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 #14: Poles of Inaccessibility

Where We Are

Humans tend to gather along the coast of continents. According to this Columbia University study, 40% of the human population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast. That’s a lot of people living near the sea. Most of the rest live along the rivers for obvious reasons. (Yes, I thought about Denver and Mexico City among others…but they’re just weird.)

So I tried looking up just what that implied. The world has roughly 1.1M kilometers of coastline. Therefore, 40% of the world’s population lives in an area of 100 x 1.1M km = 110 million square kilometers. Or do they?

This falls apart for two major reasons:

  1. How are you measuring coastline? Measured with a long stick, of say 100km, seems like a reasonable measure of length of a coast. But try it with a shorter stick and that coast becomes a lot longer. The World Fact Book estimates that 1.1M km length that I used. But the World Resources Institute uses a different stick and finds 1.6M km of coastline.
  2. Countries aren’t conveniently fat. Much of Great Britain (or Japan for that matter) is under 200km across. In fact, much of it is barely 100km wide. So the people living within 100km of the Irish Sea (or the Sea of Japan) are mostly also living within 100km of the English Channel (or the Pacific). And consider, for example, Pitcairn Island. With a coast of 51km long (per The World Fact Book) it only has a land area of 47 square kilometers.

What this does say though is that with a global total land area of 507,000,000 square kilometers, there are an awful places that are mighty empty.

Where We Aren’t

Rather than looking at the least populous places on Earth…

Curiously, if I look at the five places with fewer than 2 people per square kilometer, I once again get Pitcairn Island (1.2). The others: Mongolia (1.9), Falkland Islands (0.21), Svalbard and Jan Mayen (Norway) (0.04), and Greenland (0.03).

Antarctica is its own special case as it technically has no residents and a vast amount of area. Its “population” varies from 1,000 (winters) to 4,000 (summers), with a land area of 14M square kilometers, giving it a ratio of 0.00007 to 0.00028 people per square kilometer. Of course, they tend to gather in cheery bunches (called bases), but it’s still a lot of open space.

But as I said, what if instead of looking at population density, we look at farthest from anywhere geographically useful, like a coast. These are called:

Poles of Inaccessibility

Each continent has a point that’s farthest from any shore. Some of these make a perfect kind of sense. For example:

North America: South Dakota. I mean, really? That was a surprise? The Pine Ridge Reservation at 43.36°N 101.97°W is the farthest point from any coastline in North America. Here are a few other gimmes (from Wikipedia):

mid-life crisis bicycle journey adventure

Then it gets interesting

There are three more Poles of Inaccessibility that I find absolutely fascinating.


This one is quite curious. It is considered to be the remotest place on Earth. It gets its own Wikipedia page as well. It’s 878 km from the South Pole Station. It also boasts the world’s lowest recorded year-round average temperature of -58.2C (-72.8F). YOIKS!

The Russians built a research station there in 1958. And it has been visited only a handful of times. Here’s a fun write-up on it by Dave Alf.

antarctica pole of inaccessibility
The 2-story station is now buried under the drifting snow. Only the masts and Lenin’s bust still remain above the ice.

Just to add to the challenge of visiting there? It’s at 3,800m (12,500′) above sea level.

Point Nemo

Did you ever wonder where satellites go to die? It’s called Point Nemo. It’s the place in the South Pacific Ocean that’s the farthest from any land. The reason satellites go to die there is that it isn’t always easy to control orbital decay. By aiming at the biggest blank spot on the Earth’s map, it decreases the chances of bothering anybody with anything that doesn’t burn up during reentry. (And no, there’s not a lot of wildlife at risk out there either, it’s an oceanic desert as well.)

It lies at 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W which is 2,688 km (1,670 miles) from three islands: Moto Nui (Easter Islands), Siple Island (Antarctica), and our old pal the Pitcairns Islands (actually Ducie Island which is an uninhabited atoll 575 kilometers from Pitcairn itself).

Thunderbolt coverOne other piece of trivia about Point Nemo, it’s where I sent my evil villain from Miranda Chase #2, Thunderbolt, on her final flight. Let’s just say she wasn’t very nice and deserved everything she got.

Bouvet Island

This tiny splotch of an uninhabited island belongs to Norway. But that doesn’t place it anywhere near the Arctic. Instead it lies at 54°26′S 3°24′E, out in the nothing between Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and Antarctica. At just 49 square kilometers (19 sq miles), 780m (2,560′) tall, 93% glaciated, and completely surrounded by inaccessible cliffs, this is not a hot vacation spot. A land slip in the 1950s created a small island that could be landed on and weather stations have since had a history there. The main island is really only accessible by helicopter (when the winds drop below 50 knots).

And if you want to waste even more time with me than you already have? Visit this cool site. And be sure to look down into the comments as noted at the head of the article to find out how a perfectly decent lifeboat ended up at Bouvet and created a six-year quest for answers, uncovering a whole range of interesting facts.

Bouvet Island Lifeboat (1964)
Bouvet Island Lifeboat (discovered 1964 during first known successful landing at the newly formed islet of Nyroysa)


NerdGuy Fridays #12: NerdGuy on the Rocks

A Question of Rocks

I recently had the need to look into rock slides for the opening of Miranda Chase #4, Ghostrider. As usual, two simple lines led to a whole field of learning.

“He remained conscious for the next two hundred feet of descent as a [xxx thousand tons of rock swept him toward the valley floor.”…”At the base of the scree slope, the mountain built a [xxx-foot high burial mound.”

Left brackets “[“ are how I note something in my manuscript that I need to look up later but don’t want to stop the flow of writing to do right at that moment. There are other facts that I do have to stop and look up because the answer will affect which direction I take the story. The volume of rock is one of the former kind. But now it was time to unearth the answers.

Weighing Rock

First, how much does rock weigh?

As part of my senior geophysics thesis in college, I had to weigh core sample that we’d drilled out in my field area. Different types of rock have different weights. Think of talc, which is a rock before it’s ground up into a powder, versus a piece of basalt or granite you tossed out of your garden. If you’ve done construction, think of the weight of a sheet of gypsum (another rock) versus a sheet of slate. I can pick up a 4’x8’x1/2” piece of “sheet rock” fairly easily. In my younger days I’d carry them in pairs. I can move a 2’x4’x1/2” piece of slate, if I’m careful and flip it end for end as I go. In my younger days, I may have been stupid enough to lift it, stupid being the operative word.

So, why was I weighing rock? Well, more dense rock also creates a strong gravitational pull. More matter equals more gravity—so denser rock formations under the ground pull down harder. I had the use of a tool called a gravimeter that could measure those minute differences. First I performed a very accurate topological survey. Then a gravimetric survey over the same area. After doing a horrendous amount of math on an incredibly advanced TI-58 programmable calculator that was the envy of my classmates (1977, $125…really dating myself here), I was able to measure the actual variations in the gravimetric field (a whole other topic that I may geek out on someday). I then could computer model (using a program I had to write in BASIC) what was occurring beneath the surface.

TI 58 Calculator
TI 58 Calculator that powered my Geophysics thesis

The Weight of Rock

This is actually much simpler now, plus I required less accuracy for fiction than for geophysics… I used Google.

The very first site I hit included this wonderful information for landscapers.

  • Solid rock = 2.5 – 3 tons/cubic meter (NerdBonus: a “ton” is 2,000 pounds, a “tonne” is 1,000 kilograms or 2,200 pounds. So we have a mixed English/metric unit here, but I’m going with it rather than converting.)
  • Uniformly crushed rock = 1.6 tons/cubic meter
  • Mixed crushed rock (due to possibly better packing of space) = 1.6 – 2.2 tons/cubic meter
  • Sand and chips (which I don’t care about here, but was interesting) = .92 tons/cubic meter
  • I was very intrigued that all of the following come in the same at 1.07 tons/cubic meter: pea gravel, 1” crushed concrete, recycled asphalt, and 2” sewer filler rock . Pit run gravel (2” or 4”) both weigh in at 1.25 tons (that funny closest-spatial-packing effect evening things out).
  • Landscaping Rock, now we’re talking:
  • 2”-12” rock = 1.25 tons/cubic meter
  • 12-24” rock = 1.18 tons/cubic meter

All right! I’ve walked across scree slopes in the 2”-12” range (not something to do without careful planning and knowledge—neither of which I boasted at the time). I’ve definitely avoided them in the 12-24” category. So, I now have my working weight of 1.25 tons/cubic meter.

How Much Rock

For that I turned to a different website:

The Norwegian Geotechnical Institute knows a great deal about rock slides. With 174 dead in the last century (most within just 3 events), they have good reason to. A big rock slide in a Norwegian fjord can create town-killing tsunamis. The 2015 movie The Wave is actually a fascinating (and good) movie about this. It’s billed as “Norway’s First Disaster Movie” and earned a nice 6.7 rating on IMDB and 83% on Rotten Tomatoes.

NGI notes that there are actually three distinct categories:

  • Rock fall < 100 cubic meters. This will block a road or train track very nicely.
  • Rock slide = 100-10,000 cubic meters. These only occur on slopes of 50m or more, otherwise there just isn’t enough height to get that much mass moving.
  • Rock flow > 10,000 cubic meters. This caused the devasting tsunamis in 1905, 1934, and 1936.

The scree slopes of the Rockies are truly massive, easily hundreds of meters high in some places and only semi-stable.

How Much Rock

1.25 tons / cubic meter

<10,000 cubic meters (I wanted an event, not a catastrophe.)

These seemed like good working numbers.

So, the first number I wanted was easy: 12,000 tons of rock.

The second was going to take some more thought. How big a mound was created by 10,000 cubic meters?

First I needed to know the natural angle of a scree slope: 32 degrees is typical in the Scottish Cairngorms: Close enough for me. My final cone had to have a radius 3 times wider than it was high.

My search for “Calculating the Volume of a Cone” brought up a neat tool right away.

I fooled around with some numbers until I got this result:

Volume of a Cone
Volume of a Cone

Thirty meters wide and ten meters high didn’t sound very impressive as a burial mound. But then I thought about it. 1) That’s a radius of 30 meters, so a diameter of 60 meters. 2) It’s in metric.

English is always better for measurements like this. A burial mound that was 200’ across and 30’ high—way better.

But was there a better descriptor? I started tinkering.

  • A circular base 200’ in diameter = 31,400 square feet.
  • A football field = 47,970 square feet without the endzones. (“Covering two-thirds of a football field…” sounds a little lame.
  • A FIFA soccer field is even bigger, so that wouldn’t help.
  • From my on-going US Coast Guard short story series, I know that an Endurance-class cutter is 215’ long. But that’s long and narrow, so it doesn’t give the right impression.
  • A US Interstate Highway uses a 12’ lane. 200’/12’ = 16 lanes. Hmmm…

Another NerdBonus: according to Quora, the widest highway section in the US Interstate system runs for 22 miles from Katy, TX to Houston, TX. It averages 22 lanes wide and in some places is 26! Excluding toll booths, it’s the widest in the world. (With tollbooths, it’s 50 lanes on the G4 in China.)

But most of us don’t have much experience with picturing a 16-lane highway. I needed something familiar to most people.

  • A baseball field = 400’ x 400’ = 160,000 sq feet. Nope.
  • A baseball infield = 90’ x 90’ = 8,100 sq feet. Closer. Though if you start looking at specifications for the infield and the dirt running track you find out that: 1) maybe 27,000 is a workable number, but 2) there aren’t actually specific rules according to the blogs on So picturing something that’s variable…nah!

“He remained conscious for the next two hundred feet of descent as a eleven-and-a-half thousand tons of rock swept him toward the valley floor.”…”At the base of the scree slope, the mountain built a burial mound—bigger than a baseball diamond but smaller than the dirt running track and three stories high.” Not really helpful. Even without the running track qualifier it seemed clunky.

  • A full-sized school bus is 45’ long. Hmmm…

“He remained conscious for the next two hundred feet of descent as a eleven-and-a-half thousand tons of rock swept him toward the valley floor.”…”At the base of the scree slope, the mountain built a burial mound—wider than four school buses parked end to end and three stories high.”

Yeah, there it is.

UberNerd Note: Yes, I considered the fact that the mound wouldn’t be accumulating on a perfectly flat valley floor, but rather at the foot of the existing 32-degree(ish) scree slope. But I couldn’t think of how doing all that extra math would make these 2 lines in the book any more impactful—rather quite the opposite, so I left truncated cones and other calcs for a different time.

Until next time: Nerd on!

Nerdguy Friday #10: Condor-Syrniki Pancakes

Plaguing my proofreader

I’ve previously mentioned my utterly awesome proofreader, Colleen. She does, however, consistently lodge three complaints against me: my abuses of the English language (though she does admit to some minor improvements under her incredible tutelage [read as a lot of red marks on my raw pages]), my forcing her to stay up all night to read the book the first time before she starts to work on it (making me smile hugely), and…the food.

She complains greatly about the food. “You keep making me hungry from reading your books. Then I have to go and find the recipes and ingredients to make that dish.” (Which is apparently tricky as she lives way off the beaten track in southern Utah.)

Well, after proofreading Condor (Miranda Chase #3, which just released on Tuesday), she was “forced” to make Syrniki. These are Ukrainian/Russian Cheese pancakes (or fritters depending on who’s translating) that one of my fliers speaks of with fond recollection.

Holly eased the pilot into the small shed with the others as the knock-out drug took him under. “Tom and Tim. You stay here. Find something to make sure they won’t freeze to death before they wake up. Keep an eye out, we’ll try to get the loadmasters over here next.”

“Twelve hours, they won’t freeze,” Tim poked one guy in the gut now bulging prominently above the waistband of his underwear after stealing his uniform.

“Living on too much beer,” Tom agreed.

“A little fried brown bread.”

“With that cheesy mayo-ketchup dip.”

“Syrniki fried curd fritters.”

“With honeyed sour cream?”

“Ah, Russia,” they sighed happily in unison.

It seemed a simple line, but it was enough to inspire Colleen to make them (after protesting to me). So, I finally gave in and decided to try them myself. However, I had to NerdGuy over them a bit because, hey, it what I am. And I discovered that they’re very yummy! So good, in fact, that they’ve now replaced the recipe that our family has been using since my wife learned it from her Mum.

A Syrniki has three distinct advantages over normal pancakes:

  1. There’s a toothsomeness to them that’s more fun to eat.
  2. Because of the cheese, it’s a lot of protein without the massive cholesterol hit of just eggs.
  3. They’re much more fun to say: Sir-nih-kee or Seer-nih-kee (I found both).

NOTE: This is actually two recipes in one. I couldn’t find Farmer’s Cheese at first, which Wikipedia lists as “pressed cottage cheese.” So, I pressed low-fat cottage cheese for four hours (which removed about 2 Tablespoons of liquid – probably not worth the effort) and ended up with a very loose batter. Thicker than pancake batter, but still pour-able rather than shape-able. Then we went out and found Farmer’s Cheese (3rd supermarket), but I actually liked the first variation better (which also was lower fat).

Print Recipe

NerdGuy’s Condor-Syrniki Pancakes

Makes 12 pancakes (and 3-4 is definitely a meal with a little bacon or a smoothie).

  • 16oz – farmer’s cheese or low-fat cottage cheese
  • 3 – eggs (if big), 4 eggs if small
  • 3/4 c. – all-purpose flour (+ more for dusting per below)
  • 3 T. – sugar (the Russian version looks to be sweeter with less flour and more sugar – 1/2 c. flour to 1/4 c. sugar)
  • 1/2 t. – salt
  • 1 t. – baking soda
  • 1 t. – vinegar (white or cider-we preferred the latter)
  • 1/2 c. – raisins
  • vegetable oil or extra light olive oil for frying (butter also works)
  • toppings: jam (apricot or blueberry), syrup, powdered sugar (a particularly wonderful addition), honey, sour cream, (honey and sour cream, oh yeah!)
  1. Batter:
    1. Farmer’s Cheese variation: beat eggs, sugar, and salt in a bowl, then mix in flour and cheese with a fork.
    2. Cottage Cheese variation: throw first 5 ingredients in blender or food processor. Blend until curds broken up and well mixed (10-15 seconds).
    3. (See the pictures below. A fork drag through the farmer’s cheese leaves a trough. Through the cottage cheese, only a small furrow that fills in.)
  2. Mix baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl, stir so that it fizzes. Mix into batter.
  3. Stir in raisins. (Don’t blend or they turn to mush.)
  4. Large skillet with 1-2 T. oil, heated on med-low. (The temperature is critical. These pancakes are going to rise and expand greatly. Even medium heat will burn the outside before the inside is cooked.)
  5. Forming:
    1. Farmer’s Cheese variation:
      1. Dust flour on the counter
      2. Drop 1/4c. of thick batter onto flour.
      3. Dust with more flour.
      4. Pat down into a disk shape.
      5. Knock off excess flour as transfer to pan.
    2. Cottage Cheese variation:
      1. Dollop a scant 1/4c. into pan.
      2. Slap once with a wet spatula to flatten it into a disk. (If you use a dry spatula, it will stick and make a mess.)
    3. Keep them spaced way apart. The pancakes will at least double in size. (And if they merge, they’re a real pain to flip.)
  6. Cook 4-5 minutes / side. Refresh oil between batches. (I found 5 minutes was best. Unlike normal pancakes, don’t  wait for air bubbles that pop and not fill in before flipping. That will be too late for the turn. The edges will look massively underdone up until the final minute. When that goes away, you know the interior need just one more minute.)
  7. Toppings and enjoy. (They sit on a warmed oven plate with less collapse than normal pancakes while you’re cooking next batches. Pretty good zapped in the morning, too.)
Deep trough behind fork in Farmer’s Cheese batter (wouldn’t fill in at all except I used 4 very large eggs, 3 would have been better.)
Fork drag fills in almost immediately in “pourable” cottage cheese batter
Massively expanding pancake merge (generous 1/4c. of cottage cheese batter)
Better behaved pancakes (scant 1/4c of farmer’s cheese variation)
Syrniki with powdered sugar and bacon (fun to say and fun to eat)
A few toppings: Apricot preserves, honey, maple syrup, powdered sugar (a must)