Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Tale of Two Meteors

I've been putting off writing this one for a month now. At the end, you'll see why.

(Parents, yet another vulgarity warning....Like the others, it's integral to the story, but you ought to read ahead.)

Some time back, on a weekend layover in western Texas - Lubbock - I think it was, we wound up talking to some ol' boys in a bar. You could tell that one of them was really intrigued that we were freight dogs flying for FedEx and that he had something on his mind. I watched him work up his courage to ask:

"You boys from FedEx fly all night, don't ya?"
"Yes, we do."
"I'll bet you boys see some shit. ........ But you wouldn't tell me if you did, would ya?"

It took me a moment to realize that he wanted to hear a UFO story.

Esteemed readers, since I was a boy, astronomy has been a strong interest of mine. I am an amateur astronomer and as most of you know, I own a telescope that I have used a lot. I have spent a lot of time looking at the night sky and enjoying what I see. I have worked my way through the Messier List, and found all 110 of them. I've seen solar and lunar eclipses and all nine of the old traditional planets, before they got reclassified.

What I'm trying to say is in roughly 40 years of looking at the night sky, airborne and on the ground, I have seen a lot of 'stuff' but I have never seen anything that I couldn't immediately explain. I had to disappoint our old boy above. Of course, he took "no" as confirmation of the conspiracy.

Last Oct 10, just before descent into Shanghai, China, I saw the biggest and best meteor I've ever seen. The second best meteor is a story I'm saving until the end here. You'll see why.

There was no way to get a picture of this thing, so my meager descriptive talents will have to do. It was one of the clearest days and nights I'd ever seen in my time flying over China -beautiful night. We had just turned off the flight deck overhead lights to start dark adapting for descent and landing. Orion was booming in clear and bright in the east and I spent a moment or two looking at the hazy spot where M43 and M42 make the jewel in Orion's belt.

Esteemed reader, I'd like you to consider the thought process I'm about to describe and how long it probably took - at least 5 seconds. That is an eon for a meteor to exist. This thing burned forever.

It started when I noticed a bright light wink-on on the left side of the aircraft at about the 10 o'clock position. Often when two jet airplanes cross one another's path in the night sky, we'll flash our landing lights at each other as a friendly: "Hail Fellow, Well Met!" greeting. I thought that was what I was looking at.

Then it dawned on me that this light was a very bright green - much like a stop light green except much brighter, intense and saturated. That forced me to abandon my aircraft explanation because no landing light is green that I know of. Next, I thought it was the reflection of a green cockpit light, because some MD-11s have a bright green light that reflects on the window in roughly that location on the windscreen. I was quickly forced to reject that idea when I realized this airplane didn't have that light and this thing was too bright.

This whole time this bright green light is just hanging there in the windscreen with a slowly accelerating apparent movement down and left across my field of view. Then it starts to slowly brighten and dim. I have never seen anything like it. I was beginning to wonder if I had one of the old boy's UFOs. Finally, it started moving fast enough that it dawned on me that I was looking at a meteor.

I had time to yell to the First Officer: "Do you see this meteor?", and for him to answer yes. You never have time to talk during a normal sized meteor. Now, Gentle Reader, a meteor always enters the atmosphere well in excess of Earth's orbital escape velocity: 25,000 mile per hour or 7 miles per second. They are fast. So for this thing to have such a small apparent motion, it has to be very high up in the atmosphere and very far away. I'd guess hundreds of miles away out over the Pacific Ocean.

As a final display, it disappeared for a fraction of a second and then reappeared and made a single, very bright orange flash.

There is some interesting physics in that last flash. When something is moving that fast through the air, a hypersonic shock wave quickly forms. Shock waves produce huge air pressure differentials between the front and back of the shock. So, the small pebble that produced this meteor has a tremendous air pressure difference between the front and the back trying to flatten it like a pancake. Next, consider that the tremendous kinetic energy contained in that astronomical speed is rapidly getting converted into heat as air friction slows the pebble. So the bright green color was whatever element the pebble was made up of burning up like in a spectroscope.

Finally, the bright orange flash occurred when the pebble was finally torn apart by the flattening force and then each tiny mote burned instantaneously in the heat produced when it came to a sudden halt. All that tremendous kinetic energy was instantaneously converted to heat and blast.

This thing was truly the best meteor I've ever seen.

Now to the story of the second best.

I met Tony Barr when he came to Laughlin AFB to learn to fly. The story I heard was that he entered the Air Force Academy in 1985, a skinny, scrawny, bean pole black kid. By his Junior year, he was 6'5" and weighed 240 or so and maybe 1% of that was fat. I can't imagine how a cadet would get steroids or that the Tony I knew would use them. I know that this dramatic change was all due to the effort and discipline of one Tony Barr.

Boxing is a big sport at USAFA. I look back on the two boxing matches I was forced to fight in phys ed with some pride - but also with happiness that I'll never have to do that again. Boxing is a tough thing to do. It's hard to train for and it takes a lot of dedication to be good at it. Every year the best cadet boxers compete in the "Wing Open." You have to be tough and good to win the title. Tony won the heavy weight title there in 1988 and 1989.

Tony did well enough in Pilot Training that we kept him with us to be an instructor pilot after he graduated - A "First Assignment IP" (FAIP). Only the top 25% of graduates are chosen - and most don't want to be one. You don't go to pilot training to spend the next four years of your life watching a student pilot learn to fly. But the FAIPs suck up the assignment and do a great job with discipline and pride. Tony was one of the best.

By the time Tony's four years were ending, the "Peace Dividend" in the early 90s was drying up fighter pilot assignments and we were forced to send our FAIPs out to transport aircraft assignments. Tony was so well liked and respected that our leadership wrangled him a slot to go to Randolph AFB in San Antonio where he would teach new Instructor Pilots. This also gave him a better shot a getting a fighter assignment the next time he came up for one.

Not soon after he got to Randolph AFB, he was riding his motorcycle and hurt badly in a crash. A month later he was recovering somewhat and scheduled for an MRI to better decide how fix his injuries. During the MRI, he had an anaphylactic shock reaction to the dye and died.

All of us who knew him were devastated. A contingent of us drove the 3 hours over to San Antonio to attend his service. That afternoon we drove back and got into the parking lot after dark. We spent one last moment discussing the day and commiserating and then we turned to walk to our separate cars.

At that exact moment, a bright green meteor, much like the one I just described except it was moving much faster, flashed down from the sky. We all stood there transfixed for a moment. Esteemed Reader, I am not the most religious of guys. In fact, organized religion strikes me as a power play. But consider this: the pebble that made what I've come to think privately of as "Tony's Meteor" started out it's life eons ago in the whirling, mad, chaotic, orrery that is the solar system. It spent an unknown and unmeasurable amount of time circling around undergoing a vast number of gravitational perturbations to arrive at the precise time that the four of us all were looking in the right direction to see it.

If that was a coincidence, it was a cosmically unlikely one. I think not. And I thank the Creator for sending that pebble to tell me that the tragedy that was Tony Barr had a larger purpose.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tales from Yuma

Johnny Yuma, was a rebel,
he roamed through the west,
He got fightin’ mad, that rebel lad…..”

I know you are asking, "What in the world, now?" Esteemed readers, sitting in the bar with my First Officer last night I discovered that “in a previous life” he was a marine fighter pilot flying Harriers out of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, (MCAS Yuma), Arizona. This immediately reminded me of a story I hadn’t thought about in decades. This story is not a personal one - a friend of your humble correspondent is the hero of this saga.

My second assignment in the Air Force was to be a T-37 Instructor Pilot at Williams AFB, Arizona. The T-37 is gone now from the AF inventory and in all honesty it is not missed. It was slow, underpowered and miserably hot under that bubble canopy with a totally inadequate air conditioner.

"Willie" as Williams AFB was called is also gone from the Air Force although it is still a public airport. Willie - unlike the T-37- is greatly missed as it was a really nice place to be assigned. I personally enjoyed it immensely - I made some great friends, some of whom are still amongst my esteemed readers. Much more importantly, it was the assignment where I met my trophy wife and lifelong mate. (Smooch, Babe)

Towards the end of a T-37 student pilot’s training syllabus, they begin to be expected to operate away from the local airpatch and move into navigation training. MCAS Yuma was a very popular place to take the students as it was far enough away to get good nav training while still close enough that your fuel reserve allowed for multiple instrument approach training once you got there.

Our intrepid aviators successfully navigated through the Byzantine “Special Use Airspace” that freckles southern Arizona containing various gunnery and bombing ranges.

These ranges exist in support of the fighter training missions out of Davis-Monthan AFB, Luke AFB and MCAS Yuma. I bring this up as it will be important in just a moment. As an aside, many of the flying scenes in the movie “Top Gun” are from these working areas.

Having used up their fuel, our heroes land at MCAS Yuma and taxi-in through the fearsome summer heat of the southern Arizona desert environment. The plan is to rehydrate, debrief the just completed sortie, update the weather forecast, re-plan the return leg and blast off for home. Alas, Gentle Reader, this was not to be.

As they progressed to the ‘updating the weather’ portion of this process, they discovered that an immense system of convective thunderstorm activity had effectively blocked the routes that wind their way through the ranges to return to Williams AFB. These storms would not dissipate until well after dark – and more importantly, well after our heroes ‘timed out’ on their ‘crew duty day’ constraints. Our heroes were going to spend the evening in Yuma, Arizona. So, they called back home, informed the ‘Supervisor of Flying’ (SOF) of the problem, were ordered to get a room at the Visiting Officers Quarters (VOQ) and enter crew rest in order to be ready to return to Williams at first light in the morning.

Going “Out and Stuck” rather than “Out and Back” was a not infrequent occurrence flying the T-37 and the instructor pilot – being an experienced and cagey sort – had brought along with him an overnight kit. Space constraints in the cockpit of a T-37 are restrictive and all he had was a ‘Dopp Kit’ and a change of undergarments. The student pilot possessed nothing more than uniform on his back.

After getting rooms and stopping by the local Base Exchange to get the ‘stud’ a toothbrush and toothpaste, our intrepid team proceeded to the local Officer’s Club and made their way to bar stools where they began debriefing the training sortie over an adult beverage. This most gentlemanly activity was soon to be interrupted, and Gentle Reader, I hope I don’t shock you with what was about to befall our heroes.

Marine Fighter Pilots - steeped as they are in the combative traditions of their Branch of Arms - often welcome discord and conflict in situations where others would seek peaceful interaction. The pilots assigned at Yuma - also flush from a demanding day of training - entered “their club” only to discover “Air Force wimps” seated at “their bar”. These Marine warriors became seemingly incensed. The first our heroes knew of their predicament was when they heard a shouted “Air Force Guys!”

Several of the larger of the Marines moved quickly to immobilize our heroes by firmly grasping their limbs. The Marine’s leader made the observation that “It sure is hot here in Yuma!” and utilizing their "Tools, Bladed, Survival, 1 Each", the Marines raggedly sawed off the sleeves and legs of our hero’s “Coverall, Flight, Nomex, Fireproof, 1 each” flying uniforms.

The leader then pronounced three things: First, that our heroes should be much more comfortable and cool now. Next, they observed that our heroes seemed to be less than appreciative of the thoughtful modifications that had been made to their flight suits and possibly even desirous of fisticuffs. Finally, the villains pointed out that our heroes were about to be let loose and at that point the Marines would either stand our heroes up for another adult beverage or do them the honor of combat.

Our heroes, being wise individuals, carefully considered the fact they were outnumbered, and probably outclassed in hand to hand combat skills. They recalled that even Marine Aviators start out as infantry officers. Combining these facts, they decided that drinking free beer even though embarrassingly bare-limbed was the better of the two options facing them. A large time was had by all and our heroes retired for the evening somewhat under the weather.

Come the crowing cock, our heroes realized that their orders to return to base by first light were somewhat compromised by their lack of a regulation flying uniform. A call was made back to the SOF, who somehow managed to avoid snickering as he ran the problem up the ‘chain of command’ to the Squadron Commander. Phone calls burned their way through the aether between the two bases, brass negotiated with brass and soon our heroes heard a knock on their VOQ room doors by the local Marine Supply Sergeant who also managed a professional demeanor as he measured our heroes. Soon, he returned with Marine issued Flying Coveralls in approximately the correct sizes.

But wait! There’s more!

Our heroes proceeded to the flight line, planned the return trip, cranked up their venerable T-37 and proceeded out to the runway to take off. Esteemed Reader, more information is now required before this story can proceed. MCAS Yuma , like most Naval fighter bases, was equipped with an arresting gear system. These consisted of a sturdy metal cable strung between two take up drums – one on either side of the runway – with a complex hydraulic system to keep exactly the correct tension on the cable. In order to hold the cable up off the runway and improving the probability that the aircraft hook would catch the cable, there were strung at even intervals along the cable, large hard rubber disks of approximately 6 inches diameter.

Gentle Reader, at first blush, it may seem silly and redundant for a perfectly capable runway to have an arresting gear situated upon it. Experience has shown Naval Aviation that it is much better to train Naval Aviators to make arrested landings on shore rather than at sea. When their first landing is made "on the boat", Naval Aviators have successfully made dozens of land-based traps and shown the required level of proficiency.

T-37 Flight Manual guidance was very firm about operating over these cables. The T-37 was not equipped with a hook – but these cables could still grab the aircraft itself, as the aircraft is squatty and slung low to the ground. Landings or takeoffs made in front of the cable could cause the tires to bounce the cable up. There was then a high probability that the cable would either slap into the main gear doors, main gear mounts or lower portions of the tail, depending on which wheel bounced the cable. Damage would ensue and if the cable caught the airplane just right, severe damage would ensue. All of these results are indicative of poor pilot technique and 'headwork' - woe betides the aviator who causes them to happen. Our leadership frequently emphasized the importance of taking off and landing past the cables and our heroes strove mightily to comply. (It is best to not think about the poor schmuck who caused this 'corporate knowledge' to come to exist.)

The gods of aviation were laughing as our heroes slowly taxied over the cable prior to beginning their takeoff roll. Somehow, they managed to precisely run the nose gear right over one of the rubber disks holding up the cable. The disk collapsed in a fashion that very firmly chocked the nose gear of the aircraft and our heroes came to a sudden stop. Realizing what had happened, the instructor pilot assumed control of the aircraft and slowly applied increasing power while maintaining a hair trigger to slap the throttles to idle once the jet bounced over the cable.

Esteemed Reader, the T-37 is an underpowered pig at the best of times – and the Arizona heat is not the best of times. Our heroes went to full military power and the jet did not move a fraction. They are stuck. Further since the T-37 does not have a reverse they cannot get unstuck. MCAS Yuma only has one active runway, many airplanes are airborne and getting low on fuel and our heroes have just closed down the runway. It’s an emergency situation. Comical, yes, but still an emergency.

Radio traffic ensues betwixt our heroes and the Air Traffic Control Tower. The Tower quickly contacts the Fire and Rescue Department, being the facility most quickly available to come to their aid. The well practiced Firefighters don their emergency gear, mount their emergency vehicles and race toward our heroes, bubble gum machines flashing and sirens wailing. Stout firemen garbed in emergency yellow protective garments jump out of the vehicle and position themselves on either side of the aircraft and grasp the leading edges of the wings. With seeming ease, they push our heroes back so that they can taxi around the offending disk. Once the Fire Crews are clear, our heroes receive a take-off clearance and blast off into the long, delirious, burning blue.

Upon return to the home drome, our heroes are given no choice but to relate this tale in all its embarrassing facets, much as they might wish it to remain cloaked in mystery. Being concerned friends and colleagues – and secretly ecstatic that this episode had not occurred to any of us - we decided that our heroes new nicknames should be ‘Sleeves’ and ‘Chocks’.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cosmo Crapper

This email is from a trip to Nagoya, Japan in April of 2005.

Warning, All, this e-mail contains potty humor! As I do not wish to offend, continue reading at your own risk. You have been warned!

The hotel rooms we've been staying in - both in
Nagoya and Osaka - have state-of-the-art Japanese crappers. An adequate description defies the meager talents of your humble correspondent. Therefore, you will find attached to this missive a picture. The Gentle Reader is humbly requested to refer to the picture before continued reading.

This is not your standard Japanese "Benjo" that I recall from my years on Okinawa. No squatting here. One sits.

At first glance, the potty looks fairly conventional. It’s got a seat, a bowl, a water tank and a flush handle, same as in
America. On closer inspection, the curious will notice a control bar on the reader's right side of the picture; more on that later.

When one sits, one is struck by the padded seat. This is not a significant development since padded seats have been available for decades in the good ol' US of A. But, not so fast, GI. A few moments after taking a seat; one begins to notice that the padded seat is warmed electrically to keep one's nether regions from developing a chill. The features only get better.

The next thing one will notice is that placing one's weight upon the seat engages a micro switch powering a pump causing a trickle of water to issue from under the bowl's rim. This initiates a pleasant sound reminiscent of a mountain stream- which as you can well imagine, gentle reader - is a clever design that greatly enhances the experience of using this device. There appears to be some sort of timer built into the pump circuitry as the trickling sound does not continue for as long as one remains seated, but, in fact, stops at some point during the process. (Unless of course, one concludes one's business with dispatch.)

As a side note, I must admit that I think there is some sexism in this design. A male using the device in the conventional configuration dear to all males - the seat standing at attention in the vertical position - does not derive the trickling benefit. No, only seated users will experience this pleasure. A minor design fault, I believe. Or possibly, if you subscribe to the "Black Helicopter" crowd, it is an insidious plot to feminize the male population. You, gentle reader, must decide.

Finally, I move on to the control bar on the side of this device. One function contained on the bar controls the temperature of the heated seat. But moving down from that, you will notice that there is a water pressure control. This controls the water pressure supplied to the bidet feature of the crapper. Extreme care must be utilized by the unwary user in hand placement while occupied on the throne. It is easy to push off on this control as one rises from the seat causing an unwanted and severely surprising stream of water to issue upward with deleterious effects unless one is firmly seated. I leave the mental image to you.

As near as I can tell the bidet has two modes. I have no direct knowledge - frankly, the thing frightens me and my main goal is to not arouse it from its slumber. But reading the directions, it appears that it can function in a steady and directed stream mode or in a gentler and all encompassing mist/shower function.

One final feature is contained on the
Osaka models but not on the Nagoya hotel devices. Pressing a button will cause a deodorizer/disinfectant to issue forth and a fresh piney aroma to fill the lavatory. Those clever Japanese!!

You now have my complete knowledge of these devices. I hope you find it as intriguing as I do.

I remain,


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Day Trip to the Big Apple

Esteemed Reader,

In the last post, I spoke of seeing the Twin Towers Light Memorial as we landed at Newark Liberty International. We loaded our tired carcasses in the Golden Touch Limousine that FedEx contracts with and set off for the Woodbridge Hotel and Conference Center south of Newark in Iselin, NJ.

Enroute to the hotel, the FO I am flying with – a really good guy – says these fateful words: “I heard that you can get on the train near the hotel and go to Penn Station in New York City. We oughta go have lunch there tomorrow.” It was with more than a little internal horror that I heard my voice saying: “Sure, sounds like fun.” So, Esteemed Reader, we got to the hotel around 0300 am, set our alarms for 1100 and got some rest. The hotel gave us a ride over to the Metropark station of the New Jersey Rail System and off we went to the Big Apple on an impromptu lark.

Gentle Reader, as I have reported before, I am always alert for new things to report in these travelogs. Reputable sources – people I know and trust – have reliably informed me that there are picturesque and beautiful vistas to be found in the State of New Jersey. While I can not vouchsafe that belief, I can confirm that the train from Metropark to Penn Station does not pass through any such areas. It appears to me that the train windows are heavily tinted, not to protect from the sun’s glare, but from the hideousness that is the railroad right-of-way in the vicinity of Newark, NJ. Esteemed Reader, I shall say no more and I highly recommend that you not use your imagination to fill in any details…….

We really had no goal for sight seeing in NYC – we just wanted to find a place that would sell us a nice lunch and an adult beverage. Penn Station is right underneath Madison Square Garden. Here’s yours truly posing.

Not seeing any place that excited us enough to give our patronage too, we decided to walk towards the Empire State Building (ESB) in the hopes that something would turn up.

Just underneath the ESB, we discovered Jack Dempsey’s Grill. Who can pass that up? So, we promptly entered and feasted on a fine lunch of German Sausage, sauerkraut and red cabbage. The FO actually had a Manhattan for lunch, just because he was – well – in Manhattan.

After lunch and on the spur of the moment, we decided to walk across the street and take the ESB tour. Esteemed Reader, I am sad to report that this was an error. We spent most of the tour waiting in line with bajillions of other tourists in ugly hallways and construction areas with no view outside. Once we achieved the pinnacle of the ESB’s observatory, we discovered that it was raining like – well, choose your favorite rainy cliché and insert it here - and it was windy and we spent very little time enjoying the view of midtown Manhattan from the observatory at the top of the Empire State Building.

I would not – in good conscience – recommend a tour of the Empire State Building to you, Gentle Reader. At least not until the “Under Construction For Your Viewing Pleasure!” areas are completed.

Gentle Reader, I know you can not help yourself but wonder about King Kong. Your curiosity is allayed.

Walking back from the ESB to Penn Station, I noticed this store.

Gentle Reader, I hope this does not shock you, but this store did not sell the delightful little yellow marshmallow chicks often found in Easter Baskets and microwave ovens. It would be best for us to turn our thoughts away at this juncture and give this no more attention.

At Penn Station, we discoverd that the next train was soon to leave; so we divided our efforts to great benefit. The FO went to purchase the train tickets while I went to the ubiquitous Starbucks and bought two Mocha Fraps. We returned to the lovely Iselin/Woodbridge NJ area around 5 pm that afternoon nicely caffeinated and refreshed. Esteemed Reader, while I am sure that the Big Apple has much to commend it to travelers and tourists; I found it to be an unpleasant place on a rainy and blustery day. Just thought you’d like to know in the event you need to plan a trip there.

The next morning at 0450 am, we entered another Golden Touch Limousine and were conducted to the American Airlines Terminal of the Newark Liberty Airport and from there we deadheaded to Chicago. Chicago was even rainier than the Big Apple and was also a big bust for material for one of these travelogs. I remained in my room, mostly catching up on sleep during the short layover yesterday and have nothing to report that you would care to hear.

Now I am in MD11 N613FE somewhere west of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on the way back to Anchorage and Ilona’s. Tomorrow I operate to Oakland, CA with a new FO. If anything reportable occurs you will be the first to know.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Newark on Thursday

Howdy all!

Because I am junior in the Anchorage Domicile, I have very little control over my schedule. I consider myself lucky if I get the block of time off that I ask for. Very seldom to I get to fly to places I really want to go to. Last Thursday night's flight down to Newark was a prime example.

First some pilot lingo: when we are actually flying the jet somewhere, we say we are 'operating'; when we are repositioning as a passenger on another airline we say we are 'deadheading.' So Thursday night's trip was an operate to Newark, get up Saturday morning and deadhead on American to Chicago, operate to Anchorage Sunday morning trip.

I don't much like flying in and out of Newark, I don't like where we layover in Newark and I don't like deadheading. So, I really tried to trade off of this trip. Not just a token effort, I hawked the computer looking for any other trip.

I'm glad I wasn't successful. I knew it was the evening of 911 and I knew Newark is just across the Hudson from the south side of Manhattan. I've got some fairly nice mental images from years ago of sitting in the cockpit on the ramp in Newark, looking to the east and seeing the Twin Towers all lit up. Somehow, though, I hadn't put it together in my mind as we let down into Newark just after midnight what I would see.

There has a been a thick overcast over New England for days now. It was true that night. Further there was a lot of moisture in the air under the clouds - not just drizzle - the air was very humid.

Newark Liberty International was landing to the north which puts Manhattan Island out the right front of the jet......and there before us was a striking sight from a vantage point few get to have: The Twin Towers of Light. These pictures really don't do justice to what we saw. We broke out of the clouds at about 5000' or about a mile high. The lights were hitting the bottom of the clouds and producing a huge shining halo of light that must have been a half mile in diameter. Because of all the moisture in the air below the clouds, the twin shafts of light were really accentuated. I'd never seen this before except of course in the news. It is a very striking display that brings out all the confused emotions we all feel when we are forced to remember that day.

My meager descriptive skills fail to do justice to what I saw and felt there.

Of course, none of those feelings are conducive to safely operating an airplane....so I had to fairly quickly compartmentalize what I felt and get on with business; but, I would have loved to have been able to just hang there in space several miles south of Manhattan and just look for a while.

It was a very striking sight - not just a little awe inspiring and more than a little awful.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tales from Ilona's Bed and Breakfast

Gentle Reader,

I have about two years of travelog emails that I would like to put on this blog, but I find the task somewhat daunting. There's a lot of stuff, most of it somewhat boring, all of it disorganized. What I've decided to do is to just start telling my tales from the present and go back and include previous emails if they add something to the story.

Today, I just finished two days of simulator check rides which make me a qualified pilot for another year. I don't want to talk about these check ride events - in fact, I want to forget them as quickly as possible.

What I do want to talk about is where I stay while I am here in Anchorage. I am 'domiciled' in Anchorage. FedEx now has three domiciles. The main domicile in Memphis where most of the pilots work with Boeing 727s, Boeing 757s, Airbus 300's, and MD-11s. There is a much smaller MD-11 domicile in Los Angelese, another here in Anchorage, a very small Airbus domicile in Subic Bay, Philipine Islands and soon we will open a new Airbus domicile in Hong Kong. One does not have to live in the city of one's domicile but if you don't, the commute to and from work and your living arrangements while you are there are your responsbility. Not FedEx's.

I was lucky to discover Ilona's Bed & Breakfast operation here in Anchorage. She does not have a website so no linky-link. Here's what I wrote in December '06 when I started staying here:

Ilona's Bed and Breakfast: Ilona Gnosmer and her husband, Laurenz, run an interesting operation near the airport in Anchorage. Their background is somewhat murky: it runs from Yugoslavia to Hungary to Germany. They raised a family in Germany and still have children there. They also have a kid in Alaska, which I gather is why they live in Anchorage, now. They have two houses - the "Old House" and the "New House." Each house has to six or so bedrooms and while they will take anyone in, they really cater to airline crews, mostly NW and FedEx. They run both places, just the two of them together, and will come to pick us up at the ramp, show us to the room, feed us breakfast and take us back to work. It looks like they go as hard as they can go, all day long, 7 days a week.

Ilona is as grandmotherly as you wish to mentally picture. She's "Oma." Loves to cook and wants you to eat. Great breakfasts, TVs in every room and a big screen TV in the living room. Both houses are full of kitschy knick knacks and pictures and suchlike, very comforting and homelike. There are computers in both houses and a wireless network too. They even have an extra car they'll rent for $10 a day. All this for $300 a month, so, I've solved my crash pad dilemma.

2008 Update: She will rent you a room a day at a time for $40/Day American in the winter off season and $65/Day in the summer tourist season. The Boys from UPS have discovered the deal and she's making money like gangbusters. She's always full.

Six Days later I wrote this:

A quick story: there is a "Tasty Freeze" near this place. Walked up there
the other day out of boredom. They have a sign that says: "The most northern Tasty Freeze in the world. Selling ice cream to Eskimos is not a joke, it's a business." That tickled me. It was a 20 degrees F outside, but I had milkshake anyway.

Then this email in March of '07 started what I have come to think of as the 'Hummer Debacle':

As I go about my globe spanning duties, I am ever on the alert for
interesting or absurd sights to share with you all. Last night I saw a sight that falls heavily into the absurd category. There is a nice grill about a 1/4 mile away and I went there last night about 9pm for dinner after I got settled into my room. I had a nice salad and some coconut shrimps at the grill, paid for them and left to walk home.

Next door is the famous "Tasty Freez" (TF) that I described some months back. This is the TF that brags about being the "Most Northerly Tasty Freez in the World" and the place where "Selling ice cream to Eskimos isn't at joke, it's a business plan!" They also cater heavily to the Air National Guard C-130 wing that is just around the corner. You always see "guard bums" in uniform having lunch in there. They have a sign behind the counter that claims that the Tasty Freez is the "301st Ice Cream Support Squadron (ISS)", which I think is kind of cool. By the way, gentle reader, I have not reached the absurd part of this story yet, I'm just trying to paint the foundation on the canvas for you. This TF has a personality not found in your garden variety fast food gee-dunks.

Walking towards the TF, I saw a Hummer Limousine parked in front of the TF. Gentle reader, I did not know that Hummer made limousines. Inside the TF were a group of nicely dressed teenagers getting ice cream, obviously on their way to some High School soirée. Back to the limo: it was a solid white, stretched Hummer Limousine. Actually, "stretched" does not do service to this thing. It was looooong. I swear as I looked at it, my eyes detected a slight spavined droop to the thing it was so long. I walked right by it so I decided to pace off the length of the thing. It was 12 strides from front to back, which from my golfing game, I know makes it 12 yards long or 36 feet. It had purple and white flashy lights along the running board and white strobe lights in each of the 7 side windows. "Gaudy", "ridiculous" and "extravagant" were words that came to mind. Oh, and "absurd" too.

As I walked along side of it to measure it, I swear I heard it whisper, "Hey, stop that, it's not my fault! If I'd have been one car back in the factory line, I'd be a perfectly respectable Hummer working in Afghanistan!" But this poor thing had to wind up being a gaudy joke of a vehicle, sitting in front of the only TF in Alaska, hauling teenagers around. If ever there was an indicator that America is too prosperous, this may be it.

Esteemed readers, the very next day I was veritably deluged with email explaining how out of touch I was with the modern world. First my eldest cousin:

Geoff, Geoff, Geoff,
Much as I giggle with mirth at your wonderful description of a pimped out Hummer stretch parked at the Anchorage Tastee Freeze, Son, you are revealing yourself to be a sheltered MEENA S-O-O-O TAN.
Limo-Hummers, or is it Hummer-Limos, are now de rigeur. As I recall, about 3 years ago there was dust-up in LA over an attempt to limit the length of limos to ( I think it was) 50 feet. The reason: Hummer was about the only one factory-equipped with frame and suspension to support such beast without extra re-build expense and the competition didn't like it. True to form, Angelnoes rose as one mighty chorus and smote down the Dragon of Unwanted Regulation. Californians know officious, intermeddling, liberal, nanny-state, government when they see it. [Unfortunately, most of the time they like it.] Everybody had to "arrive" in one, and arrive, and arrive, and arri-i-i-ive. Then, it became "high school." I think now the poobahs go for personalized stretched Escalades -- I kid you not, they will detail the damn things with your name or something for a mere $500 or so extra (it has got to come off really easily at that price). But I may be a limo generation behind, not having been to LA since last September.
When I was there for several weeks in 04, I personally marveled at the half-block long jet black, silver, and other Hummer standard color beauties. Then, you had to be in a non-Hummer-standard color to make your mark (think robin's egg blue, or metallic fuschia). I think local colleges out there offer degrees in limo selection, design, and marketing [no, that part is just exaggeration--as far as I know].
The center of the limo universe is LA, uh...not The Twin Cities, beautiful and liveable though they may ever be.
Yours in Wonder,

And then nail in the coffin, my wonderful, loving Mother:

Even I, your elderly, stay-at-home, cracker mother, have seen Hummer limos here in Provincial Florida. Admittedly, not parked in front of the Tasty Freeze in Anchorage, Alaska, a setting I especially appreciated! We do have some "big time" hotels and plenty of tourists around here.

Have a big time on your trip around the World and steer clear of the Asian Flu Bug.

Love you, Mother

To which I could only respond:

Gentle Readers,

My more erudite cousin and my Mother have set me straight on the growing popularity of the Hummer Limo. I forward their comments to you, and apologize for not knowing a cultural phenomenon when I saw it. You know when a fad hits Alaska that it is established.


Having established yet again that I am qualified to fly a freighter for food by successfully completing yet another rigorous course of simulators, I can begin another week of globe trotting beginning tomorrow.

I have three trips in a week in the next week and a half. One down to Newark, Chicago and back to Anchorage, then a trip to Oakland, CA and back then a short Asian trip...Narita, Hong Kong, Seoul and back. I will be ever alert for new and absurd things to share with you, my esteemed readers and loving family.

Dad / Geoff

Monday, September 1, 2008

Beijing and Shanghai after the Olympics

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones All,

I had another Asian trip after the one where I got to visit the kids in Yokota. We flew back to Narita with no time there to do anything other than eat and sleep.

The next day we flew from Narita to Beijing, offloaded the freight and then made the short hop down to Shanghai. This occurred on Monday, the day after the Olympics ended.

I have several observations.

First, Gentle Reader, China’s air pollution problem, in my humble observation and opinion, has not been abated by efforts to clear the air for the Olympic Games. Further, Chinese poor air quality is not limited merely to the greater Beijing metropolitan area. No, esteemed reader, the air is filthy from the southern border for hundreds of miles all the way to the northern border. It is accepted wisdom that America contributes over 30% of the world’s greenhouse gases while containing less than 10% of the population. (...or numbers in that ballpark….) These travelogues are about what I see with my own eyes, Gentle Reader. I have flown the length and breadth of both countries – all of China looks like what Los Angeles used to look like but does not any longer. Can you say 'smog'? Sure, I knew you could. Methinks we are being intentionally lied to about the US's contribution to ‘Global Warming’.

Second, China is a growing economic powerhouse – which may be good or may be bad. The Shanghai and Beijing airports alone are works of engineering art. They are lovely to look at and the Chinese built them in no time at all.

Now, consider, Gentle Reader that New York City is still ‘discussing’ and planning what the replacement to the Twin Towers will be. China can complete huge construction projects while we sit around arguing with ourselves over silly issues. This does not bode well for the future of the US economically.

Flying in and out Beijing's Capital Airport is always a challenging proposition. It is every bit as busy as any big US airport – in fact bigger than many. The ‘Conga Line’ waiting for takeoff is always at least 10 airplanes long and I have never gotten out of there less than 30 minutes late.

Shanghai is also a growing economic powerhouse and will be the site of Expo 2010. They are very proud of that. There are billboards and banners proclaiming this event throughout the city. They have a mascot – Haibao – based on a Chinese Kanji writing character Ren, which is the character for 'person'. Luckily, I got Haibao to pose for a picture with yours truly.

Other than meeting Haibao, this layover in Shanghai was uneventful and boring; which leads me to…..

Esteemed Reader, I have been waiting for an opportunity to share a picture and video with you. Some months back, my FO and I decided we would go ride the Maglev Train from Shanghai to the Pudong Airport and back.

There are actually two trains running on parallel tracks. As one goes out to the airport, the other goes into town and then vicey versey. You pass the other train roughly halfway out and at about the time you are up to top speed. Gentle Reader, that is a combined passing speed of over 400 mph. I made sure to sit next to the window on the passing side of the train. Wheee! If you aren’t ready for it, the passing train will cause you to soil your linen. Two very quick, loud, “WHOOM WHOOMs” and then it’s gone.

This video is my amateurish attempt to share the ride with you. It is not sped up or modified electronically in any way. I tried to turn around and scan the speedometer near the top speed.

The train has no seat belts or other restraining devices. The acceleration rate is very limp, less than what you feel in your family car. This has to be by design as a mag device has the capability to give really huge accelerations. But the speed just keeps building and building….. It is really quite exhilarating as you are only 50’ or so above the street level and you can look out the window and see how fast you are going. I’ve been much faster in a jet but never so close to the 'stuff' as it goes by so this gave the highest sensation of speed I’ve ever had.

Eight minutes from the airport to the downtown station! The same ride in a cab in Shanghai traffic takes an hour or more. I’ve heard of guys putting their luggage in the company paid cab we always get to take us to the hotel and then walking over to the Maglev and taking it downtown. They are in the hotel for 30 minutes before the bellman brings up their bags from the cab. I may try that sometime.

Hope you enjoyed this small saga,

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Monday, August 25, 2008

Reproducing past Emails

Gentle Readers,

As many of you know, I've been emailing these travelogs home for years as a way to keep my family and friends informed of where I am and what I've been doing.

I am going to try to reproduce some of the better of those old stories into this blog. They will be disconnected and rambling and not appear in any logical fashion as work my way through Outlook Express and find them.

You will notice right away that new posts go on top of earlier posts as I post them during this recreation process. I'm sorry if this is confusing, I don't know of any other way to do this. Inputs would be appreciated.

I hope you enjoy them.

Dad / Geoff

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Visit with George and Brook

Howdy all,
As you can tell, I’m trying out this new blogging opportunity from google. Please share your inputs with me whether this is a better way to do this or not.
It’s been a while since I’ve written. There are several reasons for that. First, it’s getting harder and harder to find new and interesting things to talk about. Much of what I do is the same-same every trip. Second, the company has tightened up on the amount of time I have on a layover so in some cases it came down to a choice between sleeping, eating and writing. But enough whining.
Right now am I sitting in this MD-11 cruising west over the Bering Sea at 32000’ above Mean Sea Level. We just ‘coasted out’ from the west coast of Alaska on a 7.5 hour trip down to Narita airport north of Tokyo.
This morning the departure out of Anchorage was very pretty. It was clear on the west side of Cook Inlet and you could see southwest for hundreds of miles. I got some nice pictures of the line of volcanoes that line the west coast of the inlet. They do not do justice to the scene as these monsters are truly awe inspiring to the naked eyeball. (Click the picture to see it full size.)
I just got back from a trip to the Orient yesterday and spent the night at Ilona’s Bed & Breakfast in Anchorage. The last trip was a lot of fun. I had a two day layover in Narita, which gave a nice opportunity to spend some time with George and Brook who live south of Tokyo on Yokota Air Base. I got into Narita at about noon and George drove up to get me. So we had a ‘nice’ two hour drive back down to Yokota to get caught up.
I say ‘nice’ because while Tokyo’s traffic is not close to the worst in the Mysterious Orient, it is still a big city and the road goes through the downtown area. Normally, when I get to Tokyo, it is roughly midnight on my internal clock and I take a nap. I hung in there OK until we got on base and into G&B’s house, but that was it. I crashed until dinner.
They took me to a nice Indian restaurant just off base. We had a nice meal and talked some more. Which pretty much used up my sleep reserve and we went back home and I bailed out and went to bed.
The next morning, George and I went to Yokota’s golf course and had a great time whacking the small spheroid around a very nice golf course. Neither of us is very good at the game, but that isn’t the point. We’ve spent a lot of good times together since he was a kid on golf courses together and this was no different. Land in Japan is at a premium and Yokota’s golf course is 13 miles away from the base or about a one hour drive.
Gentle reader, there are several observations I’d like to share with you. First, surface traffic in Japan is amazing. It literally takes you one hour to drive 13 miles in traffic that consists of little cars and big trucks.
Second is left hand side driving. I lived in Okinawa for several years and drove on the left side of the road so I ought to be used to it. There is an amazing mental thing that happens: it only takes about 15 minutes to get into the flow of things. But go to another country that drives on the right and you are reset to right side driving and must go through the readjustment process again. I found myself having to stifle outbursts when I was sure George was turning onto the wrong side only to realize that he – not I – knew what he was doing.
I am always fascinated by the ‘signage’ in Japan. Here are some examples.
First is this car repair sign. Is this guy attacking the car with the wrench or repairing it? Would this advertisement successfully attract your commerce?

The signs that caused George and I the most befuddlement; though, were the Happy Catfish Emergency Road signs. Make sure you click this picture to see it better.
Two questions seared our curiosity….first, why is the emergency road closed in the event of an earthquake? I’m sure there is a good reason but it seemed to us that would be the time one would want an emergency road to be open. But more important is the second question: “Why is the Happy Catfish the mascot of the emergency road system?” There are many questions that go unanswered in the Mysterious Orient – this is one of them.
Tama Hills Golf Course is another discussion. It cost us $27 American to pay the greens fee, rent a cart and a set of clubs for me. That, gentle reader, is dirt cheap, even on a goat track golf course in America. Tama Hills is a NICE golf course. It would run much more in America and the Japanese nationals that are allowed to play it on a reservation basis pay 15000 yen to play. The exchange rate is just a little over 100 yen to the dollar. Yes, gentle reader, Japanese Golfers pay around $150 American for a round of golf…..and they flock to Tama Hills because it is cheaper than the other courses around. Golf is not for the thronging masses in Mysterious Japan.
Here are some pictures I took on the course. The ranger’s Chevy cart was a photo opportunity that I could not pass up. I remember being driven around as a kid in a car that looked a lot like this cart. It was way cool. They wouldn’t rent it to us, though.

After our round of golf and the hour long return ride to Yokota, George treated me to a sushi lunch at a counter near the base frequented by the denizens of the base. Good stuff and dirt cheap. We do like our sushi. We did not ask if they had any horse…….

We spent the afternoon driving around the base with Brook. Visited the BX and tested a Sony Reader. I want one of those things. I carry – on average – two books on every trip and they get heavy. This thing is very light and can hold up to 10 books. Methinks Santa will get a letter from little Geoffer.
By now, Gentle Reader, you may have noticed that I have not included a picture of Brook. In all the hubbub and running around, I intended to get a group picture of us all, but somehow it fell through the cracks. The pictures I did get stand no chance of making it through any female's vanity filter – as I did a poor job of photographing her - and it is a simple fact that I am much too frightened of Brookean retribution to include them. I adore Brook and am more than a little chagrined to have allowed this lack of photos to have occurred
That evening we all drove back up to Narita to return my tired carcass to my hotel. There is a Teppanyaki style restaurant very near the ancient Buddhist Naritasan Temple in Narita Village called “The Café Bon” featuring the spiral staircase. Gentle reader, the spiral staircase is a big letdown. The restaurant is a small place and aircrew from all over the world frequent it. We had to wait for a contingent from Quantas to finish eating before we could sit down. As is her wont, Brook did not allow our fellow diners to remain unbefriended for long. She was a true God-given talent for meeting people that I am simply in awe of.
Then they dropped me off at the hotel and had to make the two hour drive back. You just have to love well-bred offspring. We had a great time!
The next day was a long two leg flight down to Manila and then back up to Taipei. .
The meals catered out of Narita always include the little works of art that are dessert. This one may be the prettiest one yet. However, it still tasted like someone had made a small ball out of a mixture of library paste and powdered sugar. I just know the chef was laughing: “I got that stupid gaijin to eat one again!” It’s an awful thing to put in your mouth.

After leaving Manila there was a huge thunderstorm that had popped up to well over 45000’ over the town of Laoag in the far NW corner of Luzon, the biggest island in the Philipines. The sun was shining out on the South China Sea on the other side of the storm. It was very pretty, provided you remained well away from this monster. Flight into that baby would be a one time event.
I did not leave the hotel in Taipei and slept a lot as I had a lot of sleep debt built up by then. However, Gentle Reader, I’d like to share with you a small scene I observed in the hotel. This is yet another of those stories that may not be appropriate for young eyes so those of you sharing this with your offspring may want to read ahead in order to do some parenting. There will be a vulgarity that is integral to the story.
The Taipei Sheraton is very nice . Marble fountains, lobby art, well dressed guests in serious business attire are in abundance. No riff-raff welcome, thank you very much. Gentle reader, frequently in the Mysterious Orient you will find people wearing T-shirts with English language logos of dubious meaning. One gets the impression that the wearer thinks it is cool but they often don’t realize that English is a subtle language full of double entendre. I have seen one that said: “Milk Soda”. I’m still curious where “Pocari Sweat” came from.
I saw one that has to be an all-time Oscar winner in the "Best English Language on an Oriental T-Shirt" category. A youngish Taiwanese man got off the elevator. Unlike most others, he was dressed in ragged blue jeans, sandals and a wife-beater t-shirt with large, loose, baggy arm holes. He had a goatee and a longish ponytail; earrings completed his ensemble. Gentle reader this is your last chance to edit this for your children.
The logo on his chest, enveloped in a laurel wreath said simply: “World’s Greatest Fuck Buddy”.
I rue that my camera was up in my room as I am sure he would have posed for a picture. I can go to my rest now knowing that I have truly seen everything there is to see.
The next morning, I had a very nice breakfast in the hotel buffet. The buffet offers many Western and Oriental delights and is one of the best that I know of. Pastries, fruit, omelets, juice, sticky rice, pot stickers, you name it, they have it. I bring this up because I was more than a little surprised to see that one on the more popular items being taken back to tables for consumption was “Creamed Beef on Toast.” Yes, Gentle Reader, all these gourmands were eating SOS - that’s the Mysterious Orient for you.
The trip back to Anchorage was uneventful and undercast the whole way back. I was disappointed as we flew right over Shemya. I could not see the island and I've always wanted to.
And with that observation, I remain,