The need for a backup

This is a slow week, so I am thinking I will drop in a bit of fluff from personal observation. First a little background:

Back when I was in high school in Granbury I thought I would add a little adventure to my life by joining the Navy Reserve. They had a good deal. I could start my training while I was still going to school, and I would not have any active duty obligation until after graduation. So in the summer before my senior year I was off to monthly training sessions at the Naval Air Station Dallas. It was an adventure.

I was in a fighter squadron, because I thought fighters were really neat. They went fast, and they were always getting into combat with other fighters. It did not take me long to figure out I would never get to fly in a fighter. With few exceptions jet fighters were single-seat, and somebody always had to be there to fly the airplane. That left me working on the flight line and watching the fighters zoom off into the wild blue yonder.

But there were the training classes. We reservists spent half our time working on the flight line and the other half sitting in classrooms while experienced petty officers explained the real world to us. And I will never forget my first class, my first bit of instruction, my first useful skill. They taught me how to blow myself out of an airplane.

Back then the fighters had these Martin-Baker ejection seats. I could pull up Wikipedia and get the full factual details, but I think this time I will just wing it and draw from 50-year-old memories. It worked like this:

The first presumption is your airplane is currently flying, and the second presumption is that shortly it will not be flying, and you have to get out before the second part. The first thing you need do is take your feet off the rudder pedals, because they are not coming out with you, and neither will your feet if they are still resting on the rudder pedals when you pull the handle. Put your feet on the steps attached to the front of the ejection seat, and sit straight upright. Look straight ahead. Reach above your head and grasp the handle that hopefully is there but you have not given much thought to until this moment. Pull the handle down and in front of your face as quickly and as hard as you can. Martin-Baker will take care of all the rest.

You are sitting straight up, because you are about to get a spine compression the likes of which you have never experience before. That is unless you have previously fallen ten feet on a concrete floor on your butt. The first part of the action activates an explosive charge that removes the airplane canopy. You want that, because if this part does not work you will go straight up through the Plexiglas. The rumor has it that the top of the seat back will break the Plexiglas before your head has a chance to. About the time the canopy becomes history a 105-mm gun cartridge in the back of the seat will go off and drive a piston and the seat and you about a hundred feet straight up. And that’s only the fun part.

If you have been a good boy and followed all your instructor’s advice, you will have, all this time, been sitting on a well-packed parachute. The ejection seat does not have a seat cushion. It has a parachute, and that parachute is packed has hard a a brick. Furthermore, if you have been extra observant in your classroom lectures you will already be strapped into the parachute.

And there you have it. The laws of physics will take care of everything else. Everything else except separating you from the seat. I have been told there are automatic systems that also handle this function. If you are below 10,000 feet your 5-point harness will release in short order. If you are above 10,000 feet you will stay attached to the seat until you get to 10,000 feet. It would not do to open your parachute at, say, 30,000 feet and then freeze before you got to the ground. I never saw any such automatic mechanism, myself. It all looked very manual to me. You just let go of the ejection handle and, if your arms have not been broken by the wind blast, you reach for your belly button and pull the 5-point release handle. Then you will separate from the seat, and the parachute will open automatically upon separation.

You hope. And this is where my observation comes into the story.

I have previously written about paratroopers, who jump out of perfectly good airplanes. They do this (or used to do this) because the quickest way to get to a battlefield behind enemy lines is by airplane, and the safest way to get from the airplane to the ground at the battlefield is to just jump right out of the airplane before it lands. Besides, there is often no place for the airplane to land.

Anyhow, the paratroopers would line up in the airplane and go quickly out the door, several hundred feet above the ground. The parachute release mechanism (rip cord) was attached to a static line that pulled the cord as the jumpers exited the airplane. And that was all there was to it. Physics took care of the rest. Except…

Except when the parachute did not open. This did not happen frequently, but there was a backup in case the parachute did not open. Each jumper wore a reserve parachute. When it became apparent there was a problem with first parachute the jumper pulled the handle on the second parachute and saved his life.

Now notice a difference. The fighter pilot does not carry a backup parachute. If the first and only parachute (seat cushion) does not work the pilot becomes a statistic. So, why doesn’t the pilot carry a reserve? Because it’s extra bulk and weight in the cockpit for one. But the paratrooper does carry a reserve parachute. Why? And here is my answer, which I have considered these many years:

The paratrooper gets into the airplane with the full expectation of not coming back to the airfield for a landing. The fighter pilot gets into the airplane with the expectation (somewhat optimistically) of coming back to the airfield, landing and climbing out of the airplane. The pilot does not take off with the expectation of parachuting to the ground. The parachute for the pilot is a backup mechanism, and the reserve parachute for the paratrooper is a backup mechanism. Each person carries a backup for the unexpected. There is no backup for the expected.

And that’s my story for today. I will provide a bit of an epilogue. I did get to fly in a Navy patrol bomber, and I did get to use my parachute training. That is the training of how to put on a parachute. We did not put them on during the flight. Unless somebody is shooting at you there is no expectation of needing to use the parachute. In normal circumstances most accidents happen during takeoff and landing, and a parachute is no good in these circumstances. The general rule is to stay with the aircraft unless there is an uncontrollable fire or catastrophic structural failure. Ditching in the ocean is preferable to jumping into the ocean. Loss of engine power (running out of fuel or engine failure) over very rough terrain would be another occasion to jump. A guy in my division on the Randolph had gone through a jump, but I forget the circumstances.

The other occasion I have worn a parachute was when riding in a glider. Since gliders never run out of fuel the catastrophic structural failure case is the only occasion for using the parachute. So far I have missed that part of the life experience. It’s probably all for the better.



I read the book a long time ago, and I no longer have a copy of it. It’s by Donald R. Burgett, and it’s about American paratroopers in World War II.

It was 70 years ago this month when the men of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment first got together at Camp Toccoa in Georgia. The enlisted men were straight from civilian life, almost to a man. Some officers may have come from OCS or even West Point, but none had seen combat before. In less than 24 months they jumped into the hell that was German-occupied Normandy, and those 24 months showed.

In 24 months the Army turned those men, most barely out of high school, into brutal, remorseless killers who knew no hesitation. In June 1944 there was perhaps no better trained, no better prepared cadre of combatants in the world. Killing was their profession, and they did it well.

Motivation was not lacking. A few months prior to their first gathering their country had been attacked in a stroke that celebrated high treachery. These men wanted blood, and they did not much care whose blood. They wanted to fight. Historian-author Stephen Ambrose wrote Band of Brothers, a story about Easy Company of the 506th, and Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced a 10-part series for HBO of the same title. One of the Easy Company men interviewed for the series told that he came from a small town, and three young men there killed themselves when they learned they were physically unfit for the service. These were the emotions that drove the men of Easy Company.

The title of the book comes from Shakespeare, Henry V:

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…

The book and the TV show emphasize the bonding, the brotherhood, that developed among the men of Easy Company

The bonding did not come cheaply. First there was the toughness, even the brutality of their training. Besides the extra physical development required for their assignment, they also endured an almost classic misanthropic company commander, a fresh officer with little real apparent regard for the men he commanded. He drove the men to their physical and mental limits, as was expected, but he had a streak of cruelty that he foisted on his command, with practically no command capability to mitigate it. Many started the training, a fraction completed it—he was the cause of many of the dropouts, but many stayed the course just to spite their commander. In the end the Army did the right thing and replaced Easy Company’s original commander with one of the company’s own officers, Lieutenant Richard Winters—a soldier’s soldier and an outstanding combat leader.

Read the book if you get a chance. The HBO series has been available through syndication on The History Channel. I made DVDs from the cable, and I recently obtained the series on BlueRay from Amazon.

The 506th and Easy Company saw action in major operations in Europe from June 1944 to May 1945. When Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945 they were in occupation of Hitler’s own residence in the German Alps. Over the next few months I will commemorate the actions of Easy Company on this blog, each time on the 70th anniversary. Keep reading.

Too few choices

What a dilemma. It’s shaping up that this November’s election is going to present too few choices.

On the one hand I can vote for a person who believes that two thousand years ago a god of some sort visited Earth disguised as a man, who performed miracles and was tortured to death but later came back alive and walked about for forty days before ascending into heaven.

On the other hand I can vote for a person who believes that two thousand years ago a god of some sort visited Earth disguised as a man, who performed miracles and was tortured to death but later came back alive and walked about for forty days before ascending into heaven and also that wearing magic underwear will protect the wearer from harm.

What’s a voter to do?

The hummingbird wars – part 1

Hummingbirds live life in the fast lane. They are the smallest of birds and have an extreme metabolic rate for their size. Their wings beat 12 to 80 times per second, and they consume energy like a supersonic fighter. When active they need to feed every few minutes, at least once an hour, or they die. You think you have an obsession for food? For a hummingbird, food is always priority one, except during mating, and that is brief.

The little beasties get their energy in the raw form, sugar from flower nectar. Where there are no flowers with adequate nectar, hummingbirds disappear. Down to the next county, even the next country if necessary. Their migration patterns seem to track the blooming of flowers.

When you put out a hummingbird feeder you duplicate the efforts of 3000 to 8000 flowers, so your feeder is naturally going to become very popular with the little critters. Having a feeder also provides a great opportunity to view a peculiar aspect of hummingbird behavior.

If you have studied biology or even if you have only heard about biology, you will be aware that the guiding principle is the theory of biological evolution. Natural selection is a central theme of evolution—traits that tend to increase the prevalence of that trait in the gene pool will be preserved in the gene pool. The trait does not have to make sense. If you just do the math you will see it works out this way.

The hummingbird trait we like to observe on Elizabeth Court is what I will call source hoarding. A (likely) male bird will happen upon a wondrous source of nectar, and he will seek to deny it to other hummingbirds. It works this way:

The bird that decides he is the owner of a source will feed at the source at will. Then he will hang close by and watch. When he gets hungry he will flit over quickly for a refill, then maybe buzz around protectively for a few seconds before heading back to his perch. Even when he is not hungry he will return to the source from time to time to check for intruders. If any are there he will buzz them and chase them away. Then he will go back and perch, and watch.

These are the hummingbird wars, and they provide sufficient entertainment to justify the expense of putting up a feeder (really cheap) and keeping it filled (really really cheap). The video provides a quick glimpse of hummingbird combat. A quick look will remind you of military aerial combat. The hostile bird (presumably the owner) pursues the interloper in a sequence of high speed maneuvers as the chase winds out. The outcome is (from what I can tell) always the same. The hostile bird prevails, and the outsider retreats to safety. It is not apparent that any actual contact is intended in the attack, but that is probably because the combatants are evenly matched, and the attacker quickly breaks off the engagement when the trespasser clears his airspace.

The combat sequences last at most three seconds, and the only way I have been able to capture them is by planting the camera and coming back later to retrieve the video. So, what you see is just the brief skirmish around the feeder. For your own ring-side seat, get a feeder and wait for your own show to start.

Take the money and run

I just love Rush Limbaugh. I love him. I really do. He gets me up in the morning and sees me to bed at night. My day would not be complete without yet another Limbaugh quote. Where does he get this stuff? Out of a fertile imagination, I am sure. That’s why he is so entertaining and why he makes the big bucks.

Here is a recent one. Somebody posted it on Facebook and I had to track it down:

[Limbaugh] “I don’t know if that’s been outlawed in the Senate bill. I don’t know. I’ll just tell you this, if this passes and it’s five years from now and all that stuff gets implemented — I am leaving the country. I’ll go to Costa Rica.”
If Limbaugh hopes to escape universal health care by fleeing to Costa Rica, he may end up disappointed. The Central American nation provides health care to all its citizens.

See what I mean? Don’t you just love him. If he ran for president I might vote for him just to have him in the news every day. God bless you, Rush. And Tiny Tim, too!

Watch this

I am not saying that if they wanted to, Iran could not do some serious damage to United States military interests. But look at this recent news item:

Iran: We Can Hit 35 US Bases in ‘Minutes’

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has threatened to destroy U.S. military bases across the Middle East and target Israel within minutes of being attacked, Iranian media reported on Wednesday, as Revolutionary Guards extended test-firing of ballistic missiles into a third day.

I think I have seen talk like this before. The wording was usually a bit different. It often sounded like “Hey, y’all. Watch this.” Typically there were a few beers involved, as well, and the outcome was not pretty.

Defending the world for democracy

Sometime in the future when my grandson asks me, “What did you do in the war, Grandpa?” I’m going to have to show him this photo. Here I am aboard the USS Randolph, keeping the world safe for democracy. Actually doing very little to keep the world safe for anything.

Although my job title had me as an ammunition handler (I was in the Aviation Ordnance Division on the Randolph and the Kitty Hawk), I did almost none of that. This was well after the Korean War and before we even thought of going into Vietnam. Absolutely nobody was shooting at us, and we were not shooting at anybody. Eisenhower was president, and “Happy Days” was playing out in real time. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were the ideal American couple, and Ricky Nelson was the ideal American teenager.

We were sometimes called upon to assemble bombs or rockets for loading onto airplanes, and we once spent three days and nights without stop loading up the Randolph with enough stuff to flatten a small town like Granbury. But that was just for intermission. For the most part I earned my keep chipping paint and then repainting where I had chipped paint. And I worked in the division office on the Randolph, which job fell into my lap by default, since I was one of the few in the division who could spell the English language. And that is where the photo finds me. You can see a pencil sharpener somewhere in the photo.

This is not to say we were without excitement. Airplanes landed on the roof day and night. There was an area near the stern of the Randolph where the airplanes landed, and my bunk was about four feet below this surface. When they were preparing to retrieve an aircraft they had some steel cables about one inch in diameter stretched across the landing strip, and they would actuate a mechanism to lift these cables off the deck so the airplane’s tail hook could snag it. The mechanism was operated by some levers below the deck, and one of these devices was right above my bunk. At night when I was lying in my bunk looking up, I could tell when an airplane was about to land, because the lever above me would rotate about 90 degrees. Then I got ready.

The S2Fs were large, twin-engine planes used for submarine hunting, and they would come in slowly and silently until the wheels made contact with the deck. Then all hell would break loose, and the whole place would jump as several tons of aircraft came down a few inches in front of my face. What was really fun was when they had night air operations, and I would be fast asleep at three o’clock in the morning, and I would not notice they were preparing to retrieve an S2F. Then, in the dark, in the middle of my sleep, the thing would hit a few inches from my face and nearly bounce me out of bed. No point getting back to sleep after that. There were always more airplanes coming, and I would just lie there watching for the lever to rotate 90 degrees.

I did notice some gashes in the metal overhead (that’s what we sailors call the ceiling), and somebody explained this to me. An airplane had experienced an accident when landing, and the propeller blades had sliced into the deck above, all the way through the wooden planking and the steel deck above my bunk. Very comforting. It did not take long to figure out why that bunk was still available when I came aboard.

Of course there was other excitement to tell about on aircraft carriers at sea, none of which would make a decent Steven Seagal movie plot. I will relate some of these humorous tales in a later blog.

Life in the fast lane

Many years ago I packed my duffel bag and took a boat ashore from the USS Kitty Hawk. It was my last sea voyage, and I was headed off to college.

I lived in the Campus Guild on Whitis Avenue, and there I met this crazy linguistics major named Byron Black. He was nearly your typical 60s campus radical, and he was obviously bright and very productive. He was always getting study and work grants to go off to some wild part of the world to teach. One summer he came back from Japan with this Honda production racing bike. It was a CR-93, and it was a wild critter that I got to know well.

Byron dissects the CR-93 engine on a Honda of Austin work bench

The CR-93 was a twin-cylinder, 125cc racer with four valves per cylinder, double overhead cams and racing exhausts. At 7-1/2 cubic inches displacement, it produced an honest 15 horsepower at 16,000 rpm, and you could go well over 100 mph on it if you watched your weight. Please do not chuckle at the 16,000 rpm claim. The tachometer did not have any numbers below 6000, and the engine did not have any power down there, either. Typical of a high-performance, normally-aspirated engine, there was a very sharp power peak, and on an uneven course you had to stay with the gear box to keep the engine within its power band.

I got to ride the bike once, and it was an unforgettable experience. Byron was off to Colombia for the Ford Foundation, and he had left the bike at Fred Kretchmar’s Honda shop in Austin. Spring was rolling around, and the FIM was planning a world championship stage to be held at Datona that year. Byron had the itch to race the Honda, but there was a slight problem. He was in Colombia, the bike was in Austin and the race was Daytona. So he sent some letters.

He asked me to reassemble the engine, making sure to get the valve clearances right. Then I needed to take the bike out to City Park Road, west of Austin, and put some miles on the piston rings. I was asked to keep the rpms below 14,000. Then I was supposed to crate the bike and ship it to Daytona.  He would fly up from Colombia and race the bike.

Of course the fun part was getting the CR out on the winding, hilly City Park Road. It was like riding a surf board, not that I have ever successfully ridden a surf board. You get the bike rolling and start the engine in low gear. Then watch the tachometer and the road at the same time, and upshift before the engine overshoots its rev limit. Shift too soon, and the engine will immediately bog down. That’s where the wave-riding analogy comes in. The torque peak is like the peak of a wave when you are surfing. You have to stay ahead of the peak. If you get behind the wave peak you are never going to get out in front of it again. But get ahead of the peak, and it was like riding the front side of a wave. The engine power came on and shot you forward. Forward, that is, until you began to approach the wave trough, equivalent to the power peak of the engine. Then you needed to upshift again to stay on the front side of the wave.

Anyhow, I got the mileage on the engine, and the bike was duly crated and transported to the Austin airport for a ride to Florida. It turned out Byron had to borrow transportation and drive to Jacksonville to pick up the bike. The carrier that flew into Daytona did not have a cargo door large enough for the crate. Byron raced the bike, and I do not recall whether it ever came back to Austin.

After further adventures, Byron came back to Austin with a Matchless G-50 and raced that in the Ulster Grand Prix and the Isle of Man TT. He finished up the season that year with an entry in the Japanese Grand Prix, where he got sixth place and a point toward the world championship in the 350cc class. More about all of that in another post.