Fragments from a Boy Scout (Troop 439, Kensington, Maryland) visit to Patuxent River Naval Air Station, 4-5 March 2000:
The cables that stretch across the runway are coupled in turn to stronger ones, good for about a thousand traps, that lead underground (below the flight deck, on an aircraft carrier). Cable ends hook together via big screw-thread fittings, where the strands are unbraided and anchored in a matrix made by immersing them in molten zinc. Cables turn corners via massive pulleys, with axles lubricated through metal tubes that snake over and down to a row of fittings on the side of the tunnel. When an aircraft is caught the cable whips out; pulleys whirl and throw grease across the room.
Under the runway is a Naval Air Engineering Laboratory Arresting Engine, "Mark 7 Mod 3, Weight 84,000 pounds" according to a well-polished old nameplate. The arresting cable loops back and forth in a block-and-tackle arrangement, 18 parallel runs. When a plane is trapped the end pulleys leap toward each other, converting the aircraft's kinetic energy to hydraulic fluid motion via pistons and dampers. As Airman Crawford shows us the machinery under the runway we're startled by a sudden loud whooosh! --- as a T-38 jet trainer makes a conventional landing directly overhead. A minute passes and another screams in. "The sound of freedom," Scoutmaster Cutting (Commander, USN) explains.
Next door, in the school buildings, our guide describes some of the training that students go through --- 34 in each class for 11 months, two groups per year. The cost is a million dollars per student. This is the only test pilot school in the country now, one of three in the world, and foreign nations often send candidates for training. Many US astronauts came through Pax. Exhibit cases in the corridors show memorabilia from space missions and gifts from international students. Also in the glass cases are historical displays of USNTPS student gear: personal computers back through Apple IIs, Hewlett-Packard calculators and desktop units, analog computers with their plugboards and nests of wires, and then, first of all, precision slide rules, both linear and circular, next to blackboards and notebooks. Tools for computational fluid dynamics, still ready, for those minds who know how to use them.
The Pax NAS control tower says Field Elevation 40 Feet on the outside. To get to the top, however, takes a 125' climb up half a dozen flights of steps followed by a few more floors worth of tight spiral staircase, steel treads painted black. Local air traffic was minimal on an early Saturday afternoon. The controller was keeping an eye on a Cessna doing touch-and-goes on Runway 02 as he showed us his radar display and Aldis lamp, red and green directional beams to signal aircraft in case radio doesn't work. The field is far busier most weekdays, when students and test pilots are active. Pax NAS is an "Official Business Only" facility, prior permission to land required. There are multiple restricted areas in the vicinity, most notably the Chesapeake Test Range where new planes are put through their paces, watched by radar and laser sensors. Downstairs in the dark radar room five controllers monitor a dozen circular screens. They handle traffic out to 350 nautical miles at altitudes below 7000 feet.
After breakfast and clean-up the crew strikes camp, leaves the base, and visits the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum just outside the gate. The museum parking lot is rimmed with helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Inside, exhibits include cut-away engines, cockpits, helmets and flight suits, a room full of model planes, and a timeline of naval aviation since 1911. A "Notice To All New Hands" reputedly from the World War II era offers advice to sailors on how to enjoy the area and avoid pitfalls like being absent over leave (AOL). It concludes with:
8. SEAMEN, STEWARD'S MATES and other non-rated men who work like hell and do dirty jobs as if they liked them are noticed and marked as petty officer material.
Good advice throughout life.
Monday, March 06, 2000 at 06:17:43 (EST) = Datetag20000306