Nope, not a Hell-uv-a laser, though it is one. Rather a High-energy Laser (Airborne). A weapon that I unleashed in my latest novel, Ghostrider. (I couldn’t be sure that HEL-A is the weapon’s real name, I only found one passing reference on that. But since it’s deeply shrouded in secrecy, I’m sticking to it.)
Lasers are just…cool!
Back in college we used to swipe a 5 mW laser (about the brightness of a cat toy, though higher quality) from the physics lab, take it up onto the roof of the science building, hunker down close by the twenty-foot dome for the long-barrel 10″ telescope, and “lead” people into dinner. Even from 4 stories up and a hundred feet to the side, it would cast a sparkling bright-red dot under an inch across. The wonders of coherent light.
NerdGuy Sidetrack: Coherent Light
First, while the opposite of “coherent” light is “incoherent” light, it doesn’t mean that it babbles meaninglessly like a politician. Light follows all the laws of physics and is rarely incoherent like so many humans.
Sidetrack to the sidetrack. “Non-coherent” light comes in two varieties.
1) UVC is the reason that the holes in the ozone layer are so scary. The ozone blocks Ultra-violet C light waves from reaching us. Which is good as it is carcinogenic and even deadly. The cool thing is, UVC also appears to kill things like Coronavirus and is used to decontaminate things (like airplane interiors) when no fragile humans are around.
2) LEDs are the other form of non-coherent light. Non-coherent technically means that the properties of phase and amplitude vary randomly in space and time. But we don’t care about these today.
Back to incoherent light. It just means that the light waves don’t line up. Imagine an old-fashioned filament light bulb. It just shines light every which way from its heated filament. Two different sections of it are just popping light right in your direction, even though they’re millimetres apart so nothing lines up. Neon lights do this even more because the whole length of the tube is filled with electrically charged gas to make it emit light in all directions. To get any useful brightness in one place, you need a reflector to aim all of the little photons.
Lasers aren’t like that. They go to a great deal of trouble to line up all of the little light waves so that they’re in perfect (-ish) alignment before releasing them into the wild. The light doesn’t spread much as it travels. Instead, it delivers very near its full brightness to the target, whether making your cat dance or confusing students foolish enough to go to dinner past the science building.
This was the 1970s, so folks knew what lasers were but had no experience with them (outside of our department). People would jump and dance aside. Sometimes, just like a cat, they’d follow it for a bit. Several people tried to stomp on it like a bug. Only a very few people would put out a hand to try and block the light to determine the direction of the beam. In either case, we’d always cover the output with our fingers the moment they did that, just to mess with them.
We put the spot in front of one physics major we saw going by. He didn’t even look up, just gave us the finger and kept going.
A Lot of Laser
According to Wikipedia, 1898 was a good year for lasers as weapons. H.G. Wells gave a “Heat-Ray” weapon to the invading Martians in The War of the Worlds. That same year Garrett P. Serviss gave a “disintegrator ray” to the heroes of Edison’s Conquest of Mars. (Mars and death rays must just go together.)
Star Trek of course brought this to the common culture with phasers and even James Bond was not above a laser gun battle in one of the franchise’s worst efforts Moonraker. (Coming in just one ahead of Die Another Day at the very bottom according to IMDB rating.)
Of course, this has not all remained in the land of fiction.
Because lasers fire a light beam very efficiently, they can make a blinding light. Literally blinding. So, in 1995 the United Nations banned anti-personnel Blinding Laser Weapons. The US finally signed on in 2009.
That didn’t stop us, and I’m sure many others, from finding a loophole.
Enter the PHASR rifle. Personnel Halting and Stimulation Rifle. Low-intensity. Temporary blindness…hopefully. Yeah, some loophole.
For a quick and amusing (in a strictly scientific manner) summary, check out THIS page on Wikipedia (summarized below). Some of these are merely “in development.”
Electro-laser – This ionizes the air along the path of the laser and then fires a high-voltage charge along that ionized path. (Set phasers (uh, Tasers?) to stun.)
Pulsed energy projectile – Pump enough energy into an infrared pulse to create a destructive plasma explosion at the target.
Dazzlers – like the PHASR rifle, but that can blind delicate sensors as well. (We know this is up and running.)
Weapons – that can burn holes in things. (Yeah, now we’re talking.)
Sure, there’s a whole history of land-based and ship-based testing of lasers, but let’s jump right to the fun part. The YAL-1.
Okay, now we’re talking. Take an old 747-400F (freighter), gut it, and jam a big laser-testing platform up its middle. Low-energy test in 2004, it was eventually able to down multiple test ballistic missiles, during their boost phase, before the project was cancelled and defunded.
Of course that didn’t mean the program of weaponizing lasers was done, it was just that YAL-1 had proven all it needed to. Sadly, after 4 years sitting in the Davis-Monthan boneyard, the one-of-a-kind beastie was scrapped.
Many generations of laser weapons continued under dozens of other names and were mounted on ships, trucks, and airplanes. A cool one was ZEUS, a nice little 10 kW laser mounted on the top of a Humvee for killing ordnance and IEDs from a safe distance.
I wasn’t able to find the power of the final YAL-1 laser, but an article on The International Society of Optics and Photonicsdescribes a 1 MW (MegaWatt – million watts) laser (100 times more powerful than the IED killer and about 16,000 household lamps [back when they were incandescent]). However, it notes that the YAL-1 laser that took out a SCUD missile in testing was in “the kilowatt class.” Yes, it filled a Boeing 747-400 freighter, but this was in 2011. We’ve come a long way since then.
Skipping over all of the steps in between, the newest version of the Spooky/Spectre/Dragon AC-130-based line of gunships is the “Ghostrider.” And among its massive arsenal is a laser weapon.
A laser weapon that they aren’t talking about much, for obvious reasons. A lot of digging around and I was able to determine that it was probably past the 100 kW range, most likely around 150 kW (over 10,000 nice little LED bulbs…all at once). Now this may not sound like much (just 10-15x the ZEUS IED killer). But let’s backtrack a bit.
How much power do you need? Rockets, missiles, airplanes, satellites…these are all very fussy pieces of equipment that don’t perform well after holes have been burned in them. We know that 10 kW punches holes very nicely. 150 kW will do it 15x better.
There are three other big considerations:
It has to fit inside an AC-130 airplane with a lot of other armament.
You have to be able to fit its power supply on board too. (Another turbine engine?)
It has to work.
That last point is actually the key limiting factor. Fire a laser through something thick, like…air (Worse, moist air. Very worst, clouds or sandstorms.) and you get a problem called “blooming.” The air, and water or whatever not only decreases the beams effectiveness (it is just light, after all, and needs to shine on its target), the moist-dirty air also heats up as it absorbs the energy of the laser beam. This superheats the air, creating turbulence and can even turn the air into a plasma that the laser will turn into an explosion in the air (see the Pulsed Energy Projectile idea above), rather than burning a hole in its target. Literally, lighting the air on fire.
So, 150 kW, is probably as much fun as a gunship needs at this point until we figure out more about how to fire smaller amounts of light–coherently–through that thick air stuff. In the meantime, it let my villains play a bit.
For a long second he looked in her eyes, then reached out and took her hand. Rather than squeezing it with some unwanted but expected sympathy, he moved it to the laser’s joystick. “Get a feel for tracking the vehicle. It’s moving fast, so you’ll need to keep it steady in the crosshairs for longer than you’d think.”
At first she was veering side-to-side. Finally she had a feel for how to keep it steady in the crosshairs, reasonably.
He tapped in a quick series of settings, called in a correction to the cockpit, then pointed at a red Fire button.
He sat back to watch her carefully. His face totally unreadable.
She wanted him to think well of her.
But she wanted Vasquez dead. So much of the pain in her life—and Mama’s—had been his doing.
Why had a man who headed a cartel, a violent competitor of the one her father worked for, helped them out at all?
And then she knew what other price Mama had paid to Hector Vasquez for their safe passage.
Taz punched and held the Fire button.
His vehicle glowed brightly in the infrared as the supercar heated. It swerved left and right but she kept the beam steady…enough. Finally, perhaps in desperation to escape or perhaps while dying of heat stroke, it swerved too far and rolled.
When it came to rest upside down, she held her aim on the car.
A second later there was the massive bloom of an explosion as the gas tank ruptured.
Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.
An AC-130J “Ghostrider”—the latest variant of America’s most lethal aerial gunship—goes down hard in the Colorado Rockies. Except the data doesn’t match the airframe.
Air-crash genius, and high-functioning autistic, Miranda Chase leads her NTSB team in to investigate. But what they uncover reveals a far greater threat—sabotage.
If she can’t solve the crash in time, a new type of war will erupt. One far too close to home which threatens to shatter her team.
Aboard Shadow Six-four Elevation: 27,000 feet (23 seconds before impact)
As soon as Lieutenant Colonel Luis Hernandez broadcast the final report from aboard the diving plane—“Negative recovery. Negative control.”—he released his seat harness.
The plane wasn’t quite in freefall, so he fell into the yoke and flight console. “Aw, fuck.” Like it was going to hurt anything now other than his ego. The plane was safely past recovery and no one was left aboard to see anyway.
He pulled off his headset and began climbing uphill through the Hercules’ cockpit. He moved fast in the near freefall. Two of the thirteen bodies scattered strategically through the plane had ended up in the aisle and he was forced to crawl over them. They were wearing his and Danny’s dog tags. They were also close to their build and coloring just in case anything survived the crash. Hopefully not, they weren’t that close because no way did he look like the fake Luis. Homely bugger.
He continued aft quickly, having to struggle to shake off the memory of the last time he’d done this. He’d crawled over the bodies of his own crew when his C-130 Hercules had been shot down in Afghanistan due to insufficient fighter support in a war they never should have been in. He’d fought the plane all the way down—been one of the few to make it. He came to, crawling from body to body looking for other survivors.
At least this time, neither the iron stench of hot blood nor the stinging kerosene of burning Jet A fuel permeated the air. Everyone except he and Danny had been dead before they boarded this flight.
The ladder down to the main cargo deck was easier to navigate. They were in true freefall now and he could just pull himself along it.
Major Danny Gonzalez had left the forward passenger door open after popping it at thirty-nine thousand feet. Though, Luis supposed, his copilot was just Danny now. Their military rank was one more thing they’d all agreed to leave behind along with the dead.
Luis shrugged into the parachute rig.
He took a moment to ensure that he was oriented properly and then grabbed the bottom edge of the door. It wouldn’t do to fling himself out of the plane and straight into the massive four-blade propeller of the Number Two engine spinning at a thousand RPM.
The fuselage twisted sharply and he almost lost his grip as it began to tumble.
Looking out into the darkness once more, he saw that the propeller was no longer an issue—the entire wing had ripped off.
The temperature was a bitch though.
Even on a warm June evening, ten thousand feet above Aspen was damn cold. Be lucky if he didn’t have frostbite by the time he got down. But no time to pull on a balaclava—the ground was coming up fast.
He still made a point of flinging himself downward as he exited, just in case the tail was still attached.
As soon as he’d ejected, he opened his black tactical ram-air chute. It was for night insertions deep behind enemy lines, and, like his specialized clothing, had the radar signature of a bird—a small one.
He watched the plane continue down. Less than five seconds after he had his chute deployed and stable, the Hercules impacted at twelve thousand feet atop a high peak. It was supposed to plunge into the back-country wilderness beyond, but it didn’t really matter. At almost five hundred knots, the destruction was more than sufficient.
As rigged beforehand, one of the rounds of 105 mm ammunition for the big howitzer—the main weapon of the AC-130 series of gunships—ignited on impact.
In a single moment, the other eighty rounds lit off.
The combination of all of the forty-two-inch-long, thirty-three-pound rounds igniting simultaneously unleashed sixteen hundred pounds of high explosives in the heart of the plane.
If there had been anything left of the fuselage, it was now shattered. Probably the top of the mountain as well by the scale of the blinding fireball that lit the surrounding mountains like daylight. He hoped that no one was looking in his direction for the one moment he was starkly lit against the night sky.
The wings landed farther down the slope, bursting into flame when the fuel tanks breached. The conflagration spread rapidly upslope. In minutes, any remains of the plane would be engulfed as well.
Then the shock wave caught up with him.
“Didn’t think of that one, did you, Luis?”
For a thousand feet of descent, he could do nothing but curse and flail as the shock wave dragged him wherever it wanted to.
Once it cleared, he was amazed to still be holding the control toggles. The wonders of stark terror.
He hadn’t jumped much since Basic, just enough to stay qualified. But the loud roar of the wind had to be a bad sign. Yanking on the toggles didn’t seem to do much either.
Not daring to let go in case he couldn’t find the handles again, he almost snapped his own neck from nodding hard enough to flip down his night vision goggles. He managed it just in time to see what was happening above him.
“Shit!” He didn’t have a parachute. He had a ripped-up mess of tangled nylon. It looked as if half the chute was missing and the rest was snarled.
He yanked the cutaway. The general was going to be pissed if someone spotted the errant chute, but Luis was out of options.
One side of the risers released, but not the other.
Dragging the main chute along off his right shoulder.
Out of time.
Deploy the reserve and pray it didn’t snarl in the crippled main. It came out clean and almost gutted him with hard deceleration.
He was well past Snowmass, but nowhere near the Aspen car racing track where Danny and their motorcycles would be waiting.
Down below there was no sign of anything except sharp peaks and deep valleys.
The wind still seemed too loud. Up above, two-thirds of the reserve was drawing clean, the last third was fighting with the trailing main—and losing.
“Two thirds has gotta be better than nothing, right?”
A massive edifice loomed up in front of him.
Want more? Start this amazing adventure and hang on because the crisis is only beginning.
Next week on June 23rd, Miranda Chase #4, Ghostrider, will be officially released. (Due to a few quirks of indie publishing the print is already available, and due to a promotion, Apple fans are already reading it. But in general, it releases next Tuesday.)
And one of the joys of being a writer is getting to mess with a place. If even just the movies that have thrashed New York were to be true, it would be something nasty in reality! Salt and The Bourne Ultimatum tore up the NY streets. Ghostbusters thrashed the crap out of it and made many things very gooey. Armageddon gave it a meteor shower, a job already done thoroughly in Sean Connery’s Meteor. Deep Impact flooded it. The Day After Tomorrow flooded it then turned it into a glacier. Independence Day just blew it up. Yeah, fiction is rough on the landscape.
But as a writer destroys or otherwise mangles a place in fiction, they learn a lot of cool facts about it. So, for Ghostrider, I’ll pick a pair of the many places I researched and was then unkind to: Aspen and Catalina Island.
I have a good friend who grew up in Aspen. I went there as a kid in 1974 and as slightly less of a kid in 1980. I’ve hiked the hills, swum in the glacial Maroon Bells lake (briefly, it was still freakin’ cold in June), free camped in the hills, and bought a cool egg-shaped rock in some rock store.
So, we were chatting about my memories versus the current reality and he told me a local saying: “The millionaires ruined it for the hippies and the billionaires ruined it for the millionaires.” So, I decided it was the perfect place to crash a large military plane. (Yeah, I know, it’s just the way writers think. I liked the ’70s hippie version of Aspen.)
However, blasting out the entire town seemed a little drastic. It would also require a fair amount more ammunition that my AC-130 gunship was likely to carry. Aspen, even back in the hippie days, was a major ski resort. So, I thought about hitting them where it hurt. That led me to Snowmass, one of the country’s premier ski areas which opened in 1967. Still, it’s a massive ski area and hard to target with a single crash.
But they had made an interesting addition in 1997. They added a Poma lift. (Basically a long bar dangling down from a wire with a Frisbee screwed to the bottom. You slip it between your legs and kinda lean back on the Frisbee as it pulls you upslope on your skis.) It wasn’t just anywhere. It was at the very top of the area and opened up a cirque’s headwall for double-black-diamond (expert) skiing.
A cirque is a half-bowl shape carved into a mountain top by a glacier. Here’s a nice shot of a small one that I hiked a number of times as a kid (though I never skied it).
What caught NerdGuy’s attention was the effort that Snowmass made to appease the last of the lingering hippies and the rising eco-terrorism movement that culminated just a year later in the burning of the Vail ski lodge.
While the ground was still frozen, they sent in the backhoes to punch down the holes for the foundations, then covered them back up. The top of the mountain is a major summertime breeding habitat for a wide variety of species, so they waited until fall. Then, at great expense, they airlifted in concrete and all of the steel work.
I won’t delve into it deeply, but this was an insanely expensive proposition. Steel is easy. A stanchion for a Poma lift might weigh a few tons. Concrete weighs two tons per cubic yard. At 10-15 yards per footing, 20-30 tons, that’s an amazing challenge, especially at 12,000′ elevation where helicopter blades have a third less air to bite into than at sea level.
NerdBonus: Think about what it means that a helicopter loses carrying capacity as it climbs. The great heavy-lifter, the Erickson S-64 Sky Crane, has a max takeoff weight of 42,000 pounds. But it weighs 20,000 pounds empty. Then there is the other trivia like 1,300 gallons of fuel for another 8,840 pounds. So, where does the 20-30% reduction in lift capacity at 12,000′ elevation come out of? 100% of it comes out of the payload capacity:
42,000 * .8 = 33,600 pounds capacity
33,600 pounds total capacity – 28,840 pounds helo and fuel = not much extra payload capacity. Certainly not 10-15 yards of concrete. Not going to get into the operational tricks like running with less fuel but more refuelings or the exact capacities of the Sky Crane, just know that it’s a big challenge.
While researching my book, Wild Fire, I had the great fortune to be able to witness a flight test for new rotor blades at Erickson’s headquarters in Oregon. Many thanks to the folks!
So, after all of the that work, once the ground refroze, Snowmass strung the final cables for the Cirque Poma lift (one article says it was a J-bar in the beginning, but it’s definitely a Poma now). In the winter it’s a ski area. In the summer, it’s an undamaged breeding reserve. Nice, huh?
Well, I did my own little bout of eco-terrorism and blew the crap out of it. Not really a strike against the billionaires, or even the millionaires…but it was fun.
Santa Catalina Island, California
I thrashed Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island. But you’ll have to read the book to see that. Instead, I’m going to nerd out about one of the most dangerous airports in the world.
As a former private pilot, I’m fascinated by such things. One of the finest lists is this one on Forbes: 17 Most Dangerous Airports in the World. Most lists don’t include: AVX, the Airport in the Sky. This is probably because no commercial flights land there, it’s all general aviation.
First we need to look at the three types of aviation:
Military – the best trained pilots anywhere.
Commercial – passenger and cargo planes. Their pilots are often retired military.
General – any dang fool who can get through ground school and get their pilot’s license.
Sport & Experimental – this fourth category has such a high death rate that calling it flying seems rather silly. The FAA inspectors hate this category because it is so many of their accident calls. It falls more in the category of “death wish” and includes home-made ultralights and such. The “Sport” license (created since I stopped flying) means that you require 1/2 the training that I had as a private pilot. Strikes this NerdGuy as a good reason to stay out of the sky.
So, AVX (Catalina Island airport’s official International Air Transport Association identifier) sits in an unremarked quirky place of its own.
It truly is The Airport in the Sky. Though the island is only 8 x 22 miles, it rises over 2,000′ out of the Pacific Ocean just two dozen miles west of Los Angeles. The airport officially lies at 1,602′ above mean sea level.
“Officially” is a fun point here. Most mountain-top airports, look at the ones in the article I mentioned above, are shaped like a shallow bowl (the two ends are clearly visible from either end and the middle is lower). AVX is shaped like an inverted bowl, which means that you can’t see the far end of the runway from either end.
This makes for several exciting problems:
It is possible for two aircraft to try and depart from opposite ends of the runway at the same time without seeing each other. Or even to land at one end while someone is taking off at the other. Either way, we’re talking about the potential for head-on collisions when they can finally see each other. Planes don’t stop on a dime…unless they hit something hard. (Careful radio communication takes care of this, but see the Sport & Experimental categories above and see if it gives you the chills.)
A landing aircraft will have the definite illusion that they’ve reached the end of the runway when they’re only halfway along and still moving fast. As they approach the mid-field crest, that can’t see that the runway keeps going. Hard-braking, hard-turning, nose-overs that destroy propellers…none of these are unusual occurrences at AVX. Local Los Angeles plane rental companies insist on at least one landing there with a trainer pilot, no matter what your skill level, before they let you hire the aircraft.
Now, we’ll ignore that the runway is only 3,000′ long as a hazard. You’re fully loaded bizjet needs 3,400′ to stop and you didn’t think about that? Bye-bye.
This is fun point #2 about AVX…there’s no overrun stopway. Next time you’re at an airport, notice that in almost every case, there’s a chunk of runway that sticks out past the heavily hashed threshold where your plane turns the other way onto the runway. That’s for bad landings, late aborts of takeoffs, and so on.
AVX doesn’t have these. Instead it has cliff edges where the land falls steeply away. Come in too low and you don’t land on the Stopway, you bang head-on into a cliff. Which takes us to fun point #3:
AVX lies draped across the top of a mountain. Wind comes from one side of the island, climbs the cliff, creating all sorts of extra lift. Then, after racing down the runway, it dives off the other end of the cliff making some spectacular downdrafts.
When Miranda Chase’s team flies into AVX… No, I’m just teasing. I didn’t crash them. But I had a good time having Miranda be a total NerdGal about it.