NerdGuy Fridays

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

NerdGuy #31: Behind, rather…above the scenes

One of Nerdguy’s many peculiar pasts was working in theater. In high school, I joined and ultimately ran the theater for two years. After college, I worked another three years in the theater scene that presaged the Seattle Fringe theater movement. Then, finally, after my bicycle trip around the world, I spent six more years working in the IT department for Seattle Opera.


Our budget for a major high school production ran approximately $250. The wonders of all volunteer labor. In the early 1980s Seattle pre-Fringe era, mounts (new productions) ran between $1,000 and $10,000, including crazy cheap labor and hungry actors.

A typical opera production in the late-1990s when I was there had a budget of a couple million. A big, new production might run as high as $5M.

In 1983, we took over an old porn house, gutted it, steam-cleaned and painted the seats, rebuilt the stage, painted all of the walls, hung new lighting instruments, and I installed a large new lighting and sound system, all for about $30,000 and it took us a week.

In 2003, McCaw Hall reopened after a year-long, $127M renovation that I had a very tiny part in. I left the opera in 2001, so my role never had a chance to get bigger. Would have been fun, though, now that I think about it. Nerding out over an entire new building on that scale….whoo-whee!

On last piece on scale:

  • Typical high school production: 6 weeks prep and rehearsal, 700-seat auditorium, 3 performances
  • The typical Seattle theater production I was involved in: 6 weeks prep and rehearsal (with some planning before that), 1-200 seat house, 700 performances (6 shows a week). (That’s how many I did on Angry Housewives, it ran closer to 6,000 total performances.)
  • The typical opera production: 1-2 years of prep (planning before that), 3,000-seat hall, 8 performances.

The Hall

Inside the shell of the White House, May 1950

McCaw Hall began life as an Armory. Then in 1928 it was turned into Civic Auditorium. A major renovation was done in preparation for the first World’s Fair after WWII in 1962. Part of the renovation gutted the interior and built a whole new building inside the armory (much as the Truman renovation built a whole new White House inside the old White House). It made for a fascinating set of curious backstage passages in the gaps, to say the least.

One of the peculiar shortcomings of the Opera House during the years I worked there was the area above the stage–the Fly Loft.

My high school theater’s loft, rose perhaps fifteen feet above the stage. Just enough to hide the above stage lights behind some long, short curtains called teasers. In the small Seattle theaters, there was no loft. There were exposed pipes bolted to the ceiling from which we hung lighting instruments and not much else. Mostly set up in old warehouse spaces, our problems were more that the audience in the back row of seats might risk hitting their heads on the ceiling.

Seattle Opera’s Fly Loft was about the same height above the stage as the stage itself. That meant that if we wanted to raise a long drape out of view, we could–barely. But then it’s bottom edge was interfering with lights, other set pieces, and…let’s just say that it was problematic.

a Seattle Pike Place market romanceThen came the McCaw Hall renovation. I had travelled back to Seattle to have a friend who still worked there give me a tour so that I could write my 2014 book Where Dreams Unfold that is partly set there as it is a romance centered around an opera production.

Dramatic new seating. Lovely new acoustics (the soundman in me really appreciated it as there’d been a dead spot where the singer’s voices mostly skipped the most expensive seats from about Row 8-18 of the main floor). There were also new rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, orchestra pit, trap doors in the stage floor itself for descents into “basements,” and a hundred other fun innovations.

But the Fly Loft? Man, that was breathtaking. The stage itself was now in an 11-story high building all of its own, that just happened to open onto the beautiful, acoustically lovely seating of McCaw Hall.

The Wonder of a Fly Loft

The McCaw Hall loft. Even in this wide-sweeping photo, it’s mostly out of sight above. A few set pieces are scattered about a bare stage. Four “trees” of lighting offer side-lighting positions. The seating can be glimpsed at the very right, past the edge of the proscenium (perimeter of the stage opening). And up above are the bottoms of various drapes, some lighting instrument pipes, and the white strip is the bottom border of a 64′ x 36′ rear projection screen. The main drape is somewhere up there as well. For more on this, check out the technical information brochure for renters HERE.


If you ever wondered how they change scenes so quickly, sometimes in the heart of a fifteen-second blackout, that’s the secret. In an instant, whole set looks can be whisked aloft and others lowered in the places. Roll out a cart, some stairs, a dragon, and the scene moves on. With the long minutes during an intermission? The entire physical layout of walls, stairwells, ocean bottoms, lofty peaks, and trees may be switched out. And much of that happens upward, not side to side.

Below is a side view. All that the audience sees is that little bracketed area in the lower center marked The Proscenium.

More on the Anatomy of a Renovation can be found HERE.

There are 112 80-foot long pipes (the diagram is wrong and says lines) that are hung on six-inch centers. They’re controlled by ropes that go up from the pipes to pass through a massive gridiron “the grid” of supports. The ropes then travel over pulleys to one side of the stage where they gather together and turn to go down again to the Flyloft. This is where each individual pipe is separately controlled to raise and lower the appropriate scene element. Each pipe can carry thousands of pounds of equipment or set pieces. During a major production, there may be an entire crew sitting thirty-feet above the stage in flyloft (basically bored out of their skulls–I speak from experience), awaiting their moments of mayhem as the ropes fly into action.

Overall, it’s an amazing system, still closely related to my long-ago high school theater, and equal to any world-class stage in operation. But why was this Nerdguy worthy? Note the funny little gap between the gridiron and the roof at the top of the overall Fly Loft itself?

Then read the excerpt below from my upcoming novel White Top.

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

Nerdguy #30: HMX-1 (Marine One)

As my dedicated fans will know, my next book in the Miranda Chase series is titled White Top (coming 6/22).

an action-adventure political technothriller


“White Top” is a common phrase to describe the helicopters used to transport the President, also called Marine One.  It is properly only called Marine One when the President is aboard, Marine Two for the Vice President. Very few others ever get to fly in a White Top: mostly visiting heads of state and the Commandant of the Marine Corps (the Pope did too). It is the world’s ultimate executive transport helicopter.

Because of their unique mandate, there are many strange and fun oddities about these helicopters and this Marine Corps squadron. I thought I’d share a few.

The group responsible for flying the White Top aircraft is Marine Corps Squadron HMX-1 (think Helicopter Marine Experimental 1st Squadron and you’ve got it–though the experimental part has been moved to VMX-1, except for the replacement Marine One helo). They were originally stood up (formed) in 1947 shortly after the Commandant of the Corps witnessed an atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll. He knew he needed a better/faster way to get his Marines to the beach than long rides in landing craft and HMX-1 was created to study that need.

Jump ahead a decade to 1957 and President Eisenhower was on vacation  in Newport, Rhode Island when the Arkansas governor mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to keep black students out of white schools. Eisenhower mobilized the 101st Airborne to confront the NG and guard the students of the Little Rock Nine (this and this will get you started on this awful slice of history). The President needed to get back to DC fast. Parked nearby in case of emergency was an HMX-1 helicopter. It delivered the President to Air Force One in record time and set a precedent with the first-ever Presidential “lift.”

Over the years, several other outfits (Air Force and Army) tried to take over Presidential transport, but in the end, it’s all the Marines.


With 700 members, HMX-1 is the largest Marine Corps air squadron of them all. It is split into two sections: green side and white side.

Green SideGreen Side helicopterGreen side mostly flies the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor. The press gaggle following Marine One? They fly green side. Most of the luggage and merely VIP folks, they travel green side. Only VVIPs travel white side. An article on a couple of the other DC-VIP outfits can be found here.

White Side

Transporting the VVIPs of the American government is a very different proposition. Even though the white side helos fly for the same squadron from side-by-side hangars, white side technicians can’t just go over to the green side hangar at Quantico, Virginia to borrow a part or tool. Everyone working in the white side has an extremely high security clearance that can take a year or more to obtain (Marines will often “cool their heels” working green side while waiting for their white side clearance.) Every part must be fully vetted.

These helicopters, that initially got their White Top paint job when it was thought that would keep the helos cooler while sitting in the sun (it didn’t particularly but the paint job stuck), go through rigors that no other bird does. Here are a few:

  • Before any VVIP transport, they’ll take a half-hour flight to make sure everything is in working condition.
  • Every part is replaced at 1/2 of its rated lifespan.
  • Depot service (major overhauls) are also performed at one-half of the rated hours. While getting that service, they are upgraded to the very latest tech approved by the White House Military Office for the VVIP transports.
  • The President never travels without a flight of HMX-1 helos nearby–anywhere in the world. The President is the only global executive who does this. Helos are prestaged at every planned stop the President is going to visit. (Even when they aren’t planned to be used, they’re nearby in case of emergency.)
  • These traveling birds will typically fly direct within the US or Canada, or be  carried on C-5 and C-17 military transports along with the motorcade to anywhere else.
  • Their rotors have a brake so that the blades can be stopped while the engine is running at ready-idle. Almost all other helicopters, this is a direct connection, so if the engine is spinning, the blade is spinning.

The Birds

HMX-1 is in the process of retiring their present fleet. The VH-3D Sea Kings (the ones in all the White House lawn photos), and the VH-60N White Hawk variation of the Sikorsky Black Hawk (mostly flown overseas) are going away. As these were on-boarded in the late 1970s and 1988 respectively, it’s about time.

After a massively ugly bidding process that caused years of delay, and a four-year acceptance testing cycle, we should start seeing the VH-92A Superhawks taking over the role this year (2021).  Which made them a prime target for my latest novel, White Top. (Hint: the first lift missions of the Superhawk don’t end very well.)

Incidents (Accidents)

Perhaps the single most unique aspect of HMX-1 is their perfect record. They have never had a crash in their seventy-four year history.

Well, except perhaps in a couple of my books:

action adventure technothriller political romance
In the Weeds / White Top


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

NerdGuy Friday #29: Wreaking Havoc: Part II-gunships

First: a brief return to last week’s NerdGuy

A fan noted that I missed a chance to compare spacecraft evolution and sent me this combined image:

And just to make it a little clearer, here is a wider view of the space shuttle  Endeavour console in 2012 at its retirement:

And a slightly wider view of the Dragon command console. There, um, isn’t anything outside the picture (looking over both astronaut’s shoulders):

Thank you, Kim! (If I got something right about helicopters over the years, it was often with her help. Many, many thanks!)

Now, on to Gunships!

Observant fans of Miranda Chase will have noticed that while the first four books in the series focus on airplanes, the second quartet focuses on rotorcraft.

Miranda Chase political technothriller seriesAnd for a little more clarity, they are all different types of rotorcraft:

There are surprisingly few pure attack helicopters. Even The Night Stalkers of the US Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment don’t actually use a pure attack helicopter. They have an MH-6M Little Bird that can be configured for transport or attack (the AH-6M [attack] is nicknamed the Killer Egg for its egg shape and incredible ability to lay down fire), and the same with the MH-60M Black Hawk. I’m not saying these aren’t incredibly lethal aircraft when configured as gunships, the MH-60M in its DAP (Direct Action Penetrator) configuration may well be the most dangerous rotorcraft in any military today.

But pure attack rotorcraft are actually exceedingly rare:

  • US Army: AH-64 Apache Longbow
  • US Marine Corps: AH-1 Cobras which are rapidly becoming AH-1Z Vipers with upgrades
  • Airbus: EC665 Tiger used by several European countries
  • Italy: Agusta A129 Mongoose
  • China: CIAC Z-10 (they have 2 others but like the MH-6M, they’re multi-role)
  • Russia: Kamov Ka-52 Alligator
  • Russia: Mil Mi-24 Hind (a monstrous and very formidable gunship)
  • Russia: Mil Mi-28 Havoc (a very nasty machine)
  • I might have missed a few minor ones, but otherwise that’s it.

Not for Everybody

Most aircraft are so expensive to design that it is necessary to spread the cost over as many sales as possible. Manufacturers are always seeking and lobbying for access to foreign markets.

Conventional helicopters of every type are easily found in multiple military arsenals…except the gunships. Despite manufacturer’s best efforts, these are rarely exported. The ones that are go only to very, very friendly nations.

For example, Sikorsky Black Hawks are in use by at least twenty-eight countries. The AH-1 has only ever been used in four. Perhaps that fact that the US sold 202 of them to Iran under the Shah in 1971 and they’ve been in use continuously since his 1979 overthrow has something to do with it. And how badly does America wish it could take back the 42 sold to Turkey in the 1990s. Will we soon be regretting the 62 we sold to Taiwan?

UH-60 Black Hawk & AH-1Z Viper

Choosing Your Weapon

I named the book before I wrote the story. I really wanted to use the Ka-52 Alligator, it’s such an interesting aircraft. It sports: coaxial counter-rotating rotors and, in the single-pilot Ka-50 Black Shark version, it has one of the only ejection seats in any rotorcraft [the first blast blows off the rotor blades, the second jettisons the canopy, and the third ejects the pilot]). As I said, fascinating.

So Havoc was almost named Alligator but I couldn’t quite justify that as a title. I seriously considered Black Shark as a title but it only has one pilot, not a pilot and a gunner. I knew that I had would have to get my villain and my hero in the helicopter together before the book was over. And while I could have had great fun with the big Hind (which can also carry eight troops in a small emergency evacuation bay–perhaps able to lift Miranda’s entire team to safety in a crisis moment?), I didn’t think that was quite the title I was after either.

Mi-24 Hind and Mi-52 Havoc

In the End…

I was left with a deep, and slightly terrified, understanding of these lethal machines. As to how they flew in the book, you’ll have to read it to find out.

And since the book was focusing on Holly Harper… What title could better describe my favorite chaos demon than:

an action-adventure technothriller an action-adventure technothriller audiobook

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

Nerdguy Friday #28: Wreaking Havoc: Part I-cockpits

a political action-adventure technothrillerAs fans of NerdGuy know, Miranda Chase #7, Havoc, is coming out on April 27th. And I take the task of capturing the techno of my technothrillerishness very seriously. Never moreso than when I’m talking about aircraft.

Why? Because the kidhood dream that I didn’t get to live was to be an airline pilot. (I’m just colorblind enough to be disqualified from commercial aviation. I can see just fine for flying, but not well enough to make it a career.) That doesn’t stop me from having fun researching it.

Crashing an Airbus A330-900neo

The opening have Havoc does not go well for an Airbus passenger plane. (Don’t worry, later in the book it doesn’t go well for a Boeing airplane either.)

“The landing of the Airbus A330-900neo unfolded with a movie-like slow motion feel—even more painfully drawn out than watching Engine One destroy itself and the wing.”

I wanted to capture the cockpit as authentically as a setting as I could.

And that setting cost me HOURS! Not because it was hard, because it was fun. So get ready to waste a little time with me.

Inside the cockpit

Only in older, or the least expensive aircraft are pilots still faced with a “steam-gauge” console.

F-86D Sabrejet cockpit (similar to Miranda’s personal F-86F) (c) Wikimedia

Instead, modern pilots in modern aircraft face electronic displays that can pack significantly more information into single displays (information that might require reading and interpreting 5 or 6 steam gauges can be read in a single glance.)

Miranda’s Cessna Citation M2 (c) AOPA

Let me explain this image just a little as a step up to the next one.

  • A little unclear in the foreground are the side-by-side steering wheels. The most important switch is the microphone switch for press-to-talk over the radios.
  • The two displays directly in front of each wheel may be set to different views for the pilot and copilot. A wide variety of views are available and customizable. One might be the best view for current flight navigation, another for information about an upcoming airport, and yet another for weather information.
  • At the center is a shared display that can be easily seen by either pilot and may be set to a wide variety of screens.
  • These two displays are individually controlled by the smaller blue screens in the center foreground, one for each pilot. These are just glorified menu controls. Check out this quick video:

Just search on Garmin 3000 for a lot more videos. I also read chunks of the 686 page instruction manual (again, just for fun–I’m weird that way).

Going Somewhere a Bit Trickier: an airliner

It didn’t take me long to stumble on this site:

Thank you, Airbus!

Airbus A330 cockpit (c) Airbus

We’ll start with just this static picture, but it gets way more fun in a moment. Here’s a few things to note in a tour of an Airbus A330 airliner cockpit:

  • First: Where did the steering wheel go? You’ll see instead a joystick mounting to the outside of either seat. It offers more control and leaves a hand free. It also leaves that central area in front of the pilot open of a small pull-out work area when working on paper forms and the like. (And the real truth? Airline pilots rarely touch this control. Most flying at this level is done by telling the computer what to do, and it does the actual flying.)
  • There are a few more screens, but they’re laid out just like in the little Cessna M2 and they serve exactly the same functions.
  • That overhead console is mostly things you only touch once: either setting up a flight or if there’s an emergency. A lot of it has to do with the engines.
  • The big row of stuff between the pilot seats is mostly screen controllers at the top and radios for communication and navigation below. In the middle of that are the big controls for throttles, flaps, and so on.

Now that you’re oriented… Let’s have some fun!

For this specific flight, let’s actually go into the cockpit, courtesy of Airbus.

Now that you have the gist of it, you can start exploring. Here are a few fun things I picked out to zoom in on:

  • Almost directly overhead (up arrow), ringed in red, are massive buttons for dousing an engine fire (there are also zoom controls or use scroll). Curious tidbit, a pilot can’t see the engines from the cockpit. If they suspect a major problem, they will typically call a steward or have the first officer go back to look out a window.
  • Straight ahead at the top of the windshield’s center strut is a real magnetic compass. If all of the electronics fail, that compass will still work. The little card below it tells you how to correct the reading for accurate navigation.
  • Just to the right of the center screen on the console, find the landing gear panel (LDG Gear). Look carefully at the lever below the green arrows.  Its head is shaped like side-by-side black tires, just like a landing gear. (And in case that seems fun, glance at the black-and-yellow striped bar just below that. LDG GEAR GRVTY EXTN is the emergency method of lowering the gear using gravity if there’s a failure of the main system. Using this and getting a lock is an unnerving proposition.)
  • Check out the last two sections on the left side of that bottom center panel between the chairs. It’s the camera control for the pilot to see who’s knocking at the door and the release switch for the heavy bolts that lock the door.
  • Now center the view on the windshield that tap a right or left arrow until you’re facing the cockpit door. Aim up and down and see the massive locks that are now installed inside a modern cockpit.
  • Look up to either side above the pilot’s heads and you’ll find the escape rope.

And Looking Down

Go back to the Airbus Cockpit 3D virtual tour…and look down at the floor. Specifically under the back of the left-hand pilot’s seat. See the little hatch? If everything else goes wrong, this is an emergency escape route, but where does it lead?

When passengers sit in an airliner, we know that our luggage and a lot of  other cargo are beneath our feet. But that’s not what’s below the cockpit. Under the cockpit is the avionics bay. This is a cramped space that is almost never entered during flight.

So what’s there?

A typical avionics bay is where the airplane’s computers are mounted. Not one or two, but typically three completely redundant systems.  One of the many reasons that airplane flight is still the safest form of travel.

So next time you fly, feel ready to Nerd On!

And read Havoc to see how I applied all these hours of research.

an action-adventure technothriller an action-adventure technothriller audiobook

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