Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Colossal, or Not?

According to this feature in the NY Times,  a “colossal bridge” will rise over the Hudson River, replacing the Tappan Zee (illustration, HDR):

The new, as-yet-unnamed bridge (actually two parallel cable-stayed spans, side by side) will be big in terms of traffic lanes, with tolls to match its ambitions, but I can't call it colossal, as in the Colossus of Rhodes. *

Perhaps to shore up the claim, the writer refers to the crane barge being summoned  from California, Left Coast Lifter, as "one of the world's largest." Another article called the barge "gargantuan." (Photo, American Bridge-Fluor Enterprises)

Impressive, yes, but with less than two thousand tons of lifting capacity, that barge isn't colossal either ... not when lined up against the much bigger ones used in the offshore oil and gas business, like the Saipem 7000. With the booms working in tandem, the S-7000 can lift 14,000 tons. 

So: what human-made object counts as a modern-day colossus? Ideas are welcome but in the meantime, how about the New Safe Containment, a giant arched shelter under construction near the wreck of Chernobyl Reactor 4. Once complete, it will cover the reactor and house a unique, remotely-operated bridge crane (Image, Wikimedia commons):

Here's an aerial image from Bing Maps. The Arch is the shiny object on the left side.



* Awe-inspiring, if exaggerated. The real Colossus of Rhodes statue was probably a hundred feet high on its pedestal, which was huge for the time, but it didn't straddle the harbor mouth, as often illustrated.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tales of the Copter: Last Man on the Ocean Express

Another story from The God Machine:

Commander John M. Lewis of the U.S. Coast Guard got the distress call at 8:00 p.m. on April 15, 1976, while at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station.

Ocean Express had been under tow when a gale came up but one of the tugs had been disabled, the others had released their lines under command from the barge, and now the rig was listing and about to sink.

Ocean Express was a “jackup” rig, meaning that it had three giant steel legs, something like crane booms (illustration, USCG investigative report).


The 312-foot-long legs had been raised from the sea floor and now towered high over the rig. These towers would loom in the darkness, like claws, for any aircraft attempting to get close.

Lewis flew his Sikorsky HH-52, a single-engine helicopter optimized for open-water rescue, to the site 40 miles east of the Gulf Coast. Here's what it looks like in floating mode (Photo, Wikimedia Commons):

Just one man, Pete Vandicraft, the Barge Mover, was still on board.

Lewis made slow orbits  in the darkness, calculating his odds of getting in and out. Then he made two attempts to get a rescue basket within Vandicraft’s reach, each time having to dodge the three legs, which shifted as the rig slowly rolled over to a 45-degree angle. Salt spray from the storm waves blew into the helicopter. Capt. H.B. Thorsen, piloting another USCG helicopter, turned on his spotlight.

Lewis’s helicopter went out of sight in the spray and Thorsen thought the ocean had claimed it. The odds of survival were slim; this was an extraordinarily hazardous situation given the steelwork, turbulence from the gale, and a constantly tilting reference frame.

The scene may have called to mind the legendary credo of the United States Life-Saving Service, in the days of wooden lifeboats: “The regulations say you have to go out; they don’t say you have to come back.”

But Lewis's HH-52 appeared out of the spray like a surfacing submarine. Witnesses said they had never seen anything like it. On his third attempt, Lewis came away with Vandicraft in the rescue basket.
In departing Lewis used his controls like so: he pulled the collective lever up to gain altitude, he pushed the anti-torque pedals to maintain his direction as the main rotor dug in, and he nudged the cyclic stick to move horizontally away from the wreck.
“Piece of cake,” as pilots like to say. The rig sank thirty seconds later.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hard landing, Wrong airport? Dial "AOG"

Headlines a week ago about the Southwest B-737 that landed at the wrong airport, six miles from the intended destination of Branson International. Passengers reported energetic braking to avoid running off the end, which would have sent the plane down a bluff and onto US-65 highway. The next day, after safety checks (hard braking can cause heat damage), and after police stopped traffic on the highway, the Boeing made an uneventful departure.  

Here's a photo of mechanics checking the landing gear (Photo: Valery Mosley, Springfield News-Leader for the AP):

The industry name for such work is AOG, short for Aircraft on Ground. In case of damage, AOG work requires a team of mechanics and engineers, and a depot that ships replacement parts on short notice.

One of the most dramatic AOG incidents in recent memory was the mistaken landing in 1997 of a Saudia Airlines B-747 at India's Tambaram Air Station, near Madras. The 747, which was scheduled to land at Chennai International, was carrying 330 passengers and their luggage and came to a halt with little room to spare (photo, Indian Express):

The airstrip in question was only for use by light training aircraft, and about 4,500 feet long. All the performance charts said Tambaram's runway was half that needed for a survivable takeoff. What to do?

During four days of intense and unhappy discussions between the airline and the Indian Air Force, which tallied damage and suspected espionage, technicians from Boeing and Saudia met at the scene. Options included: (1) pull the wings off and tow the fuselage to Chennai, where it would be further disassembled and flown in cargo jets to the Boeing factory; (2) abandon the airliner at the air base; or (3) fly it out in one piece.

The last would entail a good deal of risk, but experts determined that if the AOG team removed the air conditioning units, all passenger seats, and every gallon of fuel not needed for the short hop to Chennai, the plane could get off the ground.

And it worked. Saudia brought in its best pilot for the job -- Capt. Jam Joom -- waited for a strong headwind, and took off without incident (AFP article via Google News):


In Praise of Planes

Fracture planes, that is. Here's a low-res, Sketchbook-edited version of a photo I took earlier this winter. I added an inset offering a closeup of the detail:


In the obscure niche that is ice-photography, reflection is as important as refraction, and fracture planes can contribute a lot to the former.

A large chunk of ice always fractures with a loud crack when its surface temperature rises suddenly, but the fracture plane differs. From what I can tell the variables include the temperature gradients, the thickness of the ice slab, the chemistry of the water, and the air temperature at which the ice formed.

Most of the fracture planes I see are striated and rough like the one above. But sometimes the fracture has a checkerboard pattern:

More rarely the fracture planes are as smooth as a half-silvered mirror, but with unique and random details such as the yellow pattern below:

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tales of the Copter: Evacuation under fire

The following is excerpted from my book, The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Bantam Dell, 2007; softcover 2008).

=  = =
The Franco-Prussian War saw the first use of aircraft for wartime evacuation. During the Siege of Paris in 1870 and 1871, a hundred wealthy citizens flew out of the city via balloon, sitting on bags of mail.

Using helicopters for last-minute evacuation under fire was rare during the first 15 years of wartime use, beginning in Burma during World War II, then in Korea, Malaya, French Indochina, and Algeria. Instead helicopters hauled reinforcements and ammunition to the battlefield and took wounded men from field-dressing stations. Here's a photo of French helo pilot Valerie Andre from

 During the Vietnam War, helicopters would take on a new job as getaway vehicles, most famously during the final evacuation of Americans (and selected allies) from Saigon in 1975.

One trend-setting incident came ten years earlier, when Marine helicopters evacuated the entire population in and around Khe Tre in the face of oncoming Vietcong forces. Helicopters grabbed up 2,600 people and all their belongings, down to dogs, bags of rice, and bales of tobacco.

Also about this time, combat rescue by rotorcraft was developing on the other side of the demilitarized zone, deep inside North Vietnam and along the northern reaches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The demand arose because the Air Force and Navy were making bombing runs over North Vietnam, and downed pilots needed help.

Any pilot or crewman dropping deep into the territory of a very angry enemy faced death or a long and brutal captivity. Their hopes rode with the Air Force’s 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service, known as the Jolly Greens because of the hulking look of their Sikorsky HH-3 rescue helicopter.

Jolly Greens did their work without the usual gunnery on board, but had backup from Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, a slow-flying propeller-driven airplane that was well-suited for strafing.

One of the Jolly Greens’ most highly decorated pilots was Capt. Leland Kennedy, who on October 5, 1966, was to receive the call to duty. It would win him an Air Force Cross, the service’s second-highest decoration. That day an F-4C Phantom (call sign: Tempest Three) was flying west of Hanoi, escorting an electronic-warfare aircraft back to base, when a MiG fired a heat-seeking missile from behind. The missile flew up the tailpipe and destroyed the engine, but without exploding. Phantoms look like this:

“This was over a really bad area,” Ed Garland told me. Garland occupied the rear seat that day. “There were two rivers on the northwest, the Red and Black Rivers. If you were north of the Red, the standing order was: ‘No pickups there, it’s too dangerous.’”

Nursing their airplane as far south as possible to aid any rescuers, the two pilots waited till they saw the Red River, then ejected. Lt. Garland’s chute dropped him on a mountainside that was 45 miles south of Hanoi. That put him 300 miles from his fighter base. He had a pistol, a short-range radio, a bleeding ankle, and a back injury. A jet passed low overhead and began strafing the ground nearby; it was an F-105 Thunderchief pilot who had by a rare chance seen the Phantom’s smoke trail, had watched the parachutes descend, and had called for rescue. The message was relayed to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base.

Two Jolly Green helicopters lifted off from a forward staging area along the Laos border. (Called Lima sites, these were positioned in Laos as close as possible to the North Vietnamese border and greatly extended the Jolly Greens’ working range.)

On his way down, Garland had seen a radar station atop the mountain's peak. Now he heard soldiers from that station coming down the slope, shooting and closing in, despite the Thunderchief’s strafing. Though Garland would be on the ground for a full four hours, the enemy held back from capturing him. He learned the reason later: he was bait in a trap. The North Vietnamese were placing heavy machine guns for the helicopters they knew would be coming.

Garland received a last radio message from his counterpart, Bill Andrews, on the other side of the mountain: Andrews had been hit in the chest; he was losing unconsciousness; and he would shoot up his radio to prevent the enemy from luring rescuers with it. (False radio calls, even NVA soldiers dressed in American flight suits, were common methods to lure helicopters into traps).

When Kennedy’s helicopter (Jolly Green Two) left its forward base it was supposed to serve only as escort, known as the “high bird” position, while Capt. Oliver O’Mara and crew in the primary helicopter, the “low bird,” carried out the rescue.

When the two helicopters arrived, says Garland, “the low bird came in and it drew small arms fire from rifles and machine guns ... anything they had.” By O’Mara’s third attempt to get a rescue seat to Garland on the mountainside, enemy gunfire had destroyed the helicopter’s hoist, shot up the fuselage, and damaged one engine. Tagged out, O’Mara flew off.

Kennedy was flying high bird that day because he was still a novice in the rescue business. It was Kennedy's eighth mission out of Udorn, but this would be his first actual rescue attempt.

The unfavorable circumstances were looking very similar to a tragic rescue attempt in September 1965 by another helicopter from the 38th, call sign Duchy 41. As Duchy 41 hovered in a box canyon, heavy machine-gun fire from above had shot it down. All five crewmen had been captured by Communist forces (See "Commissioned in Hanoi," Air Force Magazine).

Compounding the difficulty for Kennedy’s Jolly Green Two, the four Skyraiders that had been strafing to hold back the enemy were almost out of ammunition. This left Kennedy’s helicopter with only one advantage, a fogbank. Kennedy started his first run, using the fog as cover from heavy machine guns on the high ground, the Russian-made DShK:

A grenade or missile exploded in the Jolly's cabin, stunning pararescueman CMSgt. Ed Williamson. Williamson called out that he was fine and needed only help getting soot out of his eyes. Kennedy backed away and waited for Williamson to regain his sight. The Skyraiders radioed that they were dry on ammunition but would make low passes to frighten the enemy.

Kennedy made his second run: the fusillade from the ground punched more holes in the helicopter and put a bullet in Williamson’s knee. Kennedy retreated again and polled the crew: that had been the Jolly Greens’ fifth try. Did they want to cheat death once more? They crew voted in the affirmative. This time Kennedy lowered the jungle penetrator to the ground on its cable, and dragged it toward Garland as if trolling for a bottom-dwelling fish.

“I could see the helo now,” Garland recalls. “He didn’t have much cable out, maybe fifty feet. All the guns were firing at him. I ran maybe thirty or forty feet and pulled the seat down.”

Kennedy snatched him off the ground and rose toward the protective fog. There was one final thrill: Aboard the Jolly Green, Williamson looked down with horror at the sight of Garland’s parachute, rising in tandem with the airman. Somehow the shrouds or harness had tangled with rescue seat. As soon as the helicopter accelerated the parachute canopy was going to sweep back and tangle the tail rotor, which would send the helicopter spinning out of control. Perhaps these men were linked by telepathy, as only saved and savior can be, or perhaps not: in any case, Garland realized the problem instantly and yanked the parachute loose.

His helicopter low on fuel, Kennedy headed back to his Lima site. He won a second Air Force Cross two weeks later for another rescue in North Vietnam. He was the first airman to receive it twice.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Waiting for that Vortex

I like winter - it's when I continue with backyard ice-photography, capturing images such as this ...

... but there's a limit! We're battening down the hatches for the Polar Vortex here in Minnesota, with the thermometer expected to hit -25 F in the next two days. A blast of wind will bring the chill down another twenty degrees.

I experienced occasional temps of -60 F while living in Fairbanks, Alaska, but the air was dead-still, so it was tolerable. I preferred to walk to work on such days (less than a half mile) because I had surplus Alyeska Pipeline cold-weather gear like this parka:

... and because such temperatures are pretty hard on cars. My apartment offered each parking spot a plug-in for block heaters, which helped to start the engines but didn't warm the running gear.

If there's a website to nominate cold-weather survivors, I'd like to name the Russians of Ice Station Vostok, which experienced a disastrous fire and loss of generator power at the onset of winter in 1982, setting off a six-month-long emergency.

Vostok is near the South Magnetic Pole, and sits at an elevation of 11,000 feet. The following winter, Vostok posted the lowest ground temperature ever recorded:  -128.6 F (Photo, Wiki commons:)

The fire originated in an electrical short. It killed one man and destroyed the main generators plus the backup sets in one stroke.

Since new equipment and supplies could only reach them by tractor train and that wouldn't happen for 227 days, the crew of Ice Station Vostok saved themselves by setting up wick-fed heaters fueled with diesel, and fixing two scrapped generators.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Automated in Australia: Drones and mines

While researching my "Drones for Hire" article for Air&Space, I checked up on progress in automated mining, and Australian advances in particular. Already giant trucks are automated at some Australian strip mines, with no drivers on board. (Photo, WSJ)

Some rock drills and draglines are automated too. Australia is leading the way on mine automation, particularly when it comes to remote controls that attach to excavators manufactured elsewhere.

Rio Tinto is a big supporter: see the Rio Tinto Center for Mine Automation at The University of Sydney.

Underground automation isn't advancing as fast as the robotization of surface mining, but the challenges are greater. For example, GPS can't be used underground so precise navigation is a challenge.

Robotic underground mining is moving forward most rapidly in connection with a technique called block caving, where miners start by going in deep to dig access tunnels under the ore body, then moving upward to carve a network of drifts, shafts and V-shaped funnels (from

The result is to make giant hoppers that receive ore falling off the roof of underground chambers, and direct it into lower drifts for collection and hauling by vehicles called LHDs, short for load-haul-dump. Here's a paper on automating an LHD.

Block caving works best for ore that is so weak and fractured it will collapse as soon as there's an opening below it, or else can be weakened ahead of time by fracking.

Rather than follow a narrow high-grade vein of ore like a stoping operation in the old West, which tunneled upward to carve a notch in the earth sometimes only a few feet wide but quite deep, block caving takes out entire volumes that are wide as well as deep: hundreds of feet across. 

Removing millions of tons of ore over decades eventually opens a giant crater visible at the surface after the void breaks through to the surface. Similar effects were visible at the Nevada Test Site when A-bomb blasts were set off within a thousand feet or so under the surface: while the blast didn't cause any immediate disruption of the surface, it did make a big, deep cavern that later fell in, and opened a crater up top. From the Nuclear Weapons Archive:

There's a block-caving diamond mine planned in Australia -- to go under an open pit called Argyle -- that could make the Mines of Moria look shrimpy: this cavern could be a thousand feet high and 1,500 feet long before it falls in.

Block and panel caving is hard to visualize, but here's a Youtube video about the Argyle plan.

Because block caving eventually takes out all the ore lying above the hoppers, it's easier to automate than a mine that has to follow a narrow, twisting vein of high-grade ore.

Robot drilling and robot hauling also offers safety advantages since ceilings of the block cave sometimes collapse in bigger volumes than planned, which, depending on the underground layout, can cause brief but very violent windstorms along the drifts and shafts (windspeeds up to 250-300 mph) called air blast.

There have been dozens of air-blast events in coal and metal mines. One at the North Parkes Mine in 1999 killed four men. Robot drills are also safer when drilling and blasting apart giant boulders that fall into the hoppers and act like plugs to block the flow of more rock.