Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

America’s Shrinking Navy Retreats from the Pacific

Happier days: George Washington arrives in Yokosuka in September, 2008.

Happier days: George Washington arrives in Yokosuka in September, 2008, with sailors lined up in a Japanese message of greetings. 

You won’t have seen this in the United States press, but the number of carrier task forces in East Asia is on its way to zero, as a result of pressures elsewhere and ongoing Navy cuts. We saw it in the Nikkei Asian Review.

On its way home, George Washington is participating in Exercise Keen Sword 15 (it is Fiscal Year 2015 for the US Government. The Fiscal Year arrives 1 October). Keen Sword is a bilateral (US/Japan) naval exercise that has run annually since 1986.

The Navy expects to get a task force back into Yokusuka sometime in 2015, if the DOD doesn’t keep taking it in the budget shorts. But right now, the clock has run down on USS George Washington’s nuclear fuel, requiring a refueling and refit that will last months or even years, and its replacement, USS Ronald Reagan, has been delayed, ensuring a carrier gap of at least four months — assuming de facto Secretary of Defense Valerie Jarrett doesn’t find some better use for the money, like social programs or rewards to cronies or contributors, in the interim.

There is some question as to whether George Washington will be refueled at all. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus have attempted to have the ship decommissioned on budgetary grounds. Congress has been force-feeding the Navy money earmarked for the carrier fleet, to thwart Mabus and Greenert’s radical downsizing scheme.

As if having fewer carriers wasn’t bad enough, the Navy’s latest, largest and most expensive carriers have a Carrier Air Wing with fewer aircraft of fewer types, diminishing the ships’ combat punch. About 50 F/A-18 airframes have to carry all fighter, attack and tanker missions; a handful of special planes provide limited cargo and AEW support, and a dozen-plus helicopters juggle transport, plane-guard, minesweeping, and antisubmarine missions. A Cold War or Vietnam era carrier carried nearly 100 aircraft of many more specialized types.

Budget constraints at home, combined with the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East, are limiting the American fleet’s ability to operate in Asia. Temporarily at least, not a single aircraft carrier will be deployed in East Asia.

Japanese and U.S. officials fear having no U.S. carriers, which have long been the bedrock of the region’s stability, could tempt North Korea and China to take advantage of the power vacuum to initiate a military adventure.

The USS George Washington, the only U.S. aircraft carrier with an overseas home port, is to leave its base for nuclear refueling and an overhaul. Until the USS Ronald Reagan arrives at the Japanese port of Yokosuka, located at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, to replace the ship, there will be no American carriers in East Asia, according to persons familiar with the matter.

via East Asian waters to be US aircraft carrier-free for a time- Nikkei Asian Review.

The US has a total of 10 carriers, down from 11 when the President took office, 12 ten years ago and 14-15 in the 80s and early 90s. If the GW is decommissioned that number will be 9.

Hey, there have been no US carriers in East Asia before. Of course, it was called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere then, from 1940-44 or so. Which brings us to another of those times when history threatens to rhyme, if not quite repeat:

The four-month absence of the big U.S. ships could prompt Japan to start developing its own fleet of aircraft carriers.

It would not have to build the vessels from scratch. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force already has two helicopter carriers, the Hyuga and the Ise. The much larger Izumo is due to be completed soon. If these ships were converted to carry F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing fighters and escorted by Aegis-equipped destroyers, Japan would have a full-fledged convoy of aircraft carriers.

There was a time when people would have laughed at the idea of STOVL carriers as combatants but the Falklands War in 1982 showed that well-flown world-class jump jets can hold their own with well-flown world-class landplanes, if the carrier force gets a few lucky breaks. No one who looks hard at that air-sea battle can fault the training, preparation, equipment or especially the courage and élan of the Argentine pilots, but at extreme range and up against British EW mastery, their better planes didn’t bring them victory.

Japan’s constitutional Naval Self Defense Force always has been, in fact, the Reichswehr-style potential nucleus of a larger national Navy, leveraging Japanese personnel quality and technological leadership to keep its global partners on their toes.

In other naval programs, such as non-nuclear submarine development, the Japanese NSDF is snuggling up to the navies of its 4-year World War II enemies and nearly-70-year allies, the USA and Australia.

In Japan, policymakers are watching a United States where the leadership has gazed at its domestic-policy navel since the burst of the real-estate bubble in 2007, and especially since electing and reelecting a domestically-focused President.  In Japan, it looks like US abdication, unilateral withdrawal, and unilateral disarmament.

This is being heard in some Japanese circles as arm or die. The idea of Japanese rearmament suits many Americans, including budget hawks and libertarians as well as the-foreigners-can-go-hang liberals and isolationists. But none of them seem to have thought beyond the first-order consequences of such rearmament.

Japan and the US are allies because our interests are congruent, not because Japanese are all nice guys and some of the regional powers we’re more competitive with are all bad guys. As long as those interests are congruent, we’ll have no problem getting along. But it’s probably a mistake to assume that current alignments in world policy and politics are immutable.

New Halifax Explosion Images

On 6 December 1917 the largest manmade explosion in the history of the earth (to that point) took place, not along the lines of battle, but in a busy Canadian seaport, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The blast came from munitions materials contained in a single average-sized (for 1917) freighter, and have been calculated to have been about equivalent to 2.9kt — larger than some nuclear warheads, and one of the top five known conventional explosions in history. (The Daily Mail has a table of seven big ones).

Ground zero of the Halifax Explosion. The shattered tug is the former minesweeper Stella Maris; she took the abandoned, burning Mont Blanc under tow. All but five of her crew died. (Old photo. Source).

Ground zero of the Halifax Explosion. Pier 6 was located at this point; it has vanished without a trace. The shattered tug is the former minesweeper Stella Maris; she took the abandoned, burning Mont Blanc under tow. All but five of her 25 officers and men died. (Old photo. Source).

Recently, long-lost images from the aftermath of the explosion that destroyed or seriously damaged nearly 14,000 buildings, leveled the shipyard, and killed perhaps 2,000 people, surfaced in England. Here’s a half-minute look at the devastation on video:

The “new” pictures were taken by Lieutenant Victor Magnus, RN (or RNR/RNVR?), about 27, whose w ship was docked in the port city at the time of the event. The Daily Mail explains how the pictures were recently rediscovered in an old album by the photographer’s daughter, nearly 100 years after they were taken. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald notes that Magnus was standing watch in HMS Changuinolawhose log notes, among many other entries:

Other: 8.50 Explosion in docks followed by fires

Other: 9.15 Cutters away with officers ~~ to help ashore

Changuinola was an “Armed Merchant Cruiser” — a term for merchant ships put to military use in the RN. Specifically, she was a seized German ship pressed into service as a patrol and escort vessel, and apparently also to train RNVR officers or ratings (training these men frequently recurs in the ship’s logs). From her decks, Magnus took pictures like this:

Some of Magnus's photos show the explosion's pillar of smoke.

Some of Magnus’s photos show the explosion’s pillar of smoke. No pictures from so soon after the blast were imagined to exist.

Then he went ashore. There he took more images of the appalling destruction.

Near Ground Zero, Halifax side looking towards Dartmouth side, Magnus photo.

Near Ground Zero, Halifax side looking towards Dartmouth side, Magnus photo.

Magnus was an avid photographer, and worked in maritime insurance before and after the war.

Victor Magnus in his naval uniform.

Victor Magnus in his naval uniform.

Historic Background (and more old photos)

The French ship Mont Blanc had just been loaded with a cargo of high explosive in New York: over five million pounds of explosives and inflammables, most of it highly unstable picric acid (Benzol, an octane booster then used in aviation fuel, and guncotton, a primitive explosive, were also aboard). Mont Blanc intended to join a convoy from Halifax to England, but on its way in to the harbor collided with an empty vessel, Imo, that normally ferried humanitarian aid to Belgium. Imo, with a Norwegian crew, was wrong-side-driving out of the harbor as Mont Blanc stood in, on the normal inbound side of the channel.

SS Imo. The foreground is not only devastated by the blast, but also by tsunami. Source.

SS Imo. The foreground is not only devastated by the blast, but also by tsunami. Old photo. Source. There’s no post-disaster photo of the hazmat ship SS Mont Blanc; pieces of her fittings landed miles away.

The crew and harbor pilot of Mont Blanc abandoned ship and fled when their hazardous cargo took fire; the ship drifted to land, drawing curious onlookers, then exploded. The city was devastated, especially the shoreline, the shipyards and docks, and other ships making ready for the next England convoys on the 7th and 11th (a single convoy would leave on the 11th).

explsnorigin

Most of the convoy ships were in Bedford Basin, the most  protected part of the harbor when Mont Blanc blew up in what locals call The Narrows. Fortunately, Mont Blanc was not near any of the other explosives-laden vessels when it went up.

SS Curaca was loading horses. She was thrown across the harbor. Of her 46-man human crew, 45 (and the horses) perished. Source.

SS Curaca was loading horses for the war. She was thrown across the harbor. Of her 46-man crew, 45 humans (and the horses) perished. Old photo. Source.

At least 1,500 hundred lives were snuffed out in the blast and the following tsunami, and hundreds more died in the days ahead. Hundreds of remains were never identified. Some lasting results of the accident were standardization of fire hydrant and hose threads (responding fire departments found that the decimated Halifax department’s hydrants didn’t match their gear), more advance warning required for hazmat transits, and stricter maritime rules of the road in the harbor. There was a long series of saboteur hunts, enquiries, criminal trials, and private lawsuits, but in the end no one was singled out as solely to blame, or punished. It was a terrible accident, but in the end, just an accident.

There are several excellent sites on the blast.

The Technical Side

The manifest of the ill-starred Mont Blanc bares the spoor of the probable cause of the disaster — picric acid. This chemical was the first high explosive; its name comes from the Greek for “bitter.” Discovered and initially developed in the 18th Century, it became a dominant explosive and shell filling in the late 19th, when it was discovered initially by British scientist Sprengel. Picric acid was more powerful than the explosive that would come to replace it in most nations’ armories, TNT. The Japanese developed a picric acid derivative called Shimose, which they credited, in part, for their victories over Russia in naval and siege warfare; an American version was called Dunnite. Other terms for picric acid variants were Mélinite and Lyddite (these were the WWI French and British versions respectively). The Times wrote on 9 September 1898 of the British Army’s first use of Lyddite shells, in the Siege of Omdurman on 2 September:

Through Reuters Agency, Khartoum, September 5.

The breaching power of the Lyddite shells fired from the howitzers at the citadel of Omdurman prove to be enormous. The wall was a solid stone structure, 10 feet high by 4 feet thick, built of material brought from dismantled Khartoum. The accuracy of the howitzer fire is tested by the absolute havoc which was made of the Mahdi’s tomb at great ranges. (Nearly 2 miles).

This was a substantial improvement over the performance of the artillery of previous wars, but it came at the price of handling, storing, and stockpiling shells laden with this first (and fearfully unstable) high explosive.

Because unlike fairly stable TNT, picric acid and its salts — which form spontaneously on contact with common bases — are highly unstable; they tend to detonate when exposed to shock, friction, or flame. Picric acid corrodes metals and becomes more unstable in their presence, making it impossible to contain in metal cans or drums, and requiring special procedures for shell filling.

Before World War I, the German military had begun to shift to TNT. It was made by the same process that yields picric acid, just using a different feedstock; it’s only a little less explosive; and it’s vastly more stable. Over time all armies would follow suit, and fear of a repeat of the Halifax Explosion would be one reason (there were many other industrial and military accidents worldwide with picric acid that soured militaries on the chemical). Later, better HEs would be developed, both from the standpoint of stability and of energy, but it says something that TNT, which the Germans first put into shells in 1902, still is practically useful today.

The reason for going backwards in the power of explosive fillings was safety, and the far more stable TNT would have been unlikely to yield the Halifax Explosion. Even today, found Lyddite or Mélinite shells from WWI pose a threat. Even lab picric acid that dries out (of which more in a minute) requires an EOD call-out (small quantities of the acid are useful in biology).

Compounding the problem was that the material shipped in Mont Blanc was only partially shipped as wet picric acid, in which immersion in water reduces the material’s reactivity. Thousands of pounds were ultra-sensitive dry picric acid (the ship also contained large quantities of shock-sensitive guncotton).

Knowing the properties of their cargo, the actions of the crew of Mont Blanc — taking to the lifeboats, trying to warn everyone away from their burning ship — make a lot of sense. The actions of America, British and French ordnance in persisting in the use of this unstable chemical when stable alternatives were readily available are more puzzling to someone looking back at the destruction of Halifax by an a-bomb sized blast, from a vantage point a century ahead.

Remember Flight MH17?

Russkiy Kultur: looted luggage from Flight MH17.

They call themselves “kulturny”: looted luggage from Flight MH17.

Here’s the latest report by a guy on the scene, who interviews both a Russian Cossack separatist  ataman, and a Ukrainian government official, as well as visits the crash site as locals sheepishly turn in victim IDs (but notably, not valuables), spirited away by looters after the crash.

https://news.vice.com/video/russian-roulette-dispatch-87

Follow the link to see the video; there’s no transcript.

The Russian separatists have really bungled their handling of the crash site, insuring that conspiracy theories will go on forever. (This is nothing new or particularly Russian; the FBI did something similar with its mishandling of TWA 800 evidence, dropping a windfall in the laps of conspiratroid nut jobs).

The most interesting thing, we thought, was the reporter’s suggestion that the Dutch investigators are slow-walking any conclusions, for fear that they’ll lose access to the badly contaminated and unprotected site if those conclusions cut against Russian propaganda themes.

One of the next most interesting things is the suggestion that Ukraine was using movements of civil aircraft to mask their movement of military aircraft. Wouldn’t be the first time such a thing had been done, but the Russian suggestion that this justified targeting MH17 is a bit of a stretch (imagine it with the players reversed).

It’s nice to know that someone is still reporting on this act of barbarism and its aftermath, even after the bulk of the media have rolled on to new amusements. And he’s if anything too even-handed, but you get a sense of how much the propaganda of both sides has muddied the waters here; enough that, whatever the truth was, the true believers on both sides will be comfortable placing all blame on the other guy.

Air Defense screwups (or worse) have been a recurring global problem over the years, with the US Navy inexcusably shooting down an Iranian airliner (1988) and Israelis blasting an off-course Libyan one in 1973, but most of the shootdowns have involved Russians, former Soviets, or former-Soviet-sponsored rebels. For example, Russian-catspaw militia shot down three Georgian airliners in 1993; Soviet-armed-and-trained guerrillas shot down two Rhodesian airliners in 1978-79; the vodka-powered Soviet Russian air defense system shot down a Korean 747 in 1983, and the Ukrainian military (!) shot down a Russian airliner (!) in October, 2001, in a crime the Ukrainians initially tried to brazen out with lies, and later attributed to a training-exercise screwup.

Weapons Term that Stumped Us: “Pronock”?

We don’t often run into a word referring to weapons that’s completely unfamiliar to us. Even more rarely, we can’t even track the word down. That’s what happened to us in reviewing a 1952 document by the Operations Research Office, a now-defunct FFRDC1 operated by the US Army at the time.

Even generals got in on the tank killing. Of course, this one wound up a POW, out doing a corporal's job with a bazooka.

Even generals got in on the tank killing. Of course, this one wound up a POW, out doing a corporal’s job with a bazooka.

The document reviews the performance of US tanks and tank units in the first year of the Korean War. It was originally classified as SECRET, and the second of two volumes does not seem to have survived. The lost (?) second volume comprised Appendix K to the fundamental document: surveys of some 239 North Korean T-34 tanks examined by American ordnance experts. Fortunately, some conclusions from those surveys made it into the first volume.

But the original document is full of fascinating insights. One of them was that napalm was hugely successful against Nork T-34/85s, and was potentially a threat to American tanks. Napalm is mentioned nearly 60 times in the 308-page report. The mechanism of destruction wasn’t completely certain, but it appeared to be that the nape set the tanks’ solid rubber road wheels on fire, and the burning wheels got hot enough to cook off the rounds in the tanks’ sponsons. FOOM! End of tank, or as tankers say now, “catastrophic loss.” In 1952, the term was “loss, unrecoverable.” That described the situation where the burnt-out hull was here, the insinerated turret was there, and both of them had small, carbonized cinders of what had been the crewmen.

Unknown what killed this tank, but napalm is a possibility. It appears to be buttoned up, but still burning. Tough luck for the Norks inside.

Unknown what killed this tank, but napalm is a possibility. It appears to be buttoned up, but still burning. Tough luck for the Norks inside.

On the basis of limited evidence, air attack accounted for 40 percent of all enemy tank losses in Korea, and 60 percent of all enemy tank losses caused by UN weapons.

On the basis of limited evidence, napalm was the most effective antitank air weapon thus far used in Korea. (p.2).

The difference between all enemy tank losses, and enemy tank losses caused by UN weapons is presumably the same thing that caused a lot of US/UN losses: mechanical failure. A table on p. 36 bears this out, and is discussed on p. 35:

On the basis of this record, the greatest single cause of loss in NK T34’s would seem to be UN air attack, which accounted for 102 out of 239, or about 43 percent of the total losses.

Napalm appears to be the most effective weapon of all, accounting for 60, or about 23 percent of the total count. Abandonments, in most instances without any visible evidence of cause, accounted for 59, almost another 25 percent of the total count. Tank fire was the third largest single cause, knocking out 39 tanks, or about 16 percent. (p. 35).

This led to a discussion of napalm’s effects:

Napalm as a weapon to defeat armor must be given rather special consideration. It is essentially a weapon of an accidental nature. With the possible exception of the relatively rare occurrence of a direct hit, napalm does not of itself destroy or seriously damage a tank. However, it is fully capable of starting a chain of events which may bring about the loss of the vehicle. A napalm bomb, if a hit is registered sufficiently close to the tank, will splash its burning fluid on the tank. Because of the fire, the crew may suffer burns or be induced to abandon the tank. However from the prisoner of war interrogations it appears that tank crews usually had sufficient time to get clear before the fire had spread (see Appendix D). However, the abandonment of the tank ultimately led to its destruction, for the napalm from the first or successive strikes had sufficient time to ignite the rubber on the road wheels, heat the ammunition to the point of detonation, and set fire to the fuel. Any or all of these factors brought about the loss of the tank. (p. 37).

Amplified, and considered in terms of US tanks in this partly redundant passage:

From a general examination of US tanks, the Air Force Operations Analysis tests of napalm against T34 tanks (FEAF Operationr Analysis Office Memo No. 27, prepared jointly with Deputy for Operational Engineering, FEAF, 30 October 1950) and the ORO tank survey (see Appendix K), it is belleved that napalm- caused tank fires are essentially “accidental” in nature, i.e.,
the napalm itself does not have enough energy to set ammunition or fuel afire by bating a tank, but it does have enough effect to set afire rubber bogie wheels , which In turn can fire the tank bilge or amnunition and thus kill the tank. Also, napalm entering through the air intake of a tank can set the bilge afire, again firing ammunition and killing the tank. It appears that both of these “accidents” can be eliminated by minor tank redesign or by fire extinguishing techniques. (p. 59).

Not clear what killed these tanks, but our guess is that the Nork crewman in the foreground suffered a terminal case of amall-arms projectile sickness.

Not clear what killed these tanks, but our guess is that the Nork crewman in the foreground suffered a terminal case of amall-arms projectile sickness.

The USSR may conclude on the basis of the Korean campaign that napalm is a very effective antitank weapon. This possible conclusion can be vitiated by minor redesign of US tanks to reduce effectiveness of “accidental” fires. In future attack on Soviet-manufactured tanks, napalm may remain effective, but the types of fluid filler–such as “G” agents, chlorine trifluoride, or pronock — in improved napalm-type tanks may be even more effective. (p. 60).

There’s the word “pronock.” What is it?

But first, let’s continue our digression into the Korean War tank effectiveness report. The unexpected effects of nape on tanks got the ORO thinking. Some of the thoughts probably explain why the report was classified so highly in the first place:

On the basis of the burning of the rubber on tank road wheels with napalm, resulting in the destruction of the tank, tanks appear vulnerable to 40-kt atomic-weapons attack up to a distance of 2,500 yards on a clear day, and 2,000 yards on a hazy day. (p.3).

Er… yeah. T-34s were vulnerable to destruction by nuking. We’ll accept that.

Original caption: Napalm Bomb Victims.  Mute testimony of accuracy of close support missions flown by Fifth Air Force fighters are these Red Korean tanks, blasted out of the path of advancing 24th Infantry Division units near Waegwan, Korea. AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM#:  77799 AC

Original caption: Napalm Bomb Victims. Mute testimony of accuracy of close support missions flown by Fifth Air Force fighters are these Red Korean tanks, blasted out of the path of advancing 24th Infantry Division units near Waegwan, Korea.
AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM#: 77799 AC

And then there was a list of things that the US ought to develop, based on combat experience with tanks in Korea:

Support a vigorous and expanded research and development program to provide a balanced family of antitank weapons without, however, either overemphasizing or neglecting the role of heavy gun tanks such aa the US T43. This program should emphasize:

a. Development of an effective long-range antitank gun for use by the infantry. This gun should be capable of being moved over rough and unfavorable terrain, preferably in a light, highly mobile vehicle.

That, of course, is the paragraph that gave birth (by a circuitous route, it’s true) to the US M40 106mm recoilless rifle. The M40’s immediate ancestor, the M27, would be rushed to Korea and tested in combat.

b. Development of a family of lethal, influence-fused antitank mines s with sterilizing and arming devices, suitable for remining by rockets, artillery, and air.

Simultaneous development of corresponding mine-detection &vclearing devices.

That stands to reason.

d. Research and development on new types, of air and ground munitions utilizing liquid fillers, such as napalm, chlorine trifluoride, pronock, and G-agents.

That’s the strange use of the strange word, “pronock.” What is it? Napalm is well known. G-agents are nerve agents originally developed by the Germans: Tabun, Soman, Sarin, and Cyclosarin, known in the US/NATO coding system as GA, GD, GB and GF respectively.

Chlorine trifluoride is less well-known, but was a remarkable German “twofer” that produced both incendiary and toxic effects, and that was produced by the Third Reich’s chemical-warfare directorate as “N-stoff” or “Substance N.” The incendiary effect of ClF3 is pretty remarkable — it’s hypergolic not only with normal fuels, but also with water. And it can set asbestos on fire. It does bad things to human beings. It’s never actually been used in warfare (or in most other applications) because containing and handling it is a challenge; Rocketdyne once developed rocket engines that used this stuff as oxydizer with Hydrazine Hydrate as fuel. Hydrazine (N2H4), another Nazi product (as the fuel in the mixture “C-stoff”) used in the V1 and Me163, still has some uses (in the ACES ejection seat, IIRC), but is itself among the nastier things in the hazmat catalogue.

For completeness’s sake, the last of the list of recommendations:

e. Continued development of special amunition, such as shaped-charge and squash-head ammunition, together with improved bazookas and recoilless rifles.

But what in the name of science is “pronock?” It clearly is something that can be used as a tank filler, like napalm, like chlorine trifluoride, like the G-agents. And something that, like those substances, one would rather not have fall on him. Beyond that, we’re stumped. Google was not our friend, either.

Update

Looking for some photos of tank kills definitely attributed to napalm, we found this period article on napalm in Korea which depicts — unfortunately, in a very horribly reproduced half-tone — one of the tests of napalm on a captured T-34. It also describes the thickened gasoline’s composition, and effects on the enemy:

Red tankmen weren’t afraid of diving planes at first, their tough armor would repel 20 mm fire, it was hard to hit the maneuvering tank with rockets, and bombs had to be right on to kill a tank. Napalm was another story. Pilots drop the fire bombs short from low altitude, let it skip to the target. Accuracy is not at a premium. The napalm bomb will cover a pear-shaped area 275 feet long and 80 feet wide. A solid sheet of 1500° fire envelops everything , Killing personnel, exploding ammunition. It is not a flash fire like gasoline alone would be but clings and burns and burns.

… As fast as the Reds moved in tanks to stop the retreat, napalm was dropped on them. They ran out of tanks and weight of phases of the war have seen far fewer communist tanks in action.

The article noted two indirect effects of napalm on the enemy: tanks would be found with the crews inside, unmarked but dead of suffocation, the napalm fires having stolen the very oxygen from the air they breathed. And the psychological effects of the weapon induced many surrenders.

Notes

1. FFRDC: Federally Funded Research and Developmant Corporation. The most famous are probably RAND, which was sponsored by the USAF. The ORO was an Army/Johns Hopkins lashup, that the Army grew tired of and pulled the plug on in the 1960s.

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).