Fragments from a Boy Scout (Troop 439, Kensington, Maryland) visit to Patuxent River Naval Air Station, 4-5 March 2000:

Catapult and Arresting Engine

Airman Ryan Crawford, 21 years old and in the Navy for the past 18 months, shows us around the underground installations on both sides of the runway. Huge boilers make steam to drive hydraulic pistons. Fluid pressure pulls steel cables that accelerate aircraft from rest to takeoff speed in a couple of seconds. On the receiving end, similar cables, about 10 cm thick, form the "cross-deck pendants" that a tailhook catches to stop a plane as it lands. Those cables are good for ~100 traps; they're a spiral twist arrangement of six smaller cables, each made of about 20 steel strands, breaking strength 180,000 pounds. Cross-deck pendants are heavy but can be dragged out of their wooden crates by a single (strong!) man or, better, a fork lift. (Airman Crawford just got his license to drive one. He's looking forward to moving on from Pax to serve on a ship, perhaps in the Pacific. Meanwhile, he's studying for exams so he can advance in rank. Advice: "If you hear a number, memorize it.")

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.

US Navy Test Pilot School

First Class Petty Officer Patrick Lusk leads the troop on a tour of the hangars: two echoing white rooms about 60' high and 200' across. Black Hawk helicopters sit by an F-18 test plane being stripped for parts, already half gone into carefully-labeled boxes on the floor below. Red water pipes climb the walls and lead to fire-prevention sprinklers. Massive 208 volt-400 cycle circuit breakers. Besides T-38 trainers there are "Beavers" and "Otters", high-wing prop planes and gliders, Lear Jets and Beechcraft King Airs, and a couple of intact F-18s. Signs throughout caution against "FOD," foreign object damage. A paperclip in the wrong place can wreck a jet engine.

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.

Crash Trucks, Control Tower, Radar Room

The scouts visit the fire station. There are three bright yellow pumper trucks, each carrying three thousand gallons of water, able to put a 300' long stream on a burning aircraft at the rate of 1,200 gallons per minute. All three trucks are leaking onto the runway, a steady trickle coming out underneath. ("At least we know they're not empty!") Pumpers also can spray foam, nowadays a synthetic detergent mix that has to be used in moderation lest it run off into the nearby Chesapeake Bay. In years past, the fireman says, foam was a natural protein, good for the grass. ("After they got done making hamburger, then hot dogs, then scrapple, the stuff they couldn't use for dog and cat food went into foam. It used to come out red....") The last major accident at Pax was about six years ago, an F-18 crash. Trucks have to be ready to reach an aircraft fire within 90 seconds. Longer than that, there's not much hope for survivors. The station has a total crew of 72 people, and runs on 24 hour shifts with 22 on duty at any time. Firemen's gear includes a clip-on beeper that chirps in warning if the wearer doesn't move for half a minute. A few seconds later it sounds a blaring alarm — to help find a fallen rescuer through smoke and chaos.

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.

Campsite & Museum

The Scout troop sets up tents and stays overnight on a patch of woods in the middle of the Naval Air Station. Large holly trees abound, with sharp-edged leaves and bright red berries. A woodpecker raps and gulls cry out. At sunset a P-3 Orion sub-hunter revs its engines for an hour on a nearby taxiway. The temperature settles down to the low 40's, but a fine blaze of sticks and small logs keeps people warm (on one side!). Dinner, chili and cornbread, turns out well. Everyone retires at 9pm. Sunday morning gets off to a slow start; a few boys rise at at dawn and start a fresh fire, but most aren't out of their sleeping bags until 7 or 8am.

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) = 2000-03-06

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