27 May 2015

Birth of the Lion: The Development of the IAI Kfir

Mirage IIICJ Shahak (Sky Blazer)
In the early 1950s, the most advanced jet aircraft in the IDF/AF was the Gloster Meteor, the first examples being delivered from Great Britain in 1953 which marked the IDF/AF's first combat jet equipment. Although the Meteors gave good service to the Israelis, the supply of more advanced MiG fighters to its Arab neighbors meant that Israel needed to something more capable than the Meteor- their first choice was the North American F-86 Sabre, but its purchase was thwarted by American government. Israel then turned to France and formed a remarkably close relationship with Dassault in particular. The first Dassault Ouragan jet fighters were delivered in October 1955 as a stopgap measure until the arrival of the supersonic-capable Dassault Mystere IVA in April 1956, becoming the first Israeli combat aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier. The improved Dassault Super Mystere became operational with the IDF/AF in December 1958 along with the Sud Aviation Vatour strike fighter. Israeli Aircraft Industries, started in 1952 as Bedek Aviation in Tel Aviv by American Al Schwimmer, had begun license production of the French jet trainer Fouga Magister in 1957 with the first wholly IAI-built example rolling out in 1960. The IDF/AF's relationship with Dassault as one of its best customers continued with the arrival of the Mirage III series. Israel had a custom variant based on the Mirage IIIC interceptor designated the IIICJ which was first delivered to the IDF/AF on 7 April 1962. IAI's skill set expanded as it modified the Mirage IIICJs as needed for Israeli needs, one of which was a removable nose that contained cameras for reconnaissance missions. It would be an Israeli Mirage IIICJ that scored the first aerial victory for the entire Mirage series worldwide against a Syrian MiG-21 on 14 July 1966. Known as the Shahak (Sky Blazer) in IDF/AF service, the Mirage IIICJs were an integral part of the IDF/AF until their retirement in 1982.

When Charles de Gaulle was elected president of France in December 1958, there was nothing to indicate that the long standing relationship between France and Israel would change for the worse. On 7 April 1966, Israel signed an agreement with Dassault for a custom variant of the Mirage 5 optimized for ground attack and designated Mirage 5J. Named Ra'am (Thunder), the Mirage 5J was a quantum leap in capability over the Mirage IIICJ. Since the weather was generally good in the Middle East, the Mirage 5J (as well as the rest of the Mirage 5 series) traded the all-weather radar capability for an increase in fuel and weapons load (32% more fuel in fact) and small radar ranging unit in a slimmed down nose. Dispensing with many of the electronics of the Mirage IIICJ, the Mirage 5J was not only more capable, but cheaper, with the initial contract for 50 Mirage 5Js and two dual-seat trainer versions of the 5J. Many IDF/AF pilots like the legendary Danny Shapira completed the Mirage 5J flight test program after its first flight on 19 May 1967. But the winds of change were coming to the Middle East despite the rapid progress on the Mirage 5J program by Dassault. With France losing Algeria in 1962 and de Gaulle's desire to be a player in Middle East politics beyond the United States and the Soviet Union, relations between France and Israel were cooling and came to a head in June 1967 during the Six-Day War. The Mirage 5J's first flight was less than a month prior when de Gaulle announced an arms embargo on Israel just three days prior to the start of the Six-Day War. At first the embargo was partial and hope held out that the IDF/AF would still get the Mirage 5J aircraft. But de Gaulle insisted on Israel withdrawing to its pre-1967 lines as a prerequisite for lifting the embargo, something the Israelis obviously refused to do. When the PLO launched a terrorist attack against El Al at the Athens airport on 26 December 1968, the Israelis responded with reprisal attacks against the PLO stronghold in Beirut two days later. In response, France imposed a total embargo on Israel. 

Armee de l'Air Mirage 5F (an embargoed Mirage 5J in French service)
Despite the embargo, Dassault completed the Mirage 5J production run on 19 June 1969, but the completed fighters were put into storage. The Mirage 5J would become the basis for a new family of Mirage 5 variants that would prove popular with other air forces. The Israeli Mirage 5Js in storage were put into service with the French Air Force (AdA) as the Mirage 5F. Some of these airframes ultimately ended up with Chile years later. Israel would eventually get a refund of its money for the first variant of the Mirage 5 series, but in 1969 with tensions running high in the wake of the 1967 war, the only option was for Israel to build its own fighter aircraft. Despite the initial partial embargo, Israeli Aircraft Industries had negotiated for license production of the Mirage 5J in Israel and at the end of 1967 an agreement was signed between IAI and Dassault. Dassault felt that since they were a private company, they weren't bound by the embargo, but the maker of the Atar 9C turbojet of the Mirage 5J, SNECMA, was government owned. Time was of the essence and it would have been time consuming to find a replacement engine for the Atar 9C. At the time, the Swiss company Sulzer was license building the Atar 9C for Switzerland's Mirage order and an engineer with Sulzer, Alfred Fraunknecht, was approached by the Mossad with a deal- supply the engineering data and blueprints for the 9C for $250,000. Approximately 200,000 drawings were transferred before Swiss authorities arrested Fraunknecht and sentenced him to four and a half years of prison. 

Neshers on the flightline. Note the nose painted black to appear like a IIICJ.
Keeping the name Ra'am (Thunder) that was intended for the Dassault-built Mirage 5Js, a highly classified program got underway at IAI to essentially build the 5J with a reverse-engineered Atar 9C. Despite the embargo, the Israelis found many sympathetic supporters in the French aerospace industry to assist with the production of what was called the Nesher (Vulture). Dassault supplied manufacturing jigs and tooling and even whole airframe subassemblies despite the total embargo. Oddly enough, spare parts for the Mirage IIICJ fleet were exempt from the embargo and with the Nesher being a derivative of the 5J which was a derivative of the IIICJ, many spare parts ended up on Nesher aircraft. The first Nesher aircraft made its maiden flight on 21 March 1971 and became operational with the IDF/AF the following October. When the Nesher program ended in 1974, 50 Nesher A single seat fighters were built as well as 10 Nesher B combat trainers. 

IAI Kfirs (from the DML/Dragon 1/144 scale kit box art)
While the Nesher was becoming operational, IAI then turned its attention to rectifying the deficiencies of the aircraft, the biggest of which was the Atar 9C engine. Focus then turned on a re-engined Nesher as the next follow on aircraft. The General Electric J79 was selected as it already powered the F-4E Phantoms that had already been in IDF/AF service for several years. On 21 September 1970 (before the Nesher's maiden flight), IAI conducted the maiden flight of a demonstrator to prove the J79 could be integrated into the Mirage airframe. This demonstrator was a two seat Mirage IIIBJ called the Technolog. The flight test program of the Technolog was used to uncover any issues with using the J79 on the Mirage airframe. The new production aircraft that would use the J79 in a Nesher airframe was named Kfir (Young Lion) and the prototype Kfir that first flew on 4 June 1973 was in fact a Nesher modified to accept the J79 and be representative of the production standard Kfir. The deliveries of the first Kfirs was interrupted by the October Yom Kippur War that year, but it was apparent that the Kfir wasn't the leap in improvement over the Nesher that IAI had hoped. The fix was aerodynamic and would applied to subsequent Kfirs- first, a saw tooth was added to the outboard wing which increased wing chord and the saw tooth created a vortex that energized the wing air flow and acted as a wing fence to stop drag-inducing spanwise flow. Next, canards were added above and behind the intakes which helped control the air flow over the wing and made destabilized the Kfir to make it more agile. Lastly, a pair of strakes was added to the extreme tip of the nose which helped smooth the airflow over the wings and canards. This configuration became known as the Kfir C2 and was the definitive production model that also had extra hardpoints for more weapons. The first production Kfir was delivered on 14 April 1975. One of the Israeli guests of honor was Alfred Fraunknecht, the Swiss engineer who had passed on the Atar 9C turbojet engineering information years earlier for the Nesher program.

Source: Aviation Classics: Dassault Mirage III/5, Issue 17. "Vultures and Young Lions" by David G. Powers, pp 70-81. Photos: Wings Palette, Wikipedia, DML/Dragon Models

22 May 2015

The Birth of the Air Commandos: The Roots of USAF Special Operations

Colonel Orde Wingate, a most unconventional British officer
The fall of Burma in early 1942 threatened to derail the Allies' plans for Asia. The British withdrawal from Burma to India was the biggest, costliest, and longest not to mention most humiliating withdrawals in the military history of the British Empire. Coupled with the loss of Singapore, it left India as the only bulwark against Japanese expansion in Southeast Asia. With 12 million acres of rice paddies and an annual rice production of 8 million tons, Burma was an important logistical asset to the Japanese Empire and it also gave them control over the southern end of the Burma Road, a 717-mile supply route that was being used to provide supplies for General Chiang Kai-Shek in central China in his fight against the Japanese. Japanese military planners hoped that cutting off Chiang would mean less troops would be needed in central China to keep him in check. With dark days ahead on the minds of British officials in India, a most unconventional British officer arrived with an audacious plan to take the fight back into Burma. Colonel Orde Wingate had already gained a reputation as an unconventional war specialist leading guerrilla units in Africa and the Middle East against Axis forces. What he lacked in conventionality for a British officer he more than amply made up in his leadership abilities to inspire the men in his command. He created a jungle force made up of Indians and British called the "Chindits", which was a corruption of the Burmese word "chinthe", the fierce dragon that statues that guarded Burmese temples depicted. In February 1943, Wingate led 3,000 Chindits in Operation Longcloth. They penetrated deep into Burma on foot and scored early successes cutting Japanese rail routes. But Wingate lacked heavy guns as the Chindits were on foot and the Royal Air Force proved unable to provide the necessary air support. Wingate also counted on a conventional counter-offensive to keep the Japanese occupied while he harassed their rear supply lines. When that didn't happen, the Japanese were able to focus on defeating the Chindits and in early June, Wingate and only 2/3 of his Chindit force made it back into India. 

Phil Cochran and John Alison, the first leaders of the Air Commandos
Despite the disaster of Operation Longcloth, Wingate gained the support of Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was a known admirer of the unconventional in military operations. When Churchill headed to Quebec to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt to confer on war plans, Churchill brought Wingate to explain to Roosevelt plans for a second assault on Burma. While Churchill was thinking ahead and wanting a new Burma assault as a means of strengthening the British Empire in Asia, Roosevelt was intrigued with Wingate's plans as it could reopen the Burma Road and strengthen Chiang Kai-Shek's position in China which might provide the Allies bomber bases for which to take the war to the Japanese Home Islands. As Wingate briefed Churchill and Roosevelt, he had in mind a much bigger operation that Operation Longcloth with a much larger Chindit force that had its own air transport and air support, in effect, giving the Chindits their own air force. Roosevelt was captivated by the plan and passed it on to the head of the USAAF, General Hap Arnold, to organize the air assets that Wingate and the Chindits needed. Ordinarily this sort of order would have been a distraction from General Arnold's vision of a massive strategic bombing campaign against Germany and Japan, but he saw a chance to prove the value of air power in supporting a large ground formation deep behind enemy lines. General Arnold needed a USAAF officer who could lead the new unit and interviewed Colonel Phil Cochran who made his name as an aggressive pilot in North Africa. The other was a friend of Colonel Cochran, Colonel John Alison, who had flown hazardous supply missions "over the Hump" from India to China to keep Chiang Kai-Shek supplied. Prior to that, Alison had six kills while flying P-40s with the Flying Tigers in China. Each man recommended the other to General Arnold as they each wanted a fighter combat command in Europe. General Arnold settled the issue by choosing both Cochran and Alison to get Wingate's air force organized with the order "To hell with paperwork; go out and fight!" Figuring that two commanders made no sense, they agreed that Cochran would be the commander and Alison would be his deputy. But their long prior friendship made them highly attuned to each other's thinking as they set out to create the most unique force in the history of the USAAF. 

Initially calling their outfit Project 9, they went to London to meet with Wingate and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia. Cochran and Alison quickly enlarged their force well beyond what Wingate initially requested and one month later, briefed General Arnold and Arnold's own boss, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall. The Project 9 force was more than just C-47s and some medium bombers. It would have its own fighters, light aircraft for jungle resupply missions, gliders for insertion of troops and even helicopters. Arnold and Marshall were impressed with the plan and gave them the go-ahead. Instead of the Chindits marching back into Burma, the Project 9 transport force of C-47s and gliders would insert the entire Chindit force deep into Burma and keep them resupplied. Medium bombers and fighters would provide dedicated air support to the Chindits and no one else. All the pilots were volunteers and training began in North Carolina on 1 October 1943 at Raleigh-Durham Airport and Seymour-Johnson Army Air Field. The Project 9 force grew to 346 aircraft with Douglas C-47s and Waco CG-4 gliders for transport. Stinson L-1 Vigilant and L-5 Sentinel light aircraft would be used for air evacuation and resupply given their short field performance. North American B-25 Mitchells and P-51 Mustangs formed the sharp end of the force's spear with a handful of Sikorsky R-4 helicopters which were still in testing at Wright Patterson Field. Even General Arnold was impressed with the resourcefulness of Cochran and Alison in getting what was still an experimental program added to their force. 

Emblem of the 1st Air Commando Group, the first Air Force special operations unit
After arriving in India, the Project 9 force was designated the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air), but General Arnold had always been referring to the group as air commandos, so on 29 March 1944, they were redesignated with his blessing to become the 1st Air Commando Group. For most of early 1944 the air commandos trained with Wingate's Chindits but they weren't sure if the Chindits were comfortable with flying into Burma at night on the C-47s and CG-4 gliders. Wingate sent a message "Please be assured that will go with your boys any place, any time, any where." The gliders even carried pack mules which would be used in moving about the jungle in Burma, hence the mule on the patch of the 1st Air Commando Group. 5 March 1944 was the go-day for Operation Thursday when the air commandos and Wingate's Chindits would take the war back to the Japanese in Burma. But that'll be a subject for a future blog post! The 1st Air Commando Group is now the 1st Special Operations Wing of the USAF Special Operations Command based at Hurlburt Field in Florida. Wingate's assurance "Any place, any time, any where" remains the motto of the air commandos with the emblem of the 1st SOW showing the words "Any Time Any Place".

Source: From a Dark Sky: The Story of U.S. Air Force Special Operations by Orr Kelly. Pocket Publishing, 1997, pp 21-42. Photos: USAF, Imperial War Museum, Wikipedia.

17 May 2015

The Birth of Trans-Canada Air Lines

Prime Minister William Mackenzie King committed Canada to a new airline
Compared to the United States and Europe, commercial aviation got off to a very slow start in Canada. Despite its vast distances with limited road infrastructure prior to the Second World War that intuitively would have made for a favorable environment for the development of airlines, the really only serious effort was James Richardson's Canadian Airways established in 1927 in Winnipeg. But his airline was constantly in the red and depended heavily on air mail revenues to stay afloat. But Canadian Airways didn't have an extensive reach and wasn't all too different from the numerous bush pilot operations whose fortunes were tied to whatever industry they happened to be supporting- mining and trapping being the most common. There were two reasons for the lack of commercial aviation development in Canada in the interwar period- the first one was quite obviously the weather. Flying in those days was very much a risky endeavor in the harsh Canadian winters and secondly, Canada lacked an extensive aviation infrastructure. Lacking a network of airports, radio navigation aids and fleet of modern aircraft robust enough to deal with winter, nearly all the Canadian air mail had to go south and into the US transcontinental air network and then re-enter Canada at select points nearest their destination. For example, air mail out of and into the capital in Ottawa passed through New York City on Colonial Airways (which merged into Eastern Airlines in 1956) and air mail into and out of Vancouver passed via Seattle on United Air Lines flights. There were, however, two large competing railroads in Canada, Canadian Pacific (CPR) and Canadian National (CNR). The intense rivalry between CPR and CNR left little capital to the development of commercial aviation and this would leave Canada firmly in the age of rail, lagging behind the United States and Europe in commercial aviation development. During the Great Depression, Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett created an unemployment relief project called the Trans Canada Airway that put thousands to work building an aviation infrastructure to allow coast-to-coast flights across the breadth of Canada. Work began in 1929 on airfields, radio navigation aids and weather reporting stations across the nation. However, Prime Minister Bennett's motivation wasn't for the development of commercial aviation but rather to use the Trans Canada Airway as a means of allowing the Royal Canadian Air Force to rapidly move its squadrons around the country and reinforce either coast in times of war. Succeeding Bennett as Prime Minister in October 1935, it was William Lyon Mackenzie King just a month after his election committed the government to starting a transcontinental airline to operate on the Trans Canada Airway. King wanted to be part of an Anglo-Canadian effort to create an around the world airline route before Pan American did so. 

C.D. Howe, the prime mover behind the formation of Trans-Canada Air Lines
King's first step was appointing Clarence Decatur Howe as the first "czar" to oversee all the railways, marine routes and canals and the beginning of air transport. Howe had the portfolios of two ministries as the Minister of Railways and Canals and the Minister of Marine. With intense efficiency, he put the Canadian National Railway on a sound financial footing and made it a crown corporation (government owned). As the only engineer in King's cabinet, he possessed technical know-how from his prior business careers that essentially transformed Canada from a primarily agriculture-based economy to an industrial economy. Howe was also an aviation enthusiasts and the only one in the Cabinet who had flown on an aircraft. He felt that aviation was destined to replace the railway as the main means of transport and communication across Canada. With the passage of the Department of Transport Act in 1936, Howe reformed Canada's transportation system under a new federal Department of Transport. He was keen to avoid what he thought was the wasteful rivalry between Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National Railways when it come to commercial aviation (which ironically Canada did end up with two airline rivals for years, CP Air and Air Canada). Now Canadian Pacific (CPR) had lost much of its political clout that hit had gained under successive Conservative governments. With Prime Minister King hailing from the Liberal Party, he did what he could to fight what he felt was CPR's stranglehold on transport in Canada. That left the Canadian National Railway (CNR) as the preferred vehicle for Howe's goals since he had already made it a crown corporation. It would have been logical for Howe and King to buy up all the small bush operators and amalgamate them into a new national airline, but the government had already done this 1918-1923 to form CNR and it proved to be a costly exercise that no one wanted to repeat with an airline. It also would have been easier to buy James Richardson out to get Canadian Airways, but King felt Richardson was too close to the previous administration and didn't trust him. And it was an open secret that Richardson's financial stewardship of Canadian Airways was rocky at best. Interestingly, Richardson thought he would be the instrument of Canadian commercial aviation and upon learning Howe favored Lockheed designs, set about ordering two Lockheed 10 Electras. 

Sir Edward Beatty, head of Canadian Pacific Railway
Because it was anticipated that starting a national airline would be costly, Howe proposed that both CNR and CPR buy equal shares in the new proposed airline. The airline would have a board of directors that were divided among the Department of Transport, CPR and CNR. Sir Edward Beatty, head of CPR, objected to this arrangement as he argued that the Department of Transport and CNR's directors were sharing the same interests which would leave CPR's portion of the directorship in a constant minority. While negotiations with Beatty continued, Howe announced on 26 November 1936 that a new airline would be granted a monopoly to operate on the Trans Canada Airway as a subsidiary of CNR. It wasn't important if the new airline made a profit- Howe saw the new airline as a public necessity much like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) he created that same year. If the new airline was making a profit, it was obviously charging its passengers too much! The airline would have guaranteed all year round service linking all of the major Canadian cities coast to coast. Howe had American airline personnel brought in to help get the new airline up and running. He had flown on US airlines and wanted to be sure that his new airline would be immediately on par in terms of safety, operations, and image as the ranking airlines in the United States. In February 1937 a bill was proposed in the House of Commons which established the proposed Trans-Canada Airlines as a CNR subsidiary. Hoping Sir Beatty and CPR would participate, 49% of the shares of the airline would made available for private investment. But even if CPR bought all 49% of the shares, it would still be in a minority position and he formally withdrew from the venture, leaving Prime Minister King to authorize Trans-Canada Airlines as a crown corporation with 51% of the airline owned by Canadian National Railway and 49% owned by the Department of Transport. The birth of Trans-Canada Air Lines came to be at 9:00pm on 10 April 1937 when the bill received its Royal Assent. 

CF-AZY takes off on Trans-Canada Air Lines' first revenue flight
By 30 July 1937, nearly all the radio beacons were operational along the airway and to publicize the completion of the airway, Howe arranged for his department's Lockheed 12A CF-CCT to fly across Canada from Montreal to Vancouver. To provide Trans-Canada Air Lines with start up capital, CNR borrowed $5 million from the Canadian Treasury. Since it was anticipated that 75% of Trans-Canada's revenues would come from air mail, the postmaster general would hold one of the seats on the airline's board of directors. The first president of the airline was S.J. Hungerford who was also the president of CNR. He would hold that position at the airline until 1941. For many years CNR was closely bound to the airline as a result of the arrangements of its formation. In fact, until 1974, the office of the secretary at Air Canada was the same person who held the office of secretary at CNR. Many of the new airline's first pilots came from various bush operators and many key personnel were recruited from Canadian Airways. In fact, the two Lockheed Electra 10As that James Richardson had purchased in anticipation of his airline being the "chosen instrument" were purchased by Trans-Canada Air Lines for radio calibration and training flights along the airway. One of these Electras, CF-AZY, was the aircraft to fly Trans-Canada Air Lines's inaugural air services on 1 September 1937 from Vancouver to Boeing Field in Seattle. The flight departed Vancouver at 5:00pm and arrived at Boeing Field at 5:50pm. Full daily services began on 17 October 1937 with the round trip fare between the two cities set at $14.20 (approximately $233 in today's dollars). Not only was it Trans-Canada's inaugural route, it was also its first international route and also its first route with competition with United offering Boeing 247 service between the two cities. Three more Lockheed 10As were purchased to join the two ex-Canadian Airways examples and these five Electras were known as the "Five Sisters". Trans-Canada was the first airline in North America to equip its aircraft with cargo hold smoke detectors and had oxygen masks in the cockpit as standard long before they were a mandated requirement. On 1 April 1939 the first transcontinental flights left simultaneously from Vancouver and Montreal headed for the other city. Keep in mind that Trans-Canada Air Lines was flew its first services in 1937, the same year the Trans Canada Airway was finished. And it was only 43 years earlier that Canada completed its transcontinental railroad! 

Source: Air Canada: The History by Peter Pigott. Dundurn Press, 2014, pp 12-35. Photos: Wikipedia, Toronto Star, Air Canada, Time Magazine.

12 May 2015

Major Merlyn Dethlefsen and the Medal of Honor Wild Weasel Mission of Lincoln 03

Major Merlyn H. Dethlefsen
By March 1967, Operation Rolling Thunder had been going on for two years with no signs of North Vietnam backing down. The United States and North Vietnam engaged in a gradual escalation of the conflict. As US air strikes increased, the Hanoi regime increased its anti-air defenses from AAA to the more deadly SA-2 surface-to-air missiles as well as MiG fighters. The skies over North Vietnam would be the most dangerous and difficult skies for American pilots to operate in since World War 2. At the start of Rolling Thunder, defense suppression was assigned to two-seat F-100F Super Sabres known as the Wild Weasels. The F-100 was in interim solution for the Wild Weasel role, though, as it had a limited payload and wasn't fast enough to keep up with the F-105 Thunderchiefs that were shouldering the burden of strike missions at the time for the USAF. In June 1966 the first Thunderchief Wild Weasels arrived in Southeast Asia. One of the Wild Weasel units at the time was the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) Takhli which was home to the F-105s of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing. The 355th TFW had been operating the Thunderchief since 1962 at McConnell AFB in Kansas before being deployed for Rolling Thunder. Like the F-100Fs, the Wild Weasel F-105Fs had two crew, the pilot and the electronic warfare officer in the back, the EWO or "Bear". 

Dethlefsen and Gilroy in their Wild Weasel F-105F
On 10 March 1967, the target portfolio was finally expanded to include the large Thai Nguyen steel works. The area was the center of North Vietnam's heavy industry and the only steel mill (it actually was the first steel mill in Indochina, having started production in 1959) and for most of the first two years of Operation Rolling Thunder, it remained off the target list for political reasons. A large Thunderchief strike package made up of single-seat F-105Ds and Wild Weasel F-105Fs for defense suppression was sortied against the steelworks by the 355th TFW from RTAFB Takhli. One flight of four Wild Weasels with the call sign "Lincoln" was part of this strike package on this day. As the flight approached Thai Nguyen, Lincoln Lead's Bear locked up a SAM site and an AGM-45 Shrike missile was fired, but it missed. The SAM site, however, did not, and in short order Lincoln Lead along with two F-4 Phantoms flying escort were shot down. Lincoln 02 took flak damage and had to withdraw and limp back to Takhli. That left only two Wild Weasels in the area, Lincoln 03 piloted by Major Merlyn Dethlefsen and his Bear, Captain Kevin Gilroy, and their wingman, Major Ken Bell in Lincoln 04. As Dethlefsen and Gilroy targeted the SAM site, two VNAF MiG-21s entered the fight, closing in on Dethlefsen from behind. Lincoln 03 fired their Shrike missile and immediately hauled the heavily laden F-105F into a hard turn, causing the missiles from the attacking MiG-21s to go wide and miss. Gambling that the MiGs wouldn't follow him into the flak zone that protected the SAM site, Dethlefsen pressed on instead of jettisoning his bombs as was the practice when jumped by MiGs- for the VNAF, getting a Thunderchief to jettison its bombload was as good as shooting it down since it wouldn't be able to press its attack. Sure enough, the MiGs didn't follow him to the deck and at low altitude, Dethlefsen hit the afterburner to regain altitude. Just as he had reached position to hit the SAM site, another pair of MiGs closed in and opened fire on Lincoln 03 and Lincoln 04. Both took 37mm cannon hits but were still flying. 

With the last of the strike F-105Ds and their Phantom escorts egressing the area, Dethlefsen knew the weather forecast was good for the next several days and that the Thai Nguyen steel plant was long on the wish list for the pilots to hit. Though he would have been in his right by USAF procedure to follow the rest of the aircraft and leave the area for Takhli, Dethlefsen elected to take another crack at the SAM site as he knew more of his fellow pilots would be returning over the next several days. Leading his wingman, Dethlefsen scanned the flak pattern from a safe altitude while Kevin Gilroy acting as his Bear got a bead on the SAM site with the Wild Weasel's electronics. Once Gilroy pinpointed the site, they fired their Shrike missile to knock out the guidance radar. Dethlefsen then led his wingman down into the flak zone to put the SAM site out of business. Getting a visual on the site, Dethlefsen unleashed his bomb load across the site and then pulled out. For added insurance, he rolled his damaged Thud into a reverse flip, switched to guns and hosed the site down with his 20mm Vulcan cannon. He then nursed his F-105F out of the target zone and hooked up with a KC-135A tanker on the way back to Takhli. 

Merlyn Dethlefsen and his EWO, Kevin Gilroy
It was a Medal of Honor performance, but what did Dethlefsen do that was so brave? First of all, by USAF procedure he was to have exited the area as the strike package left- one of the mottos of the Wild Weasels was "First in, last out". Instead, he decided to take another crack at a SAM site. Dethlefsen wasn't naive. On the day of this mission he already had 72 Wild Weasel combat missions under his belt. He knew if the site wasn't knocked out, it would more than likely shoot down more crews in the coming days. And this wasn't just any target- this was a prized asset of the North Vietnamese and it was heavily defended. More American aircraft were shot down in 1967 than any other year of the Vietnam War. The skies over Thai Nguyen were not a good place to be for an American pilot that day, month, and year. Add to that the Wild Weasel mission profile that exposed their crews to hostile fire longer than most pilots. 

Merlyn Dethlefsen was born in 1934 on a farm in Iowa and he joined the USAF in 1954 through the Aviation Cadet Program. From 1957 to 1959 he served as a navigator on the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II out of Dover AFB before reporting to undergraduate flight training. His first operational assignment after getting his wings was flying F-100 Super Sabres in Germany before transitioning to the F-105 Thunderchief in 1965. After his Medal of Honor mission (his Bear, Kevin Gilroy, earned the Air Force Cross for that mission), he went on to complete his 100 mission tour in Vietnam. He would later go on to serve as an operations director for the SR-71 wing at Beale AFB in California and for the B-52 wing at Dyess AFB in Texas. Dethlefsen flew west in 1987 and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Source: Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor by Barrett Tillman. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, pp 225-227. F-105 Thunderchief Units of the Vietnam War by Peter Davies. Osprey Publishing, 2012. Photos: USAF Museum, Wikipedia.

07 May 2015

The North American XB-28: Too Much, Too Late

The sole XB-28 prototype. Note the remotely operated turrets.
With the North American B-25 Mitchell prototype (internal company designation NA-40B) already in the hands of the US Army Air Corps for flight testing in 1939, the promise of cabin pressurization offered a leap in bomber performance by being able to fly higher and faster. Accordingly, in August 1939, the Army issued the XC-214 specification which called for a pressurized medium bomber to supplant the medium bomber types that were soon to become operational. Only Martin and North American responded to XC-214. Martin's submission was for the XB-27 but the USAAC felt Martin didn't have a full grasp of the challenges of high altitude pressurization in their design and North American's submission, the XB-28 won the development contract. This took place on 15 November 1939 just three months after the Army issued its specification with North American inking a contract to begin formal design work on the XB-28. To give you an idea of the pace of development and the pressure of the looming clouds of war, the contract for the development of the XB-28 was signed around the same time that the Army ordered the B-25 Mitchell into production! The XB-28 had started out as a pressurized version of the B-25 Mitchell with a circular fuselage and Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines with GE Type-C turbosuperchargers replacing the Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone radials used on the B-25. Design work proceeded rapidly since the company was already at work on a pressurized successor to the B-25 at the time of the release of the XC-214 specification in August 1939. As design work progressed, changes were made stating with abandoning the Mitchell's twin fins for a single fin. Eventually the XB-28 as designed bore little resemblance to the Mitchell. The contract for three prototypes was signed on 13 February 1940. 

The five crew all sat in a pressurized compartment in the forward fuselage. 
Besides the change to more powerful R-2800 Double Wasp engines with GE turbosuperchargers, a third supercharger was also fitted to provide cabin pressurization. Heaters powered by gasoline warmed the air in the pressurization ducting for the pressure cabin located in the the forward fuselage. The elongated nacelles had an opening in the rear for the turbo-supercharger exhaust which added some forward propulsive power. The four bladed propellers were counter-rotating to cancel each other's torque to ease handling. Integral self-sealing fuel tanks took up most of the wings. Relatively unique for the day nose wheel steering was fitted and controlled by a lever in the cockpit similar to modern nose wheel tillers. Another unique feature was the use of fluorescent paint on the instrument panel and instruments that would glow at night from overhead UV lamps as an aid to night flying.

Overall configuration of the XB-28.
To simply the structure of a pressurized aircraft, the pressure cabin only occupied the forward fuselage. All the joints were sealed during assembly and the interior sprayed with a plastic sealant before installation of the cabin items. The cabin atmosphere was maintained at the equivalent of 8,000 feet up to an operating altitude of 33,000 feet. The crew of five was crammed into this space- with the pilot and co-pilot sitting side by side, behind them sat the primary gunner and the radio operator/secondary gunner. The bombardier/navigator sat in the nose compartment but could access the cramped flight deck via a floor panel by the co-pilot's feet. The bomb bay could carry up to 4,000 lbs of bombs and the three defensive turrets consisted of twin 50-caliber guns in dorsal, ventral and tail turrets that were operated remotely by the primary gunner and the radio operator/secondary gunner. Each gunner had a hemispheric observation window next to them and sighted the guns via a periscope system that protruded from streamlined twin fairings above and below the fuselage just aft of the flight deck. Initial plans for were for North American-designed turrets tied to a Sperry fire control system, but Sperry's resources were tied up with current production aircraft. It was decided to switch to General Electric for the remote fire control system and to have them be responsible for the turrets as well well. This imposed delays in the development as changes needed to be made to accommodate GE's equipment and systems. There was also a prevailing opinion at North American that Sperry's system was more advanced. A compromise was reached with the XB-28 defensive systems to use GE turrets and the Sperry sighting system. It's worth noting at this point that when the work on the remote turret fire control system on the XB-28 was under development, both Sperry and GE were working on getting the contract for the remote turret fire control system on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress- ironing out the kinks in the XB-28 gave GE valuable experience that helped the B-29 and made its system the production standard on the Superfortress.

Engine run up test at Mines Field in the summer of 1942.
The US entry into the Second World War slowed development of the XB-28 as priority shifted to production types and much of North American's resources were devoted to the production of the B-25 Mitchell and the P-51 Mustang. The maiden flight of the first prototype took place on 24 April 1942 at Mines Field (the site of today's Los Angeles International Airport/LAX) and the flight test program showed the XB-28 to be quite fast at high altitude, capable of 372 mph at 25,000 feet. Following the conclusion of North American's flight test program, the USAAF portion of the flight test program took place with the XB-28 operating out of Wright Field outside of Dayton, Ohio, for service trials. It was decided during the service trials that the third XB-28 prototype would be completed as a reconnaissance and photo-mapping aircraft designated XB-28A. North American was instructed to set aside work on the second XB-28 to get the XB-28A variant flying. The speed and altitude performance of the XB-28A was increased by reducing weight as well as installing more powerful versions of the R-2800 engines. The XB-28A made its maiden flight on 24 April 1943 (exactly one year after the first XB-28) but was unfortunately lost in flutter incident during dive testing on 4 August 1943 with the crew able to parachute to safety. At the time of the accident, design work on the production B-28 was underway with the most significant change being some extra scanning windows on the nose compartment for the bombardier/navigator.

By this point, however, it was realized that despite the outstanding performance of the XB-28, the realities of war showed that medium bombers already in service like the B-25 Mitchell and the Martin B-26 Marauder were most effective at low to medium altitudes flying interdiction missions where pressurization wasn't necessary. In the Pacific, B-25s equipped with extra forward firing machine guns were becoming very effective low level anti-shipping weapons while in the European theater, B-25s and B-26s operated most effectively at medium altitude (though some low level anti-shipping missions were flown in the Mediterranean against Axis vessels along the French and Italian coasts). The final nail in the XB-28's coffin was the Douglas product that was also first flown at Mines Field just a few months after the XB-28's maiden flight. The prototype Douglas XA-26 Invader first flew on 10 July 1942. It used the same engines as the XB-28, carried the same bomb load, but lacked pressurization which made it simpler to build and it only had a crew of three versus the crew of five on the XB-28. The sole XB-28 prototype was still at Wright Field at the time of the program's cancellation- it had its outer wings removed and sat out the war as a ground test article for pressurization tests before being scrapped.

Anigrand released a 1/72 resin kit of the XB-28 and this page has a great series of photos of a completed model that show the overall configuration of the XB-28. Take note of the hemispheric scanning bubbles on the upper lateral fuselage ahead of the wing for the gunners as well as the streamlined twin fairings above and below the forward fuselage for the sighting system to control the remote turrets.

Source: American Bomber Aircraft Development in World War 2 by Bill Norton. Midland Publishing, 2012, pp 66-69. Photos: USAF Museum, Anigrand

02 May 2015

Franz Josef Strauss: The Bavarian Politician Who Saved Airbus

Franz Josef Strauss in the cockpit of an Airbus
The early history of Airbus Industrie was very rocky indeed and I had posted previously how the failure of the planned Rolls Royce RB.207 engine nearly killed the A300 before it even flew. The breach of trust that opened up between Rolls Royce and Airbus was so large, over twenty years would elapse before a Rolls Royce engine was available on the Airbus aircraft- that was 1989 when Cathay Pacific Airlines specified the new Trent 700 engine for its A330s. Quite literally, the day after the French, British and German governments signed the agreement to create Airbus on 26 July 1968, the governments were getting a case of cold feet. For the French, that was the year the franc collapsed on the world currency markets and the French government began to have reservations about having three airline projects going on at once- Concorde, the Airbus A300, and the Dassault Mercure. It was clear that it was politically unfeasible to pull out of the Concorde program. Many French officials their faith in the 100% French program of the Dassault Mercure despite the protests of Airbus engineers that the Mercure would be a flop. That left Airbus on the cutting block. The redesign of the Airbus to a smaller aircraft to make off-the-shelf engines possible instead of the RB.207 saved the program as it cut the cost of the program and made it more appealing to potential customers- this was enough to give French officials cause to reconsider and not withdraw from Airbus. 

The British, however, were less than open-minded. In short, money had been put up to help with the launch of the BAC Three-Eleven which used two RB.211 engines. The smaller, redesigned A300 designated the A300B could now also use RB.211 engines, but that also put the new A300B square in competition with the BAC Three-Eleven. Lockheed and BAC were even in discussions on collaborating on the Three-Eleven and with the French economic malaise spreading through Europe, some in the British government wanted to put their bets on collaboration with the United States. Believe it or not, there was discussion by British officials about pulling out of Concorde, but again, like the French realized, that was politically unfeasible. That's not often realized that the British and French were considering pulling the plug on Concorde before it even made its first flight! 9 April 1969 was the first flight of the first British-built Concorde; on the day after, British officials met with their French counterparts to inform them the British were pulling out of Airbus. 

Karl Schiller, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs
British withdrawal from Airbus didn't come as a bolt out of the blue- the indications were there for over a year and the RB.207 fiasco made it clear that it was coming sooner rather than later. Earlier that year in 1969, the Germans made it known to the French that they would be willing to fill the gap in the Airbus consortium should the British pull out. At the time, the lion's share of the A300 was split between Great Britain and France with West Germany getting the remaining stake. Even though World War II had ended 25 years earlier, the German aircraft industry was still a hollow shell of its former self despite the consortium of seven German aircraft manufacturers that teamed together to form the West German contribution to Airbus. That the Germans were willing to step in to fill that possible gap is due to the efforts of two politicians. The first one was Karl Schiller, the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs. Schiller was a quiet, bespectacled economist that had made his name in West German politics focusing on rebuilding the economy. The other politician was more well-known, Franz Josef Strauss. Strauss was a boisterous Bavarian who never seemed to be far from scandal in German politics. In 1956, Strauss become the youngest defense minister in German history and was tasked with rebuilding the German military. The procurement of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter for the Luftwaffe was contentious and a Lockheed lobbyist testified that he had paid $10 million in bribes to Strauss to select the Starfighter. During this time, Lockheed had gotten itself entangled with bribery allegations with several different aircraft procurement programs to gain sales of the Starfighter. Strauss filed a slander suit against the lobbyist, but since the allegations couldn't be corroborated, the issue was dropped. The German magazine Der Spiegel then accused Strauss of taking bribes in the construction of German military facilities. The resulting controversy resulted in Strauss stepping down for having the editor and owner of Der Spiegel arrested and held in retribution. Strauss's political career was all but over had it not been for the 1966 elections that resulted in a coalition government and Strauss being tapped to be Minister of the Treasury to work with Karl Schiller in growing the German economy. 

Both Strauss and Schiller were an interesting pair that had common goals of growing the German economy. Schiller was quiet, Strauss was loud. Schiller was dry and Strauss was animated. Both liked the idea of Airbus as a project to tie Europe together. Strauss in particular had a strong dislike of nationalism as he felt it was counterproductive to economic prosperity- having a central role in Airbus would not only benefit West Germany, it would also economically tie the nation to the rest of Europe for the greater good and keep nationalism from raising its ugly head again. Strauss was a long time supporter of the German aviation industry and he was a private pilot himself. When the Luftwaffe selected the F-104 Starfighter, he was instrumental in getting license production for German industry with Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) building 260 F-104Gs for the Luftwaffe. Given Strauss's aviation connections, he was well aware of the British getting cold feet in 1969. Before the British pull out, Schiller and Strauss had sent ministers to France to let them know that if Britain were unwilling to support Airbus, the West German government was prepared to double its investment to as much as 50% of the program provided the French did the same. Given the economic climate of Europe at the time, that was an astoundingly generous offer on the table in the event of a British withdrawal from the consortium. 

An A300 wing set being loaded for delivery to Toulouse from Hawker's facilities.
Increasing German participation in Airbus in the event of a British pullout was part of what the coalition government from the West German 1966 elections wanted from Franz Josef Strauss and Karl Schiller- how to grow the nation's economy and despite the economic downturn of the time, the British pullout from Airbus presented an opportunity for the German economy. Once the British were out, negotiations began in earnest between West Germany and France on a new 50-50 workshare in Airbus. One of the few sticking points in the deal was that there was quite a bit of difference between the state of affairs of the West German aerospace industry and that of the French industry. Clearly the French were more built out and advanced in terms of their industrial capacity for large commercial aircraft production. This particular issue found its resolution via the solving the problem of the A300's wing which was the responsibility of Hawker Siddeley. The company was aghast with the British withdrawal from Airbus, but early on was very clear that it wanted to stay in Airbus even if the British government didn't contribute. Hawker was willing to fund 40% of the wing design and manufacture out of its own internal funds, but it needed the balance of the 60% to continue with Airbus. That majority portion of the funding for the A300's wing was to have come from the British government prior to their withdrawal. If Hawker was out, a new contractor for the wing would have to be secured and that was something the French didn't want as it was hard enough to convince the French government to continue supporting Airbus. Having to get a new wing would almost guarantee the death knell for Airbus and this was similarly the case for West Germany as well. They were on the cusp of getting a 50% stake in Airbus and there was no way for West Germany to go it alone if Hawker had to pull out and the French pulled the plug on their support. 

And that's at the moment Strauss intervened personally. He pressed the coalition government led by Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger to come up with the extra money to keep Hawker Siddeley in the consortium. Strauss sent word to Airbus that he was willing to double West Germany's financial contribution to Airbus from 500 million Deutschmarks to 1 billion Deutschmarks so Hawker's wing could be fully funded. Needless to say, Roger Béteille and his team at Airbus were quick to take up Strauss on his offer. The influx of German funds allowed Hawker to complete the work on the A300 wing with a fixed price contract for four wing sets- two for testing and two for the two prototype aircraft as well as the tooling and machinery to produce four wing sets per month for Airbus. 

Interestingly at the time of Strauss's intervention to save the Hawker wing, two of Germany's elder aircraft designers, Willy Messerschmitt and Ludwig Bölkow, insisted they had a better wing design than the Hawker wing. Both men were over 70 and claimed their wing was lighter and simpler than Hawker's design and pressed the government to abandon the British design. As one German official had put it, "We tried to prevent situations that could have been damaging for the two men, because basically one should not make famous people look ridiculous." Naturally the question became that if Messerschmitt's wing was lighter and simpler, could it still be strong and stand up to the strain of repeated takeoffs and landings in commercial service? The story goes that Messerschmitt took his design to Britain to lobby for it and was told something to the effect "Dr. Messerschmitt, I believe the fatigue life of a Bf 109 was about fifty hours provided it didn't meet a Spitfire!"

Strauss's work was crucial when Airbus was at its most vulnerable following the British withdrawal from the consortium. Strauss become the first head of Airbus's supervisory board in 1970. Increasing German participation in Airbus was also crucial to the rebuilding and expansion of the nation's aerospace industry. In honor of his contributions to supporting German aviation, the Munich Airport is named for Franz Josef Strauss. 

Source: Close to the Sun: How Airbus Challenged America's Domination of the Skies by Stephen Aris. Aurum Press, 2002, pp 35-46. Images: T-Mobile, Abendzeitung-Muenchen, Trucknetuk.com forum.