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Tuesday Bag o’ Trouble

ferguson-mo-welcome-sign-63135Whenever black Americans take to the streets over police brutality and killings, racist email forwards follow. Over the past week I’ve gotten two, both claiming the media ignores black on white crime out of political correctness. What world do these people live in? Since when has the press ignored black on white crime? I think what they really mean is they wish the press would just ignore a certain white on black crime that took place in Ferguson, Missouri.

I’m sick of hearing naive do-gooders say racism will go away when the last of the old white bigots die off, just you wait. Bullshit. Those old white bigots taught their children, and their children are teaching their children. Racism is everywhere in this country, as pervasive as it ever was. Not only is it not going away, it’s arguably getting worse, as voting restrictions and the return of segregated schools nudge us back toward the 1950s.

The story on Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot dead by a Ferguson policeman, keeps changing. Just this morning I read that the video showing Brown stealing cigarillos actually shows him paying for them. People are already disputing the autopsy results that came out over the weekend. By this time tomorrow the story might take yet another direction. So I’ll say nothing about any of that, and wait for the dust to settle.

I do believe, however, that when people take to the streets, it’s usually not over a single incident of police brutality or extrajudicial killing. That shit happens all the time; there’d be riots every day. When people do demonstrate and protest, it’s usually in communities where there’s a long history of police abuse, followed by some straw-breaking-the-camel’s-back incident like the Michael Brown shooting.

When I was young I lived for a year at my grandparents’ house in Brentwood, another inner-ring St. Louis suburb. This was during the 1950s while my father was away with the USAF and my mother was in a sanitarium recovering from tuberculosis. My memories of Brentwood are so faded they might as well be made up, but the brief glimpses of Ferguson I see on TV remind me of Brentwood. I turned to Wikipedia, where I was surprised to read that as of the 2010 census, Brentwood was still 87% white. I’m going to guess relations between law enforcement and the civilian population in Brentwood are friendly.


A former squadron mate and flying buddy has died, and Donna and I are driving to Alamogordo, New Mexico on Thursday to attend his funeral. I flew with him at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands; following that tour he and I were the first two F-15 pilots to report to Elmendorf AFB in Alaska when the fighter squadron there converted from Phantoms to Eagles. Many, many memories, all of them good. Alamogordo is only 400 miles from here, so we’re paying our respects in person. I don’t know who else is planning to attend, but I expect we’ll see one or two old friends. When we were in Alaska we were pretty close to our friend’s surviving wife, and we both want to see her again.

As for now, I’m hunkered down at home, waiting for the next monsoon rain cell to pass overhead. Here’s a photo I took driving home from the gym half an hour ago, looking down on our housing development and toward the Santa Catalina Mountains, with some heavy rain falling a few streets to the north.



Air-Minded: Move Your Tail

A couple of weeks ago I posted a photo of Jacqueline Cochran to my Facebook page, along with a note explaining that she was the first woman to break the sound barrier when she flew an F-86 Sabre past the Mach in 1953. A friend posted this comment:

You should add “in level flight”. Lots of WWII fighter pilots broke the sound barrier in combat dives, many died because they did not understand why their controls suddenly became useless.

I responded with this:

There’s a certain amount of mythology about WWII-era prop fighters exceeding the speed of sound in dives. Not known to have ever happened. The control problems some pilots reported happened in transonic flight as shock waves built up around the airplane and the elevators lost authority (which is why supersonic aircraft have all-moving horizontal stabilizers today). The F-86 Cochrane flew was a hopped up Canadian built version with a big engine, and in fact she had to dive to hit the Mach … the F-86 couldn’t go supersonic in level flight. Additional info here.

Cochrane with Yeager.jpg

Jacqueline Cochran w/Chuck Yeager (USAF Flight Test Center photo)

I want to flesh out my response, mostly by way of rumor control. First of all, let me stress my lack of aeronautical engineering credentials. I’m an English major. There’s a lot I don’t understand about the mechanics of transonic and supersonic flight. What I do know is what I was taught in flight school, and what I experienced in my years flying supersonic trainers and fighters. If I screw up some of the principles and technical language, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I think I’m qualified to address some of the apocryphal tales handed down from generation to generation, and to provide a simplified overview of transonic & supersonic flight and the changes to aircraft flight controls necessary to achieve it.

WWII and prop fighters. At the pinnacle of prop fighter development, aircraft like the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and Supermarine Spitfire could attain transonic speeds in steep dives. The transonic range is generally considered to be between Mach 0.8 and 1.0 (600 to 768 mph at sea level, but since mph numbers go down as you climb into thinner air and lower temperatures they’re not really meaningful, so from now on I’ll only talk Mach numbers). Even if we had at the time understood supersonic flight and knew how to build the thin wings and area-ruled fuselages needed for supersonic flight, compressibility would have still made it impossible to force the big disc of a spinning propeller much beyond Mach 0.9.

In one test flight, a Spitfire managed to hit Mach 0.92 in a 45-degree dive, at which point the propeller and reduction gear left for parts unknown. The test pilot was lucky to survive. Other pilot reports from the time stated that it was extremely difficult to recover from transonic dives. Some pilots described the problem as “control reversal,” but that’s not what it was (no one ever had to push forward on the stick to recover from a dive). Control problems resulted from a combination of two factors: one, the physical force required to move the stick aft in a transonic dive was enormous; two, the aircraft’s ailerons and elevators were rendered ineffective by transonic shockwaves forming around the wings and tailplanes. In other words, it was extremely difficult to move the stick in the first place, and when the pilot was able to move it, the ailerons and elevators couldn’t “bite” enough air to control aircraft attitude. The only way to safely recover from a transonic dive was to throttle back to idle and let aerodynamic drag slow the aircraft to a speed at which control effectiveness was regained. Some WWII prop fighters (the P-38 Lightning, for example) actually had speedbrakes that auto-deployed in high speed dives, precisely to keep pilots out of this “coffin corner.”


Transonic shock wave forms around an F/A-18 as it approaches Mach 1 (US Navy photo)

Early jet & rocket fighters. There are unconfirmed stories of Luftwaffe pilots reaching the Mach in the German Me-262, the first jet fighter. Some claim German test pilots went supersonic in prototype rocket-propelled fighters. The stories about the Me-262 breaking the sound barrier, even in a dive, are almost certainly mistaken. The Me-262′s fuselage design and fat wings would be considered incompatible with supersonic flight today. Cockpit airspeed indications sometimes jump around in transonic flight as shock waves form near the pitot tube, and this may have led some pilots to believe they’d exceeded the Mach. The secret weapon rocket planes may well have done it, but if it happened it was never documented.

Some still believe that in 1946, British test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr. exceeded the speed of sound in an early jet, the de Havilland Swallow, but then encountered control reversal and died in the ensuing crash. Actually, transonic shock waves caused the Swallow’s wings to flutter during a transonic dive and they broke off. That’s what killed Geoffrey de Havilland, but the incident helped create the myth that the speed of sound was an actual “barrier.”

On October 14, 1947, USAF pilot Chuck Yeager achieved true supersonic flight in the rocket-powered Bell X-1 (the design of which, apparently, was originally British). A few days earlier another USAF pilot had gone supersonic in an XP-86 Sabre, but he did it in a dive and his speed wasn’t officially confirmed or recorded, so, as with the Luftwaffe rocket pilots, his achievement didn’t count. Yeager’s speed run was measured and recorded, and he did it in level flight to boot, and that’s the flight that’s in the history books.

I want to go back to flight controls now, the real subject of this post. WWII prop fighters and most early jet fighters had conventional flight controls. The stick and rudder pedals were directly connected to the ailerons, rudder, and elevators by rods, cables, and pulleys. The elevators, which control pitch, were hinged surfaces on the rear of the horizontal tail. When you got into a transonic dive, it became physically difficult to move the elevators, and even when you did, they didn’t have enough authority to bring the nose up and break the dive. In the early jet days, when aircraft like the F-86 Sabre and MiG-15 which could get well into the transonic region in level flight, you had the same problems plus a shock wave effect called Mach tuck, which forced your nose down and put you into a dive. You didn’t have enough elevator authority to overcome Mach tuck and stay level. The Soviet MiG-15 had auto-speedbrakes that deployed at Mach 0.92 to keep pilots from exceeding that speed.

McDonnell F2H-2P Banshee

Conventional horizontal stabilizer with hinged elevator and trim tab on an F2H-2P Banshee (photo: Paul Woodford)

Aircraft designers had been aware of transonic flight control problems from the early days of WWII and had tried several approaches to overcome it. The answer proved to be hydraulically-actuated flight controls and an all-moving tail. With hydraulic assist, pilots no longer had to physically overcome the enormous airflow pressures on their elevators and ailerons. Ditching the hinged elevators and going to all-moving horizontal stabilators gave fast jets enough pitch control to maintain level flight or pull out of a dive as the aircraft began to generate transonic shock waves (side note: once you’re past the Mach the shock wave is behind your aircraft, and a simple hinged elevator would be more than enough to control pitch at supersonic speed … you need the all-moving tail to maintain control as you move through the Mach).

A potential problem with hydraulically-actuated flight controls was that the pilot wouldn’t be able to feel the actual force of the air on the external flight controls. Without that feel, it would be easy to over-control an aircraft at transonic speeds, potentially to the point of ripping the tail off. The solution was to add “artificial feel” to the stick, with the force required to move it increasing it as aircraft speed increased (but nowhere near the force that would be required to move the stick with conventional flight control systems).

The F-86 Sabre, America’s first swept-wing fighter, had hydraulically-actuated flight controls and artificial feel. They say one of the factors that gave our F-86 pilots an edge over the Russian, Chinese, and North Korean MiG-15 pilots they flew against during the Korean War was that our jets weren’t physically exhausting to fly. The MiG, with conventional muscle-powered flight controls, took a lot out of its pilots at speeds above Mach 0.8; moreover, it was dangerously uncontrollable above Mach 0.92 (hence the auto-speedbrakes that kept it from flying faster). In addition to hydraulic assist, later models of the F-86 had all-moving tails. Our guys didn’t have to worry about flying too fast because they could maintain control at all speeds. The MiG bubbas had to constantly watch their speed lest they fly into an uncontrollable flight regime.

The F-86 Sabre is what drew me into this discussion in the first place. When I read that Jacqueline Cochran broke the sound barrier in an F-86, my first thought was “no way” … the Sabre wasn’t supersonic. It had relatively thin wings, but the fuselage wasn’t area ruled, it didn’t have an afterburner, and it was slower than the subsonic MiG-15s it faced in combat in Korea. But as I looked into the subject, it became apparent that the F-86, along with most early swept-wing fighters, could bust the Mach in a dive, and in fact that’s how Jackie did it. The jet she flew was a Canadair Sabre with all-moving horizontal stabilators. As mentioned above, while the first Sabres had conventional tails with hinged elevators, the F-86E and later models had all-moving horizontal stabs.

North American F-86L Sabre

All-moving horizontal stabilator on an F-86L (photo: Paul Woodford)

What did I do next? I took photos of the tail sections of two late-model F-86 Sabres on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum, where I’m a volunteer docent. The F-86L, pictured above, had the single-piece all-moving horizontal stabs I expected to see, but the F-86H sitting next to it appeared to have conventional horizontal stabilizers with hinged elevators, and that I did not expect to see. The F-86H was the last, and hottest, F-86 model built, and according to everything I’d read it was supposed to have all-moving horizontal stabs. Here’s what I saw when I looked at the F-86H:

North American F-86H Sabre

F-86H horizontal stabilator (photo: Paul Woodford)

Certainly looks conventional, doesn’t it? I started asking around, hoping one of the other volunteers might know someone who had flown Sabres. Two weeks later, my tree-shaking paid off: I heard from a pilot who’d flown every model of the F-86. Here’s what he said:

The F-86A had conventional tail controls: a fixed stabilizer with an attached moveable elevator which was moved either by the pilot’s control stick or by an electric trim motor. This design proved to be largely ineffective in the supersonic regime (above .9 Mach) where recovery from a supersonic dive required very large angles of elevator movement which exerted so much stress that it sometimes caused rivets to pop out from the trailing edge. Pilots complained that the flight controls appeared to be “strange” in the transonic speed range. They seemed to be “reversed” — if the pilot wanted to pull up and his speed was near Mach 1, the aircraft continued to go down. The controls did not actually reverse, they simply did not respond effectively.

The F-86E tail was called an “all-flying tail”. The F-86E’s elevators and horizontal stabilizer operated as one unit. The horizontal stabilizer was pivoted at its rear spar so that the leading edge was moved eight degrees up or down by the normal action of the control stick. The elevator was mechanically linked to the stabilizer and moved in a specific relation to the stabilizer movement, with the elevator travel being slighter greater than stabilizer travel. This effectively created a larger elevator surface — as the pilot called for more elevator, the stabilizer would move in conjunction with the elevator, creating a greater angle of attack, thus giving better control at all speeds. The all-flying tail of the F-86E eliminated many of the undesirable compressibility effects that were characteristic of the F-86A. It made recovery from a sonic dive much more straightforward, with much less danger of structural damage or catastrophic failure. Externally, the only difference between and F-86A and E was the presence of a bulge in the fuselage of the E immediately in front of the stabilizer to cover the gearing mechanism.

The picture … of your F-86H shows it to have the same all-flying tail as was on the E and F models. It would work in the same manner as I have described above.

All-moving horizontal stabilators are standard equipment on supersonic fighters and trainers today. You’ll also see all-moving stabilators on many airliners, which cruise in the Mach 0.8-0.9 regime. On modern fighters, the stabilators work differentially to control roll as well as pitch. Here are the stabs on the fighter I flew, the F-15 Eagle:

McDonnell-Douglas F-15A

F-15A Eagle stabilators & vertical tails (photo: Paul Woodford)

What you don’t see very often is an all-moving vertical tail. Yaw isn’t a big deal in transonic flight, not like pitch, so a conventional hinged rudder on a fixed vertical tailplane works well. The F-15, if you stomped in full right or left rudder, gave you 30 degrees of deflection. Above Mach 1.5, however, a mechanical limiter kicked in and you could only move the rudders 5 degrees. This was one of the things I had to check during the supersonic portion of functional check flights, and I always fed in rudder slowly, visions of snapped off vertical tails prompting caution. Nevertheless a few supersonic aircraft had all-moving vertical tails, presumably with limiters similar to those on the F-15. A few I can think of off-hand were the SR-71, XB-70, F-107, and the A-5 Vigilante:

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A-5 Vigilante with all-moving horizontal & vertical tails (photo: Paul Woodford)

The forces acting on an aircraft and its flight control surfaces at transonic speeds are enormous. Flying at those speeds in early jet fighters was a much bigger deal than it is today, and I can’t tell you what it was like. I can tell you what it’s like in an F-15 Eagle, though.

The first few times I went through the Mach I wasn’t attuned to my environment, but the more experience I gained the more I could sense my speed through the feel of the aircraft. When the Eagle got up to around Mach 0.95 you’d begin to feel resistance, as if the air was getting thicker and pushing back against your airplane. As you slipped past the shockwave and through the Mach the resistance went away and the airplane felt normal again. The second you retarded the throttles, though, it was as though you’d run into an invisible Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in the air. You and your jet and everything in it slowed down in a hurry, forcing you forward against the shoulder straps and seat belt. Once you were back below Mach 0.95, Mr. Stay-Puft went away and things felt normal again. Oh, and half your fuel was gone.

No one asked, but my personal speed record is Mach 2.21, achieved in a clean F-15C on a functional check flight over the North Sea. On paper the Eagle is capable of Mach 2.5, but I’ve never heard of anyone reaching that speed.

I’m only going to say this once, not because you, dear reader, don’t know it, but you’d be surprised how often people ask me, and who knows, one of them may read this some day: yes, you can hear yourself talk when you’re supersonic; no, you can’t hear the sonic boom.

Well, that was a whole bunch of nerdy tl;dr, all generated by a comment to a one-paragraph Facebook post commemorating Jackie Cochran’s supersonic flight in 1953. I know I’m leaving a lot out, but I wanted to hit the important parts. Next time you hear people telling tall tales about supersonic Mustangs and Thunderbolts, their brave pilots heroically overcoming every natural instinct in the face of control reversal, perhaps you can point them my way. Or at least pass on the link to this post.


Tuesday Bag o’ Don’t Go There

off_limits_sign_tote_bagDon’t go there. I hear that all the time.

Over the weekend I read that Tony Stewart, a well-known NASCAR driver, ran over and killed another driver at a racetrack in upstate New York.

I was a car racing fan until my mid-20s, when I went to a stock car race in Enid, Oklahoma. A couple of laps into the main event three or four cars collided in front of the stands, blocking the track. The flagman ran onto the track furiously waving his red flag. Another car came accelerating out of the corner and slammed into the stopped cars, followed by four or five more, wham wham wham. It was a spectacular pileup. A second later the announcer said “Where’s the flagman?” He’d been there. Suddenly he wasn’t.

And then I saw him. There was a little bundle of black and white clothing by the infield fence, about 200 yards from the wrecked cars. It looked like a pile of laundry. The ambulance pulled in front of that little bundle and blocked our view, but not before everyone else had seen him too. Five minutes later, as they were finishing clearing the track so the race could resume, the announcer told us the flagman was DOA.

I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said a thousand times: everyone understands a significant number of auto racing fans are drawn to the sport for the crashes and the possibility of seeing someone die. There’s always been a bread and circuses element to motor sports. Race fans don’t like to see this discussed because, I’m guessing, they feel it will damage the sport and lead to additional restrictions and regulations. Bring any of this stuff up to a NASCAR fan, he’ll wish you hadn’t.

Same thing with the Tony Stewart incident last weekend. I posted a sardonic remark on Facebook: “At last, NASCAR is beginning to live up to its full potential.” Within minutes, a friend straightened me out by telling me the race wasn’t a NASCAR event. Another friend said “Let’s not go there. Tony Stewart is known to be an ass.”

The first comment reminded me of the NRA guys who jump on anyone who dares to comment on mass shootings.  You know, the ones who say “If you don’t know the difference between an AR-15 and a Kalashnikov you aren’t qualified to have an opinion.” The second comment baffled me, and still does. Oh, I get the “let’s not go there” part. It’s the “Tony Stewart is known to be an ass” part I don’t understand. You see, a lot of the journalists reporting on the incident are quoting fans and witnesses who say they think Tony Stewart deliberately hit the other driver.

I do not know whether Tony Stewart deliberately hit the other driver, or if it was an unavoidable accident. Presumably race officials and local law enforcement are reviewing the tapes and interviewing witnesses, and there’ll be some sort of investigation. But if it turns out Stewart did hit the other driver on purpose, then he’d be something more than a mere ass. He’d be a murderer. So what was my friend saying? “Let’s not go there because this guy is known to be a bad actor, so he was just doing what comes naturally”? Or was he saying “Let’s not go there because even though this guy is known to be an ass, we don’t really know what happened”? Or was he just saying “Let’s not go there because it makes me uncomfortable”? Well, I’ll be seeing him in September, and I’ll ask him then.

I occasionally comment on aviation accidents, particularly when the evidence suggests the pilots are at fault. Fellow pilots will sometimes warn me off. Don’t go there. But in addition to being a pilot, I was also a flight safety officer. I personally investigated three major accidents and supervised the investigations of at least twelve more. I know first hand how often pilots are at fault (hint: at least 90 percent of the time), and I don’t believe in ignoring the obvious.

The other day I took sides with Israel in the current conflict with Hamas. I thought I took a pretty strong pro-Israel stand, but two Jewish friends got on my case because I wasn’t pro-Israel enough. I had expressed some sympathy for non-combatant Palestinians trapped in Gaza and suggested that part of the solution, in addition to Hamas recognizing Israel, would be for Israel to stop building settlements in Palestinian territory. Even that little bit was too much for them. Don’t go there.

I wrote about women aviators in the military. Commenters brought up Kara Hultgreen, a Navy F-14 pilot who crashed while attempting a carrier landing. One of the commenters wanted to turn my pro-woman aviator post into an anti-woman aviator rant, bringing up all sorts of scurrilous rumors and accusations that came out in the months after Kara’s crash. There was such a strong Don’t Go There reaction to that particular commenter, Daily Kos administrators booted him from the thread (or so I was told later by another commenter). Well, at least that once it wasn’t someone telling me not to go there!

Some subjects are radioactive and I avoid going there without needing to be told. Robin Williams, suicide, and depression, for example. Obviously, everyone is talking about Robin Williams, suicide, and depression right now, but there’s a strong Don’t Go There vibe to the discussion, at least as it pertains to talking about how goddamn hard it is to live with people suffering from depression. The person who suffered from depression up and killed himself, and for anyone to talk about how hard it might have been to live with him, well, doesn’t that kind of pale by comparison? Suck it up, pussy, you’re not the one dealing with devils.

Depression sufferers don’t understand depression. Doctors who treat people with depression don’t understand it either. Families and friends of people who suffer from depression probably understand it least of all. Those of us who live with people suffering from depression know how hard it is, but saying so, even beating around the bush about it, makes us look horribly unsympathetic, so we don’t. And the little I just said about it makes me look like I’m trying to make Robin Williams’ suffering and suicide all about me, which is just as bad, so I’m not going there!


Monday Bag o’ Moto

saddlebagIn preparation for my ride to Colorado next month, I made a motorcycle maintenance play date with my friend Ed. That was yesterday, and it was a full day … well, nine to five anyway, a full day for a working man. All I have to say about that is I’m happy I’m retired and no longer have to put in nine to five days!

We replaced the tires and front brake pads. We flushed the brake system and replaced the fluid. We changed the oil and filter. We took off the instrument panel and rewired the hand-held GPS I mount on my right handlebar (the power cord had frayed and no longer worked, and I’d been running it on batteries alone). Sometimes people ask me why I bother with a hand-held GPS. Because it’s an accurate speedometer, mainly, way more so than the one on the Goldwing! Oh, and it has an altimeter, which is nice. No, I don’t use it to navigate … I’m still a map person.

This morning I washed the oily fingerprints off the paintwork and now I’m ready to ride. What, I have to wait a whole month before I can leave for Colorado?

Well, it’s always good to be ahead of the game. Here’s a photo:

Moto Maintenance_1

Ed putting new brake pads in the front calipers

If Donna and I ever graduate to a three-car garage, I’m getting a motorcycle maintenance stand like Ed’s, hooked up to a compressed air system. It’s so great bringing the work up to you, as opposed to crouching or kneeling to bring yourself down to the work. Compressed air and air tools? A gift from the gods. Want.

As long as we’re talking about vehicles, the next set of photos show an interesting creation made from two of my favorite things: motorcycles and airplanes. It’s a Bonneville Salt Flats land speed record car constructed of a WWII fighter wing tank and a 50cc Garelli two-stroke motorcycle engine.

Somehow the Pima Air & Space Museum acquired this little speedster. I took these photos Saturday in a back room at the museum; it looked to me like all it needs is a bit of cleaning and it’ll be ready to move into one of the display hangars.

Here’s what little I’ve been able to learn about it:

The builder, Alan Richards, named it Claustrophobia. It rode on bicycle wheels enclosed in a modified 100-gallon wing tank body. The wheelbase is 32 inches, 18 inches side to side. The engine ran on methanol and produced 10 hp. Richards was shooting for 100 mph, but Claustrophobia’s best clocked time was 56 mph (it did hit 70 mph before it got to the timed portion of the run). The driver, Warren Roll (130 pounds), got inside through a top hatch. Once inside he crouched on his knees with his head in the front bubble windshield. Total weight including Mr. Roll was 330 pounds. It ran at least two seasons at Bonneville, in 1963 and again in 1969 (you’ll see a 1969 Bonneville sticker on it in one of the photos I took at the museum Saturday).


Today (photo: Paul Woodford)


Today (photo: Paul Woodford)


At Bonneville in 1969


With Garelli motorcycle, early 1960s


Driver inside


Push-off, 1963

The top two photos are mine from Saturday. If you click on them you can see the originals on Flickr and view them full size to see detail. The historic photos are from the 1963 and 1969 record attempts. In 1963 Claustrophobia was unpainted, and the original spoked bicycle wheels are visible. In 1969 it sported the black & red paint scheme it wears today, and the wheels were covered with a thin aluminum skin.

Glad I ride a Goldwing … plenty of room to stretch out, and I can go way faster than 56 mph!


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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Brunswick County NC school officials, in the wake of yet another parental challenge to Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, have decided the book will stay on the shelves of a middle school. One parent, though, is continuing her campaign to have the book removed, characterizing it as “Filth, pure filth.” Can this parent possibly have read the book? I read it and don’t remember any filth. Here’s my review, ICYMI.

Here’s an interesting article describing a Florida county school board’s procedures for evaluating and acting on parental book challenges. Sounds like these particular administrators like literature and have a clue.

Sadly, here’s the negative school board story to undo the previous two positive ones. Said at a Ringgold PA school board meeting where Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was challenged and quickly banned, and I quote:

Baertsch suggested the board read the book before passing judgment, but Kennedy interrupted her, saying, “I don’t read Penthouse and I won’t read this.”

Contemptible. And typical.

The attempted murder of a teenaged girl by two other teenaged girls who were acting out a crowdsourced story featuring a villain named the Slender Man has led to calls for the banning of crowdsourced online fiction. Crowdsourced fiction sounds a lot like fan fiction to me, so I’m not sure how that would work. I guess you could shut down the internet. Good luck with that.

Speaking of the Slender Man, how common is it for wanna-be book burners to blame crimes on books? One would think it would be one of their favorite tactics, but a quick Google search doesn’t turn up much. Yes, comic books have been blamed for youth crime, along with video games and music, but books? Not in recent years, it seems. And if they aren’t blaming criminality on books, then why are they trying to ban them?

A related thought, from a New Statesman article on the history of literary censorship:

A more legitimate literary objection to censorship is its implicit portrayal of a reader as the sort of person who jumps off a cliff when asked. Notions such as “obscenity” or “abasement before the west” make literary language a tool of subversion and ascribe to the novelist the hypnotist’s capacity for making a previously obedient or prudish member of the public throw stones or unzip.

This story made me think: the staff of a Chicago area public library invited a pro-Palestinian speaker to give a public talk, then disinvited him because they couldn’t find a pro-Israeli speaker to provide “balance.” After a storm of protest they re-invited him and the talk is back on. So here’s what I’m thinking: might this presage a new direction in book banning campaigns? What if book banners, after challenging books on school and public library shelves and being defeated, start demanding balance as compensation? One Chick tract for every YA novel, one copy of The Turner Diaries for every copy of To Kill a Mockingbird? Hey, you read it here first!

Word. Count on it. When censorship is permitted, gay books will be censored.

I mentioned in a previous YCRT! column my fear that trigger warnings, should we start applying them to books, might result in unprecedented waves of book banning directed at schools, colleges, even public libraries and book stores. Even though most book banners don’t read the books they go after (“I don’t read Penthouse and I won’t read this”), trigger warnings would give them a blanket excuse never ever to read books in certain trigger warning categories. The kiss of death, when it comes to trigger warnings on books, would be any mention of homosexuality, which brings me to the …

YCRT! Banned Book Review

fun homeFun Home
Alison Bechdel

I’ll admit up front to a snobbish attitude toward graphic novels. I was raised to think they were for people who don’t like to read. Still, I’m willing to expand my horizons, and when I learned the theme of this year’s Banned Books Week (September 21-27, 2014) is to be graphic novels, I pressed members of my book club to pick one for our September selection. I went a step further and recommended Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. We have agreed to read a graphic novel that month; whether it’ll be Fun Home or another selection remains to be seen. I decided to read it anyway, and borrowed a copy from my local library.

You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, a feminist litmus test for movies. To pass the test, a movie must have:

  1. At least two woman in it, who
  2. talk to each other about
  3. something besides a man

Yes, this is the same Alison Bechdel.

Fun Home is Bechdel’s memoir of her childhood and college years. It’s about her family … her father, mother, and two brothers … and focuses most tightly on her relationship with her father, a troubled man, and her discovery of her own sexuality. This is no comic book; it’s a surprisingly literary and deep self-examination, filled with references and hints that drive you deeper into the text and illustrations. Although it’s a fast read, it’s also a demanding read, not at all what my inner snob was expecting.

Fun Home is touching and extememly personal … I was moved in places, particularly those sections where Bechdel revisits key interactions with her father, showing how her understanding of his complicated character grew as she herself got older. She seems to hold little back; her depiction of a distant relationship with her father doesn’t hide her love for him (I know that’s speculative on my part, but Alison Bechdel made me believe it).

I rarely feel as if I’ve truly shared an author’s humanity, especially not across gaps of gender and sexuality; given that I finished this book knowing only what Alison Bechdel wanted me to know, I was convinced she had shared most of herself with me. I felt connected, and it enriched my appreciation of this book.

When I gather material for new YCRT! columns, I search Google for news articles about book challenges and banning attempts. This is how I first learned of Fun Home, reading articles about attempts to ban or restrict it.

Since its publication in June 2006, would-be censors have repeatedly tried to have Fun Home removed from libraries and school reading lists. The first challenge came just months after publication, in October 2006: residents of Marshall, Missouri tried to have the book removed from the public library. The book was removed but eventually reviewed and reinstated. In 2008 a University of Utah English professor added it to a class reading list. A student objected, and even though the professor gave the student an alternate reading assignment, the student contacted a local organization called “No More Pornography,” which started an online petition calling for the book to be removed from the syllabus (the university stood its ground). Most recently, Fun Home has been challenged in South Carolina, where it was included as a summer reading selection for incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston. Organized religious groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council became involved, and though the college also stood its ground, the South Carolina House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee cut the college’s funding by $52,000 … the cost of the summer reading program … to punish it for selecting Fun Home.

What is it about Fun Home that attracts this kind of attention? The good citizens of Marshall, Missouri characterized it as pornography, expressed concern that it would be read by children, and worried that it would attract seedy elements to the library. Pornography was the label used against the book in Utah. Again in South Carolina, the book’s opponents called it pornography, accusing the book of promoting the “gay and lesbian lifestyle.” One of the state representatives who voted to penalize the college said “This book trampled on freedom of conservatives … teaching with this book, and the pictures, goes too far.” In addition to the budgetary cuts, the legislature required the college to provide alternate books to any student who objects to a reading assignment because of a “religious, moral, or cultural belief.”

Alison Bechdel has described the attempted banning of her book as “a great honor,” describing attacks against it as “part of the whole evolution of the graphic-novel form.” As to claims her work is pornographic, Bechdel points out that pornography is designed to cause sexual arousal, which is not the purpose of her book. Bechdel’s supporters point out that Fun Home has been praised by professional book review journals and is the recipient of several literary awards. As noted, both the University of Utah and the College of Charleston stood by their decisions to retain Fun Home; the provost of the College of Charleston stating that its themes of identity are especially appropriate for college freshmen.

My own reaction? I agree with Bechdel and her defenders: this novel is not only literature but good literature, and while it explores adult themes and sexual identity is it absolutely not pornographic. Yes, Bechdel describes her realization, while in college, that she is lesbian. She describes her growing acceptance of her sexuality and even parts of her sexual life. This is guaranteed to make some readers uncomfortable. As she revisits parts of her earlier life from this new perspective, she discovers her own father’s homosexual past, another potentially uncomfortable subject. And then there are the illustrations depicting Bechdel’s early lesbian experiences:


Some panels are even more graphic, and I can certainly understand why some parents would not want their kids to read this book. I have a hard time, though, seeing where college-aged adults need to be protected from it. Had the censorship attempts in Utah and South Carolina been triggered by the inclusion of Fun Home on a middle or high school reading list, I would not have been particularly surprised. But colleges and universities? Just how grown-up does one have to be to read a book about a lesbian?

I suspect lesbianism … the explicitly sexual drawings in particular … is key to conservative outrage over Fun Home. I thought Bechdel’s story important, especially in an era when we’re increasingly aware that some of our friends, relatives, co-workers, and fellow students are gay. I thought her illustrations frank but not titillating, an essential part of the story. Others, however, see in Bechdel’s story and illustrations an attempt to overturn morality and religion by “promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle.”

Significant numbers of people, and sadly many parents, believe homosexuality is a conscious choice. Accompanying that belief is the fear that exposing kids to sympathetic depictions of homosexuality, particularly kids who are just beginning to discover their own sexuality, might tempt them to experiment with, or even become, homosexual. Religious conservatives have always gone after books that depict or even mention sex, but books featuring happy, well-adjusted, sympathetic homosexual characters really bring out their wrath. Fun Home is obviously such a book, and we certainly haven’t heard the last about it.

Judy Blume, another author whose books have been banned and suppressed, has this to say to parents who worry about what their kids are reading:

A lot of people worry much too much about what their children are reading. A lot of people will want to control everything in their children’s lives, or everything in other people’s children’s lives.

If a child picks up a book and reads something she has a question about, if she can go to her parents, great. Or else they will read right over it. It won’t mean a thing.

They are very good, I think, at monitoring what makes them feel uncomfortable. If something makes them feel uncomfortable they will put it down.

I think Ms Blume is on to something. With regard to Fun Home, if the subject of sexual identity makes you uncomfortable, if it is an affront to your religious, moral, or cultural beliefs, don’t read it … just don’t assume your decision should apply to others.

Additional reading:


Air-Minded: Women & Military Aviation

When I tell visitors about the Pima Air & Space Museum’s F-14 Tomcat, I always work in a few words about women in military aviation. The Tomcat seems like the right place to introduce the topic: first because the US Navy, along with the US Army, led the way in training woman aviators in 1974, a full two years before the US Air Force got on board; second because after combat restrictions were lifted in 1994 some of the very first woman fighter pilots were naval aviators assigned to the Tomcat.

Time constraints keep me from saying much about the overall topic of women in civil and military aviation, and that’s a shame because there’s a lot to say. We’ve all heard about Amelia Earhart and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. We’ve all heard about the WASP pilots and crews who test-flew American fighters and bombers and ferried them from the USA to overseas combat bases during WWII. I mention these women too, but in a 50-minute tour there’s never time to do more than scratch the surface.


WASP pilot Ruth Dailey climbing into a P-38 Lightning aircraft, 28 Nov 1944

Who, outside Russia, knows about the USSR’s women fighter pilots who flew against the Luftwaffe? Who remembers Bessie Coleman, who in 1921 became the first African-American woman to earn a pilot license? Or Helen Richey, who was hired by Central Airlines in 1934, becoming the first woman airline pilot? Or Jacqueline Cochran, in 1953 the first woman to break the sound barrier? Or Jerrie Mock, who in 1964 became the first woman to finish what Amelia Earhart started in 1937, and did it solo in a single-engine Cessna? If there was ever a doubt in your mind that women catch the same flying bug that has infected generations of young men, a glance at this list will fix that.

When I write about flying, I try to inject personal experience. Sadly, when it comes to women in military aviation, I don’t have much (personal experience, that is).  What little I do know is limited to the US Air Force and largely confined to fighter aviation, so I won’t speak outside those boundaries.

Military aviation was male-only when I went through pilot training in 1974. Although the Navy and Army began training female pilots that year, my service didn’t follow suit until 1976, and women didn’t start flying in operational Air Force units until 1977. I was a T-37 instructor pilot at an Air Training Command base in Oklahoma from 1975 to 1978; the first woman instructor pilots didn’t arrive at that base until after I’d transferred to the F-15. Fighters, unlike trainers, were still off-limits to women, and stayed so until 1994. By the time women began flying fighters in the Air Force, it was the second half of the 1990s and I was in a ground job, soon to retire. To my regret, I never had the opportunity to fly with women pilots.

After I retired from the military in 1997 I went to work as a civilian contractor, teaching flight safety to USAF pilots and aircrews at bases in the US, Korea, and Japan. That was when I finally started meeting, and training, woman fighter pilots. Their numbers were so small I can count the ones I worked with then on the fingers of one hand: one F-15 pilot and three A-10 pilots (I got to know two of the A-10 pilots reasonably well and am still in touch with both today, although by now they’re retired like me).

There was a lot of resistance to women pilots inside the military, first in the 1970s when they began to fly non-combat military aircraft, then again in the 1990s when they started flying fighters and bombers. Senior military leaders and old-school pilots from the men-only days pulled out all the stops: they’ll have to have separate locker rooms and restrooms; we won’t be able to tell jokes and sing dirty songs at the bar; women aren’t physically capable of pulling Gs; they’ll get knocked up and grounded if there’s ever a threat of actually going to war; if they do go to war with us and one of them gets shot down the American public will revolt … and on and on (and on, and on).

An interesting subset of resistance came from military wives, who worried about what might happen when their husbands were on alert or away on temporary overseas duty with woman pilots. Never mind that woman military aviators are generally married themselves, with spouses at home.

When I was flying F-15s at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in the early 1990s, there were two or three woman pilots and navigators assigned to the AWACS and tanker units there. We fighter pilots knew them professionally (we planned and flew missions and deployments together); along with our wives we knew them socially (we all drank at the same officers’ club). Some of the same tensions existed then; women in flight suits were rare and many of the wives distrusted them. Donna and I got to know one of these women, a KC-135 navigator, pretty well, and we stayed friends for years afterward.

At least in the USAF, I think the resistance has run its course. Women, of course, fly airplanes as well as men. They’re motivated and have proven themselves in combat. Some have died in accidents, some have been shot down, some have even been POWs. The American public did not revolt, the world did not end. There have by now been several woman fighter squadron commanders (one of my friends was one) and a few woman wing commanders. Women fly with the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels.


Capt Jammie Jamieson, first combat-ready USAF woman F-22 pilot. Photo: Dan DeLong (2008)

Their numbers are still small, though, especially compared with overall numbers of women in the military. Speaking of the USAF alone, while almost 20% of the overall officer and enlisted force is female, women make up only about 5% of the pilot force. I understand the same ratio holds true for the US Navy and the civilian airline industry. I don’t know if that means anything, or if any conclusions can be drawn from it. Cultural conditioning may play a role; we still tend to think of certain occupations as male or female … but what do I know?

Why aren’t more women drawn to military aviation? Reader comments welcomed!


Friday Bag o’ Dog Years

imageBoth hummingbird chicks have flown away. The bicycle hook nest is empty. A friend told me new chicks sometimes come back to the nest at first. We observed that with one of the chicks from an earlier hummingbird nest in June. I remember thinking, “Surely that bird should have learned to fly by now,” and then right before my eyes it did fly. According to my friend, it probably had been flying for a while.

With that in mind I announced I’d wait a week before knocking the nest down, just in case the chicks still think of it as home. Donna said I should leave it alone. One, she likes seeing the nest, even if it’s empty. Two, Mother Nature knows best and if I intervene it’ll change the equation in unknown ways. She’s right, of course. The old nest stays, and next year’s mamas can deal with the cleanup. I’ll content myself with hosing the dried hummingbird shit off the patio floor.

We’re in the heart of southern Arizona’s monsoon season, but most of the rain has fallen in other neighborhoods. We get lightning, thunder, and the occasional spatter, and I guess that’ll have to do. Would that we could turn our sprinklers off and not have to add water to the pool every few days.

Some day the southern Arizona water table will be exhausted and the entire region will have to be evacuated. We’ll be refugees. I wonder if people up north and back east will set up immigration checkpoints and try to keep us out. No, not really. I don’t wonder at all. I know they will. People suck.


Dogs don’t suck, thank goodness. That’s Schatzi, who is nine years old this month. In dog years she’s catching up with us. I hope her knees don’t bother her! Chewie the cat was born in August too, we think, which makes her nineteen, an elderly cat. She howls a lot and spends most of her days curled up in Donna’s bathroom sink. Doesn’t seem to have any problem leaping up onto the bathroom counter, though, and she always puts in an appearance at mealtime.

Parts and pieces for my next motorcycle maintenance session are arriving daily. Just waiting for the new tires, which’ll probably come today. Have I mentioned how much I love online shopping? I get motorcycle parts from a Honda dealership in Ohio … good prices, fast and free shipping … and have been a loyal customer since 2001. For everything else, though, I use Amazon. You can accuse me of drinking Jeff Bezos’ Kool-aid, and that’s fine. Beats the hell out of schlepping all over town. Seriously, I wonder if the growth of on-line shopping is making a dent in overall fuel consumption and emissions. It certainly saves this one shopper a bundle of gas money.

I’ve put in over 1,000 hours of volunteer time at the Pima Air & Space Museum, graduating from a laminated card stock name tag to a spiffy metal badge. They even spelled my name right!


Mainly, though, I’m just happy I no longer have to wear that damn lanyard around my neck. I must have been choked as a child … I hate having anything around my neck. Thank goodness they don’t want us to wear neckties!

During my first year at the museum, I worked one day a week, five hours at a time. That added up to 260 hours a year. I’ve been there three years; at that rate I’d still be well short of a thousand hours. For the past two years, though, I’ve also been team leader for the walking tour docents, and the extra work that goes with that … scheduling, resolving conflicts, evaluating new members and giving annual recertifications to team members … is what hurried me along to metal badge land. I’m planning to turn team leader duties over to another member this October and go back to working one day a week. I still love the work, still love talking about airplanes and occasionally writing about them.

Actually, I’m fishing around for an airplane or aviation-related topic to write about. Any suggestions?

A while back, I posed this question to my friends on Facebook: Since “it’s” is a contraction of “it is,” why don’t we say “it’s what it’s” instead of “it is what it is”? No one had a good answer. Certainly I’ve never seen or heard anyone use “it’s” that way. I did see this interesting iteration of “they’re” on Twitter, though, used in the same way:

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 11.05.58 AM

Too bad the fellow’s political views are so retarded. Otherwise we might have been linguistic soul mates!


Birds & Bikes


Click for larger

One of our hummingbird chicks flew away yesterday. As of this morning the second on is still in the nest. This was our second storage hook hummingbird nest of 2014.

The mother hummingbird is wary and flies away when she sees us. The chicks don’t know any better and stay calm when we’re around. This particular nest is over the breezeway between our house and garage, just a few feet from the kitchen door. Donna and I are in and out of that door several times a day. I always say hello to the chicks when I walk underneath their nest. My voice probably sounds like booming surf to them … I hope they find it comforting and familiar.

We think mother hummers build nests on these hooks because they’re tucked up under the patio overhang, out of view of predators. The worrisome part, though, is that it’s a long drop to the hard concrete patio floor below. In 2009, the first year we started observing hummingbird nests on our patio, one chick did wind up on the concrete. I found it there and very gently put it back in the nest, but it was dead when I checked on it half an hour later.

We’ve watched over several generations of nesting chicks since then and haven’t seen a repeat of that tragedy … actually we’re pretty confident the mother of the chicks in the photo is one of the chicks we watched grow up and fly away last summer. We’ll just have to trust Mother Nature to know what’s best for these tiny creatures.

I rode the Goldwing over to Ed’s garage yesterday. As regular readers know, Ed’s my maintenance guru and riding buddy. We looked the bike over to see what needs to be done before my September cross-country through Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and southwestern Colorado. The list isn’t long: new tires, new front brake pads, flushing and replacing brake fluid, fresh oil and a filter. Replace standard wear items and stay on top of periodic maintenance and a Goldwing should last just about forever, one of the many reasons I love my Honda.

Motorcycle tires are crazy expensive and wear out fast. The new set of Bridgestones I ordered yesterday cost $300, and that’s a bargain price. The last set (also Bridgestones) lasted about 10,000 miles; the best I’ve ever done was a set of Dunlops that made it to 12,000 miles. When the tires and brake pads come Ed and I will put them on. Motorcycle shops in this area charge $75 an hour for labor (while paying their mechanics not much more than minimum wage), and I’ve learned they can’t be trusted to do good work. I’m blessed to have a friend like Ed. I should carve a little plastic figurine in his likeness and glue it to the front fender of my Goldwing … he’s my patron saint of motorcycling, my Saint Christopher.

I probably mentioned in an earlier post that my original plan was to ride by myself to Sturgis for the annual Black Hills rally, which starts next week. Sturgis is a hellaciously expensive proposition, but it’s a pilgrimage every motorcyclist must take some day. What changed my plans was that my son wanted to go on a cross-country ride with me and September was better for him. I’d much rather go riding with my son, and September is cooler than August, so I was happy to change my plans. Sturgis can wait until next year, or the year after.

We settled on a ride to the mountains in southwestern Colorado, an easy two-day trek from Las Vegas. I asked my friends Bruce and Tamara in Ouray if we could stay with them a couple of nights in September. They said sure, so now I have to carve two more plastic figurines for the front fender!

The current plan is this: I’ll ride to Las Vegas on Thursday, September 18. Gregory’s borrowing a BMW; we’ll ride from Vegas to Moab on Friday the 19th. We’ll take mountain roads to Ouray on the 20th and do some day riding in the San Juans on the 21st, stopping in Silverton and Durango. We’ll leave Ouray for Cedar City on the 22nd, then ride back to Vegas on the 23rd. Depending on how sore my ass is, I’ll ride home to Tucson on the 24th or 25th.

It’s entirely possible it’ll snow in the San Juans in mid-September, but we are nothing if not flexible. We’ll at least get as far as Moab, and that’ll be fun too … the annual Moab Film Festival is on the weekend we’re passing through, as I discovered when making hotel reservations.

Back to watching hummingbird chicks now. I think the second chick will try to fly today, and I hope to see it.