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February 2017
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Sunday Bag o’ Bullet Points

Thoughts on the past two day’s events, not terribly organized but somewhat connected:

If you’re going to remember anything Donald Trump ever said, remember what he said during the GOP debate on March 3, 2016:

He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. I’ve never heard of this one. Look at those hands, are they small hands? And he referred to my hands if they’re small something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee it.

Everything Trump brags about … the size of his fortune, his IQ, the ratings for The Apprentice, his electoral vote margin, his golf game, the number of pussies he’s grabbed … comes down to penis-measuring. Except he’ll never show his, any more than he’ll ever release his tax returns.

Speaking of measuring things, these side-by-side photos make me wonder: just how stolen was this election?

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I was saddened to hear NPR “report the controversy” this morning over Trump’s inauguration crowd claims, by which I mean they replayed Trump’s penis crowd size lies with no commentary. Where most media outlets say right up front that both Trump and his press secretary are not telling the truth, NPR did not (at least that I heard, and I listened hard during the entire segment).

Of course NPR is well aware of the Trump administration’s plan to cut National Endowment for the Arts funding, and maybe that explains its timidity.

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 9.32.58 AM

Um … who says they didn’t vote? I know a lot of women and men who participated in the Women’s March, not only in Washington DC but all around the country (including friends right here in Tucson, Arizona), and they all voted. I’m willing to bet the great majority of yesterday’s protestors did, and were among the three million who gave the popular vote victory to Hillary Clinton.

Maybe Trump’s talking about the thousands and thousands of women who marched overseas. In which case I agree … shame on them for not voting! Wait, what?

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 9.25.27 AM

Many are saying (I know, I know) the people leading those standing ovations at the CIA were members of Trump’s entourage, that he brought his own cheering section with him. So far the media hasn’t taken this up, reporting instead that junior CIA staffers clapped and cheered while senior leadership stood stoically by.

I’m inclined toward the “many are saying” side. Why?

  • One, I worked closely with military intelligence officers during my USAF career, and know CIA and DIA people as well, some fairly senior. None of them would ever fall for the sort of self-aggrandizing tinpot dictator rhetoric Trump displayed at Langley yesterday.
  • Two, it’s demonstrably true that Trump hired actors to pack the lobby of Trump Tower and cheer when he announced he was running for president.
  • Three, he did something similar during his January 11th press conference, with staffers standing behind him to clap and cheer at his pronouncements. It’s what he does … or perhaps what a wise chief of staff does, lest the emperor figure out no one else can see his magnificent robes either.

A friend on Facebook today:

Let’s see how he gets on for on for a few months. The guy has only been in the job for a day or two. He got in so he’ll have to do the job. To my mind, all this protesting is a waste of time and effort and won’t change the fact he’s now the guy in charge.

I disagree. Trump’s an illegitimate president, rightly the focus of what I hope will be sustained and vigorous protest. Yesterday’s Women’s March really gives me hope we’ll not only make it through the next four years, but turn things around again.


Photoblogging Barrett-Jackson 2017

God I hate crowds, and even though cold and rain kept yesterday’s attendance down, it was still too crowded for me: this huge collector car auction (is it the hugest?) is like Disneyland for geezers.


Ed, Davida, me, Chip

I drove this year, chauffeuring my friends Chip and Ed, along with Ed’s visiting sister Davida. By taking advantage of valet parking, we were able to drive right up to the main auction tent. Once inside, we grabbed lunch. Unfortunately I also grabbed a nasty cold from the coughing lady in front of me in the food line. It didn’t hit until the drive home. I prayed it was merely a sore throat from talking too much, but this morning had to face the truth: it’s a full-fledged winter cold, and I am now on Dr. Oz’s Sudafed & Kleenex diet.


Mercer, Trenton NJ

After lunch, we split up to pursue our own interests. Chip, like me, loves to photograph cars. We started at opposite ends of the auction grounds and later met up in the middle. Ed and Davida were mostly there to look. And so much to look at: not just collector cars but new cars too, and airplanes and motorcycles and speedboats and garage accessories. There seemed to be more football field-sized display tents than in past years; so many that I didn’t have time to visit them all.


BMW Isetta cockpit

My interests run toward classic cars of the 1950s and earlier, and as you can see I have a special place in my heart for microcars.


I always wondered what people did with those detachable roofs when they weren’t using them. Apparently they came with a stand.

It was difficult to get a clear field of view on an entire car: the crowds were such that someone was nearly always between my camera and the car I wanted to photograph. I was able to get a few, but most of my photos were detail shots, like this:


Speedometer gears on a Ford Model T, likely an expensive option

The photos here are a teaser, meant to entice you into visiting my Barrett-Jackson 2017 photo album on Flickr. I hope you enjoy it.


Inside one of the display tents: it isn’t only people you have to dodge, but auction workers moving cars around

I’ve said this before: I may skip Barrett-Jackson next year. I’m not agoraphobic, but I do get terribly antsy when I’m packed in a tent, no matter how big is it, with thousands of other people. Next weekend I’ll ride my motorcycle down to the resort town of Tubac, where there’s an annual classic car show on the golf course. I honestly enjoy that show more … being out in the open makes all the difference.


Air-Minded: Magnesium Overcast Revisited


Convair B-36 Peacemaker (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years ago I wrote a short post about the B-36 Peacemaker bomber. Here’s an excerpt:

… even though I was around during the B-36 bomber’s heyday I never saw one in flight. It’s not something you’d forget: it would have been akin to seeing the Hindenburg or a tidal wave. They say the ground shook when one of these took off, and I shouldn’t wonder: the sound and vibration from six twenty-eight cylinder piston engines and four turbojets, all turning and burning at full military power, should have been enough to warp the space-time continuum itself, let alone rattle windows and crockery for miles around.

They called it the Magnesium Overcast. It was built to deliver the gigantic hydrogen bombs of the early 1950s. Fully loaded the B-36 weighed over a quarter of a million pounds. It could fly from Texas to Moscow and back without refueling. It flew so high it was beyond the reach of the fighters and interceptors of the day. Jimmy Stewart flew one in “Strategic Air Command” (okay, it was a movie, but Stewart really was a bomber pilot in WWII, and a general in the reserves after the war). Some versions of the B-36 could carry and launch their own jet fighters. One was built and test-flown with a nuclear reactor inside (and a lead-lined cockpit) to explore the concept of atomic-powered bombers that could stay aloft indefinitely.

I said then I’d write more about the B-36 some day, and that day has come.

First, I want to address a common misunderstanding about the B-36, one I unknowingly passed on in my original post: the B-36, although it served as America’s first strategic nuclear bomber, wasn’t designed as one. It was meant to be a conventional bomber.

In early 1941, months before the US entered WWII, the Army Air Corps asked selected aircraft manufacturers to design a strategic bomber that could take off from North American airfields, bomb targets in Europe, and return (the driver being the possibility that England might fall to the Axis, depriving us of air bases in close proximity to the enemy). Such a goal was unachievable with existing technology, but design efforts continued, and in 1943, with the Army now hot for a strategic bomber that could reach Japan from Hawaii, Convair got a no-bid contract for an initial batch of 100 B-36s.

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Six-engined super-bomber as imagined in Disney’s Victory Through Air Power, 1943

No one outside the super-secret Manhattan Project knew about the possibility of nuclear weapons during the development of the B-36. As far as anyone at Convair (then Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation) or the Army Air Force knew, the B-36 was to be a conventional bomber, albeit one with exceptional range and an 86,000-pound payload.


Prototype XB-36 in September, 1945 (photo: USAF)

The XB-36 prototype rolled out in August 1945, a few months after VE Day. It was not to fly until August 1946, almost a year after Japan surrendered. By then, of course, America had its first generation of atomic bombs, and the B-36, which could carry these weapons with few modifications, almost by default became the first strategic nuclear bomber.

Convair built 384 B-36s between 1946 and 1954. The USAF operated the giant aircraft from 1949 to 1959 in two primary roles: as a delivery platform for atomic (and later) hydrogen bombs and for strategic reconnaissance. Designed to face WWII-era fighter and anti-aircraft artillery threats, the B-36 became increasingly unsurvivable in the jet and missile age, and in 1955 the USAF began taking it out of service, replacing it with the new Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. By December 1958 only 22 B-36s remained on active duty; the last one went to the Boneyard in February 1959. Only five airframes survive, all in the USA: four on display at aviation museums and one in pieces at an Ohio farm.


B-36J at Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)

Some interesting facts about the B-36:

473a3a815ca5782b8da65263e5c47826The basic crew was 15, although the RB-36D specialized photographic-reconnaissance version carried a crew of 22. As with the B-29 and B-50 bombers, there were pressurized compartments forward and aft, connected by a pressurized tunnel. Crewmembers laid on a wheeled cart and pulled themselves through the tunnel between compartments. The aft compartment contained six bunks and a galley.

B-36s were powered by six Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major piston engines, 28-cylinder monsters producing 3,800 horsepower each. A crawlspace inside the large wing allowed inflight access to all six engines.

Beginning with the B-36D model, four General Electric J47-19 jet engines were added (and subsequently retrofitted to older models of the aircraft). The jet engines were used for takeoff and climb, and occasionally in flight. Later in the Peacemaker’s career, defensive gun turrets were removed to lighten the aircraft (this was called the “featherweight” conversion), enabling it to fly higher and faster (achieving a top speed of 423 miles per hour while cruising at 50,000 to over 55,000 feet).

The B-36, designed before the advent of aerial refueling, carried 30,600 gallons of fuel. This was enough to stay aloft for up to 40 hours, giving the aircraft a ferry range of 10,000 miles. The combat radius of the B-36, however, was less than 4,000 miles, which meant it could not reach targets deep inside the Soviet Union from US bases and return; combat plans envisioned one-way missions launching from US bases, attacking targets inside the Soviet Union, then landing at bases in Europe.

B-36 aircrews worried that the comparatively slow-moving bomber would not be able to fly out of the blast radius of the large-megaton weapons they were supposed to drop, and tests conducted in 1954 bore out their concerns: at distances believed typical of wartime delivery test aircraft suffered extensive flash and blast damage.

Survivability, along with combat range issues, were additional reasons for replacing the B-36 with faster, air-refuelable B-52s.

b36_and_goblinIn 1948, to provide long-range strategic bombers with built-in fighter protection, the USAF began experimenting with parasite fighters (a concept employed by US Navy airships in the 1930s), flying the experimental McDonnell XF-85 Goblin from a trapeze mounted underneath a B-29 mothership. The idea was that the tiny Goblin, with its wings folded, could be carried inside one of the B-36’s bomb bays, then lowered into the airstream and launched to help defend the bomber over the target area. After fighting off attacking MiGs, the Goblin would return to the mothership, hook onto the trapeze, fold its wings, and be retracted back into the bomber (where it could be refueled and rearmed for the next round of attacking MiGs).

The Goblin program was cancelled in 1949, but the experiment led to the Fighter Conveyor (FICON) program. As conceived, a modified B-36 mothership would carry an F-84 Thunderjet fighter to the vicinity of a target, then deploy the faster, more maneuverable fighter to deliver a tactical nuclear bomb. Mission complete, the F-84 would return to the mothership to be carried home.


FICON project YRB-36 and YF-84F in launch position (photo: USAF)

The FICON program was actually implemented in 1955 with 10 modified RB-36 motherships and 25 RF-84 Thunderflash fighters. The objective of the only USAF bomber parasite fighter program to ever see actual service had by then changed from attack to surveillance: the RF-84, a photoreconnaissance fighter, would use its speed and agility to overfly and photograph heavily defended targets while the mothership loitered outside the range of enemy defenses. Although FICON RF-84s did not have folding wings and could not be carried internally, the tailfin and cockpit were enclosed in the belly of the B-36, allowing the pilot to stay in the bomber’s crew compartments until needed. In 1956, with the introduction of the U-2 and the phaseout of the B-36, the FICON program was terminated.

In addition to building several bomber and strategic reconnaissance models of the B-36, Convair spun off two new aircraft from the basic design: the one-off XC-99, a double-decker troop carrier/cargo variant operated by the USAF from 1949 to 1957; and a single YB-60, a swept-wing redesign powered by eight jet engines, which in 1951 competed for the replacement strategic bomber contract later won by Boeing’s B-52 (two YB-60 prototypes were contracted for but only one was built to completion and flown).


NB-36H with B-50 escort (photo: USAF)

In the mid-1950s, a B-36H which had been damaged by a hurricane was converted to carry a nuclear reactor. The NB-36H Crusader was created for the Atomic Energy Commission’s Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program, and was meant to show the feasibility of a nuclear-powered bomber. The reactor, while not actually powering the NB-36’s engines, was operated in flight (as you might expect with many precautions: the self-contained reactor unit was carried inside a shielded bomb bay aft of the wings and operated by two nuclear engineers from the safety of an 11-ton rubber- and lead-lined crew compartment at the forward end of the aircraft). The NB-36H flew 47 test flights and accumulated 215 hours of flight time (89 hours with a hot reactor) between 1955 and 1957.

IMG_0631: Convair B-36J PeacemakerEven to this day, I sometimes hear the B-36 called a “billion-dollar blunder.” To my utter lack of surprise, the phrase originated in 1947 during a budget battle between the US Navy and the US Air Force. The Navy, which advocated the acquisition of a large aircraft carrier equipped with nuclear-armed fighters, fought bitterly against funding US Air Force strategic nuclear bombers, arguing that money set aside for the USAF’s B-36 program should be transferred to the Navy and the construction of a super-carrier to be called the USS United States. The Navy lost that fight, but by the Korean War was building large carriers similar in concept to the cancelled USS United States, equipped with aircraft capable of flying many different missions including nuclear attack. By then, however, Congress had decided that the USAF and its Strategic Air Command bombers were central to the nation’s nuclear deterrent force, and the budget battle … that aspect of it, anyway … was over.

The B-36 filled America’s post-WWII need for a strategic bomber capable of striking the USSR, thus serving as a nuclear deterrent. Complex and expensive, it was hardly a blunder. It did what it was designed to do, without once dropping a bomb (nuclear or conventional) in anger, and when better, more survivable and flexible bombers became available, it was replaced.

Damn, though, I wish my childhood memories included the earth-shaking roar of a B-36 taking off with six turning and four burning.*


*Or, as B-36 flight engineers used to joke, “Two turning, two burning, two smoking, two choking, and two more unaccounted for.”


Wednesday Bag o’ Gold

bag'o'goldI don’t know what having a sexual kink says about a person’s character. Probably nothing, and as long as it’s all worked out between like-minded, consenting adults, and no one gets hurt, ain’t no one’s business.

Unless it’s Donald Trump, of course, and the kink is a juicy one. The floodgates opened yesterday and Twitter was drowning in pee jokes all night. I shared some of the funnier ones on Facebook. Today, though, I feel used, dirty, and slightly ashamed.

The allegations are unproven, and may not be true. Maybe an intelligence agency head decided to fire a warning shot across Trump’s bow. Maybe it’s a squabble between the CIA and the FBI. Maybe it’s Chris Christie getting his revenge. And maybe it’s true, every word. No one knows at this point.

The scandal, at least to me, is that congressional leaders, the FBI and other intelligence agencies, and influential figures in the media have known for months … since before the election, even before the Republican primary … important details about Russian influence over Trump. They collectively sat on that information, keeping it from voters, while at the same time flogging every empty allegation about Hillary’s emails and the Clinton Foundation.

All this aside, Trump clearly showed us what kind of man he is prior to the election, and it made no difference. Will this latest story change anything?

I’m not actively listening (I’ll catch a rerun later today), but Trump’s press conference, playing in the background on our bedroom radio, sounds pretty raucous. Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t bail.

I started blogging in 2004. For the first few years I uploaded images and photos directly to my ISP’s server. Eventually I ran out of server space. These days I upload images and photos to Flickr. The little inset graphic at the top of this post? It lives on Flickr and appears here through a link, so it doesn’t take up server space.

After switching to Flickr, I deleted old photos and images from the server. I moved some, but not all, to Flickr. If an image is missing from a ten-year-old post no one will ever read, so what? If, on the other hand, a photo was part of a post I might link back to some day, or one that might attract interested readers, then it was worth the trouble.

Turns out I forgot about my Air-Minded posts. Looking through some of the older ones, I found blank spaces where photos used to be. Mostly the photos and images I use on this blog are for fun, but when it comes to Air-Minded posts they’re essential, because they help readers visualize what I write about.

This week I’m laboriously combing through those old Air-Minded posts, replacing missing images with new (and in some cases better) ones. When I’m done, I’ll recycle some of the refurbished posts by putting them back at the top of the blog … if I say so myself, some of them are pretty damn good. This one, for example. It’s about the decision, back in 2009, to cap F-22 Raptor production at 187 aircraft. When I replaced the photos in the post, I wrote an update to say what I think of the decision now that a few years have passed.

We still own our old Lincoln Town Car (Polly has it and uses it for work, but the title is still in our name). The registration came due in December. This time Arizona wanted an emissions test, and we knew the car would fail. A couple of years ago one of the cylinders quit firing, and the problem will cost more to fix than the car’s worth. Turns out you can get a two-year waiver from Arizona for a car that can’t pass emissions. You have to fail the test twice and produce an estimate on what it will cost to fix it, and you can only get the waiver one time. So Polly has a two-year reprieve. December of 2018, the Lincoln goes to a scrapper.

Today’s earworm: Lincoln Lincoln bo-binken, banana pana po-pinken, fee-fi-fo finken. Lincoln.

Hey, it’s better than thinking about golden showers all day!


Paul’s Book Reviews: Vietnam, Old School SF, Radio Days, Tough Guys, Ghost Stories

“Page took the record that was playing on the turntable off without asking anybody and put on Jimi Hendrix: long tense organic guitar line that made him shiver like frantic electric ecstasy was shooting up from the carpet through his spine straight to the old pleasure center in his cream-cheese brain, shaking his head so that his hair waved all around him, Have You Ever Been Experienced?”
—Michael Herr, Dispatches

Michael Herr

The Vietnam War taught my generation to see war reporting for what it is: bullshit. As the reality of the war gradually became clear, we realized everything we were being told was propaganda: the light at the end of the tunnel, Charlie’s beat and he knows it, made-up body counts. Nothing’s changed. Those of us who lived through Vietnam believe not a word from Afghanistan, Aleppo, Mosul.

Today’s war reportage is even more propagandistic than the reportage from the Vietnam War. Journalists are embedded with military units, tightly controlled, not free to move around the front or rear lines; they pass on whatever meaningless statistics and talking points they’re given. In Vietnam, reporters could be free agents if they wanted to break free of their military minders, who were too busy to pay much attention to them anyway. Michael Herr and a few others did just that.

Some describe Herr’s war reporting as “disciplined gonzo.” I agree. His writing is personal without being self-centered: above all, he was a reporter. During Herr’s time in Vietnam, he wrote for Esquire (hardly an underground countercultural rag, but not a willing funnel for pro-war propaganda either), and several short pieces appeared there. Nearly a decade after returning from Vietnam, he wrote “Dispatches,” and later contributed to two major Vietnam War movies, “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket.” I mention the movies to remind you that you know Herr’s work even if you never read “Dispatches.”

The experience of reading “Dispatches” in 2016 is no different than than it was reading it in 1977, the year of its publication. It’s as fresh now as it was then. It is, quite simply, the best book written about the Vietnam War, and remains the benchmark for war reporting today.

bury usBury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Rick Newman & Don Shepperd

This is an outstanding history of the Misty FAC (forward air controller) squadron and its pilots during the Vietnam war, a legendary unit active for just three years, from 1967 to 1970.

I’ve been reading up on the air war in Vietnam. When I went through USAF pilot training in 1973-74, my instructors were pilots who had flown in Vietnam. Some were River Rats, some were former Raven FACs, some had been Wild Weasels, some were returned POWs. During my subsequent flying career, these men were the operations officers and commanders I flew for. My first F-15 squadron commander (a man who later attained four star rank and served as USAF chief of staff, Ron Fogleman) was a Misty FAC.

Every Vietnam war aviator I’ve known speaks of the Misty FACs with admiration. Officially known as Commando Sabre, the Misty FAC squadron was part of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at Phu Cat, flying two-seat F-100Fs. Misty pilots were “fast FACs,” flying single-ship missions over North Vietnam in search of high-priority targets for Air Force, Navy, and Marine fighter-bombers, going after those targets themselves with the minimal ordnance they carried when no help was available. It was a high-risk mission with a daunting loss rate. There were 157 Misty FAC pilots. Of that number, 34 were shot down. Three of that number were captured and held as prisoners of war. Seven were killed.

Misty was an all-volunteer unit, recruiting highly experienced pilots who wanted to do more than bomb dirt. Newman and Shepperd (himself a former Misty FAC) describe the day-to-day operations of the unit, going into detail on specific missions, especially those where pilots were shot down … some rescued, some taken prisoner, some killed, some to disappear altogether, their fates still unknown.

When I write about flying, I try to convey the experience and environment without condescending to readers by over-explaining the minutia of aircraft and procedures. If the writing is good enough, readers will figure it out. Newman and Shepperd do this masterfully. As an experienced fighter pilot, I was enthralled. At the same time, I won’t hesitate to push this book on friends who know nothing about aviation or the military.

The authors fill in as many gaps as they can, describing the experiences of unit pilots who were captured and moved to prison camps in North Vietnam, the heroic but doomed escape attempts made by some of the POWs, the reactions of pilots who watched their brothers being shot down and the extraordinary efforts they made to cover downed aviators until rescue could come, the heartache and anger they felt when enemy gunners kept the rescue helicopters at bay and their brothers were taken or killed.

I particularly appreciated the attention the authors paid to the wives and children of the Misty pilots who were declared missing in action. They were not to learn if their husbands and fathers had survived and been taken prisoner until the final peace treaty was signed in 1973. For those whose loved ones did not come home with the POWs, hope, fear, and frustration might last a lifetime.

I have to say, this is one of the best Vietnam air war books I’ve read.

deaths endDeath’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #3)
Liu Cixin

In my review of the first book of this series, “The Three-Body Problem,” I said this:

“… I wondered if a novel like this would be written in the USA or UK today … in many ways it’s old-fashioned, even Asimovian (though not as sweeping as Asimov’s Foundation trilogy).”

Now that I’ve finished the final book of the trilogy, I’m forced to retract that comment. Liu Cixin’s vision is far more sweeping than Asimov’s. If I had to search for a touchstone to compare it to, I would cite Olaf Stapledon and his seminal SF novel “Star Maker”: it’s that grand in concept.

Naturally, extrapolations based on quantum physics are plot devices in science fiction, and Liu Cixin’s SF is no exception. While I loved “The Three-Body Problem,” the same plotting techniques began to irritate me in the second novel, “The Dark Forest,” and in the final novel one fantastic (and oh so convenient) deus ex machina follows another at such a rapid pace it’s like going from a standstill to light speed, then on into uncharted, unknown dimensions … giant leaps, each one coming faster than the one before. Along with that, the plotting becomes obvious. Of course this would happen, and then that, and then this. In other words, I thought the end of the trilogy was highly contrived.

So why four stars, one of my highest ratings? Because this is old school SF, masterful old school SF at that. It’s full of wonder and grand visions, and if the plotting is contrived and obvious, show me a classic SF story where it isn’t. Reading each book of the trilogy, I felt like a kid again, huddled under the covers with Asimov and a flashlight, mumbling “wow” and “far out” into the night, unable to stop flipping pages.

radio onRadio On: A Listener’s Diary
Sarah Vowell

I finally worked my way backward to Sarah Vowell’s first published book, “Radio On: A Listener’s Diary,” written when she was in her mid-20s. A one-year diary, it’s a near-daily recounting of her reactions to what she listened to on the radio during 1995: top 40, talk, drivetime, alternative, country, religion, farm reports, underground, NPR, 20-watt college stations.

Naturally, a lot of what she listened to was news and opinion, and as an aside, I was struck by the political similarities between one Democratic administration (Clinton) facing the rise of a Republican Congress and another (Obama). But back to the book:

Of all Sarah Vowell’s books, this might be the one I most favor. It is the most personal, the most unpolished, the most honest. I too have lived with radio as a constant backdrop, and I too have pondered the importance of radio in our lives. I’m considerably older than Sarah and never listened to the music she favors, but her diary compelled me to get on YouTube and listen to several of the artists and tracks she mentioned as being important in her life. I was a long-time listener and fan of NPR, Garrison Keillor, and Car Talk, only later in life growing weary of the repetitive blandness; Sarah disliked and distrusted the whole crew from the get-go. Starting into her diary my thought was “Okay, we’ll agree to disagree”; by the end, it was “I quite see your point.”

As I said in a review of one of her later histories, I’ll read anything Sarah Vowell writes. I feel I know her better after reading “Radio On,” and that was more than worth the experience.

killing floorKilling Floor (Jack Reacher #1)
Lee Child

I read a long article about Lee Child and the Jack Reacher series in a recent New Yorker. Since the same magazine had previously introduced me to such brilliant writers as Patrick O’Brian and Tana French, I decided to read one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers.

Reader, I inhaled it. That’s not to say Lee Child is a brilliant writer. He is what most of us would call a hack. But how refreshing it is, once in a while, to read a first-person, reasonably well-plotted and action-filled thriller where the bad guys get what’s coming to them and justice prevails.

I was reminded of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, which I likewise inhaled in the 1980s. There are plenty of hard-boiled detective tropes, not a little Sherlock Holmes, and plenty of Hulk. You can criticize the plot for being contrived and unlikely, but you can say the same thing about most action-hero thrillers. I like Lee Child’s plain language and direct writing style. The pages turn almost of themselves.

Yes, I will read more. This is pretty good stuff.

last daysThe Last Days of Jack Sparks
Jason Arnopp

Three-and-a-half stars for Jason Arnopp’s writing and the semi-epistolary style of the novel, which I enjoyed.

If I were rating Jack Sparks himself, I’d give him something in the minus range: Just as in real life, I loathe fictional drunks and druggies, no matter how important they may be to the story. Jack Sparks is both, and even without the addictions he’s contemptible. He’s the classic unreliable narrator as well, but even the most gullible reader will see right through him. I kept wishing for him to get the comeuppance he so richly deserved (satisfyingly, he does).

If I were rating the plot, which is centered on the supernatural, I’d go with two stars, entirely for selfish reasons: ghosts and devils are not my thing. Still, there were interesting moments here and there, spaced in such a manner that I kept reading.

If you can stomach a self-centered douche like Jack Sparks and you have a taste for the supernatural, you’ll probably find this a fun read, as many other reviewers did. Not my thing, though, and as for the humor so many other reviewers mention, it escaped me.


Air-Minded: Conform or Die

Looking for photos to add to my Promise of Air Travel folder on Pinterest, I came across this:

It’s a Speedpak, a conformal cargo pod or pannier designed by Lockheed for its Constellation aircraft. It wasn’t used for passenger luggage but for extra cargo. It appears to be the grandfather of the conformal cargo pods seen on Fedex’s Cessna Caravans today:

To my knowledge, Cessna Caravan conformal pods are permanently mounted. Lockheed’s Speedpak was designed to be easily attached and removed on the ground, and was only mounted when needed. Earlier models of the Constellation had four Speedpak mounting points under the fuselage (later Super Constellation models were longer and thus had increased cargo space, and did not include the mounting points).

The Speedpak was used by airlines to ship supplemental freight. It was loaded from the top while detached, then wheeled into position beneath a Constellation’s belly. Built-in electric winches and cables hoisted it into position. It had no provisions for heating, air conditioning, or pressurization, so there were limits on what kinds of freight could be carried. At the destination airport, it was detached and unloaded.

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Eastern Airlines and KLM were the first customers to order and use Speedpaks, followed by other airlines. There were penalties to be paid in drag, speed, and range, but they did generate additional revenue for the airlines that used them.

Naturally, when I saw that first Speedpak photo, I thought of the conformal fuel tanks I sometimes flew with in the F-15 (and of similar CFTs used on fighters like the F-16, F/A-18, and the Eurofighter Typhoon). CFTs can’t be jettisoned in flight (neither could Lockheed’s Speedpaks), but they can be removed on the ground, and the aircraft that use them can and do fly without them, distinguishing CFTs from the hump-like “distended internal tanks” used on fighters like the English Electric Lightning.

These photos show an F-15C being loaded with side-mounted CFTs, and a Singaporean F-16 with CFTs mounted above the wing roots:

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Earlier versions of CFTs date back to WWII, where they were used to extend the ferry range of prop aircraft. These photos show conformal tanks used for FH Phantoms, the Navy’s first carrier jet fighter, and a Phantom with one mounted beneath:

So far we’ve seen conformal cargo pods and conformal fuel tanks (in addition, certain fire-fighting aircraft carry conformal water and retardant tanks). In WWII, North American mounted conformal gun pods to the sides of B-25 Mitchell bombers (they were called “blister mounts”). Today, Boeing proposes a conformal weapons pod for the Silent Eagle F-15:

Military aircraft have always carried external stores: bombs, rockets, missiles, fuel tanks. Fuel tanks and rocket pods are streamlined to reduce drag, and some manufacturers are beginning to offer streamlined (though not stealthy) externally-mounded weapons pods. Externally-mounted stores, though, are meant to be expended or jettisoned in flight. Conformal stores, whether designed to carry freight, fuel, or weapons, are a different animal: you carry them from takeoff to landing, since they can’t be jettisoned.

There is, of course, an exception:

That’s an Edo A-3 lifeboat, conformally mounted to a B-29 bomber. Modified SB-29s circled off the coast during the Korean War, prepared to drop lifeboats in the event bombers returning from strikes inland had to ditch in the ocean. The lifeboat was equipped with food and water, could carry up to 15, and had an internal engine. The British used a similar conformal lifeboat, carried beneath modified Avro Shackleton aircraft.

Tell you what, though … you  wanna talk conformals, check out a couple that made it all the way to Mach 6.7:

Yes, they’re jettisonable, but what a pair of speedpaks!


Love & Friendship in the Age of Trump

Well, doesn’t he seem nice?

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Strangely, a number of people think the man who tweeted this does seem nice, even when he’s grabbing women by the pussy or plotting with Vladimir Putin. More than 62 million of them, as a matter of fact. Some are friends. Some are family. What to do?

I once ended a twenty-year friendship with a man who, one day out of the blue, told me he wanted to load Mexican immigrants onto cattle cars and ship them back over the border, topping it off with a rant about putting Obama in prison for falsifying his birth certificate. I never knew he was like that; if I had I wouldn’t have befriended him in the first place.

We all have lines we’re not willing to cross, not for friendship, not for keeping peace within the family. Some of my “whoa!” moments include a guy I thought I knew well nudging me as a twelve-year-old girl walked by, then whispering “I bet she’s tight”; a co-worker casually telling me to “hire some niggers” instead of buying a new lawnmower; a married couple Donna and I both liked turning on us for not being as interested in money as they were; a fairly senior military officer telling me a president he didn’t like would never be his commander-in-chief.

It’s that last one I’m thinking about today, because now I’m the one who can’t and won’t accept a president. In my military career I served under many presidents, some whose political views I opposed, some whom I would not have wanted as friends. They were not evil men, though. None of them displayed the overt racism, willful ignorance, and lack of character Mr. Trump seems so proud of. With Trump it’s not politics, it’s values. It’s good versus evil.

Trump is going to test many friendships. Donna and I are agonizing over our friendship with a woman who, over the past year, has come out as a full-fledged Trump supporter. In her eyes he can do no wrong. We’ve been friends for years, but this is a side of her we didn’t know. And by now it’s not a side, it’s pretty much become the whole her.

Most Trump voters will tell you they reject his negatives (as if racism and fascism can be described as mere “negatives”). I don’t doubt Trump supporters come in various strengths, from those who simply can’t vote Democrat and thus vote Republican, all the way up to people like my former friend, the one who can’t wait for Trump to declare open season on Mexicans.

Like attracts like: we seek out people who share our values as friends. There may be one or two friends in my circle who secretly admire Mr. Trump’s lack of character, but if they do they hide it well; apart from our woman friend I’m blissfully ignorant of their proclivities. Ditto relatives who beat their wives or wear white robes: if I have any, I don’t know about them.

Most Trump voters I know think he’ll behave better in office than he behaves now. I won’t turn my back to them, now or after their inevitable disappointment. Still, even the most tepid Trump voters saw the man’s true character emerge over the course of the campaign. They knew what they were voting for, and whether they like it or not they’ll always have the stink of that vote on them, just as Germans of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation have the stink of Hitler and the Nazi Party on them.*

Oh, we’ll manage to get along. We’ll nod politely when spoken to. We’ll continue to do business with, and work with, those on the other side of the line. There are too many of them to ignore. But we will never forget where our personal moral lines are drawn and we won’t cross them, even for friends and family.

So to true friends and family, to those I love, to those who strive to live up to the moral values we were raised with and want to make this a better world for everyone, Happy New Year!

*Yes, I am familiar with Godwin’s Law, that bit of internet wisdom from the early days of Usenet, which goes like this: “If you mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis within a discussion thread, you’ve automatically ended whatever discussion you were taking part in.” With Donald Trump and the “alt-right,” however, we’ve come to a time when such comparisons are not only inevitable but apt.