Our tax dollars at work

Instead of spending time gaming or engaged in any type of creative endeavor, last night I let my wife talk me into vegging out in front of the TV to watch “Your Tax Dollars at Work” on the National Geographic channel.

Well, it wasn’t really called “Your Tax Dollars at Work”, but the serial of three, hour-long shows were all concerned about some serious (and expensive) hardware-geekiness on the part of our government. First, “Air Force One” examined the adventures (and equipment) of the Air Force’s Presidential Airlift Group – the folks who jet the President around. This was followed by “Marine One”, a similarly-styled program concerned with the Marine Corps’ HMX-1 – the helicopter squadron that operates the small fleet of Presidential choppers.

The final program for the evening was a look at the operations of USS Ronald Reagan, one of the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Even though I’m pretty familiar with the big, sea-going airfields I couldn’t quite manage to tear myself away from that one, either.

An F/A-18 on the deck

An F/A-18 on Saratoga's deck

What about the Army? No love for the grunts last night. Maybe if they had some cool gear like an aircraft carrier they would rate a spot on NatGeo’s “Tax Dollars” night. As it stands, I guess digital camo, helicopter gunships and tanks just don’t cut it. Not expensive enough, I guess.

I can summarize the first two shows pretty quickly. We spend a lot of money to have the Air Force and Marine Corps folks lug the President around. It ain’t no taxi service. Every movement is a carefully choreographed military operation. Of course, as they pointed out a number of times it is indeed a “zero failure” undertaking. So it’s tough to argue that any of it is overkill.

An A-6 Intruder waits for launch

An A-6 Intruder waits for launch

When I watch these mil-geek programs, I always learn stuff. For instance, here’s something I never realized: The snappy-looking marine in his dress blues who is always parked by the hatch of Marine One isn’t just there for eye-candy, and he’s not some sort of uber-Marine bodyguard. He’s the helicopter’s crew chief. The Marines are an efficient bunch, as the helicopter flies with just the usual three-man flight crew: pilot, co-pilot and crew chief. Dude. I have known one or two crew chiefs over the years, and they always struck me as busy enough with their ‘regular’ job. The crew chief of Marine One definitely has some busy days.

The program about USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) was a big flashback for me. Back in my distant and misspent youth I had the opportunity to bang my shins on the bulkhead doors aboard both USS Forrestal (CV-59) and USS Saratoga (CV-60). The Navy’s carrier airgroups no longer fly some of the aircraft types that I saw 20 years ago, but otherwise it looks like very little has changed about flight deck operations.

Scary-big plane catches a wire

Scary-big plane flies a touch-n-go

Three of the snappies I took aboard USS Saratoga appear in this post. Of the three, the F/A-18 is still flying – although I understand contemporary models are a bit of a step up. The EA-3D Skywarrior wasn’t part of the airgroup, rather it was an aircraft from a land-based reserve squadron that was flying carrier qualifications. The A-6 was still in the combat inventory, although not for much longer.

Gawd. I am SUCH a geek.

Peace, equality and 1,000-pound bombs

Since Monday was the ‘official’ MLK day, I’d like to briefly depart the topic of wargaming and write about something more appropriate for a bank/government holiday that celebrates the memory of a man dedicated to peace and equality.

Yep. On Saturday I took Junior Destructo Man 3.75 over to the Ocala airport and let him get a good, close look at three old warbirds that had been flown in for the weekend. To me, nothing says peace and equality quite like the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator.

B-17G visits Ocala

B-17G visits Ocala

A P-51 Mustang was also on display, but turns out it wasn’t really in ‘warbird’ condition. It was more sporterized in a modern, air-racing sort of way – except for the fact that they’d added a second seat so they could sell ‘flying lessons’ for the tidy sum of $2200 per half hour. I didn’t see any takers.

The airport’s smallish terminal was crowded with Old Guys showing off Old Stuff at their trinkets tables. As befits what was essentially a charity event (Keeping those old planes flying isn’t cheap), the grounds outside the terminal featured the usual weenie and funnel-cake vendors.

The bombardier's station

The bombardier position

But the two old bombers were the centerpieces of the show. To my untrained eyes they were in very good condition for sextagenarian former members of the Aluminum Overcast. Since I don’t at all mind throwing a bit of financial support at a good cause, I ponied up the $18 so that Juanco and I could clamber around inside the old bombers.

Looking forward from the bomb-bay

Looking forward from the bomb-bay

Despite the fact that I’m a history buff and an aviation enthusiast, until Saturday I had never set foot inside a flying model of either aircraft. Warbird shows and visits to air museums have come and gone, but for some reason I had never taken advantage of any of those opportunities. This time I figured that the few flying big warbirds that remain likely won’t be flying for very many more years, so it was time to get on in there and take a look around.

Hey, the kid could fit

Hey, the kid could fit

My first observation is that airmen back in the 1940s probably weren’t quite my size. Juan Carlos – being just a shade over three feet tall – didn’t have any problems getting around, but for me it was a tight squeeze. In my defense, I’ll note that I am leaner than I used to be (although hardly ‘lean’) so it was more an issue of shoulders than of waist. [Yes. I am the stereotypical broad-shouldered man-stud for the New Century.]

We climbed in the nose hatch of the B-17, which landed us right behind the bombardier position and below the pilots’ stations. In order to access the rest of the aircraft, we clambered up between the two pilots’ seats. From there, a knee-knocker (for me, anyway) of a bulkhead door gave entrance to the smallish cabin with the radio and navgear and the top gun turret. A narrow catwalk through the bomb-bay lead back to the aft cabin with the stations for the ball-turret, waist guns and other doodads.

Another view of the B-17

Another view of the B-17

The B-17 was considered a large aircraft when it was designed, but throughout our little tour I was struck by how small it was in comparison to contemporary heavy-lifters. As I sqwaddled along the bomb-bay catwalk I thought “This is all?” – because I somehow imagined I would find a space much bigger. But I guess that’s all the space needed for the six- to eight-thousand pound payloads the aircraft typically carried.

Think about that for a moment: Thousands upon thousands of times during the war, the ten-man crews aboard B-17s risked their lives (and all too often lost them) in order to drop maybe six or eight thousand-pounders on their enemies. Yeah, they were smaller than me – but they had a lot more guts, I think.

A look at the Liberator

A look at the Liberator

After knocking and banging my way through the B-17, the moderately more spacious B-24J was something of an anti-climax. We entered through the aft hatch in the bottom of the aircraft. The aft area where the tail-gunner held court was off-limits – much to the disappointment of the gray-haired former tail-gunner I encountered who wanted to see if he could still fit in his one-time flying office space.

In the B-24, we only had access to the aft compartment. It’s a bit taller space than on the B-17, and it also includes access to the ball-turret. I’ve always read that ball-turret gunners were typically the smallest men in the aircrew, and after getting a look at one of the gizmos up-close now I understand why. The turret hatch was closed, of course, but it was pretty easy for me to figure out by simple measurement that I probably couldn’t squeeze into it much beyond my knees. I don’t think it was two feet wide.

The B-24's spacious accommodations

The B-24 - spacious accommodations

The area forward of the bomb-bay was also off-limits to the tour, so we had to exit through the bomb-bay. Some steps down were thoughtfully provided. Unfortunately, there were some structural supports mid-bay on the catwalk – and they were spaced too narrowly for my big butt to squeeze through. I could squeeze between similar supports on the B-17, but on the B-24 there was less vertical space and I had to squat in the bomb-bay. The combination of my knees poking out one way and my big butt poking out the other way killed the deal. My kid easily made it to the steps and hopped down, but it was obvious I wasn’t going to get that far.

So. Bombs away. I had to jump out the bomb bay.

Not quite a thousand-pounder, fortunately.

Holiday travel, circa 1968

Maybe it’s a little odd, but I’m a child of the 1960s and I can’t help myself. On this Christmas Eve, at least for a while, my thoughts turn from the usual holiday preparations and onto one of the singular events I remember from my childhood.

Forty years ago today, the world changed forever.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon – the first humans to slip away from the Earth’s tight grasp and look back across the lonely void at their distant, verdant home world. The images that they sent back to the then-largest-ever live television audience were startling and starkly beautiful.

Our fragile world revealed

Our fragile world revealed

From that moment forward, the Earth would never seem quite the same to us. Our planet – all water and rock and concrete and steel from our perspective here ‘dirtside’ – suddenly appeared small and fragile, a tiny island of life floating in the middle of absolutely nothing. The philosophical impact of the first images of a distant Earth are still being felt to this day. People too young to remember (or not then born) may not realize the impact Apollo 8′s imagery has had on their lives.

Volumes have been written about the topic and time is short today, so I’ll leave it to you to Google around and get educated. But while you’re Googling (or whatever), I would also like to ask you to pause for a moment to consider the courage shown by the three men who volunteered to have themselves blasted out into that place where, truly, “no man had gone before.” You want heroes? Here are three of them:

Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell - the crew of Apollo 8

Frank Borman, William Anders and Jim Lovell - the crew of Apollo 8

In closing their broadcast that Christmas Eve long ago, the crew read the opening verses of Genesis – which mankind listened to, for the first time, with a new understanding and insight:

William Anders 

“We are now approaching lunar sunrise and, for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Jim Lovell 

“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

Frank Borman 

“And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

History in a box

Most of the time when I use the term “history in a box”, I’m talking about wargames. But today I mean a different kind of history – real historical documentation, this time in a box full of old photographs.

A few days back I posted a photo of USS Staten Island that my Dad took when he was a Navy photographer. I’ve got a box full of ‘em, mostly from the ship’s 1953 Arctic cruise, but a few of them from 1952. When he was leaving the service Dad originally had a lot more photos, negatives, chromes and 16mm movie reels. Unfortunately, hardly any of them remained after his car was broken into just outside Boston Navy Yard.

I’ve seen more than the photos I have in my possession, including a journal or two stuffed with photos and tall tales from the far North. But I haven’t seen them in years and I’ve no idea where they might have gotten off to after Dad passed away a couple of years ago.

Arctic cruise yearbook, 1953

Arctic cruise yearbook, 1953

Just to show off a bit of my history in a box, I’m going to toss up a few images. The first is the cover from a thin staple-bound booklet – sort of a yearbook – that’s packed with photos from the 1953 Arctic cruise of AGB-5. Truth be told, the cover treatment reminds me of the same paper stock that was used in my similarly staple-bound yearbook from junior high school about 20 years later. Small world.

Next are scans of a couple of pages from the cruise yearbook. These cover Operation Mushrat – the launch of high-altitude sounding rockets from balloon platforms. While the “Rockoon” program pioneered by James A. Van Allen is documented in a number of places, little coverage is given to the ships and crews that performed that actual launches. I’ve found a few fleeting sources on the Internet that date the launches and platforms, but even some of those are in error.

Mushrat: Sounding rockets launched from USS Staten Island

Mushrat: Sounding rockets launched from USS Staten Island in 1953

In a couple of sources that I’ve found, the 1953 launch program is credited to the USCGC Eastwind WAGB-279, a sister ship of Staten Island (which later became WAGB-278 in Coast Guard service). I think this yearbook makes it pretty clear that USS Staten Island was the launch platform for at least part of the 1953 firing program (there were about 19 or 20 launches during the summer of 1953).

I don't think Mushrat was popular with the crew

Man-handling a sounding rocket aboard USS Staten Island in 1953

Just setting the record straight. And it still looks darned cold.

The ice man can keep it

There’s cold weather, and then there’s crazy.

I live in Florida for many reasons. One of the better rationales is that it doesn’t get insanely cold here in the winter time. In fact, as I write this, it’s nearly midnight and the temperature outside is plunging into the frigid mid-60s.

I like that a lot.

Thoughts of crazy cold weather began bouncing around inside my addled brain today when the newest game from Avalanche Press plopped onto my doorstep. Second World War at Sea: Arctic Convoy is a peek at the convoy battles that raged in the far north from 1941-43 as the western Allies sought to ship the material of war to the Soviet Union following the Nazi invasion in June, 1941.

More on the game itself in a day or two. Right now I’m just staring at the two rather frigid-looking operational maps from that game (which cover the entire run from Scapa Flow to Murmansk and Archangel’sk) and wondering what kind of crazy/brave men it took to sail and fight their way through those very hostile waters.

I’ve regarded the Arctic with a mixture of awe and suspicion since that day in my distant and misspent youth that I came across a collection of some of the photos my Dad took when he was in the Navy. He was a photographer and served aboard USS Staten Island (AGB-5), an icebreaker, during Arctic cruises in 1952 and 1953.

USS Staten Island (AGB-5) in Arctic ice off Greenland, 1952

USS Staten Island operating in Arctic ice off the coast of Greenland, 1952

There were photos of a small ship surrounded by nothing but mountains of floe ice. There were photos of the ship’s superstructure crusted with ice. There were photos of deck and shore parties working in conditions so inhosbitable that they may as well have been exploring the moon. Every last damned one of them looked COLD.

After some brief experimentation with being stuck up to my armpits in snow drifts on a Colorado mountain trail (in the summer, at that) and then coming face to face with a few glistening blue glaciers in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, I easily decided that my Dad’s photos and stories – along with a few Robert Service poems – were about as close to the Arctic as I need to get. I think at some point during my little Alaska adventure I probably strayed north of the Arctic circle, but at the time I was more focused on dodging the magpie-sized mosquitos than engaging in precision land navigation. A mile or two this way or that didn’t much matter. I wanted to keep every quart of my blood to myself – and I wanted to keep it all thoroughly thawed out.

I am not a rugged individualist of the Far North. I am a swamp-dwelling grits-eater perfectly at ease in 95-degree heat and 95-percent humidity.

I like my mosquitos small and my days hot. Your mileage may vary, of course.