New Year - Change

Well, I sat down and logged into this account looking to post some intelligent, snarky, thought-provoking post.  I was instead greeted by eight, yes - eight, drafts of posts going back to the end of September.  Thoughts, results, musings of things that have long since escaped my mind.  Reading through the false starts did little to spur my memory as to what I wanted to say or where I wanted to go.

I'll admit it; I'm not a good blogger.  I journal more than blog because there is something soothing in feeling the pen glide over the parchment paper.  Writing takes time to conjure up the words and fire the neurons to move the pen compared to being able to rapidly type words as they pop straight out of my mind (mainly due to my poor penmanship and the necessity to take time and make my writing look "purty"...i.e. readable).  Being on-line to blog also doesn't help because of my knack to be distracted by...SQUIRREL!  Sorry...the ease of looking up anything I need to find out or being distracted by a great song on Pandora and then spending time in iTunes checking that artist out.

Writing in my journal on the other hand forces me to take myself out of the online community, into a quiet place at home or outside, and sit there with nothing more than a blank piece of paper, my trusty Zebra pen, and some time.  I'd rather use my Journal to keep track of my daily life than try and split time between that and something more suitable for on-line reading.  Besides, I'm also the kind of person that still wants at least one little shred of privacy in my life as opposed to those who spill their life's story on-line.  Also, if the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it does eventually come and all electronic media are destroyed, lost, erased, etc.; there will still at least be my written account that will hopefully be preserved.  Unless the nuclear holocaust, volcanic super-caldera eruption, direct asteroid impact incinerates everything...

Anyway, you probably won't see too much stuff here anymore.  I've found that there is just too much to enjoy in life to constantly blog about it as in years past and a lot of "life" right now involves more personal choices, feelings, and thoughts.  No, I'm not closing this blog down but I'm just giving the few readers a heads up that posts won't come as fast and furious as they potentially could.  The "cool things" or profound moments that happen if I don't have my journal but do have internet access may be posted here.  Who knows, things might change as the years progress...but I doubt it.  I'm just a man with too many hobbies, many great friends and family, a job that covers all kinds of things, and where 24 hours just isn't enough time in the day.


September 11 - 10 years later

It seems that part of my life has come full circle.  Ten years ago on September 11th, I was working an overnight shift in the Florida Keys as a participant in the KAMP program for part of my graduate work.  My replacement arrived and I headed home between 7 and 8 am Eastern, said a quick hello to the other grad students/friends in the rental house we had on one of the many islands in the Keys,  and headed to my downstairs "cave" to catch up on sleep.

I was totally out of it when one of the grad students from A&M bust into my room and said I needed to get upstairs quick because something bad was happening.  Not fully cognizant of what was going on, I managed to get some clothes on thinking that one of our vehicles was in an accident, the SMART-R truck was on fire, or some other project-related possibility and I would be worthless with one hours sleep.  Instead, everyone was in the living room clustered around the TV watching smoke pouring out of one of the two World Trade Center towers.  I asked what I was watching and no one could really give me a straight answer.  Within minutes we all realized what was going on.

Forever etched in my memory is the scene of the second airplane ramming into the second WTC tower, live shortly after 9 am.  Live.  On TV.  My exact thoughts at that moment were quite simple and quite blunt and I still remember them to this day...

"Oh my God.  Oh Shit.  This isn't good."

A couple of cell phones started to ring within a few minutes, but then the house phone rang.  That number was reserved for getting in touch with the project directors only.  Sure enough, one of the lead scientists was calling saying that they were stuck at Key West Naval Air Station under lockdown; anyone leaving the NASA radar site would be arrested at gunpoint.  After a couple more phone calls to the house phone and some terse/short conversations, the SMART-R engineer looked as us all and said to get all the vehicles, go get gas and Diesel, get the tanks topped off on the SMART-R, refill the spares and get an emergency kit packed.  Then my cell phone started to ring.

My parents were nowhere to be found.  My sisters and I knew that they were on vacation in Lake City, CO but details were still sketchy about how widespread the threat was.  Wild thoughts started to run through my mind, the minds of my sisters, and grandparents who were trying to check in on their kids.  The one thing I think my sisters and I wanted to hear was "It will all be O.K.".  As it turns out, Mom and Dad were totally (and likely fortunately) oblivious for much of the morning as they fished well out of cell phone range and also managed to drop the keys to their Suburban into one of the lakes.  They were probably in one of the safest places in the States at that time; nestled up in the heart of the Rockies in the central part of the U.S.A. but it still is unnerving not being able to get in touch with your Mom or Dad in a crisis such as the one that was unfolding.  It wasn't until the end of the day that we heard from my parents and they were O.K. and when we finally were able to see each other face-to-face a few months later, they told me they were confident that I would be O.K. because "I had my head on straight".  On the 11th, that may have been the case IF I was in Texas but instead I was stuck well over 1000 miles away from "home".

The rest of the day has already faded away from memory.  I don't remember where I was or what I was doing when the third hijacked plane hit the Pentagon or the passengers fought back on the fourth plane.  I do remember seeing FBI wanted posters all over the Keys later that week as they finally started to unravel who was involved.  I remember a bunch of conversations about whether we could continue the field project or not.  There was a brief stand-down but then Tropical Storm (at that time) Gabrielle presented an opportunity to do a mobile deployment of the then-new SMART-R.  The weekend after September 11th, the FAA and national security teams had decided to open the National Airspace System again and I didn't care what opportunities there were, I wanted to get back to Texas, to my home state, and to a much closer proximity to my firearms for "WTSHTF".  In hindsight it was a poor decision because I missed out on "chasing" a tropical storm at the time but I didn't care, I wanted to get back to the Hub City and back closer to home.

That was another interesting event; since the airline flights were all messed up, my reservations were out the window.  I have no doubt that my guv'ment employer issued ID helped getting through the backlog of passengers and United actually managed to get me back to Texas through some interesting routing.  Key West to Miami to Philadelphia to DFW to the Hub City.  And first class the whole way.  After getting my seat on the aisle on the Miami to Philly flight, the stewardess and a rather burly man in a United uniform asked if I would mind taking the window seat instead.  We made the swap, introduced each other and shook hands which is when he noticed my class ring and asked what academy I went to.  I pointed out that it was an Aggie ring and that I had graduated a couple of years earlier.  He apologized and stated that it looked a lot like his West Point class ring from the side.  Sure enough, he was retired Army and I was able to put two and two together and at some point in our conversation he quickly added; "Don't ask about why we swapped seats".  All I said in response was "I understand".  He was put on the aisle so he could have a clear view of the cockpit door, and I still wonder if he had some form of firearm with him...

And now 10 years later, that is the norm.  You never know when the person sitting next to you in an Air Marshall or not.  I made it back to Texas without any problems, graduated from the ATMO program at Tech, lived/am living through the ongoing wars on Terror, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.  There have been a couple of flights in and out of Washington, D.C. on American Airlines in the last couple of years and each one of those flights began with a prayer and a mental note of who was boarding the plane or not.  Yes, you can say that I was mentally profiling those who were walking on those planes and I bet there are plenty people in the U.S. that would be guilty of that.  Now I am back in the same city I was in ten years ago but in a totally different stage of life, different world, and a different worldview.  Then there is the hovering well above the background noise level a sense of uncertainty on where I will be when the next attack/attempted attack will be and how I will respond.

There is so much more I've thought over and continue to mull over but will hold off for now.  I'm not here to write a thesis but reflect on how much my life changed on that day 10 years ago.  However, I'll leave you with this thought.  One of my friends recently posted this on Facebook and I totally agree with her:

"Violence begets violence.  Unforgiveness begets unforgiveness.  But as long as I live I will never ever forget."


Farewell, STS

At 11:30 am on July 8th of 2011, I cried.  On my computer screen was the live feed of the last liftoff of the Shuttle Transportation System and the last flight of OV-104 or as most people know her, Atlantis.  Thirty years have passed since Columbia rode into the morning sky, a morning that my Dad woke me up on his way out to work so I could see the launch on our old RCA TV.  I still remember that morning to this day, the sense of awe and amazement of this amazing machine and moment that was taking place.

I think that it was that moment that I decided that I was going to be an astronaut and to the credit of my family, they did everything they could to encourage that decision.  With a set of grandparents living near Houston, several trips were made to the Johnson Space center in my younger years and I can't remember how many Christmas presents were space-related.  In 1986 I remember hearing something about an incident with Challenger in school because of the first teacher going to space, kids talking about it at church choir practice that night, and then seeing it plastered over the TV when I finally got home.  Reagan's eloquent speech with the "slipped the surly bonds of earth" quote, and then tears shed for a different reason; the realization that being an astronaut wasn't as safe as it seemed to be on the news.  However, the encouragement that the President gave about continuing the exploration of space was reassuring and I still wanted to reach that dream of being in space.  There is also a story that one night when I was still a wee young-un, while out with my grandparents and parents on the family ranch, we saw a shooting star overhead and I asked my grandmother if she saw it.  At some point in our conversation, I told her that one day, I would be up there looking down on the ranch and waving to her from "space".

The desire to be an astronaut was so strong that yes, I participated in this program when I was going into 7th grade:

Now, I didn't participate in the one in Huntsville, AL.  I went to the one in Florida and had the time of my life; we were able to see a shuttle stack on the launch pad, walk through the Orbiter Processing Facility, and fulfill a small part of my dream.  Another highlight was the full-day simulated mission that we flew in the Space Camp simulator; I remember I was a mission specialist with callsign "Spacegeek" (yes, that is how much I knew about NASA programs, space in general, and so much about the systems), we at astronaut food, and had a successful go at it.  Then there was the end-of-camp trivia contest which we won, and at "graduation" I received my astronaut "wings" and an award for being one of the most active participants in the camp.  Yes, I guess you could claim that I was just as annoying as Max from the Space Camp movie (you know, the role that Joaquin Phoenix played).

My interests started to change and I became more and more convinced that I was supposed to study meteorology as I grew up but I never totally gave up on the idea of being an astronaut.  Going to A&M afforded some chances to see things at JSC that few ever will; connections with the soon defunct Spaceflight Meteorology Group allowed the student AMS chapter access to Mission Control Center White FCR while it was stood down between missions, to walk amongst the consoles in the room and sit in the CAPCOM chair, and the opportunity to see the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in use.  My desire to be a part of NASA continued through my undergraduate and post-graduate work; I participated in the TRMM mission during TEFLUN-A in 1998,  KWAJEX in 1999 (where I was able to fly on the NASA DC-8 research aircraft), and then KAMP in 2001 (where as a sidenote, I was in Key West on Sept. 11, 2001...talk about an interesting time!!!).  Also in 1999, I was able to watch Columbia re-enter and fly over Fort Worth, leaving a red glowing plasma trail (this was the view from Houston to give you an idea) as I watched at a park about 3 miles from my parent's house.  In the time it took for me to drive home, Columbia had already touched down in Florida and was rolling to a stop when I walked in the door.  Little did I know the significance of this event about three years later.

Then came the morning of 1 February 2003 when I awoke to the news of Columbia breaking up during re-entry.  I knew that the re-entry track would be passing almost overhead of the Hub City but I had a cold and turned off my alarm after a coughing fit, deciding sleep would be better than getting up at 8 am to see the re-entry plasma trail .  My room mate at the time was sitting on the couch when I woke up and he was glued to Fox News showing images from WFAA-TV in Dallas of several streaks of light rapidly moving over the city.  Immediately my heart dropped and I felt even more sick; I knew exactly what had happened from my experience in the simulation so many years before at Space Camp.  At the time I thought that somehow the shuttle had suffered a catastrophic system failure and lost all steering control taking the orbiter outside of it's normal trajectory; instead it was something that took place almost two weeks earlier during the ascent stage when foam impacted the leading edge of the wing.  Again, tears were shed.

So now I watch this one last shuttle mission day-by-day, reliving my childhood dream of being up in space looking down on the earth.  As the title of an IMAX movie from years ago stated, for so many years of my life, "The Dream is Alive".  Perhaps someday I will be able to fly into space, just not on a NASA-sponsored mission.  And this is where the deepest sadness comes from.  I believe that the direction this administration is taking NASA is wrong.  It is easy to cut budgets for something that isn't perceived as providing immediate benefits for the public.  But what would you do without Velcro, scratch-resistant lenses, Tempur foam, freeze-dried foods, satellite radio technology, microgravity protein and metallurgical synthesis (more accurate medical imaging in proteins and nearly spherical micro ball bearings), and the list could go on.  All of these items came from needs arising during manned NASA missions.  Yes, the shuttle system is expensive, is inherently dangerous, and is approaching the design age limit for the orbiters.  However, mismanagement within NASA and misguided directions by both former and the sitting president all have left NASA adrift without a direction.  Without a way to inspire younger generations.  Without something to make a kid dream.

We had to catch up to the CCCP in the late 50s into 1961 which lead to Project Mercury.  Kennedy literally shot for the moon to jump us ahead of the Russians which led to Projects Gemini and Apollo.  Then some thawing in the cold war came along and with leftover hardware from Project Apollo, we headed up the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project and separately Project Skylab.  At the same time, dreamers decided to take the next big leap and develop the Shuttle Transportation System.  Now, NASA is practically left adrift; we were dreaming big again by returning to the moon with Constellation Program but after spending lots of money and progressing towards testing the crew module, a new administration came in and cancelled the project, took the step of shooting for an asteroid and Mars, and passed those goals off to the private sector.  I do hope that the private sector is up to the task and can make travel on a sub-orbital, orbital, or interplanetary flight realistic and available to the masses but I doubt this will happen.

Space travel is still inherently dangerous and I doubt that our litigation-happy society will be able to afford the insurance costs or fully comprehend the waivers that will need to be signed to keep one lawsuit from shutting down a company after an "incident" leading to loss of life.  Are some industries and fields best left to governmental control is a question that I am still trying to decide my stance on.  And I do acknowledge that NASA will still be involved in space operations.  However, manned spaceflight in the USA will disappear for quite a while once Atlantis touches down in Florida; handed over to Russia until someone here at home comes up with a way to get our astronauts (and public) into orbit.  I doubt we will be seeing as much hoopla about Soyuz launches in the eastern hemisphere than manned launches that take place in our own backyard.

And so the dream is fading, likely already extinguished for a whole generation of kids that will grow up not knowing, not seeing, not dreaming about riding a space shuttle into orbit.  Once again, the government takes away something that a kid can dream about, learn from, or be inspired to pursue (and probably punishes the State of Texas by removing all the major parts of the shuttle period such as the orbiters themselves, the simulators, and the full mockups to museums everywhere BUT Texas).  So farewell to the Shuttle Transportation System, to something that made this kid-at-heart dream a lifelong dream of riding a shuttle into orbit.  As the line from a Van Halen song says "Dream another dream, this dream is over..."

Fair winds and following seas Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavor...

P.S.  Watch this series of videos for some amazing footage of how a shuttle launches...



Here we are almost a full two weeks after the events of 24 May in Oklahoma.  I have returned to the "normalcy" of my life; shift-work, my home with laundry to fold and dishes to put away, a Jeep that needs a new radiator.  Meanwhile, many residents continue to pick up the pieces of their lives and are far from a normal life they lived on May 23rd.

My thoughts still turn back to the things I saw and wrote about last week after going out on the storm damage survey.  The Weather Forecast Office in Norman has finally conferred with several folks and have given the tornado an EF-5 rating; the highest and most destructive rating for those wanting to give a firm number to a force of nature that covered a much larger range of damage than this.  A debate continues because the rating was bumped up after some new radar measurements of wind speed were released from an experimental mobile radar that scanned the beginnings of my survey portion near the I-40/Calumet exit.

The continued focus on this storm keeps the images at the forefront of my mind.  Colleagues at my place of employment are asking questions, want to know how they can take the lessons I learned and store them away in their mind for the unfortunate time they will be called to do a storm damage survey.  My dreams are still occasionally filled with the images I saw across Oklahoma on the 25th; not nightmares but more of a reliving of the events that week.  Images are occasionally triggered by smells or smells come back to mind from time to time.  These events aren't debilitating or haunting, but more of a reminder of what has happened once can and will happen again.

Now that the rating has been released, I feel that it is O.K. for me to share with you some of the images to give you a poor glimpse of what was encountered.  By no means is this inclusive; I took over 300 pictures and a few panoramics in there as well, but I feel these are images that have come in my dreams and to my mind the most.

First is this image of the remnants of some form of vehicle:

We found other pieces along the damage path all within about 50 feet of each other, but none of them could give us an idea of what kind of vehicle this was.  As far as I know (and I truly hope), no one was in this vehicle.  If this doesn't explain why you should not try to outrun a tornado of any type, I don't know what will.

In similar fashion is this picture:

You are looking at a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu, or what used to be that vehicle.  It was tossed 50 yards from the garage it was parked in onto this tree.  A wrecker had to come in and pull the vehicle down.  No one was in the vehicle; the owners fled into the nearest town because of the reports they saw on television on how strong the tornado was.  They went into a well-built steel and concrete shelter they had at their place of employment.

This next image was a way too common sight; a hardwood tree, denuded and debarked by the tornado.  Images of the tree from the movie "Poltergeist" come to mind.

Again, you can see the remnants of what used to be a two story home on the right side of the image.  Some cleanup had occurred but the owners were still sifting through what little was left of their home.  They were polite but you could hear the resignation in their voices that there was little left of their lives to find. 

Southeast of Okarche was one of the more fearsome places I have been to.

Again, a two story home that very little was left.  The door to the basement was nowhere to be found as I stood on the slab and peered into the dank darkness below.  My curiosity wanted to go down into the basement, my respect for whomever's property this is kept me from doing so.  There was also a sense of fear; a sense that going down the stairs would result in me imagining the sheer terror of hearing your home disappear above you in an instant.  I have no idea if the lone boot was left there by the tornado or placed there by someone, but that was the only intact and "clean" piece of personal property left.  We had to gingerly walk around this property because of the sheer number of nails, sharp objects, and countless pieces of splintered wood that were all eagerly awaiting the chance to slice, dice, cut, or pierce the skin.  And all of them were coated in mud, dirt, grass, and Lord knows what else...

I will save you some other images of vehicles thrown over 800 yards, homes obliterated, and leave you with the one that comes back the most; I guess haunting is truly the proper word:

This was all that was left of a home.  Behind where I took this picture was the location where Ryan and his brother once lived, once laughed, but were tragically taken before their time.  You are looking at a safe room, a specifically built structure designed to withstand the strongest of tornadoes.  We were told by the Search and Rescue incident commander that a family did ride out the tornado in the shelter.  The homeowners were willing to spend the extra $3-6,000 to install this room, nothing bigger than a walk in closet, and it saved their lives.  Outside of this safe room, all hell was literally taking place outside of that steel door (the homeowners found their quads and put them back on the property after the tornado).

Somewhere between 5 to 10 hours after this picture was taken, search and rescue teams found the body of 3-year old Ryan floating in the lake.  That fact is something I continue to dwell on; there is NOTHING I could have done to find him or any way to know that he was in the water.  Yet at the same time, I was there.  Perhaps that is why this continues to be so real for me and why the visions of the damage continue to come back every once in a while in my dreams.

As for what I have learned or contemplated on...that will be for another post down the road once I mentally process all that went on that week I was there...


Sleepless agony...

I know I haven't blogged in a while.  There are currently seven posts in the queue that are in some state of being written that I started and then promptly forgot in everyday life.  Tonight however, I find myself unable to sleep and need to write.  Write to free my mind and try to unload the events of the last 2 days.

I have been in Norman, Oklahoma participating in the Experimental Warning Program; you can read the details in the link but the Cliff's Notes version is that we are testing ways to better display experimental weather information to aid NWS meteorologists in issuing warnings that are used to (hopefully) protect lives and property.  Our project was ongoing the evening of May 24th and several tornadoes developed across Oklahoma.  One was heading towards our location and was getting close enough that evacuations to the storm shelter were ordered for non-essential personnel.  After it became apparent that the storm was going to miss the testing center, I went to the roof and just missed the dissipation of the tornado coming close to us but was able to see debris falling from the sky; mainly leaves but occasional pieces of housing material as well.  A haunting feeling to know that we came that close to having a tornado ram into our facility.

Many of you hear on the news the intensity of a tornado rated in the Enhanced Fujita, or EF, scale.  This scale is based on 41 years of research roughly being able to tie together the wind speeds inside a tornado that can cause a certain type of damage (see the link for a more detailed look).  These surveys are done in most cases by employees of the local NWS Office.  However, on May 24th there were so many tornadoes over such a large area that multiple teams were needed to drive and walk through the areas of damage to determine the intensity of the storms.

Because I have prior experience in surveys and was in Norman, I was asked to survey a portion of a tornado from near Calumet, OK to northeast of Piedmont, OK.  This tornado so far has resulted in 7 fatalities (10 total from the 24th in Oklahoma) and unknown numbers of injuries along it's nearly 58 mile total path length.  I have surveyed damage swaths before, but nothing to this extent.  I cannot release too many details at this point because the discussions are ongoing, but the only time I have ever seen damage this bad was back in the late 90s near Castell, TX.  The Castell tornado was so strong that it sucked asphalt pavement off the road and left little in it's path.

I guess the best way to say this is that I am haunted right now by the scenes I came upon.  Peoples lives were strewn over miles of countryside, nothing much left of their homes but kindling for a fire.  Cars looking as if an angry child threw them with all their strength after beating them up with a meat hammer.  Horses, cattle, and pigs disemboweled across the countryside or someones beloved dog getting ready to be dumped into a hastily dug grave which is nothing more than a pit dug by a backhoe.  Tree trunks with limbs gone and all that left is a trunk missing the bark and the stubs of the tree limbs sticking out as if they were some freakishly amputated arms.  Household goods intermixed with dirt, grass, and who knows what else stuck in fence or barbed wire from somewhere a few miles away.  I have never been in a war zone but I believe this is as close as one can get without being shot at.

Then there are the smells that linger in my nose a full day after the survey.  The mix of Diesel, gear and motor oil, and other fluids from the crumpled masses of 18-wheelers.  Leaking natural gas or propane.  Something of a mix of fresh cut grass, freshly plowed fields after a rain, and the unmistakable smell of rotting flesh.  The occasional whiff of a house that reminds me of someones home I was a guest in many, many years ago.  Strong odors of pine, cedar, and other trees across the region that are split wide open.  And then the dust containing God knows what; not the smell of dust like I have in Lubbock way too often, but something else that is nasty.  Unclean.  Ghastly.

However, the thing that haunts me the most is the fact that I had to walk through a neighborhood where search and cadaver dogs were still seeking the faint scent of a 3-year old boy missing since he was ripped from his mother's arms in their home when the tornado hit.  His 12-month old brother didn't make it through the storm and his pregnant mother is in the hospital with serious injuries (unborn baby is O.K.) while his uninjured father was frantically searching from him after driving in after the tornado hit.  We had to go and look and see what was left of this home, to see how the home was constructed, and to see what was left to try and determine what hellish winds were being produced by that tornado.  Meanwhile, not 75 to 100 yards away was the remnants of a "safe room", a fortified haven for a different family to survive this exact same tornado without getting a scratch on them.

After the 13-hour damage survey marathon on Wednesday, I got back to my hotel exhausted but glad that I had a hotel to come home to.  As I washed the red Oklahoma dust and other particles of whatever was floating in the air that afternoon off my skin and out of my hair,  I kept running over what we saw.  I still had to sit down and go back through all the pictures to better locate where all the damage was and how wide the tornado track will be.  Will we be able to determine how strong the tornado was by my pictures and descriptions alone?  Was there something I missed.  What could I have done differently.  I didn't get far; the internet connections were down and I was too tired to keep my mind awake so I pretty much collapsed last night and fell into a restless sleep.

Tonight however is different.  I returned to my hotel a couple of hours ago after having dinner with good friends and co-workers laughing it up, having a hot meal, good beer, and times of fellowship.  With a bunch of  meteorologists hanging around each other, conversations naturally turned to retelling stories of previous experiences.  I didn't think much of it at the time but the emotions started to "percolate" under the surface of a strong emotional facade.  Tossing and turning in bed however, there is nothing to keep them in check and they  hammer away at the front of consciousness.  Tears have come and gone for the hell that people are having to go through even though they are shining examples of feeling blessed that they are still alive even though that is all they have right now.

The tears flow however because this morning I found out that they found the missing boy in the lake that I walked around not just 12 hours before about 400 yards from where his room was once located.  The local media outlets had Ryan's face plastered on their newscasts and webpages, likely to "connect" with their audiences.  For me however, a particular face is now burned into my memory as one that was taken WAY too early in his life by a force of nature I am tasked to try and predict and warn for.

There were others that didn't survive this tornado or the other ones across Oklahoma this night, or any of the tornadoes that you have seen across your news outlet or internets from across the United States this spring.  However, this feels personal.  More questions arise, questions I will never have answers to until I stand before Jesus and can finally ask Him.  Why this young child in particular?  Why take a tornado over populated areas as opposed to open country.  Why turn the tornado heading straight for us where we had a large safe harbor for many people away and let it dissipate while tearing another across part of the countryside and take the lives away from a family that didn't have a safe place to go.

I cannot show them just yet but I will have some pictures that will not do justice to the sensory experience from the 24th and 25th.  They may just give you enough of a glimpse into the power that I saw out northwest of Oklahoma City...and definitely serve as a reminder for me as to things that may come in the future anywhere my loved ones, family, friends, or myself may be located.  However, there are too many questions that will take a long while to fade away...at least until the next tornado occurs and this meteorologist has to go out and find a different set of answers.  And these, along with the other images will once again crop up...

UPDATE 5/30:  I wanted to share a link from a fellow meteorologist and good friend that experienced a similar gamut of emotions and feelings; take a look at the bottom half of his essay here.  The 3 May 1999 outbreak is a very similar analog to what happened on 24 May 2011.  We (being the meteorological community) will continue to learn what worked well and went wrong with this event, and I must commend the people of Oklahoma for the resiliency of their spirit and mind throughout the area I surveyed.  And yes, pictures are coming as soon as the Norman NWS office completes the effort in rating the tornadoes across Oklahoma.  For those impatient to see the destruction for some reason,  another fellow meteorologist and good friend shares these thoughts on why it is a good thing for those involved in storm ratings and assessments to take our time.


Mysteries of the Rifle, Part III

In quick review of this series, we've taken a look at the process of trying to diagnose why my Ruger Model 77 in  the .243 Winchester caliber has had some issues with shooting both accurate and consistent groups when using both factory and hand-loaded ammunition.  Initial thoughts were that the old scope was improperly mounted or damaged and thus it was replaced, and the shooting performance of the rifle improved some.  Next, the trigger was worked on by reducing the amount of pull required to release the sear and fire the gun while also reducing creep.  This too helped increase accuracy and consistency but not to the levels we know this rifle can shoot.

A bit more of a refresher to try and clarify what I am basing my tests on and why we are examining this case; my Dad has the same make and model of rifle as I do but manufactured 2 years earlier.  Both are chambered for the .243 Winchester, have 1-in-9 inch rifling, and are primarily used for anything from small game to white-tailed deer (and possibly larger if needed).  In order to cover such a large range of animals this rifle is being used for, various bullet weights are used to match the need of the game being pursued.  A "heavier" bullet weight isn't needed for prairie dogs and a "lighter" bullet weight on a deer risks a very painful death (or worse, a non-lethal hit).  Therefore, we have a variety of handloads that my grandfather, father, and I have developed over the last 60 years or so.  Since the M77s that Dad and I have are fairly similar, we thought (perhaps erroneously) that they would shoot reasonably similar.  That was until I had a bad hunting season using this rifle back in 2008 when several deer were missed, or required two shots to be put down which I find unacceptable.  However, my Dad has his usual success with his M77 without any issues on loads or needing two rounds to put a deer down.

Again, before the one or two readers spout off with "Well, it was the shooter (i.e. YOU) that was the problem!".  I cannot dissuade you from your opinion since we cannot sit down at a range and put your opinion to the test, but I will state that I've been hunting since I was 8-years old, know that bullet placement trumps any caliber of rifle/bullet, and am probably more than a "weekend warrior" but do nowhere near enough shooting to consider myself a pro.  I'll also have a picture in a bit that might dissuade you from your opinion...but enough defending my "qualifications" if you want to call it that.

Onto the meat of this post.  A few weeks after the prairie dog shoot, I returned to my parents place to decide if there was a good hunting round I could use in a month when I would first be able to head out for white-tailed deer season.  My grandfather's notes have loads for various types of bullet design and weights; namely 70, 75, 80, 90, 95, 100, and 105-grain bullets from manufacturers Hornady, Speer, Sierra, Nosler, Winchester, and Remington (some of which have been LONG discontinued), mostly IMR or Hodgdon powders, Winchester brass, and either CCI or Winchester primers.  The previously mentioned 75-grain Hornady Hollowpoint in front of 38-grains of Hodgdon Varget powder is our favored varmint/small game load with the 95-grain Nosler Partition in front of 42-grains of Hodgdon H4831 (or H4831SC) the preferred deer load.  The time came to finally put my rifle to the test.

My test consisted of the following rounds (all with WLR primers and Winchester brass unless noted):
70-grain Nosler Ballistic-Tip in front of 45.5-grains H4350, loaded mid/late 90s by my grandfather
75-grain Hornady Hollowpoint in front of 38-grains Varget, loaded in 2000 by my grandfather
75-grain Hornady Hollowpoint in front of 38-grains Varget, loaded in 2009 by my Dad and I
85-grain Barnes Triple-shock, Federal factory ammunition (Federal brass and primers, powder unknown)

Three rounds at a time for each load with time in-between to allow the barrel to cool back to ambient temperatures, with another three rounds through my Dad's rifle and all hand-loads made from the same lot of powder, primers, and bullets and matched case weights.  Here were the results for my rifle (scale reference, from the bullseye, the first thin white circle is 1/4 inch radius, first thick white line 1/2 inch, second white line is 1 inch radius, edge of black target and white paper 1.5 inches):

The two holes in the target at the top that is cut in half (sorry, bad iPhone pic on my part) were the 75gr Hornady HP loads from my grandfather.  On target with about a 1/2 inch grouping, not bad and to be expected if I could pick off prairie dogs at 100-200 yards distance with few misses.  But then came the "New load 75gr Hor"nady hollowpoints loaded by my Dad and I.  Contrary to what the image may show, I was still aiming at the top target (center target on a grid of 3 x 3 targets), and ended up on line vertically but 2-3 inches LOW!  Huh?  Third group shot was the 85-grain Barnes Triple Shock/Federal factory load.  All were fliers and are labeled "B" on the target.  Again, these were anywhere from 1.5 to 4.5 inches LOW again AND about 2-4 inches RIGHT.  WHAT???  At this point, we started to compare my dad's shots, all of which landed in 1 to 1.5 inch groups on target and anywhere from 0 to 1 inch high.  Absolutely NO consistency between the loads and our rifles.  We also decided not to shoot the 95-grain Nosler Partition through my rifle since my Dad was getting a 1/2-inch group on target 1 inch high and the start of hunting season was around the corner.  We did decide however to use the last three rounds of 70-grain Nosler Ballistic-Tip bullets out of a box my grandfather loaded in the late 90s (the exact year escapes me, the box is at home) and were blown away by the results, a 1/2 inch group again but 3-4 inches low and 1/4 to 1/2 inch to the right.  THAT is the kind of grouping we want, but about an inch high on target (and an excellent example of good consistency but poor accuracy)!

And this brings us up to where we are at now.  My M77 is in the safe, unusable again this hunting season out of fear of missing or inhumanely bringing a deer down.  Instead, I am using my grandfathers pre-64 Winchester M70 .243 Winchester with a 100-grain Sierra bullet and have successfully dropped a doe in her tracks at 70-yards over my Thanksgiving leave from work.  We weren't able to do any further load testing since it is hunting season and I was putting a scope on a 7x57 Mauser rifle which will be a new series of posts when I bring it to the point of load development.  In the spare time we did have, my Dad and I discussed all the various elements that we had taken into account so far and came up with two more items to check:
1)  The reloading process
2)  Barrel harmonics and optimal charge weight.

So, we will be exploring these two things next with additional posts until I figure out what the best loads/bullets are for my Ruger rifle.


Mysteries of the Rifle, Part Deux

In the last post, we covered up to replacing the scope on my Ruger Model 77 as my Dad and I continue to seek out some issues I have been having with consistency and accuracy of various hand loads as differentiated between his Model 77 and mine (again, both in the .243 Win caliber).  It took me a while but I finally found that picture I took over the summer once we had the scope on and were testing the rifle out:

Dad put in a concrete shooting bench at the same spot my grandfather had his old wooden bench.  You can see the 25-yard target for a rough bore-sight shot (and for practicing with my .40S&W Springfield XDM), and then the 100 yard target downrange.  The chronograph was used to ensure consistency of the loads from shot to shot (the 3060 fps was a HOT or fast load and different from all the others I shot that day; it was the last round from some loads my grandfather put together...in 1993!).  Some might notice that we don't have a shooting "sled"; one of those heavy-duty holders that you place your rifle into and lock it into place to remove the "human variable".  We feel that this defeats the purpose of handloading ammunition and shooting your own rifle.  You WANT to know how the trigger pull feels, what kind of recoil the load has, and to gain practice with working the action and reloading the magazine if/when needed.  Yes, your shoulder will hurt after a full day of shooting, but at least you will have a better understanding of how your firearm works.  But I digress...

We continued to experience a lack of consistency with the new scope but the accuracy had increased somewhat. After about 40 rounds or so through my rifle (not in series, always in groups of 3 with time in between for the barrel to cool) through the morning plus another few rounds through my Dad's M77, the issues with bad consistency and accuracy continued in my rifle while I could shoot groups under one minute-of-angle (MOA) with my Dad's rifle and same ammunition I shot through my rifle.  We both felt that the trigger pull may have something to do with the lack of consistency.  The factory trigger pull for Ruger M77 rifles of our eras was set somewhere between 6-7 pounds and there was a bit of creep in my trigger.  Think about it this way, you know you have to pull hard on the trigger to fire the gun but at the same time, you know that the "kaboom" is coming.  What would your natural tendency be?  Mine is to start to cringe as that trigger starts to slide thus my attention is taken off the target to preparing for the recoil of the rifle.  A lighter trigger pull PLUS some work to reduce the creep and increase the crispness of the sear release will reduce the chances of the human element coming into play and throwing the rifle off target, even by only a few millimeters.

SO, this past summer we sent my M77 off to a gunsmith that has worked on various rifles for my family over the past 30 years or so.  After a one month layover at the gunsmith, the rifle returned with a MUCH improved trigger.  We had asked for the trigger pull to be reduced to 1.5 pounds and it came in at that point with a very crisp release with no creep.

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?  I can already hear the gun-savvy readers response to that light of a trigger pull with their eyes probably as big as a Buick hubcap.  "You can't set the trigger pull to be so light, it will go off when you bump it or drop it!  That's dangerous!!!!!".  Baloney.  First off, basic firearm safety states that the rifle should remain unloaded until you are ready to use it.  Therefore, the rifle remains unloaded when I'm driving a vehicle until it is parked and I am prepared to fire it which is usually when I'm in the place I am hunting or if I am preparing to walk to that place.  In the event I am a passenger in the vehicle (as is often the case when I am out and about with my Dad on the ranch), I will load it as we never know when we will happen upon a skunk, feral hog, coyote, or some other pest.  However, the safety will then be on until the rifle is pointed at the target and I am ready to fire AND it will be pointed out the window if there is some issue where the safety fails and the rifle attempts to discharge.  Likewise, the safety is always on while I'm sitting in my spot for the day in case it does get bumped when I nod off or shift positions.  Anyway, most rifles come with a "heavy" pull from the manufacturer because of liability concerns if something were to happen...and I bet that the gunsmithing community doesn't mind one bit because it provides a steady stream of customers!!!

Off the soapbox and back to where we were.  After the return of the rifle, we sat down at the bench once again to re-sight the rifle and again had mixed results.  My varmint hunting load of 75-grain Hornady Hollow-point bullets were shooting 1-groups, on-target, and consistently!  I felt really good about this and we left the rifle as it was at the end of the summer because we had run out of time for shooting as the wind had increased considerably and we didn't have enough other loads prepared for a thorough testing.  Another lesson learned: considerable time it takes to handload the ammunition, prepare for a shoot, conduct the shoot and comparisons, all while at the mercy of the weather (in our case at least, I'm not going to pay for an indoor range when I have one for free that is available whenever I want it!!!).  I thoroughly cleaned the rifle with that fabulous Hoppes No. 9, swabbed down with sheath oil to remove fingerprints and preserve the metal and finish, and the rifle was placed into the safe until mid-October.

By this time, our annual fall-roundup was taking place at a family ranch, the one with the prairie dog problem. After taking care of our primary task with the cattle, my Dad and I headed over to the prairie dog town the last morning we were there to do our best at reducing the population a bit.  After missing a coyote at well over 400 yards for my first shot of the day (it was a long shot, pun intended), Dad and I proceeded to use my Ruger M77 to dispatch quite a few prairie dogs.  The numbers aren't important (don't want to offend too many PETA types out there...) but we ended up shooting another 40 rounds of the 75 grain Hornady HP loads and well over half of them landed on target at distances from 100-250 yards.  I thought my problems with the rifle had been solved if I could land a round at that distance and on target as many times as I did...

However, that was not the case and will be discussed over the next couple of installments and this will bring us up to "real-time" posts as we continue to follow the mystery of my Ruger M77 .243 Winchester rifle.


Mysteries of the Rifle, Part I

The particulars of the mysteries we are going to explore revolve around a Ruger Model 77, Mark I in the .243 Winchester caliber.  My Dad has this model manufactured 2 years prior to my M77.  However, my rifle was passed down from my maternal grandfather, to an uncle, and then to me.  We don't know how many time my M77 was shot, what ammo has run through it, or what environment it was kept in.  The rifle was handed down to me after my uncle lost his battle with cancer and I never really shot it because I already had a .30-06 caliber rifle I used for hunting as well as a plethora of other choices from family members.

Our family has used the .243 pretty much since the caliber became available to the general public.  This, along with the .250-3000 Savage and .257 Roberts were considered excellent varmint and medium-sized game calibers when they came out and these game are what we primarily hunt.  However, the bulk of my grandfather's reloading work centered around the .243 and I knew that we had ample information to develop gun loads.   I also wanted to keep my Ruger at home with me to have available in case opportunities arose where I needed a medium-caliber rifle.  All my other rifles are locked up in a gun safe because of their sentimental and/or monetary value in them.

About three years ago, I brought the rifle with me during white-tailed deer season to see how it performed on bigger game.  Up to that time, I had only used the M77 to try and contain an prairie dog infestation on some family land (the prairie dogs have chewed up 200+ acres of grassland which is now unsuitable for livestock and has had much of the topsoil blow away).  Results were good with the small game and I thought that it would also be the same for larger game.  Not so...

That year when I took out my M77, I had several deer that required two shots to put down which is NOT the humane way to do things.  There were also several missed shots as well.  I couldn't understand what was going on and we took the rifle to our range and tested it.  Unfortunately the loads were shooting with no accuracy or consistency.  Accuracy meaning it was not hitting where I was aiming and consistency meaning bullets land in close proximity to each other.  My dad and I would resight my scope/rifle, all with the same powder load/bullet/primer combinations in the cartridge, and I could only get groups of around 2 inches.  We would then take the same loads and BOTH my dad and I would achieve 1/4 to 3/4 inch groups at 100 yards with his M77 in the exact same caliber.

Initially we though the problem was with the scope.  It was an old Burris variable power model and I personally am not a big fan of variable power scopes.  The sight pictures was not circular; it was more of an oval and had thick cross-hairs that I didn't like as well.  We also weren't sure how well the scope was mounted to the rifle so I decided to swap out the scope mount rings and scope to a Leupold FX-2 with Leupold rings.  Sure enough, pulling the old scope off indicated that whatever gunsmith installed the scope had tightened the rings beyond normal torque specifications.  The finish of the scope had been crushed off exposing bare aluminum and there were slight indentations on the barrel of the scope as well.  Several of the scope mount screws were also slightly stripped, indicative of over-tightening.

After reading as much as I could on how to mount scopes and the arrival of the tools, rings, and scope, my Dad and I mounted it on the M77.  We boresighted the rifle/scope and started to shoot once again with the same loads used in the initial testing.  Accuracy increased quite a bit but the consistency was still not as good as we wanted.  There was something else going on that we had to figure out and this will be discussed in the next installment.


Mysteries of the Rifle, Prologue

My family has a long history of being around firearms.  More specifically, rifles.  This comes from my paternal  ancestors settling in the Hill Country during the German Emigration in the mid-1840s and the need to place food on the table.  Although not quite as abundant back then as they are now, white-tailed deer were native to the land along with turkeys, small game, and other waterfowl.  Thus, in order to provide for the family, something had to be shot.  After all, cattle were worth way more for sale than for slaughter on their own table...

Well, technology evolved and it wasn't until after World War II that the surplus of powder, arms, and ammunition components made their way into the hands of the American public.  My grandfather took to this new realm of handloading for the various arms that the family had and new ones that were coming onto the market.  We have found records and several used targets dating back to mid 1950s with various notes about loads, rifles, and conditions.  Some of these are so worn and faded that the knowledge that was on them is lost.

I remember countless times spent with my grandfather helping him go through the handloading process, take the ammo out, and shoot as I was growing up.  My experience started off small of course; .22 LR (always factory ammo) and then gradually working my way up into the larger calibers with loads he had worked on for years.  Memories were made to the smell of Hoppe's No. 9 cleaning solvent, smokeless powder, and the sound of grains of powder being gingerly placed into the powder scale.  All this while looking around his trophy room lined with elk, caribou, a moose, bear skin, antelope, countless white-tailed deer antlers, and other game he had brought home from North American hunts.  Most of all I remember the stern and firm, but loving, way he instructed me on the proper way to handle and shoot a rifle while extolling the virtues of finding the "perfect" load for a given gun.  Time and care needed to be taken to figure out how to get the right combination for ammo, gun, and shooter.  That and a few bruises on the shoulder from loads that were a bit to powerful for a young'un...

Unfortunately my grandfather passed away a couple of years ago and MUCH of the knowledge he had was lost as to loads and rifles.  Some of this knowledge is written down in the form of odd notes in the resizer die boxes, scribbled on odd bits of paper, and always in pencil.  A few we know to stay away from because of the "HOT" or "TOO HOT" comments and appropriately marked out lines in the reloading manuals.  My dad was able to ask him about a few specific loads for his guns, but there are a few rifles that we have no idea what to do.  Some of the powders listed are no longer made, or are different formulations in some way, shape, and form.  This is where I am at now...my rifle, odd shooting characteristics, and trying to figure out what to do in order to shoot the most consistent and accurate loads possible.

So, I'm starting you on a new series or adventure as I take you on the journey to figure out how to have a rifle that is used for hunting of large game while also being able to handle smaller varmints as well.  Next up, where I have been so far on this track...


I Love West Texas...

Another reason why I love living out here; you can't beat the sunsets...