Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

Another Vintage Fighter, Another Expensive Landing

A couple of weeks ago, it was a rare, multi-million-dollar Focke-Wulf 190. This time, the minor but expensive mishap is to a less rare, but still multi-million-dollar P-51 Mustang. Only one landing gear extended, so pilot (and owner) Jeff Pino retracted the gear. The gear came up, but not the gear doors, which hung down and made initial contact during a planned, and well-executed, gear-up landing.

This is a great report by Phoenix, AZ Channel 3’s News Copter 3 pilot/reporter, Bruce Haffner. (The video, that is. Haffner’s written report, excerpted below, is a bit dry compared to his video report — and sky-cam footage — of the mishap).

MESA, Ariz.– The pilot of a rare airplane was forced to make an emergency belly landing on Thursday.
It happened at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
The $2.2 million 1944 P-51 Mustang, known as the “Big Beautiful Doll,” had a problem with its landing gear.
The plane was going to be part of the Copper State Fly-in this week in Casa Grande.

via Pilot of rare plane forced to make belly landing | azfamily.com Phoenix.

Here’s a few images from the video with captions explaining what’s happening.

Moments before touchdown on the hanging gear doors, the pilot has the runway made and secures the engine.

Moments before touchdown on the hanging inboard main-gear doors, the pilot has the runway made and secures the engine.

The gear doors destroy themselves in a shower of sparks as they get squeezed between the five-ton plane and the tarmac.

The gear doors destroy themselves in a shower of sparks as they get squeezed between the five-ton plane and the tarmac. The engine is shut down and only inertia is turning the prop,

The P-51 slides to a stop.

The P-51 slides to a stop. Two of the still prop blades scrape along the runway, but the others are saved, and the costly hub will probably be okay to fly again — not to mention the very expensive Merlin engine and its vulnerable gearbox.

Any landing you can walk away from...

Any landing you can walk away from…

...is a good one. One where you can use the airplane again is a Great one. This one's only Good at this point, but the plane will fly again.

…is a good one. One where you can use the airplane again is a Great one. This one’s only Good at this point, but thanks to the skill of the pilot, this plane will fly again.

The wartime P-51 “Big Beautiful Doll” was so attractively decorated, and its original pilot, John Landers, so successful, that its markings are frequently copied by owners of Mustang survivors. Landers was an ace in P-40s against the Japanese, and then became an ace again in Europe, flying the P-38 and P-51. He ended the war with 15.5 kills total. Big Beautiful Doll, the name of a popular song of the era, was lucky for Landers, but perhaps today it’s a hard-luck name; Briton Rob Davies bailed out of a similarly painted Mustang after surviving a mid-air collision with an A1D Skyraider at a 2011 airshow:

Davies told his story to the Guardian in 2011.

The aircraft that made the gear-up landing in Colorado is generally accepted to be USAAC Serial Number 44-63634, but is registered as 44-85634 (which was not a wartime P51 serial number). It flies under the civilian registration N351BD and is owned by its pilot, Jeff Pino, who bought it this spring.

Arizonans could have been excused for thinking they were seeing double. After the Mustang belly-up last Thursday, a similar looking Thunder Mustang, a subscale carbon-fiber Mustang powered by a Falconer V-12 engine that was designed for air racing, lost oil pressure Friday morning and crashed into scrubland east of town. The airplane was substantially damaged, and the pilot suffered unspecified but non-life-threatening facial injuries.

Thunder Mustang wreckage. If this was a car, it'd be a total loss (and it probably is, to the insurer), but the plane was built from a kit in the first place and might actually be repaired.

Thunder Mustang wreckage. If this was a car, it’d be a total loss (and it probably is, to the insurer), but the plane was built from a kit in the first place and might actually be repaired.

From another angle, showing the broken back of the plane. The pilot was lucky to escape with his life.

From another angle, showing the broken back of the plane. The pilot was lucky to escape with his life.

The Mustang is the most popular of surviving World War II fighters. Of over 15,000 made, almost 300 survive, 171 of them airworthy. Whether that’s because of its clean, attractive lines, its remarkable history, its high performance, or the simple fact that aircraft restoration and exhibition got its start in the United States, the Mustang’s homeland, is anybody’s guess. But there are basically only two kinds of pilots: those who have flown the Mustang, and those green with envy.

Remember, flying small and vintage planes is safe. For these two pilots, even crash-landing turned out to be safe!

How not to Park your Fighter

Landing at Baton Rouge on 8 October 14, a pilot of a vintage taildragger locked up his brakes and dropped his nose expensively into the tarmac of Runway 13. Hey, it happens. But this time, it wasn’t a Cub or Taylorcraft doing a nose stand, but a multi-million dollar Focke-Wulf 190, one of a handful of airworthy examples of the Germans’ second most numerous WWII fighter.

FW 190 how not to park

The nose stand in the ultra-rare, restored fighter plane was terrifying and perhaps embarrassing for the pilot (although we don’t know if it was pilot error or mechanical failure that caused it), and expensive for the owners, but no one was hurt, and it made for some spectacular photographs.

FW 190 how not to park3

Nobody’s taken a snap like that since, what, May of 1945?

The damage to the aircraft is probably restricted to the engine, propeller, and cowlings. This particular example is powered by a Russian Shvetsov Ash-82T engine, which is common enough (that is why it is used instead of the rare original BMW 801. Both are twin-row 14-cylinder radials of just under 42 liters’ displacement; the Russian one is a downsized twin-row development of the single-row Wright Cyclone, which Russia built under license as the M-25). But the propeller was reportedly a one-off reproduction of the original, modified to fit the Russian radial. So the list of airworthy FW 190s is decremented by one for at least a year or two.

How Rare Is it?

We called it, “ultra-rare.” How rare is it? Perhaps one in a thousand of the original 20,000+ survives today, and most of them are under glass in museums, never to feel the force of lift again.

This is what the plane, N4190, looked like in a more conventional three-point attitude.

N4190

After a long restoration in France and the USA, the plane flew for the first time since WWII in 2011. Here’s a video of its first and second flights, by Karl Plausa who’s affiliated with Flug Werk (see below). The video includes some steep turns, and at about the 7 minute point he drops the gear and decelerates to a power-off stall. At about 9:20 he makes a low pass, and then brings it back for a landing. At about 13:40 a very satisfied Plausa passes on a debrief on the flight (“This is the best one I’ve flown! Nothing rattles…”) for owner Don Hansen, who shows up just about then, beaming with pride. (Technically, the plane is owned by an LLC, but it’s Hansen’s money that made this bird go).

It’s hard to say what the exact number of airworthy 190s is, because the number of museum and flying aircraft is growing, and in the 1990s a German company, Flug-Werk, committed to manufacturing 20 new FW-190s to airworthy status, with Russian engines. Flug-Werk’s Nachbau or reproduction aircraft are made insofar as possible on original tooling, and some stored original parts (notably tailwheel assemblies) have made it into their reproductions. They receive continuation serial numbers. Are they FW 190s, or not? But wait, having the original tooling, Flug Werk has supplied parts for many airworthy and museum FW 190s.

At least 5 original aircraft have emerged from restoration shops in the last five years; soon there might be 30 FW-190s loose in the world, not counting the Flug Werk repops.

Because of the conditions in the arctic, most of the surviving original FW-190s served with the Luftwaffe’s 5th Fighter Wing, JG5 Eismeer. They were recovered variously from the forests and lakes of Norway, Finland, and Russia. The Soviet Union’s economic backwardness had the silver lining of preventing the discovery of many Russian, Allied, and German aircraft on Russian territory until they had become worth restoring; most Russian recoveries happened after the fall of the USSR in 1992.

The FW 190 as a Weapon

The FW 190 was designed by a veteran of ground combat in World War I, Dr-Ing. Kurt Tank. Tank wanted to build an airplane that was biased towards combat service, at a time when most fighters were biased towards raw performance. “Nicht Rennpferd, sondern Dienstpferd,” was the way he put it to his engineers and draftsmen: “Not a race horse, but a service horse.” The airplane was designed overall to reduce the pilot’s workload, leaving his mind free to plan the fight. Dr Tank’s design philosophy meant the FW was disadvantaged at high altitudes (for example, in the defense of Germany from bomber raids), but lower down (for example, where most of the fighting on the Russian Front took place) it was a superior performer. When first introduced in 1941 it shook British complacency in the superiority of the Spitfire; the Spit, with its elegant elliptical wing, could out-turn the FW, but the FW 190 A was superior in every other performance measure.

The FW was also designed for production and maintenance — the Spitfire’s performance came from that beautiful elliptical wing, a planform dictated by optimizing aerodynamics, but fiendishly difficult to manufacture. Tank got most of the performance with a straight tapered wing, not 100% optimal from a best lift/drag to structural weight viewpoint, but close enough, and vastly easier to construct in the factory and repair in the field.

Tank’s philosophy, when it became known in the West after the war, informed the designers of the North American F-86 Sabre, as well as their own experience with the P-51 Mustang (also built to be a war horse, not a race horse).

Of course, the FW 190 wouldn’t have been a German machine if it hadn’t contained some revolutionary technology, and it did: in the form of a lever sticking up in the side of the cockpit where a small forest of levers grew in most contemporaries. Here’s a story from Aviation History on the restoration of the only one surviving with a BMW 801 and a working Kommandogerät single-lever controller. The K-gerät, or “control device,” deserves some discussion. The article mentions how special it was:

Most notably, the 801 had a remarkable single-lever power control system that automatically managed rpm, prop pitch, mixture, timing and supercharger setting according to throttle position and altitude—a system that Porsche, not surprisingly, reinvented for its PFM Mooney lightplane engine in the mid-1970s.

If you’re a pilot, you know what a big deal this is. Most high-performance piston planes of the period, and today, have at least three control levers: Throttle, which controls the flow of fuel-air mixture to the cylinders; Mixture, which controls the amount of fuel in that mixture and has to be changed as altitude and desired speed change to keep the mixture stoichiometric for the changing atmospheric conditions and performance demands; and a prop lever that controls the pitch of the prop, acting like a transmission does in a car. In addition there were various controls for various mechanical and turbochargers in the WWII era. Some pilots had to manage them on and off, some had to adjust a waste gate, some had more demands on them than that — plus, juggling the other three levers, and fighting the plane. With experience, a pilot develops the muscle memory to operate prop, power and mixture.

The single-control-lever drastically reduces pilot workload, especially in regimes of flight where power settings change a lot (like, say, combat). More recent attempts at a single-lever system have been impeded by regulatory and legal inertia — Porsche withdrew from the aviation market and recalled and scrapped every PFM after getting a taste of America’s ambulance-chasing legal culture. In the long run, the single-lever control, with the intricate clockworks of the K-gerät replaced by microprocessors and electronic fuel injection, is such a good idea that it will overcome the resistance of the FAA, which has been impeding it.

What will Happen to the Mishap Aircraft?

It will certainly be restored to flight. The damage is not superficial, but it’s not irreparable. You’d be amazed what some flying WWII aircraft looked like before their restorations began. Basically, as long as it’s just “crashed,” not “crashed and burned” or “fragmented,” these guys can rebuild it. That’s not as surprising as you might think: even in World War II, fighter-plane production was largely done by hand, and those skills are strongly maintained in the restorer community. Restoring World War II aircraft, or working on them, makes little economic sense, but there’s a seemingly bottomless pool of volunteers and below-market-rate workers who thrill to work on these pieces of living history.

We wish Don Hansen all the best in bringing Red 1 (Wk Nr 173 056) back to its flying glory.

One Side Note:

We heard someone claim that the mishap aircraft is the one owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, a collector of weapons like this, who wants to ban weapons for you. We want to make this clear:  It is not. The Allen machine, operated by his Flying Heritage Collection, and recovered from Russia where it flew with JG54 and was downed, perhaps, by sabotage, is interesting as the sole survivor flying with a BMW 801 engine and the Kommandogerät, but according to our information it is safe in its Washington State home; this mishap plane is the Hansen aircraft.

 

At Least We Built Afghan Capability Wisely, Right?

Er, wrong. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (i.e., the “Poor Bastard who Has to Add Up All the Fraud, Waste and Abuse”) looked at our provision of about a half a billion dollars to buy Alenia G-222 aircraft for the Afghan Air Force to operate. So, the money was spent, the turboprop transports were delivered… and then they sat. For a couple years.

brand_new_g222s__sitting_in_november

These pictures were taken in November, 2013. Some of the planes were parked a little haphazardly, but none of them needed more than some spares and overdue scheduled and preventive maintenance. That’s what it would have taken to return these nearly new planes, worth some $25 million each, to the sky. (Corrosion, the dread slayer of sitting aircraft, is not much of a factor in arid Kabul).

g222s_parked_a_bit_haphazardly_but_reparable

Then, this year, they were scrapped. Well, 16 of the 20 were scrapped, on the QT. The USAF got 6¢ per ton for the metal; there are 4 more that survived just because they happened to be out of the country when this spate of vandalism took place. None of the planes had more than a hundred flight hours on it; many of them had flown fewer than 10 hours since delivery. The whole fleet flew a total of 234 hours in their one year in-country.

g222s_reduced_to_scrap

But the waste on the airplanes and engines and avionics and all that — on its way to be squashed into jingle trucks as scrap aluminum — is the least of it. There’s the human waste of the crews who were trained and didn’t fly, and the opportunity cost of the years spent stumbling down this rathole.

The Air Force canceled the G-222 support contract, grounding the planes, in hopes of getting the Afghans, who couldn’t maintain the G-222s, C-130s instead — at $40 million each. So it will cost over a billion dollars to replace the capability we just wasted six or so years and half a billion dollars on, and scrapped for 6¢ a pound. Assuming the winds don’t change in the Air Force, and they decide the Afghans should have C-17s with inlaid gold bars in the pilot seats or something like that.

Would You Be Shocked to Learn a “Bozo” is Behind This?

The official promoting the C-130 boondoggle currently is Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth, as her signature shows:

wormuth_signature

Got it? They have almost one C-130H crew, so they need moar C-130s than the pair they’ve already got, which are mostly sitting like the doomed G-222s did.

And awwww…. she recycles. Fun fact: she almost wasn’t confirmed in this job, due to her poor performance at DHS. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) put a hold on her nomination because of her refusal to face the islamist threat, saying:

They can nominate any bozo they want, the way it is now. I mean, look at the ambassador nominees. People who have never been in the country are clueless who are now going to be made ambassadors.

So now we will see less and less qualified people nominated by the President of the United States.

Under the so-called “nuclear option,” McCain’s objections to the “less and less qualified” “any bozo” Wormuth were ultimately overruled on a party-line vote. And now, having failed upward, she’s blowing billions with boozy abandon.

But hey, that’s nothing new. Last year the SIGAR found another $800 million waste (.pdf) in other Afghan Air Force aid. The SIGAR website is packed to the gills with fraud and corruption (here are some cases, but skip around, it’s a target-saturated environment).

What’s After Black Hawk?

We still think of the Sikorsky Black Hawk as a modern helicopter, and the Bell Huey as an artifact of the 60s (it actually first flew in the 1950s as the YUH-40!). But the Marines continue to use Hueys, although theirs have been modified about as far as an aircraft can get. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard have all the “new” Black Hawks. But the Black Hawk is itself an old bird: we first saw one at Mott Lake Compound in the winter of 1981 or 1982, about 32 years ago. Since then, we’ve seen what they could do, even in Afghan density models, going into the field in ancient A-models and riding an ultramodern Q-model medevac bird back to Bagram.

Sure, we were still jumping, rappelling and fast-roping from Hueys 10 years after our first Black Hawk sighting, but the UH-60 came in on the UTTAS program of the 1970s (the program that took it to the Navy was, we think, LAMPS). A Sikorsky proposal edged a Bell proposal. Well, now it’s time for a new competition to demonstrate technology, as the first step towards developing a replacement for the Black Hawk, a helicopter that came to be as loved and respected as its predecessor. And the same two firms are going head-to-head again. Here’s what one of the contenders, the Sikorsky SB-1 Defiant, looks like:

Future Helicopter JMR

The contenders are both more than just helicopters. The Sikorsky entry (above), for which the venerable chopper builder teams with Boeing, is a compound helicopter, with a thrust propeller in the back, and counterrotating rotors to handle both torque and the µ-1 problem at high speeds (when the forward speed of the aircraft in air is great enough to reverse airflow on the retreating blade). The first aircraft we know of to exceed µ-1 in level flight was the Carter Copter Technology Demonstrator, a hybrid gyroplane/airplane which used rigid rotors largely unloaded in flight, and small wings suitable for cruise only and stalled at lower speeds. The CCTD concept is unsuited for a military helicopter replacement because it cannot hover, although it can land and take off vertically; military requirements include the ability to conduct sling load and fast rope operations.

The Bell entry is a convertiplane of the tiltrotor type, the V-280 Valor.

Bell-V280

It looks like they have simplified the V-22 concept by having only the rotors, not the entire engine pods, tilt.

It’s a joint program, so maybe the Marines will get out of the 1950s and 1960s, finally.

Both aircraft show that the basic vision is something with a Black Hawk’s interior volume and carrying capability, but faster (and presumably, more-efficient thus longer-range) cruise. The Joint Military Rotorcraft program is primarily an Army one, although if the Army develops worthwhile new aircraft the Navy and Air Force will be right there to join in. The JMR is a technology program only, and the contracts that Sikorsky and Bell now have are for flying prototypes with no assurance of production. Army and Navy have long-term rotorcraft programs that are primarily technological and budgetary at this point.

The basic problem with conventional helicopters is cruise speed: the µ-1 limitation holds them to well under 200 knots. That’s the key problem JMR will try to address. For decades, a wild variety of VTOL aircraft configurations have attempted to address this, and both Bell and Sikorsky have been involved deeply in those experiments, as have a number of lesser-known firms such as Carter, Piasecki (which continued as an R&D shop after selling their tandem-rotor plant and designs to Boeing in the 1960s), Groen Brothers, and others.

Anatomy of a Friendly Fire Incident

This disaster, which took place on 9 June 2014, is a classic “chain of errors” mishap. Several players in this tragedy made critical mistakes and misjudgments. They misunderstood each other’s capabilities. If any one of the errors hadn’t happened, the friendlies wouldn’t have died. If the chain had only been broken at any point, they’d still be alive today. So there’s a lot to learn from this one.

But the chain built itself, link by link, and no one took action that would have broken any of the links. Even as the bombs whistled through the air from the B-1 that launched them, no one understood exactly where they were going to hit, or who occupied that ground. The result was a pair of powerful bombs landing directly on a small group of friendly soldiers, killing two Special Forces operators, one EOD man, two infantrymen, and an Afghan NCO.

All six men were killed instantly. One was practically vaporized. There were two men from 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group home-based at Ft. Campbell; two riflemen from 2/12 Infantry, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division; an EOD engineer; and an Afghan soldier/interpreter, Sergeant , Afghan National Army.

Who were these guys?

jason_mcdonaldBoth of the SF soldiers killed were weapons men. SSG Jason McDonald was 28. In his ten years in the Army, he’d managed to serve in the 3rd Ranger Battalion (earning his Tab at Ranger School) and conventional infantry before volunteering, selecting, and qualifying for SF.

He had been a rowback instructor at the Special Warfare Center and School before getting his dream assignment as a weapons man on an ODA. He wanted action, and 5th Group had it; he had multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan behind him. He was an indirect-fire ace who had mastered grenade launchers and mortar employment.

scott_studenmundSSG Scott Studenmund, 24, was a type that one sees in SF; call him a gentleman ranker. The Californian son of a successful high-tech entrepreneur (former CEO of EHarmony), he had dreamed all his life of serving as a Green Beret. He was called, and then he was chosen; let’s remember his name. Scott was an 18B and a trained sniper (SOTIC Course) and combat diver (considered the physically toughest course in SF). He was his parents’ only son and his sister’s only brother.

While the SF guys are “our” guys, the Special Operations Truths teach us that no SOF mission can be conducted without support from general-purpose forces, and three conventional Army soldiers died alongside their SF brothers; these others deserve memory as well. Justin Helton was not just an EOD tech from Fort Bragg, he was a young man (25) engaged to be married. CPL Justin Clouse, a rifleman, was from Washington state, a high school athlete and avid outdoorsman. His life plan included marrying his sweetheart after he left the Army. He was only 22. PVT Aaron Toppen was only 19, but mature for his age; like Studenmund, he had long dreamed of serving. Had he lived, no one would have been surprised to see him go to Selection, or to make the Army his career.

Finally, Sergeant Gulbuddin Ghulam Sakhi, 2nd Kandak, Afghan National Army, fought alongside his American friends, and died with our foes in his gunsights. His remains, due to the circumstances, were sent to the USA alongside the Americans’, and so he was not buried by sundown in accordance with his faith. Indeed, depending on how well the technicians do on identifying the remains, he may wind up interred with his fellow warriors in Arlington. That might be hard on his family, but it would do our illustrious dead no dishonor to have him in their ranks.

Things Like This have Happened Before

This may have been the single largest Friendly Fire incident of the war, but it’s not the only one by any means. Four Canadians were killed in April 2002, by F-16 pilots who had “fangs out”. Three Special Forces soldiers were killed in December, 2001 by a B-52-dropped JDAM mistakenly called on their own position by an enlisted tactical air controller, and one SF warrant officer and several Afghan irregulars were killed by an AC-130H crew that stayed on position despite nav systems failure, and that had lost awareness of their situation and both their own and the ground friendlies’ location.

How Did This Happen?

JDAM: Delivering 72 virgins since 2001. The smallest in this illustration is the GBU-38 kit attached to the Mk82 500-lb bomb.

JDAM: Delivering 72 virgins since 2001. The smallest in this illustration is the GBU-38 kit attached to the Mk82 500-lb bomb, the weapon employed in this case.

There is an official report, received by Air Force Magazine pursuant to a FOIA request. This report has been moderately redacted; but it’s quite possible to follow the action in the report. The redaction is fairly inept; for example, the redact which specific type of GBU was used, but a footnote reveals that it was a 500 pound coordinate-seeking bomb, ergo, probably, a GBU-38 JDAM, a Mk82 bomb with a GBU kit. And they redact the specific delay that was used on the bomb, but the footnote reveals that it was 5 milliseconds.

We meant to link to the report at Air Force Magazine, but they have stuck it behind a paywall. Here is the back-up copy from Weaponsman:

Friendly-Fire-Airstrike-in-the-Vicinity-of-Arghandab-Afghanistan-9-Jun-14.pdf

To make the long story, in the report, short: the ground element command did not have situational awareness on the location of all their people. The air element couldn’t really distinguish anybody on the ground, and the technology they used could not recognize the IR IFF patches and IR strobe lights used by the friendlies. (The aircrew was using a thermal-imaging pod, which “sees” heat, not light, not a FLIR pod, which “sees” light beyond the human visual range and would have seen the strobes and reflective patches. Everybody on the ground and in the air misunderstood this limitation of the targeting pod).

As a result, the aircrew were cleared to deliver ordnance on a specific position, which they did perfectly… on the small element of maneuvering Americans and their interpreter. All were killed instantly.

This was not the sort of mishap where you can point and say, “there is the error, or he is the bozo.” Everybody involved in the contact was doing the best, and all the holes in the swiss cheese of accident protection just lined up… and let the mishap through.

You may be sure that everybody in the SF community (and ground forces in general, because the same procedures are used by everybody), and everybody in the close air support community who delivers ordnance for them, has read this report and absorbed the lessons contained within. They will emerge from this more lethal to the enemy, and safer to friendlies.

Unfortunately, that kind of improvement sometimes comes on the bones of casualties. May they rest in peace, and may their survivors find some semblance of comfort in the knowledge that their deaths, tragic though they were, taught us things that will prevent many more mishaps in the future.

Sources & Contemporaneous Stories

Ahmed, Saeed, & Alsup, Dave. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/11/us/afghanistan-american-friendly-fire-deaths/

Kedney, Dan. Report: Friendly Fire Incident Kills 5 U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan. Time Magazine, 10 Jun 2014. Retrieved from: http://time.com/2851841/afghanistan-friendly-fire/?iid=tabvidrecirc

Uncredited. Attrition: Friendly Fire Fades Away. Strategy Page, 23 Jun 14. Retrieved from: http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htatrit/articles/20140623.aspx

Uncredited. Investigation report findings released. Washington, Air Combat Command, USAF. 14 Sep 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.acc.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123423511

Rhodesian Spitfire Documentary

For many years after World War II, the aircraft of the war were just, “old.” In the heady Jet Age, wartime transports still had economical utility, but the combat types were quickly left behind. They were relegated to duties as instructional airframes for novice mechanics (“learn riveting on this, it’ll never fly again so you can’t screw it up”) or stuck up on plinths as gate guards, showcasing the raw roots of the world’s newest military forces. And those were the survivors: the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of warplanes built for the war ended as scrap metal in the greedy furnaces of postwar industrial recovery. The combat life of a warplane might have been 25 to 100 hours during the war, and perhaps two years from variant introduction to obsolescence; but after the war, the pace of research and development didn’t let up, and the frontline jets of 1946 were outclassed by time of the Berlin Airlift of 1949.

22-PK350PRACollection-001

This devastated the world supply of WWII combat types, and entire types became extinct. Even those most historic, most pleasant to fly, most likely to wind up as a rich man’s toy, were endangered species.

In the 1970s, this began to change, as a new appreciation for the old types led to recoveries and restorations. Now, there are more Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs flying than there were ten years ago, or ten years before that, or ten years before that. Even “extinct” types like the Mitsubishi A6M2 “Type 0″ carrier fighter, and the Me 262 jet, have returned to the air. This is amazing, because while the Mustang, at least, was an industrial product whose documents are widely available, some of the others, especially the British and Japanese types, were more like machines that were “hand built in quantity,” and no two are quite the same. (The engineers of Packard Motor Car Corporation traveled to England’s Rolls-Royce plant to pick up a technical data package for the Merlin aircraft engine and see how the engines were built. They were appalled, and realized that they’d have to redesign the engine for modern industrial processes, which they then did very rapidly and so successfully that some marks of Spit were adapted to the American versions of Merlin engines).

One of the guys who was part of that early wave of Spitfire appreciation was John McVicar “Jack” Malloch, a former Spitfire pilot turned aviation entrepreneur in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, which declared independence as a republic in 1965. Soon after independence, the UN placed sanctions on the Rhodesian government, and Malloch became an imaginative and effective blockade runner and sanctions buster. (He’d already had experience of clandestine aviation during the Biafra War).

And he renewed his love affair with the Spitfire. He and his team of mechanics restored Griffon-powered Spitfire Mk22 PK350, which had last flown 26 years prior. The restoration took 2 1/2 years, and saw Malloch’s initials “JMM” used as the plane’s buzz codes. When Malloch took the first flight, in March 1980, he had done high-speed taxi testing of PK 350 and had flown lots of other aircraft for thousands of hours, including some pretty hairy combat aviation (outflying MiGs in four-motored transports at treetop level, among other things). But he hadn’t flown a Spitfire in 20 years himself.

This video was produced by former Rhodesians in the Zimbabwe Air Force in 1982, after the death of Malloch in a mishap in this very Spitfire. In fact, quite a few of the long scenes of him dodging into and out of clouds in the Spit were filmed on his fatal flight on 26 March 1982. As near as anyone can tell, he entered a thunderstorm which either disoriented him or so upset the aircraft that he could not recover. He was killed instantly in a high-speed impact with the ground.  Nothing of PK350 was salvageable. To date, it remains the only fully evolved late (Griffon-powered, bubble-canopy) Spitfire to be restored to flight.

Not long after the video was made, Zimbabwean president-for-ever Robert Mugabe executed the first of several purges of the air force. Over the years since, it went from a force of unquestioned competence and doubtful loyalty to Mugabe’s person, to a force of laughable incompetence but unquestionable loyalty to the dictator. Rhodesia produced men like Jack Malloch; Zimbabwe never will.

30 Degrees South Publishing in SA says they’re working on a book about Malloch and PK350. We didn’t find the book on their website but we haven’t looked everywhere (it’s a confusing website).

The Greatest Jet Never – the TSR-2

These short newsreels depict the TSR.2, a revolutionary warplane that was quietly taken out and shot (literally; the protype ended up on a tank range as a target) by a declining Britain in 1966.

TSR2-Newsreels.mkv

(You need a .mkv video player to play this. We recommend VLC).

The TSR-2 had planned capabilities than nothing in RAF service quite matches today. These inclue a design speed of Mach 1.1 at 200 feet, and Mach 2 at altitude, with a combat radius of over 1,000 nautical miles. It was designed for nuclear and conventional strikes. It had a precision strike capability 10 to 20 years ahead of the US’s developments in that genre, including capability to deliver television-guided smart weapons. It had modular reconnaissance capability, including live datalink. It was, militarily speaking, a revolution in the air.

So why did it die so early, and so hard? What killed the TSR-2?

  • British politics, in part. It became a football contested by the Labor and Conservative parties of the time, not on its merits but as a way to score points on the other side. It didn’t help that the plane was designed with a potential war with the USSR in mind, and Harold Wilson just couldn’t see the Soviet Union as an enemy.
  • Galactically bad judgment by British MOD and parliamentary leaders, going back to Sir Duncan Sandys (pronounced “Sands”) and his 1957 Defence White Paper which concluded that the manned aircraft was obsolete, and Britain henceforth would place its faith entirely in missiles and other robotic systems. Was this decision the dumbest in the history of air war — dumber than Hitler’s 1942 decision not to produce jet fighters? Unlike Hitler, Sandys was a man of generally good judgment; he had been deeply involved in the nation-saving development of Radar, and many other British technical coups of WWII. But unlike England, Germany’s aeronautical industry recovered (until pan-European consolidation, but that’s another complaint). The British leaders who actually killed off the jet, Secretary of State for Defence Denis Healey and Minister of Aviation Roy Jenkins (who later, as Home Secretary, would do his best to decriminalize crime),
  • Britain’s Soviet-inspired postwar industrial policy, which relied on central planning and forced consolidations in the thriving and innovative British aeronautical industry. (The one holdout against forced consolidation, Handley-Page, was forced into bankruptcy instead, and the planners counted this a victory). Thousands of aeronautical engineers and tens of thousands of skilled workers lost their jobs (perhaps a third to a half of them found new jobs in Canada or the USA. The guys who went to Canada wound up in the USA when Canada had a similar brainstroke vis-a-vis the CF-105).

english_workers_use_an_english_wheel_to_make_tsr_skins

  • The inability of the consolidated firms, wracked by personnel turbulence and culture clashes, to perform at the level of the previous, private industry. This led to the actual TSR.2 failing to meet many of its optimistic performance goals.
  • Further bad judgment in assigning responsibility, which left the stumbling Vickers firm (descendant, in part, of Hiram Maxim’s machine gun enterprise) in charge over the capable, proven (they designed and built the successful Canberra and Lightning jets), team from English Electric.
  • Still further bad judgment, in the political assignment of the untried Bristol Olympus design. All the delays, and most of the cost overruns, came from the immaturity of this powerplant.
  • Even further bad judgment, in making the subcontractors report to the Ministry, rather than to the prime contractor, which had no control whatsoever. This was symptomatic of Ministry micromanagement, which included delaying the project so that non-pilots could haggle over the position and labeling of instruments and switches.
  • Failure to plan for the normal problems found between drafting board and first flight, including engines that fell short of spec and weight gain. This left the design team and the MOD managers facing new decisions, one option of which was always to cancel the whole project.

In the end, they canceled the TSR.2, and they scrapped, burned, and shot up the airframes, tools and tooling, and burnt and shredded most of the paperwork, to make sure it did not rise from the dead to embarrass Whitehall. They also ordered that the scrapping and burning be as well publicized as possible — the broke British government managed to film the arson with color film.

tsr-2_prototypes_burn

 

 

And when they canceled the plane, they initially required industrial managers to keep the decision secret from their own, doomed-to-layoffs, workforces.

Why were these extreme measures taken? As with other instances where this has happened, like the cancellation of the Avro Arrow CF-105 in Canada, and the cancellation for further Republic F-105 Thunderchief acquisitions in the USA in favor of the on-paper TFX, the decisionmakers probably knew that they were screwing up. Hence, the seemingly vindictive destruction of the ability to reverse the decision — a reversal which might ding the decision-maker’s “legacy.”

Healey and Jenkins, the only men who could have issued these orders of vandalism, have made pro-forma denials ever since the initial British public reaction to the cancellation and destruction of the TSR turned out to be negative. Neither is a man of any particular demonstrated integrity (quite the contrary), but it’s anyone’s guess whether the vandal was one or both. They also canceled the nascent Harrier project (then called P.1154) on the grounds it would never fly, and canceled a transport plane. Healey would scrap new (and renewed) aircraft carriers and preside over the greatest unilateral disarmament of an undefeated nation in world history.

Had Denis Healey been in the pay of the KGB he could have done no more damage to British defense policy and strength. (The same is true of Jenkins; his junior position meant he could do less damage than Healey). The TSR cancellation, especially when coupled with the many other cancellations that came out of the 1964 Labour government, fundamentally ended a half-century of British aeronautical industry leadership, and ultimately led to the near-dissolution of the British aerospace industry.

The TSR.2 cancellation continues to have repercussions. Britain and its European defense partners are looking for a replacement for the aging Panavia Tornado jet. Rumor is they’re looking for a plane that’s supersonic on the deck, and with a 1000 nautical mile radius of action….

One Franklin Expedition Ship Found

Franklin-ship

Of the many Victorian and Edwardian voyages of discovery, the two that became the most amazing stories of human survival against the cruel elements have to be Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition of 1914, and Sir John Franklin’s attempt to map the Northwest Passage of 1845-48. But no two heroic voyages have ever had such disparate outcomes. Even though both voyages failed their intended missions, all but one of Shackleton’s men survived an island stranding, thanks to careful selection, unparalleled leadership and Shackleton’s own almost otherworldly seamanship. And, perhaps, Divine Providence or a series of unimaginably lucky breaks. On the other hand, Franklin’s expedition sailed off into oblivion. The entire expedition — 129 officers and men on two well-found and well-preparedships — simply vanished for many years. Gradually, discoveries made it clear that the men had all perished in the long nights of the inhospitable Canadian Arctic winter. (A few may have survived into May).

Artist's impression of the abandonment of Erebus or Terror.

Artist’s impression of the abandonment of HMS Erebus or HMS Terror on the pack ice.

Sir John was a veteran of high latitude operations, and his two sturdy ships had been rebuilt for Antarctic service (and gave their names to two mighty mountains there — HMS Erebus and HMS Terror). They had originally been built as “bomb ships,” vessels which carried a pair of huge mortars for shore bombardment; Terror, the older of the two ships, bombarded Stonington, Connecticut and Fort McHenry at Baltimore in the War of 1812. It was customary for “bomb ships” to be named after fear-inspiring things, including volcanoes and monsters or bad areas from mythology (“Erebus: was a region of Greek Hades). When they were rebuilt for high-latitude exploration, the ships were stripped of their mortars and they sailed first to Antarctica under the command of James Clark Ross of Ross Ice Shelf fame. They were rebuilt again before going to seek the Northwest Passage with Franklin, with steam engines, screw propellers, and iron-reinforced prows fitted for limited ice-breaking. The ships were last reported to have been seen by Inuit natives in early 1847, frozen tight in pack ice.

Beginning with their preparation for Ross’s southern journey, these wooden ships got the best of 19th Century Admiralty high-tech (from Cool Antarctica.com):

In preparation for the voyage, the admiralty dockyards doubled the thickness of the ships decks with a layer of waterproof cloth being sandwiched in between the old and new layers. The interiors of the two ships were braced fore and aft with oak beams to resist and absorb shock from ice. The hulls were scraped clean and double planked and finally the keels were sheathed in extra thick copper plate. Triple strength canvas was fitted for the sails.

They ships had sail power only for the Antarctic expedition, but were fitted out with single screw propellers powered by 20hp engines for the Northwest Passage voyage.

Many expeditions were dispatched in search of Sir John and his men, but they found only scattered artifacts, and not many of those. Some crewmen were found on King William’s Land (seen below in a scan by Philip V. Allingham at Victorian Web) — rather than pull their boats toward the water, freedom, and possible rescue, they’d gone inexplicably inland.

discovery of remains

For over 100 years the Arctic kept its secrets. Then, in the 1980s, three crewmen were found, carefully buried six feet deep on Beechey Island. The bodies were perfectly preserved in permafrost, which allowed them to be examined in the interests of science. Discovery: their bones had staggering levels of lead, reinforcing the suspicion that what had killed the explorers was not just the inhospitable conditions in the Far North, but also the use of then-novel canned food — in cans held together with toxic lead solder.  A can found intact from one of the attempted rescue operations showed toxic levels of lead in the soup and in the can itself. (More recent research argues that the lead in the deceased’s bodies might have come from pre-expeditionary ingestion, for example from living in a city with lead water pipes, common in the 19th Century).

Meanwhile, the expeditions which hadn’t found Sir John had done something worthwhile that might not have been done for many scores of years — mapped the Canadian Arctic. In the end, the Northwest Passage that Franklin sought proved to be a will-o-the-wisp; while exploring ships can occasionally get through in summer, it will never work as an economical trading route.

This left the final mysteries of the Franklin expedition as the last resting places of its leader, his men, and his ships. With the expedition capturing the imagination of many explorers and playing an important role in the folklore of both the Royal Navy (their worst peacetime disaster) and the nation of Canada, there was no lack of modern explorers.

Canadian PM Steven Harper wanted any discoveries to come from a Canadian expedition as a matter of Canadian pride, and his government has sponsored several attempts to find Franklin or his ships. This week they announced proudly that one of the ships — which one is still unknown — was found, resting in shallow water. Here’s a sonar image:

CPT120-Franklin+Ship+Found+(2)

 

A remote operated vehicle (ROV) returned images and video of the vessel in close-up, showing that the hull has been ravaged by marine life and a brisk tide or current. A few artifacts, including two small signal cannon, are visible in the imagery.

Two signal guns. Still from a video provided by Canada Parks.

Two signal guns amid decaying timbers. Still from a video provided by Canada Parks.

As the ships were abandoned by the crews, the issues that come with respecting sea graves probably don’t enter into the exploration plans here — and exploration plans are definitely being made. For one thing, while the wreck appears certain to have been one of the expedition’s ships, the specific identity of the wreck (Erebus or Terror) is not confirmed; for another, the second ship remains unlocated. And finally, the ships are likely to contain a great deal of information about the expedition and about the vessels themselves. (For example, no clear plan of Erebus or Terror survives, although supposedly enough is known of their differing steam installations to make it clear which one is which, under examination).

This table from a period book shows no usable distinctions between Erebus and Terror, unfortunately.

This table from a period book shows no usable distinctions between Erebus and Terror, unfortunately.

Harper, whose government has supported the Franklin search, is well pleased, and scientists are excited about a return to the site — possibly in force next year, but some divers will go down before this season ends.

As early as Saturday, Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists will descend to the wreck, which lies in 11 metres of water, bringing high-definition video equipment to document their exploration.

The search team is prepared for the possibility it may find human remains, a development that would change how it explores the centuries-old vessel. Inuit accounts from the 19th century mention spotting the body of a white man in a ship adrift near O’Reilly Island.

“We are going to approach it as a site that may be a burial,” Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of the underwater archeology team at Parks Canada, told reporters Wednesday.

Canada has promised the UK that, if remains are found, they won’t be disturbed except inasmuch as necessary. Britain has given up any claim to artifacts from the expedition, except for a reputed stash of gold, and any “artifacts deemed important to the RN.” Hey, at the rate they’re going, they may need those cannon.

Franklin-37-m-tribord-starboard-rail.ashx Franklin-37-m-tribord-starboard.ashx

In a touch of irony, the ship was only found because the intended search area was closed to the searchers — by pack ice, the very killer of Franklin and his men.

Sources

Antarctica Fact File. Erebus and Terror, the Antarctic Expedition 1839-1843, James Clark Ross. Cool Antarctica, n.d. Note that this contains at least two glaring errors, “Terror saw service in 1812 in the Crimea,” Right year, wrong war. And “20 hp engines” when Bourne, a more credible source, says 30. Despite that, some good technical data on the ships on their previous voyage of exploration.

Antarctica Fact File. Erebus and Terror, Ships of the Antarctic Explorers. John Franklin, Northwest Passage. Cool Antarctica, n.d.

Bourne, John. A treatise on the screw propeller: with various suggestions of improvement. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1852. (This is the source of the ship-engine table above).

Cassidy, Kathryn. The Franklin Expedition: 1845-1849. Victorian Web: 27 March 2002. A general overview.

Chase, Steven.  Long-lost Franklin ship found in Arctic, solving 169-year-old mystery. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 9 Sep 2014. Reveals and discusses the find.

Chase, Steven. Fate of Franklin’s ship and gold will be decided by 1997 Canada-U.K. deal. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 10 Sep 2014. Exploration plans.

McGoohan, Ken. The Franklin discovery’s not about what, but where. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 10 Sep 2014. Author of books on polar exploration discusses what the location of the find means, in terms of revising the known history of the expedition (which he considers long-settled, in its fundamentals).

Spears, Tom. Franklin expedition discovery solves one of Canada’s great mysteries. Sasakatoon, Sask.: The Star-Phoenix, 11 Sep 2014. (This story was used in writing the post. It was inadvertently left off the original Sources list).

Uncredited. The 2014 Search for the Lost Franklin Expedition. Parks Canada, 2014. This is the source of the sidescan sonar images.

 

 

The First, Forgotten, Nuclear Cruise Missile: Regulus

USS Tunny, SSG-282, launches a Regulus in January, 1958.

USS Tunny, SSG-282, launches a Regulus in January, 1958.

It died too soon. That was the opinion of tag-end-of-Vietnam Chief of Naval Operations (i.e., top dog) Elmo Zumwalt. Zumwalt was noted not only for his unforgettable name, but also his “Z-Gram” messages to all hands, his many regulation changes (many of which would be reversed by successors), and, especially, blunt talk. Here’s what he said about the Navy’s 1964 cancellation of the Regulus missile, something that the Navy deployed on carriers, cruisers, and submarines, and that actually was the Navy’s first nuclear deterrent missile. It was the:

…single worst decision about weapons [the Navy] made during my years of service.

The Navy didn’t think it was that big a screwup, but Zumwalt was a big cruise missile fan, in many ways the father of the Tomahawk (which seems to be on its way out of submarine service, as the four remaining cruise missile SSGNs are all scheduled for scrapping. But that’s another post).

Regulus, though, was never anything but a stopgap. A conceptual child of the German Fieseler Fi103 V1 “buzz bomb,” it was an unmanned airplane that could be dismantled, stuffed into a cylindrical “hangar” atop a modified sub, and in the event of The Big One, the sub could surface, sailors could quickly assemble and arm the Regulus, and it would fire from a zero-length launcher and travel a preprogrammed course to a predetermined destination — over a Soviet target, where it would detonate its nuclear warhead.

A restored Regulus on its zero-length launcher.

A restored Regulus on its zero-length launcher.

Regulus was an aerodynamic oddity, with swept wings and vertical fin, but no horizontal tail at all, relying in part of the prewar and wartime work of Prof. Alexander Lippisch, who created the German Me163 rocket fighter. (The US was working its way through this “found technology” in the 1950s; Lippisch took American citizenship in this period). The robot jet had a single turbojet engine with its intake in the nose. The missile, which was first launched from a sub in 1953, resembled a period fighter aircraft, but the absence of any provision for a pilot or for landing gear made it lighter and more streamlined.  (Although some test missiles carried a parachute as a means of recovering the missile, and the data it carried, operational missiles dispensed with that).

The Regulus had huge conceptual problems. For one thing, the sub was exposed, wallowing on the surface as the crew assembled and prepared it. For another, subs had a total offensive punch of one or two missiles, that’s it. Here’s the description from a Navy historical report:

The hangar could accommodate two Regulus I missiles in a rotating ring arrangement. The weapons could be checked out while the submarine was still submerged by entering the hangar through an access trunk, but actual launching required the submarine to surface and manhandle the weapon onto the rails before it could be fired. Then, the boat would have to remain at least at periscope depth to guide the missile to the radar horizon.

In addition, the targeting of the missile was fairly inflexible, requiring at least a launch boat and later, also, a boat near the target to come up to periscope depth, extend a radar mast, and radiate. If that wasn’t all, Regulus was basically a subsonic jet plane, and if we knew one thing from the fate of the V1 offensive, it was that manned airplanes guided by radar — something the Soviets had in great quantity — could hunt down unmanned airplanes rather well. In addition to their manned interceptors, the Soviets also constructed an anti-aircraft defense in depth which threatened bombers and Regulus-like cruise missiles alike (the Air Force was working on parallel programs at the time) with anti-aircraft artillery guided by fire-control and height-finding radar, and several interlocking types of anti-aircraft guided missiles.

Zumwalt wouldn’t like to hear it, but by 1964 his beloved Regulus was a dead duck. A Regulus II was designed to be faster (both faster to launch, and faster in the air) but it didn’t address the core problems.

In time, technology would allow all these problems to be answered with the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile and other cruise missiles. Subs could fire them from under the sea; their programming was rapidly changeable; they flew low, often below hostile radar, and many could be carried with much less hazard to the subs and surface combatants that launched them. It was still a subsonic jet plane, but the enemy would find it harder to find, hit and kill.

But in 1964, the weapon that had come on line and signed the decommissioning chit for Regulus was the Navy’s Polaris: the first submarine-launched ballistic missile. Polaris was a conceptual child of the V1’s Vergeltungswaffe stablemate, the V2 (Army A4) rocket. Unlike any subsonic airplane, in 1964 a re-entering ballistic missile was a target with no solution for enemy air defenses. But Polaris is another story.

And what happened to the subs that had huge hangars built on their decks for Regulus cruise missile? Well, they went to work for Navy Special Operations, and that, too, is another story.

Between 1953 and 1964, one cruiser and five converted fleet subs were equipped to launch Regulus. They were the nation’s only submarine nuclear deterrent until the George Washington class Polaris boats came on line. No Regulus was ever fired in anger, so you can argue they fulfilled their mission perfectly.

Within the last few years, the Navy has retroactively awarded the officers and sailors of the Regulus fleet the badge that recognizes today’s sailors for their patrols in missile boats. Nowadays, the Regulus I and its never-deployed descendant, the supersonic Regulus II, are only historical curiosities; transitional weapons studied by those interested in weapons technology, and in how weapons change history, and history changes them.

A Century of Canadian Submarines

For a while there, it didn’t look like they’d make it, but our cousins to the north celebrate in August 2014 the centennial of the Canadian Submarine Force (which has had different names over the years; but what all the organizations and reorganizations have in common is Canadian crews and subsurface combat vessels). During the period Canadian naval officers call the “Decade of Darkness,” when political hostility to the sub force (and the Navy, really) combined with the budgetary realities of a nation of small population and vast coastlines, it really looked like there would be an end date to set against August, 1914. An ambitious plan to buy SSNs — nuclear boats, giving Canadians a sub-ice capability their Navy has never had — was torpedoed by budgetary realities and political opposition, either of which, alone, might have sunk it. The elderly Oberon-class subs would have been the end of the line, with submarines joining bombers, aircraft carriers, and cruisers as weapons systems the Canadian armed forces used to operate.

Instead, Canada lucked into a British policy decision that the Royal Navy would, for reasons of logistical and operational philosophy, take its sub fleet all-nuclear. And four spanking-new Upholder class modern diesel boats were being retired. The Royal Canadian Navy didn’t by any chance…? The hell they didn’t.

Of course, an immediate answer wouldn’t have been in keeping with Canadian politics, so there ensued nearly a decade of dithering (with enough drama that it actually makes an engaging book, Julie H. Ferguson’s Deeply Canadian: Subs for a New Millenium (note: the Google book link is to the 1st edition, the current Kindle edition is an improved 2nd)an excellent companion to  her Canadian sub history, Through a Canadian Periscope, which even covers Canadian proto-frogmen in the Royal Navy in WWII), but in the end, Canada said yes in 1998. They worked an incredibly clever lease-to-own deal that put the subs in Canadian hands for next to nothing: the price came in adapting the British boats to Canadian weapons and systems, which the Canadian submariners preferred. The Canadian-specific modifications have been more involved than initially appreciated, and one boat was a casualty almost immediately, spending a decade out of service after an onboard fire during its delivery voyage.

Canada’s submarine missions are familiar to any sub operator worldwide: anti-submarine warfare, anti-ship warfare, minelaying, and covert operations (including surveillance and intelligence collection, and SOF insertions, extractions and support). ASW has long been a specialty of the RCN, and her frigates and destroyers (and the large helicopters they embark) are among NATO’s best at that art. Stealthy diesel subs take that mission to another level, and their utility in special operations goes without saying.

CC1 and CC 2, lying in port.

CC1 and CC 2, lying in port.

The Royal Canadian Navy had barely stood up when the First World War forced it to dive into submarines. On 5 August 1914, the government, not of the Dominion of Canada, but of the province of British Columbia, purchased two submarines from a Seattle shipyard. The subs were given the utilitarian names: His Majesty’s Canadian Ships, CC 1 and CC 2. Since then, Canada has commissioned 13 more submarines, and Canadian officers and men served in British submarines from 1914 to 1965, as well as in the Canadian boats.

The story of the first Canadian boats is a remarkable tale. CC 1 and CC 2 were built in Seattle for the government of Chile, but the Chileans, whose government had changed since the order was placed, was reluctant to pay for them. JV Paterson, of the Seattle Construction and Drydock company, mentioned this to Canadian members when he was a guest at the establishment’s watering hole in Victoria, BC, the Union Club. The Canadians perked up: the British Commonwealth had only one elderly cruiser, HMCS Rainbow, and two armed sloops, HMS Shearwater and HMS Algerine, on the West Coast when war broke out. With the US still neutral, the German Far Eastern fleet had the Allies outgunned. Would Canada be interested…? The Canadians were, but the government in Ottawa couldn’t move quickly.

BC’s premier Sir Richard McBride was soon informed. An avalanche of telegrams ensued, involving Victoria, Ottawa, and London, but little could be accomplished in the few days remaining before the imminent outbreak of war and a resulting American embargo on the provision of war materials to combatants. In this crisis, McBride took a courageous decision to use provincial funds to get possession of the much-needed submarines before it was too late. On his own initiative he decided to advance the purchase price demanded, just over $1.1 million. This was an enormous sum, twice the annual budget for the entire RCN for 1913-1914.

There was still one more problem: the deal McBride cut with Patterson was illegal in the USA, under the terms of the American Neutrality Act. The Canadians met Paterson’s terms — twice the Chilean price, cash in advance — and spirited the boats out of Seattle in the dead of night. Paterson was good to his (expensive, it’s true) word, and traveled out on one of the boats for a hasty offshore inspection and acceptance by Canadian naval officers. The White Ensign went up, and despite the risks taken by all, the results came out well: Sir Richard McBride was reimbursed for his off-the-books expenditure of provincial cash (and a subsequent enquiry by a Royal Commission (.pdf) into “[t]erritorially widespread and voluminous accusations of wrongdoing” cleared him of any wrongdoing and commended his “patriotism, and conduct.” For his part, Paterson turned two white-elephant subs commissioned by a deadbeat buyer into a windfall for his shipyard and a $40,000 commission, a staggering sum in 1914. And the Canadian sub force, created in a special operation of sorts, was underway. With two modern subs, there was something to guard that long west coast.

From that day to this, the story of the Canadian sub fleet has been one of close scrapes, desperate straits, and challenges, and all have been met by pluck and imagination. And that’s just the budgetary and parliamentary end of it!

VADM Mark Norman, Commander of the RCN, made the following statement on the occasion of the anniversary:

For 100 years Canada has benefited from the stealth and lethality that only a submarine capability can contribute to the maritime security of a nation such as ours. As the most decisive capability in any naval fleet, submarines not only dominate the seas but provide unrivalled deterrence. The dedicated members of Canada’s ‘silent service’ operate in the most demanding and unforgiving conditions. They truly represent some of the very best of our fighting service. As we look ahead to the challenges of the coming decades, we do so in confidence, knowing that Canada has submarines. I wish all of our submariners, past, present, and future, my deepest appreciation and a heartfelt BRAVO ZULU!

The Oberons, which Canada operated from 1965-2000, were British-designed and -built boats; state of the art for 1960, they were a major British export success, with Australia, Brazil, and Chile also operating them. The Oberon has a distinct silhouette with a prow seemingly designed for surface operations, and a sonar dome or blister on top of the nose; none of the 27 is still in operation (only one was a casualty, sort of: Brazil’s Tonelero, which sank at its dock after retirement, worldwide, all are retired). Canada operated three Oberons, and received two additonal ex-RN boats, Olympus as a non-commissioned training aid, and Osiris, which was parted out to keep the three Canadian boats, HMCSes Onondaga, Okanagan, and Osiris, sailing. HMCS Ojibwa is a museum exhibit in Ontario, and Onondaga in Quebec. All Oberon operators, except now-all-nuclear Britain, now operate new classes of diesel boats.

Diesel boats are not the “obsolete technology” that Hyman Rickover would have you believe. For one thing, because they lack the nuc’s constant cooling-water requirement, they can be far more silent and stealthy. The Victorias, like the Oberons before them, were state of the art in silent running. Their stealth is also enhanced by their small size. Naturally, better stealth is better in almost all of the missions of a submarine.

HMCS Victoria. Note how much smaller she is than British or American boats.

HMCS Victoria. Note how much smaller she is than British or American boats.

The Victoria class (ex-Upholder) has had, as mentioned, seen some heavy sledding on its way to operational status. The four ships, now named after Canadian cities, are HMCS Victoria SSK 876, whose motto is “Expect no Warning,” HMCS Windsor SSK 877, “Silent Pride,” HMCS Corner Brook SSK 878, “We Rule the Sea,” and HMCS Chicoutimi SSK 879, “Maître du Domaine.” They were formerly the HMS Unseen, HMS Unicorn, HMS Ursula, and HMS Upholder, and were paid off by the Royal Navy mere years after their completion. Their Canadianization has actually taken as long or longer than their original construction; Canada insists on locally available equipment, some Canadian electronics which were developed in the Oberon-class boats, and prefers American-designed Mk48 torpedoes, also something they used in Oberon days.

Chicoutimi gets a lift. After years of repairs and refit, she commissions this year.

Chicoutimi gets a lift in 2005 or so. After years of repairs and refit, she commissions this year.

Corner Brook was damaged in an underwater grounding in 2011, and entered a drydock period this summer. Chicoutimi, the hard luck boat of the set, has not yet been commissioned in the RCN. The boat suffered an underway fire en route to Canada in 2004; an officer was killed and nine other submariners injured, and the boat was disabled and had to be towed back to England, making the journey to Canada as deck cargo on a heavy-lift ship. She was, however, repaired at the Canadian Sub Maintenance Group facility from 2010-2013, and is preparing for commissioning this year. The Canadian objective is to have three subs in commission and one in refit going forward, with bases on both Canadian coasts.

HMCS Windsor leaves Barrow, England in 2001, enroute to her new Canadian refit & mission.

HMCS Windsor leaves Barrow, England in 2001, enroute to her new Canadian refit & mission.

The Canadian subs and their crews have demonstrated remarkable capabilities; Windsor, the first to patrol, recently completed a very remarkable 174 days at sea. (Remember, these are diesel, not nuclear, boats). Windsor, in fact, only docked to repair a generator that could not be fixed at sea, or it might have accomplished the half-year. While the ships and crews have managed feats of endurance reminiscent of their allies’ nuclear boats, the diesel-electric sub, other things being equal, will always have the edge in stealth. Windsor, again, has demonstrated this by tracking an American fast-attack sub. During RIMPAC 2012, Victoria slammed a Mk 48 torpedo into a drifting target ship, the former USNS Concord, off Oahu, sending the target beneath the waves in 17 minutes. (The video below is only 2 minutes long, and silent).

Did you even know that Canada has a sub fleet? (As Ferguson writes, “Mention the Snowbirds… and they immediately know that you are talking about the Canadian air force. Mention HMCS Onondaga and you are met with a blank stare.”)

The sailors who fly Canada’s Maple Leaf (on those rare occasions they put up a flagstaff and make port) have come a long way from the sailors who raised the Dominion’s White Ensign on CC 1 a century ago, but they’re doing the tradition proud.