NerdGuy #18: Bad Guys Need Good Weapons

The HEL-A laser.

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.

Anti-personnel

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.

PHASR rifle
The Air Force Research Laboratory had this in 2005. Wonder what they have now!

Many Varieties

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.)

Airborne

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.

747 Airborne Laser YAL-1 ATL
YAL-1 Airiborne Test Laser (in a 747)

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 Photonics describes 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.

Ghostrider

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:

  1. It has to fit inside an AC-130 airplane with a lot of other armament.
  2. You have to be able to fit its power supply on board too. (Another turbine engine?)
  3. 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.

NerdGuy #17: Messing With Places

Next week on June 23rd, Miranda Chase #4, Ghostriderwill 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.

Aspen, Colorado

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).

Circque shaped ski area
Tuckerman’s Ravine, Mt. Washington, NH (spring skiing) (c) msheppard

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.

Wild Fire: a military romantic suspense novel

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

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.

NerdGuy #16: Mama Espinoza’s

Sometimes it is the simplest things that bring a character to life. This time, it brought the antagonist character of Colonel Vicki Cortez to life and made her central to my newest Miranda Chase novel, #4, Ghostrider.

Background

We’ll skim through the early days.

In the 1930s, 200 miles south of the US-Mexican border, El Rosario was a tiny farming community trying to scrape a living from the hard land. When a traveler did stray that far down coastal Route 1, Mama Espinoza would offer them a meal in her dining room from a red house that sprawled inside the turn as Route 1 shifted from north-south to east-west. Her food slowly became a destination for the more intrepid travelers.

A History of Flight

One cool story that didn’t make it in the book.

In November, 1961, low on fuel and flying in a dust storm, a pilot and 5 passengers from San Diego made a desperate landing near El Rosario. They were rescued and fed at Mama Espinoza’s. Locals drove them 30 miles north for a place to sleep and get medical help for one of the passengers (there were no doctors in the small town). The next day they retrieved them and refueled their plane.

But the doctor returned with them to the town and saw the villages’ desperate plight (even above and beyond the terrible drought that had killed their fields and was now decimating their livestock). With what few supplies he had, the doctor treated 22 patients before departing. He promised to return.

Six small planes returned before Christmas. They brought presents wrapped by the local Boy Scout troop, food, candy, and medical supplies. The trips by the doctors became a regular routine. In fact, it inspired the doctors and pilots to found the Flying Samaritans. Their 1,500 volunteers serve 19 clinics throughout the region with both permanent and fly-in clinics. Read the full story under About the Samaritans.

It all happened because of kindness to strangers.

Bit of a Race

1967 saw the founding of what is now one of the world’s most prestigious off-road races, the Baja 1000. And the scouts made the very first check point of the race…which it’s been for the 43 years since…and counting.

It was the making of Mama Espinoza’s not simply as a place to eat good, authentic Mexican food. But also as a destination in and of itself. Her entire house has become the restaurant.

Click here for their Facebook page.

It is totally worth spending looking at the photos on their Facebook Page.

Why? Because its interior has become filled with memorabilia and photos of one of the major off-road races in the world. Top riders would bring their cars and motorcycles there to be blessed by Mama before the race. Though she recently died at the age of 109, her legacy lives on through her family and their restaurant, just at the sharp bend in Route 1 about 10 miles after you leave the Pacific Coast and turn inland.

Taking Flight

Colonel Vicki “Taz” Cortez, Taz is short for Taser, earned her nickname fair and square. Despite being trim and under 5′ tall, she owns the ability to run over the opposition—ANY opposition. She is the primary weapon of the chief antagonist in my upcoming Miranda Chase #4 Ghostrider, three-star General Jorge Jesus “JJ” Martinez. Though he doesn’t figure into this NerdGuy.

I’m always intrigued by what characters come up with on their own. For Taz? It turns out that she has a gourmet tongue. She can find the best food, anywhere. Even in places she’s never been before.

So when I sent her to find a hideout for the general in deepest Baja, Mexico, it was she who took me on a side trip to Mama Espinoza’s. And that’s where she came to life on the page as well. That moment trickled back through the book in many ways. Even though it occurs late in the book, it’s the scene below that brought her to life while squatting in an untraveled valley deep in central Baja. (no spoilers)

When she’d first traveled here, she’d been driving. Fifty kilometers away, the nearest town, El Rosario, was a nothing place. Seventeen hundred people perched close by the Pacific, halfway down Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

El Rosario was known for only two things.

It was traditionally the first rest stop in the six-day off-road rally race called the Baja 1000.

And it was the home of Mama Espinoza’s restaurant. Mama E. herself had died recently at the age of 109, but the kids had kept it going.

It was classic Mexico, except for the food being even better than usual. Since the 1930s, Mama E. had served meals in her home’s dining room. It had taken off in the ’60s, when it became the first checkpoint of the Baja 1000. And Mama E. had never looked back.

The house was now entirely restaurant. Painted brilliant red outside, with a half dozen long tables covered in plastic red-and-white checked tablecloths inside, it looked homey. Every wall was covered with photos of fifty years of racing. Mementos were everywhere, making it part museum as well. Racers had brought their motorcycles there to be blessed by Mama E. herself before the big races.

Taz could have moved in, if duty hadn’t called. However, she remembered the burrito trio: crab, garlic shrimp, and local lobster. She could definitely go through another set of those right now.

As she’d done all of her life, she shrugged off what couldn’t be and felt no regret. Her mother had taught her that. Take care of the now. Mama’s answer to everything. Taz had made herself an expert in dealing with the now.

Learn more about Taz in Ghostrider. Available everywhere June 23rd (including print & audio). Already on sale at Apple in a special promo.

Ghostrider

Ghostrider

Author:
Series: Miranda Chase, Miranda Chase novels, Book 4
Genre: Thriller
Tag: Novel

Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

More info →

 

NerdGuy #15: Childhood songs into Gunships

Puff and Ghostrider – origins (for me)

“Puff, the Magic Dragon was a Peter, Paul, and Mary song I grew up singing along with. It was probably the first song I knew all the words to, maybe even before I had the alphabet down (the order of “J” vs. “K” still screws me up sometimes, I have to get a running start at “H” to be sure).

“(Ghost) Riders In the Sky” (The Outlaws Version) rang through my senior year at college (with the too twangy Johnny Cash version before that). During those years, Southern Rock was sweeping the campuses, even where I went to school up in Maine. Charlie Daniels Band, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Allman Brothers, and many others. “Riders” was a hard-dancing fixture at any number of parties.

The next time I ran into it were the endless trailers for the 2007 movie Ghost Rider with Nicholas Cage (a fairly poor Marvel movie before Marvel figured out what they were doing) and the heavy metal theme song by Spiderbait (screwed up from my familiar Southern Rock–not my fav).

AC-47 “Puff, the Magic Dragon”

This has a much more intriguing origin and is the core of today’s NerdGuy.

It actually all began back in the Vietnam War. The Air Force did some testing with a Convair C-131 that said you could point a gun out the side of an airplane and it would be fairly easy to bank in a circle above a target and shoot consistently at the same spot.

After a few false starts and stops, in 1964 the Air Force chose one of my favorite planes (it’s almost every fliers favorite), a Douglas DC-3 (which the Air Force calls the C-47). They side-mounted a line of three mini-guns aiming out the port (left) side, placed a firing button on the pilot’s control wheel, and made a grease pencil mark on his left window. It became the AC-47 Spooky. “A” for Attack.

AC-47D Puff the Magic Dragon
AC-47D (you can just see the 3 miniguns mounted behind the wing)
Miniguns
MXU-470 miniguns

A Pylon Turn is something that every beginning pilot practices (including me when I used to fly). The challenge is to retain steady, consistent control throughout a banked turn. The instructor would pick a point on the ground (like a water tank). When I came up even with it (not above it but off to the side), I’d try to circle around it and always keep it aligned with the tip of my left wing. The better I got, the steadier the tip of my wing was on that tank until I could keep it centered at the top of the tanks dome, not just the tank itself.

That’s what the grease pencil mark was on the inside of the pilot’s window. He sits too far ahead of the wing, and each pilot is a different height, so needs a different mark. But once set up, a one-second burst on the miniguns could deliver six thousand rounds into an area as small as a few dozen square yards–every time!

It completely changed the nature of many battles. When in close quarter combat with an enemy troop, an AC-47 Spooky could lay down a massive suppressive fire from an untouchable height above the battle. An immediate order went out for more of these aircraft…which they couldn’t provide because there were so few miniguns in existence at that time.  But those wrinkles were soon worked out.

They operated mostly at night. They’d drop a parachute flare to illuminate the enemy, bank, and spit fire at them from above. No suprise that it was nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and often flew with the simple call sign of “Puff.”

Bigger Dragons are Spooky

So, if a small dragon was good, a big dragon might be better? Indeed it was.

The C-130 Hercules is perhaps the most successful cargo plane the world has ever known.  It is used in all walks of life from US Coast Guard Search-and-Rescue to fighting wildfires to…an AC-130 gunship.

By 1970, these had completely replaced Puffs in Vietnam. Where the Puff could fire three guns worth of 7.62 mm bullets (.308″), the AC-130s first added 20 mm rounds (3/4″) fired from a rotary autocannon, with 40mm (1-1/2″) following close behind.

The big change, literally, happened in 1971, when a 105 mm (4.1″) howitzer was adapted to the big plane. Now, instead of small bullets, high-explosive rounds weighing 15 kg (36 pounds) could be heaved down from above. A single mini-gun, a 40 mm cannon, and the big howitzer could hit the same point with devastating effect…at the same time!

The plane itself went through many names, Pave, Pronto, Aegis, Spooky, Stinger, Dragon Spear, even Surprise Package. But it was the squadron’s call sign that stuck. From the AC-130A to the AC-130U (only 6 of letters were used) , these gunships were all best known as the Spectre. (Yes, it is totally appropriate to have the James Bond theme playing in your head right now.)

Hercules meets Super Hercules

After sixty-five years (yes, 65) the C-130 Hercules is still going strong in many roles. At the turn of the century, at the age of 45, it received its first comprehensive end to end update with new engines and new avionics. The C-130J Super Hercules flies farther, faster, and higher than all of its older brothers. (I’d warn my older brothers, but I don’t have any. However, I have an older sister…who I learned ages ago to never ever mess with. Older sisters are scary!)

It was only natural that this was the time to rethink the AC-130 gunship. The main thought was, “Why would you use a slow, propeller-driven, fat plane into a battle zone?” The main answer, “Until we think up something better (a new plane design can take a decade or more), we need something.”

Ghostrider (I)

And along came the AC-130J Super Hercules “Ghostrider.” In addition to everything else it’s older brothers did so well, the Ghostrider has added a new trick, a HEL-A laser.

I’ll geek out about this at another time. Let’s just say that the FDA regulations kick in at 5 mW (milliWatts). A 1 W laser can instantly blind you or char your skin. The High-Energy Laser – Airborne in the AC-130J is rumored to be at or above the 150 kW range. That’s 30 million times brighter than your cat’s laser pointer. (Trying to imagine 30 million times? Pull out a one-dollar bill. If you had 30M of those, it would be a stack over 2 miles high.)

Cobra and Apache helicopters, A-10 Thunderbolt jets, the Russian…oh, wait…they’re just now developing their own copy of the C-130 because they couldn’t figure out how to do it better themselves.

Yes, this plane may have venerable origins, but it will still be a factor on battlefields for years to come, just as it has in every single conflict involving the USA since the Vietnam War.

Ghostrider (II)

So, when Miranda Chase went looking for her fourth major air-crash investigation, the conclusion to the Preflight Quartet begun with Drone, Thunderbolt, and Condor, she found…a Ghostrider. Coming June 23rd. (Special: Available from Apple starting June 9th!!!)

action-adventure thriller
Pre-order your eBook now! (print & audio on June 23rd)