Paul’s Thing

blogprofile The weblog of Paul Woodford, a veteran USAF F-15 pilot living in Tucson, Arizona
July 2015
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Air-Minded: the Non-Starter Option? (Updated 7/23/15)

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, long out of production, has a constituency. The C-130 Hercules, still in production after more than 60 years, has a constituency.

Where are the constituencies, I wonder, for “legacy” fighter aircraft like the F-15E Strike Eagle, F/A-18 Super Hornet, and F-16 Fighting Falcon?

The Arizona delegation to Congress is fighting hard to keep the A-10 in the Air Force inventory past its retirement date. Congressmen from Georgia and a number of subcontracting states continue to force the USAF, against its wishes, to keep buying new C-130s.

But there is near-unanimity in Congress in support of phasing out our inventory of legacy fighters and replacing them, along with the USMC’s AV-8 Harriers, with Lockheed’s F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. Guess what, though … all three legacy fighters are still in production.

Boeing is currently building a version of the F-15E, designated the F-15SA, for Saudi Arabia, and is still actively seeking an overseas customer for a highly modified F-15E variant it calls the Silent Eagle. Both aircraft are greatly improved models of the older F-15E Strike Eagles flown by the USAF, introduced in the mid-1980s and now nearing the end of their operational lives. Both new F-15E variants are multirole fighters, fully capable of air-to-ground and air-to-air employment.


F-15SA: in production now

F-15 Silent Eagle

F-15 Silent Eagle mockup: looking for a buyer

Boeing is still building brand new F/A-18 Super Hornets in single-seat and two-seat configurations, aircraft currently being flown in air-to-air, air-to-ground, and electronic warfare roles.

F:A-18E Super Hornet

F/A-18E Super Hornet: still in production

It is perhaps understandable that Lockheed, prime contractor for the F-35, isn’t talking up its F-16 or going out of its way to remind anyone that it too is still in production.

F-16E Block 60

F-16E Block 60 (UAE): still in production

Can it really be there’s no constituency behind the idea of buying a fresh batch of F-15SA or Silent Eagle fighters for the USAF? Such a buy could make up for the limited number of F-22 Raptor air-to-air fighters, now out of production after fewer than 200 aircraft were built, far short of the 700+ the USAF wanted. New F-15s could supplement the F-22 in the air superiority role, while also providing air-to-ground capability until problems with the F-35 are worked out. Same goes for current production models of the F/A-18 and F-16. We could buy more. We could buy them now. For a hell of a lot less money than it’s costing us to bring the F-35 on line.

I can’t believe some congressman (never mind the aircraft manufacturers) isn’t pushing the idea of buying more of these current and proven fighters. I can’t believe factions in the Department of Defense and the military services haven’t emerged to support the idea. It’s like there’s a wall of silence around the subject. It’s like this perfectly sensible option is one that dares not speak its name. It’s like someone at the highest levels has decreed the very idea a non-starter.

All of these current and proven fighters share the advantages attributed to the F-35: they are true multirole aircraft, they are highly maneuverable, they use advanced digital array radars, they can employ everything in the modern air-to-air and air-to-ground armament inventory, they have helmet-mounted displays with off-boresight missile cueing, they have datalink for information sharing. The only thing they don’t have is stealth.

Fuck stealth. There isn’t an air force in the world that won’t turn tail and run from a wall of Eagles coming its way.

Congress must be swimming in a sea of defense contractor bribe money … and defense contractors like Boeing must have been bought off with promises of greater contracts to come … for there to be such a wall of silence on the simple idea of buying newer versions of existing fighters. Clamping down on DoD and the military is easier: just threaten dissenters’ careers and label them traitors.

To be fair, there is also this: the success of the F-35 program depends on American and allied countries standing firm on buying it in the numbers projected. If one or two allies back away from their commitments to buy the F-35, costs will go up dramatically and other allies may get wobbly knees. And if American military services get new F-15s, they’re going to want fewer F-35s. In other words, any discussion of alternatives to the current F-35 program is a threat, and that helps explain why the idea of buying additional Eagles, Hornets, and Fighting Falcons is a non-starter.

Update (7/23/15): Interesting. Boeing plans to keep Super Hornet line open after positive signs from Congress, international customers.


The Glorious Fourth, 2015 Edition

Photos from the Sunnywood Estates 4th of July Parade, Tucson, Arizona:





As you can see, we’re in our annual monsoon season … the overcast greatly reduced the temperature (if not the humidity), and it was pleasant outside. Of course the parade was at nine in the morning. Any later and it would have been too hot, overcast or not.

After the parade we all walked over to a neighbor’s home for a potluck brunch. We hosted a few years ago and I suppose our turn’s coming round again. There are 33 homes in the neighborhood, but about half the residents don’t participate, and of those remaining not all are able to host neighborhood gatherings: some of our elderly neighbors are no longer up to it; others go away for the summer; a few are probably grinches (but you didn’t hear that from me). Still … how many of us live in neighborhoods where there are enough motivated residents to organize events like this? We think we’re very lucky to live here with such a bunch of great people.

It is indeed a glorious fourth!


Burning and Turning

The controversial and over-budget F-35 fighter is under almost constant attack. Some of the shortcomings identified by critics are no doubt real, but the story of a previously-unidentified F-35 glitch that emerged last week was, at least to this former air-to-air pilot, a bit of a shock: a report out of Edwards AFB stating that a clean (no external stores) USAF F-35A went dogfighting with a dirty (two underwing fuel tanks) F-16 and lost.

f-16-en-f-35-2 copy

Disturbing if true. Then again, the F-35 wasn’t designed as an air-to-air fighter; it’s a strike aircraft, a fighter-bomber, and its air-to-air role is secondary. The F-22 is supposed to clear the skies of enemy aircraft first so that strike aircraft like the F-35 can go in and attack enemy ground forces and installations. Who knew, back when they were designing the F-35, that the F-22 buy would be capped at less than 200 aircraft, not the 700+ the Air Force had planned for?

I’ve heard that software problems limiting angle of attack and G onset rates might be affecting the F-35’s dogfighting performance. If so, it’s fixable, as are all the other developmental glitches and problems I’ve read about. And while I’m on fixability, let me say a few words about a once-controversial and over-budget aircraft I have first-hand experience with, the F-15 Eagle.

The F-15 program was hotly contested from day one. Prior to production, factions in the Pentagon and USAF were so opposed to the F-15 they were able to successfully kickstart a lightweight fighter competition designed to derail the entire F-15 project, a program that ultimately led to the F-16 and F/A-18.

The F-15 survived the factional infighting and went into production, but because it was an airplane that pushed the technology of the day to the limit, for the first few years of its operational life it suffered problem after problem. Every one of these problems was seized upon by those opposed to the F-15 and given maximum exposure in defense industry news: the engines were prone to compressor stalls, the radar and avionics didn’t work as advertised, planned defensive systems like the chaff & flare dispensers weren’t ready yet, spare parts and engines to keep the jets flying weren’t in the lean budgets of the Carter years. During early air-to-air fighter evaluations conducted at Nellis AFB, F-15s lost some engagements to low-cost, bare-bones fighters like the F-5.

And yet the F-15’s problems were solved; not overnight, but over the course of a few years. Most of the problems I mentioned were still issues when I started flying F-15s in 1978; by 1980 they had all been fixed. Engines, avionics, defensive systems, the works. As for the controversy about losing fights to cheap-o lightweight fighters like the F-5, it turned out that during those scripted encounters the F-15 pilots hadn’t been allowed to use their primary weapons, the radar-guided AIM-7 missiles that would have taken out the F-5s prior to the merge.

The F-15 went on to become the top air-to-air fighter in history, a position it holds to this day. Its combat record is literally perfect: F-15s have shot down 104 to 106 enemy aircraft in combat with no losses. The F-15 should have been retired by now, but because of the cap on F-22 production the USAF has been forced to keep a couple of hundred in service to supplement the F-22, and the F-15 is still the primary air-to-air fighter of several allied air forces.

Reading about F-35 development problems, I can’t help thinking of the F-15 controversies of the 1970s: the factional fighting, the overinflated doom-saying rhetoric about glitches encountered during initial operational tests, the chest-thumping braggadocio about beating it in dogfights.

It’s the same old shit. It’ll be fixed.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a report on right-wing extremism in 2009. It was instantly and loudly denounced by the right as an attack on conservatism. DHS caved to the AM talk radio/Fox News noise machine, retracted the report, and shut down the working group that had produced it.

I’ve always wondered what effect that political tempest had on the various agencies under DHS and the Justice Department that were supposed to keep an eye on domestic threats like the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, the sovereign citizen movement, and gun nut militias. Did they cut back on their surveillance of these groups?

I suspect there were funding and personnel cuts, but I can’t believe the feds quit investigating domestic threats altogether. Maybe I’m being naive. In any case, I fervently hope undercover FBI and ATF agents are still out there getting the dirt on rightwing extremists and domestic hate groups. We need actionable intelligence on whoever is torching all these black churches, and we need it now.


Tuesday Bag o’ the Grumps

grumpy bagIt’s day five of a painful sore throat, the kind where 1) you dread having to swallow and 2) you have to swallow constantly. I stopped at the corner CVS yesterday to get something for it, and, since there wasn’t anyone in line, visited the “minute clinic.” The five-minute strep test was negative; the PA said I probably have allergies. I walked out with Flonase and Claritin. Still too soon to tell if they’re helping. Gargling with salt water, drinking tea with honey, all the standard home remedies.

These drug store minute clinics are pretty cool. In and out in no time; insurance picks up the tab. I suppose urgent care clinics have their place, but my memories of those places are all negative: waiting for hours to be seen, surrounded by crying babies and coughing adults. But maybe I was lucky with the minute clinic. Maybe there’s normally a line. Still, I think drug store clinics, manned by physician assistants, are a great response to our medical needs. Would we have minute clinics without Obamacare? I suspect not.

I’m trying to reprogram an old GPS navigation device our daughter gave us. I bought a Garmin for the new truck. It came with online support: new maps and databases whenever I want to download them. This older one, which I want to set up in Donna’s car, doesn’t seem to be supported any more. It’s a Mio, a brand I never heard of (Polly, when she gave it to us, said it was a TomTom, and maybe Mios and TomToms are the same thing). In any case, online support is nonexistent, so Donna will be driving around with outdated maps. If money happens to fall from the sky, I’ll buy her a new Garmin.

We plan to get a new trailer for the motorcycle, probably an enclosed one, which we’ll have to keep in the open area alongside the house. The neighborhood association didn’t like it when I parked our old motorcycle trailer there … they didn’t like our wood and rock piles either, or the garbage cans … so we’re thinking about building an RV gate beside the house to hide the open area. Donna thinks it’ll be cheap. I think otherwise.

Grandson Quentin is coming for his annual visit this Friday. Donna has him signed up for a week-long robotics camp at the U of A, so apart from the coming weekend he’ll be busy every day of his visit. Granddaughter Taylor, meanwhile, has moved back to Las Vegas from Seattle. She’s living at home and planning to relaunch her college career at UNLV. The kids — Quentin & Taylor’s mom and dad — aren’t coming to Tucson this summer, so we probably won’t see them until Thanksgiving (I can’t remember if we’re going there or they’re coming here).

I DVR’d the season three opening episode of Under the Dome, and good lord it was horrible. I don’t know what we’d do without Netflix and Amazon streaming TV … there is nothing worth watching on regular TV.

Please forgive me, I’m grumpy with this sore throat. More bloggage when I’m feeling better.


See You in Hell, Haters


That’s my latest Facebook cover photo, which a friend (thank you, Pat Shields!) helped colorize in honor of Friday’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. After I put it up on my Facebook page, another friend told me she didn’t get it.

What’s not to get? The right says everyone in favor of marriage equality is going to hell. Okay, so be it. We’ll see you there, haters!


You Can’t Read That!

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

rainbow books

A rainbow of books to commemorate the historic Supreme Court of the United States ruling on same-sex marriage

Well, two steps forward, one step back: in spite of the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage, books with LGBT themes and characters are still widely challenged. Here’s an interesting article about ongoing parental challenges and “vigilante censorship” in Vermont schools.

It’s not just Vermont, nor is it just high school: an undergraduate in Yucaipa, California has complained to college administrators that four graphic novels taught in an English course are pornographic and violent. Two of the four graphic novels, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, contain depictions of transexuals and lesbians. I haven’t read the other two, but wouldn’t be surprised if they touched upon non-traditional sexuality as well.

This month, parents and conservative activists went after the Hays, Kansas public library for setting up a display of of books to commemorate LGBT Pride Month.

An elementary school teacher and an assistant principal in Chapel Hill, North Carolina have resigned after parental protests over the classroom reading of a gay fable written for children. The teacher read the story to his class after some of his third-graders began to bully a student they perceived to be gay.

A Los Angeles, California high school teacher has been suspended for reading a passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to his class. The offending passage included this: “The duke and the king worked hard all day, setting up a stage and curtain and row of candles for footlights. … At last, when he’d built up everyone’s expectations high enough, he rolled up the curtain. The next minute the king came prancing out on all fours, naked. He was painted in rings and stripes all over in all sorts of colors and looked as splendid as a rainbow.” I don’t know what’s LGBT about that, unless the objecting parents are keying on the words “naked” and “rainbow.”

But then there’s this, a giant and wholly unnecessary step backwards: a high school English teacher in South Windsor, Connecticut was fired after showing his class a video of Alan Ginsberg reading his poem Please Master. Before we get all het up, perhaps we should read the poem ourselves. I did, and all I can say is this: “Teach, what the fuck were you thinking?”

Meanwhile, in non-LGBT book banning news:

A North Carolina challenge to the inclusion of The Kite Runner on a high school honors English class reading list exposes an emerging conservative strategy: 1) pass laws requiring teaching abstinence as the primary way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases; 2) interpret those laws to mean schools can teach abstinence only; 3) challenge books you disapprove of by claiming that since sex in any form other than abstinence can’t be mentioned in class, teachers can’t assign books that mention sex. Coming soon to school districts near you, you just watch.

Yet another elementary school teacher has been fired, not for reading LGBT fables or assigning books that have dirty parts, but for mentioning Sandy Hook to students who asked why they had to participate in safety drills. I can extrapolate from this that books with anti-mass shooting and/or gun control themes will soon be on conservatives’ book banning lists.

After all this, we need some good news:

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho parents’  challenge to the inclusion of Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men on a ninth-grade reading list has been rejected by the school board.

An Albany, New York parent protested that the “level of violence and explicitly sexual passages” made Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale “unacceptable as a high school reading assignment.” Happily, the school review committee disagreed and the highly-regarded novel will remain on the AP English class reading list.


Thursday Bag o’ Nukes

nuke bagIt’s been extremely hot in southern Arizona. Every day we hear about electric power outages in different sections of Tucson. Are these intentional rolling blackouts? Sure looks like it. So far no power interruptions in our hood, but since our air conditioner crapped out last week and we had to spend a night and a day in an oven-like house before it was repaired, we feel we’ve paid our dues and won’t feel guilty if the rolling blackouts pass us over.

Along with the heat comes summer monsoon humidity pushed up from Mexico and the Sea of Cortez. This reduces the temperature a few degrees but makes being outdoors seem even hotter. Suddenly, it’s no longer a dry heat. I spent a full day at the air museum yesterday conducting walking and tram tours. I think as long as I stay hydrated and avoid actual outdoor work (driving a tram doesn’t count), I’ll survive even this record-setting summer.

I came home from the museum to find two drowned ground squirrels in the pool. Schatzi used to kill them, but she’s no longer quick enough to chase them down. Instead she harries them until they jump into the pool to escape. At least I think it’s Schatzi. It could be the auxiliary dog, Maxie, though I’ve never seen that one express much interest in varmints.

We’re moving money from our financial management account to our checking account to pay for the new truck. In this era of instant electronic credit and debit transfers, having to wait three or four days for money to move from one financial institution to another feels downright anachronistic.

In anticipation of the new truck, I sold our light utility trailer and started surfing Craigslist for a larger one. I didn’t think Donna cared about macho truck stuff, but she said our little trailer with it’s sissy twelve-inch wheels would look silly behind our big new truck, and that we needed to get one with fifteen-inch wheels. Thank you, babe … big wheels oorah! In case you’re wondering why a retired couple needs a trailer in the first place, it’s to haul the motorcycle on cross-country trips. It offends the motorcycle purist in me, but it’s nice to cross the flat desert in air-conditioned comfort with the motorcycle in tow, then break out the bike when we get to the mountains or the coast. Best of both worlds, etc.

Okay, enough personal news. On to something more explosive:

The Navy reportedly wants to add nuclear bomb-carrying capability to its version of the F-35 fighter, the F-35C. The weapon mentioned in the linked article is the B-61 gravity nuclear bomb, designed in the 1960s and long out of production. For some reason this disturbs me.

When I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, I knew some Air Force fighters could carry nuclear weapons. I had the impression it was the exception rather than the rule, probably because nuclear capability was only mentioned in connection with certain fighter/bombers like the F-84 Thunderstreak.


F-84 tactical nuclear bomb delivery profile

Since I began volunteering at an air museum and writing about the historical jets on display there, I’ve learned nuclear capability is the rule, not the exception. Almost all USAF fighter/bombers from the early 1950s on have been capable of carrying nuclear weapons; Navy fighter/attack jets too.

In the 1950s, with the advent of nuclear deterrence and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, each military service tried to carve out its own nuclear niche; that’s where the sweet, sweet budget money was. The Air Force and Navy emerged the victors: the two services have a lock on the nation’s strategic “nuclear triad,” the combination of long-range bombers and land- and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force and Navy have a near-monopoly on tactical nuclear weapons as well; i.e., the kind that can be delivered by fighter/bombers.

During the 1950s the Army tried to get its foot in the door with nuclear artillery shells, but as far as I know that program is long dead. My guess is that today, the Army and Marines have only small nuclear weapons programs, most likely a role in delivering “suitcase nukes.”

We kind of quit hearing about nuclear weapons programs after the demise of the Soviet Union, but I have a feeling we’re going to start hearing more on the subject as we enter a new cold war with China and the remnants of the Soviet Union. Sadly, that’s one genie that’s never going to go back into its bottle.


The Elusive Telescoping Steering Wheel

mad max wheelRemember the steering wheels Immortan Joe hands out to his War Boys just before they take off after Imperator Furiosa’s War Rig in Mad Max: Fury Road? Well, you can bet the very best wheel was reserved for Immortan Joe himself.

I wasn’t thinking about steering wheels when Donna said we could go looking for a new truck. Farthest thing from my mind. We have a big road trip coming up later this summer, and we wanted something comfortable to make the trip in. We loved making road trips in our old Ford pickup truck, so rather than a new car, we had another pickup truck in mind. Steering wheel, schmeering wheel, right?

Long story short, we set out to see if we’d both like the new aluminium-bodied Ford truck. A friend told us we really should look at Chevy trucks too, so we visited both the Ford and Chevy dealerships. After sitting in and test driving both trucks, we decided we liked the Chevy better.

On the way home we visited a local car broker who specializes in one- and two-year-old cars and trucks. We bought our last car there, an almost-new Chevy Trailblazer, a car we’ve been very happy with. It just happened he had a 2014 GMC truck on the lot, the equivalent of the new Chevy truck we’d just driven. The top two photos are of the 2015 Chevy; the bottom two are of the 2014 GMC:

IMG_1552 IMG_1553
IMG_1556 IMG_1554

The used GMC had every option we wanted and some more we couldn’t have afforded in a new truck. But what really impressed us was that it had a steering wheel that not only tilted but telescoped. Donna drives with the seat all the way forward, and her arms felt right with the steering wheel pushed in toward the dashboard. I drive with the seat all the way back, so I wanted the wheel pulled back toward me. In the new Chevy, which didn’t have a telescoping wheel, Donna was comfy in the driver’s seat but I had to stretch both arms straight out to reach the wheel.

Donna really preferred a new truck, so I went back to the Chevy dealership the next day to see if I could find the right truck with the telescoping steering wheel option, one like the used GMC we’d driven. Before I went back I got on the Chevrolet website to explore the different option packages, and saw that it was possible to order the Chevy model we wanted with a telescoping wheel. When I went back to the dealer, the first thing I told the salesman was that I wanted the telescoping steering wheel option. He found almost the exact truck we wanted, but it didn’t have that option. I told him I didn’t mind ordering one with the option and waiting a few weeks for delivery. He nodded and grinned, but after two hours of negotiation it became clear he just wanted to sell me the truck that was on the lot, not the one I wanted. When I pressed him on the steering wheel, he claimed it wasn’t an option.

Of course I knew better. It is an option, and I was almost tempted to drive him over to the car broker’s lot to look at the 2014 GMC and prove it. He ran off for the obligatory consultation with the sales manager, and came back with a new story: the only way to get the telescoping wheel was to order a more expensive model of the Chevy, running the price up another $5,000. I knew they were blowing smoke and that this was the next phase of the negotiations, but by then I’d soured on the new car dealership experience. Fuck ’em. I know where there’s a one-year-old truck, good as new, that has exactly what we want at a much lower price.

So that’s what we’re doing. Sure, we may have to replace the tires sooner rather than later, but otherwise it’s pristine, and we’ll be comfortable in it. Who knew a detail like that would be so important?