Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bye bye old friend

I got back home from Colo Springs last Friday afternoon. It was a good but uneventful trip (we got everything done that was planned and more, so that's good). The weather was great right up until Thursday mid-morning when the storm hit. It was raining pretty hard nearly all day after that. Schriever Air Force Base is a different sort of base than the usual run of the mill military base. As far as I know there is no exchange or comissary. There are work buildings, and that's about it. But those are inside a 2nd fenceline. First you enter the base thru one of 2 gates where they check your ID. THEN you drive to one of the giant parking lots surrounding the 'inner base', park, and walk walk walk to the large turnstile building. There you badge in and pass thru one of about 30 turnstiles (meant for LOTS of people to be coming/going at the same time). Then you walk some more to your work building. In cold or crappy weather this rather sucks, all you can do is dress warm and enjoy the walk if you can. It really sucked on Thursday afternoon. We weren't prepared for rain at ALL. By the time we got back to the rental car we were quite wet.

As in S.O.A.K.E.D.

Possibly DRENCHED even. And we were also a bit chilly, as the temps had dropped with the storm and was maybe now in the 50's. Ok, it was more than a bit chilly. We were COLD (and WET, in case I hadn't mentioned that).

But we survived, and the ONE good thing about going on work-trips is PER DIEM. We're on "actuals", so we have to provide reciepts for everything. There is a max for daily food expenditure, but we shoot for the sky and try to spend it all every day. Translation: we eat like KINGS. FAT KINGS. Well, not me (fat) but other people. My aging tapeworm is still up to the task and able to handle $66 of food a day (not without some difficulty though). It's almost a disappointment to come  home to "real life" and look in the freezer and make a chicken pot pie for dinner, after eating lobster(s), bone-in rib-eye steaks, Brazillian BBQ, if it's pricey and good we're all over it... all week. But other than THAT it's always great to be back home. And quite honestly I can't eat like that all the time or I would die young. Well, not necessarily young, as I think I'm kind'a already past that point....but not old either (whatever that is).

But I digress. On Saturday I was able to slip out for my weekly Saturday morning club bike ride. Usually I really look forward to these rides, however since around mid July my riding time has really dropped. Mostly due to work...it's been rather crazy, and my week-night rides have almost entirely disappeared (I normally ride on Tues and Thurs after work for about 2 or so hours). Along with those weeknight rides has gone my fitness. One ride a week isn't enough to keep me even level on the fitness scale...so I've been backsliding these past two plus months. And the numbers in my club ride have fallen, and some mornings there's only 2 or 3 of us. If the other one or two are 'fast guys' then I'm in a heap of trouble, and they're going to be bored as they completely destroy me whil'st chatting it up. And after sliding backwards for this amount of time, there's no way I can even hang onto their wheels at their pace for 60 miles. Or even 30 for that matter. Then I get huge guilt as they are continually waiting for me, so I end up breaking off going solo, leaving them to whale on each other and let me die in solitude.

AND SO (boy, do I really get distracted or WHAT!)...AFTER my ride of death and doom, I crawled my way back home about a half hour later than I had hoped for. Had about a 3 minute shower, grabbed a bottle of water and away we went. You see, Jeannie was taking her car to be put down. In almost any other state, her 1991 Teal Green Dodge Stealth (read: rocketship) would be just fine. Yes, it burned some oil. But here in California, we have smog checks every other year. We have limped and cajoled her car past smog by some miraculous means these last many years, but not this year. It failed hard. So we took it in to find out what it would take to fix it...just a valve job or an entire rebuild/new engine. The Bad news: entire engine. It was leaking oil past the piston rings AND valves. I found a total rebuilt engine for a little over 3 grand, and then to have the old engine pulled out and all the parts moved over to the new engine and reinstalled, was another $2500. So for around $5500 her 24 year old car (which was in FABULOUS condition outside and in except for the oil burning) we'd give it a new lease on life. But Jeannie decided not to put any more money into her old friend (she's had it since before we ever started dating). Over the years we've had the clutch replaced, the drive shafts (front wheel drive) replaced, manual transmission worked on (1st gear problem) and many other smaller things...new tires, battery, etc (new tires weren't cheap either...those babies are rather wide sports tires...I think they were "fifties").

But she decided and that was that, there was no convincing her that she should just fix it and drive it the next 8 years  here (how much time I have left to retire I HOPE at 62), put the rest of her money away (she's already saved enough to buy a new car as she knew this day was coming for many years now), let it earn interest over the next 8 years, and THEN sell this one with the rebuilt engine for whatever it's worth at that point, and still have all her money to buy a nearly new car 8 years from now.

And so...here's her car on it's final morning in our care:
I took this shot just before heading out on my bike ride. There they are, talking it up...my sliver Jetta TDI wagon and Jeannie's rocketship. I got my last speeding ticket in that car, about 9 or 10 years ago (doing somewhere around 80 in a 55 zone...long story). This car BEGS to go fast. It doesn't even run very good until you get the rpm's up around 3000, THEN it leaps forward and really takes off. And being low and sleek it corners GREAT, with those big fat sport tires.

In  California they have a plan to get "Gross Polluters" off the road...a buy-back plan. You submit your failed smog test results, and they eventually (took about 2 months) send you the paperwork. Then all you have to do is pick one of the "auto-dismantelers" from their list, and drive it to them (no towing allowed, it must be in running condition). They will then process your paperwork and eventually give you a check for $1000 (unless you're lower income and then you get $1500 for some reason).

So at 11:30 am we took off headed north, with Jeannie on her VERY LAST DRIVE EVER in her beloved Stealth. I was following close behind (as her registration expired in Sept) and just wanted to make sure we didn't get pulled over on this final voyage. We had to drive it about an hour north to Paso Robles, which was the closest dismanteler. Being as I had run late in my bike ride I didn't get any food (we had to be up there BEFORE they close, as it takes over a half hour for the paperwork, and there are others there ahead of you likely, which there were).

This shot was taken w/ Jeannies cell phone (has a crappy little camera....not even a smart phone...it's her work phone) of me in MY last drive EVER in her car. I was driving it onto the scales for weight....for some reason they weigh it with me IN the car, then I drive it off the scale and park it (very sad) and then step back ONTO the scale for them to weigh me (like I even register on this HUMONGOUS scale). No idea what that was all about. I parked her car next to all the other sad cars, awaiting their turn at becoming organ donors. Her car was BY FAR the nicest one there. The guy who came out to start our paperwork even commented that he doesn't see many cars like this. Most likely we could have sold it somewhere for more, but in CA it's almost worthless if it won't pass smog, and we weren't going to deal with the hassle.

And so....we drove off with check in hand, her teal green Stealth whimpering as we left. By now it's been stripped I'd imagine...body panels (all in great shape) going around the country to fix the few remaining Stealths still out there, along with any other needed parts (the seats were immaculate, and the dashboard was even un-cracked). Sad. Just sad. And it wasn't even my car. I've been hammering the miles in my Jetta since 06 (I'm up to 222,000 miles already) and only occasionally drove her car. When I did, it was ROCKET time. Somebody has to burn out the 'gunk'...and Jeannie drives it like I drive my Jetta (like a little old lady). But it's gone now...no use crying over spil't milk. My battle to get her to fix it was lost, and I promised her I'd not give her any more grief over it. She is already looking for the car she wants (a 2013 VW Passatt TDI) and true to my word, I've already found her a few nice ones...the best option is down in Arlington Texas (about $2000 cheaper than anything even remotely near here)...and I was willing to fly down, get the car and drive it home (about 1400 miles, figure I can do that in 2 days). But she had now decided to wait until the 2015's are out in full force, thinking it will drop the 2013 prices more (this 2013 is actually two years old as they come out with the new model WELL before the end of the year). It's black with a beige interior, and FULLY LOADED with every option you can get. It's a REAL nice car..much nicer than mine (that's ok...I still love my little mileage king!). Being a diesel like mine, and even though it weighs a lot more, has way more horsepower and is bigger, AND an automatic transmission, it still gets in the 40's mpg on the highway, 30's in the city. Just a great car. But we'll see...she wants to wait, so we (she) waits.

And thus...the ONLY car I've ever known her to have is GONE.

Goodbye my old smokey friend! May others live on by your passing!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mission Accomplished

Well, it was quite a night last night (Thurs). Started out at 7pm for most of us, gathering at the factory where our PTS (Payload Transportation System) folk had dropped off the spacecraft container 2 weeks ago. The vehicle had been loaded inside the container in the giant clean-room, maintaining the clean integrity of the container and the spacecraft (contamination of any sort could destroy a VERY expensive spacecraft, cutting it's mission life in space short). About 10pm they opened the outer door to the clean-room 'airlock' and the 3-axle bogey (the back end) was connected. After that they fired up the bogey and backed the container slowly out. After that there was much standing around as we weren't allowed to push the container onto the street until midnight (there were a LOT of lookey-loo's from the factory....I gather it's a big deal for them each time one of their spacecraft leave...many years of labor for LOTS of people, and a quite significant investment for them and the country...many of our tax-dollars rolled out on the street last night!)

We had lots of security and police type people....this was the first time I can recall seeing 'guys with guns'....they were Dept. of Defense police (didn't know there was such a thing). They were some extremely serious looking guys wearing body armor and carrying M16's. They had spread out pretty good, not entirely sure how many there were, but the ones I did see looked like they were really watching the environment...kind of what I would think Secret Service does when they are on 'the job'. Then we had the local police, the factory security, and the Highway Patrol (who would be running point on our convoy). All in all, a lot of guys with guns. After they blocked the street and pushed the container out all the way they were able to hook up the "prime mover" (a super-dooper semi-tractor, custom made for this job).

FINALLY around 1pm we had a big gather-round as the details of our route along with the convoy makeup (your position in the convoy) was discussed. HP would be leading the way, lots of corners to turn (the container is pretty ginormous, and it doesn't corner real good...thankfully we're moving about 5mph MAX, and they'll stop or slow for anything they need to). There were more than a few times where we were going around stoplights (they hang too low) or driving in the opposing traffic lane. The various police agencies were running interference, blocking all the intersections as the caravan slowly made it's way by...and the local police at the end were trying to keep cars from driving into / past our convoy. They were pretty busy back there....many times we'd hear them on their PA telling cars to "STAY WHERE YOU ARE"....I'm sure many of the drivers out in the middle of the night were wondering just what was going on. A giant vehicle of some sort, people up on it/all over it, civilians, Air Force, all surrounded by multiple law enforcement agency vehicles....lots and lots of flashing lights of all colors, all the vehicles in the convoy with their hazard flashers going...it must have been quite a sight.

Our place in the convoy (I was in the electronics monitoring truck) was 2nd behind the container, so we had a birds eye view of 'the show'. OH...I forgot to mention...we also had "G-men" in our little band of brothers....while they were hooking up the container and getting it ready to roll, a few of them (dressed quite casually, looking like 'people in the crowd') came into our truck and introduced themselves....they were asking lots of questions as to our monitoring capabilities. Specifically they were asking if we could monitor certain frequencies that those little quad-copter drones run on....APPARENTLY (and I hadn't thought of this before actually) they can be a real security threat. Whether carrying a camera or something else much more sinister, they are so cheap that pretty much anybody can have one, and be flying it from a block or more away...(making it VERY hard to capture them if they have bad intentions I'd suspect...I mean, who do you go after?) Anyway...it was an interesting conversation...and they were amongst the convoy along w/ all the rest of our 'protectors'.

All the vehicles had 'radios' so there was constant communication in our convoy. I was riding shotgun, so I also had the radio (woo-hoo!) There were 6 of us in our vehicle (we had picked up 2 'extras'...one was a specialist in the RF emissions arena from the factory....and another was another guy from the factory looking for a ride to the aircraft and we were a large truck....welcome aboard.
At one point during the drive apparently some car got pretty aggressive trying to get around the blocking police in the back (to pass our convoy as we were moving QUITE slow) and actually hit the cop. I'm betting THAT didn't go too well...might have been drinking is my guess...it was now somewhere between 2 and 3am as we rolled along and finally got to the west gate of LAX, where we were escorted in, regrouped as they closed the gate, then escorted quite a ways on airport property to our waiting C5. All the PTS crew who wasn't needed on the convoy had been bussed over and had work-lights blazing away and were standing by to load. Also a bunch of factory folk were there, wanting to eek every last moment with their spacecraft (some will even come up to the base and be involved with/watch the launch).

And so....we are at the aircraft, the PTS people are jumping into action loading the huge container into the huge C5 aircraft....and we start prepping our giant carts of equipment to go into the aircraft too (the equipment follows the spacecraft wherever it goes as long as it's outside of a protected clean-room). Each of our two 'carts' full of gear weighs 1000 lbs...(the cart has wheels). Our truck has a nice hydraulic lift...so we can wheel the cart out onto the ramp and lower it to the ground. But that's after we've removed our antenna assemblies from the lift mechanisms (they are lifted thru holes in the roof so they are sticking outside for the drive) and put on the cart with the rest of the gear. We have small UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply...ie: battery backup) with each cart good for around 10 minutes. We do our best to keep all the gear running...it's the kind of gear that really doesn't like being turned off and then turned back on (we've had it all running for over a week now...our truck has on-board generators providing power for as long as we need it). We keep them plugged into AC power right up to the moment they are fork-lifted on-board the aircraft...which only happens after the container is fully loaded. The rear bogey needs to be removed from the container and brought around to the front of the aircraft, and loaded in front of the prime mover (the C5 opens in front and back...you can literally drive tanks and such on from one end and drive them out the other. This C5 is one of 2 modified to fit this special container....the largest one in our inventory). While they are disconnecting and moving it around we quickly load our carts of gear and get them plugged back into power before they die (do NOT want that to happen).

Of course I've glossed over how much WORK is involved in all this...as we are loading our carts it's now about 8am and it's now light out (remember we started back at 7pm the night before).  As we are completing the power and location/etc of our carts the PTS crew and the C5 aircrew are finishing up chaining down EVERYTHING. The aircraft has a "load-master" and he's in charge of the load. He (or she) is in charge of making sure EVERYTHING is lashed (chained) down properly in the right locations. The plane has to be able to FLY after all, and things need to be balanced. He needs to know weights and such...however this isn't the first dance with the container...and things can NOT break free and move around during flight...that would be VERY BAD. So...the PTS crew has bypassed our racks (remember, they weigh 1000lbs each...pretty significant hunk of stuff on wheels if not properly tied down) as it's getting close to time to leave...so after running power and comm cables all over the aircraft I now get to lash them down (I've never used the chain-rigs they use...though I've watched and it doesn't seem like rocket science).

Turns out chaining stuff down is pretty significant work. And there's a method to the madness...everything is 'cross-chained' (hard to explain).  As it's getting near 9am turns out the entire convoy is waiting on US to finish tying down our gear (not my job btw, but I'm not going to walk away and leave it for somebody else). It's loud on the aircraft as they are running some jet motor for power generation (don't know the actual name...maybe APU...Auxiliary Power Unit?)....and it's getting quite warm as they've now closed up both the rear and front doors....so it's also quite a bit darker as I finish chaining down our racks. The engineers have finished making sure all is well with the gear (it's running properly)....so we finally work our way out of the aircraft and climb into our now nearly empty truck, and jump back into the now container-less convoy headed back to the factory (where we are all parked)...and from there back to the hotels to sleep like the dead...as we've just worked a 15 hour night. My guys and I decide to stop at IHOP on the way home and have as much breakfast as we can bear (quite a lot)...mmmmmmMMMM! Love a tasty breakfast. After that it's back to the hotel for some serious snoozing.

Our schedule is for the aircraft to fly back to 'the base' tonight (Friday) and as soon as it leaves we can leave and also drive home....then to show back up at the flight-line Saturday at 6pm for a 12 hour night-shift...and again on Sunday for the next/final convoy of the container to the payload center. HOWEVER....we get calls this afternoon that the flight out has 'slipped' 24 hours (common aerospace term....slipped...meaning there was a problem with the aircraft and they have delayed departure for a day...so now the entire schedule has also slipped a day. So now I have a quiet day on Saturday here in LA...and as I said, we can't leave until the aircraft does (just in case for some reason they can't leave and we have to unload everything...it's happened before). And so...here I sit in my hotel room, Friday night, just coming up on Midnight...trying to stay awake as long as possible as I'll be working nights for the next few days. IF things go according to the 'new' schedule, the plane will fly tomorrow around midnight...and I can then drive home (about 3 to 4 hours). I'll probably make a stop for my favorite taco's in the world off on Topanga Canyon blvd in San Fernando Valley...a little hole in the wall called "Taco de Casa"...open 24 hours. I should get home around 3 to 4am Sunday morning...then I have to work the next 2 nights out on the flight-line...but that's ok...gets me out of my 'day job' for a while.

Well...now you are up on 'the haps' of my trip...it's been a pretty good one all in all...the guys (and girl) I've been working with...we all seem to get along pretty well...it's been a good crew thankfully. Had a few nice meals too...(benefits of being on Per-diem)....

And it's coming up on Midnight...don't think I'm going to last much longer than that sadly....by this time tomorrow I'll have my rental car loaded and be standing by waiting for a phone call (or text) that I can leave for home...then I hit the freeways north.

OK...bed time I guess...have a great weekend!


Saturday morning update: the aircraft did NOT leave last night as planned...some kind of engine problem. They pushed it 24 hours, now it's supposed to leave tonight around midnight...so we are still here awaiting them to fly.

Have a great weekend!

I found a picture online of the SCTS container being loaded into the C5...thought it would be appropriate. Though this is a few year old picture, as it's the old "2 axle" bogey...we now have a fancy-schmancy 3-axle bogey. The bogey is the wheeled contraption on the back...it's self powered and can move the container very slowly on it's own without the tractor up front (which isn't visible in this picture as it's already inside the aircraft).