From flying planes to finding caches — Interview with cache owner Cliptwings

For cache owner ‘Cliptwings’ geocaching isn’t just a hobby, it’s a new opportunity to realize that even if he can’t fly anymore, the wings of passion prevent him from being cooped up. A former Airforce and commercial airline pilot turned creative gadget cache engineer. Travelling the world on planes Cliptwings says there wasn’t a place that didn’t have a cache nearby. 

First introduced to the game by his wife, Princess Pooh Pooh, who thought of him when a geocacher explained the game to her. They went out to find a cache in a park and got hooked. To him, it felt powerful to have GPS technology in his hand because airlines still used ground-based navigation at the time. 

Since then Cliptwings has hidden a number of amazing caches that take some time and creative juice to create. 

Geocaching HQ: What’s your background outside of geocaching?

Cliptwings: I flew C-130 and Gulfstream aircraft for the US Air Force for 26 years, then I flew for American Airlines, in many places and airplanes, for 16 years. Now I’m retired.  There wasn’t a place I visited that didn’t have some kind of cache nearby!

Geocaching HQ: How and when did you hear about geocaching? 

Cliptwings: My wife, Princess Pooh Pooh, was a Flight Attendant with America West Airlines. She flew with a Captain who would run off as soon as the crew arrived at their layover hotel. Being naturally curious, She asked him what he was doing with his spare time. He explained the concept of geocaching to her, and she thought to herself, “Hmm, what a nerd! My husband would LOVE this nerdy stuff!”

Geocaching HQ: Which cache got you hooked?

Cliptwings: My very first find! It was just a standard hide in a local park, but to me there was just something magical about satellite navigation. At the time we still used ground-based systems to navigate the airplane, so to have a tool in your hand that could get you within ten feet of a 35mm film canister was unbelievable! I know how Dave Ulmer must have felt. After that, the ability to visit interesting, historic, or beautiful places by geocaching really got me interested.  

Geocaching HQ: What is the story behind your username?

Cliptwings: I was briefly laid off from American Airlines after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. I was looking for something to do while searching for another job, and my wife came up with the geocaching idea. Since I was no longer flying, my “wings” were “clipt.” I thought it was a natural fit, so I became Cliptwings. It’s not very imaginative, and certainly not as good as many I’ve seen out there. 

Geocaching HQ: What are your favorite caches you’ve found?

Cliptwings: I have two, both found while on flying layovers. Both are virtuals, and I forget the GC numbers. The first was in downtown Baltimore, and the GPSr took me to an old cemetery among the tall buildings. To log the find, I had to identify a particular resident of the cemetery at the GZ. Lo and behold, when I arrived at the tombstone, I was looking at the grave of the famous author Edgar Allen Poe! I never would have known he was there without geocaching taking me there. My other favorite was in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The cache took me to a beautiful park right along the shore of the bay.  To log the find, I had to identify an “out of place” object at the GZ. Well, my GPSr took me to the corner of a very old, red brick church. As I looked up at the corner, I noticed a cannonball wedged in between the bricks! It seems that during the War of 1812, the British bombarded this area from their ships, and one of the cannonballs landed in the wall of the church! The people of the parish just left it there. Now that’s some interesting history!  

 

Geocaching HQ: What keeps you engaged with the game?

Cliptwings: Paying it forward in two ways gives me the most satisfaction these days. First, I try to make the caches I hide as interesting as possible. I give finders a fun puzzle to solve to get inside the container, or make the cache something they have never experienced before, such as an audio or video cache. Second, I do a weekly “Introduction to Geocaching” presentation at our local State park. I love introducing the activity to people who don’t know anything about it. I end the presentation with a hunt for three nearby caches, and it’s great to see a smile on their faces when they find their first geocache. 

Geocaching HQ: For you, what makes a quality cache?

Cliptwings: For me, a quality cache is one in which the cache owner obviously put some thought and effort into making it. It can be an LPC or an ammo can or something totally unique. If the experience leaves you with the feeling of wanting to find more of the same, then I think it’s a quality cache.

Geocaching HQ: What’s the best approach to creating a geocache?

Cliptwings: I think it depends on what the cache owner wants to convey to the finder.  Are they taking you to a pretty, interesting, historic place? Then a magnetic micro on a stop sign is good enough. A good Mystery cache can be placed lots of places because the object is to challenge the geocacher’s intellect. By the way, I generally stay away from geocaches that force you to think – it makes my head hurt! Generally, I look for a safe, pleasant place to hide a cache, one which gets lots of foot traffic but also has plenty of hiding places.

Geocaching HQ: If someone reading this was looking for inspiration, what words of advice would you give them?

Cliptwings: I tell the folks in my presentation to start the easy (and cheap) way. Download the Geocaching app® to your smartphone (everyone has one of those, right?) and use the free membership to start. Go for the one and two star difficulty caches until you get comfortable with the process. I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating than spending hundreds on a GPS receiver and failing to find those five star bison tubes. When you find those first few easy ones, I think you’re inspired to try more difficult hides, with better equipment, with a Premium membership. 

Geocaching HQ: You have a number of complicated and intricate caches. Do you find it difficult to provide maintenance on them?

Cliptwings: Most of the time the only real maintenance I need to do is to replace the battery every eight to twelve months. The computer in my Arduino caches is simple and robust, and I try to build in reliability wherever I can. That doesn’t mean they are all fool-proof. I loved building a cache called “Cut the Cheese,” GC6ZHJ7. It was an Arduino cache that sensed methane, the kind of gas people “pass.” Once the gas was “smelled,” a servo would unlock the lid to the container. But I had to archive the thing because people kept sitting on it and busting the container! Here’s a YouTube link.

Geocaching HQ: Have you ever had an idea that you thought was impossible?

Cliptwings: Not that I can recall, but I set the bar pretty low! I get most of my ideas from the internet. There are hundreds of 10 year old kids out there who come up with brilliant ideas and write the software programs to execute those ideas. I just borrow their talent and adapt them to geocaching.  

Geocaching HQ: Do you have a favorite hide of your own active caches?

Cliptwings: I have two favorites because they are so different from each other and from others that I’ve found. The first is “The OroValleyan,” GC6G639, based on the book and movie “The Martian,” played by Matt Damon. You are an astronaut stranded on the desolate planet of Oro Valley (my town in Arizona). The only way out is to contact your home base using an old explorer spacecraft, which is stage one. When you activate the “spacecraft,” headquarters sends you the coords for the rescue ship. The spacecraft points to  hexidecimal characters that you then need to translate into coordinate numbers using an ASCII table. The “rescue ship” is the second and final stage. It was really fun to make and was the first Arduino gadget cache where I did the programming myself. Here’s a YouTube link. My other favorite is “Walk With Me,” GC42MWP.  First thing you do is download an mp3 file which is in the description, and upload it to your phone or player. Then go to the set of coords listed in the description. This is your starting point. From there, the mp3 recording will tell you where to go and what to look for. I tell you some stupid jokes along the way and add in some inspirational music from the Indiana Jones movies. You end up at an object that will provide you the numbers for the final stage coords. It was a blast to make and I love reading the comments from the finders’ logs.

We love hearing about local cache owners who put a creative twist on their caches! Let us know your favorite geocache creators in the comments below!

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew is a community manager at Geocaching HQ. He is typically laughing at his own jokes, getting into mischief with Signal, or looking for the next adventure.