ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. --
In 2004, Alan Hale was rappelling down the sheer face of El Capitan, 1,000 feet down with 2,000 more to go - his life in the hands of his family, who helped rig the system. Dr. Hale looked down, sweat starting to form on his brow, but he was at ease. In fact, he was having the time of his life.
His family and some close friends had hiked a total of 12 miles to rappel down and then scale El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, Calif.
"Between my family and our friends, we were carrying hundreds of pounds of rope and climbing gear on this trip," said the Aerospace Testing Alliance (ATA) analysis engineer. "It was an awesome experience."
Adventure, with a focus on family and teamwork, are the themes running throughout Dr. Hale's personal and professional life. He came to the Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center ( AEDC) in 1984 and more than 20 years later he's still having a great time. He's excited by challenges at work and those encountered while pursuing his hobbies.
"If you're willing to look for adventure, you can find it just about anywhere," he said. "At work, it's the fellowship of other people, the level of interesting research type-work I do. There's no end to opportunities - if you're interested in an area - you can find it here."
Dr. Hale traces his initial interest in engineering and the outdoors back to his childhood.
"I grew up on a farm and I liked to take things apart, fix dad's tractors and equipment and so forth," he said. "I broke a lot of things learning, but ultimately it turned out to be a useful skill."
What followed was an early focus on math and science that led to an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and later, a masters and doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. Along the way, he met another engineering-minded student and outdoors enthusiast who became his wife.
"I'd always enjoyed the outdoors, hiking and hunting," he said. "My brother and I, on two separate occasions, hiked from Amicola Falls, Ga., to Roanoke, Va., about half the Appalachian Trail, when we were 14 and 15."
Dr. Hale said his hobbies involve the entire family.
"It's not a matter of me - I'd have to say we because my wife Julie and our children do these things together."
The strong emphasis on his family is part of a journey that began while Dr. Hale was in his mid-20s. He was literally in the midst of some serious soul searching.
"I did not grow up a Christian and I started asking some very fundamental questions," he recalled. "The questions were very simple, 'why am I here and where do I go when I leave?' And I began to realize that the answers to those questions were simply a heartbeat away. I really wrestled with that and it became clear there was an answer. You can know where you're going and you can make a reasonable effort to get there.
"I'm a Christian and a very strong family man - in fact all of my activities have really been in the direction of family, a focus on family."
Dr. Hale and his wife's involvement with rappelling began when a coworker at AEDC asked for help with belaying.
"I said 'what's that?'"
He soon learned that belaying is the technique used by climbers to control the rope to prevent a fellow climber from falling too far during a descent. A belayer is the person who controls the rate of descent of other climbers by using specialized techniques and equipment.
"From that moment on, it gradually led to a very expensive hobby of rope rescue, climbing and caving over the last 20 years," he said. "Over the next five years, I was heavily involved in taking Boy Scout troops on rappelling activities."
Initially, his wife was peripherally involved with her husband's climbing hobby - only because she was busy raising their young children. Soon, the whole family was involved in learning the ropes and honing climbing and caving skills.
It was before his children's involvement and while teaching climbing skills to the scouts that Dr. Hale came to a decision.
"If I was going to take care of others on rope then I needed to understand something about rescue skills," he said. "Julie and I took that first training course together - on mountain rescue."
Caving is another outdoor activity the family has enjoyed together.
"It started out as horizontal caving," Dr. Hale explained. "But it wasn't long before I realized you could only go so far that way. Eventually, you have to go up or straight down and that's when we put our climbing skills to use in caves."
He also acknowledged the caving expertise and efforts of a friend and coworker, Brian Roebuck.
"Brian and I approach caving from a different perspective," he said. "But I'm well aware of all the great things he and his wife have done regarding cave conservation.
"Caves are a non-renewable resource and they have a beauty that is unparalleled by anything found above ground," he continued. "Some formations are so delicate that a careless body movement will eliminate years of natures handy work preventing other from experiencing this beauty. By using the proper equipment along with a respectful attitude for others, a small team of adventures can go most places underground following the practice of only taking pictures and only leaving foot prints. As a steward of the cave world, I enjoy introducing others to this fantastic crystal wonderland and teaching them how to preserve her beauty.
Whether rappelling over a mountain's edge or down a vertical shaft in a cave, Dr. Hale and his family continually practices their rope handling skills. Safety is a top priority. Dr. Hale and his wife have taken a series of specialized and intensive courses, focusing on both cave and mountain rescue, from basic skills to advanced techniques and problem solving. They have taken some of the courses repeatedly to prepare for any eventuality.
"We started practicing by rappelling off our barn," Dr. Hale said. "Then we'd rappel off some of the cliffs on the Cumberland Plateau. Eventually we worked our way up to rappelling down into places like Fall Creek Falls. We practiced ascending and rappelling for five years in a row."
Since their trip to El Capitan, Dr. Hale and his family had another adventure on a trip to a famous cave in Mexico - complete with fireworks and an official police escort, but that's another story.