Friday, November 6, 2015

Profile 111: START to FINISH— "Dakota Warrior"; Douglas TBD Devastator as flown by LtCmdr. John C. Waldron

Drive-by history.  It’s a shame but what else can you do?

Hold that thought for a moment and look at the art above.  It's the start-to-finish animation of LtCmdr. John Waldron's TBD-1 Devastator circa the Battle of Midway, June 4, 1942.  It's a rare airplane for me in that I was unable to talk to her pilot.  As for real-life examples to use as reference, the only surviving TBDs left are dissolving on the ocean floor.

See, this airplane was Waldron's pyre.  The ocean, his grave. 

It's not easy drawing a dead man's airplane, especially one that was cut down so tragically;  Waldron lead his squadron, Torpedo 8,  on a valiant charge against the Japanese carrier Kaga during the opening rounds of the battle.  It was the squadron’s first time in combat, first time with live torpedoes…I figure within five minutes of making their bomb runs, they were all downed—the entire squadron of 15 airplanes, 29 men, gone.

Among history geeks, "The Story of Torpedo 8" is well known.  It has every element of the classic tragic tale—valiance, naivety, incompetence, duty, valor, foolishness… Even today, on the cusp of the 21st Century, the story can bring a man to tears.  I know this because the man who commissioned my artwork did just that. 

“We can’t let this story die,” he said. “At least not like Waldron did.”

I made this little doodle to get an idea of what was going on when Torpedo 8 attacked Kaga.
It doesn't show any other Japanese ships or the defending Japanese Zero fighters.
Ok, hold that thought.

Last month, I got to get a little closer to Waldron’s story when I had the chance to get up-close-and-personal to Waldron’s Navy Cross.  In terms of ranking, the medal is the second highest award of the U.S. Navy.  Only the Medal of Honor ranks “higher.”

Now, in my interviews, I’ve learned that 99.99% of the time, no one sets out to “win a medal.”  In fact, I bet if you were to approach some of history’s heroes beforehand and say, “Good morning!  Today is the day you win the Navy Cross! (or whatever)”  most would blanch.  In hindsight, I can only imagine coming alongside Waldron in the ready room and saying, “Psst.  Today, you’re all going to die.”

Of course, that’s a silly thought because time-travel doesn’t exist.  But it does pose some interesting thoughts.  After we put away Waldron’s medal, National Museum of Naval Aviation Director, “Buddy” Macon made the comment, “They had to know!  They had to know!  They had to know that they were dead men—how on earth do you get up into the cockpit when you know this?!”

John Waldron's Navy Cross.  My journal. Stuff like this makes my day.
Though I didn’t ask him to clarify, I suspect Buddy wasn’t referring to Torpedo 8’s mystical appointment with fate.  Instead, I believe he was drawing upon the facts of the day.  41 TBD Devastators took off from the aircraft carriers Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown.  6 returned. All things considered, flying the TBD against the Japanese was a death-sentence.  In other words, Macon was asking the perennial question, “What makes people attempt, what odds are indicating, the impossible?”

Think about that for a moment...

Of course, there are real books written about the Battle of Midway.  Heck, it's such an incredible moment of American history, my dad wrote his ROTC Officer's Thesis on it and he was Army!  But in the end, the Battle of Midway was simply the beginning of the end for the Japanese.  They were crushed.  So why the tragedy for Torpedo 8?

Firstly, the Battle of Midway was still on the left-end of the learning curve for naval aviation.  The war in the Pacific was barely seven months old and Midway marked only the second time America's carrier-based aircraft would be used in full-scale warfare.  Attack procedures, tactics and equipment were more based on theory than practice.  This is, of course, is the reality of things and proof of the adage, "No plan survives the first 30 seconds of combat."  

Secondly, the TBD Devastator was obsolete.  Five years prior it was state-of-the-art. By 1942, tech had surpassed the poor bird's standard.  Loaded for combat, the airplane could barely crack 95 miles per hour.  That's fast on the interstate but against 300mph enemy fighters and a blizzard of ship-fired anti-aircraft guns, 95mph was practically stationary.

Thirdly, the TBD was poorly kitted for combat.  The .30 caliber nose gun might have been fine for deer hunting but firing it against something like an armored warship was not even annoying, let alone deadly.  The rear gunner was also armed with a single .30.  Against the thin-skinned Japanese fighters, the odds increased but not by much.  To this end, Waldron insisted on fitting Torpedo 8's TBDs with an extra .30 machine gun, doubling the defensive power (bear in mind, the British put FOUR .30 caliber guns in their turrets, but let's not go there right now).
This photo (credit unknown) is supposedly a shot of Waldron's double-.30 gun modification.  Better that the original single-gun mount but in reality, nowhere near good enough.
In terms of attack ordnance, the Mk.13 torpedo purely sucked.  According to the 1952 publication,  U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance in World War II, defects were so numerous and so bad, over 100%* of the things were defective!  If you look closely, you can see there's what looks to be yellow fins on Waldron's torpedo—that's actually a plywood box that was hastily added to the fin structure to keep the torpedo from (at least) running too deep.  Once the torpedo hit the water, the box would momentarily stabilize the weapon before disintegrating into the ocean. Talk about Rube Goldberg...

Fourth, Torpedo 8 was ridiculously managed.  Now, I wasn't there.  But according to Robert Mrazek's excellent book, "A Dawn Like Thunder" the Air Group from the USS Hornet (1 fighter squadron, two dive bomber squadrons and one torpedo squadron) was poorly lead.  Instead of giving the slow, poorly defended TBDs fighter protection, the battle order placed the fighters high above the wave-riding TBDs.

To get your head around how weird putting all the fighters "on-top" was, the next time you fly commercial, listen for when the flight attendant announces that you, "...can now use portable electronic..."    When that happens, you're around 10,000 feet.   Look out the window and watch the ground.  Imagine down there, a squadron of tiny lumbering torpedo planes chugging along.   Now, double your altitude to 20,000 feet.  Now imagine what happens if you're in charge of protecting them—the enemy could make two, three passes by the time you can make any difference at all!

I have no idea what "they" were thinking.  Neither did Waldron.  Reportedly he asked numerous times for fighter cover.  Three maybe only two F4F Wildcat fighters would have been enough.  But no, the TBDs of Torpedo 8 got nothing.

Lastly, however, is the factor that remains somewhat controversial as it involves Waldron's disobeying command.  Some how, some way, Waldron had an issue with the course that the Air Group was to take in order to find and attack the Japanese fleet.  Putting a metaphysical point on it, Waldron's instincts told him that the attack force was heading the wrong direction.  Some how, some way, he knew where the Japs were.  After requesting a course correction twice (and being denied), Waldron pulled Torpedo 8 out of the formation and led them on, alone. 

Who knows if, had Waldron been given a covering group of fighters, if they would have followed suit.  It doesn't matter.  The Hornet's attack force never found the Japanese fleet, wasting the battle resources.

Waldron did.  You can re-read the third paragraph now...
I bought the August 31, 1942 edition of LIFE magazine.  This is the spread they gave Torpedo 8.
The little TBD models are ones I bought to use as references.  Waldron is marked by the red arrow and George Gay, the only survivor the Hornet's TBD force, is circled.
Before you think Waldron was really just a mutineer, recognize this—while Torpedo 8 was getting cut down by Japanese fighters, dive bombers from the USS Enterprise were able to sneak in and crush the Japanese carriers, effectively ending any hope for Japanese victory.  Period.  In the end, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers to the American's loss of one.  

Waldron's instinct led he and his squadron to death, but in the end, it became the key to American victory in the Pacific.

Think about that for a moment...

Ok.  One more diversion.

This afternoon, I had lunch with a doctor that practices medicine in another country.  He’s been doing it for years; it’s his passion to serve the people and do what he can to raise the standard of medical care there. 

Evidently, this country used to provide free medical care to its people but are now loosening the controls to the point where the average citizen is paying for his/her own care.  Same with education, too.  A government-paid University degree is becoming a thing of the past. 

I asked him how it’s going over and his comment was interesting, “Well, they realize that if they’re going to improve and grow, it’s going to come at a cost.”

But after another bite of his meal and a few thoughtful chews he struck me cold, “But that’s not the way we think about it (in America).  I think we’re forgetting the idea of reaping what one has sown.  You know, the idea of cause and effect.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“We want things to be free.  Let someone else pay the bill.”
I found this on the inter webs. It seems to make a certain sense.
Hmm.   Now, this is not a political rant.  This is a post about a WWII airplane and her pilot. 

(deep breath)

It doesn’t take too long to learn some remarkable facts on Waldron.  For one, he had Native American blood.  His mother and grandmother were Native Americans and he spent time on at least two Indian Reservations.  For two, he was a South Dakotan.  You can’t get any further from the ocean than South Dakota.  That he ended up a Naval Academy graduate is even more ironic. For three, he was 41 years old when he died, a veritable old man that should have been back at the carrier with a cup of coffee.  For four, he was a husband and father with everything to live for.

I can state with utter confidence that Waldron did not have a death wish.  Instead, he was driven by principles and values that somehow, someway transcended the notion of safety.  And, these were the kind of principles and values that led every other member of Torpedo 8 into their machines.  

In fact, I’d say that Waldron’s story is no different than anyone's who is willing to risk something dear for something greater.  Of course, this kind of thing is hard-wired into our military, law enforcement, first-responders, doctors…but what about other kinds of venture like business, human rights or (gasp) politics?

Right now, there’s a plaque at the foot of the John C. Waldron bridge that crosses the Missouri river between Waldron’s birthplace of Fort Pierre and the state capitol of Pierre.  It was put up in 2002 and I’ll be damned, I just found out about it last week.  
Photo from  I drive across this bridge 4-5x a year and never knew it was named after a bona fide hero.
And to think Caitlyn Jenner* is better known than Waldron...
Riveted to a slab of rock, it’s a fine plaque but it’s simply another piece of drive-by history; “names, dates and places” with a few dramatic words sprinkled in.  Of course, there’s no problem with the placard in and of itself.  The problem really lies in that this is it

So, please have another look at the drawing—the pencil-sketch genesis to its finished form.  I was paid to do it, but in exchange for money, I put in nearly 60 hours and involved at least a dozen people around the world (fact checkers, detail wonks, history geeks).  There was nothing “free” about this drawing; its quality is the result of many coming together for an idea that John C. Waldron’s service symbolizes something worth keeping alive.

Everything worthwhile has a price.  And if we want to truly own it, we need to pay for it.

I suspect that’s what Waldron would say to Buddy Macon.

I suspect that’s what Waldron would want on his plaque, too.

I even suspect that Waldron would approve of the advances made by the country that my doctor-friend serves.

But for me, I’d like to see this in the classroom.

And... myself.

Thank you for the example, John C. Waldron.

*The Mk.13 torpedo often had multiple defects like having dead motors, sinking to the bottom, turning in circles instead of going straight, running too deep and simply not detonating.  Today, there'd be a headline and a trial.  Back then, however, it was understood as part of the process.  Go figure.

**I have no issue with whatever Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner wants to be.  My problem is that somehow, this year, he became news, displacing things of greater consequence.  

Profile 112: JUST STARTED—QT-2PC as flown by...who?!

This is how it goes sometimes...

A call came in, an unknown phone number from Texas; I answer and someone drawls, "Yuh'interested in a storah?"

Anyone else might hang up.  Or at least say, "Pardon me?" But I know better, especially if there's a Texas accent attached to it.  So, I sat down on the front step and readied for the moment.  "Storah?" I replied.  "It bettah' be a good'n!"

Have a look at my sketch above.  It's one of the coolest looking warbirds EVAR and chances are good, you have no clue what it is (because I didn't either until my Texas Buddy explained it).

It's the QT-2PC, one of only two of the type that flew during the Vietnam War.  It's role was to loiter over combat areas and spot Viet Cong traffic at night.  Built around the excellent Schweitzer 2-32 glider, this powered version was, in many ways, an ancestor to today's drone.
Photo of the QT-2PC's godfather, the QT-2 (prototype).
Notice the little strips of aerodynamic tape to help indicate airflow...
Credit:  (probably) Lockheed Missiles and Space Company
Now, here's where things get a little...strange.  At the time, there were no markings other than a giant numeral on the tail and those that built it refer to its military sponsor as a "Customer" rather than a specific branch or unit. As a fact, the Army claimed ownership but the project team was actually tri-service (Army, Navy, Air Force).

However, the overriding project was actually managed by DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA, though sometimes clouded in mystery (some truth to that) was created in 1958 as an R & D  lab to develop new technologies for military use.  Basically, if the Air Force ever got jet packs, the Navy flying subs, the Marines computerized body armor or the Army "smart" bullet, DARPA prolly done'it first.  In 1967, with the war in Vietnam all hot and heavy, DARPA got wind of a Navy pilot's idea for a low-altitude observation plane that could fly for long periods of time and be undetectable via sight or sound.

Now, here's where things get a little...confusing.  I think I'm getting better at understanding the labyrinth of how government works but I still can't get past square one.   So, when "mil-speech" starts happening—the jumble of acronyms, unit numbers and contacts—my brain starts to skip.  However, my Texas Buddy wrote the following to me regarding the program's authorship...

At the project onset, we were LAC’s LMSC Advanced  Concepts Airborne Systems Quiet Thruster Program working in a secure corner of the Lockheed Aircraft Service Executive Transport Service Hanger in San Jose (really different and almost independent from the main plant – Skunk Works, North. We were known in the “White World” as “San Jose Geophysical” and we answered the phone with “Stan’s Cleaning and Pressing”.

We did not become Prize Crew ‘til late in the year – after we overwhelmed the competition in an acoustic “fly-off” competition. At that time (approx end of Sept), our onsite DARPA (to say the least) recommended the experimental  aircraft converted to tactical versions (in 90 days), sent to and evaluated in Vietnam (The Prize Crew Operational Evaluation  (OpEval).

I know of two specific sites/reasons for the deployment, but don’t which is correct. Whatever, DARPA could not field the project, so the Army Transportation Corps did so. And, because they were paying the bills, we ended up in “Target Rich” IV Corp (IV CTZ)!

Make sense?  Sure it does.  And if I have any say in the matter, it'll make even more sense the next post!  But until then, let me explain the phrase, "Prize Crew".
A progress shot.  The color is bizarre; its very apparent that it was a custom job and not part of any prescribed formula.
I'll be adding quite a bit of gray, white, yellow and blue to help match the handful of decent color shots I have.
"Prize Crew" was the code name for the Operational Evaluation project that encompassed the QT-2PC's trial in combat.  It's an interesting name that harkens back to the swashbuckling era of capturing the enemy for ransom.  In this case, the Prize Crew team 'captured' civilian-style gliders from a military procurement order and turned them into these spectral birds.

Though only two were ever deployed in-country, they logged nearly 600 combat hours, hawking the trails and terrain of South Vietnam, looking for Viet Cong.   No fewer than 5 DFCs were awarded to its pilots, too.

The Prize Crew mission isn't really new information any more.  There are a couple solid sites that you can click on (here, here and here) for great background.  So, I won't reinvent the wheel (so to speak).

Which gets me back to that Texan who called me up offering me a "storah."

Shhh.  I think I hear a few comin'...  or is that just the wind...?

(watch this space)

And watch the movie below.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Profile 110: JUST STARTED—PBM Marlin as flown by Cass Phillips, VPB-20

Now here's one that doesn't come along every day, the Martin PBM "Mariner."

Frankly, even if opportunities to draw this plane were more common, I am not quite sure I'd have given it its due on account of looks alone.  It's ugly.  In fact, it's so ugly, it's like someone tried to do it on purpose—different teams working on different parts of the airplane and never communicating with each other until that one day when someone turns on the lights...

It's a big, fat flying clog.

But—and this bears repeating—I don't talk to pilots in order to draw their airplane.  If I did, all I'd ever draw would be P-51s and Spitfires.  Instead, I draw the airplane so I can talk to the pilots.  In this case, the pencil sketch above is an easy sacrifice in order to get one of my most fascinating interviews to-date.

Before I get into that, a little background on the PBM is in order.
A PBM-1 in pre-War Navy markings from VP-56, circa 1940
It's a late '30s design intended to be an inventoried alternative to the famous (and slightly less ugly) PBY "Catalina."  Looking at the vital stats, however, I'm not quite sure why it was procured.  Though about 20% larger, the PBM's range of 2,600 miles and bomb load of 4,000lbs are essentially the same as the PBY's.   Then again, those were the days when equipment strategy valued diversity much more than it does in today's one-aircraft-to-rule-them-all thinking.  Perhaps I'll get to the bottom of it in this process but in the end, 1,300-some PBMs were delivered to the Navy and Coast Guard (as opposed to  2,600-some Catalinas).

Now, I've been pretty negative on the Mariner so far.  In the spirit of fairness, aside from looking like a Babushka and me-too performance stats, the PBM was a pretty solid combat aircraft.  According to my cursory research, PBMs took part in at least 10 successful U-boat sinkings, laid mines in both oceans, sunk a number of ships (mostly in the Pacific) and rescued untold numbers of extremely grateful people from an otherwise watery doom.

And the best endorsement is this:  her pilots actually liked flying it!  And if there's anything I've learned over the years it's this—your favorite airplane is the one your flying.

Ok, have a look at the picture below.

An AMAZING model showing a typical seaplane tender arrangement.  I found this photo on the web
and would really like to give the builder credit.  It's really a spectacular creation.

What you're looking at is a typical PBM Mariner base.   The ship is (of course) a Seaplane Tender.   It's job was essentially to be a floating gas station, which is good because most Mariners were built without traditional retractable landing gear.   It was a true "seaplane."    If you can imagine it, picture the scene above taking place in dozens of secluded harbors and bays in the South Pacific.  Hot sun, the gentle slap of waves on aluminum and the day's mission being whatever came through on the tender's radio.  A rescue, chasing a sub, spotting a Jap ship...

Now, notice one other thing: the markings.  Whoever built this diorama has captured the brilliance of the mid-war Navy "Tri-color" camouflage.   Aside from the giveaway of a shadow, the Mariner and ship blend into the dappled sea beautifully.  Knowing the pilot had flown virtually every sea plane in the Navy's inventory, and knowing he preferred the PBM, I readied my minds-eye for rendering acres of slab-sided dark blue, medium blue and white paint.   Imagine the surprise when, after asking for confirmation of his beast's Bureau Number and aircraft number, he said, "And it was black.  All black."


"Yes. All black.  I was a Nightmare pilot."

Ok.  It's time for you to meet the pilot, Cass Phillips of VPB-20 and the current state of progress on his airplane.  I figure I'll have this Nightmare done in time for Christmas and in the next post, we'll understand what it was like to fly this coal-colored boot straight into the Japanese worst dreams.

Oh.  And back to that comment I made about drawing airplanes in order to engage the pilot.  Cass sat down for a little interview at the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, Florida.  Though there's a lot more to share, this is the kind of stuff that makes me look forward to my golden years.  I only hope I have half of Cass's sense.

More to come.  In fact, I've got about 60 minutes video of the man let alone finishing out his PBM!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Profile 107: FINISHED—"Charlie's F-4" of VF-114

"It was hard.  But good."

Those are Navy Captain and ex-POW Charlie Plumb's words in regards to the trip he just took to Vietnam.  And I got it; I was—for good, bad and indifferent—there with him.

Deep breath.

Ok.  you should know that I am currently supervising the production of the next episode of my video show, "Old Guys and Their Airplanes."  This next episode features Charlie's story, hence the production title, "There. And Back."

We'll have a full Trailer ready in a few weeks but in the meantime, you can view five "Teasers" by clicking here.  But for now, I'm sitting here, late at night, wondering just how we'll capture all the details of this incredible story.

But for now...

Progress shot, about 33% complete.  
...this is my first Navy F-4; all the rest have been USAF versions.  This bit of trivia is rather strange in that the F-4 is, in its heart, a naval aircraft.  If you're like me, you think of the F-4 in its green and brown USAF "SEA" camouflage, bristling with bombs, missiles and fuel tanks.  Yet, the F-4 began as a Navy plane and that means the typical gray paint scheme. And the Navy also defined the F-4's original role as an "Interceptor" (as opposed to the aerial Swiss Army Knife that it would eventually become).

Ok, this is where learning about the nuances of history really provides leverage for elevating one's brain.  Did you ever hear the phrase, "No plan survives the first thirty seconds of combat"?  On one hand, it's an amusing rejoinder.  But on the other, it's prophetic warning.  Birth, School, Work and Death are liberally sprinkled with examples of how one thing is intended but another prevails.  Some people shrug their shoulders and accept Fate while others wonder, "Hmmm.  What can we do to make this work?"

Kind of like Charlie Plumb's morning aboard the USS Kitty Hawk on 19 May, 1967.  His plan was to fly his 75th mission, return to the carrier and go home to wife and country.  It didn't work out that way.

Charlie in front of a SAM missile.  The one in front is a real SA-2.  The one in the background is a decoy
that the North Vietnamese made out of woven bamboo/reeds in order to attract attacks.
Charlie's F-4 was hit by a decidedly "real" SA-2.
Nevertheless, think about this concept of "No plan survives..."  for a second.  Today, you're planning on going to work, the grocery store, work on the car...but tthe future' has another idea altogether.

Makes you think, eh?

Anyway, going back to the F-4...

Designed by McDonnell-Douglas, the airplane was intended to counter the Soviet threat of bombers reaching the U.S.  This is why they referred to it as an "Interceptor" —it intercepts.  It's meant to climb fast, get to the target fast and do its job fast.  Versus a commie bomber loaded with nukes, the traditional role of aerial gunfighting is a pure waste of time and energy.   So, the F-4 was designed without a typical dogfighter's weapon, the gun.  Tucked into elegant recesses under the fuselage, four ultra-high-tech Sparrow missiles were to be fired (from a distance) at whoever was stupid enough to start WWIII.

The Interceptor job was a brilliant one for the Navy, too.  Launched from carriers, F-4s could pick off any threat WAY before it reached the American continent.  

Charlie remembers "ground" training for future F-4 missions in a space suit connected to a portable air conditioner (see below).  Yep, that's real Buck Rogers stuff.  But it wasn't meant to be.  

Charlie's first F-4 flight suit looked kinda like this one.  Shown, NASA pilot Bill Dana and
the incredible X-15 rocket plane.  Source:  NASA archive
We all know what happened next, right?  Uh...yeah.  "Vietnam," and with that, previously accepted strategy, tactics and tech were rewritten to accommodate what the designers of 1955 couldn't know.  In the next ten years, the F-4 was adapted to carry a huge variety of bombs, more missiles and all kinds of electronic gizmos. Eventually, the USAF managed to stuff an actual dogfighting gun in the nose (the Navy refrained and maybe even wisely-so but that's another topic altogether).

Nevertheless, it's interesting to note here that the Navy was extraordinarily successful with the F-4.   According to one source, the USAF ended up with a 3:1 aerial victory ratio against the North Vietnamese Air Force.  But the Navy managed a 6:1 ratio.  And the Navy's figures are an average between the struggles of the war's early years and the later when new, adaptive tactics showed their worth.

Go Navy, eh?



Now, I've done a fair amount of jumping around even for my patented ADD writing style.  But I wanted to try establish the concept of "adaptability." The F-4 was intended for one thing and was forced to adapt to another.   Charlie Plumb signed up for one thing (life aboard a carrier, flying jets) and was forced to adapt to another, too (six years in a torturous POW camp).

This past July, right before we left for Hanoi, Charlie asked me what kind of a story I thought I'd get by following him around.  In a rare moment of wisdom, I deferred to the reality of Fate and replied, "I really don't know.  We'll see, I guess."  And off we went, tugging 300lbs of gear on an 18,000 mile journey that took us from Hanoi to Haiphong to Saigon to some hellishly hot river near the Cambodian border...

I'll leave it like this for now: the whole trip came down to single picture that I took with my iPhone.

Intrigued?   I hope so.

In the meantime, have a look at the F-4B below.  It's the airplane that  Charlie and RIO "Gary" Anderson launched from the Kitty Hawk on 19 May, 1967.  It was a day they never figured would happen and yet would forever alter the course of their lives.

Stay tuned for more information on the next episode of Old Guys and Their Airplanes, "There.  And Back."
Finished.  This is how Charlie asked for it - no tanks and with a sidewinder hung off each of the rails.
To him, it's a reminder of his past.  To me, it's a reminder of what can happen.

IMPORTANT NOTICE:  Charlie signed a number of prints of my artwork featuring his F-4B Phantom and the C-141A Starlifter that carried him to freedom.  If you'd like to purchase one, proceeds are going to the Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.   CLICK HERE.

Profile 106: FINISHED—"0641" as flown February 18, 1973

Chances are REALLY good that you give no thought of how much your life revolves around the word, "Logistics."

Bold statement, eh?  And how do I know?  Because I don't think about "Logistics" much either. 

Regardless, have a look at the airplane above.  It's a Lockheed C-141A Starlifter.  It's big, it's loud, but on an air show flight line, the "F" and "B" airplanes always seem to attract the bigger crowds.  "C" planes are really just big pickup trucks.  Right?  I mean, what self-respecting 10 year old, staring up at the model airplanes hanging over their bed, wishes, "Some day, I'm going to fly Cargo planes."

General Eisenhower, however, made a comment that those 10 year old would-be combat pilots would do well to think about:

“You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have
been won or lost primarily because of logistics.”

All that stuff in the grocery store?  Food at the restaurant?  Stuff at the store?  Logistics—the practice of hauling stuff from point A to point B.  Put another way, no cargo?  No combat.  Period.

Let's take a moment, step back and prepare to appreciate the most important aspect of any force, Military or Civilian.  And in this case, the C-141 is the Queen Mother.

Designed in 1960, the C-141 was a response to what the military learned in WWII—the world was getting smaller and military activity depended on moving materiel over huge distances, quickly.  We all have our opinions on whether or not the United States should have military presence in this country or that* but the reality is, if we don't want to fight HERE, we have to fight THERE.   And "there" means moving a lot of gear.

On paper, the potential of the C-141 had to be an outrageous dream.  Yet, compared to its WWII equivalent—the C-47 (aka DC-3)—the Starlifter truly lived up to its name.  Have a look at the graphic I put together...
The C-47/DC-3 is largely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest aircraft ever built and there are solid reasons why.  But in the military application, look at the numbers:  The Starlifter had twice the range, three times the speed and nearly twenty times the payload.  If you work out the ratio of cost/unit compared to hauling capacity, the C-141 crushes the C-47 by being three times as efficient.

Go ahead, do the math...I'll wait.

The C-141 was a simply amazing aircraft!

For all the news coverage of government waste, I wish the average folk could realize that, for the most part, the engineers of American industry and the bean counters of Military Procurement do their best.   And it's a pretty fine "best" too.

Sad to say, the Starlifter is no longer moving stars.  The last military flight occurred on 6 May, 2006.  It was a pretty big deal and someone did a great job documenting it on YouTube (click here).  But wait a bit before clicking on it, ok?  There's more you should know.

Today, the American airlift capability is practically spread out over three basic types - the C-5 Galaxy, the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130 Hercules.  I made another graphic so you can see the how the heavy-lifting is distributed.

Somewhere between the ginormous C-5 Galaxy and the "jack of all trades" C-130 lies the former domain of the C-141.  Today, the C-17 is doing the 141's job and from what I've read, even more efficiently. 


Logistics isn't always about "the numbers."

Sometimes, Logistics is about...this.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, "Burst of Joy" by Slava Veder.
Please. Click here.

You knew it was coming.  "0641" was not just hauling stuff.  This C-141 was one of 16 that ferried 592 American POWs from Hanoi to Clark, AFB during Operation Homecoming.

Take another pause, ok?  Think about what it would be like to have someone you hold dear taken away from you, held in uncertainty...and then returned.  Forever changed.

(I was serious. Take the pause)

The process took almost a month and a half.  C-141s would lumber into Hanoi's Gia Lam airport l and pick up the POWs as they were processed out of the infamous North Vietnamese prison system. 

Each C-141 would carry about 20 POWs.   Of course, a Starlifter could carry many more than that, but Operation Homecoming wasn't a cattle car operation.  Instead, it was a strange diplomatic maneuver that took a month and a half to work out.  I bet it drove the C-141 crews crazy, too.  Left to their own devices, they could have probably had them all home in 12 hours.

This all being stated, have a look at the drawing again—0641 is the very C-141 that flew into Hanoi's Gia Lam Airport on February 18, 1973 to return 20 POWs, one of which was then Lt. (jg) "Charlie" Plumb.

Ok.  The C-141 retirement video mentioned previously is really a fine piece that captures what the C-141 was all about.  But before you do, watch the video below.  The man shown is Charlie and the song is one written and performed by the POWs for President Nixon as an act of gratitude.

Logistics, indeed.

(Special thanks go to the Plumb family for putting together this very cool clip).

IMPORTANT NOTICE:  Charlie signed a number of prints of my artwork featuring his F-4B Phantom and the C-141A Starlifter that carried him to freedom.  If you'd like to purchase one, proceeds are going to the Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.   CLICK HERE.

Profiles 108, 109: IN PROGRESS—"The Snakes" of the North

Chugging up a tropical river on a leaky wooden boat...

Jungle trees hanging over hot brown water, sweat stinging my eyes...

Clothes stucking to me like cling-wrap stretched over a bowl of hot soup... 

Three sweat-soaked Americans, twelve dry Vietnamese...

I lean over to cameraman Rick and whisper, "Did'ja ever see the movie, Apocalypse Now?"

He grimaces, then softly sings the opening bars to the haunting vocals of Doors song that opened the film, "This is the end.  Beautiful friend.  This is the end..."

It was no stretch of my imagination to imagine the river bank ahead erupting into shards of splintered trees and metal shrapnel as a Huey Gunship roared overhead.

Yet, the reality of the moment was more improbable than the scene playing my head—I was going to a caucus of North Vietnamese fighter pilots with one American fighter pilot, Capt. Charlie Plumb.

Charlie's credentials are pretty amazing—author, speaker, Naval academy graduate, 75 combat missions and ex-POW; in his career, he's pretty much seen it all.  But the Vietnamese contingent was rather experienced as well—among them were two Generals, a Colonel a successful entrepreneur and a captain of Vietnamese industry.  And two also happened to be the Honchos of the MiG-17:  Le Hai and Nguyen Van Bay.  Between them, they accounted for 13 American airplanes.

Hold that thought and have a look at the MiGs below.

Le Hai's MiG-17.  

Nguyen Van Bay's MiG-17.

It was a strange day.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining!  Our hosts were fantastic, the scenery amazing,  food delicious..and yet, the history of the moment was sticky like that plastic wrap referred to in line three.  

War can do weird things to the brain and if merely studying it can warp my own (a Gen-x'er who's never really had to suffer much for anything) I can't comprehend what it does to those who actually have experienced it.

It was, as they said back in the '60s, "...a trip."

Anyway, back to the MiGs.  Notice the green-black MiG-17?  That's Le Hai's.  The silver one would be Van Bay's.  Of course, the men flew other MiG-17s too—the NVAF didn't have assigned airplanes; they took whichever one was ready when the scramble-call came.  But, I can confirm that the "Bort" numbers on the nose are accurate.

So, to the plastic modelers reading this blog, these are indeed their MiGs.  And, they're especially proud of them because these were, during the VN war, technically second-string fighters that gave the #1 military power in the world a nasty bite.  It needs to be understood that when the MiG-17 was first-flown back in 1950, it was state-of-the-art in an "art" that was in a state of rapid flux; by 1967, the airplane was out-of-date compared to the much more advanced American iron like the F-4 Phantom or F-8 Crusader.

But "out of date" doesn't necessarily mean the pilot was condemned.  For a variety of reasons (next post) the North Vietnamese used the MiGs with remarkable effectiveness.

Let's run the numbers.

It's generally accepted that MiG-17s accounted for 28 aerial kills between 1965 and 1972.   In that time span, approximately 65 MiG-17s were lost in combat for a Win:Loss ratio of about 1:2.  Granted, those numbers put the North Vietnamese on the short side of things but are actually rather remarkable.

Consider this—Le Hai (the green MiG) was credited with six aerial victories.   Van Bay (the silver MiG) was credited with 7.  The 13 victories between them account for nearly 50% of the total aerial losses due to MiG-17s during the Vietnam War.

REPEAT:  Nearly fifty percent! It doesn't matter what side you're on, these are the mounts of two pilots who deserve respect.  

Now.  You might be wondering why on earth Charlie was meeting these two guys.  Well, it turns out, he may have met them back on 24 April, 1967 but wasn't able to get a good look at their faces.

Not that he would have had the time...

Stay tuned.

I get into the craziest places...
I have no idea what I was saying at the time I took this picture but to have three guys of this
calibre listening to me is a page out of the Twilight Zone.

PS - Why "Snakes"?  It was the nickname given to the often snake-colored MiG-17s.  There are two versions of the story; one is that the name was given by the North Vietnamese pilots who saw their aircraft as deadly, quick and maneuverable. Like a snake.  The other version is that the name was given by American pilots who saw the MiG-17s as pestilent, nasty and to be dispatched as quickly as possible.  Like a snake.

Pick your poison.

Profile 105: FINISHED—"SDANG" F-51 and Sliver Phantoms.

"Break! Break"

Allow me a second to describe how I'm in business. 

Anyone can draw airplanes.  To prove it, if we ever meet, I can teach you how to draw an F4F Wildcat in less than 5 minutes.  And if you practice for a bit, you can probably give me serious competition.

My airplane art is...(sigh) a commodity. 

BUT, as you might already know, the value in my artwork is that it is signed by the pilot who flew it in combat.  That is not a commodity.   The reasons 'why' I do this should be self-evident to you as a reader.  For now, however, you might be interested to learn 'how.'   In two words:  digital printing.   And, digital printing has been to the printing industry what digital cameras have been to the photography industry:  transformational. 

Let me explain.

Twenty years ago, I would have drawn my airplane with a pencil and colored it in with an airbrush or a colored pencil.  This is actually a sweet and theraputic process that would have resulted in a physical drawing about 24 inches by 48 inches.  

Then, I would have hired a photographer—one that had a large-format camera, prior experience and an eye for the particular job—to take a picture of the artwork using especially high quality film.  Once the film was developed, the negative would then be transfered onto "plates"  that would correspond to varying degrees of Light Blue (Cyan), Pink (Magenta), Yellow and Black.  These plates would then be used as "stencils" (sort of) that would apply the inks in such a way that the end result would be an optical illusion that would look like...well, one of my color drawings.

4-color separations kinda look like this.  This is only a simulation but you get the idea.

It's called a "4-color Process" and it's been the accepted way to reproduce color photography and artwork for a long time.

But, it's time consuming, costly and leaves little room for error.  And it's a process that's dependent upon a fair amount of skill all around—from the artist to the photographer to the plate maker (called a stripper and usually a grumpy guy with OCD) to the pressman (another grumpy guy with a different kind of OCD)...

...from finished art to finished prints, the process took about two weeks.

However using today's digital press, I simply walk into my printer's office, drop a USB-drive off with the pressman and later that afternoon, stop by for a press check that is almost always PERFECT.  And a half hour later, I walk out with prints.

From finished art to finished prints, the process takes about two hours.

When interviewing "old guys and drawing their airplanes," that time saving can mean the difference in getting the story and having it fly off into eternity without anyone being the wiser.  Which kind of reminds me of that old phrase, "When an old man dies, a library burns."  But that's a whole'nuther topic altogether.

Anyways, my first limited edition print run was in 2003. A few months later, another edition was literally printed in the morning and on the plane to an interview with me that afternoon!  Fantastic, eh?

Over the years, I've used a wide variety of digital printers.  From the home variety to the ones that are delivered in semi-trucks and require print shops to move to bigger buildings.   Some are good at this, some at that...but the one that I've found that's good at everything I need is made by Xerox.  In fact, I've been using a particular Xerox printer almost exclusively now for the past three years.*

This is what a typical press-check scene looks like.  On a normal 4-color press, this could take hours.
With Xerox's digital press, it minutes.

There are three reasons I have come to insist on Xerox's process: color accuracy, color consistency and a brilliant process that coats my image with clear 'varnish' to aid in the protection of the image. 

Well, Xerox caught wind of my loyalty and wondered if I would have any interest in a new development they have perfected:  metallic ink.

"Would I?!  Duh!  Show me the metal!!"

Well before I wax poetic about actually doing silver airplanes in SILVER, have another look at the F-51 Mustang above.

This particular Mustang was actually commissioned by the fundraising arm of the Veteran's Memorial Park (VMP) of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  It's a representation of the first aircraft flown by the South Dakota Air National Guard and a full-size replica will become part of a pretty awesome outdoor memorial.
Concept art of the proposed Veteran's Park Memorial © Confluence

The VMP will offer my artwork, hopefully signed by an SDANG pilot who flew the F-51, to the community as a fundraiser. It should be a pretty awesome way for people to recognize the service of the area veterans and also (cough cough) have something cool on the wall.

It's probably my best F/P-51 ever. 

Ok.  Back to Xerox.

Recently (as in really recently) they printed my F-51 using this new metallic ink process and shipped a box to me.  Evidently, they're using it as a tradeshow premium.  But for me, I was so gobsmacked by how cool it was to see a silver F-51 actually printed in silver ink that I neglected to keep a single piece for my records. 


But, the folks at Xerox were kind enough to sponsor our next episode of "Old Guys and Their Airplanes" and actually used their silver ink in a special run of my drawings of Charlie Plumb's F-4B and C-141A.

I wish you could reach through the monitor and see the subtle yet very real distinction this touch makes to my art.   A photo of this special "Silver Edition" of Charlie's F-4B and C-141A is shown above and it doesn't do it justice.  However, if you're interested, you can purchase one of these "Silver Edition" prints on my website by clicking here (proceeds go to the SoCal Wing of the Commemorative Air Force).

In the meantime, I am truly grateful for the team at Xerox for their work.

And now you know HOW I can do what I do!  (Watch the video below to find out what Charlie has been wanting to do for a long time, too).