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Air-Minded: the Army & the A-10

Army A-10s? Not gonna happen, folks.

A-10 Thunderbolt II (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

USAF A-10 Thunderbolt II (photo credit: unknown)

Here’s something I posted to Facebook the other day:

People ask me why, if the Air Force no longer wants A-10s, it doesn’t just hand them over to the Army. The answer boils down to roles. From the 1960s into the early 1990s, the Army flew an armed observation aircraft called the OV-1 Mohawk. The USAF fought the Mohawk almost every step of the way, even getting DoD to prohibit the Army from flying it with weapons aboard. The Air Force is very protective of its doctrinal role and won’t tolerate the Army flying armed fixed-wing aircraft.

That’s broad-brushed and doesn’t do the subject justice, so I’ll expand on it here.

From the earliest days of Army aviation, air power pioneers like Billy Mitchell argued that the use of aircraft should be centrally controlled by a single air commander, independent of ground commanders, and used for strategic purposes. Mitchell envisioned thousand-plane coordinated attacks, and actually pulled off one such attack in WWI, although with the primitive equipment and weapons available at the time it wasn’t in any way decisive.

These doctrinal conflicts continued into WWII, with constant skirmishes between Army ground and air commanders over the control and proper use of aircraft. Ground commanders wanted to integrate air assets into the ground battle. Air commanders wanted to play a direct role in winning the war by striking the enemy deep inside his own territory. Air commanders generally prevailed in WWII. Thousand-plane bombing raids became a reality, with devastating effects on Germany and Japan.

The National Security Act of 1947 separated the Air Corps from the Army, setting up an independent, co-equal US Air Force. The air commanders, in other words, had won their long battle. While the Navy and Marine Corps got to keep their own air arms, to control in whatever manner they saw fit, the Army surrendered most of its ability to fight from the air to the Air Force.

A series of subsequent agreements refined the responsibilities and roles of the Army and Air Force: the Key West Agreement of 1948, the 1952 Pace-Finletter Memorandum of Understanding, and the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966.

In the simplest terms, and ignoring the Navy and Marine Corps for now, the separation of roles comes down to this: the Air Force owns fixed-wing aviation, the Army owns rotary-wing aviation. The Air Force flies fixed-wing aircraft for strategic and tactical airlift, attack, reconnaissance, bombing and interdiction, air superiority, and close air support. The Army flies helicopters in tactical combat and support roles. The Air Force, with the exception of special operations, can’t use helicopters for attack or airlift. The Army can have fixed-wing aircraft weighing less than 5,000 pounds, but cannot fire or drop weapons from those aircraft. If the Army needs airlift or close air support and can’t get it done with its own rotary-wing assets, it calls on the Air Force for support.

During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Army used small Cessnas (well under 5,000 pounds) for liaison, scouting, and observation. These aircraft, while not armed, carried smoke rockets to mark targets on the ground, which Army attack helicopters or Air Force fighter-bombers would subsequently attack.

Cessna L-19A-IT Bird Dog (photo: Nishant Deshpande)

US Army L-19 (later O-1) Bird Dog (photo: Nishant Deshpande)

In the early 1960s the Army began operating C-7 Caribou aircraft, using them for tactical airlift in Vietnam. The Air Force, which had no problem with the Army flying light observation aircraft like the Bird Dog, objected strenuously to the Army flying 25,000-pound cargo planes, seeing the Caribou as a direct threat to the Air Force’s own tactical airlift role. In 1967, the Caribou were transferred from the Army to the Air Force.

de Havilland Canada C-7 Caribou (photo: unknown)

US Army C-7 Caribou (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

So what’s the closest thing the Army has had to a fixed-wing close air support aircraft like the A-10? That would be the OV-1 Mohawk.

Grumman OV-1 Mohawk (photo: Paul Woodford)

US Army OV-1 Mohawk (photo: Paul Woodford)

The Mohawk, designed in the late 1950s by Grumman, was originally to be a joint Army, Navy, and Marine Corps aircraft. It would have been uneconomical to build a separate, unarmed version for the Army; since the Marine and Navy versions would contain weapons circuitry and hard points, so too would the Army version, a touchy issue for the Air Force, which objected to the program on that basis.

After the Navy and Marines dropped out of the buy in the early 1960s, leaving the Army as the only customer, the Air Force lobbied even harder against it, fearing that since the Mohawk could be armed it would be, and would then be used for close air support — an Air Force mission — by Army ground commanders. Largely because of Air Force objections, in 1965 the Pentagon handed down a directive dictating that the Army would not operate armed fixed-wing aircraft. Nevertheless, the Army was allowed to buy nearly 400 Mohawks, flying them from the 1960s into the early 1990s.

In spite of the 1965 directive and earlier restrictions limiting the weight of Army fixed-wing aircraft to 5,000 pounds or less, the Army now had hundreds of 18,000-pound weapons-capable Mohawks, flying them in combat during the Vietnam War and Desert Storm, though officially only in the observation role. Army aviation unit commanders often saw to it that combat Mohawks were in fact armed, ostensibly for “self defense,” and one Mohawk crew, in 1966, was actually credited with shooting down a North Vietnamese MiG-17.

The Mohawks were retired after Desert Storm, and as far as I know the Army no longer has a weapons-carrying fixed-wing aircraft in its inventory. It does operate a number of unarmed fixed-wing aircraft in the cargo, reconnaissance, and utility roles — interestingly enough, all well over 5,000 pounds in weight — but if the Air Force has any objections to the Army’s current fixed-wing fleet, I haven’t heard of it.

I think you can see from all of this that the idea of turning the A-10 fleet over to the US Army is a non-starter. It’s probably fair to say both the Air Force and the Army would be opposed to any such proposal, the Air Force for doctrinal reasons, the Army for budgetary ones.

Now for a couple of points that are beyond the scope of this post:

I often hear the Air Force slammed as an elitist flying club with a nasty propensity to turn up its nose at the idea of providing close air support to lowly Army grunts. The criticism is unwarranted and unfair. Since its independence the Air Force has flown close air support for ground forces in every war from Korea to the present day. Air Force fighter-bombers flying CAS saved 6,000 Marine asses at Khe Sanh. A-10s are flying CAS today in Afghanistan.

The Air Force objects to the idea of turning control of its aircraft and aircrews over to ground commanders. So long as our air commander controls our aircraft, we’re happy to provide close air support. Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right word, but we do it and always have. We even detach Air Force pilots to serve as forward air controllers with Army units on the ground to help target Air Force aircraft and weapons on enemy forces.

Is the A-10 still viable and should it remain in the Air Force inventory? That depends on the enemy and the battlefield. In a conflict where the enemy doesn’t have access to sophisticated surface-to-air weapons, yes. But all potential enemy military forces today have these weapons, and even ragtag groups like ISIS or the Taliban might be able to get their hands on them. Low and slow aircraft like the A-10 (and Army helicopters) are sitting ducks in the face of such weapons. Even 5th-generation fighters like the F-35 are going to be vulnerable to sophisticated surface-to-air weapons. The close air support mission itself, at least as currently flown with manned fighters and attack aircraft, may be a thing of the past.

But that’s what we said about dogfighting and aerial gunnery when we designed the F-4 Phantom II, and we were so confident those days were past we built the thing without a gun. Boy, did Vietnam show us how wrong we were about that … so what do I know?


Paul’s Book Reviews

“Unstuck her in time, day-sleeping in her bedroom. How old was she? Seven, seventeen, twenty-seven? Dusk or dawn? Couldn’t tell by the light outside. Checked her phone. Evening. The house silent, her mother probably asleep. Out through the smell of her grandfather’s fifty years of National Geographic, shelved in the hall.” — William Gibson, The Peripheral

the peripheralThe Peripheral
William Gibson

The Bridge Trilogy novels were my favorite works by William Gibson. The Peripheral has bumped them to second place.

I looked over my earlier Gibson reviews before writing this one and think this is worth repeating:

“Gibson likes complex stories with interrelated events and characters. He’s a student of pop culture, and his novels are right on top of current trends. Even more than complexity and hipness, I think, he likes happy endings. Some say he’s a sentimentalist, but I don’t think hipness has to be dark.”

There’s a strong strain of intellectual curiosity behind Gibson’s near-future stories, which always makes for good science fiction, but what I like best about his story-telling is that he leaves it to the reader to figure things out. He doesn’t explain. And when he does, usually through dialog between characters, it’s the barest minimum necessary, in context, and natural. In this novel, characters are immersed in what at first seem to be inexplicable events; it’s natural they would talk to one another and try to interpret what’s happening to them. We’re along for the ride with characters we can relate to and understand.

You can’t talk about what happens in The Peripheral without giving the store away. Most reviews try to explain the essential idea, so I will too. The novel centers around characters living in two futures: a near future and a more distant one, some 70-80 years beyond that. People in the farther future discover a way to communicate electronically with people in the earlier future; this has been made possible by some unspecified technological development occurring during that earlier future. Eventually, characters on both sides are able to virtually visit one another. Every interaction with the future changes the present, which branches off into “shunts.” In this novel, Gibson is concerned with characters living in one particular shunt. Well, enough of that. Gibson makes it real; I can’t even.

My favorite character in the Bridge Trilogy novels is Chevette. Chevette’s great-grandniece is Flynne, and I fell in love with her too. Brave, smart, unintimidated, rolling with the punches. And of all the little details Gibson creates to make the near future believable … a totally credible outgrowth of the world you and I live in now … Hefty Mart is the one that clicks. I’ll never pass the Costco snack bar again without thinking of Hefty Mart.

And what I said earlier about happy endings? Yes.

Seriously, I’m like a 14-year-old kid again, back in the Golden Age of science fiction. Gibson is sick, man! The Peripheral is astonishingly good.

unsubstantial airThe Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War
Samuel Hynes

I heard about this book from a friend and requested a copy from the library. It wasn’t yet in my local library system, but they found one for me (librarians are wonderful people) and I read it straight through.

I was a USAF fighter pilot from 1973 to 1997. Samuel Hynes flew fighters for the Marine Corps from 1943 to 1953. The Unsubstantial Air is about the first American fighter pilots, the young men who flew for England and France … and later on, the USA … during the Great War, between approximately 1916-1918. You can safely assume I was enthralled by Hynes’ book.

Using wartime diaries, letters, telegrams, newspaper articles, and personal recollections of surviving early aviators, Hynes traces the beginnings of young American men’s fascination with the idea of flying, the establishment of college flying clubs in the USA, and the early days of young American men heading off to England and France to play a role in the most important and romantic thing going in those days, the war in Europe. He follows the paths of the first volunteers, who generally started off as French Foreign Legionnaires or ambulance drivers and then gravitated to aviation. He recounts the beginnings of wartime flying training in the USA, the way young men with minimal flight training were transported to England and France, the building of training airfields overseas and the different ways men were taught to fly by the French and British. He follows key figures (Quentin Roosevelt, son of Teddy, for one; Billy Mitchell for another), who organized and oversaw American flight training in France in preparation for the USA’s eventual entry into the war.

All of this, and particularly the chapters describing actual combat over the front lines, is riveting reading, but what most fascinated me was discovering how little the essentials have changed. What attracted the first young men to flying in combat … the romantic idea of one-on-one combat, of being a knight of the air … is what attracts young men and women today. The desire to be above all things a chasse pilot (a pursuit pilot, or as we call them today, a fighter pilot, sent aloft to shoot down enemy aircraft), as opposed to a “mere” observation or bomber pilot … that too appears to be eternal.

No one knew how to conduct aerial combat in the beginning. They learned quickly: how to conduct aerial gunnery, how to strafe and bomb, how to provide mutual support to one another … the fundamentals every fighter pilot today must master. The life fighter pilots lived, the independence and spirited parties and drinking and whoring, the eagerness to take off at dawn to confront the Boche, the shock of a comrade’s sudden death … well, it’s the life Samuel Hynes lived in WWII and Korea; it’s the life I lived in F-15 squadrons during the Cold War and Desert Storm.

This really is a fabulous history of the beginnings of aviation and air power in wartime (as an aside, it’s taken us almost a hundred years, but the vision of air power pioneers like Billy Mitchell, which is powerfully spelled out in Hynes’ history, have finally become reality with improved aircraft, better command and control, and smart weapons). If you’re at all interested in military aviation, The Unsubstantial Air needs to be on your bookshelf.

lords of the skyLords of the Sky: How Fighter Pilots Changed War Forever, From the Red Baron to the F-16
Dan Hampton

Hampton set out to write a comprehensive history of the fighter pilot, starting out strong with long, detailed sections on WWI and WWII. When I got to the Korean and Vietnam War sections, however, eras about which I have some knowledge, I began picking up on errors, omissions, and some oddly sloppy writing, the effect of which had me questioning what I had read in the WWI and WWII sections. By the time I got to the final chapters on the Gulf wars, I felt Hampton was doing a slapdash, rushed, incomplete job, and almost wish he’d stopped with WWII.

Among the errors: calling the piston-engined B-29 a “big jet,” mislabeling A-26s as B-26s, describing infrared heat-seeking missiles as homing in on hot carbon dioxide, saying the Navy initially called the F-4 Phantom II the F-110A Spectre (that was the early USAF designation, not the Navy’s). He doesn’t talk about the Russian MiG-15 pilots in Korea, a couple of whom scored more kills than our own top F-86 aces. He barely mentions the North Vietnamese MiG pilots. Describing the first shoot-down of a USAF fighter over North Vietnam, he switches between first-person and third-person viewpoints — one moment you’re in the cockpit with the pilot and GIB as they ingress the target area; then a god-like narrator, using passive voice, announces that one of the jets in the four-ship has been hit; then you’re back in the cockpit as the front-seater pulls the ejection handles.

While Hampton mentions some of the Soviet women fighter pilots of WWII, there’s not one word about today’s women, who’ve been flying fighters in and out of combat since the mid-1990s. He totally skips the eight-year Iraq/Iran war, which produced at least one Iranian F-14 ace. He doesn’t mention the air war in Kosovo or the years American and allied fighter pilots policed the no-fly zone imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf war. While he goes into detail on some of the methods used in command and control of airborne fighters, he unaccountably ignores AWACS. I expected him to at least mention some of the more notorious blue-on-blue friendly fire shootdowns, but he didn’t. He never brings up the battle between the strategic bombing and fighter factions for control of the USAF.

His only reference to the F-15 Eagle, a fighter aircraft of his own era (he himself flew F-16s), is a throwaway line referencing “some Eagles” participating in an air battle somewhere in the vicinity of a strike mission he flew in Iraq. That is not just a slight, it’s a gratuitous slight, and having flown the Eagle myself I took offense. Fighter pilots flying the F-15 Eagle have over the years achieved a perfect air-to-air kill ratio (105 to 0), something no other group of fighter pilots in the world has done, and one would think this feat would be mentioned in a book about fighter pilots.

The errors and omissions in the second half are jarring. The book seemed well-researched until the Korean War, then felt rushed and incomplete. I now think another book on fighter pilots — The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War, by Samuel Hynes, which I reviewed above — does a better job conveying the fighter pilot experience and mentality, and for two reasons. One, Hynes, unlike Hampton, spends more time explaining what fighter pilots believe in, how they think, and how they behave in the air and on the ground. Two, Hynes confines himself to a single era, WWI — now that may strike you as a limitation, but as an experienced fighter pilot myself I was struck by how little fighter pilots have changed from 1917 to the present day — and by keeping to one era, Hynes wasn’t forced to pick and choose what to include or exclude from his narrative.

Again, I think Hampton should have stopped with the end of WWII. To keep up with his book’s strong start, it should end there, and perhaps continue into the jet age in another volume entirely. Based on the strength of the first half of Hampton’s history, I’m giving his book an overall 3-star rating.

yanks are starvingThe Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army
Glen Craney

Since the author asked me to read and review this book in exchange for a Kindle copy, I should explain my perhaps quirky star rating scale. Four stars, to me, is a top rating. Of all the 400+ books I’ve reviewed here on Goodreads, I’ve given just one five-star rating, that to the entire body of Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. So, three-and-a-half stars for this historical novel? That’s an excellent rating from me.

I thought The Yanks Are Starving a compelling read. I knew the bare outlines of the events the story is about, but none of the details; this fictionalized retelling of a now-forgotten episode in American history filled in that blank spot in my education. The characters in Craney’s story about the Bonus Expeditionary Force are, with few exceptions, historical figures who played important roles in the confrontation; the exceptions, as Craney explains in an afterward, are single characters meant to represent groups of participants (the nurse Anna standing in for several nurses; the black soldier Ozzie standing in for soldiers who fought in the Negro regiments).

I was fascinated to encounter young versions of historical characters I’ve studied in other contexts: Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, Dwight Eisenhower. The author did his research; the characters come across as recognizable and real without being animatronic mannikins spouting quotes. At no point did I feel as if Craney were taking liberties with known history, as some historical novelists do.

As to the tales of what American soldiers did in the Great War and how the country turned its back to them during the Great Depression, open-minded students of actual American history … the un-sugarcoated version … will find plenty here to feed their cynicism. Politicians suck; the police serve their political masters; corruption is rampant; even the military leaders the down & out members of the Bonus Army once served want nothing to do with them. We treated our WWII veterans much better, but during my own life I’ve seen the country turn its back on other good soldiers … the veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, for example … but never to the shameful extent we abandoned the heroes of WWI at their time of greatest need.

And what excuse was used to justify putting down the Bonus Army in the streets of Washington DC with military force? Communist agitation, the all-purpose bogeyman I remember from the McCarthy days of the 1950s … I now better understand its origins and underpinnings. For that alone, Craney gets my respect.

The only bad marks I’d give this historical novel are a few typos and a couple of what I think, perhaps mistakenly so, are anachronisms: one a reference to Herbert Hoover as “leader of the free world” (was that description applied to any American president before WWII?); one reference to working in “Stalin’s gulags” (did we know about the gulags, or use that term even if we did, in the early 1930s?).

Trivial quibbles aside, I got a lot out of The Yanks Are Starving. It’s a compellingly interesting story.

house in the landThere’s a House in the Land: (Where a Band Can Take a Stand)
Shaun D. Mullen

Shaun Mullen offered me a Kindle copy of this book in exchange for a review. At the time I was reviewing another book at an author’s request and had two library books to finish before their due dates, so some weeks passed before I picked up There’s a House in the Land. Once I did, though, I didn’t put it down.

I purposely did not consult reader reviews first, and initially couldn’t put this book on a mental shelf. Was it a story? Was it a fictionalized version of post-Vietnam America? Was it a straight memoir? Soon enough it became clear to me Mullen’s book is a straight memoir … one of the straightest I’ve read.

By that I mean most memoirs have a unifying theme or story to tell. Writers arrange memories and incidents to say something larger than their retold memories and incidents would themselves convey. Not so here: Mullen simply recounts his experiences in the 1970s, when he lived on a farm in Pennsylvania with several men, women, children, and animals. A bit of a story bubbles through, but generally what Mullen give us is a series of snapshots of a period of time and a particular subculture that thrived then.

The memoir is divided into chapters, but I couldn’t discern a reason for chapter breaks. Within each chapter, however, are several mini-chapters, divided on the page by the small silhouette of a farmhouse: these make more sense, since one mini-chapter will be about the farm’s horse, the next about a freeloading sometime resident, the next about attempting to brew beer, and so on.

There’s a large cast of characters, human and animal. At times it’s hard to keep them all straight; then again the narrative covers something like a decade, with people and critters constantly coming and going … one actually has to admire Shaun Mullen’s memory for names and details.

When I say Shaun Mullen doesn’t arrange his memories to convey some larger point, that’s not to say he doesn’t make deliberate editorial decisions: although he talks about the farm’s residents’ consumption of beer and pot throughout the memoir, he doesn’t get around to taking about their consumption of hard drugs until the final chapters; when he finally acknowledges this darker side of life at Kiln Farm, the net effect is disturbing. Had he laid all this on me at the beginning, I might have been tempted to put the book down.

The book is full of cultural references, from Doonesbury to Grateful Dead concerts. Maybe too many for my taste; some of the references felt forced.

Overall, druggy revelations at the end excepted, I very much enjoyed the visit to this Doonsbury-esque near past. I always envied the men and women my age who were able to pull off this emphatically non-nine-to-five lifestyle, and I read most of There’s a House in the Land with a smile on my face. My objection to the lack of a theme or larger point is probably the result of my own limited imagination: my memoir will have a theme because I can’t imagine writing it any other way, so yay for Shaun Mullen, and thanks for the read!

skink no surrenderSkink–No Surrender (Skink #7)
Carl Hiaasen

I notice a few reviewers expressing unhappiness with one of their favorite adult Hiaasen characters, Skink, appearing in a young adult Hiaasen story. Personally, I think YA is the perfect place for a character like Skink, a larger than life, semi-mythic, essentially comic character. I was happy to see Skink consorting with kids; Hiaasen and Skink have probably been heading in this direction all along.

I’ve read most of Hiaasen’s Florida novels, adult and YA, and have enjoyed them all. Skink–No Surrender is very much in line with Hiaasen’s earlier YA stories, filled with nature lore and detail, told from a decidedly pre-teen point of view (i.e., the kids aren’t thinking about sex yet), while still tolerably readable by adult Hiaasen fans.

I enjoyed Skink–No Surrender, but honestly it’s pretty lightweight reading for adult fans of Hiaasen’s fiction. What I wanted to do, after finishing this short novel, was to crack open one of Hiaasen’s earlier adult novels, Native Tongue or Skin Tight … or better yet re-read one of John D. MacDonald Travis McGee novels, which were probably Hiaasen’s inspiration in the first place.

Books I Didn’t Finish Reading

bear is brokenBear is Broken
Lachlan Smith

I started thinking about reading something else a third of the way into this combo legal thriller & murder mystery, when, after a reasonably decent beginning, the author began to pad the plot with unrealistically-contrived complications. I plowed on out of loyalty to the friend who recommended Bear is Broken, but with a third of the book remaining I couldn’t go on; I was no longer interested in what might happen, either with the unsolved mystery or with the increasingly-annoying characters.


First Post of 2015!

Donna was in bed by 10:00 PM on New Year’s Eve, but Polly and I rousted her out just before midnight to see the first snowfall of the winter. It was still coming down a minute later, making it the first snowfall of 2015 as well. We heard a few gunshots mixed in with the firecrackers, also a helicopter flying low overhead … presumably the police looking for muzzle flashes. Not sure what it is about firing guns into the night sky, but it’s a New Year’s tradition around here. Fallujah on the San Juan River, that’s us.


12:01 AM, 1/1/2015


8:00 AM, 1/1/2015

Our dogs aren’t bothered by fireworks or gunfire, but I always hear from Tucson friends who have to comfort theirs on New Year’s Eve. Poor things.

Well, I got up this morning determined to make a fresh start. I wiped down the office desk, cleaned out the browser caches, deleted trash and junk email, and rebooted the iPhone, iPad, and iMac.

I’m not big on resolutions, but I’ll go this far: I resolve to walk the dogs every day. I’ve been a horrible slacker in that department, and the dogs and I are too fat as a result. I fell behind on visits to the gym during Thanksgiving week and the first part of December, but over the last two weeks have been getting back into the groove. Someone compared getting on a scale to asking Dick Cheney to list all the things that are wrong with you, and that’s pretty much how I feel.

I’m throwing some baggage over the side for 2015. No more throwback Thursday photos on Facebook, for one. So 2014! I’ve been posting on Tumblr and Ello, but it’s been like talking into a dead phone … zero interaction with other users, never a comment, nothing. Twitter, Daily Kos, Facebook, and the comment section of my blogs are, by contrast, quite lively. My friends are on the other end of the phone, and we’re having a conversation. So I’ll continue tweeting, Facebooking, and blogging in 2015, but leave Tumblr and Ello to the Tumblrites and Elloians.

I had a lot of fun with the Donkey Hote account on Twitter, searching for and retweeting illiterate posts, photos of misspelled signs, screen caps of garbled Fox News chyrons, and eggcorns in the rough. Lately, though, finding new stuff has become a chore, so I’ve decided to throttle back. If I stumble across something new, genuinely appalling, and funny, then game on. But my daily blast of tweets? Done for now.

So what’s on for today, the first day of the new year? Donna and Polly are going to sew, at least until the football games start. While they watch the games I’ll be smoking ribs and sausages, which we’ll have later with baked beans and corn on the cob.

Happy New Year, everyone!


Air-Minded: Taildragger Tales

I found some faded and blurry photos of the Great Lakes biplane I used to fly, and, as old photos always do, they brought back memories.

great lakes_3

Who’s that behind those Ray-Bans?

In 1977, while I was an Air Force T-37 instructor pilot at Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma, I started a civilian flying training program at the local airport, thinking I might want to fly for the airlines some day. The fixed base operator at Woodring Field, Bill Sellers, ran a well-regarded flight school, and I earned my certified flight instructor rating in one of his airplanes. A month after I became a CFI, Bill added a Great Lakes biplane to his stable and decided to offer a course in aerobatics.

I was Bill’s first aerobatic student. After finishing the course I went to work on the weekends as one of Bill’s CFIs, teaching aerobatics and earning the occasional paycheck in the back seat of the Great Lakes. Snap rolls, outside loops, Cuban 8s, hammerheads, you name it … I flew many of these maneuvers in the T-37 at Vance AFB, but doing aerobatics in an open biplane, with my head out in the breeze, was another order of fun altogether.

great lakes_2

About to teach a student some aerobatics

The Lakes demanded your full attention on landing. As a taildragger, its center of gravity was behind the main gear, and if you didn’t work the rudder to keep the tail behind you it would try to get out in front. Swapping ends in this manner is called a ground loop. It’s an ever-present danger in taildraggers, especially during crosswind landings.

One day during my checkout program, Bill Sellers’ son Rusty, who was my instructor that day, decided he’d better land the Lakes himself since tower was calling a 13-knot crosswind, right at the plane’s limit. Sure enough, he ground-looped it. It happened in the blink of an eye, but I remember having time to think “Thank god I didn’t do that!” Bill Sellers was waiting for us with death in his eyes as we taxied up to the FBO a few minutes later, fabric hanging from the bottom of a bent wingtip.

Well, that was embarrassing, but hardly life-threatening, and Bill had the wing repaired in no time. The second time something bad happened in the Great Lakes, I was at the controls, oblivious to the danger I was in.

I was still in training, this time with Bill as my instructor, riding in the front seat while I practiced snap rolls from the rear seat. A snap roll is a violent maneuver … “snap” is exactly the right word for it. You yank the stick all the way back and slam in full rudder in the desired direction of the roll. The plane snaps into a fast roll, well in excess of 360 degrees a second, and halfway through you slam in full opposite rudder and full forward stick to snap it back into level flight. I probably did five snap rolls, one after another, until Bill and I were both happy I had the maneuver down. After practicing some other aerobatic maneuvers we flew back to Woodring Field.

I always did a post-flight inspection after landing. Aerobatic maneuvers are hard on an airplane, even one designed for aerobatics, so I always gave the plane a good look-over afterward. That day, walking around the front of the Lakes, I noticed a half-circle gouge on the front of the engine cowling, right behind the propeller spinner. It looked like the engine had twisted to one side during flight, allowing the back of the spinner to rub against the cowling. “Bill,” I said, “what’s this?” We unbuttoned the engine cowling and took it off, and discovered to our horror that two of the four motor mounts had broken during our flight, probably from side-to-side forces generated while I was doing snap rolls.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound all that big a deal. Trust me, it was. With two motor mounts broken and doubled stress on the remaining two, another snap roll might have caused the engine and propeller to rip away from the front of the airplane. If the spinning prop didn’t chop up a wing … or the two guys sitting right behind it … the sudden absence of several hundred pounds from the nose would have turned the Great Lakes into an unflyable basket of wood and fabric, and we’d have certainly had to bail out … if, that is, we could have freed ourselves from the tumbling wreckage.

Bill and I were very quiet after that post-flight inspection. By the following weekend Bill had had the motor mounts replaced and the cowling repainted, but neither of us ever practiced snap rolls again, and I didn’t teach them once I was an instructor myself.

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One life down, an undetermined number remaining

Like cats and their proverbial nine lives, pilots have an allotted number of close calls. Not nearly as many as cats get, though. Some of us get only one, some get three or four. Once you use them up you’re gone. I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve lived to tell about three close calls. This was the first one. I’ll tell you about the other two some day.


Monday Bag o’ Odds & Ends

odds and endsI could say I’m blogging about odds & ends because it’s the lull between festive holiday events, and with parties and football soon to come, no one wants to read about anything serious (not that there aren’t plenty of serious things to write about).

But the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, barring surprises, should pretty much be a continuation of the lull for us. No one’s coming over and we’re not going out. Wednesday night, Donna’ll be in bed by 10. If I’m still awake at midnight I might step outside to listen for gunfire. That’s as exciting as it gets around here. Football? Not my thing. Donna can watch the New Year’s Day games; I’ll be on the patio smoking sausages and ribs.

So it’s only right I’m blogging about odds & ends.

This morning a friend posted a link to an apostrophe usage test on Facebook. I don’t usually click on those things, but apostrophes are tricky and I decided to take the challenge. The test has two levels: “terribly tricky” and “devilishly difficult.” You can take each level over and over; you get different questions each time. I consistently scored 10 of 10 on the tricky level but only managed 7 or 8 of 10 on the devilish level. Click on the image below if you want to try your hand.

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Devilish is the word

That’s a screen grab of a representative question from the “devilishly difficult” level. The correct answer is James’s, not James’ as I had thought.

Commenting on my friend’s Facebook post, I said my general rule with regard to apostrophes is “if in doubt, look it up,” and that while Google is great for apostrophe answers, I still turn to my copy of the AP Stylebook for really thorny issues of usage. This sparked a comment thread on style guides. Strong opinions abound. Apparently some writers hate the AP Stylebook because it’s anti-Oxford comma. I’m pro-Oxford comma, and have always politely disagreed with AP on that. What’s the big deal?

When I worked for the US Special Operations Command in the 1980s, I learned that the most important skill a staff officer can have is the ability to write clearly. Each officer at USSOCOM was issued an AP Stylebook, along with a 9mm Baretta pistol and holster. We kept the pistols in safes when we weren’t using them; the style guides were on our desks and in use around the clock. You were far more likely to have someone waving a style guide at you than a pistol. Which made the more important and lasting contribution to our nation’s military readiness? My money’s on the AP Stylebook.


1984 & 2009 AP Stylebooks

In spite of Google’s handiness and ease of use, my standard (save for serial commas) is still the AP Stylebook. I bought a new edition a couple of years ago. I found that I prefer the 1984 edition, the one I was given at USSOCOM. The spiral binder is what makes it … when it’s open the pages lay flat and you can type without having to hold the book open with one hand (you can probably guess I just had it open to the “lay, lie” entry).

“This is the best of Henry James’s novels.” Really? Can that possibly be right?


You Can’t Read That!

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

New York Underground Library, Ourit Ben-Haim

New York Underground Library (photo by Ourit Ben-Haim)

YCRT! News

Banned in Tucson™ author Patricia Williams takes on the rising tide of academic book bannings, firings, and the growing disregard for scholarship in the USA.

Speaking of the growing disregard for scholarship, Rush Limbaugh supports replacing the teaching of actual history with the teaching of American exceptionalism. Would you be surprised to learn he has a financial stake in the textbook business?

The conservative school board members in Gilbert, Arizona who voted to cut pages out of a high school honors biology textbook have formally agreed to hand over their scissors. Score one for the good people of Gilbert, who voted them out of office, and School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who refused to pull the book and fought the board every step of the way.

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Part of a larger infographic (click image to view)

In Richmond, Virginia, another worrisome attempt at censorship in local schools. While not outright book-banning, requiring teachers to get parental permission before teaching certain books or showing certain documentaries, will likely have the same effect.

Clearly everyone has heard about the briefly-withdrawn movie The Interview, so I won’t recap that story here. This is not the first time Hollywood has censored itself, and it likely won’t be the last. Remember that movie where the teenaged girl gets an abortion and is happy she did? Me neither.

Also, this:

[Kim Jong Un’s] actions emulate those of hard-left feminists, radical Muslims, university administrators, and others who seek to prevent the publication or distribution of material they deem offensive.

Worth a look: Fat Angie author e.E. Charlton-Trujillo talks about censorship.

Ending on a happy note: The Miseducation of Cameron Post will remain on the shelves of Sussex Central High School Library in Georgetown, Delaware, after the school district board president abandoned his campaign to have the book banned.


Air-Minded: Christmas Photoblogging

Guess who got a new telephoto lens for Christmas? Any guesses where he went with it?

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Looking east down helicopter row, Rincon Mountains in the background (photo: Paul Woodford)

Clearly I have much to learn. Here are a few of the less-embarrassing shots I took at Pima Air & Space Museum the day after Christmas:

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Lockheed L-049 Constellation (photo: Paul Woodford)

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Boeing KB-50J Superfortress (photo: Paul Woodford)

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Boeing EB-47E Stratojet (photo: Paul Woodford)

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Convair B-36J Peacemaker (photo: Paul Woodford)

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Boeing B-36J Peacemaker (photo: Paul Woodford)

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Lockheed C-121A Constellation (photo: Paul Woodford)

As always, clickage will take you to the full sized images on Flickr.


A Christmas Miracle

Donna dreamed of a Fitbit. Polly pined for a sound bar. I wished for a telephoto lens. We each got what we most wanted … a Christmas miracle! Shame on me for not remembering what we asked Amazon to leave under the Las Vegas Woodfords’ tree, but I expect our son and his family got their hearts’ desires too. We had a great Christmas, you?

Our house was a wreck, not a single decoration up, yet somehow it all came together Christmas Eve. Good thing, too, because we’d invited a gang over for a party. I boiled shrimp and cooked up a big pot of clam chowder; our friends all came to share the feast. Christmas tunes on the stereo; Christmas Story on the DVD, all that. It was pretty great, I must say.

Christmas morning was quiet and happy (happier still after Donna and Polly made our traditional post-unwrapping breakfast of eggs Benedict); later we drove across town to share dinner with friends at their house.

Today is a day for reflection, I guess. I’m reflecting on how different Christmas is from other holidays. I marvel that the Christmas spirit still is a thing with me, hardened cynic that I’ve become.

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And I am cynical. Irreligious too. But I think Christmas, no matter one’s religion or lack of it, is a great idea, good for us and good for society. We’re at our best when we’re in a giving and sharing mood, and Christmas is kind of a truce, isn’t it? Shut up. Yes it is.

No, I will not be spending good money to watch The Interview. C’mon, sheeple, don’t you know when you’ve been had? Also: am I the only person who has a hard time telling Seth Rogan and Adam Sandler apart?

What’s on for today? Trying out that new telephoto lens, that’s what! Merry Christmas!