Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More Memes

"Fashion is nothing more than an induced epidemic."

Oscar Wilde

Esteemed Reader,

Several weeks ago, I promised to discuss another ‘Meme’ that bugs me: “We sat on the runway for hours.” I have two theses to cover here: first, how the government led to this meme’s growth and second, why you have never, ever ‘sat on the runway.’

Sometime in the ‘90s, our wonderful government decided that the poor performance of the airlines had to stop and therefore they would track the on-time performance of all the people carriers and publish the data, giving you - the airline consumer - the information you need to make informed decisions. As is usual, your fine government experts ‘screwed the pooch.’ “We’re from the Government and we are here to help you!”

To document this I give you this linky-link. From that fine document, I quote this paragraph:

"A flight is counted as "on time" if it operated less than 15 minutes after the scheduled time shown in the carriers' Computerized Reservations Systems (CRS). All tables in this report except Table 4 are based on gate arrival times."

When you climb on an airplane to go somewhere, I would submit that – while moderately important – the actual departure time of the jet is not your foremost concern. What you really desire is that the airline delivers you where you are going on time. Some gummitup bureaucrat decided that if the airplane pushes on time, it will arrive on time and gave the airlines a loophole big enough to drive a 747 through. With the definition above, they can push back on time, get credit for an on-time push, and then leave you sitting for hours.

At risk of turning this blog into a political one, Esteemed Reader, you should reflect on the implications of this story as applied to National Health Care.

Moving on.....

No matter what you might think, you have never ‘sat on the runway for hours.’ The runway is a very special stretch of concrete specifically dedicated for take-offs and landings. Any pilot who parked the jet on a runway for hours would be professionally brain-dead, totally unsafe and guilty of criminal negligence. ‘Sitting on the runway for hours’ is just plain dangerous. Sooner, rather than later, there would be a loud explosion that you may or may not hear…..

Airplanes do not sit on the runway for hours. I am not saying that you have not been the captive of the airline - stuck in an aluminum tube for hours – I have too. You just didn’t do it on the runway.

So where were you? When you stand there in the terminal, gazing out over the airport proper, you are looking at three distinct categories of concrete on what is amateurishly called the ‘tarmac.’ (No professional aviator ever allows the word ‘tarmac’ to pass their lips.)

The categories are: runways, taxiways and the ramp.

Let’s take the ramp first. The ramp is where the airplanes get parked. Don’t ask me why it is called the ramp – I don’t know why - it just is. (Why do sailors call ropes, sheets and potties, heads?) The ramp is connected to the runways by the taxiways. It is just this simple: airplanes are parked on the ramp, taxi on the taxiways and takeoff on the runway.

So, next time the miserable waiting game happens to you, impress your friends and acquaintances and say: “We sat on the ramp for hours!”

I remain,


Sunday, February 22, 2009


Howdy, Esteemed Readers,

Yesterday, in Osaka, Japan, I had an interesting cultural experience.

is not a tiny island, but it is heavily populated and very mountainous. The population is concentrated on the coastal plains and the teeming millions of Japanese live ‘cheek by jowl’ if you will excuse my southernism. They don’t get to have a lot of actual privacy, so they tend to give each other a sort of mental privacy. They have a social contract – Osekkai - to politely ignore one another and they tend to live in their own little worlds when out in public. This value is taught from an early age. I have heard stories of young children asking their parents – like any growing kid would – ‘Mom, what is that funny man doing?” and being answered: “That is not something we pay attention to.”

This is one of the things that is very off-putting to westerners who grew up socialized in another culture and is often mistaken for haughtiness.

In Osaka, we stay at a very nice hotel; the Swissotel Nankai. Yesterday, my copilot and I met for an early lunch. On the way back to the room, we noticed that the huge lobby area was being set up for a wedding. It looked pretty much like a standard Western Wedding but with a Japanese twist. There was the standard altar and wedding decorations. There were rows of your standard hotel chairs, but they had been covered with blinding white cloth seat covers which are very Japanese. Again, this is in the middle of the hotel lobby area. The reception desk, entryway, bar and café are all in relatively close proximity to this central wedding area. I have no pictures to show you of this and I think when you finish this tale, you will see why.

Not thinking much more about it, I went upstairs to pack and get ready to leave for the next leg of this trip. When I came downstairs to check-out of the hotel the wedding was in process. It was obviously a Christian wedding as the preacher was using the same stentorian tones and cadences that you would hear in any US Church. As I took my place in line to check out it began to dawn on me that all around the wedding the other hotel guests were showing .....

Osekkai! Mind your own business!

The wedding party was ignoring them and they were ignoring the wedding – everything was in its little Japanese privacy box.

It occurred to me that no American Girl would put up with having her wedding in such a public and crowded venue. I took my place in line for the check-out counter. As my turn came, the preacher began to pray the benediction over the couple soon to be united in Holy Matrimony. Suddenly, my acculturation and values are overwhelming me. There is a little voice in my head screaming: “Hey! All you guys shut up! It’s a wedding! The preacher is praying! Show a little respect!'

Raised in the Southern Baptist Church, if I hear a prayer, even in Japanese, my habits and cultural norms kick in and I turned to the preacher and started to bow my head. The nice check out clerk was having nothing to do with that. “Sir, you are next. Please step up to the counter.” We were going to settle my bill right now. Ignore that service over there, Gaijin - it has nothing to do with us.

I was torn between two value systems and quite distracted. It just didn’t seem right to be talking and signing a bill during a wedding benediction. My body kept wanting to automatically turn and bow my head devoutly. I was very physically disoriented.

As I signed my bill, the preacher pronounced them Man and Wife, the applause started and I walked to the cab and got in.

Just thought I’d share this observation from the Mysterious Orient.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Saturday, February 7, 2009


Eagles may soar, but weasles aren't sucked into jets.

Gentle Readers,

There are many “Memes” in the English language that are bone-crushingly ignorant and cause your humble correspondent to worry for the long term health and survival of the Republic. These memes often drive me more than a little buggy, but since I have never wanted this blog to be of the political variety, I choose not to discuss the popular phrase “Economic Stimulus Package”.

No, instead I wish to continue with the aviation theme I have established here and to discuss the phrase: “the birds got sucked into the engines!” The reporting of what I am coming to call the ‘Hudson Glider’ has caused me to attempt to use my humble blog to attempt to set the record straight.

The physics involved in the impact of one of our avian cousins upon the intake of a modern day jet are highly complicated and – I think – fascinating. If you stick with me through this discussion, I hope you will agree.

First, let’s discuss the design and layout of a ‘gas turbine engine’. As you can see from the link, a turbofan jet engine has 5 sections: the inlet, compressor, combustion, turbine and exhaust nozzle section.

( ‘Suck, Squeeze, Burn, Blow and Go’ as Air Force student pilots are encourage to memorize…..)

The important section for our discussion is the inlet and compressor section where the air is sucked in and squeezed down to be efficiently combusted. These are the sections that bear the brunt of an avian impact.

The compressor section is a massive construct of whirling metal blades spinning at an awe-inspiring rotation rate. For comparison, you only infrequently exceed 5000 revolutions per minute (RPM) on your car’s engine. If you have an electric fan blowing a refreshing breeze around your home, I doubt seriously it ever exceeds 2000 RPM. Now compare this to a jet engine operating up in the range of 20,000 RPM.

Back to your car, please consider your tires. Your tires are spinning nowhere near the rate at which a jet engines spins but if you do not have your tires carefully balanced, they will vibrate your car in annoying and often unsafe ways. The compressor section of a jet engine is hundreds of times more massive than your tires and spinning at a much faster rate. If the compressor is not perfectly balanced it will vibrate excessively and dangerously.

Let’s consider for a moment what would happen if one of these compressor blades were to come loose - bad things happen quickly. The blade initially flies outward and backward due to centrifugal forces and the airflow. If it is ‘contained’ inside the engine it probably knocks loose more compressor blades aft of it which knock loose more blades and you have a runaway chain reaction that in a blink of the eye ‘shells out’ the engine. Some of the blades not knocked loose come loose anyway because of the awe-inspiring out-of-balance vibrations. Pieces of hot smoking metal exit the aft of the engine and you no longer have a jet engine producing thrust but a mere smoking hulk of metal hanging below the wing.

(Let’s not discuss what happens if the blade is not contained and some shrapnel escapes and flies outward from the engine….)

Put that notion at the back of your mind now and let’s turn to the physics of impacts.

What we wish to discuss is ‘inelastic’ impact physics where the total mass and energy of the flying object is totally absorbed by the body impacted. It will be instructive to turn our attention to artillery, specifically the cannon balls of the sailing ship era. A common cannon ball size was the ten pounder which is roughly the same weight as a Canadian Goose.

Consider what would happen if you fired one of these cannon balls at a jet airliner.

(An empty jet, of course. No imaginary passengers were harmed during this thought experiment.)

The cannon ball leaves the muzzle of the cannon at a subsonic speed. I have not researched the exact speed but I assume it is in the range of 300 to 600 mph. The ball would probably penetrate the thin aluminum skin of the aircraft then travel through the fuselage and exit the other side, its speed not much diminished. Very little of the kinetic energy of the ball would be transferred to the aircraft. Now consider if the ball were designed to shatter upon impact causing the ball to remain contained in the jet and to ricochet around the interior. All of the kinetic energy of the cannon ball would be transferred into destructive work on the interior of the jet.

A bird’s fragile body is much like this effect. When the bird impacts upon the jet engine, all of the kinetic energy is totally transferred into destructive work upon the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of the engine.

Next, let’s consider a Canadian Goose, flying along at the leisurely speed of 20 mph or so. If one of these things were to hit you it would be much like being hit by a ten pound bean bag thrown by your 10 year old niece. Not much damage would occur.

The destructive kinetic energy of a bird / airplane impact comes from the speed of the airplane. It is much more accurate to say the airplane hits the bird. At the point our Heroes of the Hudson hit their birds they were up in the vicinity of 250-300 mph – the maximum speed we are allowed to fly below 10,000 feet altitude. This is low order cannon ball speed.

Back to my thesis statement as I began this discussion: there was very little ‘sucking’ going on during these impacts. The only sucking that occurred was after the bird entered the intake of the jet - which is less than 5’ long. The bird traveled this last leg of his final journey in a split second and impacted the compressor blades. If the birds hand been 10 feet away in any direction, they would have hit the airplane somewhere other than the engines - or missed completely. The engines most emphatically do not reach out and suck things into them while you are in the air.

(On the ground is a different kettle of cliches....Jets will most definitely suck things up on the ground.)

No, what really happened was that fate fired a cannon ball at their engines. At this point, the bird was basically a 300 mile per hour frangible cannon ball and the runaway chain reaction damage I described above occurred.

The rest of the story we already know.

At some later date, esteemed readers, we will turn our attention to the meme: “We sat on the runway for hours!”.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Mystery

Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of
was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. FDR

Esteemed Reader,

This is a travelog wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. There are several strands in the saga and I will essay to use my meager skills to wrap them together into a skein of a story. I present them roughly in the chronological order that they occurred to me.

The first strand starts with yours truly in 1979. I am a 1Lt in the USAF and on vacation in Honolulu. It is Dec 7th and we decided that it would be a good day to see the Arizona Memorial. Since I had my AF uniform with me, I chose to wear it in respect for the occasion. The brain cells that contain this memory are now 30 years old, but I remember feeling properly somber as I walked through the memorial. You can look down into the water and see the tendrils of oil that still seep up to the surface. Through the oil and water you can see the outline of the ship; especially the round mounts that used to contain the huge guns.

Towards the end of my time on the memorial I stopped to look at the marble wall that contains over a thousand names of the dead. The names of the Marine Contingent are etched over in the bottom right hand corner of the wall. I was – quite literally – shocked to discover the name PFC GH Whisler on the list. I remember getting goose bumps and chills.

Here is the next strand in the story. It is accepted wisdom in my family that the two branches of the family tree containing the Whistler’s and the Whisler’s were once all one happy family sharing the missing ‘t’. Somewhere in American History, an Nth Great Grandfather had a falling out with a Granduncle, heated words were exchanged and the ‘t’ was dropped from our branch of the family tree. Now we are Whislers – no ‘t’.

So, seeing a G Whisler as one of the dead on the Arizona has always fascinated me with a morbid sense of pride. But, before last December, I’ve never really bothered to try to learn more about this and our saga remains fallow for almost 30 years.

Now for another strand in the story: My son, George, is a captain in the AF and visited Hawaii on vacation this last December. Like me, he made a trip to the Arizona Memorial and noted the chilling name etched in the marble. I don't know that I had ever told him about it. When he got back from his vacation he emailed me a copy of the picture he took which I insert here.

This triggered a flurry of research on my part attempting to discover more information about PFC Whisler. I fired up Google and got many hits. I found this link which gave me his full name and reinforced his rank as Private First Class.Then I found this link which contains several puzzling facts.

First, PFC Whisler was born in 1911, which makes him a 30 year old Private First Class at his death in 1941. I engaged in some deductive logic as I tried to build an image of PFC Whisler. In today’s military, a 30 year old Marine PFC either just recently enlisted and is progressing in rank at a normal pace or he enlisted as a young man and is incapable of holding and maintaining rank. But, in the pre-WWII military, promotions were slow and based on the retirement of those senior to you. Further, soldiers and Marines were allowed to stay in the military well past middle age – it could take literally decades to make rank as you waited for those above you to age and retire. This aging military was poorly prepared to fight WWII and the present day “Up or Out” Policy of the US Military is a direct result of that demographic. I remain curious of about when PFC Whisler enlisted in the Marines and exactly what being a 30 year old PFC means.

The next curious fact in this latest link is that PFC Whisler rests in a grave plot in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. (NMCotP) But the Arizona Memorial specifically states that the vast preponderance of the dead are entombed in the ship. At this point in our saga, I did not know what to make of this new fact. I did note that the NMCotP was established in 1949 and I surmised that the Arizona’s dead were given the individual respect of a memorial in that cemetery even though their remains were entombed on the Arizona.

At this point, I have two mysteries worrying me. First, when did PFC Whisler enlist? Second – and more morbidly grisly - where are his mortal remains? ….and in all honesty, I wonder if he and I are related in some more direct way than merely sharing a name that thousands of us share. Not soon after all this, I get my schedule for Jan 2009 and learn that I will have a trip to Honolulu that entails a 24 hour layover.

At this point, I must introduce a new strand to our story. I spend a significant portion of my life in a hotel room in a far-away lands bored out of my skull. I have always been intrigued with the game of poker but fearful of the loss of money that lack of skill would entail. Several years ago, I found a computer program called “Poker Academy” (PA) that was heralded as a having the best and most challenging artificial intelligence engines written. So, I bought the program and whiled away some hours learning the game against the ‘bots’. Then I discovered that PA had an online game where you could play for fake money against real humans and that intrigued me. I discovered that the online players of PA had two things going for them. 1) They play poker very well given that real money is not involved and 2) they have a very friendly chat atmosphere.

So, I’ve made some ‘online friends’ over the last several years. One – Bricks - happens to live in Honolulu. I mentioned in passing that I was going to Honolulu and suddenly found myself offered a tour of the island. One of the tours Bricks enjoys giving is a drive up Tantalus Drive to a place that overlooks Pearl Harbor, Waikiki, Diamond Head and Honolulu proper. On the way down we would get to look at the NMCotP which sits in the ‘Punchbowl’ – an extinct volcanic crater. I hoped to get a deeper insight into PFC Whisler.

Bricks is a newspaper journalist and has access to genealogical information. Before the trip to the Punchbowl – as I learned the locals call the NMCotP – Bricks did some genealogical research about PFC Whisler. I learned that in the 1930 Census, he was 18 and still living at home in Cleveland, Iowa. Cleveland is evidently a very small farm community near the town of Bloomfield, just above the Iowa/Missouri state line.

His father – James T Whisler was 53 and died in 1948. (Before PFC Whisler’s gravesite was established in the Punchbowl). His mother – Edith F Whisler was 43 and lived until 1977. Her name at death was Edith Francis Cox, so I assume she re-married. His brother – John T Whisler was 20. I assume the brothers were still living at home since the census placed them there. The census also said Ellen Shields who was 75 lived in the family. I assume she was the maternal grandmother.

The Punchbowl is a lovely if somber place. I took many pictures.

We located PFC Whisler’s grave fairly quickly.

As we turned away from the gravesite to look at the rest of the punchbowl something fairly mystical happened. At this point in my research of this riddle, I knew that PFC Whisler’s father died before this gravesite was established so he never had a chance to see it. I know that PFC Whisler’s family hails from a very small town in Iowa and were probably depression era poor. I am deducing that there is a very large probability that I am one of the few if not the first Whisler ever to visit this grave.

As I look up, one of the frequent light airy rainstorms that Hawaiian’s call ‘Liquid Sunsine” hits us.

We are not getting significantly wet and the sprinkles are not unpleasant to stand in. More importantly, the liquid sunshine is producing the most beautiful full rainbow I have seen in a long time. I got goose bumps and chills again.

Still, I am wondering if PFC Whisler’s mortal remains are in the grave or is it a memorial duplicating the Arizona Memorial? I got my answer quickly. Up the hill from PFC Whisler’s grave site is the “Honolulu Memorial” which is a huge edifice of many white marble walls that contain the names of the Missing in Action in Pacific Operations.

There is a marker that says quite specifically that if the military had recovered remains they were buried out in the punchbowl – even if the identity of the remains where unknown. As one walks through the punchbowl, one notices headstones marked simply “Unknown”.

The Missing in Action are memorialized on the walls of the Honolulu Memorial. So that clears up that mystery. PFC Whisler’s remains were recovered from the Arizona and given burial in the Punchbowl. The new mystery is this: the vast majority of the Arizona dead remain entombed. How did PFC Whisler’s come to be recovered?

As an aside to this story – I also visited the final resting spot of Ernie Pyle.

As this saga is getting long, I won’t detail his story; except this: my first assignment in the Air Force was on Okinawa and Ernie was killed on a small island offshore from Okinawa named Ie Shima. We used to go SCUBA diving on Ie Shima and you passed the spot where Ernie was killed on the way to the dive site. There is a small memorial to him there. I had to complete the circle on this one and find his grave in the Punchbowl.

Back to PFC Whisler – there are not many stories of heroism that came out of the Arizona. Not, I imagine because there weren’t any acts of heroism but because so few survived to relate them. At this point, rebuilding the story gets somewhat gruesome and I choose not to detail it except this: the few remains that were recovered from the Arizona seem to fall into two categories: those who made it to shore and then died of their injuries and the few that were discovered as the Navy started to salvage the ship. They quickly decided that salvage was a waste of time and the memorial was established. I choose to believe that PFC Whisler was in the party that attempted to rally and defend the ship under the leadership of Lt Simonson.

At this point, I leave my enigma to you and remain,

Dad / Geoff