September 19, 2013
What does a Navy admiral tell a ballroom full of Air Force officers? If you’re vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just about anything, as long as it’s nice.
Admiral James Winnefeld Jr. used his appearance at the Air Force Association’s conference September 18 at National Harbor, Maryland to stress not only the importance of readiness for the next conflict in the face of shrinking budgets, but his own ties to the Air Force.
In wishing the service a happy 66th birthday, the former Topgun instructor called himself “an island of white in a sea of Air Force blue.” Then Winnefeld reminded the audience of his past. “I’ve had the joy of flying with and against, and literally taking gas from, a lot of talented airmen—always trying to keep them in front of me, which is not an easy task, I assure you. I’ve tried to keep up with a B-1 in mil power [just short of using afterburners] with my old Tomcat in full afterburner.
“I’ve been directed by many a superb Air Force Joint Terminal Air Controller. I’ve lived on an Air Force base. I’ve literally lived with the Air Force, my college roommate for a while having been Phil Breedlove [a four-star general, commander of U.S. European Command, and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander]. People expected him to be successful.
“I’ve even thrown a football with Peyton Manning in the back of a C-17 high over Afghanistan. I can also say that given my last three jobs [Joint Chiefs of Staff, head of U.S. Northern Command, and head of North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD], I now probably know as many Air Force generals by their first names as I do Navy admirals. Heck, in this job, sometimes people call me general, which always quickens my step. And as a Georgia Tech graduate, I can say that I’m somewhat—somewhat—neutral regarding Air Force-Navy football.”
He closed his remarks with thanks from “this humble Naval officer” and exhorted the assembled airmen to “fly, fight, and win!”
August 9, 2013
Our inside view of Bockscar, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the second atomic weapon used in wartime, got me reading about the Nagasaki bombing of August 9, 1945, which helped put an end to World War II after six long years of bloodshed.
The story of the Hiroshima bombing, just three days earlier, is better known. The Enola Gay and its pilot, Paul Tibbets (who commanded the 509th Composite Group responsible for nuclear missions), have become familiar names to the public over the years. Fewer people, though, can identify Charles “Chuck” Sweeney as the pilot of the bomber that left Tinian for Japan early on the morning of August 9, accompanied by five other B-29s, including Enola Gay. There was no fighter escort, so as not to draw attention.
Unlike the Hiroshima mission, Sweeney’s flight was tense and plagued by problems. Before leaving, the crew discovered a malfunction in a fuel pump that severely limited their range, and put in doubt whether they’d have enough fuel to return to Tinian. They decided to go anyway. The mood of the second A-bomb flight was far different from the first, recalled Jacob Beser, the only man to fly in the strike plane for both missions. Before Bockscar‘s early morning takeoff, he wrote in a 1988 memoir, “There was a decided absence of the ‘Hollywood Premier’ atmosphere and most everyone was quite subdued.”
Their original target was Kokura. When they arrived, the city was obscured by smoke from the firebombing of Yawata, known as the “Pittsburgh of Japan,” by more than 200 B-29s the night before. (“Kokura’s luck” became a Japanese expression for inadvertently escaping disaster). So Bockscar headed for Nagasaki, which, a generation earlier, had been the setting of Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly.”
The crew was under orders to drop their bomb only after visually sighting the target, but chose to come in over Nagasaki using radar, as the city was covered with clouds. Finally, a hole broke in the clouds, and bombardier Capt. Kermit Beahan had about half a minute to get a visual sighting before releasing the bomb.
Beser later wrote:
The airplane lurched as the bomb was released, and Sweeney put it into a tight turn to the left to give us some distance from the explosion. In about 45 seconds there was the now familiar bright flash, and the rapidly ascending mushroom cloud. Once again, by the time I got to the window, the city was gone.
John Coster-Mullen, in his 2009 book Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, collected other impressions from the crew. Assistant flight engineer Raymond Gallagher was anxious about the rising cloud outside his window, which appeared (although it really wasn’t) to be dangerously close:
I stood up and looked straight down. What I saw was the cloud underneath us. I hollered through my intercom mike to the pilot that if we didn’t get out, we were going to get caught in our own bomb blast.
On the flight back to base, wrote Beser in his memoir, “not much was said on board the airplane. There was none of the euphoria that was evident after the drop at Hiroshima.” In an article published just a few days after the Nagasaki mission, he had written:
As the airplane returned from the target area it was the unanimous opinion of the crew that the end of the war could not be far off, for no nation could possibly stand a rain of destruction such as they had just witnessed.
Whenever asked, as they often were in later years, whether they regretted their mission, some of the Bockscar veterans would get testy. Wrote Beser: “War by its very nature is immoral. Are you any more dead from an Atomic Bomb than from a conventional bomb?”
Sweeney, who died in 2004, also recalled his thoughts on the five-hour flight back to base after dropping the bomb:
As the hours ticked by and we plowed through the moonlit sky, no word of Japanese surrender or even about our mission came over the airwaves. The music of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller drifted softly through the airplane. I’m not sure what was going through my crew’s minds, but I began to think ahead to the realization that if the Japanese didn’t surrender, we would be flying more of these missions. The thought left me cold. I was the only one aboard who knew that we were several weeks away from having more bombs.
Filmmaker Michael Puttré interviewed Sweeney extensively for his documentary Nagasaki: The Commander’s Voice:
June 17, 2013
For those of you who’ve been asking when Air & Space will be available for the iPad, the wait is over.
Our June/July issue, the first produced in tablet as well as print format, is now in the app store. It’s free to Air & Space print subscribers; readers who prefer digital-only access can subscribe for $1.99 a month, or buy a single issue for $3.99.
With the tablet edition, you’ll be able to do more than read about aviation and space travel. You can watch videos, explore interactive graphics, and see more photos than we can fit in the print version — some of which let you examine an object from all angles and zoom in to see details.
We’re looking forward to using these new tools to tell stories about our favorite subject, and hope you are too. Welcome aboard.
May 31, 2013
In 1941, writes Stephen Budiansky in his wonderful new book, Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare, “after a year of unbroken and devastating U-boat onslaughts, the British War Cabinet decided to try a new strategy in the foundering naval campaign. To do so, they hired an intensely private, bohemian physicist [named Patrick Blackett,] who was also an ardent socialist.”
Some of Britain’s best minds were already working on the Enigma project, attempting to decipher Germany’s coded radio messages. So Blackett put together an unusual team of “leftover” scientists: chemists, astronomers, actuaries, and biologists—including one who specialized in the sex life of the oyster. And for the next year, they put aside their own research and devoted themselves to solving the U-boat problem. According to Budiansky:
In April 1941, a month after starting work at Coastal Command, [Blackett] paid a visit to the operations room of Western Approaches Command in Liverpool, where a large wall map displayed the current estimated positions of all U-boats in the Atlantic. Blackett knew the number of hours being flown by Coastal Command aircraft and the areas they were patrolling. “I calculated in a few lines of arithmetic on the back of an envelope the number of U-boats which should have been sighted by the aircraft,” given the actual number of U-boats operating in the area as shown on the wall of the Western Approaches Command. The theoretical number Blackett obtained from his quick calculation was four times the actual number of sightings that Coastal Command air patrols were reporting. “This discrepancy,” Blackett continued, “could be explained either by assuming the U-boats cruised submerged or by assuming that they cruised on the surface and in about four cases out of five saw the aircraft and dived before being seen by the aircraft. Since U-boat prisoners asserted that U-boats seldom submerged except when aircraft were sighted, the second explanation was probably correct.” All of the obvious solutions were recommended: equipping the aircrews with better binoculars, avoiding flying into the sun, improving training. Then, discussing the problem one day, an RAF wing commander asked Blackett, “What color are Coastal aircraft?”
They were in fact mainly black, as they were mostly night bombers diverted from Bomber Command. Night bombers were painted black to reflect as little light as possible from searchlights. But by day, under most conditions of cloud and sun, an aircraft is seen as a dark object against a light sky. Tests were quickly ordered and it was verified that repainting the aircraft white reduced by a fifth the average maximum distance at which the planes could be seen. The undersurfaces of the wings were the part of the aircraft that stood out in particular contrast to the sky, and a scheme of using glossy reflective white paint for these surfaces was adopted. [Physicist E.J.] Williams calculated that the change to white camouflage would increase the number of U-boat sightings, and sinkings, by 30 percent. The plan was implemented within a few months. Air patrols during the winter had been yielding one U-boat sighting per every 700 hours of flying. By summer 1941, with the camouflage change and other improvements, the yield had doubled to one sighting per 350 hours.
April 29, 2013
They’re small, secretive, nocturnal, and look creepy hanging upside down in caves. And at one point during World War II, they were recruited as potential killing machines.
Yep, bats as weapons of mass destruction.
“A plan to turn millions of bats into suicide bombers bearing tiny napalm time bombs was the most spectacular of the special projects at Louis Fieser’s Harvard laboratory,” writes Robert M. Neer in his new book, Napalm: An American Biography.
The project was the brainchild of Lytle Adams, a Pennsylvania dentist with a passionate hatred of the misunderstood Chiroptera.
The “lowest form of life is the BAT, associated in history with the underworld and regions of darkness and evil,” Adams wrote in a 1942 memo to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Until now reasons for its creation have remained unexplained. As I vision it the millions of bats that have for ages inhabited our belfries, tunnels and caverns were placed there by God to await this hour to play their part in the scheme of free human existence, and to frustrate any attempt of those who dare to desecrate our way of life.”
Seems a tad harsh, no?
The bats were to be loaded with a tiny (17.5 gram) napalm bomb, stuffed into a North American B-25, and flown over Japan. Upon reaching the target, 26,000 angry bats would be tossed out of the aircraft (they had parachutes), and would land upon highly flammable Japanese houses.
A test run over Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Air Field, New Mexico, with bats bearing dummy bombs went surprisingly well.
Fieser and his team, however, wanted to have the test filmed, so a second trial was set, using six bats with armed bombs.
Unexpectedly, the bats took off, and shortly after, the barracks burst into flames. “Flames…jumped from building to building,” writes Neer. “Many structures lay in ashes.”
“Unfortunately,” he writes, “to preserve secrecy…the team had deemed fire equipment unnecessary.” In a masterpiece of understatement, Fieser summed up the experiment: “We made a little mistake out there.”
And that was the end of the bomber bats.
Next Page »