Friday, November 21, 2014

A little history of Mount Wilson Observatory

Just over five years ago, the Station Fire burned 160,577 acres in and near the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles, California. Over the years that I have been writing this blog on aerial wildland firefighting, there are a few moments that I will always remember. One of those moments was watching livestream from Los Angeles California media outlets cover the aerial assault on Mount Wilson. As many of you know, Mount Wilson, which lies in the Angeles National Forest, is the home of Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO.

Under the leadership of George Ellery Hale (see Mount Wilson Observatory webpage on Hale and Wikipedia on Hale ) and with funding from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Mt. Wilson Observatory (MWO)  opened in 1904 as a solar observatory. Solar observations continue at MWO today.  Additional telescopes and facilities came later including but not limited to the 60-inch telescope (1908), and the 100-inch Hooker telescope (1917).

Up until I wrote this article, when I thought about the Mt. Wilson Observatory, I have to be honest and say that I knew only about Hale and Hubble. Among Hubble’s notable discoveries were the discovery of the galaxies outside of our own galaxy and the expansion of the Universe. The Day We Found the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak has a good discussion of the construction of the Mt. Wilson Observatory and her telescopes as well as Hubble’s work and a couple of other astronomers who worked at Mt. Wilson Observatory in the early twentieth century. The MWO has a nice webpage of the history of the MWO (with links), there is also a nice timeline of the first 100 years of MWO (with links) where you may learn about some of the work that has been done at the MWO, some notable astronomers, and current uses of MWO.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

About Mount Wilson Observatory: Introduction

There are many observatories around the world where significant astronomical research is and has been done. Likewise there are many important assets, historic and more recent that have come close to being destroyed by wildfire or have been destroyed by wildfires. Observatories tend to be located on remote mountains and hilltops for obvious reasons. Sometimes these remote mountain top observatories are located in areas where wildfires pose a threat. 

One of the nightmares of those who love an observatory, is the destruction of  their observatory and her equipment and related infrastructure in a wildfire. Such was the nightmare that happened to the Mount Stromolo Observatory when a fire storm destroyed most of the observatory buildings and equipment in January 2003 (Space Daily on fire at Mt. Stromlo, Photos of Mt Stromlo fire from Canberra Times  and Sky and Telescope on fire at Mt. Stromlo). Such was the nightmare that almost happened, but did not, to the Mount Wilson Observatory during the 2009 Station Fire.

The Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO) was not destroyed by the Station Fire. I am not here to tell the story of  MWO and the Station Fire. If you are interested in the story of the 2009 Station Fire’s impact on the Mt. Wilson Observatory, you will want to read Hal McAlister’s e-book, Diary of a Fire: the 2009 Station Fire Threat to Mount Wilson
, available as an e-book from Amazon (

If you are interested about more general coverage of the Station Fire, I wrote some articles at the time with links to photos, and videos (Sept. 1, 2009, Sept. 2, 2009, Sept. 3, 2009, Sept. 4, 2009 , and Sept, 6, 2009).

While I would like, at some point to talk about what has happened on Mount Wilson five years after the Station Fire, that story will have to come later. I am here because when I was following the Station Fire in 2009, Mount Wilson played a prominent role and as someone who likes the night sky, I decided that I wanted to learn more about Mount Wilson. 

Outline of series:
Day 1: a little history of MWO (November 21)
Day 2: MWO today (November 24)
Day 3: A drive up the Angeles Crest Highway on Sept. 3, 2009 (November 26)
Day 4: Wrap-up and Reflections (November 28)

Note: for those of you without a kindle, you can get kindle apps for your various devices and computers. You may need an account with amazon to use the kindle app, and I make no claims about the ease of finding the app, the ease of use, how will the app will work on your device, etc. For those of you who are mac users, as I am, you can find the kindle app for the mac on Apple’s app store. I know that there is a kindle app for the pc computer, and various smart phones but I don’t know where to get such an app, you’ll have to go amazon and look around. I have a kindle device that I enjoy and find easy to use.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A short visit to Catfish Fire Tower

I expect that many of you know that the Appalachian Trail passes through New Jersey. There is a nice day hike that one can make that takes you by the Catfish Fire Tower. The Catfish Fire Tower (on the National Historic Lookout Register) is located on the Appalachian Trail not far from Blairstown NJ. The NY/NJ Trail Conference maintains many of the trails in this area and has a webpage that describes a loop hike using the Rattlesnake Swamp Train and the Appalachian Trail, taking you by the Catfish Fire Tower, the webpage has some photos.

I have hiked up to the Catfish Fire Tower, many years ago was the last time I did so. The views are extraordinary. A very pretty spot. And I can understand why the New Jersey Forest Fire Service has a fire tower here. I have not climbed the tower, but I know that you get a good 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. Just what is needed for wildfire spotting. I have more recently flown over the Catfish Fire Tower on scenic flights that I have taken with pilot friends. It is a good visual reference point.

Here is a nice short video taken from the Catfish Fire by Ray Galli:

direct link to video on youtube

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A different kind of flight

I was on a different kind of flight yesterday, a cross-country flight to California. It wasn't until I was at the airport waiting for my flight to California that I realized that making my regular Friday blog post just slipped my mind. While on the flight I entertained myself by watching some videos of tankers in action on my laptop, later doing some reading. Then I looked at the Los Angeles sectional that I had in my bag. Unfortunately my 11 to 12 year old i-pod decided to die on my flight, the hard drive crashed. I will be back on in a couple of days with my regularly scheduled on Monday.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tankers in action

I had other things that I wanted to do this afternoon, but I ended up updating some software on my laptop in advance on a project and some down time next week. I also wanted to replant some bulbs while the weather is still cooperating. So, I am offering a video from 2006 of some tankers in action that I recently came across. I don't believe that I have shared this here, and if I have a rerun never hurts.

direct link to video

Monday, November 10, 2014

Saying hello to a Chinook from a safe distance

I went on a wonderful scenic flight, with a great pilot at the controls, this morning to central Pennsylvania. Our destination was an airport, KLNS in Lancaster Pennsylvania where they have a nice pilot/hobby shop on the field. Few clouds, although it was a little hazy up there with minimal winds. A glorious fall day.

There are somethings that I can do from the right seat. I follow along on my aviation chart, looking for visual references to pinpoint our location. The pilot had flight following, which means that the various controllers assigned us altitudes, gave traffic advisories, etc. Traffic advisories are important. The controller gives an advisory by distance and altitude. For example, Piper Cherokee 2 miles at 11:00 at 1,400 feet. Yes, 11:00 is what you think, traffic straight down the nose is 12:00. We look and when we spot the aircraft the pilot says "traffic in sight." When the control determines that the traffic is not a factor, s/he will say so that we can stop looking.Anyway, as it was such a clear day a lot of general aviation aircraft like us were flying. In addition to the Commercial flights and the corporate jets. 

I am getting better at spotting traffic, especially on a day like today when it was hazy. My pilot told me some tricks about finding traffic in the haze. Which worked, sometimes. But I still missed some. The important thing is that he could see what he needed to see. 

As we were getting closer to KLNS, approach/control had advised us of two aircraft. One was another Cessna 172, and the second was a CH-47 helicopter five miles from us at 3,500 ft. We were at 3,000 ft flying west. Now most aircraft I see from the air  are smaller aircraft and if I am lucky they will be the size of a pencil eraser. But not today because of the haze. Anyway, so I was looking for something that if I was lucky might be the size of pencil eraser when I see this large aircraft and I tell the pilot what and where I see the aircraft crossing our path. Turns out that was our CH-47 Helicopter. I had forgotten that a CH-47 is also referred to as a Chinook. If the controller had told us to look for Chinook, I would have known right away what I was looking for. 

Anyway, the Chinook was five miles away at 3,500 feet flying south. It was an impressive sight from the air. Made my day. One of those special moments from a flight that I'll carry with me. I grabbed my camera and got this shot that I am sharing with you. Not a great shot, and with my 55 mm lens the Chinook looked smaller then it did in real life. And you might have to trust me that this is indeed a photo of a Chinook. After we landed I thought of my good friend Matt who loved helicopters. Matt passed about five weeks ago and is flying in favorable winds. He would have loved that I saw a Chinook on a flight. 

CH-47 "Chinook" east of KLNS. We were at 3,000' MSL flying west and the Chinook was at 3,500' flying south. He was about five miles away from us.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Yellowstone after the 1988 Fires

Of late, I have been thinking about how areas burned in wildfire recover from the fire. In particular, I have been curious about how areas burned in some of the larger wildfires in the western U.S. have recovered. And I wanted photos! Believe it or not, I spent much of the day reading about post fire recovery. I wanted to find an area in the U.S. with a large fire some years ago where I might be able to see some photos of the recovery. I suppose my mind was a little slow today, and I had one of those , remembering the fires that burned Yellowstone in 1988. I just got off the phone with a nice lady from Yellowstone National Park Visitors Services who helped me navigate there website. She was wonderful! 

She directed me to their photo and multimedia page where they have a vast resource of photos and multimedia to look through, when

Lo and Behold, I found a collection of photos called Post Fire Succession 1988. It is only two pages, and I hope that you spend some time looking at each photo.

One of my winter projects is going to be poking around and researching post fire succession after the 1988 fires. I think that there is stuff out there on the web and elsewhere, I just have to find it. I've got some other projects coming up the next couple of weeks, so may not be able to spend time with Yellowstone for a couple of weeks. So stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Fire season still going on in CA

I know enough fire history to know that fire season never really ends in southern California. I recall the Panorama Fire that burned in southern California in late November of 1980. I recall hearing about it on the news because I had a lot spare time on my hands at that time because I was helping out a sick relative so I watched a lot of news on TV. In recent years, I've seen one or two videos on the Panorama Fire. This fire was fueled by Santa Anna Winds.

direct link to video

I also recall some wildfires in southern California in November 1980, I found a short article on wikipedia about three wildfires in November 1980.

I thought about these and other southern California November wildfires as I heard that Red Flag Warnings are in place in southern California today. For more information, see this article from the Ramona Sentinel. I have family and friends in southern California and I am comforted in knowing that CAL FIRE and other local fire agencies will work to keep southern California residents and business safe from wildfires.

And these are times of extreme drought in southern California, only making matters worse.

For information on the current status of the drought in southern California and elsewhere in the United States, see It is important to note that the drought information changes weekly.

Stay safe everyone!!

Monday, November 03, 2014

RIP Michael Tyner Alsbury and speedy recovery for Peter Siebold

By know most of you know about the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo on Friday, October 31, 2014 while on a test flight over the Mojave Desert in California (USA). SpaceShipTwo was the first of Virgin Galactica's planned Space Tourism Aircraft. The only people on board SpaceShipTwo were the two pilots, Michael Tyner Alsbury (39) died in the crash. Peter Siebold (43) sustained serious injuries.

I want to take a time out and offer my heartfelt condolences and prayers to the family, friends, and colleagues of Michael Tyner Alsbury. I pray especially for Michaels family as you mourn his loss.

Michael and Peter were on a test flight when the accident happened resulting in Michael's death and Peter's injuries. The community of test flight pilots is small and very tight. If any of you in Michael's community of pilots happens to be reading this, please know that I am keeping you in my thoughts and prayers

Micheal, you have left the bonds of earth. I know that you will be missed. I am sorry that I never knew you, my loss. May you always fly in favorable tail winds.

For Peter Siebold I offer you my continued toughest and prayers as you continue to recover from the injuries you sustained in the test flight. I pray also for your family and friends and those who love you as they are with you as you recover from your injuries.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Historic fire fighting train

I have always liked trains, especially older trains. I grew up hearing my parents talking about cross-country train trips they took in the late 40s and early 50s, wondering what it was like to ride the rails in those days. And I used to have an atlas showing historic train routes in the United States which I lost in a move some years back. I have taken a couple of over night train trips, a lot of fun. Anyway, I digress.

As I was wondering what to write about today, I came upon this video of a historic fire fighting train. I don't know the location, perhaps out west somewhere? Nor do I know the time period. But I loved the video.

direct link to video on youtube

I got curious about trains used for firefighting, whether trains are still being used. Bill Gabbert of Wildfire Today posted a nice article over four years ago on fire fighting with a train. Bill did a nice job, chock full of information that you rail buffs and firefighting buffs will enjoy.