Saturday, September 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

Ok.  Hold that thought.

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

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

Boeing nailed it.  But so did the Russians.  

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

It would appear that the two enemies parted ways.

But then... 

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


Credit:  Me.

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

“BAIL OUT!”

Four Americans died*.  Two survived.  One remains.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ok.  Back to Conspiracy Theories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?!  They had the SIOP?!



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

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


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

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

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

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

Thank gawd Khrushchev and Kennedy kept their cool.

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

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


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

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

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

You know who you are... ;)



Credit:  Wide World Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hold that thought.

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

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

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

Funny; I never experienced that at Normandy...

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Read the book.  (click here)*****



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

Friday, September 5, 2014

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


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

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

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

My art of the SDANG F-102

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

Hold that thought.

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

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

Here.  Have a look.

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

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

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

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

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


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