31 March 2010

The Rise and Fall of Air Florida under Ed Acker

Aviation history is often a study in technology as well as events but sometimes the really fascinating parts concern the personalities and how personal traits shaped major decisions that impacted the course of history. One of the those personalities was C. Edward Acker, one of the airline industry's CEOs during the chaotic deregulation period in the United States in the 1980s. If there was one quote that summed up the titanic personality of this Texan, it was something he himself once said: "Once you get hooked on the airline business, it's worse than dope."

But to really understand what Ed Acker did to airlines, you have to go back before deregulation to the state of Florida. After twenty-some years of running various businesses ranging from a candy company to a roofing business, Miami businessman Eli Timoner decided in 1972 to start an airline called Air Florida with some second-hand Lockheed Electras. But Timoner himself admitted that his only airline experience was that of "being a frequent flier". But he had seen the rise of Pacific Southwest Airlines as an intrastate carrier in California and probably was aware of the beginnings of Southwest Airlines in Texas. By being in intrastate carrier, he wouldn't have to deal with the Civil Aeronautics Board which in the days before deregulation controlled all aspects of the industry from routes to fares and even to some degree, aircraft acquisition. Timoner felt that the time was right for Florida to have its own intrastate carrier.

But as a Miami newspaper reporter once put it, Timoner was "long on ambition and short on experience". In its first seven years of operation Air Florida scratched out a small niche for itself in the Florida market, but it was hard going and in 1977 the small airline lost $2 million and Timoner pondered whether it was worth continuing.

Back in 1975, a federal investigation was underway at Braniff International that accused officials of the Dallas-based airline of illegally distributing over $1 million in airline tickets to travel agents throughout Latin America, Braniff's traditional international stronghold. Some of the proceeds made their way into Richard Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign and with Watergate still bringing federal scrutiny in every back room and corner of the corridors of power, Ed Acker, the Braniff president and Harding Lawrence, the Braniff chairman, were the two highest ranking Braniff officials named in the settlement with the CAB that resulted in a $300,000 fine against the airline. Acker stepped down but he wasn't going to stay out of the business for long. That was when he found out Eli Timoner and Air Florida needed help.

Using his Dallas business contacts to bring new capital investment into Air Florida, Acker became Air Florida's new president by purchasing controlling interest in the airline for only $1.5 million in July 1977 with Eli Timoner becoming its chairman. At the time Acker came to Air Florida, the shoestring operation flew only three Lockheed Electras. Acker immediately began to pick up jet aircraft second hand all over North America to replace the Electras, first with DC-9 Series 10s, then Boeing 737-100s and 737-200s. Acker had the airline's colors revamped from orange and blue to blue and green. Inflight service was overhauled and ever the marketing wonk, Acker introduced orange juice with champagne called "Sunshine Sparklers" on Air Florida flights. Certain passengers could fly for free on new routes by getting a "Sunshine Kiss" by kissing a designated "Kiss Miss"- an attractive airline employee at the gate. Southwest's style of pricing discounts was introduced with deep price cuts for flying during off-peak hours. Within the first year, passenger numbers doubled. And they kept on growing.

And then came deregulation. Air Florida was no longer constrained to just serving the state of Florida. Acker carried an OAG in his pocket that was dog-eared and well-worn and he'd thumb through it thinking of new cities to connect. Any city that got a service cut back inevitably got Air Florida service. When Pan Am acquired National, Pan Am got National's route authority between Miami and London and Acker got DC-10s to compete with Pan Am to London. First class seats were covered in sheepskin and free limo service in a Rolls-Royce was available in London. No promotion, no level of service escaped Acker's attention.

Soon the press was lauding praise on C. Edward Acker as one of the darlings of deregulation and he got what in retrospect was an ill-conceived reputation as a "turnaround king" for what he was doing with Air Florida. In 1981, two years after the acquisition of National Airlines, Pan Am was still bungling the merger and had to drastically cut back its services between New York and Florida that had been one of National's traditional trademark services. Practically overnight Acker threw half of Air Florida's fleet into that market and snapped up even Boeing 727s to augment the rapid expansion. Only Eastern at the time had a larger market share than Air Florida in 1981.

And all of it was ballooning Air Florida's debt.

Not one mention in Wall Street or amongst industry analysts was made that Air Florida's debt was growing at a time when interest rates were high and the company's bottom line was actually being subsidized by Acker's financial dealings on the foreign currency market as well as the stock market. No, the meteoric rise of Air Florida won it and Acker praise in the financial press- Acker's a genius! Acker and Air Florida are corporate success stories!

In August of 1981, Acker was in New York City to speak to a group of industry analysts for several Wall Street brokerage firms. Expecting an in-depth analysis of Air Florida's operation and finances, Acker rose to the podium and told all of them that he wasn't able to discuss the financial affairs of Air Florida with them. "I talked to Cunard Lines and told them I was interested in a job as captain of the Titanic. They informed me that I was too late. Not having that challenge available, I decided to try to find one comparable to that. And so I am accepting the chairmanship of a company called Pan American World Airways."

With that, he turned over the podium to Eli Timoner and left. On 1 September 1981 he took over from William T. Sewell at Pan Am. One of Acker's first acts as head of Pan Am was to re-institute all of the flight cutbacks Sewell had made on the New York-Florida market- the very same market he threw Air Florida into with gusto. Eli Timoner now found the airline he started saddled with a massive debt and facing a reinvigorated Pan Am juggernaut determined to drive Air Florida out of business.

And then, one snowy January afternoon in 1982, a tower controller at Washington National cleared an Air Florida flight: "Palm 90, taxi into position and hold. Be ready for an immediate. No delay on departure, if you will."

Within days of the Air Florida crash in the icy Potomac River, approximately 100,000 reservations on Air Florida were canceled. Weeks later, Eli Timoner suffered a stroke and Donald Lloyd Jones from American Airlines was brought in. Jones was edged out at American by Robert Crandall to run American. But it was too late for Jones to save the airline. Acker's foreign currency trading was no longer boosting Air Florida's bottom line. Acker's marketing engine was sucking passengers from Air Florida to Pan Am in droves. Within several weeks $14 million in profit evaporated and creditors moved into seize the airline's assets. The airline even got slapped with an IRS tax lien. That year, Air Florida suffered a $78 million loss. Two years of massive downsizing stripped Air Florida to the bone.

On 3 July 1984, an airline that went in five years from an intrastate carrier with three airplanes to one that spanned the eastern United States, Europe, and the Caribbean declared bankruptcy and abruptly grounded all of its aircraft and sent all of its employees home. Thousands of passengers were stranded on the Independence Day holiday weekend. After weeks of deliberations in bankruptcy court, Air Florida failed to come up with a restructuring plan as it lacked flexibility as most of its assets were already encumbered with debt and all it had left that were worth anything were its routes to Europe and its slots at New York La Guardia and Washington National. The airline reached out Midway Airlines for a rescue plan that involved financing with the eventual acquisition of the airline by Midway, but the deadlines set by the bankruptcy court could not be met and Air Florida faded into the history books of aviation enthusiasts.

And Ed Acker? What happened at Pan Am will be story for another day!

Source: Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos by Thomas Petzinger, Jr. Three Rivers Press, 1996, p201-208.

30 March 2010

The Legend of Half Moon Bay

It's a travel nightmare. Weather delays and closures at airports during peak travel seasons. It was no different in the past than it is now with air travel when we're at the mercy of the weather despite the advances in technology since the end of the Second World War ushered in unprecedented growth in air travel. Picture in your mind it's the start of the 1962 Christmas holiday travel season and one of the primary airports on the US West Coast, San Francisco, is socked in with fog so thick that anything more than ball toss away fades into the murk. Fog at San Francisco International is nothing new, but this particular week in 1962 the fog stubbornly persisted throughout the holiday season. Flights were delayed or canceled and passengers were stranded at San Francisco International Airport. Unless, of course, you're booked on Pacific Southwest Airlines, PSA.

Several hours before San Francisco International became fog-bound, the PSA station manager called every airport in the Bay Area that could handle PSA's Lockheed L-188 Electra turboprops. Half Moon Bay Airport has long enough runways and sitting on the other side of the coastal ridge from the Bay Area, has clear weather. And fortuitously for PSA, Half Moon Bay's runways aren't thick enough to handle the big jets operated by the other airlines at San Francisco International. PSA employees were dispatched to Half Moon Bay to direct ground and station operations while a fleet of 32 buses are chartered to run a continuous shuttle between Half Moon Bay and San Francisco International.

As the tarmac at Half Moon Bay wasn't strong enough for the Electra, PSA's pilots turned just barely off the runway with only two engines on one side running while passengers disembarked to waiting buses to take them to San Francisco. Meanwhile new busloads of passengers from San Francisco queued up away from the disembarking passengers to begin boarding. Since Half Moon Bay didn't have a control tower, another PSA pilot with a radio was stationed on the roof of what became a makeshift terminal building using the company radio frequency to keep arriving and departing Electras apart.

San Mateo Country sheriff's deputies were called in to keep the curious clear of the flight operations and to direct the traffic as many ticketed PSA passengers began to show up at Half Moon Bay Airport itself. PSA ran radio commercials throughout the Bay Area that said "PSA will get you home for Christmas" as the Electra flights shuttled back and forth to the clear skies of Southern California. Some PSA employees would work 36 hour shifts and a small hotel was used for flight crews that timed out on their duty hours.

The unique Half Moon Bay Airport operation ran from 14 December 1962 all the way through Christmas, carrying over 40,000 passengers on 488 flights to Burbank, Los Angeles and San Diego. It was then that the aviation "Legend of Half Moon Bay" was born as PSA was inundated for weeks after the holidays with letters of thanks from passengers.

It's one of my favorite airline history stories and I count myself lucky to have been able to fly PSA before they were absorbed with great sorrow into USAir.

Source: Poor Sailors' Airline: The Story of Kenny Friedkin's Pacific Southwest Airlines by Gary Kissel. Palawdr Press, 2002, p97-100.

29 March 2010

The legendary Russian rocket designer Sergei Korolev and his special design bureau (designated OKB-1) were given responsibility in the early 1950s to develop a practical tactical ballistic missile designated the R-11 that would better be known by its NATO code name, SS-1 "Scud". The first Scud-A/R-11 missiles were accepted for operational use by the Soviet Army in July 1955 but the early versions were cumbersome to set up and fire, requiring multiple vehicles for support and despite advances in technology was little more practical than the German V-2 rocket. As a result, few operational batteries of the early versions of the Scud-A/R-11 missiles were fielded in the 1950s.

Subsequent developments of the early Scud-A/R-11 missile led to the development of the Scud-B/R-17 which featured a whole host of improvements in design and use. A new tracked TEL (transporter-erector-launcher) vehicle simplified operational deployment and advances in construction and propulsion extended the Scud-B/R-17's range over the Scud-A/R-11 missile. In addition, the Scud-B/R-17 was nuclear-tipped along with the options for conventional or chemical warheads. Soviet Army formations that fielded the nuclear-tipped versions of the Scud-B/R-17 usually had one chemical warhead for every 25 nuclear warheads. To simplify the ballistics and guidance, each of the possible warhead options for the missile was standardized at 1 metric ton. The first Scud-B/R-17 missiles become operational in 1962.

Despite the improvements from the Scud-A/R-11 to the Scud-B/R-17, the missile remained relatively inaccurate which was more problematic when using a conventional or chemical warhead which required more precise targeting than a nuclear warhead. The Scud-A/R-11 had a CEP (circular error probable- a circle in which the warhead was expected to land 50% of the time) of 4 kilometers. The first Scud-B/R-17s cut the CEP down to 2 kilometers, eventually attaining a 1 kilometer CEP. But with a conventional warhead, a 1-km CEP was nearly unacceptable. With a move in the 1960s by both the United States and the Soviet Union towards a more "flexible" response in a nuclear crisis, the Soviet military leadership saw that there would be times that a non-nuclear/non-chemical Scud missile warhead would be more desirable to use.

In 1967 the Central Scientific Research Institute for Automation and Hydraulics in Moscow was tasked to develop a top-secret precision-guided version of the Scud-B/R-17. It was originally designated R-17VTO Aerofon and the Institute decided upon a very prescient form of guidance, optical comparison in which the missile would hit its target by comparing an image of the target with an image stored in its memory. In the late-1960s the development of the guidance proved impractical and the Aerofon project was reorganized in 1974 to take advantage of advances in digital computing. The new system relied on digital images and a computer library could be kept of possible targets. The first Aerofon optical guidance prototype was completed in 1975 and successfully tested pod-mounted under a Sukhoi Su-17 strike fighter.

In the United States we had a similar guidance system under development called "digital scene matching area correlation" (DSMAC). The idea in the US system was that DSMAC would be used on cruise missiles on the final run-in on the target after using TERCOM (terrain contour-matching) on the flight into the target vicinity. It's likely that the first Aerofon guidance package was similar to the first analog version of DSMAC tested here in the United States- a stored photographic negative of the target was compared with a photograph taken of the target area. It was a cumbersome system as tested with DSMAC and the first tests were performed with a Tomahawk cruise missile in 1978.

The Aerofon optical guidance system was air-tested in 1975 and flight tested on an actual Scud-B/R-17 missile in late 1979, the Aerofon hitting only a few meters from the designated target. This represented a massive leap in improvement over the 1-km CEP of the Scud-B/R-17 standard missile. The planned operational Aerofon would have had a CEP on the order of 20 meters.

Unlike the other variants of the Scud missile family where the whole missile impacted the target, the Aerofon variant had a warhead section that separated from the main body of the missile (the first Aerofon missiles, though, did not have a detachable warhead section). At the base of this warhead section were lattice-section steering vanes that folded out into the air stream, providing maneuvering capability to the Aerofon warhead. In the base of the warhead section was the batteries for the power supply and its associated electronics. The nose section was tipped with an optical seeker that updated the inertial guidance and accessed the onboard computer for optical comparison of the target. In between the guidance section at the nose and the power/steering section at the base was the warhead which took up the majority of the space.

The production version of the Aerofon was ready for deployment by 1989 but it never went into large scale production as it was superseded by two more advanced battlefield ballistic missiles- the OTR-21 Tochka (NATO code name SS-21 "Scarab") and the OTR-23 Oka (NATO code name SS-23 "Spider"). However, in the 1990s, the Aerofon was offered for export to existing customers of the Scud missile.

Source: Scud Ballistic Missile and Launch Systems 1955-2005, New Vanguard #120 by Steven J. Zaloga. Osprey Publishing, 2006, p1-19.

26 March 2010

The need to fit aboard the smaller elevators on the Essex-class fleet carriers and the lack of a folding nose or tail meant that the Grumman S2F (later redesignated S-2) Tracker had a stubby fuselage and a short moment arm which required a relatively large vertical fin to maintain control and directional stability. However, the Tracker was so short-coupled that in a single engine situation, the fin and rudder despite their size were still insufficient and an adverse yaw into a spin would result. At lower airspeeds even with both engines operating the Tracker was a handful during takeoff and approach.

To compensate for this adverse effect, Grumman designed what was called the SERA- Single Engine Rudder Assist. If you look closely at the fin and rudder of the Tracker, the rudder appears to be two vertical sections and a prominent trim tab. During normal flight, only the rearmost section of the rudder and its trim tab acted as a conventional rudder and the section of rudder closest to the fin acted as a rudder trimmer driven by an electric screwjack.

During an engine out, takeoff, or approach, the SERA system was activated and the section that in cruise flight acted as a rudder trimmer switched over to hydraulic activation and acted with the rearmost section of the rudder to act together, effectively doubling the area of the rudder during those critical areas of flight. With the SERA activated, the full two-section rudder traveled an impressive 40 degrees on each side, allowing the S2F Tracker to have a minimum control speed of 85 knots with one engine out.

Another unique feature of the Tracker's tail section was a spring link that connected the retractable tail wheel bumper and the elevator trim. When the Tracker's undercarriage was lowered, there was a pronounced shift in the center of gravity forward as the heavy main undercarriage units swung forward out of the nacelle landing gear bays. To counteract this, when the tail wheel bumper lowered as part of the undercarriage cycle, the spring link automatically provided the needed amount of nose-up trim, lessening the workload of the flight crew on approach to the carrier.

Source: Air Enthusiast, January-February 1996, No. 61. "Willing Tracker: The Grumman S2F Tracker in Canadian Service- Part One" by Robert M. Stitt, p44-45.

25 March 2010

In the 1950s the Armée de l'Air (French Air Force) held a competition for a new jet trainer. The manufacturing firm Morane-Saulnier offered a T-tailed twin jet design that had the student and instructor sitting side-by-side and Fouga offered what became the winning design, a tandem-seat twin jet with a butterfly V-tail which went into production as the Magister. To make the best of the loss, Morane-Saulnier redesigned their aircraft into a four-seat light jet designated the MS.760 Paris which was used by French military as a liason and VIP transport. The Paris was also used by the militaries of Argentina and Brazil.

In 1958 Beechcraft began to market the MS.760 in the United States after the aircraft received its FAA certification. Touring the country and demonstrating it to businessmen as a faster alternative to the piston twins then coming into use in the general aviation, the MS.760 was noted for its ease of maintenance and simplicity of construction. At airshows where the MS.760 was demonstrated, the aircraft would quite literally be disassembled before the crowd, reassembled and flown off again.

For several years Beechcraft tried to gauge customer acceptance of what could be considered the first VLJ design (very light jet). Showing its military origins, a small boarding ladder was stored in the glove box of the cabin that was needed to get into and out of the aircraft. Upon seeing this feature, Walter Beech's widow Olive Ann (who took over the company after her husband's death) is reported to have said that no self-respecting woman would climb into an airplane that way.

Though it's debatable if Olive Ann Beech had anything to do with the eventual demise of the Beechcraft project to market the MS.760, it's quite certain that the arrival of the faster Learjet 23 which made its first flight in 1963 swung the business jet market in Lear's favor. However, in 2009 a long time Paris owner and fan, Edward Furtak, and his company JetSet, acquired the type certificate for the Paris from SOCATA, the successor company to Morane-Saulnier when it changed its name in 1966. Thirty remaining MS.760s were purchased from SOCATA along with the engineering, blueprints, tooling, and even rebuilt Turbomeca turbojet engines. An additional 10 aircraft were purchased from Argentina with the intent of overhauling the airframes and offering them for sale as a VLJ. The intent of the company is to also re-engine the MS.760 with either Pratt & Whitney JT15D or Williams FJ44 engines.

Source: Air & Space Smithsonian, March 2010, Vol. 24, No. 7. "The Last Time We Saw Paris..." from the Soundings column, p12-13.

24 March 2010

The Ault Report: Improving USN Fighter Effectiveness

After the dismal performance of the naval fighter pilots during the Rolling Thunder campaign in Vietnam between 1964 to 1968, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Thomas Moorer, ordered a wide-ranging and critical review of US Navy air-to-air missile performance during the first half of the war. He put in charge of the study Captain Frank Ault, who served as captain of the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in 1966-67. During Ault's command of the Coral Sea, his air wing suffered fifty combat losses, three of them to North Vietnamese MiG fighters and only a single air-to-air victory by the entire air wing. He had made suggestions on improving the performance in particular of the semi-active radar homing AIM-7 Sparrow and in 1968 he was commissioned by the CNO to review the Navy's air-to-air weapons, training and tactics in what is now known as the Ault Report.

The most visible result of Ault's investigation and recommendations was the creation of the Navy's Fighter Weapons School better known as TOPGUN. But Ault's purview also included a review of missile performance as the Navy's F-4 Phantoms had no guns and had rely on missiles for air-to-air kills. In the Ault Report's review of missile performance, the maintenance of the missiles themselves came under scrutiny.

During the conflict in Vietnam, there were numerous occasions where the AIM-7 Sparrow had been fired correctly, but the solid rocket motor failed to ignite and propel the missile to the target or the electronics failed altogether, creating "one expensive unguided rocket". Rather than load "fresh" Sparrow missiles to the underfuselage recesses on the Phantom before each mission, the hard-pressed carrier deck crews often left the delicate missiles on the aircraft for the next mission and it wasn't unusual for a Sparrow missile to sit in its recess on the Phantom for months at a time, flying mission after mission (it was common for an unfired Sparrow missile to fly over 50 missions before it was demounted for maintenance work) and the delicate electronics getting jarred repeatedly by multiple catapult shots and arrested landings. In addition, the tropical moisture and salt air as well as the changes in temperature from the heat of the carrier deck to the freezing cold of the Phantom's cruising altitudes took their toll on the Sparrow missiles.

During the same time period the USAF's standard was to at least demount the missile and bench check the electronics and systems after every ten missions flown. Simple maintenace procedures were found to vastly improve the reliability of the Sparrow missiles. For example, there was a disposable "wafer" switch that allowed an electrical connection between the Sparrow's rocket motor and the Phantom. This switch was designed as a one-time use item to be removed at the end of a mission and replaced with a new switch, but in the interests of saving time and money, Navy Phantom squadrons never changed out the component which caused it to corrode and fail, causing a significant number of the Sparrow missile malfunctions.

While TOPGUN is the most visible result of the Ault Report, his recommendations would wide-ranging implications that not only increased the combat effectiveness of the US Navy's fighter squadrons in Vietnam, but also influenced contractor and logistical support of all of the Navy's aviation assets in years to come.

Source: Gray Ghosts: US Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms by Peter E. Davies. Schiffer Publishing, 2000, p139-140.

23 March 2010

With the specter of war looming in the Pacific, the Australian government issued a requirement in 1940 for a twin-engine dive bomber that could also perform the role of torpedo bomber to replace the program to build the Bristol Beaufort light bomber in Australia. At the time of the Australian specification, urgent needs in the UK during the Battle of Britain saw many of the needed components being diverted to British defense needs. The specification called for a light bomber to exceed the performance of the Beaufort and by being locally-designed and built by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC), it could be designed from outset to meet the Royal Australian Air Force's needs.

Led by the CAC's chief designer, Lawrence Wackett, the resulting aircraft was initially designated the CA-4 and powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1830 1,200-horsepower radial engines with a crew of the three. The most unique aspect of the CA-4 design were remotely-controlled twin gun turrets in the aft end of each engine nacelle controlled by the rear gunner. Each turret had twin 0.303 guns and there were an additional four 0.303 guns fixed forward in the nose fired by the pilot. In addition, the underside of each nacelle contained a bomb bay that could carry two 250 lb bombs.

The CA-4 prototype made its first flight in September 1941 and was found to have handling and stability issues. Armament trials the following year with the RAAF showed that the locally-designed sighting system also had numerous technical deficiencies. But the design proved so promising that orders were placed in March 1942 for an improved version of the CA-4 designated CA-11 and named Woomera (a woomera is an elongated bowl-like tool used as a spear throwing device by the Aborigines to extend the arm's moment arm).

The improved CA-11 used elements of the sighting system and turret controls from a Boeing B-29 Superfortress as well as aerodynamic refinements to improve its handling and performance. By the time of the CA-11 Woomera's first flight in July 1944 dive bombing and torpedo bombing were less important as they were when the design was first conceived in 1940. In addition, there were numerous Allied aircraft already in production and easily available that filled many of the roles planned for the Woomera- particularly the Bristol Beaufighter and the North American B-25 Mitchell, for example. Flight tests also showed that while handing was improved, but there were vibrations in the tail section that could lead to structural fatigue. As CAC's engineers were heavily tasked with other projects and there was a shortage of skilled personnel, the CA-11 Woomera was quietly shelved.

Source: Air Enthusiast, January-February 1996, No. 61. "From Fisherman's Bend: The Aircraft of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation" by Joe Vella, p27-28.

19 March 2010

On 18 January 2003 the over 7,000 Marines of Task Force Tarawa set sail from the United States aboard seven amphibious assault ships with 72 aircraft (and more following them) for the Persian Gulf in the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Bell AH-1W Super Cobras of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269 (HMLA-269 "Gunrunners") from MCAS New River, North Carolina were reinforced with additional gunships from sister unit HMLA-167 for a total of 18 AH-1W Super Cobras and nine Bell UH-1N transports. The reinforced squadron embarked on the USS Saipan (LHA-2) and the USS Ponce (LPD-15) for the sea transit to the Middle East. As Task Force Tarawa transited through the choke points of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, HMLA-269 would have six Super Cobras on flying alert to protect the task force.

Arriving off the coast of Kuwait on 18 March 2003, ten of HMLA-269's Super Cobras were detached to a forward base 23 miles south of the Iraqi border to participate in the squadron's first operational mission, the assault on the Iraqi forward reconnaissance positions at Safwan. The first combat missions by the AH-1Ws of the squadron on 20/21 March were notable, however, for the combat use of what was then-a-classified version of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, the AGM-114N thermobaric Hellfire.

Thermobaric weapons were first developed in the 1960s by the engineers at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and were what were then known as fuel-air-explosive weapons. FAEs work by releasing a cloud of volatile vapor which is then detonated, creating a large and destructive pressure wave in the process. A standard blast/fragmentation warhead creates a large pressure spike that decays rapidly. A thermobaric warhead, on the other hand, creates a large sustained pressure wave that propagates through any building or enclosed space, making it ideal for urban warfare. In the late 1990s, the engineers at China Lake had succeeded in creating non-liquid thermobaric explosives using metal particles (such as aluminum or magnesium) instead a liquid. The initial detonation releases the fine particles which then ignite, creating the large and sustained pressure wave. For this the China Lake Naval Weapons Center was awarded a classified US patent.

Marine Corps combat experience prior to OIF had shown that missiles like the TOW or Hellfire with their blast/fragmentation warheads were often unsuitable in urban environments as the pressure spike from the warhead detonation would be attenuated inside enclosed spaces. In addition, the missiles would often pass right through the target building before detonating.

The thermobaric weapons work at China Lake resulted in what was called a metal-augmented charge (MAC) that was the ideal warhead for a new version of the Hellfire missile desired by the Marine Corps. The AGM-114N's thermobaric warhead consists of a layer of fine aluminum powder sandwiched between the warhead casing and the explosive fill in the center. On detonation, the aluminum powder is dispersed and ignites, creating a large and sustained pressure wave. Live fire tests at White Sands and China Lake proved the weapon to be effective.

When HMLA-269 arrived in the Persian Gulf, the squadron's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Hewitt, was one of the few Marine aviators aware of the AGM-114N as his previous posting before taking command of the "Gunrunners" was a senior posting in Marine Corps weapons development working closely on the tests of the thermobaric Hellfire missile. The thermobaric Hellfires used in the development and testing work in the United States prior to OIF were converted from stock AGM-114K Hellfires and Lt. Col. Hewitt knew that there were 60 AGM-114Ns left over from the test program that were in storage. Aware that the Marines of Task Force Tarawa faced many urban threats before even reaching Baghdad, he arranged for those 60 missiles to be shipped out to the squadron. However, the US Navy wouldn't transport them as the missiles were never certified for carriage by ship. Lt. Col. Hewitt then turned to the US Air Force, who were more than happy to fly out the missiles immediately to Kuwait for the squadron.

HMLA-269's original plan was to keep the precious AGM-114Ns until Task Force Tarawa reached Baghdad, but they also wanted to prove that the thermobaric Hellfires worked in actual combat. Several were fired during the assault on Safwan and were highly effective. Interestingly enough, during their use in the assault on Safwan and in HMLA-269's combat missions on the march to Baghdad, the AGM-114N thermobaric Hellfire missiles (called TB Hellfire) were still classified!

Source: International Air Power Review, Volume 12, Spring 2004. "Focus Aircraft: Bell AH-1 Cobra" by Robert Hewson, p56-58.

18 March 2010

The CIM-10/IM-99 Bomarc was one of the first very long range surface to air missiles to go into service, becoming operational with NORAD for the air defense of North America in 1959. Housed in a rectangular semi-hardened shelter, on receiving the launch order the shelter's roof would slide open and the Bomarc would be raised into the vertical launch position. An Aerojet General LR59 liquid-fueled booster rocket would accelerate the Bomarc to over Mach 2.5 and 60,000 feet when the twin Marquardt RJ43 ramjets took over to propel the missile to over 200 miles out from launch where its 10-kiloton W40 nuclear warhead would destroy the target bombers.

The booster rocket of the missile used hypergolic fuels- red fuming nitric acid as an oxidant and aniline fuel that would spontaneously ignite when mixed. The fuels were stored on the missile for 90 days at a time. When a launch order was received, a helium tank on the missile would be pressurized to provide propellant tank pressurization for the booster rocket. It would take 15 seconds to pressurize the tank, during which time the Bomarc was raised to the vertical position for launch. At the end of each 90 day period, the missile would have to be defueled, decontaminated and then refueled. Pressurized helium would be used to empty the tanks to defuel them as well as in the refueling procedure.

On 7 June 1960 the firefighting department of Fort Dix and McGuire AFB, New Jersey received an emergency call that a fire had broken out in Bomarc Shelter #204. The missile in that shelter was nuclear tipped and the failure of a helium tank set up a pressure shockwave that ruptured the booster rocket propellant tanks, spilling the hypergolic fuels and starting a fire. The fire then heated the remaining fuel in the missile, causing an explosion. Fortunately the shelter roof doors were closed and took the brunt of the propellant explosion, but the steel roof and blast doors were still blown off the shelter and the fierce fire burned for 45 minutes. The missile and launch equipment were destroyed and the fire was so intense the steel structural beams of the launch shelter sagged from partially melting.

Fortunately the hardened shelter design contained most of the explosion and debris and the adjoining launch shelters were undamaged. Water had to be pumped on the remains of the shelter and missile through the night before it cooled down enough for radiation safety teams from the Atomic Energy Commission and the USAF to survey the damage. As the fire had to burned, the structure of the missile melted and the nuclear warhead fell right into the fire and was itself partially melted. Careful study of the remains of the warhead showed that between 2 to 11 oz of plutonium were lost but the tritium tank that held the heavy hydrogen isotope to trigger the nuclear reaction was intact.

The plutonium caused radiation counts inside the remains of the shelter to soar to 2 million counts per minute as the salvage teams had to wear protective gear. What was left of the floor and shelter were sprayed with a special thick paint that absorbed the radiation (thankfully there was no high energy gamma radiation from detonation of the warhead) and four inches of concrete were poured on the surrounding area until detected radiation counts were zero. The site remained fenced off until the Bomarc missiles were decommissioned in 1972. In 2004 the USAF had the site demolished and had 20 feet of soil surrounding the shelter excavated. The soil and the debris were shipped out to a nuclear waste repository in Utah.

Source: Airpower, September 2004, Volume 34, No. 9. "Nuclear Nightmare Almost" by Dr. Richard V. Porcelli, p13.

17 March 2010

The Very Unique Dornier Do 212

One of the more unique flying boats to be built was the Dornier Do 212 which began its water trials in 1942. Design work on the Do 212 began in 1938 at the Dornier-Werke facility in Freiderichshafen, Germany in collaboration with Dornier's Switzerland-based subsidiary who would be responsible for construction of the prototype with the Swiss registration HB-GOG.

The most unique aspect of the Do 212 was that it had a four-bladed pusher propeller in the tail that could be pivoted upward 12 degrees on takeoff. An extension shaft with a flexible joint connected the propeller to the mid-fuselage mounted piston engine, a 460-horsepower Hirth HM512B 12-cylinder powerplant located immediately behind the four-seat cabin. The monoplane wing had fixed floats on the wingtips that formed endplates which were planned to contribute to directional stability in flight. Initial water trials took place on Lake Constance in Switzerland, the Do 212 being towed behind a boat for the first series of tests. As a result of some stability issues on the water, extensions were added to the bottom of the wingtip float/endplates.

A short hop off the water was made in August 1942 but the pilot had to abort and land immediately due to instability in the air. Technical issues with the extension shaft and getting adequate cooling to the Hirth engine resulted in the program being canceled and the Dornier Do 212 being scrapped before any further flight testing was conducted.

Source: Air Enthusiast, Volume 5, Number 3 (September 1973), "Plane Facts" by William Green, managing editor, Gordon Swanborough, editor. Pilot Press Ltd, 1973, p147. Photo: 1000AircraftPhotos.com

16 March 2010

British European Airways' Dart Dakota

While the Vickers Viscount and its Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop engines underwent an exhaustive test flying program befitting its groundbreaking status as the first turbine-powered production airliner to fly, the Dart engines themselves would also fly on a variety of testbed aircraft to allow not only Rolls-Royce's engineers to gain operating experience with the new engine, British European Airways (BEA) also gained operating experience as well with the Dart Dakota, a conversion of one of the airline's DC-3s with Dart turboprops. Two BEA DC-3s were converted to Dart engines- G-ALXN "Sir Henry Royce" and the other DC-3, G-AMDB "Claude Johnson", BEA's managers, pilots, and maintenance crews gained valuable experience in turbine operations before the arrival of the Vickers Viscount.

One of the unique aspects that made testing the Dart engine challenging was that it was a purely postwar civilian engine program that lacked a large body of military operating experience that in the past made applying civilian versions of military powerplants relatively smooth. Both BEA and Rolls-Royce lacked data on the ideal flight patterns, control methods, and maintenance pitfalls for the Dart engine and the use of the two Dart Dakotas would remedy this situation- rather than flying a test program, BEA's Dart Dakotas would be integrated into BEA's routine operations to see how the engines fared in routine use.

Early model Dart engines (designated Mk. 505s) replaced the Dakota's radial engines and the nacelle installation would approximate that of the Viscount as closely as possible. As the DC-3 was an unpressurized aircraft, it was impractical to operate the Dart Dakota at lower altitudes (which would have been inefficient for the engines) or at higher altitudes (as the passengers would have needed a bulky oxygen supplementation system). As a result, BEA would employ the two Dart Dakotas for freight only services as only the flight deck crew would need oxygen to operate at the at the efficient higher altitudes.

The first scheduled "operational" service was flown on 15 August 1951 when G-ALXN carried 1.5 tons of cargo from BEA's original base at Northolt to Hannover, Germany. Following succesful introductions to service, BEA then deployed the two Dart Dakotas on all-cargo scheduled services out of Northolt to Copenhagen and Milan in addition to Hannover until the end of the trial period in 1952.

Compared to a stock DC-3, the Dart Dakotas had the following performance figures: 202 mph/325 km/h for the Dart Dakota vs. 167 mph/270 km/h with a gross weight of 28000 lbs at an altitude of 25000 feet vs. only 7000 feet for a standard DC-3. Ultimately the trial period was uneconomic, as the Dart Dakotas weren't able to fly as many hours as planned thanks to a shortage of qualified flight crews and trained engineers and maintenance crews. Technical difficulties as well resulted in numerous canceled flights and delays- but these were the very sort of problems BEA, Rolls-Royce, and Vickers wanted to see before the Viscount entered scheduled passenger services.

At the end of the trial period, G-ALXN flew for a total 538 hours in Dart configuration and her sistership G-AMDB flew for 668 total hours. Both aircraft were then reconverted back to standard DC-3 configuration, flying services with BEA until early 1962 when they were passed on to the British independent operators of the day.

Source: A Celebration of the DC-3 by Arthur Pearcy. Airlife Publishing, 1985, p99-100.

15 March 2010

Unlike the Navy's F-4 Phantoms which operated from carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Phantoms of the US Marine Corps operated from two land bases in support of Marine troops- Da Nang and Chu Lai. Da Nang housed both USAF and USMC units and in the summer of 1966, Chu Lai was built to relieve the congestion at Da Nang- the first Marine Phantom and Skyhawk units at Chu Lai, though, had to use SATS- short airfield for tactical support- which was pretty much the elements of a carrier deck from the catapults and arresting gear used on a land based. The SATS equipment was used until the main runway at Chu Lai was completed in the following year.

Marine Phantoms sat "hot pad alert" at both Chu Lai and Da Nang. The Phantoms were usually loaded with a combination of Mk.82 Snakeye bombs and napalm. At each end of the runways were revetments for the alert Phantoms that allowed them to start up and head out immediately on the runway.

Marine crews rotated eight hour shifts on hot pad alert. There were at least two crews sitting in a ready room adjacent to the hot pad fully suited up and waiting for the urgent call for air support by a Marine unit in the field. The F-4s were full preflighted at the start of each eight hour period and the same ground crews worked the same eight hour shifts to keep the planes "cocked and ready". Once the alert bell went off, the crews made the short run to their aircraft where the plane captains got them strapped in while the RIO got the information on the target, the forward air controller to contact and the necessary frequencies while the pilot got the big fighter started up. Once cleared by the tower and the chocks were pulled, the two alert Phantoms rolled out and onto the runway for an afterburner takeoff. With practice, the flight and ground crews could get the alert Phantoms airborne within five minutes of the alert bell going off.

Should the alert crews be launched, there were two back up flight crews, one on 15-minute alert and one on one-hour alert. As soon as the alert Phantoms were launched, a new pair of aircraft were rolled onto the hot pad already armed and fueled and preflighted by the ground crews. The flight crew on 15-minute alert then became the new alert crew and the one-hour alert crew moved up to the 15-minute spot. If things in the field were hectic (like it was during the siege of the Marine Corps firebase at Khe Sanh, there would a crew on 30-minute alert as well.

Over the course of a week, both the A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom USMC squadrons in residence at Chu Lai and Da Nang rotated hot pad alert and at Da Nang, the F-4s of the USAF's 366th Tactical Fighter Wing also shared the hot pad alert.

The Marines also had a hot pad for air-to-air alerts for MiG activity, but this was rarely used as the Navy BARCAP (barrier combat air patrol) shouldered most of the patrols for the occasional MiG activity. It got to the point that the Marines just parked a hangar queen Phantom on the air-to-air pad for appearances!

Source: Gray Ghosts: US Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms by Peter E. Davies. Schiffer Publishing, 2000, p83-101.

14 March 2010

A year ago today I created this blog as an extension of my own fascination with aviation history, from the aircraft to the personalities that shaped the development and use of aviation since its earliest days. I've always been an inverterate reader when it comes to aviation books and any given time I'll have several books I'm rotating through covering diverse topics in aviation history. I started this blog last March to share even just a bit of the enjoyment I get out of my trips through the history of flight and that became the subtitle for Aviation Trivia of the Day- "Short Trips on the Long Road of Aviation History".

I thought finding an appropriate bit of aviation trivia for Christmas was challenging, trying to think of something appropriate for the one year anniversary of this blog was even harder. I remembered one time having a discussion on Airlinebuzz with my fellow aviation geeks about heroes and role models in aviation. A lot of what happens now in aviation is shaped by many individuals working for a common goal and less so do we have figures like the Orville and Wilbur Wrights or the Donald Douglases or Scott Crossfields and Neil Armstrongs to even individuals like C.R. Smith or C.E. Woolman. Sure, we have standouts now and then these days like Burt Rutan or Herb Kelleher, but I suspect that kids today don't name the personalities of aviation as their role models and heroes.

Mind you, I was virtually an "avgeek" from the get-go, so growing up I had an natural inclination to want to read as much about these folks as I could, whether it was aces like James Jabara or Robin Olds, designers like Igor Sikorsky or Jack Northrop, test pilots like Al White, or pioneers like Amelia Earhart or Yuri Gagarin.

I'm every bit still an avgeek despite a day job that has nothing to do with aviation. So I figured for today I'd talk a bit about one of these aviation figures that always impressed me and to this day as an adult still do. I'll admit this is an unusual choice, but for me it's a mix of what United States Air Force General Bernard Schriever set out to do and what his legacy today has become.

Born in 1910 in Bremen, German, Bernard Schriever found himself bound for the United States as a young boy when the passenger ship his father served on was interned during the First World War in New York. His family settled in the Texas Hill Country where many German immigrants of the day settled and though his father passed away in an industrial accident in 1918, the young Schriever worked hard in school, graduating with honors from San Antonio High School and would go on to graduate with honors as well with a degree in architectural engineering from Texas A&M in 1931. He excelled in ROTC and this earned him his pilot's wings at Kelly Field in San Antonio in 1933.

But Schriever applied himself to his hobbies as well- he worked as a caddy through school and managed to become quite the golfer himself. During the inter-war period, he even briefly played professional golf in addition to flying with the US Army's air mail service, commanding a Civilian Conservation Corps, and even flew for a while for Northwest Airlines.

But his calling came with World War II, flying 63 combat missions in the Pacific with the USAAF's 19th Bombardment Group. He was one of the key personalities in the postwar independent United States Air Force that shaped the USAF's emphasis on technology as he had come to work with the famed aerodynamicist Theodore Von Karman on emerging technologies that would be of use for the nascent USAF. He became the defacto technical expert in the USAF in this field, often clashing with the pragmatic and often bombastic Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command.

In the 1950s, LeMay's emphasis on the manned bomber as the main nuclear deterrent force on the United States was near-unassailable. The Navy had a small carrierborne deterrent, but that was it. Schriever saw the future of nuclear deterrence and the security of his adopted homeland would not be with bombers, but with ballistic missiles as he observed the leaps and bounds made by the Russians in their space program. After all, if they could put in Sputnik into orbit, it wasn't that much more of an effort to put a nuclear warhead in the United States.

Having won the confidence of his superiors with his technical knowledge and unassuming style (Schriever's superiors also happened to be General LeMay's superiors) that enabled him to outpace LeMay, he became the head of what was then called the Western Development Division of the USAF and given nearly free-reign to not just handpick his staff and subordinates, but also to engage a new defense procurement and management style that was radical for the day- the WDD would act as a systems manager and integrator, and subcontract parts of weapons systems to defense companies. He actively promoted competition amongst the contractors to spur technological progress but also divided subprojects amongst deserving companies to reduce risk.

When President Eisenhower declared fielding an operational intercontinental ballistic missile was of the "utmost national priority", General Schriever had all the pieces in place to lead the development and fielding of a nuclear deterrent that would eclipse LeMay's bomber force in strength, technology, and security. This was one of the reasons LeMay saw Schriever as a threat- what Schriever could deliver would make LeMay's massive bomber fleets irrelevant in the nation's nuclear strategy. When Schriever got his fourth star, LeMay remarked "If it were up to me, he'd never have gotten that star."

By the time the Atlas ICBM project was underway, the Western Development Division had along with the contractors over 18,000 scientists, 17 major defense companies, over 200 subcontractors, 3,500 suppliers for a total of approximately 70,000 people in an effort that dwarfed the Manhattan Project. Just before Sputnik's launch in 1957, the Western Development Division became the USAF's Ballistic Missile Division (BMD) and under Schriever's leadership, the USAF not only rapidly fielded the Atlas missile (first flight was in June 1957 and the first missile went on alert in January 1958), but also developed, flight tested and fielded the Thor IRBM, two version of the Titan ICBM (the Titan I and the more advanced Titan II) and three versions of the Minuteman ICBM (Minuteman I and II, and Minuteman III, today still the cornerstone of the United States' missile deterrent). And this all occurred in a seven year period between the first Atlas contractor awards in January 1955 and the first operational Minuteman missiles going on alert in November 1962!

By comparison in the same time period, the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger interceptor took ten years from initial awards to operational deployment. To this day, what General Bernard Schriever accomplished in such a short period of time is still unparalleled. The technological burst that arose from the ICBM programs not only benefited the US space program, but formed the robust seed of the modern American industrial technology from advances in materials science, computing, and production methods.

But General Schriever's name is little known in many historical and business/industrial circles this day, but then I suspect from what I've read of him that was fine by him. In his later years, he always considered what his work brought to the US manned space program and scientific exploration of the solar system to be of greater satisfaction and significance than the creation of the ICBM force.

General Schriever passed away in 2005. He was laid to rest amongst other heroes at Arlington National Cemetery where his head stone reads "Bernard A Schriever General US Air Force, Father of the Air Force's Ballistic Missile and Space Programs". Noted military historian Walter Boyne puts it more succinctly "The Right Man in the Right Place at the Right Time".

Source: Beyond the Wild Blue- A History of the United States Air Force, 1947-2007, Second Edition by Walter J. Boyne. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2007, p117-123.

13 March 2010

The First Production ECM Pod for Jet Aircraft: Tee Town

In the late 1950s Soviet defenses against the bombers of the Strategic Air Command were improving by leaps and bounds as more capable fighters, radars and surface-to-air missiles were deployed not just on the periphery of the Soviet Union but also around key cities and industrial centers like Moscow and Leningrad. At the time, SAC's bomber force consisted of 100 Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses, over 1,000 Boeing B-47 Stratojets, and 200 Convair B-36s that were gradually being phased out. As the tip of SAC's spear, the B-52s had a comprehensive electronic countermeasures suite as well as an onboard electronic warfare officer who could constantly reconfigure the jammers to meet the threats.

The B-36s being piston-driven (despite the addition of four jet engines) was soon to be phased out, so there was no need to upgrade to the ECM systems. But the B-47 made up three-quarters of SAC's offensive striking force and unlike the B-52, didn't have the space or power for additional jamming systems to put it on par with the Stratofortresses.

The solution came with a $2.5 million contract code named Tee Town. Carried out in 1958 to 1959 with the assistance of Douglas Aircraft's Tulsa Division, Tee Town consisted of two 14-foot long pods mounted on cantilevered pylons attached to the bomb bay doors. Each pod carried four ALT-6B jammers on the lower half of the pod and covered by a fiberglass dielectric fairing. Ram air was ducted around each of the jammers for cooling and Douglas added upgraded electrical generators on the Tee Town aircraft to handle the increased electrical demand.

Tee Town was planned as an interim measure pending deployment of the specialized Phase V jamming escort version of the B-47 that would accompany strike cells of nuclear-armed Stratojets. Sixty B-47s were modified to carry the Tee Town pods and were assigned to the 303rd Bomb Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona and the 509th Bomb Wing at Pease AFB in New Hampshire.

Although only 120 of the Tee Town pods were built, it marked a historical point as the world's first electronic warfare jamming pod designed for high speed aircraft to go into production.

Source: The History of U.S. Electronic Warfare, Volume II- The Renaissance Years, 1946-1964 by Alfred Price. The Association of Old Crows/Port City Press, 1989, p191-192.

11 March 2010

The Ad Hoc Solutions to Get Air-to-Ground Capability in the Navy's Phantoms in Vietnam

When the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II was conceived, it was for the role of fleet air defense but McDonnell wisely made it strong enough to carry a sizeable bombload, a hold over from a previous design incarnation of the Phantom that was optimized for strike missions. Once the first F-4Bs headed out to the fleet, the avionics of the new fighter were geared around air defense but it did have a bombing computer- one for nuclear "toss-bombing" and one that many Phantom crews in Southeast Asia found wholly inadequate for the strike mission they were called upon to perform in the mid-1960s as the Vietnam War escalated. Many squadrons lacked any air-to-ground training and some were lucky just to get triple-ejector racks (TERs) or multiple-ejector racks (MERs) to improve their bomb-carrying capacity.

There were, however, some resourceful crews in the Navy Phantom squadrons headed to Southeast Asia. In those days, most of the Phantom pilots came from the F3H Demon and F4D Skyray communities with new RIOs (radar intercept officers) being trained by Marine Skyknight crews. Those pilots were trained in fleet air defense and didn't have any air-to-ground backgrounds but some pilots came from the attack community (A-1 Skyraider and A-4 Skyhawk) and some were proficient in gunnery having come from F-8 squadrons. Throw in a few motivated officers from the air defense group and you had the making of a solution that improved the Phantom's bombing performance in Vietnam.

The first squadron to come up with a fix to the lack of a proper bombing computer on the Phantom was VF-96 on their mid-1960s cruise aboard the USS Ranger. With the carrier stopping at Subic Bay on its way to the Gulf of Tonkin for line operations over Vietnam, the crews came up with a way remove the fixed reflector sight on the cockpit coaming of the Phantom and replace it with the lead-computing sight from the Douglas A-1 Skyraider. The Skyraider's sight allowed lead angles to be entered and based on calculations made the strike-minded pilots in the squadron, they were able to create a reasonably effective bomb sight for dive attacks. Special mounts were cast in the foundry at Subic Bay that allowed the Skyraider sights to be mounted on the Phantoms and some of the pilots tested them out before the Ranger deployed, becoming the first USN Phantom unit so equipped! Their sights even allowed for more effective use of rockets in ground attacks as well, a weapon used in flak suppression missions.

The pilots of VF-114 who were embarked on the Kitty Hawk had more lead time to prepare than VF-96. Before leaving the United States, the strike-minded pilots in the squadron calculated the sight settings to use on the existing Phantom sight to allow for dive bombing attacks at any angle between 10 to 45 degrees from various altitudes, the thought being that having more time, they might be able to make the stock Phantom sight workable. They found that carrier deck landings jarred the sight settings, repeatedly knocking the fine tunings out of whack. A resourceful ordnance officer went to Litchfield Park in Arizona where a number of retired Skyraiders were being stored and he collected enough Skyraider sights (that as I had mentioned could compute lead angles and were also quite robust) for the Phantoms of the squadron. Low profile mounts were devised that improved the visibility particularly during carrier landings and along with extra MERs and TERs that they had managed to get from a Marine attack squadron, VF-114 became the second squadron to improve its air-to-ground capability.

Both squadrons managed to this on their own without any external assistance from the Navy or McDonnell and for the most part, kept their tactics in use all the way through the 1960s!

Source: Gray Ghosts: US Navy and Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms by Peter E. Davies. Schiffer Publishing, 2000, p74-75.

10 March 2010

Before the Rutan Voyager: The BD-2 LOVE ONE

Although he had his career begin at North American Aviation, Jim Bede's real passion was for light aircraft- more importantly, light aircraft that were within the reach of most Americans at a time when ownership of even a two-seat Cessna or Piper was out of reach for most private pilots. In 1961 Jim Bede formed Bede Aviation to produce the BD-1, a two seat low wing monoplane that would be kit built, something that had never been tried before in the general aviation market. Changes in the business plan at the time pushed him to offer the BD-1 as a fully-built aircraft instead of a kitplane. The new company was called American Aviation but a conflict between Jim Bede and the shareholders resulted in Bede being forced to relinquish leadership of his company. The BD-1 became the AA-1 Yankee with Russ Meyer as its president. Russ Meyer would later go on to become president of Cessna and American Aviation was acquired by Grumman in 1972 and the AA-1 would set the pattern for a series of light planes from the company in the 1970s.

Jim Bede, however, decided to refocus his efforts on one of his other aviation dreams- to fly around the world, solo, nonstop, and without refueling. Long before Burt Rutan's Voyager accomplished the same feat but with two pilots in 1986, Jim Bede started work on his aircraft twenty years earlier in 1966.

Using a Schweizer 2-32 sailplane as the basis for what he called the BD-2, he fitted it with a modified 225-horsepower Continental IO-360 six-cylinder piston engine in the nose that could run the prop at low power levels. The wings were sealed to form a large fuel tank and special wingtips were added to the BD-2 to increase the aspect ratio of the wing, increase its fuel capacity and ease ground handling. Additional fuel tanks were built into the fuselage as well. During the flight tests, Jim Bede demonstrated that at 20,000 feet, the BD-2 could cruise at 135 mph using only 20 horsepower which amounted to an impressively low rate of fuel consumption. With a takeoff weight of 3,000 lbs, it was an impressive feat of creative engineering.

Bede christened the BD-2 "LOVE ONE" for Low Orbit Very Efficiently No.1" and managed to stay aloft in the BD-2 for over 70 hours flying back and forth between Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio in 1969 before an electrical fault ended his flight having only covered 9,000 miles- while short of what a global circumnavigation would have entailed, it was still an impressive feat for such a small aircraft.

He never attempted the round-the-world flight in the BD-2, having gone back to his ideas of kitplanes. With the more successful BD-4 and BD-5 designs, he would go on to fame as creating the modern kitplane market.

Source: Air Enthusiast, Volume 4, Number 2, February 1972. "Mr. Bede's Dreamboat" by John Fricker, p69-72.

09 March 2010

Four years after its first flight the Republic F-105 Thunderchief in the form of the first production variant, the F-105B, finally reached operational status. Two years prior, though, planning had already begun for the definitive Thunderchief variant, the F-105D, and it was this variant that made up the bulk of the F-105's production run. The USAF's early plans were for 800 F-105s to equip 11 fighter wings of the Tactical Air Command. However, when the US Navy's new McDonnell F-4 Phantom II began smash existing records with its performance, Thunderchief production was abruptly curtailed in favor of the first USAF versions of the Phantom which offered a multirole versatility that the strike-optimized Thunderchief lacked.

Of the 833 Thunderchiefs built, 610 of them were F-105Ds and 143 were the two-seat F-105Fs that would later be converted into the F-105G Wild Weasel aircraft. All were built at Republic's Farmingdale, New York, facility on Long Island.

The Vietnam War, however, decimated the ranks of the F-105s. In the seven years that the F-105 flew combat missions in Vietnam from 1965 right into the 1972 Linebacker II attacks, of the 753 F-105D/F/G models that fought in the war, 395 of them were lost in the war- 296 of those losses were the single seat F-105Ds and the balance of that nearly 400 losses were the F-105F/G models. In addition to those staggering losses in the face of some of the most intense air defenses of the time, an additional 61 F-105s were lost in Southeast Asia from non-combat causes ranging from mechanical failures, engine problems, even mid-air collisions.

When the F-105Ds were withdrawn from combat in 1970, there were only enough Thunderchiefs for three USAF wings- the 347th TFW at Yokota AB in Japan, the 23rd TFW at McConnell AFB, and the 57th FWW at Nellis AFB. In less than two years, those F-105Ds were then passed on to Air National Guard squadrons (yes, squadrons- attrition left only enough Thunderchiefs at this point for single squadrons instead of entire wings) in New Jersey, Kansas, Virigina and the District of Columbia. Three USAF Reserve squadrons briefly operated the F-105D as well, but heavy combat use in Vietnam led to stress and fatigue in the Thunderchief's structure.

The Wild Weasel F-105Gs fared a bit better, having fought on to 1972 before US involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973. Enough of the G model Wild Weasels survived the war to equip three squadrons at George AFB in California where they served as trainers for crews destined for the more advanced McDonnell F-4G Phantom Wild Weasel. The survivors at George AFB ended up with the Georgia ANG.

With few Thunderchiefs left after Vietnam and many having used up their flight hours by the late 1970s, the F-105 had the dubious only of being the only US combat aircraft to be withdrawn from service solely on account of attrition rather than obsolescence.

Source: International Air Power Review, Volume 6, Autumn 2002. "Warplane Classic: The Republic F-105 Thunderchief" by Larry Davis, p120-155.

08 March 2010

The Checkered Development of the Westland Wyvern

The original piston-engined Wyvern
The development of the only turboprop fighter to go into production in service was quite checkered, to say the least. The Westland Wyvern underwent three different changes of engine before ending up with the definitive Armstrong-Siddeley 3,667-horsepower Python engine- the first versions used the 24-cylinder Rolls-Royce Eagle engine, then a change to the Rolls-Royce Clyde turboprop before ending up with the Python in the S.4 version of the Wyvern. One of the reasons for the Wyvern's protracted development was that the first prototypes had three new components that test pilots were less than eager to test- a new airframe, a new engine, and a new contra-rotating propeller mechanism.

The original piston engine, the Rolls-Royce Eagle, was the largest and most powerful piston engine ever developed in Great Britain with a power output as high as 3,500 horsepower, the Eagle had an H-configuration (12 cylinders on the top, 12 cylinders on the bottom) and resembled a scaled up Napier Sabre engine. The power output of the Eagle required a contra-rotating propeller and it used two three-bladed props and early contraprops were quite literally engineering and maintenance nightmares. To simplify the mechanism of the Wyvern's contraprop, the ability to feather the props in the event of an engine failure was left out. Should the Wyvern's engine fail, those non-feathered props acted like a giant airbrake and the proscribed engine failure procedure was to enter a steep dive to maintain flying speed and hope that the pullout was judged correctly for a safe landing.

Handing issues and technical failures during the first months of flight testing culminated in the first of many test pilots killed in the flight test of the Wyvern. Squadron Leader Peter Garner suffered an engine failure, dove his Wyvern to avoid stalling and pulled out too late in the dive and the resulting belly-landing knocked him unconscious as his aircraft burned. The result of this was that Westland could not find volunteers to fly the Wyvern prototypes as many in the company and outside the company didn't feel the increased pay was worth the risk of flying a plane that already had a dangerous reputation.

Eventually Westland hired on one of Rolls-Royce's engine test pilots who helped develop the Eagle engine for flight test duties. But despite this, several more test pilots would lose their lives in Wyvern accidents, even as the engines were changed from the piston Eagle to the turbine Clyde engine and finally the definitive Python turboprop.

Squadron Leader Cliff Roger would have two close calls flying the piston-powered Wyvern, One of the Rolls-Royce engine test pilots who flew for RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War, Roger was flying a full-throttle test in the Wyvern when the engine overheated and quit. Before he put his aircraft into the prescribed steep dive, he recognized Lincoln Cathedral and remembered a disused airfield from his Bomber Command days just to the west of the city. Missing several obstacles on the way, he safely touched down in the field only to notice his control column moving by itself. Outside was an old man who was jerking the aileron and beating the aircraft with a stick- apparently he was an old farmer who bought the land that used to be the airfield and thought that his land was being taken back to be an airfield again. After Roger explained his situation, the farmer took him back to his farm house for a sumptous meal and for years afterward he allowed Garner to hunt on his land!

On another test flight, Rogers' Wyvern Eagle engine exploded and he again recognized a local landmark, the Lichfield Cathedral and knew of another old RAF airfield near his location. With his engine stopped and this time on fire, he entered a steep dive but this time missed the old runway, instead landing on a soccer field with a game going on as players and referees scrambled out of the way. Rogers considered retiring from test flying after another safe landing, but he stuck it out and ended up the Chief Test Pilot for Rolls-Royce.

Source: Tests of Character- Epic Flights by Legendary Test Pilots by Donald Middleton. Airlife Books, 1995, p95-100.

06 March 2010

By 1944, the US Navy's unrestricted submarine warfare against Japanese shipping had reached its highest totals in terms of shipping sunk and it was taking its toll on Japanese industry. As an island nation with few natural resources, Japan was dependent upon shipping for the importation of raw materials and oil for not just its industry but also for it military forces. The Imperial Japanese Army Air Force looked at using transport gliders to bring oil from Sumatra to Japan, but the fuel costs to do so outweighed the volume of oil brought in. The Imperial Japanese Navy, however, with its experience in operating large seaplanes, asked Kawanshi to develop a large transport seaplane to make up for the shipping losses.

Kawanshi had already designed and put into production two large flying boats, the H6K (Allied code named "Mavis") and the H8K (Allied code named "Emily"). Kawanshi had also modified its production flying boats for the transport role as well. Kawanshi's design for a large transport flying boat was designated H11K Soku ("Blue Sky").

Since metal alloys were desperately needed in the production of fighters for homeland defense, Kawanshi's H11K would have been made of wood wherever possible- making it in a sense a Japanese counterpart to the Hughes HK-1 "Spruce Goose". Starting out by scaling up the H8K but having a nearly identical fuselage keel, the H11K was powered by four 1,850-hp radial engines with most of the wings and fuselage made of wood. The two deck fuselage had a clamshell-opening nose to allow straight-in loading of cargo.

Kawanshi built a full-scale mockup of the H11K for inspection and review by the IJN at one of its facilities on the west coast of Japan. However, the deteriorating war situation meant that after design began in 1944, the full-scale mockup was nearly completed on 1 April 1945 when it was destroyed along with most of the Kawanshi facilities in a bombing attack. No further work was attempted on the H11K Soku after the attack.

Source: Japanese Secret Projects: Experimental Aircraft of the IJA and IJN 1939-1945 by Edwin M. Dyer, III. Midland Publishing/Ian Allan Publishing, Ltd, 2009, p63-64.

04 March 2010

Contrary to common belief and the traditions of the Grumman "Iron Works" embodied in the F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat, the F8F Bearcat was designed from the outset to be as light as possible to give it the highest performance possible. The big Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engine of the Bearcat weighed about 3,000 lbs and the airframe itself weighed in at only 4,000 lbs empty- quite literally making the Bearcat "half-engine"! To make the aircraft as light as possible, many features common to other Grumman fighters were left out or reduced on the Bearcat- not to mention limits on the fuel load and armament. After the Bearcat landed on the carrier deck, the deck crew would have to manually stow the tailhook and used a pry bar that fit into a socket in the wings to manually fold the wings. Even the prop spinner was left off to save weight.

But by far the most unusual feature originally intended for the Bearcat in pursuit of lightness was what Grumman called the "Safety Wing Tips". The designers of the Bearcat figured out that if the outer wingtips of the Bearcat could be designed to tear off if 9Gs was exceeded in combat, then the wing inboard of that point could be lighter yet still support the specified 13G ultimate load- instead of having a whole wing to support 13Gs, they'd only have enough structure on the outer 3 feet of wing for 9Gs.

Well, there's a problem with that idea- the Bearcat's small wing meant that losing 3 feet of wing on one side would lead to control issues with asymmetric lift. Primer cord was fitted inside each wing to blow off each wingtip simultaneously- the first wingtip to shear off if 9Gs were exceeded tripped a microswitch that detonated the primer cord on the other wing to shear off its wingtip. It actually got flight tested and chase pilots were less than thrilled about the idea of all the flying shrapnel, so the system was redesigned to use explosive bolts.

Unfortunately in an accident during flight testing a ground crewman was killed when one wing's explosive bolts fired off, so the controversial system was scrapped and Grumman had the wing re-stressed for a lighter G load.

Source: Aviation History, May 2010. "Engine with a Saddle: What the bantamweight Bearcat lacked in finesse in made up for with brute strength" by Stephen Wilkinson, p25-31.