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March 1999

After 35 years, Mike Howard packs up (cleverly, of course)

Michl Howard. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Another UCAR veteran from the pre-Mesa Lab days is calling it a career. Michl Howard, who began designing instruments for the fledgling NCAR in 1964, retired on 5 February. (Incidentally, his first name isn't a typo: it seems Mike's mom didn't care for extraneous vowels. "When my mother named me, she said, 'It's MIKE-ul! M-I-C-H-L.' " But everyone calls him Mike.)

Exactly 323 of the creations that have emerged from Design and Fabrication Services are Mike's. That's nearly a third of the shop's output to date, since DFS recently logged its thousandth project. "I've been doing basically the same thing for 35 years," he laughs. Not that Mike has been merely turning the crank. His innovations have saved the institution many thousands of dollars over the years and have made some otherwise impractical science possible.

Take, for instance, the S-Pol radar. The extra-portable, multiparameter Doppler unit was completed in 1995 and is now measuring tropical rainfall at a field project in Brazil. It's a highly sophisticated instrument, but what makes S-Pol especially handy is its packability. ATD director Dave Carlson calls it "an ingenious solution to a big radar problem."

"I got the idea for 'containerizing' equipment from the old Transformer toys," recalls Mike. Each Transformer changes shape with a few twists and turns of its carefully arranged parts. S-Pol can be broken down to fit into six 'seatainers,' each 8x8x20 feet. When the radar is unpacked, four of those containers, arranged like spokes on a wheel, serve as a base for the radar's transmitter-receiver. This does away with the radome (the standard shell resembling a giant golf ball), and it allows the unit to fit easily into the seatainers.

Mike's solutions have proven to be economical as well as elegant. In the 1980s and early 1990s, NCAR spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to ship two cloud physics radars (CP-3 and CP-4) to remote international field sites. The radars required nonstandard, 40-foot-long containers. In contrast, each of the six S-Pol seatainers can be sent outside the country using standard 20-foot containers for around $7,000 internationally and $2,000-3,000 domestically. Mike has applied the containerizing concept to the Atmosphere-Surface Turbulent Exchange Research Facility (ASTER) and a set of equipment created for the Mauna Loa Photochemistry Experiment (MLOPEX).

Although most of his projects have taken from months to years to design, Mike is comfortable working on tight deadlines. He saved the day at the Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere Program's Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment (TOGA COARE) across the western Pacific in the winter of 1992-93. A NOAA weather radar modified by ATD and DFS was being deployed aboard a Chinese research vessel. Two hours before the ship set sail from Guangzhou, China, technicians found that its navigational system wasn't linked properly to the radar's. "The ship's electronics needed to know which way the radar was pointing relative to which way the ship was pointing," explains Mike. With a deadline breathing down his neck, Mike adapted the top of a felt-tip marker to serve as a coupling mechanism, physically linking the radar's directional encoder to the ship's compass.

Mike's career began in 1956 at Boeing Aviation in Wichita, Kansas, just north of his hometown of Mulvane. (Norm Zrubek, RAF's recently retired aeronautical engineer, was also at Boeing in Wichita, although the two didn't meet until both were at NCAR.) Later, "We were just getting into the space age, and I went to work for Martin Marietta in Denver. Hal Cole [ATD/SSSF manager] and I were in the same group, and we both ended our time there working on the Viking project--Hal at Vandenberg Air Force Base and me at Ball Brothers."

Some of Mike's fondest recollections of his early NCAR career involve Walt Roberts. The NCAR founding director took special interest in the machine shop and the instrument design group. "I remember the days when [Walt] would come in and sit on the corner of your desk, eating an apple. He'd ask you how things were going and tell you about all the meetings he'd gone to and all the fun things we'd have coming up."

Often, the fun things would vie among each other for Mike's attention. "It's been busy enough that I'd be doing nine different projects at the same time. That keeps your mind going." One of his favorites was a "cloud gun" created for Tony Delany in 1970. In order to collect cloud particles, the device launched transparencies coated in oil "just like you'd shoot a pinball" along a four-foot-long track arcing outside the old Queen Air research aircraft. Another memorable project for Mike was creating two balloon launchers for the National Scientific Balloon Facility, which NCAR managed in Palestine, Texas, from the 1960s to the 1980s. One of the launchers involved a six-by-six-foot platform attached to the front of a truck: "That caused the whole thing to steer like a boat, because the front wheels were now the back wheels."

Mike's retirement promises to be as active as his employment. He's moonlighted for years, designing some 45 houses, additions, or garages for friends and colleagues. "If the sun's shining and it's bearable to be outside, I'm outside. I've got to be out digging in the dirt, landscaping or whatever." He enjoys carving kachina dolls, building furniture, and many other crafts. A collector of Indian artifacts, Mike also enjoys lecturing on Native American culture at local schools (he's the adopted brother of Chief Left Hand's grandson Samuel Left Hand and Sam's wife, Anne Sweet Medicine). Frankly, he admits, "I've got too many things to do."

Mike's motto for living is the perfect antidote to Murphy's law: "Always be prepared for something to go wrong and have the right equipment to fix it." •BH

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

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