Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Battle of Palmdale

Aerospace Archaeology and the Triumph of the Amateurs

From the book and movie The Right Stuff through to overflights by the recent "victory lap" of the Space Shuttle, the Antelope Valley lives in, around, and under the influence of Edwards Air Force Base in many ways.

I know in my case, applying for a tenure-track position at Antelope Valley College in the now-distant days of 1989, one of the attractions for me --- something that was important enough that it would cause me to give up teaching at U.C. Irvine and give up as well my rental house at the beach --- was that I would be closer to an odd little gem of a marsh, the Piute Ponds complex on the southwestern edge of Edwards. I still go there today.

This wetlands system, kept liquid and thriving via the influx of treated effluent from the Ave D sewage plant, is worth a post on its own. For now though we will skip past this home of rails and swans to think about the main reason Edwards exists: to fly planes and to crash them.

Not intentionally of course. But the fact is, we only get new planes by trying new designs, and we can only try new designs by building fun experiments and then throwing them up in the sky and seeing what happens. Sometimes, all goes well. Other times . . . .

Caption information is as follows:

This is what happens when an F-104 "augers in" at high speed. In 1962, NASA pilot Milt Thompson was simulating X-15 approaches in a JF-104A at high altitude and tried to lower the flaps. One flap actuator failed, setting up rolls that became uncontrollable. Thompson ejected. The plane exploded on impact, while observers on the ground failed to see Thompson's descent with a parachute. With only news of the crash and no word about the well-liked pilot, gloom quickly spread. Meanwhile, Thompson landed safely, walked to a nearby road, and waited to hitch a ride to the crash site. Soon a NASA car approached, and inside was the chief of flight operations. Thompson flagged it down, and they headed back to Dryden [Flight Center].

The text and photo come from a very striking book that I recommend highly, a visual history of Edwards and its planes. Here's a scan of the cover.

Edwards itself is named for somebody who perished in a different crash. Many of us forget that the sci-fi-looking "flying wing" design pre-dates its most recent incarnation as the Stealth Bomber. One very elegant version of the flying wing concept was the experimental YB-49 of the 1940s. What is now Edwards Base was formerly Muroc (itself an inverted spelling of a pioneer family's name); Glen Edwards was among those brave men killed when a test version of this plane crashed.

What does all of this have to do with our post's title? The Battle of Palmdale --- and one hint is that it will have a bright red F6 Hellcat taking on two F-89 Scorpions --- will come later. First we need to pay tribute to somebody who has done an amazing amount of CSI in order to resurrect these various crash sites for us all.

At the Center for Land Use Interpretation right now there's an exhibit titled "Down to Earth," with a deadpan but respectful review of the many pieces of the Mojave Desert that have received the sudden, unannounced visit of an object from the sky, namely a manned or unmanned airplane no longer in stable, level flight. The above cited slang, "augering in," captures this sad fact of aerodynamic failure in one punchy expression.

The show is based on archival research and field study by the remarkable Peter Merlin. I recently went to his lecture at CLUI, as he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the crash sites and what they mean.

As a side note, this PowerPoint was well-paced, vivid, and informative. I guess the medium has finally evolved? Initially, along with Yale's Professor Tufte and other design critics, I dreaded sitting through a PowerPoint presentation, since apparently all of the early adopters were dolts who couldn't think visually. Ever been to a presentation where there were just three bullet-pointed factoids per slide, a slide whose content you could take in in about two seconds? And then the presenter would laboriously read each bullet point, as if you were not already light years ahead of him? (Or her, as the case may be, though I seem to have met more boring men than women: maybe it's a communication style thing.) Sometimes further insult appeared in the form of a badly xeroxed batch of 30 stapled pages that relisted the same stupifying points but now as a murky handout.

Well, those days seem to be ancient history, or maybe I just am better at deciding which events to sit through.

What Mr. Merlin and his colleagues do is quite simple: figure out what crashed, when it happened, and where the site would be, and then go and find the crash location today. If they uncover artifacts, sometimes they collect them for a museum. It sounds easy, but have you ever misplaced, say, your car keys? I mean how many places can they be? A house is not THAT big. The Mojave Desert is a mighty big place --- bigger than a house, anyway.

With the recent release of declassified documents such as accident investigation reports, site finding is a touch easier. Some of his best finds required a lot more CSI sleuthing, however.

This is not just ancient history. A fighter called a Raptor went down just a few years ago. The lecture went into the crash and the site in some detail, but here are some shots from the exhibit itself, as those came out slightly better than my shots from the PowerPoint talk.

The crash site is near Harper Dry Lake, close to Barstow.

As some of you know, an F-22 Raptor is a fast, sexy, and very expensive plane: let's say $150 million per unit? (That makes the car payments on my new truck seem downright cheap.) The cleanup took three months. One factor was secrecy: one doesn't wish to leave top-secret spare parts scattered around the open range. Another factor is a recent change in public culture, namely, the arrival of an environmental consciousness that says we now clean up our messes. An advanced fighter plane, with its fuel load, lubricants, and hybrid and composite materials, is one big shopping cart of hazardous materials, and when one crashes, that haz-mat load gets well and truly mixed into the public landscape. In this case, glue was sprayed over the sand, to help pick up the speckles of fragmented composite. The contaminated soil was bulldozed away and fresh fill brought in. There was even a rather feeble attempt to replant native desert plants. It nearly sounds like installation art.

That takes around to what the lecture and the CLUI show itself offer us. What's the "point"? For aviation professionals including Mr. Merlin, studying crashes and crash sites helps us figure out what has gone wrong. The Center for Land Use Interpretation broadens that idea out somewhat. Here is some text from their website:

Since the dawn of the jet and space ages, Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, has been the principal place for testing experimental aircraft. As a result, the landscape around it is peppered with crash sites. These crash sites represent the meeting of the apogee of American technological sophistication, with the perigee of failure - the intersection of lofted ambition and terrestrial tragedy.

The eleven crashes described in this exhibit were selected from among the more than six hundred that have occurred in the western Mojave Desert, and cover the range of experimentation and advancement of aircraft over the past 70 years of jet-propelled flight. With one exception, all of these flights originated at Edwards, where they were expected to return. Instead they crashed outside, in the public realm, where they remain as accidental monuments to one of the most advanced forms of technology and human endeavor.

Note the number: over 600 crash sites. As several people suggested before and after the talk, a map just of the site locations themselves might reveal something about human patterns of behavior and perhaps be a piece of interesting abstract art in itself. Normally a CLUI exhibit comes from the happy hands of Matt Coolidge and other in-house research team members. This show is more "home grown," and more or less comes from here, the Antelope Valley. CLUI's website credits this clearly:

This CLUI exhibit is based on the work of Peter W. Merlin who, with Tony Moore, founded the X-Hunters Aerospace Archeology Team, the nation’s experts on locating crash sites of experimental aircraft. Merlin and Moore have studied and documented aerospace accidents and incidents for more than 25 years, and have located and visited more than 100 crash sites of historic aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base and Area 51.

That was one of the take-home messages I got, which was that with enough imagination and courage, yes, we can land on the moon and routinely fly to the edge of outer space. (Pilots at Edwards have become "astronauts" in airplanes, and not by going up on a NASA Saturn V.) But it's also true that with enough imagination and courage, a single individual can become a "X-Files" researcher just on a local scale, and with perseverance and luck, with imagination and courage and a broad-brimmed hat, he can locate everything from lost airplane engines to the gemstone in a deceased pilot's wedding ring. The story of the lucky amateur, from Heinrich Schliemann discovering Troy to the gold strike at Sutter's Mill to Sherlock Holmes himself, makes us realize that everything that gets done doesn't need a huge R&D department or a government grant. Sometimes it just takes a couple of guys in a jeep willing to poke around the sage brush for a while.

Which brings us back to the Battle of Palmdale.

These shots will all be from Mr. Merlin's slide show --- I was sitting a bit off-axis from the screen, so I apologize for the distortion.

Our story starts with the fact that in the 1950s surplus WW II fighters called Hellcats were converted into pilot-less drone planes and used as flying targets over the Pacific Ocean. Here's what they looked like.

That's a normal enough concept, except as these things go, sure enough, there was a malfunction, and one of the drones (full of very explosive aviation fuel) stopped responding to the radio signals. Instead of flying out to sea, it made a banking climb and flew over Los Angeles. Well, that wasn't a good thing, so F-89 fighters were scrambled to intercept.

This was not going to be their finest hour. Churchill can be glad he didn't have these lads in any of his squadrons during the Battle of Britain. It seemed at first to be going okay: the drone left Los Angeles proper and headed to Castaic, and then Newhall, and finally Palmdale. As we all know, the Antelope Valley is a wasteland good for nothing but housing convicts, dumping sofas, and releasing unwanted dogs, and so what better place for the wayward drone to crash? "Shoot to kill" was the order given.

208 missiles were fired at the bright red unpiloted Hellcat. Bear in mind, this is not something zooming around like Darth Vader in a TIE fighter. There's no evasive action, no ducking under bridges or banking into the sun. This is a propeller-driven, war-surplus plane plodding along with konked-out autopilot. 200 missiles --- and not one hit the drone. They did however hit Palmdale Boulevard. Missiles were landing all over the place. One even started a fire in Placerita Canyon, where the nature reserve is today. As Mr. Merlin speculates, there could be dud rounds still buried in the dirt around Ave M even today.

From the blog site of the U.S. Naval Institute comes this summary of the rocket damage:

According to the Aug. 23, 1956, edition of the Valley Press, one of the air-to-air rockets fell to earth and nearly hit a station wagon being driven by 17-year-old Larry Kempton of Leona Valley. Kempton, with his mother Bernice in the passenger seat, was driving west on Palmdale Boulevard just west of 10th Street West when a rocket exploded on the street in front of his car, the newspaper reported. Fragments from the explosion shredded Kempton’s left front tire and put 17 holes in his radiator, hood and windshield.

Shrapnel also damaged a home near Avenue Q-8 and Third Street East and a home near Avenue Q-6 and Fourth Street East, the Valley Press reported. Edna Carlson, who lived in the home on Third Street East, said a chunk of shrapnel from one Air Force rocket burst through the front window of her home, ricocheted off the ceiling, went through a wall and came to rest in a kitchen cupboard, according to a report in the Aug. 17, 1956, edition of a Los Angeles newspaper. J.R. Hingle told the L.A. newspaper that pieces of metal blasted into his garage and home on Fourth Street East, nearly striking a guest named Lilly Willingham. Both homes are still standing and in use, Merlin said.

The L.A. paper also noted that “three good-size fires and numerous smaller blazes” were ignited in Palmdale by the rockets, in addition to the fires near Santa Clarita. The Placerita Canyon fire burned 75 to 100 acres before being brought under control by a team more than 200 firefighters, who helped save the Bermite plant, the newspaper account showed. “Another (fire) was seven miles north of Castaic on the old Ridge Route and burned 50 to 75 acres before being brought under control late in the afternoon” by about
100 firefighters.

And the little plane that could? The red F6 drone? What happened to it we all want to know. It finally ran out of gas and crashed eight miles east of the now-closed Palmdale Airport, cutting some power lines. There was the usual clean-up and cover-up, then it was seemingly forgotten from history. Enter our aerospace archaeologists.

Isn't this shot amazing? He and his partner FOUND this utterly obscure site. Is it still "history" if nobody wants to remember it or talk about it? We'll have to check with Dr. Jaffe about that. I am just full of hope, thinking about all of the additional sites we have yet to uncover, aviation-based or otherwise. Here's a final shot from researching the Battle of Palmdale site:

Note the appropriate uniform. Indiana Jones taught us that if you're going to do field work, you need a jazzy hat. You also need a small crew of eccentrics and visionaries, folks willing to believe "the truth is out there."

Peter Merlin is such a person, and so is Matt Coolidge and the other brave folks who keep the Center for Land Use Interpretation consistently one of the most interesting exhibition venues in Los Angeles.

Long may they tinker and potter, long may they question and trespass. God bless the amateurs.

The AVC Blog is curated by Language Arts instructor Charles Hood. It does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the campus administration. Hood can be reached at

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The $10,000 Book (That's Worth a Lot More)

Michael Light and Economies of Scale

Members of the campus community who follow Mr. Standerfer's "Around AVC" updates may remember that last week there was a felony on campus, and that a suspect was caught the same day. It seems a fellow went into the AVC bookstore, scooped up an armload of textbooks, and sprinted off. Perhaps this may one day qualify for an entry on "America's Dumbest Crooks," since the book thief had no getaway car waiting, and in trying to outrun campus security, was ultimately caught. Note to self: if it's going to be a running away on foot thing, steal a Kindle, not an unabridged dictionary or a recent copy of Gardner's Art Through the Ages. Plus, as we all know, used books have much less street value than what we have to spend to buy them in the first place. Selling books back at term's end is a nickles and dimes on the dollar sort of equation, making books a bad thing to steal in the first place. There's just no profit to be made later down the line.

But the suspect will be booked on the value of the products when stolen. Retail value of the haul? I quote from Steve Standerfer:

"Books valued at $757 were recovered and returned to the bookstore. The suspect was taken to the Lancaster sheriff's station and booked on suspicion of felony burglary and possession of marijuana on campus."

Apparently the suspect has not seen enough heist movies, since we all know that to pull off a big caper one needs a gang, and in that gang everybody has a role to play --- the code breaker, the bag man, the wheel man, and so forth. Even Robin Hood had Friar Tuck and Little John. The one thing that will not surprise any of AVC's students will be the cost of the books that were recovered. $800 for one armload of books? Of course. There's a widespread sentiment that in any given semester, "books are expensive --- TOO expensive."

In point of fact, they really are not very expensive at all. For the price of a dinner date at Yard House or Claim Jumper, you can just about get any English textbook on the shelf in our bookstore. It averages about five cents a page or something. Even so, every semester students ask me if they can just skip buying the books. Um. No --- and I certainly hope if I ever need surgery that as a student my doctor didn't cut corners by using an out of print edition of the textbook, or perhaps didn't even bother to buy the books at all.

(I also hope that about the fellow doing the airframe maintenance on any plane that I am in, or even the guy coming over to fix my air conditioner.)

Books seem expensive because we don't much value them. The truth is, in relation to income and our collective standard of living, books now are better-made, more varied, and more accessible than in any time in human history. Chaucer would have killed to have access to Barnes & Noble, even for an hour. (Though in his case, he would have wondered where were all the books in French and Latin, the languages of education and culture. In his era, anybody who was anybody was fluently trilingual, or more so, since English had a number of very obvious dialects, so much so that it nearly counted as multiple languages itself.)

Even Charles Dickens or Jane Austin would be impressed by bookstores today. Simply put, we live in a great age for books. Pick up the average "how to" photo book, or just a history of a mid-list rock and roll band. The quality of color printing in art books has never been this astoundingly good (or this comparatively cheap), and if you're a member of Amazon Prime, you can have stacks and stacks of books delivered to your doorstep daily, all for free. Ask Santi Tafarella's UPS driver (or mine): right now, books are almost too cheap. He and I are like addicts with an Internet mainline to our drug of choice. That's why English teacher slash carpenter Bill Vaughn keeps having to come over to my house to help me build more bookshelves.

Yet parallel to this, we also live in a world where one-of-kind, fine press editions of books still exist, books that in the past would have been fit for the library of royalty or the most elite, most discriminating university collection. These are books so well-designed, so fine produced, and so imaginatively created they take one's breath away.

Last week I flew to San Francisco for the day, in order to visit the Hosfelt Gallery and see some of these kinds of books in person, each made by Michael Light and each going for something in the range of ten grand a copy. Can I afford one? Not on a teacher's salary, though I do have hopes. (My birthday is coming up and I keep dropping hints to my wife.) Yet cost aside, the show was going to close soon and I had to push hard to make it. It was raining at LAX and I had a cold so hadn't slept in two days and the flight was delayed and there was a whacko sharing my BART ride into the City from SFO and all the usual blah blah of life. Yet am I glad I went? Shoot howdy, and how. His work really makes me fall in love with art all over again.

Michael Light is best known for his aerial landscape photographs of the American West, work available as "regular" books (does he ever make a "regular" book? not really) and traditional, gallery-sold, full-scale, wall-filling prints. He also sequences a series of images on one theme, turning those images into text-less, very large, very very very cool books. These books are in very small print runs --- usually in an edition of ten. Here's my current favorite, being given a test drive for me by the smart and engaging Nicole Lampl, a gallery assistant at Hosfelt.

Wearing archival gloves, she is turning the pages for me, with a nearly invisible seam vertical in the center of the book, so that in this shot we are looking at two pages in a left / right spread. This may look like a flying carpet from this angle, but the book rests on its own dedicated lectern slash music stand slash surveyor's tripod.

This particular project --- the Lake Las Vegas book --- examines a partially-failed, partially-still-inhabited luxury community in Nevada. The site serves as a symbol or metaphor for the current Recession-that's-really-a-Depression-for-most-of-us. I quote here from an information page that was supplied by the gallery.

Twenty miles "east of the Strip lies an artificial 320-acre lake created by damming the Las Vegas Wash, which drains the city’s wastewater. The surrounding 3600 acres is known as 'Lake Las Vegas Resort.' Comprised of 21 Mediterranean-themed communities, many of them “guard-gated,” three golf courses, a casino, two destination resort hotels, and a replica of Florence’s very own Ponte Vecchio, this Lake Como amidst the Henderson swamp began its life in 1991. By 2008, however, the entire 1600-home resort was in foreclosure as its primary developer, funded by the Bass Brothers of Texas, defaulted on $1 Billion in speculative debt from Swiss and foreign banks. All three golf courses went into foreclosure, and the hotels and casino followed shortly. In 2007 the average square foot price of a resale home in Lake Las Vegas was $544; in November 2010 it was $106."

Grim times though not entirely unexpected, and in fact, for Nevada, a state founded on boom and bust mining ventures, this in some ways is the archetypal Las Vegas experience --- the desperate final attempt to score big that leaves the penniless gambler sitting on the curb in the dawn light, bruised and stunned, trying to hock his wristwatch for bus fare home.

Flying low overhead in a small plane, Michael Light shot large format, high resolution images, images that do several things at once. Let's look at a plate from the book.

Scratchy desert: curving road: mansions: dirt lots. I mean no disrespect to our neighbors in Nevada when I say that it reminds me of a dictator's compound in Libya or Iraq. And these blank foreground lots are not authentic desert, with the complexity and subtly that natural habitat provides, but instead are revealed here as what they are: once-graded dirt lots now coming back mostly in Russian thistle, aka tumbleweed. Nothing ever stays "nothing" forever, and we see tentative succession, as damaged and limited as it happens to be. So really all this foreground, contrary to popular language, is not "desert" landscape, but basically degraded failure. These million dollar mansions have about the same view as a trailer park in Rosamond.

Meanwhile, ecology aside, if we make an "x" through the composition, there's the strange, sad, beautiful losange of the pool at the exact center of the picture. All the drama here is reversed: the back of the house feels like it wants to be the front (it seems to have gotten all the decorative pillars and balconies), and too, in so doing, the back of the house seems to yearn to front that turqouise pool, almost as if it can't bear to face the street behind. The back of the house not just wants to front the pool, but to worship it. It hunches around, staring. Water has a fascination for us anywhere, but most especially if it is in a place it doesn't belong. We love seeing floods inundate houses and towns, but even a palm-fringed oasis or backyard wading pool captivates. And yet of course there is no natural water in Las Vegas --- hardly any, anyway --- but still, in defiance of logic or appropriate husbandry, these mansions all have to have an open-air pool, and some, more than one. (In one shot, Nicole helped me count five swimming pools for just one house. It is late-Roman decadence personified. All of that water had to have come from somewhere else, a "somewhere" where it could do more good and do so more naturally.)

In this multi-layered image, the road in front curves smoothly, perfectly, paved in its cleanly perfect heat-absorbing black asphalt --- a road as well-engineered as any in the Roman empire, and yet a road that ultimately leads to nowhere. Nobody could stand to walk on this road in the heat of summer, and we assume even the maids and caterers all will have cars. Almost like a black moat, the road flows past the houses, a perfect and rarely-used ornament. There are no humans in these pictures: what human life there might be is locked away behind closed doors. Nobody rides a bike or does a few turns in the pool. One reason we think of this sort of view as post-apocalyptic is that we don't even have the pleasure and company of zombies. Instead, the roads demarcate desolate, abandoned plots, and the houses crowd around empty, sad blue puddles.

Some of Mr. Light's photos recall a different sort of worship. As ridges and hillsides were beveled and buzzcut for housing lots, at some parts of this development, the tracts never came. What is left behind is an unfinished man-scape that quotes the temple platform for a ziggurat, or an excavation revealing a lost section of the Great Wall of China --- something from the Gobi Desert perhaps, or a failed religious colony on the Bolivian salt flats.

What a great shot this is. Much deserves praise here, and not just the technical skill to take well-composed, sharp pictures while flying a rather small airplane that has no doors. We have here a visual exploration of all the adjectives there are for colors of dirt, from ecru to linen to sienna to Payne's grey. We also have a mix of circles and rectangles, and the slanting light only helps us to appreciate the sheer immensity of the once-intact landscape being altered in this development. Yet what IS the scale? Not just an example of documentary journalism, not just an appreciation of color and earthworks, this photo also works as a straight abstract, one perhaps made by using a close-up macro lens and examining the rugosities and whorls on the side of a quarter-inch barnacle.

That "close yet far" aspect of the image may be less easy to see here on this postage-stamp-sized blog post, but becomes more clear if one can see this book (and the solo wall prints that go with it) in person. As is so often true for most other art, with a book like this, seeing it in person trumps seeing it via a blog, always. Whenever Michael Light has a show --- and recent ones, besides Hosfelt Gallery, have included the Nevada Museum of Art and Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica --- I take note of the dates. It's always worth the trip.

At home, after the trip, when comparing Mr. Light's work to surveys of archaeology digs in the Middle-East, I came across this rather unexpected document. Photograph is by Antonio Beato, from 1862, Egypt.

My book, a survey of Nile sites in 19th century photography, captions this as "Troops massed in the Great Court in the Colonnade of Taharqo (690-664 B.C.)." I was trying to imagine a modern updating of this pose, a similar parade but one that would have some relation to the temple ruins of Las Vegas. Who are our armies today? Who do we line up to attack and defend, to define and litigate? So of course: an army of lawyers! These kinds of grand schemes such as Lake Las Vegas never collapse without leaving behind enough lawsuits to fill up Lake Meade. Investors sue the banks, the banks sue the contractors, and around the mulberry bush we go. How about lining up all the lawyers for all the various suits and counter suits --- an entire army of litigation, ready to go into battle once the bugle blows and the saber falls?

If we could organize such a thing, even as Performance Art or a franchise branch of the Doo-Dah Parade, at least that would put some humanity back into these scenes.

One thing about contemporary work is that it can be hard to appreciate. It is easy to look back at the classic FSA-era photographs from the previous Great Depression, the work by Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans or Arthur Rothstein or Gordan Parks, and to think that sure, of course, look at all the great subject matter they had to work with. They "made" the Depression "be" the Depression: our understanding of it has been shaped by their collective vision. They didn't just go out and find it exactly that way. In actual practice, the world was as complicated and messy and on-going for them as it is for us, and what makes their art so important is that they were able to isolate out in one frame a scene or person or landscape that told a larger story. That is what Michael Light is doing here, with this book. It tells one immediate story of a place not so far from us, but that site serves as a metaphor for banking practices and land use choices being repeated around the country, around the world.

$10,000 for a book? That's a bargain, several ways over. First, the art market continues to appreciate, and in an era when a scribbled painting or tank of formaldehyde goes for five or even ten million dollars, this piece is a very smart investment. (I still remember seeing a print by art photographer x when I was an undergrad and living on beans and rice. I loved it and knew it was the real deal, but it also was $600, which for me then was an impossibility. I recently saw the exact same print for sale at an art fair. Price now? $22,000. Ah, shucks!) Yet beyond resale value down the line, good, smart books --- dare I say great books --- never need a price. In that larger sense, this book is worth whatever intelligence and history and culture are themselves worth. The price tag is not a few thousand dollars or even $100,000. The price tag should just be the infinity symbol. Books are dead; books will never die; long live books, especially the big, amazing, daring ones.

I look forward to Michael Light's next show, whenever that may be.


The Antelope Valley College blog is usually written by Language Arts instructor Charles Hood (the "I" voice, above) and does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the administration. Hood can be reached at