May 17, 2013
In 1969, Pan American was pursuing three ground-breaking aircraft at the same time — the soon-to-be iconic Boeing 747, along with the the Concorde and Boeing Supersonic Transports. In a striking ad, Pan Am highlighted the triad and the dramatic revolution it promised for 1970s air travel. An afternoon business meeting in London? No problem. Hop an SST and be back for dinner. The ad also bragged about how the 747 would be built to the airline’s specifications, which was quite true; Pan Am founder Juan Trippe was ruling Boeing boardrooms as he laid out the airline’s demands even as the ad hit the news stands. (For more about the development of the 747, check out Clive Irving’s excellent book, “Widebody.”)
Of course, the American SST would never proceed beyond a partial mockup (today owned by the Seattle Museum of Flight) and the Concorde would only serve Air France and British Airways, and would operate at a loss for its entire career. The 747, however, would remain in production more than 40 years after it entered service. (The latest version is the 747-8.)
Today’s airline business is a grueling study in cost-cutting and seat-mile computations — the same hard-nosed accounting that doomed Pan Am to bankruptcy in 1991. But a yellowed magazine ad reminds us of a day when the future of air travel innovation seemed limitless, as Americans were walking on the moon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey featured commuters headed to the moon in a Pan Am-flagged shuttle.
May 1, 2013
Joseph Duehmig is someone I consider a hero. He’s also the father of one of my closest friends, and given our common Air Force background, he and I have had a few good-natured conversations about his son Mark’s questionable decision to join the Navy. One evening, at Mark’s promotion party to Lieutenant Commander, Mr. Duehmig and I spent some time looking through Lackland Air Force Base’s Internet collection of Air Force basic military training photos.
Duehmig was at Lackland in the early 1950s; I was stationed there with the 3757th Student Squadron in 1987. It was thrilling to share that heritage with a fellow Airman who had signed up only a few years after the Air Force came into being as a separate service. After basic training, we both went on — decades apart — to aircraft maintenance school. Joe Duehmig became a flying crew chief on arguably the most important aircraft of the 20th Century — the Boeing B-47 Stratojet.
The U.S. Army Air Forces (the predecessor of the USAF) sought proposals for a turbine-powered bomber as early as 1943; Boeing would roll out its iconic XB-47 — influenced by captured German data on the swept wing — in September 1947. The B-47, with its six podded engines, is the ancestor of every jet airliner in flight today. Duehmig, stationed at Lake Charles Air Force Base in Louisiana, started crewing, then flying, the Stratojet in 1953. He sat on the step below the pilot and copilot; he was strapped in, but wore no parachute, although he had one at the ready. Lucky for him. “We had an engine catch on fire. I couldn’t see anything; the only way I could see was to stand up and look out between the pilot and co-pilot. We were ready to bail out, but I guess they got the fire out.”
Lake Charles had two wings of Stratojets — 90 jet bombers — plus a wing of Boeing KC-97 tankers, with their brutal World War II-era Pratt & Whitney R-4360 radial engines. While he was on temporary duty, Duehmig’s first B-47 was lost in a refueling accident over the Gulf of Mexico. “They dropped the rear gear to slow down; one of the planes came over the top of mine and his gear hit the canopy and knocked it off,” he recalls. The bombardier/navigator, down below in the nose of the aircraft, ejected after hearing the impact and roar of the wind after the canopy separated. He was never found. The pilot and co-pilot brought the crippled jet back to Lake Charles, where it was readied for a trip back to Boeing’s Wichita, Kansas, facility for repairs. When the Bomb Wing would deploy (to posts as far afield as Morocco), Duehmig and his fellow maintenance troops would pack minimal tools to keep their silver Stratojets airborne. Skill, and borrowed wrenches from the transient maintenance crew were all they needed. “Once or twice a year, I flew a ‘globetrotter’ mission,” he says. “We’d be up for 24 hours, refuel four times. Sometimes we’d have a sleeping bag, so the pilot and co-pilot could take a nap.”
Joseph Duehmig also crewed Boeing B-29s and Lockheed T-33s. After he left the Air Force, he returned to Indiana, raised four boys — Mark, Joe, Bob, and Dave (UPS Douglas DC-8 and Boeing 757/767/747 pilot) — and worked in the fledgling computer industry.
He’s a soft-spoken and honorable man, whose term of enlistment included witnessing the dawn of the jet age.
April 15, 2013
Recently, after attending a car show with my son Ian, we investigated one of Miami International Airport’s best plane-spotting locations, nicknamed “The Holes,” for its openings in the airport fence. There we met Aaron Carter, monitoring traffic on an iPhone app.
Planespotters are motivated by different interests — some focus on civilian airliners, others strictly on military fighters or cargo aircraft. There even are sub-specialties: airline spotters sometimes try to see every example of a jet flown by a given airline, while others spot one-off special liveries, such as NFL team jets, Air New Zealand’s Hobbit-themed 777, or the Finnair A-340 emblazoned with Finnish designer Maija Isola’s 1964 floral prints. Either way, the spotters are patient hunters with an insider’s knowledge of where to go for the best view in a post-9/11 world of increased security.
Carter told us of having recently seen one of the new American Airlines 777-330 ERs in the carrier’s new paint scheme. American had kept its same look, largely unchanged, for 40 years: red, white, and blue stripes on unpainted aluminum skins. The motivation for the new look wasn’t marketing, but the nature of modern aircraft, whose composite skins would have to be painted silver to keep the same look. For American, as it merges with US Airways, the time was right for an update.
Carter’s iPhone told us that a British Airways 747 was inbound, but after it crossed the beach to our east, it was vectored to runway 8R, out of our view. We kept watching the traffic on his phone, and spotted a 737 go from a blip on the screen to a flash on the horizon, and then a rubber-screeching arrival right in front of us.
My family keeps a boat at Key West Naval Air Station, another great place to watch airplanes, including the P-3 Orion shown above, which blew our hair back as we huddled beneath the runway threshold. Indeed, spotting can get hazardous, as with this group that just missed being run over by a C-160 Transall that landed short and bounced off a road.
Want to check out the action at your local airport? Find the best fence-side views at www.nycaviation.com, or tell us your own favorites. Happy spotting!
March 13, 2013
It’s not a new debate. For generations, members of the military have compared their service to those of their peers, or had that comparison made for them. Did you serve in the elephant grass of Vietnam, or turn a wrench from a base in Thailand? Was your service as hoo-ah as mine? Either way, we both packed our bags, left our families, and went to war.
The nation formally honors soldiers, sailors, coast guardsmen, airmen, and marines by giving them medals, and we recognize a career of military service with retirement pay and medical benefits. Two recent news stories have opened both practices to question. Do drone pilots — who often control Predators from the United States — deserve their own medal? And should the SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden, but left the service before his 20 years were up, get a monthly pension check?
A recent decision by the Department of Defense created the Distinguished Warfare Medal to recognize drone pilots who pull the trigger without deploying to the front lines. The New York Times quoted former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta: “I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems have changed the way wars are fought…and they’ve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle even from afar.” As you might expect, that provoked some heated discussion from GIs in the blogosphere and in print, and the new medal is already up for formal review.
I served in Afghanistan, but as a support squadron commander at what was arguably the safest place in the country: Bagram Air Field, near Kabul. Still, we had rocket attacks (I brought a piece of shrapnel home in my bag from one), and once a direct-fire assault sent us running for cover. Even as a dedicated REMF (Rear Echelon Bleepedy Bleep), my deployment was a life-altering experience. At any hour of the day or night, we were on hand to honor the remains of those who had fallen. At 0200, you would don your uniform, grab your weapon, line the road leading to the C-17, and salute the transfer case that passed before you. While I was there, I saluted 55 cases. On one occasion I remember lending a firm grasp to the shoulder of one of my young Airmen whose face was wet with tears. Truth was, if I hadn’t been expected to hold it together as the squadron commander, I would have been just as visibly affected.
Secretly, I was ashamed that I wasn’t in as much danger as those whose bodies passed before me on all those windy and dust-choked nights. Most of them were barely out of their teens; some had taken their own lives. I was old enough to be their father – and still alive. After I left, insurgents dropped a rocket on the procession one evening, killing two sleepy soldiers who were simply paying their respects to fallen comrades.
If you’re a GI, whenever you meet a fellow serviceman or woman in dress uniform, your eyes fall on the ribbons. Those tightly packed bits of fabric tell the story of their service to the country. Been to Afghanistan? Or Iraq? There’s a campaign medal — and corresponding ribbon — for that. As a non-flying Air Force officer, you can probably expect to receive the Meritorious Service Medal as a major or lieutenant colonel for a successful squadron command tour in a combat zone. Some above me in the chain of command received Bronze Stars for their time in the desert, which, in its most basic form, is given for achievement in a forward area. A Bronze Star with valor — a “V” — is reserved for direct contact with the enemy. But a Bronze Star is a Bronze Star, whether or not the “V” is attached. The rub, to some, is that the new Distinguished Warfare Medal, which can be earned from the United States, will be worn above the Bronze Star in the carefully prescribed ranking of military decorations. But according to the defense department, it will only be awarded for truly exceptional actions, such as a drone strike on a suspected terrorist. And, it won’t be given for valor — situations that involve risk of life to the recipient.
So why the uproar? When I said goodbye to my family before my tour in Afghanistan, I remember my son sobbing in the driveway as I left. Yet there were thousands of troops who were in far, far greater danger than I. Truth is, unless you’re the one who double-tapped Osama bin Laden, there are always some people closer to the “tip of the spear” and others farther away, even in a war zone. There was virtually no chance I wasn’t going to return to my family. I spent a great deal of my time with Afghan contractors, figuring out how to house 1500 Airmen — mostly in plywood shacks, and I mostly fought boring base administrivia. Not exactly Iwo Jima stuff. If I stand next to an Army Specialist who survived multiple IED attacks, our Afghanistan Campaign Medals are exactly the same. Should his be different to show the greater danger he was in? There are probably many who would say yes.
Similarly, the first guy or gal who gets a Stateside-earned Distinguished Warfare Medal — but who got to go home every night to kiss his or her spouse — will get the GIs talking. The controversy about the DWM is that it expands the traditional definition of what it means to engage the enemy.
Beside awarding medals and ribbons for specific actions, we recognize military service by ensuring a lifetime of retirement pay and medical benefits (starting at age 60 for a reservist) for those with 20 years of active or reserve duty. That’s whether you were a cook, fighter pilot, platoon sergeant, submarine captain, or chaplain. But what about those who leave the service short of 20 years, and therefore receive no retirement, even if they’ve been to Iraq a dozen times? What do we owe them?
That’s the central issue of the Esquire cover story about “The Shooter” who killed Osama Bin Laden. The magazine, one of my favorites, normally features an “it” girl or guy on the cover. The March newsstand issue is swathed in black, with stark white letters screaming that the SEAL trigger man is being screwed by the U.S. government. The Shooter served 14 years of active duty: so, no retirement. Was there a reason he left early? I read and re-read the story, hoping to find out why. The cover blurb and editor’s preface — which, as my editor pointed out, are designed to sell magazines — decry the injustice done to that hero. And he is a hero in my eyes. I wouldn’t last a day in SEAL training, much less be able to do what he did. But consider this: Most of the soldiers who took fire on Utah, Juno, and Omaha beaches during the Normandy invasion had been civilians five years earlier. And many of them didn’t get active retirements either.
There are all manner of troops who don’t make it a career. Some move on, like the Marine Corps staff sergeant who does multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq, then gets a degree and a good job in the private sector. There are countless others whose experiences facing roadside bombs or sniper fire were simply waypoints in their life journey. They’re heroes. They deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other ailments, and carry on. Aside from some Veterans Administration benefits, they get no retirement. Every person in the military signs up under the same rule: Twenty years is twenty years. And, today we must recognize that a Stateside pilot or sensor operator can take out a suspected terrorist or bomb-setter. And, whether a kill is made from the cockpit of an A-10 or while piloting a drone from Nevada, the bad guy on the ground is just as dead.
In today’s warfare, it’s more difficult than ever to parse a serviceman’s records and call one deserving and the other not. The Shooter relied on thousands who made that kill possible — most likely even drone pilots or cyber specialists. If the rules need to change for medals and retirement, let’s do it with an eye toward the modern nature of warfare, and not just because we’re valuing one soldier’s, or one group of soldiers’, experience over any other.
February 15, 2013
The best thing about doing temporary duty at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio is the opportunity to tour the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the largest aviation collection in the world. With eight galleries housing more than 360 aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft, plus an air park and at least 20 other specialized exhibits, spending several days touring the hangars is a must-do for any aviation enthusiast.
There’s one gallery that, for me, is simply the best. It’s not even part of the main complex, but is on Wright Patterson proper: the Research and Development gallery. It’s accessible only by shuttle bus from the museum (unless you have a military ID and can enter the base directly). In this relatively small space is an amazing tangle of oddities, one-off test aircraft, and a starring lineup from the heyday of experimental flight.
There’s no fancy lobby or sales pitch about donating to the museum. Neither are there interactive displays, IMAX movies, or a gift shop. Enter the modest glassed-in entryway about the size of a dentist’s waiting room, and unfailingly polite, blue-jacketed volunteers will gesture to the hangar’s door. And you’re in.
Show up on a late afternoon weekday, and you may have the place to yourself — free to weave your way between a North American X-15, the sole remaining swing-wing Bell X-5, which was based on the captured Messerschmitt P.1101, and the pre-area rule XF-92A, which resulted in the F-102 and ultimately the F-106. The planes are jammed together with overlapping wings and noses pointing every which-way — as if a thrift shop keeper arranged them — and you’ll find yourself awestruck at seeing the X-1B, then suddenly gawking at the ungainly Republic XF-91 Thunderceptor with its reverse taper wings. Overhead, like a protective raptor guarding a nest, looms the only remaining XB-70 Valkyrie, a Mach-3 bomber perhaps best known for the fiery crash that claimed Joe Walker, whose F-104 collided with the second test ship in 1966.
Other faves: The North American F-107A , with its unusual dorsal intakes, is considered by some to be one of the best fighters never built. Intended as a fighter-bomber version of the F-100, it featured a recessed weapons bay and all-moving vertical stabilizer. Then there’s the hot rod: the Lockheed P-80R, a postwar attempt to reclaim the world’s absolute speed record from the Gloster Meteor. The -80R featured a smaller canopy, modified air intakes, and shorter wing. Armament was removed and a fuel tank put in its place. Colonel Albert Boyd, who would become the first commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, set a new world’s speed record of 623 mph in the P-80R in June 1947. The P-80R is a treat, with a slick gloss gray skin and its vintage Lockheed logo on the nose.
If you’ve got time, step next door to another amazing collection: the Presidential Airlift gallery, that features the VC-137C on which President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office after President Kennedy’s assassination. Also of note is the first purpose-built presidential transport, the VC-54C on which President Roosevelt flew to the 1945 Yalta Conference.
Want to visit the Research and Development gallery? It’s easy, even if you don’t have a military ID.
January 28, 2013
Time was when almost every boy knew how to carefully lower a bubble canopy to a P-51 Mustang, eyeball a fuselage to make sure the wings were straight on a P-47, or perhaps line up the Luftwaffe cross on the wings of a Ju-88. All done with glue-smeared and paint-stained fingertips. Today, plastic models have given way to Xboxes and PlayStations.
I’ve collected models since childhood. They spent decades stored in cardboard boxes, following me from move to move. Once we settled back in Florida, I finally unpacked them and carefully shelved the kits above my father’s old worktable, where he had once built museum-quality ship models that were auctioned at Sotheby’s. My airplanes were never gallery-worthy, but they were still a pleasant reminder of my youth.
Years ago, when I began working for Air & Space as an editor, I found those old plastic models served me in another way. Spend hours of frustration painting cockpit details or studying the various struts of a Rube Goldberg F4F Wildcat landing gear trying to get it to a) not collapse, and b) not make the model tilt drunkenly to one side, and you find you can start to recognize aircraft simply by a propeller spinner, a gear door, or a wing — a skill that became valuable when editing photo captions, for instance. A chin turret on a B-17? It’s obviously a “G” model. A two-door nose gear on an F-16? Why, that’s the prototype YF-16 and not a production “A” model.
It warmed my heart when my then-nine-year-old son Ian caught the bug and started building kits from my dusty collection. First an F4U Corsair, then the inevitable P-51. And, without prompting, the day came when he wanted help hanging the planes from his bedroom ceiling — something I, and most of my friends, had done 30-odd years earlier, but few kids do today. Pretty soon a de Havilland Mosquito had joined the formation behind a Martin B-26, while a North American T-28, Republic P-47D, and Lockheed P-38J flew a combat air patrol over his bunk bed. Now age 11, his skills have improved, and he’s currently working on a Douglas SBD Dauntless — a kit I also built when I was his age — that features a retractable landing gear, dive flaps, and a droppable bomb.
The English company Airfix began producing plastic kits in 1947, but it was its 1953 Supermarine Spitfire that is perhaps best known, and beloved, by aircraft modelers. Check out this excerpt from the first episode of the BBC series James May’s Toy Stories, in which the host enlists a crew of kids to build a full-scale Spitfire model, molded in the form of the Airfix kit:
American companies like Lindberg, Revell, and Monogram were staples of my own childhood air force, later to be joined by the excellent kits of Japanese companies like Hasegawa and Tamiya. The earliest plastic kits were rudimentary, with sometimes questionable proportions and ridiculous steam locomotive-appropriate rivets festooning fuselages and wings. But they were only a few bucks, well within a typical suburban allowance. Todays airplane modelers are typically my age, and the high-end kits are bought with twenties. Inside, they’re nearly perfect technical representations, with recessed panel lines and laser-etched metal accessories for fine details, like the thin metal frame of a Head Up Display. Some, especially large-scale warbirds, like the latest 1/32 scale jets, can run hundreds of dollars.
As of tonight, the Dauntless is painted, and has done some practice bombing runs in the living room. Soon, it’ll take its place hanging in formation, rolling in on an imaginary Japanese destroyer sailing the carpet below.
January 23, 2013
Back in the 1990s, I spied a piece of burned paper in a dusty Illinois junk shop. For 20 bucks, I purchased a singed envelope that had been placed in a mailbox in 1919, postmarked in New York, and sent by airmail to Sutiff & Case Co., in Peoria. The letter was never delivered. Also inside the cheap wooden frame — with a broken string attached, indicating that it once hung on a wall — was an apologetic letter dated May 28, 1919, from W.B Carlile, the Chicago postmaster:
The enclosed piece of mail matter was damaged in the aero-plane accident at Cleveland, Ohio, May 25th.
The incident is very much regretted.
When those papers were first displayed, American airmail service was little more than a year old — the U.S. Army had begun flying regularly scheduled flights on May 15, 1918, with deliveries between Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. In August, the Army turned the operation over to the Postal Service. The accompanying newspaper clipping described the crash of Frank McCusker, who was flying the newly inaugurated New York-to-Cleveland route, and was the second Postal Service air pilot to perish when his de Havilland DH-4 caught fire after taking off from Cleveland. The doomed and parachute-less pilot jumped to his death.
Those seminal years were extremely dangerous for airmail pilots — flying surplus aircraft, with little more than a sight of a river or road for navigation. Some were veterans of the Great War; others were barely out of flight school. Between 1919 and 1926, 35 pilots died hauling Christmas missives, overdue bills, and humdrum human communication now delivered with a mouse click.
Indeed, by 1975, the term “air mail” would be dropped from Postal Service lexicon; today nearly every letter travels most of its journey as unremarkable baggage beneath the feet of thousands of bored flyers dozing toward their hurried connection in Atlanta or Dallas. And yet, it’s hard to look at that charred letter and not think of the bravery of Frank McCusker as he climbed into an open cockpit 94 years ago, daring the clouds that lay ahead.
January 15, 2013
Ever since my first trip with my Dad, who worked for National Airlines and Pan American, I’ve always loved when the engines throttle up and the runway lights start to track by. I don’t understand dropping the shade for a lousy movie or snoozing in the aisle seat. A window, always.
A few times I’ve seen what I believe to be a shock wave forming on the wing of the jet I was traveling on. Ernst Mach told us that at sea level, the speed of sound — Mach one, or the ratio of the speed of sound at a given altitude and the speed of the vehicle — is around 750 miles per hour. The outside air temperature, or OAT, is important here (which I also remember being a factor during test engine runs as a crew chief) because the density of air at a given altitude affects the speed of sound.
Recently, during an American flight from Atlanta, I saw what I thought was a shock wave dancing along the upper surface of the wing; it rode back and forth, divided, re-combined, and stayed visible until we began to descend. I even got a picture.
Based on a quick, and quite possibly faulty, Internet search, my best guess at the speed of sound at our announced altitude — 39,000 feet — is about 660 mph, or 574 knots. The cruising speed of the latest 737s (Next Generation) is 514 mph, with a max speed of 544 mph. Theoretically, the difference between the speed of sound at that altitude and the speed of our jet was as low as 116 mph — a few feet outside the window of a near-sighted airplane geek with his tray table down in seat 15A.
I checked with Gordon Leishman, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park, who emailed back:
Yes, what you have is a photo of a shock wave (well, it is the shadow of the shockwave cast onto the wing). So, we call such images shadowgraphs or shadowgrams. Seen it many times, have many photos, generations of my students have taken photos, etc. Science from your airplane window! Of course, we also use the technique in the laboratory.
Commercial jet aircraft cruise at transonic speeds (Mach 0.8 to 0.86), so there is generally always a shock or a series of bifurcated (i.e., the upside down “y”) and interconnected shocks) over the upper surface of the wing. On early jets, the shocks were nearer to the leading edge (727 is a good example), but on newer generations of aircraft with their better transonic airfoils, you will see the shocks further aft on the wing chord (777). You can also sometimes see shocks on the engine nacelle or between the nacelle and the fuselage. If the lighting is right, you may even see the optical distortion of the shock extending well off the wing surface.
Getting a good photo of the shocks is all about lighting (in this case where the sun is relative to the aircraft) so that the light rays refract and cast a shadow of the shocks on the wing. Often it is luck. In this case you can clearly see the bifurcated shock pattern as the flow over the wing interferes with the fuselage flow.
Whew. And, I thought what I saw was just due to the free drink coupons!