Monthly Archives: December 2015



Ceres, the largest asteroid, first discovered in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, and visited by the Dawn spacecraft in February, 2015. Those bright spots remain a mystery, and Dawn continues taking pictures of Ceres from its closest approach, which continues the next few months. Image from NASA JPL via Dawn.

NASA’s new 2016 budget includes money for two asteroid missions. One of those missions continues an effort underway for years, the detection of near-Earth objects (NEOs), asteroids that pose a risk of colliding with our home planet. The other mission proposes to land on a near-earth asteroid, pick up a large boulder from its surface, and redirect the boulder into an orbit around the Moon. Once in a stable lunar orbit, manned missions would visit the asteroid fragment and retrieve pieces to return to Earth for detailed study.

Both missions complement each other and serve multiple roles. The detection mission will help protect Earth from a potentially cataclysmic collision with an asteroid. It’s happened many times in the past, and it continues to happen now. The biggest recent impact came in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia, from an asteroid estimated at a mere 18 meters in diameter.

The detection mission would also help NASA find a nearby asteroid from which it might pluck a piece. That mission to “redirect” a piece of an asteroid into orbit around the Moon would build our understanding of what asteroids consist of and how they might contribute valuable minerals for industry. Perhaps even more important, the “redirect” mission involves landing on an asteroid and moving a piece of it onto a different trajectory, skills we would need if we ever detected an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and wanted to deflect it away.

How many asteroids are out there? How big are they? How many are on a course that might bring them into contact with Earth one day? What are they made of and does their composition mean we might benefit by capturing one and mining it? Could we deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth? What spacecraft missions have already studied asteroids, and what have we learned?

Stay tuned.



A referral…

Des Latham explores the evolution of definitions for the term “aviation” from 1934 until 2015, and includes the 1934 meaning of “aviator.” As a bonus you find out why the word “avigation” was invented. A nice end-of-the-year aviation post. Whether you fly for business, fun, or out of necessity, and regardless of where you sit, remember what you’re doing up there!

See Navigation, Avigation, and the Sexless Aviator, by Des Latham.

WW II VETERAN, December 28, 2015

I converged on the compact four-door approaching the Kroger parking lot entrance. It slowed, perhaps a bit more than conditions warranted, and the license plate on the Chevy came into focus. “WW II Veteran” lined the plate’s left side.
At first glance, the Chevy driver’s slim, trim face appeared a bit young to be the WW II veteran who owned the license plate. He turned left and parked in a handicapped spot close to the store. I spared a moment’s judgment of a son or grandson using the veteran’s prestige to park up close. That judgment continued as I pulled past and parked much farther down the lane and walked back towards the store.

I passed in front of the Chevy and risked a surreptitious front-faced glance at the driver. Perhaps caution was in order. He could be older than I at first thought. Or maybe he waited for his father to come out of the store. In either case, he just sat, stone-faced, behind the wheel, his age difficult to estimate.

Fifteen minutes later, with about that many items checked out and bagged, I headed towards the door to leave. The WW II veteran, yes, he was the veteran, almost shuffled slowly on his way in, grim face stiffly facing forward. Tell-tale wrinkles gave away his age, but only just. Graying, thinning hair and his slow progress confirmed the estimate. The license plate belonged to this man, this veteran of World War II.

Walking to my car allowed ample time to do the math. The war ended 70 years ago. He was at least 18 in 1945, which meant this veteran carried no less than 87 years on his shoulders, on top of memories of war he may or may not have shared with his wife and children and grandchildren. Did he recall those events more today than when he was younger, as my mother recalled trauma she suffered as a teenager perhaps more acutely after age 80 than before? Did those memories plague him now, while he walked through Krogers, while he tried to sleep at night?

What kind of courage does it take to face those memories, or just to face the aches and pains and imbalances of nearly 90 years of life and drive to the grocery store? The courage which led a generation to defeat Nazism and overcome vicious and powerful enemies on two fronts – maybe it helped him face another day.



Conquering our fears while that star-spangled banner yet waves

Francis Scott Key wrote lines that most of us now repeat, or at least listen to, at nearly every sporting event we attend. For my wife, it’s her favorite part of any football game. Okay, she’s not a fan of football nor of standing around in cold, rainy weather, but you’ll still find her standing straight, hand over heart, eyes glued, ears alert as the band starts to play, indoors or out.

Some may struggle to remember all the lines of The Star-Spangled Banner. Most will struggle to hit all the notes. I often tear up and wonder how many others do, too.

I get emotional now just thinking about that hymn honoring my homeland. It’s not a happy emotion. Though our star-spangled banner still waves overhead, by this dawn’s early light, something essential is missing. I speak of our once-acclaimed compassion and courage.

At this Christmas season, we face grim facts of life. The red glare of violence, hatred, and fear overshadows the bright stars we strain to see. Millions of the world’s citizens fleeing bombs bursting in terror find themselves homeless, looking for safe shelter, not unlike a family-about-to-be many of us will celebrate in the days to come.

Faiths of all kinds would have their followers extend a hand to those in need. We bemoan the fact that a particular family found no room at the inn late one night. So why do we resist taking in fleeing families today? Fear.

Fear is nothing to be ashamed of, but it must be faced and overcome. The American soldiers who gathered under Fort McHenry’s ramparts knew fear. Few thought they stood much of a chance to survive the night. Less than three weeks earlier, the British fleet had landed a force in Washington and burned the Capitol, the Treasury, and President Madison’s house. The poorly-equipped American Army and Navy were outmatched.

Finding the courage to overcome that fear took strength and leadership. American major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry, somehow convinced his soldiers to vanquish their fear, and they lived through that perilous fight.

We face a fight of our own. With its complexity, our challenge – terrorism – presents perils different from those posed by the British navy on the night of September 13, 1814, but threats nonetheless.

Others face the same risks we do, and have found the strength to resist their fears. I joked with my son-in-law from Toronto a few weeks ago about maybe emigrating to Canada, after reading of Canada’s resolve to accept twenty-five thousand Syrian refugees by March. This week, seeing pictures and reading stories (N&O, 12/10/15) of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, welcoming a planeload of those refugees to his homeland, made me lament my own homeland’s cowering fear. Canadians can remind us how to conquer fear as they band together to sponsor refugee families, embracing the opportunity to practice their humanity, whatever their faith.

We can do the same. We have overcome fears in the past, though not before making withering mistakes along the way. We turned away Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, imprisoned innocent Japanese citizens during World War II, and conducted witch hunts for communist sympathizers. Our lingering racism owes much of its power to fear.

How do we quell our fears? Maybe we remember those bright stars we saw gleaming before terrorism’s twilight dimmed their brilliance. It might help to refuse to let our fears overrule our common sense and bury our bravery, giving in to dark voices shouting about danger all around. Perhaps we recall our pride in the stars and stripes gallantly streaming after hard-fought victories from 1776 and 1814 to 1918 and 1945.

Our best hope lies in shared convictions and collective action. We cannot do it alone. Pray for the leaders we need in both parties to find the courage and honor to lead us together through the night.

The next time you hear the band start playing that song, or a singer starts with “Oh, say can you see…”, see through your misty eyes to the bright stars of our past and remember the final six-words of our National Anthem.
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You may also find this story in Raleigh’s News and Observer for December 25, 2015. See News and Observer, Op-Ed page

December’s Bird-of-the-Month: Double-crested cormorants

Double-crested cormorants have returned to the Apex Reservoir. It’s not that they’ve been absent for any period of time, it’s just that a large flock has returned. I can see cormorants much of the year, but the more common sighting is of just a pair or two. But come December, the past two years at least, double-crested cormorants at Apex Reservoir can number in the hundreds.


One seagull amidst a gathering of double-crested cormorants in Apex, NC

They love the NC Wildlife Resource Commission’s automated fish feeders, of course. Though these birds hardly need any help catching fish, they don’t mind us making the task a little easier. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology ( reports that cormorants eat more than 250 different kinds of fish. They will occasionally eat a crustacean, an insect, or an amphibian. When eating crustaceans, they’ve been seen flipping the animal up in the air and catching it headfirst to make it easier to swallow.


Double-crested cormorants waiting for fish.


The double-crested cormorant is a large, colonial black bird, up to a yard long with a wingspan that can stretch to four feet. It has a beak that starts from a yellowish throat patch and extends forward three or four inches. With binoculars you can see the slight downward hook at the end of its upper bill that it uses to catch fish.


Portion of a large gathering of double-crested cormorants on the Apex Reservoir, NC

Young birds are brownish with pale breasts. The birds nest in colonies, and the young often cluster together in groups called a creche. Only a mature, breeding male exhibits the “double-crest,” which I’ve never seen. The oldest reported double-crested cormorant was banded in 1984 in Canada and recovered 22 years later in Louisiana. Cormorants will return to the same nesting areas year after year, and in some much-used locations trees have toppled due to the accumulated weight of nest after nest. Large pebbles frequently find their way into a cormorant nest, and the birds will treat these pebbles as they would an egg.


Three double-crested cormorants, low in the water, necks riding high.

Most of the year, cormorants on the Apex Reservoir may be found floating low in the water, their long necks the most conspicuous feature. The beak and head will usually be pointed slightly up. Oftentimes a pair will be separated by a few yards to a few dozen yards. One at a time the birds will take turns fishing. A bird will thrust its beak forward and down, surface diving underwater, disappearing for what seems like at least a minute or more. It will resurface twenty to forty yards away.


Double-crested cormorant in flight

With all four toes connected by webbing, and powerful wings, the double-crested cormorant makes a powerful underwater swimmer, and a dangerous predator, if you’re a fish. Though I’ve never seen it swim underwater, it reportedly beats both its webbed feet and wings to propel a streamlined body along after its prey.


Cormorant landing on the Apex Reservoir, NC.

An interesting behavior I have seen is a cormorant drying its wings in the sun. Cormorants apparently have less oil in their feathers, which means their wings get soaked when swimming. Although this means they have to make the effort to dry out their wings, it may also help them swim faster underwater. Perhaps due to the time it takes to dry their feathers after fishing, cormorants often spend half their day perched above the water on an overhanging branch or rock.


Double-crested cormorant drying its wings

The double-crested cormorant, scientific name Phalacrocorax auritus, is related to frigatebirds and boobies, winters along the shorelines of North America, and summers on inland lakes. In the past the birds suffered from overhunting and pesticide exposure. DDT thinned their eggshells, leading to reproductive failure. Since the 1970s, double-crested cormorant populations have rebounded, in some areas colony sizes doubling in five years.

Although I’ve never identified one, neotropic cormorants will sometimes mingle with double-crested cormorants. The former species is the smaller of the two, and the space immediately forward of its eyes is covered with black feathers rather than the pale featherless skin found in the double-crested cormorant.


FLIGHT OF THE MONTH: Veteran’s Day at The Pik-N-Pig

November’s flight-of-the-month found Connie and me flying to Gilliam-McConnell Airfield in Carthage, North Carolina on the 11th. We picked this airport for the pork barbecue restaurant located right on the field, the Pik-N-Pig, but found much more on our little Veteran’s Day adventure.

The Pik-N-Pig sits close to the runway at Gilliam-McConnell Airport

The Pik-N-Pig sits close to the runway at Gilliam-McConnell Airport

A mere 22 nautical miles from Raleigh Executive Jetport (KTTA) near Sanford, the flight to Gilliam-McConnell lasted about 20 minutes. But the destination runway was short, so after we took off from Raleigh Exec in our Wings of Carolina Flying Club four-seat Cessna 172, I asked Connie if she’d mind if we did a touch and go before heading to the southwest. With relatively low windspeeds, I didn’t anticipate any trouble landing at Gilliam-McConnell, but its asphalt strip runs about half of Raleigh Exec’s 5,000 feet, and I wanted to see how short I could land in the current conditions.

Given the day’s winds and the orientation of the two runways, a landing at Raleigh Exec would give me crosswinds similar in magnitude though opposite in direction to landing at Gilliam-McConnell – a good test. After a smooth take-off and once around the pattern, we could have stopped our landing roll-out well short of the runway’s halfway mark – a confidence-builder. Time to go get some pig.

Tall trees surround Gilliam-McConnell’s narrow airstrip. With its orientation nearly perpendicular to our approach from the east-northeast, we didn’t see the field much before we were on top of it. Connie noted after we landed that she never saw the field until we had lined up on our final approach. Guess she had confidence that I was making three 90-degree turns for a good reason. We overflew the field intending to turn left onto a downwind leg for our landing on runway 31. An oncoming Piper had announced it was inbound from the west, and just before starting my turn onto the downwind, I spotted it out my left window.

“Gilliam-McConnell traffic, Cessna 53587 has inbound traffic from the west in sight. We’ll do a 360 here and then enter a left downwind for runway 31, Gilliam-McConnell.”

Better to make a turn than risk a mid-air collision. Coming out of the turn, it took a few seconds to pick out the other plane as it initiated its turn to base. We were number two for landing. Another inbound aircraft mentioned it was five miles south, so we kept our eyes peeled for that one as we made our turn to base above the tall trees rising closer below us.

Did I mention the tall trees surrounding the runway? The winds remained calm on final approach, well, until we reached the tops of those tall trees. They form a little, that is, narrow, tunnel down to the end of runway 31. We flew from smoothly calm wind into a bit of buffeting as we dipped towards the tops of those trees.

Have you ever been in a commercial jet climbing up or descending through a cloud layer? As you approach the elevation of the clouds, you get an exciting sensation of your speed as the clouds go zipping by. Jets go really fast, but you don’t often realize how fast until you see those clouds zooming along right outside your window.

Those trees surrounding Gilliam-McConnell, they didn’t zip by that fast since our approach landing speed was only about 65 miles per hour, but they were close. It felt like entering a tunnel as those tree tops rose up above us as fast as the ground reached up for the belly of our aircraft. The buffeting kept me from fully appreciating the tunnel effect as I kept us on the runway’s centerline at an appropriate descending slope and airspeed.

We passed over the numbers at the end of the runway, in this case a big 31, and touched down near the center of the black asphalt strip several hundred feet later. With room to spare, we turned left onto the taxiway just past the runway’s midpoint, and headed back to the grass outside the Pik-N-Pig.

The pork barbeque melted in my mouth, worth the $105 per hour it took to fly there. During the meal we enjoyed watching planes land and take off 40 yards from our table. Then we went outside to browse the monuments and parked P-40 World War II era fighter between the restaurant and the runway, and discovered another reason to visit Gilliam-McConnell airport.

First, on one monument we discovered that the second of the two people the airfield was named after had been a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, an elite First World War fighter squadron based in France. James McConnell joined up in 1916, eager to fight against Germany. He died in the skies above the Somme battlefield on March 19th, 1917, flying his biplane in a dogfight with two German aircraft. He was the last American aviator to die in France before the United States officially entered the war alongside France.

Two additional monuments commemorated another fallen American aviator and North Carolina native, this one Robert Hoyle. Second lieutenant Hoyle flew P-40 Warhawks as a member of the 74th Fighter Squadron, better known as the Flying Tigers. These volunteer American aviators fought for China against the Japanese during World War II. Robert Hoyle was shot down on October 6, 1944 over mountains in Hunan Province. He was returning from a strafing mission, ran into bad weather, and crashed.

P-40 Warhawk in China with its Flying Tiger nose art

P-40 Warhawk in China with its Flying Tiger nose art

Residents of Guidong County, near the crash site in south central China, found the wreck and his body shortly after the crash, but the debris left little in the way of identification. They only knew he had been fighting for them, and they buried him nearby with full honors under a monument with the simple epitaph, “American Pilot of the Flying Tigers.” For over 60 years, citizens in Guidong County cared for the hero’s grave and wondered who he was.

P-40 Flying Tigers wait at an airfield in China during WWII

P-40 Flying Tigers wait at an airfield in China during WWII

Robert Hoyle’s family knew only that he’d been reported missing in action. In 1945 the U.S. Army Air Force officially presumed he was dead. In 2005, a team of American military forensic experts visited three provinces in China, and during a month-long trip examined the remains buried in Guidong County. Based on DNA evidence provided by family relatives, they identified those remains as belonging to 2nd lieutenant Robert Hoyle.

Sixty-one years after he died fighting in a foreign country, Robert Hoyle’s family discovered his fate, and the Chinese citizens learned the name of the hero they’d been honoring for over half a century. In April of 2006, Chinese officials accompanied Robert Hoyle’s remains on a long-overdue return flight to American soil. After a burial service, 2nd Lt. Hoyle went to his final rest in High Falls, North Carolina.

P-40 Flying Tiger model outside the Pik-N-Pig at Gilliam-McConnell Airport in Carthage, NC

P-40 Flying Tiger model, “Junkyard Dog,” outside the Pik-N-Pig at Gilliam-McConnell Airport in Carthage, NC

After crawling over the P-40 replica at Gilliam-McConnell, it was time for us to return home. Climbing out at 80 knots we quickly cleared those tall trees surrounding the airfield and turned to a 50-degree heading that would take us to Raleigh Executive Jetport. Reluctant to end our Veteran’s Day adventure, I asked Connie if she’d mind if we did a touch and go. She did not mind. Minutes later we shut down on the ramp outside the Wings of Carolina hangar, recorded 1.0 hours from 53587’s Hobbs meter, and tied her down.