In This Update: Alvord Trip Report from Ed Shadle

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Alvord Dry Lake 2016

Our trip to the Alvord Dry Lake was loaded with unexpected twists and turns but valuable data was gathered which will improve our chances to set those very difficult records we have been chasing for so long. And this is the story:

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On the days preceding the trip to the desert and especially the weekends, the team organized and loaded tools, fuel, food and other equipment and supplies into Steve Green’s gooseneck trailer, Steve Small’s box van, Lars’s trailer, Garrett’s trailer, the communication motorhome, Eric Wittler’s trailer and various other vehicles. We loaded the Eagle into the semi trailer for the long haul to the lakebed and picked up the Kenworth tractor on loan to us from Walrath trucking. By September 23rd, some of the guys were on their way and beginning to arrive on the lakebed to set up the camp. Steve Wallace and Steve Rima were already on site and setting up the communications network with help from Ken Broyles and Rich Pengelley. Eric Wittler was setting up his cook tents and things were taking shape.

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Some, including John Drury with Chris Greene riding shotgun had made it to Burns on Saturday and put in for the night, arriving on the lakebed early Sunday. Most of the remaining team members rolled in on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. A great deal of activity could be seen everywhere in the camp as the site was organized, the trailers positioned, tarps laid down and finally the Eagle unloaded. By Sunday afternoon the circus was ready for business.

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 Todd Barbouletos and Ed

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The Microsoft Research Pegasus Mission were at the lakebed bright and early to install their equipment with the help of Steve Wallace.  Matt, Mark and Dana were getting dirty with the rest of us getting the Eagle ready to run.  We had a special visitor on Monday.  Todd Barbouletos spent the day with us.  His uncle flew 104s at Edwards during the same time 56-0763 was based there.  There is a good chance his Uncle flew the Eagle.  We thank Todd for all his support.

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 Mark, Matt and Dana

 On Monday, many team members were busy laying out the 10 mile course, mile markers were set and pickle cones positioned along the track. The USFRA (Utah Salt flat Racers Association) timers, Gary Wilkenson and Richard Thomas set up their timing clocks and lights and everything was ready on the track for a first run.

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Monday afternoon we pulled the Eagle to the mile 0 position and readied for a first warm up run. The start cart was positioned alongside the Eagle and the starter air hose and electrical power cable attached. The parachutes were armed and the safety pins pulled. In the cockpit I went through the usual preflight procedure while Cam fastened me in and tightened the seat belts. Circuit breakers in, communications on and verified, fuel gate, fuel switches on, cockpit panel power on, driver air on, close and latch canopy. I signaled to start up the start cart. When electrical power is indicated on the instrument panel I give the command “air on” to the start cart operator. As the percent of RPM indicator shows 10% I operate the igniter switch and at 15% I move the throttle to idle. Within seconds I can see the RPM’s increasing and as the engine reaches 40% I give the command “air off”. The engine continues to accelerate and at 62% I issue the command to remove electrical power. I can see the generator switch over to shipboard power when the generator indicator light goes on and the engine idles at its designated of 66%. The ground crew is now busy removing the air hose and electrical power cord. Now the conversation switches to my crew chief Les and Cameron who are busy observing all things about the Eagle and getting a status check from each course marshal down the line. I turn on the hydraulic pump, arm the parachute charges, check the oil pressure, temperature and the fuel pressure. All looks good.
The course marshals each check in, “mile one clear”, mile 2 clear, mile 3 clear and so on down the track. The USFRA timers call in that the timing system is up and ready. Steve Wallace in the communications trailer in the pits is on line and has turned on his movable eyeball camera in the cockpit and is watching the action on his big screen. The Pegasus drone is now circling overhead and capturing the events and streaming it to the outside world. Now Les turns to me and announces the course is clear and the course is mine. Cameron fires off the indicator rocket so others can see that I am now underway. Dave Martinson fires a second rocket at the 3 mile so people further down the track can also see that the Eagle is underway. I throttle up an begin to accelerate. Soon it is apparent that my steering system is having trouble and I have to abort the run. Darn it!

We loaded the Eagle onto the tow dolly and return to the pits. By mid day on Tuesday, after bleeding air from the hydraulic steering system we pull back to the mile marker 0 and begin the process all over again. Same result. It seems to work fine in the pits but no steering authority on the track. Back to the pits! I’m now busy on the phone with one of the senior hydraulic engineers at Eaton Industries in Minneapolis, trying to figure out the problem. When I photographed and texted the as-built drawings to him he saw the problem. We had removed two vital adjustable/directional flow valves from the steering valve system and replaced them with ball valves, plus we had installed flow restriction in the main return to tank line from the steering valve to the hydraulic tank. Both of those plus too high of a hydraulic pressure setting at 1200 psi was causing the problem. We needed those flow restrictors now or we were dead in the water. The flow restrictors were sitting on the removal rack in the shop in Spanaway. We needed a plan ASAP.

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Keith contacted Von Armstrong to see if he could go to the shop and get the valves and take them to the Spanaway airport at 7 PM. Jerry Lamb contacted a friend of his, John Richardson, in Arlington who volunteered to fly the parts to us that evening. Steve Wallace texted our coordinates to John Richardson so he could pin point our location on the desert lakebed. However, unknown to us, his cell phone went into a dead zone so he did not get our coordinates. He knew we were at the Alvord Lake so he plugged those coordinates into his GPS and headed our way, not knowing that the Alvord Desert and Alvord Lake are 10 miles apart.

John landed at Spanaway airport and picked up the parts at 7 PM from Von. At the lakebed, John Drury and I, Steve Wallace, Jerry Lamb and others laid out a runway on the lakebed with highway flares and vehicle headlights. We were ready for John’s arrival at 10 PM. It was a moonless night so the stars were really bright and the air was still. We waited and waited. No airplane! By 11:30 PM we knew we had a problem. At one time we did see some aircraft lights about 10 miles South of us but they disappeared. We rationalized that if it was John that he may have decided not to land and may have flown on to Winnemucca to put in for the night and return in the morning. What we didn’t know was he had seen a cattle truck on the road beneath him that was lit up like a Christmas tree and assumed that was our signal to him that he was in the right place.  John let down and set up for his landing at the coordinates for the Alvord Lake. After tearing out 200 feet of barbed wire fencing and associated fence posts he came to a rest with the airplane pretty well tore up. John was OK but the airplane was totaled. He made a Mayday call and a United Arab Emirates  777 flying over picked up the call and transferred the information to the FAA who in turn called it in to the county sheriff. Meanwhile, we were trying to find out where the airplane went to. The people in the 911 center apparently don’t communicate with the sheriff so they had no idea about any airplane crash. The FAA or sheriff also transposed the phone number reported from John so there was more confusion. Eventually we were able to get the coordinates from the sheriff and began our own search. We finally found John and his wrecked airplane by about 3 AM but not before getting Jerry Lamb’s monster truck stuck in the mud bog made up mostly of cow manure. The first comment from John the pilot was “here’s your parts” as he held up a bag.

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Back in the pits at 4 AM and up at 7 to install the parts on the Eagle. With all the changes made and ready to go, we pulled the Eagle to the middle of the lakebed for a test run.

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Rather than mess up the marked course, we chose to begin our run at about the two mile and run down the middle of the lakebed. All systems go! I throttled up and went into minimum afterburner. Once it lit, I went to full AB.

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The acceleration was outstanding and the steering was perfect. The plan was to run until I could see Jerry’s monster truck but I never saw it. I was told that I went past the 6 mile area at full AB and scared the team as they thought I had gone too far, too fast. When I deployed the low speed parachute I realized I was still going too fast to get stopped by the end of the lakebed so I deployed the high speed parachute. It then got tangled with the low speed chute and cancelled each other. I was able to get stopped before the end of the lakebed but it was a bit worrisome toward the very end of the run.

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Thursday began as another beautiful day with calm winds and temperature in the mid 80’s.
We knew there was a weather front coming our way so that usually means the wind will begin blowing so we needed to get Jessi’s runs in on Thursday or there would be no runs at all.

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We were all fueled up and ready to run by late morning. We pulled to the 0 mile and readied the Eagle and Jessi for her speed run. From the evening before, we knew the weather was going to change as a front was moving in from the coast so we determined we needed to get the runs in on Thursday or we wouldn’t get any runs at all. Jessi was off and rolling then came to a stop at the 1/4 mile. Les and I ran up to the Eagle and checked to see what happened. Jessi indicated that the steering was not responding. Les centered the stick and all checked out OK so she throttled up and headed North. She went into afterburner right away and one could tell she had strong acceleration. As she reached the 4 mile marker the Eagle slowly drifted off to the right and struck a pickle cone, cutting it in half. Jessi throttled back and stopped the Eagle at about the 6 mile.

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Cone cut in half.  Eric Wittler photo

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We pulled the Eagle back to the pits and checked for any damage but found none. We then refueled and headed back to the 0 mile for another attempt. By then, the wind was blowing pretty good so we waited for any lull in the wind. Finally about 4 PM we commenced with engine startup and launch. Jessi went into full AB very early and really got after it. She went by the timing stand at the 5 mile in afterburner and surprised Richard and Gary,  but not before Richard got some really good video of her pass. At about the 6 mile Jessi began the slow down process but with so much speed she was rapidly closing in on the end of the lakebed. When she fired the parachutes, neither one deployed so she relied solely on the magnetic brakes, speed brakes and nose wheel brake to get stopped. At the 9.5 mile mark she was stopped, but about 30 feet off the end of the lakebed. A little shaken but safe, she was able to give a blow by blow description of the event so the team is able to diagnose the run and make necessary changes for future speed runs.

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With the blustery conditions, it was time to head back to the pits and begin cleaning up for the load out on Friday. After assessing the condition of the Eagle and conducting an engine startup in the pits, we could see no damage and began removal of the high speed axle and fairings.

On Friday we finished loading all the equipment and tearing down the campsite. The predicted winds arrived as advertised and we had a great time disassembling and loading all the things we brought to the desert. Many of us headed straight to Burns to a motel where we could get a shower and then to a restaurant to have a relaxing meal. Nearly everyone was home safe by Saturday with a few stragglers getting home by Sunday.

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We gathered a great deal of data and video to help us better understand what needs to be done in order to get those very elusive records. The S&S Turbine Services engine ran perfectly. Our communications across the wide expanse of the lakebed was better than ever, and Steve Wallace’s data gathering was working better than ever. The videos captured by the Microsoft Pegasus Mission team was of the highest quality and served us well for aerial observation of the speed runs.

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Jessi’s team from “The List” was able to capture some really good footage which will be utilized in their internet program. All in all, the team worked wonderfully together and did a fantastic job. Can we carry this energy forward to Diamond Valley? I believe so. Next step, Diamond Valley and some entries into the record books.

Ed Shadle