Blog

Liquid Breathing – It’s Not As Easy as It Looks

Who can forget James Cameron’s movie The Abyss!

If I need to remind you, Cameron is the creator of Avatar.

The Abyss was an imaginative movie of the 1980s, where the plot concerned commercial divers who had been hired by the Navy to assist with the salvage of a nuclear submarine. It involved very deep diving, and special technology that actually has some basis in fact.

By far the most memorable part of the movie involves a diving helmet filled with a liquid that the diver, with some trepidation, breathed.

Below is a clip from the movie that demonstrated, quite dramatically, and with a live animal, the concept of liquid breathing.

It’s not a trick – it really works, on small rodents.

In the 1960s and 70s the Office of Navy Research funded basic research at Duke University on liquid breathing, with Dr. Johannes A. Kylstra as the lead scientist on the project. After proving the technique worked on rodents and dogs, it progressed to the point of having a commercial diver, Frank Falejczyk, become the first person to breathe oxygenated liquid.

First, Frank inhaled well-oxygenated saline on an operating table. Unfortunately, extraction of the liquid from his lung did not work as planned. He developed pneumonia as a result of the exposure. But eventually, the researchers found that oxygenated perfluorocarbons could be tolerated by the lung, and could, at least in animals, allow the extraction of dissolved oxygen for a period of time without ill effects.

Eventually, Falejczyk made a presentation on his trials to an audience that happened to include James Cameron.  Apparently, Cameron was impressed.

So, can man breathe liquid and not drown? At least one retired physician says yes. Arnold Lande, a retired American heart and lung surgeon, has patented a scuba suit that would, he suggests, allow a human to breathe oxygenated liquid.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/into-the-abyss-the-diving-suit-that-turns-men-into-fish-2139167.html

Now, making such a device work is in fact a tall order. Although Kylstra’s animal experiments showed that rodents and even dogs could be ventilated for up to an hour, the limiting factor seemed to be the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the body. The perfluorocarbons gave up their stored oxygen readily, but did not adequately eliminate carbon dioxide.

That is a major problem.

In the 1980s an Israeli colleague and I conducted biomedical research on potential Navy applications of high frequency ventilation (HFV), an unusual method of mechanical ventilation that now has many clinical applications. It soon occurred to me that appropriate frequencies applied to the mouth or chest wall could greatly accelerate the diffusion of carbon dioxide in liquid, just as it did in air. However, I never proposed studying liquid ventilation, and if I had, the proposal would likely have been rejected almost immediately on the basis of Frank Falejczyk’s bad outcome.

Dr. Lande has proposed solving the carbon dioxide retention problem by tieing artificial gills straight into the human circulatory system. There are obvious safety concerns with such a plan, but if those concerns could be engineered out, there is still the problem of creating working gills with enough throughput to eliminate CO2 from a working diver.

I once witnessed a demonstration of an artificial gill, conducted in front of several well-educated Navy diving physicians and scientists. After descending about three feet down into a pool, the “inventor” lay motionless for 30 seconds, then bounded up out of the water, breathlessly saying, “Basically, it works.”

His panted words were not convincing.

Based on fairly recent history, and the fact that for deep diving, not one lung but both lungs would have to be completely filled with perfluorocarbon or similar liquid, it seems that a practical and safe liquid breathing system will be a huge engineering challenge. I can envision ways that it could be done, but at what cost, and for what purpose?

I am mindful, being an aviator, that such questions were not allowed to stymie Wilbur and Orville Wright. However, these days, human experimentation involving the complete filling of human lungs would face a formidable hurdle, called the Human Use Committee.  In the U.S. at least, a repeat of Kylstra’s experiments is very unlikely to be approved by Research Ethics committees.

But could it happen in other countries with lessor human research safeguards?

Time will tell.

How Musicians and Pilots Are Alike – It’s in the Chords

I’ve suffered from chord envy for years.

No, I’m not talking about the chord of aircraft wings and some etymological, coincidental semblance to musical chords.

No, the problem is much more serious.

You see, I’m a woodwind player, a clarinetist to be exact, and like brass players, I can’t play chords.

A chord is a musical element with more than one note played at a time. In fact, my most loved musical elements are chords. They can be beautiful, or powerful, but I can’t play them.

Music for Bb clarinet.

With my instrument, I’m stuck with playing one note at a time. And due to years of training to do that one function well, my brain will not allow me to diversify. I can only read and interpret one note at a time. If I was to write a simple chord for woodwinds, I’d have to hire three musicians to play it. But give a chord to a pianist, or guitarist, and they’re quite at home. 

I can in fact play a wide variety of chords on a piano, organ, or guitar, and I have often done just that. And of course I can read the keyboard notes. I just can’t read them and play at the same time. My brain’s not wired to do that.

Music for pipe organ

I’ve watched my wife play organ chords on the treble cleft, bass cleft, and pedals. That is, both hands and feet are playing, at the same time!

How does she do that?

If I’d started playing piano at the same time I’d started playing the clarinet, 3rd grade, I’d have no problem. My brain would have wired itself to, as we are fond of saying, multitask. I suppose if I’d started reading two or three books at the same time, in my early childhood, I could do that now. But I didn’t, and so I can’t.

So you see where the chord envy comes from?

But the other day I had an epiphany. Right out of high school I started flying very simple aircraft; a Piper 140 and a Cessna 150. In some sense they’re like the clarinet. But a long time ago I transitioned to so-called complex aircraft; Bonanza’s, Mooney’s and my beloved Arrows. They’re sort of like pianos, in complexity.

And then came the instrument rating – complexity added to complexity, and with it, a heavy responsibility. The combination of complex aircraft and instrument rating is in some ways like an organ – lots of button, pedal and key pushing, all at the right time, and in harmony with the air traffic control system.

An aircraft instrument trainee (gee, there’s another musical parallel) works hard to develop a scan of the instruments to maintain situational awareness and control the aircraft without outside visual reference. It’s tough in the beginning.

But now, with experience, I don’t even think of a scan. I simply take in the entire panel, with all its separate instruments and subconsciously perform the required control inputs to keep the aircraft headed in the correct direction, right-side up.

My epiphany is, that is exactly what a keyboardist does when they are playing six or more notes at the same time. I can’t play musical chords, but my brain has wired itself with repetitive practice to do essentially the same thing with my aircraft.

So now, when I push in the throttle and start the takeoff roll in my Arrow, it’s like the beginning of  the Fan Fare for Also Sprach Zarathustra. The engine powers up from idle (middle C, 261 Hz, C4) to higher RPM’s (G4, 392 Hz) and then full power (C5, 523 Hz). And as my bird lifts into the sky, that famous two chord sequence strikes at an even higher pitch (C major and a sixteenth note later, C minor.)

[Want to know how the frequencies of those notes roughly relate to engine RPM? Multiply by 4.]

As the chord begins dying away I’m simultaneously pulling up the gear, turning as directed, watching the engine instruments, and heading off into the skies with the reassuring droning note of the engine vibrating through our bodies. It’s that same note that reprises the quiet beginning of Strauss’s ASZ.

I can do it! No more chord envy.

As you already know, the same principle, complexity mastered through training, applies to any complex endeavor where situational awareness is vital, be it soccer field or battlefield.

[Update, I don’t know that musicians necessarily make better pilots, or vice versa, but at least they have their own association (Flying Musicians Association) and web site: http://flyingmusicians.org/]

The Puerto Rico Trench and Denizens of the Deep

(Public domain - from U.S. Geological Survey)
Puerto Rico Trench. (Click once or twice for full image) U.S. Geological Survey

The Puerto Rico Trench is the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, and is only surpassed in its depth by the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean. It is 500 miles long, and at its deepest plummets 28,232 feet down.

After receiving my doctorate with a special interest in deep-sea physiology, I was invited on board the oceanographic Research Vessel (RV) Gilliss for an expedition to the Puerto Rico Trench. I was accompanied on that research cruise by Dr. Robert Y. George, a deep-sea biological oceanographer from Florida State University.

I had been studying the effect of very high pressure on invertebrate hearts. As luck would have it, the largest population of deep-sea creatures indigenous to the deepest places in the ocean are invertebrates (animals lacking  vertebrae, backbones.) But on the way down to the deepest reaches of the trench, you encounter some very strange creatures indeed, such as the Humpback Angler Fish.

Click for a larger image

 

 

 

 

 

 

These bizarre and frightening looking fish inhabit the abyssal pelagic zone (or the Abyss) between 13,000 and 20,000 feet. But below the water containing these abyssal fish lies the zone of the deep trenches, the hadalpelagic zone between 20,000 and 36,000 feet, the deepest point in any ocean.

“Denizens of the Deep” are known in merfolk tradition as the beasts that swallow up the sun at the end of the day, which is somewhat ironic since sunlight never reaches down to the abyssal and hadal zones. Whatever light is there, is produced by bioluminescence. Down there, light means either a meal, or a trap. And since meals are uncommon in the sparsely populated ocean depths, predators seem designed to ensure they miss no opportunities to feed. Their jaws, fangs, and other anatomical structures seem especially designed to snag a hapless passer-by, and provide no chance of escape for those caught.  Fortunately for us, animals adapted to the high pressure, low oxygen environment of the deep ocean cannot survive in shallow waters.

But imagine for a moment that something perturbed that natural order. Time has separated us from man-eating dinosaurs, but the only thing separating us from deep-sea monsters, ferocious predators that make piranhas look playful, is something as simple as pressure and oxygen.  Could things change?

Well, not to scare you, but until 1983 or so, the Puerto Rico Trench was a huge pharmaceutical dumping ground. Massive quantities of steroids and antibiotics, and chemicals capable of causing genetic mutations, came to rest on the sea floor, or were dispersed in the waters above and around the trench.

Read more about that here: http://deepseanews.com/2008/04/dumping-pharmaceutical-waste-in-the-deep-sea/

You don’t need to take just one person’s word for it. Professor R.Y. George himself commented on the issue in his resumé.

July 5 – July 30, 1977. Revisited Puerto Rico Trench (now Pharmaceutical Dump Site) aboard R/V GILLISS of the University of Miami to study Barophylic (pressure-loving)bacteria (Dr. Jody Demming’s Ph. D. work from Dr. Rita Colwell’s Lab. in the University of Maryland), and to study meiofauna, macrofauna and megafauna (in collaboration with Dr. Robert Higgins of the Smithsonian Institution).

Frankly, if I was visiting Puerto Rico, and signed up for a deep-sea fishing trip, I’d ask the boat captain just how deep we’d be fishing. I really wouldn’t want to bring up a Humpback Angler Fish large enough to eat the boat. After all, Angler Fish are fishermen too.

For a NOAA sponsored animated tour of the Trench, play the following high resolution video.

[youtube id=”v1OnsuyFdaM” w=”700″ h=”600″]

 

My Pathway to Writing – Learning from Max McCoy’s “The Moon Pool”

This is not some random book review. I have a personal investment in Max McCoy’s underwater thriller, and to be honest, Max is a friend and mentor.

As the Scientific Director and Senior Scientist of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU), I get some unusual calls from time to time. One of the most memorable was from a novelist, Max McCoy.

Not being an avid reader of Westerns, I had never heard of Max, but he had an interesting question. He wanted to know if our large, high pressure chamber, called the Ocean Simulation Facility, could be used to depressurize a small submarine. He gave me the dimensions of the submarine, and little other information to go on.

The unequivocal answer was yes, it could be done fairly easily. With that affirmation, Max traveled to NEDU. After touring our facilities and meeting with our Commanding Officer, engineers, scientists, and submarine medical officers, he began sketching out a closing chapter of his manuscript, the Moon Pool. NEDU would be prominently featured.

During his visit, over lunch, we talked a little about my non-fiction writing project, a spiritual/supernatural collection of carefully filtered anecdotes. He encouraged me in my efforts, and even shared an amazing story of his own. But what Max did not know was that I was stuck in the style of science writing that had been the mainstay of my scientific career. It was hard writing, and frankly, hard reading as well.

When Max returned to Kansas, he sent me his manuscript, which I devoured. The Moon Pool was a change of pace for Max as well. He had been an avid diver for years, and had a diving related story brewing in his mind for some time. For him, The Moon Pool was a welcome, if temporary, release from the Western genre for which he was so well-known.

When I finished the manuscript I began an almost maniacal writing session of my own — an all nighter — writing how I thought the NEDU chapter should read. Since no one would see it, I featured myself and my buddies, inserting our characters into the story, and with a plausible and action-filled story line. I had never had so much fun writing — the words spilled out of my head onto the keyboard.

I sat on that secret product for probably a week before I told Max what I had done. He asked to see it, and much to my surprise, he and his publisher liked it. Even more to my surprise, my character and those of my friends ended up in the last chapter of Moon Pool, modified of course to meet Max’s needs. That book, published in 2004, has a treasured place in my office at NEDU.

On the back cover is my blurb, “A one-of-a kind underwater thriller. The sinister beauty of the underwater world is painted in hues that only an avid diver and inspired novelist could capture.” On the front cover, my dear friend Bob Barth, the Navy’s first Aquanaut, wrote, “A great book! Compelling stuff.” By the time Max visited us, Bob had authored his own book on the Navy’s historical Sea Lab program.

I owe a great deal to Max, for he taught me just how fun creative writing can be, and how, with proper guidance, it can be turned into a commercial product. I have since written two books, one written in record pace, for me at least.  The novel, working title “Children of the Middle Waters” is a mixed military-science fiction story that involves my favorite things, flying and diving, with a pinch of top-secret government intrigue;  just another day at NEDU.  After a long gestational period, I used the creative writing skills developed in the novel to improve the style of the spiritual/supernatural manuscript. Both Children of the Middle Waters, and the spiritual book have yet to be published. But I’m optimistic that will happen in good time.

I will discuss those works more in upcoming blog posts.

By the way, Max’s Moon Pool begins with a supernatural event that is tantalizing in its originality. Furthermore, my spiritual book contains an anecdote of a supernatural experience Max experienced when young. Finally, as a tribute to Max McCoy, he is the inspiration for an investigative journalist in Children of the Middle Waters.

In retrospect, that was quite an auspicious phone call I took one day eight years ago.

Below are links to Max’s web site and his writer’s blogs.

http://www.maxmccoy.com/

http://www.maxmccoy.blogspot.com/

http://www.signalsandnoise.net

 

Where Big Jets Go to Die

It’s a combination of Elephant Graveyard and Hotel California, this airport in Nortwestern Mississippi, not far from the Mississippi River. Big jets fly into the small town airport, but never leave.

I stumbled across the curious goings on at the Greenwood LeFlore Airport during a refueling stop on my way to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Planes which have met their structural or economic lifespan are euthanized, and dissected, after having made their last flight. They are “parted out”, which means useful parts that can be sold, are sold. Presumably the rest goes to scrap.

(click for a larger image) In the satellite image of KGWO airport, over 20 passenger or cargo jets are visible on the ramp or the dirt.

The facility in Greenwood Leflore is owned by GE, one of the largest manufacturers of turbofan engines. For obvious reasons, the engines are the first to be removed from the planes. But almost anything else with life left in it will be salvaged, and likely used in other aircraft.

So why would a plane be scrapped with useful components left in it?

Remember Aloha Airlines Flight 243, a 737 that at altitude lost a large portion of its cabin top due to metal fatigue? Far better to scrap a plane before that happens, than after.

Recently, a Southwest 737 had a hole blown in its roof due to metal fatigue accumulation after only 39,000 pressurization cycles. That’s a relatively low number compared to what the industry expects.

But let’s put that into perspective. Every morning we wake up, get pressurized, perhaps with a cup or two of Joe, and strike off for our daily chores. And in the evening we depressurize, then sleep, before starting the cycle over. After 39,000 of those cycles, we’d be about 107 years old.

Well, sure, if we made it that far, I imagine major things would be wearing out.

The funny thing is, aircraft get junked when they are no longer economically repairable.

I wonder if that could happen to us?

No, surely not.

Could it?

left to right: Frontier Airlines, U.S. Airways, American Airlines variant?

Those Doctors Are Trying to Kill Me!

Be careful what you say before going under anesthesia.

I had reached the age when my internist required me to get a colonoscopy, and I was not looking forward to it. I got gowned up in one of ridiculous back open gowns, for obvious reasons, but had a darkly funny thought when the nurse attached an I.D. bracelet to my wrist. I joked to the nurse, and to my wife, about the bracelet saying DNR, “Do Not Resuscitate.” Haha. See how I make joke when I nervous?

I know, I should have known better than to joke about a DNR, because it is after all a serious, and usually anguish-filled end-of-life decision someone has to make, at some point. It really wasn’t suitable for a joke, But hey, I can kid about my own mortality any time I want. Right?

Well, the joke was on me, because my timing for the joke was really bad. A couple of minutes later I was given an intravenous cocktail of Versed, propofol, and fentanyl. I was out.

In medical parlance, that form of anesthesia is called a MAC – Monitored Anesthesia Care. Which, for me, meant I didn’t care, or know anything at all, for a few minutes.

But when I woke up, things had changed. While I was unconscious, having my body invaded, someone had placed a DNR band on my wrist. And I was not happy about that, not at all. Who gave them permission?

I voiced my complaint to the nurse and my wife who were helping me get off the gurney and walk me to the car. But they didn’t seem to care! They wouldn’t even look at that blasted wrist band. Why was my wife so uncaring about my obvious distress?

At one point as my wife was driving me home, she started laughing at me. Of all the nerve! All I did was try to tell her about the DNR wrist bracelet. And she thought it was funny!

But I still remember my comeback to her. “Laugh jackass, laugh!”

Boy, I sure had her number! That shut her up; until she started tucking me in bed for a nap.

But I didn’t want to sleep. I was mad as Hades! Did you know, someone had put a DNR bracelet on me while I was unconscious?

And then something clicked in her, born of years of raising toddlers and preschoolers. As I was trying to climb out of the bed she held my shoulders down, put her face right in front of mine, and said forcefully,

“No. It does not say that! Now go to sleep.”

She later said I got a very hurt look on my face. And then I laid back, and was out, again.

When I woke up, all was right with the world.

But while I was sleeping that darned DNR wrist band had been cut off my wrist and the evidence destroyed. My wife still claims no knowledge of it.

If I may opine about what happened to me: I believe this is an example of idea fixation brought on by anesthetic agents. It was as if, on induction, a particular mental state was captured, which was in fact a mixture of dark humor regarding my bracelet, which obviously was not a DNR bracelet, and some anxiety over the procedure. Perhaps those anesthetic agents caused the emotional content to morph into something of its own creation, some paranoid delusion which was not abolished until the last vestiges of the drug were eliminated.

If you look up the term “idea fixation” you’ll see, oddly enough, repeated mention of nitrogen narcosis, a diving induced mental state of which I am all too aware. From a scientific perspective, there are qualitative parallels between the narcosis of nitrogen and the narcosis of certain anesthetic agents.  But I don’t know how many events such as the one I experienced have been recorded in the medical literature. If you know, please share with me.

In the meantime, I plan to maintain a tight grip on even the most humorous impulses I might have before undergoing anymore medical procedures requiring sedation. The next time, my wife may not be so understanding.

The Day I Raced in the Atlanta 500 — Sort Of

On race day during my freshman year at Georgia Tech, a pilot friend of mine offered to take me flying if I helped pay for gas. He rented a Cessna 150 at the Fulton County Airport not far from downtown Atlanta. I had time in a Cessna 140, a tail dragger version of the 150, but had never flown a 150 before, so I sat in the right seat.

Pre-1964 Cessna 150

A short 30 mile flight later we were on top of the Atlanta International Raceway (now the much faster sounding Atlanta Motor Speedway) just as the Atlanta 500 race was starting. Once there, the pilot decided to let me fly. I, like any normal young male very full of himself, decided we should race the cars.  And so we did.

Other planes started arriving, but we were the first ones there, and so the rest had to orbit further away from the track, while we had the prime spot for the race action – directly over the track.

Although the two-seat Cessna had a cruise speed of only 123 mph, it had a Vne, never exceed speed, of 162 mph, and I found that by putting the plane’s nose down on the straightaway, I could safely race the cars at 150 mph, which pretty well allowed me to keep up with them. On the turn I threw the wing over and maintained position over the track. After the 180° turn, I’d climb back up so I’d have altitude to speed down the track on the next straightaway.

We did several turns like that before deciding it was time to fly off for more adventure.

And to think, I wasn’t even a pilot yet!

(Disclaimer: It you pulled that stunt today you’d be escorted away by a pair of F-16s, have the plane impounded, and lose your license – forever! So don’t even think about it.)

McMurdo Station, Antarctica: A Research Town

A photo of Jello Wrestling among fully clothed adults was published today as an indictment of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its off-duty recreation program for McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Since I’ve spent a little time at McMurdo Station, I’d like to come to the defense of the NSF – by doing nothing more than describing what life in Antarctica is like.

I am not, and have never been an employee of the National Science Foundation, and have never held an NSF grant. I’ve never participated in a Jello wrestling match, although it looks like fun.  So, I am unbiased about this news event. However, I am informed about the rigors of daily life at McMurdo Station.

The following link is to a Washington Times article reporting on a supposed tally of $3 billion of financial excesses within the NSF. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/may/26/tax-dollars-shrimp-treadmills-jell-o-wrestling/

What is most concerning to me, is that the Coburn report focuses on a non-science activity, designed to relieve interminable boredom in a minimalistic environment. I think that, if pressed, the report’s author would have to admit the photo has nothing whatsoever to do with waste in science funding. How much can Jello bought in bulk for the McMurdo cafeteria cost?

Click for a larger image.

As the Google image above shows, men and women who support the McMurdo and South Pole Station are isolated by vast distances from “civilization”. The closest cities with air transportation to the U.S. bases are either in Christchurch, New Zealand, or in Chile. During the winter, with 24 hours of darkness and generally horrible weather, it is virtually impossible for anyone to leave the bases. There are no flights into or out of the continent. So if anyone developes a medical problem or injury too great for the local medical support staff to handle, they are simply out of luck.

During the winter months, the size of support and scientific staff are greatly reduced, so those sharing the bleak winter together get to know each other, well. The contract staff during both winter and summer is composed largely of young, college-age men or women who are healthy, energetic, and are signing on for adventure.

But think about it. With 24 hours of darkness during the winter, the opportunities for recreation are minimal. It typically isn’t safe, or even possible, to go for walks or runs outdoors. A trip away from base, or even close by, could prove fatal if the weather were to change suddenly, which it often does. There are no soccer fields, no ball parks. And even worse, for those of you forever connected to the Internet,  there is barely enough bandwidth down there to support email on a bank of shared computers. Want to send a photo of yourself home to the folks? Forget about it. At least that’s how it was when I was there a couple of years ago.

View from Hut Point, McMurdo. Click for a larger image.

Life in Antarctica, at its best, is a spartan existence in a harsh, unforgiving environment. So how do these young men and women entertain themselves?

The fact of life is that off-duty entertainment, anywhere in the world, can lead to pregnancy, which in Antarctica can easily become a medical emergency.  And medical emergencies can lead to drama very quickly since flights out of McMurdo are nonexistent in the winter and difficult to arrange, and very expensive, even during the summer. So group entertainment that keeps these young healthy adults occupied is a wonderful idea.

I admit I do not know all the facts behind the firing of the Jello Wrestling organizer, reported in various news accounts.  But I have to wonder: why would off-duty entertainment be a reason to very publicly condemn the organization that funds and staffs the McMurdo Station, and funds a large proportion of science research in the U.S.? 

McMurdo Station seen from the Ross Ice Shelf

As a scientist I do not understand the denigration of the noble discipline that helped our country attain greatness, defend itself, and lead our way into the future. If science is to be attacked in public, I would ask that those attacking it be held accountable for the damage they do to science institutions, and to the minds of young men and women on the verge of becoming scientists. As a country we decry our failing leadership in science and engineering, and complain of the poor quality of education in the math and science disciplines, and yet we allow, and even fund,  studies that criticise  programs that have long been working safely and productively in the harshest environment on Earth.

The U.S. Antarctic Program is a success story, in spite of what headlines of the day might suggest.

Not What I Had in Mind for Valentines

Photo taken by Pax River Naval Airstation Photography Department. Click for larger image.

Did some pilot take the word “Landing” in Landing Craft, just a little too seriously?

Well, not exactly. But the story behind this photo made it into Flying Magazine, as you see below in the “Ship to shore” piece. 

Flying Magazine, June 1979

Now here’s the rest of the story.

It was February 1975, and I was an active duty First Lieutenant in the Army stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. I had flown our 2-seater Cessna 150 from Southwest Georgia (Thomasville) up to Aberdeen, MD in January. After a 734 mile (each way) flight home for the weekend of February 8-10, I could not resist flying myself and another Lieutenant back home for Valentines Day (Feb.14) since the following Monday was a Federal Holiday, President’s Day. The fact that my wife and I were trying to start a family made a Valentines  trip all that more appealing.

My aircraft was a 1962 Cessna 150B, the fastest stock version of the 150 with a reputed 109 knot (125 mph) cruise speed. Therefore, the round trips were challenging but doable for a 232 hour pilot with 10 hours of instrument training.

All was well until the return flight on the 17th. The weather briefers claimed that a front was moving from west to east across my path of flight, but as slow moving as I was I should be flying up the backside of the front, in the clear, as I made my way up north. Naively, I put too much faith in their forecast. It was what I wanted to hear.

After picking up my friend at Peachtree DeKalb Airport, outside Atlanta, we set off on the long leg back to base. On refueling and reassessing the weather in North Carolina, things were looking bleak. The front had stalled, and was not moving through as projected. It appeared that some “scud running” would be required, at least for a while, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk it. But then again, we really wanted to get back to the Army base. The Army would not be happy if we didn’t show up the next morning.

A more experienced pilot I had been talking to at the air field in North Carolina  took-off with the intention of following roads. Well, if that was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. We departed again, and were soon flying just below the clouds over endless farm land, far from towers or anything else that could reach up and smite us. 

Except for the flock of Canadian geese doing the same thing. 

I’m not sure who was more surprised as we came together out of the mist at well over a hundred miles an hour, them or us, but thanks to quick reactions and animal instincts we all survived the encounter without so much as a feather lost. It was then that I decided to climb on top of the clouds at the first available opening,  just to see what I was facing.

It was gorgeous on top of the cloud layer, with bright sunshine and endless visibility, and white clouds stretching from horizon to horizon. I was flying “VFR on top”, and with the added altitude my single VOR navigation radio was able to pinpoint my location at all times.  I no longer needed to follow roads.  The only problem was, getting down, eventually.

As we motored on, I developed a plan. I had already intended to fly east of Washington D.C. , over the Chesapeake Bay, before heading straight for Aberdeen, MD, north of Baltimore.  But now the plan was to navigate above the clouds to the center of the bay, and hope for the best, staying just north of the airspace around Paxtuxent River Naval Air Station (PAX River). If things didn’t look good for the run up the bay, I’d land at St. Mary’s County Airport in Leonardtown , MD.

When our navigation radio said we were directly over the Bay, a hole opened up large enough for us to spiral down towards the water. But once under the clouds I realized I had little choice except to land at St. Mary’s airport (2W6), which, according to the chart, was only about a mile from our location. The option of scud running up the Chesapeake would have vanished about the time I reached the Chesapeake Bay Bridges. Flying under them would not only have been illegal, it would have been stupid.

 The only problem was, St. Mary’s County Airport was not where the chart said it would be. 

As I searched vainly for the airport the clouds were lowering as evening was approaching and air temperature was dropping. I was now getting concerned enough that I flew low over a farmer’s field checking for suitability for a precautionary landing. The only thing my passenger said, was “What are you doing?”

Well, my passenger was not too keen on what I had in mind, so unwisely I gave up that opportunity and crossed to the east side of the bay continuing to search for the airport. Soon I realized it was not there either, and started a 180° turn back to the west.

Unless a pilot is extremely careful,  he can lose some altitude during a large turn. During my turn I lost 50 feet, which is not bad, except for the fact that I’d started the turn about 100 feet above the water. That dip towards the water definately got my passenger’s attention, and I think from then on he was willing to accept whatever method of safely landing that I could manage.

Once I was headed west across the bay again, I found the clouds had dropped to the top of the Calvert Cliffs. The option of putting N1144Y down in a field on top of the cliffs was now gone.

I was now committed to landing on a beach that would hopefully be flat enough and wide enough for my plane, whether my passenger liked it or not. If only I could find one. Then, almost miraculously, 4000 feet of suitable landing room appeared just north of Cove Point. I took it as an invitation to end part 1 of the saga.

View out the windscreen just prior to touch down.

In my excitement during manuevering for landing, I forgot to lower my aircraft’s flaps, which meant I approached the beach faster than intended, and my roll out was longer than it should have been. Just before rolling to a stop the front wheel hit a one or two inch berm in the sand, which sent the plane rotating up onto its propeller spinner, tail high in the air. In the cockpit we were staring down at the sand, which seemed strange, but at least we were stopped, and none the worse for wear.

We hopped out of the plane, and pulled the tail back down level, so it didn’t look so much like a plane crash. Just then, we saw a squad of men running up the beach with stretchers, thinking there had indeed been a plane crash.  The report of a crash had been radioed in by men on a boat who witnessed the approach and landing from out in the increasingly foggy bay.

After the initial excitement died down, we were invited to spend the night in a Coast Guard Station, on whose property we were now trespassing. But since we were both Army officers, we were treated like fellow brothers in arms.

It was my intention to take off again the next day. The beach was firmly packed sand, a very decent soft field, and after all, we pilots practiced soft, short field takeoffs and landings. But we got word that the FAA was planning to visit the site to “approve” the take-off location. Unfortunately, it took a couple of days for the FAA to arrive due to, as they said, a number of plane crashes that foggy day. So I guess I’d been lucky to find a suitable location for a precautionary landing.

But getting off proved to be a challenge since by the time the FAA arrived the beach had dried and become too soft. They would not approve my takeoff.

Two plans presented themselves. One, a team of mechanics would descend on the beach and disassemble the plane like ants carving up the carcass of a downed dragon fly, carrying off the pieces. Or sailors from the nearby Paxtuxent River Airstation would put a sling around my still airworthy bird and a large helicopter would hoist it into the air, depositing it on the Pax River runway not too far distant.

Cove Point Lighthouse and Coast Guard Station. (Photo credit paprika500)

That latter plan was dashed when I called Cessna Aircraft and asked their advice about stresses that might be placed on the airframe by a hoisting operation. “Don’t know,” they admitted. “But tell us how it comes out.”

That was not what I was hoping to hear.

The final plan was pieced together by Navy base personnel who were accustomed to using Landing Craft to recover the remains of crashed test aircraft. And my little bird sort of fit that description. They called it a training exercise.

One morning early I was guarding the aircraft when I saw the LCM get as close in as it could to the beach, and then a bunch of sailors charged out of the open front ramp of the LCM like Marines at Guadalcanal. Strong hands and arms then pushed the plane backwards down the beach, and then up into the open bay of the craft.

The nose wheel rested on the downward sloping ramp, which would have placed the wheel in saltwater as we slowly motored across the Bay towards Pax River Air Station. That problem was solved when I gently sat on the tail section (the horizontal stabilizer) to raise the nose wheel out of the water.

Luck was with us as the water that morning was glassy smooth as we motored the approximately 6 miles or so to the Navy airfield. The LCM nudged up to an old sea plane ramp, and myself and several sailors pushed the Cessna up the ramp to a flat portion of the Pax River runway. From there, I taxied the plane to a maintenance hangar where we spent most of the night going over the engine and airframe with a Pax River flying club mechanic to make sure the aircraft was still airworthy.

The next morning I took off from the longest runway I had ever seen, flew a salute around the Coast Guard Station that had been so accommodating, then flew on up the Chesapeake Bay to the air field at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

I could never, in a single lifetime, repay my debt to both the Coast Guard and the Navy for their assistance on one long  flight gone wrong on a cold February day. If you are one of them, reading this now, know that I am eternally grateful. You are one of the reasons I’ve spent my professional  career working for the Navy.

And the FAA? When I reported that I was attempting to locate an airport that was incorrectly charted, I never heard from them again. Fortunately, airport or not, I was able to make a good decision before I ran completely out of options. A precautionary landing beats a crash any day.

Three years later I completed my instrument rating so I would never again have to repeat such a potentially dangerous experience.

The following photo shows 1144Y with a fresh coat of paint, and with a baby boy born nine months after that Valentine’s day flight.

Mission accomplished.

Tex Ritter and Recovered Songs of Youth

It was a day of contrasts when I discovered that my vinyl 45 rpm records saved since my childhood were inexplicably lost. Imagine my joy, however, when a few hours later I discovered that the much beloved songs of that era were available for downloading from the internet!

I’m dating myself of course, but songs from Tex Ritter, the singing cowboy, were the ones which meant the most to me; songs like Red Rooster, Froggy Goes Courtin, the Theme from High Noon.

And of course, worthy of enduring admiration were songs my mother used to sing to me when I was little; like the somewhat zany 1944 hit, MaresEatOats. And songs my older brother would play, like the unforgettable mystery song, The Thing. I downloaded as many of the free, and legal, mp3s as I could find from one or two sources. The source for all of the Tex Ritter songs was http://www.kiddierecords.com/, a music recovery project that is well deserving of donations.

I started thinking about songs like MaresEatOats and Red Rooster when I found myself spending more and more time entertaining a 3 and a half-year old. What better way to entertain her than singing and playing songs that meant so much to me as a child?

Magically, as if time knew no boundary, the preschooler responded to those songs just as I had many decades before. What a thrill it was to share that simple but engaging music, and to watch her bouncing with seemingly endless enthusiasm in perfect synchrony with the beat.

One of the oddest songs written and sung by Tex Ritter is Blood on the Saddle. Although the title and words sound ghoulish, the fact that it is featured on the animatronics show, Country Bear Jamboree at Disney’s Magic Kingdom Theme Park near Orlando, FL clearly illustrates that it is comical and child-like.

Country Bear Jamboree, Magic Kingdom

Here, for your benefit, is a link to Tex Ritter’s recording of  Blood On the Saddle.

I won’t be playing this one for little preschooler; the tempo is way too slow to keep her entertained. And besides, how would I explain a song about “blood all around” to a three-year old?