Aviation

Brown, Paul. The Rocketbelt Caper. Newcastle upon Tyne: Tonto Press, 2007. ISBN 0-95521-837-3.
Few things are as iconic of the 21st century imagined by visionaries and science fictioneers of the 20th as the personal rocketbelt: just strap one on and take to the air, without complications such as wings, propellers, pilots, fuselage, or landing gear. Flying belts were a fixture of Buck Rogers comic strips and movie serials, and in 1965 Isaac Asimov predicted that by 1990 office workers would beat the traffic by commuting to work in their personal rocketbelts.

The possibilities of a personal flying machine did not escape the military, which imagined infantry soaring above the battlefield and outflanking antiquated tanks and troops on the ground. In the 1950s, engineers at the Bell Aircraft Corporation, builders of the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier, built prototypes of rocketbelts powered by monopropellant hydrogen peroxide, and eventually won a U.S. Army contract to demonstrate such a device. On April 20th, 1961, the first free flight occurred, and a public demonstration was performed the following June 8th. The rocketbelt was an immediate sensation. The Bell rocketbelt appeared in the James Bond film Thunderball, was showcased at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, at Disneyland, and at the first Super Bowl of American football in 1967. Although able to fly only twenty-odd seconds and reach an altitude of about 20 metres, here was Buck Rogers made real—certainly before long engineers would work out the remaining wrinkles and everybody would be taking to the skies.

And then a funny thing happened—nothing. Wendell Moore, creator of the rocketbelt at Bell, died in 1969 at age 51, and with no follow-up interest from the U.S. Army, the project was cancelled and the Bell rocketbelt never flew again. Enter Nelson Tyler, engineer and aerial photographer, who on his own initiative built a copy of the Bell rocketbelt which, under his ownership and subsequent proprietors made numerous promotional appearances around the world, including the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, before a television audience estimated in excess of two billion.

All of this is prologue to the utterly bizarre story of the RB-2000 rocketbelt, launched by three partners in 1992, motivated both by their individual obsession with flying a rocketbelt and dreams of the fortune they'd make from public appearances: the owners of the Tyler rocketbelt were getting US$25,000 per flight at the time. Obsession is not a good thing to bring to a business venture, and things rapidly went from bad to worse to truly horrid. Even before the RB-2000's first and last public flight in June 1995 (which was a complete success), one of the partners had held a gun to another's head who, in return, assaulted the first with a hammer, inflicting serious wounds. In July of 1998, the third partner was brutally murdered in his home, and to this day no charges have been made in the case. Not long thereafter one of the two surviving partners sued the other and won a judgement in excess of US$10 million and custody of the RB-2000, which had disappeared immediately after its sole public flight. When no rocketbelt or money was forthcoming, the plaintiff kidnapped the defendant and imprisoned him in a wooden box for eight days, when fortuitous circumstances permitted the victim to escape. The kidnapper was quickly apprehended and subsequently sentenced to life plus ten years for the crime (the sentence was later reduced to eight years). The kidnappee later spent more than five months in jail for contempt of court for failing to produce the RB-2000 in a civil suit. To this day, the whereabouts of the RB-2000, if it still exists, are unknown.

Now, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that flitting through the sky with a contraption powered by highly volatile and corrosive propellant, with total flight time of 21 seconds, and no backup systems of any kind is a perilous undertaking. But who would have guessed that trying to do so would entail the kinds of consequences the RB-2000 venture inflicted upon its principals?

A final chapter covers recent events in rocketbelt land, including the first International Rocketbelt Convention in 2006. The reader is directed to Peter Gijsberts' www.rocketbelt.nl site for news and additional information on present-day rocketbelt projects, including commercial ventures attempting to bring rocketbelts to market. One of the most remarkable things about the curious history of rocketbelts is that, despite occasional claims and ambitious plans, in the more than 45 years which have elapsed since the first flight of the Bell rocketbelt, nobody has substantially improved upon its performance.

A U.S. Edition was published in 2005, but is now out of print.

December 2007 Permalink

Cashill, Jack. TWA 800. Washington: Regnery History, 2016. ISBN 978-1-62157-471-2.
On the evening of July 17th, 1996, TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 bound from New York to Paris, exploded 12 minutes after takeoff, its debris falling into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors: all 230 passengers and crew died. The disaster happened in perfect weather, and there were hundreds of witnesses who observed from land, sea, and air. There was no distress call from the airliner before its transponder signal dropped out; whatever happened appeared to be near-instantaneous.

Passenger airliners are not known for spontaneously exploding en route: there was no precedent for such an occurrence in the entire history of modern air travel. Responsibility for investigating U.S. civil transportation accidents including air disasters falls to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who usually operates in conjunction with personnel from the aircraft and engine manufacturers, airline, and pilots' union. Barely was the investigation of TWA 800 underway, however, when the NTSB was removed as lead agency and replaced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which usually takes the lead only when criminal activity has been determined to be the cause. It is very unusual for the FBI to take charge of an investigation while debris from the crash is still being recovered, no probable cause has been suggested,, and no terrorist or other organisation has claimed responsibility for the incident. Early FBI communications to news media essentially assumed the airliner had been downed by a bomb on-board or possibly a missile launched from the ground.

The investigation that followed was considered highly irregular by experienced NTSB personnel and industry figures who had participated in earlier investigations. The FBI kept physical evidence, transcripts of interviews with eyewitnesses, and other information away from NTSB investigators. All of this is chronicled in detail in First Strike, a 2003 book by the author and independent journalist James Sanders, who was prosecuted by the U.S. federal government for his attempt to have debris from the crash tested for evidence of residue from missile propellant and/or explosives.

The investigation concluded that Flight 800 was destroyed by an explosion in the centre fuel tank, due to a combination of mechanical and electrical failures which had happened only once before in the eighty year history of aviation and has never happened since. This ruled out terrorism or the action of a hostile state party, and did not perturb the Clinton administration's desire to project an image of peace and prosperity while heading into the re-election campaign. By the time the investigation report was issued, the crash was “old news”, and the testimony of the dozens of eyewitnesses who reported sightings consistent with a missile rising toward the aircraft was forgotten.

This book, published on the twentieth anniversary of the loss of TWA 800, is a retrospective on the investigation and report on subsequent events. In the intervening years, the author was able to identify a number of eyewitnesses identified only by number in the investigation report, and discuss the plausibility of the official report's findings with knowledgeable people in a variety of disciplines. He reviews some new evidence which has become available, and concludes the original investigation was just as slipshod and untrustworthy as it appeared to many at the time.

What happened to TWA 800? We will probably never know for sure. There were so many irregularities in the investigation, with evidence routinely made available in other inquiries withheld from the public, that it is impossible to mount an independent review at this remove. Of the theories advanced shortly after the disaster, the possibility of a terrorist attack involving a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile (MANPADS) can be excluded because missiles which might have been available to potential attackers are incapable of reaching the altitude at which the 747 was flying. A bomb smuggled on board in carry-on or checked luggage seems to have been ruled out by the absence of the kinds of damage to the recovered aircraft structure and interior as well as the bodies of victims which would be consistent with a high-energy detonation within the fuselage.

One theory advanced shortly after the disaster and still cited today is that the plane was brought down by an Iranian SA-2 surface to air missile. The SA-2 (NATO designation) or S-75 Dvina is a two stage antiaircraft missile developed by the Soviet Union and in service from 1957 to the present by a number of nations including Iran, which operates 300 launchers purchased from the Soviet Union/Russia and manufactures its own indigenous version of the missile. The SA-2 easily has the performance needed to bring down an airliner at TWA 800's altitude (it was an SA-2 which shot down a U-2 overflying the Soviet Union in 1960), and its two stage design, with a solid fuel booster and storable liquid fuel second stage and “swoop above, dive to attack” profile is a good match for eyewitness reports. Iran had a motive to attack a U.S. airliner: in July 1988, Iran Air 655, an Airbus A300, was accidentally shot down by a missile launched by the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes, killing all 290 on board. The theory argued that the missile, which requires a large launcher and radar guidance installation, was launched from a ship beneath the airliner's flight path. Indeed, after the explosion, a ship was detected on radar departing the scene at a speed in excess of twenty-five knots. The ship has never been identified. Those with knowledge of the SA-2 missile system contend that adapting it for shipboard installation would be very difficult, and would require a large ship which would be unlikely to evade detection.

Another theory pursued and rejected by the investigation is that TWA 800 was downed by a live missile accidentally launched from a U.S. Navy ship, which was said to be conducting missile tests in the region. This is the author's favoured theory, for which he advances a variety of indirect evidence. To me this seems beyond implausible. Just how believable is it that a Navy which was sufficiently incompetent to fire a live missile from U.S. waters into airspace heavily used by civilian traffic would then be successful in covering up such a blunder, which would have been witnessed by dozens of crew members, for two decades?

In all, I found this book unsatisfying. There is follow up on individuals who appeared in First Strike, and some newly uncovered evidence, but nothing which, in my opinion, advances any of the theories beyond where they stood 13 years ago. If you're interested in the controversy surrounding TWA 800 and the unusual nature of the investigation that followed, I recommend reading the original book, which is available as a Kindle edition. The print edition is no longer available from the publisher, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive.

For the consensus account of TWA 800, here is an episode of “Air Crash Investigation” devoted to the disaster and investigation. The 2001 film Silenced, produced and written by the author, presents the testimony of eyewitnesses and parties to the investigation which calls into doubt the conclusions of the official report.

November 2016 Permalink

Cashill, Jack and James Sanders. First Strike. Nashville: WND Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7852-6354-8.
On July 17, 1996, just 12 minutes after takeoff, TWA Flight 800 from New York to Paris exploded in mid-air off the coast of Long Island and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All 230 passengers and crew on board were killed. The disaster occurred on a summer evening in perfect weather, and was witnessed by hundreds of people from land, sea, and air—the FBI interviewed more than seven hundred eyewitnesses in the aftermath of the crash.

There was something “off” about the accident investigation from the very start. Many witnesses, including some highly credible people with military and/or aviation backgrounds, reported seeing a streak of light flying up and reaching the airliner, followed by a bright flash like that produced by a high-velocity explosive. Only later did a fireball from burning fuel appear and begin to fall to the ocean. In total disregard of the stautory requirements for an air accident investigation, which designate the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as the lead agency, the FBI was given prime responsibility and excluded NTSB personnel from interviews with eyewitnesses, restricted access to interview transcripts and physical evidence, and denied NTSB laboratories the opportunity to test debris recovered from the crash field.

NTSB investigations involve “partners”: representatives from the airline, aircraft manufacturer, the pilots' and aerospace workers' unions, and others. These individuals observed and remarked pointedly upon how different this investigation was from the others in which they had participated. Further, and more disturbingly, some saw what appeared to be FBI tampering with the evidence, falsifying records such as the location at which debris had been recovered, altering flight recorder data, and making key evidence as varied as the scavenge pump which was proposed as the ignition source for the fuel tank explosion advanced as the cause of the crash, seats in the area contaminated with a residue some thought indicative of missile propellant or a warhead explosion, and dozens of eyewitness sketches disappear.

Captain Terrell Stacey was the TWA representive in the investigation. He was in charge of all 747 pilot operations for the airline and had flown the Flight 800 aircraft into New York the night before its final flight. After observing these irregularities in the investigation, he got in touch with author Sanders, a former police officer turned investigative reporter, and arranged for Sanders to obtain samples of the residue on the seats for laboratory testing. The tests found an elemental composition consistent with missile propellant or explosive, which was reported on the front page of a Southern California newspaper on March 10th, 1997. The result: the FBI seized Sanders's phone records, tracked down Stacey, and arrested and perp-walked Sanders and his wife (a TWA trainer and former flight attendant). They were hauled into court and convicted of a federal charge intended to prosecute souvenir hunters disturbing crash sites. The government denied Sanders was a journalist (despite his work having been published in mainstream venues for years) and disallowed a First Amendment defence.

This is just a small part of what stinks to high heaven about this investigation. So shoddy was control of the chain of custody of the evidence and so blatant the disregard of testimony of hundreds of eyewitnesses, that alternative theories of the crash have flourished since shortly after the event until the present day. It is difficult to imagine what might have been the motives behind a cover-up of a missile attack against a U.S. airliner, but as the author notes, only a few months remained before the 1996 U.S. presidential election, in which Clinton was running on a platform of peace and prosperity. A major terrorist attack might subvert this narrative, so perhaps the well-documented high-level meetings which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the crash might have decided to direct a finding of a mechanical failure of a kind which had occurred only once before in the eighty-year history of aviation, with that incident being sometimes attributed to terrorism. What might have been seen as a wild conspiracy theory in the 1990s seems substantially more plausible in light of the Benghazi attack in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election and its treatment by the supine legacy media.

A Kindle edition is available. If you are interested in this independent investigation of Flight 800, be sure to see the documentary Silenced which was produced by the authors and includes interviews with many of the key eyewitnesses and original documents and data. Finally, if this was just an extremely rare mechanical malfunction, why do so many of the documents from the investigation remain classified and inaccessible to Freedom of Information Act requests seventeen years thereafter?

July 2013 Permalink

Cowie, Ian, Dim Jones, and Chris Long, eds. Out of the Blue. Farnborough, UK, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9570928-0-8.
Flying an aircraft has long been described by those who do it for a living as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. The ratio of terror to boredom depends upon the equipment and mission the pilot is flying, and tends to be much higher as these approach the ragged edge, as is the case for military aviation in high-performance aircraft. This book collects ninety anecdotes from pilots in the Royal Air Force, most dating from the Cold War era, illustrating that you never know for sure what is going to happen when you strap into an airplane and take to the skies, and that any lapse in attention to detail, situational awareness, or resistance to showing off may be swiftly rewarded not only with stark terror but costly, unpleasant, and career-limiting consequences. All of the stories are true (or at least those relating them say they are—with pilots you never know for sure), and most are just a few pages. You can pick the book up at any point; except for a few two-parters, the chapters are unrelated to one another. This is thus an ideal “bathroom book”, or way to fill a few minutes' downtime in a high distraction environment.

Because most of the flying takes place in Britain and in NATO deployments in Germany and other countries in northern Europe, foul weather plays a part in many of these adventures. Those who fly in places like Spain and California seldom find themselves watching the fuel gauge count down toward zero while divert field after divert field goes RED weather just as they arrive and begin their approach—that happens all the time in the RAF.

Other excitement comes from momentary lapses of judgment or excessive enthusiasm, such as finding yourself at 70,000 feet over Germany in a Lightning whose two engines have flamed out after passing the plane's service ceiling of 54,000 feet. While in this case the intrepid aeronaut got away without a scratch (writing up the altimeter as reading much too high), other incidents ended up in ejecting from aircraft soon to litter the countryside with flaming debris. Then there's ejecting from a perfectly good Hunter after a spurious fire warning light and the Flight Commander wingman ordering an ejection after observing “lots of smoke” which turned out, after the fact, to be just hydraulic fluid automatically dumped after a precautionary engine shutdown.

Sometimes you didn't do anything wrong and still end up in a spot of bother. There's the crew of a Victor which, shortly after departing RAF Gan in the Maldive Islands had a hydraulic system failure. No big thing—the Victor has two completely independent hydraulic systems, so there wasn't any great worry as the plane turned around to return to Gan. But when the second hydraulic system then proceeded to fail, there was worry aplenty, because that meant there was no nose-wheel steering and a total of eight applications of the brakes before residual pressure in the system was exhausted. Then came the call from Gan: a series of squalls were crossing the atoll, with crosswinds approaching the Victor's limit and heavy rain on the runway. On landing, a gust of wind caught the drag parachute and sent the bomber veering off the edge of the runway, and without nose-wheel steering, nothing could be done to counteract it. The Victor ended up ploughing a furrow in the base's just-refurbished golf course before coming to a stop. Any landing you walk away from…. The two hydraulic systems were determined to have failed from completely independent and unrelated causes, something that “just can't happen”—until it happens to you.

Then there's RAF pilot Alan Pollock, who, upset at the RAF's opting in 1968 not to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its founding, decided to mount his own celebration of the milestone. He flew his Hunter at high subsonic speed and low altitude down the Thames, twisting and turning with the river, and circling the Houses of Parliament as Big Ben struck noon. He then proceeded up the Thames and, approaching Tower Bridge, became the first and so far only pilot to fly between the two spans of the London landmark. This concluded his RAF career: he was given a medical discharge, which avoided a court martial that would have likely have sparked public support for his unauthorised aerial tattoo. His first-hand recollection of the exploit appears here.

Other stories recount how a tiny blob of grease where it didn't belong turned a Hunter into rubble in Cornwall, the strange tale of the world's only turbine powered biplane, the British pub on the Italian base at Decimomannu, Sardinia: “The Pig and Tapeworm”, and working as an engineer on the Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft: “Along the way, you will gain the satisfaction of ensuring the continued airworthiness of a bona fide museum piece, so old that the pointed bit is at the back, and so slow that birds collide with the trailing edge of the wing.” There's nothing profound here, but it's a lot of fun.

The paperback is currently out of print, but used copies are available at reasonable cost. The Kindle edition is available, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

July 2017 Permalink

Darling, Kev. De Havilland Comet. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58007-036-2.
If the Boeing 377 was the epitome and eventual sunset of the piston powered airliner, the De Havilland Comet was the dawn, or perhaps the false dawn, of the jet age. As World War II was winding down, the British Government convened a commission to explore how the advances in aviation during the war could be translated into commercial aircraft in the postwar era, and how the British aviation industry could transition from military production to a leadership position in postwar aviation. Among the projects proposed, the most daring was the “Type 4”, which eventually became the De Havilland Comet. Powered by British-invented turbojet engines, it would be a swept-wing, four engine aircraft with a cruising speed in excess of 500 miles per hour and a stage length of 1500 miles. Despite these daunting technological leaps, the British aviation industry rose to the challenge, and in July 1949, the prototype De Havilland Comet took to the air. After extensive testing, the Comet entered revenue service in May 1952, the first commercial jet-powered passenger service. Surely the jet age was dawning, and Britannia would rule it.

And then disaster struck. First, three aircraft were lost due to the Comet's tetchy handling qualities and cockpit crews' unfamiliarity with the need to maintain speed in takeoff and landing with swept-wing aircraft. Another Comet was lost with all on board flying into a tropical storm in India. Analysis of the wreckage indicated that metal fatigue cracks at the corners of the square windows may have contributed to the structural failures, but this was not considered the definitive cause of the crash and Comets were permitted to continue to fly. Next, a Comet departed Rome and disintegrated in mid-air above the island of Elba, killing all on board. BOAC (the operator of the Comet in question) grounded their fleet voluntarily pending an investigation, but then reinstated flights 10 weeks later, as no probable cause had been determined for the earlier crashes. Just three days later, another BOAC aircraft, also departing Rome, disintegrated in the air near Naples, with no survivors. The British Civil Aviation Authority withdrew the Permit to Fly for the Comet, grounding all of the aircraft in operation.

Assiduous investigation determined that the flaw in the Comet had nothing to do with its breakthrough jet propulsion, or the performance it permitted, but rather structural failure due to metal fatigue, which started at the aerial covers at the top of the fuselage, then disastrously propagated to cracks originating at the square corners of the windows in the passenger cabin. Reinforcement of the weak points of the fuselage and replacement of the square windows with oval ones completely solved this problem, but only after precious time had been lost and, with it, the Comet's chance to define the jet age.

The subsequent Comets were a great success. The Comet 2 served with distinction with the Royal Air Force in a variety of capacities, and the Comet 4 became the flagship of numerous airlines around the globe. On October 4th, 1958, a Comet 4 inaugurated transatlantic jet passenger service, but just 22 days before the entry into service of the Boeing 707. The 707, with much greater passenger capacity (I remember the first time I saw one—I drew in my breath and said “It's so big”—the 747 actually had less impact on me than the 707 compared to earlier prop airliners) rapidly supplanted the Comet on high traffic city pairs.

But the Comet lived on. In the aftermarket, it was the jet fleet leader of numerous airlines, and the flagship of British airtour operator Dan-Air. The Comet 4 was the basis for the Nimrod marine patrol aircraft, which has served with the Royal Air Force since 1971 and remains in service today. With lifetime extensions, it is entirely possible that Nimrod aircraft will remain on patrol a century after its progenitor, the Comet, first took to the air.

This thorough, well-written, and lavishly illustrated (8 pages in colour) book provides comprehensive coverage of the Comet and Nimrod programmes, from concept through development, test, entry into service, tragedy, recovery, and eventual success (short-lived for the Comet 4, continuing for its Nimrod offspring).

October 2008 Permalink

Dunn, Robin MacRae. Vickers Viscount. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58007-065-2.
Post World War II Britain had few technological and industrial successes of which to boast: as government administered industrial policy, sweeping nationalisations, and ascendant unions gripped the economy, “brain drain” became the phrase for the era. One bright spot in this dingy landscape was the world's first turboprop powered airliner, the Vickers Viscount. Less ambitious than its contemporary, the turbojet powered De Havilland Comet, it escaped the tragic fate which befell early models of that design and caused it to lose out to competitors which entered the market much later.

Despite its conventional appearance and being equipped with propellers, the Viscount represented a genuine revolution in air transport. Its turbine engines were vastly more reliable than the finicky piston powerplants of contemporary airliners, and provided its passengers a much quieter ride, faster speed, and the ability to fly above much of the bumpy weather. Its performance combined efficiency in the European short hop market for which it was intended with a maximum range (as much as 2,450 miles for some models with optional fuel tanks) which allowed it to operate on many intercontinental routes.

From the first flight of the prototype in July 1948 through entry into regular scheduled airline service in April 1953, the Viscount pioneered and defined turboprop powered air transport. From the start, the plane was popular with airlines and their passengers, with a total of 445 being sold. Some airlines ended up buying other equipment simply because demand for Viscounts meant they could not obtain delivery positions as quickly as they required. The Viscount flew for a long list of operators in the primary and secondary market, and was adapted as a freighter, high-density holiday charter plane, and VIP and corporate transport. Its last passenger flight in the U.K. took place on April 18th, 1996, the 43rd anniversary of its entry into service.

This lavishly illustrated book tells the story of the Viscount from concept through retirement of the last exemplars. A guide helps sort through the bewildering list of model numbers assigned to variants of the basic design, and comparative specifications of the principal models are provided. Although every bit as significant a breakthrough in propulsion as the turbojet, the turboprop powered Viscount never had the glamour of the faster planes without propellers. But they got their passengers to their destinations quickly, safely, and made money for the airlines delivering them there, which is all one can ask of an airliner, and made the Viscount a milestone in British aeronautical engineering.

April 2009 Permalink

Graham, Richard H. SR-71 Revealed. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1996. ISBN 0-7603-0122-0.
The author, who piloted SR-71's for seven years and later commanded the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, provides a view from the cockpit, including descriptions of long-classified operational missions. There's relatively little discussion of the plane's development history, engineering details, or sensors; if that's what you're looking for, Dennis Jenkins' Lockheed SR-71/YF-12 Blackbirds may be more to your liking. Colonel Graham is inordinately fond of the word “unique”, so much so that each time he uses it he places it in quotes as I have (correctly) done here.

July 2003 Permalink

Hamilton-Paterson, James. Empire of the Clouds. London: Faber and Faber, 2010. ISBN 978-0-571-24795-0.
At the end of World War II, Great Britain seemed poised to dominate or at the least be a major player in postwar aviation. The aviation industries of Germany, France, and, to a large extent, the Soviet Union lay in ruins, and while the industrial might of the United States greatly out-produced Britain in aircraft in the latter years of the war, America's P-51 Mustang was powered by a Rolls-Royce engine built under license in the U.S., and the first U.S. turbojet and turboshaft engines were based on British designs. When the war ended, Britain not only had a robust aircraft industry, composed of numerous fiercely independent and innovative companies, it had in hand projects for game-changing military aircraft and a plan, drawn up while the war still raged, to seize dominance of civil aviation from American manufacturers with a series of airliners which would redefine air travel.

In the first decade after the war, Britons, especially aviation-mad “plane-spotters” like the author, found it easy to believe this bright future beckoned to them. They thronged to airshows where innovative designs performed manoeuvres thought impossible only a few years before, and they saw Britain launch the first pure-jet, and the first medium- and long-range turboprop airliners into commercial service. This was a very different Britain than that of today. Only a few years removed from the war, even postwar austerity seemed a relief from the privations of wartime, and many people vividly recalled losing those close to them in combat or to bombing attacks by the enemy. They were a hard people, and not inclined to discouragement even by tragedy. In 1952, at an airshow at Farnborough, an aircraft disintegrated in flight and fell into the crowd, killing 31 people and injuring more than 60 others. While ambulances were still carrying away the dead and injured, the show went on, and the next day Winston Churchill sent the pilot who went up after the disaster his congratulations for carrying on. While losses to aircraft and aircrew in the postwar era were small compared combat in the war, they were still horrific by present day standards.

A quick glance at the rest of this particular AIB [Accidents Investigation Branch] file reveals many similar casualties. It deals with accidents that took place between 3 May 1956 and 3 January 1957. In those mere eight months there was a total of thirty-four accidents in which forty-two aircrew were killed (roughly one fatality every six days). Pilot error and mechanical failure shared approximately equal billing in the official list of causes. The aircraft types included ten de Havilland Venoms, six de Havilland Vampires, six Hawker Hunters, four English Electric Canberras, two Gloster Meteors, and one each of the following: Gloster Javelin, Folland Gnat, Avro Vulcan, Avro Shackleton, Short Seamew and Westland Whirlwind helicopter. (pp. 128–129)

There is much to admire in the spirit of mourn the dead, fix the problem, and get on with the job, but that stoic approach, essential in wartime, can blind one to asking, “Are these losses acceptable? Do they indicate we're doing something wrong? Do we need to revisit our design assumptions, practises, and procedures?” These are the questions which came into the mind of legendary test pilot Bill Waterton, whose career is the basso continuo of this narrative. First as an RAF officer, then as a company test pilot, and finally as aviation correspondent for the Daily Express, he perceived and documented how Britain's aviation industry was, due to its fragmentation into tradition-bound companies, incessant changes of priorities by government, and failure to adapt to the aggressive product development schedules of the Americans and even the French, still rebuilding from wartime ruins, doomed to bring inferior products to the market too late to win foreign sales, which were essential for the viability of an industry with a home market as small as Britain's to maintain world-class leadership.

Although the structural problems within the industry had long been apparent to observers such as Waterton, any hope of British leadership was extinguished by the Duncan Sandys 1957 Defence White Paper which, while calling for long-overdue consolidation of the fragmented U.K. aircraft industry, concluded that most military missions in the future could be accomplished more effectively and less expensively by unmanned missiles. With a few exceptions, it cancelled all British military aviation development projects, condemning Britain, once the fallacy in the “missiles only” approach became apparent, to junior partner status in international projects or outright purchases of aircraft from suppliers overseas. On the commercial aviation side, only the Vickers Viscount was a success: the fatigue-induced crashes of the de Havilland Comet and the protracted development process of the Bristol Britannia caused their entry into service to be so late as to face direct competition from the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which were superior aircraft in every regard.

This book recounts a curious epoch in the history of British aviation. To observers outside the industry, including the hundreds of thousands who flocked to airshows, it seemed like a golden age, with one Made in Britain innovation following another in rapid succession. But in fact, it was the last burst of energy as the capital of a mismanaged and misdirected industry was squandered at the direction of fickle politicians whose priorities were elsewhere, leading to a sorry list of cancelled projects, prototypes which never flew, and aircraft which never met their specifications or were rushed into service before they were ready. In 1945, Britain was positioned to be a world leader in aviation and proceeded, over the next two decades, to blow it, not due to lack of talent, infrastructure, or financial resources, but entirely through mismanagement, shortsightedness, and disastrous public policy. The following long quote from the concluding chapter expresses this powerfully.

One way of viewing the period might be as a grand swansong or coda to the process we Britons had ourselves started with the Industrial Revolution. The long, frequently brilliant chapter of mechanical inventiveness and manufacture that began with steam finally ran out of steam. This was not through any waning of either ingenuity or enthusiasm on the part of individuals, or even of the nation's aviation industry as a whole. It happened because, however unconsciously and blunderingly it was done, it became the policy of successive British governments to eradicate that industry as though it were an unruly wasps' nest by employing the slow cyanide of contradictory policies, the withholding of support and funds, and the progressive poisoning of morale. In fact, although not even the politicians themselves quite realised it – and certainly not at the time of the upbeat Festival of Britain in 1951 – this turned out to be merely part of a historic policy change to do away with all Britain's capacity as a serious industrial nation, abolishing not just a century of making its own cars but a thousand years of building its own ships. I suspect this policy was more unconscious than deliberately willed, and it is one whose consequences for the nation are still not fully apparent. It sounds improbable; yet there is surely no other interpretation to be made of the steady, decades-long demolition of the country's manufacturing capacity – including its most charismatic industry – other that at some level it was absolutely intentional, no matter what lengths politicians went to in order to conceal this fact from both the electorate and themselves. (p. 329)

Not only is this book rich in aviation anecdotes of the period, it has many lessons for those living in countries which have come to believe they can prosper by de-industrialising, sending all of their manufacturing offshore, importing their science and engineering talent from other nations, and concentrating on selling “financial services” to one another. Good luck with that.

May 2011 Permalink

Holt, George, Jr. The B-58 Blunder. Randolph, VT: George Holt, 2015. ISBN 978-0-692-47881-3.
The B-58 Hustler was a breakthrough aircraft. The first generation of U.S. Air Force jet-powered bombers—the B-47 medium and B-52 heavy bombers—were revolutionary for their time, but were becoming increasingly vulnerable to high-performance interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles on the deep penetration bombing missions within the communist bloc for which they were intended. In the 1950s, it was believed the best way to reduce the threat was to fly fast and at high altitude, with a small aircraft that would be more difficult to detect with radar.

Preliminary studies of a next generation bomber began in 1949, and in 1952 Convair was selected to develop a prototype of what would become the B-58. Using a delta wing and four turbojet engines, the aircraft could cruise at up to twice the speed of sound (Mach 2, 2450 km/h) with a service ceiling of 19.3 km. With a small radar cross-section compared to the enormous B-52 (although still large compared to present-day stealth designs), the idea was that flying so fast and at high altitude, by the time an enemy radar site detected the B-58, it would be too late to scramble an interceptor to attack it. Contemporary anti-aircraft missiles lacked the capability to down targets at its altitude and speed.

The first flight of a prototype was in November 1956, and after a protracted development and test program, plagued by problems due to its radical design, the bomber entered squadron service in March of 1960. Rising costs caused the number purchased to be scaled back to just 116 (by comparison, 2,032 B-47s and 744 B-52s were built), deployed in two Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber wings.

The B-58 was built to deliver nuclear bombs. Originally, it carried one B53 nine megaton weapon mounted below the fuselage. Subsequently, the ability to carry four B43 or B61 bombs on hardpoints beneath the wings was added. The B43 and B61 were variable yield weapons, with the B43 providing yields from 70 kilotons to 1 megaton and the B61 300 tons to 340 kilotons. The B-58 was not intended to carry conventional (non-nuclear, high explosive) bombs, and although some studies were done of conventional missions, its limited bomb load would have made it uncompetitive with other aircraft. Defensive weaponry was a single 20 mm radar-guided cannon in the tail. This was a last-ditch option: the B-58 was intended to outrun attackers, not fight them off. The crew of three consisted of a pilot, bombardier/navigator, and a defensive systems operator (responsible for electronic countermeasures [jamming] and the tail gun), each in their own cockpit with an ejection capsule. The navigation and bombing system included an inertial navigation platform with a star tracker for correction, a Doppler radar, and a search radar. The nuclear weapon pod beneath the fuselage could be replaced with a pod for photo reconnaissance. Other pods were considered, but never developed.

The B-58 was not easy to fly. Its delta wing required high takeoff and landing speeds, and a steep angle of attack (nose-up attitude), but if the pilot allowed the nose to rise too high, the aircraft would pitch up and spin. Loss of an engine, particularly one of the outboard engines, was, as they say, a very dynamic event, requiring instant response to counter the resulting yaw. During its operational history, a total of 26 B-58s were lost in accidents: 22.4% of the fleet.

During its ten years in service, no operational bomber equalled or surpassed the performance of the B-58. It set nineteen speed records, some which still stand today, and won prestigious awards for its achievements. It was a breakthrough, but ultimately a dead end: no subsequent operational bomber has exceeded its performance in speed and altitude, but that's because speed and altitude were judged insufficient to accomplish the mission. With the introduction of supersonic interceptors and high-performance anti-aircraft missiles by the Soviet Union, the B-58 was determined to be vulnerable in its original supersonic, high-altitude mission profile. Crews were retrained to fly penetration missions at near-supersonic speeds and very low altitude, making it difficult for enemy radar to acquire and track the bomber. Although it was not equipped with terrain-following radar like the B-52, an accurate radar altimeter allowed crews to perform these missions. The large, rigid delta wing made the B-58 relatively immune to turbulence at low altitudes. Still, abandoning the supersonic attack profile meant that many of the capabilities which made the B-58 so complicated and expensive to operate and maintain were wasted.

This book is the story of the decision to retire the B-58, told by a crew member and Pentagon staffer who strongly dissented and argues that the B-58 should have remained in service much longer. George “Sonny” Holt, Jr. served for thirty-one years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring with the rank of colonel. For three years he was a bombardier/navigator on a B-58 crew and later, in the Plans Division at the Pentagon, observed the process which led to the retirement of the bomber close-up, doing his best to prevent it. He would disagree with many of the comments about the disadvantages of the aircraft mentioned in previous paragraphs, and addresses them in detail. In his view, the retirement of the B-58 in 1970, when it had been originally envisioned as remaining in the fleet until the mid-1970s, was part of a deal by SAC, which offered the retirement of all of the B-58s in return for retaining four B-52 wings which were slated for retirement. He argues that SAC never really wanted to operate the B-58, and that they did not understand its unique capabilities. With such a small fleet, it did not figure large in their view of the bomber force (although with its large nuclear weapon load, it actually represented about half the yield of the bomber leg of the strategic triad).

He provides an insider's perspective on Pentagon politics, and how decisions are made at high levels, often without input from those actually operating the weapon systems. He disputes many of the claimed disadvantages of the B-58 and, in particular, argues that it performed superbly in the low-level penetration mission, something for which it was not designed.

What is not discussed is the competition posed to manned bombers of all kinds in the nuclear mission by the Minuteman missile, which began to be deployed in 1962. By June 1965, 800 missiles were on alert, each with a 1.2 megaton W56 warhead. Solid-fueled missiles like the Minuteman require little maintenance and are ready to launch immediately at any time. Unlike bombers, where one worries about the development of interceptor aircraft and surface to air missiles, no defense against a mass missile attack existed or was expected to be developed in the foreseeable future. A missile in a silo required only a small crew of launch and maintenance personnel, as opposed to the bomber which had flight crews, mechanics, a spare parts logistics infrastructure, and had to be supported by refueling tankers with their own overhead. From the standpoint of cost-effectiveness, a word very much in use in the 1960s Pentagon, the missiles, which were already deployed, were dramatically better than any bomber, and especially the most expensive one in the inventory. The bomber generals in SAC were able to save the B-52, and were willing to sacrifice the B-58 in order to do so.

The book is self-published by the author and is sorely in need of the attention of a copy editor. There are numerous spelling and grammatical errors, and nouns are capitalised in the middle of sentences for no apparent reason. There are abundant black and white illustrations from Air Force files.

May 2016 Permalink

Jenkins, Dennis R. Magnesium Overcast: The Story of the Convair B-36. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, [2001] 2002. ISBN 1-58007-042-6.
As alluded to by its nickname, the B-36, which first flew in 1946, was one big airplane. Its 70 metre wingspan is five metres more than the present-day 747-400 (64.4 m), although the fuselage, at 49 metres, is shorter than the 70 metre 747. Later versions, starting in 1950, were powered by ten engines: six piston engines (with 28 cylinders each) driving propellers, and four J47 jet engines, modified to run on the same high-octane aviation gasoline as the piston engines. It could carry a bomb load of 39,000 kg—no subsequent U.S. bomber came close to this figure, which is the weight of an entire F-15E with maximum fuel and weapons load. Depending on winds and mission profile, a B-36 could stay aloft for more than 48 hours without refueling (for which it was not equipped), and 30 hour missions were routinely flown.

August 2003 Permalink

Jenkins, Dennis R. and Tony Landis. North American XB-70A Valkyrie. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58007-056-6.

September 2003 Permalink

Jenkins, Dennis R. and Tony R. Landis. Hypersonic: The Story of the North American X-15. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-068-X.
Specialty Press have drastically raised the bar in aviation history publishing. This volume, like the B-36 (August 2003) and XB-70A (September 2003) books mentioned previously here, combines coffee-table book production values, comprehensive historical coverage, and abundant technical details. Virtually absent are the typographical errors, mis-captioned photographs, and poorly reproduced colour photos which too often mar well-intended aviation books from other publishers. In their research, the authors located many more historical photographs than they could include in this book (which has more than 550). The companion X-15 Photo Scrapbook includes 400 additional significant photos, many never before published.

March 2004 Permalink

Landis, Tony R. and Dennis R. Jenkins. X-15 Photo Scrapbook. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-074-4.

This companion to Hypersonic: The Story of the North American X-15 (March 2004) contains more than 400 photos, 50 in colour, which didn't make the cut for the main volume, as well as some which came to hand only after its publication. There's nothing really startling, but if you can't get enough of this beautiful flying machine, here's another hefty dose of well-captioned period photos, many never before published. The two page spread on pp. 58–59 is interesting. It's a North American Aviation presentation from 1962 on how the X-15 could be used for various advanced propulsion research programs, including ramjets, variable cycle turboramjets, scramjets, and liquid air cycle engines (LACE) burning LH2 and air liquefied on board. More than forty years later, these remain “advanced propulsion” concepts, with scant progress to show for the intervening decades. None of the X-15 propulsion research programs were ever flown.

January 2005 Permalink

Landis, Tony R. and Dennis R. Jenkins. Experimental and Prototype U.S. Air Force Jet Fighters. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58007-111-6.
This beautifully produced book covers every prototype jet fighter developed by the U.S. Air Force from the beginning of the jet age in the 1940s through the present day. Only concepts which at least entered the stage of prototype fabrication are included: “paper airplane” conceptual studies are not discussed, except in conjunction with designs which were actually built. The book is lavishly illustrated, with many photographs in colour, and the text is well written and almost free of typographical errors. As the title states, only Air Force prototypes are discussed—Navy and CIA development projects are covered only if Air Force versions were subsequently manufactured.

The first decade of the jet age was a wild and woolly time in the history of aeronautical engineering; we'll probably never see its like again. Compared to today's multi-decade development projects, many of the early jet designs went from contract award to flying hardware in less than a year. Between May 1953 and December 1956, no fewer than six operational jet fighter prototypes (F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, F-105, and F-106) made their first flights. Among prototypes which never entered into serial production were concepts which illustrate the “try anything” spirit of the age. Consider, for example, the XP-81 which had a turboprop engine in the nose and a turbojet in the tail; the XF-84H with a turbine driven propeller whose blade tips exceeded the speed of sound and induced nausea in pilots and ground crews, who nicknamed it “Thunderscreech”; or the tiny XP-85 which was intended to be carried in the bomb bay of a B-36 and launched to defend the bomber should enemy interceptors attack.

So slow has been the pace of fighter development since 1960 that the first 200 pages of the book cover events up to 1960 and everything since occupies only forty pages. Recent designs are covered in the same detail as those of the golden age—it's just that there haven't been all that many of them.

If you enjoy this book, you'll probably also want to read the companion, U.S. Air Force Prototype Jet Fighters Photo Scrapbook, which collects hundreds of photographs of the planes featured in the main work which, although often fascinating, didn't make the cut for inclusion in it. Many photos, particularly of newer planes, are in colour, although some older colour shots have noticeably faded.

April 2010 Permalink

Jenkins, Dennis R., Mike Moore, and Don Pyeatt. B-36 Photo Scrapbook. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58007-075-2.
After completing his definitive history of the B-36, Magnesium Overcast (August 2003), Dennis Jenkins wound up with more than 300 historical photographs which didn't fit in the book. This companion volume includes them all, with captions putting each into context. Many of these photos won't make much sense unless you've read Magnesium Overcast, but if you have and still hanker for more humongous bomber shots, here's your book. On page 48 there's a photo of a New York Central train car to which the twin J47 jet pod from a retired B-36 was attached “to see what would happen”. Well, on a 38.5 km section of straight track, it went 295 km/hour. Amazing, the things they did in the U.S. before the safety fascists took over!

June 2004 Permalink

Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster, Vol. 3. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 1998. ISBN 1-875671-34-X.
In the early 1970s I worked for a company that sold remote batch computing services on UNIVAC mainframes. Our management visited Boeing headquarters in Seattle to pitch for some of their business (unlikely, as Boeing had their own computer service bureau at the time, but you never know unless you try). Part of the presentation focused on how reliable our service was, averaging better than 99.5% uptime. The Boeing data processing manager didn't seem too impressed with this. He asked, “When you came up here from San Francisco, did you fly on one of our airplanes?” “As a matter of fact, we did.”, answered the president of our company. The Boeing guy then asked, “Well, how would you feel if I told you Boeing airplanes only crash about once every two hundred flights?” The meeting moved on to other topics; we never did get any business from Boeing.

Engineering is an art we learn from failure, and the aviation safety community is the gold standard when it comes to getting to the probable cause of a complicated disaster and defining achievable steps to prevent it from recurring. There is much for practitioners of other branches of engineering to admire and learn from looking over the shoulders of their colleagues in air accident investigation, and Macarthur Job's superb Air Disaster series, of which this is the third volume (Vol. 1, Vol. 2) provides precisely such a viewpoint. Starting from the official accident reports, author Job and illustrator Matthew Tesch recreate the circumstances which led to each accident and the sometimes tortuous process through which investigators established what actually happened. The presentation is not remotely sensationalistic, yet much more readable than the dry prose of most official accident reports. If detail is required, Job and Tesch do not shrink from providing it; four pages of text and a detailed full page diagram on page 45 of this volume explain far more about the latching mechanism of the 747 cargo door than many people might think there is to know, but since you can't otherwise understand how the door of a United 747 outbound from Honolulu could have separated in flight, it's all there.

Reading the three volumes, which cover the jet age from the de Havilland Comet through the mid 1990s, provides an interesting view of the way in which assiduous investigation of anomalies and incremental fixes have made an inherently risky activity so safe that some these days seem more concerned with fingernail clippers than engine failure or mid-air collisions. Many of the accidents in the first two volumes were due to the machine breaking in some way or another, and one by one, they have basically been fixed to the extent that in this volume, the only hardware related accident is the 747 cargo door failure (in which nine passengers died, but 345 passengers and crew survived). The other dozen are problems due to the weather, human factors, and what computer folks call “user interface”—literally so in several cases of mode confusion and mismanagement of the increasingly automated flight decks of the latest generation of airliners. Anybody designing interfaces in which the user is expected to have a correct mental model of the operation of a complex, partially opaque system will find many lessons here, some learnt at tragic cost in an environment where the stakes are high and the margin of error small.

June 2005 Permalink

Russell, D. A. The Design and Construction of Flying Model Aircraft. Leicester, England: Harborough Publishing, [1937, 1940] 1941. British Library Shelfmark 08771.b.3.
In 1941, Britain stood alone in the West against Nazi Germany, absorbing bombing raids on its cities, while battling back and forth in North Africa. So confident was Hitler that the British threat had been neutralised, that in June he launched the assault against the Soviet Union. And in that dark year, some people in Britain put the war out of their minds by thinking instead about model airplanes, guided by this book, written by the editor of The Aero-Modeller magazine and published in that war year.

Modellers of this era scratch built their planes—the word “kit” is absent from this book and seemingly from the vocabulary of the hobby at the time. The author addresses an audience who not only build their models from scratch, but also design them from first principles of aerodynamics—in fact, the first few chapters are one of the most lucid expositions of basic practical aerodynamics I have ever read. The text bristles with empirical equations, charts, and diagrams, as well as plenty of practical advice to the designer and builder.

While many modellers of the era built featherweight aircraft powered by rubber bands, others flew petrol-powered beasts which would intimidate many modellers today. Throughout the book the author uses as an example one of his own designs, with a wingspan of 10 feet, all-up weight in excess of 14 pounds, and powered by an 18 cc. petrol engine.

There was no radio control, of course. All of these planes simply flew free until a clockwork mechanism cut the ignition, then glided to a landing on whatever happened to be beneath them at the time. If the time switch should fail, the plane would fly on until the fuel was exhausted. Given the size, weight, and flammability of the fuel, one worried about the possibility of burning down somebody's house or barn in such a mishap, and in fact p. 214 is a full-page advert for liability insurance backed by Lloyds!

This book was found in an antique shop in the British Isles. It is, of course, hopelessly out of print, but used copies are generally available at reasonable prices. Note that the second edition (first published in 1940, reprinted in 1941) contains substantially more material than the 1937 first edition.

April 2007 Permalink

Ryan, Craig. Magnificent Failure. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58834-141-9.
In his 1995 book, The Pre-Astronauts (which I read before I began keeping this list), the author masterfully explores the pioneering U.S. balloon flights into the upper atmosphere between the end of World War II and the first manned space flights, which brought both Air Force and Navy manned balloon programs to an abrupt halt. These flights are little remembered today (except for folks lucky enough to have an attic [or DVD] full of National Geographics from the epoch, which covered them in detail). Still less known is the story recounted here: one man's quest, fuelled only by ambition, determination, willingness to do whatever it took, persuasiveness, and sheer guts, to fly higher and free-fall farther than any man had ever done before. Without the backing of any military service, government agency, wealthy patron, or corporate sponsor, he achieved his first goal, setting an altitude record for lighter than air flight which remains unbroken more than four decades later, and tragically died from injuries sustained in his attempt to accomplish the second, after an in-flight accident which remains enigmatic and controversial to this day.

The term “American original” is over-used in describing exceptional characters that nation has produced, but if anybody deserves that designation, Nick Piantanida does. The son of immigrant parents from the Adriatic island of Korčula (now part of Croatia), Nick was born in 1932 and grew up on the gritty Depression-era streets of Union City, New Jersey in the very cauldron of the American melting pot, amid communities of Germans, Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Syrians, and Greeks. Although universally acknowledged to be extremely bright, his interests in school were mostly brawling and basketball. He excelled in the latter, sharing the 1953 YMCA All-America honours with some guy named Wilt Chamberlain. After belatedly finishing high school (bored, he had dropped out to start a scrap iron business, but was persuaded to return by his parents), he joined the Army where he was All-Army in basketball for both years of his hitch and undefeated as a heavyweight boxer. After mustering out, he received a full basketball scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson University, then abruptly quit a few months into his freshman year, finding the regimentation of college life as distasteful as that of the Army.

In search of fame, fortune, and adventure, Nick next set his sights on Venezuela, where he vowed to be the first to climb Devil's Mountain, from which Angel Falls plummets 807 metres. Penniless, he recruited one of his Army buddies as a climbing partner and lined up sponsors to fund the expedition. At the outset, he knew nothing about mountaineering, so he taught himself on the Hudson River Palisades with the aid of books from the library. Upon arrival in Venezuela, the climbers learnt to their dismay that another expedition had just completed the first ascent of the mountain, so Nick vowed to make the first ascent of the north face, just beside the falls, which was thought unclimbable. After an arduous trip through the jungle, during which their guide quit and left the climbers alone, Nick and his partner made the ascent by themselves and returned to the acclaim of all. Such was the determination of this man.

Nick was always looking for adventure, celebrity, and the big score. He worked for a while as a steelworker on the high iron of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but most often supported himself and, after his marriage, his growing family, by contract truck driving and, occasionally, unemployment checks. Still, he never ceased to look for ways, always unconventional, to make his fortune, nor failed to recruit associates and find funding for his schemes. Many of his acquaintances use the word “hustler” to describe him in those days, and one doubts that Nick would be offended by the honorific. He opened an exotic animal import business, and ordered cobras, mongooses, goanna lizards, and other critters mail-order from around the world for resale to wealthy clients. When buyers failed to materialise, he staged gladiatorial contests of both animal versus animal and animal versus himself. Eventually he imported a Bengal tiger cub which he kept in his apartment until it had grown so large it could put its paws on his shoulders, whence he traded the tiger for a decrepit airplane (he had earned a pilot's license while still in his teens). Offered a spot on the New York Knicks professional basketball team, he turned it down because he thought he could make more money barnstorming in his airplane.

Nick finally found his life's vocation when, on a lark, he made a parachute jump. Soon, he had progressed from static line beginner jumps to free fall and increasingly advanced skydiving, making as many jumps as he could afford and find the time for. And then he had the Big Idea. In 1960, Joseph Kittinger had ridden a helium balloon to an altitude of 31,333 metres and bailed out, using a small drogue parachute to stabilise his fall until he opened his main parachute at an altitude of 5,330 metres. Although this was, at the time (and remains to this day) the highest altitude parachute jump ever made, skydiving purists do not consider it a true free fall jump due to the use of the stabilising chute. In 1962, Eugene Andreev jumped from a Soviet balloon at an altitude of 25,460 metres and did a pure free fall descent, stabilising himself purely by skydiving techniques, setting an official free-fall altitude record which also remains unbroken. Nick vowed to claim both the record for highest altitude ascent and longest free-fall jump for himself, and set about it with his usual energy and single-minded determination.

Piantanida faced a daunting set of challenges in achieving his goal: at the outset he had neither balloon, gondola, spacesuit, life support system, suitable parachute, nor any knowledge of or experience with the multitude of specialities whose mastery is required to survive in the stratosphere, above 99% of the Earth's atmosphere. Kittinger and Andreev were supported by all the resources, knowledge, and funding of their respective superpowers' military establishments, while Nick had—well…Nick. But he was not to be deterred, and immediately set out educating himself and lining up people, sponsors, and gear necessary for the attempt.

The story of what became known as Project Strato-Jump reads like an early Heinlein novel, with an indomitable spirit pursuing a goal other, more “reasonable”, people considered absurd or futile. By will, guile, charm, pull, intimidation, or simply wearing down adversaries until they gave in just to make him go away, he managed to line up everything he needed, including having the company which supplied NASA with its Project Gemini spacesuits custom tailor one (Nick was built like an NBA star, not an astronaut) and loan it to him for the project.

Finally, on October 22, 1965, all was ready, and Nick took to the sky above Minnesota, bound for the edge of space. But just a few minutes after launch, at just 7,000 metres, the balloon burst, probably due to a faulty seam in the polyethylene envelope, triggered by a wind shear at that altitude. Nick rode down in the gondola under its recovery parachute, then bailed out at 3200 metres, unglamorously landing in the Pig's Eye Dump in St. Paul.

Undeterred by the failure, Nick recruited a new balloon manufacturer and raised money for a second attempt, setting off again for the stratosphere a second time on February 2, 1966. This time the ascent went flawlessly, and the balloon rose to an all-time record altitude of 37,643 metres. But as Nick proceeded through the pre-jump checklist, when he attempted to disconnect the oxygen hose that fed his suit from the gondola's supply and switch over to the “bail out bottle” from which he would breathe during the descent, the disconnect fitting jammed, and he was unable to dislodge it. He was, in effect, tethered to the gondola by his oxygen line and had no option but to descend with it. Ground control cut the gondola's parachute from the balloon, and after a harrowing descent Nick and gondola landed in a farm field with only minor injuries. The jump had failed, but Nick had flown higher than any manned balloon ever had. But since the attempt was not registered as an official altitude attempt, although the altitude attained is undisputed, the record remains unofficial.

After the second failure, Nick's confidence appeared visibly shaken. Having all that expense, work, and risk undertaken come to nought due to a small detail with which nobody had been concerned prior to the flight underlined just how small the margin for error was in the extreme environment at the edge of space and, by implication, how the smallest error or oversight could lead to disaster. Still, he was bent on trying yet again, and on May 1, 1966 (since he was trying to break a Soviet record, he thought this date particularly appropriate), launched for the third time. Everything went normally as the balloon approached 17,375 metres, whereupon the ground crew monitoring the air to ground voice link heard what was described as a “whoosh” or hiss, followed by a call of “Emergen” from Nick, followed by silence. The ground crew immediately sent a radio command to cut the balloon loose, and the gondola, with Nick inside, began to descend under its cargo parachute.

Rescue crews arrived just moments after the gondola touched down and found it undamaged, but Nick was unconscious and unresponsive. He was rushed to the local hospital, treated without avail, and then transferred to a hospital in Minneapolis where he was placed in a hyperbaric chamber where treatment for decompression sickness was administered, without improvement. On June 18th, he was transferred to the National Institute of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was examined and treated by experts in decompression disease and hypoxia, but never regained consciousness. He died on August 25, 1966, with an autopsy finding the cause of death hypoxia and ruptures of the tissue in the brain due to decompression.

What happened to Nick up there in the sky? Within hours after the accident, rumours started to circulate that he was the victim of equipment failure: that his faceplate had blown out or that the pressure suit had failed in some other manner, leading to an explosive decompression. This story has been repeated so often it has become almost canon—consider this article from Wired from July 2002. Indeed, when rescuers arrived on the scene, Nick's “faceplate” was damaged, but this was just the sun visor which can be pivoted down to cover the pressure-retaining faceplate, which was intact and, in a subsequent test of the helmet, found to seal perfectly. Rescuers assumed the sun visor was damaged by impact with part of the gondola during the landing and, in any case, would not have caused a decompression however damaged.

Because the pressure suit had been cut off in the emergency room, it wasn't possible to perform a full pressure test, but meticulous inspection of the suit by the manufacturer discovered no flaws which could explain an explosive decompression. The oxygen supply system in the gondola was found to be functioning normally, with all pressure vessels and regulators operating within specifications.

So, what happened? We will never know for sure. Unlike a NASA mission, there was no telemetry, nor even a sequence camera recording what was happening in the gondola. And yet, within minutes after the accident occurred, many members of the ground crew came to a conclusion as to the probable cause, which those still alive today have seen no need to revisit. Such was their certainty that reporter Robert Vaughan gave it as the cause in the story he filed with Life magazine, which he was dismayed to see replaced with an ambiguous passage by the editors, because his explanation did not fit with the narrative chosen for the story. (The legacy media acted like the legacy media even when they were the only media and not yet legacy!)

Astonishingly, all the evidence (which, admittedly, isn't very much) seems to indicate that Nick opened his helmet visor at that extreme altitude, which allowed the air in suit to rush out (causing the “whoosh”), forcing the air from his lungs (cutting off the call of “Emergency!”), and rapidly incapacitating him. The extended hypoxia and exposure to low pressure as the gondola descended under the cargo parachute caused irreversible brain damage well before the gondola landed. But why would Nick do such a crazy thing as open his helmet visor when in the physiological equivalent of space? Again, we can never know, but what is known is that he'd done it before, at lower altitudes, to the dismay of his crew, who warned him of the potentially dire consequences. There is abundant evidence that Piantanida violated the oxygen prebreathing protocol before high altitude exposure not only on this flight, but on a regular basis. He reported symptoms completely consistent with decompression sickness (the onset of “the bends”), and is quoted as saying that he could relieve the symptoms by deflating and reinflating his suit. Finally, about as close to a smoking gun as we're likely to find, the rescue crew found Nick's pressure visor unlatched and rotated away from the seal position. Since Nick would have been in a coma well before he entered breathable atmosphere, it isn't possible he could have done this before landing, and there is no way an impact upon landing could have performed the precise sequence of operations required to depressurise the suit and open the visor.

It is impossible put oneself inside the mind of such an outlier in the human population as Nick, no less imagine what he was thinking and feeling when rising into the darkness above the dawn on the third attempt at achieving his dream. He was almost certainly suffering from symptoms of decompression sickness due to inadequate oxygen prebreathing, afflicted by chronic sleep deprivation in the rush to get the flight off, and under intense stress to complete the mission before his backers grew discouraged and the money ran out. All of these factors can cloud the judgement of even the most disciplined and best trained person, and, it must be said, Nick was neither. Perhaps the larger puzzle is why members of his crew who did understand these things, did not speak up, pull the plug, or walk off the project when they saw what was happening. But then a personality like Nick can sweep people along through its own primal power, for better or for worse; in this case, to tragedy.

Was Nick a hero? Decide for yourself—my opinion is no. In pursuing his own ego-driven ambition, he ended up leaving his wife a widow and his three daughters without a father they remember, with only a meagre life insurance policy to support them. The project was basically a stunt, mounted with the goal of turning its success into money by sales of story, film, and celebrity appearances. Even had the jump succeeded, it would have yielded no useful aeromedical research data applicable to subsequent work apart from the fact that it was possible. (In Nick's defence on this account, he approached the Air Force and NASA, inviting them to supply instrumentation and experiments for the jump, and was rebuffed.)

This book is an exhaustively researched (involving many interviews with surviving participants in the events) and artfully written account of this strange episode which was, at the same time, the last chapter of the exploration of the black beyond by intrepid men in their floating machines and a kind of false dawn precursor of the private exploration of space which is coming to the fore almost half a century after Nick Piantanida set out to pursue his black sky dream. The only embarrassing aspect to this superb book is that on occasion the author equates state-sponsored projects with competence, responsibility, and merit. Well, let's see…. In a rough calculation, using 2007 constant dollars, NASA has spent northward of half a trillion dollars, killing a total of 17 astronauts (plus other employees in industrial accidents on the ground), with all of the astronaut deaths due to foreseeable risks which management failed to identify or mitigate in time.

Project Strato-Jump, funded entirely by voluntary contributions, without resort to the state's monopoly on the use of force, set an altitude record for lighter than air flight within the atmosphere which has stood from 1966 to this writing, and accomplished it in three missions with a total budget of less than (2007 constant) US$400,000, with the loss of a single life due to pilot error. Yes, NASA has achieved much, much more. But a million times more?

This is a very long review, so if you've made it to this point and found it tedious, please accept my excuses. Nick Piantanida has haunted me for decades. I followed his exploits as they happened, and were reported on the CBS Evening News in the 1960s. I felt the frustration of the second flight (with that achingly so far and yet so near view of the Earth from altitude, when he couldn't jump), and then the dismay at the calamity on the third, then the long vigil ending with his sad demise. Astronauts were, well, astronauts, but Nick was one of us. If a truck driver from New Jersey could, by main force, travel to the black of space, then why couldn't any of us? That was the real dream of the Space Age: Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Well, Nick managed to lay his hands on a space suit and travel he did!

Anybody who swallowed the bogus mainstream media narrative of Nick's “suit failure” had to watch the subsequent Gemini and Apollo EVA missions with a special sense of apprehension. A pressure suit is one of the few things in the NASA space program which has no backup: if the pressure garment fails catastrophically, you're dead before you can do anything about it. (A slow leak isn't a problem, since there's an oxygen purge system which can maintain pressure until you can get inside, but a major seam failure, or having a visor blow out or glove pop off is endsville.) Knowing that those fellows cavorting on the Moon were wearing pretty much the same suit as Nick caused those who believed the propaganda version of his death to needlessly catch their breath every time one of them stumbled and left a sitzmark or faceplant in the eternal lunar regolith.

November 2010 Permalink

Shute, Nevil [Nevil Shute Norway]. Slide Rule. Kelly Bray, UK: House of Stratus, [1954] 2000. ISBN 978-1-84232-291-8.
The author is best known for his novels, several of which were made into Hollywood movies, including No Highway and On the Beach. In this book, he chronicles his “day job” as an aeronautical engineer and aviation entrepreneur in what he describes as the golden age of aviation: an epoch where a small team of people could design and manufacture innovative aircraft without the huge budgets, enormous bureaucratic organisations, or intrusive regulation which overcame the spirit of individual invention and enterprise as aviation matured. (The author, fearing that being known as a fictioneer might make him seem disreputable as an engineer, published his books under the name “Nevil Shute”, while using his full name, “Nevil Shute Norway” in his technical and business career. He explains that decision in this book, published after he had become a full-time writer.)

This is a slim volume, but there is as much wisdom here as in a dozen ordinary books this size, and the writing is simultaneously straightforward and breathtakingly beautiful. A substantial part of the book recounts the history of the U.K. airship project, which pitted a private industry team in which Shute played a major rôle building the R.100 in competition with a government-designed and -built ship, the R.101, designed to the same specifications. Seldom in the modern history of technology has there been such a clear-cut illustration of the difference between private enterprise designing toward a specification under a deadline and fixed budget and a government project with unlimited funds, no oversight, and with specifications and schedules at the whim of politicians with no technical knowledge whatsoever. The messy triumph of the R.100 and the tragedy of the R.101, recounted here by an insider, explains the entire sordid history of NASA, the Concorde, and innumerable other politically-driven technological boondoggles.

Had Shute brought the book to a close at the end of the airship saga, it would be regarded as a masterpiece of reportage of a now-forgotten episode in aviation history. But then he goes on to describe his experience in founding, funding, and operating a start-up aircraft manufacturer, Airspeed Ltd., in the middle of the Great Depression. This is simply the best first-person account of entrepreneurship and the difficult decisions one must make in bringing a business into being and keeping it going “whatever it takes”, and of the true motivation of the entrepreneur (hint: money is way down the list) that I have ever read, and I speak as somebody who has written one of my own. Then, if that weren't enough, Shute sprinkles the narrative with gems of insight aspiring writers may struggle years trying to painfully figure out on their own, which are handed to those seeking to master the craft almost in passing.

I could quote dozens of lengthy passages from this book which almost made me shiver when I read them from the sheer life-tested insight distilled into so few words. But I'm not going to, because what you need to do is go and get this book, right now (see below for an electronic edition), and drop whatever you're doing and read it cover to cover. I have had several wise people counsel me to do the same over the years and, for whatever reason, never seemed to find the time. How I wish I had read this book before I embarked upon my career in business, and how much comfort and confidence it would have given me upon reaching the difficult point where a business has outgrown the capabilities and interests of its founders.

An excellent Kindle edition is available.

July 2011 Permalink

Spufford, Francis. Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. ISBN 0-571-21496-7.
It is rare to encounter a book about technology and technologists which even attempts to delve into the messy real-world arena where science, engineering, entrepreneurship, finance, marketing, and government policy intersect, yet it is there, not solely in the technological domain, that the roots of both great successes and calamitous failures lie. Backroom Boys does just this and pulls it off splendidly, covering projects as disparate as the Black Arrow rocket, Concorde, mid 1980s computer games, mobile telephony, and sequencing the human genome. The discussion on pages 99 and 100 of the dynamics of new product development in the software business is as clear and concise a statement I've seen of the philosophy that's guided my own activities for the past 25 years. While celebrating the technological renaissance of post-industrial Britain, the author retains the characteristic British intellectual's disdain for private enterprise and economic liberty. In chapter 4, he describes Vodaphone's development of the mobile phone market: “It produced a blind, unplanned, self-interested search strategy, capitalism's classic method for exploring a new space in the market where profit may be found.” Well…yes…indeed, but that isn't just “capitalism's” classic method, but the very one employed with great success by life on Earth lo these four and a half billion years (see The Genius Within, April 2003). The wheels fall off in chapter 5. Whatever your position may have been in the battle between Celera and the public Human Genome Project, Spufford's collectivist bias and ignorance of economics (simply correcting the noncontroversial errors in basic economics in this chapter would require more pages than it fills) gets in the way of telling the story of how the human genome came to be sequenced five years before the original estimated date. A truly repugnant passage on page 173 describes “how science should be done”. Taxpayer-funded researchers, a fine summer evening, “floated back downstream carousing, with stubs of candle stuck to the prows, … and the voices calling to and fro across the water as the punts drifted home under the overhanging trees in the green, green, night.“ Back to the taxpayer-funded lab early next morning, to be sure, collecting their taxpayer-funded salaries doing the work they love to advance their careers. Nary a word here of the cab drivers, sales clerks, construction workers and, yes, managers of biotech start-ups, all taxed to fund this scientific utopia, who lack the money and free time to pass their own summer evenings so sublimely. And on the previous page, the number of cells in the adult body of C. elegans is twice given as 550. Gimme a break—everybody knows there are 959 somatic cells in the adult hermaphrodite, 1031 in the male; he's confusing adults with 558-cell newly-hatched L1 larvŠ.

May 2004 Permalink

Thompson, Milton O. and Curtis Peebles. Flying Without Wings: NASA Lifting Bodies and the Birth of the Space Shuttle. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. ISBN 1-56098-832-0.

August 2002 Permalink

Upton, Jim. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58007-069-0.
In October 1951, following a fact-finding trip to Korea where he heard fighter pilots demand a plane with more speed and altitude capability than anything in existence, Kelly Johnson undertook the design of a fighter that would routinely operate at twice the speed of sound and altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet. Note that this was just four years after Chuck Yeager first flew at Mach 1 in the rocket-powered X-1, and two years before the Douglas Skyrocket research plane first achieved Mach 2. Kelly Johnson was nothing if not ambitious. He was also a man to deliver on his promises: in December 1952 he presented the completed design to the Air Force, which in March 1953 awarded a contract to build two experimental prototypes. On March 4, 1954, just a year later, the first XF-104 Starfighter made its first flight, and within another year it had flown at Mach 1.79. (The prototypes used a less powerful engine than the production model, and were consequently limited in speed.) In April 1956 the YF-104 production prototype reached Mach 2, and production models routinely operated at that speed thereafter. (In fact, the F-104 had the thrust to go faster: it was limited to Mach 2 by thermal limits on its aluminium construction and engine inlet temperature.)

The F-104 became one of the most successful international military aircraft programs of all time. A total of 2578 planes were manufactured in seven countries, and served in the air forces of 14 nations. The F-104 remained in service with the Italian Air Force until 2004, half a century after the flight of the first prototype.

Looking at a history like this, you begin to think that the days must have been longer in the 1950s, so compressed were the schedules for unprecedentedly difficult and complex engineering projects. Compare the F-104's development history with that of the current U.S. air superiority fighter, the F-22, for which a Pentagon requirement was issued in 1981, contractor proposals were solicited in 1986, and the winner of the design competition (Lockheed, erstwhile builder of the F-104) selected in 1991. And when did the F-22 enter squadron service with the Air Force? Well, that would be December 2005, twenty-four years after the Air Force launched the program. The comparable time for the F-104 was a little more than six years. Now, granted, the F-22 is a fantastically more complicated and capable design, but also consider that Kelly Johnson's team designed the F-104 with slide rules, mechanical calculators, and drawing boards, while present day aircraft use modeling and simulation tools which would have seemed like science fiction to designers of the fifties.

This prolifically illustrated book, written by a 35 year veteran of flight test engineering at Lockheed with a foreword by a former president of Lockheed-California who was the chief aerodynamicist of the XF-104 program, covers all aspects of this revolutionary airplane, from design concepts, flight testing, weapons systems, evolution of the design over the years, international manufacturing and deployment, and modifications and research programs. Readers interested in the history and technical details of one of Kelly Johnson's greatest triumphs, and a peek into the hands-on cut and try engineering of the 1950s will find this book a pure delight.

May 2008 Permalink

Veronico, Nicholas A. Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, [2001] 2002. ISBN 978-1-58007-047-8.
The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, launched in November 1945, with its first flight in July 1947 and entry into airline revenue service with Pan Am in April 1949, embodied the vision of luxurious postwar air travel based on the technological advances made in aviation during the war. (Indeed, the 377 inherited much from the Boeing B-29 and was a commercial derivative of the XC-97 prototype cargo aircraft.) The Stratocruiser, along with its contemporaries, the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-7, represented the apogee of piston powered airliner design. This was an era in which air travel was a luxury indulged in by the elite, and passengers were provided amenities difficult to imagine in our demotic days of flying cattle cars. There was a luxury compartment seating up to eight people with private sleeping berths and (in some configurations) a private bathroom. First class passengers could sleep in seats that reclined into beds more than six feet long, or in upper berths which folded out at nighttime. Economy passengers were accommodated in reclining “sleeperette” seats with sixty inches seat pitch (about twice that of present day economy class). Men and women had their own separate dressing rooms and toilets, and a galley allowed serving multi-course meals on china with silverware as well as buffet snacks. Downstairs on the cargo deck was a lounge seating as many as 14 with a full bar and card tables. One of the reasons for all of these creature comforts was that at a typical cruising speed of 300–340 miles per hour passengers on long haul flights had plenty of time to appreciate them: eleven hours on a flight from Seattle to Honolulu, for example.

Even in the 1950s “flying was the safest way to fly”, but nonetheless taking to the air was much more of an adventure than it is today, hence all those flight insurance vending machines in airports of the epoch. Of a total of 56 Boeing 377s built, no fewer than 10 were lost in accidents, costing a total of 135 crew and passenger lives. Three ditched at sea, including Pan Am 943, which went down in mid-Pacific with all onboard rescued by a Coast Guard weather ship with only a few minor injuries. In addition to crashes, on two separate occasions the main cabin door sprang open in flight, in each case causing one person to be sucked out to their death.

The advent of jet transports brought the luxury piston airliner era to an abrupt end. Stratocruiser airframes, sold to airlines in the 1940s for around US$1.3 million each, were offered in a late 1960 advert in Aviation Week, “14 aircraft from $75,000.00, flyaway”—how the mighty had fallen. Still, the book was not yet closed on the 377. One former Pan Am plane was modified into the Pregnant Guppy airlifter, used to transport NASA's S-IV and S-IVB upper stages for the Saturn I, IB, and V rockets from the manufacturer in California to the launch site in Florida. Later other 377 and surplus C-97 airframes were used to assemble Super Guppy cargo planes, one of which remains in service with NASA.

This book provides an excellent look into a long-gone era of civil aviation at the threshold of the jet age. More than 150 illustrations, including eight pages in colour, complement the text, which is well written with only a few typographical and factual errors. An appendix provides pictures of all but one 377 (which crashed into San Francisco Bay on a routine training flight in 1950, less than a month after being delivered to the airline), with a complete operational history of each.

September 2008 Permalink

White, Rowland. Vulcan 607. London: Corgi Books, 2006. ISBN 978-0-552-15229-7.
The Avro Vulcan bomber was the backbone of Britain's nuclear deterrent from the 1950s until the end of the 1960s, when ballistic missile submarines assumed the primary deterrent mission. Vulcans remained in service thereafter as tactical nuclear weapons delivery platforms in support of NATO forces. In 1982, the aging Vulcan force was months from retirement when Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands, and Britain summoned all of its armed services to mount a response. The Royal Navy launched a strike force, but given the distance (about 8000 miles from Britain to the Falklands) it would take about two weeks to arrive. The Royal Air Force surveyed their assets and concluded that only the Vulcan, supported by the Handley Page Victor, a bomber converted to an aerial refueling tanker, would permit it to project power to such a distant theatre.

But there were difficulties—lots of them. First of all, the Vulcan had been dedicated to the nuclear mission for decades: none of the crews had experience dropping conventional bombs, and the bomb bay racks to dispense them had to be hunted down in scrap yards. No Vulcan had performed aerial refueling since 1971, since its missions were assumed to be short range tactical sorties, and the refueling hardware had been stoppered. Crews were sent out to find and remove refueling probes from museum specimens to install on the bombers chosen for the mission. Simply navigating to a tiny island in the southern hemisphere in this pre-GPS era was a challenge—Vulcan crews had been trained to navigate by radar returns from the terrain, and there was no terrain whatsoever between their launch point on Ascension Island and landfall in the Falklands, so boffins figured out how to adapt navigation gear from obsolete VC10 airliners to the Vulcan and make it work. The Vulcan had no modern electronic countermeasures (ECM), rendering it vulnerable to Argentinian anti-aircraft defences, so an ECM pod from another aircraft was grafted onto its wing, fastening to a hardpoint which had never been used by a Vulcan. Finding it, and thereby knowing where to drill the holes required dismantling the wing of another Vulcan.

If the preparations were remarkable, especially since they were thrown together in just a few weeks, the mission plan was audacious—so much so that one expects it would have been rejected as absurd if proposed as the plot of a James Bond film. Executing the mission to bomb the airfield on the Falkland Islands would involve two Vulcan bombers, one Nimrod marine patrol aircraft, thirteen Victor tankers, nineteen refuelings (including Victor to Victor and Victor to Vulcan), 1.5 million pounds of fuel, and ninety aircrew. And all of these resources, assembled and deployed in a single mission, managed to put just one crater in the airstrip in the Falkland Islands, denying it to Argentine fast jets, but allowing C-130 transports to continue to operate from it.

From a training, armament, improvisation, and logistics standpoint this was a remarkable achievement, and the author argues that its consequences, direct and indirect, effectively took the Argentine fast air fighter force and navy out of the conflict, and hence paved the way for the British reconquista of the islands. Today it seems quaint; you'd just launch a few cruise missiles at the airfield, cratering it and spreading area denial munitions and that would be that, without risking a single airman. But they didn't have that option then, and so they did their best with what was available, and this epic story recounts how they pulled it off with hardware on the edge of retirement, re-purposed for a mission its designers never imagined, mounted with a plan with no margin for error, on a schedule nobody could have imagined absent wartime exigency. This is a tale of the Vulcan mission; if you're looking for a comprehensive account of the Falklands War, you'll have to look elsewhere. The Vulcan raid on the Falklands was one of those extraordinary grand gestures, like the Doolittle Raid on Japan, which cast a longer shadow in history than their direct consequences implied. After the Vulcan raid, nobody doubted the resolve of Britain, and the resulting drawback of the Argentine forces almost certainly reduced the cost of retaking the islands from the invader.

May 2010 Permalink

Zichek, Jared A. The Incredible Attack Aircraft of the USS United States, 1948–1949. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7643-3229-6.
In the peacetime years between the end of World War II in 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the United States Navy found itself in an existential conflict. The adversary was not a foreign fleet, but rather the newly-unified Department of Defense, to which it had been subordinated, and its new peer service, the United States Air Force, which argued that the advent of nuclear weapons and intercontinental strategic bombing had made the Navy's mission obsolete. The Operation Crossroads nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 which had shown that a well-placed fission bomb could destroy an entire carrier battle group in close formation supported the Air Force's case that aircraft carriers were simply costly targets which would be destroyed in the first days of a general conflict. Further, in a world where the principal adversary, the Soviet Union, had neither a blue water navy nor a warm weather port from which to operate one, the probability that the U.S. Navy would be called upon to support amphibious landings comparable to those of World War II appeared unlikely.

Faced with serious policy makers in positions of influence questioning the rationale for its very existence on anything like its current scale, advocates of the Navy saw seizing back part of the strategic bombardment mission from the Air Force as their salvation. This would require aircraft carriers much larger than any built before, carrier-based strategic bombers in the 100,000 pound class able to deliver the massive nuclear weapons of the epoch (10,000 pound bombs) with a combat radius of at least 1,700—ideally 2,000—miles. This led to the proposal for CVA-58, USS United States, a monster (by the standards of the time—contemporary supercarriers are larger still) flush deck carrier which would support these heavy strategic bombers and their escort craft.

This ship would require aircraft like nothing in the naval inventory, and two “Outline Specifications” were issued to industry to solicit proposals for a “Carrier-Based Landplane”: the basic subsonic strategic bomber, and a “Long Range Special Attack airplane”, which required a supersonic dash to the target. (Note that when the latter specification was issued on August 24th, 1948, less than a year had elapsed since the first supersonic flight of the Bell X-1.)

The Navy's requirements in these two specifications were not just ambitious, they were impossible given the propulsion technology of the time: the thrust and specific fuel consumption of available powerplants simply did not permit achieving all of the Navy's requirements. The designs proposed by contractors, presented in this book in exquisite detail, varied from the highly conventional, which straightforwardly conceded their shortcomings compared to what the Navy desired, to the downright bizarre (especially in the “Special Attack” category), with aircraft that look like a cross between something produced by the Lucasfilm model shop and the fleet of the Martian Air Force. Imagine a biplane that jettisons its top wing/fuel tank on the way to the target, after having been launched with a Fireball XL-5 like expendable trolley; a “parasitic” airplane which served as the horizontal stabiliser of a much larger craft outbound to the target, then separated and returned after dispatching the host to bomb them commies; or a convertible supersonic seaplane which could refuel from submarines on the way to the target. All of these and more are detailed in this superbly produced book which is virtually flawless in its editing and production values.

Nothing at all came of all of this burst of enthusiasm and creativity. On April 23rd, 1949, the USS United States was cancelled, provoking the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy and the Revolt of the Admirals. The strategic nuclear mission was definitively won by the Air Force, which would retain their monopoly status until the Navy got back into the game with the Polaris missile submarines in the 1960s.

April 2012 Permalink