ICAS Convention 2014 – Arrival

ICAS Open Panorama

It’s another December and that means another ICAS convention!  I’m at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino here in Las Vegas along with just about everyone who’s anyone in the airshow business in North America.

It’s a busy convention for me this year.  In a couple of hours, I go downstairs to see Gene Kranz, Apollo program flight director and the author of The Kranz Doctrine, which is the subject of a popular Airspeed episode from 2009.  Yes, I’m having my copy of Failure is Not an Option.  After that, it’s a day of floor sessions and breakout sessions.  I’m hitting the Blue Angels Forum and the sponsorship session.  Then, this evening, I’m taking a side track to see Penn & Teller here at the hotel.  I’ve been a fan of Penn Jillette for a long time and I have front row seats to see him llive.

Tomorrow (flight suit day!) I’m attending Air Boss 201 to add some color to the Air Boss episode of Airspeed.  It’s be nice to get some training so that I can find out what I did wrong bossing my first demos this past June.  After that, it’s more floor sessions and then I bust out to the airport for a red-eye Delta flight back to the D.

Throughout all of this, I’m taking calls and making sure that the desk I’m supposed to be flying back in the D stays aloft.  It exhibits reasonable spiral stability, but does require occasional corrections and the autopilot is notoriously unreliable.

There likely won’t be an episode from here at the hotel this year.  I have three episodes for which I’m collecting material.  Producing an on-site episodes can take as much as three or four hours and I think that that’s time better spent downstairs gathering the material and making the contacts that will inspire episodes that I’m not even thinking about right now.

Off to breakfast with the men and women who make airshows happen!

How Adam Rogers and WIRED Utterly Fail to Understand Commercial Space Ops

Wired Apollo 1 Windtee

Late last week,  I saw a post on WIRED’s website by Adam Rogers called Space Tourism Isn’t Worth Dying For.  In 12 insipid paragraphs, Mr. Rogers delivered a tortured hash that boils down to: “Don’t hate me bro. I loved Apollo and the shuttle program, but now it’s all about dilettantes with money going up for thrills.”

Shortly thereafter, I suggested on Facebook that, if somebody would mock up a WIRED cover or logo, I’d write a parody to the effect of WIRED Responds to the Apollo 1 Fire. Two talented friends mocked up covers and posted them in comments. Bryan Rivera of Windtee Aviation Art was first to post and his cover leads this post.  Thomas Freundl also posted an excellent cover that’s featured below.

But, much as I tried to make good on my promise, I had reservations about the Apollo 1 parody.  It’s not that I couldn’t do it.  I know my NASA history as well as any aerospace geek and could come up with an almost exactly parallel parody article.  But I realized that to do so would be to talk past Rogers when what’s needed is a direct response. So here it is.

Rogers claims to be a fan of space exploration.  He says that he likes spaceships. He’s been to the Cape and to Mojave.  And this and other hedging qualifies him to “call bullshit” if anyone speaks of the SpaceShipOne accident in terms of giant leaps and boldly going where no one has gone before.

I write to call bullshit on Rogers.

Rogers says, “Do human beings have a drive to push past horizons, over mountains, into the unknown? Manifestly. But we always balance that drive and desire with its potential outcomes.  We go when there’s something there.”  In this insipid word salad, Rogers proves that he has no idea what drives those who dream about space travel.

There’s something there, alright: It’s the there, stupid.

Even if it’s a suborbital trajectory, it’s space.  It’s the chance to see the curvature of the planet that has been the origin of every human song, play, book, thought, hope, and dream. It’s the chance to be up there and experience the Overview Effect attested to by Ed Mitchell, Chris Hadfield, and Mike Massimino, among others.  In fact, I’d be willing to chip in to fund a sub-orbital (or better) flight for every incoming leader of a nuclear-capable county if we could make it mandatory before taking the oath of office.

Wired Apollo 1

Not every Virgin Galactic slot-holder is an explorer. To be sure, some almost certainly have more money than brains and are just in line for the thrill.  But I’d venture to guess that the vast majority of slot-holders are those genuinely moved by the prospect of being in space, even for a few moments.

Additionally, a functioning regular sub-orbital service is a valuable step in preserving and building space capability.  NASA, for all practical purposes, finished up its manned suborbital program with only two such flights in 1961.  After that, it was all about orbit and beyond though the remaining four Mercury flights and all of Gemini, and Apollo. You have to be good at different things to regularly fly people in sub-orbital profiles. Virgin and others are filling in some of the blanks that have been there for 50 years.  And they’re building physical and intellectual infrastructure that will further commercial spaceflight beyond sub-orbital levels in the near future.

Rogers simply doesn’t understand that aviation and aerospace technology is rarely single-purpose or merely horizontally integrated.  We’ll learn things doing sub-orbital flights that apply to every aspect of space flight. In fact, some elements of commercial sub-orbital flights are more likely than other kinds spaceflight to help develop some elements of vital aerospace technology and practice.  Look at the higher operational tempo. Look at the requirements for efficiency and reusability in launch and recovery. Look at the crew training, preparation, and performance elements. These and other operational considerations will force innovation that we wouldn’t otherwise see.  For Pete’s sake, the very existence of White Knight/SpaceShipOne and White Knight Two/SpaceShipTwo in the first place is demonstration enough.

Is Rogers’ problem with the private-sector nature of Virgin Galactic’s operations? Look, it’s pretty obvious that there’s little present public support for government-backed manned space exploration, at least in the US.  Commercial spaceflight is our best bet for preserving our space exploration chops and moving them forward.  It’s also a place where the know-how of space veterans is preserved and where it’s passed on to the next generation. Like it or not, this an essential funding model for the next step in space exploration.

Is Rogers’ problem the lucre that it takes to get humans into space?  Surely it’s not the money itself.  The Apollo program cost $100 billion over 10 years and of the Space Transportation System (the “space shuttle”) cost $200 billion over 40 years and that’s apparently okay with Rogers. Must money be spent by a government in order to make it noble or worth risking life over?  How is it less noble when the money comes from those who have it and are moved to invest it? Might private money be even more noble?

Private space operations are the way of the world for the next Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.  It’s not what I expected growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, but it’s what we have and, in many ways, it’s even more exciting. I’d be just as happy to go into space with Delos D. Harriman or Richard Branson as with Neil Armstrong or Dave Scott. To be sure, it is no less noble and perhaps it is even more so.  The motivation remains as pure as it ever has been at any other time or place. We have not stopped dreaming. We’re going back to space. Sub-orbital now.  Low-Earth orbit next.  Then outward.  Ever outward.

But Rogers goes even further. He says right up front that test pilots take risks and die “in the service of millionaire boondoggle thrill rides.” He most likely says this because he has zero idea about what motivates these people.

There’s a very special breed of men and women who live for aviation and aerospace and sharing that love with others. While test pilots are such men and women, I don’t know any test pilots.  But I do know airshow performers, and they’re cut from the same cloth.  These people don’t do it for the fame.  The average American can’t name a single Thunderbird or Blue Angel, much less come up with the names of Greg Koontz, Mike Goulian, Patty Wagstaff, or Rob Holland.  Airshow performers generally don’t do it for the money. It is said that one can make a small fortune in the airshow business – if one starts with a large fortune. These are words that are more true than any airshow performer likes to admit.

They do it because they love to fly.  They love to operate in the less-occupied reaches of the envelope with engineering, skill, and determination.  They love to fly at airshows and they know that some of the kids who see them fly will walk off the field each weekend with new purpose to their lives.

I don’t speak idly here. I’ve done it myself. Not often or particularly thrillingly, but I’ve stuck my head into that rarefied box air in front of 20,000 people on several occasions.  I’ll breathe that air again any time they let me and I’ll spend the hundreds of hours in training and preparation to be worthy of that trust and honor.

Almost every year, one or more of those people die in the pursuit of that love. It’s never easy when that happens. We all know exactly what risks are involved. We prepare as best we can for the risks and then we execute with clear purpose and a safety culture that is second to none. Have you ever tried to live up to a standard like that?  Perfection is expected, but mere excellence is tolerated. We feel awful when one of our fellows dies or is injured. But we understand the drive and we all believe that what we do is worth the risks that we assume with open eyes.

Pilots – or at least the pilots that I know and model – don’t operate in the service of millionaire boondoggle anything. They serve the highest aspirations of our species.

Rogers is wrong on every count.  He doesn’t understand why we dream about space.  He thinks that government is the only proper mechanism to fund space travel. He doesn’t understand how technology is preserved and enhanced. And he sure as heck doesn’t understand pilots.

So, finally, I speak for thousands, if not millions, of my fellow dreamers when I say this: I’ll gladly train up, suit up, and strap into the very next available space vehicle. And, if it helps, I’m a commercial pilot with about 600 hours in my logbook; a little bit of it in jets and a lot of it in gliders. My resume and logbook are available to anyone at Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, or any others who are interested. For that matter, SpaceX already has my resume.

In any case, so say all of us: Bullshit, Mr. Rogers.

 

ICAS 2013 Opening Reception

Panorama Reception

The 2013 International Council of Air Shows (“ICAS”) Convention kicks off this morning after the reception last night here at Paris Las Vegas.

Although the US jet teams are back for the 2014 season, both Air Force and Navy TAC Demo support will be substantially reduced or nonexistent in the coming season, depending on the platform that interests you. I’m still working on getting a sense of the pulse of the industry and what reduced military support is going to mean for airsows in the long term if it continues. This morning is the first exhibit hall session and the first chance to really walk around and get a sense of everyone’s feelings about the upcoming season and the longer-term prospects.

Waco 01

The highlight of the reception was John Klatt’s unveiling of the Screamin’ Sasquatch, a 1929 Taperwing Waco. It has a Pratt & Whitney 985 radial engine on the nose, but the real kicker is the CJ610 (J-85) jet engine mounted on the underside. Jimmy Franklin first flew a jet Waco in 1999. The unveiling here at ICAS featured the Jack Links Sasquatch himself posing for pictures.

Perhaps the most important element of the Sasquatch announcement is the fact that Klatt managed to land the sponsorship deal that enabled the ‘Squatch. Sponsorship is critical to many airshow acts, and putting together a jet Waco isn’t something that one can do on appearance fees alone.

Waco 02

Klatt is a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, having flown F-16s and C-130s. Through last season, he had flown an MXS in Air Guard livery and he participated heavily in recruiting efforts at each air show that he flew.

Klatt’s migration to the new aircraft and a private-sector sponsor might be a harbinger of things to come in the industry as military support is reduced or isn’t as reliable in light of ongoing budget issues and economic conditions. Time will tell, of course. But, in the meantime, it’s a real coup that Klatt has landed what is clearly a major deal that will bring a unique aircraft to the skies of many airshows and get Jack Links and its “wild side” message exposure to airshow and other fans.

Major sponsorships like this aren’t an option for every performer.  Or even most performers.  But  Klatt showed us that he could do it and the aircraft is gorgeous.  There’s a sponsorship breakout session at the convention and I’m planning to attend it.

Sponsorship is by no means the largest moving part in the industry and it’s by no means a new thing.  But Klatt’s deal is a ray of light and I’ll be following this and other developments.

 

Inside Airshows – Part 1: Running Away to Join the Circus – Audio Episode Show Notes

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These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen to the show audio by clicking here:  http://traffic.libsyn.com/airspeed/AirspeedCircusWithPreRoll.mp3.  Better yet, subscribe to Airspeed through iTunes or your other favorite podcatcher. It’s all free!

There are three things you need to know about yourself.  Who you are, what you want to be, and, if there’s a difference between the two, what you’re going to do about that difference every day for the rest of your life.

Sometimes, the act of answering those questions creates a change that alters who you are in profound ways.  I answered those questions in 1998 after I watched the Tom-Hanks-produced HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.  Being honest, the answers were (1) law student and soon-to-be-lawyer, (2) astronaut, and (3) – well, what?

Shortly after passing the bar and beginning law practice, I decided to look into flight training.  Even knowing that becoming an astronaut was a non-starter, being the pilot in command of an aircraft was a pretty good step in that direction and it gave me most of what I needed in the way of inspiration.

It wasn’t long after becoming a pilot and beginning to add additional ratings and endorsements that I began to regularly go to airshows.  The desire to get close to airshows largely spawned the podcast to which you’re now listening, still active more than seven years and 200 episodes later.

I’ve been in the photo pit and on the ramp and actually inside the airshow box during shows for years.  I remain thankful to Roger Bishop, Patti Mitchell, Brett Bailey, and others at airshows from Battle Creek to Indy and otherwise for truly wonderful access.

But the perspective that I had, and that I conveyed, was that of a fan.  There’s nothing wrong with being a fan.  But I wanted to go deeper.  I wanted to know what it was like to be a part of the show.  To get so close to the performers, the crews, the air boss, the announcer, and the others who actually put on a show that I could tell a real story from that perspective. [Read more...]

Making it Real

River Days Break

Since going for a fateful haircut in Detroit last March, I have amassed something like 112 hours in the TG-7A, about 70 hours of that in formation.  I’ve flown three airshow demos as the sole pilot of one of a team of two or four aircraft.  I’ve flown as observer in one show.

It’s not routine.  It’s never going to be truly routine.  But, having flown demos of one kind or another in practice or for airshow crowds, I have a level of comfort with a great deal of the process.  I’m a little more relaxed.  I can widen my focus a little because I have most of the core stuff under control.  I’m one of four or five guys who do this so regularly that we’re beginning to anticipate each other’s moves.

But that’s an insular community.  Very few of my other friends have any idea what goes into the planning, briefing, flying, and debriefing every flight.  They’ve never been around to see it.  And there’s always that sense that if I fly a demo in the forest and the wider community of my friends isn’t around to see it, it made no noise.  (Horrible mixing of metaphors, I know.)

But then Lindsay Shipps showed up in town.  Her parents live in Ann Arbor and it turned out that she could get to KDET early enough on Saturday to get up for an orientation flight in the mighty Terrazzo Falcon.  The team was flying demos over the Detroit riverfront for the River Days celebration.  I had flown 2 on Friday and was slated to fly the same position both Saturday and Sunday.  I scheduled the bird so that I could fly Lindsay prior the show time to fly the demo.

Lindsay showed up and we preflighted and launched.  She flew a good chunk of the ride out to Belle Isle, up the coast along the Pointes, then back down around to Belle Isle.  The TG-7A doesn’t do much that’s dramatic, but it will fly a mildly satisfying parabola.  Push for about 110 mph, pull up and set the nose high, then push over the top to achieve zero G for about two seconds.  If you’re not used to maneuvers like that, it feels really strange.  And it’s cool even if you’re an acro pilot.

Shipps Laugh

I’ll hand it to Lindsay.  She was not entirely comfortable with the ride, but agreed to the parabola and ended up loving it.  And the next one, too.

Shipps 180 front

And, perhaps more dramatic, Lindsay let me demonstrate a 180 abort back to the runway.  I hadn’t performed one for a while, so I simply did it from 400 feet instead of 350, pushed for 85 mph instead of 80 mph, and did the initial climb from a touch-and-go instead of a dead stop, the better to climb higher sooner.  It’s still dramatic-looking if you’ve never seen one and you don’t get extra credit for doing stuff any lower or slower with a first-timer aboard.  To paraphrase Ralph Royce, they’re amazed that you can return to the runway at all.  Doing it from 50 feet lower isn’t going to impress ‘em  any more.

River Days Brief 01

We landed, did the paperwork, gassed up the aircraft, and greeted the rest of the team as they arrived.  Linsday stayed around and shot pictures of the brief.

Then it was time to step.  I have to confess that I felt like I was abruptly abandoning my guest, but she’s pretty comfortable on any airport ramp and I’m sure that she understood that I had to go fly the demo.  A couple of text messages later in the day confirmed that all was cool.

RiverDays Lineup 01

It wasn’t until I got some of Lindsay’s pictures this morning that the coolest part of the experience came home for me.  The picture in question was this one.  Click on the picture for the full-sized version.  I had just lined up next to lead and 3 was rolling up behind us.  The T-6 was preparing to roll into place behind 3.  Four guys in four aircraft, all poised to go about the business of flying in front of thousands of people.  And I was one of them.

I remember flying my favorite C-152, N94891, to Hillsdale (KJYM) from Willow Run (KYIP) in 2001 on my first solo cross-country.  I met my college buddy Jim Angus there for some coffee.  Jim helped me park the aircraft when I arrived and he got to see me climb into it and take off when we returned to the airport from breakfast.  My flying became more real at that point because one of my friends from outside the aviation community had seen me do it.  Before, aviation had been something that I practiced in isolation with acquaintances whom I only knew through aviation.  Now that Jim had actually seen me fly an airplane by myself, by flying somehow had an anchor point in my “real” life.

I know Linsday from the aviation world.  But it’s mostly as fellow media people and more as enthusiasts than operators.  We’ve flown together on Fat Albert Airlines.  We’ve crewed for an A-4.   But neither she nor any of my non-airshow acquaintances had seen me fly in airshow mode.

That picture made it apparent that someone outside the circle of performers had seen me launch with my airshow team as the sole occupant of an aircraft that was expected to fly in close formation both precisely and safely.  Just as Jim seeing me fly 891 had done for my initial flight experience, that photographic evidence of a friend’s view makes my airshow ops “real.”

River Head-On 01

I’m continuing to write whenever I can.  I have three episodes all coming along in parallel to try to tell you this story in more detail.  From standing around on the ramp to pyro guy to narrator to performer.  I still sometimes have a hard time believing it myself, so I have to get the words just right to show you how magical this whole thing has been.  It’ll be worth the wait.  That much I know.