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.