Bulk update & APG testing rant

It’s been one of those weeks… seasons. There has been simultaneously so much, and so little, to report. Work is kind of the same old; it seems as though I’ve been spending record numbers of hours there, and yet, getting not a damned thing done. As for personal life, not much to report there either, be it achievements, new relationships or personal advancement. So what HAVE I been up to in the last undocumented couple weeks?

Meat making, and close encounters of the Midwest Grill kind
Pictionary and a crash refresher course in biology (and then some!)

Last Saturday, we made incredibly tasty tamales at JR’s; everyone pretty much fell into food coma thereafter. JR’s gerbil Gaby was also laid to rest in my backyard that morning :-(. Sunday I pretty much slacked around on my ass at home all day, eating leftover tamales and getting not much done.

Tuesday I had to be up at the buttcrack of dawn (4am) to head out to Maryland and do some testing, specifically, to shoot at some experimental armor prototypes (one prototype each of 3 different configurations) and see what happens. This was not as much fun as it sounds. Expecting a very quick wham-bam-thankyou-ma’am test, my bossman books me a flight arriving at 8-something am and leaving at 4-something pm. Given a 1-hr drive each way between the airport (Baltimore) and Aberdeen, and arriving 1-2h ahead of departure to actually catch it, this leaves not much time for testing. Still, after 3 “whams” all of our prototypes should be destroyed, so it shouldn’t take long, right? Anyway, the flight out of Boston is delayed by an hour. So I get my rental car (there must have been something big going on in Baltimore that day; the 4th rental agency I called had a nonzero number of cars left, and the smallest was a beefy minivan*) and floorpedal it to the APG security gate with all the information I have (an email with the name and number of the guy who will be my escort around the secure areas, whom I’ve never met or talked to). They’ve never heard of him. Officially you’re supposed to know the building number you’re going to before they let you through, but security guy #1 takes pity, gives me a visitor pass anyway and directs me (poorly) to another gate where they might know who this person is. Some driving in circles and asking directions and I get to the right gate. However, when SecGuy1 said go to the gate, he did not literally mean go to the gate. As I find out from gruff SecGuy#2 at said gate, visitors are not to even approach an inner gate without an escort. He meant a small white building 100 yards away with a front desk. Eventually they find out which building my contact works in and direct me there, where I surrender my cameraphone, then, after describing all the equipment I have with me, am asked to go back to the van for the Big Bag o’ Camera (item #2 on bossman’s Things To Bring list) and surrender it too. Another 20 minutes and repeated calling around, the front desk there manages to track him down and tell him he has a visitor (who it seems he wasn’t really told when or whether to expect). So I finally meet TJ, who turns out to be a young mechanical engineer and a really cool guy, and he takes me Behind the Fence to another building where the tests will be done.

“Shooting at stuff” is kind of a simplification; there was no shooting in the traditional (by-hand) sense. (Damn, and I thought that’s why they sent me of all people. Maybe that and being a US citizen with no family/etc. obligations who could go on short notice.) All the projectiles were electronically fired (keyswitch, warning siren and safety interlocks), behind a blast door, in a thick concrete chamber, sapping most of the fun out of it. We got to watch the impact from a CCTV monitor in the next room.

Probably for cost reasons, there was exactly one prototype of each configuration, meaning I only had one shot at each test (no pun intended) to get it right and collect the data. Before leaving, I was told to expect results on the order of kilo[unit]s and kilo[unit]s out of them, and brought along fancy equipment to downscale and measure results of that scale (not to mention, prevent damage to the instruments). So I connect everything up, give the first armor plate a few love taps to verify I’ve got a signal, then we’re ready to drop & pop the first test. Needless to say, I’m sweating bullets that the whole setup is correctly instrumented and the recorder is scaled (both event time resolution and amplitude) such that we’ll get meaningful data from the prototype, which will respond in a way not fully known. The round is fired and I see *something* (later found to be just the witness plate–a thin aluminum plate behind the test stand to determine if any significant fragments got past the armor) go flying. Run to the instruments and…NADA. No traces. The recorder didn’t even trigger. We just blew the first unit with NO DATA and not the foggiest idea of why. A very nervous call to my bossman saying we got no data from the first test.

It’s not until 10 minutes later anyone is allowed back into the firing chamber (some safety paranoia about venting all the gunpowder fumes first), but we find the article is still (mostly) intact, so I’m like, “um…how do you guys feel about shooting it again?” This time, (after much time re-checking all connections and independently verifying operation of each piece of equipment) the recording triggers (sensitivity now set to 500[unit] instead of 10k[unit]) and there’s a tiny little spike on the screen. It can’t really be considered a valid result (since the test article was already damaged from the first shot), but at least gave me some insight as to the true scale of the data I was measuring. It turned out to be not 10+k[unit], but about +/-2[unit]. No wonder the first recording didn’t trigger. By now it’s too late to do any more testing–these guys have to knock off at Sixteen Hundred (4pm), and I just barely get back to the front desk in time to reclaim my phone and camera bag before the receptionist goes home.

OK, so much for that flight. Now I get some directions to a stand of hotels a ways off-base (TJ was very helpful, even got computer access and Mapquested them for me) and call up the airline and book a 1-way back for the next night ($400+), and don’t bother calling the rental car place to say I won’t be back today (I’m told they’re used to it). Got a good amount of reading in, and got to sleep in a bit the next morning because everyone had a long meeting and couldn’t get back to business ’til after noon.

The next two tests go much faster and without incident. We end up firing 2 rounds into each prototype, while I scribble all the non-trace data into a notebook to recombine later. By the time all the testing is done and equipment packed up, it’s right around 4:00 again, just enough time to bolt for the airport (with a 20-min detour looking for gas at the I-95 “travel plaza” that has 15 different kinds of fast food, but only carries diesel fuel), drop the car and race for Delta’s ticketing desk, where I stand endlessly as it takes another 15 minutes and a total of three desk personnel plus a supervisor to print my ticket (“…I don’t know, sometimes it just does this, this comes up and it won’t go through…” “…now do s, star, star, special, 7…”)… of course, it’s an SSSS ticket**. To identify fliers who are to be subjected to intense hassling in the TSA screening line, airlines will mark the ticket with S’s at the bottom. SSSS involves a guy with a rubber glove, who invariably seems to enjoy his job far more than he should. Seeing that I was traveling with only 1x wallet, 2x shoes and 1x set of car keys sans metal flashlight, the personalized screening didn’t take too long (they didn’t even pull out all my credit cards looking for razor blades in between, like on the Michigan never-fly-NWA-again return flight). One-way, purchased the night before and showing up to the counter flushed and sweating may have had something to do with it. He swabbed my shoes too, but I guess any gunpowder residue wasn’t enough to trigger any alarm bells. Despite the pat-down, it would have been easy enough to tape a sharpened shard of glass to the front of my leg undetected (they only felt up the sides), then board and use it to carve rude air-travel limericks into my tray table***, or whatever it is that people who smuggle shivs onto planes do with them.

It’s Someone Else’s Project, so all the extra expenses (2 days’ engineer time, 3 plane tickets, hotel, extra day car rental and extra day parking for my car at Logan) don’t come back to bite me personally, but I’m sure nobody is thrilled to have me booking it all against their project only to show up almost empty-handed (negative results).

* note to self: Never buy a modern car unless you can disable all the “smarts” in a sneaky enough way as to not void the warranty. I’m sure the engineers who build in said “smarts” have the best of intentions, but it doesn’t do much good for confidence when a large, dangerous piece of machinery under your control is continually second-guessing you. This actually warrants a rant all its own… my main beef with this one was a dodgy alarm that would go off whenever it felt like (even though the car was legitimately unlocked before opening).

** Stand, Spread ’em & Sweat Substantially?

*** A young stewardess from Southwest
Was impressively ample of breast
If the engines should freeze,
and drop us in the seas,
I call dibs on her as a life vest


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