B-1 Lancer crashes during icy Ellsworth AFB landing

A 28th BW Lancer at Andersen AFB, Guam, in 2022 (USAF)

A B-1 Lancer attempting to land in freezing fog crashed the evening of 4 Jan 2024 near Ellsworth AFB. Four crew ejected and had non-life-threatening injuries.

The supersonic, swept-wing B-1 is more complex to fly than other aircraft types, and requires specialized training. It was retired from nuclear duties in 2007, but still falls under the Air Force Global Strike Command.

KRCA weather was Mist or Freezing Fog with low clouds 3 and 4 January 2024. (weather.gov)

At 1012 MST on 5 Jan 2024, Denver Center issued a TFR prohibiting flight operations from Ground to 3000 AGL (or about 6275 MSL) within 3 nmi of the north end of the runway at KRCA. The Air Force is in charge of the response operation.

Monticello nuclear plant leak took five months to make the news

A wastewater leak at the Monticello nuclear plant is headline news in the StarTribune on 16 March 2023, but from a reporter’s perspective, perhaps the larger issue is that the issue has been unfolding for five months or more, without a serious effort to brief the public.

Improving the media response time for incidents like this an open problem. The nuclear factor especially serves to decrease the amount of information shared with the public.

Fission power is relatively clean in many respects, but it comes with downsides like these. Tritium in the water is not great. It is a manageable problem, but it shouldn’t happen with properly designed reactors, if for no other reason than Tritium has economic value as a useful beta emitter for things like glowsticks and wristwatches. It’s also potentially a fusion reactor fuel – and the Fargo Orbit will have more on that topic to share later this month.

F-16s shoot down balloon near Michigan

TFR 3/4885, active on 12 Feb 2023 (Fargo Orbit / OpenStreetMap)

On 12 Feb 2023, NORAD issued a TFR over Lake Michigan, roughly between Marinette, Wisconsin and Traverse City, Michigan. The order expired at 1730Z, or 11:30am local time.

Reports indicate that an F-16 shot down yet another balloon, this time over the Great Lakes. Yesterday’s incident in Montana was a false alarm.

Fresh Montana scare turns back rural air service flight

The US Air Force issued Temporary Flight Restrictions near Havre, Montana on 12 Feb 2023, until 0020Z.

TFR 3_4763, active on 12 Feb 2023 near Havre, Montana. (Fargo Orbit / OpenStreetMap)

The region was near and overlapped with the pre-existing Hays MOA. Military Operations Areas are airspaces where military aircraft conduct various testing and training operations. At the same time, a US Air Force KC-135 was in the area.

The region included KHVR, the regional airport in Havre, which had been expecting Cape Air Flight 110 out of Billings at about dusk on Saturday afternoon. As a result of the flight restrictions, the flight returned to Billings. The plane had been in the air for about 24 minutes, and was roughly halfway to Havre, before it turned back.

Cape Air 110 Flight Path, 12 Feb 2023 (Fargo Orbit / FlightAware)

Cape Air holds Essential Air Service contracts for several Montana communities and uses the Tecnam Traveller, a two-engine propeller craft that seats 9. The unpressurized plane typically operates at FL100 and most flights last less than an hour. It is usually operated by a single pilot. Among other things, that pilot would not want to run into a KC-135, or anything else being refuelled, while descending over the Bearpaw Mountains.

Traditionally if the MOA is active, that information is provided to the pilot at a pre-flight briefing, indicating that the Air Force’s operations Saturday night were either extremely urgent and/or not communicated to the FAA in the usual manner. An unidentified object flying between ground level and FL340 is not likely to be a weather-type balloon, unless the balloon is taking off or landing.

A diplomatic row entirely up in the air

F-22 fighters screaming after Chinese spy gizmos is the stuff of James Bond movies – yet it happened over Montana this week. Canada and the US are complaining about a monitoring balloon the Middle Kingdom recently floated over North America, prompting public concern as it was spotted by skywatchers and storm chasers in western Canada, then across the central US from Montana to Missouri and on to points southeast.

As Chinese observation platforms are not totally unprecedented in American skies, this is not a Sputnik moment by itself, though it’s ill-timed at best. Tensions with China have been raised recently over a range of issues, and just last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists edged The Doomsday Clock 10 seconds closer to Midnight.

The device appears to be solar powered, with a significant amount of line control and levelling equipment to stabilize the observation platform. Save for the giant balloon hoisting it up, it looks somewhat like a scale model of the International Space Station – or, more aptly, like a Google Loon. Loon made huge strides in stationkeeping free-flying balloons in hopes they could replace cell towers, but their position could only be reliable for hours, maybe days, at best. The number of natural disasters where the tech was really useful were too uncommon to keep the system in commercial use.

Stratospheric balloons are also commonly used in weather research. However, there’s two main organizations that use these balloons – weather offices that have a budget, and universities that don’t. In the latter case, they want to get their equipment back so badly, there is always a chase afoot for the balloon on the ground, tracking APRS feeds and mapping its location in real time, right up to landing.

See also: Wyoming balloon reaches 28 km

Though spies in the sky might be worrisome, there is some precedent for adversarial overflight. In 2020 and 2021 the US and Russia withdrew (China never participated) from the Treaty on Open Skies, which was one of the hallmark agreements for post-Cold War de-escalation. The agreement promoted security stability by allowing member states to observe each others’ defence capabilities. The idea was that by keeping more military details in plain sight, there would be less need for all parties to overspend and overdeploy military equipment against unknown threats.

On the other hand, the balloon does pose a more mundane risk: it’s a hazard to navigation. Though since the demise of Concorde, commercial jets aren’t typically seen above FL450, for safety’s sake, Class A controlled airspace still extends to FL600, which is about the altitude where the Chinese balloon has been spotted. Flying in Class A airspace without ATC clearance, a radar transponder, and/or ADSB is an easy way to lose your pilot’s licence.

Duluth Airshow Roars Over North Shore

4 Vans RV-3 (Vanguard Squadron) powered by ethanol fuel at KDLH 17 Jul 2022.

The two-day Duluth Airshow brought aviation to life for hundreds braving the hot, humid weather. The Fargo Orbit was there Sunday, 17 July 2022.

[Further details to follow]

Ground displays

Air displays

Wind flames out Northern Thunder 2022

The Thunderbirds parked and grounded at KRDR, 18 Jun 2022 (Fargo Orbit)

It just doesn’t happen every year. It was called off two years ago, and it didn’t quite take flight this year, either. The Grand Forks AFB Air Show, this time simply called “Northern Thunder”, couldn’t get away from Grand Forks’ defining feature: the wind.

Not only was it gusting to almost 20 m/s, it was coming from the wrong direction for takeoffs and landings. Even if the base had extra runways, they  would never be built facing into the rather unusual direction.

Not everything at an air show is airborne, of course: Though a few announced planes didn’t quite make it to the tiedowns, this was more than offset by the surprise visit of a CC-130J Super Hercules, which drew a huge crowd despite being placed just about the farthest from the food and port-a-potties.

Not past local noon, the wind shot up violently, sending aircrew scrambling to check their lines and chalks, while visitors with loose items soon found themselves deprived. As nothing had taken to the skies, the event program turned to the occasional pull of the Shockwave, essentially a semi-truck with an afterburning jet engine stuck on the back.  Loud and flashy, it kept spirits up during the lengthening wait for the return of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds to the Grand Forks skies.

By 1800 UT, there was a thick black cloud clinging to the ground around the airfield. This dirty air should have been hot and acrid with jet wash, but was instead a hazy, gritty Minnesota soil sample, carried on the raging southeast gale that turned hats and corn chip bags alike into wrathful FOD. It was time to visit the food trucks.

Food and Vendors at Northern Thunder, 18 June 2022. (Fargo Orbit)

Vendors from all over the region were onsite; among the more impressive drives, Cookies For You brought baked cookies and frozen cake pops from Minot. Magic Bean, also from Minot, brought its black van and baristas, and Fargo’s Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine brought a unique flavour.

Overall, it was a great event for young learners, a chance to grab squeeze toys, pop can coozies, and air-themed stickers and mission patches, or to hang out of the door of a refuelling tanker, sit in the hotseat of a fighter jet, or spin around the turret of an air defence system.

2LT Shields of the North Dakota National Guard demonstrates an FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS at Grand Forks Air Force Base, 18 June 2022 (Fargo Orbit)

For older or wiser folks, there were a few tables from institutions doing fundraisers or fly-ins, or perhaps the beer garden for those not in a rush to drive back. Stick around and you might learn something about these metal beasts, the people who flew them and knew them, or even hear an RCAF corporal waxing on about the merits of Lobster Poutine.

As the haze only grew by 1900 UT, any would-be pilots had no choice but to save their kerosene for some other time. The show previously known as “Thunder Over the Red River” will still be looking for its first aerial event since 22 May 2010. And since the one before that was in 2006, there’ll be a fair while to wait again.

Coronavirus information

FiveThirtyEight has published an excellent summary of what every person needs to know about COVID-19, which is updated frequently.

Vaccines are widely available in the US and Canada for walk-in service at medical providers and pharmacies. Many areas are still operating dedicated immunization clinics. Vaccines are safe and effective, including against the omicron variant of concern. Vaccines are now available for all age groups.

As of June 2022, travel restrictions have largely ended for travellers with up-to-date vaccinations. Be ready to show proof of vaccination when crossing national borders. Canada also requires use of the ArriveCAN app or website.

Continue reading “Coronavirus information”

How to build science literacy and respect

Jenny Dauer of the University of Nebraska and Noah Feinstein of the University of Wisconsin participated in a discussion of how to boost science literacy and engagement at the AAAS virtual conference on 20 February 2022.

Noah Feinstein engages on rebuilding public respect for science at AAAS, 20 Feb 2022. (AAAS)

Rather than repeat common platitudes like “trust science”, Feinstein goes much further, first establishing confidence in why he is qualified to speak on the topic of science literacy, and then covering many of the ways science institution have been actively undermined among the general public.

Feinstein’s talk clearly addresses the weaknesses that science both has, and appears to have, and asks the public not necessarily to blindly trust, but to show “appropriate respect” for the knowledge generated by science, and to forgive some of the imperfections in scientific institutions, traits shared by all human endeavours.

Jenny Dauer shows how to teach science literacy at the AAAS conference, 20 Feb 2022. (AAAS)

Dauer covers how to educate college students to approach scientific decisionmaking, even in highly controversial environments. The University of Nebraska offers a course called Science Literacy 101, where students Students thereby receive valuable tools to incorporate systems analysis and science literacy into their future leadership.

Dauer also delves into the complexity of teaching students with certain ideas or positions that are ensconced in their personal identities, and discusses some approaches to better engage them to improve their receptiveness to new science that conflicts with their worldviews.

The two talks were part of a three-talk session presented at the AAAS conference, “Learning about Science Literacy from the Covid-19 Pandemic”, which moderated by Felicia Kessing of Bard College. The third talk in the session, on science engagement with disaffected communities, was given by Raj Pandya of the American Geophysical Union.

Minnesota’s Menon selected for NASA Astronaut Corps

Anil Menon. Photo: Robert Markowitz, NASA

Dr. Anil Menon, M.D. of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has already had a distinguished career in the Air Force, including service as ground Flight Surgeon for the SpaceX Demo-2 mission. Now, he can add Astronaut Candidate to the list.

Among the other announced candidates this year, Dr. Andre Douglas, Ph. D. is also no stranger to the Midwest: In 2012, while serving in the US Coast Guard, he graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with a master’s degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.

The role of astronaut has changed considerably since the heroic era of the 1960s, when the peak crop of the nation’s test pilot schools were raided for jack-of-all-trades. Though still versatile and trained for everything, in orbit, a particular astronaut will have Command, Pilot, or Mission Specialist duties. Some astronauts never fly into space, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. The NASA Astronaut Corps, based at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is a vast talent pool frequently tapped to play important roles as program managers and consultants for NASA and other important engineering efforts. All receive basic pilot training and frequently get loggable hours in a variety of aircraft.

NASA’s selection of just 10 astronauts shows the constraints on the position. With Crew Dragon fully operational, and other options like Starship and Starliner close to coming online, NASA’s agenda is now limited more by budget than rocket hardware for possibly the first time since Skylab.

With the continued bustle of activity in the private space sector, Menon’s participation in SpaceX flights is a reminder that the day may quickly come when NASA can select an astronaut candidate who has already flown to space.