NerdGuy Friday #20: A bit of PSI

No, I’m not talking about atmospheric pressure (pounds per square inch), the Planetary Science Institute, or even the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano). I’m going to briefly nerd out on parapsychology.

It was a hot ticket in 1970s science fiction, perhaps most prominently led by Anne McCaffrey’s To Ride Pegasus and the seven follow-on novels of her Talents Universe. Also, the famous human-draconic telepathy of her dragon series and empathy of the Dragonsigner trilogy.

At that time, there was hope, perhaps even belief, that this was the next evolutionary step of humankind. Thought psi has faded far back in popularity, it still lies at the core of some stories, the movie Looper comes easily to mind.

I think that in fiction, interest in these skills was mostly wiped out by the superhero genre of the X-men and their ilk.

A Brief Background

Back in 2016, Desiree Holt approached me with an invitation to include a romantic suspense story in her upcoming Kindle Worlds launch. I was beyond flattered. She was one of the early powerhouses in RS. It was only later when I had read several of her books that I realized quite how different our styles were.

Desiree Holt was a queen of super steamy romantic suspense mixed with telepathy. While I’m not the former, my old love for McCaffrey as a teen kept me in the plan. Plus, it was only one short novella, to which I’d never get the rights back. That was clear in the Amazon Kindle Worlds contract and I was fine with that for the promotional opportunity.

I wrote the story (more on that in a moment), and it rocketed to #2 in Kindle Worlds and remained there for over a month. I made a little money as did Desiree, which was nice, but I was befuddled by the title’s popularity. No other title from that initial 10-book launch in her world came close.

Then, Amazon shut down Kindle Worlds. The rights reverted to a story I never expected to have back. Desiree offered to republish it under her own imprint, or fully revert the rights if I removed her characters. I chose the latter and redrafted the last half of the book with new secondary characters.

The Sum Is Greater became At the Slightest Sound. And, because I can’t write just one (writing is a lot like potato chips for me), I followed it with At the Quietest Word. Now books #3 and #4 in the series are coming to complete the series. (August 25th and September 29th)

But that’s not what I want to nerd about.

PSI Powers

Psi (or parapsychology) is the study of extra-sensory perception and even telekinesis (moving stuff with your mind).

Wikipedia offers these as the primary areas of study of psi:

  • Telepathy – mind-to-mind communication
  • Precognition – knowing ahead
  • Clairvoyance – seeing remotely
  • Psychokinesis – moving stuff with the mind
  • Apparitional experiences – seeing ghosts, or sensing from their belongings

The problem I had with writing about any of these is that they’re sort of the “first idea.” One thing that writers talk about when they’re together is the “low-hanging fruit” of the first idea that comes to mind. As we advance as writers, we learn to discard the first, second, perhaps even the third idea. Why? Because that’s what comes to everyone else’s mind too. How do we make it new?

Telepathy with dragons? Empathy with fire lizards? Absolutely unique. But Ms. McCaffrey’s “Talents Universe” is an obscure body of work by any comparison. Why? I think it’s because she went right up the middle lane. This person is a telekinetic and can move things. This one is precog and knows things before they happen (even if sometimes too late). They are flawed people with challenges of their new talents putting them in danger.

So, I set out to make my characters different. Nothing magical. Not Dragonriders of Pern. But different.

A Different Kind of Psi

For the original title, I went poking around for ideas that I’d never heard of before. I’ve had a great deal to do with sound in my life. I was a professional soundman for live theater for several years. I’ve sold high-end home stereos, even redesigned the entire living room of one of my first house specifically for the best acoustics from my ridiculously tweaky sound system. I’ve studied music for years on a wide variety of instruments (regrettably with little talent and a tin ear) but I love music and acoustics.

I’d never read about acoustics as a psi talent (not that its a genre I’d read heavily, but it sounded different). Then I got to thinking about the fact that it was a romance. How could I use an acoustic psi talent to bring my couple together?

At the Slightest Sound places a Night Stalker and a Delta Force operator in the weeds of an operation gone bad. She can create little sounds to distract the enemy. They quickly discover that, with the hero’s help, she can create far bigger sounds.

But that was too easy. It had that low-hanging fruit feel to it. Add in that my Delta Force heroine can’t hear the sounds she makes, and is debilitated whenever my hero amplifies them, and I felt I finally had something interesting.

Continuing the Quest

While putting my own characters into book #1 to replace Desiree’s, my characters informed me that this was a four-book series. I’d only intended to republish that first book, but the characters had other ideas.

So, I needed more cool psi.


Well, telepathy was a pretty easy idea. So, how to make it more interesting? It’s a romance, so having it strictly connect the hero and heroine rather than being some kind of broadcast made perfect sense. But what if it wasn’t that simple?

What if… Hmmm….

In writing, we often get a character’s internal dialog as distinct from their narration. Something that they might mutter aloud to themselves if they were alone. Smooth move, Matt. Way to really not make a good first impression. (Let’s just say that was practically a mantra back in my dating days. I was never, even remotely, Mr. Smooth.)

What if one character could hear the other’s internal dialog, but not vice versa? That should make them both a bit nuts. Oh, and add a distance limitation on that ability, but not on the telepathy? Cool. That gave me: At the Quietest Word.

Seeing and Tracking

The next couple was fun. I already knew that my hero was a remote-viewer, a clairvoyant…with issues. He could go out and look places. The problem was that he had to walk his vision there–even worse, if he tried to “run” his vision, it was beyond exhausting. So, he could go and look at nearby places, but only if he wasn’t in a hurry.

I wanted to match him with a complementary talent. The heroine…is a tracker. This is a fascinating skill that the deep practitioners call an art. A trainable art, but an art. What if–a writer’s favorite question–what if it was more than an art? What if our heroine could feel where people had been? A bit of the apparitional skill above?

And what if, like my first couple, their skills could somehow augment each other, but only in a strange, fractured way?

That last was an important part for me. I didn’t want superheroes. I wanted normal people whose exceptional skills had just as many problems as everyone else has with daily life. That gave me: At the Merest Glance.

The Empath

The empath decided that she stood at the center of my team. I’m not quite sure when that happened, and neither is she. But it had been useful to her Hollywood career to know exactly who had good intentions and who were the total shits.

But I couldn’t seem to find a psi talent that would be an interesting challenge for her. That would somehow match what was broken in her, or something like that.

It was my wife who solved the problem right away. Regrettably, as I’m a bit of a pigheaded writer, she had to suggest it several times before I could finally hear it. Who better for an empath, head of a team of psi talents, than a normal human–except he was the only human whose emotions she couldn’t read.

And, as an appropriate counter gift, he’s actually very good at recognizing everyone’s emotions (despite no special skills). Everyone’s except his own, of course.

And that’s how I came up with the many skills and four novels of Shadowforce: Psi.

NerdGuy Friday #19: My First Flight

Well, if you’ve read Emily’s First Flight (see the post above), then this posting will make much more sense because, for this story, I reached back into my own flying experience.


All through my teens and early twenties, I dreamed of being a pilot. Not military jets or aerobatics. I want to fly the big passenger jets. These are simply remarkable machines.

I’m also just old enough to have been a child of the great changeover from turboprop to jet. The first Boeing 707 entered service within months of my birth. I actually remember the huge changeover that Mohawk Airlines (our upstate New York local feeder airline) made from the Convair CV-240 turboprop to the exciting BAC One-eleven.

I will sometimes still go and find a place to park just past the end of a runway. (There used to be a great little pull out at the north end of Sea-Tac airport on S 154th St. that looks like it’s still there on Google Maps.,-122.3169769,1469m/data=!3m1!1e3) I’d often take a lunch there and not realized I’d missed dinner until it got dark. It’s amazing watching the huge hunks of metal that we’ve learned how to throw into the sky.

At that time in the early ’80s, 747s and DC-10s seemed to rule the sky. To watch those monsters roaring aloft only a few hundred feet directly overhead, one after another, was a wonder.

My pilot dreams died when it was discovered that I was partially red-green colorblind.  The best way I’ve found to describe it: Look at a traffic light. I see an intense red, a vibrant yellow, and a green that’s so pale that it almost looks like a streetlight. If were were to look out at nature and name colors of green, we’d agree on the names, but I probably wouldn’t be seeing whatever it is that you’re seeing (unless you’re part of the 8% of males or 0.5% of females with the same vision issue).

I can pass the secondary FAA color test, but not the primary one. It’s not enough to keep me out of the sky, but almost certainly enough to keep me out of large-plane commercial aviation.

By then I’d already earned my private ticket and was well on my way to my instrument rating. Sigh! I took one final, beautiful flight up over Washington’s Olympic Mountains, then circled down and hung up my wings. I just couldn’t justify the cost, no matter how much I loved doing it, if it was only going to be a hobby.

Don’t think that I’m unhappy about it. I never could have written the Night Stalkers, Firehawks, or Miranda Chase without having been a pilot. I’m constantly amazed at how our pasts shape us in the most unexpected ways.

First Flights

But back to the learning to fly.

Non-pilots think that the “key” flight for a student pilot is the first solo. It’s the first time that the instructor thinks you’re ready to take off on your own, circle the airport, and land again. By then, you’ve already done this fifty or more times with the instructor along for the ride. It’s about remembering to breathe, thinking through everything you know, and just doing it.

Adrenaline doesn’t hit until you land and you think, “Hey, maybe, just maybe, I can do this!” Though I’m not denying that it’s a very cool moment.

But the real first flight is the “cross country.”

It’s the first time that a student pilot is truly out on their own. No instructor, filing your own flight plan, and flying for over four hours with three stops at three unfamiliar airports.

Emily’s story shares mirror my own emotions about flying during that story. It’s a wonderful, amazing feeling of immense freedom that I’ve discovered in so few other places.

My Flight

My own journey was in a tiny, fixed-wing Beechcraft Model B-19 Musketeer Sport.

The flight school was nice enough to refer to it as the Sport so that I wouldn’t feel either like the hapless d’Artagnan or a member of the Mickey Mouse Club—the Sport really was quite small and cute. It had a single engine, fixed landing gear, and could technically seat four, though the back two should be Munchkins. I loved that little plane.

Beechcraft B-19 Sport
Beechcraft B-19 Sport

Rather, my flight was supposed to be in the Sport. But my trip began with a broken plane.

So they moved me up to the “much” bigger C-23 Sundowner. With its twenty percent larger engine and a backseat that really was big enough for two, it was out of “tiny” all the way up into the grand category of “small.” It was also about ten percent faster, which boded well—though not well enough, as you’ll see.

Beechcraft C-23 Sundowner
Sundowner, much bigger, see the extra side window? Wow!

I’d been planning this flight for weeks, set aside the entire day, and arrived early. The weather didn’t cooperate. Predictions said it would clear in the afternoon, so I got a burger at the Blue Max restaurant at Boeing Field, then paced the flight line—for hours.

Watching all of the IFR (instrument rated) pilots zipping in and out of the field wasn’t infuriating, but it was sure close.

I finally took off after two pm on the bright October afternoon—maybe closer to three. I zipped north to Arlington because the rest of my route wasn’t quite long enough for the required minimum flight. Even in the Sundowner, it wasn’t more than twenty minutes before I was back on the ground again.

After that, I doubled back to curve south of the Olympic Mountains. I’ve mentioned them before, but they deserve a few more words of description (in case you didn’t read Emily’s story).

The Olympic National Forest covers roughly a million acres (a thousand square miles). Numerous peaks soar past eight thousand feet and have year-round glaciers (or did back in the 1980s). You can put on a backpack and walk for weeks without crossing a road. The forest is thick with 300′ tall Douglas firs and at the northwest corner it has the Hoh River Rain Forest, a temperate rain forest where the trees have 20′ long moss beards. There are hot springs, hiking trails, Roosevelt elk, and black bears. An incredible place.

Anyway, Emily’s route north of the Olympics was from my final flight on a bitter February night with a broken plane heater. Very chilly at ten thousand feet but so beautiful that I didn’t care.

Back to my “cross country” flight. Once I reached the coast, our routes overlapped. I flew from Ocean Shores all the way down the Washington and Oregon Coast until I was opposite Portland, Oregon at five hundred feet up and perhaps a hundred feet out to sea. Along with that final sunset flight over the Olympics, it was the most beautiful flight I ever took. Even better than circling Mount St. Helens shortly after the eruption.

I did overfly the beach Emily landed on, and forty years later I can still see it so clearly in my mind’s eye. Somewhere down along the Oregon Coast lies a little cove. I’ve always wanted to go back and find it—sand scooped right back under an overhanging cliff. Two tiny headlands no more than a hundred meters apart but so rugged only a mountain climber could cross them from the neighboring coves. A small jagged sea stack just off the shore to one side, making it even more picturesque. At the time I overflew it, it was brilliant with the late afternoon sun.

Coming Home

My landing at Hillsboro Airport was almost as brief as hers. But my planned break wasn’t cut short by any need to perfectly meet my original schedule as Emily’s was.

My problem was that my late departure was going to have me landing after sunset at the tail end of a long, arduous flight, with all but the last few miles over terrain I’d never overflown.

The route was easy, get 5,000′ over the massive I-5 corridor and fly right over it from Portland back to Seattle. I did arrive back in Seattle after full dark—the sun sets at about 6:30 in Seattle in October. It was more like 7:15.

Then it gets interesting. Swing wide to avoid the airspace for Joint Base Lewis McChord (back then they weren’t joint, but it’s still one of the largest Air Force bases anywhere). Then slide up over Vashon Island and turn east to land. I’d flown out of Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington which has two parallel runways, servicing five hundred flights a day. A busy airport in the midst of a busy area.

And at night Boeing Field is very poorly lit.

That night I learned that this is intentional. It’s kept dim, because less than four miles south is the massive Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. They don’t want big passenger jets incorrectly landing at the wrong airport.

Ha! (foreshadowing)

Seattle Terminal Area detail
A 2020 flight chart of the area. (Yellow is urban, light blue is water, and every little symbol actually means something. Every little circle is another airport, the circle-R ones are private fields. It’s a busy area.) Sea-Tac is the vertical blue airport in the upper center. Boeing Field is the angled airport just above it. Downtown Seattle is at the top, and JBLM Lewis-McChord to the lower left. This image is about 20 miles square. (If you want to play with the charts for your area and see what a visual flight rules pilot sees, check out here:

While speaking to the dimmed Boeing Tower, they kept complaining that they couldn’t see me. They checked that I could see the traffic behind me, an incoming Beech Baron (the six-seat, twin-engine big brother to my Sundowner). I looked back and there was a very bright landing light behind me. Check.

Still they couldn’t see me. I changed my transponder code (a radio beacon frequency) and I still didn’t show up on their scopes.

That’s when I glanced sideways instead of just watching the runway threshold.

In my surprise, I keyed my microphone even as I spoke.

“Those are baggage carts.” A long line of them. “Oh my god! I’m at Sea-Tac.” And the big bright landing light behind me wasn’t a Beech Baron; it was a massive commercial passenger jet (weighing 3-400x more than my tiny Sundowner). I was cluttering up the busiest runway north of San Francisco, and between Denver and Tokyo.

At twenty feet up, they had me abort the landing. “Turn immediate right heading…”

Let’s just say that no one was happy when I finally returned to the ground at Boeing.

Not me for having screwed up—though I never panicked or hesitated. (The sole compliment I got for my entire flight.)

Not Boeing Tower that had been yelled at by Sea-Tac Tower.

Not the chief flight instructor who’d just been chewed out by the FAA and Boeing Tower.

Not my flight instructor who’d been reamed a new one by the chief.

And, just to make a clean sweep of it, not the receptionist or mechanic who’d had to stay late to keep everything open until their last flight of the day had returned. And then had to wait through the debriefing that such an incident required.

My next three FAA-mandated flight lessons were night flights as the instructor made sure that I knew exactly where I was and exactly what Boeing Field looked like at night.

I like the end of Emily’s flight much better. 🙂

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.


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.)


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.


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.