Saturday, October 9, 2010

Beginning Technical Training

My Air Force technical training was at Lowry Air Force Base on the east side of Denver, Colorado. (The area now belongs to the city of Denver, I believe.) I remember the flight from San Antonio approaching Denver's Stapleton International Airport. I saw the Rockies in the distance and I rejoiced. The Rocky mountains have the same relationship to Denver as the Cascade Mountains have to Yakima, Washington, my home town. I seem to need mountains for orientation. The flat landscape of San Antonio had left me - well - disoriented (in the literal sense of not knowing which way East lies.)

On arrival there was the usual amount of paperwork mix up. We were finally assigned to our respective training flights and barracks. These were two man rooms , a big difference from the open barracks of Basic Training. As the particular class in school we were assigned to would not enter for a couple of weeks we reported daily for miscellaneous work details. These could be anything from lawn mowing (this was June of 1973) to moving stock at the commissary warehouse. But we had a lot of free time and the Airman's Club served inexpensive drinks. Fortunately I found the library and spent more time reading than drinking.

The format of the Fundamental Electronics training ("Fundies" or even "Funsies" as we referred to it) was a 12 week (nominal) course. Six hours a day was spent in a "self-paced' instruction mode. This meant you had manuals and test equipment at your own work station. As you completed reading the training manuals and performing the practical electrical setups and measurements you were then tested on that section's material. If you passed you moved on to the next training unit. The students in a class did not progress together so there was some moving between classes with different instructors and classmates.

Between physics and math in high school and the minimal amount of electronics I picked up while working toward my novice amateur radio license in college I handled the early stages of the training easily. The later sections built rather logically on the previous as electronic circuits (oscillators, amplifiers, RF transmission, digital electronics) were introduced. I remember missing one question on all the tests in this Fundamental Electronics.

I completed the "12 week" course in 6 weeks. I was allowed to take some leave and fly home to visit my family. I was impressed that wearing an Air Force uniform allowed an upgrade to a fortunately empty seat in first class.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Basic Training

Basic Training in the Air Force consists of only 45 training days (these are 'week days' so 9 weeks usually.) We arrived just before Memorial Day so our first three days (the Memorial Day weekend) didn't count as 'training days'. The first days were spent learning how to evacuate our barracks in time in case of a fire. As I remember, after endless drills, we were never fast enough. Each drill involved jumping out of a freshly made bed then, after the drill was over, we had to re-make the bed to Air Force standards before we got back in them to do yet another drill.

Were we glad on Tuesday to be issued something other than the civilian clothes we arrived in (they said bring 3 days clothes, but not all did.). The haircut, while very close to the scalp, felt good in the San Antonio heat and humidity.

As I had guessed during my first few hours I was the oldest in my flight. (I also quickly learned that the 'flight' was the smallest organized unit in the Air Force. There was a mnemonic to remember this - "How many new airmen will get sore feet?" (I've cleaned up the last two words) The first initials of the words stand for - Headquarters, Major air command, Numbered air force, Air force, Wing, Group, Squadron, Flight.) Most of the members of my flight were just out of high school. When they learned my age (an ancient 22 years compared to their probably 18-19) and level of schooling I was dubbed "the professor". The TIs (Training Instructors) gave me the task of keeping the flight's paper records (a job referred to as the 'house mouse'). This didn't get me out of anything else. It was just an added duty I inherited, lucky me.

One of the first tasks was to record the level of stock on the flight's supplies (toilet paper, cleaning supplies etc.). There was a minimum level of each item as indicated by black marked outlines on shelves and walls where the items were stocked. A system few could misinterpret. (I was beginning to appreciate the efficiency - little did I know.)  A few items were low so I asked the TI where to get more. He indicated a building about two blocks away and said I could just make it if I hurry.

So I rush over, my list in hand, to the supply office. I was thinking that this part of the assignment should be easy. I reach the supply office and state my flight number and what supplies were needed. (Simple right?) They said, where is your 'Requisition Slip' (I could hear the quotes!). I said, "I don't have one, where do I get one?" They said, "From your TI." So off I run back to the barracks. (The brighter among you know where this is leading, but I hadn't caught on yet.) Back at the barracks I ask the TI for a 'requisition slip'. He says, "Oh, we're out of those. We'll need another pad." I ask (a feeling of dread beginning to grow) "Where do I get another pad?" He replies - wait for it - "At the supply office."

On the way back to the 'supply office' I realize that they could keep this up all day and I couldn't do anything about it. I prepared myself to spend the afternoon running back and forth between the barracks and the supply office. But - miracle of miracles - either they took pity on me, which I doubt, or they had had their fun. I received the supplies as well as a new requisition pad.

Almost immediately the fine system which chose the recruits showed its weakness. We began to loose members of our flight (one member of or flight ended up in the corner mumbling for his mother, at times somewhat incoherently. He was taken away gently.) as well as gain other members. I had to line out the names of those who had been removed as well as add the names of the new recruits on seemingly endless number of roster lists. A properly updated list had to be presented at each and every activity (physical exercise, classes on Air Force history and rules etc.) So I would be up well past midnight (because my own duties of 'guarding' the barracks at night and maintaining latrines were not lessened in the least) updating these lists. Fortunately each week we received a pack of newly updated roster lists (though it was already a day or two out of date) so the job was lessened somewhat. This job continued through my Basic Training days.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

US Air Force - First Day

To start, this was a trade, only the Department of Defense can decide if it was even. I traded 4 years of my life for electronics training, food, clothing, housing etc. Even though I was not immediately in peril (late 1972) of being drafted into some strange field I recognized that I needed to get a handle on this process.

Visiting the various recruiter's offices I quickly narrowed it down to the Navy and the Air Force. The Navy offered an officer's commission for ONLY 6 year's commitment. Not wanting 6 years and not being particularly keen with being on (or possibly under) the ocean I opted for the Air Force even though they couldn't offer me an immediate officer route.

The Air Force offered a variety of fields of training. I wanted one which provided the best electronics training. Even then, the way things were progressing in electronics was becoming very apparent. I took various tests which showed I was suitably prepared to enter into electronics training.

In May of 1973 I made the fateful trip to Spokane,Washington where I would take my oath of enlistment and join the ranks of the military. My younger brother was concerned about air flights. He wondered what would happen if my flight was delayed. I observed that, once I enlisted in the Air Force my fate was totally in their hands and if a flight they assigned me to was late it was their problem.

I swore my allegiance; made the flight and my way to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, Texas. I first became aware of problems when we arrived and the humidity was intense. I thought I was in trouble. But trouble of a different kind soon raised its head.

At the induction center (at 1:00 in the morning, all the arrivals were seated on the floor in a room) the training instructors (TI) asked for a simple action. If you had your Social Security card then, when your name was called, stand, hold the card in front of your face and recite the numbers. If you didn't have the card then, when your name was called, simply stand and say "I do not have my Social Security card."

Okay, I figured, fairly simple task (I had my card, but even if I didn't they had exactly defined only one other way of responding). When my name was called (with 'C' initial I was fairly early in the order) I stood, raised the card in front of my face, and read off the numbers. But there were many, and I mean MANY, who stood saying "I don't have my card man but I know my numbers, they are ..." at which point the TIs would scream, shout and raise holy hell. The rest of us would groan as they obviously had a procedure to deal with those who didn't have their card with them and each idiot who stood with a "but I know my numbers" was just slowing things down. (Now, I didn't think that being a recent college graduate provided any more ability to respond correctly compared to what I perceived as mostly recent high school graduates. But they had said, 'do this' or 'do that' without any other option. It wasn't rocket science! Hence my beginning of a bit of despair.) The heat and humidity dragged on.

When things   s  l  o  w  l  y   came to a finish we were loaded into buses and transported from the receiving station to our barracks. There we were given our initial briefings, filled out various forms then were finally allowed to go to sleep at 3:00 AM. The TIs said that, since we got into bed late we would be allowed to sleep in. But at 5:00 AM (2 hours later for the mathematically challenged) the bells went off and we were ordered to get up and 'were we going to sleep our lives away in bed?' I realized, this is it. They control my life from here on out for four years.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Early Interests

One of the first influences I remember is Disney's "Man In Space" series which had Werner Von Braun as a consultant. As a 5 year old, watching,  probably in my dad's arms, it is a memory I cherish. This was the first of several series on space and science by Disney (possibly the pinnacle of Disney's influence, pure cartoons next.) It's incredible how close they were to the actual steps of space development. They even include a possible space disaster (like Apollo 13). Even re-watching it now I feel the possibilities I felt as a young child. What a rush!.

Later on the series of "All About ..." books from Random House provided much of my young science education. It's ironic but a close friend had all of these books in his own home library but with dyslexia had difficulty reading and enjoying them, I didn't know this (the dyslexia) until I was an adult. As a child/adolescent I just envied him. I rode my bike to the library downtown each week to check them out and read them. But I hated math. My mother had to bully me through long division.

Electronics fascinated me. We had a neighbor, an amateur radio operator, who had a 4 character call sign. (Think of the age of commercial radio stations with 3 letter call signs.) I understood he had learned radio and operated during World War I. One of the first science oriented Christmas gifts was a crystal radio set. How interesting that a coil of wire and a small "cat-whisker" crystal (which I now understand as a point-contact diode) could pick up radio broadcasts. I also had the typical Erector sets and an Electrical building set.

In high school I learned basic math (Algebra and Geometry). I did not have the chance to take Trigonometry and Calculus. I had Chemistry and Physics. One influence is my instructor's insistence (this was 1965) on learning the use of the slide rule. What a quick education on the relationships of numbers! (thank you Father Lane!)

In college, despite a 'Liberal Arts' education (History major, philosophy and psychology minors) I also pursued Amateur Radio as a pastime. After college, with the last remnants of the 'War In Vietnam' and 'The Draft' looming I opted to pursue a more predictable path in the US Air Force. OK, so I'm not GI Joe. My 'draft number' (if you don't know about that check Google) was 11. My friend had the enviable number of 366 (remember leap years). Imagine two fingers symbolizing '11' spread apart in the symbol for 'Peace'.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Just Beginning

I have a web site, www.theplcguy.com, where I try to present some of my observations on the PLC systems I have used, along with various things that interest me from time to time. But I'm going to use this blog as a 'how did I get here'. But first an introduction. (Those familiar with the basics can skip.)

I can't imagine someone coming here without a familiarity with PLCs but for those who don't, let me give a brief explanation. Current machines of any moderate complexity and up have a computerized controller at their heart.

Large machine used to, up to the middle 1960's, have banks of relays, timer units and counter units occupying huge cabinets to control part of their operations. As solid-state electronics were developed the logical sequence of processes were transferred to banks of 'chips' to perform the decision processes. The MODICON controller (mid 1960's) was one of the first of these solid-state controllers.

Later, as microprocessors, essentially 'computers-on-a-chip' were developed ( mid 1970's), the control was transferred to computer programs running using these new devices. The development of small computer systems has encouraged even smaller machine developers to use the ever cheaper computerized control systems to use these units. Current technology produces controllers for little more than the cost of a couple of relays. Entry systems may feature free software to program them.

The whole family of computers which are designed for machine control are labeled PLC or Programmable Logical Controller. (The label was originally 'PC' for Programmable Controller until some upstart company called IBM appropriated that acronym for their product, the Personal Computer.) As an ironic development the IBM PC format has become the development platform usually used to generate the 'programs' mentioned below.

A PLC controls a machine or process by first using 'inputs'. This is information from the machine or operator. These 'inputs' are usually in the form of individual ON/OFF states (indicating the presence or absence of a state) or a number (indicating the level of a state). These can come from sensors on a machine or as data from an operator via pushbuttons or an operator display (sometimes called a Human-Machine-Interface or HMI).

The PLC then, using rules established in a 'program' (which can be written in a number of competing control languages - each claiming to be better than the others) processes the 'inputs' and remembered information.

Using the results of the program 'rules' the PLC controls 'outputs'. These, again, may be discrete ON/OFF outputs or levels to devices which can actually affect operations on the machine.