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Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

Paul’s Book Reviews

“And so it went, sand piling up to the heavens and homes sinking toward hell.” — Hugh Howey, Sand Omnibus

sandSand Omnibus
Hugh Howey

I looked at the different ways readers categorized this book, and one label I didn’t see was Young Adult. That surprises me. Sand has many of the elements of YA fiction: teenaged protagonists, coming-of-age subplots, dastardly villains, complicated family relationships with equal elements of hate and love, dawnings of physical desire, first encounters with betrayal and death, looming disaster staved off by the aforementioned teenagers, and a quest.

These elements, so characteristic of YA fiction, are the same elements that make Sand a rip-roarin’ story. Seriously, once started I could not put this book down. This story will make a hell of a movie, and I hope that happens some day.

I first encountered Hugh Howey through his massive Wool trilogy, originally a collection of shorter stories. I was enthralled with the underground-silo civilization he constructed out of thin air. Great characters, great action, great ideas, great story-telling all around.

Sand—like Wool a collection of shorter stories now assembled in what Howey calls an omnibus—is far shorter, but like Wool, it presents a future civilization that is complete and fully realized.

My only wish is that it were longer. I didn’t want it to end!

joan of arcJoan of Arc
Mark Twain

This novel is in the public domain and can be read free on line. Nevertheless I paid B&N $1.99 for a Nook copy that turned out to be full of optical character recognition scanning errors. If you want to read it yourself, I recommend you do a Google search and find a free copy. Don’t pay for a bunch of typos like I did. Now that that unpleasantness is out of the way, my review of a classic that somehow eluded me until now.

I finished Joan of Arc in a mixed state of amazement and confusion. Amazed that the actual person, Joan of Arc, did everything they say she did; confused by (and convinced of) Mark Twain’s love and admiration, his uncritical acceptance of her beliefs.

I always regarded Joan of Arc as semi-legendary. Not quite wholly fictional, like King Arthur; more like a Catholic saint (which she is, by the way), an actual historical figure who, over centuries, became larger than life through the accretion of unverifiable accounts of miracles.

But no. Joan not only existed, she was all the things legend says she was: the uneducated and illiterate peasant girl who, at the age of 17, led French armies against occupying British armies during the Hundred Years’ War, the victorious general who ran the British out of Orléans and Reims and was responsible for transforming Charles VII, the Dauphine, into the legitimately crowned King of France. The girl who, at the age of 19, was burned at the stake by a Burgundian French bishop allied with the British while Charles VII and the armies Joan had raised for him stood by and did nothing. Her life and accomplishments are documented fact.

They say that what one man can do, so can another. But has there ever, before or since, been another Joan of Arc? Can you name another instance where kings and generals turned over leadership and military strategy to an untrained teenager, let alone a woman? Joan’s historicity alone beggars the imagination. And yet! She existed! She came out of nowhere, convinced kings and generals to let her lead armies and plan military operations—and won!

I’m equally staggered Mark Twain wrote this book (and considered it his best work). Twain researched and wrote The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte (its full title) late in life, long after he had abandoned religion and become an atheist. Unaccountably, he picked as the subject of his research and devotion a superstitious peasant girl who believed in God, archangels, fairies, demons, and the Devil himself, a girl who spoke to saints and angels and maintained to the death that everything she did was at the personal direction of God Himself, a girl who lived in an era when everyone took as a given the day-to-day intervention of God and Satan in worldly affairs, a girl who was tried and burned as a witch.

None of this seems like anything the mature Twain would be interested in, but his love of Joan jumps out from every page. You can tell by the reading that Twain was genuinely moved by Joan and the story of her life and deeds. The only way I can interpret Twain’s embrace of Joan is to speculate that while he didn’t share her beliefs, and in fact rejected the existence of God and therefore everything that underpinned Joan’s life, he accepted that she herself did believe, acting sincerely in accordance with her beliefs in every aspect of her life—and that he admired her for precisely that.

Many say Joan of Arc is unlike the rest of Twain’s work, but I disagree. His dry cynicism, so familiar from his earlier journalistic writing, is on display when he relates the actions and motivations of the little men who cheered Joan on in victory and betrayed her in defeat. What makes Joan of Arc so different is Twain’s adoration of his subject, and large parts of the book are uncharacteristically hagiographic. Granted, Twain speaks through a narrator, the Sieur Louis de Conte, Joan’s childhood friend, later her secretary and scribe during the military campaigns, a man utterly devoted to Joan and quite in love with her. Really, though, it is Twain’s love of Joan that shows through on every page, and no one who reads the book will dispute that. In a way, this may be the most personal thing Twain ever wrote.

I finish this review as amazed and confused as when I started. The book is profoundly affecting. I’m an atheist like Twain; like Twain I’ve fallen in love with Saint Joan.

dear leaderDear Leader
Jang Jin-Sung

I’ve read several nonfiction books purporting to explain life inside North Korea, but only one other by an actual defector. That book was Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. It was the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, as told to American journalist Blaine Harden, who actually wrote the book. My review of Escape from Camp 14 included these comments:

“An interesting but curiously flat and skimpy retelling of a North Korean prison camp escapee’s story. Something is missing here—I expected a more dramatic, more compelling story. And this one is necessarily full of holes, because the escapee shares only the basic outline of his tale with the American journalist who tells it. He never really opens up, and my reaction is one of suspicion—not of the journalist, but of the escapee himself. He says any other prisoner would have done what he did, ratting out his mother and brother to prison guards and then watching their execution. He says he felt nothing, that he did what he was trained to do. And yet he knows what he did was shameful and wrong, because for months afterward he lied about it. We are told that no one—not one person, ever—has escaped from this particular prison camp. Yet members of his own imprisoned family almost casually, it seems, planned an escape, and his own escape and travel to China sounds suspiciously easy (he lingered in the village next to the camp for several days, and no one came looking for him? Give me a break). These parts of his story ring false.”

This defector’s tale is different. One, it was written by the defector, Jang Jin-Sung, himself. Two, the defector was an educated man, a party cadre, and a high-level member of North Korea’s leadership, one of the “admitted,” a man who had not only met the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, but who lived and worked under the Dear Leader’s personal protection as his poet laureate. In addition to his duties as state poet, he worked in the only North Korean party agency with access to information from the outside world. He was remarkably well-placed, a trusted inner-circle functionary, probably one of the most high-value defectors ever to escape the regime.

And three, there was nothing “suspiciously easy” about Jang Jin-Sung’s escape. I have always understood that North Korea has agents in the Chinese border region, placed there to capture escapees, and that China takes an active role in helping NK track them down. What I didn’t know was just how extensive the dragnet is: between NK and China, it is incredibly difficult for escapees to evade capture in the border regions and make it all the way to the South Korean embassy in Beijing (and even there, hundreds of miles from NK, many are captured and turned back over to NK agents)—yet thousands of incredibly brave and determined escapees have made their way to freedom.

Jang Jin-Sung almost didn’t. He escaped along with a friend, another member of the inner circle. As soon as they crossed over the frozen Tumen river into China, the North Korean government alerted Chinese authorities they were wanted for murder, and they had to evade an intense manhunt. They were able to get limited and begrudging help from a few ethnic Korean Chinese citizens, but generally faced nothing but distrust and threats to turn them in. Jang Jin-Sung’s friend was eventually cornered and jumped to his death off a cliff to avoid capture. Thirty-seven days after crossing into China Jang Jin-Sung finally was able to contact a South Korean journalist working in Beijing, a man who immediately realized the value of what Jang Jin-Sung knew and put him in touch with South Korean intelligence agents who were able to sneak him past Chinese guards into the embassy in Beijing.

The escape & evasion portion of the book is one cliff-hanger after another, guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Equally riveting is what Jang Jin-Sung reveals about the inner workings of NK’s leadership: how Kim Jong-Il, about to be supplanted as Kim Il-Sung’s dynastic successor by a half-brother, worked behind the scenes to elevate the party over the military, creating the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung while at the same time making the Great Leader a figurehead and himself, the Dear Leader, the actual ruler, pulling all the strands from the center of the web. He explains how Kim Jong-Il’s feckless mismanagement created the famine of the late 1990s; how NK’s apparently self-destructive strategies in dealing with the outside world and South Korea (asking for aid while at the same time provoking military confrontations with the South Korean Navy) were perceived by the leadership as the smart thing to do; how NK internal propaganda and almost all the articles about the outside world in the NK press are wholly written from scratch by anonymous men working for various NK propaganda agencies.

What drove this well-placed, comfortable member of the inner circle to defect? A vacation visit to his home town at the height of the famine, and the sudden realization that everything about North Korea was a lie. Or so he says. Yes, I don’t fully trust this defector either. I have to assume he whitewashes his own actions, both before and after his defection, and that we’re hearing only those parts of the story he wants us to hear. One detail that sticks with me: he had been living with his parents before his defection, and although he iterates several examples of NK’s official “guilt by association” policy, wherein entire families are arrested and sent to prison camps for crimes committed by a single family member, he never mentions the fate of his mother and father, never speculates about what may have happened to them after his escape.

The contrast between what this defector says about how the government of North Korea works and the speculations offered by outsiders in those other nonfiction books I mentioned at the beginning of this review is a stark one. Outsiders truly cannot understand how things really work in that benighted country. What this guy says rings true. Of course I don’t know whether or not it is true, but once he made it to Seoul he was debriefed for eight months, and North Korea has openly said he’s marked for assassination. Those are, to me, persuasive arguments in his favor.

If you’re the least bit interested in North Korea, this book needs to be on your reading list.

Edan Lepucki

A post-apocalyptic drama set on a small stage, California follows the survivalist existence of a young couple, Cal and Frida, who abandon the collapsed city of Los Angeles and move to the woods to eke out a life. As the novel progresses we learn details of the couple’s earlier life and their connections to a Weather Underground-like movement called The Group. The couple eventually leave their forest home and connect with a larger group of survivors in a fortified encampment where they encounter a figure from their shared past—and The Group.

Edan Lepucki gives us just enough information about the novel’s world for us to grasp the larger outlines: the economy has failed, along with it government, roads, schools, commerce, hospitals; the rich live in guarded, walled enclaves; those left outside the walls scrabble for shelter and food. Pirates roam the land.

The novel is tightly centered on Cal and Frida and doesn’t stray far from them; moreover. everything that happens to Cal and Frida occurs within a ten-mile radius of the shed in the forest where we first meet them. Though more limited in scale, California evokes Walter Miller’s classic A Canticle for Liebowitz and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam novels. It is more directly connected to such post-apocalyptic novels as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, and Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea.

What makes this novel hard to put down is a constant level of tension and threat. Something bad is always lurking nearby, whether it’s Mother Nature, marauding pirates, the strangely hostile fellow survivors in the encampment, or Micah, brother to Frida and former classmate of Cal, a shadowy figure with a violent past. Cal and Frida gradually piece things together from snippets of information they gather but do not necessarily share with one another; this adds to the tension.

My only quibble? Realism. I lived in California and at one time had a house in the woods in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The place is crawling with survivalists; I cannot imagine being able to isolate myself in the wilderness in any apocalyptic scenario—there’d inevitably be hundreds of other survivors trying to crash my party.

I thought California was a very good read. Maybe not deserving of the “Colbert Bump,” which really should have gone to Margaret Atwood (get on that, Stephen), but pretty darn good nonetheless.

into the stormInto the Storm (Destroyermen #1)
Taylor Anderson

Alternate world science fiction, and fairly decent. The novel begins on an old American “four-stacker” destroyer in the middle of a WWII naval battle somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. Attempting to run into a squall to escape pursuing Japanese warships, the crew of the USS Walker find themselves in a alternate world, one where evolution took a different turn. They escape almost certain death at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Navy only to find themselves facing the Grik.

Sure, it sounds silly, but this is well-written science fiction with fully developed, believable human characters, better than much of the alternate world SF I’ve read, and if I ever find myself short of something to read (an unlikely possibility, considering my current backlog), I’ll pick up the second novel in this series, just to catch up with the characters, find out how they’re doing, and see what happens next.

If I was a writer, I don’t know how I’d decide where to break between novels in a series. I wouldn’t want to leave readers in the lurch, but at the same time I’d want to implant a few threads suggesting where the next novel, and the one after that, might be going, enough to keep readers’ interests engaged so that they’d buy the rest of the series. I think Taylor Anderson ended this first of (three?) novels at just the right place, after a climactic first battle with the Grik. As I mentioned, I too want to find out what happens next—but if I never get around to reading the other novels in this series, I won’t feel let down. This one stood up on its own, a satisfying and fun read.

Ben Bova

I saw this Ben Bova novel at the library and picked it up on reflex, Bova being in my memory a decent science fiction writer. Transhuman turned out to be a great disappointment. Bova is endlessly repetitive, revisiting background and plot points again and again as if he doesn’t think the reader can be expected to remember from one page to the next that Luke doesn’t want his granddaughter to die from cancer or that the treatment he intends to give her inhibits cell growth. He plows these two particular plot points over so many times they almost turn to dust and blow away.

Bova has a thing about ethnicity and race. The coding is what you notice first: if Bova doesn’t describe a character’s race or ethnicity, he or she is white. Otherwise, he goes out of his way to identify blacks as black; Hispanics as Hispanics. If this served the story somehow, it might be valid, but at no point is a character’s race or ethnicity relevant to anything: why, for example, do we need to know that a blonde woman is of Italian heritage, or that the color of her hair a surprise to Luke? Why do we need to know that a nurse, a throwaway character whose entire contribution to the story is contained in one sentence, is black and overweight? Is Luke a bigot, or Ben Bova? At first I thought Bova was working under the theory that diversity sells, but in a later chapter he labels a woman’s genetic makeup the result of “generations of miscegenation,” and the stink of racism virtually wafts from the page.

Bova’s idea of creating a native American character is to give him a black ponytail and have him say he likes flatbread. Otherwise he’s indistinguishable from any other male character in the book. Female characters are likewise interchangeable, and in an epic bit of shallowness, every one of them wants to get in Luke’s pants.

This is poor, poor stuff. It’s not even science fiction, more of a medical/car chase mashup thriller, third-rate Michael Crichton. I can’t believe I read it all the way through, but maybe I just wanted to get it over with.


Friday Bag o’ Crashes

Russian-Dash-cams-22When they didn’t immediately locate the pilot of the Massachusetts Air Guard F-15 that crashed in West Virginia Wednesday morning, I figured he was dead. An eyewitness reported seeing a parachute, which led to hopes the pilot had ejected and survived, but since there’d been no radio contact with him I assumed he’d either been killed during the ejection or hadn’t ejected at all.

Eyewitness reports are often wrong, and this was no exception. About 30 hours after investigators arrived at the crash site they found the body. There had been no ejection.

I investigated an F-15 crash in Alaska in 1985. Talk about remote locations, we didn’t find the crash site for three days, and once initial responders helicoptered in, it took another half a day to locate the pilot’s body. He hadn’t tried to eject either. The pilot from this week’s accident graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1996, just a year before I retired, so I didn’t know him. Nevertheless he was a brother and I’m sorry he’s gone. I always wonder when fighter pilots ride it into the ground, as this one apparently did. Was he conscious? Did he think he could recover until it was too late to eject? The investigators will try to answer those questions, just as I tried to answer similar ones in accidents I investigated.

Going back to a civil aviation accident I wrote about in June, the Gulfstream executive jet that crashed on takeoff at Hanscomb Field near Boston, the NTSB is still investigating and trying to determine causes. Initially it looked as if the pilots had tried to take off with the gust lock engaged, a device that’s supposed to lock the aircraft’s ailerons, rudder, and elevators to prevent wind damage on the ground, but there were contrary indications. One, the cockpit gust lock control, a lever behind the throttles, was found in the unlocked position. Two, the gust lock is supposed to also restrict throttle movement so that you can’t advance them more than 6% above idle—had it been engaged, there’s no way the Gulfstream should have been able to accelerate to takeoff speed before running off the end of the runway and crashing into a ditch.

According to the linked article, the NTSB is still focused on the gust lock, and the makers of the Gulfstream have issued advisories to pilots and operators about the proper use of the gust lock and the importance of following pre-takeoff checklist procedures. As I speculated in June, there might be problems with the gust lock, and Gulfstream has apparently found a failure mode where the gust lock will still freeze the controls but allow full throttle movement. As for finding the gust lock control in the unlocked position, it’s quite possible the pilots moved the control lever when they realized they couldn’t rotate the nose at takeoff speed, but it was too late to salvage the situation. I’m keeping an eye out for the final report.

Moving on to auto racing, a subject I was recently counseled not to speculate about, I saw on ESPN this morning that NASCAR driver Tony Stewart will be racing again this weekend. He’s the driver who ran over and killed another driver at a sprint car event earlier this month. The investigation is ongoing, but as I expected there’s no indication Mr. Stewart will be found at fault. Money talks, and Stewart earns a lot of money for some very powerful men. Pardon my cynicism, but I suspect NASCAR hopes the investigation will be inconclusive and leave open the suspicion that Stewart intentionally hit the other driver. Why? Because it’ll draw fans to the track. Who knows, Stewart might do it again!

I know, I know, I’m a terrible person for taking such a dim view of people, but my god aren’t we a pack of jabbering monkeys? Have you ever watched Russian dash cam videos on YouTube? Talk about curling your lip at mankind, those videos’ll induce it. We’re lucky we’ve survived this long as a species. And if you were wondering what’s the justification for the inset graphic at the top of this post, now you know.

On that cheerful note, I wish you a happy Labor Day weekend. If you drive or fly (or sail, or take the train, or ride your bike), please be careful, because you’re my brothers and sisters too!


Thursday Bag o’ Statuary

Ugh, relatives in the heartland. Again. I unfriend out & out racists when they reveal themselves on Facebook, unless they’re kin (I did unfriend a nephew, but it was over animal cruelty). In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson and the protests that followed, some of my relatives have started sharing white supremacist chain letters and race-baiting links they get from Facebook friends of their own. I call them out on it, but I know it’s a waste of time.

Last night one of them shared something Herman Cain posted. I never would have seen it if she hadn’t clicked the “like” button, but when she did it went out to everyone on her friend list, including me. Here’s what Herman Cain … and my niece … thinks everyone should pass around and snicker over:

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 1.58.40 PM

When I grabbed this image off my news feed, about three hours ago, Mr. Cain’s post had already been shared 7,673 times. What you don’t see, because I couldn’t fit it into the screen grab, is that Cain’s post had also generated 15,826 likes and 7,449 comments.

I reviewed some of the comments. Did the woman call the police on her Obamaphone? Did she pay for the statue with her EBT card? Where did she get the money to buy the statue in the first place? Does she have a receipt? Who’s paying for her medical treatment, the taxpayer? Did anyone check the nearest golf course for the missing statue? Those are some of the kinder remarks. You can track down Herman Cain’s Facebook page and read the comments yourselves if you want to see the real ooga-booga stuff … I’d just as soon not repeat any of that here.

The original video, prepared by a local TV station, is blameless. It doesn’t paint the woman who owned the statue as a bad person or a welfare queen. On the contrary, she’s presented as a member of the community, a mother, and a homeowner. She lives in a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood. I was charmed by her sense of humor when she said she planned to buy a Hillary Clinton statue to set next to the Obama statue, but has now rethought the decision.

Cain’s post, however, comes from another place, as indicated by his “OK, I think we’re done here” crack. I think he intends it as a generalized slam on black Americans who support President Obama. I think he wants his Facebook audience to see the woman as a welfare queen, and judging by the comments he’s succeeding. I think Cain’s choice to share this story at this time is part of an organized right-wing campaign to denigrate and belittle black Americans—and anything they might have to say about police brutality and unjustified killings—in the wake of the Ferguson protests.

gwb statueAmazon sells busts and statues of President Reagan. They sell busts of President George W. Bush too, but those are currently out of stock. This life-sized GWB statue might be for sale, though. Who do you think buys this kind of Presidential statuary? White Republicans, maybe? I wonder, do you think the owner of this statue would be upset if I stole it?

I don’t pretend to know why the woman thousands of Facebook users are making fun of bought her Obama statue in the first place, but perhaps it isn’t a stretch to imagine a black American being very, very proud of the first black President.

As I have before, I called out my relative on sharing Mr. Cain’s post. She chooses to pretend she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. She has no idea how that post went out with her name on it. She doesn’t see how anyone could think there’s racial animus behind it, and since the woman is not from Ferguson there can’t possibly be any connection to recent events there. I asked her to look at the comments. That’s where we left it.

God save me from my good Christian relatives!

I’ll go back to something I said before about sharing stuff on social media. When you like and share something that was originally posted to a white supremacist Facebook page, or that has hundreds of racist hate comments attached to it, if you do not disavow the source or the comments you are endorsing it. You are declaring your membership in that tribe.


Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

During our drive to New Mexico last week we had to stop at two US Border Patrol checkpoints, one on the White Sands Missile Range inbound to Alamogordo, the other homebound on I-10 between Las Cruces and Deming. We were racially profiled at the first one, which is to say the BP agent glanced at us and waved us through, presumably because we don’t look Hispanic; on the return trip we had to say we were American citizens before we were allowed to go, so at least the agents at that checkpoint were being even-handed.

I’m not the only one worried that over time the Border Patrol will fall victim to mission creep. Right now we only have to stop and declare our citizenship in a 100-mile band along the southern border, but how long will it be before travelers crossing the heartland on I-40 have to stop at checkpoints? How long will it be before our word isn’t enough and we have to start producing documents to prove it?

A couple of weeks back a friend posted this to Facebook:

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 9.55.18 AM

Not the border fence

That, I shouldn’t have to say, is not the US/Mexico border fence. It’s a sand fence alongside the portion of I-8 that runs through the Imperial Sand Dunes between Yuma, Arizona and Calexico, California. It’s purpose is to keep the shifting dunes off the roadway, like those snow drift fences you see on the high plains up north.

The US/Mexico border is a few miles to the south. Here’s the actual border fence:

The actual border fence

I suspect my friend knew this, but his desire to stir up the rubes overcame his native honesty. He hit his target: the comments section quickly filled with ignorant outrage: Obama’s fence is a joke, here come the Mexicans with their terror babies and Ebola virus, why not just hang out a “Welcome to America” sign, etc. I responded with a photo of the actual border fence, the same one you see above … and it made absolutely no difference. Everyone ignored it, almost as if they were saying “You keep your reality, I’d rather believe Fox News.” I should have known better.

The fact is, Obama’s fence is longer, and higher, than ever. Border security, along with Border Patrol manning, has increased to unprecedented levels under Obama. Under Obama, an average of 33,000 undocumented immigrants are deported every month. Under Bush, the number was 21,000. But the right intentionally “un-sees” these facts because they don’t fit the narrative. If they ever get another Republican president the complaints will stop overnight, even if that president takes Reagan’s advice and takes down the wall.

All the fencing in the world will only slow border crossers down, just as the sand fence along I-8 will only slow the drift of the dunes. I titled this post with a line from Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall. There’s another line I could have used as well: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”


Air-Minded: Throw a Nickel on the Grass


Larry “Crumer” Crumrine

That’s our old squadron-mate Crumer, whose memorial service we attended in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Thursday evening. Crumer, as you can tell from the photo (click to see it larger), flew in Vietnam … two back to back one-year tours, the first as an F-4 GIB (guy in back), the second as a front-seater. I first met him at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands, where we flew F-15 Eagles together; later, we were the first two Eagle drivers sent to Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, to convert the fighter squadron there from F-4s to F-15s.

We had a big job to do at Elmendorf, a large part of it convincing the 21st Wing and Alaskan Air Command to accept the notion that the F-15 actually had a decent on-board radar and could fly an autonomous air superiority, as opposed to close-controlled interceptor, role. The first day we had a couple of additional pilots and four airworthy Eagles, about two months after we arrived, we scheduled a four-ship for an air combat training mission, two versus two. Five minutes later Crumer and I were on the carpet in the director of operations’ office, trying to convince him this was how F-15 units train for combat, that we knew what we were doing, that we’d have solid visuals on one another before engaging in close combat, that we wouldn’t plow into each other in an aerial fireball. Crumer and I carried the day. We flew the mission, and once the first two v. two was history we were able, with diplomacy and persistence, to finish the job of changing what had been a gentleman’s flying club into a proper fighter squadron.

Crumer divorced when he left Soesterberg and arrived at Elmendorf a single man, accompanied by one of this three children. A few months after our arrival he met his second wife; we hosted their wedding reception. Beside showing our respects to a fallen comrade, we of course wanted to see Leila again; all three kids were there too, along with their own children. Mark, the son who’d gone to Alaska with his father, remembered our son Gregory and asked about him … apparently they’d gotten in loads of trouble together back in the Netherlands, and I guess the less we know about that the better. As was to be expected, there were several fighter pilots at Crumer’s service and the spirited wake that followed at his house, among them two old squadron-mates from Soesterberg, Hendo and Stormy. A somber but simultaneously happy reunion, and I’m glad we went.

As I told Hendo and Stormy, if the rest of our former squadron-mates do us the courtesy of dying within a 500-mile radius of Tucson, we’ll be there for their services. I know, shouldn’t joke about such things. But it’s true. Apart from those who died flying jets, three of our former Soesterberg friends have died, two of them too far away for us to come and pay our respects in person. Crumer was pretty special, though, and I’d have driven farther to throw a nickel on the grass in his memory.

Oh Hallelujah, Oh Hallelujah,
Throw a nickel on the grass,
Save a fighter pilot’s ass.
Oh Hallelujah, Oh Hallelujah,
Throw a nickel on the grass,
And you’ll be saved.


Tuesday Bag o’ Trouble

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Air-Minded: Move Your Tail

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

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

I responded with this:

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

Cochrane with Yeager.jpg

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

McDonnell F2H-2P Banshee

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

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

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

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

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

North American F-86L Sabre

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

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

North American F-86H Sabre

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

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

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

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

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

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

McDonnell-Douglas F-15A

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

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

2013-06-25 10.14.24

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday Bag o’ Don’t Go There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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