Category Archives: Aviation

Good Airplane Movies

If you hang out with pilots for any length of time and the movies come up you’ll very likely hear the more or less unanimous opinion that Hollywood doesn’t make good movies about aviation.

I agree good aviation movies are few and far between, but it should be noted that an aviation movie is about people flying or otherwise involved with airplanes. An “aviation movie” should let the non-flying viewer glimpse what motivates otherwise normal people to learn to fly and deliberately, even eagerly, perform the unnatural act of flying.

Pilots don’t tend to talk about the faults in the story. That’s sort of secondary. They tend to focus on technical inaccuracies about the airplanes or the techniques of flying them. A particularly egregious example is a movie where a Spitfire pilot manages to break the speed of sound by “cross-controlling” – possibly a misunderstanding of the control reversal phenomenon experienced by some airplanes as they near Mach One – an event that, even at the time the film was made, was known to be not merely incorrect but something that would lead to the destruction of the aircraft and probably its pilot. Exceeding Mach One in a propeller-driven aircraft is an aerodynamic impossibility, anyway.

My personal favorite mistakes include identification of one type of airplane as another. The film “Midway” (1976) had aerial shots that identified an airplane with four engines (probably a C-130 Hercules) as a twin-engine PBY Catalina; a long shot of an aerial dogfight where the airplanes involved all appeared to have in-line engines, whereas all the airplanes at Midway had radial engines; or the scene where an American TBF torpedo bomber is identified as a Japanese “Kate” even though the white star of the US national insignia, as opposed to the red rising sun of Japan, is plainly visible.

Directors would probably argue, with some justice, that to most people an airplane is an airplane is an airplane and what the blank, they’ve all got wings, don’t they? So what difference does it make? Besides, it costs a lot of money to shoot those aerial scenes right. Look at Howard Hughes nearly going broke shooting “Hell’s Angels.”

So what’s the big deal?

Well…you don’t become a pilot unless flying means something to you beyond the ordinary, and given the vanishingly small percentage of people who actually become pilots, much less professional pilots, maybe it isn’t surprising that so few people understand why it’s important to pilots to get these “little details” right.

Because, you see, to pilots, especially professional pilots who may have lives riding on their skill and expertise, there’s no such thing as a small or unimportant detail. Little things can kill you.

So I suspect at least two reasons why pilots scowl at aviation movies. First, as noted, if overlooking details can result in damage, death, or disaster, then one can understand why pilots – the ones who tend to live longest, anyway – tend to acquire a thorough and painstaking knowledge of their craft and the airplanes they fly. It should also be understandable why pilots tend to be intolerant of mistakes and ignorance. Those can get you killed.

That seems pretty obvious, but there is a second reason, a little more subtle, and it involves the craft of writing a story. The fiction story usually requires something called “dramatic conflict” – a compelling reason, interesting to the reader, for the character or characters to be confronted with a problem to be solved. The detective story is a perfect example; the actions of the detective in solving the case carry the action of a story in a most satisfying way, if properly written.

If a pilot performs properly, aviation, from outside of the cockpit, appears uneventful, a transit between two points in varying degrees of comfort. Pilots work very hard indeed to achieve that level of apparent lack of drama.

When things go bad and pilots do what they’re supposed to do in an emergency, far more often than not dealing with the emergency, from outside the cockpit, still has that aura of the ordinary and uneventful. It’s not every day that Sully Sullenberger has to put an airliner into the Hudson, less than three minutes after departure, because both engines of his airplane ingest birds and flame out. I got a real kick out of listening to the tape of Sullenberger on the radio with the air traffic controllers. They’d ask him if he could reach this airport, or that airport, and Sully, being perhaps a tad busy, consistently replies with nothing more than “Unable.” That recording is available on YouTube. Listen to Sully’s voice. It’s the voice of a master at work.

Even more, it’s not every day that a flight crew is confronted with engine failure combined with hydraulic failure resulting in inoperative controls, a condition highly likely to lead to a catastrophic departure from controlled flight, as nearly happened to United Flight 232 on July 19, 1989. That crew, aided by a United Airlines training check airman who was aboard, gave new meaning to cliches like “used every trick in the book” and “snatched victory from the jaws of death.” Victory in this case meant most of the passengers survived the crash landing, when casualties could easily have been 100%. They survived because the members of the flight crew were consummate practitioners of their craft.

In aviation, dramatic conflict usually means death or the danger thereof. That’s how most people see it, anyway. Maybe that’s why pilots don’t like aviation movies. No one likes to be reminded of how things can go to pieces and leave you to pick up the mess, if you can. Especially when the blank-blank details are wrong. Some fool kid might think it was right, go try it, and end up in a smoking hole at the scene of the accident.

All of that being said I’m going to recommend the following five movies as good aviation films, maybe not always spot-on with details, but true at least in spirit. These films, to me, show something very close to what it means to be a pilot. Feel free to agree or disagree with my choices, and by all means make other recommendations.

“Spirit of St. Louis” (1957)

“Dawn Patrol” (1938)

“Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)

“The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954)

“I Wanted Wings” (1941)

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To End an Era

Twenty years ago I met this old guy at an air show. He looked like the kind of guy you picture as a grandfather, a sweet benign smile that lit up his eyes, soft-spoken, white hair where he had any hair left on his head. Wrinkles. Age spots. Thick glasses.

He had his log of missions flown in World War II. Turns out he was a flight engineer / upper turret gunner with the 2nd Bomb Group, 15th AF.

“That’s when I shot down an ME-109,” he said, pointing to the date written in the log. He was the only veteran assigned to a new crew. The other gunners used the wrong lubrication on their weapons, and their guns jammed up as a result. He, however, knew the proper way to lubricate his machine guns so they’d operate in the severe cold of the stratosphere where the 2nd Bomb Group flew their missions. “Boy, after that, my crew thought I walked on water.”

Then he told me about the “Last Man Club.” Local veterans of World War One started it. There was a prize for the last man still alive of the original group. I don’t remember what it was. Maybe it was a bottle of brandy, or champagne. Maybe they all contributed to a fund. The point was, it went to the last man. The last man who remembered going over the top at Chateau-Thierry or Belleau Wood. What that was like.

A good friend of mine, Brad Kurlancheek, sent me a link to a story about the Doolittle Raiders and their version of the Last Man Club, which inspired this post. Here’s the link; it’s well worth a look.

http://www.history.com/news/one-final-toast-for-the-doolittle-raiders

Richard E. Cole, who served as Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot, is the last man living who remembers what it was like to take off in a B-25 from the pitching deck of the USS Hornet, April 18, 1942.

The image that struck me the most from that article was the picture of the silver cups the surviving Raiders used to toast each other during their reunions. When one of the Raiders died, they turned his cup over.

Now only Richard Cole’s cup is left. The last man. All the other cups belonging to all the other Raiders have been turned over.

To me there’s something poignant in that image. Who, after all, gets to turn over Cole’s cup? Imagine being the one appointed. You aren’t a Raider, but for some reason — maybe because you are the eldest surviving child of a Raider — you’re chosen to perform the ceremony, because make no mistake, that’s what it is, a ceremony. In the simple act of turning over a silver cup, you perform something mundane and earth-changing at the same time. You end an era. The last living link to that morning, April 18, 1942, is severed. After that, history consists of silver cups, turned upside down. Those upside-down silver cups will be an exhibit in a museum. People walk by and look at them and wonder what all the fuss is about, and why those guys decided to have those cups made. Why those guys wanted to remember that morning when America was losing the war, and they volunteered to be at the very tip of the spear America would build over the next three years to hurl against Japan.

At another air show, twenty years ago, I had the chance to shake hands with a man who was part of that spear. I got his autograph, and I shook his hand and thanked him. Just a simple, normal handshake, a courtesy you perform without thinking.

Only the man was Thomas Ferebee, bombardier on the Enola Gay, and the hand I shook was the one on the bombsight, August 6, 1945, over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

A man, or a silver cup turned upside down; and a link to history, that whispers to you, whose message you must make the effort to hear, to really listen to that whispering.

Listen. Just listen.

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Spin Recovery in the P-39

The first time I was in a spin it was in a sailplane with very docile handling characteristics, the Schweizer 2-33. Spin recovery is a necessary skill to master in a sailplane, since you spend a lot of time turning inside a thermal a few miles an hour above stall speed. Misjudge that, let your speed drop, tighten the turn a little bit too much, and you depart controlled flight.

But not to worry, not in the 2-33. Center the controls to break the rotation, stick a little forward to pick up airspeed, and the sailplane is flying again.

That’s two pretty simple, even instinctive moves. You can do it in a second or less.

The pilot’s manual for the P-39 Airacobra sets out a recovery technique that’s a little more complicated. There are two phases, pre-recovery and recovery. In the pre-recovery phase, the pilot has to close the throttle, set the propeller control to the low RPM position, and pull the control stick into your lap. Get it? The throttle is at your left hand, the propeller control is just behind the throttle, so that’s a one-two movement as you pull the stick back into your lap.

Now remember the airplane is not in a controlled maneuver. The manual describes the spin as being oscillatory in rate. Sometimes it spins fast, sometimes it spins slow. You don’t have any control over the rate. You have to decide when the airplane is slowing down or speeding up. You have to know that because, to effect recovery, you have to apply full opposite rudder when spin is at its slowest. All this time your surroundings — clouds, ground, horizon — are spinning around you. Imagine standing on one of those old playground merry-go-rounds, right in the center, as your friends push on it to make it go faster. That’s a start on what it would be like, except this spin happens in three dimensions, not two. So you wait for the rudder to take effect and push the stick full forward while applying ailerons against the spin. The actual language used in the manual is interesting: “The spin is usually oscillatory in rate, and it is mandatory that the opposite rudder be applied when the spin is at its slowest.” I particularly like that word “mandatory.” It’s the sort of emphasis you don’t often find in a pilot’s manual.

If you follow the procedure above, “…the airplane will recover in one-half turn. If the procedure is not followed closely, the airplane may not recover.” I think the implications of that last sentence deserve examination. You must follow the procedure closely, i.e., you do exactly what the manual says, or you’re going in.

No wonder the manual begins the section on spins with the statement “Deliberate spinning is not recommended.”

Just for a little context, follow the link below, which takes you to a War Department film on spin and tumble tests in the P-39. Bell Aircraft test pilots did these tests because pilots flying the P-39 insisted that the airplane would, in the right circumstances, literally tumble end over end.  You’ll probably also see why the manual included words like “mandatory” and “closely.”

 

 

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Looking Forward with the Past

As readers of my previous post on this blog know, Boxcar Red Leader is now available on Kindle as an ebook and via KENP. It’s also available via CreateSpace as a paperback. Sales are not in the NYTBS range…yet! Many thanks to those of you who purchased and read the book, and the other two in the series so far. Please, tell all your friends, and if you feel so inclined write a review of the books on Amazon. You have no idea how much it helps!

So that’s one piece of news, and the other is about the two subsequent books in the series:  Thanks for the Memories and The New Boys. Not going to give anything away, but the survivors of the first three books will continue in those two volumes.

So, a little historical context:

Thanks for the Memories takes place in the summer and fall of 1942 in New Guinea. The Japanese, having been turned back at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and having suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Midway, are still nowhere close to being defeated. Allied forces in the South and Southwest Pacific theaters still operate on the slimmest of shoestrings. Yet with the resources at their disposal they must find a way not only to hold their ground but begin rolling back the might of the Japanese Empire.

In some ways that sounds like alternate history, doesn’t it? “The might of the Japanese Empire.” But any student of history will assure you, there was nothing “alternate” about the Japanese Army and Navy — particularly their Navy! — in 1942. Allied victory at Midway turned on the slimmest of margins; in five minutes, Dauntless dive bombers turned three Japanese carriers into blazing wrecks and salvaged victory from what was shaping up as a major defeat. Those five minutes in many ways overshadowed the valor of American airmen, mostly Navy but also Air Corps, who gave their lives and their blood in attacks foiled by flak and Zeros.

Torpedo Squadron Eight, for example, was nearly wiped out at Midway. Their commanding officer, John Waldron, was one of the first to go. Despite the death of their commanding officer, VT-8 pressed home their attack against odds that were literally, obviously, suicidal. Only a single man, Ensign George Gay, survived. His survival and rescue were flukes of pure luck.

The Japanese who witnessed the attack said that Torpedo Eight came on like samurai.

This type of courage was seen again and again in the Pacific.

That’s the war of Everything We Had, A Snowball’s Chance, Boxcar Red Leader, and Thanks for the Memories. Well, OK, so it’s a land war a long way to the south of Midway. The spirit was, is, the same.

But with The New Boys we’ll start looking across the Atlantic, to the war in Europe. That, of course, will be new ground entirely. Other books are in the research and planning stages.

While I get busy writing those two, everyone enjoy Boxcar Red Leader! Don’t feel shy about dropping me a line here to tell me what you think.

Thanks again!

— Tom Burkhalter

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Airplanes in My Novels: the Much-Maligned Bell P-39

Bell_P-39_Airacobra_in_flight_firing_all_weapons_at_night

Bell P-39 night-firing. Note engine exhausts and air scoop behind the cockpit. Wing guns are .30-cal., the two guns firing through the propeller are .50-cal., and the 37-mm cannon is firing through the prop spinner.

Before I started writing Boxcar Red Leader, I knew there was an airplane called the P-39, that it was built by Bell Aircraft, and was fairly unique among fighter designs of the era in having tricycle landing gear and the engine mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot, to leave room in the nose of the airplane for a 37-mm cannon. The propeller driveshaft passed from the engine behind the cockpit, under the pilot’s seat, and connected to a gearbox that drove the propeller. The P-39 was a contemporary of the far-better-known Curtiss P-40. I also knew the airplane was called the “Iron Dog” and there seemed to be a sizable contingent of former P-39 pilots who actively disliked the airplane. There’s even a verse about it, in the old Air Corps folk song “Give Me Operations:”

Oh, don’t give me a P-39
The engine is mounted behind
She’ll stall and she’ll spin
And she’ll auger you in
Don’t give me a P-39!

Evidently the center of gravity and the center of lift in the P-39 were in a very sensitive relationship, far more so than in other, more conventional airplanes. This resulted in an airplane very sensitive to pitch inputs, such that only very small increments of elevator control were needed to effect pitch change. This goes directly to the “she’ll stall and she’ll spin” verse above. When pulling gee in a tight turn one pulls back on the stick; if not done with skill, the turn will tighten to the point where the g-load exceeds the lift generated by the wings, causing what is known as an “accelerated stall.” Entering a stall from a turn will lead to a spin, and evidently the P-39 had interesting spin characteristics, to the point where many pilots were convinced the airplane would actually tumble end over end.

On the other hand, there were pilots who absolutely loved the Airacobra. Chuck Yeager flew the airplane in training, loved it, and relates in his autobiography a conversation he once had with a Russian pilot who flew the P-39 – successfully! – against the Luftwaffe. Edwards Park flew the P-39 in New Guinea, and his account of that time is written in his book, Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, a narrative I recommend as one of the best books about flying I’ve ever read.

My perception is that much of the dislike directed at the P-39 resulted from the pilots who were thrown into the airplane straight out of flight school and then expected to fly the P-39 against the experienced Zero pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the skies over New Guinea. Most of these pilots had never flown an airplane more powerful or faster than an AT-6 trainer. Later in the war pilots like this would be sent to an OTU, or Operational Training Unit, to encounter the P-39 or P-40 under the relatively benign conditions of a stateside training base. In the Pacific, in 1942, kids fresh out of flying school were put in P-39s and P-40s and sent out against the Japanese. The loss rate, from accidents and combat, was horrendous.

The P-39, like the P-40, was equipped with the Allison V-1710 engine. The V-1710 was a fairly good engine, but in the P-39 and the P-40 it had only a single-stage supercharger, and, as a result, the performance of both airplanes fell off sharply above 17,000 feet. If what you have to defend Port Moresby and Seven-Mile Drome from Jap bombers flying at 23,000 feet is a P-39, you face a difficult tactical problem, one not helped by the fact that the defenders of Seven-Mile rarely had enough warning to climb high enough to intercept Japanese bombers with any hope of success.

Between the high loss rate and the poor performance, compared to the A6M2 Zero fighter the P-39 found itself matched against, it’s no wonder the pilots disliked the airplane.

Still, I kind of like the P-39. I’ll never have a chance to fly one, to see for myself just how sensitive and well-balanced those controls are, or if she really will tumble, but there’s something about the way the airplane looks.

Over and above any of that, the P-39 was one of the two pursuit airplanes the Army Air Forces had at the beginning of World War Two available in significant numbers. It didn’t matter, from that perspective, how the pilots felt about the airplanes. It was what they had.

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Airplanes In My Novels: the Curtiss P-40

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Curtiss P-40E pursuits peel off after a target below. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jack Davis flies the Curtiss P-40E in both Everything We Had and the second novel in the series, A Snowball’s Chance, under production as I write this post.

The Curtiss P-40 was America’s front-line pursuit airplane in 1941. It wasn’t as fast or glamorous as the RAF’s Supermarine Spitfire or the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109E. Development of those two airplanes kept them operationally viable through 1945, but the P-40’s performance remained more or less the same from the P-40B through the P-40N. Even changing the Allison V-1710 engine for the Rolls-Royce Merlin in the P-40F didn’t improve that performance. A nearly complete redesign of the P-40, the P-40Q, resulted in an airplane with a top speed of 400 mph, but by then the war was nearly over and the other pursuit types in USAAF service – the P-38, P-47 and P-51, not to mention the first generation of jet fighters like the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star – were superior in almost every way.

20th_Pursuit_Squadron_Curtiss_P-40B_Warhawks_Nichols_Field,_Luzon,_Philippines (1)

Curtiss P-40B pursuits of the 20th Pursuit Squadron at Nichols Field in the Philippines before the beginning of the war. USAF photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The P-40 had two major virtues for a pursuit airplane in 1941 and 1942: first, it was competitive with the Japanese Zero, and second, maybe more important, it was what we had in quantity to equip our own pursuit groups and send overseas to our Allies. In North Africa, the P-40 was used extensively and successfully as a fighter-bomber. In China, the record of the American Volunteer Group (better known as the Flying Tigers) was compiled using a handful of obsolescent P-40B models, the same airplane that equipped the 20th Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines.

The P-40E equipped most of the USAAF pursuit squadrons sent to the Southwest Pacific in 1941 and 1942. For fighting Zeros it was adequate, being as fast as the Zero in level flight and able to break off combat with the Zero by diving away. The Zero wasn’t known for being sturdy, and would come apart under punishment that the P-40, or any other American combat airplane, would simply shrug off.

At the time of Everything We Had, the P-38 was only beginning to become available, and was still overcoming problems associated with compressibility issues at high speeds. The P-38 was the first airplane to encounter Mach buffet, a phenomenon poorly understood in 1941 or for some years afterward. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was in development but wouldn’t be available in any numbers until 1943. The P-51 Mustang was originally designed for the RAF as a substitute for the P-40, and was also still in development.

So the P-40 was the only pursuit, other than the Bell P-39 Airacobra, available in any numbers to equip the USAAF. As for the P-39, stay tuned. I’ll talk about that airplane sometime before Christmas, when Boxcar Red Leader, the third book in the series, comes out.

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East to the Dawn — A Review

Usually I don’t read biographies. I made an exception for Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn – the Life of Amelia Earhart because of, well, Amelia Earhart.

Amelia has always been a favorite of mine. I remember reading her chapter in a book by Robert S. Owen, They Flew to Fame, when I was nine or ten years old. It was the chapter just after Lindbergh’s which, in retrospect, seems fitting.

I confess I found the story of Amelia’s early life a little slow. That’s not Ms. Butler’s fault; a person’s life moves at its own pace, and even Amelia’s was no exception. There were still interesting things to be found in the first half of the book; I knew Amelia had been a social worker, but I had no idea at ten what a “social worker” was (except for the reference in a song from “West Side Story”) or the fact that in the mid-20s it was considered a cutting-edge career for women. I also didn’t know about the misfortunes of Amelia’s early family life, which I won’t go in to — read the book yourself.

I’m also not quite sure at what point I became enthralled with the book. It was probably when Ms. Butler pointed out that once Amelia made a success of herself as a social worker at the Denison House she could have had a brilliant career in that field, possibly living to a respected and accomplished old age. I simply hadn’t thought of that, and that point, the idea that an historical figure actually had choices, is not something that one sees brought out in biographies very often, because they are nearly always about people who are famous for doing something we already know about. For that reason choices made often seem the only ones possible; set in stone, or predestined, if you will. Ms. Butler avoids that, and her work is all the better for it.

From that point on the biography, already well done, became in my opinion inspired, and I began to consider what Ms. Butler had to put in to the writing.

I asked myself what caused the author to undertake the task of this book? Writing a fresh biography of a figure like Amelia Earhart, famous and well-known in her own time, the subject of many other biographies, is surely a daunting undertaking. Ms. Butler seems to have approached the task with a will. The level of effort employed is to be appreciated only by looking at the extensive notes and bibliography.

That level of effort involved many interviews with people still living who knew Amelia; a search through previously unpublished contemporary records, such as diaries, journals and letters, the mere ferreting out of which in itself had to be a monumental task; searching through records official and unofficial. Merely compiling the data alone is a task involving years of focus, discipline and purpose.

One might say such an effort has elements of obsession, but I see obsession as a negative quality, and there is nothing of the negative in the quality of Ms. Butler’s work. It is rather a work of love, undertaken in the spirit of a duty one sometimes finds oneself selected to bear, the duty of bringing witness to greatness.

No one can write words that put us inside the skin of another, and if they could that still might not be the greatest artistry. The great writer, in whatever form, through words creates a platform of the imagination which strikes in the mind and soul of the reader sparks of sympathy, empathy and compassion, a light in that darkness surrounding our souls that permits us a glimpse, a trembling glimpse across an awful void, to where the soul of another may be discerned.

So it is with this biography.

Quite aside from anything else, as an aviation enthusiast I found Ms. Butler’s anecdotes of the aviation community of the 1920s and 1930s to be fascinating and informative. Her account of Amelia’s last flight, particularly the last legs from Java and New Guinea to remote Howland Island, was poignant, the last line of that chapter heart-wrenching for anyone who has ever flown.

Need I add that I thoroughly recommend this work?

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