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Mon May 25, 2015 at 09:34 AM PDT


by pwoodford

mday3Every Memorial Day I try to think of those who lost their lives in service to our country, but I can never focus on abstract deaths, nor on so many. I always end up thinking about fellow servicemen who died in uniform, by which I mean men I knew, classmates and squadron mates, friends and comrades, some distant, some close.

I am fortunate. My grandparents' generation fought the Great War. Both of my grandfathers served, one in the Army, one in the Navy. They survived the war, held onto their jobs during the Great Depression afterward, and lived long and happy lives. My parents' generation fought World War Two. My father and his three brothers went to war; all four came home and prospered during the boom years that followed. No one in my family served during the Korean War. Some high school classmates went off to Vietnam. A few didn't come back. I wasn't close to those kids; my friends and I went to college on deferments instead. I didn't join the Air Force until late in the Vietnam War. I expected to fight there, but the war was over by the time I graduated from pilot training.

My war was the Cold War. My fellow fighter jocks and I sat air defense alert in northern Europe, Alaska, and Korea. I intercepted Soviet bombers and reconnaissance aircraft over the Arctic, but the air wars I prepared and trained for never came. When one finally did, Desert Storm, my unit in Japan was ordered to stay in theater to defend South Korea. In 24 years I never logged an hour of combat time, never fired a shot in anger.

Nevertheless, from my first to my last day in the Air Force I was exposed to the price of war, and of training for war. One of my T-38 pilot instructors was a recently-returned Vietnam prisoner of war. My F-15 RTU instructor was a POW, and over the course of my career I served under, and flew with, several other POWs -- one of whom recently succumbed to wounds he suffered while trying to escape his Cambodian captors in the last weeks of the war.

Only a couple of classmates crashed and died during pilot training; during the three years I trained new kids to fly the T-37, just one fellow instructor pilot was killed in a crash. Once I started flying the F-15, though, the numbers began to stack up. Men I was close to, men I knew and flew with, squadron mates. Their deaths were, frankly, needless -- they died in training accidents, most caused by pilot error of one kind or another -- but they died preparing for war. They died for their country.

I try not to count the times I've put on my Class As to attend memorial services and funerals, the times I've flown missing man formations over the base chapel, the times Donna and I have sat with sobbing squadron wives.

But I do count the times, of course; who wouldn't? It's an even dozen, a negligible number for anyone who's been in actual combat, but each lost comrade is firmly in my mind on this and every Memorial Day.


Fri May 08, 2015 at 02:35 PM PDT

Air-Minded: Dragons & Bolos

by pwoodford

A friend visited the Pima Air & Space Museum (PASM) in Tucson a few weeks ago. I told her if any particular airplane spoke to her, I'd write an air-minded post on it. Well, you never know what's going to catch someone's eye. In her case, it was one of our orphans, a Douglas B-23 Dragon.

Douglas B-23 Dragon, Pima Air & Space Museum (photo: Paul Woodford)
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Sat May 02, 2015 at 09:00 AM PDT

You Can't Read That!

by pwoodford

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

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YCRT! Banned Book News

I linked to an earlier story on this in a previous YCRT! diary, but here's more on the censorship of an 85-year-old Tintin comic in Canada.

After a single parental complaint, a Connecticut school superintendent overruled teachers and the school board and removed James Dickey's novel Deliverance from a 9th grade reading list.

An eight-year-old girl has been told she can no longer read on the school bus. It's too risky, according to the bus driver, who is being backed up by the school board. Other students on the bus "might stand up to see what she was reading, or she might poke herself in the eye with the corners of the book." Now that is one dangerous book!

More banned book news ... and a banned book review ... below the orange squiggle.

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Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 07:18 AM PDT

Air-Minded: Planes of Fame Photoblog

by pwoodford

During a recent motorcycle trip, I visited the Planes of Fame Museum in Valle, Arizona. The main Planes of Fame Museum is located in Chino, California; the Arizona adjunct is what I would describe as an overflow facility. It's off the beaten track, located halfway up the lonely road between Williams, Arizona and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

This was the first of what I hope will be many cook's tours of air museums in adjacent cities and states. When I told the folks at the desk I was a volunteer docent at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, they gave me the run of the place.

What I loved about this small museum, which houses just 40 or so aircraft, is that it's a working aircraft maintenance facility, not just a museum. Many of the aircraft on display are not just in flying condition but are actually flown. Several aircraft were being worked on in the main hangar while I was there, and outside, another group of mechanics was busy putting a Lockheed Constellation, once General Douglas MacArthur's VIP transport, back into airworthy condition for a one-time flight to the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. It was great to be able to amble around a working hangar, not a mere collection of static please-do-not-touch exhibits.

Photos below the orange squiggle ...

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“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” — Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven


station elevenStation Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

There are so many post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, but few are this well executed. Station Eleven is on a level with A Canticle for Leibowitz and Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam trilogy.

Set in a near future where most of humanity has been eradicated by a nightmare flu, the cities ruined and abandoned, the novel follows a small cast of survivors, all somehow related to, or touched by, a Canadian/American actor who died on stage just as the flu reached American shores. The narrative shifts between the present and the past, allowing the reader to gain a fuller understanding of things Emily Mandel hints at earlier in the novel, and this makes for a very satisfying experience.

I struggle when I write reviews of terrific books. I want people to read them, so i don't want to say too much about plots and stories. Reviews of books I devoured tend to be far shorter than reviews of books I merely finished.

Often, when an author shifts the narrative from one character to another, or from the present to different times in the past, there are sections I read with less pleasure than others. That is not the case here: I hung on every word, every character, every aspect of the past and present. Every character is fully developed, man and woman alike, fully relatable. If you do not fall in love with Kirsten there is something deeply wrong with you.

Is there a villain, beyond the Georgia flu? Why, yes there is, and the tension he generates will have you squirming in your easy chair: I speak, of course, of The Prophet. But here I go with plots; I'll force myself to stop.

I especially love books where the author ties things together. William Gibson is great at this; so is Emily Mandel. Every time Mandel explained the back story behind something she'd hinted at before -- the paperweight, the limited edition comic book, the tattoos -- I felt like the kid who finds the chocolate bunny hidden among the regular Easter eggs.

I loved this book.

More reviews below the orange squiggle ...

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Sat Mar 28, 2015 at 09:00 AM PDT

You Can't Read That!

by pwoodford

You Can't Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

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Poor guy can't catch a break. Tintin's in Dutch again, this time in Canada, where, as in the USA and other countries, there's a misguided push to pull racially-dated books, written during the days when stereotypes were more widely accepted, from library shelves. (See what I did there with "Tintin's in Dutch again"? Huh? Huh?)

More banned book news below the orange squiggle ...

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Fri Mar 27, 2015 at 01:51 PM PDT

Air-Minded: Letting the Team Down

by pwoodford

I don't have any brilliant thoughts or insights about Germanwings Flight 9525, where the co-pilot is suspected of committing mass murder by flying a plane full of passengers into a mountain in the Swiss Alps. I'm sad and shocked, of course, that any pilot would do such a thing.

I've always considered military and commercial flying a profession; i.e., a paid occupation involving prolonged training and a formal process of qualification and certification. We expect professionals to live up to high standards. Well, maybe not all professionals — insert lawyer joke here — but for sure doctors and airline pilots. We trust them with our lives. We have to.

We all know there are unprofessional doctors, but their numbers are minuscule and as a society we don't get overwrought about the occasional medical horror story. The same goes for airline pilots. Pilots have deliberately crashed packed airliners before, but it's very rare and I don't recall much hullabaloo over earlier incidents, at least in the West. I attribute this to the fact that earlier intentional crashes occurred in Namibia, Egypt, and Indonesia, the victims mostly black and brown.

This time the victims are white. This time the airline is a First World carrier. Now we're discussing the phenomenon of pilots committing mass murder almost as if we anticipate a rash of such incidents from here on out. Now we're talking about mandatory mental health testing and monitoring. Now we're talking about rules requiring the presence of two pilots on the flight deck at all times, which could mandate the presence of three pilots on every flight (because even professionals have to go potty sometimes). Pretty soon we might even be talking about increasing flight hour requirements for air transport pilot certification, upping airline pilot hiring standards to the point where only former military pilots with long records can get a foot in the door, maybe even increasing aircrew pay after years of cutting salaries and busting pilot unions.

I'm all for increasing hiring standards, bringing back the third crewmember requirement (it used to be standard, for those of you who've forgotten), and upping compensation. Treating professionals as professionals bolsters and encourages professionalism IMHO. Perhaps we'll modify crew resource management training to include teaching techniques for spotting signs of depression or other mental problems in fellow pilots — this is all squishy stuff and may not work, but perhaps it's worth a try. I'll just note that the captain of the Germanwings flight apparently didn't suspect a thing when he left his co-pilot alone in the cockpit on that fateful day.

I'll also note that depression affects people in all walks of life and professions. Most victims learn to live with it and function as well as anyone else. But there are some professions where, if you suffer from depression, you have to keep it hidden: among these are the military, law enforcement, and commercial flying. Airline pilots who suffer from depression believe — with good reason — the FAA will ground them if it finds out. Pilots who seek medical treatment for depression do it under cover and outside normal channels. Some won't seek medical treatment at all, regarding the risk of exposure as too high. This latest incident will only drive such pilots deeper under cover.

I struggle with the notion of someone bent on suicide deliberately taking innocent lives along with his or her own. Murdering innocent people while taking your own life isn't suicide, it's terrorism. Was the Germanwings co-pilot a terrorist? If he deliberately crashed that plane, yes he was, no matter his motive. Someone on Twitter last night claimed the Germanwings co-pilot was a convert to Islam. When I Google "Germanwings copilot converted to Islam" the links that come up all lead to right-wing hate sites, so for now I'm discounting it as a malicious rumor. If it turns out to be true, well, let's just say I wouldn't want to be a Muslim living in a Western country!

Another Twitterer, a serious journalist who writes about aviation for the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that pilot suicide/mass murder — in other words, a deliberate act of terrorism committed by a crewmember — has always been one of the possibilities in the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370, although I've resigned myself to the thought that we'll never find the wreckage and never learn what actually happened.


Institutionally, the military services have never forgotten the crippling constraints imposed upon the conduct of the air war in Vietnam:

Target lists were reviewed at the White House in the informal atmosphere of the Tuesday lunch, attended principally by President Johnson, his press secretary, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the President’s special assistant for national security affairs. (Although the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is by law the senior military adviser to the President and General Earle G. Wheeler was one of the few military men Johnson liked, Wheeler attended an average of three Tuesday luncheons per quarter during the course of Rolling Thunder.) After dining, the target list for the coming week was discussed. Each proposed target had been reduced to a single sheet of paper and categorized on four bases (as revised by ASD/ISA): the military advantage for striking the target; the risk to U.S. aircraft and pilots; estimated civilian casualties; and danger to third-country nationals. Each luncheon attendee individually graded each target on the basis of his appraisal of the four standards. Their grades were then combined and averaged. President Johnson reviewed the averaged grades, then personally selected the targets for attack. Parameters of attack were determined. These included the number of aircraft authorized for strike of the target, date/time of attack, routes of ingress or egress, weapons authorized or prohibited, and restrike authority.
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Sat Mar 07, 2015 at 09:57 AM PST

Air-Minded: Propellers of the Stars

by pwoodford

I am the Nancy Grace of celebrity plane wrecks.

When I saw the first photos of actor Harrison Ford's crashed airplane on the golf course in Santa Monica, I immediately zeroed in on the propeller. Probably only someone trained as an aircraft accident investigator would do that. I am such a someone, and that is what I did.

Left side, undamaged propeller blade (photo credit: unknown)
harrison ford_2
Right side, snapped propeller blade (photo credit: unknown)

Propellers can give you essential clues right off the bat: was the prop producing thrust at impact, merely spinning in the wind, or stopped altogether? The prop, in turn, tells you what the engine was doing.

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Sat Feb 28, 2015 at 08:00 AM PST

You Can't Read That!

by pwoodford

You Can't Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

Great news! Instead of trying to preemptively ban controversial material in state schools, Florida instead plans to proactively expose 8th graders to new ideas. Oh, wait.

More below the orange squiggle ...

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Once a year, civilian warbird and USAF fighter pilots meet at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona, to practice close formation flying for the upcoming airshow season. The program, which features historical and current military aircraft, is called Heritage Flight. The annual practice session at DMAFB is the Heritage Flight Training and Certification Course.

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Mixed formation with Sabres, Lightning, Mustang (photo: Paul Woodford)

I don't think the training session gets much publicity, at least not from the USAF, as you can tell by the out-of-date USAF links above. Sometimes I hear about it through the air museum; sometimes I don't know it's happening until I see Mustangs and Sabres flying overhead. When I know about it in time I'll drive to the base, park at base operations, and head out to the flightline with my camera. There are never more than 20 or 30 other spectators on hand. So it is with this year's training meet. Heritage Flight practice started yesterday but I didn't learn of it until late in the afternoon; this morning I drove to the base and joined a small group of spectators on the ramp by base ops.

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P-47 Thunderbolt (photo: Paul Woodford)

These days active USAF participation is small. There were three F-16s and two F-22 Raptors on the ramp. No doubt DMAFB will contribute an A-10 or two, but there were no F-15s, as there have been in the past, and somewhat surprisingly no F-35s either, even though there's a training squadron just up the road at Luke AFB. The rich guys with their restored warbirds outnumbered active USAF participants: there were at least four P-51 Mustangs, one P-38 Lightning, one P-47 Thunderbolt, one P-40 Warhawk, and two F-86 Sabres.

Here are a few thumbnails: as with the photos above, you can click on them to see the full sized images at Flickr. You can also click here to see my full Heritage Flight 2015 Flickr album.

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Raptor showing its weapons bays (photo: Paul Woodford)
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Mustang & Raptor (photo: Paul Woodford)
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P-38 Lightning (photo: Paul Woodford)
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P-40 Warhawk (photo: Paul Woodford)

"A low sound, barely audible at first, made him turn his head. For a moment he seemed almost puzzled. The sound was faint but growing and unmistakable, like distant thunder. It was engines, wide open. They were as if headed towards him. He could hear them, full and unwavering, suddenly very close, almost overhead, roaring down the runway, low, but in the clouds. He never saw them. Then they had passed, but the sound stayed there, heavy and prophetic, before slowly fading, leaving silence behind." -- James Salter, Cassada

James Salter

Salter was there long before me, two wars -- Korea and Vietnam -- earlier, but judging by my experiences at USAF fighter squadrons in Germany and the Netherlands in the late 1970s and early 1980s, things in my day were no different than in his, and he has captured it exactly.

I know Salter's pilots. I know their wives. I know the solitariness of flying single seat jets, one of the most individualistic of military occupations. I know the weather in Europe, and how it can suddenly go below minimums everywhere at once. I know what it is to be the new guy, minutely observed in everything you do as you strive to become accepted as a fighter pilot among fighter pilots. I also know what it is to be a seasoned squadron member, closely observing and making judgments on green lieutenants. I know what it is to see a new guy realize he's not cutting it and will never fit in, and the haunted look in his eyes. I know what it is to lose a fellow pilot -- weak or strong -- and the profound effect it has on squadron mates, supervisors, and commanders.

Salter was there, and by our great good fortune has the gift of being able to write about it in a direct, spare, yet very personal way. The central drama of the book centers around a new guy, Cassada, in an F-86 squadron in Germany. The climactic event of the story seems on the surface mundane: Cassada, still an inexperienced wingman, is forced to take the lead when lead's radio fails above terrible weather which has suddenly shut down almost every airfield in Germany, Spain, and France, and with fuel running low must take the flight down to absolute minimums to find the only runway they can land on. Having been in similar situations, I unconsciously tensed up as I read, and was emotionally exhausted when I finished the book -- which I devoured in one intense sitting. Damn.

Salter not only makes me want to fly again, he makes me want to write. I mean that as high praise. Just as I admired the fighter pilots who had mastered their craft, looking up to them and striving to be like them when I was wet behind the ears, so I admire and strive to write half as well as James Salter.

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