Friday, July 10, 2009

Black Rock Desert - Day 4

It's the final day of this week of testing of the North American Eagle here in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. The goal for today is to try to get the vehicle up to 500mph. The team also plans to do its first turn-around. Everyone is hopeful. The stretch of desert that the Eagle is going to run on today is much harder than where they ran the first two days.

It takes more than an hour to tow the vehicle from the hanger at the 3 mile mark out to the new start line at the 12 mile mark. Once it finally gets there, I've got to get into at least one photo.

The first run is absolutely flawless. Ed gets the Eagle up into the mid 300mph range. Everything looks great. The only issues are that the desert is still a bit soft, the nitrogen charge in the front suspension is gone, so the vehicle is riding on the front springs only, and as a result the dust deflectors below the vehicle that help prevent dust from being sucked back into the intake ports have begun to come apart. There's some initial talk about just practicing turning the vehicle for a return run, but as the wind dies down, Ed decides to do it for real.

I loan a team member my video camera to record the entire turn around operation. In a real record attempt, the rules say that the vehicle must make a return run and pass back through the 1 mile timing strip within 60 minutes. It takes less than 40 minutes to turn the vehicle and get it prepped and ready to make its return run.

This time, Ed plans to go to after burners at the 2 mile mark, so Keith Zanghi and I go down to the 2 mile mark to watch. It's amazing how quickly the flare goes up, letting all workers and spectators know that the vehicle is ready to roll.

As we watch at the 2 mile mark, the Eagle flies past, but we see no after burner. This run looks to be about the same speed as the first run.

In reviewing this specific photo of mine afterward, the engine specialists are sure of what happened. Ed did indeed try to kick in the after burners. But they did not ignite. You can clearly see the cloud of fuel just beyond the tail cone in this image. It has not ignited. The question becomes, why not? What kept the afterburner from kicking in?

After the second run, Vicky Cruse climbs aboard and goes through the procedures for starting up the big jet engine. Once that's done, we head back to the base camp. It takes another hour before the vehicle makes it back to camp. In the meantime, we all have lunch and then, around 3pm, Vicky has to leave. She buckles in and the puts on an air show for us all before she heads back to California.

Her Edge 540 is truly an amazing plane, and we see why she was the 2007 US World Champion aerobatic pilot and remains one of the top aerobatic pilots in the world.

To complete the day of testing and training, Per Wimmer gets strapped into the Eagle, goes through the startup procedures, and then goes through an actual power-up. Afterwards, he reports that it was quite an experience.

I've got lots more to write about this week. I've also got lots of video. But the connection from out here in the desert is not nearly as fast as what I have at home, so I'll be posting more once I return and give my car a very well deserved trip through the car wash.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Black Rock Desert - Day 3

Day 3 out here on the Black Rock Desert is much calmer. There's almost no wind, at least compared to yesterday. But the playa hasn't gotten any firmer.

In spite of plans to get an early start, it's still mid-morning before they tow the vehicle out onto the test track. The plan for today is to run the Eagle on the desert road that has been used by cars that head out across the desert. Yes, there are actually roads out here.

There are some initial problems with the huffer cart used to start up the jet engine, but after a brief delay, that gets resolved and the team is ready to go.

In spite of the road being much firmer, there is still a lot of concern. It may be firmer, but there's a definite crown to the road and ruts where the automobile tires have worn into the playa. The concern is that the Eagle, with its centered aluminum wheel at the nose and the large aluminum wheels at the rear won't ride well on that surface.

I drive down range about 3/4-mile and watch the startup through my binoculars. But I don't really need the optical assistance. Even from this distance, I can clearly hear when the engine has started. It's loud and thrilling.

Within seconds the vehicle rockets past, but it's pretty clear that this run is not much faster than yesterday. It also turns out to be much shorter. Ed reports that it was indeed difficult to keep the vehicle centered on the road and he shuts things down before he reaches the 2.5 mile mark. But the test is a success. The high-speed parachute has deployed and a pair of Intel solid state hard drives are ejected from the moving vehicle and successfully recovered, and of course, they still work.

The entire team gathers for a photo at the end of the run. Then, after lunch, I go with Ed and several team members to a place about 12 miles north of the base camp, to scout for a more solid stretch of desert to do some faster tests. It's pretty cool to drive my Subaru at nearly 100mph across the desert. And sure enough, just more than 12 miles north of the base camp we find a stretch of desert that is very flat and very hard. I mark the northern and southern ends using my GPS and we head back to the base camp for a meeting. After a brief discussion, the team decides to move tomorrow's tests to the new location. I drive out to the new site a second time along with another test vehicle, this time retrieving the flags marking the previous course and setting them out on the new 4.25 mile course. Then we head back to base camp.

Once back at the base, they tow the vehicle out onto the playa away from the shelter for a photo op. A photographer from National Geographic Adventure magazine is here to take photos for an article that will appear in that magazine later this year.

I tag along to take some photos of my own. It's quite a lengthy process, but I do get some great shots of the vehicle and Ed. Ed's got his own paparazzi. Now he knows what it feels like to be a super model.

One of the most fascinating things about this trip is the variety of people who are showing up. Today's most prominent new arrival is Per Wimmer, who has flown in from Denmark along with a cameraman. Last fall, Per did a tandem skydive over Mount Everest. He also plans to be the first Dane in space, and has already reserved seats on three commercial space flights. He may also be a candidate to pilot the North American Eagle.

Stay tuned for more. The plan for Thursday is to do the first run around 8am, then turn the vehicle as quickly as possible and do a second run within 60 minutes. This will be an excellent test. Higher speeds are definitely expected, and the team will get some very useful practice, since in order to break the Land Speed Record, they need to complete two runs, one in each direction, in less than one hour.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Black Rock Desert - Day 2

It's day two out here on the playa in the Black Rock Desert.

Things did not start off early again this morning. There was still a lot to do to prepare the Eagle for its first run. I watched, and later helped John Winchester pack the high speed parachute that would be used to slow the vehicle on a speed run.

As John was finishing his work, a small plane buzzed the base camp and then did some nifty maneuvers around the edge of the desert.

This turned out to be none other than Vicki Cruse, the 2007 US National Aerobatic Champion. She's here to see the North American Eagle and may actually make a run in the vehicle later this week. It turns out that the women's land speed record is a rather sedate 318 miles per hour. So she could actually set a new record in the Eagle if conditions permit.

Finally, after hours of preparation, they're finally ready to fire up the jet engine for the first time this week. They tow the vehicle out from its protective structure, position it out on the playa, and hook up the auxiliary power unit, or huffer cart, used to start the engine.

Ed goes through some last minute instructions, first with his direct support team, and then with all of the ground personnel, those of us out here working with the team or covering the event, and the collection of spectators. Although this first run will be at low speed, safety is still of utmost importance. People need to know what to do if the vehicle veers off course, there's a fire, or some other unexpected event.

Finally, Ed climbs aboard and gets buckled in.

The team goes through the final check list. It turns out that there are several problems at start up. First, during an initial engine start, the vehicle fails to switch over to the on board generator when the ground power is removed. Then, when it's time to start up for the actual run, the engine fails to start on the first two attempts. Then, on the third attempt, the low speed parachute canister opens and part of the chute comes out. The team initially calls for an engine shut down, but there's already a fire in the engine due to fuel pooling from the first two unsuccessful starts, so they continue to spool the engine up and then, once it's running, simply remove the parachute, which won't be needed for this run anyway.

I get to ride in one of the chase vehicles, and shoot video from the rear seat. I won't get to edit that video and post it until after I return from this trip (assuming the video camera survives the dust).

Speaking of surviving the dust, by the time the vehicle is returned to the shelter, the wind is howling at around 40mph. Everything is coated in a layer of tan dust. My cameras are a mess. My car is no longer green. I actually am a bit concerned that all of my photographic gear will make it through the week. Its all going to get a thorough cleaning tonight, and then I'm going to bed. The plan is to do another run early tomorrow morning, before the wind picks up.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Black Rock Desert - Day 1

After my 12-hour drive, I'm out here today for the first of four days in the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Nevada with the team from North American Eagle Racing. They're doing a series of tests this week of the vehicle that they hope to drive next summer to a new Land Speed Record of 800mph.

The team started working around 5am. I admit to not making my way out onto the playa until around 9am. By the time I got there, the metal structure for the temporary structure to protect the vehicle had already been assembled.

But there was still plenty to do. Although the temperature is only in the 80s (much cooler than the 110-degrees that it often reaches this time of year) the wind blew pretty constantly today at around 25mph. This made putting up the canvas cover quite a chore.

Once the canvas was partially secured, I left with team member Steve Wallace to help erect one of several towers with ethernet routers. These are placed every 2 miles along the runway that has been cleared for the test runs.

Once the structure was completely secure, it was time to unload the vehicle.

This too was quite an undertaking. Once the vehicle was out of its trailer, team members removed the rubber travel wheels and attached the big aluminum wheels that will actually be used for the text runs.

It was after 7pm before this was complete. Time to drive back into town, because the kitchen at Bruno's closes at 8pm.

If all goes well, the first test run will be tomorrow morning. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

4th of July in Bellingham

It's the 4th of July again here in Bellingham. But this year, we've got some of the nicest weather ever.

I just thought I'd share a few photos from the Blast Over the Bay.

Emma and I went down and spent a very enjoyable day listening to live music and then enjoyed a 30-minute fireworks display.

I even tried a few creative shots this year. I must say, my first attempts don't even come close to the beauty of Bob Schulte's photos.

I'll try again next year.

I'm off in the morning on my 12 hour drive to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

Where Have I Been? Where Am I Going?

You may have noticed that I have been conspicuously absent since May 4.

There are several reasons for that. One is that I have been totally immersed in creating training videos for CADLearning for their AutoCAD, AutoCAD LT, and Revit Architecture courseware.

The second is that I've been trying to find either a job or some consulting work.

And the third is that we suffered a huge tragedy. On May 20, my son's fiancee was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Lt. Roslyn Schulte was three months into a six-month deployment as an Air Force intelligence officer, working with the Afghani military, when the vehicle she was driving was hit by an IED. Genny and I flew to St. Louis for the funeral, which was held on Memorial Day. We stayed for several days afterwards to visit with the Schulte family and support my son, and then Bruce came back to the Pacific Northwest for a while.

I've been planning to write a tribute to Roz, and will do so once I get back from my next trip.

And as for that trip, I leave tomorrow morning to drive to Gerlach, NV. I'll be out in the Black Rock Desert all week with the team from North American Eagle as they do a series of tests of the vehicle they hope next year will break the Land Speed Record.

Stay tuned for more on this.