NerdGuy Fridays

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #39: Osprey (Cover #2) – Menwith Hill

Miranda Chase #13 launches 9/26
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Last week we delved into the Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. A very strange bird indeed.

This week I thought I’d nerd out a bit on those white “golf balls” in the background.

These are radomes (radar domes) that are transparent to radio waves but protect the radar dish from the weather and, far more importantly for this particular site, where they’re pointing.

Yeah, that’s a real “Huh” moment, isn’t it? They’re aimed at the sky, right? If you drive by your local cable company’s office, you’re likely to spot dozens of radio dishes aimed upward. They’re doing the same thing that a small rooftop Dish network antenna is doing, receiving satellite broadcast television signals to feed out over your Xfinity or whoever’s cable to your home.

These are a little different.

The Three Sites

There are three stations that are very different. The NSA (National Security Administration), one of the USA’s most clandestine intelligence agencies, has three special listening posts around the world, each with dozens (as in thirty or more) satellite dishes aimed at the sky.

  • Pine Gap, Alice Springs, Australia – right near the center of Australia protected by over a thousand kilometers of Outback in every direction. (
  • Aerospace Data Facility-Colorado (ADF-C) Buckley Space Force Base, Aurora, CO, USA – right near the center of the US, protected from eavesdropping by ocean-based vessels again by over a thousand miles (we’re the only country still using the English system after all) of continent. (
  • Royal Air Force Menwith Hill, Harrogate, UK – in a valley in the Yorkshire Dales. (
  • There are also two lesser NRO stations at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and Fort Belvoir, VA.

Osprey is largely set at Menwith Hill.

Top Secret Happenings

These three stations (with a little help from the two sidekicks) are run by a combination of the NSA, the NRO (the US intelligence agency with the highest budget, as they’re responsible for building, launching, and operating all the spy satellites), and the CIA.

They are the eyes and ears of the USA from space. If a terrorist leader is targeted with a drone strike, there’s a near certainty that one of these three “NSA Listening Posts” was involved in monitoring the target, confirming identification, creating a target package for official approval, and perhaps even action when time is too short.

There’s, of course, almost nothing public about these stations. Even the big Edward Snowden scandal released little more than the name and general purpose of these places. There’s a rather unimpressive tell-all book: Pine Gap: Close to God’s Ear: NSA Eavesdropping Memoirs by David Rosenberg. Sorry, it deserves the three-star rating it has earned from all of ten reviewers (of course, if he wrote anything more clearly he’d probably be in prison now). There is an Australian 2018 television series, Pine Gap. Of course, as it was absolutely lovely, it was cancelled after a single season. Well worth watching just for the show’s sake if you can track it down.

What They Listen To

This is where it gets really interesting.

I say “spy satellites” and most folks will imagine those big cameras in the sky. And yep, we have at least six of these up there ( These are basically Hubble Telescopes tuned to look down instead of up. In fact, there’s a rumor that the Hubble is actually a leftover frame for a Kennen that the military gave them and that’s the real reason they changed from the originally planned three-meter mirror to two-point-four meters (because that’s what the Kennens used at the time). There’s another rumor that’s what was wrong with the original mirror of the Hubble, that the focal length was wrong because they didn’t change it from orbit-to-Earth’s surface before launching it to look at the stars.

This is only a tiny portion of what’s up there. Need proof? Count the radomes in the pictures below, but don’t trust your eyes. Pine Gap is said to have 38 radomes and over 800 employees. In 2019, Menwith Hill added three more to have 37 radomes. I didn’t easily find a report on ADF-Colorado. You don’t need that many dishes to track six imaging satellites.

RAF Menwith Hill
Pine Gap

So What Else Is Up There

Think about your cell phone. It radiates a signal out to the nearest cell tower. Ten to fifteen miles with a clear field of view gets you a nice signal. Twenty-five miles can still work if there aren’t a lot of buildings, trees, or mountains springing up like crazed dandelions. It’s all a question of power. A handheld satellite phone is less about all the technology inside and more about getting enough signal aloft for the little Iridium satellites to pick up. The Iridium satellites have a trio of receiving panels about 1m x 2m.

Now let’s look at an NRO monitoring satellite. Here we get off into the land of the rumored or even the bizarre. The diagram below offers a (fuzzy) view of the growth of US monitoring satellites. The one that may be the latest, the Trumpet ( is believed to have a radio dish about 150m in diameter. That’s roughly 9,000 times more antenna than the sole Iridium antenna aimed in your direction that can easily pick up a handheld satellite phone signal and keep track of it as it swings from horizon to horizon in seven minutes.

Generation of radio satellites with the 1990s-era Trumpet at the right

“And you, Mister Terrorist, think they can’t overhear any type of transmission?” Massive computers at each site chew through all that noise, looking for aggressors, potential aggressors, and who knows what else. You can also bet that they have something aloft to monitor and decode other nation’s satellites as well.

Do I feel threatened or safer because of these sites? Do I wish we didn’t need them? Sure. But personally? They let me sleep a little better at night.

And that’s where Miranda is going this time, we can only hope that she survives.

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NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #38: Osprey (Cover #1)

Miranda Chase #13, Osprey, arrives Sept 26th.

There are two great Nerd-outs in a single cover! Here’s the first.

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One look at the cover and you can see that the Osprey is a very strange bird. Is it a helicopter? Or an airplane? Both yet neither. It takes off and lands like a helicopter (mostly, we’ll get into why) and it flies like a plane (again mostly). Actually, it’s a whole new breed of air vehicle—a tiltrotor.

The Challenge

Helicopters are great because they can land anywhere that’s open. They can also hover in tricky spots and raise and lower things like: air conditioning units, radio towers, evacuees, timber, troops, boats… The list is pretty endless.

Helicopters are a pain in the butt because they: have limited range, and can’t go very fast.

Range: Not many helicopters can travel over five hundred miles without refueling. The rare few that can reach over a thousand miles do so by dumping payload in favor of fuel. Jet fuel is lighter than water (or whiskey for that matter) but still clocks in at 6.8 pounds/gallon (0.8 kilos/liter for those of you with the decency to think in metric—everyone in the world except US civilians). Five hundred gallons knocks a lot out of payload limits.

Go Fast: The fastest helicopter in the world prior to the Osprey was the MH-47 Chinook at a heart-stopping 196 mph. And it can carry 12.5 tons of fuel and payload while doing it. That sounds great until you look at your average turboprop supply plane like the little C-2 Greyhound that doubles that at 394 mph while carrying 5 tons over fifteen hundred miles. Or the air force’s big cargo jets in the 550 mph range and can deliver Abrams battle tanks halfway around the world. Never mind the jet fighters going Mach 2 or more (they have different priorities).

Eating Your Bacon Too (mostly)

Along comes the Osprey. It takes off and lands vertically (VTOL) but flies like a plane at a respectable 350 mph while carrying ten tons of cargo a thousand miles. Vertical lift, big capacity, and some hustle…a win-win, right? (Mostly.)

Let’s bypass the testing phase. This is a drastically new technology, which means that in the beginning it failed a lot and killed a lot of people. And because of its capacity to carry a lot of troops, sometimes it did it in large groups.

Take Off: There are some real issues here, especially early on. Look back at that picture of the MV-22 Osprey on the cover. To shift from helicopter to airplane, the whole engine swivels at the end of the wing. When the rotor is pointed straight up, the engine exhaust is pointed straight down. That’s a turboshaft engine, meaning a jet engine with a shaft in the middle to turn things like large rotor blades. That means hot engine exhaust on a massive scale.

This caused some problems. Grass fires if they wanted to land in a field (but that’s okay because helicopters never need to do that. Massive brownout clouds from the twin rotors when landing in dusty areas. It also melted runways (even at airshows), before they figured out to do rolling take off and landings. However, they also melted the decks of aircraft carriers and LHDs (landing helicopter dock ships—basically aircraft carriers for helicopters). A rumor has it that one of the big delays of the CVN-78 USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier was that the brand-new boat design didn’t account for the heat of a landing Osprey and they had to replace the entire deck.

This problem has been partly addressed through training and partly through new software that does things like slowly tick the engines back and forth when idling on the ground to avoid overheating a single spot, instead spreading the heat out over a wider area.

But How?

MV-22 in flight over Hurlburt Field, FL (USMC)
You can see why they can’t land in airplane mode.

So the engines and rotors rotate at the end of the wings as they transition between flight modes.

There are a few catches, as you might imagine. Aside from the heat and brownout thing (also addressed with new flight control software that let’s pilots slide into a high hover and then simply notch their way down a few feet at a time until they touch the ground), there are issues with emergency landings.

The bottom line, don’t! A single engine can drive both rotors in an emergency through a connecting driveshaft. But if one rotor or that driveshaft itself are damaged, you have to depend on the wings for airlift to land it like an airplane. And those wings, by design, are very small. If a rotor itself is damaged, the aircraft is going down—hard.

There is good news here though.

Safety: Those who follow the news and saw the tragic accident involving an Osprey this week (  and followed all of those early accidents as I did, you might be surprised to learn that during the conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan, they had exceptional safety records.

The Control

Osprey MV-22 Cockpit (©Dash 24)

Look closely at this photo. There is a normally looking cyclic (joystick) that rises up between the pilot’s knees.

But for the pilot’s left hand there isn’t a helicopter’s collective (which looks like a car’s pull-up-style parking brake on steroids) or the throttle of a fixed-wing aircraft. Instead, there’s that big control on a slider. This was a huge innovation and I’d love to know how much debate came into developing it.

There are controls on the head for various functions to meet the HOTAS criteria (Hands On Throttle and Stick). But note that it’s mounted on a long slider. Basically, push forward, go fast. Pull back, go slow.

But the real fun, that you can just barely see, is clearer below.

Imagine this under your left hand. Four fingers wrap around the top to the hidden controls marked by the white lettering. A few more controls for quick access with your thumb.

But that bright spot, down in the slot where your thumb could rest so easily is a bright spot. It’s a thumb wheel. Roll it forward/down, and the big engines and their rotors tilt forward. Roll it back/up, welcome to helicopter mode.



And how did that end up in the book?

“No need to melt your runway…” Dave nodded to Josh’s left hand, “roll the thumbwheel forward to initiate proprotor transition.”

That was a real problem with the design of the Osprey—one of many things he didn’t like about the bird. He wondered for the tenth time if that’s why he’d drawn this assignment, his well-known distrust of the aircraft. Had someone chosen him to make sure this evaluation failed? Focusing on being impartial didn’t help. Something else would have to get him through this, which he had a month to find.

The tiltrotor concept aimed the proprotors aloft like side-by-side helo rotors, one at the end of each wing. Then, once aloft, they tilted them forward so that the Osprey flew like an airplane—one with ludicrously large propellors. When still on the ground they were far too big to start facing forward. But they could be partly tilted, enough to gain some forward momentum, without battering the blades against the ground like the world’s most expensive trench-digger.

The Bell Boeing design didn’t hinge the proprotor itself. Instead, they’d mounted the engine at the very end of the wing and rotated the whole engine-proprotor assembly. Therefore, during VTOL—vertical takeoff-and-landing—operations, the rotor and engine were aimed straight up. This aimed the blazing hot engine exhaust straight down. In the early days, it had melted runways, started grass fires during field landings, and even warped the decks of several aircraft carriers before they learned ways to mitigate that.

Initially, they’d had to put down thick steel plates any time an Osprey wanted to land. Now, when down, the engines were programmed to oscillate a few degrees back and forth so as not to melt the metal decks of ships. Over tar, the answer was to ramp up power after you were already in motion. He still didn’t know how they didn’t start grass fires when landing in the rough.

Josh nudged the knurled knob under his left thumb forward for half a second. The machine responded to the tiny motion of his thumb by angling the seven-meter-long engine—topped by the spinning twelve-meter proprotor—forward about five degrees. Another half second, another five degrees, and she began to roll. He could get to like this. A Merlin’s collective gave no such sense of childhood superhero dreams come true.

“I am become a Viking God.”

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NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #37: Prigozhin’s plane

I had such a fascinating (and non-political) experience regarding the downing of his plane that I thought I’d share it just for the fun of it.

I was at a very different kind of conference this week. For a future Miranda Chase book (coming this winter), I wanted to get my team over toward Sweden, but not on an investigation. Wondering how to do that, I asked myself, “Huh, do they ever go to conferences?”

It turns out they do: ISASI, the International Society of Air Safety Investigators annual conference.  It was in Nashville, so I simply had to go. 335 investigators from 45 countries, utterly fascinating. I got to sit with Boeing, Gulfstream, Delta, UK military, Iceland, Australia, NZ, FAA, NTSB, US Navy and Air Force (and an Air Force materials lab guy who I totally geeked out with) and a myriad of others. Holy wow, utterly amazing 4 days.

But back to Prigozhin. By chance, I was the one who caught the breaking news at our table during a break. I spun the screen to show the investigators around my table. Their very first question? “What air frame?” We each tossed out ideas. And after about 3 minutes (ridiculously fast unless it was preplanned, which Russia is now denying) someone found that it was an Embraer Legacy 600. We all nodded like that was about right and we should have guessed that one. (I had offered the very similar Gulfstream and the dissimilar Antonov An-24 turboprop.)

Embraer Legacy 600
Embraer Legacy 600

Then they all turned to me. “You’re the guy who follows headlines with your geopolitical series, why do you think it took Putin so long to knock him out?” LOL!

My answers were:

  1. Putin had to wait to get any Wagner troops who wouldn’t sign with the Russian Army out of the country to avoid another rebellion. Once they were in Belarus, he was safe from that.
  2. Also, Putin had to consolidate power at home. I felt it was clear how shaky his grasp is as he had to fire/disappear 3 major folks from the Russian government/military before he dared to move.

That discussion ended abruptly when the video popped up. They’re crash investigators after all, so the analysis of that ranked as far more interesting. “Dead stick.” “Missing wing.” Spin rate. Verticality of descent rather than arcing flight path. And a ton of other factors I’d never have gleaned from the image. Far more interesting to them than any mere politics. LOL!

So, yeah, a very interesting place to be on hearing the news.

Typical of a 4-day immersion conference, I’m heading home with reams of notes and a very full brain. [grin] The key to my success there? The depth of my research. I could ask those next level questions. When they talked about reading the black box from this crash or that, I didn’t have to ask “What crash?” or “What kind of plane is that?” But having studied it, I was easily accepted. And being at that technical conference hopefully will give my future adventures with Miranda even more depth!

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #35 – Doomsday Planes

Nightwatch – NOT the original Doomsday Plane

a buchman action-adventure technothrillerThe E-4B Nightwatch featured in Miranda Chase #12 was NOT the only Doomsday Plane lofted by the US military. There is a long history that is actually rather interesting. A fan (thanks Gaylord) reminded me of this when he told me about his experience as a kid on a class field trip to Ouffut Air Force Base in the 1970s to actually tour the Looking Glass plane.

“Looking Glass” will be a familiar name to fans of 1970s war movies, from Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe (which were mandatory viewing in our high school) to 1983’s War Games or Countdown to Looking Glass (1984), (though I haven’t seen that one yet). It is the plane that was always aloft to provide a secure command-and-control center in case of nuclear attack. Well, the plane wasn’t a work of fiction. There have been three aircraft commonly called Doomsday planes.

Doomsday Plane #1 – EC-135 “Looking Glass”

© Mike Freer – Touchdown Aviation

This is actually a very interesting plane. The EC-135 was designated by Boeing internally as the 717 (not to be confused with the commercial Boeing 717 that first flew in 1998). Slightly smaller than the 707, it was introduced in 1956 and first used as the KC-135 Stratotanker for mid-air refueling. Five of these were refitted in 1961 to make EC-135A planes until at least 11 more could be outfitted from scratch for the Looking Glass role. They were flown by Strategic Air Command (SAC).

Looking Glass aircraft were continuously aloft (as in at least one plane airborne 24 hours/day) from 1961 – 1990 (after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and shortly before the 1991 collapse of the USSR). After that, they remained on continuous ground or airborne alert until 1998. They always flew with a US general on-board to provide continuity of government and on-going existence of the USA. He flew with the full authority to launch and target the US’s nuclear arsenal in case of attack.

This partial standing-down, remaining on ready-alert rather than aloft, is due to the increasing capabilities of satellites. But they too are vulnerable and these “Doomsday” planes are kept at the ready.

Doomsday Plane #2 – E-6B “Mercury”

United States Navy Boeing E-6B Mercury. (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)

“Looking Glass” isn’t actually the name of the airplane, it’s the name of the mission. In 1998, that mission was handed over to the US Navy who still runs it today. They’re still flying Boeing 707s, some of the very last off the production line which was closed in 1991. It flies with a general officer or admiral on board, with the same mission, command and control of the US nuclear arsenal in case of attack.

Doomsday Plane #3 – E-4B “Nightwatch”

E-4B Nightwatch undergoing EMP (Eletro-magnetic Pulse) testing. By USAF Sergeant Ernie Stone.

These 4 Boeing 747-200s entered service in 1974 with a slightly different mandate, but still definitely class as Doomsday planes. An extremely capable aircraft, it too can conduct command-and-control operations throughout the US military, including direct communication with deeply submerged submarines (which is much harder than it sounds, perhaps another NerdGuy).

The Nightwatch planes are the Air Force One for the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense when they go traveling. These are the military destroyers to the Air Force One luxury yacht. One of these is always parked within 100 miles of the President when he travels overseas in case of emergencies (a fact I used in Miranda Chase #8, White Top). They used to keep one permanently near the President, but these planes are so old that they’ve restricted their usage somewhat to preserve them. It’s only in 2022 that Congress finally authorized the budget to begin the replacement process of these 50-year-old aircraft.

But don’t underestimate their capabilities based on age. The internal electronics are continuously upgraded and fortified against almost every eventuality short of a direct hit. On 9/11, when all non-military planes had been grounded, spotters saw a 747 circling high over Washington, DC. It was an E-4B Nightwatch providing surveillance security to the nation’s capital.

Do I feel safer that they exist, or horrified that there is a need (perceived or imagined) for such aircraft to remain in our arsenal? That’s a question I leave for you to decide. (Click HERE to buy Nightwatch now.)

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