Friday, February 27, 2015

Profile 98: FINISHED— "Kunk's Klunk," the P-38J flown by James Kunkle

DONE!  (whew!)  Presenting "Kunk's Klunk"—the P-38J as flown by James Kunkle, 370th FG.  Take it in because in a few minutes, it's going to get blown to pieces.

So.  Let's get back to where we left off (in December)...

"BREAK!  BREAK!"  Jim hollered.  "BREAK!"

But there was no break.  A few fruitless twists of knobs and flicking of switches made Jim realize that his radio was out!  And being the last guy in the formation, any waggling of the wings was useless, especially with target just ahead...what's a guy to do?

Jim hauled his P-38 into a tight left turn, climbing slightly, and rolling wings-level just as the onrushing gray swarm materialized into a formation of 20+ German fighters.  Though alone and certainly outgunned, the initial merge favored Jim; the enemy's focus was broken, allowing the rest of the mission to put precious distance between itself and the attackers.
Go ahead and count the little Fw-190s.  And then count Jim in the P-38.
Ummm, yeah...
If you wonder how that works, imagine the scene as a school of fish disrupted by a stone.  Instantly, the fish scatter.  But these aerial "fish" were not minnows.   Instead, they were piranhas.  And Jim was no pebble.  He was fresh meat.

Hold that thought for a moment...

A few weeks ago, a severely disturbed man walked into an office with a weapon and started another damnable headline story.  One died, another was injured.  The toll might have higherl had it not been for a guy named Brian Roesler who jumped up to tackle the gunman.  You can read about it here, but suffice it to state, Roesler's quote to the newspaper is interesting, "I didn't know what else to do."

I thought that quote rather telling in that Brian actually had a number of options, many of which would have been reasonable, if not "smart."  But instead, he thought to act as he did and in so doing, probably saved a few lives.
Brian Roesler.  Photo: Joe Ahlquist / Sioux Falls Argus Leader)
Ok, keep that in the back of your mind while we return to 1944...

The dogfight was intense.  In quick succession, the Germans snapped-to and pointed their noses at the odd-shaped American in their midst.  This was going to be an easy kill.

Kunkle, in the swarm, was able to unleash his  four .50 caliber machine guns and 20mm cannon against the targets that flashed past his nose.  Boom! chakachakachakachaka Boom! chakachackachaka Boom!

In the whirl of g-forces, Jim managed to knock one, then two Germans out of the sky.  I asked the—now that I think about it—ridiculous question, "So tell me the details behind the two you shot down!"   My question was met by a warm chuckle as Jim replied, "Really?!" Another laugh.  "I'm afraid I was a little preoccupied to remember those details!"

However, there were some memories of that combat that simply couldn't be forgotten.

"I remember my left wing.  A one-ninety was behind and to my left and he walked his bullets right up the wing towards (the cockpit).  The airplane shook and then fire blasted out the cold-air vent, down by my leg and up towards my face.  The flames shot out like a blow torch."

"And then?"

"Not quite sure.  The airplane blew up.  My next memory is falling face-down through a cloud."
I took no joy in doodling this scene.  Other than that Jim made it out.
The combat had taken place about seven, maybe eight thousand feet.  Jim remembered the cloud deck was around five thousand, so he'd fallen at least half a mile, buffeted by the wind and pained by the peeling of burned flesh from  hands and face.  Miraculously,  he had enough presence of mind to grasp the "D-ring" of the parachute release and tug it open.


Parachutes don't float people to the ground like a feather.  They simply reduce the speed of falling to the point to where a human can survive the impact.  Approaching  earth at approximately 22 feet per second, Jim's fall wasn't the elegant descent of today's sky divers.  If you want to get an idea of what Jim went through, climb up onto the highest peak (or 22', whichever comes first) of your roof and jump.


But, it didn't hurt quite as bad as it could have because luck would have it that Jim's parachute snagged a proudly standing tree, smack-dab in the middle of a European courtyard.   With the same force as coasting a bicycle into a brick wall, he strained to a wood-crackling halt, hung for a moment, then released himself to fall the few remaining feet to earth.
My cheesy map.  Kunkle was a few short minutes (flight-time) from one of the greatest battles of WWII.
In case you're not up on  WW2 history, there are two things of significance about Aachen at the time.  For one, some 80 miles to the north, the British were a day away from their oddly-planned* parachute assault called, "Operation Market Garden."  Ever hear of the movie "A Bridge Too Far"?   That.  For two, the American Army had just crossed the Rhine river and had advanced into the Aachen area.  History geeks will remember Aachen as the first German city to be liberated.  But that event was over a month of bloody days away.  Putting it all together, on September 16, 1944, Jim had gone from frying pan into fire.

You can imagine the scene—a quiet courtyard, waning Fall afternoon (1745hrs to be exact) , the gentle crunch of flat-soled shoes on cobblestones and somewhere off in the distance, the spastic crackle of rifle fire...Jim ran for cover.  It was then that adrenalin's effects, having protected Jim from the worst, began to subside, allowing the searing pain a chance to inform Jim that he'd been hurt.  Badly.

"I made my way out of the courtyard and onto a road.  A county road.  My eyes were swelling shut (from the burns) and I knew I had to get help.  But I knew the Germans were there (too).  Down the road, along a hedgerow, I was able to make out some soldiers.  They had netting in their helmets and, thought,  Americans!  Wow!"

Those Americans were from the 1st Infantry Division.  Every hear of the movie, "The Big Red One"?  The 1st had just arrived into Germany and the timing couldn't have been better.  Not only had they entered Hitler's backyard, they also had a grunt's-eye view of the show overhead.

The ground-bound eyewitnesses are why we know there were 20+ Germans versus Jim's lone P-38.  While Jim recovered in a Paris hospital, the Army and the Air Force got together and managed to get the man awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his effort.  Jim had put on a heck of a show for the infantry beneath.

Do yourself a favor and read his DSC Certificate...

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Second Lieutenant (Air Corps) James K. Kunkle (ASN: 0-763232), United States Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-38 Fighter Airplane in the 401st Fighter Squadron, 370th Fighter Group, NINTH Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 16 September 1944, during an air mission over Aachen, Germany. On this date, while flying as rear man in a squadron on an armed reconnaissance mission, Lieutenant Kunkle noticed that his squadron was about to be surprised by a vastly superior force of enemy aircraft. Unable to summon his leader on the radio, he alone unhesitatingly pulled away from his formation and vigorously attacked the enemy, immediately destroying one of his aircraft. In so doing, Lieutenant Kunkle placed himself in a position to be attacked from the rear and above. When this attack materialized, many hits were registered on his aircraft which caught fire burning his face, neck, and hands. Despite his burning plane and the gunfire from enemy planes, Lieutenant Kunkle continued his attack against the vastly superior enemy force and succeeded in destroying a second enemy aircraft, breaking off combat only when forced to parachute to safety when his left fuel tank exploded. Second Lieutenant Kunkle's unquestionable valor in aerial combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 9th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.
General Orders: Headquarters, U.S. Strategic Forces in Europe, General Orders No. 13 (1945)

In case you're wondering, the DSC is one stop below the Medal of Honor.

So, knowing that, would you have another look at Kunk's Klunk and give the poor girl a moment of silence...?


"So what happened to Jim?!" you ask.

Good question.  After 16 weeks of hospital care, Jim tried to get back into combat but a doctor discovered additional spinal injury and took him right out of flight duty.  The war was over.  Instead, the Doc sent Jim to what was called a "Flak House" for 30 days of peace, quiet and a chance to heal.  In case you're not familiar with the term "Flak House," it was a slang name for a the kind of convalescence that only those who've experienced mortal combat can appreciate.  Jim described it as a beautiful English Manor populated by, of all people, bomber crew.

"I was a fighter pilot.  I wanted to talk about flying.  About airplanes.  About..." Jim's voice trailed for a moment.  "But the bomber crew?  They wanted none of that!"  We talked for a few more minutes on the strange blessing that being (seemingly) in-control of one's fate could be to a man.  The bomber crew had to grit and bear the random pierces of flak and the slashes of the Luftwaffe.  But the fighter pilot, though inter-dependent, was more self-reliant.  Somehow, someway, to Jim at least, that formula worked best.

"Over the years, I can't count all the great leaders and good role models I've had.  Especially in the military.  But my mother, she was my guiding light.**   And you know, I still meet people I look up to!  But I've always been, ultimately, in charge of myself.  I may be part of a team, but I am (foremost) an individual."

Jim went on to explain that opportunities abound in spite of pendulum swings of the economy, of politics, of this or that...but only to those who have the sense of personal responsibility to account for their fates.

And only to those willing to take on 1:20 odds.    After all, he didn't know what else to do.
"Kunk" signing my artwork.  Check out Jim's office decor.  And his buddy.
Now.  If you'd like to own a print of "Kunk's Klunk," signed by the boss himself, click here and scroll down until you see his P-38.

*I'm being charitable.  "Market Garden" was a dumb idea.  So dumb, it should be a lesson plan in business schools for young executives who hope to do things like start businesses, manage people, or develop new products.  It'll scare'em silly.  Don't believe me?  Read this.

*Jim's dad died while Jim was a young boy.  Jim's father had been an aviator in WWI and was a primary force in interesting the young Kunkle in all-things aviation.  A salute goes to both parents. 

Profile 97: FINISHED— the Pave Knife pod of the 433rd TFS

Finished—the Pave Knife pod!

In case you haven't been following this story, Pave Knife was the amazingly successful laser-guided weapons system used in the last year of the Vietnam War. Though it wasn't the first* (Pave Way was) Pave Knife was certainly the best.    It's worth its own post because of its game-changing effects on everything from tactics to weapons procurement to, some say, even shortening the duration of the Vietnam War itself.

If you ask me, its enough that Pave Knife was a brilliant case of teamwork between the military and private enterprise.  From concept to in-country, the development of the Pave Knife system set records in terms of production and economy.  In case you're curious, the contract for designing and building the thing was a "fixed price."  Meaning, no chance for budget over-runs or cost obfuscation.   And since the pressure was on to deliver accurate munitions with minimal collateral and "political" damage, time was of the essence; Pave Knife went from idea to working device in approximately nine months and in-country in less than twelve.

Of course, with such short notice, not many of the things were built.  Each one was "hand crafted" and the total number that the USAF used in Vietnam was small.   Although a couple sources say there were seven, the number was most likely only six. But even that paltry number quickly whittled down to three or four due to operational loses and the wear and tear of hard use.  The photo below shows #2, the model that I used to create the illustration.

No idea who took this picture.  It's been retouched but I wonder why?!
In case the mere-months time frame doesn't mean anything to you, it'd be like going from empty lot to unloading the moving truck week.

From here on out, I'm going to be concentrating on drawing one of the F-4s that carried the Pave Knife into combat.  However, bear with me for just a few more minutes because the gizmo deserves a bit more explanation on how it works because the rest, as my kids say, gets complicated.

The Pave Knife is actually not just the device above.  "Pave Knife" is actually a weapons system, meaning it requires the co-functioning of separate units to perform its work.    The first part of the Pave Knife system is the bomb.

Have a look at the little animation below.
The main body of the bomb is a standard "Mark 84" 2,000lb General Purpose bomb.  However, the fins have been enlarged in the rear and a "seeker head" installed on the front.  In my animation, the seeker head looks like a small rocket stuck on the bomb nose.

Anyway, the tip of the head swivels and pivots. In the nose, there's an 'eye' that detects the reflection of laser light and sends signals to the set of fins just aft.  Those fins are moving fast because in real life, they acted just as you're seeing them - bang! bang!  The fins didn't steer by subtle degrees but by making full-deflection 'bangs' to keep the eye pointed toward the target at the rate of up to ten per second!

Of course, since the bomb relied on gravity to provide motion through space, (as opposed to a rocket that could be propelled) lateral deviation from the bomb's trajectory was dictated by altitude and airspeed.  A laser-guided bomb (LGB) couldn't "fly" much beyond the flight path.  But having a bomb that could be steered like a radio-control airplane wasn't the point of the Pave Knife system.  Dialing in absolute accuracy was.

Parts for a plastic Pave Knife model.  Over the years I've learned to trust the good folks at Hasegawa models to be accurate. And, I've also learned to trust the good folks who follow my work.  This little guy was given to me by a reader who heard my cry for reference material.
Thank YOU Missouri reader!
And boy was it accurate.  In combat tests, over 50% of LGB bombs were dropped on-target.  Not 'sorta' on-target.  No 'close enough' on-target.  We're talkin' down to the pin-point on target! The remaining 50% (unless something got fubar'd) were within a yardstick's distance.  So, consider that we're talking about a 2,000b bomb, "accuracy" is pretty much academic.

Putting this into perspective, consider a typical WW2 Navy dive bomber would deliver 50% of its bombs within a 100' diameter circle.   So, it's rather easy to see how Pave Knife absolutely changed the rules of bombing.

Ok, have a look at the animation below.  It's my attempt at putting it into practice.
For illustrative purposes only.  In real life, the bombing F-4 would be coming right down the bridge line; I offset it for illustrative purposes.  The F-4 at left has just released its bomb (seek the little black speck?) around 7k-10k feet.  The F-4 at right, at about 10k-12k feet, is projecting a laser beam from the wing-mounted Pod onto a specific point on thebridge.  You can see how the two parts, bomb and Pave Knife pod, worked together.
Well, I have to start drawing an F-4D so this little drawing can do some good.  It's going to take a while because I've got a ton more research to do.  Believe it or not, due to the kindness of a long-time reader, I've managed to acquire a book of BDAs (bomb-damage assessments) of Pave Knife missions from May, June and July of 1972. My idea is to pick a particular mission (I'm thinking against a bridge target)  and analyze it.  In the process, I will confer with Dean Failor (one of the trained Pave Knife operators) and a pilot who took the device "up north."

Dean's been introduced here before.  So, it's a good time to introduce you to "Rick" Hilton, Squadron Commander of the 433rd TFS.

It's time to go bridge hunting.  With 'the Knife.'

*Pave Way and Pave Knife were equally accurate systems but Pave Knife was far better for combat for a number of reasons that will be explained later.

PROFILE 102: UPDATE - "280" as flown by the 523rd TFS

"(I) thought I was going to the big show. Vietnam.  (But) wound up in the Philippines (and) thought I had missed the action."

That quote is from James Null of the 523rd TFS.  If you've followed my work on the 523rd so far, you'll remember that this particular F-4 is going to be a "Team Airplane" and representative of the many that comprised the squadron.  More on that when I post the final sometime in April (get ready for some of the coolest F-4 photographs you’ve ever seen!)

In the meantime, much to Jim's chagrin, I'd like you to focus on the red star painted on the splitter-plate.   Why chagrin?  It’s because the particular F-4 that I’m drawing is also the F-4 that Jim and Mike Vahue flew when he downed a MiG-21 over North Vietnam.  Jim has let me know—on a number of occasions—that the story that follows neither makes him a celebrity, something special or particularly better than anyone else in the unit.  Instead, that it happened at all was, in his words, "luck."

On April 16, 1972, Jim and Mike got…lucky.  

The day before, the pilots of the 523rd were told that the USAF would be going into North Vietnam for the first time since 1968.   The squadron’s particular roles in the operation were two-fold:  one, to provide MiGCAP (protect the bombers from MiGs) and two, Air Defense Alert (wait around for a "scramble!").  Jim and Mike, on account of rank (they were mere Captains) were told they wouldn't be a part of the MiGCAP show up North and to wait it out in the lounge.

Mental picture: two guys in green flight suits, white paper cups topped off with mediocre coffee, feet up on a chair and snapping open the paper.

"(You) train for something, you want to do it!  We were on 15-minute alert which means that we're part of two airplanes that are a backup to the planes on 5-minute alert.  But, just before the main strike takes off, the two planes on 5-minute were scrambled to check the weather." 

But, about 0930—45 minutes after the main strike had been launched—the remaining Alert F-4s were scrambled.  In a scene out of the movie Battle of Britain, Jim and Mike, along with another F-4 crew lead by Gary Lorenz, bolted to their...nothing!  In the preparation for the strike mission, the airplane Gary had been assigned was used to fill a slot in the main strike force.

"So Gary goes off looking for another F-4!"

Mental picture:  two frustrated guys in green flight suits wandering around a shopping mall parking lot looking for their car.
However, after twenty or so minutes of phone calls, frustrated pleas and I'm sure a few swear words, another F-4 was found.  Finally, some thirty minutes later, "wheels  up" from Udorn AFB occurred and the two F-4s bolted north towards Laos for what was sure to be a waste of time.   By then, the main strike was on its way back home and the show over.

However, once on point over northern Laos, the two F-4s got the call that made Jim and Gary tighten and clench—"Papa 3 flight, we hold blue bandits zero six seven degrees, seventy miles from you at nineteen thousand, supersonic."

As a believer that "Luck" favors the prepared, Jim turned the flight to face the threat, and readied his F-4 for combat that he still doubted might ever come.
An F-4D cockpit.  A multi-tasker's heaven.
"(So) we blow off centerline tank. At 35 miles (from the target) we then blow off outboard tanks. I had already determined that if I ever get the chance to engage MiGs, I would tune missiles1 and go into engagement missiles tuned and armed. I had seen guys miss shots because they were late getting ready. The GCI which were Navy cruisers off shore of N.V. Nam,some 120 miles away keep giving us info on bogies. At 35 miles I ask if bogies are declared hostile! (And the) answer? YES!  Heavy breathing starts!  Now they are bandits!"

At about 19 miles, my wingman calls he has contact (and) GCI confirms that they’re our bandits. I tell him he has lead and is cleared to fire, which he does, but nothing happens!  (I) find out later that Gary fired but no missiles leave his aircraft.2 Confusion now ensues. GCI calls and says we are merged with bandits...and we don't have a tally3 on the bad guys. I call for a split-S4 but Gary doesn't hear the call.

Now I'm heading SW with sun at my back. I get a glint off a canopy at my 12 o'clock at about 7miles. GCI says that's my bandits. Now, I must interject that there had recently been some close calls on fratricide  A guy in our squadron had been cleared to fire on a bandit which (actually) turned out to be a Navy A-6. Needless to say I didn't want that! Plus this was my first air-to-air engagement (with the enemy).”

You following this?  Good.  So let’s take a break for second as a little context is in order.  In comparsion against the knife-edged duels from WWI or the more calculated tactics of WWII, the aerial engagements over Vietnam were far more complicated.   Because of the speeds, distances and “rules of engagement,” both the USAF/Navy and VPAF relied on outside help (i.e. GCI5) technology, (i.e. missiles and their guidance systems) in addition to old-fashioned flying. 

Mental picture:  think about it this way—in the 1940s, you bought a car and drove. That’s like flying a Fokker Dr.1 or Sopwith Camel.  Dogfighting is visceral and simple—maneuver, shoot.  In the 1970s, you bought a car, drove and listened to the radio.  That’s like flying a Spitfire or P-51—still fairly straightforward but the increased speeds and innovations allow for new tactics;  Today, you buy a car, drive, synch your telephone so you can listen to satellite radio, navigate with a GPS and dictate your email.   That’s like the F-4 vs. MiG-21 duels—GCI, radars, guided missiles, rapid speeds and “rules of engagement” in addition to flying the airplane.

Make sense?
Null was an hour away from home at 300mph.  Or, about 15 minutes balls-out.
Ok, getting back to the two Phantoms burning eastward towards the blips on their radar screens, we’ll pick this up when Jim realizes that the MiGs have now “merged” with the F-4s.  In short, it’s on!

“(After GCI) called ‘merged’—that their radar blips of us and them overlapped—I called for a split-S.  I Found out later Gary didn't hear the transmission, not uncommon in combat and with F-4 radios. I then got a vector of 245 degrees for 8 miles.  I (see) a glint off of a canopy, head that way and see a black aircraft with a silver aircraft about 1 mile behind. A black aircraft to me was an F-4!   A silver one was a MiG-21!  I thought I was looking at Gary's aircraft with a MiG-21 about to shoot down Gary—I called for him to break and that he had a MiG on his ass! The MiGs were in a right turn coming to a heading of 060 degrees heading back to Hanoi. I was lower, looking up at them. They were rocking to the right and left trying to find me as I'm sure their GCI controllers told them I was below them.”

Ok, hold that thought for a second.

The MiG-21 was designed out of Cold War thinking that ‘dogfighting’ was a thing of the past.  MiG-21s were made to go fast, fire missiles then run home for more fuel and missiles.  Though comparatively maneuverable, the MiG-21 lacked the crucial quality that all good dogfighting aircraft need:  good visibility for the pilot.

Check the photos below; I took these of a MiG-21 in Hanoi. You can see that the cockpit is so streamlined into the fuselage, it's as if the engineers were doing everything they could to keep the pilot from getting distracted by anything behind.

“I started a climb. With a clean F-46, low altitude, I'm sure I was above the (speed of sound) as I started my climb. I aimed at the lead MiG (black)7 and passed off of his right wing going straight up. I definitely ID'ed him as a MiG. I could see the pilot, the pitot tube coming out above the intake...I had to be inside 100 yards of him. I continued up and waited until the silver wingman to pass then I pulled down to follow. I was low at the 6 o'clock of the trailing MiG (silver).
Jim Null vs. the "Black MiG."  I doodled this while on the phone with Jim; took me three times to get
the orientation right.  And I haven't figured how to draw black airplanes with a pencil yet.
We achieved a lock on, waited the necessary 4 seconds8  and fired an AIM-7. I had fired an AIM-7 at Clark AB with the Test Squadron and knew what to expect.

The missile departed the aircraft—I could feel the launch mechanism function—but no rocket engine ignition with accompanying roar.  I thought I had screwed up! I quickly checked my switches. Everything looked good so I fired again. The second missile came off, rocket fired and the missile appeared to be tracking.  I decided to ‘up’ the probability of kill so I fired my 3rd missile.  (That one) appeared to track for a while but then it took off up and to the right and exploded harmlessly in the sky.

(But) then I turned my attention to the second missile. It pulled up to the left wing of the (silver) MiG, exploded and the expanding ring warhead took the tail off of the MiG. I saw the tail spinning off to the right and pieces of the missile exploding off to the left. The MiG appeared to be un-phased and continued on.  I'm sure it was only for an instant but it seemed much longer. It suddenly pitched nose up and had a large plume of fire coming from the tail.

We were close by this time and pulled up and to the right of the MiG. We banked to the left to keep the MiG in sight. The MiG rolled upright one last time, the silver skin gleaming in the sun. I could see the markings on the wings and the canopy was still in place. It then rolled inverted for likely the last time as we were only about 3000 feet or less and the MiG 2-300 feet below us.

We then began to look for the (black) MiG. With no (additional) tally, only AIM-4s remaining and just 5 or 6000 pounds of fuel remaining and 200+ miles to Udorn, I decided to go away and live to fight another day.”
©James Null.  Invaluable photo in finishing out the 523rd's bird, too.  
And that, thanks to Mr. Null, is how MiG-hunting was done, April 16, 1972.

Anyway, like I wrote at the beginning, I’ll post the 523rd’s finished F-4 here in April.  If you’re curious, there are no plans to offer signed prints for sale, though I do look forward to hanging my Squadron-signed copy in my man-cave.

And those promised F-4 photos?  DEFINITELY worth the wait.  You will like them.

Ok.  Now, about those superscripts1234567…

1The system that acquired a target and gave the scent-signal to the missile’s seeker-head was complicated and needed a bit of man-handling by the pilot, not unlike a crappy clock radio dial that squawks its way to find a nice, clear signal.

2Missiles in Vietnam were notoriously unreliable.  AIM-9 Sidewinders were the best performing missile with an aggregate success rate of about 18%.  At extreme close range (less than 1,000 feet) Sidewinders did a better job, hitting their target 86% of the time.   But you can see by the disparity of average-numbers how rarely those close ranges occurred.

AIM-7 Sparrows, like the one that Jim used, were a longer-ranged missile that could acquire a target moving away, towards and obliquely.  However, that target acquisition required an uninterrupted signal between the F-4 and the missile and that meant the F-4 was not completely free to maneuver.  Regardless, it’s success rate was only about 10%, hence Jim’s firing of multiple missiles.  Gary's unfortunate moment where all four of his Sparrows failed is at once astonishing and unremarkable.

AIM-4 Falcons were the least liked missile.  Though its success rate was on-par with the Sparrow, it required the longest time for the missile to acquire the target and required the most pre-launch inputs from the pilot.  It’s rumored that pilots would rather dump their AIM-4s under some other pretense (as in damage due to flying through a thunderstorm) than bring them back to bother someone else another day.
3”Tally” comes from the English hunting cry of “Tally ho!” when contact with prey was sighted.

4Split-S is a manuever in which the airplane reverses direction via a snap roll and dive.  Significant altitude is lost but the aircraft gains airspeed and a completely new direction, quickly.

5GCI = Ground Control Intercept.  Whether in a little dark room in a hidden bunker or a little dark room in an airborne command center, “GCI” are the people and tech that identify/confirm targets and relay the information to the pilots.  

6”Clean” means Jim’s F-4 was stripped of heavy, maneuverability-sucking weight like drop-tanks. 

7MiG-21s came in all colors.  Most of them were silver, a few of them were dappled green, some dappled green and brown, some brown…and as Jim saw first-hand, black (or at least extremely dark).  These were suspected to be MiG-21s designated for night-flying duty.  I’m checking in with my VN sources to verify this but suffice it to state, it’d be wicked-cool to do a black MiG-21 and talk to one of the pilots.

84 seconds was what it took to transfer information to the missile before launch.  Remember, these where information was transmitted "analog" fashion versus today's "digital" fashion.  There is not enough room here to describe in detail but it's like comparing magnetic tape sound-recording versus how an MP3 file is created today.  Vietnam-era missiles relied on technology that, in comparison to today, is Cro-magnon.

Profile 103: IN PROGRESS— "Mary Pat" as managed by the 385th BG, 551st BS

People always ask, "How do you get your stories?!"

Well, the following dialogue is how I roll.  Sorta.  At least this time...

"I'm sorry I had to cancel our meeting last week.  My dad was in town and I wanted to see him."

"No biggie!  How's he doin'?"

"He's great! Especially for a 94 year old." (antenna pops up at mention of age) "He still drives, still does everything himself.  But he's starting to slow down."

"94?   WW2 generation, eh?"

"Oh yeah.  Big time.  He was a Crew Chief."

(Little red light on top of antenna starts to spin)

"Really!  Where?"

"England.  He worked on B-17s."

"Really?!  When?"

"Why?  You want to meet him?"

(Klaxon sounds, red light goes into strobe-mode and I look for a pencil)

Anyway,  have another look at Mary Pat above.  I guess I'll be meeting her Crew Chief and of course, will post all the details here. :)  Stand by!
That'd be S/Sgt John DeBerg working on "his" engine.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Profile 100: FINISHED—"Our Mary" as flown by Edwin Cottrell, 48th FG

You know, you just never know do you?

Stop there and have a look above.  It's "Our Mary," the P-47 that Lt. Edwin Cottrell was flying on a fate-filled Sunday over northern continental Europe.

The Battle of the Bulge had just ignited; it was Hitler's audacious—but ultimately stupid—move to shock the Allies into negotiating terms of surrender.   Yet, though he was in the thick of it, battle strategy wasn't on Lt. Cottrell's mind as he looked up and saw...look below.

Click the picture to see the guns firing. 

"I'd just made one pass (dropping bombs).  One pass on a grouping of tanks that were staging for the Bulge.  (I can remember) pulling up over the woods, the trees, the snow and that 109 coming at me, guns sparkling—and then I saw them all!  I'd never seen so many (German airplanes) in my life!"

BANG! zip BANG!  Machine gun bullets perforated "Our Mary's" thin skin as easily as an ice pick slammed into a soda can.  But it was the slower firing nose cannon that did the lethal damage; the German's 20mm shells exploded into the starboard wing root and cowl, severing oil lines and destroying eight of the airplane engine's eighteen cylinders.

Considering that the enemies closed at a collective rate of about 600 miles per hour and the German's bullets were traveling about four times faster, the moment began and ended in a blink of time.

"There was no time to really think. When I first saw (the particular 109 angling in from Ed's one o'clock position) I turned to face him head on.  Then, his nose started sparkling and then Bang!  The engine started to 'chug' and oil blew all over my windscreen.  I couldn't see and I knew I'd been terribly hit."

Ed announced on the radio his situation and the flight leader immediately commanded, "Get out'a here! Two-seventy, West!"  Of course, there was no argument on Ed's part.  He used the remaining airspeed to carve a path Westward in the hope of making the front line of Belgium before he would have to bail out or belly in.

"Our base at St. Trond was close to the bomb line (Front).  In fact, at the time, we were the closest forward field.  So, getting to the front line meant that I probably wouldn't be taken POW."

However, with a trail of inky smoke behind, "Our Mary" was a conspicuous point in the sky and drew  the attention of more Germans.

"I was looking.  Over my shoulders.  And I saw these two 109s coming up behind me.  I was going slow, but as fast as I could.  I could see they were criss-crossing in an effort to slow down.  I settled into my seat and waited.  I was dead or going to be a POW for certain.  But when the bullets didn't come, I looked out to the sides.  And there they were."

"Where?"  I asked.

"Close.  Close formation.  Just off my wingtips."

Stop for moment to let this sink in.   Especially in air combat, there's practically no opportunity to really see your enemy for their true shape and personality.  The transactions of war happen in flashes, sparks.  There, bang! gone.  It had to have been a surreal moment, being so close to the enemy and so powerless.

Compared to the blunt-nosed bulk of a P-47, the Me-109 was an elegant wisp.  In fact, there was over a ton and a half difference in weight between the two.  Of course, that extra weight of heft, armor and American engineering had just prolonged Ed's life.  But one must appreciate the eerie sight of these two wholly foreign beasts, so close and so lethal,  just a few feet away.

Seconds ticked by.  Ed's airplane shuddered,  rattled...and all the while, the ground below passed by at an interminably slow pace.  Ed was bewildered.

"What were you thinking?!"

"Hmmm," he paused, then answered in the questioning voice of a man who's unsure of his answer.  "Whether I was going to live?  Die?  Will I make it to the bomb line?"  Ed laughed.  "Here I was, being escorted by two Messerschmitt 109s!"

A 2 minute sketch.  Ed assured me, the 109s got even closer than they're depicted here.
"And then what?!"

"We just crossed the bomb line and I looked over (at the German pilot off Ed's right wing) and he made the OK sign.  Then, he peeled off.  I looked (to my left) and he peeled off too."

"And then what?!"

"I was able to make it back to base."

With an obscured windscreen and rattled motor, Ed brought "Our Mary" to landing at his base.  As if from a movie, the engine seized solid and coaxed the airplane to a silent stop.

"I was in shock."

Ed describes the debriefing as nervous, he was understandably, rather shaken up by the blenderized emotions of the past hour.  When I asked him about the reactions of his squadron mates, he remarked that they were—as expected—fascinated but ultimately, such acts of Grace were not uncommon in war.  Ed explained that though his extraordinary store was certainly momentous to him,  they were one of the quirks of combat that happen.

Ed finished out the war, flying his 65th and final combat mission on May 7, 1945 (the war ended on the 8th).

Fast forward to the 21st Century.

Screen-shot of the West Chester University web page highlighting Ed.
The picture above is from the website of West Chester University.  Actually, it's a pretty interesting page because it's the one that describes the "Dr. Edwin Cottrell Entrepreneurial Leadership Center."  And of course, that's Ed pointing to a picture of his WWII self.

After WWII, Ed earned his doctorate in Health and Physical Science from Penn State and settled at West Chester University where, among a whole list of things, he became somewhat of a legend as a golf coach.  Now, in case you're wondering, Ed didn't set out to create the ECELC as a monument to his ego.  In fact, he didn't create it at all.  The Center was a gift from a grateful former golf student who made good.  Pretty cool, eh?

Over the years, I've learned that people who are especially good at motivating or encouraging others to be successful are also especially good communicators.  They're clear, concise and, to a soul, positive.  Asking the question, "Can you summarize your life's advice?" caused only a few seconds before replying, "Respect."

The next half hour was a wonderful discussion of what that actually meant.  But for here, it simply means to recognize that an individual's work and actions ultimately reflects on others.  I couldn't help but think about those two Luftwaffe pilots who, seventy years prior, decided to "Respect" as they did with Grace instead of condemnation.

Now...just to be clear, until humanity evolves to the next level, the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) expresses reality rather clearly—there is a time to kill, a time to heal.  A time for war, a time for peace.   A time to be born and a time to die.  And in the mystery of cause-and-effect, who knows how and why stuff comes out the way it does!

But because two Luftwaffe pilots decided to Respect as they did, one man was able to Respect, too.  Ed Cottrell is 93 years old and thinks about December 17 often; he wonders what was going on the minds of those two German pilots...

Ed Cottrell, circa 1944.
NOTE:  Ed wanted me to make sure that anyone who reads this realizes that he was, "...just a scared 21 year old American hoping to stay alive.  I hope youth and people in the the future will not forget how terrible war is and how it effects people's lives."

Note:  Forgive the shameless plug but if you'd like to put a little Respect on your wall, click here. ("Our Mary" shows up towards the bottom of the page).

Profile 101: START to FINISH— "Luck and Stuff!" as crewed by SSgt Jimmy Calhoun, 446th BG, 706th BS

Viola!  Another awkward moment is over—drawing semi-clothed women while maintaining an open-door policy with my kids can make for interesting times!   But you know what's really awkward?  Knowing that I'm drawing a family heirloom.  For a man the family has never met.

Yeah.  You read that right.  For a man the family has never met.

Have a look at "Luck and Stuff!" from the 706th Bombardment Squadron of the 446th Bombardment Group.

Rewind back to April 29, 1944.

According to the 446th Bombardment Group history, the day featured a 22-plane misson to Berlin. From their base in Bungay, England, the German capitol was pretty much a straight-shot East.  A thousand miles round trip and, counting forming up for formation and mission debrief, a full day's work.

If you've ever watched a "bomber movie" like the acceptable "Memphis Belle" or the far, far awesomer "12 O'Clock High," you've probably realized that it's impossible to convey the experience of riding a bomber into combat.  The hours of sitting, standing, looking outside...the drone of engines, the random shakes and mysterious metallic shudders are either hypnotizing or infuriating depending upon your temperament. the video below.  It was shot while sitting in the tail-gun position of the Commemorative Air Force's B-24.  Turn the volume up full-crank to really get the effect.  And listen to it 3,000 more times.  Thats the sound of about 7 hours of "bomber mission."

Now, would you mind watching it again? This time, pay more attention to the P-51, only imagine it coming in at 3x the speed.  And with a dappled green/gray paint scheme.  And big black crosses on the wings.  And the nose and wing guns ablaze...and you, firing back.  Not for fun, not for "high score," not even for God and Country.  Instead, you fire back because that's all your brain can process at the moment.

Hold that thought.

Here's what happened to "Luck and Stuff!" on that Spring day...

Inbound, the Luftwaffe kept their distance.  In fact, the only one that got too close, ended up as a funeral pyre thanks to an escort of P-38 Lightnings; a fairly routine flight. It wasn't until the last twenty or so minutes before the target that the monotony was broken.  As the Liberators puckered up for their bomb run, the flak began, peppering the sky with deadly smudges.

Suddenly—and it always happened suddenly—the No.2 engine was hit and began bleeding oil into the frigid slipstream.  In spite of the wound, Luck and Stuff! stayed in formation and completed the run.   Yet, 1,000lbs of bomb remained hung up in the bomb bay.  The added weight of the un-dropped bombs plus the reduced power caused the B-24 lag behind.  If you look at the map above, we're probably mid-way on the top red line, heading west...into a head wind.

Suddenly—and it always happened suddenly—at least three German fighters were spotted by tailgunner Jimmy L. Calhoun, coming in fast, guns sparkling.  According to crew testimonies, what happened next also happened fast; both engines on the starboard side (No. 3 and No. 4) were set alight.  Top Turret/Flt. Engineer SSgt Charles E. Hill was caught in the middle of a fuel-transfer (mid-fuselage) and the hot bullets burst the flammable lines creating a curtain of fire...

We can only imagine the chaos.  Groaning metal, shrieking wind, smoke, shots of flame, shakes, shouts; with three engines out, a fire inboard and a bomb bay full of explosive, the crew tumbled out into the blue.  Moments later, Luck and Stuff! blew apart, pieces tumbling earthward like hot embers from a just-spent firework.

Before the war's end, 1019 B-24s would be lost over Europe, many in the same fashion.  And that's not counting the B-17s, B-25s, B-26s, fact, 8th AF aircrew had a 12.38% KIA rate compared to the U.S. Marines of 3.29%  Put another way, the 8th Air Force suffered the highest loss rate of any American branch of service.*

And now you know why so many people are utterly fascinated by what happened in those bombers...

Ok.  Back to the drawing.  The graphic below is a quick time-lapse that goes from initial pencil sketch to completed illustration.  It's about 40 hours condensed into a few seconds.  It's crude but if you're really bored you can see a few fits, starts and corrections.

Is it perfect?  Probably not.   But I am hopping it's nearly-so because this piece will be going up on the walls of many homes as a memorial to the tailgunner, Jimmy.  He was the one who first spotted the incoming German fighters and, presumably, the first to fire back.  He was also the first to die.

For a man the family has never met.

You know, I've been consciously avoiding any cute references to the irony of this bomber's name in comparison to her fate.  Not that I'm pious or extraordinarily reverent (not even close).  Maybe I would have had it not been made clear, "This is for us to remember Uncle Jimmy."  On one hand, it's a drawing.  But when memories, family, life gets involved, things change.

Like I wrote at the beginning, it's awkward when a kid walks in: "Watcha doin' dad?  "Drawing a naked woman."  "Oh.  Who's it for?" "Tailgunner's family."  "Oh.  Cool.  See ya, dad."  "See ya."

But it's much, much more awkward  when I realize that compared to Jimmy's family, I have it easy.

To the crew of "Luck and Stuff!"

See ya.

Lt  Weems Jones, Pilot, POW (#9)
Lt  Joseph Kwon, Co-pilot, POW
Lt  Thomas Brigham, Navigator, POW
SSgt Charles Perry, Nose gunner, POW
SSgt Charles Hill, Top gunner/Engineer, KIA (#4)
TSgt Arnold Kaminsky, Radioman, POW (#2)
SSgt George Radle, ball gunner, KIA (#3)
SSgt William Ingraham, Left waist gunner, POW (#1)
SSgt Lester Baker, Right waist gunner, POW  
SSgt Jimmy Calhoun, Tail gunner, KIA.  (#5)

*This is a commonly understood figure and relatively easy to find.  But, the 398th BG Association makes it easy.  Go here:

Profile 97: UPDATE— the "Pave Knife" pod of the 433rd TFS

"Uh...nice.  What is that?!"

You don't know?!  Why, it's the Pave Knife pod!  One of only six used by the USAF in SEA. This one will be #2.  Eventually, I intend on hanging it under an F-4 drawing that I'm working on.  But for now, I'm just getting my head around the gizmo's strange proportions, and it's even stranger affect on the act of warfare.  It actually made war (clears throat, nervous glance at the door, lowers head) better.

To understand what "better" means, imagine what would happen if a police department addressed a crime by arresting a whole neighborhood in order to get at a single perp.  Of course, it's a ridiculous idea*.  You can't just go around punishing the innocent in order to ensure prosecution of the guilty.  Can you?!

Well, warfare has enough "issues" let alone those caused when the innocent get involved.

Ok, hold that thought.

A few years ago, I had lunch with Dick Rostrum, a lead Bombardier from the 401st BG.  Understand the distinction; he was not a "Toggelier."   During the last year or so of the war in Europe, the 8th AF found that bombing accuracy was improved when one man (Bombardier) would do the actual bomb aiming and the rest in the squadron simply dropped on his command.  Hence the name Toggelier as they simply "toggled" the bomb-switch.

Anyway, I asked Dick if he ever felt responsible for bringing death to innocent people.

Stop for a second and think about that question.  Not that I had the temerity to ask it.  But that the question is actually acknowledgement of the grim reality.  And, as horrible as it may seem, to deny it is to insulate one's brain against the wickedness of war (and therefore sanitize its filth).

"No!" Dick bumped his fist on the table.  "That is why I hated him!"

Who did Dick (even after seventy years) hate?  Adolph Hitler.  He went on, "I read about him and we had to beat him.  I did my part, I did my job with excellence.  To beat him!"

I got it.  Dick was punching-back at the bastard as best as he could.  Thankfully so, too.  But.  Was every German guilty?  Certainly not.  Still, thousands paid, with their lives, for the sins of a few.

Have a look at the image below.  It's a B-17—like Dick flew—on a run on the Reichstag, circa 1945.  As focused, as expert, as determined as Dick was, the averages stated that only 70% of his bombs would land within a 2,000 foot circle.  Do you think there were innocents among that circle?  Of course there were.  Especially considering that virtually every 8th AF bombing raid in WWII was done with numbers far in excess of a mere one B-17!

Now, let's say Dick wasn't in a B-17 but somehow, was now a WSO aboard a Vietnam War F-4 Phantom equipped with a Pave Knife laser-guided bomb.

Have a look at the image below.  Click, boom!  Hitler's dead.  Along with a few of his toadies.  But the collateral damage of innocents is effectively nullified.

Is that "better"?

You're crazy if you can't agree.  Yes, it's "better."

War is here to stay.  However, if one can stomach the notion, war—as a practice—can be improved.  In fact, it's a moral responsibility to do so.  Yeah, yeah,  it's a warped view but I'd rather make a tiny (but guilty) step forward than be paralyzed by righteous indignation.

Have another look at the pod with its sinister profile and diabolical name...if you've ever wanted a feel-good moment amidst the concussive blast of a bomb and shredding of shrapnel, this is it.

On the next and final post, I'll try to describe how Pave Knife worked.  After that, we'll hang it on a rail and take it "up North."

Btw, I'm pretty sure Dick would have done anything for a Pave Knife pod.

OH!  Just occurred to me that I have a little clip of Dick describing an especially memorable moment with a bomb...

RIP, Dick.

Profile 102: JUST STARTED— "280" as flown by the 523rd TFS

Every profession has its lore.  Teachers reminisce about the age of pencil sharpeners.  Doctors of the day when patient records were contained between the ears.  I've even listened-in as pizza makers describe a certain oven with such care and detail, I too wanted one of those thousand-pound granite-based behemoths.

But make no mistake about it—no profession (repeat) can equal the passion, devotion and deification between (hu)man and machine like aviation.   Aviation is a Faith and each aircraft, a denomination*.

I'm really tempted to push the whole 'aviation is a religion' thing here but I won't because this particular F-4D is on holy ground of its own: it was the mount of the 523rd Tactical Fighter Squadron and my job is to bring it to life.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be opening her logbook to songs of praise and parables from those who know her best.

Lets go for a ride!

*I am confident that God is not offended by this statement as it is clear that flight is not only a Divine creation it is also a Calling and act of Devotion.  In fact, I have heard no more fervent prayer or decisions of righteousness than in an aircraft.  Especially during severe turbulence.  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Profile 94: FINISHED—"339" the U-2R as flown by Stan Rauch

"It's like riding a bicycle with a 25 foot long two x four strapped across the handlebars!" he stated (somewhat) proudly. 

But the more I thought about it, it seemed as if he was soft pedaling it a bit.  Sure, the analogy itself was basically correct, but his version made it seem too easy.  Instead, I came up with a better one.  So let me rephrase the quote, "It's like two guys on unicycles holding onto the ends of a 60' pipe.  Strapped across is a 104 foot 2 x 4.  And they're riding at 100 miles per hour."

There.  I fixed Stan's analogy of what it's like to land a U-2R. 

Hold that thought and have a look above.  Behold "The Dragon Lady" in all her spectral glory.

Though her lines are simple and easy to draw, it was an especially challenging airplane to do.  For one, the black paint is rough and reflects light in peculiar ways.  If you look hard enough, you'll see that the "light source" I used to mentally guide my work is physically impossible.  But I had to in order to show the distinctive features of the airplane.

Secondly, U2-Rs are shape-shifters—pods, antennas and bumps can come-on/off like Lego® blocks. Of the 60 second-generation U-2s built they’re all a little different depending on the mission.  Photographs don't help either as the black finish shows little detail.  Stan talked me through the airplane's progress as best he could, but I bet we're missing a bump or wire somewhere.

But third, the real difficulty in drawing the airplane is that it there's no way to capture the amazing performance envelope.  An F-4?  Sure.  Hang a bunch of ordnance under the wings.  A P-51?  Sure.  Add a row of swastikas under the cockpit and you're good.  But the U-2?!  It's a black tube with fins.

And that gets us to the question, "So what IS so amazing about the performance envelope?"

"If you're going to understand the U-2, you have to understand where it flies.  And that's at very high altitude. And things are different up there," stated Rauch.   "That's why it needs those long wings with the 1000 square feet of surface.   To generate all the lift it can."

In case you're not a wing nut, the long wing isn't necessarily needed to climb to altitude.  It's needed to maintain altitude.  At 70,000+ feet, the air is exponentially 'thinner' than at, say, 35,000 feet where airliners typically fly.  In fact, take a 757 and lift it to 70,000 feet and it'll stall, sink and plummet, ripping itself apart long before it gets back to a normal altitude.   But the U-2's wing is big enough to keep the U-2's light weight aloft in this "boundary-layer before outer-space" realm.

Right now, Stan is breathing pure oxygen.

And that's why the U-2 pilots wear space suits.  Fully pressurized, the pilots work inside their hermetically sealed environment, breathing 100% oxygen (the rest of us breath more like 21% oxygen).  Above, the sky—if you can call it that—is pure black and blends into the purest of blues to a curved horizon. 

In spite of the sometimes hazardous missions, Stan was quick to point out that it's "peaceful up there."  In the rarified atmosphere, there's no tail wind, head wind, no drift, no nothing other than the thrust of the engine.  Calculating ETAs between bases becomes an exercise in precision.  No airplane can nail their "arrival time" like a U-2.  However, though the air is smooth and horizon vast, the flight envelope is small.  Very small.

How small?  Well, cruising at 70,000+, the maximum speed (VNe) and the stall speed (Vs) are only 10 knots apart.

Go ahead and read that again.  10. Knots.  Apart.

If those figures don't mean anything to you, imagine driving a motorcycle at 65 miles per hour in LA traffic.  Ten feet behind is a semi trailer loaded with steel.  Ten feet ahead is a semi-trailer loaded with gasoline.  And there are semi's to the sides, too.  Whatever you do, you have to do carefully, methodically and precisely.  Because if you don't...

"You mustn't stall a U-2 at altitude.  If the wing loses lift, it's not going to get it back.  By the time the airplane gets to denser air, the airplane has probably already spin itself into pieces due to g-forces.  The tail will go first."

You've probably figured out that the U-2 is rather delicate.  Compared to an F-16 fighter, a U-2 can only handle a relatively small g-force load.  So, flying it operationally is an exercise in extremely precise flight management; so precise, it's not really humanly possible.  Go ahead and read that again.  Not. Really. Humanly.  Possible.

"You get on autopilot when you are operating in the higher altitudes, " Stan explained.  "You can handle (flying manually) for up to around 50,000 feet, but it's a sensitive airplane and it can get out of control very quickly.  At the highest altitudes, (Human) reactions just aren't that fast."

"So is that why the U-2 is so hard to fly?"

"No.  The autopilot is a great system and I never doubted its performance.  Sure, the environment is tough, but the U-2 does it really well.  The real challenge of flying the U-2 is landing it. 

Ok.  Before I get back to the unicycle and 104 foot two x four analogy, watch the video below.  

If you noticed, the U-2 accelerated very quickly and almost instantly disappeared into the clouds.  In fact, a U-2 can climb out at 70 degrees with a light fuel load.   That's getting close to dang near vertical.  And did you notice how quickly it got off the ground?  That's because the wing that works so hard at 70,000ft is hyper-performing at ground level.  If the U-2 has a 'problem' it isn't that it's too delicate or too tricky.  It's that down low, flies too well.

Ok.  See the airplane below?  That's my drawing of Dick Rutan's "Voyager" aircraft.  It was the first airplane to fly around the world without landing.  It's a brilliant piece of engineering—ultra light weight, hyper-efficient engines and...look at that wing.  Long, skinny, it slices through the air like a samurai sword and lifts like an elevator.

Regarded as one of the great innovations in aeronautical design, the Voyager wing has a Lift:Drag ratio of 27.  Meaning, it lifts 27x more than the resistance it creates by moving through the air.  In comparison, a seagull wing(s), which can cruise along the sea-driven breezes for seemingly hours, is about a 10.   But a U-2?


"Landing is the hard part." Stan says flatly.  "That's the last 30 seconds of the mission that might have been 9 to 11 hours in length.”

Ok.  You probably noticed in the U-2 clip that the landing gear is a little odd.  It's a bicycle-style set up with a wheel in front and a smaller wheel in back.   And if you look out at the tips of the ginormous wings, there are skinny, plug-in wheel assemblies called pogos that drop-off as soon as the wings produce lift on takeoff.   They're NOT landing gear.  Instead, the proper name is,  “ground taxi wing support gear.”

And did you see the red Pontiac G8?  That's the chase-car team and it’s commanded by another U-2 pilot. The team’s job is to drive behind the aircraft during the landing phase and radio to the pilot the distance in feet between the landing gear and the runway.

The Approach of a U-2 to the runway is carefully managed.  And here's where Stan's analogy of the bicycle comes into play.  Since the landing gear affects the ground on a single axis, the airplane is extraordinarily sensitive to cross winds.  Anything more than 15kts is too much.  (A 747 can handle about 30-40kts). 

The trick is getting the wing to stop working.  Spoilers—flaps of metal that pop up to 'spoil' the wing's lift—speed brakes and huge flaps are all used to negate all that glorious flying power.  On final approach, the pilot is using a mixture of lift negating devices, retarding of throttle and judicious inputs of rudder to keep the airplane on a very controlled descent and lined up perfectly on the runway centerline.  Crossing the numbers (the numbers at the end of each runway), the U-2 should be at about 40 feet and traveling at 110 mph with the speed decreasing.   This is why the chase-car team drives faster cars. 

Coaxing, tuning and cajoling the Dragon Lady to earth, the pilot hears a steady report of altitude from the chase-car  - 10 feet.  9 feet.  8 feet...and when the pilot hears 1 foot he holds the aircraft in that position and then all of that glorious wing stalls and the aircraft settles gently to the runway, and...*erk!*  He's steering a big, black bicycle down the runway.  At about 90 miles an hour. 

Ok.  Have another look at my drawing.  If you notice the wingtip, there's a slight white line.  And if you notice up-close, you'll see there are tiny jags on the bottom like a saw blade.  Those are skids...because eventually the wing WILL* lose its ability to keep parallel to the ground and one tip will dip.  And drag a short distance.

It's a unique operation to be sure. The chase team catches up and two guys run up with those pogos, lift the wing up, insert them, and the U-2 pilot taxis back to the hardstand as if nothing weird happened.

Extraordinary airplane.  And flown and crewed by extraordinary people.  And, proof-positive that the forces of nature, though powerful, can be mitigated with a little thinking, confidence and skill.   Ok, a lot of thinking, confidence and skill.  

So where did Stan 'get' all that thinking, confidence and skill?   Surprisingly, it wasn't by flying high.  Instead, it was by flying low in…well, more about that next year.

2015 is setting up to be a great one for—as I say—talking to "old guys and drawing their airplanes."

*Stan says that in a strong enough headwind, the wings start trying to lift the airplane before it even begins its take-off run.

Oh.  And two more things.  See that little white sliver by the tail?  That's a tail trim position indicator.  The tail flight surfaces of a U-2 can pivot forward or backwards (slightly)as a single unit to trim the aircraft for increased stability in flight.  And in case you're wondering if the U-2 is damaged by dragging its wing along the ground, it isn't.  Through careful flying, by the time the tip hits the ground, the U-2's speed is low enough that the friction between the tip and ground doesn't generate forces beyond the airframe limits.