Saturday, September 6, 2014

Profile 87: FINISHED—The RB-47H as flown by Freeman "Bruce" Olmstead

Conspiracy Theories are the sugary breakfast cereal of the History Geek crowd; everyone knows they’re bad for you but everyone also has a favorite.  And if your favorite Conspiracy Theory contains a toy at the bottom of the box, all the better!

I remember in 2003 when the Iraq war started.  I was readying to tour Europe with a group of WWII fighter pilots and, the September 11 attack loomed especially large over people's psyche.  A family friend took me aside and cautioned, “You know what they are going to do, don’t you?!  You’re over there with American heroes!  They’re going to take you hostage!”****

And who were “They”?   She wasn’t quite sure.  After all, they could have been...anyone!

Ok.  Hold that thought.

Have a look at the RB-47H above - it’s the one the Russians blew apart on July 1, 1960.  Six men went down, four died, two returned and one remains.  That remaining soul is Bruce Olmstead.  A few weeks ago, he blessed the artwork and now I can call it “Finished!”

No piece has evoked the whistles and admiration that this one has.  The owner of the printing company that replicates my art—typically quiet about my airplanes—summed it up by saying, “I had no idea we had such a pretty airplane!”   Everyone who’s seen it remarks similar.  And I agree.

Boeing nailed it.  But so did the Russians.  

According to my tally, about 50 American aircraft were lost to murky reasons between 1947 and 1973.  4 of them were ‘47s.   At least that’s what they say.  Of course, “281” was one of them.  And in this case, we know exactly who the “they” are that shot it down.  Down to the chromosome, too.  His name was Vasily Polyakov.


Vasily Polyakov
Credit: Sovfoto (is this still even in business?!?)

According to Polyakov’s nervous after-the-fact testimony, he was responding to intense psychological pressure. Bear in mind that, back then, the arms-race was really gathering steam and the world had fairly divided into a USA vs. USSR dichotomy. Though there was no formal declaration of war, the two empires were indeed enemies and treated each other with corresponding suspicion.  And violence.

To Polyakov’s ‘defense,’ a U-2 flown by Gary Powers had been shot down near Sverdlovsk just two months prior.  Immediately denied, implacably excused then begrudgingly admitted, the U-2’s flight came as a rude slap to everyone.  For one, the Americans were caught spying.  For two, the trailing Russians advanced to the point where they could do something about it.  Immediately President Eisenhower suspended any more overflights.  Yet, if anything, the shoot-down only ramified the importance of gathering intelligence on each other!

Anyway, while Powers sat in Stalin’s ex-torture chamber— Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison—it's easy to see how Polyakov got trigger happy when he scrambled to intercept 281 over the Barents Sea.  And he got close, too.  Bruce remembers Polyakov’s MiG-19 tightened right up, no more than 40’ off the starboard wing.  I bet that rarified, frigid air held so much tension, it could have been cut with a knife!  As it turned out, a knife would have been welcome.

Bruce remembers what happened next with a sigh,  “John, it was a traumatic moment.  I have grown tired of thinking about it.”


Credit: Inside spine of book.  E.P. Dutton & Company

I’ll spare you the temptation to poke Bruce one more time:  281 was at 30,000 feet and approximately fifty miles from Soviet airspace.   While the “Ravens” (see prior post) worked the dials in their dark bomb-bay closet, Navigator Capt. John McKone called for a turn to the northeast.  Pilot Major Willard Palm responded with a gentle left bank.  Polyakov banked right.

It would appear that the two enemies parted ways.

But then... 

Polyakov reversed his turn, carved in, fangs out: Poom!  Poom!  Poom!  Poom!   The MiG's three 30mm cannon spat shells, punching the beautiful Boeing with explosive jabs.  Olmstead reacted quickly to man the RB’s 20mm defensive cannon but somehow the Russian had jammed the gun’s targeting system and Olmstead’s fire ran wild.


Credit:  Me.

Right now, I can see it in my minds-eye; the devilish MiG, hot sparks of magnesium tracers, the shudders of impact, glints of aluminum shards and the wind up into a death dive...

“BAIL OUT!”

Four Americans died*.  Two survived.  One remains.

54 years later, Bruce Olmstead was polite but clear.  “It’s all in the book, John.  It’s all old news.”  

Normally, I’d be happy to place a link but the book, “Little Toy Dog,” is way out-of-print and almost impossible to find.  In fact, I got my copy as a surprise from a reader who in-turn got it from an antique dealer!

Antique or not, it’s an important work.  William Lindsy White does a fascinating job of telling the story.  His Cold War paranoia and contrasting intellectualism are almost as interesting as the what happened; on every level, it’s worth the hunt.  But in case you’re a Gen-X’er like me with latent ADD, I'll summarize.

McKone and Olmstead were rescued from the cold ocean by a Russian fishing boat and chugged to Russia.  Palm died in the water while the three Ravens were never found.  Russian chief Nikita Khrushchev was trying to distance the USSR from Stalin’s legacy and didn’t allow the two survivors to be physically tortured.  But he did have an axe to grind.  So, though McKone and Olmstead were safe from thuggery, they were subjected to daily interrogations.

Meanwhile, the USA was on the cusp of culture-shift of its own.  The golden hue of the 50’s was setting on one horizon while the storms of the 60’s flashed on the other.  There’s no doubt that  that the 1960 presidential election played into the politics of negotiating for McKone and Olmstead’s release.  Sure enough, the two men were officially welcomed back to the U.S. on January 24, 1961 by John F. Kennedy.  It was his first official act as President.   


Olmstead and McKone come home, JFK stands by
Credit:  Unknown.  Please let me know; I'm assuming Associated Press.

McKone and Olmstead had been imprisoned nearly seven months.**

Ok.  Back to Conspiracy Theories.

Like I wrote, Bruce Olmstead is tired of telling the same old story.  To him, it’s reliving the blast of ejection, loss of friends, humiliation, deprivation and also, nursing a broken back under an enemy’s care.  He's done his duty and owes nothing more than taxes and the laws of the land.

For the most part, I respect Old Men who feel their finished talking.  But when their tales are lost in some bohemian book nook or don’t-know-what-you’re-looking-for-until-you-find-it internet-search, I get concerned that the wisdom will stay shelved.

Ok.  Have one last look at the RB-47.  It was, by role, a “Reconnaissance airplane”  Formally, “Electronic Intelligence.”  Militarily “ELINT.”   But for us regular folk?  It was a Spy Plane flown (by definition) Spies.  And the currency in which Spys trade are Secrets.

Today, in the Snowden-Nude Celebrity-Lost Email world, Secrets are like fish pellets at a Koi pond.  Toss them out and water erupts in rainbow of fury.  Personally, I really do want to know if Lois Lerner had an axe to grind.  I also want to know if there are any kind of prejudices of Congress or the President that cause them to make this decision or that.  

So, I’ve learned to look beyond the obvious and dig around.  You know.  Snoop for something else.  Bruce “got” that.  And was happy to throw me a few bits.

“Several weeks before our shoot-down, two men from the NSA defected to the Soviet Union. Through Cuba.  They had with them a copy of the SIOP.”

What?!  They had the SIOP?!



Cuba's Fidel Castro (Center) and USSR's Nikita Khrushchev

Credit:  A now defunct Latin news agency.  That's all I know.


SIOP stands for “Single Integrated Operational Plan”.  Boring title, shocking info:  it was the general plan for nuclear war that the United States operated from 1961 to 2003.  In it contained everything an enemy needed to know about US.   And when I mean everything, it's everything.   Kind of like if hackers not only got your bank account info, medical records and emails, they also got your nude photos, too.

No wonder we were snooping!  And no wonder the reds were trigger happy!  And to top it off,  this was a time when a nuclear war was still not only conceivable, but winnable.  At least for the United States. The Soviets didn’t have the tech, the defenses or the manpower to win a war with the United States.  In fact, Curtis LeMay, chief of Strategic Air Command stated, “It would have cost us essentially the accident rate of flying time…”   In other words, we could have really won.

Think about it.  No arms race.  No Mao.  No Vietnam War.  No Pol Pot.  No (fill in with whatever your imagination is conjuring).

Holy Smokes (pun intended)!   And now, "Dr. Strangelove" doesn't seem all that strange does it?!  It makes you wonder just how connected everything really is—don't forget that two years later, the Russians got caught smuggling missiles into Cuba and that standoff made whatever happened over the Barents Sea seem trivial.

Thank gawd Khrushchev and Kennedy kept their cool.

“Most of the Air Force thought we flew weather recon at night and golfed during the day,” Olmstead stated wryly.  “(But) I have (one) comment.  I very strongly believe that keeping secrets about our government’s strategic planning, military or otherwise, is an absolute necessity.  I do not believe at-all that the public has a right to know everything that our government, who’s job it is to insure our peace and safety, might be planning to get that job done.”

Hmmm.  I think about that "serenity prayer" that I see stuck on refrigerators:


                     God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,  The courage to change the          
                     things I can And the wisdom to know the difference.

Thus, "281" dedicated to the Intelligence community.  Not all (of course), just the ones that are looking out for, in Bruce's words, 'our peace and safety.'  That, to me, is the only toy surprise I want out of my box of Conspiracies.

The "Little Toy Dog" that McKone carried with him for luck.  It went down down with the plane.
Credit:  E.P. Dutton & Company

You know who you are... ;)



Credit:  Wide World Photo

*Americans killed in the shoot-down: Pilot Major Willard Palm (front left), and Ravens (back row): Major Eugene Posa, Captain Oscar Goforth and Captain Dean Phillips.  Bruce Olmsted is center, John McKone is front right.

**Gary Powers ended up spending 22 months in prison, released February 2, 1962.  In comparison, Lt. Cmdr Everette Alvarez spent over 8 years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, from 1964 to 1973.

***Actually, there's more to the story and this will come at a later date.  For now, it's need-to-know only.

****Obviously not.  Had a great time, too.   Carry on you Bastards of Bodney!

Profile 90 - The F-4D Phantom "flown" by Angelica Pilato.

Have a look at the F-4 Phantom above.  It didn't fly combat and I haven't met any of the airplane's crew.  Just a chick who talked her way into the backseat.

*wink wink*...I'll explain.

A regular reader of this blog, (and Vietnam War combat pilot and MiG killer), insisted I read the book, "Angel's Truck Stop*," by Lt. Col Angelica Pilato (Ret.).  Here.  Have a look at the cover.


Cute isn't it?  And get that name, "Angel."  Sitting on a Jeep...ahhh.  Nice legs!  And I betcha she had a crush on one of those pilots, too!  (snicker).  Maybe made him cupcakes.  Gosh.

Hold that thought.

Imagine American history as a long wall.  It goes along nicely until that period between (about) 1963 through 1975.  Then, perfect storm of the Civil Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution, Peace & Love and of course the Vietnam War, combined into a cultural tornado, scattering the times into pieces; each a separate voice onto the world-at-large.  However, the world-at-large soon becomes congested with soap boxes and megaphones.  Cacophony reigns.   Of course, I'm here to learn about "The War" and that cuts down on the clamor.  But even so, the diversity of voices is no easier to sort:  McNamara, Ellsberg, Westmoreland, Nixon, LBJ, Olds, Mason, Thorsness, Coppola, Kubrick, Moore, Cherry...hell, virtually every person alive at the time has got something to say!

In short, what I hope to be a classroom becomes an open debate with no moderator.

And that conflict persists.  Just the other night, I had dinner with a man who's son was preparing to write his Doctoral Thesis on American History.  The son's advisor gave some telling advice:  "Don't do Vietnam.  No one wants to hear what you have to say."   I've experienced this taint myself. When I decided to go to Vietnam** to see things for myself, the responses of others ranged from being called a Commie-lover (sorry Angry-Dude but I'm a devout Goldwater-ite) to hugs of "support" (why do I need support?!)  to wide-eyed gasps. 

Funny; I never experienced that at Normandy...

ANYWAY.  Back to Angel's book.  And that cute cover.  It's the only thing cute about the book.   


I'll be blunt:  Angel's Truck Stop is the memoir of a bull-headed, tenacious woman who maneuvered her way into flying the Officer's Club at Udorn Air Base, Thailand in 1971.  Instead of sugar and spice, I was sucker-punched by a chick who is unafraid to tell it like it was.  "It was the 60s and 70s and It was the time of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. I had two out of three of those covered," she said cooly.  "It's my story and I can't sugar coat it. I had to be authentic."


It isn't (sugar coated).  Angel's candor kept me flipping pages in rapt attention. Her honesty and willingness to bare herself was unsettling.  As a guy,  I cringed a few times and even asked her, "Sheesh!  Did you really have to say that?!?"  But my wife had a different perspective.  She said, "Wow!  She's a strong person!  It tells me how far things have come along!"

Regardless, Angel held her own in a "3-F"*** culture.  Yet, there's nothing prurient or gratuitous about her story and no more/less uncomfortable than reading about Slick pilots hosing blood and guts out of their Hueys.  

So.  What does this have to do with the F-4 above?

It’s a D-model from the 22nd TFS based in Bitburg Air Base, Germany, circa 1971.  It’s also the only combat aircraft Angel got to experience during her career in the Air Force.****  Yeah, I know—Bitburg is a long way from Vietnam.  But in the context of the interviewing, this was the only airplane that really made any sense to draw.  As a symbol of her ambition and quest for control, it's "her" airplane.

Anyway, I asked Angel the same question that I ask any "Old Guy" who ends up being part of this blog—"If you were to have lunch with my (daughter) and had to impart your life's wisdom, what would you say?"  Angel's reply was not only applicable to her own life but also gave me a fresh perspective on how to process what I've learned (so far) about the Vietnam War:  

"Your life is filled with choices and you’re going to make a lot of them, some wonderful and some that you’ll say, “What was I thinking?!”  When you think you have failed or made the wrong turn, don’t be so hard on yourself.  Pick yourself up, learn from it and move on. If you don’t make a few mistakes, you’re not taking any risks; you’re playing it too safe.  Life is an adventure, experience all it has to offer."

I hope we—Americans and Vietnamese alike—can adopt such an attitude and settle into a more unified voice.  Or, as I learned from a Vietnamese college student, "Remember the past but move forward to something new."


Though I can't say Angel has finally brought the Vietnam War into any cohesive understanding, her story has taken its place among the ones I trust.  

Read the book.  (click here)*****



* Full title:  Angel's Truck Stop: A Woman’s Love, Laughter a, and Loss during the Vietnam War" by Angelica “Angel” Pilato. Lt. Col USAF (Ret.)
**In case you didn't know what's been happening since Clinton normalized relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, our two countries have been growing into pretty good friends.
***Flying, Fighting and...
****Amusing story.  You'll have to read it yourself.
*****Available direct, via amazon.com and tablets. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Profile 92: JUST STARTED— F-102 as flown by a guy from the 509th FIS


I've wanted to do a Southeast Asian F-102 for some time but until now, didn't have the opportunity until earlier this year.  In my opinion, the airplane in Vietnam camo looks totally awesome!

So, have a look above.  It's the start of an F-102 of the 509th FIS circa 1968.  "444" to be precise.

The only other '102 that I've done was one flown by the South Dakota Air National Guard.  Done up in her early-1960's "ADC Light Gray" paint typical of Tactical Air Command, I thought it looked more like a NASA space craft than fighter plane.  However, in my research for that particular commission, I discovered the 102 also wore SEA warpaint and filed the info in my 'that'd-be-cool-to-draw-someday' mental hard drive.

My art of the SDANG F-102

This past February, a strange chain of events (they usually are, which ironically makes them normal) put me across the table with a 509th "Deuce" pilot who had a few stories to tell.  Not many though.  Just a few.  (more later).

Hold that thought.

The F-102 was a bit-player in the aerial arena of Vietnam.  I think only two squadrons were even deployed.  Why?  Well, the F-102 was designed as an "interceptor."  In other words, an airplane sent to intercept attacking airplanes.  In other words, a defender.  More specifically, a defender against enemy bombers.  

The demands upon an Intercepter are dramatic but straightforward—it needs to be able to get the attacker before it can attack.  Qualities like rate-of-climb and heavy aerial firepower are crucial.  Back in the '50s and against a stream of Russian bombers, the F-102 Delta Dagger (normally called "the Deuce") would have crushed whatever the Reds sent.   But in Vietnam, the bombers never came.  And good thing, too because the packed American airfields would have made a hell of a target had the North Vietnamese been able to buy enough* Il-28s to become a real threat.

Here.  Have a look.

C-123s, C-130, A-37s, RB-47s, F-4s and 509th F-102s at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, circa 1968
Source unknown  

As it turned out, the only attacks on American bases were from Viet Cong-thrown satchel charges and mortar rounds.   Dồng for đồng**, the VC were far more effective than any bombing raid could have ever been; over the 509th's history, they bagged 4!

So, the Deuce's interceptor mission never even got off the ground.  "Nothing to see here, move along..." right?  No.

A 509th Deuce heads north.
Source: private collection.

In the next few weeks, I will be finishing the airplane of a pilot (no names, he prefers anonymity) who flew 52 combat missions in this wicked-looking warbird.  Yeah, it flew combat.  How, what and why are a different story altogether and will be an interesting look at how deploying weapons systems are a balance of preparedness, practicality and pure guesswork.


*It turns out they had about eight.
**Vietnamese currency is the đồng.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Profile 89: JUST STARTED—The P-40N flown by Cliff Long, 51st FG



P-40s are awesome.

P-40s with sharks-mouths painted on the nose are even awesomer!

But you know what's even MORE AWESOMER?!    Finding a P-40 "Warhawk" pilot who is willing to talk about the 104 missions he flew over China!

Hold that thought.

I am a member of the "professional" social networking service called LinkedIn.  One of the features of LinkedIn is a regular feed of business-related articles written or reposted by members for other members to read.  One of the most popular topics of these articles is "Success" and they look something like this:  10 Things A Great Leader Always Does Before Breakfast or 6 Incredible Success Stories that Started Out As Failures or Do This One Thing to Make a Million Dollars next Week.

I like these articles.  Most of the time, they give me a positive boost or a quick idea.   But in reality, they are essentially all-the-same and their promises far out-reach reality.  After all, if becoming Steve Jobs really took only 6 essential "things," we'd all be Steve Jobs by day-end.

Steve Jobs.  No idea who took the photo but it's perfect so I'm taking the risk.

Right?  Yeah, you laugh.  And I laugh too because I know the ONE thing you have to do to be successful.  It's been told to me by virtually every "Old Guy" that I've interviewed and frankly, it remains curiously overlooked and even when acknowledged, derided as simplistic and naive.

Want to know what it is?

Hang on.

Typically, I don't draw an airplane unless I can talk to someone who was attached via combat.   With WWII vets evaporating, my pool of willing, able and documented pilots is all-but-gone.  However, a persistent patron and an especially keen P-47 pilot convinced me otherwise, hence this opening sketch.

Have a good look as there are some things you might find interesting.

1.  Notice the outline of the "sharks mouth"?   Typically, sharks-mouthed P-40s are associated with the American Volunteer Group (A.V.G.) and their mercenary service to keep the Japanese from over-running China.  But really, it was the Brits who first put the teeth on P-40s and even then, they stole the idea from the Germans.

But this one won't have a sharks-mouth.  It will have a DRAGON mouth.  What's the difference?  Have a look!


2.  Notice the square-ended canopy.  Typically, P-40s had an elongated, round-ended panel that allowed pilots an extra sliver of over-the-shoulder visibility.  The "N" model, however, cut that part of the fuselage out altogether and replaced it with an acrylic greenhouse.  It's ugly.  But functional.

3.  Notice the elevator position.  Through the P-40 E-model, the axis of movement for the elevators intersected the joint where the rudder met the tail.  But on the L, M and N models, the fin and rudder were moved back.**

(Mention this fact at your next wine-tasting party for extra conversational joy!)

and...

4. Notice that on my in-flight sketch there are what look to be tiny bombs. Actually, they're not bombs.  They're rockets.  This may be the only P-40 drawing of a rocket-carrying Warhawk*.   In short, this bird got low, slow and personal with the Japanese.

So what does this have to do with LinkedIn and all those stories on Success?

Well, in comparison to "Success" fighters of WWII (like the P-51, Spitfire, FW-190, Yak-3 and Ki-84), the P-40 is kind of an also-ran.   It wasn't terribly fast, it wasn't terribly maneuverable, it wasn't terribly awesome at anything (other than diving and absorbing damage).  In fact, its main claim to fame is simply that it was available.

Ok.  Fast-forward to 2009 and I'm having lunch with an Old Guy.  He's a retired $$$ionaire who also happened to have flown a bit of combat in WWII.  He asked me about a mutual acquaintance who was losing his business because, in this other dude's explanation, "(He) didn't have the right tools to compete."  So, the poor guy sat in his office because he didn't want to risk embarrassing himself.

The Old Guy howled in laughter, slapped the table and exclaimed, "Oh yeah!  Another success derailed by perfection!"   He took another bite of salad, then wagged his finger at me in caution, "John, a little imperfection is better than hiding behind the wait for perfection."

He stabbed the last of his greens and muttered, half to himself, "You only learn by practice and the best practice is simply showing up.  Some guys are just chicken."

And that's it.  "Showing up" —perhaps the most important key to Success.  It's not glamorous or even all-that-inspiring.  But it's true.  And, in the context of all-things-P-40, it was, by 1944, a second-string fighter that persisted in the combat arena because it was simply available.  In fact, it flew its last combat mission in 1945, well after its comparative obsolescence.

I'd like introduce Cliff Long.  P-40 pilot from the 51st Fighter Group, China-Burma-India theater.  104 missions, all in P-40s and 103 of those missions were before he turned twenty years old.  Talk about "showing up!"—today, Cliff wouldn't be old enough to drink let alone fly a modern fighter!

And it's a Success Story alright.  So show up for the next installment in about two weeks.
Cliff Long circa 1944.  Courtesy Jean Barbaud

*And, I got the rockets wrong in the pencil sketch.  You'll just how wrong they are when the art gets updated, too.

**Originally, I had written that the elevator was moved forward but esteemed aviation historian Carl Molesworth caught my error.  Thank you, Carl!

Profile 87: UPDATE—The RB-47H as flown by Freeman "Bruce" Olmstead

BREAKING NEWS 8-2-14 - CLICK HERE*

“We’d rather have the Russians come up after us.  At least they were half-way responsible because they would have to check (with their military authority) before firing.”

Oh the irony of THAT statement, eh?!

Ok, hold that thought for a moment.

When I started Olmstead’s RB-47—the one he was flying on July 1, 1960 when shot down by the Russians—the story was all about Bruce.  After all, he alone remained from the crew and played such a huge role; trading cannon fire with the MiG, riding the freezing swells of the Barents Sea with a broken back(!), and resisting the brainwashing of the professionals at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow.

Yeah.  There oughta be a movie...

But, Bruce was quick to point out that his part was only a sixth of the whole; aside from the traditional B-47 crew of three, there were three more in the Reconaissance versions.  Bruce also explained that these additional crewmen were the true fulcrum of the aircraft's mission.  Suddenly, a fascinating new dimension was added to the tragic story and my curiosity grew as to what exactly happened to the other three guys.

Of course, we'll never know.  They're dead.

Packed inside the jet's windowless belly, I could only imagine the muffled staccato of cannon fire, the bangs of explosions and windup of g-forces as the burning Stratofortress spun into the sea below.  It had to be a horror.

So, Bruce's story is being set-aside for a bit while some very deserved attention is given to the crew in the middle, "The Ravens." 

Here.  Have a look at my pen-drawing below.


See that capsule-like area that has the arrows pointing toward the fuselage?  That’s where the Raven’s worked.   Originally intended as the bomb bay, the R versions of the B-47 had the space repurposed by sealing it up, adding aft-facing ejection seats (they were to blow out the bottom) and whatever technological gadgetry was useful at the time.  It was cramped space, too.  But not airliner-cramped where you rub shoulders with a stranger.  Instead, think of cramped more like being in an international shipping container full of tractor parts. 

In a sense, the Ravens were the computer hackers of the day.  They probed the signal networks of the world's hotspots—Russia, China, North Korea for example—from their airborne perches, just outside of international boundaries.  Yeah, I am sure there were a few unauthorized overflights, but after the Gary Powers incident in 1960, President Eisenhower officially cancelled the practice.  From then on, monitoring had to be done via the Ravens and their tech.

So, the RB-47s prowled the perimeters, snooping for whatever agency (Strategic Air Command, NATO, even the CIA) wanted to find.
The Raven's Office.  Claustrophics and Interior Designers need not apply
Source:  Raven Bruce Bailey

Ok.  Have another look at my pen-drawing.  This time, notice the MiGs.  Specifically, those are MiG-17s and if you look really, really close, squint your eyes and take a shot of bourbon, you can see the insignias are North Korean...

...in other words, I found a Raven who could tell me what it was like to get shot at by MiGs.  This time, the date is April 28, 1965, nearly five years AFTER Bruce's incident.  

Ok - stop there for a second.

We so need a revamp of our educational system and it needs to start with History teachers.  Stories like these provide valuable insight into the human experience.  Though I haven't been alive for very long, it's mystifying when people (leaders and followers alike) react to normal events as if they just discovered Bigfoot.

Human nature isn't going to be changing any time soon, but when it does, it will be because we trust that the lessons of our past can be learned to affect a better future.

Rant switched to: OFF.  Back to the story.

Have a look at the artwork below.  It's a painting by a guy named George Back, depicting the April '65 event.  The location was over the international waters off Wonsan Harbor, North Korea.  George is also responsible for the quote at the beginning of this story—he's an authority on being a Raven and also what it is like to take enemy fire because he was "Raven 2" on said mission.



It was George's first—repeat, first—operational sortie.  Taking off from Yokota AFB (by Tokyo), the mission was routine.  Head west, sniff around, come home.  Nestled into his windowless, gadget-covered cocoon, George did just that.  Until 6 hours into the flight, the airplane violently pitched nose-down and the inter-phone came alive..."The son of a bitches are shooting at us!"

BANG!  BANG!  BANG!

The experience was completely discombobulating; the chaotic maneuver and the pilot's call, "We're hit and going down!" triggered trained response; though thoroughly stunned, George reflexed the depressurization process and armed his seat for ejection.

"MAY DAY! MAY DAY!—REQUEST PERMISSION TO FIRE—SHOOT THE BASTARD DOWN! MAY DAY!  GET ME A HEADING THE HELL OUT OF HERE!—TAKE A ONE EIGHTY!  WILL REFINE IN A SECOND! —MAY DAY!"

The RB was hit—badly—and plummeting like a silver dart.   Her pilot, Lt. Col. Hobart "Matt" Mattison struggled to maintain controlled flight and, as he had exclaimed, 'Get the hell out of (there)!'   Co-pilot, Lt. Henry (Hank) Dubuy worked the 20mm tail stingers, chattering off tracer-less streams at the buzzing MiGs and Navigator Capt. Bob Rogers worked the new course—'the hell out of here!'

Meanwhile, the three Ravens could do little more than wait for the order to eject.

Pass after pass, the MiG's made their runs.  The physics of 3D motion, slow-firing cannon and unpredictable flight paths bent the enemy's aim, but when they're shooting 30mm, it doesn't take many to destroy a plane even as big as a Stratojet.  Amidst the muffled chatter of Dubuy's defensive fire, loud bangs and metallic screams signaled definite hits.


Hydraulics failed.  The tail caught fire.  #3 engine was down.  Then #2.   Then #4.   #5 still made thrust but shook like a washer loaded with bricks...and this on a six-engine airplane.

"Hank!  Get out the Dash-1* and get to the Emergency page!  "Which one?!?"  "Any one!"

Trailing fire and smoke, the psychotic bullies left.  Arcing toward's the ocean, they must have thought the RB was dead to rights.   But "Matt" wasn't dead.  Neither were anyone else.  In fact, they weren't even wounded.  Additionally, in all this chaos, no one "left their post" to the temptation of panic.  Instead, training and self-control resulted in a complete reversal of direction, 15,000 foot decent and resurrection of the bleeding, burning jet.  Leveling off around 12,000 feet, they had one more pressing decision—where to next?

 The crew had three options:  1. Bail out.  2. Head to an emergency field in South Korea.  Or 3. attempt to return to Yokota.

Bailing out was out of the question.  The ocean was no place for airmen, especially when the enemy was closer than than the sharks.  The South Korean emergency field required turning back and the six men knew what awaited them along the way.  The only real choice was to head East.

The flight ticked off in interminably long seconds.  Shuddering and trailing her precious fluids, the airplane reenacted a scene from nearly 30 years prior when damaged B-17s would ache and pray their way home to England.  The crew's fates rested solely in Boeing's craft, a pilot's judgement and God-only-knows-what.

"Matt briefed us all on how bad the landing could be and asked if we wanted to bail out.  The answer was unanimous.  'No sir!"

Matt's leadership had accomplished that peculiar thing that happens when things go wrong, it gave the rest confidence.  Confidence to stick together, confidence to trust, confidence to accept what would come next.

Of course, Yokota was waiting.  Imagine the scene:  fire trucks, ambulances and a helicopter with a belly full of fire retardant...and the elegant shape of the wounded bird skews her way in a smokey, cockeyed approach... there could be no go-around.

BANG!  The RB-47H slammed onto the runway with such power, the Newtonian response launched her carcass back into the air.  That would not do!  Running out of runway and covering care of the ground crews, Matt pushed her back onto the concrete, ordering Hank to pop the chute and stand—stand—on the brakes...

Photo courtesy Bruce Bailey
Safe.

Man, I wanted a picture of what that must have looked like.  But none exist.  The broken '47 in the photo above is from another story but add a little smoke, a few more holes and you get the picture.

Ok.  It's time to check back in with Bruce, finish his RB and put a bow on the story.

In the meantime, the next time you read a story like this one, think about the Ravens and RB-47 crews of the Cold War.   It's a tough world out there...stay alert.

*Amazing coincidence...

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Profile 88: JUST STARTED—The A-4C as flown by Paul Galanti



Here's the scene:   A door-to-door peddler entices a gullible couple to buy a "24-piece set" of plastic storage containers by dangling a ridiculous boat (of all things) as an enticement.

Here.  Watch.

The clip is from Napoleon Dynamite; it's one of those "Love it or hate it" movies.  But, there's no mistaking the scene's slash at the vacuous values that manifest themselves in our culture.   Especially when the needy bride points at the kitschy thing and breathes to her timid husband, "Ah'want that!"

Hold that thought for a moment.

Have a look at the pencil-sketch at the very top of this post.  It's an A-4C Skyhawk that was shot down during a mission over North Vietnam on June 17, 1966.  Her pilot, Paul Galanti, would become a POW for just shy of seven years.  

Over the next few posts, we'll go back to that moment and the years of abuse that followed.  We'll find out how Paul made it through the torture, the pain, the longing...and re-enter Civilization and continue to prosper.

But.

This story is more than just another POW story.  It's a story of what every man wants

Hold that thought for just one more moment.

True story:  a buddy of mine was telling me about "the conversation" he had with his son regarding girls.  Not about girls as objects but girls as companions.  Friends.  Spouses.  His son was being tempted to choose unwisely based on base-desires and the self-inflicted humiliation that comes from being "lonely."  Or horny.  It doesn't matter.  His son was aiming low and the dad knew the horror that could come of it.

"But da-ad.  I want a girlfriend!" the young punk complained.

"No son.  You don't want a girlfriend.  You want..."  and the father struggled to find the words that would describe the complicated, hard-fought and deep-seated wisdom that comes from a guy like...

...Paul Galanti.

Take one more look at the pencil sketch, ok?   That A-4C Skyhawk will soon transform herself from graphite scratches to full-color perfection.  We're going into North Vietnam with all the guns and gore but we're going to come out with something truly worth the declaration, "I want that."

It won't be easy, it won't be cheap.

But it will be worth it.

Profile 87: IN PROGRESS—The RB-47H as flown by Freeman "Bruce" Olmstead


"That is such an old story...

"It's news to me!" I thought.

...and if you use Google, it's all over the internet...

"Yeah, if you’re looking for it but again, ‘News to me!’.”

...and it was all told in the book."

"Book?!  What book!?"

And thus began my conversation with the pilot.  Ok, hold that thought for a moment...

Knowledge isn’t passed via placenta.  All those things your grandpa knew about business?  About playing poker?  Or grandma's cure for a cold?   If it wasn’t written down or passed on through familial legacy, they’re *POOF!*  dissolved into the ether of time; like food that's never eaten, money never invested or time wasted.

But, to actually use said knowledge, another thing is necessary:  Faith.  Not necessarily faith in a religious sense, but more about the faith that using knowledge will some how, some way, pay off in a profitable fashion.  And THAT, is we call "Wisdom."

Ok, have a look above.  It’s the pencil sketch of my latest work, the RB-47H flown by “Bruce” Olmstead.    On one hand, it’s a gorgeous example of the Aeronautical Engineer’s art; if she looks familiar it’s because Boeing nailed jet-design back in 1947 when she first flew.  Squint and you can see 75% of any commercial airliner flying today.  The B-47 was more than a mere pioneer, she mothered a generation!

However, you’re also looking at a warplane that does not exist.  On one hand, the B-47 was handily replaced by the legendary B-52.  It stands to reason that, once improved, why keep the rest?  But on the other hand, the specific airplane I’m drawing was obliterated by a fiery impact into the Barents Sea on July 1, 1960.  6 men went down, 2 came back.

“Went down?”  you ask.

"Sorry," I reply.  "I meant Shot down."

“By whom?” you wonder.  “In 1960, we weren’t at war with anyone and the Cold War was just that, Cold."”

"The Russians,", I answer.  "And the Cold War had some definite hot spots!"






I’d like you to meet Freeman “Bruce” Olmstead.  He was the co-pilot of this particular RB-47 that, back in 1960, was a big deal.  Such a big deal that even today, the man himself seemed tired to tell the story one more time.   Funny though, considering that the majority of readers hear are under 50, I bet this is the first time you'll have heard about it.

Bruce is right.  It's an old story.  And he's also right that a bit of Google'ing will give you the facts & figures of the moment.  As for the book, it's out there, too.  But for me, this story is more than dredging up the past.  It's about realizing that the study of History is not just about "names, places & dates."  It's about having the faith that keeping said History alive will give us the wisdom to handle whatever comes at us in the future.

So what are we going to learn from this story that's new?   Well, I guess you're going to have to have a little faith in that and follow this story.

Oh.  Bruce has weighed in a detail or two that have caused me to re-think his RB-47 from the pencil-sketch.  See below.



Friday, May 30, 2014

Profile 83/84: "The History Lesson."



For a brief—really brief—moment in time, I wanted to name this print, "Starfish."

Uh.  Yeah.   Starfish.

It would have been a dumb title, I know.  But give my logic it's due.

Ok.  There's an oft-told story about a kid running along a beach at low tide, picking up stranded starfish and tossing them into the surf before the hot sun would bake them to death.  The beach was long and there were thousands of the little creatures drying in heat as the life-giving water receded.

Off in the distance, a man stood watching the futile attempts of the little boy and finally decided to set the kid straight.  Approaching the frantic rescuer, he interrupted, "You do realize that you can't possibly rescue all these poor creatures.  There's too many and it won't make a difference in the grand scheme anyway as they'll just die another day."

The boy paused, thought for a minute, then picked up yet another starfish and threw it far into the respite of the foaming waves.  Turning to the man he replied, "But it made a difference to that one."

Ok.  Hold that thought.

Warfare shouldn't happen.  But it does.  In spite of all it's horror, it's inevitable that another will come along.  And to this point, I think it's good to face facts—though peace is always the first choice, the only thing worse than war is war done badly.  In other words, if we're going to have war, lets do it right.  And do it "right" like any management process—become faster, better, cheaper.  Yeah, it's warped...but wouldn't the world have been a better place if the Reichstag could have been obliterated by a Cruise Missile in 1939?  Specifically July 19?  (click the pic below if you'd like to learn more).

 Click me

War is hell, but what do ya' do?!

And yet, as inevitable as the next war is, there's something in (most) of us that holds out hope that something, somehow, someway can be done to, well, make a difference.   Even if it's apparently futile.

That's why I considered—briefly—naming the print of North Vietnamese fighter pilot Nguyen Hong My's MiG-21 and Bob Mock/John Stiles' RF-4C, "Starfish."  See, Hong My and John Stiles, former enemies in a particularly nasty war, are now genuinely friends.   Somehow, someway, time and tide worked against the cynical, the inevitable and unfortunate to pluck these two guys off the hot beach and throw them back into the sea of humanity.

Look at the picture below.  That's John and My and My's two grandkids.

Wow.  Just wow...


And downstairs, our camera-man is on his umpteenth hoot'n holler toast with a bunch of people he just met, in spite of the fact that they couldn't understand a word each other was saying...

Good times.  Good, good times.

And so I named it The History Lesson.

Because somehow, someway, I believe someone, somewhere can learn something from this.


I know I have.

And if you click the graphic below, you can see the result of the whole trip.   No Starfish though.  Just a good "History Lesson."

www. OldGuysandTheirAirplanes.com


www.oldguysandtheirairplanes.com

No starfish.  Just a good History Lesson.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Profile 86: "523" as flown by Leo Istas, VMF-313

Think about this—can you "bounce" a 1,000 pound iron bomb along the water?

Most of us have skipped rocks across a pond; that's easy enough to imagine.  But ginormous poundage of explosives kissing itself off the waves onto a target takes the physics-of-the-moment to a new level!  But, the process worked well enough to be prescribed as a bona fide tactic.

See, skip-bombing was used on targets that were best-hit down-low.  If you can imagine dive-bombing a ship from straight-overhead, you can see in your minds-eye that the target is slim.  And if it's turning, all kinds of motions come into play that will throw off a well-aimed bomb; never mind the fact that the anti-aircraft fire would be like pointing the lit-end of a roman candle at one's face!

Of course dive-bombing ships worked (just do a little research on the Battle of Midway).   But if you really wanted to take out a ship, you'd plant a bomb right smack in the side.  Right on the waterline.   And, that's what Torpedo Bombers like the TBM Avenger were designed to do.  But torpedo planes were slow, big and could get shredded by a whole bunch of roman candle's in the face! Plus, those torpedoes were not cheap.

That's where skip-bombing came in - use a smaller fighter*, wound up with a nose full of steam from a 12,000 foot dive and deliver the iron bomb at wave-top height.  It makes sense.  If you had a pilot who could do it.

To hear Leo Istas describe it, the sheer thrill, madness and mindset of a skip-bombing attack must have been out-of-this-world.  Though his body had aged 90 years, his mind snapped-too as if the moment were yesterday.
Corsair cockpit - source unknown

"We went over the bay (somewhere in the Phillipines) to hit a convoy.  We knew (the Japanese convoy) was there and our job was to hit the ships.  I can remember we got a little ways away, then (and he starts using his hands in an effort to describe what happened next) I pulled the wing over and began my dive.  From 12,000 feet.  The ship (I picked) was up ahead and (my airspeed) started to climb!"

Now, a loaded Corsair would weigh about six tons.  Already a fast airplane (400+ in level flight), the bent-winged machine could also bend the airspeed needle at 550 miles per hour (or more) in a dive.  If you were on the deck of that ship watching this affair, there wouldn't be much time to ponder what would happen next.

Of course, I'd been listening with an active imagination.  I could feel the temporary suspension of gravity and the pull of horsepower against my seat harness as the airplane plummeted towards the gray-blue water below.  The coal and moss colored hills surrounding the harbor were on the horizon; in between them and my indigo machine floated the gray-brown ships of the enemy, just far apart to offer each other covering fire but not too close in case one of them blew to high heaven.

Leo leaned forward, his wheelchair wiggling against a faulty set-brake,  "I pulled out just above the water.  Just above the water!  Do you know what I mean by that?"

"I think so.  But tell me."

"I was level and low!  So low that when I fired (my machine guns) I could see the sparks hitting just above the waterline.  My prop couldn't have been more than a foot or so above the water!"  Leo laughed, but it was a nervous, incredulous-sounding chuckle, as if he couldn't believe his memories.

Brilliant balls of explosive arced toward Leo.  A few big ones and a blizzard of small ones...chat-chat-chat-chat-BOOM-chat-chat-BOOM-chat-chat...

"What were you thinking when...!?"

"Nothing!  Too fast!" Leo interrupted. "Too low...just too much going on to think.  You just had to get let that bomb go at the right time to bounce it's way into the ship."

Leo, inbound - source, me.

I could imagine a metallic 'cunk' sound as the latches holding the bomb opened and the giant iron device fell from the screaming blue fighter.  At that speed, the water would become like a trampoline and the bullet-shaped casing would glance off the surface and spring it forward.  It's kind of a cool thing to visualize but at the time, my head was locked onto the Corsair.  I imagined blue beast howling across the freighter at mast-height, too fast for the Japanese to do anything but inhale. One final time.

"So did the ship explode?!"  Though the movie-camera in my mind had "filmed" the entire event, I still needed to know what special effects to add to the final scene.  I had a few options; one, a sliver of bright orange flame erupts from the cowl as Leo takes a fatal hit.  Two, the bomb wavers so slightly and catches a wave, exploding harmlessly in a gigantic column of water.  Three...

Leo looked away, out the window of the VA hospital.  "I didn't see.  I just got out of there.  When you do something like that, you don't look back."  He paused, lost himself for a second, then, as he picked up his fork to pick at his lunch, added, "Another guy saw it though.  Boom. The ship split in two and sunk."   He took a few more bites and then finished, "And that's what got me my DFC.  I blew up a ship."

He took a few more chews, mocked up a quick smile and continued his lunch.  It was clear that for Leo, the memory remained fresh.  I looked around the cafeteria and wondered if anyone there had the slightest clue that here, in their murmuring, clanking midst, was a warrior who, in the old Native American vernacular, "counted coup."

Anyway, have a look at Leo's logbook below.  Find the column on the left with the "11"—that'd be December 11 and that was the day Leo nailed the freighter. Sixty nine years ago.  Man.  Was it that long ago?!

Istas logbook - source, Leo Istas

And, though getting a DFC is a pretty big deal, and sinking a ship single-handedly is definitely another pretty big deal, surely stuff like this happened a hundred, thousand...maybe a hundred thousand times in WW2.  What's so special about this one?

Well, this is probably the last WW2 airplane I get to do.  At least one that's the product of talking with the pilot, flipping through old log books together...you know; Leo is of a vanishing breed.

Yeah, yeah. I knew that, but only in the sense it would happen some day.   However, while doing this Corsair, Leo woke me up to a startling fact when he nodded to his Squadron Annual and said, "Most of'em are all in there.  But I think I'm the only one left.".

Istas Annual - source, Leo Istas

"The only one left."

Flipping through the Annual, the faces, the collegiate-style commentary, the brittle paper and hardened photographs, the only thought I could think was wondering what these guys would have thought if they knew that, a generation later, Leo would be the standard bearer and I'd be wondering what "Monk" meant and why "Ugly" felt he had to write his "wifey."

Here.  YOU can wonder too!

Pages from the VMF-313 Annual, source:  Leo Istas

It seems that many History teachers do a pretty lousy job of teaching the names, dates and places of our past.  The reason I know is because that's all they seem to teach and I can't remember them.  But there's hope if they can begin teaching the real reason to learn our History—that our circumstances are handed off to us, generation by generation and we have an absolute duty to continually improve.

Tom Brokaw called them "The Greatest Generation."  But I hope not.  If they are, we haven't done them the justice they deserve.

And Leo may truly end up, "The only one left."

Leo and I, source, Leo's daughter.

Salute, Leo.



*Bombers like the B-25, A-20 and even B-17 were used in skip-bombing attacks, too.