Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week – Torpedo of Rijeka

Robert Whitehead was a pacifist and teetotaler, who invented a weapon that's in its second century of use and development.

Robert Whitehead was a pacifist and teetotaler, who invented the naval torpedo and sold it all around the world: a weapon now well into its second century of use and development.

Here at Weaponsman, we’ve discussed naval torpedoes before. We’ve done it in the light of early American torpedoes that have been recovered from the bottom of the sea, or otherwise rediscovered, and displayed in museums or otherwise studied. But the very first torpedo, at least the first successful one, came from the forgotten Navy of the Habsburg Empire, by way of an English inventor and entrepreneur.

Fortunately, there is a place where this early history is not only not forgotten, but preserved and memorialized, and it is present on the web at Torpedo of Rijeka, our Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week this week. It’s a website founded by enthusiasts of the first naval torpedo, and the first naval torpedo factory — in their Adriatic hometown.

When Farragut said, “Damn the torpedoes,” in the Civil War, the “torpedoes” that he referred to were what we think of today as naval mines. They were tethered to the bottom or shore, and meant to inhibit naval traffic. While mine warfare is still a very important part of naval offense and defense today, the word torpedo has come to mean an underwater projectile or missile,  self-propelled with propellers or jets, and aimed at a particular target. Torpedoes can be fired along a pre-determined course or guided in some way. This guidance today can be on-board or remote, in the latter case usually wire-guided much like an antitank missile.

The inventor of the torpedo as we know it was Robert Whitehead, a Lancashire engineer who had long worked on the Continent. He was working in Trieste, then an Austro-Hungarian seaport, when he was essentially head-hunted by another firm, and moved down the coast to Fonderia Metalli de Fiume, in a port city which has had many names and flown many flags over the centuries since Roman historians noted that a tribe of rude Celts lived on the hills and a “more civilized” tribe of mariners lived in the seaport. The Romans called it Tarsatica.  By 1856, when Whitehead and his family arrived, the city was known as Fiume in Italian (which many of the inhabitants spoke, regardless of their loyalty to the Dual Monarchy), Fiume in Hungarian (technically, it was part of the Hungary half of the Empire), Sankt Veit am Pflaum in German (the lingua franca of central Europe in those days) and Rijeka to the local Croats, who had to learn one of the other languages — or better yet, all of them — to advance in society and commerce. As an empire, Austria-Hungary was a very different concept from the nations of today; one’s ethnicity was not implicated in his political allegiance to the extent it is in the post-Fourteen Points world.

Fiume was also the location of the Austro-Hungarian Naval Academy, which like any major power’s academy not only trained future naval officers but sponsored research. This included pioneering research in photography, communications, physics, and, more to our point, remote-controlled weapons. Whitehead’s company, now yclept Stabilimento Tecnico Fiumano (Technical Establishment of Fiume), at first made high-tech machinery of the era, such as steam engines for naval ships. They were tied in tightly to the Naval Academy and the local academic community; for example, technicians at what would become the Whitehead torpedo plant provided the first experimental proof of Mach’s concept of the influence of the speed of sound on aerodynamics.

A different kind of "Coast Guard," this primitive weapon inspired the naval torpedo we know today.

A different kind of “Coast Guard,” this primitive weapon inspired the naval torpedo we know today.

By happy coincidence an officer (Commander — Fregattenkapitän – Giovanni Luppis) was struggling with a remote-controlled surface boat IED he’d invented, which he called the Coast Guard. His surface torpedo — for that is what it was — had a spring-and-clockwork mechanism and steering bridles for control from the shore, and a contact fuze for detonating if someone was lucky enough to guide it onto an enemy ship. Here was a problematic gadget, but the germ of a very good idea, and Whitehead and a talented team including his son John and his right-hand man, Anibale Plöch. Unlike many Victorian Age inventors, Whitehead seldom sought patents, preferring to maintain his technical advantages as trade secrets.

And technical advantages he had.

Whitehead's (and the world's) first torpedo, 1866.

Whitehead’s (and the world’s) first torpedo, 1866.


To make his torpedo work, Whitehead and his team had to solve several problems: propulsion, stability&control, and effect. The last of these was the easiest: a cylindrical bronze torpedo could carry sufficient explosive to sink any modern dreadnought, and, moreover, deliver it below the water line where the ship was most vulnerable. The Empire was well-stocked with talented artillerists and engineers, and neither fuzes nor explosives required research, simply development. That part was basic engineering, not science.

The true developments were propulsive and control based. Whitehead used steam for the first torpedo, and then changed to a compressed-air-powered piston engine, for more power and quicker preparation to fire. The compressed-air engines were made in a variety of designs and layouts.

Of course, the engine is only half of a naval powerplant — the other half is the propeller.  These three recovered torpedo tails tell the story of improved propellers (they also show the growing awareness of fluid dynamics. The first torpedo was sharply spiked fore and aft — by the end of the 19th century, a blunter shape with a round nose was proven to generate less hydrodynamic drag).

1868 torpedo shows pointed end and single-screw with a duct ring.

1868 torpedo shows pointed end and single-screw with a duct ring.

1884 torpedo is a little thicker and has introduced dual counterrotating props to neutralize torque.

1884 torpedo is a little thicker and has introduced dual counterrotating props to neutralize torque. The ring was found to inhibit propeller efficiency.

1898 torpedo has a more organic shape and well-uptimized counterrotating screws.

1898 torpedo has a more organic shape and well-optimized counterrotating screws.

Devices pioneered here for control were a mechanical depth control and a variety of steering gyroscopes. John Whitehead tried to develop a torpedo gyroscope but his model was a dead end. Instead, they purchased a design from former Whitehead engineer Lodovico Obry. Much of this history is recounted on the Torpedo of Rijeka website.

The Obry gyroscope

The Obry gyroscope

In the years leading up to the Great War, Whitehead’s company, Torpedofabrik Whitehead AG, was controlled by a British syndicate of the arms and engineering giants Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth, who’d acquired it on his death in 1905 and continued torpedo development.

After the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire at war’s end, the factory was acquired by an influential Italian family, and its name was changed to an Italian one, but cutting-edge torpedo development for all nations resumed. The testing station on the docks had a new level built with a catapult to simulate aerial torpedo launches.

The torpedo launch test station offered a ship-launch level, and air-launch level with catapult, and an observation level.

The torpedo launch test station offered a ship-launch level, and air-launch level with catapult, and an observation level.

The plant resumed torpedo production again after being bombed by the Allies in World War II, but ceased that production in the 1960s. The physical plant and its distinctive torpedo test tower (alas, not the original from 1866 but the upgrade from the 20th Century) still exist. The enthusiasts of the Torpedo of Rijeka website hope to establish a permanent museum to their city’s most enduring export. Rijeka today is a sun-blessed city on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, and a reasonable European vacation destination.

Whitehead had a most remarkable life. His daughter Alice married the skipper of the Austrian boat that tested and validated his prototype torpedoes; his granddaughter Agnes inherited his vast fortune, and she in turn married an Austro-Hungarian minor nobleman and naval officer that she met at a sub commissioning. The officer would later command that sub and another on his way to becoming the Empire’s top-scoring submarine ace, in which career he naturally used Whitehead torpedoes to sink English and Italian vessels (including an Italian submarine, Nereida, in possibly the first sub-on-sub torpedo battle in history).

You might have heard of the guy, who later emigrated to the United States with their kids after Agnes passed away. His name was Georg, Baron von Trapp.

Ave Atque Vale, A-10 Warthog (Video Rich)

Let us set up this video. It’s a one minute clip from an IMAX film, Fighter Pilot, and the whole movie actually tells more of the story of the F-15s than the A-10s they’re escorting, but the clip focuses on one A-10 gun run. This is a trip to the range for live fire, and the sequence of events is this:

  1. You see F-15s (these might be Strike Eagles) breaking left and right (a two-ship each way).
  2. A two-ship element of A-10s fires flares, fires a GAU-8 burst, and breaks left.
  3. Either another element, or the same one shown again? Both A-10 elements are shown first from behind and overhead, then from beside, obviously filmed from another aircraft.
  4. Then you see the ground point of view. You see F-15s approaching on the deck, and a tank (an old M60A1 deployed as a range target) on the left. If you look closely (and have the video  on full screen) you can see the Warthogs below and behind the fighters.
  5. Some A-10 pilots clearly have more luck, or skill, than others. You can wound personnel in the open with 30mm near-misses, but nothing but hits will kill a tank. You’ll see plenty of hits, though, and the target’s-eye view was worth the risk of an unattended (obviously) camera.

You can dismiss the dopey explanations that come on screen; the poster added them because, well, most YouTube commenters are living proof that half of humanity is below average.

You can’t have just one gun run, although that’s the most beautifully photographed one you’re going to get. Courtesy of the Air Force, here’s two more videos of A-10s in range fire action just last year at the Nevada Test and Training Range.

In the second video, the camera’s further from the action (as you can tell by the elapsed time between the gunsmoke at the Warthog’s nose and the sound of hog-snort). Note that most of the rounds in both videos are near-misses, but there are some spectacular hits. The targets here are old 8″ M107 SP Howitzers.

This airplane is to be scrapped — not because they have anything to replace it, they’re replacing it with empty hangars and unemployed pilots and mechanics. They’re scrapping it because the money is needed for corporate welfare for big contributors, and handouts for the idle.

But we’re not cynical.

To return to the technical stuff that brings us together, can you watch that and not wonder how in hell they reload and maintain that thing? After all, they built the entire plane around it (The A-10 and its unsuccessful A-9 competitor were the first planes built around a gun since the P-39 of the late 1930s, which was built around the M1 37mm cannon made by, of all firms, Oldsmobile).

Unlike World War II, where armorers came out on trucks and handed cans of belted .50 ammo over to bomber gunners or loaded them in the wings or nose of fighters, the GAU-8′s 30mm rounds take some machinery to load up. (Actually, the gun can be loaded by hand, but it’s an ordeal to do it). Normally, the rounds are contained in plastic cylindrical loaders, which the loading machine shucks them out of like husking corn, before stuffing them in the A-10. (In real combat, other ordies would be hanging bombs and/or missiles on the plane’s hard points, but in training they usually separate training for bombing and gunnery).

And if you haven’t had enough, here’s more behind the scenes A-10 reloading (about ten minutes of loading and interviews with ordnance airmen):

And finally, here’s a couple of GAU-8 ground test fires, probably at General Electric’s facilities in Vermont.


Sure, we could talk about the specs of the GAU-8, like its incredible muzzle velocity, uncanny reliability, or four-figure rate of fire, but you know, you can look all that stuff up. We thought we’d just start your day off right with a few videos of eager young aviators delivering the tank-busting Power of Holy Smite from on high, and eager young ground-crew airmen stuffing that power back in the magazine so the whole thing can be done again.

These may be the last months of the service life of these incredible airplanes, and the guns they’re built around. They’re soon to go the way of the Republic Aircraft Thunderbolt (which they’re actually named after, in an official name that’s scarcely used), Republic Thunderchief, and a hundred other combat types. This will be the last plane that carries the lineage of Alexander P. DeSeversky, a White Russian who became an American aviation pioneer, and Sherman Fairchild, who started building airplanes to support an aerial photography business. (Yes, the same Fairchild company that later invested in Armalite in AR-10 prototype days).

Saburo Sakai’s Wounds, and Lew Jones

Painting: August 7, 1942, Sakai attacks VB-6.

Painting: August 7, 1942, Saburo Sakai attacks VB-6.

Recently we had some discussion in the comments, after we posted words to the effect of, “would you want to face Saburo Sakai with these?” and an illustration of a pair of ANM2 .30 Browning machine guns. Several commenters noted that somebody did, in an SBD Dauntless rather than the SB2C Helldiver whose tail-gun installation was shown.

In fact, on August 7, 1942, then-PO1 Sakai and another A6M2 Zero pilot swept in behind a formation of eight Grumman Wildcats. It was only on closing in that they discovered that they were hitting, not fighters with forward-firing armaments only, but the Douglas Dauntlesses of Bombing Squadron Six from USS Enterprise. At 300 yards (well within the range of the SBD’s twin .30 guns) Sakai realized his mistake. To turn now was to expose a larger aspect of his aircraft to American gunfire — the best bad option available to him was to brazen it out, and he selected a Dauntless and let rip, sailing into the formation guns-first. He approached from below his enemies’ tails, limiting their ability to return fire without maneuvering.

Contemporary view of an SBD formation from a gunner's cockpit.

Contemporary view of an SBD formation from a gunner’s cockpit.

(Let us digress for a moment to explain why Sakai, one of Japan’s greatest aces, was only a First Class Petty Officer at this time. Most Japanese pilots, like at least some of the pilots of many other nations, were enlisted men and NCOs or Petty Officers; unlike say, the British, where a sergeant-pilot often progressed to a commission, the Japanese strictly limited such pilots’ access to officer rank. Furthermore, the Japanese aeronautical culture celebrated teamwork and shunned the exaltation of “aces” or any kind of individual heroes).

Sakai’s wingman vanished and he alone bore the wrath of sixteen Brownings at a range that shrank to 100 feet. The gunner he was firing at was Harold Lewellyn “Lew” Jones, in Lieutenant Carl H. Horenburger’s Dauntless. Jones recounts the attack:

As the Zero coming directly in from astern was about 500 feet away, he started shooting, Some of our gunners answered with their twin .30 caliber machine guns. Some gunners, including myself, could not bring our guns to bear on him without damaging our tails, but as the Zero turned to the right and pulled up to miss us, every gunner was shooting at him…he could have been only 100 feet away!

His cockpit exploded, the canopy tore, and something flew out. I could see his face clearly, his body and head forced back against the headrest of the cockpit. The plane went almost vertically upwards and then fell smoking. That was the last I saw of him.

That was the last he saw of him, for now. Jones’s pilot Horenburger and Sakai both had similar aeronautical problems at this point: getting back “home,” respectively the Enterprise and the airfield in New Guinea the Allies knew as Rabaul East and the Japanese as Lakunai.

Horenburger ultimately trapped on Enterprise with a badly riddled airplane; medics ran up to the gunner’s compartment with a stretcher, expecting to remove the corpse of Jones. But despite the fresh ventilation of the SBD’s airframe, Jones was fine: a well-positioned armor plate  saved his skin.

Sakai (in scarf and flying gear) walking to debriefing despite head wounds.

Sakai (in scarf and flying gear) walking to debriefing despite head wounds. August 7, 1942.

Sakai, on the other hand, was not quite so lucky. The Zero had no protective armor. Wounded in the head, he was half-blind and partially paralyzed, and still over four hours’ cruise from New Guinea. Despite the wounds, blood loss, and pain, he brought his A6M2 home where ground personnel counted 232 (!) bullet holes. He deferred medical treatment and stalked to the debriefing hut, where he did his duty to his unit and fellow airmen before surrendering himself to the dispensary.

Both Sakai and Jones continued to fly, Sakai to the war’s end, and Jones for years afterward. Sakai became an exponent of peace and goodwill, and his daughter attended school in the USA and married an American. But the old warrior still would step up to defend the honor of his fellow naval men. Jones, two other VB-6 survivors, and Sakai met in California in 1982, 40 years after their aerial battle. The incomparable historian of the Pacific Air War, Henry Sakaida, arrenged the meeting.

Sakai's helmet with bloodstains and .30 caliber holes, Nimitz Museum.

Sakai’s helmet and goggles with bloodstains, dents, and .30 caliber holes, Nimitz Museum.

Lew Jones passed away in 2009 at age 88, after a long and eventful life. His enemy turned friend, Saburo Sakai, the highest-scoring surviving ace of the Pacific war, predeceased him in 2000 at age 84. On Sakai’s death, his bloody helmet and shattered goggles from the August 7, 1942 fight, which had been given to Lew Jones, were presented to the Nimitz Museum, where they are on display with other Sakai artifacts.

This report depends extensively on Sakaida’s writing at, especially his recounting of the August 7 fight. We also recommend any and all of Sakaida’s books absolutely without reservation.  Here’s another appreciation of the great Sakai, with scans from one of Sakaida’s books, including photos of the 1982 reunion mentioned above!

Guns of Sun n Fun

Sun n Fun is an airshow in Florida every spring; it’s the second biggest airshow in the US (the king of them all is Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin at the end of July and beginning of August). So your humble host befinds himself there on business, but can’t stop looking at the guns.

For instance, there’s this .50 gun, badly corroded, that was excavated from a buried wreck of a wartime B-17. It appears to have been a waist gun. (These pictures do embiggen, but on this one the original’s kind of fuzzy. Up close, the gun is severely corroded and pitted).


Then, there’s this fixed gun, barely visible in the wing root of a Douglas AD-5 Skyraider (after 1962 known as the A-1E), a plane that was designed for World War II, delivered too late, and went on to be a workhorse of the Korean and Vietnam wars. The gun is the M2 20mm cannon, a rather unreliable copy of the Hispano-Suiza Hs.404 that was the standard US 20mm in the 2nd World War.



(Note: those lounging dudes are not foreshortened. The Skyraider is really that big).

The gun in this wing root is, like most guns on warbirds, permanently demilled to ATF standards. It’s also missing some pieces, like the feed tray cover. It was really a pretty dreadful 20mm, especially compared to its German opposite numbers but even to the British and French versions of the Hispano-Suiza, but it was the only one we had. (Most WWII fighters made do with the less powerful but vastly more reliable Browning .50s).

Here’s the less-remembered Browning, the aerial .30, in a twin flexible mount (resembling an improved Scarff ring) on the world’s only flying Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The Helldiver had many problems, one of which was inadequate defensive armament (would you want to face Saburo Sakai from behind these guns?). But the plane it replaced, the Douglas SBD Dauntless, usually had one .30-cal defensive gun.

(This picture is not loading for reasons known only to the Gods of WordPress. We’ll fix it later).

Here’s another angle. Ammunition was normally a mixed belt of API and API Tracer.


The rear cockpit of the Helldiver contains this amusing placard:


Yeah. In the middle of the war, some bureaucrat in the forerunner of the FAA wanted a placard sniffing that the plane did not meet certification standards, just in case someone might try to set up an airline off the deck of a carrier Somewhere In The South Pacific. That’s truly worth a Lord Love a Duck™.

One airframe, through history

In 1959, the US Air Force was the world’s dominant air arm, with thousands of aircraft in service and thousands more built every year. One of those 1959 models was KC-135A 59-1472, a Boeing tanker/freighter jet on an airframe that was a forerunner of the Boeing 707, the first really successful jetliner. (True, the DeHavilland Comet came earlier, but it wasn’t all that successful until an explosive-decompression problem was solved, by which time it was far behind US types).

59-1472  was polished aluminum with minimal markings, including the tail number 91472 displayed on its vertical fin. It still looked like that about 12 years later, when it was photographed refueling F-4 and F-105 type aircraft in the Vietnam War.

Phantoms & Thuds

That dramatic picture came from a set of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base pictures, visible here.

If you embiggen the picture (which will reward you) you will see red stars on the intake splitter of the F-4; it is the plane of ace Mig killer (and later, BG) Steve Ritchie. We’ve met the man. Fortunately, we were outdoors: no known structure can contain his ego. But we digress.

The F-105D and -F aircraft were soon to be decommissioned after the war, and the Phantom is on its last legs, today, as a drone. The Iranians, who keep ancient F-4s in the air by cannibalization and sanctions-busting, are one of the few nations still operating manned F-4s (the Luftwaffe retired theirs last year).

The tankers were vital to the Vietnam War effort.

Seeing the picture made us intensively curious about 59-1472. We quickly found this picture, which showed she was still in the Air Force about another decade on, by this time wearing grey paint and the markings of the Strategic Air Command, at RAF Mildenhall. By the time this photo was taken in 1977, 59-1472 was voting age.

59-1472 1977

An obsessive fellow named Joe Baugher has maintained a database of US military serial numbers for decades. In his 1959 Serial Number List, Joe has a note that 59-1472 was one of the tankers converted to KC-135R, with improved avionics and much more powerful and efficient high-bypass turbofans. (The original engines were turbojets, which burn far more fuel, and have much skinnier nacelles). The “R” upgrade gave the tanker fleet a new vitality, and is the key to why these ancient, in airplane terms, machines can still be useful, when most of the fighters they once fueled are now beer cans and storm windows. This is what 59-1472 looks like as an -R model:

Screenshot 2014-03-18 19.12.13

So what happened to 59-1472? She’s still flying! Here’s a video that German spotter Peter Grütering took in Geilenkirchen, Germany on May 15, 2013, and it shows 91472, looking good as new and still flying with the Hawaii Air National Guard. (The first 10+ minutes of the video shows the taxi and takeoff of an E-3 AWACS, another 707/C-135 variant; only the last 3.5 minutes or so shows 91472).  We checked Peter Grütering’s website and didn’t find any stills of the bird; the one above came from his video.

If anything, tankers like 59-1472 are even more important today than they were when she was bought by the Air Force, 55 years ago. Then, the USA had a wide range of bases surrounding and containing our possible enemies — and giving our fighters and bombers places to launch from. Then, the USA had 27 or 28 aircraft carriers in commission (now there are 10, and only half are deployable at any one time, and they embark only fighter-bombers and helicopters, without most of the 1959 strike capability). Now, all we can do is expect pilots to fly 12, or 14, or 28 hour missions with frequent tanker visits.

Of course, if you think the biggest threat to world peace is the US Military, as the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and Ambassador to the United Nations all do, that’s a good thing.

End of Boeing Warplane Production Looms

Endangered species: EA-18G Growler. This one embiggens big indeed (US Navy Photo)

Endangered species: EA-18G Growler. This one embiggens big indeed (US Navy Photo)

In an era of extreme defense retrenchment, there are basically three things you can do, as a company highly dependent on defense contracts:

  1. You can hope for the budget climate to turn around, while funding your own existence, at least, until the money runs out. This is what Evergreen Air Cargo tried to do; they lost.
  2. You can try to diversify from government-contract to commercial-contract business. This is too much of a cultural leap for companies addicted to the crack of cost-plus government contracts (we’re lookin’ at you, Booz-Allen) to do. If your company is already running both government and commercial operations, you might not be able to use all your .gov capacity on the .com side, which means wrenching cuts and layoffs. To try to shift your doomed military contract business towards the growth side of government is a variant of this play, but it certainly isn’t possible for everybody. Another variant is to try to sell to foreign militaries, but many of them are themselves addicted to the crack of the DOD Foreign Military Sales aid budget, and with that too declining, doors worldwide are slamming shut to US prime contractors.
  3. You can just roll the defense side up. You can call it a hiatus or going into standby mode, but once you’ve lost the talent and the tribal knowledge that was your defense operation, you can’t get it back economically.

Boeing Military Aircraft Company has tried #1 and all variations of #2, and is looking at #3 in the short-term future. Boeing’s military side started with the company’s own bomber plant in Wichita, and has grown through several acquisitions. No bombers have been produced in the USA in over a decade, and there are no plans to produce more. The P-8 Poseidon is a weaponized 737, and Boeing’s tanker likewise is a jetliner in a soldier suit. Boeing’s military transport line, the C-17, was acquired with McDonnell Douglas; its plant in Southern California is scheduled to close when the planes now on the schedule, which are for foreign air forces or completely on spec, are complete. Boeing’s helicopters came from acquisitions of Hughes and, much earlier, Piasecki; the AH-64 production line, too, is likely to close (Boeing didn’t retain the smaller Hughes helicopter line).

This EA-18G was painted in WWII three-tone camouflage scheme in 2010-11 for the Centennial of Naval Aviation celebration.

This EA-18G (Bu No 166899) was painted in WWII three-tone camouflage scheme in 2010-11 for the Centennial of Naval Aviation celebration. 

The production line on the bubble now — its fate will be decided in the next ninety days — is the St. Louis fighter line, also acquired in the McDonnell Douglas purchase. Foreign interest in the planes has been sunk by the jet’s uncompetitively high prices ($50 million plus for a base Super Hornet, $60 m for a Growler). This pricing is the result of decades of cost-plus sales to the US DOD. With Navy orders for Super Hornet and Growler fighter and electronic-warfare aircraft cut again, the production line that produced over 5,000 Phantoms before turning out thousands of F-18s is likely to go silent — for good.

If there are, as currently projected, no F-18 E/F or EA-18G orders in the 2015 budget, the long lead time items for that production won’t be ordered in 2014, and the St Louis plant and, probably, some parts makers, will close by 2016.

Boeing has no follow-on contracts or designs for combat or cargo aircraft, and they’ve lost competition for contract after contract. Company leadership has been preoccupied with the commercial market, where Boeing faces its own challenges, and by such self-inflicted drama as the relocation of corporate HQ to a city far from any customers or plants and a botched attempt at outsourcing that traded vital intellectual property for cheap, but below-spec parts.

The US Air Force is looking to run a trainer competition. The US industrial base for military aircraft has already become so decrepit that all three of the currently announced competitors originate in foreign countries (UK, South Korea, and, we are not making this up, Russia). Boeing no longer has the capability to design such an aircraft in-house, and has been seeking partnership with SAAB of Sweden.

So that’s where we stand: during two periods of defense cuts (the 1990s and the current era), our broad and deep military aircraft industry consolidated into two massive companies, one of which is on the brink of a market exit, and neither of which can design an unarmed jet trainer.

So how much has aviation been cut?

going-out-of-businessRather a lot. We mentioned that the Navy had restricted its pilots to 11 hours a month some time ago. Turns out, according to a Julian Barnes report in the WSJ (if you’re paywalled out, this Google search will get you in), the Air Force is flying even less: a max of 120 hours a year, or 10 a month. The cuts hit junior pilots the hardest:

The training cutbacks have fallen heaviest on younger, more inexperienced pilots. Experienced pilots resumed flying first because they have responsibility for training junior officers. As a result, it takes longer for young pilots to move from wingman to flight lead to instructor pilot, according to the Air Force.

“You know the game chutes and ladders? What we are finding right now is the chutes are longer than the ladders,” said Lt. Col Brian Stahl, a F-16 pilot. “We need to get the younger pilots back flying more, and that is what we are having difficulty doing right now.”

Air Force officials worry that basic skills have grown rusty. “When pilots don’t fly, they make mistakes,” Gen. Field said. “In a high-threat environment is when mistakes become deadly.”

Just flying a high-performance combat jet is pretty dangerous, even before people start shooting at you. Most aircraft communities have some demanding inflight tasks, and most of them are required to be prepared to operate in all weather, around the clock.

It’s important to hone the newbies’ skills so that they’re not dead meat in a fight (or on a partial-panel instrument approach to minimums), but it’s also important to give them flight time, or they’ll hit “eject” — not from the planes they’re not getting to fly, but from the drudgery of a deskbound, ground-locked career. Nobody joined for his additional duties as fire safety officer, classified courier, or Combined Federal Campaign manager.

This has been coming for a while. Back in April, an Air Force general told National Review’s Michael Auslin that the force was “doing more with zero,” and since then, the budget’s been further cut.

Even military pay has been cut — even the disability retirements of the wounded. An attempt to restore that money by cutting a fraud-saturated program that provides cash benefits in the guise of “tax credits” to illegal aliens foundered on a party-line vote this month.

You might think, even if you knew that Chinese pilots fly 150 hours a year, the 120 achieved by USAF jet jockeys is almost comparable, right? Well, not exactly. You see, the only pilots making 120 hours are the ones forward-deployed in South Korea, an unstable place that could go kinetic any time (or could continue to limp along in the cold war of the last sixty years, too). Pilots based in CONUS don’t even get 100 hours a year.

A few years ago, they got 300. Now the most that anyone gets is 150 — and he’s not an American pilot: he’s that guy in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

Entire squadrons — four of the six combat squadrons forward-deployed in Europe, for example — have been grounded. From January to April, the readiness of USAF combat units plunged from 83% (not good) to 70% (pretty bad), a general told Auslin, and since April readiness has fallen further still, and now approaches “Hollow Army” levels of the 1970s.

The administration has also canceled the F-22 and is drawing out F-35 production, and the B-1, KC-10, MQ-1 and A-10 fleets are on the bubble (the NDAA, just passed, does direct the USAF to keep the A-10, but doesn’t necessarily provide the money).

But hey, they have ensured readiness… by firing an Air Force general. His crime? Dancing with a suspect Russian woman while on an international nuclear security exercise. Silly general. If he was paying attention, he’d have known that SecDef Hagel and the rest of the E Ring suits wanted to see him dancing with a Russian dude.

Canadian Defence History Considered


Remember this? If you're Canadian and old, maybe. It was replaced by the Maple Leaf in 1965.

Remember this? If you’re Canadian and old, maybe. It was replaced by the Maple Leaf in 1965.

Brian Wang had a brief and link-rich post at Next Big Future a couple of days ago, on a subject we’ve discussed before: Canada’s deliberate retrograde from a first-class first-world Army, Navy and Air Force to a small, professional European-style tripwire/peacekeeper force.  He hangs the onus on former PM John Diefenbaker:

Diefenbaker of Canada agreed to stop making major weapons in 1959 and wound down Canada’s military from 5% of GDP to about 2% of GDP over 6 years

We’re not quite sure who he “agreed” with, but the 1950s saw steady decline in what Canada actually fielded; then, with two complementary Diefenbaker decisions, there was an inflection point that accelerated the cuts. The first decision was to cancel home-grown defense programs like the Avro Arrow aircraft and Canadian support for Gerald Bull’s artillery developments. The second was to commit Canada to closer defense integration with the US, with the DEW line and NORAD as combined efforts, and Canadian committment to US defense programs as a buyer. The Arrow decision in particular remains controversial in Canada. It destroyed, for a very long time, Canada’s industrial base for anything but light general aviation aircraft. This industrial base took 30 years to rebuild, but the rebuilding wasn’t complete and Canadian airframers and engine manufactures continue to struggle.

Diefenbaker’s decisions weren’t taken without thought. The problem for Canadian defense is, essentially, defense against what or whom? In 1959, PM Diefenbaker’s worry was Soviet bombers, which had to cross Canada to get to the Soviets’ glavniy vrag, “main enemy,” the USA. (They didn’t have to but the arctic route is by far the most efficient, most economical, and exposes the greatest number of American targets). From his point of view, his country could either be a participant in this war or a mere battlefield, without a vote in how the war took place.

Was the price of US alliance the elimination of Canada’s aerospace/defense industrial base? That’s impossible to say, as whatever demarches passed between Washington and Ottawa haven’t been preserved, let alone made public. But it might have been the “price” in  economic terms. Wang goes on to note the Canadian decline in defense dollars as a percentage of GDP:

Canada outsourced most of military to the USA starting in about 1957-1964 when defense spending went from about 5% of GDP to about 2.5% of GDP. It was the deal that the US pressured Canada into accepting in 1957-1964. Canada agreed. The US wanted to have the bulk of military spending and responsibility and wanted all of the military manufacturing.

We’re not sure about that, although US defense suits did see the CF-105 (and the latter British TSR.1) aircraft as threatening to US export sales of contemporary US fighter aircraft, like the F4J (later F-4 with suffixes) Phantom II that was inferior in performance to the CF-105, but went on to great export success, still flying in a few countries (including Iran!), and the F-111 (which was never officially named), that was inferior in performance to the TSR.1, and went on to be a spectacular sales failure, failing to sell to any foreign country, or even to putative launch customer, the US Navy.

Canada had 1.1 million people who served in World War 2. By the end of the War, Canada had the world’s fourth largest air force and third largest navy.

Canada had a population of about 12 million people during world war 2.

Canada had 26000 soldiers in the Korea War.

North American Aerospace Defense Command was formed in 1958 (as NORAD, North American Radar Air Defense –Ed.)

Canada’s greatest aeronautical achievement was the CF-105 (supersonic Avro Arrow) jet fighter, and the subsequent cancellation of the project in 1959 still remains a story of political intrigue and controversy.

There are a couple of good books on the Arrow, and what became of the engineers. A lot of them wound up in Southern California, then a hotbed of US aerospace activity, and worked on the Gemini and Apollo programs — only to be laid off again. (Southern California aerospace has been hit as hard by cuts and consolidations as Canada’s sector has).

Prime Minister Diefenbaker was under pressure from the US to join their defence plan by acquiring the American Bomarc missiles. Faced with the skyrocketing costs, and the inability to sell the Arrow to Europe or the US, Diefenbaker cancelled the project on February 20,1959. An angry A.V. Roe immediately fired his 14,000 employees, and the government ordered all plans and prototypes destroyed.

via Diefenbaker of Canada agreed to stop making major weapons in 1959 and wound down Canada’s military from 5% of GDP to about 2% of GDP over 6 years.

Canada’s current defense spending is around 1% of GDP, but the US has similarly declined in defense spending by GDP — US is around 3%. The “decline,” though, is in part due to much nondefense higher GDP numbers in both high-productivity economies.

Could Canada spend more on defense? Probably. Should they? Probably not. While it’s great for national prestige to have a million-man army, or aircraft carriers (both of which Canada had in WWII and until 1970 budget cuts respectively), it’s probably a better strategy to keep that productive manpower in the economy and seek trustworthy allies, instead.

Canada faces no invasion threat, no credible threat of air attack or naval blockade, and a defense “problem set” that is heavy on large, open areas to patrol and remote areas in which to guard Canadian sovereignty.

So as damaging as Diefenbaker’s cuts were to Canada’s martial tradition and international prestige, from a Canadian point of view, it might have been the right thing to do.

Sure is a pity about that Avro Arrow, though.

The Bends — a Threat to U-2 Pilots

The view from the U-2Part of flying the U-2 at operational altitudes at and above 70,000 feet, well over twice the altitude that is unable to support life, is knowing and managing the medical risks, the cockpit pressurization system (which only pressurizes the aircraft to 29,000 feet, not the comfortable 8,000 feet of a jetliner)  and the pilot’s pressure suit (the only thing that will keep him alive if his cockpit pressurization fails, or if he has to abandon the aircraft without descending into thicker air). The aeromedical risks include the scourges of mountaineers — high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema. But there’s also a constant risk of Decompression Sickness (DCS): as divers have long known it, “the bends.”

While breathing oxygen under pressure will keep a pilot alive at lower altitudes, the gases dissolved in his bloodstream will bubble fatally above an altitude of approximately 50,000 feet. There have been some tragic deaths when pilots fly above FL500 without a preessure suit and lose cockpit pressurization (one reason airliners won’t fly at those altitudes, and military HALO and HAHO jumps take place from about FL300 down). One tragic loss involved a DOD contractor flying a QF-100 on a positioning flight. He zoomed to high altitude and lost pressure. Despite diving to thicker air as fast as the jet could go, and feeling better on the ground, he passed away from DCS that night.

But even cumulative exposure to U-2 cockpits very seldom produced DCS, even when the plane was the workhors of Cold War ISR — until recently. No one is entirely sure why: longer missions, more frequent flights, demanding cockpit tasks, the stress of flying in direct support of ground combat operations have all been mooted as possible factors. The age of the Air Forces’s remaining U-2 airframes is probably not a factor, even though they’re as old as the pilots who fly them: the pressurization system works as designed. (Pressurizing the plane’s cockpit to shirtsleeve altitude wasn’t practical when it was designed in the early 1950s; lightness of construction was a crucial design requirement).

Lieutenant Colonel Blake Smith is a U-2 pilot who retired early last year. He often served as director of operations for the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, to which the U-2 is assigned, during the shift toward combat support missions, and he knew the pilots and their problems well. He remembers that when he joined the program in 1998, DCS was mostly a non-issue. Pilots might complain of minor joint pain, but once they were back on the ground and rested, their symptoms would generally get better.

“Years ago, whenever you mentioned you had a little bit of DCS, the reaction from the medical forces, and the reaction from the Air Force for that matter, was not as thorough and robust as it is now,” says Smith.

What changed, he says, was the sudden appearance of DCS cases that affected the pilots’ central nervous systems, something no one in the program was used to handling. On the way home from flying a long-duration combat mission for Enduring Freedom in late 2002, Major Greg Kimbrough suffered severe symptoms. Having been trained to expect joint pain and a headache, he had no idea that his inability to read fine print or recognize his landing field was indicative of decompression sickness. “What we got when we went through our initial training was the basics of it,” says Kimbrough, “and that was all based on past events,” when the cases were minor.

By the time he was having major symptoms at altitude, Kimbrough’s cognition was so compromised that it never occurred to him to call for help. Somehow he was able to land his U-2 safely, but he has little memory of the last hours of the flight.

via Killer at 70,000 Feet | Military Aviation | Air & Space Magazine.

Kimbrough’s ordeal was far from the worst: DCS left pilot Kevin Henry unconscious in his plane, and in brief interludes of consciousness, unable to understand how to fly the jet. With the help of his squadron commander on the radio, friendly jets in the air, and something approximating divine intervention or blind luck, he got the jet on the ground, and was pulled unconscious from the cockpit; in time it was clear that he had suffered permanent brain damage. He works around it as best he can (he now is a simulator instructor, making the best of being grounded).

The AIr Force is developing a more sophisticated understanding of high-altitude physiology than it has had before. It has found that some DCS victims might be unsafe in a U-2, but can continue their flying careers closer to the ground. The Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine article on this phenomenon is very interesting and well-reported. Read The Whole Thing™

A poem and a premonition

RAF file photo of a Boston in Italy, March 1944.

RAF file photo of a Boston in Italy, March 1944.

David Kennedy Raikes was an accomplished poet, by age 20. That’s a good thing, as that’s all the time he got. Raikes was a Royal Air Force sergeant pilot of a Douglas Boston light bomber — the same plane the USAAF called the A-20 Havoc and was replacing at war’s end with the A-26 Invader. Bostons, or Havocs, were a staple of Lend-Lease and were operated not only by the USAAC/USAAF but also by Russia and Free France as well as by the RAF.

Raikes almost made it to the end of the war, but perhaps he had a premonition of his death. In a slim volume of his poetry published some nine years posthumously, the verse of the fallen airman evokes a spooky prescience:

And some did not come back. We never knew
Whether they lived – at first just overdue,
Till minutes changed to hours, and still no news.
One went to bed; but roused by later crews,
Asked ‘Were they back yet?’ and being answered ‘No’,
Went back to sleep.

One’s waking eyes sought out the empty beds,
And ‘Damn’, you said, ‘another kit to pack’;
I never liked that part, you never knew
What privacies your sorting might lay bare.
I always tried to leave my kit arranged
In decent tidiness. You never knew.
But that is past. The healing river flows
And washes clean the wound with passing years.
We grieve not now. There was a time for tears,
When Death stood by us, and we dared not weep.
Let the seas close above them, and the dissolving deep.

raikes-missionYou never knew, indeed. Raikes’s Boston, RAF serial BZ590, lifted off from Forli Aerodrome near what’s now the Med resort of Rimini, at about 9 PM on April 21 1945. BZ590 was assigned to attack a bridge and conduct armed reconnaissance — translation: “look for anything worth shooting or blowing up” — along the Po Valley. A dry report from 18 Squadron OC, Wing Commander V. Rees, notes that “Since that time, nothing is known.”

And that’s where the state of knowledge stood, then and for many decades into the future, until Italian wreck-finders unearthed the remains of BZ590 — and its four-man crew — in 2011. The crew’s remains were positively ID’d this year and the four airmen, all of whom were, like their skipper, 20 years old, were reinterred with honor in a common casket.

The excavation took place because local people remembered the location of a plane crash, and that, after the wreck burned for days, Axis troops — Germans or Italian fascists, no one was sure — filled in the crater, plane, crew and all.

raikes-16pistolaAmong the artifacts unearthed from the crash site were Raikes’s Smith & Wesson revolver, and the two Browning machine guns from the dorsal turret manned by Warrant Officer John Penboss Hunt, an Australian. The guns were much the worse for wear — for impact forces, fire, and decades of corrosion.

THE CREW OF BZ590: Raikes, Bostock, Perkins, Hunt.

THE CREW OF BZ590: Raikes, Bostock, Perkins, Hunt.

The other two crewmen were Britons, like Raikes: Alexander Thomas Bostock, radio op, and David Millard Perkins, the navigator. A watch personalized to Hunt, and an engagement ring of Perkins’s, were also recovered. These were returned to the families of the deceased.

At the memorial service, an Australian official noted that Hunt was one they were able to cross off their list of war missing, which numbers about 1,100.

The Last Post was played at the ceremony, as always at a British military funeral. This time, though, the bugler wasn’t a British soldier — he was Ray Madge, the half-nephew of Hunt.


We learned of this perusing the RAAF’s Air Force magazine in hard copy, which had a story on Hunt. There are many other stories out there:

Yes, this story piqued our interest.