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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.


Paul’s Book Reviews: Fiction, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Memoir, Mystery

“Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, dear man. In an imperfect world, I fear it’s the best we can manage.” — A Delicate Truth, John le Carré

a delicate truthA Delicate Truth
John le Carré

John le Carré is in his 80s and still writing spy thrillers that are as contemporary and up to the minute as anything else in the genre. His latest, A Delicate Truth, is one of his best IMHO.

Le Carré long ago moved on from the Cold War espionage era of his classic George Smiley character to the post-9/11, counter-terrorism, civilian contractor-dominated intelligence world of today, his later novels featuring mid-level actors in Britain’s foreign office and intelligence ministries. I will never say the George Smiley novels were unrealistic, because they all feel quite real … what I mean to say is that the later novels feel more real because they feature characters that seem like people we know.

You can feel le Carré’s anger with the direction covert intelligence-gathering has taken since the days when the Americans, led by Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, subverted and politicized the process, dragging Britain’s spy services down with them into a Keystone Kop mess of cherry picking intelligence from favored sources, running screaming after every imaginable threat, special rendition, torturing innocent and guilty suspects alike, and achieving failure after failure. Le Carré’s anger shines with a special intensity when he describes the yes-man atmosphere within Britain’s intelligence services today, and it shines with blinding intensity during the chapter where former foreign office official Kit Probyn tries to alert his former colleagues to a disastrously failed mission he was once part of.

Le Carré’s anger never gets in the way of his ability to tell a fascinating story. This novel is an absolute page-turner. The characters are vivid, deep, utterly believable. The botched intelligence operation, conducted in darkness at Gibralter, is as realistic as anything I’ve read. The conspiracy behind the operation, led by corrupt officials and politically influential outsiders, is revealed in layers, keeping the suspense at a high level throughout. If you are not as angry as John le Carré by the end of this novel, you are either Dick Cheney or an employee of Blackwater.

Damn, this is a fine, exciting, and thoughtful read. At the risk of repeating myself, it is one of le Carré’s best.

5W FINAL COVER.inddThe 5th Wave
Rick Yancey

The 5th Wave hooked me from page one. I liked the plot, I liked the characters, I liked the writing. It has the right ingredients to become another Hunger Games. It reminded a bit of Hugh Howey’s Wool series, and also of Michael de Larrabeiti’s The Borribles, both of which I loved.

Yes. there’s a bit of teen romance woven into the storyline, but I liked Cassie enough that I went along with it. Hey, you have to have something to live for, something to fight the Others for, right?

I really liked the way Yancy shows rather than tells what’s going on with the rescuers from Wright Patterson. He doesn’t spell it out, but instead allows the reader and the novel’s main characters to figure it out for themselves as the plot unfolds.

Without getting into spoilers I will say that the storyline is extremely grim, involving the extinction of all but a few humans. Some will object to that, and I look forward to hearing about parental challenges to the inclusion of the book in school libraries and English reading lists. Why? Because I love banned books, and this one has the potential to make the list!

Seriously, I can’t imagine young adult readers not liking The 5th Wave and rushing out to buy sequels. I’m an old fart, and I’ll be in line too. The 5th Wave was a very pleasant surprise. More, please.

i am spartacusI Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist
Kirk Douglas

This was one of my monthly book club selections. I was eager to read it because it promised an insider’s view of the Hollywood blacklist era, when many notable figures were driven out of the film industry in a national frenzy of witch hunting.

I was far less interested in Kirk Douglas himself, but my opinion changed as I read the book. I took it for granted that Douglas’ recollections would be self-serving, but the more I read the more I came to admire the actor/producer. His story is fascinating, and well-written to boot.

As to the Hollywood blacklist and Douglas’ role in making sure Dalton Trumbo appeared on the credits as screenwriter, thus “breaking” the blacklist, this subject comprises just a small section of the book, which is mostly about the struggles of making a film: finding financing, casting, getting the right director, and so forth. The parts about the squabbles and idiosyncrasies of famous actors were fun, and kept me turning pages to get to the parts about the blacklist.

Naturally, Douglas paints everything in the most positive colors. The gossip doesn’t sting; there’s little in the way of outing wastrels, drunks, philanderers, or complete shits (with the exception of the agent who systematically robbed Douglas for years, a story Douglas starts but regrettably doesn’t finish). Nor do I think he tells the whole story of the blacklist and the pressure he must have been under to dump Trumbo. But what he does reveal is fascinating, and helped me better understand the era.

Even more fascinating than the breaking of the blacklist, at least to me, was the censorship: Douglas recites a great long list of words, scenes, and sub-plots Universal Studios cut out of Spartacus before its release. I want to watch the movie again after reading this book, but more than anything I want to see the parts that were cut out! My admiration of Mr. Douglas went up a few notches after realizing the movie he made was a good deal richer and deeper than the movie Universal presented to the public.

Overall this is a fun and informative read, a nice supplement to more academic studies of the HUAC/Hollywood blacklist era.

ghost of the mary celesteThe Ghost of the Mary Celeste
Valerie Martin

I had heard of the Mary Celeste but had never read anything about it. This fictional treatment appealed to me so I read it first, then researched the actual historical incident. Backwards, to be sure, but I believe fiction often tells a truer truth … good fiction, that is.

The parts of Valerie Martin’s novel dealing with the ship Mary Celeste and its crew and passengers are solidly founded in historical fact. The chapters detailing Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing about the Mary Celeste, along with the descriptions of his travels, seem accurate as well.

The parts of Martin’s novel that deal with the lives and inner thoughts of historical people are of course pure fiction, but extremely well done. One feels as if one has met and gotten to know the Mary Celeste’s captain and his wife, as well as the famous author-to-be Conan Doyle.

The parts of Martin’s novel that are wholly fictional (yet still based on events of the late 1800s in England and America) blend into the narrative so well that one has trouble separating those parts of the story from the more well-founded ones. I am speaking here of the spiritualist movement that swept the two countries during the Victorian era, and the character of Violet Petra, who astounds everyone who encounters her.

I’m as skeptical as they come: the dead do not communicate with the living. Yet I enjoyed this novel so much I temporarily put my disbelief aside. I will note that Valerie Martin adds her own strong note of skepticism in the character of the journalist who becomes Violet Petra’s friend, and this keeps the spiritualist parts of the novel from becoming romantic nonsense.

As for the mystery of the Mary Celeste itself: why the ship was found unmanned, its cargo still aboard, with no signs of violence or any other signs to suggest what may have happened to the crew and passengers? Martin stays close to historical facts here, yet leaves us wondering, and that wonder is what keeps the story of the Mary Celeste alive from generation to generation.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is solid, satisfying speculation about a fascinating historical mystery, and a very good novel as well.

shovel readyShovel Ready
Adam Sternbergh

A near-future dystopian novel, written in classic hard-boiled detective style, about a contract killer working the mean streets of a mostly-abandoned post-dirty bomb New York City.

I absolutely loved it. Could not put it down. Even when, at the end, a multiplicity of double-crosses and feints made the plot a bit hard to follow.

In Sternbergh’s near future, wealthy people in great numbers have withdrawn from real life to live out fantasies in a detailed, realistic cyberworld called the limnosphere, opium addicts rewritten for the 21st century. Our man moves in and out of the limnosphere in a complex effort to protect a runaway girl from her pursuers, who chase her in both worlds as well.

Shovel Ready is so well written I didn’t mind the overdone stuff at the end, not even a little bit. The good guys are anti-hero types, exceptionally well drawn. The villains are truly evil, yet fleshed out almost as well as the good guys. The descriptions of the semi-deserted NYC are gritty and convincing.

I was enthralled. I had more fun with this book than I had any right to have, and have nothing but praise for Adam Sternbergh. Great stuff.

Martin Cruz Smith

Not the best Arkady Renko novel I’ve read. In fact it’s probably the worst. And yet it is still a solid three-star read. Here’s my review of Martin Cruz Smith’s previous Arkady Renko novel, Three Stations:

“Every time I read a Martin Cruz Smith novel, I marvel again over just how good he is. This one, the latest Arkady Renko novel, is the shortest one yet (under 200 pages). It’s fast-moving, not just because it’s short but because it’s tightly plotted. As with other Arkady Renko stories, it takes place against a backdrop of corrupt police, criminal oligarchs, and the poorest of the poor (who are not Dickens-style poor but barbarian wretches who’d rob their own mothers on their deathbeds). The familiar plot lines are here: Arkady is out of favor with his bosses, almost no one is willing to help him investigate a crime, Arkady plods on regardless of professional and personal danger. So is it cookie-cutter Renko? Maybe. But it’s so damn good you don’t care. Imagine an alternate universe where a one-hour police procedural on TV was actually good. Now imagine a universe where that one-hour police procedural on TV was ten times better than that. That approaches how good Three Stations is.”

From that you will correctly judge I’m partial to Martin Cruz Smith. Part of the reason I liked Tatiana, the latest Arkady Renko installment, is that I feel I know Arkady. I know him well enough to know how he’ll react to corruption, official blindness and lack of support, vicious criminals, and strong Russian women.

My main objection to Tatiana is the TV-style cop show ending, where all the villains and good guys are thrown together on the deck of a rusting oil tanker in Kaliningrad harbor and all the messy plot ends are resolved in a too-slick, too-easy manner. Yes, I was disappointed, but the parts of the novel leading up to the climax are quite good, and I was happy to see Arkady’s charge, Zhenko, growing up and finding his way in life.

I liked this novel because Arkady’s an old friend. Readers new to Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels should start at the beginning with Gorky Park and work their way forward; they’d probably be disappointed if they started with this one.


Air-Minded: End of the Road (Updated)

3/17/14: I added some new information and corrected a couple of errors. Scroll to the bottom for the update.

Well, the end of the road for the A-10, that is. And the U-2.

People keep asking me what I think of the Pentagon’s plan to retire the A-10. As I said in a previous post, I don’t see it as the end of the world. The Warthog was going to be gone by 2028 anyway. Under the latest five-year budget plan, it’ll be gone by 2020. The USAF has to carve out money for the F-35, and it has to come from somewhere.

Here, finally, is a chart detailing the USAF’s five-year plan. The chart shows, location by location and fiscal year by fiscal year, aircraft to be retired. The military fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30; when the chart references FY15, for example, that’s the fiscal year that starts this October. If you look at Arizona, you’ll see that the USAF plans to retire a total of 83 A-10s over a two-year period starting October 2014 and ending September 2016. That’s the entire Davis-Monthan AFB fleet, gone by mid-2016.


The wing at Davis-Monthan trains pilots to fly the A-10. The chart implies that the last trainees will graduate by September 2016; no new A-10 pilots will be trained after that date. Warthog squadrons at other bases in the USA and overseas will be gone even sooner, by September of next year: Moody AFB, Georgia; Boise ANGB, Idaho; Osan AB, South Korea. Air National Guard units in some states will keep their Warthogs a little longer: Michigan to September 2017, Missouri to September 2018, Indiana to September 2019. And that’s it. Not quite all the way to FY2020, but close enough.

The U-2s at Beale AFB in California are slated to be gone by September 2016. With other scheduled cuts, 500 aircraft in all will be retired by FY2020. The Aviationist offers this summary:

Over the next 5 years, along with the about 340 A-10s and 33 U-2s, the “adjustment” will cut about 70 F-15Cs, 119 MQ-1 drones, 6 E-8 Joint Stars planes, 7 E-3 AWACS, and 7 EC-130 Compass Call aircraft; such aircraft will be partially replaced by some upgraded F-16s, made available as new F-35s replace them, and 36 MQ-9 Reaper drones, while all the remaining fleets will (more or less) be upgraded.

Focusing locally, the cuts at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson will be substantial. Up to now, as mentioned, DMAFB has been the USAF’s A-10 schoolhouse. It’s also home base to the EC-130 Compass Call. Both aircraft will be gone in two years.

What’ll be left at Davis-Monthan? A small helicopter rescue unit, a few plain-vanilla C-130 transport aircraft, 12th Air Force headquarters (which oversees USAF operations and relations in Central & South America and the Caribbean), and the famous “Boneyard” (where all these soon-to-be retired aircraft will join those that went before them). Davis-Monthan lost the bid to be the training base for the F-35 (Luke AFB in Phoenix edged us out), and I’m afraid our base, a major employer in Tucson, will become a ghost town. I don’t see it going away — 12th Air Force and the Boneyard will keep it alive — but it won’t be the bustling center of activity it has been.

As for the F-35 and whether it’ll be capable of fulfilling the A-10′s close air support mission, please permit me a momentary deviation from the party line. You didn’t think the USAF wanted to kill the A-10 just because it’s ugly and slow, did you? No, it’s because the USAF never wanted to fly close air support in the first place.

The fighter I flew, the F-15 Eagle, experienced a host of problems early on. It was over budget and overweight, plagued by systems that didn’t work as advertised and a shortage of spare parts and engines. In some quarters it was considered a failure and many predicted its early demise. By 1978 we were well on our way to fixing all the problems, and from that point to today the F-15 has been a total success, not only the best air superiority fighter ever but the only fighter to date to achieve a perfect combat record, over a hundred kills and no losses. There’s no doubt in my mind the F-35 will follow a similar curve, and that by 2020 it’ll be a damn good fighter.

But the day the USAF willingly commits a squadron of F-35s to provide close air support to some Army general’s ground troops will be the day rivers flow with whiskey and T-bone steaks grow on trees.

Update (3/17/14): Per this article in yesterday’s Arizona Daily Star, I see that I was a bit too pessimistic about future USAF plans for Davis-Monthan AFB.

First of all, with regard to DMAFB’s A-10s, I misread the chart above. It shows the removal of 55 A-10s over the course of the next two fiscal years. Those are the two active USAF A-10 squadrons, which will be gone by September 2016. But there is a third, an AF Reserve squadron with 28 assigned A-10s. That unit is scheduled to remain, with its A-10s, until FY19, when it will transition to F-16s. It is possible that the reserve unit will train small numbers of replacement A-10 pilots for ANG units around the US, one of which (in Indiana) will also remain until FY19. A few A-10s, then, will remain at DMAFB until some time between October 2018 and September 2019. By September 2019 at the latest, the reserve unit here will be flying F-16s.

I was also wrong about the complete closeout of EC-130 Compass Call operations at DMAFB. I thought there were only 7 or so aircraft, but in fact there are 15. So approximately half the fleet is retiring by September 2015, not the entire fleet.

The impact on DMAFB and Tucson will still be significant. Two-thirds of the current A-10 fleet will be gone in two years, and likely less than that. Half the EC-130s will be gone in one. In four years, the few remaining A-10s will be replaced with F-16s. I’m not aware of any USAF plans to base other aircraft at DM, at least for now. Compared to today, tomorrow’s Davis-Monthan is going to feel like a ghost town.


Air-Minded: Douglas F3D Skyknight

F3D_Skyknight_3-view_Greg_GoebelThere’s a Skyknight on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, where I work as a volunteer tour guide. It catches my eye every time I walk past it, maybe because it’s so different. I decided to take some photos, do some research, and write about what I learned. Turns out the old tub — also known as Willie the Whale, the Turtle, and the Drut (spell it backwards) — was a far more significant aircraft than I had imagined.

I remember building a model of this airplane during the middle 1950s. I built a lot of models as a kid and have surely forgotten most of them, but that one stuck in my mind. All I knew about the Skyknight at the time was that it had been one of the Navy’s first jet fighters. It struck me as utterly antiquated with its straight wings, bulky fuselage, and side-by-side seating, so unlike the other jet fighters developed after WWII. If anyone had told me then that Skyknights were still flying, or indeed that they would continue flying for many years to come, I would have scoffed — surely the type had been long retired, replaced by sleeker designs like Douglas’ F4D Skyray or A4D Skyhawk.


Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight, Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)

The Skyknight originated with a 1945 Navy requirement for a jet-powered, radar-equipped, carrier-based night fighter. The prototype flew in March 1948 and the Navy ordered 28 production F3D-1 aircraft few months later. In August 1949 the Navy ordered a second batch of 237 aircraft, an improved version called the F3D-2. The first F3Ds entered USN and USMC service in 1950, and although production ended in March 1952, Skyknights remained in service until the 1970s.

The F3D-1 never deployed outside the United States, but was used to train aircrews who then flew the F3D-2 in combat in Korea. In 1962, after Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the military services to adopt a uniform aircraft designation system, the remaining F3Ds became F-10s. An electronic warfare variant, the EF-10, saw combat in Vietnam. The last military Skyknight, an EF-10B assigned to the Marine Corps, was retired in 1970.

After the Skyknight’s retirement a few aircraft were given to Raytheon to use in missile and radar testing, and at least one of these was still flying in late 1978 at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, when I completed USAF fighter lead-in training there (I didn’t know at the time it was a Raytheon bird, but given that Holloman is co-located with the Army’s White Sands Missile Range, it makes sense to me now).


Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight, Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)

What was so significant about the Skyknight? For one thing, it was built around three separate radars: the search and tracking radars located in the nose plus a tail warning radar in the aft fuselage. The size of these early vacuum tube radars dictated the Skyknight’s wide, deep fuselage, side-by-side crew seating arrangement, and the location of the engines in pods located on the outside of the lower fuselage. The search radar was surprisingly effective for the early 1950s, able to pick up bomber-sized targets at 20 miles and fighter-sized targets at 15. The tracking radar could lock on at 4,000 yards and guide the Skyknight all the way in to firing position. The tail warning radar could detect attacking aircraft as far as 4 miles away, giving the Skyknight crew ample time to react.

In the pre-missile days of the Korean War, the F3D made its mark as a night fighter. Skyknight crews used the radar to acquire enemy aircraft and close in, unobserved, for the kill. The F3D was actually the most successful Navy or Marine Corps air-to-air fighter of the war: USMC Skyknight crews were credited with six kills (one Polikarpov Po-2, one Yakovlev Yak-15 and four MiG-15s). During the initial part of the war Skyknight crews got their kills with the four 20mm cannon located below the nose; later on they used air-to-air rockets to supplement the guns.


Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight, Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)

Also of significance, at least from my point of view as a former USAF fighter pilot, immediately after the Korean War the Skyknight was used to test the first generation of air-to-air radar-guided missiles, and in fact it became the first Navy jet to carry an operational air-to-air radar missile: the Sparrow I, the ancestor of the AIM-7 Sparrows I carried on my F-15 Eagle.

F3D-2M Launch project steam

F3D-2 with Sparrow I missiles

Douglas proposed an evolutionary version of the Skyknight in 1959, the F6D Missileer, in an effort to win a Navy contract for a carrier-based fleet defense missile fighter. The Missileer was meant to carry an advanced long-range air-to-air missile called the AAM-N-10 Eagle. Although nothing came of that effort, the Missileer’s weapon system and side-by-side crew arrangement was later adapted for the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B, which was to have been the Navy version of Robert McNamara’s joint service fighter, and which was to have carried another advanced long-range air-to-air missile, the AWG-9 Phoenix. The F-111B was built and tested, but the Navy eventually rejected it and developed the F-14 Tomcat instead, which also employed the Phoenix missile. The USAF, of course, flew versions of the F-111 fighter/bomber for many years.


F6D Missileer (never built)


F-111B (tested, then rejected)

Speaking of the side-by-side crew seating arrangement, one of the details I remember from building that Skyknight model way back when was the escape chute. Although ejection seats were in use at the time the F3D was designed, they weren’t yet safe for side-by-side operation, so the Skyknight came with a more primitive escape system. In the event the crew had to bail out, they would depressurize the cockpit and pivot their seats toward each other. The first crewmember would get out of his seat, face aft, and kick open the escape chute door, which would presumably fall out and away through the chute. Grasping a horizontal bar, the crewmember would swing into the chute feet first, then slide out the belly of the aircraft, followed by the second crewmember. Here are some photos of the escape sequence:


1: pivot out of seat


2: grasp bar, kick open door


3: slide down escape chute


4: land on mattress (not included)

I had no idea the Skyknight played such an important role in air-to-air radar and missile development, or that many of the systems and concepts it tested and proved live on today, not only in the F-15 Eagle that I flew, but in fifth generation air-to-air fighters as well. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed.



Friday Bag o’ Taco Fixin’s

taco bagSometimes I feel I’m neglecting this blog, which is one of the reasons I’m posting about another mixed bag of subjects today. Why the taco theme? Well, that’s because tacos are the first item in today’s bag!

Everyone’s getting excited over aerial drone deliveries again, and I’m here to piss on the dream. Ever since the original Tacocopter hoax, far-thinking types have been coming up with schemes to deliver stuff via remote control quadcopters. There was that guy who wanted to use quadcopters to deliver cases of beer to ice fishermen in Wisconsin (video link here). And then there’s Amazon Prime Air, which appears to be a serious idea, one that a large organization known for logistical management skills might just be able to pull off.

Ah, but then there’s the Federal Aviation Administration, which does not cotton to the idea of unregulated flying objects buzzing around at low altitude, zipping in front of pilots trying to land or take off, fighting for airspace with police and medical airlift helicopters, or plummeting down onto pedestrians and cars after colliding with other delivery drones and power lines. I don’t mean to be a nervous nellie, but I can easily picture people being seriously hurt by errant drones. I can easily picture assholes taking shots at them. I can easily picture kids running up to landing delivery drones and sticking their hands in the spinning rotor blades.

Because the FAA claims the right to regulate commercial drones, and is taking its sweet time coming up with rules for their safe use, drone delivery, like the hoverboard, has been off in the future somewhere. But now there’s this: Commercial Drones Declared Legal; Release the Tacocopters. Well, that’s what the headline says, at any rate, and Google is full of news links heralding the imminent kickoff of drone delivery service.

I don’t think we have to start ducking just yet. The declaration in question was issued by an administrative law judge working for the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB judge said the FAA does not have a mandate to regulate commercial drone services, based on the fact that the FAA doesn’t regulate hobbyists who fly remotely-piloted model airplanes and helicopters. Okay, well and good, but then there’s this: by law, the NTSB cannot tell the FAA what to do. The NTSB can only issue recommendations; it is the FAA that is legally empowered to issue rules and regulations. The FAA does not have to act on NTSB recommendations, and often doesn’t.

Oh and by the way, we haven’t heard from the Federal Communications Commission yet, and I suspect that agency will have something to say about the radio waves commercial delivery providers would need to use to control their drones. There’s only so much radio bandwidth to go around. The FCC, not the FAA, regulates the radio spectrum and decides who gets to use it.

This is a case of the media jumping the gun, reacting to a recommendation that is far from having the force of law and will probably be ignored by the FAA … and for very good reasons. There, have I spoiled everyone’s fun?


Yesterday a Senate bill to take commanders out of the decision loop in the prosecution of military sexual assault cases was filibustered and is now dead. A majority of 55 senators voted in favor of it, but it needed 60 votes to get around the by-now automatic Republican filibuster (sadly, some Democratic senators crossed the aisle to vote against it).

I was a military officer for 24 years and fully understand military arguments for keeping the authority to investigate and prosecute sexual assault with commanders. But I can no longer support it. Military leadership has promised, over and over again, to get tough on sexual assault. Military leadership has failed, over and over again, to keep that promise. Commanders routinely sabotage sexual assault investigations and prosecutions to protect favored male officers. The military has demonstrated that it is unwilling to protect victims of rape and assault, unwilling to punish perpetrators. Enough is enough; it’s time for a change.

To be fair, some things might be changing. Per the linked article, three months ago Congress passed legislation preventing commanders from overturning sexual assault verdicts and making retaliation for reporting assault a crime. I don’t know whether military commanders are now bound by these new rules; in fact I don’t know that the President has even signed the legislation. It isn’t law until he has, something the media often fails to point out.

What I do know is that if you’re a woman in the military and you are raped or sexually assaulted, you cannot realistically hope for justice. You can choose to report the assault, in which case you will be retaliated against in some fashion, and you may as well seek another career. Or you can choose not to report the assault (reportedly the decision made by the overwhelming majority of sexual assault victims in the ranks) and try to move on. That is the current reality.

The military should be leading the way in going after sexual assault, as it did with racial integration in the 1950s. I’m ashamed that military leaders have chosen to protect a broken status quo. As far as I’m concerned, at least when it comes to sexual assault, military leaders forfeited the moral authority to invoke the sacredness of the chain of command long ago.


In my own small way I fight against censorship and book banning, but I do not want to see porn on social media. I’m happy Facebook has a policy against it, although sometimes its censors get a bit overzealous. Vine, the looping six-second user video service, just announced that it too is banishing porn. I’m all for that. It’s not like porn is otherwise censored; you can find all you want on the internet. I just don’t think we should have to constantly dodge porn in the places where we hang out with our friends online.

But speaking of banned books, I’ll soon be reading Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, which has been the subject of an ongoing book-banning attempt at a North Carolina high school. It’s time I find out what all the fuss is about.


I signed up to lay trail for our local bicycle hash later this month. I rode my planned trail for the first time today, and boy is it a ball-buster. Seriously, why do I sign myself up for torture like this? I picked a particularly hilly part of town, and then picked the steepest, longest uphill section of road in the entire district. Pedaling from the bottom to the top took me half an hour. But hey, if I can do it, the pack can do it, and the hash is on! Here are a couple of thumbs from this morning’s scouting expedition (click on ‘em to see the larger originals on Flickr):


Selfie at the bottom


30 minutes later, view from the top

Lastly, I know I’ve been remiss in posting new Air-Minded columns, but I want you to know I’m working on two new installments about early jet fighters of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Please stay tuned.


I Hate to Complain, But … (Updated)

kinescopeStreaming video rant follows.

A little over a year ago we invested in a Roku box. We upgraded our in-house wireless network and signed up for increased download rates from Comcast, our high-speed internet service provider. And we subscribed to two streaming services, Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Over the past year Amazon Prime streaming has lived up to its promise, always delivering a high quality picture and never hesitating or reloading. Netflix streaming? It’s been shit from the beginning, though I don’t think Netflix is to blame for it. I’ve come close to canceling several times, but rumors of some sort of deal between Netflix and Comcast kept me on the hook. Then, a few days ago, Netflix and Comcast announced their deal: Netflix would pay Comcast to stop throttling its stream. One of the news articles I read last week said the deal was done and higher streaming rates were already in effect, so it was with great anticipation I sat down to watch a Netflix streaming episode of MST3K on our big flat screen HD TV Friday night.

Sadly, nothing had changed. As usual, the show downloaded at “four dot” quality, not HD but still pretty good. Then, before Joel even got to Robot Roll Call, less than two minutes in, the screen went black. After a short pause the download bar reappeared. A long two minutes dragged by as MST3K slowly reloaded from scratch, this time at “two dot” quality. When the show started running again the image quality was severely degraded: it was like watching a kinescope of a TV show from the 1960s, fuzzy, grainy, impossible to make out detail. Almost as bad as the inset graphic above, which was what Americans settled for before the Civil War, indoor plumbing, and automobiles.

Yes, before you ask, we’ve contacted Comcast. Over and over. We’ve had technicians come to the house. And before you helpfully tell us to check our equipment and connections, please go back and read the part where I said Amazon Prime, streaming through the same equipment and connections, works flawlessly. The problem is not at our end.

Canceling Comcast is not a viable option. It has the local monopoly on broadband internet service and we need the connection. So I canceled Netflix streaming, even though Comcast, not Netflix, seems to be the villain. For now we’ll make do with Amazon Prime and cable TV. If Comcast ever actually stops throttling Netflix … because despite what we read in the news it’s clearly still doing it … I’m sure we’ll hear about it, and should that time come we can resubscribe.

From all I’ve read, and I have been researching our options, satellite and local ISPs won’t cut it: they don’t deliver the download rates you need for streaming video. That’s the real issue here, access to reliable high speed broadband internet, like people have in other countries. That’s what we’re paying Comcast for, but it’s not what we’re getting.

C’mon, Google Fiber! You can’t get here fast enough!

Update (3/3/14): I posted a link to this post on Twitter yesterday and within an hour received a DM from a Netflix employee who explained that the added bandwidth Netflix negotiated with Comcast hadn’t been implemented in my part of the country until sometime Saturday. He promised that if I renewed and checked out Netflix streaming again I’d definitely see an improvement.

I did renew, and so far things look good. After restarting the wireless connection to our Roku, I started a movie my daughter had put on our watch list.* It downloaded at four dots and ran without hesitation or reloading for half an hour before I had to turn it off so Donna could watch the Oscars. The Netflix streaming renewal is month by month, so if the problems come back I’m only out $8 … but as I said so far it looks good.

Thanks, Netflix guy, for responding to me on Twitter! And let me note, for the record, that I’ve heard nothing from Comcast.

* The movie Polly added to our Netflix watch list is Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead. It’s supposed to be a zombie movie, but it seems like thinly-disguised Japanese fetish porn to me, and awakened embarrassing memories of the time Polly talked us into playing a Blockbuster DVD while Dad’s second wife Lois was visiting. I can’t remember the name of the movie, but it was pretty much naked people humping … softcore, not XXX but close enough. I hit eject after five minutes and the three of us sat there red-faced while Polly obliviously asked “Why’d you turn the movie off?”

Never change, Polly. On second thought …