In a previous episode, I mentioned that it would be nice to visit Red Flag at some point … Jan Stahl, an F-16 pilot at Red Flag, and omega tau listener, heard me say that and sent me an email: “Hey, if you want to visit, I’d be happy to host you.” This was the starting point of this trip, I cannot let such an opportunity slip. I then started thinking about what else I can do in the US, while I am there. I remembered that Nick Veronica, the PA and journalist I met during my SOFIA flights said that he has contacts to NASA Armstrong PA. I asked whether I could visit, and they said yes, too. I then added two more topics that were not aviation related, in order to make sure I don’t have to rebrand omega tau as an aviation podcast: materials science at JPL and plasma physics as UCLA. Below I describe the trip — more details will be in the episodes, once they are published in the June timeframe.
I took the train to Frankfurt/Main, where I stayed in a hotel. My flight to LA was leaving on Saturday at 10 am, so coming from Stuttgart on the Saturday seemed to risky.
The A380 from FRA to LAX left at 10:05 am. The flight took almost 11 hours. Flights like these are never fun. But it was not as bad as feared; I had downloaded a couple of movies onto the phone, had an audio book preloaded, and also had scientist sitting next to me, so we talked a bit about her work and my podcast (one more listener :-)). The 380 is also relatively convenient airplane in the economy cabin — it’s quite quiet.
After I arrived in LA, I went through immigration and customs without problems, and relatively quickly. I grabbed the rental car and drove to my hotel in LA. Didn’t do much else on that day except grab some food and then sleep.
Of course I woke up at two or something, heavily jetlagged :-) I doodled around a while, and then, at 5 when it opened, went to the nearest Starbucks to grab a Cappuccino for breakfast. Then, at around 6, I started the four hour drive from LA to Las Vegas. Of course I was a bit tired, but otherwise the trip is actually quite nice, lots of desert, not much traffic. I arrived in Las Vegas around 11:30 and checked into my hotel. I grabbed lunch and then did nothing for a while, the drive did make me tired. Early that evening I visited Jan Stahl, my host at Nellis (and omega tau listener, who contacted me and asked me if I wanted to visit!), at his home to discuss the next two days at the airbase. At 8pm I was asleep.
My first day at Nellis. I was scheduled to be at the gate at 08:30 to meet my PA contact, let’s call him Josh. I was there at 08:00, of course, and at 08:30 no Josh showed up … I became nervous, as I do, called Jan, and at 08:50 Josh showed up, “Problems with the paperwork”. He gave me my Special Event access pass for the base and told me to follow him, with my own car, through the gate. Of course the gate security guys did not know what to do with my Special Event pass … more waiting, a guy on the phone, … but then it all cleared up and I was finally in. Cool :-) I followed Josh across the base to the building of the 64th Aggressor Squadron, where Jan welcomed us to the base.
We made plans for the day, and decided to drive out to the Ramp. I’ll talk about this some more in the episode, but suffice to say that the ramp is a avgeek’s dreams come true: fighters (and some transports and tankers) as far as you could see :-) We spent around two hours around the F-16. I got to sit in the jet, which, for somebody who fell in love with this beautiful airplane at the age of 10 or so, was really really cool! We grabbed lunch at the base exchange and then drove out to the arming/last chance/runway to watch some of the take-offs. Then we returned to the office to record some more stuff on the F-16 and Red Flag. At about 5pm we called it a day, and I went to the hotel … to bed more or less directly :-)
I used the same Special Event pass to get onto the base, this time without any problems, questions or phone calls. We were finished with the interviews, so this second day was a bit different. First, I talked to one of the F-15C guys to understand Red Flag from the perspective of a participating crew. I then recorded an interview with a ground control intercept officer, yet another interesting perspective on the exercise. Then I met again with Jan, who had to fly on that day. I joined him and a bunch of his pilot buddies at the step briefing and then rode out to the flight line with them. There, I joined Jan in the preflight of “his” F-16. Startup and send-off of the jet was really cool, because the maintenance guys organized a second headset for me, so I could listen to the dialog between Jan and the crew chief as they readied the jet. On Monday I thought I was “close” to an F-16 at the arming position; on Tuesday I had to reevaluate this perception, because I was literally crawling around under the F-16, engines running. Very cool :-)
At ca. 2pm, after Jan launched for his mission, I left Nellis and drove to Barstow, where I stayed the night.
Still jetlagged, I woke up at maybe 4am. I was scheduled to be at Edwards West Gate at 07:30, so I could comfortably leave Barstow at 5 am for the 95 minute drive to Edwards.
NASA Armstrong is on the premises of Edwards Air Force Base, so I first had to get permission to enter that base. This took about 90 minutes! Matt, the NASA PA person, then picked me up at the gate and we drove to NASA’s part of the base, where I got another badge, this time to enter the research center. We started interviews right away: Al Bowers on Prandtl-D, Kevin Weinert on the ACTE, and Cheng Moua on the X-56. We finished at around 13:30, and Matt dropped me at the gate. I spent the afternoon lingering around Mojave airport, trying to convince Scaled Composites to be a future guest :-) I drove to Tehachapi in the evening to look at that old’ish city and then, at 8pm, went to bed – I was trying to not even get adapted fully to the US timezones.
Second day of NASA Armstrong. No checkin at the AFB this time, the pass was still valid. So Matt picked me up at 8 am, and we went directly to the hangar where they keep their F-15s and F-18s. I spend 75 minutes talking to pilot Jim Less (who I met during the SOFIA flights). We then moved on into the cockpit trailer of the MQ-9 Ikhana research UAV where I interviewed Scott Howe and Herman Posada about flying these things. The third and final interview was with Matt Moholt about the Spanwise Adaptive Wing project and memory alloys.
Once done with the second batch of interviews, PA Matt and I grabbed lunch and visited the gift shop. He dropped me off at the gate, and that fascinating part of my trip was over. As with Nellis, I had read, heard and seen about Edwards and Dryden/Armstrong since I was a child. Being at these “sacred grounds” of aviation was absolutely wonderful! That afternoon I went for a little hike among the wind turbines west of Mojave and, as usual, called it a day early.
By the way: several of the guys I interviewed at NASA, as well as the PA guys at NASA and the air force, listened to several omega tau episodes. I thought this was cool :-)
I drove from Mojave to Pasadena where I arrived at JPL about 8:30. I was pleased by the greenery, after all the time in the desert :-) I checked into JPL in 2 minutes (!) and waited a little while for Andrew, my PA contact there, to pick me up. We took one of JPL’s golf carts and drove up the hill to visit Doug Hoffman in his material science lab. There I recorded 100 minutes of very intersting and lively discussion on bulk metal glass! Andrew dropped me off at the entrance again, and that was the end of my short visit at JPL. I certainly hope to be back one day as there’s obviously lots of cool stuff going on there.
I drove into the city of LA and grabbed some lunch before checking in at the Basic Plasma Facility research group. There I spend 3 hours interviewing the two professors, Walter Gekelman and Troy Carter, about some of the fundamentals and applications of plasma physics. We also looked at their Large Plasma Device, a machine to produce, “poke” and study plasma. The guys built the machine themselves, so this is a very hands-on group. Very cool!
I made my way back through the proverbially bad LA traffic to my hotel in Burbank. Arriving there, I felt a huge relief coming ove me: my “mission” for this week was successful, all interviews worked as planned. Being a pessimist by nature, this was by no means obvious (to me). I went to bed, feeling very happy.
Waking up at 5, and after another Starbucks visit, I finished and published the new omega tau episode about Saturn V. I then drove to the CaliforniaScienCenter where the space shuttle Endeavour is exhibited. Of course, being in the presence of this magnificent machine is awe-inspiring. But I thought the exhibit itself was underwhelming for two reasons.
First, there was absolutely nothing for the geek. All the info you could read or watch there was for the general public, rather basic stuff. I would have hoped for some cool bits of detail that are interesting the space geeks that certainly show up there en masse. Second, you could only walk (and see from) under the Shuttle. Considering the uniqueness of the exhibit, it would have been nice to have some kind if platform that allows the audience to see the machine from the top. The rest of the CaliforniaScienCenter is targeted to kids and was not interesting.
On Sunday I did pretty much nothing, and then left the hotel at 11:30 to drive to LAX. I returned the car, and boarded the Lufthansa A380 on 15:30. I landed on Monday, 11:30 in FRA, and took a train from there. I am writing this last paragraph as I sit in the train, expecting to arrive at home at 15:00.
I don’t have to tell you how much fun this trip was, for me as a life-long avgeek. I am very grateful to Jan, but of course also to all the others who were involved in organizing and participating in the interviews (I will mention all of them by name in the episodes). But I must also thank the omega tau community: not only is the community the reason why my guests talk to me at all. You guys also financed the trip through your donations. This is really awesome! THANK YOU!