In Memoriam: Dale Snodgrass, 1949–2021

The Real Top Gun

Retired U.S. Navy captain and F-14 pilot Dale “Snort” Snodgrass made many visits to the National Air and Space Museum over the years, giving lectures and attending events. Some of the people whose lives crossed paths with Snodgrass shared their reminiscences with Air & Space Quarterly.

After giving a lecture at the Museum in 2011, Snodgrass, who had become an expert in flying warbirds at airshows, exclaimed: “Livin’ the dream! I can’t believe I’m still doing it. Thirty-six years flying fighters!” And he didn’t stop there: He went on to help found and become chief pilot for Draken International, one of the largest adversarial training contractors for the U.S. military. Sadly, his dream came to an end on July 24, 2021, when one of the most highly regarded military pilots departed this airspace.

Dale fit the bill as the high-time Grumman F-14 pilot that he was, with more than 4,800 hours in the Tomcat. He earned those accolades during his highly decorated 27-year naval career, including 34 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm—a career this immensely talented aviator accomplished with vision, hard work, and hard play.

The son of a World War II U.S. Marine aviator, Snodgrass was immersed in aviation his entire life.

After retiring from the Navy, Snodgrass flew legendary routines in North American P-51s, F-86s, Vought F4U Corsairs, and other warbirds, including the stirring U.S. Air Force Heritage and Navy Heritage flights. Eventually, Snodgrass found kindred spirits to create an even more stunning opportunity, and the Draken International adversarial civilian air force was born.

We were pleased to host him many times at the Museum. At a National Air and Space Museum Trophy dinner, he noted that a Navy mannequin in the Sea-Air Operations gallery was missing appropriate survival equipment, so he promptly donated his own gear. For many years, his Flight Jacket Night talk was the Museum’s most watched archived lecture. And he enjoyed treating our retired director Jack Dailey and the late deputy director Don Lopez to memorable warbird flights, with “dogfighting” included.

Museum Highlights

The Sun Through Human Eyes

The Sun has fascinated us for millennia. It touches every aspect of our lives in many different ways across time and space—a relationship we see not just in science, but in art. The sun has been an inspiration in our creation of paintings, poems, music, stories, and sculptures, to name a few. Visit the website of the National Air and Space Museum, where curator of space history Samantha Thompson and education specialist Rebecca Ljungren take you on a visual tour of how artists depict the sun in works throughout the Smithsonian Institution’s collections.

Artist Jonasie Faber created Midnight sun (2005), a pendant inspired by his Inuit heritage.

Ellen Harding Baker (1847–1886), a teacher from rural Iowa, crafted this solar system wool quilt, which she used for her lectures.

Become a Space Scientist

Mars Needs You!

Do you enjoy gazing at photos of alien landscapes? If so, you can help teach an artificial-intelligence algorithm to recognize scientific features in images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover. Called AI4Mars, the project is the continuation of one launched last year that relied on imagery from NASA’s Curiosity rover. Members of the public labeled nearly half a million images, using a tool to outline features, like sand and rocks, that rover drivers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory watch out for when planning routes on the Red Planet. The end result was an algorithm, called SPOC (Soil Property and Object Classification), that could identify these features correctly nearly 98 percent of the time. Images from Perseverance will further improve SPOC by expanding the kinds of identifying labels that can be applied to features on the Martian surface. People can now choose more refined options such as float rocks (“islands” of rocks) and nodules (BB-size balls of minerals).

The Perseverance rover captured an image of a rock nicknamed “Rochette” on September 7, 2021.  NASA is inviting citizen scientists to help label features on the Martian surface.

PI in the Sky

Planetary Defense Strategy

This past November, NASA launched a spacecraft that will smash into a distant asteroid. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission will help determine whether the kinetic effect of such an impact could deflect an asteroid that is heading on a collision course with Earth.

But should Earth also embrace the old maxim that the best defense is a good offense? Two physicists at the University of California at Santa Barbara—Philip Lubin and Alexander Cohen—have published papers calling for a more proactive approach toward planetary defense, called PI, which stands for Pulverize It.

Key to the PI strategy is the deployment of an array of penetrator rods, possibly filled with explosives, which “slice and dice” an asteroid or comet nucleus as it crashes into them at extreme speed. Instead of deflecting the fragments, the Earth takes the hit—with the atmosphere acting as a shield by absorbing the energy of the fragments and further vaporizing them into smaller debris that doesn’t strike the ground. This strategy, the physicists claim, would allow for a very rapid response.

Living in Space

Pick a Peck of Floating Peppers

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station had the opportunity to spice up their food this past October, after successfully harvesting mild-heat chili peppers that had been growing in space for three months. The experiment, Plant Habitat-04, is part of NASA’s research into growing crops in space as a way to supplement astronauts’ diets with key nutrients. Growing chili peppers has been a challenging endeavor compared to other plants since they have longer growing times and—unlike radishes and leafy greens—require pollination before fruit develops. 

NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur poses with a crop of chili peppers.


All-Female Flight

Female fighter pilots assigned to the 36th and 25th Fighter Squadrons flew a historic all-female flight at Osan Air Base, South Korea on October 25, 2021.The U.S. Air Force says the benchmark flight is the first time 10 female fliers have planned, led, and flown in a formation together while being assigned to Osan. Eight of the women were A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots and two flew F-16 Fighting Falcons.

Just Another Day at the Office

French astronaut Thomas Pesquet returned to Earth on November 9, 2021, after spending 199 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Prior to coming home, he snapped this remarkable image, noting that living on the ISS “really feels like flying on a spaceship into the cosmos or—wait—that’s what we do.”

While astronauts typically point their cameras down at Earth, Pesquet gazed upward for this image. “When you let your eyes adapt to the night, you start seeing millions of stars, and it’s amazing,” says Pesquet. “There’s also a lot of beauty in the cosmos itself—it’s just harder to see (and to photograph) at first.”


How to Catch a Gremlin

During World War II, pilots blamed “gremlins” for inexplicable mechanical problems. But the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sees potential in recruiting the mischievous imps, in the form of the Gremlins program, which envisions launching groups of drones from large aircraft—such as bombers and transport airplanes—while the aircraft are out of range of adversary defenses. This past October, DARPA successfully completed the program’s latest flight test, when a Lockheed C-130 Hercules recovered an X-61 Gremlin drone in midair. Upon retrieval, Gremlins would be returned to their base, where ground crews would prepare them for their next use within 24 hours.

For the first time, a C-130 Hercules successfully recovered an X-61A Gremlin drone in midair. The test was conducted by DARPA at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

Related Topics Art Naval aviation Records and Firsts Space stations Sun Women People Solar System
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