Category Archives: Air and Naval Weapons

“The Gun is its Own Tool Kit.” — Browning ANM2

This is Your Gun pG1One sign of a gun design that is not completely thought through is a requirement for special tools for disassembly. These days, most guns are designed for disassembly without any kind of offboard tools. But this was not always the case. John M. Browning was one of the first designers to consistently design guns to be disassembled without anything special. And it was a bit of a marvel, as the tone of this excerpt from a naval aerial gunner’s manual called This is Your Gun reveals:


In an emergency, the gun can be stripped with nothing but its own parts as tools. Use the point of a cartridge or the cocking lever pin to depress the oil buffer body spring lock.

Key parts in the oil buffer assembly:

Key parts in the oil buffer assembly: Oil Buffer Body Spring Lock (14a); Accelerator Pin (13), Accelerator (12). Oil Buffer Tube Lock (11)

Use the cocking lever pin to drift out the sear stop pin and accelerator pin.

Many of the parts mentioned are in the Bolt Group. In the order that they're mentioned:

Many of the parts mentioned are in the Bolt Group. In the order that they’re mentioned:  The Cocking Lever Pin is Nº 7. The Sear Stop with the Sear Stop Pin is Nº 8. The Cocking Lever is Nº 6.


 Use the flat tip of the cocking lever as you would use a screw driver to remove and replace the sear stop, oil buffer tube lock, the cover latch spring, and cover extractor spring. Use the oil buffer tube lock to pry the handle of the trigger bar pin out of its hole in the side of the receiver.

Use the sear stop pin to drift out the belt feed pawl pin.

The Belt Feed Pawl Pin is #5 in this illustration. US Navy.

The Belt Feed Pawl Pin is #5 in this illustration. Cover Latch Spring is #8, Cover Extractor Spring #9. US Navy.

But use these methods only when absolutely necessary and take care not to damage the parts used as tools. Never use the driving spring rod assembly as a tool.

Conversely, having a gun like this that can be disassembled and reassembled in field conditions without a bench full of tools is a marker of good design. This kind of design is more commonly encountered now than it was in Browning’s day, which speaks for Browning’s lasting positive impact on firearms design.

From the Academy to the Arsenal (long)

secret1The weapon was developed in the greatest of secrecy. It was born in a physics lab before the war, but during the war became a massive project: led by physicists; employing tens of thousands on detailed tasks whose application they did not know; secured by barriers, unsmiling military police, security clearances and teams of counterspies; and encompassing a wide range of industrial effort. It was shared under the most stringent security guidelines with Britain alone, and gave the nations of the Anglosphere combat power unimagined before the war.

Its developers, led by a man whom they all came to admire enormously, were a cross-section, not of society, but of the academy: more diverse ethnically than American society at large, scarily smart, and sometimes, endearingly (or irritatingly) eccentric.

To take it from the blackboards of physicists to the Arsenal of Democracy, new precision needed to be achieved in old technology, new technology entirely needed to be invented, and the frontiers of miniaturization pushed far beyond the 1941 state of the art. The weapon was useless if it could not be delivered to the close proximity of its intended target, so it had to be shrunk, shrunk, shrunk from the initial conceptual models, which would never have fit inside the delivery system.

It required new methods of testing and evaluation to be developed, to prove that it really would work when put to the test. Once it passed these tests, its effect on the enemy was devastating.

Exposing it became a major objective of Soviet spies and the traitors who had sold themselves to them, including some who would be caught and punished, like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and some who were too highly placed for suspicion to stick, like Lend-Lease head Harry Hopkins, who tried and failed to have samples sent to his real superiors where his true loyalties lay: the Soviet Union.

We’re referring not to the hoary old story of the Manhattan Project, but the equally old, but much less-known, tale of the proximity fuze, or as its WWII cover name called it, the Variable Time, VT, fuze. That cover name has stuck and prox fuzes are still often called VT, despite the fact that it was intended as a deliberate obfuscation of what the fuze really did: solve an “impossible” gunnery problem of the 20th Century.

MK53 proximity fuze

The Problem Was Hitting Moving Aircraft

Now, if you’ve ever cocked a cannon in Army or Marine artillery, you know a bit about the uses of VT; we’d like to ask all of you to be quiet, we’ll get to those shortly. But they’re not why VT was invented. The problem was anti-aircraft gunnery. In 1941 every military in the world was shooting at aircraft or preparing to do so, and they were missing. Just about all the time.

Airplanes don’t just sit still and let you whack them with your 88, you see. They move around. AA guns had compensating sights, and gun batteries had fire-direction computers, that could calculate where the airplane would be when the shell got to it — more or less.

(These computers were analog computers, with gears and knobs and whiz-wheels instead of circuits and programs, but they were faster and more reliable than the first many generations of digital technology that would replace them a few decades hence).

There was a little imprecision (not much) in the computer. There was a little more (again, not much) in the laying of the gun. Naval dual purpose and AA, and Army anti-aircraft guns, of the period were extremely accurate, but the problem still remained that for every shell delivered adequately to a vital structure of a Heinkel 111 or Aichi D3A, a much larger quantity, to steal a line from Maxwell Smart, “missed it by that much.”

A miss was as good as a mile, as the saying of the period went. In the initial effort to make a near miss somewhat more hazardous to enemy aircraft, various sorts of fuzes were conceived. The most common was a simple time fuze, and a lot of effort went into arranging the fire direction computer to support the optimum setting of an air defense battery’s time fuzes for effect on target. (Terrestrial artillery tried to use time fuzes to secure airbursts against troops in trenches, foxholes, or open-topped bunkers, too). An antiaircraft alternative was a barometric fuze, detonating at a preset altitude. This required fuze-setters to know the altitude of enemy aircraft (leading to the development of height finding radars, but also leading to the use of airplanes to shadow attackers and report their altitude to defenses). It also required them to know or have a way to dial in to the computer the ambient air pressure.

Winston Churchill describes this problem in Volume 2 of his History of the Second World War, (p.395), and notes: “[A]n aeroplane end on is a difficult target and a contact fuze will work only on impact.” Britain was working to develop such a fuze in the Battle of Britain, and while they were able to bring a mockup into the Cabinet Room to show Churchill, miniaturizing it was proving difficult, maybe impossible. So the British were stuck with the state of the art: impact, time and pressure fuzes.

These fuzes, the state of the art at war’s outbreak, would also be as far as the state of the art of Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany ever got. Many thousands of them had to be fired to ensure a hit on bombing aircraft. The watchword of the bomber theorists was, from the days of Douhet, “The bomber will always get through.” And it’s not easy to find an example of an aerial attack turned by time or baro fuzes alone, even in the sanguinary early days of RAF Bomber Command: the bombers took some hits, but most of them came through, unless they were hit by fighters, too.

How the VT Worked

The VT is essentially a small radar inside an artillery fuze. Initial concepts were wide open: photoelectric, acoustic, active radio (radar principle), or passive radio (detecting aircraft engine ignitions). In the end, after some experiments with photoelectric fuzes, active radio was chosen. Teh fuze radiated a radio wave, and if it received a reflection back, which it would if it were close to a target, pow! Here’s how E.D. MacAlister explained it to scientist Ralph B. Baldwin, who was just joining the project in 1941:

It’s really simple in theory but extremely difficult to convert into practice. The fuze is simply a specialized radio set. There’s a battery whose electrical energy is released by setback, the shock of firing from a gun. This battery furnishes three different electric voltages: one for the filaments of the vacuum tubes, one for the plates, and one for the grids. One of the tubes is an oscillator. In the nose of the fuze is a metallic cap, which together with the rest of the shell acts like a dipole. The oscillator tube thus has an antenna and emits a high-frequency radio wave in particular directions from the shell.

This continuous radiowave surrounds the moving shell, and when the shell pass is close to a target, the letter reflects a small amount of radio wave energy back to the fuse where it is detected by the same to been sent out the wave in the first place.

prox fuze exploded view

The plate voltage is “modulated” by the reflected wave, which is at slightly different frequency than the outgoing wave due to the relative motion of the shell and target. Thus, a beat note is set up and the plate voltage varies in frequency within the audio range of a few to a few thousand cycles per second. This audio frequency voltage variation is then passed through a three-tube amplifier.

When the period of the audio frequency wave and also its amplitude or intensity are exactly right, a thyratron tube, serving as a switch, is discharged. It completes a circuit that releases an electrical charge, which meanwhile has been stored in a condenser. The surge of electricity goes through a tiny wire in an electric squib, much like a dynamite cap.

The wire gets hot and the explosive in the squib goes off. This tiny explosion sets off about a cubic inch of a sensitive explosive called tetryl in the auxiliary detonator (auxdet to the Navy, booster to the army), which is at the bottom of the fuze.

This explosion sets off the explosive loading of the shell and it bursts the steel shell body into many hundreds of high velocity fragments. From the time the fuze says ago, the shell travels less than one foot before it bursts.

Now, if that sounds tough to follow, relax: even Baldwin found it “pretty heavy going.” But we include it here as (1) an illustration of the complexity of this pre-transistor electronic innovation, and (2), because we can’t imagine a simpler or clearer technical explanation of the fuze’s working than McAlister’s.

How the VT Was Developed

It started as an academic exercise, and began at Columbia University, but later found a permanent home at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Baltimore, which was established (in part, to accomplish this task) in 1942. While the Manhattan Project was full of brilliance, the guy at the top of the APL and therefore the APL’s proximity fuze effort was Norwegian-American scientist Dr. Merle A. Tuve, the APL’s founder.

First they had to decide how to do it. They worked in parallel on optical and radio fuzes at first. It soon became apparent that the radio-frequency fuze was a success, and optical fuze development was cut off. (Unlike radio fuzes, optical fuzes worked only in daylight conditions).

The developers had to demonstrate the individual parts of the system; then, miniaturize them; then ruggedize them. From starting work circa 1940, Tuve had a working system within a couple of years. Decades later, the members of the team remembered the day when one of the proximity fuzes, fired from a Navy 5″ gun out over the water, worked for the first time. At the time, nobody made a note of the date! But the occasion was never forgotten. That day, only one of several test shots worked, the others detonating early or plowing into the water without detonating at all. But that one shot proved that the system was feasible. It had passed from science into the realm of engineering somewhere along the way.

British tube type VT fuze

This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the transistor, and all semiconductors, were over 15 years in the future: the fuze would have to work with the then-known electronic parts: vacuum tubes, capacitors, diodes and resistors, all powered by batteries. All these parts had to be ruggedized to survive the harsh environment of a cannon shell, with 20,000-g acceleration, 25,000-RPM rotation, and wildly varying temperatures all part of the fuze’s eventful last few seconds of existence.

The hardest parts to ruggedize were the batteries, which you might not expect, and tubes, which stands to reason. Their flimsy wires and glass enclosures were not optimum for high acceleration forces. When the scientists had tubes with 90% reliability, they still couldn’t relax: since the system needed three tubes to work (oscillator, amplifier, and thyratron), 90% reliability of any individual tube meant  fuze that wouldn’t work even three-quarters of the time, and that even if every other component was 100% reliable. (The three tubes would have to be 96.6% reliable for the tubes to be overall 90% reliable, again assuming 100% function of everything else).

The lab aimed for an overall 80% reliability of fuzes in the field, which they came to learn meant they could accept only a very low failure rate of the tubes. Even an 80% reliable VT fuze was a godsend to the Navy.

Final and near-final fuzes were tested against mockups of Japanese and German aircraft, and against drones. In April 1942, an unmanned Piper Cub was hung from a balloon hundreds of feet over the water at Parris Island and shot at with live fuzes, but explosive charges replaced by a black-powder marking charge that would make a visible puff of smoke, but not fragment the shell. 20% of the shots would have been hits.

On 12 August 1942, a drone imitating a torpedo bomber “attacked” the new cruiser, USS Cleveland, in a live-fire test. A first drone failed before coming into range. The second bore in on the ship’s beam. Cleveland’s 5″/38 battery shredded the drone, taking it down with under ten rounds fired. A second drone was shot down just as quickly. The drones were the usual anti-aircraft targets, and they never got shot down. The drone officers had to report to the test officer that they were out of targets. The next day, they had located one more, which was set to emulate a level bomber, and attacked fruitlessly with time fuzes. The battery loaded the VT fuzes and destroyed the drone. End of test.

The crew of Cleveland was counting on one more liberty before joining the war, but they’d just seen the successful test of the Navy’s latest secret weapon. The Navy ordered the ship to drop off the APL scientists and technicians, but to keep sailing for the Pacific. The fuzes, already in pilot production, were suddenly a hot item in Naval supply channels.

The Fuze Goes to War

By October 1942, production was up to 500 fuzes a day and they were being flown from the factories to West Coast and Pacific depots. Production ultimately involved five companies performing final-assembly duties, with components coming in from over 100 factories belonging to some 87 businesses. Most of the component makers didn’t know what they were making parts for.

This fuze setter was part of the equipment in a 5" dual-purpose mount.

This fuze setter was part of the equipment in a 5″ dual-purpose mount. The fuze setting was directed from the fire director down to the secondary battery plotting room down to the mount. Wartime secondary armament instructions (.pdf) from the USS Massachusetts (battleship).. 

On 5 January 1943, off Guadalcanal, the first Japanese airplane ran afoul of VT fuzes fired by the aft 5″ battery of the light cruiser USS Helena. Only three salvos were required to down the Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomberThe carriers Enterprise and Saratoga were also equipped with the new technology at that point, and from that point on the Japanese began having a harder time sinking American ships.

(Aside: Helena, CL-50, was famous for her gunnery, which would lead to her sinking. Japanese destroyers used her muzzle flashes to target her in July, 1943 and slammed three torpedoes into her, causing the ship to break into three pieces and sink with a loss of over 180 lives. Most of the crew did survive, although some were not rescued for days. A Helena sailor’s remains were found as late as 2006 on one of the straits islands).

Along with the fuzes, the Navy hit up the APL for new gun directors that would be optimized for VT, not time, fuzes. These went to sea for the first time with the battleship USS Missouri, and were effective against kamikaze attackers.


The VT Fuze Joins the Army

The highest priorities for fuze development were Naval, and so the Mk 32 was the first made, soon followed by equivalents for Royal Navy applications. But the VT Fuze was developed for Army anti-aircraft applications almost as soon as the Navy had it in production; one of the Cleveland’s drones was killed with an early prototype of the Army 90mm AA fuze screwed via adapter into a Navy 5″ shell. The Army fuze came from miniaturization developments that led to the Mk 45, and the British soon got forces for their Army AA guns as well (just in time for the V-1 buzz bomb attacks). But the AA application was only one application for proximity fuzes.

The more fruitful application, and one that would be key in several late-1944 battles, was creating a guaranteed airburst at an optimum height over enemy troop positions. The munition was, in a word, murderous to troops that didn’t have substantial overhead cover. LTG George S. Patton gleefully reported on the devastation wrought on German troops caught in the open by VT-fuzed barrages during the Battle of the Bulge.

At first, the VT fuzes were such secrets that they were removed from artillery positions during visits of foreign VIPs or American or British reporters. By war’s end, the effect of the fuze had let the cat out of the bag.

How the VT Fuze Spread to Other Nations

The Germans had heard rumors of the fuze, but never got hold of a working copy; they thought they were dealing with a “fuze with an electric eye,” and they tasked their spies to find out. The spies (Frederick Duquesne, Herman Land, and Lilly Stein of the 33-member Duquesne spy ring) never found the detailed information for the still-under-development fuze before a double agent and an FBI sting led to them being rolled up in 1941. The picture shows Duquesne, right, a retread WWI saboteur, with double agent William Sebold, left, a naturalized American who had immediately gone to the FBI when a Dr. Renken of the Abwehr (real name, Nickolaus Ritter) approached him in 1939, and was taken by FBI agents through a two-way mirror (note the clever positioning of the calendar so as to be in frame). The Deutsche Wehrmacht never got the secrets of the American fuze. Captured documents showed that the Germans had been trying to develop such a fuze throughout the war, but had made less progress by 1945 than the APL made by 1942.

The US shared the VT fuze with Britain from the beginning of development. After the initial development for the 5″/38 dual-purpose naval gun, and concurrent with development for additional US AA weapons, 4 Royal Navy calibers were added to the development schedule. Later, after the development of land fuzes for the US Army, 6 more for the British Army were added. By war’s end,  VT fuzes had been adapted to 28 different shells. The British had developed their own conceptual fuze as early as 1940, but they’d gotten stuck on miniaturizing and hardening the electronics, and welcomed the US project.

The Japanese never understood why they launched so many kamikaze Special Attack aircraft to achieve such meager results. With a few well-known exceptions where attacks saturated US defenses, the entire Special Attack program was a waste of resources and of men’s lives, and prox fuzes are one reason why. Of course, Japan was beaten by the spring of ’44, but wouldn’t believe it until they’d suffered the most absolute naval defeat since ancient history: while the Navy’s had some 2,500 vessels, most of them were small craft; all capital ships were on the seafloor, and the largest ship left fully combat-worthy was a cruiser.

The Russians got wind of the fuze and tried to come by it legitimately, first, by requesting it from Lend-Lease. They were turned down. Then, they tried to put pressure on through Harry Hopkins, to bend the rules (Hopkins frequently did this for his Soviet masters) and that didn’t work, either, because the subordinate officers wanted it in writing. Meanwhile, they tasked espionage assets, and the couple that came through for them with the VT fuze design would go on to fame — Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Well, fame and Old Sparky at Sing Sing.

And there’s irony for you: far more Americans have been killed by Soviet copies and improvements of American VT fuzes than have been killed by Soviet copies and improvements of American nukes. But the spies who gave up both weren’t even charged for the little, seemingly inconsequential, war-winning little weapon. If they had been, they would never have received the death penalty. But if you truly understand the weapon, they deserved to fry for this as much as anything.


Baldwin, Ralph B. The Deadly Fuze: Secret Weapon of World War II. San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1980.

US Navy. Radio Proximity (VT) Fuzes. Naval Historical Center Website. Retrieved from:

A Second B-29 Nears Flight

If you’ve seen a B-29 fly in the last few decades, it’s been “FIFI,” the Commemorative Air Force’s flagship and the only surviving airworthy B-29 of some 4,000 built.

Until now. A single tatterdemalion B-29 was rescued from a China Lake impact area decades ago, and a restoration began in 2000. Now “Doc” (named after the Disney dwarf) is ready to fly. This video tells the story.

The B-29 had several effects on World War II, beyond its celebrated role as the delivery sysrem for the only two nuclear bombs ever used in warfare. The bloody battles of Saipan and the Marshall Islands were driven by the need to base the B-29s within range of Honshu. The fire-bombing of Tokyo — by B-29s — caused as much destruction, and more death, than the atomic bombings of smaller Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The B-29 also was remarkable for its technological firsts. It was the first pressurized bomber, allowing the crew to work in shirtsleeve comfort inside the plane’s pressure vessel. It was the first heavy bomber to use remote gun turrets (around the same time, they were used in the A-26 Invader attack plane or light bomber, and the P-61 Black Widow night fighter). Its remarkable defensive system allowed gunners looking out from plastic bubbles to aim their sights at enemy aircraft, and an electric analog gun computer would ensure that one or more turrets put rounds on target. While some American and British bombers had been retrofitted with radar that allowed navigation and bomb delivery, this was built into the B-29 from Day 1.

Other firsts included all-electric systems such as gear and flaps. (In all, there were over 100 electric motors in every B-29). A whole-plane fire-suppression system, also electric, was another first. As you might expect with a plane full of firsts, it had terrible teething problems but dogged engineering saw it through.

Hat tip, AvWeb, whose Mary Grady writes:

…the airplane will be ready for flight testing in the spring, and they are planning to fly the airplane this summer at EAA AirVenture, where it will join the B-29 Fifi. “It’s the first time in 60 years that two B-29s have been able to fly in formation together,” T.J. Norman, the restoration’s project manager, told the Wichita Eagle recently.

He added that the fleet is not likely to grow. The airplane, known as Doc, is the last known B-29 capable of being restored to flight. “There will never be another one of these done,” Norman said.

The plane is ready to go, except there’s no way to heat the oil in the engines to the minimum 50 degrees needed to start them. B-29 engines are notoriously finicky; the plan is to wait until spring and warm weather.

The B-29 is also important as the vanguard of what became Strategic Air Command. The legendary SAC commander, Curtis LeMay, cut his teeth as commander of the 20th Air Force, raining death and terror upon Japan.

For more information, see the AvWeb article linked above, or visit the Friends of Doc. They’d really like a donation, too; they need $2 million to put a permanent roof over this remarkable livng-history exhibit.

Just land the %^$#v!! helicopter. What’s the big deal?

Next time you’re hearing some nasal radiator explain how he’s got forty-eleven traps on USS Boat, and how that makes him clearly and evidently the Greatest Living Aviator, ask him about these guys.

The Boat is His Danish Majesty’s Ship Ejnar Mikkelsen, P571 of the Danish Navy, second of the two-ship Knud Rasmussen class. These are oceangoing patrol ships of 1,720 tons, replacing a pair of 330 ton boats. Their big missions are patrol, SAR, and fisheries enforcement. They have a decent-sized flight deck and helicopter refueling facilities, but no hangar.

As an aside, the ships’ names come from legendary Danish arctic explorers. Ejnar Mikkelsen was  a monomaniac on polar exploration from his boyhood, and had many exploits in the Arctic Ocean and in Greenland. From Britannica:

Mikkelsen’s most notable exploit belongs to the expedition that he led to northeast Greenland in 1909–12 to look for the maps and diaries left there by the explorer Ludwig Mylius-Erichsen in 1907. Mikkelsen found these, but, when he and his only companion, I.P. Iversen, returned to their base on the coast, they found their ship crushed by ice and no sign of the remaining members of the expedition, who had in fact returned home on a sealing vessel. The two men survived a further two winters in Greenland, suffering great hardships, and were rescued by a Norwegian sealer after nearly all hope for them had been abandoned. Mikkelsen recounted this adventure in Lost in the Arctic (1913).

Rasmussen, who was half-Danish and half-Eskimo, didn’t have such an extreme adventure to recount, but his accomplishments included mapping the north coast of Greenland and mapping and describing the Eskimos of all North America and Greenland. Both of these guys explored the remote, empty Arctic when the only protection possible was wool and animal skins, and the only way to communicate was to make face-to-face contact with somebody.

That’s pretty studly in our book. And we never heard of either till we looked the ships up.

Here in the USA, we name ships for politicians. Sigh. We named one for a one-term Congresswoman whose accomplishment was to get shot by a nutcase. One for a union organizer who built a power base of lettuce pickers. And one for a Congressman who somehow got a medal not during his Marine service, but after getting elected, and who then condemned today’s Marines as “cold-blooded murderers”.

The video shows a test that was trying to find edge conditions and demonstrate what was the most extreme sea state in which the Rasmussens could safely recover aircraft.

We’re told that Naval helicopter pilots worldwide do this day in, day out.

And they think we’re nuts to go looking for ground combat.

America’s Shrinking Navy Retreats from the Pacific

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Halifax Explosion Images

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

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

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

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

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

Other: 8.50 Explosion in docks followed by fires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victor Magnus in his naval uniform.

Victor Magnus in his naval uniform.

Historic Background (and more old photos)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

There are several excellent sites on the blast.

The Technical Side

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

Through Reuters Agency, Khartoum, September 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember Flight MH17?

Russkiy Kultur: looted luggage from Flight MH17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weapons Term that Stumped Us: “Pronock”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This led to a discussion of napalm’s effects:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simultaneous development of corresponding mine-detection &vclearing devices.

That stands to reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Another Vintage Fighter, Another Expensive Landing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The P-51 slides to a stop.

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

Any landing you can walk away from...

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

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

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

Davies told his story to the Guardian in 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How not to Park your Fighter

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

FW 190 how not to park

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

FW 190 how not to park3

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

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

How Rare Is it?

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

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


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

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

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

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

The FW 190 as a Weapon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will Happen to the Mishap Aircraft?

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

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

One Side Note:

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