Tag Archives: aviation

419. Airship Flamel

As I mentioned previously, I found To Rule the Skies: An Airship Flamel Adventure when its author, Michael Tierney, liked one of my posts and I went to visit his website. I bought it as an eBook, which is an adventure in itself. I read eBooks on my desktop Mac. Things that come through iBooks work fine, but the Kindle download is a piece of crap. As you read, it jumps to a new page every few seconds without any input from the user. The only way to successfully read is with your finger lightly on the mouse, and that only works part of the time. This is particularly irritating since the old Kindle download worked fine.

Let me say at the outset that I loved this book. It was a hoot. However, I’m not sure how many of you will feel the same. It probably depends on your vision of what steampunk should be.

To Rule the Skies reminded me of the books I read when I was a kid back in the fifties. Then books were straightforward, violence was muted, and nobody had any literary pretensions. Irony was unknown.

You couldn’t write a book like that if it were set in today’s world, or in the past as seen from today. You can do it in steampunk. As Perschon said of Oppel’s Airborne, it was a time “before the cynicism and doubt the Great War produced. This is the Gilded Age; this is the time of Victorian Optimism.”

That attitude may not be realistic, but it is a breath of fresh air.

The plot resembled an episode of The Wild Wild West, but the crew of the airship Flamel was pure Victorian British. Stiff, long winded, formal, but that was its charm. The tone was somewhere between innocent naiveté and tongue in cheek.

After all, True Grit isn’t Louis L’Amour, and that is its charm. The same thing works here.

I think its time for an example.

Sparks flew at every connection and disconnection. Montgomery was worried that the chamber was imbalanced and he made ready to pull the switch that would break the connection to the umbilical.  “She canna take it any more!” he cried, and just as he did, the shaking stopped suddenly, and the plasma inside the chamber settled down to a slowly pulsing orange glow.  He spun in his chair and checked the gauges.  “All normal, Mr. MacIver!  The luminous matter reaction has started!”  Montgomery slumped in his chair relieved.

MacIver? Say that one out loud. And engineer Montgomery shouting, “She canna take it any more!” as he performs a miraculous repair on a dying piece of high tech machinery. The pop culture references come thick and fast.

I hope Michael Tierney isn’t insulted if I say it isn’t literature, but, man, is it fun.

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418. India by Dirigible

Today the British dirigible Henry V, nicknamed Harry, reached western India, then traveled south from Goa — still in Portuguese hands in 1887 in our world and theirs — to Mangalore (now called Mangaluru) where they will follow the Netravathi River in their crossing of the Western Ghats.

God, I love writing novels

This morning, so far (I’m writing this on Sept. 29), I have four views of various posts. Three are from the USA and one is from India. That is no surprise. As I reported in a previous post, India is the third most common country of origin for those who view my blog, after the USA and Canada. I don’t understand why, but I like it a lot. I have had a strong connection with India since 1967.

(This is in textual parentheses because it is a parenthetical event. I took a brief break to watch Well Read on my local PBS and found a rerun of an interview by Indian author Anuradha Roy. It was both another connection, and a caution that what I know about India is small compared to a writer who is a native.)

During my first year in college, I switched to Anthropology because Biology was going through a phase where, if a study didn’t require an electron microscope, it wasn’t worth doing. I was there to study ecology, and couldn’t see spending my life wearing a white coat in an air conditioned lab. Anthropology seemed a better bet, and I soon became enthralled with India. I even ended up taking a year of Hindi, but a language you don’t speak, goes away. I could still tell you how to get to the Ajmiri hotel, and that’s about it.

When I  was about to graduate from college, my wife and I volunteered for the Peace Corps and were assigned to a project in Mysore, the Indian state which is now called Karnataka. Between my draft number and Nixon’s cancellation of the Peace Corps deferment, we never got to go. Instead, I spent the next four years in the Navy, and then returned to college for an MA where my thesis was on Indian village economics.

Then I became a writer, and I never got to India.

India, however, always remained a part of my writing. In A Fond Farewell to Dying, a young scientist from post-apocalyptic America goes to India which, two hundred years from now, is the only refuge of civilization. In the steamunk novel I am now writing (still in search of a good title) Lieutenant Commander James of the dirigible Henry V is caught up in a conflict between Britain at her peak and her Indian possessions which are beginning their long fight for freedom.

Incidentally, at the other end of the Netravathi River which was mentioned in the first paragraph, is Mysore, the region I was assigned to almost fifty years ago. I never made it in the flesh, but I’m looking forward to going there by dirigible.

God, I love writing novels

409. Man Stuff

I wrote this last Thursday. The post, not the quotation.

          Marquart and Dael took a bench in a completed corner. “Tell me how you have things arranged,” he said.
          “None of the wardens will leave their houses until late in the morning. The first will arrive here about midday. We will have roast krytes ready by then . . .” Marquart waved away her recitation. He didn’t care about preparations for food and drink; he was satisfied that there would be plenty of both.
          “Who will sleep where? Who will arrive first, who will stay latest, who will want to get me alone to talk to, who will get drunk quickest, who is likely to pick a fight, and with whom?”
          “Oh, man stuff.”
                                          from Valley of the Menhir

Today, I was writing chapter eleven of my latest steampunk novel. So far my hero (I don’t do wimpy protagonists) has served aboard four dirigibles and has risen in rank from Sub Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander, brevet, in the British air service. These craft are the result of an unscrupulous Brit who, through theft, intimidation, and assassination has crippled the German airship effort and stolen all their ideas.

Earlier this morning (as I wrote) Lieutenant Commander David James and I settled thirty passengers into their berths on the Henry V, a dirigible of war acting as a passenger vessel carrying diplomats the the Grand Durbar in Delhi. If you don’t know what a durbar is, you’ll find out in coming months. David hated every minute of it.

Then we got a break of several hours as he got to go back to his real job as the lowest member of the group of senior officers, seeing to details as the dirigible, nicknamed Harry in reference to Shakespeare, leaves London for Paris. We have been following David’s career for eleven chapters now, and he has done a little bit of everything as he worked his way up. He will do even more in the future, and we will (metaphorically) stand at his shoulder and give him our moral support.

Man stuff.

The year is 1887, Victoria is on the throne, and our Britain is even stronger than the real one was since they just won the German War, largely through a squad of spies and assassins that remains Britain’s guilty secret. David is one of the few Brits who knows this.

Now its time for me to take David by the shoulders and march him down to the lounge to preside, as a stand-in for the massively scarred Commander VanHoek, over the first evening meal of the cruise. He hates the idea. Actually, so do I. In writing, as in life, sometimes if you want to go to a certain place, the path to get there passes through places you would rather avoid.

I’ve been researching Victorian aristocratic gossip in order to build a world like yet unlike our own. It’s not my cup of Earl Grey, but it is the job I’ve taken on, and I will do it well. Well enough, in fact, to move my readers through the event without arousing their distaste. That’s the writer’s equivalent of “never let them see you sweat”.

Still, I’ll be glad when the dinner is over so David and I can get back down to the engineroom where we can try to get another horsepower out of those damned, recalcitrant McFarland engines.

Man stuff.

403. Steampunk Dirigibles

Warning: this post gets nerdy.

If it has dirigibles, it’s steampunk. No, that doesn’t quite work.

If it doesn’t have dirigibles, it isn’t steampunk. No, that doesn’t work, either.

If it is steampunk, then chances are, there’s a dirigible in it somewhere. OK, now there’s a pronouncement I feel comfortable with. Even Brisco County, Jr. had a dirigible eventually.

The variety of airships (a more generic term) in steampunk is huge, especially if you look at the vast number of illustrations on line. The Aurora in Oppel’s Ariborn is entirely realistic. The Predator in Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass if essentially an air-floating wooden sailing ship. Some are essentially floating cities. Some run on diesels. Some run on magic, or crystal power.

Back here on Earth, everybody knows at least one dirigible, the Hindenburg, just like everybody knows at least one steam ship, the Titanic, and for essentially the same reasons. Beyond that, real knowledge of actual airships is spotty.

It might be helpful, before embracing the infinite variety of steampunk airships, to have a go at definitions for those which actually existed.

First up, why dirigible instead of Zeppelin? Answer: for the same reason that we use the word automobile instead of calling all automobiles, Fords. Ferdinand von Zeppelin meant more to the development of dirigibles than Henry Ford did to the development of autos, so if you want to say Zeppelin instead of dirigible, I won’t argue with you. After all, I used to say, “Gimme a Coke,” when I really wanted a Pepsi.

However, in the world of my upcoming steampunk novel, you wouldn’t dare say Zeppelin. It would be unpatriotic. A Brit with more ambition than morals stole Zeppelin’s plans, sabotaged his work, and built a British fleet of airships before the German war, while Zeppelin’s war efforts came to nothing. The result was a sweeping British victory, an overwhelmingly powerful Britain, and a very interesting world to write about. But no one calls dirigibles Zeppelins.

In our (real) world, airships are often divided into three classes, blimps, semi-rigids, and dirigibles. Blimps are bags of lifting gas which hold their shape entirely due to internal pressure. Pull the plug, and they collapse. Semi-rigids have a keel structure which helps to keep them from distorting due to localized weights, such as engines, but they still don’t have a solid skin. Dirigibles have a skeleton and a skin, and individual gas bags for the lifting gas. Dirigibles are sometimes called rigids; that is the most accurate term, but it is rarely used.

You will find this three part division in dozens of books on airships, and it fits pretty well. But the word dirigible was used far earlier, and at that time it meant “capable of self-movement and control”. There were dirigible torpedoes in the water, long before Zeppelin put dirigible airships into the air.

Which drags us back to another recycling of an old word — torpedo. During the American Civil War there were two types of torpedoes, stationary and spar. A stationary torpedo was a mine. When Admiral Farragut sailed into Mobile Bay, shouting, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” that would translate into modern English as, “Damn the mines, full speed ahead.” A spar torpedo, on the other hand, was an explosive device attached to a long wooden pole and rammed into an enemy ship by a steam boat, often sinking both. Neither kind of torpedo had self propulsion or self steering.

Torpedoes with that capability were initially called dirigible torpedoes. The adjective dirigible was later dropped. E. E. Smith, in Triplanetary, recycled that old term for use in galactic warfare:

In furious haste the Secret Service men had been altering the controls of the radio-dirigible torpedoes, so that they would respond to ultra-wave control; and, few in number though they were, each was highly effective.

The original hot air balloons were (and still are) unable to steer or move on their own. The quest for dirigibilty (controlled self- movement) led to blimps, semi-rigids, and “dirigibles”.

So, there is plenty of confusion even before we get to the use of airships in steampunk. Call them dirigibles, if you want. Call them Zeppelins, if you want. I don’t see how anyone has a right to complain about your choice.

358. X-37b

This picks up where 343. Black Shuttles leaves off.

The Air Force has wanted space for a long time, since it’s beginning actually. NASA took its MISS program and turned it into Mercury. The Air Force wanted the Dyna-soar, but Gemini beat them out in a fight for appropriations. The Air Force coopted Gemini for a manned reconnaissance station, but unmanned satellites did the job sooner and cheaper. There were rumors that Skylab was largely an Air Force observation post disguised as a science station. Possibly true, but it seems doubtful. Finally they got the Space Shuttle, at least part time, but civilian cautions after the Challenger disaster threw off the Air Force schedule and they fell back on their own resources.

Luke Skywalker got to fly a spaceplane and blow up the Deathstar. The Air Force never did. Okay, maybe the Aurora will change that, if it exists.

(What the heck is Aurora? It is either a follow on to the SR-71 or a myth. Conspiracy theorists believe in it, and the rest of us aviation and space crazies want to. I’ll do a post on it some day.)

What the Air Force ended up with was a highly capable unmanned vehicle called the X-37b. So far it has only flown four missions, but they are all long duration. The latest ended early this month, May 7th, when the craft landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a mission of 718 days.

What can I tell you about the mission? That is a lot like the Aurora. Except for the fact that X-37b does exist, and the Aurora may not (probably doesn’t) exist, everything else is classified.

I gave you a link in Black Shuttles for more information, and warned you that it would be frustrating because of the secrecy involved. I have no such link for X-37b. Google it and chase down the conspiracy sites if you want entertainment. If you want facts, join DARPA. Then maybe you can find out which building houses the facts, but they still won’t tell you about them.

I can tell you a bit about the craft itself. It looks like a miniature space shuttle, about 29 feet long, about 10 feet tall, with a 15 foot wingspan. It is launched inside a streamlined shroud on top of an Atlas 5 missile. It has a payload bay about equivalent to a medium pickup bed.

The program started in 1999 and is closely linked to the X-40, which ultimately became a drop-model test bed for data needed to build the X-37b. NASA transferred the project to the military in 2004 and it disappeared into the black world.

X-37b is a scaled up version of the X-40, so early versions had to undergo additional drop tests, this time using a Scaled Composites White Knight (mother ship for the SpaceShipOne program).

To date, there have been four missions, all launched from Cape Canaveral. The first three landed at Vandenberg. The fourth mission landed on the old Space Shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.

The future of manned space fighters does not look promising. Most of the new X craft (X-40 through X-57, so far) are unpiloted, but that is simply a cost issue. However, the X-45/46 and X-47 are pilot programs (yes, pun intended) for unpiloted operational fighter jets.

Would-be Luke Skywalkers need not apply. Sorry.

357. Mike Mars and Project Quicksilver

If you Google Mike Mars, you’ll get Mick Mars, lead guitarist for Mötley Crüe. In fact, if that is how you got here, sorry about that. The only connection, besides spelling similarity, is that Mick Mars is of the right age to have read Mike Mars when he was a kid.

Our Mike Mars is a fictional astronaut from a fictional project called Quicksilver. The series was written by Donald A. Wollheim.

The eight Mike Mars books were unique in science fiction. They were so tied to the moment that they became outmoded on publication. They were both strikingly accurate and completely false. They were less of an alternative reality than a conspiracy theory version of the early 60s.

Here’s the setup. Project Mercury has selected seven astronauts, who will conquer space for America – ostensibly. They are all military test pilots of great experience. At the same time, a second, secret space program is being formed to duplicate their work, using hot young (read: expendable) pilots just out of fighter training, but no one will know of their flights. And they will do their thing just a hair sooner than the old guys. The project is called Quicksilver.

I look at that paragraph today with awe at how dumb the notion was. When I found Mike Mars, Astronaut on the shelf at the hobby store where I bought my books, I flipped at how cool it all was. It was 1961; I was 13 years old.

Thirteen is the golden age of science fiction. (I didn’t make that up; it’s a well known cliché.) Thirteen is also the age when you like things you wouldn’t even look at a few years later.

Mike Mars is the nickname of Michael Alfred Robert Samson, one of the young pilots chosen to participate in Project Quicksilver. The first novel takes him through selection and early training until he is chosen as one of the young astronauts. It also includes a murderous saboteur and makes the reader aware that one of the seven, Rod Harger, is a traitor. After all, this is a book for boys, designed to sit on the shelf beside the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr.. Just being an astronaut isn’t exciting enough to give a climax every fifth page.

In Mike Mars Flies the X-15, the seven Quicksilver astronauts get glide flights in the X-15, and one of them will get to make a powered flight into space. (Guess who gets the powered flight.) We become more aware that six of the young astronauts are patriotic team players, but Rod Harger is in it for the power and the fame, and his father has thugs at the ready to tip the scales his way. This sets the pattern for the books — about half an accurate portrayal of training and flights and about half Hardy Boys style chasing crooks through empty hangers.

In Mike Mars at Cape Canaveral, Mike rides a Redstone rocket in a sub-orbital flight, after spending half the book fighting off more saboteurs.

In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit, followed shortly by John Glenn. The Russian’s had won — except that those of us reading the Mike Mars series knew that Mike beat both of them in Mike Mars in Orbit. But, of course, he could never tell.

(True believers like me knew that Rick Brant had beaten all of them into space, back in 1958 aboard the Pegasus in The Scarlet Lake Mystery, but that was an accident and, of course, he could never tell either.)

In Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar (see 342. Dyna-soar) Wollheim finally ran out of reality. The first four books had involved real hardware, but the real-life Dyna-soar was never finished. Space kids all over America forgave him however, as we flew with Mike to rescue a fellow astronaut in the coolest spacecraft that was never built.

There were three additional books, Mike Mars, South Pole Spaceman, Mike Mars and the Mystery Satellite, and Mike Mars Around the Moon. They never came to my hobby shop bookshelf, so I never saw them. It would be pointless to seek them out now. Within five years, alternative versions of early space travel had gone from unthinkable to not worth thinking about. NASA and the Russians made the conquest of space real, and I had grown beyond kiddy books.

But God the ride was fun while it lasted.

_____________________

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the secret military space drone, X-37b, recently landed at Kennedy Space Center after it’s longest flight to date. We will see how the Air Force is still trying for a Mike Mars reality in tomorrow’s post.

312. Popular Science

full-futurecars-4When I was twelve or thirteen, my great grandfather said to me, “I used to read Popular Mechanics. You should, too.” And he handed me a quarter. It was the best piece of advice any relative ever gave me.

I bought my first popular science magazine, and I was hooked. I was soon buying three a month every month, and occasionally a fourth. Science and Mechanics, no longer published, was the best. Popular Science came next, then Popular Mechanics. Mechanix Illustrated was a lame imitation, but I always looked and occasionally bought, if there was a particularly interesting article.

In school, I usually devoured my science textbooks by the end of the first month of the school year. They provided an important, basic, bare bones understanding. But the popular science magazines put exciting flesh and blood on those bones. I learned more science from those three popular science magazines than I ever learned from a textbook.

Those were the days when GEMs were new. Ground effect machines, that is. There were articles that explained how they worked (what shape plenum chamber do you prefer?) but better still, there were articles that showed guys who had built their own out of plywood and a lawn mower engine, flying down the street of their suburban neighborhoods, six inches off the ground.

When I sent ten scientists to explore Cyan, they used skimmers, which were clearly ground effect machines.

There were always articles on how to take care of your car, and there was the new car issue every fall. You didn’t have to be a science nut to like cars.

There were always stories about the newest, hottest jet plane, including a story about a new safety device that gave pre-recorded error messages into the earphones of a pilot. The Air Force had discovered that the pilot never missed the message if the recording was a sultry female voice. Any thirteen year old boy in America could have told them that. The illustration of that article was a realistic drawing of a helmeted pilot with a tiny, bikini-clad femme whispering into his ear the words that would save him.

These guys knew their target audience.

Not everything between those covers would be politically correct today. I remember the pistol crossbow, a powerful hand-held weapon that shot sharpened six-inch pieces of quarter inch rod. Try making that in your seventh grade shop class. Maybe you could get a merit badge in Boy Scouts?

Probably not.

There were always articles on how to build something in your shop, about the latest tools, or about how to build the tools you couldn’t afford. I was hooked on that, too. My father was a farmer, not a craftsman. If a nail in a board would do the job, he was satisfied, and moved on to the next of an unending set of chores. I wanted more. I wanted to be a craftsman. Today I am, and these are the magazines that got me started on that path.

Eventually, I stopped reading popular science magazines. You can only read so many thousand articles at that level until you have absorbed enough. I moved on, but I didn’t forget how powerfully they ignite young imaginations.

When I became a teacher in a small middle school, all the other teachers were happy to load science onto me, and I was glad to accept. I taught all subjects the first year, but after that it was “science-and”. Every year I taught more science and less “and”.

The first year I subscribed to Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (Science and Mechanics was long dead), and soon I added Smithsonian Air and Space. I bought a magazine rack at a garage sale and put it up in my room. I never threw a magazine away until it was too tattered to read, and after a few years there were a hundred magazines in the rack.

Occasionally, at the end of an hour, there would be a few minutes to spare and I would say, “You can either do homework for another class, or read one of the science magazines.” It was the best advice I ever gave them.

And nobody chose homework.