NerdGuy #24: Air America

M. L. Buchman military romantic suspenseI thought I’d nerd out a bit about this month’s short story, Survive Until the Final Scene.

Here’s the opening for those who missed it or don’t remember:

Up until this very moment, Captain Kandace Eversmann had a soft spot for Air America. Even though she and the movie had been born in the same year, 1990, it was the first movie about airplanes she remembered.

Dad, a computer programmer, chose the Thursday night movies (a lot of espionage and thrillers) and Mom, a small-plane certified flight instructor, chose the Sunday night ones (a lot of flying). The best nights of her life were when the three of them curled up on the couch together with cookies or a slice of pie and watched a movie together.

Even now as a captain in the US Air Force, movie night served as her litmus test for boyfriends—a gauntlet very few survived.

Air America, a romp through the CIA’s illegal flight operations in Laos during the Vietnam War, was the identifiable starting point of the journey that had made her an Air Force pilot.

And at this very moment, she hated that movie.

The opening had followed a big silver Fairchild C-123K Provider, twin-engine cargo plane across the sky. It zoomed low over the credits, barely above the treetops, making parachute deliveries of pigs, rice, and weapons.

Then, on its return to base, the Provider overflew a Laotian farmer strolling through his fields. He shouldered his prehistoric single-shot shotgun and fired once at the passing silver beast now high above. As he looked away and resumed his walk, the plane spilled out a smoke trail—ultimately crashing at the airport in a lethal ball of fire.

She remembered smiling, intrigued at the offhand power of the farmer.

One tiny shot, one giant plane. No way. It was too bizarre.

The strange thing is, if it wasn’t for that more-than-a-little-crazed Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. romp, most folks wouldn’t even know about Air America. What even fewer people know is what it became…or the fact that it inspired one of my most successful book series.

Winding Back the Clock

It started as a relief support mission for 1946 war-ravaged China. It was soon pressed into supporting Chiang Kai-shek. By 1950, he’d lost and retreated to Taiwan, cutting off the airline’s only client.

The CIA bought out the troubled airline. By 1959, when it became Air America, it was deeply involved in CIA operations throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (the latter two being places that US forces “never were”).

By 1970, they had over 25 transports, 30 helos, and several large jets (727s & 747s). Additionally, they frequently borrowed aircraft from the Air Force and Army. In them, their 300 pilots transported: supplies, troops, Nixon during his 1969 trip to Vietnam, and also evacuating civilians at the end of the war. On the other side of the coin, Air America also transported: spies, guns and other weapons to anyone who would supposedly help, black ops troops, propaganda leaflet drops, assassination teams, and a massive amount of drugs to finance operations and appease local warlords.

And this is where the movie ends, but the story continues.

Pilots Disowned

Per Wikipedia, as you’d expect, the CIA pulled a Mission Impossible on their pilots and crews. Because they hadn’t been flying for the Air Force or Army, they deserved no pension, no death benefits, no medical coverage, not even recommendations (they weren’t allowed to admit where they’d been flying all those years because the US was never there).

Just one more reason that the CIA is a villain in so many of my tales from: a Delta Force mission aboard a cruise ship (DF #3 Wild Justice), to the current Miranda Chase series.


Unable to keep the post-war airline solvent in Thailand, the CIA sold the planes to an Oregon company named Evergreen International Airlines. (By the way, if you’re ever in McMinnville, Oregon, Evergreen is still one of the finest aviation museums in the world. Living nearby for most of a decade it was a real pleasure.)

The sale price of an estimated $20-25 million, doesn’t begin to cover the vast array of acquired aircraft. Why so low? Because the CIA still needed an air transport arm. In fact, there are many strange “almost facts” that floated around the airline during the next 40 years before its 2013 bankruptcy.

Here’s my favorite example:

Evergreen converted a 747 to be the largest ever wildfire firefighting plane. A lot of fire planes can carry a few hundred gallons of water or retardant. An Air Tractor AT-802 (one of the most common) carries eight hundred gallons. The big boys? Twenty-five hundred is major. This delivered 19,600 gallons per load!

Here’s where the story splits and gets fun:

  • only one was ever converted (there’s a lot of articles that mention this single aircraft)
  • for a brief time on their website, it said that 12 had been converted and were actively operational (I was following them closely at the time, and that notice went away pretty quickly. False information? Or too much information? So I began poking around to see if it might be the latter.)
  • A pilot in a position to know some things responded to my question by asking me to consider, “How many planes the CIA/Evergreen do you think might be flying over Colombian coca fields filed with RoundUp and other defoliants?” My thoughts on that just might have been used a few times in Delta Force #2 Heart Strike.
  • When Evergreen finally did go down, their 747s were parked in the one of those desert storages. There were a dozen of them there (I checked the satellite cameras, not one. Just sayin’.


Ever wonder how I came up with the idea for Mount Hood Aviation (MHA) in my Firehawks series?

buchman wildland firefighting

As a part of their acquisitions, Evergreen suddenly owned a great number of helicopters, and they put them (at least some of them) to very good use. For years, Evergreen Helicopters was considered one of the premier firefighting operations.

That’s when I asked myself, “How could the CIA use firefighters as a front for operations?” I didn’t like a lot of those answers. So, instead I asked, “How could our military use firefighters as a front for cooperative operations?”

I liked that answer much better, and the entire Firehawks world was born.

And in September’s Ides of Matt story, it was an excuse to revisit those “humble” origins even if MHA didn’t come into play.

Survive Until the Final Scene

Survive Until the Final Scene

Combat Search and Rescue is the hardest job in the Army. Especially for the medics.

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NerdGuy #23: Holes Under Seattle

The “Holes Under Seattle” that I describe in my upcoming novel At the Clearest Sensation (Shadowforce: Psi #4) are all real.

There really are watermains 6′ high. A lacework of steam pipes heat almost 200 buildings in Seattle’s core. (The University of Washington has a similarly extensive, if not quite as massive, system for the small city (almost 50k) that is it’s campus.) There are train tunnels underneath the city. And even an abandoned story or two of the old city now known as the Seattle Underground.

The Seattle Underground

I used to work in a Seattle theater, one of the ones that eventually helped launch the fringe movement (though it went under before it could benefit from that). A trapdoor under our stage lead to the Underground, a convenient place to lose old sets. 1. we couldn’t afford the dump fees, and 2. we were so marginal that we’d go down to salvage the odd bits when something broke on a current show.

Of course, being in the Underground, that gave us access to the rest. Well, except for little bits that had been walled off and repurposed, like Merchants Cafe (which is in the story and we used to go for dinner after closing the show each night–arriving through their front door, rather than the trap door in the floor). The famed Seattle Underground Tour shows some parts of the old city (they avoided the room that was our theater’s set “storage” for some reason).

There is one room worthy of note down there. It was set up by the tour and is a spacious enough area to stop and lecture a group. (I also attended an Anne Rice book launch there once.) Old pictures and artifacts have been screwed to the wall. The tour guides have given the tour so many times that they don’t have to look. “Behind you is a photo of the horse and buggy that drowned in a mudhole on the original 1st Avenue very near this spot.” Etc.

One day we dropped in with a couple of screw guns between tours and rearranged all of the images and displays. We didn’t take anything–nerds, not nasty. And yes, for Broadway show fans, I might have gotten the idea from Bobby of Chorus Line, “I broke into people’s houses. I never stole anything. I just rearranged their furniture.” The confusion was splendid and rippled through the tour guides hanging at the local bars for a couple days, though we never said it was us.

Newer Holes

There are a series of newer holes under Seattle. They actually trace their origin to a monorail for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. This fair was a huge deal, the first one after WWII, and they managed to preempt New York’s goal of being the first to bring them back.

A whole section of the city’s residents were evicted and the area razed (read as slums that the city fathers were sick of, so, “please leave…now!”), and the Seattle Center built in its place (including the Space Needle). Ten million people would visit this then tiny city of Seattle that summer.

World’s Fairs were to “show off the future.” As a part of that, they installed a monorail that ran above ground from the heart of Seattle (hotels and shopping) over the mile to the fairgrounds.

buchman nerdguy
Seattle Monorail near North Terminus (c) Klaus with K

The developer wanted a showcase for his product, and offered to sell the city an entire monorail system at cost. The city didn’t want  such nonsense cluttering up their skies, making Seattle a world-class traffic disaster ever since. (It can now take fifteen minutes to drive that same mile…and that’s on a good day when there’s no game or rush-hour traffic.)

Now, at HUGE cost, they are boring bus and light rail tunnels under the city that offer far less connectivity and convenience. However, they’re out of options in this geographically confined city placed on a steep hillside above a harbor far too deep to fill in (or even anchor in–it’s one of the deepest in the world).

However, there is one hole under Seattle that is particularly amazing.


The Alaskan Way Viaduct was built in the 1950s. Sort of a monorail for cars. It was a two-tiered, 2-4 laned, high-speed, twisty-assed bit of freeway that was the only relief from the disaster of I-5 once Seattle began to grow.

Buchman Nerdguy
Alaskan Way Viaduct (c) Waqcku. All that gray bit darkened by decades of greasy car exhaust fumes. It was creepy to even touch the concrete.

It shrouded one of the most beautiful waterfronts in any city under a semi-permanent gloom. Most of the area directly underneath was bathed in a constant roar from above, as well as a shower of dirt and litter. It was mostly cheap parking and homeless villages, and remained that way for the next fifty-plus years. (This from the same people who didn’t want a sleek, quietly electric monorail system.)

Then They Made A “BIG” Hole

The old Viaduct was never meant for the traffic load of eventually carrying 100,000 cars/day. There’d been no understanding of being built to survive an earthquake–and Seattle is definitely in an earthquake zone. Not a lot of little quakes there. But like LA and San Francisco, all three cities are expecting a “Big One.” So, Seattle drivers along the Viaduct often talk about holding their breath for the whole length of that 2.2 miles run. A small quake in 2001 proved that it was going to come down and come down bad if something wasn’t done.

Many ideas were proposed. My favorite was to move it offshore into a floating tunnel. Now that would have been a cool bit of technology.

Instead, they went underground. Deep underground. Two hundred feet below sea-level kind of underground.

Eight years later, it opened. Rather than trying to explain all of the wonders of the world’s largest (57.5′ diameter) tunnel boring machine named Bertha, I’ll point you to a couple of awesome videos.

A Decent Quick Overview (ignore the PR voice if you can)
I LOVE This One

Not because it’s exciting, but because it shows all of the underground planning and takes us on a ride through the virtually modeled space.

An Overview…right after it broke (for 2 years)
A Splendidly Tedious Look At How Bertha Works (too tedious?)
A Cool Little Destruction Time Lapse

They had to take it down with businesses 20′ to one side and cars 20′ to the other. Slick.

And If You Want to Waste More Time

I certainly did in writing this book, visit:

Pre-Order Now for 9/29/20 Arrival:
At the Clearest Sensation

At the Clearest Sensation

Series: Shadowforce: Psi, Book 4
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Tag: Novel

Even the best feeling isn’t always the right one.

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NerdGuy #22: Dragons

No, not the cool fire-breathing kind. Sorry.

A Russian Dragon racing on Lake Como, Italy. © VYGOcommand|Wikimedia

Okay, is it utterly ridiculous for me to whimper at this point?

Sailing geeks get it, of course. Here’s a (very) brief background as to why.

Dragon Coolness

Johan Anker was a Norwegian sailor who won Olympic medals from 1908 to 1928 (the last gold was with his son and the crown prince, and future king, of Norway on his crew). So, we can accept that he knew a little about boats.

Anker & Jenkins soon became on of the premier boat design teams in the world. And Anker’s design of the Dragon became an Olympic event from 1948 to 1972.  This made it the one of the three longest running keelboat classes in the Olympics, featuring in 7 Olympics over 34 years.

Today, it is still one of the largest one-design keelboat sailing classes anywhere with over 1,300 boats registered in 31 countries on five continents.

Okay, I can feel my wife is way ready for a subject change. I sailed all the time as a kid and through much of my twenties. Her experience with sailing was staying at her mom’s tiny houseboat in Sausalito, CA, where she moved after my wife went to college. When I get on a roll about sailboats, her eyes don’t just roll, they tend to roll right back into her head.

A few definitions

A wooden Dragon, super-extra cool as most are fiberglass now. © AHunt|Wikimedia

See that big fin underneath, below the water line? That’s called a keel. Even better, it’s called a full keel. (This is one of those points that cause endless debates in bars after sailboat races.)

Compare that with this “fin” keel.

Fin keel. You get the idea, right? Paceship 23 © AHunt|Wikimedia

The full keel is really good at going in a straight line. With all of that area underwater, it doesn’t get blown sideways very easily. Whereas the fin keel offers much less sideways resistance.

On the other side of the coin, the fin keel lets you twist and turn much faster as you don’t have to slosh so much water out of your way. The Dragon is actually what’s called a “modified full keel” because the underwater part doesn’t run end to end. Ocean-going ships will typically have true, full keels because they don’t need to turn except at either end of their journey.

My lovely “Lady Amalthea”. A boat I rebuilt from 1983-1985. Note the full keel (and the pretty new paint job).

The Lady was very slow to turn, but if I was headed in just one direction, she flew!

The modified full keel design of the Dragon is a compromise between “holding a line” and “turning on a dime.”

You’ll also notice that the Dragon and the Lady were very long and lean, compared to the Pacer. Lean means less resistance to the water, which means FAST! Sure, the  Pacer 23 (23′ long) probably had berths for 3, a tiny galley and maybe a toilet. The 29′ Dragon has some room for sails down below, but not much else. The 50′ Lady could sleep six and had a galley and toilet, but it was all very tight.

Two of these boats are about sailing and one is about cruising.

Sailers, Cruisers, and Stinkpots

There are two or three types of sailors.

Those aboard Stinkpots, boats with no sails, just a motor, call themselves sailors…they’re wrong.

Cruisers aren’t in a big hurry. They’re glad to loaf along from one place to another. They’re comfortable, have the kids aboard, and are taking their hotel room with them.

Sailors who sail sailboats, especially long, lean sailboats like Dragons and the Lady, care about the ride. So what if our accommodations would make a nylon tent look luxurious. It doesn’t matter that we’re heeled over enough to be inundated by cold spray (or the occasional cold wave). We haul up as much canvas as we dare and we thrill at the ride.

Big Cruising

My wife and I once toyed with the idea of taking our kid and going sailing around the world for a couple of years. We looked at big cruising boats. Perhaps as long as the Lady, but also half again as wide.

Suddenly the narrow pilot’s berth became a kid’s room with a guest bunk. The master suite wasn’t just a fancy name for the foam and plywood top laid over the sail locker. The galley wasn’t a charcoal grill dangling off the back rail and a battered cooler.

We ended up not going for a lot of reasons (money being one of them–big boats are very spendy), but I never quite recovered from all of that cruising space. I’ll take a long, lean, sailor’s boat any day.

That’s why I think that the Dragon is one of the most beautiful boats ever built. It looks like it’s flying even perched on a trailer. I came within inches of buying one years ago. I was traveling 8 months a year, remodeling a house, and had no time to even think about dating anyone. But I found one just sitting there, so pretty, so perfect. Walking away from it was actively painful.

I Still Dream of that Boat

I sold the Lady Amalthea after three years of rebuilding her and sailing on her every chance I got. I spent two months solo sailing her through the San Juan Islands in 1984.

The Lady under full sail. I tied a rope around the tiller and she just flew. Straights of Georgia, off Vancouver, BC, Canada
The Lady under full sail. I tied a rope around the tiller and she just flew. Going over eight knots on the Strait of Georgia, off Vancouver, BC, Canada.

I changed her sail color and gave her to the hero of Where Dreams Are Born (Where Dreams series #1).

No, that’s not the “Lady” on the cover.

The Dragon that I never owned? Well, you’ll have to wait until 9/29 to find out who gets “my” Dragon. It’s exactly the one I would have bought back in the early 1990s. You can pre-order At the Clearest Sensation now to be the first to read it, or jump in and read the first three in the series before the 29th so that you’re ready for this heart-warming series ender.

a paranormal romantic suspense
Shadowforce: Psi #4


NerdGuy #21: Submarine cables

You use them every day…perhaps 100s of times.

Did you glance at the BBC news? Send a message to a friend traveling in Thailand? Look at a webcam of a wildfire in California (but you don’t live on mainland North America)?

If so, you used an undersea cable. Satellite? Nope. By comparison those are both slow and very expensive. They’re better for beaming down large blocks of programming to a massive area to be picked up by big radio dishes to feed into local cable systems (and little ones at home). Bad weather can interfere with the signal, making frequent resends necessary (it’s all done automatically, but the repeating still slows everything down).

An Incredibly Brief History

  • The telegraph really worked well for the first time in 1839. A two-wire apparatus built by a British team.
  • By 1842, Samuel Morse had dumped a wire (his cheaper system required only one and, along with creating Morse Code, made him the father of telegraphy) into New York harbor. He coated it in hemp and India rubber, and submarine cable was born.
  • By 1853, a successful cable was laid across the English Channel.
  • There are now about 450 of them, many with a dozen or more interconnections to a single cable. I should amend that, there are about 450 active cables, there are (literally) 1,000s down there. Seriously cool active cable map:
  • There are more being laid every day.
  • A cable appears to have about a 20-year life. Not that they all fail, but because technology moves so fast that they’re simply too lame to bother with anymore.
  • Cables were originally mostly owned by telegraph and telephone companies.
  • Now, most of the new ventures are owned by Internet media companies: Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Netflix, with some phone companies thrown in for old times sake. They are all investing billions of dollars into this infrastructure. Private enterprise is going for a 100% connected planet as fast as they can (and as governments allow). If a government chooses not to get hooked up, they’re simply be bypassed and fall off the information superhighway (a near-fatal mistake in my opinion, even just from a commerce point of view). Look at the landing points of the upcoming 2Africa cable to see what I mean:

The Cable Itself

There’s an old World War II submarine cable sticking out of a hillside not too many miles from where I live. We went to see the old anti-submarine observer tower that’s smack in the middle of a very upscale neighborhood. The cable has just been chopped off and left behind in a road cut with no indication if back in the day it was merely connecting to Boston or it stretched all the way to Europe. An insulated core wrapped in heavy armor (that’s all the twisty steel, not for conducting, just for protection). There would then be another protective layer over that, but the rubber has probably degraded out of existence (the tower is at least 75 years old).

WWII Submarine watch tower, Cape Ann, MA
WWII Submarine watch tower, Cape Ann, MA
Submarine cable at base of tower
Submarine cable at base of tower








They’re now fiber-optic thread (or a bunch of them), inside a copper tube (which carries a current to drive the repeaters that boost the signal every 100 km or so), inside armor, waterproofing, and so on. The whole cable will be only 2-3 inches across, all of it in service of a dozen threads of fiber optic each finer than a human hair.

Speed? Try 26 Terrabits per second on a recent trans-Atlantic cable. If I did my math right, that about 135 1080p (hi-res) movies per second. Or 1.3 billion hi-res pictures. Per second. That’s one cable for 1/86,400th of a day.

Now multiply by those 450 cables (despite varying speed and age), and you can see how they connect our world together.

Damage, Sabotage, and Tapping?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Every few days a cable is broken by rock slides, underwater earthquakes, or fishermen. In an extreme example in 2007, a couple of Vietnamese fishermen essentially unplugged the country. They pulled up 27 miles of cable with the intent of selling it as scrap. For over a month the country had to limp along on a single, aged cable.

Cutting a cable is easy.  The main safety against a cable attack at this time is simply the vast number of cables. To target even a significant number, at least in the first world, would be a monstrous task. In less connected countries, which may have only one or two connections, or worse yet may only be linked through another country’s cable, this is a higher risk.

Tapping one is harder, but both the Russians and the US have submarines that appear to have been specifically adapted to do this. Consider these links:

The submarine USS Jimmy Carter (with an extra 100′ section) took over duties from the USS Parche worked for the NURO, National Underwater Reconnaissance Office (part of the NRO??). And if you want to muckrake a little deeper, try this article.

Tapping them on land is trivial, as Snowden revealed in his document theft from the NSA.

This is, of course, no surprise at all to any half-decent computer tech, and it is practically guaranteed that every country is doing it and has been all along. Snowden just happened to steal a document that exposed GCHQ (the British equivalent to the NSA).

The easiest attack point is where the cables come ashore. Any sailor knows the “Do Not Anchor Here” signs of a cable crossing. They often carry power to an island along with phone and cable. But they can also be crossing oceans. There are two options about what to do with the sea-to-land terminus: hide it or fortify it. Or do both. All of the examples in my recent release At the Merest Glance are real, except for the Senegalese one. I found solutions precisely like the ones I used there, but was uncertain of the precise location it actually comes ashore there. In the book I talk about the WWII solution at Porthcurno, Cornwall, where they buried the cables and the operators inside a sea cliff.

Yes, there’s an entire, utterly fascinating infrastructure that underlies our oceans and connects our world together. I hope that it only grows.

For the Total Geek

A neat 3-minute video of how cables are laid under the ocean.

A 43-minute special on how cables are: manufactured, laid, and fixed that I found riveting despite the narration style.

All this for a few scenes in Shadowforce: Psi #3

At the Merest Glance

At the Merest Glance

Series: Shadowforce: Psi, Book 3
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Tag: Novel

Sometimes seeing is believing, sometimes it takes feeling as well.

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