A Different Kind of “Fangirling”: Staff Sergeant Spencer Stone

Throughout my years with GeekMom, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing people. I have written about meeting book, comic, music, and film/TV celebrities and I get my share of fangirl “squeeing”—hopefully mostly internally—while I’m shaking his/her hand and talking.

A couple weeks ago, through a program at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I had the opportunity to listen to Staff Sergeant Spencer Stone (say that four times fast!) give an account of the events that led to his incapacitating a terrorist on a high speed train in France last August. The two-day event was filled with inspirational speakers, and I heard several wonderful talks from non-profit owners, industry leaders, and higher-ranking military leaders. However, I was the most excited about hearing Sergeant Stone’s account. Inside, I was certainly Kermit-flailing! Continue reading A Different Kind of “Fangirling”: Staff Sergeant Spencer Stone

Product Review: Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story

Image: Shelter Island Entertainment.
© Shelter Island Entertainment

I had the chance to preview Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story, directed and narrated by former Hollywood stuntman Gardner Doolittle, who also happens to be General Doolittle’s 3rd cousin.

It’s been 71 years after the seemingly-impossible Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, and on November 9, 2013 the four remaining Doolittle Raiders celebrated their last reunion, partaking from the 1896 bottle of cognac they’ve been holding since 1959*. Starting today you can own your very own history of the great General James “Jimmy” Doolittle with this DVD from Shelter Island.

*There was a snafu with the original bottle of cognac; you can read about here.

This DVD will make a fun gift for your favorite aviator, military member, or air power history buff in your life.

However, you won’t be wanting this for the high production quality. Allow me to explain.

General Doolittle Like Never Before!

I want to make it clear that the history is told with so much enthusiasm, it’s a pleasure to hear the stories. Gardner Doolittle starts at the beginning with Jimmy Doolittle’s younger years in Nome, Alaska, his college years at University of California, and his summer work at the Comstock mines, in Virginia City, California. The story then progresses on through his years as a flight instructor during World War I (at a time when there were only 55 aircraft in existence in the United States!), patrolling the Mexican border in the interwar years, and his experimental flight work at Rockwell and McCook Fields.

The story continues on through Doolittle’s time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned an Sc.D. in Aeronautics. Doolittle earned both his M.S. and Sc.D. in two years time! Wow! Doolittle is considered the father of instrument flight and performed the world’s first instrument flight in 1929. He spent 1930-1940 as a civilian, working in various capacities supporting the growth of aviation.

Not long after returning to the active duty military, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Doolittle was called upon to plan and lead the retaliatory attacks on the Japanese mainland. This resulted in the revered “Doolittle Raid” bombings of cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe in April 1942 that was deemed a success despite having lost each of the B-25s that launched from the USS Hornet. If you’ve seen the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo or Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), you might be familiar with this mission. For his leadership in combat, Doolittle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

It was really neat to see the film footage of the Medal of Honor ceremony, showing President Franklin D. Roosevelt pinning the medal on Doolittle.

After this part of the movie, I was pleased to see much more motion picture footage from World War II, including several minutes worth of footage about General Doolittle’s time as the Eighth Air Force commander during the D-Day invasion. There were great stories of General Doolittle’s frustration with the weather over western Europe, but I was disappointed that there was no mention of the incredible D-Day weather forecast, and the great faith leaders such as Doolittle put in the Airmen who predicted the very small window of clear weather for air support during the Normandy invasion.

The part of the film that touched me the most was towards the end, when they discussed the 80 silver goblets that were presented to the Doolittle Raid survivors in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Arizona. Each Raider’s name is engraved on one of the goblets. Along with a bottle of 1896 Hennessy cognac, the goblets had been brought to every Doolittle Raiders reunion. As each Raider died, the goblet is inverted. While the 1896 cognac was to remain unopened until there were two survivors. Unfortunately, the film just missed the final Raiders reunion over this past Veterans Day weekend, where three of the four remaining Raiders got together in Dayton, Ohio to open the 1896 cognac and have their final toast. If you get a chance to watch the video of the toast, I recommend it. It’s quite moving!

In terms of the storytelling, it’s fantastic!

Sound and Video Quality Could Be Better

Unfortunately, I was not at all impressed with the sound quality throughout the 84 minutes of run time. Gardner Doolittle’s voice during narration sounded anemic. I really wanted to get more out of his fantastic accounts of General Doolittle’s dozens of crashes and mishaps during his earlier years of flying.

For at least the first half of the film, before there was motion picture footage available in Doolittle’s life, viewers will experience a Ken Burns-style of viewing still photos. They will pan around and zoom in and out. Don’t expect the same quality as you might see in The Civil War or Baseball. Some of the images warp while they zoom in — rendering a young Jimmy Doolittle as a bit too short and fat at times, while some of the panning of images is jumpy and pixellated.

There is some anachronistic “stock footage” shoehorned into the film. One example is when there was mention of the War Department issuing an order forbidding “outside loops.” A picture was shown of what was supposed to be a written Air Force order, but instead it was of a modern-day Air Force Instruction supplement from Tinker Air Force Base. All you have to do is pause the video and read the “order” to realize it had nothing to do with banning “outside loops.” A second example was when discussing General Doolittle’s wife, Jo. Gardner is praising what a great Air Force wife she was, and at one point there was mention of all the moving their family had to do. A stock photograph of a stack of modern moving boxes was shown.

In addition, starting at about 45 minutes into the film, the transitions between chapters are one- to two-second long black screen pauses. This seemed rather poor quality as well.

There is a 10-minute interview with the director as a bonus feature. It offers some insight to Gardner Doolittle’s inspiration to do this documentary. There are also numerous stories about Gardner and Jimmy working together on the outline for the documentary. The stories add an additional personal touch that you won’t find on Wikipedia or Air Force magazine. Frankly, I think some of these stories should have been in the documentary itself. For instance, when Gardner was interviewing General Doolittle, the General made several references to “Georgie.” After several instances of this, Gardner asked, “Who’s Georgie?”

“Georgie Patton, of course!”

Of course!

To conclude, I thoroughly enjoyed the great stories of this Air Force hero, especially because there was so much more to General Doolittle than just his leading a bombing of Japan. However, I wish more care was taken during production. This had so much more potential.

Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story is available starting today at entertainment retailers such as Amazon for an MSRP of $14.98.

GeekMom received a copy of this DVD for review purposes.

Rollors: Veteran-Invented, Outdoor Fun for Everyone!

Rollors combines popular tailgate- and picnic-games into a portable, lightweight safe activity. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Rollors combines popular tailgate- and picnic-games into a portable, lightweight, and safe activity for ages 4 and up. It took a lot of effort for my sons to not throw the discs, such as what you see in this picture. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

What do you get when you combine horseshoes, cornhole and bocce ball? You get a fun portable activity that’s awesome for all ages: Rollors!

I was contacted by Matt Butler with an offer to share this game with fellow geeky families as a fun summer activity. I had a great interview with Matt Butler and I not only learned about the product, but also learned that he’s a fellow Air Force officer. In fact, he’s still on active duty. I gained some insight to how he was able to juggle his very-busy Air Force mission with putting his invention through the patent and manufacture process.

First I’ll talk about the game itself, then share my interview with Major Butler.

What Comes in the Package

Rollors comes with a nylon carrying case. Great to toss in the back of the minivan for a trip to the beach or tailgate. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Rollors comes with a nylon carrying case. Great to toss in the back of the minivan for a trip to the beach or tailgate. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Continue reading Rollors: Veteran-Invented, Outdoor Fun for Everyone!

Reach for the Stars! First U.S. Air Force Female Officer Nominated to Become General

Lieutenant General Janet C. Wolfenbarger’s official USAF photo. Lt Gen Wolfenbarger has been nominated for her fourth star, and if approved, will become the first female four-star general officer in the U.S. Air Force. Photo: U.S. Air Force, www.af.mil

Today I read some great news in the Air Force Times!  A role model of mine, someone whom I admire from afar, is making headlines!

I learned today that President Obama has nominated Lieutenant General Janet C. Wolfenbarger for an appointment to the rank of full General.  If approved by the Senate, she will become the Commander of Air Force Materiel Command, the service’s major command responsible for research, development, testing and evaluation, acquisition support and logistics support for Air Force weapons systems.  This is the part of the U.S. Air Force responsible for developing the requirements, blueprints and contracts for all of its systems, from the aircraft to the drones to the satellites to the rockets that put those satellites in the sky!

I wrote about Lt Gen Wolfenbarger last March when I discussed influential women in the Department of Defense during Women’s History Month.

This is exciting news on so many levels!  First of all, her appointment would make her the U.S. Air Force’s first — that’s right, first — female four-star General officer.  Secondly, Lt Gen Wolfenbarger isn’t a pilot…which is often the case with newsworthy women in the Air Force.  She has an engineering background!  She received her Bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1980, in the academy’s very first graduating class that included women.  She received her Master’s degree from MIT.  She proved her worth as a leader in acquisitions and weapons system development during her involvement in the F-22, B-2 and C-17 weapons systems.

I hope this provides some inspiration for women who are interested in STEM career fields.  I definitely feel inspired!

Veteran’s Day 2011: A Reflection of Why I Deployed

This picture was taken on January 6, 2009. About a minute later, the boys were out of my sight for 100 days. Photo: Dave Vollmer

Happy Veteran’s Day!

As it’s been mentioned many times before, I am a Major in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.  I have been serving as a meteorologist for the Air Force since Spring 1995, where I joined the active duty ranks right out of college.  In January 2005, when my 2nd son was born, I had an opportunity to accept a Reserve job in Norfolk, Virginia and I made the transition out of active service.  This afforded my husband the chance to take an Air Force PhD program assignment in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Something he wouldn’t have been able to do easily if I had remained on active duty.

It was a whole new world for me.  Except for one-weekend-per-month, I was a stay-home-Mom!  Little-to-no adult interaction most of the days, weekly playgroups, preschool drop-off and pick-up lines, etc.

My friend and colleague Paul. This is the Reserve weather officer I "shared" my deployment with. Here we are during our overlap at Al Udeid AB, Qatar, April 2009. Photo used with permission by Patricia Vollmer.

One weekend per month, I’d travel to Norfolk and perform my reserve duty, and every fall (usually around peak hurricane season) I’d perform my two week tour.  In 2007, my job in Norfolk was cut and I transferred to a new position at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, this time with the Air Force weather unit that provides “reach-back” forecast support to the Global War on Terror: both Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

It was tough to fit in with a group of Airmen who were constantly rotating in and out of the Middle East.  They would bring their forward-deployed expertise back to South Carolina and constantly make our forecasting processes better.  I had never taken a Middle East deployment — the cards had never fallen such that I had to go.

I still didn’t have to go.

But my credibility was at stake.  Not to others.  To me.  I had plenty of managerial experience.  I knew who to talk to to get things done.  I would fix countless issues in my job, but in terms of forecasting for the Middle East, I still lacked that hands-on experience.

The commander of the weather unit offered some of us a chance to take a non-Iraq/Afghanistan deployment opportunity, and Air Force Reserve Command took the opportunity a step further and said that if two reservists wanted to “share” a single 179-day deployment, we could do that.  So my friend/colleague Paul and I did exactly that.  We volunteered to serve in the Middle East.

I was given a spot in a required training class on the Florida Panhandle in mid-December 2008, then had orders to go “downrange” in early January 2008.  This was awesome in that I’d at least get the holidays with my boys before I had to leave.  The kids would be back in school by then, too…

I was ready for this — I got my training, I got all the child care arranged for the kids, my husband’s job (at the time) supported a standard work week so he could play single dad.  What I wasn’t ready for was the reaction from many of my friends, neighbors and extended family about this.  We were living in a non-military community at the time, and most of our neighbors and friends weren’t accustomed to someone they knew having to take a deployment.

  • “The kids are so young!  It’s a shame they’re making you go with such young children.”
  • “Couldn’t you get out of it?”
  • “Are you sure you have to do this?”
  • “I can’t believe you have to do this!”
  • “Can’t you call your Congressman?”

Then I say that I volunteered and it was as if I shot a puppy.  I can imagine the thoughts going through those fellow Moms’ heads, “She must hate her family…” or “How could she traumatize her children like that?”

I had not-so-nice thoughts in my head too: “I’m doing this so you don’t have to!”

Most of my friends were more understanding after a short conversation about it.  I’d merely explain that most other Americans who do what I’m trained to do had been already (such as my husband, who deployed to Baghdad in mid-2003), and that it was time for me to do my part in the Global War on Terror.  I’m sort of idealizing/glorifying the explanation here, but you get the gist of it.

My sons wrote me many letters and cards. This is my oldest son's first letter to me. He was in Kindergarten when I deployed in 2009. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

On January 6, 2009, I made the journey “across the pond” and had a very busy, educational, and rewarding experiencing serving “downrange”.  The forecasting was among the most challenging in my entire life (Afghanistan weather in the winter is NOT for the faint of heart).  I met hundreds of outstanding fellow military professionals and got to do full time work for the first time in 4 years.  It felt good.

My only negative about the entire experience was how much I missed my family.  I won’t beat around the bush, it sucked royally.  Because of my strange work schedule, I could Skype with my husband and the boys once a week.  This got a bit frustrating because I’d want the boys to talk to me, but they were more interested in the Skype software itself.  They’d constantly ask me to change webcam backgrounds and they’d goof off and be silly.  But upon thinking about it, I’m sure they took comfort in seeing my image on the screen once a week…and the rest of it was gravy.  They knew I was okay.

I came home at about 2am on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009.  I was waiting with my sons’ Easter baskets that morning…homecomings are rather tricky, so we didn’t tell the boys about it ahead of time, in case my flight was delayed.

I blogged about what deployment items I could while I was over there.  Don’t get the wrong impression, I did a TON of work, which I wasn’t allowed to discuss in detail.  But I could openly discuss the trips I made into Doha, Qatar five or six times, along with some pictures of the base I was living on.  I had some laundry service issues, and I did a step-by-step journey through growing a Chia Homer in my dorm room.  About 2 weeks after I came home, I wrote a big “Thank You!” note on my blog and it offers more perspective on why I chose to voluntarily make this trip.

I don’t regret it, and I thank my husband and children even to this day for giving me the chance to do it.  A trip to Disneyworld for Christmas 2009 with some of my deployment money softened the blow some too!

I also never forget that I had it easy relative to the thousands of servicemembers who have deployed and continue to deploy into the more dangerous locations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And I also never forget those who never made it home.

Happy Veteran’s Day!

Heather E. Schwartz Inspires Young Girls to Serve Their Nation

Heather Schwartz’s books about women in the armed forces inspire elementary school-aged girls. Images: Amazon.com

Earlier this year, GeekMom Kathy recommended I contact one of her colleagues, children’s author Heather E. Schwartz, about reviewing her two books about women in the U.S. armed forces that were published earlier this year.  She thought I’d be an appropriate candidate, not only as a military member myself, but because I have elementary-school aged children of the appropriate age-level for the books — even if they aren’t girls.

Ms. Schwartz graciously sent me her two books and my sons read them this summer with enthusiasm.  They especially enjoyed Women of the U.S. Air Force: Aiming High, since they live in an Air Force family in an Air Force community.  They were less interested in the Marine Corps version, Women of the U.S. Marine Corps: Breaking Barriers. That’s certainly no fault of the author.  My oldest son read it anyway to help with his Accelerated Reader goals for his 3rd grade class.

These are perfect non-fiction books for elementary-aged children who are on the cusp between picture books and chapter books.  Both books are similarly laid out.  Aiming High and Breaking Barriers both have 32 pages in 4 chapters, plus a glossary, timeline, internet sites and an index.

The first chapters feature recent notable military women, who have worked hard and both had opportunities to to be the first women to perform high-visibility roles.  In Aiming High, Ms. Schwartz interviewed Major Nicole Malachowski, the Air Force’s first female pilot for The Thunderbirds, the service’s aerial demonstration team.  In Breaking Barriers, chapter one featured Major Jennifer Greives, the first-ever Marine One VH-3D pilot.  I enjoyed these particular choices of role models for the books because in both cases, these are women who could excel and break gender barriers in a more reasonable point in their careers, rather than as General officers.  Kudos to Ms. Schwartz to giving girls a more of a goal than “I want to be a General in the armed forces.”  I know that sounds rather odd, that we should always tell our girls to be whatever they can be, but I think to be a pilot is a very attainable goal with very clear intermediate objectives.

The second chapters feature histories of women in their respective services.  The histories are brief and are written to a 4th-5th grade level, which means that although much detail is omitted, there’s no doubt that a child will learn a lot here, thanks to the age-appropriate word choices.  Definitions of several military jargon words, such as “deployment”, are defined as breakout-boxes on the same pages.  Ms. Schwartz did a great job pulling historical images; I especially like the “Lady Leatherneck” cartoon about Lucy Brewer she found for Breaking Barriers on page 11.

The third chapter discusses the current process by which a young woman can join the service, attend training, and learn a skill from pilot training to engineering to even serving in the astronaut corps!

Finally, the fourth chapters cover the future of women serving and provides gems of inspiration for how girls can themselves serve in the armed forces.  It provides some statistics about women serving, some insights into women in combat, and some other inspirational role models in the Air Force .  Great inspiration for no matter what she wants to be when she grows up — it’s just as applicable to the armed forces.  At the end of Chapter 4 in both books are a “Fast Facts” section and a timeline.

In summary, if you see a future Zoomie or Jarhead in your daughter or other young lady in your life, these books would make great gifts!

P.S.: It’s a coincidence that the day I wrote this review, the U.S. Air Force press service published this article about an all-female cargo aircraft crew flying in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.  This now happens more often than one might think, and to the girls on board, they barely even notice they’re all-women.  To them they’re all Airmen!

Shuttle Countdown T-6 Days: Forecasting for Shuttle Launches

L to R: Capt. Jeff Smith, Todd McNamara (center) and Dave Craft discuss weather Launch Commit Criteria based upon weather radar information. Photo: Department of Defense, Used with Permission

As GeekMom’s token meteorologist AND military member, in honor of the final shuttle mission planned for next week, I’m thrilled to share with you some insight into the weather forecast preparations for a space shuttle launch.

After all, what delays launches most often?  The weather, right?  I’m not sure if a precise count exists, but according to HowStuffWorks, weather and mechanical delays dominate total delays, and many have guessed it’s about a 50/50 split.

For anyone who has tried to center a road trip to Cape Canaveral around a launch, only to have that launch delayed so much you effectively wasted a trip, you might appreciate the precision involved here.

Kathy Winters is the Shuttle Launch Weather Officer with the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  The 45th is charged with the official go/no go launch weather forecast for all Space Shuttle missions.  Ms. Winters wrote a series for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Armed with Science blog last April, walking readers real-time through a launch forecast process for the (originally scheduled) 29 April Endeavor launch.

Enjoy these blog posts as Ms. Winters walks you through the wide variety of forecast support required for a successful mission:

Longer Range Products

Forecasting for Moving Solid Rocket Booster Segment

Forecasting for Moving the External Tank Barge

First Launch Forecast (issued approximately 3 days prior to scheduled launch)

How Rockets Can Trigger Lightning

Brush Fire at L-2 Days & Forecasting for the Solid Rocket Booster Recovery Team

The Launch Day Forecast! (this post was scheduled to run on the original launch date: 29 April, however the launch didn’t actually occur until 16 May, due to mechanical delays)


The Science of Santa: Doubts Debunked

Santa Claus Debunking Myths

Naysayers of the existence of Santa have been rather vocal in years past. They come armed with all sorts of defenses as to why a single man in a red suit could never accomplish all he claims to do each and every Christmas Eve. Everything from the toys to the sleigh to the reindeer to timing are subject to attack. I say that there are two sides to every story. So I am here to attempt to debunk the many false claims that spew from the mouths of the doubters.

Claim: Santa’s sleigh could never hold all of those gifts.
Explanation: Throughout the evolution of Santa’s sleigh there have been many modifications made to improve its structural integrity. The current model employs state of the art materials that provide a lighter frame with the strength to carry even more toys than in years past. Engineers working in the NPPL (North Pole Propulsion Laboratory) are also contractors with the U.S. Department of Defense. This allows for open sharing of design and material improvements. It is rumored that the concept for the Air Force’s new F-22A Raptor comes from a recent sleigh prototype.

Claim: Santa could never make all those toys in just a year’s time.

Explanation: The Industrial Revolution and the introduction of interchangeable parts into manufacturing allowed for an increase in productivity at the North Pole. As the global population grew over the course of the next several centuries, so too did Santa’s labor force. Recruiting from some of the best universities and corporations across the planet, Santa also contracted with resource management specialists and efficiency analysts to make his organization run more smoothly than ever. Santa’s board of directors, which consists of CEOs and executives from companies like Apple, Mattel, and Science Museum Oklahoma, meets annually to approve new techniques in manufacturing and design.

Claim: Santa does not have enough time to visit all those homes in one night.

Explanation: To begin with Santa has 31 hours of Christmas Eve to work with thanks to time zones and the rotation of the earth as he generally travels East to West from his home in Northern Finland. It is also generally accepted that he does not visit children of devout Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim families except under special circumstances (although this has fact has not been verified. Researchers are still investigating this claim). As the number of homes visited each Christmas began to grow beyond a manageable number, Santa needed help. He turned to the top scientists of the day to solve this problem. In 1472 Leonardo da Vinci developed Santa’s first flying sleigh. Until this point he had always followed a land route across Siberia and into Asia and then doubling back through South Asia into Europe. Santa’s expansion into the New World came with the assistance of English Chemist and Physicist Michael Faraday. Faraday’s work in magnetism provided additions to the sleigh that allowed it to travel much further and much faster than ever before. The final improvements to Santa’s technological arsenal came in the late 1940’s as a team, directed by Albert Einstein, developed a gravity drive that is used to fold space-time and allow Saint Nick to simply step through a gateway into the location of his choosing. This speeds up the gift distribution process and takes a large amount of stress off of the herd of reindeer traditionally tasked with tens of thousands of miles of travel.

Photo Used With Permission from www.singingsantaclaus.com.

Claim: Santa could never fit down a chimney. What about all the homes without chimneys?
Explanation: Santa actually hasn’t used a chimney since December 24th, 1785. On an especially cold Christmas Eve in North Hampton, England, Wilbur and Betty Maupin forgot to extinguish the flames in their fireplace before bed and Santa narrowly missed suffering painful burns to his backside. This experience prompted Santa and his legal team to lobby for the Open Door Act (passed later in the newly formed United States of America as the Santa Freedom Bill). This act, later adopted by the United Nations through a unanimous vote, provides that all lock manufacturers produce locks that can be opened by a series of skeleton, or master, keys.  The exact number of skeleton key models is unknown and Santa’s legal department is pretty tight-lipped on this information. Experts assume that Santa still must carry right around one hundred keys, but as with electronics and DVDs, it is assumed the skeleton keys tend to be the same in given regions. This saves him from making a dangerous descent down chimneys across the globe and allows for a safer gift giving experience.

Many thanks to an historian by the name of Bret Mahoney for his hard work and dedication to the POS cause (Proof of Santa). For a more complete explanation of the Science of Santa, visit ScienceofSanta.com.