Thursday, September 16, 2010

Honoring the Dragon Lady

This past weekend instead of going solo, I hung out with my friend Solo. No, he’s not related to Hans Solo from Star Wars – although, now that I think about it, they both fly jets and have space related jobs (my buddy works for NASA).

Anyway, Solo flew into town for the Sacramento Air show and a special reunion where he introduced me to the Dragon Lady.

So who is the Dragon Lady and why did nearly 400 people travel across the country to honor her at her 55 year reunion? Well, the Dragon Lady is a jet, but not just any old jet. She’s special.

First of all, she’s black (not white or shiny) and secondly, just like any woman, she’s complicated. So complicated that only a handful of pilots have been chosen to fly her. In fact, in the last 55 year less than 900 pilots have been on solo missions.

Bill Williams, who I was lucky enough to sit beside during dinner, did his first solo flight in 1978. He quickly correctly me when I asked if the Dragon Lady (officially known as the U-2) was a spy plane.

“The U-2 is not a spy plane, but a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Spying would imply that we were making the plane appear like another country’s military planes and trying to deceive them,” Williams said.

Aah…that makes sense as the Dragon Lady is not one to hide. And when Bill says the U-2 flies at high-altitudes, he means it. This aircraft can fly at 70,000 feet which puts it higher than missiles and radar tracking devices. In fact, it’s so high you have to wear a pressure suit. By the way, in case you were wondering, your average passenger jet flies at 32,000 to 40,000 feet so the U-2 is doubling that.

Back in 1955, the Dragon Lady missions were conducted by the CIA (which is why I thought it was a spy plane), but now it’s flown by the US Air Force. But it’s not just used for military info-gathering missions. The U-2 is also used for other things.

“We’ve used the U-2 to get aerial shots of particular areas after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina,” said Williams. "The U-2 was able to take photographs of the area so we could see the damage."

See? The Lady is good.

But what made the evening was meeting the pilots who have flown the U-2, listening to the stories they have – and being amazed at how they are still alive to tell them. I'm not joking. Some scary stuff happens up at 70,000 feet, just ask Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Olesen.

Back in October 2001, Olesen was flying over southern Iraq on a mission when his engine began to malfunction. He had the choice of ejecting or attempting a flameout-type landing. He chose the flameout-type landing and had to do some tricky never-before-done procedures to make it down in one piece.

Then there’s Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Henry who started to experience the bends while over Afghanistan. He had severe headaches, nausea, hot flashes, difficulty breathing, seizures and visual illusions – all of which are not good when flying 70,000 feet above the ground while wearing a helmet and pressure suit. Henry doesn’t remember much about what happened (the ground crew says he was incoherent), but he does remember waking up with the aircraft in a full stall merely a few feet from the ground. It’s a miracle he’s around to tell the story.

The entire night was filled of incredible tales like this. I may never meet the Dragon Lady in person, but I respect her...and the pilots that have chosen to risk their lives to fly her.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Muir Woods: Mother Nature has room for everyone

Muir Woods is just outside of San Francisco
I have a friend who has been telling me to check out Muir Woods in California, which are located just outside of San Francisco. Now finally after nine months, I finally did it.

For those of you who have been, you are probably wondering why it me so long – especially as the person who told me to check it out has not let me down with his suggestions in the past. He’s recommended wine bars, pizza places and other things, and they have all been exceptional. It’s like he’s the boy version of me and knows what I would like

Yet, when he suggested Muir Woods, I hesitated because frankly, why would I drive 2 hours to see a bunch of old trees? I mean, there are a lot of trees in Tahoe and I’ve already seen those, plus I lived on Vancouver Island for a while and had seen lots are really big trees in the Pacific Rim National Park. Many of those trees are hundreds of years old and, as part of the rainforest, the park is known as one of the highest biomass-producing areas in the world - now that's a lot of trees.

Note: If you are ever on the Island, it’s worth checking out, but don’t go late in the afternoon. The sun disappears quickly in the mountains and the trees make scary creaking sounds.

So what’s the big deal about the Muir Woods trees?

It turns out it is a big deal. The Redwoods in Muir Woods may not be the ones you may have seen on Walt Disney as a kid where the cars drive through, but they are gigantic—and they are old.

But what makes the place incredible is the atmosphere and the respect the majestic Redwoods command.

As you wander down the trails, the place has a sacred quality to it. In fact, many of the people I passed along the way were talking in whispers as if they were afraid their voices would disturb the calm. It was like being in another world. A world where time didn’t exist, only nature. And cars, concrete and man hadn’t been able to mess it up yet. It really is an amazing place full of peace.

Michelle Ponto hanging out with the majestic trees
You can spend the whole day wandering around in this sanctuary as Muir Woods contains 6 miles of trails. There is a 1/2 hour loop, a 1 hour loop, and a 1 1/2 hour loop as well as longer hikes on trails that extend into surrounding parks. If you go, bring a jacket. The trees block out the sun making it chilly even on warm days.

Oh, and here’s another thing, don’t worry about the thousands of tourists visiting the woods every year. Even though both the regular and over flow parking lot were packed when I went, for some reason, the woods still seemed empty and there were many times on the trail where I was alone. It seems Mother Nature has room for all of us.