Thursday, October 16, 2014

Profile 89: FINISHED—"Shirley" - Curtiss P-40N as flown by Cliff Long, 51st FG

“Old men have no more dreams.  Instead we have memories.”
Hold that thought.

Finished—“Shirley,” the P-40N flown by Lt. Clifford Long, 51st FG, Baoshon, China, circa late 1944.

King Solomon, the wisest man ever to have lived, is alleged to have written, “The end of a thing is better than its beginning.” Perhaps it’s my own foolishness but I can’t agree here.  This particular commission has been so rewarding, it’s a shame to mark it “finished.”

The art really turned out well.  “Shirley” was one of the last P-40s to see combat in WWII and therefore had to look the part—tired, used, but still vital and deadly. The standard olive-drab paint was notorious for “chalking” under the pressure of nature’s elements and in the process, became a better surface for collecting dirt and oil stains, too.  “Shirley” was no hangar queen, that’s for sure.

Have a look at the photo below to get an idea of her natural surroundings.  It’s one of, if not the only, known color photos of 51st FG P-40s.   And the circled airplane is “Shirley” herself.  But if you squint just a little and let your mind go, you can hear the blare of the idling ’40 in the foreground and feel the warmth and dryness of the sun-warmed Chinese air.

Yet, again, “Shirley” is not about the art.  She’s about the story.  And if the art is good, the story is better (it always is).

Beginning a project has many parallels to building a model airplane.  The initial phone call, letter or handshake is like piercing the cellophane that surrounds the box, crinkling it up into a ball and  sliding the lid up off the bottom.  With a gentle “pphhumph” of vacuum, the contents are revealed and the plastic ‘trees’ of pieces are inspected.

In this case, the first “piece” I got to experience was not with Cliff, but his wife.  In the small-talk, I made a quick mental calculation and figured that they’d been married nearly seventy years.  It’s a fairly startling number and I couldn’t help but blurt, “What has been your secret to success?!”  She hesitated for a moment, obviously in thought, and then stated with a matter-of-factness that made it all seem so simple, “We help each other.”

One of my buddies has a phrase for ideas that pop in your head and wiggle around as they're being cogitated—he calls them “brain worms.”   Pop!  Though we chatted idly about weather and family, Shirley’s brain worm didn’t just wiggle, it struck camp…but I’ll get to that later.

Anyways, my interview with Cliff began shortly thereafter and the “model” begun.

Armchair historians like to poo-poo the P-40 as an also-ran piece of Allied aerial kit.  Citing lackluster performance stats and the superiority of contemporary equipment, these critics only show their ignorance.  Instead, the P-40 possessed the greatest qualities of any weapon of war:  availability and ease of use.  With nearly 14,000 produced, the P-40 series was built in numbers greater than the technically superior Corsair and the iconic B-17.   Durable and powerfully armed (no differently than the P-51 Mustang, F6F Hellcat and Corsair), the P-40 was also easy to fly.  Pilots qualified on the P-40 with regular ease.

How regular?  And how easy?  This is were Cliff weighs in.  At age 18, the Army Air Force felt confident enough in his abilities to give him wings and throw him the keys to the thing…and at age 19, they sent him to China where he would then take the '40 into mortal combat.

Though the P-40 was used in every theatre of WWII, “China” is where it’s most often identified. First-used in the famous American “Flying Tigers” mercenary group, the P-40, its branded “shark mouth” paint scheme and leaping tiger emblem have become permanently identified as symbols of the CBI (China-Burma-India theatre of operations).

By 1944, when Cliff arrived, the P-40 was being phased out of front-line combat in favor of the faster, more powerful and longer-ranged P-51.  But such a transition took time and the 51st FG was somehow low on priority list and all the while, Cliff racked up missions in the P-40.

Of course, there are marked distinctions between types of missions:  recon, escort, ground attack…each one requires a certain set of skills and faces a certain number of dangers.   By summer of 1944, Allied air superiority was well established.  The same could not be said for the war beneath the clouds, however.  In the jungles, hills, crags and steppe of southwest China, northern Burma and eastern India, the Japanese prevailed, arguably up until the last minutes of the war.

“Close air support” (not unlike the future war in Vietnam) was relied upon to destroy Japanese positions.  Armed with bombs (and sometimes rockets) the 51st used their P-40s as dive bombers.  The risk was, of course, huge.  Anti-aircraft fire could be withering and the liquid-cooled engine stopped cold with a single slice of shrapnel to the coolant line. It’s tough, impersonal work to run such a gauntlet.  It’s much more satisfying to pit skill against another man in an aerial dogfight.  At least the ‘luck’ factor is mitigated by the controllable quality of ‘skill.’  Right?

Cliff didn’t necessarily think so.  “John, the best tool for the job is the one you know best.  Our work, any work, demands focus and attention.  That I had so much experience in the P-40 was a factor in my success.  I knew the dynamics of that airplane and it was that knowledge that kept me alive.”

Recalling the moment where his Commanding Officer asked for volunteers to transition to P-51s, Cliff said all-hands shot up but not his.  Training and practice were times to learn.  Combat, on the other hand, was a time to fight.  As a bomb-delivery device, the P-40 was excellent and as long as that was the mission at-hand, the P-40 would be the mount.  He described how two highly experienced pilots but fresh with P-51s met their deaths in combat situations that may have been different had they stayed in more familiar aircraft.

“The P-40 brought me through 104 combat missions.  Of course it's my favorite airplane.  Why wouldn’t it be?!” he chuckled.   “But I’ll tell you something else about those missions,” he stated cooly, “103 of them were before I turned twenty.  I was just nineteen.”  Cliff emphasizes his age, still amazed that such youth could have been entrusted with such circumstances.  “I flew my 104th and last combat mission on my birthday.” (March 3, 1945).

Cliff left the combat arena with 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 4 Air Medals and the confidence that comes from survival and peer respect (he was regularly selected as a Flight Leader). “I never liked combat,” he said.  “To me, it was a time where I just gritted and prayed.  But I was proud that I’d passed the tests and made the grade.”  Transferred to Karachi, India in April of 1945, Cliff trained newbie pilots two and three years older than he in the ways of the wild and this further reinforced that the days to come would only be great.   But it wasn’t to be so.

“I am afraid that my main memory of WWII is a bitter one,” he said softly.  “When I came back, I had an offer to lead a Training Command and another to join the first operational P-80 squadron (the first operational American jet fighter).  But all this time, what I wanted to do most was get my girlfriend back-home out of circulation and go to college.  To me, the GI Bill offered the greater opportunity than the military.  So I left the service, got married and signed up for college at Penn State for Fall Semester, 1945.”   It was here that Cliff met a roadblock that is at once fascinating for its novelty and tragic in its commonality.

A little backtracking is in order.  

Cliff grew up as the second youngest in a family of eleven.   The Great Depression was in full-force and caring for the large family was Earl Long’s daily mission.  He held two jobs, the main one being a Tinsmith for one of the railroads.  “One of my father’s jobs was to make and repair cutlery for the trains.  Cutlery!” Cliff exclaims in emphasis.   It was a good job in that it was stable but the railroad still couldn’t bridge the gap between income and expenses.  “But dad need still needed to work two jobs.  So, he had an old truck that he used to haul coal off-hours.”

“One day, my father’s supervisor approached him and explained that the railroad was trying to keep as many people employed as it could and dad’s second job wasn’t fair to those who hadn’t any.  He was given the choice to quit the railroad or quit hauling coal.” Earl Long jumped the rails.

“I learned then that life was about discipline.  Not the switch kind (i.e. branch or stick used for beatings) but the discipline of your own life.  No one is going to look out for you.  You have to do it yourself.  And to do it yourself, it took discipline.”  The Long family’s pocketbook shrunk tight and Cliff remembers pitching in on deliveries of the black stuff.  But in time, one truck grew to two and coal delivery more than filled in any deficit caused by the loss of rail service.   His father’s example of risk and responsibility went to Cliff’s core; it is therefore no surprise that during his last year of High School, Cliff decided his time was better spent learning to fly airplanes than wood shop.  He left.

Fast forward back to Penn State.

Newly married, highly decorated, flush with confidence and backed by the G.I. Bill, Cliff was not prepared to hear that his admission to college was denied on account of his lack of a High School diploma.  “A High School diploma!” Cliff exclaimed.  “The service had taught me aeronautics, navigation, leadership and I’d passed the toughest tests a man can have only to have some 4-Fs in an office say I needed to finish…High School?!  I was twenty years old!”

The Altoona High School annual circa 1943.  Cliff was supposed to graduate in '43.  He didn't.

Cliff lost his place in college; the swell of returning vets filled the spot in a blink.  With a new bride, a life to start and of course, bills to pay, Cliff resigned to finding a job.  “After the war, there were no jobs.  There were so many people returning, there was nothing to do.”  Though he eventually found a spot working in a coal-crusted foundry (ironically for the railroad), his depression and bewilderment was so strong, it took decades for him to process it.

“At the time, I just buckled down and moved forward*. But as I got older, all of my life’s dreams have turned into memories.  And when I (finally had the chance in life to see) how my dream of college was blunted,”—Cliff’s voice trails for a moment—“I saw where that young man (himself) was let down and I understood the disappointment.”  He sighed.

Hold that thought.

If I’ve learned anything about interviewing “old guys,” its this:  Life is a trajectory that arcs from a definite beginning and ending. Along the way, highly personal circumstances are continually shaping, bumping and altering that trajectory.  At the beginning, life is about the goal.  But towards the end, the question, “How did I get here?” inevitably comes to mind and those one-time mercurial circumstances are now analyzed.  At once the “Old Guy” becomes satisfied—if not energized—by the clarity of understanding and frustrated at realizing exactly how much (or how little) a moment ended up shaping their life.

All us whippersnappers, are hereby put on notice, too.

Don’t get the impression that Cliff Long is angry.   I prompted his response when I asked him what the over-riding memory of WWII was.  He answered truthfully—he could accept the rules of war but somehow, the injustice of being held back for lack of a pedigree knocked his path in ways that it took decades to fully understand.  I took note to use care myself in how I might impact someone else’s trajectory, too.

“You asked,” he laughed. “But you know that P-40 represents the best (thing that had happened to me) don’t you?  It’s how I can also say I have so many good memories.” 

Of course, I did.  “Shirley” was named after the girlfriend that later became his wife.  

Off in the background, I heard her say something, Cliff acknowledged and then announced, “Well, that’s enough for today.  I have to go give my girlfriend a kiss goodnight.”

In my journal, I have written two sentences that, read apart, are thought provoking.  But together is the kind of advice that can lead a man through war, disappointment, success and a marriage that lasts seven decades:  

                       Remember that your dreams become memories…
                                            …and help each other.

By the way, during the print-signing, Shirley signed her name on top of the cowl.  Rightfully.

*Cliff eventually worked his way into a Sr. executive position for a large oil company with the predictable success that came from a man who learned discipline and leadership at an early age.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Profile 92: UPDATE—"444" the F-102A Delta Dagger as flown by Jim Eisenmenger, 509th FIS

Oh it LOOKS like I'm more than half-done.  But I'm not.  I'd say a third-the-way-there.

It's a quirky bugger to draw—the simple shapes are almost always so because in aircraft design, very little is left to chance.  The days of aircraft drawn purely for aesthetics crashed with the Great Depression.  By 1952, when the designers at Convair were nerding-out over their slide rules, flight was a definite science, especially due to the increased speeds afforded by jet power and expanded missions demanded by the growing Red Threat.

When I was a little kid, I remember checking a book out from the library and reading about how the "Duece" prototype was not able to go supersonic (in spite of its looks).  However, when the fuselage was "pinched," the drag created by the flow of air around the fuselage was sufficiently reduced to the point where the extra "oomph" to break Mach was within reach of the throttle.  Funny how things like that go, but that little factoid helped me understand drag and aerodynamics a lot more.

Have a look and imagine the airflow and resultant pressure gradients yourself... (if you're bored).

Though you can't really "see" the pinched fuselage in my profile drawing, it will need to be there in subtle shading and contour.  I haven't quite figured how to do it yet.  But I will.  I have to.  "444"'s pilot is definitely one of those slide-rule pilots who can do density-altitude, weight-balance and speed calculations while he's shaking hands and introducing himself.  If I've learned anything about pilots from the 1960s it's that they're especially preoccupied with the technicalities.

Anyway, it's rather amusing to do this F-102 because it ended up so out-of-place in Vietnam.  As an interceptor, it was designed to be a true fighting "system" in that it was purpose-built to climb fast, use radar and launch missiles at attacking bombers.  In Vietnam, the 102s were (mostly*) armed with AIM-4 "Falcon" missiles.

Like the Duece itself, the AIM-4 wasn't suited for the type of aerial combat that was commonly encountered in Vietnam.  For one, it had a contact-fuse.  That meant it had to physically 'hit' the target; others with proximity fuses blew up once they got within a specified radius of the target.  Against an invading Tupolev flying heavy, slow and level, the AIM-4 would work just fine.  But against the small and bee-like MiGs?  The AIM-4 was like the chubby kid in the middle of a game of keep-away.

According to one source, during a three month period between 1967 and 1968, 54 AIM-4's were launched against North Vietnamese fighters.  Four hit.  That's a 7% hit rate.  With six Falcons on board, it'd take more than two F-102 launching their entire missile bay to get one victory.   Ouch.

Photo: an AIM-4 being man-handled by a bunch of North Dakota ANG airwomen.
Source unknown but I'd sure like to know what Mr. Cameraman was thinking...

If you've been following this particular project—and judging by the statistics, more than a couple of you are—I'm guessing you're not here to read F-102 bashing.  That's not my aim anyway.  Instead, I hope to show how the airplane, in fact, kicked butt!  Only it's going to take Jim's slide-rule brain to help me.

Love this airplane.  :)

*The F-102 flew a comparatively small number of air-to-ground missions in Vietnam.  During these missions, rockets were also used. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Profile 93: JUST STARTED—LGM-30B Minuteman I missile as flown by The Missileers of the USAF


Have a look at the pencil sketch above—sharp eyes will know immediately that it's actually a Minuteman II, or, to the unenlightened, the LGM-30F.   But it represents the LGM-30A/B, the "almost" indistinguishable godfather to the incredible Minuteman Missile program.  Please trust me, the MM I will be a brand-new drawing and as accurate as can be considering the things were never supposed to be seen in the first place!

This past month, two patrons have made their case that I need to do the Minuteman I to round out my Minuteman II and III drawings.  They made their point and the MM I has temporarily bumped a B-29, an F-111 and a strange Polish airplane (more later) off my desk.

So many people are ignorant of the Missileer's service.  Until I was commissioned to do the LGM-30G of a certain Minot AFB Captain, I was too. The more I've learned about Missiles, the more impressed and grateful I've become of the devices and the men and women who make sure they're ready for the unthinkable.  But suffice it to state, it can be argued that the American ICBM system is the most successful weapon system ever created.  

Don't believe me?  Watch this space.

And have a look at my drawings of the MMII and MMIII below.   The MM I may not end up looking much different than the MM II but to the thousands of Missileers out there, II and III don't add up unless you start with I.

In the meantime, tonight's a great time to go outside, take a breath of clean, fresh, non-radioactive air.  And when you do, snap a salute towards the men and women in concrete vaults buried far below who have helped make it happen.

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...


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 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!)


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


“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... 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!"


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.


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

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...