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Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

Saturday Bag o’ Heartbleed

bag of heartbleedThe internet is for sharing information and almost by design resists secrecy. For every security gap we find and fix, a new one opens up. We know the drill by now: change passwords, use different ones for every online account, never ever write them down.

I bought into the Heartbleed scare, at least to the extent of changing passwords for my blogs, social media, email accounts, and sites I buy things from. But I used one password, and wrote the damn thing down. I can’t wait for biometric scanners.

Speaking of biometric scanners, this is the month the bullshit contract on my crappy Samsung Galaxy runs out and I can upgrade to an iPhone, which has a fingerprint scanner. But they can hack that too! Yeah, with my cold dead hacked-off finger, at which point I probably won’t care.

While I’m at it, have I mentioned I support national ID? Can’t happen soon enough, especially with all these red states trying to keep non-Republicans from voting. Mark of the beast? Hail Satan, bring it on.

Yes, I’ve been neglecting Paul’s Thing. I’ll try to do better. But hey, I lost one whole day this week to Heartbleed, shot the shit out of another trying to fix a WordPress coding problem on my hashing blog, wrote a long book review on Goodreads, and backed up my blog databases. I’ve been entertaining a visiting friend. Scheduling volunteer docents at the air museum. I’ve been busy. Sue me.

We’re cooking today. Last month, cooling off after a bicycle ride with friends, we decided to start a cooking club. We’re to meet every other month at a different member’s home, with members drawing lots for who will prepare the appetizer, salad course, main dish, and desert (whoever draws the main dish is the host). For each dinner, we’ll prepare recipes from a single chef’s cookbook.

Today’s our first dinner. We drew the main course so we’re hosting. The chef is Hugo Ortega and the cookbook is Backstreet Kitchen. We’re making slow braised short ribs. I’ll take photos and write it up on my cooking blog tomorrow or Monday.

I was scrolling though movie choices on Amazon streaming last night and came across the 1943 German film Titanic. The blurb said it had been banned in Germany because the Nazis feared scenes showing passengers panicking as the ship sank would encourage similar panic in a civilian population being terrorized by around-the-clock Allied bombing. Though it was Goebbels who banned the showing of Titanic in Germany, it was also Goebbels who had commissioned the movie in the first place. Presumably, if Goering’s Luftwaffe had kept American and British bombers at bay, it would have been widely shown.

Well, I had to watch that, didn’t I?

It was awful: crude anti-British propaganda from beginning to end, and the most wooden acting you’ll see this side of Clutch Cargo. Ship designer and president of the White Star Line Bruce Ismay was the chief villain, abetted by the British officers of the ship, who rushed to do his reckless, greed-driven bidding. The hero was a German first mate, a last-minute crew substitute for an ailing British officer. The German was the only ship’s officer to stand up to Ismay; after the ship hit the iceberg and began to sink he organized the lifeboats and saved several lives. All in all, quite a different narrative than the one most of us grew up with.

I’ll try to keep Dr. Goebbel’s Titanic in mind when right-wing nut jobs on Facebook confound me with their peculiar, unreal visions of the world. It’s no wonder they believe the things they do, given the narrative presented to them by Fox News and AM hate radio.

I hope that’s the closest I ever come to a Hitler analogy on this blog, and I promise never to do it again.


Sunday Bag o’ Birds

hummingbird_tote_bag-r3bb2720c14254dd28b19e9bf4850ba2a_v9w72_8byvr_324Five years ago I photoblogged the birth of two hummingbirds. The mother had built her nest on a storage hook hanging from a support beam underneath our patio overhang. Donna and I would watch her through the sliding screen door to the patio, then dash out to check on her eggs whenever she flew off. Later, we photographed the chicks as they grew into tiny hummingbirds. We were heartbroken when one died, but the other one lived, and there’s been a nest on that hook every spring since.

Probably there’d been a nest on that hook in previous years, and we just hadn’t noticed it. Hummingbirds live only three or four years, so the current nesting mother is most likely a child of the mother bird we first observed. And sure enough, there’s a new nest on the hook now, this time containing just a single egg.

I’m going to try leave this mother bird and her chick alone and not take too many photos, but of course I’ll take some. Like this one, which I took this morning:


Woodford patio hummingbird crop of 2014

I thought I might get some really good shots with our big digital SLR camera, but the nest is tucked up so tightly under the overhang there’s no room for it, and I’ll have to use our small point & shoot Canon G9 as before. Fortunately, it too is a very good camera … especially when I remember to force the flash to eliminate the shadow under the patio roof.

In other domestic news, Polly and her boyfriend David are taking our old couch away today, along with a gas barbecue we’ve been holding for her. When we got a new gas grill years ago we refurbished the old one for Polly, but it’s only now she’s finally able to take it off our hands. The old grill’s been on the patio long enough for at least two generations of hummingbirds to get used to it … I wonder if the current mother hummer will notice its sudden absence.

Donna says I need to get out and expand my social circle, so yesterday afternoon I went to a Baja Arizona Kossacks meet-up. When I started contributing diaries to Daily Kos a representative of the group, which is composed of dKos diarists who live in the Tucson area, invited me to join. I did, and we started exchanging messages and comments. Well, now I have faces to go with names, and I’m glad I forced myself to be sociable (so unlike my normal self). Members of the group are mostly men and women of my own age, politically progressive and with a wide range of interests, and I think I made some new friends. I’ll certainly go to future meet-ups. By the way, if you click on the Baja Arizona Kossacks link, there’s a live blog of yesterday’s gathering (with incriminating photos).

Interestingly, yesterday’s host had an old BMW motorcycle under the carport, and I instantly fell in love with it. When I asked him about his bike he told me he doesn’t ride much any more and is thinking of selling it. It’s a bit rough and needs some work, but might be just what I need. In a previous post I talked about replacing the Goldwing, which is stupid because the Goldwing is the perfect ride for me … but maybe what I really want is a vintage bike to tinker with and use as a townie, saving the Wing for longer road trips. Here’s a photo, not of my host’s bike but one of the same model and year:


1971 BMW R75/5

What do you think? Is it me?


You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

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YCRT! Rant

Legislators in the Kansas Senate are considering a bill that will make it easy for parents and district attorneys to bring legal action against teachers, librarians, and school principals who expose students to “objectionable material” (which the bill broadly defines as anything that goes against community standards).

If enacted, this bill will be a godsend to those who want to purge public schools of literature, creative thinking, science, history, or anything else they don’t like. Imagine the chilling effect it would have on teachers, who would not dare assign a Vonnegut novel, explain carbon dating and the age of the earth, teach students about slavery or the Indian wars, or so much as mention evolution. This one’s worth keeping an eye on: I’ll set up a Google alert and report future developments.

Imagine how empowering such a law would be for the mother who compiled this list of “objectionable material” being forced down the innocent throats of public school students in Clarence, New York. Rather than having to present her case for banning books before a school board and risk losing (which, thankfully, she did), all she’d need to do would be to find a politically-ambitious conservative district attorney to arrest and prosecute the teachers and principals involved. No more Jonathan Swift and his eating of Irish babies for you, children of Clarence, New York!

dumb_dad_p2689021Or this guy (who happens to be Canadian, but could just as easily be from Kansas, New York, or Arizona). He wants his son’s school district to ban The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Why? Because he says it’s “pornographic.”

I try not to get personal, but I feel a deep antipathy toward self-appointed censors who wave the porno flag every time they encounter the subject of sex in books, magazines, TV, and movies. This guy, for instance. I’m going to guess, just from a glance as his self-satisfied mug, that he is no stranger to masturbation, and knows full well the difference between actual pornography and the mere mention of sex in a young adult novel. He knows labeling The Perks of Being a Wallflower as pornographic is bullshit, but he knows it will alarm other parents (and get his face on TV). If a law like the one being debated in Kansas were in effect where he lives, the school district would cave immediately, and guys like him … or the alarmed mother from Clarence, New York … would be dictating what all children read and learn.

YCRT! News

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (in which said Indian mentions masturbation, once, without actually describing it, but probably more offensively is the main character in a book about being Native American in a part of the country where Native Americans are denigrated and marginalized) continues to top the news. It’s been challenged by parents in Albany, Oregon, and Meridian, Idaho. The school board in Oregon is keeping the book but considering some sort of restriction; the school board in Idaho banned it outright.

Right behind is Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. A mother unsuccessfully challenged the novel’s inclusion on a high school reading list in Watauga County, North Carolina, where the school board voted to retain the book. But now Fox News has sought out and interviewed the mother and is making opposition to Allende’s novel part of its case against Common Core educational standards. By the way, I’m currently reading The House of the Spirits and will post a review when I’m done.

Russell Miller published a biography of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, in 1987. The book was kept out of American bookstores for 27 years as the result of litigation brought by Scientologist leaders, and is only now becoming available to American readers.

In Fairbanks, Alaska, a right-wing politician demanded a local grocery store stop selling Ms. Magazine because it supports women’s reproductive rights — and the store pulled Ms. from its shelves!

Here’s another case of political book banning, this time in Japan.

After a high school student newspaper in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin published an article about rape culture, school administrators issued policy guidelines restricting future reporting to pre-approved topics. Students and faculty are protesting the new guidelines, but for now they remain in effect.

The Texas State Board of Education will soon decide whether or not to establish Mexican American studies courses for high school credit. Schools in Houston are implementing MAS classes this year. After Arizona infamously banned MAS programs and books from its public schools two years ago, it’s refreshing to hear another red state is considering going the other way.

Political correctness run amok: #CancelColbert and trigger warnings. Honestly, it’s hard to see the difference between censors on the left and the right. Their end goal is the same: banning books and restricting free speech.


Mini-Gypsy Tour 1/2014 Photoblog

If I can afford it, there’ll be another motorcycle tour this year, hence the “1″ in the title. Mini-Gypsy Tour 2/2014 will involve either Sturgis or Four Corners; haven’t decided yet. The first tour of 2014 was a more modest affair, a six-day round-robin from Tucson to Flagstaff, Las Vegas, Zion National Park, and back.

Actually, I’ve got some nerve even calling this a mini-Gypsy tour. A real Gypsy would ride 400 to 600 miles every day. None of my daily rides topped 400 miles, and there were a couple of days I didn’t ride at all, relaxing instead with my son Gregory and his family in Las Vegas.

A quick summary:

  • Day 1: Tucson to Flagstaff via back roads through the Mogollon Rim country
  • Day 2: Flagstaff to Las Vegas via I-40 and US 95
  • Day 3: Family time in Las Vegas, test-riding new motorcycles
  • Day 4: Three-state ride to Zion National Park with my son
  • Day 5: Family time in Las Vegas
  • Day 6: Las Vegas to Tucson via US 95, I-40, US 93, I-17, I-10

The first day’s ride to Flagstaff was gorgeous, but the closer I got the colder it got. One forgets Flagstaff sits 7,000 feet above sea level. I actually stopped about 40 miles out to put on warmer clothing and a face mask; as soon as I reached the outskirts I started seeing bicyclists in shorts and jerseys and felt like a huge pussy.

The second day looked like it was going to be beautiful as well, but since early-morning temps were in the high 30s I decided to wait a while before leaving, hoping it would get a little warmer. Bridges and overpasses get icy, and I didn’t want to risk that on two wheels. I killed time until 9 AM, but to no avail … by then it had clouded over and the wind was picking up. Nor had it warmed up any. I’d wanted to get off I-40 and ride as much of what remains of Route 66 as possible between Flagstaff and Kingman, but it was so damn cold and windy I decided to stay on the interstate and get the ride over with as quickly as possible. I rode most of the distance between Flag and Kingman leaned over in a 30 to 40-degree left bank, struggling to keep the motorcycle going straight and in my own lane in a strong crosswind. The only thing I had to look forward to was the long road from Kingman to Las Vegas, since the wind from my left would then be a tailwind. Inexplicably the wind kept coming from my left once I turned north toward Vegas, and I rode that leg leaning left as well. It was no fun.

On the third day Gregory and I went to a local dealership in Las Vegas to test-ride some new bikes. I rode a new Indian Chieftain and Gregory rode a Victory Cross-Country.* Later we went to lunch at the oldest Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, a picturesque little hole-in-the-wall right off Fremont Street, where we met Carolyn Goodman, the mayor. Late in the afternoon we visited the BMW dealership, where Gregory picked up a demo bike for our ride to Zion National Park the next day. Interestingly, the bike he borrowed was a K 1600 GLT, the same model I rode and reviewed in November 2011.

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Gregory and the demo Victory Cross-Country (photo: Paul Woodford)

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Posing with the Indian Chieftain I took for a test ride

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Gregory with Mayor Goodman

The fourth day was a long one. I’d forgotten how far it is from Las Vegas to Zion. Just getting from one side of Las Vegas to the other now takes almost an hour; add the distance to Zion and back, plus puttering around the park itself, and it’s a 400-mile ride. We had the whole day, and it’s a good thing we did: we left at 9 AM and didn’t get home until about 5:30 PM. Along the way we stopped at a Harley dealer just outside St. George in Utah. They were offering factory demo rides on a big selection of 2014 models trucked in from Milwaukee and we could have taken rides on new Harleys as well, but we skipped the opportunity in our haste to get to the park. I’ll get to the photos in a minute.

On day five I stayed home with the kids and went to one of my grandson Quentin’s fast pitch games. Sadly his team lost, but later in the day Q and I built a cool digital camera from a kit.


Quentin with the digital camera we assembled (photo: Paul Woodford)

Day six was the ride home, and it was as windy as day two, if not more so. It isn’t fun battling strong crosswinds on a motorcycle. You have to work hard to keep going in a straight line, and making constant small and large corrections during gusts requires all your concentration. Fortunately once I was south of Kingman and on my way to Wickenburg, Phoenix, and Tucson I was finally riding into a headwind. That’s not a lot of fun either, but at least I didn’t have to lean into the wind and struggle to keep the bike on the road. I left at 8:30 AM and got home about 4:30 PM. As with the windy ride from Flagstaff to Las Vegas, I was exhausted when it was over.

Lesson learned: bring a compact point & shoot camera in addition to a big digital SLR. I took only the big camera on this trip and wound up passing on a lot of good photo opportunities because it would have been too much of a hassle to stop and fish the SLR out of the saddlebag just for a quick shot or two. On previous tours I took many more photos, probably because my small Canon G9 was in my pocket, close to hand. Still, though, I managed to take a few photos, several with the tripod and wireless shutter release I brought along. Like these shots from Zion:

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Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park (photo: Paul Woodford)

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With Gregory in Zion National Park (photo: Paul Woodford)

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With Gregory in Zion National Park (photo: Paul Woodford)

Thanks, Gregory and Beth, for putting up with me in Las Vegas. It was fun seeing you and Quentin again, and having some time to be with you in between motorcycle rides. Thanks for all the great food too!

* Now, about those test rides:

I’ve been thinking about getting a new motorcycle to replace the Goldwing, but with no particular sense of urgency. The Wing has less than 84,000 miles on it and is in top shape, so it’s more a matter of wanting something new & different than needing it. Still, I had looked forward to testing the new Indians, and I must say I was very impressed. The new Indians are solid motorcycles with strong power plants and quality construction … they’re head-turners to boot. Most important, they can’t be mistaken for Harleys. They’re Indians, and the only way you can get a more genuine one is to restore an antique.

The generation of Indians that preceded this one never fooled anyone. They were Harley clones made with aftermarket parts and engines. The only thing Indian about them was the name and skirted fenders. The newest Indian, made by Polaris, is designed and built from the ground up with not a single after-market Harley part on it. It’s a complete, integrated package with all the modern bells & whistles: the Chieftain model I rode has ABS, cruise control and stereo, a six-speed transmission, even an electrically-positioned windscreen. And unlike the last company to try to revive the Indian brand, it’s not like Polaris came to the job cold … they’ve been building Victory motorcycles since 1998.

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Well, it turned MY head (photo: Paul Woodford)

But to make a long story short, the Indian, as much as I loved it, is not the bike for me. It sits too low, and it’s too long a reach to the foot controls and hand grips (keep in mind that at 6’4″, I’m not exactly a short rider). My first question to the dealer was whether anyone makes a higher, police-style saddle for the bike. His answer was no.

The Victory Gregory rode is a better fit ergonomically: the saddle’s higher and the reach not nearly as long. I took a long look at the Victory Vision last year and decided against it because the integrated saddlebags were more for looks than for storage, but the Cross-Country series has roomy bags and you can get a trunk as well, putting it in the same league with the Goldwing. Now my only hesitation is that Victory engines, like those on the Indian, still rely on air cooling. With tighter emissions and economy standards, I don’t know how much longer air-cooled twins are going to remain viable.

When I rode the BMW K 1600 GLT in 2011, the same model Gregory rode to Zion with me last week, I thought it was the bike for me. I liked everything about it except the foot pegs, which were positioned too high and aft for my old knees. Since then I’ve had one knee replaced, and it would be a struggle for me to ride the BMW in comfort unless I made modifications to the foot peg position (which can be done, I’ve learned, but of course repositioning them forward and down, even by an inch or two, would come at the expense of cornering). And with new models selling for $30,000, I fear the BMW will be forever out of my reach … unless I can find a deal on a used one.

I’m riding what is arguably the best long-distance tourer in the world, the Honda Goldwing, and the one I have is paid for and still in top condition, barely broken in. Even though mine is a 2001, it’s the same model they’re still selling today, thirteen years later. In fact, a lot of Goldwing owners are anticipating Honda coming out with a new design in 2015 or 2016. If they do, that might turn out to be the best choice for me. So I’ll wait a while longer. No need to do anything rash, like spending a ton of money on a new ride I might regret buying in a year or two.


Mini-Gypsy Tour the Next

ba-HOLLISTER_8_B_421942468Packing for tomorrow’s motorcycle trip. This one won’t be too rigorous, just a six-day ride to Flagstaff, Las Vegas, Zion National Park, and home again. Mostly I’ll be in Las Vegas with my son Gregory, daughter-in-law Beth, and grandson Quentin. I leave in the morning, heading for Flagstaff via back roads through Globe and Pinetop.

The weather forecast says rain’s possible Wednesday, the day I’ll ride from Flagstaff to Las Vegas, but I don’t expect a deluge, just isolated showers. If it does rain, I’ll get wet. Then I’ll dry out. At any rate I’ll have all day Thursday in Las Vegas to recover.

My son plans to borrow a bike and ride with me Friday to Utah and Zion. If the weather near Zion doesn’t look good we’ll head west to Death Valley instead. Saturday I promised to stay in Vegas to watch Quentin and his team play baseball. Sunday I’ll head home via Kingman, Wickenburg, and Phoenix.

As always, I find myself overthinking packing, since space is at a premium. One extra pair of pants, or two? Where to stow the camera? It needs to be protected from the weather but easily accessible, and on that subject, shall I bring the big tripod or the small one? Paperback and Kindle, or just the Kindle? Should I make room for a dry pair of riding boots in case it rains and soaks my regular pair? Damn, boots take up a lot of room … but hey, you can stuff ‘em full of socks and underwear. Need to leave a little extra space in case I pick up a new t-shirt or two.

Riding a motorcycle is like flying an airplane. You have to be anal to do it right!

Donna decided we needed to watch Nebraska the other night. I bit my tongue and punched in our Amazon PIN on the remote to pay for it, knowing I wasn’t going to enjoy it. By which I don’t mean to say the movie’s bad: Nebraska deserved all the recognition it got at the Academy Awards, Bruce Dern in particular. But I knew from the snippets we’d seen on Oscars night it was about stupid people in dreary settings, and I knew it would depress me. Boy, did it … I wanted to slit my wrists! If there is a hell I can only pray it doesn’t involve being surrounded by stupid people for all eternity, and if ever there was a movie about the hell of being surrounded by stupid people, Nebraska is it. Except the characters in the movie don’t know they’re stupid and trapped. Because they’re stupid.

Next time we pop for a movie at home, I’m pickin’.

I’ll check in from the road somewhere. If you’re driving around in the Southwest and you see me on my Goldwing, please don’t run me off the road! Oops, you’re probably from Nebraska. Well, forget what I just said about the movie. I love Nebraskans!


Site Improvement: Air-Minded Article Index

At the suggestion of a new reader, I’ve added an index of Air-Minded posts. It seems a lot of you come here just to read those posts, and this’ll make it easier to find them.

The index is on the right sidebar, just below the “About” section. Clicking on the little F-15 image takes you to the table of contents; clicking on any individual title takes you to that post.


Pima Air & Space Museum at sunset (photo: PASM)

It’s all about making this blog easier to use and navigate. Who loves ya, baby? Paul’s Thing, that’s who!


Air-Minded: a Shooting Star Photoblog

The more time I spend at the Pima Air & Space Museum, the more I appreciate the thinking behind what they put on display there. Most air museums (and many municipal parks) will have an old Lockheed T-33 trainer on display. PASM goes deep with examples of every variant, from the single-seat P-80 Shooting Star fighter to the T-33 two-seater (also called the Shooting Star, but more often the T-Bird) used to train generations of pilots for the Air Force, Marines, and Navy, including the carrier-capable Seastar.

If you know what you’re looking for, you can find a T-33 that played a Soviet fighter in a John Wayne movie, along with some subtle surprises most visitors probably wouldn’t notice, but which true aficionados will savor: an Air Force T-Bird carrying a travel pod, the tail hook on the Navy Seastar, a belly-mounted speed brake in the deployed position, even a trainer with a sting in the form of nose-mounted guns.

Here’s PASM’s full gamut of Shooting Stars, from the original fighter to the Navy’s carrier-capable trainer (all of these images, by the way, link to larger photos on Flickr):


P-80B Shooting Star (photo: Paul Woodford)

The P-80 (later the F-80) was developed during WWII and became operational in 1945. This one is a 1948 model. I wrote an earlier air-minded post about the P-80, which you can read here.

P-80 Shooting Star (view # 2)

P-80B armament (photo: Paul Woodford)

The P-80 fighter was armed with six 0.50-inch M3 Browning machine guns and underwing hard points for bombs or rocket pods.


T-33A trainer in USAF trim (photo: Paul Woodford)

The T-33 version of the Shooting Star had a longer fuselage to accommodate a two-seat tandem cockpit. It was a primary jet trainer during the 1950s and 60s; with the advent of newer trainers it was relegated to support roles and flew on into the early 1980s. The primary user was the US Air Force.

What’s interesting about this aircraft, at least to a detail-oriented geek like me, is that it’s carrying a small travel pod underneath the fuselage. Look close and you’ll see it.


T-33A Shooting Star (photo: Eric van Gilder)

This T-33A, on display inside one of PASM’s hangars, is painted to represent the fictional “Yak-19″ Soviet fighter flown in the 1957 John Wayne/Janet Leigh movie Jet Pilot. Other than the paint job, it’s a stock Air Force T-Bird.


T-33A cockpit (photo: Paul Woodford)

As I mentioned in my earlier post on the P-80, the primary instrument flight reference in aircraft cockpits of this era was the turn & slip indicator. If you’re looking for an attitude indicator, don’t bother … there isn’t one!


TV-2 Shooting Star, USMC (photo: Paul Woodford)

This variant is technically called a TV-2 Shooting Star. TV-2s were used by the Navy and Marine Corps, and were identical to the Air Force’s T-33. They couldn’t be used on aircraft carriers and their role as jet trainers, at least for the Navy, was short-lived.

This display aircraft wears USMC trim. Two details that catch my eye are the speed brake, visible in the extended position just ahead of the main landing gear doors, and the gun ports in the nose. The TV-2s were armed (as were the AT-33 variants used by the Air Force) with two 0.50-inch M3 Browning machine guns and the same underwing hard points used by the P-80 fighter. Many of the T-33s we sold overseas were likewise armed and could be used for combat as well as training.


T-1A Seastar, USN (photo: Paul Woodford)

This is the last version of the Shooting Star, built for the Navy and designated the T2V (later the T-1A) Seastar. The Seastar was a stopgap jet trainer meant to address the shortcomings of the earlier TV2: it had a more powerful engine, a raised rear seat for the instructor pilot, extensive modifications to the tail section, and of course a tail hook (visible in the photo) and extendable nose wheel strut for carrier operations. Only about 150 Seastars were built. They entered Navy service in 1957 and were retired in the 1970s, replaced by the Navy’s T-2 Buckeye trainer.

The American military’s T-Birds are all long retired, but many countries around the world still fly them. They may not be glamorous or fast, but they played an important role in the early jet age, and I write this post in tribute.


Air-Minded: Lost

everything-we-know-about-malaysia-airlines-flight-370-in-one-graphicSo what do I know about Malaysia Flight 370? Absolutely nothing, yet friends and acquaintances keep asking. I’m a pilot, so I must have some opinion, right?

Information is sparse and contradictory. We were told Thai military radar tracked MA370 turning off course shortly after the transponder quit sending information to civilian controllers. A few hours later Malaysian authorities told us those reports were wrong. A day or two later the Malaysians allowed as how the reports may have been true, but MA370′s new course could have been north or south.

Nearly every new bit of information on MA370 has followed the same trajectory: first the leak, then the breathless media frenzy, then the denial, then the qualified “maybe.”

The only sure thing we know is where the airplane was when its transponder quit, a little less than an hour after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur. Everything else is speculation.

For now I’ll buy the reports of MA370 turning off course. That story seems more solid now than it first did, if only because investigating authorities, after initially denying it, came back to it and have stuck with it for several days in a row, and also because American investigators are saying they’ve seen the radar data and concur.

As for the report of altitude deviations — a climb to to 45,000 feet, followed by a rapid fighter-like descent to a much lower altitude — I totally discount that. Civilian and military radar controllers are far more reliant on aircraft transponders for altitude information than most reporters realize. Controllers aren’t very good at calculating altitude from raw radar returns, and often they’re just guessing.

How can I make this assertion? Because I know it to be true from personal experience with military ground-based and airborne radar controllers. When military fighter pilots conduct air combat training, or fly into actual combat, they often turn off their transponders. A really good controller who knows this is going to happen and is prepared to interpret radar antenna angles can track your approximate altitude and report it to your adversaries. But a controller who is caught flat-footed — hey, MA370′s transponder data just disappeared — wouldn’t be able to get his or her shit together for several minutes, and even then would be grossly out of practice. Not to mention that the point at which MA370′s transponder went off was the point at which Malaysian air traffic control would have been handing MA370 off to Vietnamese air traffic control, no longer concerned with tracking the flight.

Oh, one more thing. The B-777′s service ceiling is less than 45,000 feet (about 43,000 feet, according to Wikipedia). That’s not to say a big airliner can’t be coaxed up to a higher altitude, but you’d have to have golden hands to do it, maintaining an exact speed with zero margin of error on either side, and a perfect climb rate and angle. It would be like balancing the airplane on the point of a pin. And why would you do that in any case?

Controllers can track an airplane’s course with raw radar returns, as mentioned, and that’s why I believe them when they say MA370 turned off course after the transponder quit. Controllers are very poor at tracking aircraft altitude without the transponder, which is why I don’t believe the stories about altitude changes.

Apparently, though, controllers didn’t track MA370 for very long after it turned off course, because they don’t know where it went after that.

One of the wilder assertions I’ve heard is that MA370 flew into the “shadow” of another airplane going somewhere else, and stayed in its shadow to evade radar tracking. I think that’s utter bullshit.

In the mid-1980s I was deployed to Shemya Island in the Aleutians to help support a big naval exercise in the Bering Sea. The Soviets were watching the exercise closely, sending long-range aircraft from Siberian bases to observe. Our job was to intercept the Bears and Bisons, and we were busy every day. One day the radar controllers vectored me west to intercept a hot target, a track they believed was another Soviet bomber or reconnaissance plane inbound to the exercise area. When I finally got close enough to visually pick up the target, five or six miles out, I could see it was a B-747, and could even make out enough of the blue and white paint scheme to identify it as a Korean Air Lines jet. “No, that’s not it,” the controller said, “look below and aft.” I did, but there was nothing there. It took me a while to convince the controller the target was just a single KAL 747.

Apparently the radar controller saw two blips almost superimposed on one another and interpreted that to mean that a Soviet aircraft was shadowing the Korean airliner in order to sneak into the exercise area. In this case there wasn’t really a second target, just a lone KAL 747 on a long flight to Seattle or LA. It was a glitch. If a Thai military radar controller thinks he saw something like that the night MA370 disappeared — if indeed the shadowing story is based on something a radar controller reported and isn’t just a product of some reporter’s fevered imagination — I’d say it was a similar glitch.

Interpreting raw radar returns is tricky, and controllers sometimes see things that aren’t there. Another time during the mid-1980s, I was scrambled from an Alaskan Air Command alert base at King Salmon toward the Bering Strait. My target was flying a north-south orbit in the middle of the strait, up and down the narrow section where Alaska and the USSR are close together (you know, near Sarah Palin’s front porch). As I flew west the radar controller told me I might have more than one target. By the time I got close enough to pick it up visually, he was excitedly reporting as many as a dozen separate targets, and Alaskan Air Command had scrambled two additional F-15s from our other alert site at Galena.

Well. The target, when I got there and slipped in behind it, was a single An-24 Coke, a propeller-driven twin-engined transport the Soviets routinely flew over the Bering Strait to observe the extent and thickness of the ice. We’d intercepted that same plane on numerous occasions, and it was no big deal. But those turning propellers threw off so many false glints the radar controller thought the Russians must have mounted a major air operation over the Bering Strait.

All this by way of telling you that when it comes to raw radar returns, it’s very hard to say what’s actually out there, and to take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Back to verifiable facts, we do know that two separate automated systems on MA370 quit sending signals back to the ground. The first system to quit, about 40 minutes after takeoff, was the ACARS, which transmits aircraft and engine performance data back to the parent airline. Fourteen minutes later the transponder, which broadcasts heading, speed, and altitude to radar controllers tracking the flight’s progress, quit sending. In between, one of the pilots made the last known radio transmission, saying “good night” to a ground controller, probably as the flight was being handed off from Malaysian radar control to Vietnamese radar control.

This suggests to some that the two systems were deliberately turned off, one by one, and that the “good night” radio transmission had a more sinister meaning. But I think there are other possibilities. The ACARS sent a burst of data at 1:07AM. It was scheduled to send another burst at 1:37AM but didn’t. In the meantime there was a 1:19AM voice transmission from the flight deck, followed by the cessation of transponder signals at 1:21AM. It could be that MA370 crashed at that point, and that for whatever reason we simply haven’t found it yet. It could also be that around the time the pilot or co-pilot made that last radio call, some progressive electrical malfunction — an electrical fire, perhaps, not yet detected by the crew — was underway. As for the pilot or co-pilot saying “good night” in a radio transmission, that’s pretty standard, and I wouldn’t read anything into it.

This “ping” thing we’re all hearing about is a great mystery, and I’m more and more inclined to write it off as wishful thinking. According to some reports, part of the ACARS system, a part that was not turned off, continued to emit hourly identifying pings for seven hours after MA370 disappeared. The satellites picking up the pings, however, can’t locate where the pings come from. They could have come from an airplane safely parked on the ground somewhere, or they could have come from an airplane in motion. They could have come from a point in the sea where controllers first lost track of the aircraft, or they could have come from points as far as 800 miles away in any direction (as far as MA370 could have flown with the fuel it had on board). Is some part of ACARS battery-powered? Could the pings have come from a floating piece of wreckage, automatically generated until the battery died? Maybe tomorrow or the next day authorities will deny that part of the story. Pings? What are these pings you speak of?

Okay, opinion time: I can’t imagine any organization smaller than a first-world government being able to pull off hijacking an airliner, diverting it to some clandestine airstrip, and then hiding it from satellite surveillance, national authorities, and the local population for more than a week. Personally I think the airplane crashed into the ocean and we just haven’t found the wreckage yet. Whether it crashed as a result of a hijacking attempt, deliberate action on the part of its crew, gross pilot error, or some sort of mechanical catastrophe, is simply unknown. We’ll just have to wait and see.

On that note, I was crushingly disappointed in Rachel Maddow last night. She has been one of the most clear-headed commentators on the mystery of MA370, steadfastly sticking to the few known facts and relentlessly pointing out that everything else is speculation, a reliable and calm voice telling us to be patient, that the mystery will eventually be solved. And then last night she gave air time to the girlfriend of the single American adult passenger on MA370, a woman who believes the airplane is safe on the ground somewhere, the passengers held hostage but mercifully safe.

Oh, Rachel, that was Today Show stuff. I know you’re an expert on what’s good for your ratings, but that was unworthy. Shame on you.

Update: within minutes of publishing this and posting a link on Facebook, two friends alerted me to this Wired article written by an experienced airline pilot. He too thinks MA370 may have experienced an electrical fire, and that the crew turned to the southwest in order to fly straight to the nearest emergency landing field available to them, and that the reason they couldn’t tell us about it was that by then the aircraft was totally disabled electrically. This makes good sense to me, and fits the known facts. We’ll have to wait and see.