber the Neil Armstrongs and the Eileen Collinses. And even pretenders and dreamers like me.

The world is a sober place and only perfect storms of political and military motivation ever seem to spark genuine exploration of the kind that we saw during the late fifties, the sixties, and the early seventies. It’s damned hard going some days. We have essentially lost the opportunity for a free-return trajectory to Mars in 2014. No one has set foot on the moon for more than a long, lonely generation.

It’s up to us to instill in our kids the dreams of what can be. The world might do it and the kids have a chance if guys like Tom Hanks keep producing media like the HBO From the Earth to the Moon miniseries. But kids have a better chance if you take an active role and help the magic along.

Take a kid to an airshow. Let him or her get a snootfull of avgas or Jet-A and an earful of the roar of radial or jet engines. Take them to the local science museum. Save a day or two on that next trip to Orlando and make the pilgrimage to the Kennedy Space Center. Better yet, take them to the Very Large Array in New Mexico or the National Radio Observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia. Take them to Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti to see where they made and tested bombers in World War II. Take them to the shores at Kitty Hawk where the Wrights first flew. Take them to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Take them to the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Take them where you will. But take them.

Take babes in arms so that they never remember a time when they weren’t surrounded by astronomy and flight dynamics and exobiology and planetary geology and whatever else fires their dreams.

Take six-year-olds so that they know that their impending science lessons can lead to big and fantastic endeavors.

Take middle-schoolers so that they see that the college prep curriculum facing them in high school is worth the effort.

Take high school freshmen so that they can map out coursework that gives them the option to follow their dreams of scientific degrees and careers in aerospace and exploration.

Take high school seniors so that science and technology agendas and policy follow them on their first trip to the voting booth.

Plutarch said that the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted. There is no greater spark and no greater fuel than to know that we are capable of taking our first real steps into the cosmos, if only a generation will rise up and do it.

Somebody took Neil Armstrong up in the Trimotor. Somebody soared over Eileen Collins. Carl Robinson took me up in a 172 on a summer evening.

What’s the worst that could happen? Your son might end up a technology and aerospace lawyer who podcasts about aviation. Your daughter might end up a systems engineer with a NASA calendar in her office and a stuffed monkey in a space suit in her shelf. Or one of them might end up the first human to set foot on Mars. At the very least, you – and each of them – will be one more consciousness in a worldwide society that looks beyond the surly bounds of its home planet and reaches for more.

That would be a fine thing indeed. And the price of admission? A trip to the airport.

Take your kids to the airport. And take them to meet the magic that will propel them, you, and me as we take the next step.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Steely-Eyed Missile Man Capt. REFSMMAT

This time on airspeed, we continue our salutes to Steely- Eyed Missile Men. Today’s Steely-Eyed Missile Man: Captain REFSMMAT.

Maybe that’s a little unfair, because Captain REFSMMAT isn’t actually a human being. He’s the Kilroy-style character that became the mascot of NASA Flight Control during the Apollo and Skylab years – The ideal flight controller.

REFSMMAT is actually an acronym that means “Reference to Stable Member Matrix” or a reference to a fixed orientation in space that is usually identified in terms of relatively immobile points, such as stars. Spacecraft need very accurate three-dimensional navigation, especially when traveling far from the normal references of our home planet, such as during the Apollo program. All spacecraft have a gimbal-mounted or similar platform that serves as a stable point from which the orientation of the spacecraft is determined. That platform of navigational instruments is oriented to the REFSMMAT. A given mission might have several REFSMMATs, such as a set of stars, the solar ecliptic, the lunar ecliptic, and so on. But, once a REFSMMAT is determined for a particular operation, that REFSMMAT is the absolute reference for the entire duration of that phase.

Why is the REFSMMAT so important? Bear in mind that rocket burns like the one for translunar injection, course corrections, lunar orbit insertion, and so on require great precision. Think about lunar orbit insertion. The Apollo spacecraft basically aimed for a spot where the moon would be in a few days. The spacecraft had to just miss the leading edge of the moon as the moon hurtled through space at something like 2,300 miles per hour and then had to do an orbit insertion burn behind the moon and out of contact with ground controllers. When you’re making burns that precise, you want a stable platform from which to do them.

Gene Kranz, NASA flight controller for the Apollo 11 landing and other missions, came from a military background and he wanted to do something to improve the esprit de corps of his fabled White Team of flight controllers. The captain was born in discussions between Kranz and John S. Llewellyn, Jr., Retrofire Officer in the Retro Officer Section of the Flight Dynamics Branch. A rookie member of the flight dynamics staff standing by the coffee machine asked which flight controller had placed an IOU in the cup next to the pot instead of the usual coins. Llewellyn looked up and, without skipping a beat, said “Sheeet, man, that’s Captain REFSMMAT, the ideal flight controller He’s the best we’ve ever had in the trench.”

Gemini-era Flight Dynamics Officer (FIDO) Edward Pavelka heard of the conversation and came up with several drawings of the captain. Shortly thereafter, a two-foot-tall cartoon of the captain hung in Pavelka’s office. The word got out and the captain began to be fitted with the tools of his trade. A pot helmet with a top that flipped open to reveal a radar antenna, glasses with a line on them that inscribed the proper deorbit attitude, and a series of RESFMMATs on his belt. We wore a limitary jacket with captain’s bars, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes.

Pavelka hung the picture on a locker in the hall in Building 30 at the Johnson Space Center and the captain began to collect graffiti. Llewellyn himself added the comment “Viva Buster!” in praise of a buffalo resident at a saloon in Alvin, Texas.

In all, there were six Captain REFSMMATs and the captain even had an arch nemesis, Victor Vector. He stayed at NASA through the Apollo and Skylab years.

Through his tenure at NASA, Captain REFSMMAT served as a collector of memories, sentiment, frustration, and pride. He united flight controllers and others in a common enterprise and reminded them of the heavy responsibility of any mission control team. He symbolized Kranz’s central tenets of Discipline, Competence, Confidence, Responsibility, Toughness, and Teamwork.

So today we salute Captain REFSMMAT, the ideal flight controller and a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Airspeed - Music (Part 1)

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Today we’re going to deal with one of the most important aspects of flying – And that’s the music you listen to while you do it!

Sure, there are more important things – like safety – but the fact remains that putting together the right soundtrack can make your flying even more inspiring. There are three aircraft at Tradewinds Aviation on the field at Pontiac, Michigan, where I fly that have auxiliary audio inputs. A three-dollar cable from Radio Shack is all I need to plug my iPod or CD player into the intercom loop of the plane and listen to music while I fly.

Now bear in mind that safety comes first. If the music results in any chance of a miscommunication or failure to give or receive a communication necessary for the safety of the flight, leave your music player at home. But if you can manage the volume of the player, not have to fumble with it when your should be doing other things (playlists Are helpful here), and satisfy yourself that you can hear and be heard in the cockpit and at the controller’s workstation (such as my using a squelch or cutout feature like I use), by all means add a soundtrack to your flight.

Here’s what has been in my CD player and, more recently, my iPod, while I fly.

Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkiyries, is ubiquitous in flying of all kinds. Every trip around the pattern is a majestic sojurn when this performance, by the Royal Memorial Orchestra that appears on the album “Music from the War Movies” is playing in your headset. The melodies have been used in movies from The Blues Brothers to Apocalypse Now, always to good effect. Shouted comments about whom the music scares and how much are entirely up to you. This music is the essence of flight.

The 1970s Latin vibe of War’s Low Rider gets a hard-driving treatment worthy of fighter jets by guitar god Gary Hoey in this version from his Wake Up Call outing. Known to many for his bone-crunchng send-ups of holiday favorites, Gary lends his chops to make this tune ideal for take-offs. Not bad for low airwork either! The key change halfway through is a little contrived, but the underlying groove is unbeatable. If I ever get the chance to fly turbine aircraft, this is definitely going to be on the menu.

Make your next flight a flying circus with Cirque du Soleil’s Svecounia from the soundtrack to “O.” The first fifty seconds are a little annoying, as is the reappearance of that theme toward the end, but the sixteenth-note percussion, the great sonic range, and the female vocals make it natural for flight. I have no idea what the words mean. I gather that they’re in French. But I don’t care if they’re about taking out the trash. This music is flight itself. And if you happen to represent or hire new screenwriters, I have a great screenplay to pitch to you. This music is that evocative. Stories flow into your head when you hear it. Stories of hope and of redemption and of the reason that we fly.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are noted the world over for blending eclectic and nontraditional styles to make really great music. This is The Big Blink from Left of Cool. Here again, the sixteenth-note arpeggios and edgy mood make it perfect for listening to on long, straight-in ILS approaches. Unless I miss my guess, music theory afficianados will recognize this as being in the middle-eastern-sounding Locrian mode, which is neither major nor minor and therefore provides a perfect working space for the Flecktones. Most of the tune is in an even time signature, but it blasts into three or five in places, which is delight for those who like music with squirrelly change-ups. Will you see the runway before decision height? Do you remember the missed approach procedure? Could you land the space shuttle if you had to?

Van Halen made only one video for the band’s 5150 album. That was a big risk in 1986 when the band had just changed lead singers after a long run with one of the most notable names in rock vocals, David Lee Roth. The chips were down for Sammy, MJike, Eddie, and Alex, but they instead concentrated on the music. And did I mention that they didn’t even appear in the one video they made? The video consists entirely of footage of the Blue Angels, the United States Navy and Marines’ jet demonstration team. Anyway, those images are absolutely unmistakable and unforgettable. An F/A-18 rotating out of ground effect and the compression around the wings turning the atmosphere to a fleeting shroud of vapor – Then a six-gee vertical climb. Anyway, the ethereal intro, the driving rhythm line, and the backstory of a band that, like the Blue Angels, is completely focused on the core of their craft, make this essential listening for any flight playlist.

I am by no means a New Age fan. Most of it takes almost no talent to play and it’s way over-produced. But there’s something to be said about the ability to compose compelling melodies, phrasings, harmonies, and tonal colorings. Enya does just that with Book of Days. It started out on the album Shepherd Moons in Gaelic, but her label substituted an English vocal track for releases after 1992. Either way, it’s about the music here. The music is evocative of flight and of challenges to be faced. Maybe that’s why it was used to evoke the broad spirit of the newly-opened American west in the film Far and Away.

Lest you think that I’m all about bombast and music requiring electricity, here’s a slice of the best acoustic music available anywhere. This is Raining at Sunset from Chris Thile’s 2000 outing called Not All Who Wander Are Lost. You may have heard of Chris as a third of the acoustic trio Nickel Creek. That’s where I first heard of him and, while there are no flies on Sean or Sara Watkins, Chris is the driving force of the trio. I am absolutely not exaggerating when I say that he’s the best mandolinist on the planet. Listen to the precision here. It’s unreal. And that’s Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Jerry Douglas, among others, playing with him. This is the lilting melody for quiet cruise flight – low and slow and looking down at the places you love. This is also a reminder of the technical skill and competence that it takes to fly an aircraft well. I am not one to gush over small talent or middling achievement. This is perhaps the most treasured album in my collection. I have bought it perhaps ten times to give to friends. Take a listen. [And see and]

Got your own suggestions? Visit the website at or e-mail me at


[Illustrative musical snippets used as permitted by 17 USC § 107 ( for criticism and comment and as otherwise permitted by applicable law.]

Airspeed in Brief - Steely-Eyed Missile Man John Aaron

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[Following is a pretty close approximation of the vergiage from the episode entitled "Steely-Eyed Missile Man - John Aaron" that appeared on Airspeed in Brief beginning on May 8. You can subscribe to the podcast using the links at]

This time on Airspeed, we begin our salutes to Steely-Eyed Missile Men (and Women) – those players on the grand stage of aeronautics and space travel who, in moments of heroism or flashes of brilliance, or in having the right things happen after working doggedly to be in the right place at the right time, stood and delivered.

We’re going to focus for the time being on flashes of brilliance, greatness, and heroism that, although revered in their respective circles, are little known to most, whether because of the passage of time or because few understand the importance of the person or the event.

Today’s Steely-Eyed Missile Man: John Aaron, the Gold Team and Apollo 12 EECOM who uttered the greatest call in all of manned spaceflight control. This is the story of John Aaron and what has become known as “SCE to Aux.”

At 11:22 AM Eastern Standard Time on November 14, 1969, mission Commander Pete Conrad, Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean, and Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon sat 360 feet up atop a steaming, creaking, and popping stack of high explosives as the countdown wound out and the 6.7 million pound Saturn V stack rose majestically on a tower of fire.

In Houston, flight director Gerry Griffin looked out over the “trench” of flight controllers, including John Aaron, the Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager (or “EECOM”).

When NASA tested the first Saturn V during Apollo 4, two years prior, there was substantial question about whether the rocket rose or the state of Florida sank – and this time was no different. Crowds gathered for miles around were treated to the sound and the fury of the largest spacecraft type ever launched by the United States.

It was a gray and partially overcast day and. Although there were thunderstorms elsewhere in the region, the launch went ahead.

36 seconds after liftoff, the spacecraft had climbed several thousand feet and was accelerating for orbit. What few realized was that the trail of ionized gas left behind in the rocket exhaust was an excellent conductor of electricity and that the outbound rocket was not essentially the tip of the tallest lighting rod on the planet.

Although flight controllers wouldn’t know for sure until later, the Apollo 12 stack was hit by lightning – not once but twice. The first time at 36 seconds and the second 16 seconds later.

Pete Conrad later said, “I was aware of a white light. I knew that we were in the clouds; and although I was watching the gauges I was aware of a white light. The next thing I noted was that I heard the master alarm ringing in my ears and I glanced over to the caution and warning panel and it was a sight to behold.”

Back in the trench, all the telemetry showed the same thing – or nothing. Commander Pete Conrad began calling off all of the things that were showing as wrong on the panel in front of him.

Down in the trench, John Aaron thought fast. He called up the backroom of flight controllers and technicians. He remembered a simulation about a year ago. One that the sim operations team had thought about substituting out because it was just too unlikely. During that simulation, Aaron had seen a condition where problems with the Signal Control Equipment might be resolved by switching to the Auxiliary mode. The sim had not resulted in anything that had made it into the flight control loop, so none of the other flight controllers, or the flight director, knew anything about it. But Aaron had been the EECOM during that SIM and made a snap decision under pressure. He hung up with his back room, punched into the flight control loop, and said, “Flight, try SCE to Aux.”

Griffin had never heard of the call and had no idea what it meant. “Say again. SCE to off?”

“Aux,” said Aaron.

Flight director Griffin knew Gold Team well and he trusted every member to make the right calls. Although he had already half-decided to order an abort – and would almost certainly have called the abort within a few more seconds, Griffin gave the nod to CAPCOM Gerry Carr.

Carr keyed his microphone and uttered the immortal call to the Apollo 12 command module.

So obscure was the call that neither Conrad nor Gordon could quickly locate the switch. But Al Bean, the lunar module pilot, knew where to find the switch and he flipped it. Instantly, the alarm went silent and the spacecraft’s signal control and other systems came back under control. Conrad, Bean, and Gordon set about restarting the fuel cells and bringing the systems back online.

Looking at his screen, Aaron saw the data come back up on his screen – all within limits and all a “go” for continuation of the mission.

Make no mistake, a lot of people had to do the right things in order to make Apollo 12’s pinpoint landing at Surveyor Crater in the Ocean of Storms and safe return possible. Flight director Gerry Griffin had to make the call to believe what he heard from his EECOM and risk losing the chance to abort. Commander Pete Conrad, who had his hand on the abort switch the whole time, was rock solid and focused under pressure in working the situation and giving flight controllers and his crew the best possible opportunity to save the mission if it could be saved. Heck, thousands of people, from the ground support equipment crews to the caterers to the simulation teams, all in fair measure, contributed to the success.

But when it actually hit the fan under enormous pressure and with lives on the line, it came down to one man at a console thinking fast and coming up with the right answer.

And that’s why Gold Team and Apollo 12 EECOM John Aaron is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.

For Airspeed, I’m Stephen Force. For most of us, the day may never come to perform like a Steely-eyed Missile Man. But that’s no reason not to be ready, each according to one’s own skills, and each in one’s own way.


[Audio in the podcast is used under the NASA policy entitled Using NASA Imagery and Linking to NASA Web Sites - 10.13.05 - Still Images, Audio Files and Video available at No use of any NASA material in this podcast should or does express or imply any endorsement of this podcast or any person or business that helps out with this podcast by NASA or any person whose voice is contained in the audio material.]

[Thanks, NASA, for having such a great policy. On to Mars!]