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The Loch Ness Wellington

21 May 2022

Perhaps the Vickers Wellington is not as well known on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, as it is on the eastern side, but it was the backbone of the RAF (Royal Air Force) during World War II (WW II). In fact more than 11,000 of them were built using three factories and this remarkable number made it the most produced aircraft type manufactured by Great Britain during the war. Not the Spitfire, Mosquito, Hurricane or Lancaster—but the twin engined, long ranged Wellington, or “Wimpy” as it was warmly called by those familiar with the aircraft. 

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). The bomb aimer’s position was prone and beneath the nose gunner’s station—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©20222

Wellingtons carried a lion’s share of the RAF’s bombing efforts to the Axis powers throughout the war but especially through 1943. They were a significant part of Britain’s failed early attempts at daylight bombing at the onset of the war in Europe, as well. In short order, at the cost of too many aircrews, the RAF learned the Wellington’s maximum speed of 235 mph, typical bombing altitude in the 15,000 foot range as well as their gun turrets (nose, tail and difficult to utilize ventral) were clearly insufficient against modern fighters such as the Bf 109. Wellingtons were all but indefensible in daytime hours but their aircrews distinguished themselves using the 3000 mile range and 4000 pound bomb load in the nights—back in the days before modern fighter-borne radar.  

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). Note the open bomb bay doors as well as crew entry ladder—Michael Dowman ©2022

There is more to the Wellington which made it somewhat novel as well as able to absorb tremendous amounts of battle damage yet return its aircrew home. That is the geodetic construction of the Wellington, of course, the well known construction design which is akin to a lattice structure. The chief engineer for Vickers at the time was Rex Pierson who was teamed with the famed Barnes Wallis, though, it was Wallis who was the structural half of the Wellington team. Both engineers had become familiar with geodetic design earlier when working on Great Britain’s R100 airship project. This type of construction uses fewer frames and bulkheads so it inherently favors maximizing available internal volume. Naturally, this is incredibly advantageous to an airship but also works well with bomber aircraft as the fuselage can be made comparably more compact, lessening the aircraft’s weight. The fuselage was fabric covered (Irish linen at 8 stitches per inch and 9 coatings of dope) with 8000 rivets overall so it is not a monocoque stressed skin affair.

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©2022

Ultimately, though and unforeseen, this engineering design would not easily allow for pressurization so higher altitude performance gains could not be realized. Twin .303 caliber machine gun turrets were in the nose and tail with another, which could be lowered from the underside, that proved less than useful— in successive variants it was replaced by two waist machine gun positions manned by a single gunner. Crew complement was six or seven and with the navigator also performing bombardier (bomb aimer in RAF vernacular) duties. Typical of the RAF’s preferences of the day there was a single pilot and the bomb bay was not accessible in flight. The roof of the bomb bay was wooden construction with the bomb bay design allowing for bombs to be loaded in-line for better aerodynamics, though not accessible while in flight. The bomb bay design required the pulling of each bomb’s safety pin prior to flight resulting in the crew relying solely on the petite fuze arming propeller for safety—as well as any citizens around a failed take off with a heavy bomb load—which was unlike most medium and heavy bombers designed by U.S. firms.     

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). Note the detail of the geodetic construction as well as many of the 8000 rivets in the Wellington—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©2022

A common observation about geodetic design is that it does not lend itself to mass production. History doesn’t appear to support this argument since about 300 Vickers Wellingtons could be produced monthly by the previously mentioned three factories. Interestingly, there was an attempt to build one from scratch in less than 30 hours—that team built their Wellington and flew it away in just under 25 hours!

Forward section of the Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK) tail turret and rear section—Michael Dowman ©2022

With all this being described, it is a wonder that only two Vickers Wellingtons now exist. Two out of more than 11,000 manufactured—and what a great shame that is. One, a Mk X B, is undergoing restoration by the staff and volunteers of the Michael Beetham Conservation Centre (MBCC) at the RAF Museum Cosford. The other, an earlier version of the Wellington, a Mk I A, is wonderfully displayed, sans fabric covering at the Brooklands Museum. This aircraft has the nickname “The Loch Ness Wellington” as that is the water body it was recovered from after it landed and sank there. Curiously, it was found to be in good shape considering the crew bailed out of it in December 1940 while on a training mission—engine trouble was the inspiration to bail out during a blizzard. The crew survived with the exception of the tail gunner since his parachute unfortunately failed to deploy. The cold waters of the loch kept corrosion rates to a minimum and thanks to the myth of the “Loch Ness Monster” it was found during a cryptozoic survey to find the beast in 1976. What is life if not serendipitous?

This Wellington was actually manufactured in Brooklands during 1939 and was powered by a pair of Bristol Pegasus Mk XVIII radial (9-cylinder single row) engines of 900+ hp each (the same engine as on the remarkable Fairey Swordfish). And this Wellington touched history by flying on the infamous Heligoland Bight Raid a year earlier in December 1939. This bombing raid was a hard lesson for the RAF as it was bitterly learned just how astonishingly incorrect that “the bomber will always get through” as was the thinking of strategic bombing leading into WW II. Another such lesson was that bombers would not require fighter escort. More than half the bombing force was lost, and to no positive effect, but the Loch Ness Wellington returned from that mission with her crew. Good experience comes from bad decisions.

One of the Bristol Pegasus radial engines of the Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). Observe the pitting corrosion from its time on the bottom of Loch Ness for over 30 years—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK). Back in the day the slang term for the engine and cowling assembly was “egg”—Michael Dowman ©2022

The fruits of 100,000 volunteer restoration hours are there in the Brooklands Museum to be seen. Marvel at the geodetic design clearly seen with none of the fabric covering which normally would be in place. Various internal aspects of the aircraft can instead be seen including the crew positions which usually go unseen in most aircraft displays.

Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK)—Michael Dowman ©2022
Vickers Wellington Mk I A “Loch Ness Wellington” on display in the Brooklands Museum (Weybridge UK), closer viewing of the tail turret—Michael Dowman ©2022

Thanks to Michael Dowman for these images as well as the Brooklands Museum for its work on The Loch Ness Wellington.

Avro Anso–Dambuster antecedent (sort of)

17 May 2022

There is an Avro Anson in the RAAFA Aviation Heritage Museum (Bullcreek Australia) which has been touched by history. Aviator David Shannon (Royal Australian Air Force) learned multi-engine flying in this Anson while in training during World War II (WW II).

Avro Anson within the RAAFA Aviation Heritage Museum (Bullcreek Australia). Flown by David Shannon (RAAF) who later flew with 617 Squadron on Op Chastise—his crew’s target? The Eder Dam—Geoff Wong image ©2022

This was the aircraft which was used to ultimately advance Shannon to heavy bomber piloting. It was as a Lancaster bomber pilot he became a charter, and the youngest, pilot with the RAF’s 617 Squadron which had been formed for Operation Chastise. This was one of WW II’s famous special ops raids—its mission was to destroy three dams in the Ruhr Valley so that electrical power would be denied to Axis war factories. His specific target was the Eder Dam, which he and his aircrew successfully hit—contributing to the dam’s breaching.

Much has been written about this mission, both pro and con, short view and long view, but no one denies the aviation skill, technical inventiveness of Barnes Wallis (the bouncing bomb developer) as well as the brilliantly simple aiming and delivery system which was evidenced.

Enough, though, cannot be written about 617 Squadron’s daring, however. Flying in at 60 feet above the reservoir surfaces, at a stringently observed speed of 240 mph, directly into German flak batteries—often repeatedly. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that of 19 aircraft launched for this mission just 11 returned (42% loss for stats lovers).

It was in this Avro Anson that Shannon was able to become the pilot he became to fly daring missions into Axis airspace during some of the most trying times for the RAF in WW II. Shannon trained in and flew this aircraft. To see and touch this Avro Anson is to touch history. If only one could sit in the pilot’s seat?

Avro Anson within the RAAFA Aviation Heritage Museum (Bullcreek Australia). Flown by David Shannon (RAAF) who later flew with 617 Squadron on Op Chastise—his crew’s target? The Eder Dam—Geoff Wong image ©2022

Thanks to Geoff Wong for these images as well as letting us know about this gem down under.

WW II Gun Turret Tech Advance

12 May 2022

Geoff Wong is an avid aviation researcher and had moment to observe the stark advances in gun turret technology of heavy aircraft during World War II. Recently he was in the RAAFA Aviation Heritage Museum in Bull Creek Australia (near Perth) and took closer looks at the standard-of-the-day bow turret of a Short Brothers Sunderland and a remarkably dissimilar gun turret of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress—the differences in their technology are astounding and occurred over just a handful of years.

The Sunderland’s bow turret was hydraulically operated and mounted a pair of Vickers Browning .303 machine guns. Unusually, this turret was retractable—being pulled into the fuselage to expose a line handling position for a crewman to stand within for mooring the aircraft at a buoy or dock. A gunner was required to sit within the FN-13 turret, manufactured by Nash & Thompson, relying on eyesight, as well as crew communication, to defend the aircraft from attacking aircraft.

Short Bros. Sunderland Nash & Thompson FN-13 bow gun turret—Geoff Wong ©2022
Rear view of the Short Bros. Sunderland FN-13 bow gun turret showing the clear space required to retract the turret for mooring operations—Geoff Wong ©2022
Interior view of the Short Sunderland Nash & Thompson bow gun turret looking into the gunner’s position—Geoff Wong ©2022
Port side view of the Short Bros. Sunderland bow gun turret as well as its pair of Vickers Browning .303 machine guns—Geoff Wong ©2022

On the other hand, the B-29 turret was unmanned, electrically driven and was armed with two Browning .50 caliber machine guns. This design had many inherent advantages as the weight of the turret was reduced which eased in mechanically traversing it. Aiming was vastly improved with the use of analog computers developed by General Electric—which accounted for barometric pressure, altitude, relative velocity and parallax error—that doubled the effective range of the Superforrtress’s machine guns. This same system also allowed for one gunner to control multiple turrets or another turret of a wounded, or killed, fellow gunner. Quite a difference from other heavy bombers of the war as attacking fighters could now get the full, computer assisted, attention of four machine guns in two of the B-29’s five gun positions—all with a greater effective range than the opposing fighter’s own machine guns.  

Our thanked thanks to Geoff Wong for these images and insights 🙂

Boeing B-29 Superfortress remote controlled gun turret—Geoff Wong ©2022
Rear aspect of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress gun turret—Geoff Wong ©2022
The RAAFA Air Heritage Museum innovatively employs a clear plastic panel to better observe the interior of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress gun turret—Geoff Wong ©2022

The Navaho and the X-10

11 May 2022

29º 19’ 50” N / 81º 45’ 57” W

Only a few months after the surrender of Japan, which finally ended World War II (WW II), North American Aviation (NAA) submitted a three step proposal for a paradigm setting weapon design rooted in Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocket design. A missile, but with a wing to enhance its range, to carry a nuclear weapon from the United States to Cold War opponents across continents. NAA was answering a request from the U.S. Air Force (USAF) requiring an interim weapon system to compliment manned strategic bombers until the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was developed and deployed.

Incredibly, though WW II aviation was dominated by a myriad of subsonic piston engine powered aircraft only a decade prior, NAA had designed a Mach 3 cruise missile powered by a pair of ramjets which was launched to altitude and speed with a twin engine rocket booster. It was called the SM-64 Navaho which vertically launched using Rocketdyne XLR83 (200,000 pound thrust each) rocket engines to 70,000 feet at a speed of Mach 3 and separate from the Navaho—whereupon the Navaho’s Wright Aeronautical XRJ-47 (15,000 lbs thrust each) ramjets could start and send the nearly 90 foot long cruise missile on a 5000 mile ride to deliver a nuclear warhead (the CEP goal back in the day was 2.3 miles).

That was the dream anyway.

The USAF had assigned a priority to the program second only to ICBM development. 

Production management may have been an issue but dreams and aspirations were well ahead of design and manufacturing. On the face of it, the $700 million (~$7.4 billion in 2022 dollars) was an abysmal failure. Well behind schedule and over budget, the Navaho’s first flight was not until the mid 1950s. Its longest flight was for a tad over 42 minutes. Overall, total Navaho flight time was merely 1-1/2 hours over 11 launches. Many flights crashed due to engine failure and the longest was 500 miles out of an intended 1500 mile route.

Total failure.

Or was it?

The Navaho program was a technology incubator. Mach 3 speeds required new titanium alloys for much better heat resistance (though the air is much less dense at 70,000+ feet the fuselage temperatures range up to 660º F). The unmanned 5000 mile range flight envisioned spurred better inertial auto navigation equipment and this system found its way to the A-5 (formerly the A3J) Vigilante, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) on its record voyage under the Arctic ice to the North Pole and the AGM-28 Hound Dog cruise missile. Note that both the Vigilante and the Hound Dog were both North American Aviation products, as well.

SM-64 Navaho cruise missile with booster displayed at Cape Canaveral ages ago (Florida Memory image)

All the foregoing noted, the era of the cruise missile would have to wait a few more decades. Interestingly, there is a rare example of a Navaho with its booster and that is displayed on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (formerly Cape Canaveral AFB). Curiously, though, a booster sans engines is located at VFW Post 10208/AmVets Post 1208 in Salt Springs Florida.

North American SM-64 Navaho Booster Rocket at VFW Post 10208/AmVet Post 1208 in Salt Springs FL (note the pylon which would mate to the Navaho cruise missile)—Joseph May/Slipstream Photography ©2022
North American SM-64 Navaho Booster Rocket at VFW Post 10208/AmVet Post 1208 Salt Springs FL—Joseph May/Slipstream Photography ©2022

Closely related to the Navaho is the NAA X-10 which was the test vehicle for the Navaho concept. Resembling the SM-64 Navaho missile it was also unmanned but instead powered by two Westinghouse J40 turbojets which produced the X-10’s speed into the Mach 2 range. Additionally, for reusability, it differed from the Navaho in having landing gear for conventional taking off and landing (Navaho engineers were not concerned about landing). NAA gained insight flight testing the X-10 to higher Mach speeds as well as aerodynamic characteristics of the delta wing as well as the fully moving canard surfaces. These insights were also explored in future projects subsequent to the Navaho such as the NAA XB-70 Valkyrie. Like the SM-64, there is a rare example of an X-10 which survives and it is displayed in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

North American Aviation’s X-10 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (note the deflection limit lines of the fully-flying canard surfaces)—museum image
North American Aviation X-10 in flight—National Museum of the USAF image

Information for this post was derived primarily from The Evolution of the Cruise Missile which was written by Kenneth P. Werrell and published in 1985. It can be downloaded as a PDF from the Air University Library at Maxwell AFB website.

Arc of Triumph

7 May 2022

Arc of Triumph: a Novel of Courage, Cars and Love, Paul Ehrmann, 2020, ISBN 978-0-578-75476-3, 281 pp.

Arc of Triumph: a Novel of Courage, Cars and Love by Paul Ehrmann

Arc of Triumph is a wonderful fictional tale set in World War II’s German occupied France. It is wonderful for portraying the life of a handful of French citizens sharing their work with Ettore Bugatti—yes, Bugatti of bespoke car making fame.  It is also wonderful for its realism as it is set during wartime. Love for those family-close as well as romance is warmly told. Outstanding is the love and the imperative of auto racing—the passion for racing, for taking risks, to be at the edge of the performance envelope and not safely within its confines. 

Erhmann uses Bugatti cars and Ettore’s persona well, as these were as inseparable as they are impassioned. Ettore’s drive for perfection and performance, in his cars, and France’s unrelenting resistance to occupation. 

Ehrmann grounds his novel in realism using maps, locations and knowledge of many Bugatti car models—at times intimate knowledge. The Bugatti company has always been known for excellent design and crafting (their cars are built, not assembled) and this surprisingly fits into this novel set in German occupied territory.

The author knows his history as well and shares how three Bugatti drivers were active in the French Resistance with two of these three not surviving the war. Arc of Triumph is as real as it is imaginary and readers will vicariously feel the rush of racing, love’s desire and the deeply instinctive need to defend. Finally, readers will come to learn the meaning when Bugatti “…made cars to go, not stop.”

VFW 2872’s Republic F-84F Thunderstreak

5 May 2022

33º 58′ 02″ N / 83º 24′ 38″ W

Republic F-84F Thunderstreak at the VFW Post 2872 Athens GA

Republic Aviation’s F-84F Thunderstreak appeared as a swept wing variant of the prior F-84 Thunderjets (F-84A through F-84E models). The 38.5º of swept wing is comparatively quite apparent as well as dramatic though, surprisingly, performance increase was minimal. Republic’s effort to compete with North American’s F-86 Sabre was less than stellar but a war was on (the Korean War) and the Air Force was revamping to jet fighters as quickly as possible due to USSR’s introduction of the MiG-15 (and the beginning of a new era in fighter combat).

Infamously known for long take off runs and almost impossible spin recovery traits the F-84F otherwise handled well. A Thunderstruck was flown for a record flight from Los Angeles to New York in a time of 3:46:33.6. The pilot, Lt. Col. Robert Ray Scott would later be project officer on Republic Aviation’s much more successful subsequent effort—the F-105 Thunderchief.

Republic F-84F Thunderstreak at the VFW Post 2872 Athens GA
Republic F-84F Thunderstreak at the VFW Post 2872 Athens GA
Republic F-84F Thunderstreak as well as a variety of war memorials at the VFW Post 2872 Athens GA

The A-6 Intruder–leading edge tech but that little red light?

4 May 2022
Grumman A-6A Intruder displayed at the Camp Blanding Museum in a rapidly lifting fog.

Grumman’s A-6 Intruder design was revolutionary in its day and tremendous a leap forward in naval aviation—actually in aviation warfare. Its mission was to attack in any weather and at any time to precisely hit specific targets. Intruder crews could, and did, this either singly or as part of a strike package. It was the first truly all weather bomber as well as the first aircraft with an integrated airframe and weapon system. A fearful package of this twin turbojet engine (Pratt & Whitney J52 non-afterburning turbojets) two man aircraft (pilot and BN).

Perhaps a warhorse disguised as a draft horse the Intruder could carry a large load very far while at high subsonic speeds. There was no USN ordinance it could not deliver and deliver accurately, day or night, fair weather or foul. How could this be done? Too oversimplify, and for a bit of clarity, the radar systems fed into an internal navigation system—which all in turn processed these inputs into DIANE (Digital Integrated Attack Navigation Equipment) used by the BN (Bomber/Navigator) which electronically represented target information and geographic features during good or bad weather. In turn the BN fed cues from his systems to the pilot who would be using his VDI (Vertical Display Indicator). Yes, the outside world represented virtually in the side-by-side cockpit—sans GPS and night vision. 

Why side-by-side in the jet age where modern combat aircraft were as streamlined as possible?  That is where the airframe-weapon system integration comes into play. The Intruder’s radar required a large dish and Grumman designers cleverly saw they could use that advantageously as the seating arrangement allowed for quicker non-verbal crew communication. Grumman designers also thought to place the BN slightly lower and a bit aft of the pilot to avoid restricting vision to starboard. Not that you will see Willem DaFoe correctly positioned in the film Flight of the Intruder (an excellent movie from the novel by Stephen Coontz)—such is Hollywood.

Like Grumman’s OV-1 Mohawk the Intruder originated from a U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) requirement. The cockpit of these two unsung and aircraft are highly similar, as a matter of note.The Corps desired an STOL attack aircraft replacement for the venerated but aged Douglas A-1 Skyraider. Another novel feature in the design was swiveling jet exhaust nozzles for shorter take off runs but these proved unsatisfactory. Aerodynamic and turbulence concerns has these nozzles deflected 7º downward—dive brakes were relocated from the conventional fuselage positioning to the distinctive spilt wing tip locations. The Intruder would go on to be active for 34 years and solely by the USN as well as the USMC.

Now…about that small and curiously positioned red light on the blackout panel in front of the pilot with its petite glare shield? What is its purpose? Thanks to Capt. Mike Vogt (USN, ret.) of The Intruder Association who stated this tiny curiosity—it was used during night time aerial refueling as it would be used to illuminate the tip of the refueling drogue and receiver basket. Thanks again Capt. Voght 🙂

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Observation

A pair of A-6 Intruders demonstrated a new era in air attack when a power station in what was then North Vietnam was bombed. This extremely damaging raid was accomplished by just two aircraft in the dark of night and cloaked by storms when their 26 Mark 82 (500 pound) bombs devastated the complex so throughly it was originally thought to have been a USAF B-52 raid. The comparisons are intriguing. The B-52 (still quite capable) was born of World War II heavy bomber experience and extremely large as well as weighty nuclear weapons. Yet just two decades after World War II the A-6 Intruder demonstrated that strategic bombing could now be accomplished using fewer bombs and fewer aircraft—so differently the term surgical strike became the new descriptor.

Grumman A-6A Intruder on display at the Camp Blanding Museum located at Camp Blanding FL. The three vertically arranged lights on the nose gear door were used to aid the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) to assess the approaching Intruder’s angle of attack. Note the wee red light in front of the pilot’s windscreen with a closer view of it in the image below.
Closer view of the lighting device used by the A-6 pilot to see the tip of the refueling drogue as well as the refueling basket during night aerial refueling.

Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam [Five Volumes]

3 May 2022

Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations Vietnam by Col. Pat Hanavan (USAF, retired). Five volumes of fine history!

  • Vol. I The First Years: 1966-1967, 2012, (ISBN 978-1478195849) 372 pp.
  • Vol. II Tet Offensive: 1968, 2013, (ISBN 978-1492266273 413 pp.
  • Vol. III Ben Het: 1969, 2014, (ISBN 978-1500874858) 380 pp.
  • Vol. IV Dak Pek and Dak Seang: 1970, 2016, (ISBN 978-1535423090) 434 pp.
  • Vol. V Vietnamization: 1971-1972, 2017, (ISBN 978-1973934707) 424 pp.
Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol I by Col. Pat Hanavan

Not enough can be written about Hanavan’s epic work regarding one of de Havilland’s most effective if not famed aircraft—the ungainly looking though somehow attractive C-7 Caribou. Col. Hanavan is the authority on the “Bou” being an instructor pilot (IP) for them during his service in the Vietnam War as well as a thorough researcher. Pilots know their aircraft well enough to reliably fly them though instructor pilots know the aircraft much more intimately—almost as well as the aircraft’s crew chief—having knowledge of subsystems as well as aircraft handling. His work required no less than five lively and insightful volumes for readers of aviation history as well as the Vietnam War.

Caribou Airlines relates the history of the U.S. Air Force flying C-7 missions and does so on any one of several levels for the reader to enjoy. Naturally there is an abundance of material on flying the Caribou as well as maintaining it, along with its particular peculiarities (such as the stabilizer changing its angle of attack upon changing the flap setting). Readers, too, soon learn that just about everything with the C-7 is done at 120 knots. Logistic specialists can learn much from Hanavan’s encompassing labor in what is needed to initiate and maintain an effort to keep aircraft effective as well as available with fuel, cargo handling, maintenance, safety, training, admin, housing and routing—no easy thing to accomplish and requiring dedicated professionals to be successful. Vietnam War history readers will experience the Vietnam War from a different historical arc since the Caribous served to supply and maintain communications with fire bases and special forces camps—the nitty gritty of the war where it was at its most personal.

The “Bou” itself is remarkable in that it is essentially a flying truck needing only 1000 feet of runway, prepared or not, to deliver or fly away as much as four tons of cargo. C-7’s were a vital part of the Vietnam War since just about any territory away from an encampment was enemy held or otherwise occupied. Electricity was generally not present in the nearby villages, or even the remotely located bases, so Caribou cargo was often livestock such as eels, water buffalo, pigs and chickens. Animals were delivered alive, at times by parachute, due to lack of refrigeration.

That is a common omission when considering asymmetric warfare from a first world perspective. Yes, there will absolutely be technological advantages enjoyed. But that must be balanced with reliance on electrical power supply, aviation support and generally always being outnumbered (often heavily so).

Caribou missions ranged from the mundane mail and beer runs to more than exciting enough flights. Readers will lose count of how many missions are related where Caribou crews challenged incoming fire to provide airbase and special forces camp support—often enough being a vital link in their salvation when under intense assaults. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) as well, as Viet Cong (VC), generally made their attacks at night to mitigate the air superiority of the U.S. Army and Air Force so many missions were nocturnal by necessity. At times, C-7 aircrews could land and offload while under a rapid taxi to taking off—the cargo master, the third man of a three person crew, would have the aft ramp lowered to the horizontal and push the palleted cargo out along the floor’s rollers. All this to the accompaniment of incoming mortar and rocket rounds.

Often enough Caribou crews would deliver cargo to open patches of land only 100-200 feet in extent. These deliveries, usually ordinance and ammunition, occurred most often during desperate times. How does an aircraft flying by put cargo on a postage sized piece of ground, anyway? Well, at 120 knots (like everything else in a C-7) and at 200 feet—as the drop zone (DZ) comes under the nose pilots pitch up sharply while the cargo master (having cut all but one of the restraining straps and having positioned the ramp to horizontal) gives the pallet a kick to send it on its way to a skid of a landing, if not a tumble. One especially courageous mission to a DZ, while a base was under attack, had to be done in daylight hours as the base’s mortar tubes had burned out. Fighting must have been intense for tubes to burn out and it was part of the base’s vital defensive artillery—so a Caribou crew had a mission to deliver tubes and rounds to a DZ generously measured at 100 feet long. After an approach to the DZ which has to be read to be believed and with no second chance as an option, the aircrew flew in at a bare 50 feet (with the FAC screaming a warning sensing an imminent crash) and successfully made their drop which was instrumental in saving the base from being overrun. Why 50 feet? As the pilot said, “At 50 feet you can’t miss.” FedEx may have coined “Just in Time Delivery” but C-7 Caribou crews lived it before FedEx was born. Another system was worked out for nighttime DZ deliveries using down-to-the-second timing of a searchlight from an orbiting AC-119 gunship and daring low level flying up a valley without night vision—all while under fire. Curiously, it was noted that the relatively slow speed of the Caribou worked in its favor since NVA and VC gunners were accustomed to faster aircraft and would shoot too far ahead of the C-7s as they made their drop passes.

The sense of mission seen by aircrews extended to the maintainers, as well, with many tales told of Caribous being repaired (e.g., damaged wings, bent props, engine swaps) at remote air strips with the barest of equipment on remote airstrips. 

Hanavan’s volumes are packed with photos of Caribous during their everyday existence—most sourced from private collections so these are unlikely to be seen anywhere else (unless, hopefully, they find their way to museum archives). Readers see Caribous at rest and on missions as well as crashed (including one inadvertently dropped from a CH-54 Tarhe [Skycrane] during a recovery operation). Readers also see living and working environments for the USAF service personnel—which were not up to the usual USAF comfort ratings.

Amazing close escapes are well told as well as tragic losses due to working in close proximity to U.S. Army bases where artillery fire and large helicopter movements (i.e., CH-47 Chinooks) caused mishaps and deaths. Photos of severely damaged C-7s which brought their crews back are awe inspiring. The details of planning and accomplishing transoceanic flying in these twin radial engines (using the Pratt & Whitney R-2000) slow moving aircraft is enlightening as is the narrow escape for one Caribou’s crew on such a flight.

Each of the volumes reiterates vital historical sections such as the tête-à-tête between the Army and the Air Force regarding helicopters, sizes, and the C-7 as to which would fly what. Of course, an excellently written section describing the C-7 Caribou is also repeated (reinforced rather). The author also includes a variety of appendices relating vital statistics which historians will relish–these are focused on the time period of each volume. These volumes are well written and well cited though not indexed—but detailed chapter headings more than suffice for the most part.

As might be expected in this encompassing history, Hanavan publishes medal citations which underscore the importance as well as fantastic accomplishments of these C-7 Caribou operations. This is the meat of this history. Happily, the author also includes many first hand recollections and these make the heart of this history.  

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Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol II by Col. Pat Hanavan

Personal Note

I’ve been intrigued by de Havilland’s C-7 Caribou ever since I was young and excitedly seeing the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights parachuting from theirs, ages ago (they now use the Fokker C-31A Troopship which is the militarized Fokker F27 Friendship—more modern, less charm). There are a few around in museums but not much history about them when displayed except for basic numbers. A shame that so little is made more public about their roles and the crews who flew them as well as the troops who relied upon them in the most dire of circumstances. Relying on the Caribou’s STOL performance as well as flying in ways the FAA would never contemplate for approval. My thanks to Col. Hanavan for capturing the Caribou’s history so well and so eloquently. Readers may note a few YouTube videos showing Caribou pilots making “wheelbarrow landings” in Australia. I couldn’t suss out any benefit using this technique of landing nose wheel first–but who better to ask than the unofficial C-7 historian, as well as former Caribou IP, Col. Hanavan? He replied that the technique would be an idiotic maneuver—with only risk and without benefit.

Thanks again 🙂

Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol III by Col. Pat Hanavan
Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol IV by Col. Pat Hanavan
Caribou Airlines: a History of USAF C-7A Caribou Operations in Vietnam Vol V by Col. Pat Hanavan

Rise of the War Machines

17 April 2022

Rise of the War Machines: the Birth of Precision Bombing in World War II, Raymond O’Mara, 2022, ISBN 978654321, 336 pp.

Rise of the War Machines: the Birth of Strategic Bombing in World War II

O’Mara has nailed a combination one-two punch for readers of history with this book which is both in-depth and exciting to read. The title, perhaps, harkens back to 1927’s Metropolis which is poetic since O’Mara begins his study of the evolution as well as the intertwining of aircrew training and machine technology—each influencing the further development of the other—by way of the development heavy bomber strategy in the armed forces of the United States, beginning in earnest after World Water I. 

The book avoids bogging itself down in academic minutia, though it is a well researched study—and throughly cited for further study if the reader or historian wishes. O’Mara wisely brings readers along on a World War II (WW II) bombing mission, in a B-17 to a German industrial target, with each chapter a progression of that flight. No glory here, or Twelve O’Clock High simplifications for the TV, each position’s work is real and demanding both in training as well as in execution.

Insightfulness is ever present in Rise of the War Machines as readers learn about the lives of pilots, navigators and bombardiers on these World War II missions high in the Arctic-cold skies of the ETO (European Theater of Operations). We learn pilot duties evolved significantly from pre-WW II and the psychology involved as those duties at first seemed sublimated to machines but, in fact, required deeper understanding of flying. We also learn of the rise of the navigator as well as the bombardier as aircrew members—as well as how one could substitute for the other and why. Kudos for O’Mara’s explaining the differences of the aircraft’s flux-gate compass, gyro compass and magnetic compass. Readers likely will be surprised to learn the navigator would use the bombardier’s instruments at specific times of the mission. In fact, it may be more surprising to learn the navigation position was the busiest of the entire crew…so much so that the position’s machine gun would often go unused during fighter attacks.

Readers learn of details seldom mentioned by other authors, much less explained, such as: 

  • Combat wing form up times
  • How did dozens of bombers depart and get to altitude on 30-second intervals through fog and cloud?
  • How were combat boxes variously arranged and how were they maneuvered once at the target?
  • What were some of the mission errors and why?
  • How was bombing accuracy measured, back in the day, and how well did it improve during the war?
  • Why did bombardiers use table top models of the target area?
  • How did autopilots enhance bombing accuracy? 
  • What are the sources of bombing error, anyway?

O’Mara dutifully explains the above and much more, and gladly in a lively and entertaining way. The material could be as dry as desert sand but this book becomes a page turner and is worth a spot on any bookshelf devoted to aviation history as well as man-machine interface study. The Naval Institute Press again, as so often happens, offers this book which well addresses an important but unfortunetely overlooked niche in military history.

Dark Horse: General Larry O. Spencer and His Journey from the Horseshoe to the Pentagon

3 December 2021
GG

Dark Horse: General Larry O. Spencer and His Journey from the Horseshoe to the Pentagon, General Larry O. Spencer USAF (retired), 2021, ISBN 9781682477021, 162 pp.

Larry Spencer is a remarkable person on several counts. To those of us on the lower rungs of society he made it from the hood to flag officer in the U.S. Air Force (USAF). To those in the USAF he made it to four star generalship not by being a fighter pilot (the regular route), or even by being a pilot (my Lord!)—but by being a financial analyst (What?). To most of us he is what we all work to be—honest, hard working, intelligent and knowing full well he got where he did with the help of others. A humble, intelligent, dutiful person not likely to be heard of by most of the population—unlike too many of those over-the-top reality show characters with their broken personalities which are entertaining if you are not having to live or work with them. It is a real person like General Larry Spencer (USAF, ret.), who should be lauded and emulated and this autobiography is an excellent, as well as enjoyable, way to make a better life through clear thinking, family and wise people who freely give their time.

Spencer is also a great story teller with many tales to tell. Naturally enough his story begins at the beginning—born and initially raised in an all Afro-American neighborhood of Washington DC—with summers spent on a relative’s tobacco farm in Virginia. His experiences with his Virginia relatives are enlightening and extraordinary to those who are not in a minority. These relatives grew up in the Jim Crow Era South and the local population-of-means appeared to wish to remain there. Can you imagine not raising your voice in town to say hello for fear of being beaten? Most of us cannot which makes but Spencer’s description that much more visceral.

Spencer intriguingly describes childhood clues to his talent to analyze math and facts to be efficient with funds. These clues illustrate why a wide exposure of experiences to children is imperative with immediate reinforcement of success, whatever it may be. 

Fighter pilots make films.

Bomber pilots make history.

Nothing moves without logistics.

Logistics are frozen unless the money is moving. 

This is where the author excelled in serving his country—his fantastic ability at keeping things moving through thrift, efficiency, observation, thinking and conferring. How he managed that through education and promotions leading to his appointment to the Pentagon as a four star is a tale worth listening to in order to gain deeper understanding of how historic event are really made possible. 

Spencer also accomplished all his successes with compassion. His understanding of human nature seems innate and shows how relating instead of simply demanding can be a tremendously more successful strategy. Thinking and intelligence with heart—a superior combination to enjoy in the reading of Larry Spencer’s life and USAF career.