December 3, 2013
I had a 9:00 a.m. appointment with the curator who oversaw the restoration and display of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force’s MiG-29. I was early, and since the museum wasn’t open yet and it was cold outside, I sat idling in the car. That’s when I decided to take a closer look at the museum’s Memorial Park, a scattered collection of monuments next to the parking lot.
There was time to kill, so, braving the frigid (from the perspective of a Miami resident) Ohio morning, I strolled over and chose a path at random—one of many meandering through the tall trees. Most visitors, myself included, probably walk past this place quickly on their way into the museum.
What a shame. On this morning hundreds of memorials revealed themselves, many still covered with early morning dew as the fog burned off in the adjacent fields.
There were the expected tributes to the most storied units in Air Force history—the American Volunteer Group (better known as the “Flying Tigers”), and the Eighth Air Force, the iconic group whose B-17s and B-24s showed the value of strategic bombing (of course, depending on who you talk to). These art deco memorials were imposing, and sometimes surprisingly beautiful.
It was easy to overlook some of the smaller markers along the paths, but these also caught my interest. I spotted a plaque dedicated to the 442nd Troop Carrier Group, the ancestor to my old Air Force Reserve unit, the 442nd Fighter Wing. During World War II, the 442nd played a role in the Normandy and Operation Market Garden airborne assaults, and after the war the unit carried on its cargo heritage by flying C-124s and C-130s, until it was re-equipped with A-10 “Warthogs” in the 1980s. Nice to have a small connection here.
Some tributes honored lesser known units like the support personnel of the World War II 390th Bombardment Group and 5th Communications Group during the Korean War. Others were dedicated to a single person, such as 23-year-old Lieutenant David Axthelm, memorialized by the 13th Fighter Interceptor Squadron after the crash of his F-86D in 1953.
Next time you’re in the Dayton area, take some time to walk among the more than 500 memorials honoring the service and sacrifice of Air Force units and individuals.
November 4, 2013
There are a couple of A-7 Corsair IIs on I-75 that always catch my eye whenever I make the drive between Florida and Illinois. During a recent trek to rehab an old house and to take the kids to the in-laws, some new finds came into view, like the TA-4J Skyhawk next to a small airport in Kentucky — oh, and the ICBM I spotted behind the Gas-N-Go at the Cordele, Georgia, exit.
According to the Cordele plaque, the missile was placed there in 1969 by what was then the Confederate Air Force. It came from a silo in California, and was acquired with help from the local Chamber of Commerce. The Titan I was in service from 1962 to 1965, and in later Titan II form, was the launch vehicle for Gemini XI. Besides being next to the aforementioned Gas-N-Go (man, filling up the old minivan has gotten expensive), the website Roadside America helpfully notes that the formidable weapon, once designed to rain death on Soviet cities, is now conveniently located near a Krytstal hamburger restaurant.
Other attractions along our trip included the Don Garlits Museum of Drag racing, which features one of those A-7 Corsair IIs, a former gate guard at a Naval Air Station and now on loan from the U.S. Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. Garlits’ museum is a must-see for any gear head, and also contains some interesting aviation treats. Garlits was once known for drag racing a few Navy aircraft on a runway, and even aboard a carrier. Inside, there’s a racer powered by an Allison V-12 that (according to the display) came from a Curtiss P-40. The display also says the engine once had a bullet hole in its crankcase. Garlits, in his youth, raced drop tank racers — cars fashioned from WWII aircraft external fuel tanks — but I searched in vain for an example.
Sure, there’s the National Air and Space Museum, but what about the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California? Or the American Helicopter Museum in West Chester, Pennsylvania? Headed through McMinnville, Oregon? Don’t miss the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, home of Howard Hughes’ massive Spruce Goose. Or, check out the atomic cannon in Junction City, Kansas.
-F-94C located in Erie, Pa.
-F9F-9 located in Tonawanda above Buffalo, NY.
-Two CF-101C Voodoos located FBO Gila Bend, Arizona.
-Four derelict DC-3′s located on US 63 north of Rolla, MO on Vichy Airport.
-B-26 Invader old route 66 El Reno, OK.
-South of Rolla MO, on US 63 Patton tank at Veterans Hall.
-B-52 located in Rome, NY.
Sure beats visiting the world’s largest ball of twine. (Clark Griswold never told you where, but it’s located in Kawker City, KS.)
October 31, 2013
While working on an upcoming story, I was alerted to Sergey Isaev’s research on the transfer of MiG-21s (and MiG-15 trainers, along with air and ground crews) from the Soviet 32nd Air Guards Fighter Regiment to Cuba in 1962. The deployment coincided with the placement of Soviet ballistic missiles on the Caribbean island, which prompted the Cuban missile crisis in October of that year.
Isaev’s father, Mikhail, was one of the MiG crewman. He had steamed across the Atlantic aboard the Nikolayevsk, part of a flotilla of vessels transporting the men, a few nurses, and their aircraft to Cuba. All the Soviet military passengers were dressed in civilian clothes.
According to Sergey Isaev’s account:
All “passengers” were gathered for instructions. The representative drew a picture of “the political moment” and said: ‘ “Comrades, you are here not military servicemen; you are agricultural workers, tractor operators, agriculturists, in no way you here belong to the military service. Remember it!” Therefore, we have turned to “tractor operators”.’
As the flotilla neared the island, the elder Isaev, and others such as Evgueny Vladimirov, aboard the Volgoles, snapped photos of a US Navy P2V Neptune as it shadowed the ships:
September 4, 2013
My son, Ian, is working on a 7th grade science project, and is studying what wing position works best for maximum glide — that is, for a balsa wood glider launched from our roof. His standard is a swept-wing design, but we’re expecting that his straight wing, either the high or low version, will make the farthest penetration into our persnickety neighbor’s front lawn.
All aircraft have a center of pressure, also called center of lift, which is normally at a fixed location (except, I assume, in a swing wing like the F-14 or Tornado). They also have a center of gravity, which is where the aircraft’s weight balances fore-and-aft. The CG depends on the distribution of fuel, baggage, etc., and is moveable. Normally, the center of gravity is placed forward of the center of pressure, which creates a corresponding down force exerted by the tail assembly, and which results in an inherently stable aircraft.
This we learned from a King Schools video on You Tube (pretty basic, as befitting Ian’s two-time liberal arts major dad):
In a straight-wing design, this is easier to visualize. We’ve been balancing his gliders on our fingertips, and we’re adding pennies (chosen because of their standard, verifiable weights) to the nose to move the CG. His straight-wing gliders all balance backward at the wing tips, but if we add nose weight such that they’re slightly nose-heavy, we wanted to know if the down force of the tail would keep them flying straight without stalling. I think (and I’m no aeronautical engineer) that if the gliders balance perfectly fore-and-aft when held lightly at the wing tips, the centers of pressure and gravity would be in essentially the same position, and hence, the gliders will nose up, since the normal down force of the tail created by having the center of gravity forward of the center of pressure would be minimal, or missing.
But, what will happen with the swept -wing version? Since the wingtips of a swept-wing design are quite a bit aft of the roots, Ian’s swept-wing model (unlike his straight-wing models) acts nose-heavy if balanced at the wingtips, but very similar to the straight-wing designs — tail heavy — if balanced at the wing roots. Will we have to add even more weight to the nose to counteract the extra weight of the swept wings behind the CG?
Next step: three more designs–one high-wing, one low-wing, and one high-wing with dihedral (wings bent slightly upward at the roots.)
Edwards AFB has nothing on us. A wobbly step ladder to the roof and a few free hours after school are all we need. (And even Mommy approves.) Stay tuned for our flight test data.
August 15, 2013
The V-22 Osprey, the troubled and revolutionary aircraft known for a string of crashes early in its career and for its later redemption hauling Marines and their gear in Afghanistan, is now sporting the glossy dark green of Marine Helicopter Squadron One.
HMX-1, the unit that operates the VH-3Ds that whisk the chief executive to Camp David or Andrews Air Force Base, has now also begun to fly tiltrotor Ospreys (The helicopter is called “Marine One” when the president is on board). The leathernecks of HMX-1 are famous for unwavering precision, as numerous presidents have alighted on the White House lawn and returned a lazy hand to the poker-straight Marine saluting at the base of the helo’s stairs. The squadron is using MV-22 Ospreys for transport of administration aides and reporters.
The Osprey originated from a 1981 requirement for an experimental aircraft that would result in a unique blend of helicopter and turboprop airlifter. The JVX — which would become the V-22 in 1985, and which flew first in 1989, suffered a string of early accidents and controversy. Since 2009 the Osprey has been used in combat in Afghanistan, and it participated in humanitarian operations in Haiti in 2010. Over that period, the Osprey has racked up 160,000 safe flight hours and has gained grudging respect both from helo old hands and grunts on the ground who are spirited to war zones half a world away.
And, now, from the odd congressional staffer.
July 28, 2013
Recently, while cleaning out a house that belonged to my mother, I came across a yellowed piece of National Airlines (NAL) paperwork dated January 1965 that transferred John P.G. Sotham from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, to Miami International, the airline’s corporate home. My dad, who died in 1998, started as a ticket agent, then attended the Sheffield School of Aeronautics on North 36th Street, the northern border of Miami International (MIA) that today features seedy hotels, a few ancient airline uniform shops, and the last true vestige of Pan American Airways—the Pan Am Flight Academy. In 1962, my dad was awarded the aeronautical rating of Aircraft Dispatcher.
Dispatchers compute fuel loads, and determine routes based on weather, and prepare flight plans based on maximum takeoff weights and field conditions. With the captain, they are jointly responsible for the release and safety of a given flight. The Sheffield School, and others, still train dispatchers—by the time my dad retired from Pan Am in 1982, he was guessing the job would be replaced by computers.
My dad did his computations long hand, until the day he showed me a brick-sized marvel that promised to make his work easier. Sadly, his Texas Instruments calculator, which cost him $50 (in the 1970s!), was itself soon dispatched by salad dressing leaked from a container in his work bag.
I was wondering what had become of the career, when I opened an inflight magazine last week and came across an article about U.S. Airway’s flight control office. The story profiled dispatcher Joe Mealie, and a photo of his work space—surrounded by flat-screen computer monitors displaying flights en route and real-time weather. The office was nothing like I remember when I visited my dad at work. His desk inside National’s scrubby concrete-block flight control building at MIA, with palm trees leaning at lazy angles outside, hung under a constant low ceiling of Pall Mall smoke, with banks of rotary phones and the constant clatter of teletype machines announcing runway closures or displaying smudgy renderings of weather fronts. Sweating inside the badly air conditioned building, he would deal with a DC-8 diverted because of a blizzard at Boston’s Logan International Airport, or perhaps assist the crew of a 727 circling over JFK. How far could they get with the gas on board? A pencil and paper would determine the answer.
I loved to hear him tell about the stories from his shift, including colorful tales of unruly passengers or medical emergencies that forced one of his flights to land, or the time an unfortunate stowaway climbed inside the wheel well of a 727 and didn’t live to see his destination. During the 1970s OPEC crisis, when jet fuel prices skyrocketed along with gasoline, he relayed wild rumors from other dispatchers that some airlines—looking to put the least amount of fuel possible on board—had a few jetliners shut down from fuel starvation while taxiing to the gate if they had run into an unexpected traffic delay. But, usually the tales featured weather. Always the weather. My mom and I learned to speak his shorthand about troughs aloft or dips in the jet stream. And we came to know airport codes almost as well as he did.
I barely saw him for weeks if he was pulling midnights. My parents exchanged notes to each other on a spiral notebook left on the kitchen counter. While cleaning, I unearthed one of the notebooks. A typical entry: “Hell of a night. PHI, JFK, EWR, all below minimums. Goddamn machinists about to go on strike again. Thanks for the tuna salad.”
It wasn’t until many years later that he confessed to me how stressful he found the job, and that on some nights, if there were particular flights that worried him, he’d sit in his car in the parking garage after the shift was over and wait until the jets—those he had released for push back in airports thousands of miles away on his watch but that were now the responsibility of his relief—had landed safely in the balmy night air of MIA. Only then would he return home and get some sleep.
There was none of that in the spiral notebooks, though. Just the day-to-day travails of a tough day at work.
July 2, 2013
Once a month, scrambled eggs, strong coffee and fellowship combine in a crowded hangar in Taylorville, Illinois at the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 1315′s regular pancake breakfast. Recently we stopped by Taylorville Municipal Airport while visiting my in-laws Vito and Mary, who live in nearby Springfield. Taylorville (KTAZ) has two paved runways — the longest a bit over 4,000 feet — and a grass strip beloved by its local pilots. Its operations office features glass cases filled with die-cast models donated by John McClure, and the hangar outside is crammed with three wingless Learjets. Wooden racks house cowlings and other spare parts.
As we cleaned our styrofoam plates on long folding tables, my brother-in-law, Brian Prinzavalli — who’s an enthusiastic pilot in two Las Vegas-area EAA chapters — and Larry Snyder chatted next to the hangar doors. A handful of kids, mine included, had been eyeing the sky and watching the occasional airplane taxi up for fuel, and it didn’t take much to convince Snyder to bring his Beechcraft A36 Bonanza out of its hangar for an impromptu “Young Eagles” event.
He could take three passengers at a time, so the kids discussed who would go first, and with which fellow traveler, with all the seriousness of the U.N. debating a resolution. Who would sit up front? Should the girls, including cousins Olivia and Chloe, go together, or should sister and brother? But what if that bumped a BFF?
Ultimately, it was decided. The two boys would fly first, so I walked my son Ian and his cousin Tommy to the Beech. Ian took the right seat and Tommy sat facing aft. Jerking a thumb at the extra seat, Snyder invited me aboard, and within a minute, the door thunked closed and we were holding short to Runway 18 while he ran up the engine and checked the magnetos. No intricate ballet of overhead bin stuffing, safety briefings from the flight attendant, or endless taxiing. Flying at Taylorville means you just throw on a headset and go — and we were definitely number one for take off.
The bumpy Midwestern air became smooth at about 2,200 feet as we climbed above a thin layer of clouds. Grain silos, the concrete ribbon of Highway 29 and the neighboring town of Edinburgh passed sedately below. Snyder told Ian to grasp the yoke. After a few calmly delivered instructions, Snyder’s hands were off the controls and it was Ian’s airplane. For the next 10 minutes, I craned my neck forward and watched my 12-year-old son execute five gentle turns to bring us downwind and back to the airport, all the while scanning for traffic like a pro.
Three girls went next, and Eve, my daughter, took right seat. After the Beech returned to Earth with a tire chirp, I could see her bouncing up and down in her seat from excitement as they came off the runway. She too, got some good stick time, and Snyder handed me his phone so I could send myself a photo of a beaming and confident 9-year-old girl (wasn’t she just using sippy cups?) piloting a Bonanza.
Since 1992, the EAA has flown more than 1.6 million kids through its Young Eagle program, which is aimed at exciting a new generation of kids about careers in aviation, or simply enjoying the freedom of a private license.
I know two kids who just got hooked.
June 21, 2013
On June 10, the Royal Air Force Museum successfully raised the only known example of the Dornier 17, a Luftwaffe light bomber that made its debut in the late 1930s and was first used during the Spanish Civil War.
The recovery of the Dornier was hampered by bad weather, but the famously fickle English Channel weather finally allowed the aircraft to rise from the waves more than 70 years after it crashed during the Battle of Britain. First located by sonar in 2008, the aircraft has been sent to the Royal Air Force Museum at Cosford for restoration.
The Dornier participated in an attack on airfields in Kent on August 26, 1940, when it became separated from its formation, and was attacked by RAF fighters.
The recovery is a double find — not only a rare Do-17 (production of the aircraft ended in 1940, in favor of the Junkers Ju-88) — but a genuine relic from the Battle of Britain.
May 21, 2013
Thirty years ago, the A-10 “Warthog” first landed in Europe, ready to bring the fight to legions of Soviet tanks poised to roll through the Fulda Gap and into Western Europe. Designed around the fearsome General Electric GAU-8 Avenger 30-mm Gatling gun, the forward-based Hog pilots were to be the “speed bump” until reinforcements arrived from the States. At one time, there were about 140 A-10s stationed in England and Germany.
As a young Stateside A-10 crew chief in the 1990s, I would occasionally pack my tools and gear aboard a C-130 and follow the jets across the Atlantic to a rabbit-infested German Naval Base on the North Sea — just as my crewmates and I would have done had World War III broken out. There, we practiced crewing Hogs during simulated chemical warfare, complete with explosive charges that signaled a nerve agent “attack.” Hence, much of our work launching jets was done sweating inside gas masks and in head-to-toe chemical warfare gear.
Fortunately, the hostilities would cease most evenings in time for us to sample the foamy offerings at the local biergarten.
Alternately hated, then grudgingly respected, by Air Force senior leadership, the A-10 was headed to the boneyard in the late 1980s until the straightforward genius of its design was validated during the first Gulf War. It went on to fly close air support missions over Iraq (again), and still flies over Afghanistan. Today, with the addition of new targeting pods and upgraded cockpits, the stick-and-rudder old jet — perhaps the cleanest aeronautical expression of “form follows function” — is getting some digital flair. Conestoga wagon meets iPad.
In keeping with its new role, the A-10 has closed the book on its original mission. Just a few days ago, on May 18th, the last Warthog unit permanently stationed in Europe packed up and flew home. The 21 jets of Spangdahlem Air Base’s 81st Fighter Squadron will continue to serve at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
The A-10, along with a host of other aircraft, will eventually be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II, but that may not happen until as late as 2040. So, even as it’s surrounded increasingly by sexier pointy jets, the stubborn old Hog will soldier on.
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.
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