The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged USA

California: Nike Missile Site

The Nike Missile Site in the Marin Headlands, just North of San Francisco, is the sole preserved site from a giant 1950s era US national anti-aircraft defense system.  This site was one of six defending San Francisco, using nuclear tipped anti-aircraft missiles so they could reliably take down incoming Soviet nuclear bombers.  Gulp.

On the day I visited, a couple of the veterans who had worked on the site were hosting tours and displays.  Their accounts were fascinating: they described how to operate the various radars, lock on to targets and deploy and fire the missiles.  Back in the day, this was cutting edge national defense technology and the operators took it very, very, seriously.

The tour went down to the basement bunker that holds four restored missiles.  Then one of the guides operated a giant elevator that lifted a missile up to the ground level, where it was then deployed into firing position.  Wow!

Nearby the radar installation demonstrated how the three different radars handled long range detection, target tracking and interceptor tracking.

At first, the idea of firing nuclear tipped defensive missiles sounds almost insane.  But then you have to put it in context.  If you detect an incoming Soviet nuclear bomber squadron planning to bomb the Bay Area, then using nuclear warheads to destroy it out over the Pacific may be the least bad option.  But still, gulp.  I am glad we live in more peaceful times.

The museum is quite small, but I found it exceptionally interesting and it was fascinating to hear directly from the veterans about the site operation and their own experiences.

Hawaii: Lava 2018

Fissure 8, from 3000ft
I’m out in Hawaii to see the current lava flows.

I started at 4:00am with a bouncy boat ride with Lava Ocean Tours. I had sacrificed a delicious lemon muffin to Poseidon, so the sea was reasonably smooth and we got a good view of where the lava river is hitting the ocean. There’s a lot of steam, so we were mostly seeing glows rather than actual lava, but we got a reasonable view of the intense glow where the main lava stream seemed to be entering. Sadly, Sane Captain Rick was observing the new 300 meter limit, so we only got fairly distant views, unlike my 2016 trip where Mad Captain Shane was taking us in really really close.

Then I took a couple of helicopter tours, one of them a “doors off” tour.  The helicopters are required to stay up at 3000ft, so we got good, but rather distant views of the current live flow from Fissure 8 and of the grayed-over lava river flowing down to the ocean.

The current eruption is the most intense for many years, so if you want to see some good red lava, then right now is a great opportunity.  It may continue for years, or it may stop next month, so seize the moment!

Idaho: The Black Sun

The Black Sun

I was in Idaho Falls for the 2017 US Total Eclipse.  The local authorities had been unsure what to expect: hotels had sold out far in advance and there were fears of a vast insurge of eclipse watchers up Interstate 15 from Salt Lake City.  So Starbucks and the local police had all hands on duty.

I had paid a premium price for a hotel room within totality, but  I strolled a couple of miles further away from the Interstate to a quiet park in order to have a relaxed view of the great event.  Like others, I was struck by the abrupt change from the almost-normal daylight provided by a tiny sliver of visible sun, to sudden dusk-like totality.  And the sight of the Black Sun in the sky was extremely cool.

As predicted, totality was accompanied by loud noise from the local wildlife, in this case in the shape of much loud “Yay”ing from young primates. 🙂   But contrary to the fears of the local authorities, there were no giant traffic jams, cell phone outages, or mass cannibalism. Alas.

The Eclipse Watching Hordes

Hawaii: Kilauea Lava Lake

For the last few weeks the level of the lava lake at Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has been unusually high, meaning it’s visible from the Jaggar Museum viewpoint, 1.1 miles away.  This is as close as the Park Service will let you get. So I seized the moment and visited. Unlike Nyiragongo, Kilauea was merciful and did not eat my camera.

During the day, the lake surface was mostly a dull gray, with only faint hints of red cracks at the edges. But there were also two lava fountains, frothing up lava and flinging it up to 30 ft in the air. Through a good lens, this was extremely striking and very cool. dsc09202b
By night the lava lake is much more striking, with the cracks in the lake now bright red and the glow from the fountains reflecting off the smoke and crater edge. dsc08900
I also hiked out to near where the flow from the Pu’u O’o vent is entering the ocean. Lots of steam, but also some bright red lava. A tour boat captain came in, cutting in very close to the lava.  Clearly a fine lunatic, so I took that boat ride next day! dsc07886

Titan Missile Museum

IMG_0059You enter the silo control room and take the command chair.   Bob enters the launch codes and takes the deputy commander chair.  The green “Ready to Launch” light comes on.  “One – Two – Three” and you both simultaneously turn your launch keys.  The “Launch Enable” light comes on.  The ICBM launch is now irrevocable and unstoppable.


IMG_0057Yes, it’s only a museum.  The silo has been decommissioned and the ICBM is only a training dummy.  But it’s still an amazingly spooky experience to be in a real Cold War ICBM silo going through the launch initiation sequence and turning the real launch control key.  Exactly as many crews were trained to do, but never executed.

This is the Titan Missile Museum, 30 miles South of Tucson.  It served as an active Titan II ICBM silo from 1963 to 1982 and then became a museum.   They run one hour guided tours every hour, taking you through the crew quarters, and into the control room for the simulated launch.    You also get to see the decommissioned Titan II sitting brooding in its launch shaft.

IMG_0097The silo is an impressive piece of engineering.  The whole complex is heavily blast resistant, with massive blast doors and lots of thick concrete.  There were also unexpected features, like flex joints in a concrete tunnel to allow movement during a blast, and giant springs in the command area to buffer shocks.  In order to execute a launch, the  crew needed to receive the launch codes from remote headquarters, so the silo has multiple layers of backup communications.  Two backup radio antennas rest protected in their own little mini-silos, ready to be pushed above ground if the main antenna is taken out.

Tour groups can be up to 25 people, but there were only 3 in our group.  If you want to be the lucky visitor to operate the launch controls, try to be at the front of your group when you get into the command room.

I found it a very striking experience.  Don’t miss it if you’re in Tucson.


Stalin in Virginia

Stalin in VirginiaThe US National D-Day Memorial is in the small rural town of Bedford, VA. Overall it’s a fine, elegant and well designed monument, commemorating a key WWII event.  But it has recently become noteworthy for a certain small addition…

The Memorial include busts of the principal allied commanders and of all the principal allied leaders. The Stalin bust is on the unfashionable, little visited Eastern edge of the Memorial.  It is the only publicly displayed Stalin bust that I know of in the US. The biographical plaque takes prominent note of the elimination of the Kulaks, the Great Terror, and the relocation of nations.

Unfortunately all the leader busts are quite weak. Stalin is a bland representation of a stern faced foreigner with a moustache. It lacks the personality one sees in the better Stalin busts or photographs. There is no hint of the sly, insightful look in the eye, or that subtly malicious, knowing smile. Oh well: the Churchill is even worse and the Truman is almost unrecognizable.

Other parts of the Memorial are much better. There is a well conceived memorial pool with bronze soldiers wading to the beach from a landing craft. A series of hidden high pressure fountains erupt sporadically among the troops. Noisy and unpredictable, they simulate incoming rifle fire and add dynamism to the scene.

Well worth a visit if you are in central Virginia.