Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: N6CC

What’s that? It sounds like a ham callsign? And we think that’s what N6CC.com stands for, although the site breaks it out as Navy 6 Combat Coms. But what we were flagged to was the site author, Tim Sammons’s, stories of his service in the Navy on a forgotten class of small combatants, the Trumpy class PTF patrol boats. The boats were American-made licensed copies of the Norwegian Nasty class boats that were used by the maritime operations wing of SOG in the Vietnam War. Tim has great stories of the Trumpys he knew, PTF-17, -18, and -19, boats that resembled in style, construction and size the classic Elco PT boats of World War II.

cropped-PTF17-Wtrmrk1

The names? The source of Nasty is not clear; during their brief service in the US Navy they were known only by numbers. Trumpy is easier to figure out; the American boats were built to the Norwegian plan by now-defunct yacht builders John Trumpy & Sons.

 

They were powered by the bizarre and tremendous Napier Deltic diesels, strange engines with three crankshafts arranged triangularly, with cylinders in between, and two pistons in each cylinder — one coming in from each end, until they’d compressed the charge enough to fire. The Deltics were turbosupercharged, put out a staggering 3100 horsepower each (the boats had two) and could drive the wooden Trumpys to 45 knots, sea state permitting.

 

They were also armed with a small arsenal of 40mm, 20mm, .50 caliber guns and an 81mm mortar. Tim has a page specifically on armament — you guys might like that.

In Tim’s day, he patrolled the Great Lakes, but he has some interesting information about the Trumpys’ predecessors, the Nastys, in Vietnam, and the Trumpys’ ill-fated successors, the Osprey class (whose aluminum hulls were found to be too fragile for the mission).

If you want more info on the boats’ wartime adventures, see pftnasty.com and warboats.org where there are a lot of firsthand stories of these fast little combatants.

It isn’t just boats. Naturally, there’s a lot of cool commo gear on his website, including a clever hack that uses a VFO to stand in for a crystal in an AN/GRC-109 radio. (If you don’t know what that is, just crank this generator while Tim and I tune the antenna….). The hack will work with the OSS/Agency clandestine RS-1, too, which is a very close sibling of the 109.

Other cool stuff on Tim’s website include camouflaged or covert antennas and many other communications rigs, and annotated photos of the communications gear from the commo wing of the museum that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam made of the Presidential Palace of once-free Vietnam. Poor Thieu’s, or maybe by then it was Big Minh’s, situation map still is stuck to a wall in there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

At Cu Chi, he laid out $17 to fire 10 rounds out of an AK. The NVA fought capitalism before succumbing to it.

VietnamTSAK47-2-2048x1536

There’s also an interesting exploration of the wreck site of a rare B-17C (no B-17 that old survives intact).

Why did the Viper Centerpunch the Cessna?

The NTSB and Air Force are investigating a 7 July midair between an F-16CM Viper and a Cessna 150. Two aboard the Cessna died, the fighter pilot was uninjured, both planes were destroyed.

The NTSB and Air Force are investigating a 7 July midair between an F-16CM Viper and a Cessna 150. Two aboard the Cessna died, the fighter pilot was uninjured, both planes were destroyed.

It seems clear that the father and son in the Cessna 150 didn’t suffer. The F-16CM was traveling at over 200 kts over South Carolina 7 July, when it flew through the center of the 1670 pound light plane (and its two occupants). The damaged jet continued briefly, but three minutes after the collision, the pilot ejected. Most of the jet landed in a single crater, where it exploded and burned itself out. The little Cessna and its pilots came fluttering down in pieces; some of the larger ones, like the plane’s 100-horsepower engine, never were found. The jet pilot was, thanks to dumb luck, completely uninjured, neither by the midair nor by the ejection. Any other roll of the die and this would have been a mishap with three fatalities.

As is usually the case with midair collisions, it was 11 AM on a clear day (there were scattered clouds, but they were over 1000 feet higher than the collision) with excellent visibility. As is often the case, both aircraft were clearly on radar. However, only one of them was flying under positive air traffic control, under instrument flight rules. That was the Air Force jet.

Both aircraft were on the screen and known to the controller at the time of impact, as the F-16 pilot practiced instrument approaches (these are flights down electronic beams or pathways that are used for landing in bad weather. Because they’re a perishable skill, pilots practice them routinely in good weather, as this man was doing). He was very busy; he was vectoring to start his third approach in a flight that began only 40 minutes prior, this time a TACAN approach — a military electronic beam of 1950s vintage, conceptually similar but technically different and more precise than the VORs used by civilians. Instrument flying, and especially setting up instrument approaches, demands that the pilot be head down in the cockpit to some degree (you can fight the F-16 through the HUD, but you can’t set up an approach that way. You have to set a bunch of knobs and dials inside the jet). When civilians and most multi-crew military pilots fly practice approaches, they usually have the second pilot looking out of the cockpit as a safety pilot. In a single-seat fighter, that’s not an option. The pilot began to look for the Cessna when the controller called it out to him. He didn’t see it.

The controller made several calls to the F-16 as it became clear that the jet was on a collision course with the light plane. The pilot didn’t seem to react at first, and then, when told to turn immediately, he slowly began a wide sweeping turn that was too little, too late. The Cessna was not talking to approach control (and wasn’t required to); it did have a radar transponder squawking the Mode III code (1200) for an aircraft flying under visual flight rules.

Here’s a hasty transcript of the radio traffic, reconstructed from the NTSB preliminary. CHS is the Charleston approach controller; N3601V or 01V is the Cessna, not that it appears; we’ll use F16 for the jet’s callsign. The jet was heading about 215 degrees at about 200 knots, and the Cessna about 110 degrees at about 90 knots, so they were closing rapidly.

1100:18: CHS->F16, Traffic 12 o’clock, 2 miles, opposite direction, 1,200 indicated, type unknown.
1100:18: F16->CHS, Roger, looking for traffic.
1100:26: CHS->F16, Turn left heading 180 if you don’t have that traffic in sight.
1100:26: F16->CHS, Confirm two miles?
1100:32: CHS->F16, If you don’t have that traffic in sight turn left heading 180 immediately.
1100:49 (last radar return received from Cessna)
1100:52: CHS->F16, Traffic passing below you 1,400 feet.
1101:19: F16 (transmitting blind), Mayday!
1103:17 (last radar return from F-16, indicating 300 feet, near crash site).

The NTSB preliminary does contradict itself. It says, after the 1100:32 call demanding a turn from the F-16:

Over the next 18 seconds, the track of the F-16 began turning southerly.

However, it also indicates that:

At 1100:49, the radar target of the F-16 was located 1/2 nautical mile northeast of the Cessna, at an indicated altitude of 1,500 feet, and was on an approximate track of 215 degrees.

As we noted above, 215 degrees was the jet’s heading before the commanded turn; yet it was still tracking 215 on impact, it says here. However, after the collision the F16 was observed (on radar) to track “generally southerly”.

One thing that’s very clear from this is how quickly this situation developed and went thoroughly pear-shaped. When the controller says “immediate” or “immediately,” that’s a word that gets every pilot’s attention; they only use it when time matters. And from the first traffic call to the “immediately” call was about 14 seconds. Another 17 or so seconds after that, all opportunity to avoid the crash had been lost, two men were dead and one was about to take to the silk. A little more than a half minute elapsed from the controller’s first expression of concern to the collision. A little over three minutes had passed since the Cessna lifted off its runway and was immediately picked up by the ATC radar.

NTSB will have a final transcript with the final report, months from now.

Speculation Follows

The next couple of paragraphs are speculation about a possible contributing factor in this mishap. Speculation based on early reports, while it is the bread and butter of CNN, is often unwise in aviation mishaps, because early reporting is almost always as wrong as reporters can get. But nonetheless, we’ll go ahead and speculate. Therefore, to control the depth of speculation, the only source that we have used is the preliminary report from NTSB. –Ed.

When the radar images merged and the radar image of the shredded Cessna disappeared, the planes were reporting different altitudes. The transponder of the fighter said it was at 1500 feet (albeit descending); the transponder of the Cessna showed it at 1400 feet (and climbing), seconds before the collision. Because air pressure varies from time to time and place to place, a pilot uses a knob and a dial called a Kollsman window (after its 1930s inventor) to adjust the barometric pressure. A standard day’s pressure is considered to be 29.92 inches of mercury at sea level; locally, there was high pressure (that good sunny weather!) and the setting then and there should have been 31.15.

If the pilot of the jet mistakenly set his altimeter to 31.05, his altimeter would have read 1500 feet when he was actually at 1400 (or, if the pilot of the Cessna had set his to 31.25, he’d have been 100 feet higher than his reported altitude). We’re not sure that the F-16 transponder uses the pilot’s Kollsman setting like the civilian one does. We are fairly confident that if the two planes were correctly reporting that they were both at the same altitude, the controllers would have had much more of a sense of urgency (and automatic features of the system would have flagged their attention) much earlier.

What the Investigation Can and Will Determine

The investigators may be able to tell how the altimeters were set in both planes. On the Cessna, it’s a physical knob and dial, and should preserve its last setting if it was not physically destroyed in the impact. That may have happened. Here’s what the investigators found of the wreckage:

The wreckage of the Cessna was recovered in the vicinity of its last observed radar target, over the west branch of the Cooper River. Components from both airplanes were spread over an area to the north and west of that point, extending for approximately 1,200 feet. The largest portions of the Cessna’s airframe included a relatively intact portion of the fuselage aft of the main landing gear, and the separate left and right wings, all of which were within 500 feet northwest of the airplane’s final radar-observed position. Portions of the cabin interior, instrument panel, fuel system, and engine firewall were found distributed throughout the site. The engine, propeller, and nose landing gear assembly were not recovered. The lower aft engine cowling of the F-16 was also recovered in the immediate vicinity of the Cessna’s aft fuselage, while the F-16’s engine augmenter was recovered about 1,500 feet southwest. Small pieces of the F-16’s airframe were also distributed throughout the accident site.

Just to give you an idea how thoroughly even the F-16 was parted out inflight, here is the “engine augmenter” referenced above:

midair engine augmenter

Yeah, it landed on a trailer/RV park.

On the Viper, the altimeter setting should be retained in the data recorders, which were recovered in good order from the pilot’s ejection seat and the wreckage of the airplane.

The investigators were last seen dragging the river for missing parts of aircraft and people.

The investigators are likely to recommend that the Board note, among any other findings, that there are inherent limitations to the “see and avoid” principle, but, ultimately, the crew of the two aircraft failed to see and avoid one another.

Snap, Crackle, and Pop

Well-known (and respected) trainer Kyle Defoor was conducting training at for a military unit when one of the unit’s long guns went down, due to this:

defoor bolt failure

Yes, that’s an AR/M16/M4 bolt with a single lug fully failed. Possible causes for the failure include (at a fundamental level) manufacturing error, corrosion or fatigue. It’s hard to judge from this hole, but going way out on a limb, it looks like there’s a somewhat granular failure at the left end of the fracture, with a smoother “sudden” fracture face on the right end nearer the extractor, presumably because the fatigue failure left too little of the remaining metal to bear the stress of firing locked in battery, and the remainder of the part failed from the crack due to overstress. But it could also be caused by swapping a fresh bolt into a gun with a worn barrel extension (or vice versa) in the field, so that only one lug was bearing all the tension of locking — result, failure. Or the gun may simply have been made without the locking lugs all engaging properly — it’s happened before.

A gun with a failure like this may or may not continue to fire for a while. But if overstress on one lug was a factor, the loads formerly too much for seven lugs now bear upon six — it would not be wise to bet your life on this firearm.

Kyle, though, had another issue with the failure — and the unit whose arms room coughed up the firearm that did it.

On 9 July, he posted this image to his Facebook feed, saying:

Maybe I should start to amend contracts to include an armorer and spare parts?

With a hilarious set of hastags including, but not limited to:

#‎takecareofgear‬ ‪#‎ittakescareofyou‬ ‪

…and the snark-infused:

‬ ‪#‎logisticswinswars‬ ‪#‎waistingtrainingtime‬ ‪#‎youdontpaymetoplumb‬

The part was, as you can see from the markings, a factory Colt, magnetic particle inspected, bolt (or a counterfeit thereof that somehow got into the supply system — not impossible). It had unknown hours and rounds, because Big Green is not in the habit of keeping meaningful usage and maintenance records on small arms.

Apart from spelling “wasting” wrong, there is not much to argue with in Defoor’s response. Apparently the unit in question did not provide an armorer for the range event. In most units, the armorer doubles as a supply clerk and is not thought of as necessary for a range evolution (except to manage draw and turn-in of weapons at the Arms Room). In addition, the Army has been working to reduce the number and kind of spare parts available at organizational level. This is due to politically anti-gun policies, and Army civilian political appointees who believe (however lacking the evidence may be) that Army stocks are a significant source of crime guns.

Even if the parts were by some miracle on hand, the standard Army armorer, one each, is neither trained nor authorized to replace a failed bolt. Armorers given scant and cursory training on maintenance.  Instead, their course, an add-on for supply clerks, concentrates very extensively on paperwork, records-keeping, and the process of appearing to be conducting scheduled maintenance. This is also borne out by what actual combat units and their commanders value, based on how they judge and critique their armorers. No one is ever graded on the only maintenance measure that ought to count, the combat serviceability of the unit’s firearms; everyone is constantly graded on the process, on the appearance of maintenance, and on maintenance busy work. While we’d bet nine out of ten of the readers of this blog could fix this rifle in minutes, the only thing a company, battalion or even brigade armorer can do with it is turn it in.

Military maintenance bureaucracy does all it can to limit effective maintenance of small-unit equipment, notably including small arms, optics, and radios. Problems with these are most effectively solved by trained, experienced personnel at the lowest organizational level, so naturally such personnel are just flat not available.

Instead, you must tag the weapon or other piece of equipment down. Naturally, there are different rules for weapons and weapons equipment, vehicles, radios, and special weapons (i.e. WMD-related stuff), although the Army does try to squeeze them all onto standard forms (DA-2404 for regular maintenance, DA-2407 for turn in, nowadays it’s an electronic form, DA-2407E, done in the SAMS logistics computer system).

The weapon can’t be sent directly to the level that can fix it, even when (like this) the level is obvious and the weapon could be inspected and classified by a well-coached Helen Keller. It must go up the operator-organizational-direct-depot support chain, getting a new inspection at each

Plus, while the weapon is turned in, what is Joe Snuffy supposed to shoot? No Army unit maintains operational floats or spares (unless it is, by happenstance, or the customary incompetence of all Army personnel managers and activities, understrength). So Joe will get the weapon of whoever is on sick call or leave when the unit goes to a range, unless it’s one of the very large number of units that does an absolutely crap job of tracking who is assigned each particular weapon, in which case it’s musical chairs and the last one that shows up gets a new weapon.

The Army actually tries to bill giving a guy a new rifle for every annual, semiannual or quarterly trip to the range as a plus, believe it or not: “Everybody gets valuable experience in zeroing.” (Meanwhile, of course, everyone loses confidence in the ability of his gun to hold zero).

It does not help that the standard M12 rack does not accept a rifle with optics. In the Arms Room, it’s still 1988.

Moreover, the Army’s weapons records are a chaotic mess of rack numbers, serial numbers, weapons cards, hand receipts, pencil sheets, green-and-white property book printouts (that may not put all your unit’s rifles, for example, together on the same pages), and unofficial Excel-spreadsheets and Access databases, which interface more or less (mostly, less) with one another and with the unit’s personnel assignments. This means that every time you cross-level personnel from 2nd platoon to 3rd platoon, if your arms room is nicely organized by platoons, Joe Rifleman is going to get a new rifle and be off zero until next range trip, and so is Bill Bulletician who’s coming from somewhere else… that’s another reason why no Army unit beyond the Ranger battalions and the 82nd Division Ready Battalion actually dares to ship out to combat without a trip to the zero range.

In addition to the deployment delays that come because no one has confidence in his optic zero right now, we also endure a colossal waste of time because weapons inventories are unnecessarily hard. (One of the nice things about HK 416s? Their serial numbers are highlighted. Seems like a small thing, until you’ve tried to inventory a couple hundred M16A2s by the light of a flickering fluorescent bulb that there’s no budget to replace. And if you highlight the number with paint or permanent marker, you can actually get dinged on inspection). Every arms room needs to be inventoried periodically by senior personnel who have better things to do, and many aperiodic inventories are demanded by regulations. The faster these go, the better for everyone, but the Army has a settled way of doing things that proceeds from the assumption that the net value of a soldier, NCO or officer’s time is always zero.

 

Selection, Assessment & Training: the IJN Way

500px-Naval_Ensign_of_Japan.svgAt the dawn of World War II, Americans had extremely solid feelings of racial and national superiority. Indeed, throughout the war national propaganda featured propaganda themes that careful analysis would have shown were mutually contradictory: the Japanese were cunning, stealthy, and powerful; yet they were dimwitted, nearsighted, bucktoothed buffoons. These feelings were put to a test when are forces encountered the Imperial Japanese Navy. No one who had faced the Navy’s night gunnery or its world-class carrier pilots in those dark days of the war’s first five or six months came away thinking he’d faced a dimwitted, nearsighted, bucktoothed buffoon — if he came away with body and soul still integrated at all.

US intelligence bulletins that described Japanese ships and aircraft as inferior copies of Western types, and Japanese training methods as antiquated, cruel and stupid, producing automata who had no skills apart from blindly following orders, were exposed as a combination of wishful thinking and racial prejudice (ironically, two factors that colored Japanese intelligence as well).

"Jap Infantry Weapons." Period poster. Click to embiggen.

“Jap Infantry Weapons.” Period poster. Click to embiggen.

By 1945 we had beaten the hated Japs, but we still didn’t really understand them. One of the great miracles of human achievement is the story of how Japan could go in the matter of barely more than a century from a primitive feudal, agrarian society to a modern industrial nation that was able to equip a modern Army and Navy with effective weapons of almost entirely domestic design, and produce the men to operate these weapons. It requires considerable study; while the weapons of the IJN like its super-battleships, super-submarines and aircraft have been studied at length, less study has been given to its personnel practices. They are a synthesis of Japanese culture and worldwide best-practices of the late 19th Century, and they produced both  one of the world’s greatest naval air arms, and the flexible, imaginative infantry that bedeviled the British in Malaya, the Americans in the Philippines, and all the Allies that would fight them in New Guinea and on the island-hopping campaign.

There is a resource that will give you insight to Japanese personnel practices, if you use it, and that is a series of living history interviews by Dan King, a former diplomat who, rare among Americans, speaks and understands spoken Japanese well. King has published several books we can highly recommend, including:

  • A Tomb Called Iwo Jima: Firsthand Accounts from Japanese Survivors. Paperback. Kindle.
  • The Last Zero Fighter: Firsthand Accounts from Japanese Naval Pilots. PaperbackKindle.

Japanese combat leadership was experienced, NCO/PO leadership. Unlike officer-heavy armies of the US, Russia, or the Third World, the Japanese had very few, and very elite, officers. By “elite,” we mean that they were selected for being in the top tail of the ability distribution (cognitively and physically), and they were trained in an extremely demanding academy. But the percentage of officers was always low, and first- and second-line leaders were invariably NCOs, promoted into leadership positions (and trained for those positions) based on ability and proven performance. Mutual respect between the academy officers and the up-from-the-ranks NCOs was the vital glue that produced the remarkable combat cohesion of Japanese units.

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

An Aviator in the IJN, usually of enlisted rank and even younger than his Allied counterpart, was one of three technical specialties: pilot, navigator/observer (who in multi-crew aircraft, much like in the Luftwaffe, was more likely to be the aircraft commander than the senior pilot was), and radio operator/gunner. This technical division was much like other air arms. But Japan was unique in the degree to which it made its pilots from a raw material of unformed, almost uneducated but able youth — children, by today’s measures.

King reduces it to an aphorism:

While Western powers trained officers to be pilots, Japan primarily turned teenage boys into pilots.

From the same source (The Last Zero Fighter), here’s an overview of the many paths to flight in Imperial Japanese (Naval) service.

As there are several trails leading to the summit of Mt. Fuji, there were several paths a young man could take to the cockpit.

  1. Graduate from the naval academy, serve aboard a ship for a year, and then apply for flight school.
  2. Graduate from a university (or be enrolled in school) and join the reserves as an officer and attend pilot training. Afterwards he would return to his job, or continue with his studies.
  3. Obtain his civilian pilot license and join the reserves as an officer.
  4. Join the navy as an enlisted sailor, serve aboard a ship for a year, and then sit for an exam for admittance into Sōren preparatory flight course.
  5. As a teenager, take the entrance exam for the Navy’s Yokaren preparatory flight course. If the applicant was accepted, he was in the navy.

Each of these paths had associated hazing, harassment, and outright abuse that make their Western counterparts’ “plebe years” or “square corners” seem like kid stuff. Surviving Japanese combat pilots recount running a gantlet that transcended the metaphorical to include real physical beatings, including with swagger sticks or small versions of a baseball bat, labeled on them with the Japanese characters saying, “Bat to Instill Military Spirit.”

Each path also accelerated during the war. For instance the Yokaren course was a wartime improvisation, and Academy graduates who wanted to fly came to be spared the preliminary year aboard ship. The Soren and Yokaren courses were combined as the war ground on. (Remember, in Japan, the war started in the 1930s with the Mukden Incident; 8 December 41 (the date of the Pearl Harbor and Philippines attacks in Japan) didn’t mean a new war to Japan, just a new theater.

Each training pathway had associated cognitive and physical exams associated with it, and scores were set quite high. Despite this stringent administrative selection, each training pathway also had more (Yokaren/Soren) or less (Hiko Gakusei, the course for regular officer pilots) attrition. Those attrited were assigned according to the needs of the Navy, sometimes as non-pilot flight crew, sometimes to shipboard or land-based aviation maintenance functions, and sometimes to non-aviation sea duty ratings and assignments.

Naval officers got these cool daggers -- and the burden of command. The pilots and crewmen they commanded, including most of Japan's top aces, were kids and youths. They got the job done (this dagger sold at Cowan's auction house some years ago. Beware the many fakes).

Naval officers got these cool daggers — and the burden of command. The pilots and crewmen they commanded, including most of Japan’s top aces, were kids and youths. They got the job done (this particular dagger sold at Cowan’s auction house some years ago. Beware the many fakes).

The Yokaren course was the most “foreign” to us today, although it has some parallels to the Army’s initial entry option for Warrant Officer Flight School. The intake were secondary school students — already a small minority of Japanese youth of the 30s and 40s — who had passed the grueling exams, and they were from 15 to 20 years of age. (The Soren students were a little older, thanks to their prior Navy service). King again:

Yokaren started in June 1930 to satisfy the increasing need for pilots and observers. The Navy recruited boys of high caliber from among eighth grade graduates or above. The first Yokaren course was set up at the Oppama Airfield attached to the Yokosuka Naval Air Group. The Navy promised to give the boys their remaining middle school and higher formal education before starting their actual flight training. In addition, once they completed the course, they would be naval aviators eligible for faster promotions and higher pay than in the surface fleet. Applicants were required to be top-notch students of excellent physical condition. The Navy would not accept an applicant if he was the sole male heir. The original training period was two years and eleven months which included a 30 day experience aboard a warship.

That was all before the student started flight training! The Soren school also included a wide variety of initial academic and physical training. Soren grad Saburo Sakai remembered being taught to catch flies with his open hand, as a means of training student reflexes; others remember tumbling exercises in a sort of man-carrying gyroscopic wheel, designed to raise alertness under exotic combat flight profiles and g-loads.

The classes of the Yokaren were numbered from the first to the last… the nineteenth.

As the Japanese like to say, “It takes three years to grow a pilot.” The Navy expended a great deal of time and resources on the education and training of her teenage pilots. The aviator was akin to a bonsai tree, requiring much time and a great deal of patience to shape.

Along with the classroom education in traditional, military, and aviation subjects, future pilots were also inculcated with Japanese nationalism, fighting spirit, and socialized to the Empire’s warrior culture.

At the end of the Yokaren / Soren course, the students were classified and sent to pilot or navigator training. Still more modifications to training were required by the pressures of the war, but the Soren and Yokaren programs allowed Japan to fight its naval air battles with young pilots recruited directly from middle school, or from the ranks of loyal and proven seamen, and fight effectively with a ratio of about nine such enlisted or PO pilots for every commissioned officer — including reserve and wartime officers.

There are many more gems of knowledge about the times, administration, and the culture of the IJN in Dan King’s books. We recommend them unreservedly.

Britain, Avulcular: The Last V-Bomber Flies its Last Flights

It”s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Britain, England really, was a world leader in aeronautics. Once, they were manufacturing not one, but three state-of-the-art nuclear bombers, the Vickers Valiant, the Handley-Page Victor, and the last flying example, the Avro Vulcan. The Valiant was a stop-gap, in case the Victor or Vulcan, which included much risky technology like the Vulcan’s delta wing and the Victor’s scimitar planform, failed. The Victor flew for decades as a tanker, and the Vulcan was the last dedicated long-range pure bomber — nuclear and conventional — of the RAF.

If you have not seen a Vulcan fly, you still can — this summer — before the last flying example is grounded for good.

The UK tech website The Register can’t address this without Gawker-style ignorant snark:

[The Falklands War Black Buck ultra-long-distance raids were]  the close of the Vulcan’s story with the RAF. And yet there was much affection for the old V-bombers, despite the fact that they had only provided a credible deterrent for a few years and had otherwise been undistinguished. This affection was nurtured by the RAF, which continued to have a taxpayer-funded Vulcan display unit until 1992 – ten years after the Vulcan retired as a fighting aircraft, almost a quarter-century after Polaris had rendered the V-force obsolete, and 32 years after the V-force had ceased to be credible in its primary mission.

Yeah, the bombers can’t get through missile defense. Pilots are obsolete. Robotic weapons are the future. Well, they were certainly the future when Sir Duncan Sandys wrote the White Paper that sounded the death knell of the British aerospace industry in 1957, and almost sixty years later, we’ve had Linebacker II and the ’67, ’70, ’73, ’82 and ’86 Middle East wars, two Arab WMD facilities erased from the map by the IDF AF despite the latest Russian/Soviet air defense gear, Desert Storm, and OIF, and today’s Sir Duncan wannabees are teling us that robotic weapons are the future.

Dude, where’s my jetpack?

After the RAF retired its Vulcan display flight, a nonprofit formed to maintain the plane in taxiable condition. (Yes, the British aero scene is so pitiful that people get excited to see vintage aircraft moving on the ground. But then, the US would never allow a nonprofit to adopt any postwar bomber, and our much larger nuclear alert force has no flying survivors, so who are we to bag on the Brits?)

Even after this the Vulcan To The Sky Trust came into being, and the old RAF display plane XH558 returned to the skies once more in 2007.

Now, however, the grand old warhorse of the skies is finally retiring for good. A group of companies that provided support and skills to keep XH558 going made the decision that they could no longer afford the costs associated with keeping the Vulcan in the air, especially as most of the parts no longer existed and airframe hours were becoming a major concern.

XH558 is not off to the scrap yard however, but to her new home at the Vulcan Aviation Academy where the next generation of engineers can learn their craft.

Until then, you can see, hear and feel XH558 in action on its UK farewell tour.

via Goodbye Vulcan: Blighty’s nuclear bomber retires for the last time • The Register.

Do read all three pages, as the Vulcan’s early history is very interesting.

Broke Navy Seeks Foreign Ships for Marines

first_navy_jackHandicapped by a shortage of “gators” or amphibious ships, the Navy is considering taking shipless Marine infantry and Ospreys, and hiring allied ships to carry them. Where the ships could come from is an open question, as it’s unlikely any reliable ally has enough idle gators to close what the Navy identifies as an 8-ship gap for projecting power in the North Africa region alone. Handling maritime crises in two regions of the world simultaneously would be hopeless with the current force structure, but we’d have to try.

The problem is tied up with numbers and budgets. Today’s much smaller Navy has similar responsibilities to its Cold War era self, which had twice as many warships. Moreover, many of the ships the Navy is buying now are so-called Littoral Combat Ships, which depend on stealth for survival, as they have nearly nonexistent offensive and defensive armament. These ships are useless in any kind of power projection that goes beyond simply showing the flag; they have the combat power of Yangtze River gunboats.

The Navy is weighing whether to have Marines hitch a ride on foreign warships, citing a shortage of U.S. vessels due to recent budget cuts — raising bipartisan security concerns about the leverage this could give other countries.

A key concern is whether a warship host nation could deny Marines permission to come ashore.

“Ceding our amphibious ships to other countries — it’s almost silly and I can’t believe it is even an option for the Navy,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served as a Marine in Iraq. “Now we are going to have to ask other countries, much less financially stable countries than America, to loan us their ships so that we can base our Marines on their ships. It’s almost embarrassing.”

Along with Hunter, Fox also got disbelieving quotes from former Senator (D-VA) and SecNav Jim Webb, suggesting the apoplexy of this latest bleat of surrender from a Navy slowly disestablishing itself may be bipartisan.  You ought to Read The Whole Thing™.

Who knows, spending some time in foreign hulls getting irritated by the sailors of their navies might cause the Marines to reevaluate their famous disdain for the sailors of ours. 

Friendly Fire Pearl Harbor

An F4F Wildcat doesn’t really look like an A6M2 Zeke. The first has a “fastback” turtledeck behind the cockpit, mid-wing and high tail, squared-off tips of wing and tail, and a barrel fuselage; the second, a “bubble” canopy artfully constructed of flat plexiglass, a low-mounted wing and tail, gracefully rounded surface tips, and a tapered fuselage.

That is, unless you’re an antiaircraft gunner. And there, the troubles of VF-6 from USS Enterprise began, on the evening of 7 Dec 41.

While the Navy had suffered the most casualties of any service that day, and the smoke still rose from the instant gravesite of nearly 2,000 souls that was USS Arizona, Naval Aviation had made it through the day without losing a single  fighter pilot. (A lot of planes had been destroyed where they sat; the pilots, like most of their Army Air Corps opposite numbers, hadn’t gotten into the air to oppose the raid. But the pilots lived).

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero at Pearl Harbor. Illustration by Darryl Joyce. (Actually, we think he has the color wrong).

That luck was about to change, even as the Japanese raiders, hundreds of miles away, steamed for home at high speed. A flight of six from Fighting Six on Enterprise, which was returning to Hawaiian waters from a sortie to Wake Island, had flown off and were expected at Ford Island Naval Air Station. Ray Panko of the Pacific Air Museum at Ford Island writes:

With LT(jg) Francis F. “Fritz” Hebel in the lead, the flight approached a blacked-out Oahu, the only light coming from fires of the morning attack. Wingman ENS Herbert H. Menges flew alongside Hebel. Following were ENS Gayle L. Hermann and ENS David R. Flynn and a final pair consisting of ENS James G. Daniels III and LT(jg) Eric Allen, Jr.

On Ford Island, Enterprise CAG LCDR Howard L. “Brigham” Young had flown in on an SBD scout bomber earlier in the day, into the middle of the attack. He was able to land on Ford Island’s runway and sprint to the control tower. There, he tried to contact Enterprise, but the tower’s weak radio signal could not reach the carrier. Young climbed back into his SBD’s back seat to use the aircraft’s radio, communicating with Enterprise to apprise Admiral Halsey of the situation. That evening, Enterprise notified Ford Island six aircraft from VF-6 would be landing. Young and other personnel sent out the word to hold fire, and then Young waited in the control tower for the Wildcats.

Around 2100 hours, the flight finally arrived. They had flown nearly to the east end of Oahu’s southern shore before determining where they were. They turned around and approached Ford Island from the south, passing over Hickam Field. Hebel radioed that they would make a circuit around the island, landing from the north. Young in the control tower told them to come straight in, but Hebel either could not hear Young or decided to ignore him. Hebel repeated he was making a pass, and Young, once again, tried to get him to fly straight in.

Lieutenant Commander Young, having been on the ground through much of the raid and all of the aftermath so far, must have been totally in tune with the jumpy, angry spirit of the defenders.

As the flight passed by Ford Island, a few scattered shots were fired and then the floodgates opened. Although the word had gone out that the Wildcats were coming, every gun on the island seemed to open up. The museum’s own Dick Girocco, who was in Hangar 56, said the “sky was lit up like daytime” and the sound was deafening.

This is reminiscent of the fate of the paratroop transports that passed over the invasion fleet at Sicily, except that the transports were even easier to hit than a formation of fighters. These and other friendly fire incidents are why all Allied aircraft were painted with gaudy stripes for D-Day — and why the troop carriers flew around the Cotentin Peninsula and inland, in order to drop their paratroops without ever overflying the Normandy invasion fleet. The lesson was taken on board by Allied planners, but only after it had been written in blood.

Everyone in the flight realized they were in trouble. Flight leader Hebel was able to break away from the carnage and make for Wheeler Field, but when he arrived, he was greeted with another barrage. His aircraft crashed; Hebel died of head injuries the next morning.

Hebel’s wingman Menges crashed into the Palms Hotel near the Pearl City Tavern. No one in the hotel was injured, but Menges died instantly in the crash. He became the first Navy fighter pilot to die in the war.

Hermann was hit 18 times as he tried to escape. His flight came to an abrupt end when a 5-inch naval shell hit his engine. The shell failed to explode, but it knocked the engine out of the plane. The Wildcat fluttered down tail-first to crash on the Ford Island golf course….

Flying next to Hermann was Flynn, who was able to break away from Ford Island’s crossfire. He headed toward Barbers Point, but had to bail out, landing in a cane field. Army security personnel tried to shoot him, imagining he was a Japanese paratrooper. Flynn’s cursing convinced them otherwise.

Allen was hit immediately. He bailed out, but was hit by a .50-caliber shell on the way down, his parachute only partially opened. Allen swam through oily water to minesweeper Vireo (AM-52), but died of severe wounds the next day.

The last pilot, Ensign James G. Daniels III, survived by turning off his lights, diving to the deck, and essentially sneaking up on Ford Island. To hear about his narrow escape and subsequent career in the Navy, do go Read The Whole Thing™.

Hermann, by a miracle, survived despite being trapped in his falling-leaf Wildcat all the way to the ground. Even though only one pilot (Menges) was killed outright, five of the six were shot down, and Hermann, Flynn and Daniels were the only members of the six-man flight to be alive 24 hours later.

After surviving all that, Hermann was killed in a flying accident a few days later.

Daniels went on to an extremely distinguished career and reached high command in the Navy.

Bye-Bye, Big Gun (USS Miami, SSN 755)

They called the boat Big Gun because it always seemed to be the one on station when a President wanted some enemy’s palace forecourt festooned with cruise missiles (usually, then, to distract from his domestic problems). Built at the crest of the Reagan rearmament that broke the financial back of the Evil Empire, USS Miami sailed into oblivion, heroically, in one of Tom Clancy’s novels1, but its actual end was without heroism, drama, or elegy. Crippled by an arson fire, its rebuilding too expensive for a Defense Department intent on unilateral disarmament, the hulk that had been Miami was towed off a few days ago by Navy tugs, to be cut up for scrap.

uss-miami-arabian-sea

The Portsmouth Herald:

 

… The Navy said farewell to the Miami during a ceremony in March 2014.

Shipyard workers have been busy in the months since then, draining hydraulic fluids and oil and removing spare parts and furnishings, Eddy said. Electrical systems were de-energized, and the submarine’s main battery was removed. Temporary ventilation, lighting, power and compressed air services were installed.

The plan for the nuclear fuel was to ship it to a federal repository in Idaho, officials said.

It’s a process that the Navy has conducted on more than 350 nuclear-powered vessels. Navy ships Apache and Navajo will assist in the process of towing the sub to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state for dismantling.

SSN-755 was the third and, to date, last ship to bear the name, USS Miami. Her predecessors were wartime, hostilities-only vessels: a Civil War river gunboat with side-mounted paddle wheels, and a World War II light cruiser. A Los Angeles-class (aka 688 class), Flight III (aka 688i or “improved 688″) boat, Miami’s designers built her for speed more than stealth or depth, and she was one of the fastest subs in the West at her commissioning (some Soviet subs had a speed edge at the time).

The boat’s motto was: No Free Rides… Everyone Rows.

While in port in Portsmouth Navy Yard in 2012 for a mid-life overhaul, Miami was mortally damaged by an incident illustrative of a Navy in decline, under pressure from fundamentally unserious leaders. A mentally ill and narcissistic painter, employed on the sensitive base because a government job is an entitlement and no one may take “disability” into account, didn’t feel like working, and wanted to go home early.

So he started a fire.

By the time firefighters from the base and the nearby cities of Kittery, Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire had knocked the fire down, seven of them were injured, a couple of them seriously; and a round half a billion dollars’ worth of damage had been done to the ship, with compartments burned out from control room to forward torpedo room (no arms were aboard), and hull plates annealed by high temperatures. And the more they looked at the damage, the higher the price tag rose. The Herald, again:

The May 2012 fire, which occurred while the submarine was undergoing an overhaul at the shipyard, turned into an inferno that took more than 100 firefighters half a day to douse. Seven firefighters were hurt.

A former shipyard worker pleaded guilty to setting the fire and is serving a 17-year prison sentence. Prosecutors said the worker suffered from anxiety and set the fire because he wanted to leave work early.

The Navy originally intended to return the Los Angeles-class attack submarine to the fleet after extensive repairs. But it decided to scrap the submarine when estimated repair costs grew to upward of $700 million.

To a Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, who is happily supervising a Navy passing through the 200-ship level on its way down (with many of the “warships” to be all-but-unarmed Littoral Combat Vessels), it didn’t seem like a good idea to spend a third of the cost of a new Virginia-class boat on restoring a 25-year-old sub. In mid-2013, the Navy officially announced that Miami would be put down.

Last week the gutted hulk of Miami started her last voyage — on the surface, dragged by tugs. Everything plausibly recyclable from inside the boat has been removed, and in the end, even her plates will be recycled. Even her name may be recycled, as half the fourth and all fifth flight of Virginias have yet to be named, although given the current SecNav’s propensity for naming ships for politicians and popular culture figures, USS Miami will probably be beaten out by USS Monica Lewinsky. 

After some years, nothing will remain but some lines in an old Tom Clancy book, and the memories of her aging officers and men. “Old Admirals, who feel the wind… and never put to sea.”

Notes

  1. As well as being sacrificed in Hunt for Red October (if our memory is right, it might have been Red Storm Rising), SSN-755 USS Miami was also one of the two subs toured in Clancy’s non-fiction Submarine. (The other was HMS Triumph). The non-fiction book was primarily researched and written by John D. Gresham, although it’s credited only to Clancy.

“That’s All, Brother”: D-Day Legend to Fly Again

After the war, C-47s weren’t celebrated, historical artifacts. They were DC-3s, the world’s workhouse air transport: as legendary as a tractor, as fabled as a boxcar. (Tens of thousands of the plans were built and used by every major combatant in the war — Russia built a licensed version as the Lisunov Li-2, Germany used captured ones, and the Japanese, too, built them under a prewar license). They flew air cargo and passengers until post-9/11 crew door regulations made them uneconomical to update. And pilots often wondered what tales a particular old Douglas could tell, had it the human gifts of memory and speech.

What moments were lived right here in this cockpit?

What moments were lived right here in this cockpit?

What moments were lived right here in this cockpit!

The “Customer’s Serial Number” proved the plane’s identity.

 

But the humans who do have those gifts tracked down the lead D-Day C-47 shortly before it was to be extensively modified by Basler Turbo Conversions of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Informed of the plane’s history, Basler happily cut a deal with the Commemorative Air Force, an organization that promotes the flying displays of World War II aircraft. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has the story:

Late on the night of June 5, 1944, a Douglas C-47 Skytrain commanded by Lt. Col. John M. Donalson launched with 15 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division on board. They were the very tip of the Allied invasion spear, leading a formation of hundreds of aircraft carrying thousands of troops. Just after midnight on June 6, That’s All, Brother navigated through intense German fire and low clouds to drop the first Allied troops to land in Normandy, France, on D-Day, commencing Operation Overlord.

0605_CAF_C47-1

Seven decades later, Staff Sgt. Matt Scales of the Alabama Air National Guard was researching Donalson’s story when he discovered the aircraft—serial number 42-92847—was in a boneyard, slated to be cut up and converted into a modern turboprop. Basler Turbo Conversions LLC of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, alerted to the historic significance of the aircraft, put the brakes on that conversion, and ultimately struck a deal with the Commemorative Air Force, which plans to purchase and restore That’s All, Brother to airworthy condition, in detail just as it was on the day it led the Allied invasion.

 

Basler is full of great people, from late founder Warren Basler on down. So to see them sacrifice like this — and it’s definitely a sacrifice to give up a complete and near-airworthy airframe as a conversion host — comes as no surprise.

“This is a modern miracle,” CAF President and CEO Stephan C. Brown said of the discovery, in a news release. “The aircraft was within weeks of being torn apart.”

The C-47 chosen to lead the invasion was named by Donalson as a message to Adolf Hitler, though its D-Day paint scheme would be covered by subsequent owners—16 of them in all. It is presently painted as a Vietnam-era gunship, though it never flew such a mission. The CAF plans to meticulously restore the invasion stripes and other features in place when Donalson and his crew led the largest airborne assault in history. That’s All, Brother would return to Normandy on June 6 with a glider in tow, and also participated in Operation Market Garden, the relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and the crossing of the Rhine River.

You do want to Read The Whole Thing™. Here are a few more photos of the plane now.

Thats All Brother overhead

0605_CAF_C47-3

It’s in a flaky (literally, not figuratively) Vietnam AC-47 Spooky paint scheme.

0605_CAF_C47-9

The planes that actually became AC-47 gunships were mostly low-time, little-used airframes that went straight from factory into storage.

0605_CAF_C47-6

Not WALL-E’s cousin. Nope: Throttles, mixtures, prop controls jonesing for a human hand.

0605_CAF_C47-4

Control surfaces stored inside the cargo- and skydive- configured fuselage.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes the CAF to get Brother up and running again. But they’re not going to do it alone. They want help! And so, there’s an excellent Kickstarter running with more information and videos, including a period three-plus minute video of That’s All… Brother being loaded and taxiing out with its load of paratroopers. So far, only one (Chaplain Raymond S. Hall) has been identified.

Update

We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that this was a tip from commenter Gray Mann.

Also, here’s another CAF publication with more (.pdf) of That’s All… Brother’s combat history.

The Plane Crashed. And Then the Troubles Began.

As any mishap investigator can tell you, a major accident, like a plane crash, is the exclamation point at the end of a long sentence whose verb(s) is or are one or more errors. Usually the errors are by pilots, but in the pre-delivery test flight crash of an Airbus A400M Atlas in Seville last month has exposed an error chain in the company. The pilots, among four crewmen who perished in the wreckage (two others survived), were blameless.

File photo of A400M from Wikipedia.

File photo of A400M from Wikipedia. You can see where those props idling might be a drag problem.

Airbus Defense is years behind with the A400 Atlas, their first product; the head of the company was fired some time ago and replaced by the former head of flight test, who was given the order to get the planes in the air and delivered. It is a complex and ambitious plane, which is intended to fit into the sweet spot between the capabilities of the ubiquitous C-130 Hercules, a design that’s now 60 years from its first flight, and the C-17, which is priced out of most of the European market.

Airbus A400M Compared to the two US competitors. Wall Street Journal graphic.

Airbus A400M Compared to the two US competitors. Wall Street Journal graphic.

As it stands, the delivery has been so dragged out, and the cost of the machine has soared so high, that launch customers Germany and Spain are not going to have the force structure left to operate their intended A400M fleets.

Who pledged to buy A400Ms. ?? graphic.

Who pledged to buy A400Ms. ?? graphic.

The course of the error is troubling. At some time, someone decided that software tests could be skipped. Instead of being dry-run in a simulator, which would have taken time with the delivery-ready planes for the Turkish contract idled, they took a new build of engine managament software and installed it directly on the airplane. We guess they were going to certify it based on the test flight — if it hadn’t brought destruction to the plane and crew. In Flight Global’s words:

Airbus Defence & Space on 2 June communicated the findings of the Spanish defence ministry’s CITAAM organisation to operators of the A400M. This followed the completion of preliminary analysis of the aircraft’s digital flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

“CITAAM confirmed that engines 1, 2 and 3 experienced power frozen after lift-off and did not respond to the crew’s attempts to control the power setting in the normal way, whilst engine 4 responded to throttle demands,” Airbus says.

With the three affected engines still operating at take-off settings, the Airbus test pilots aboard aircraft MSN23 opted to move their power levers to the “flight idle” position to reduce power. “The power reduced, but then remained at flight idle for the reminder of the flight, despite attempts by the crew to regain power,” the company says.

This is a pretty horrifying thing to imagine. At the normal climbout point where T/O power is reduced to climb power, for three of the plane’s four engines, nothing happened. The pilots were not in control of the plane. Their next step was logical — try bringing the engines to flight idle. This was successful — but a one-way move. With three of its engines swinging the planes’ huge scimitar propellers, the strong jet couldn’t hold altitude — a meeting with Mother Earth was inevitable, and when the power wouldn’t come back up, the pilots’ options for where, when and how were extremely limited.

Even then, the test pilots thought they had a chance. They spotted an open field but according to witnesses, they flew into, presumably unseen, power lines trying to put the plane on the ground.

Pilots of the A400 have a single power lever for their powerplants. Like all modern planes, but unlike legacy planes like the Transall and pre-J-model C-139s they don’t have the backup of a flight engineer, either.

This is significant in part because of Airbus’s design philosophy, which is that the pilots should not be able to override the computer. (Boeing takes the opposite approach, and the flight crew can generally override computers in Boeing aircraft). The data behind the Airbus computer-primacy are the decades and decades of accidents caused by human error. By giving more of the configuration-management and control decisions up to the machines, this rich source of human error is excluded. Defense News:

“Several protocols were ignored,” [the Madrid website El Confidencial] said citing unnamed aeronautical sector sources.

The computer system that controls the plane’s engines, the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC), “should have been tested before, in a simulator, to check if everything worked,” it added.

The sources claimed the protocols were skipped because Airbus was in a hurry to make up for delays in the development and delivery of the A400M military cargo and troop transport plane which is assembled in Seville.

The A400M plane that crashed in a field and burst into flames just north of Seville’s airport on May 9 was undergoing a test flight, before it was due to be delivered to Turkey in July.

Two of the six people on board the plane, a mechanic and an engineer, survived the crash and were sent to hospital in critical condition.

A senior Airbus executive said Thursday that analysis of the flight recorders of the A400M indicated there were no structural faults but assembly quality problems.

The units which control the engines of the plane were poorly installed during final assembly, which could have led to the engines malfunctioning, Airbus group’s chief of strategy Marwan Lahoud told the German daily Handelsblatt.

But Airbus aircraft haven’t established a superior record. Instead, they’ve had different kinds of accidents, with several spectacular mishaps resulting from the automation’s interaction, especially with ill-trained crews on some Asian airlines. 

Most of the nations who have the previous examples of the A400M Atlas have grounded their fleets pending the outcome of this investigation.

The Seville plant is the same one that produced numerous small CASA 212 military transports, made a series of midrange passenger and cargo planes under the CASA and Airbus names, and now completes all of Airbus Industrie’s military aircraft. The A400M is still an airplane that many militaries desire (Sweden is considering them to replace its C-130 fleet of old 1960s-vintage H models). Working with a clean sheet of paper, Airbus engineers packed the cargo hauler full of innovations. For example, it’s designed to handle its own cargo inasmuch as possible, requiring minimal ground equipment:

Airbus A400M autonomous

 

But no innovation alone can save a company. (Actually, nothing much can happen to Airbus, which is a project of European governments, except that its reputation can take hits). In fact, innovation can delay time to market. It is a truism in aviation that certification (official approval) for any aircraft takes longer and costs more than all but the wealthiest and most cynical investors expect. But the wreckage in Seville is an illustration of the price of cut corners.

Burnt-out cockpit of the A400M. Image: Bomberos del Ayuntamiento de Sevilla.

Burnt-out cockpit of the A400M. Image: Bomberos del Ayuntamiento de Sevilla.

Crash site from overhead. Spanish firefighters official.

Crash site from overhead. Spanish firefighters official.