Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

Submarines: The Soviet Sub Experience in WWII

This remarkable documentary is an English dub of an episode of a Russian TV series. In English the series, which ran in the UK in the dubbed version, is called Soviet Storm, and this is episode 13.  (Fear not the language; while the charts and maps still appear in Russian, the narration is professionally rendered in native English). This episode deals with the sea war, which really means, essentially, the sub war. The video shows why: when the Soviets tried surface operations, the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe cleaned their clock. So Stalin’s sailors took their war below the surface, at great risk, but also, to great effect.

At the start of the War, for instance, the Red Navy was weak in surface power, but it had a numerically strong submarine fleet — not as big as the Germans’ but the Soviets weren’t trying to contest the Atlantic convoy routes.

We didn’t know about the 25-mile-long submarine net barrier that the Germans erected in the Gulf of Finland, from the Porkkala-Udd peninsula to Naissar Island and Makilyuto Island off Tallin.

The guts and daring of the Soviet skippers and crews you learn a little bit about here are not much different from their Allied or enemy counterparts. So are their fates — the Baltic Fleet lost nearly half of their subs in 1942. A sunken sub usually bore its entire crew down to the eternal depths; if sunk on the surface, there might be a handful of survivors. As we saw recently with the cunning mine trap the British laid for U-Boats, mines are deadly to submarines; German and Finnish minefields accounted for many of the Russians’ subs whose fates are known.

For a clearly nationally-oriented production, it’s notably even-handed, with neutral phrasing during a discussion of disputed Soviet sub incursions into Swedish waters. Likewise, neutral phrasing handles the  There is a very interesting treatment of German attacks on Halifax-Murmansk PQ convoys; it hadn’t struck us before that the first seven convoys got through without a scratch, because it took the Germans a while to react to the problem.

Unfortunately, there’s very little about Soviet sub technology. It seems to have been at par with that of other nations at the start of the war, but the thrust of this document is operational, not technical. There’s also nothing about the training or life of submariners, whether they were ace commanders, long-service salts or new recruits on their first patrol. These omissions merely whet our appetite for more knowledge of Soviet sub technology, tactics, techniques and procedures, and for some first-hand accounts.

Also, be aware that the show is very dependent on CGI, and the CGI is dated and blocky by today’s standards.

This link should work to take you to a playlist of all episodes:

Russian Ordies Make Joke, Cause International Incident

In a major exercise in and off the coast of Kaliningrad Oblast — occupied Königsberg, East Prussia, ethnically cleansed of Germans by Russians with one hell of a score to settle in 1945 — Russian Naval Aviation (Aviatsiya –VMF) ran an exercise that included live fire exercises by land- and sea-based maritime aircraft and crews from the Baltic, North, Black Sea and Pacific Fleets of the Russian Navy. Mi-24 “Hind” and Ka-27 “Hormone” helicopters fired guns and practice torpedoes, while Su-24 swing-wing bombers and An-26 multirole transports dropped bombs.

An-26 of the A-VMF

An-26 of the A-VMF

The An-26 is a very interesting aircraft, a real do-anything workhorse from the Soviet era. While the Navy uses it primarily as a transport, it can do maritime patrol and can be armed with a wide variety of weapons, including depth charges, torpedoes, and dumb bombs. An-26s have been widely used as bombers, by the Soviets in Afghanistan and, in the case of export aircraft, in many third world conflicts, but the Russian Navy hadn’t dropped bombs from an An-26 in a long time.

Along with the common transport version, and customizations for everything from air ambulance to electronic warfare, rhe aircraft is readily converted to a bomber by the addition of some bomb racks. The wiring was emplaced in the factory. But bombing is not part of the everyday of most Russian An-26 drivers, so the crews must have been pretty excited to drop some bombs.

Practice bombs like the ones in these pictures are used to save the hassle and fuel burn of using real warshots, while giving the air crew a thorough, testable workout in bombing procedures. Every air force uses them. (Some of ours are little bitty things you can hold in one hand, but they follow the trajectory of big bombs perfectly).

And ordies — ordnancemen — are pretty much the same guys in any armed force on the planet. Their every day grind involves hauling, handling, and accounting for whacking great hunks of explosive that they hardly ever see used, because they’re too expensive to expend routinely, and the real purpose of an air force is to keep the peace by being ready for war. So when a chance comes up to actually load out bombs — even practice bombs like these P-50SH models — and have them dropped, the ordies are in heaven.

As an ordie, you get one privilege: you can scrawl a message on the bomb for its intended recipient. Now, where this tradition began is unknown to us. It’s not like the guy at the loud end has the leisure to read the message before he’s blasted to Kingdom Come, but it’s a venerable tradition. We’ve seen World War I artillery rounds addressed to Kaiser Bill, and American ordies have often sent scatalogical or obscene TNT-grams to our enemies over the years. And patriotic slogans aren’t uncommon. Every once in a while some pearl-clutching old lady (who may be of either sex) gets upset that some boy wrote something naughty on the casing of the TNT we plan to drop on some poor wretch’s head, as if the insult were worse than the injury. For the record, it isn’t.

And that’s just what happened when the Russian ordies had some fun with their bombs, and the slogans were shown in the quasi-official naval magazine Flot (“Fleet”); what interested Flot was that was the first time a Russian An-26 did an actual bomb drop in at least 20 years, but they captured the photos. Here’s what some Ivan wrote on one of the bombs:

P-50SH-bomb-To Berlin

And here’s another:

AN-26-bomb for Stalin 2

Now, anyone who has paid any attention to Russian history should recognize instantly the exact World War II slogans that were often daubed on Soviet tanks, aircraft, and yes, bombs during the formative conflict that Russians still call the Great Patriotic War. The first is To Berlin! and the second, For Stalin! It was an amusing historical reference, and the ordies had a laugh, as, no doubt, did the crews.

Not everybody got the joke. Germans, who counter to stereotype do have a sense of humor, didn’t activate theirs. The daily BILD (“Picture”) condemned the “macabre maneuvers” and explicitly rejected the idea that, well, Ivan’s ordies are just clowning around with a piece of chalk, like every other ordie in every other air force and navy on this spinning spheroid we’re on.

Even the BILD article managed to catch the historical nature of the slogans:

Both sentences were battle cries that were widespread during the campaigns of the Red Army against Nazi Germany.

But they’re still seeing Stalin under the bed.

For the last several years, a glorification of long-past Soviet days has taken place in Putin’s Russia. In it, a cult of Dictator Josef Stalin († 1953) has been created, and parallels between his battle against Fascism and current disagreements between Russia and the West and Ukraine.

Bomb inscriptions like “To Berlin!” and “For Stalin!” are more than pure nostalgia, but show dangerous tendencies in the Russian leadership and Armed Forces.

The last we checked, the diminutive Josef Stalin, like Francisco Franco, is still dead. Vladimir Vladimirovich may be cruel to his opponents domestically, and a royal pain in the neck internationally, but he’s nowhere near deserving equivalence with Stalin, who is the second greatest mass murderer in recorded history. (Hitler barely squeaks in at #3, even if you blame him for all the deaths on all sides in World War II. The champion is Mao Zedong [Tse-tung]).

The story of the Russian “provocation” and the German outrage has made it into Newsweek (what, they still publish that?) and various other press organs where Russian MOD spokesmen try to dismiss it as hijinks (which is almost certainly the case) or deny such a thing happened (a classically Russian response. “What tanks in Prague?”). They should ease up on the denial and let the “so what?” flag fly. It’s a private, sergeant or maybe junior lieutenant with a piece of chalk, it’s not national policy.

And if the Russians are going to pick something from the Stalin era to celebrate, “On to Berlin” is a lot better than some of the things they could choose, like “Assassinate the Polish officers!” or “Purge the International Brigades!” or “Starve the Ukrainian Kulaks,” or, our personal favorite, “Let’s kill Marshal Tukhachevsky and just about all our senior officers with war on the horizon!”

Stalin leaves for Russians a complicated legacy, like Napoleon in France, Cromwell in England, and Ulysses S. Grant in the United States. Centuries later, we’re still assessing the impact of these characters. (Of them, only Cromwell approached Stalin as a murderer, but all are historically reassessed every generation).

But for crying out loud, let’s not get our knickers in a twist over something some ammo handler wrote on a practice bomb.

Hat tip, David Cencotti “The Aviationist.” (If you’re into aviation news, you need to have him bookmarked).

This is Why We Don’t Click on faux-viral Clickbait

Lame, lame, lame. One of those buzzfeed- and gawker- like “clickbait” aggregators teased customers with this come-on:


The airplane, of course, is a Dassault Rafale, and while it’s homely from this angle, it’s probably one of the most beautiful fighter planes flying today. It flies, primarily, for its nation of origin, la belle France, where it’s the latest product of Dassault Systems, formerly Avions Marcel Dassault and before that, before The War, Avions Marcel Bloch. 

It’s hard to imagine what the USA has to do with France’s latest and best-ever fighter jet; the picture is why you don’t want to mess with France. But the idiots who posted that image remind us of the founder of Dassault, and thereby hangs a tale.

Marcel Dassault, née Marcel Bloch, is definitely someone you should know, unlike the miniwit marketeers who come up with these unimaginative, stupid (and in this case, dishonest) advertising come-ons.

Bloch, a son of a successful doctor, was captivated by aviation in his youth and studied under Louis Breguet, and then at the novel École supérieure d’aéronautique et de constructions mécaniques, which had just opened in Paris. His first success was a propeller that produced greater thrust than previous models, and came to be widely used in French aircraft of the First World War. Between the wars, his company Société des Avions Marcel Bloch became successful and provided several of the Armee d l’Air’s key types.

Two calamities befell Bloch in short order: the Communist Front Polulaire government seized his company in 1936, expropriating him and his family; he was kept on, on salary, to oversee production of his designs in the new firm, SNCASO. Meanwhile, Bloch started over from zero with a new start-up to promote new designs — they could seize his work product, but not his mind. But then came calamity #2: Germany invaded France in 1940. The Nazis were willing to overlook Bloch’s Jewish ancestry if he would be willing to build airplanes for the Greater German Reich. He refused, and life got harder. His brother Darius Paul Bloch (who went by Paul, and was a senior military officer) went underground with the Resistance, but Vichy collaborators seized and imprisoned Marcel and his wife and children.

Marcel was sent to a Vichy-operated concentration camp at Drancy, France, then to the authentic SS-run variety at Buchenwald. The camps were incubators for many all-but-forgotten pathogens, and at liberation Marcel was 53, infected with diphtheria — and paralyzed.

He did not recover from paralysis until 1953, but by 1949 had already restarted his company, and changed both its, and his, name. Paul, now a General in the French forces, had used the code name “tank” while underground: in French, “Char d’assaut.” Marcel liked the sound of that, and with a slight twist he and his family became Dassaults, and their firm Avions Marcel Dassault.

Dassault’s personality was said to be somewhat stiff, proper, aloof and formal, yet he has a relaxed smile in most portraits, even formal ones where he’s posing stiffly. He was described by many as “driven”; certainly he drove his company to success after success. This RAND paper (.pdf) describes the company’s unique culture as of the 1980s: quintessentially French, and yet completely unlike any other business in that laid-back, bureaucratic nation.

AMD produced the famous Ouragan, Mystère, and Mirage jets, which equipped French forces and many export customers, including Israel. Israeli success with these jets definitely produced more orders, but after 1967 De Gaulle, who was not significantly less anti-semitic than the Nazis he’d once fought, embargoed further jets and seized the money that had been paid for them.

Somehow, after that, the Israelis managed to get their hands on enough documents to start production of Mirage clones. Certainly an espionage operation in Switzerland was part of it, as was a Lebanese defector who brought his jet along. But there were already charges that Marcel Dassault had helped the Jewish state, under the table, although we’ve never seen anything a court would call “evidence.”

Some people said that Dassault wanted to help his fellow Jews. But he had converted to Roman Catholicism soon after the war.  A private man, his reasons were his own.

Marcel Dassault retired in 1971, after a career that spanned from wood-and-fabric biplanes to Mach 2+ jets. The company he established today exports, along with the beautiful Rafale, the successful Falcon business jets and industry-standard CATIA and Solidworks engineering and modeling software.

The Circular Torpedo Run

If you know anything about naval torpedoes, you’ll understand instantly why a circular run is A Bad Thing. US torpedoes in World War II were prone to circular runs — and that was not even one of our tin-fishes’ top three problems.

Since Whitehead’s invention and/or popularization of the self-propelled torpedo in the 19th Century,  every sea power on Earth worked on these weapons, and by the outbreak of World War II each maritime power thought their torpedoes were the best.

The Japanese, dismissed by racialists in America and Europe as bucktoothed, nearsighted monkeys copying Western design, had come up with both maritime and aerial torpedoes that were miles ahead of any other nation’s. These were principal armament on cruisers and destroyers, outranging the cruiser’s guns and able to sink a capital ship with a single hit (try that with a 5-8″ gun. Not happening). They also armed Japanese subs, and lightweight versions armed world-class torpedo planes. American and British battleships and carriers would feel the lash of these devices in the opening months and years of the war.

The British, Italians and Germans entered the war with effective torpedoes that they had justifiable confidence in, and could launch from warships, patrol boats, or aircraft. (So did the French, but in naval terms they were a footnote to the war).

The US was, in American fashion, the most confident in its torpedoes, but the actual devices were not world class, they were not reliable, had a short range exposing launch platforms to enemy fire, were not accurate, and the most serious problem of all, they tended not to detonate. Weapons safety is all well and good, but it’s not supposed to be safe any more when you manage by industry and luck to overcome all its other flaws and  bang it on the side of an enemy warship. And our torpedoes were safe, and our ordnance officers dismissed complaints about it well into the war. 

A generation raised on movie westerns went to war as the good guy in the white hat, but with an empty revolver. So the black hats won a few.

The three problems with the US Mk. 14 torpedo at the start of the war were:

  1. Depth control that didn’t;
  2. A contact exploder that didn’t;
  3. A magnetic exploder that didn’t, which was replaced by an “improved” version that did, about fifty yards before it got to the enemy target.

In one lucky, harrowing attack, USS Tunny under John A. Scott, which had had a miserably failed war patrol due o non-firing contact exploders, found itself on 9 April 1943 in the middle, literally, of a two-carrier Japanese task force. Scott daringly placed the boat midway between the two columns of the Japanese force, firing his six bow tubes at one carrier and its escort and four stern tubes at the other, at very short range. The carriers escaped, Ultra/Purple intercepts later revealed (although they were not declassified until decades after the war), because the torpedoes blew up short of the target.

The Battle Flag of USS Tang -- a panther breaking through a Rising Sun.

The Battle Flag of USS Tang — a panther breaking through a Rising Sun. From The Last Torpedo.

As far as circular runs go, there are 24 known incidents1. (It is possible some of the subs on Eternal Patrol also fell victim to circular runs, although the circumstances of most sub losses have been corroborated by Japanese records). In 22 incidents, the launching vessel evaded the torpedo. In two, we know it sunk a submarine because USS Tullibee and USS Tang had one and eight survivors respectively from their crews of approximately eighty officers and men. Here’s what it seemed like to a sub crew:

On the bridge, Bill Leibold scanned the waters with his binoculars. He stood next to O’Kane. Suddenly, he saw the last torpedo, Number 24, broach and then begin to porpoise, phosphorescence trailing it. A few seconds later, it made a sharp turn to port and then, unbelievably, began to come about.

“There goes that one! Erratic!” shouted O’Kane.

The last torpedo was now heading like a boomerang, back to its firing point…back toward the Tang. Something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps its rudder had jammed or the gyroscope in its steering engine had malfunctioned.

“Emergency speed!” cried O’Kane.

Below, twenty-year-old Motor Machinist’s Mate Jesse DaSilva had just left his post in the engine room, having decided to get a cup of coffee. He was standing with one foot in the mess. Over the intercom, he could hear the bridge crew react as the torpedo headed back toward the Tang.

“Captain, that’s a circular run!” he heard Leibold say.

“All ahead emergency!” shouted O’Kane. “Right full rudder!”

“Bend them on,” added O’Kane. “Control, just bend them on.”

In the engine room, Chief Electrician’s Mate James Culp did his best to comply, knowing the Tang needed all the power she could get if there was to be a chance of saving lives.

The torpedo was now making straight for the 300-foot submarine. The men on the bridge stood, transfixed, their eyes “popping out of their sockets.” The Tang was moving at about 6 knots, 20 less than her final torpedo.

“Left full rudder!” ordered O’Kane.

Bill Leibold watched in stricken silence as the torpedo headed right at them, coming dead-on toward the Tang. Then he lost sight of it as it continued down the port side.

Maybe it will miss. Maybe it will veer away and begin another erratic circle. Maybe the Tang will evade just in time….

In the conning tower, Floyd Caverly waited like the other men for the inevitable.

Surely there is enough time to get out of the way—to get thehell out of here? Surely?

Speed. Speed is all we need…just enough to get out of the way. If only the Tang would just set by the stern and set off like a speedboat.

But the Tang was not a speedboat. She could not avoid the charging torpedo. It hit the Tang ’s stern with a massive explosion somewhere between the maneuvering room and the after torpedo room, killing as many as half the crew instantly and flooding all aft compartments as far forward as the crew’s quarters, midway along the boat.

Caverly was standing looking at a radarscope when it happened. He…thought that the Tang had been snapped in two. The waves of concussion from the explosion made him feel as if he were experiencing a massive earthquake. He did not know which way to step to catch his balance. The deck plates rattled and shook. Lightbulbs went out.

In the conning tower, there was chaos.

“We’ve been hit!” cried Executive Officer Frank Springer.2

USS Tang sank in minutes; a few of the men in the conning tower, and a few of the 45 who made their way to the forward torpedo room to attempt to use the forward escape trunk, were the only survivors. (The after trunk was destroyed by the torpedo). The next day, angry Japanese convoy escorts picked up nine survivors from the submarine that had devastated the convoy they were guarding.

Damage analysis, originally classified Confidential, of Tang wreck.

Damage analysis, originally classified Confidential, of Tang wreck. From War Damage Report Nº. 58, 1 Jan 49, hosted at HyperWar.

It turns out the cause of the circular runs was a combination of failed design and human error (although Newpower discounts the design problem). If a torpedo was assembled with the gyro in wrong, or was launched without the gyro installed, it would circle. That problem was not discovered until a sub, USS Sargo, survived a circular run only to have an embarrassed torpedoman find the fish’s gyro still in a case aboard the boat. It did not even occur to anyone at the Navy’s insular, smug torpedo establishment that a torpedo that could kill everyone aboard if one junior rating made one simple error just might be a design problem.

It is an essential principle of machine design that something that can be assembled wrong, will be assembled wrong.

The US Navy did not have working torpedoes until late in the war, when torpedoes designed by private industry came online. The torpedoes designed and built at the Navy’s Torpedo Station in Newport, RI never worked entirely right. But even as submariners and PT crewmen knew the things were no good, the ordnance men were certain they were the best in the world, and weren’t interested in listening to complaints from the field.


  1. That’s Newpower’s number, 24. The original list at Ed Howard’s submarine history site comprised 21 possible circular runs, which after adding 8 more provided by Charles R. Hinman of the sub memorial site, comes to 29.


Howard, Ed. Instances of Circular Running Torpedoes Reported by U. S. Submarines during World War II. Retrieved from:

Kershaw, Alex. Escape from the Deep: A True Story of Courage and Survival During World War II. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008.

Kershaw, Alex. The Last Torpedo. America in WWII, June, 2008. Retrieved from: (note: this is an excerpt from Escape From the Deep). 

Newpower, Anthony. Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo during World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006.

Thomas, Russell. The History of the Torpedo and the Relevance to Today’s U.S. Navy. History.Navy.Mil. Retrieved from:

US Navy. War Damage Report Nº. 58. Submarine Report. Section X: USS Tang (SS-306). Retrieved from:

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: N6CC

What’s that? It sounds like a ham callsign? And we think that’s what 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.


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 and 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.




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


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.