A Ride in Sheppard’s Puddle Jumper
The Ugly Duckling That Flies Like a Swan
By Jillian Mars
[Notes for the sub eds. Nigel, old pal. Your (virtual) red pen is going to have a field day. There was no way I could write objectively on this one. It was all I could do not to scream with glee the whole time. And dear God, Nigel. Sheppard is GORGEOUS. You’d love him. He is just your type. He’s mine too. Hey, a girl can look, can’t she? Just don’t tell my husband.
Anyway, I’ve got the technical details right, the stuff they let me tell anyway, but the rest of it… Hey, that’s what they pay you for – right? I know you’ll make me look good.]
[Notes to self – cover
- Inertial dampeners – they’ve broken physics!!!!!
- Neural interface/gene activated!!!- fucking hell
- Drive system
- Power system
- Weapons system
- Use/docking ISS
- Sheppard’s promotion
- Sheppard and McKay
- Fucking awesome]
In an Aviation Week exclusive, award winning aviation writer Jillian Mars takes a ride in, arguably, the most exciting aircraft we have ever profiled, Atlantis’ Puddle Jumper. After months of negotiation, Aviation Week is delighted to have been given the first civilian look at these extraordinary spaceworthy aircraft. Flown by USAF Colonel John Sheppard, Military Commander of the Atlantis Expedition, Jillian was taken to heights conventional aircraft cannot achieve. Taking off from a secure location, they orbited the earth three times before returning to land at their take off site. Jillian shares her thoughts and her glee on her “flight of a lifetime.”
High in orbit above the earth we formatted with the International Space Station so the astronauts could take pictures of us! The result became our cover
(with some artistic license from the Art Department. I just don’t understand, because wasn’t it spectacular enough without Saturn’s rings superimposed?). Ladies and Gentlemen, this is not going to be anything like our usual aircraft type reports.
When Aviation Week runs a first-of-type report on a new aircraft, we follow a fairly standard formula. We take the specs given to us by the manufacturer, interview the engineers and the pilots, organize a photo shoot and, if we’re lucky, we get to have a flight in the new machine. We then marry all that information together in a way we hope makes it readable, entertaining and informative, with all the details on the aircraft from the materials from which it is built through to the power output of the engine. We can’t do that this time
and it’s not because the people who fly it and use it don’t actually know the details. Dr McKay was emphatic about that. Anything you believe about how aircraft fly, how they behave, L/D, aspect ratios, hell, even the most basic – stall speed and VNE – throw that right out the window. The Puddle Jumper shouldn’t fly, but it does.
One of the greatest things about the declassification of the Stargate Program is the chance for ordinary people to benefit from technology that had previously only seemed possible in science fiction. People are already used to the life signs detectors developed from those brought back by the Atlantis Expedition, in use by Search and Rescue operations world-wide; likewise the hybrid dry land rice that is transforming the Sahara, naquadah power generation (dark energy) likely to be online soon and the discreet, hands-free phone headsets that are all the rage with the younger generation at the moment. The SGC and the IOA, however, have been slower to release details and give access to more militaristic technologies. And in spite of the fact this craft looks like a cross between a Twinkie and something my five year old built out of Lego, it is very definitely a war ship. And the coolest thing I’ve ever flown in.
I can’t give you a dry, highly specific report on this craft, so instead I am simply going to tell you what happened
I was collected from a helipad in downtown San Francisco by a very standard Marine issue, Bell UH-1Y Venom helicopter. There was one modification however. Someone had duct taped a sheet between the cockpit and the passenger compartment and taped paper over the windows. It might have been low tech, but it worked. I could not see out. Joining me in the passenger compartment were the Atlantis Expedition’s big guns, Civilian Administrator Mr Richard Woolsey and Chief Science Officer Dr Rodney McKay.
Woolsey had paperwork for me to sign, including what I could and couldn’t report on and agreements over checking the final draft of the article before press. I had been expecting this and there were no real surprises. McKay had briefing documents on the Puddle Jumper and I found these much more exciting as that we had not been able to see these previously. Woolsey apologized for the blacked out windows and appeared quite uncomfortable, possibly claustrophobic, with the situation. McKay described the briefing documents as schematics for dummies and pontificated, loudly and long about the apparent stupidity of allowing a civilian to even see that much, and that he would be very surprised if I understood even a third of what was written there. Thankfully this part of the trip was fairly short.
Upon landing I was ushered out onto a large, otherwise empty helipad whose perimeter had been secured, presumably so I couldn’t tell where I was, by high, opaque screens.
However, certain prominent architectural features were noticeable over the top. I can’t decide if I was supposed to work it out or not. It sure looked alien. And then, out of nothing the Puddle Jumper materialised. The damn thing has a cloaking mechanism. I knew this in theory but of course the reality knocked my socks off. It The Puddle Jumper had been there the whole time with its cloaking mechanism engaged. Woolsey and McKay, and a grinning Colonel John Sheppard in the Jumper’s cockpit, were delighted by my reaction. I was introduced to the extremely handsome Colonel Sheppard, who kept repeating his title, even as he spoke with his colleagues whom I assumed must be aware of his designation. Everyone was grinning. It turns out that Sheppard had only that morning received an unexpected promotion to full Colonel. and was on a complete high. McKay did a little dance and hugged him and gave him a great bussing kiss when he realised what Sheppard was implying when he kept saying “Colonel”. [Nigel, I don’t care what the magazines say about McKay and Jennifer Keller, he and Sheppard are an item. They could barely keep their hands off each other.– Okay be sure and delete that part won’t you? I know you’ll check for square brackets so it should be safe…
Where was I? …]
For a vessel that is more than 10,000 years old it looks really good. The craft is 24 feet long, about 14 feet high and is basically cylindrical, with squared off, but tapered ends
to it. The thing is endearingly ugly and very alien. Our civilization could not have created this. Our aesthetic says aircraft should be sleek and aerodynamic. The Puddle Jumper looks like a squashed downpipe. It was built by the Ancients, McKay and Sheppard explained, for use as a utilitarian craft to fetch and carry, a truck that would fit through the round Stargates. The drive pods, on either side of the craft just aft of centre, retract to fit snuggly into the body of the ship to pass through the gate. I’ve seen this on video but it wasn’t scheduled to be one of the day’s demonstrations. Apparently there has been at least one known instance where the pods didn’t retract and the ship was stuck within the gate. It was apparently rescued in the knick of time. Sheppard insisted that he completely trusted McKay to save the day, should it ever happen again.
I was walked around the ship, allowed to touch, although I don’t think there is anything, other than the drive pods, that it would be possible to interfere with. The hull is covered in an extremely durable alloy scientists are working on recreating, but finding the raw materials is apparently proving frustrating.
We entered the craft through a rear hatch, what is essentially the back wall of the ship lowered to the ground as a ramp. It has two compartments, the rear for cargo with bench seats either side for crew, cupboards and nets for equipment, and the front cockpit, with seating for four including the pilot. Seating is two by two, pilot in the familiar left hand seat, co-pilot to the right with the two passenger seats behind them. The panel looks like something dreamed up by a movie creator. There are some nobs and buttons but very few and what there is are the wrong shape, triangles where we’d have used circles; it makes it very alien indeed. The aircraft came to life with lighting and a nearly subliminal hum as we entered, and a holographic (I assume) heads up display appeared when Sheppard seated himself in the pilot’s seat. Most of the front of the vessel is taken up by a large view port, allowing for panoramic vision
I was offered the co-pilot’s seat
, although McKay grumbled about this. I understood he considered it “his” chair. He also warned Sheppard not to “Kirk.” I nearly choked on my own spit when I realized what he meant. It was delightful to discover that these two men, who quite possibly have lives exactly like fictional sci-fi heroes, are geeks who appreciate the wonder of what they do. My first surprise was that there were no seatbelts. The inertial dampening system makes them redundant. There must be stories to tell about that too, by the looks the two men were giving each other. McKay attempted to explain the inertial dampening system to me, but if there was an equal and opposite reaction happening somewhere I couldn’t grasp it. Woolsey, who was not accompanying us on the flight, wished us bon voyage and promised to make himself available to me later to complete the article. That wasn’t phrased as a request. The back hatch closed with a quiet but reassuringly solid clunk, and there was just enough change in pressure for my ears to register it as the environmental controls kicked in.
Sheppard turned to me with a smile
(and yes, I could definitely see the Kirk reference) and asked if I was ready. The next moment, with no sensation of movement whatsoever we were approximately 300 feet in the air and on track for the Golden Gate Bridge. I was right about where the launch site was. [Oh my God! Nigel. Atlantis is SO beautiful. And alien and weird and gorgeous.] Sheppard announced we were cloaked; that the brass would object to having cars rear-ending each other if they spotted us, and then took us for some glorious sweeping turns up and over and under and around the bridge. The disconcerting thing was there was no sensation of motion. In fact, a cynic could wonder if actually we were still parked and what we were seeing was just a projection on the view port. Sheppard himself admitted that, “As cool as the Jumpers are, I do miss the feeling of pulling G. There is still nothing to beat a jet fighter for a real flight experience.” “Or a ferris wheel,” McKay added, which seemed an odd comparison to make but made Sheppard smile.
There were some radio calls and clearances given and then Sheppard had us taking a long elliptical ride into space.
OMG We headed into space. We went into space. We went into space. I really don’t know how to describe how it felt. Breath taking doesn’t begin to describe it. I think I zoned out a bit. As we climbed the sky got blacker and darker, the curvature of the earth got more and more pronounced and then there came a moment when we just so obviously not part of the world anymore. We were above it, separate. It was truly amazing. “Whaddaya think?” Sheppard asked, when I was too gobsmacked to say a word. “Kinda cool. Yeah?” McKay, who’d been standing behind Sheppard’s seat, hit him over the back of his head. “You are such a dork,” he said.
We orbited the earth from pole to pole,
just to be different, while McKay and Sheppard explained the neural gene interface that allows people with the ‘Ancient gene’ to control the ship with their minds. “It was mind blowing at first,” Col Sheppard explained. “It was in my head in a way I can’t explain, but it also felt completely natural. I instinctively knew how to fly her, what to do.”
Apparently Col Sheppard has a very strong expression of the naturally occurring gene which has allowed him access to most Ancient technology. Dr McKay has an artificially induced version of the gene and while he can access some tech and fly the Jumper, I understand that it is not something that he can do without a great deal of concentration and effort
. “Or it could be that you’re just not a natural pilot Rodney,” Sheppard said. McKay hit him on the head. He did that a lot.
The neural interface is not something we are likely to be able to emulate in our own technology for quite some time.
As we formatted with the International Space Station, I learned there are already three Jumpers (of the 17 that came home with Atlantis) modified with docking equipment matching our space technology. This jumper is not one of them.
Sheppard patted its panel. “Don’t worry baby. I’m not letting you get turned into a delivery truck.” McKay snorted. “I’ve spent months marrying the technology,” he told me. “Time I could have spent doing important things. The morons at NASA are incapable of figuring this out for themselves as they’ve only had minor bits of Ancient tech to play with in the past and something as big as a jumper is beyond their tiny brains.”
This time Sheppard unerringly reached over his shoulder and slapped him upside the head.
With their quick turn around and easy exit and entry from Earth’s gravity well, the jumpers are revolutionizing our space program.
The Jumper’s anti-gravity engines are incredibly fast, compared to anything we have yet created. We could, apparently, have crossed the entire galaxy in around 15 hours. I understand NASA and Stargate Command are liaising over prospecting trips throughout the solar system and potentially further afield, something most of us never expected to happen in our lifetimes. The ship has a rechargeable power core, capable of powering all systems for several weeks. The ships recharge while in their berths in Atlantis, using power from the city’s systems. It can take nearly a week to recharge a fully depleted Jumper.
But I don’t know what that power source is or what the battery system is like. These are the technical details I can’t tell you and yes, it’s really frustrating.
As well as the cloaking technology previously mentioned, the Jumpers also have a shield and a weapons system. They all carry a complement of 12 powerful, yet compact, missiles known as drones, even when engaged in peaceful missions.
Again, no significant details of these weapons was provided. Drones are launched and targeted via the neural interface and I was informed just one would be capable of destroying the downtown of just about any city on the planet. McKay suggested Washington, Sheppard said Toronto, then they both shouted with glee and yelled 'Disneyland.' Sheppard laughs like a drunken donkey. The drones are an incredibly powerful and accurate weapon but until the neural interface can be adapted for general use, not just the .05 percent of the population with the relevant gene, they remain a curiosity, rather than a serious and useable ordinance system. At this stage too, drones are also non-renewable, and while there are apparently “plenty for what we need, because we are not,” Sheppard informed me emphatically, “ever going to be using them on Earth,” they will one day be depleted. I got the feeling Sheppard would shoot himself rather than be forced into deploying drones on Earth.
We did another lazy orbit of the Earth, a truly fantastic experience; looking down on a typhoon building over equatorial Pacific, a volcanic plume from an eruption in Iceland, city lights in Europe and the whole big blue marble that is such a cliché, until you see if for yourself and realise how incredibly beautiful our world is.
There are just so many examples that the builders of Atlantis and these little ships were so very much more advanced than us, and then there were the little things that remind us they were human, or as close to human as makes no difference. I asked Sheppard and McKay about the longest flight they’d made in a Jumper. Their longest flight was about twenty hours out to a planet and then twenty hours back, but they said it was quite possible to fly one, without needing to recharge, for close to three weeks. Which is extraordinary. But then I asked about toilet facilities. And yes, the Jumper does have one. It’s in the back cabin and it’s nearly exactly like the fold out throne found on the C-130 Hercules, without the benefit of the shower cubicle privacy screen. Oh, and this one vents to space.
Smells, however, can linger. And the benches in the back are too hard to sleep on comfortably McKay informed me.
Re-entry to the atmosphere was an anti-climax. There was no glowing, no signs of heating, and while we could tell from the way our view was shaking there was buffeting, we couldn’t feel it. While apparently we could have literally pointed straight down and been back on the ground in under fifteen minutes (faster than terminal velocity) Sheppard said he wanted to restrict disruption from sonic booms and again took a long, elliptical orbit back to our launch point near San Francisco.
We were back where we started before lunch. I’d been into space in less than the time it takes to fly across the country on an airliner. It was the most amazing and surreal experience of my life.
I still can’t quite believe it happened.
I need to thank the IOA and SGC and most specifically Col Sheppard and Dr McKay for the ride.
I'll have to retire now, because nothing is ever going to beat this.
Okay, Jilly. If you’re happy with the corrected draft I’ll send it off to Mr Woolsey for his final sign off. I’m sorry we can’t run all of your, at times highly amusing and inappropriate words, but you knew we couldn’t.
I am so jealous, you know that right? I’d have given my left nut to ride on this thing, not to mention meeting Sheppard in person. Have you read the GQ article BTW? I’m not lending you mine, (no it is not sticky you dirty bitch) you’ll have to buy your own.
Good job as always. And no-one will let you profile anything faster than a microlight for at least the next year.