Air-Minded: SAMs & Airlocks

I saw something on Twitter yesterday about another Trump loyalist being installed at the Pentagon. The name in the tweet was O’Grady, which triggered memories of an F-16 pilot shot down and later rescued from hostile territory in Bosnia. Couldn’t be the same guy, I thought. There must be lots of O’Gradys.

Turns out it’s the same guy.

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His LinkedIn profile, or whatever that is, wears a thick coat of whitewash. At the very least, the tale it tells is not the one I remember. I was still on active duty, stationed at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada, when O’Grady got himself shot down. Nellis, USAF fighter central, was awash with scuttlebutt during and after the shootdown and subsequent rescue. Let me tell you, when someone fucks up word spreads fast inside the community.

Here’s how I heard the story.

O’Grady and his flight lead were flying combat patrol over Bosnia on June 2, 1995. Bosnian ground forces fired two SA-6 Gainful surface-to-air missiles. The first one detonated between the F-16s. The second one hit O’Grady’s jet, breaking it in half, but O’Grady was able to eject. He evaded Bosnian ground forces for six days and was then rescued by US Marines.

What I was told was that O’Grady and his lead were flying right on top of a solid undercast. The Bosnian missile crew didn’t turn on the acquisition and tracking radar until seconds before launch, giving little warning. Lead likely did have some warning, given that his radar warning receiver was turned on and operating normally. O’Grady didn’t. Because he had his RWR turned off. Still, you can sometimes see SAMs coming up at you, at least when their rocket motors are still burning, and you can either turn on electronic countermeasures equipment (O’Grady had forgotten to turn that on as well), dump chaff, or execute a last-ditch evasive maneuver. But you can’t do even that if you can’t see the SAM coming, as when, say, you’re right on top of a solid cloud deck that blocks the view of everything below, which is why you CAP either below or well above the clouds.

General Fogleman, my former commander at Soesterberg AB in the Netherlands, was the four-star USAF chief of staff during the Bosnian war. After the successful rescue Fogleman allegedly vowed O’Grady would never fly another jet for the Air Force. That may or may not be true, but it is a fact that O’Grady left the service shortly afterward. Other scuttlebutt said commanders and colleagues blackballed him, using industry connections to scotch any possibility of an airline career. O’Grady eventually went to seminary, and when I finally met him in the early 2000s, was working as a minister and motivational speaker.

Yes, we met. It was at an NRA dinner in Tucson in 2007. Donna was working for a gun store at the time and I was along as the spouse of an employee. O’Grady was the guest speaker. He told a different version of the story, as I expected he would … as I probably would have myself, had it been me who’d so royally screwed the pooch … and I kept my thoughts to myself. I perked up a bit when he started talking about the rescue, executed by 51 US Marines aboard two CH-53 Sea Stallions, two Supercobra gunships, and two Harriers flying deep into enemy territory, with bad guys all around. When O’Grady came to the part where you give credit, he didn’t say a word about the Marines. He thanked Jesus.

What a twerp.


I sat up late with my iPad two nights back, watching the SpaceX Dragon capsule dock with the International Space Station. Like everyone, probably, I love the interior design of the Dragon and the sharp uniforms worn by the crew. Such a contract with the messy, cluttered, clunky interior of the ISS. The Dragon and its crew make me think of the ships and spacesuits of “The Expanse.”

I thought even more about “The Expanse” while watching astronaut Kate Rubin opening the airlock hatches so that the arriving crew could come aboard the ISS.

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It took Kate Rubin nearly two hours to complete the task, first opening the hatch between the ISS’s Harmony module and the docking vestibule or airlock, then the hatch of the Dragon itself. She floated back and forth between the Harmony module and the vestibule, over and over, following checklist steps on an iPad and confirming them with ground controllers at SpaceX, her fellow ISS crewmates, and the arriving crew aboard the Dragon.

In “The Expanse,” when the Roci docks with another ship, Naomi slaps a big green button to cycle the airlock … it’s an automated process, utterly routine and safe. It strikes me we should turn SpaceX engineers loose on the ISS interior, and specifically the docking airlocks, but it’s probably way too late for a retrofit … maybe they’ll help design the next space station. To those who’ll say the hundreds of procedural steps Kate Rubin had to meticulously follow are required for safety, I say any procedure that complex has too many links in the chain, any one of which if broken would result in instant depressurization and death, and an automated process would actually be safer … not to mention a hell of a lot faster.

But hey, watching Kate’s hair floating around was fascinating!

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “Air-Minded: SAMs & Airlocks

  • I got to my first CVN in ’95. When asked by a guest: “what kind of airplane is that one?” My response was: “It’s a gray one…” As I got to know the ship and met a few fighter types, I recall hearing them speaking with sheer disdain over Scott O’Grady (and then, in true Naval Aviator fashion, going on to besmirch the USAF of course.) Out there on the smoke pit, they’d go on and on about how they’d never get caught up in a mess like that. Of course, I understood little of it other than this fella on the news wasn’t much of a pilot considering he ignored some pretty basic (as I understood it) fundamentals. Thank’s for shedding a little light.

    Thinking of the ISS, I remember people asking me why our brand new ship (back then) USS JOHN C STENNIS CVN-74 was built with such antiquated systems. It was a bit of a challenge when you explain to someone a ship commissioned in ’95 was , in fact designed during the Kennedy Administration. It costs a lot do design a new CVN, let alone begin construction of an entirely new class of ship.
    The ISS was announced in January, 1984. There was likely a fair amount of conceptualization going on for some time prior and its design parameters were likely centered around systems available, or at least in the design phase in the 80s and early 90s. We didn’t even launch initial modules until the late 90s.
    Engineering marvels are almost always outdated by the time they arrive on the scene. The Dragon 2 is coming and we saw a mockup of the one to succeed that (I forget the name, but it’s supposed to be the forerunner to the one that will carry us to Mars) one when we visited Kennedy Space Center earlier this year.
    So yeah, the new stuff looks cool, but it’s only because our paradigm is already well outdated. It’s already obsolete.

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