22 May 2015

The Birth of the Air Commandos: The Roots of USAF Special Operations

Colonel Orde Wingate, a most unconventional British officer
The fall of Burma in early 1942 threatened to derail the Allies' plans for Asia. The British withdrawal from Burma to India was the biggest, costliest, and longest not to mention most humiliating withdrawals in the military history of the British Empire. Coupled with the loss of Singapore, it left India as the only bulwark against Japanese expansion in Southeast Asia. With 12 million acres of rice paddies and an annual rice production of 8 million tons, Burma was an important logistical asset to the Japanese Empire and it also gave them control over the southern end of the Burma Road, a 717-mile supply route that was being used to provide supplies for General Chiang Kai-Shek in central China in his fight against the Japanese. Japanese military planners hoped that cutting off Chiang would mean less troops would be needed in central China to keep him in check. With dark days ahead on the minds of British officials in India, a most unconventional British officer arrived with an audacious plan to take the fight back into Burma. Colonel Orde Wingate had already gained a reputation as an unconventional war specialist leading guerrilla units in Africa and the Middle East against Axis forces. What he lacked in conventionality for a British officer he more than amply made up in his leadership abilities to inspire the men in his command. He created a jungle force made up of Indians and British called the "Chindits", which was a corruption of the Burmese word "chinthe", the fierce dragon that statues that guarded Burmese temples depicted. In February 1943, Wingate led 3,000 Chindits in Operation Longcloth. They penetrated deep into Burma on foot and scored early successes cutting Japanese rail routes. But Wingate lacked heavy guns as the Chindits were on foot and the Royal Air Force proved unable to provide the necessary air support. Wingate also counted on a conventional counter-offensive to keep the Japanese occupied while he harassed their rear supply lines. When that didn't happen, the Japanese were able to focus on defeating the Chindits and in early June, Wingate and only 2/3 of his Chindit force made it back into India. 

Phil Cochran and John Alison, the first leaders of the Air Commandos
Despite the disaster of Operation Longcloth, Wingate gained the support of Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was a known admirer of the unconventional in military operations. When Churchill headed to Quebec to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt to confer on war plans, Churchill brought Wingate to explain to Roosevelt plans for a second assault on Burma. While Churchill was thinking ahead and wanting a new Burma assault as a means of strengthening the British Empire in Asia, Roosevelt was intrigued with Wingate's plans as it could reopen the Burma Road and strengthen Chiang Kai-Shek's position in China which might provide the Allies bomber bases for which to take the war to the Japanese Home Islands. As Wingate briefed Churchill and Roosevelt, he had in mind a much bigger operation that Operation Longcloth with a much larger Chindit force that had its own air transport and air support, in effect, giving the Chindits their own air force. Roosevelt was captivated by the plan and passed it on to the head of the USAAF, General Hap Arnold, to organize the air assets that Wingate and the Chindits needed. Ordinarily this sort of order would have been a distraction from General Arnold's vision of a massive strategic bombing campaign against Germany and Japan, but he saw a chance to prove the value of air power in supporting a large ground formation deep behind enemy lines. General Arnold needed a USAAF officer who could lead the new unit and interviewed Colonel Phil Cochran who made his name as an aggressive pilot in North Africa. The other was a friend of Colonel Cochran, Colonel John Alison, who had flown hazardous supply missions "over the Hump" from India to China to keep Chiang Kai-Shek supplied. Prior to that, Alison had six kills while flying P-40s with the Flying Tigers in China. Each man recommended the other to General Arnold as they each wanted a fighter combat command in Europe. General Arnold settled the issue by choosing both Cochran and Alison to get Wingate's air force organized with the order "To hell with paperwork; go out and fight!" Figuring that two commanders made no sense, they agreed that Cochran would be the commander and Alison would be his deputy. But their long prior friendship made them highly attuned to each other's thinking as they set out to create the most unique force in the history of the USAAF. 

Initially calling their outfit Project 9, they went to London to meet with Wingate and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia. Cochran and Alison quickly enlarged their force well beyond what Wingate initially requested and one month later, briefed General Arnold and Arnold's own boss, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall. The Project 9 force was more than just C-47s and some medium bombers. It would have its own fighters, light aircraft for jungle resupply missions, gliders for insertion of troops and even helicopters. Arnold and Marshall were impressed with the plan and gave them the go-ahead. Instead of the Chindits marching back into Burma, the Project 9 transport force of C-47s and gliders would insert the entire Chindit force deep into Burma and keep them resupplied. Medium bombers and fighters would provide dedicated air support to the Chindits and no one else. All the pilots were volunteers and training began in North Carolina on 1 October 1943 at Raleigh-Durham Airport and Seymour-Johnson Army Air Field. The Project 9 force grew to 346 aircraft with Douglas C-47s and Waco CG-4 gliders for transport. Stinson L-1 Vigilant and L-5 Sentinel light aircraft would be used for air evacuation and resupply given their short field performance. North American B-25 Mitchells and P-51 Mustangs formed the sharp end of the force's spear with a handful of Sikorsky R-4 helicopters which were still in testing at Wright Patterson Field. Even General Arnold was impressed with the resourcefulness of Cochran and Alison in getting what was still an experimental program added to their force. 

Emblem of the 1st Air Commando Group, the first Air Force special operations unit
After arriving in India, the Project 9 force was designated the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air), but General Arnold had always been referring to the group as air commandos, so on 29 March 1944, they were redesignated with his blessing to become the 1st Air Commando Group. For most of early 1944 the air commandos trained with Wingate's Chindits but they weren't sure if the Chindits were comfortable with flying into Burma at night on the C-47s and CG-4 gliders. Wingate sent a message "Please be assured that will go with your boys any place, any time, any where." The gliders even carried pack mules which would be used in moving about the jungle in Burma, hence the mule on the patch of the 1st Air Commando Group. 5 March 1944 was the go-day for Operation Thursday when the air commandos and Wingate's Chindits would take the war back to the Japanese in Burma. But that'll be a subject for a future blog post! The 1st Air Commando Group is now the 1st Special Operations Wing of the USAF Special Operations Command based at Hurlburt Field in Florida. Wingate's assurance "Any place, any time, any where" remains the motto of the air commandos with the emblem of the 1st SOW showing the words "Any Time Any Place".

Source: From a Dark Sky: The Story of U.S. Air Force Special Operations by Orr Kelly. Pocket Publishing, 1997, pp 21-42. Photos: USAF, Imperial War Museum, Wikipedia.

17 May 2015

The Birth of Trans-Canada Air Lines

Prime Minister William Mackenzie King committed Canada to a new airline
Compared to the United States and Europe, commercial aviation got off to a very slow start in Canada. Despite its vast distances with limited road infrastructure prior to the Second World War that intuitively would have made for a favorable environment for the development of airlines, the really only serious effort was James Richardson's Canadian Airways established in 1927 in Winnipeg. But his airline was constantly in the red and depended heavily on air mail revenues to stay afloat. But Canadian Airways didn't have an extensive reach and wasn't all too different from the numerous bush pilot operations whose fortunes were tied to whatever industry they happened to be supporting- mining and trapping being the most common. There were two reasons for the lack of commercial aviation development in Canada in the interwar period- the first one was quite obviously the weather. Flying in those days was very much a risky endeavor in the harsh Canadian winters and secondly, Canada lacked an extensive aviation infrastructure. Lacking a network of airports, radio navigation aids and fleet of modern aircraft robust enough to deal with winter, nearly all the Canadian air mail had to go south and into the US transcontinental air network and then re-enter Canada at select points nearest their destination. For example, air mail out of and into the capital in Ottawa passed through New York City on Colonial Airways (which merged into Eastern Airlines in 1956) and air mail into and out of Vancouver passed via Seattle on United Air Lines flights. There were, however, two large competing railroads in Canada, Canadian Pacific (CPR) and Canadian National (CNR). The intense rivalry between CPR and CNR left little capital to the development of commercial aviation and this would leave Canada firmly in the age of rail, lagging behind the United States and Europe in commercial aviation development. During the Great Depression, Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett created an unemployment relief project called the Trans Canada Airway that put thousands to work building an aviation infrastructure to allow coast-to-coast flights across the breadth of Canada. Work began in 1929 on airfields, radio navigation aids and weather reporting stations across the nation. However, Prime Minister Bennett's motivation wasn't for the development of commercial aviation but rather to use the Trans Canada Airway as a means of allowing the Royal Canadian Air Force to rapidly move its squadrons around the country and reinforce either coast in times of war. Succeeding Bennett as Prime Minister in October 1935, it was William Lyon Mackenzie King just a month after his election committed the government to starting a transcontinental airline to operate on the Trans Canada Airway. King wanted to be part of an Anglo-Canadian effort to create an around the world airline route before Pan American did so. 

C.D. Howe, the prime mover behind the formation of Trans-Canada Air Lines
King's first step was appointing Clarence Decatur Howe as the first "czar" to oversee all the railways, marine routes and canals and the beginning of air transport. Howe had the portfolios of two ministries as the Minister of Railways and Canals and the Minister of Marine. With intense efficiency, he put the Canadian National Railway on a sound financial footing and made it a crown corporation (government owned). As the only engineer in King's cabinet, he possessed technical know-how from his prior business careers that essentially transformed Canada from a primarily agriculture-based economy to an industrial economy. Howe was also an aviation enthusiasts and the only one in the Cabinet who had flown on an aircraft. He felt that aviation was destined to replace the railway as the main means of transport and communication across Canada. With the passage of the Department of Transport Act in 1936, Howe reformed Canada's transportation system under a new federal Department of Transport. He was keen to avoid what he thought was the wasteful rivalry between Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National Railways when it come to commercial aviation (which ironically Canada did end up with two airline rivals for years, CP Air and Air Canada). Now Canadian Pacific (CPR) had lost much of its political clout that hit had gained under successive Conservative governments. With Prime Minister King hailing from the Liberal Party, he did what he could to fight what he felt was CPR's stranglehold on transport in Canada. That left the Canadian National Railway (CNR) as the preferred vehicle for Howe's goals since he had already made it a crown corporation. It would have been logical for Howe and King to buy up all the small bush operators and amalgamate them into a new national airline, but the government had already done this 1918-1923 to form CNR and it proved to be a costly exercise that no one wanted to repeat with an airline. It also would have been easier to buy James Richardson out to get Canadian Airways, but King felt Richardson was too close to the previous administration and didn't trust him. And it was an open secret that Richardson's financial stewardship of Canadian Airways was rocky at best. Interestingly, Richardson thought he would be the instrument of Canadian commercial aviation and upon learning Howe favored Lockheed designs, set about ordering two Lockheed 10 Electras. 

Sir Edward Beatty, head of Canadian Pacific Railway
Because it was anticipated that starting a national airline would be costly, Howe proposed that both CNR and CPR buy equal shares in the new proposed airline. The airline would have a board of directors that were divided among the Department of Transport, CPR and CNR. Sir Edward Beatty, head of CPR, objected to this arrangement as he argued that the Department of Transport and CNR's directors were sharing the same interests which would leave CPR's portion of the directorship in a constant minority. While negotiations with Beatty continued, Howe announced on 26 November 1936 that a new airline would be granted a monopoly to operate on the Trans Canada Airway as a subsidiary of CNR. It wasn't important if the new airline made a profit- Howe saw the new airline as a public necessity much like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) he created that same year. If the new airline was making a profit, it was obviously charging its passengers too much! The airline would have guaranteed all year round service linking all of the major Canadian cities coast to coast. Howe had American airline personnel brought in to help get the new airline up and running. He had flown on US airlines and wanted to be sure that his new airline would be immediately on par in terms of safety, operations, and image as the ranking airlines in the United States. In February 1937 a bill was proposed in the House of Commons which established the proposed Trans-Canada Airlines as a CNR subsidiary. Hoping Sir Beatty and CPR would participate, 49% of the shares of the airline would made available for private investment. But even if CPR bought all 49% of the shares, it would still be in a minority position and he formally withdrew from the venture, leaving Prime Minister King to authorize Trans-Canada Airlines as a crown corporation with 51% of the airline owned by Canadian National Railway and 49% owned by the Department of Transport. The birth of Trans-Canada Air Lines came to be at 9:00pm on 10 April 1937 when the bill received its Royal Assent. 

CF-AZY takes off on Trans-Canada Air Lines' first revenue flight
By 30 July 1937, nearly all the radio beacons were operational along the airway and to publicize the completion of the airway, Howe arranged for his department's Lockheed 12A CF-CCT to fly across Canada from Montreal to Vancouver. To provide Trans-Canada Air Lines with start up capital, CNR borrowed $5 million from the Canadian Treasury. Since it was anticipated that 75% of Trans-Canada's revenues would come from air mail, the postmaster general would hold one of the seats on the airline's board of directors. The first president of the airline was S.J. Hungerford who was also the president of CNR. He would hold that position at the airline until 1941. For many years CNR was closely bound to the airline as a result of the arrangements of its formation. In fact, until 1974, the office of the secretary at Air Canada was the same person who held the office of secretary at CNR. Many of the new airline's first pilots came from various bush operators and many key personnel were recruited from Canadian Airways. In fact, the two Lockheed Electra 10As that James Richardson had purchased in anticipation of his airline being the "chosen instrument" were purchased by Trans-Canada Air Lines for radio calibration and training flights along the airway. One of these Electras, CF-AZY, was the aircraft to fly Trans-Canada Air Lines's inaugural air services on 1 September 1937 from Vancouver to Boeing Field in Seattle. The flight departed Vancouver at 5:00pm and arrived at Boeing Field at 5:50pm. Full daily services began on 17 October 1937 with the round trip fare between the two cities set at $14.20 (approximately $233 in today's dollars). Not only was it Trans-Canada's inaugural route, it was also its first international route and also its first route with competition with United offering Boeing 247 service between the two cities. Three more Lockheed 10As were purchased to join the two ex-Canadian Airways examples and these five Electras were known as the "Five Sisters". Trans-Canada was the first airline in North America to equip its aircraft with cargo hold smoke detectors and had oxygen masks in the cockpit as standard long before they were a mandated requirement. On 1 April 1939 the first transcontinental flights left simultaneously from Vancouver and Montreal headed for the other city. Keep in mind that Trans-Canada Air Lines was flew its first services in 1937, the same year the Trans Canada Airway was finished. And it was only 43 years earlier that Canada completed its transcontinental railroad! 

Source: Air Canada: The History by Peter Pigott. Dundurn Press, 2014, pp 12-35. Photos: Wikipedia, Toronto Star, Air Canada, Time Magazine.

12 May 2015

Major Merlyn Dethlefsen and the Medal of Honor Wild Weasel Mission of Lincoln 03

Major Merlyn H. Dethlefsen
By March 1967, Operation Rolling Thunder had been going on for two years with no signs of North Vietnam backing down. The United States and North Vietnam engaged in a gradual escalation of the conflict. As US air strikes increased, the Hanoi regime increased its anti-air defenses from AAA to the more deadly SA-2 surface-to-air missiles as well as MiG fighters. The skies over North Vietnam would be the most dangerous and difficult skies for American pilots to operate in since World War 2. At the start of Rolling Thunder, defense suppression was assigned to two-seat F-100F Super Sabres known as the Wild Weasels. The F-100 was in interim solution for the Wild Weasel role, though, as it had a limited payload and wasn't fast enough to keep up with the F-105 Thunderchiefs that were shouldering the burden of strike missions at the time for the USAF. In June 1966 the first Thunderchief Wild Weasels arrived in Southeast Asia. One of the Wild Weasel units at the time was the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) Takhli which was home to the F-105s of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing. The 355th TFW had been operating the Thunderchief since 1962 at McConnell AFB in Kansas before being deployed for Rolling Thunder. Like the F-100Fs, the Wild Weasel F-105Fs had two crew, the pilot and the electronic warfare officer in the back, the EWO or "Bear". 

Dethlefsen and Gilroy in their Wild Weasel F-105F
On 10 March 1967, the target portfolio was finally expanded to include the large Thai Nguyen steel works. The area was the center of North Vietnam's heavy industry and the only steel mill (it actually was the first steel mill in Indochina, having started production in 1959) and for most of the first two years of Operation Rolling Thunder, it remained off the target list for political reasons. A large Thunderchief strike package made up of single-seat F-105Ds and Wild Weasel F-105Fs for defense suppression was sortied against the steelworks by the 355th TFW from RTAFB Takhli. One flight of four Wild Weasels with the call sign "Lincoln" was part of this strike package on this day. As the flight approached Thai Nguyen, Lincoln Lead's Bear locked up a SAM site and an AGM-45 Shrike missile was fired, but it missed. The SAM site, however, did not, and in short order Lincoln Lead along with two F-4 Phantoms flying escort were shot down. Lincoln 02 took flak damage and had to withdraw and limp back to Takhli. That left only two Wild Weasels in the area, Lincoln 03 piloted by Major Merlyn Dethlefsen and his Bear, Captain Kevin Gilroy, and their wingman, Major Ken Bell in Lincoln 04. As Dethlefsen and Gilroy targeted the SAM site, two VNAF MiG-21s entered the fight, closing in on Dethlefsen from behind. Lincoln 03 fired their Shrike missile and immediately hauled the heavily laden F-105F into a hard turn, causing the missiles from the attacking MiG-21s to go wide and miss. Gambling that the MiGs wouldn't follow him into the flak zone that protected the SAM site, Dethlefsen pressed on instead of jettisoning his bombs as was the practice when jumped by MiGs- for the VNAF, getting a Thunderchief to jettison its bombload was as good as shooting it down since it wouldn't be able to press its attack. Sure enough, the MiGs didn't follow him to the deck and at low altitude, Dethlefsen hit the afterburner to regain altitude. Just as he had reached position to hit the SAM site, another pair of MiGs closed in and opened fire on Lincoln 03 and Lincoln 04. Both took 37mm cannon hits but were still flying. 

With the last of the strike F-105Ds and their Phantom escorts egressing the area, Dethlefsen knew the weather forecast was good for the next several days and that the Thai Nguyen steel plant was long on the wish list for the pilots to hit. Though he would have been in his right by USAF procedure to follow the rest of the aircraft and leave the area for Takhli, Dethlefsen elected to take another crack at the SAM site as he knew more of his fellow pilots would be returning over the next several days. Leading his wingman, Dethlefsen scanned the flak pattern from a safe altitude while Kevin Gilroy acting as his Bear got a bead on the SAM site with the Wild Weasel's electronics. Once Gilroy pinpointed the site, they fired their Shrike missile to knock out the guidance radar. Dethlefsen then led his wingman down into the flak zone to put the SAM site out of business. Getting a visual on the site, Dethlefsen unleashed his bomb load across the site and then pulled out. For added insurance, he rolled his damaged Thud into a reverse flip, switched to guns and hosed the site down with his 20mm Vulcan cannon. He then nursed his F-105F out of the target zone and hooked up with a KC-135A tanker on the way back to Takhli. 

Merlyn Dethlefsen and his EWO, Kevin Gilroy
It was a Medal of Honor performance, but what did Dethlefsen do that was so brave? First of all, by USAF procedure he was to have exited the area as the strike package left- one of the mottos of the Wild Weasels was "First in, last out". Instead, he decided to take another crack at a SAM site. Dethlefsen wasn't naive. On the day of this mission he already had 72 Wild Weasel combat missions under his belt. He knew if the site wasn't knocked out, it would more than likely shoot down more crews in the coming days. And this wasn't just any target- this was a prized asset of the North Vietnamese and it was heavily defended. More American aircraft were shot down in 1967 than any other year of the Vietnam War. The skies over Thai Nguyen were not a good place to be for an American pilot that day, month, and year. Add to that the Wild Weasel mission profile that exposed their crews to hostile fire longer than most pilots. 

Merlyn Dethlefsen was born in 1934 on a farm in Iowa and he joined the USAF in 1954 through the Aviation Cadet Program. From 1957 to 1959 he served as a navigator on the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II out of Dover AFB before reporting to undergraduate flight training. His first operational assignment after getting his wings was flying F-100 Super Sabres in Germany before transitioning to the F-105 Thunderchief in 1965. After his Medal of Honor mission (his Bear, Kevin Gilroy, earned the Air Force Cross for that mission), he went on to complete his 100 mission tour in Vietnam. He would later go on to serve as an operations director for the SR-71 wing at Beale AFB in California and for the B-52 wing at Dyess AFB in Texas. Dethlefsen flew west in 1987 and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Source: Above and Beyond: The Aviation Medals of Honor by Barrett Tillman. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, pp 225-227. F-105 Thunderchief Units of the Vietnam War by Peter Davies. Osprey Publishing, 2012. Photos: USAF Museum, Wikipedia.

07 May 2015

The North American XB-28: Too Much, Too Late

The sole XB-28 prototype. Note the remotely operated turrets.
With the North American B-25 Mitchell prototype (internal company designation NA-40B) already in the hands of the US Army Air Corps for flight testing in 1939, the promise of cabin pressurization offered a leap in bomber performance by being able to fly higher and faster. Accordingly, in August 1939, the Army issued the XC-214 specification which called for a pressurized medium bomber to supplant the medium bomber types that were soon to become operational. Only Martin and North American responded to XC-214. Martin's submission was for the XB-27 but the USAAC felt Martin didn't have a full grasp of the challenges of high altitude pressurization in their design and North American's submission, the XB-28 won the development contract. This took place on 15 November 1939 just three months after the Army issued its specification with North American inking a contract to begin formal design work on the XB-28. To give you an idea of the pace of development and the pressure of the looming clouds of war, the contract for the development of the XB-28 was signed around the same time that the Army ordered the B-25 Mitchell into production! The XB-28 had started out as a pressurized version of the B-25 Mitchell with a circular fuselage and Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engines with GE Type-C turbosuperchargers replacing the Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone radials used on the B-25. Design work proceeded rapidly since the company was already at work on a pressurized successor to the B-25 at the time of the release of the XC-214 specification in August 1939. As design work progressed, changes were made stating with abandoning the Mitchell's twin fins for a single fin. Eventually the XB-28 as designed bore little resemblance to the Mitchell. The contract for three prototypes was signed on 13 February 1940. 

The five crew all sat in a pressurized compartment in the forward fuselage. 
Besides the change to more powerful R-2800 Double Wasp engines with GE turbosuperchargers, a third supercharger was also fitted to provide cabin pressurization. Heaters powered by gasoline warmed the air in the pressurization ducting for the pressure cabin located in the the forward fuselage. The elongated nacelles had an opening in the rear for the turbo-supercharger exhaust which added some forward propulsive power. The four bladed propellers were counter-rotating to cancel each other's torque to ease handling. Integral self-sealing fuel tanks took up most of the wings. Relatively unique for the day nose wheel steering was fitted and controlled by a lever in the cockpit similar to modern nose wheel tillers. Another unique feature was the use of fluorescent paint on the instrument panel and instruments that would glow at night from overhead UV lamps as an aid to night flying.

Overall configuration of the XB-28.
To simply the structure of a pressurized aircraft, the pressure cabin only occupied the forward fuselage. All the joints were sealed during assembly and the interior sprayed with a plastic sealant before installation of the cabin items. The cabin atmosphere was maintained at the equivalent of 8,000 feet up to an operating altitude of 33,000 feet. The crew of five was crammed into this space- with the pilot and co-pilot sitting side by side, behind them sat the primary gunner and the radio operator/secondary gunner. The bombardier/navigator sat in the nose compartment but could access the cramped flight deck via a floor panel by the co-pilot's feet. The bomb bay could carry up to 4,000 lbs of bombs and the three defensive turrets consisted of twin 50-caliber guns in dorsal, ventral and tail turrets that were operated remotely by the primary gunner and the radio operator/secondary gunner. Each gunner had a hemispheric observation window next to them and sighted the guns via a periscope system that protruded from streamlined twin fairings above and below the fuselage just aft of the flight deck. Initial plans for were for North American-designed turrets tied to a Sperry fire control system, but Sperry's resources were tied up with current production aircraft. It was decided to switch to General Electric for the remote fire control system and to have them be responsible for the turrets as well well. This imposed delays in the development as changes needed to be made to accommodate GE's equipment and systems. There was also a prevailing opinion at North American that Sperry's system was more advanced. A compromise was reached with the XB-28 defensive systems to use GE turrets and the Sperry sighting system. It's worth noting at this point that when the work on the remote turret fire control system on the XB-28 was under development, both Sperry and GE were working on getting the contract for the remote turret fire control system on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress- ironing out the kinks in the XB-28 gave GE valuable experience that helped the B-29 and made its system the production standard on the Superfortress.

Engine run up test at Mines Field in the summer of 1942.
The US entry into the Second World War slowed development of the XB-28 as priority shifted to production types and much of North American's resources were devoted to the production of the B-25 Mitchell and the P-51 Mustang. The maiden flight of the first prototype took place on 24 April 1942 at Mines Field (the site of today's Los Angeles International Airport/LAX) and the flight test program showed the XB-28 to be quite fast at high altitude, capable of 372 mph at 25,000 feet. Following the conclusion of North American's flight test program, the USAAF portion of the flight test program took place with the XB-28 operating out of Wright Field outside of Dayton, Ohio, for service trials. It was decided during the service trials that the third XB-28 prototype would be completed as a reconnaissance and photo-mapping aircraft designated XB-28A. North American was instructed to set aside work on the second XB-28 to get the XB-28A variant flying. The speed and altitude performance of the XB-28A was increased by reducing weight as well as installing more powerful versions of the R-2800 engines. The XB-28A made its maiden flight on 24 April 1943 (exactly one year after the first XB-28) but was unfortunately lost in flutter incident during dive testing on 4 August 1943 with the crew able to parachute to safety. At the time of the accident, design work on the production B-28 was underway with the most significant change being some extra scanning windows on the nose compartment for the bombardier/navigator.

By this point, however, it was realized that despite the outstanding performance of the XB-28, the realities of war showed that medium bombers already in service like the B-25 Mitchell and the Martin B-26 Marauder were most effective at low to medium altitudes flying interdiction missions where pressurization wasn't necessary. In the Pacific, B-25s equipped with extra forward firing machine guns were becoming very effective low level anti-shipping weapons while in the European theater, B-25s and B-26s operated most effectively at medium altitude (though some low level anti-shipping missions were flown in the Mediterranean against Axis vessels along the French and Italian coasts). The final nail in the XB-28's coffin was the Douglas product that was also first flown at Mines Field just a few months after the XB-28's maiden flight. The prototype Douglas XA-26 Invader first flew on 10 July 1942. It used the same engines as the XB-28, carried the same bomb load, but lacked pressurization which made it simpler to build and it only had a crew of three versus the crew of five on the XB-28. The sole XB-28 prototype was still at Wright Field at the time of the program's cancellation- it had its outer wings removed and sat out the war as a ground test article for pressurization tests before being scrapped.

Anigrand released a 1/72 resin kit of the XB-28 and this page has a great series of photos of a completed model that show the overall configuration of the XB-28. Take note of the hemispheric scanning bubbles on the upper lateral fuselage ahead of the wing for the gunners as well as the streamlined twin fairings above and below the forward fuselage for the sighting system to control the remote turrets.

Source: American Bomber Aircraft Development in World War 2 by Bill Norton. Midland Publishing, 2012, pp 66-69. Photos: USAF Museum, Anigrand

02 May 2015

Franz Josef Strauss: The Bavarian Politician Who Saved Airbus

Franz Josef Strauss in the cockpit of an Airbus
The early history of Airbus Industrie was very rocky indeed and I had posted previously how the failure of the planned Rolls Royce RB.207 engine nearly killed the A300 before it even flew. The breach of trust that opened up between Rolls Royce and Airbus was so large, over twenty years would elapse before a Rolls Royce engine was available on the Airbus aircraft- that was 1989 when Cathay Pacific Airlines specified the new Trent 700 engine for its A330s. Quite literally, the day after the French, British and German governments signed the agreement to create Airbus on 26 July 1968, the governments were getting a case of cold feet. For the French, that was the year the franc collapsed on the world currency markets and the French government began to have reservations about having three airline projects going on at once- Concorde, the Airbus A300, and the Dassault Mercure. It was clear that it was politically unfeasible to pull out of the Concorde program. Many French officials their faith in the 100% French program of the Dassault Mercure despite the protests of Airbus engineers that the Mercure would be a flop. That left Airbus on the cutting block. The redesign of the Airbus to a smaller aircraft to make off-the-shelf engines possible instead of the RB.207 saved the program as it cut the cost of the program and made it more appealing to potential customers- this was enough to give French officials cause to reconsider and not withdraw from Airbus. 

The British, however, were less than open-minded. In short, money had been put up to help with the launch of the BAC Three-Eleven which used two RB.211 engines. The smaller, redesigned A300 designated the A300B could now also use RB.211 engines, but that also put the new A300B square in competition with the BAC Three-Eleven. Lockheed and BAC were even in discussions on collaborating on the Three-Eleven and with the French economic malaise spreading through Europe, some in the British government wanted to put their bets on collaboration with the United States. Believe it or not, there was discussion by British officials about pulling out of Concorde, but again, like the French realized, that was politically unfeasible. That's not often realized that the British and French were considering pulling the plug on Concorde before it even made its first flight! 9 April 1969 was the first flight of the first British-built Concorde; on the day after, British officials met with their French counterparts to inform them the British were pulling out of Airbus. 

Karl Schiller, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs
British withdrawal from Airbus didn't come as a bolt out of the blue- the indications were there for over a year and the RB.207 fiasco made it clear that it was coming sooner rather than later. Earlier that year in 1969, the Germans made it known to the French that they would be willing to fill the gap in the Airbus consortium should the British pull out. At the time, the lion's share of the A300 was split between Great Britain and France with West Germany getting the remaining stake. Even though World War II had ended 25 years earlier, the German aircraft industry was still a hollow shell of its former self despite the consortium of seven German aircraft manufacturers that teamed together to form the West German contribution to Airbus. That the Germans were willing to step in to fill that possible gap is due to the efforts of two politicians. The first one was Karl Schiller, the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs. Schiller was a quiet, bespectacled economist that had made his name in West German politics focusing on rebuilding the economy. The other politician was more well-known, Franz Josef Strauss. Strauss was a boisterous Bavarian who never seemed to be far from scandal in German politics. In 1956, Strauss become the youngest defense minister in German history and was tasked with rebuilding the German military. The procurement of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter for the Luftwaffe was contentious and a Lockheed lobbyist testified that he had paid $10 million in bribes to Strauss to select the Starfighter. During this time, Lockheed had gotten itself entangled with bribery allegations with several different aircraft procurement programs to gain sales of the Starfighter. Strauss filed a slander suit against the lobbyist, but since the allegations couldn't be corroborated, the issue was dropped. The German magazine Der Spiegel then accused Strauss of taking bribes in the construction of German military facilities. The resulting controversy resulted in Strauss stepping down for having the editor and owner of Der Spiegel arrested and held in retribution. Strauss's political career was all but over had it not been for the 1966 elections that resulted in a coalition government and Strauss being tapped to be Minister of the Treasury to work with Karl Schiller in growing the German economy. 

Both Strauss and Schiller were an interesting pair that had common goals of growing the German economy. Schiller was quiet, Strauss was loud. Schiller was dry and Strauss was animated. Both liked the idea of Airbus as a project to tie Europe together. Strauss in particular had a strong dislike of nationalism as he felt it was counterproductive to economic prosperity- having a central role in Airbus would not only benefit West Germany, it would also economically tie the nation to the rest of Europe for the greater good and keep nationalism from raising its ugly head again. Strauss was a long time supporter of the German aviation industry and he was a private pilot himself. When the Luftwaffe selected the F-104 Starfighter, he was instrumental in getting license production for German industry with Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) building 260 F-104Gs for the Luftwaffe. Given Strauss's aviation connections, he was well aware of the British getting cold feet in 1969. Before the British pull out, Schiller and Strauss had sent ministers to France to let them know that if Britain were unwilling to support Airbus, the West German government was prepared to double its investment to as much as 50% of the program provided the French did the same. Given the economic climate of Europe at the time, that was an astoundingly generous offer on the table in the event of a British withdrawal from the consortium. 

An A300 wing set being loaded for delivery to Toulouse from Hawker's facilities.
Increasing German participation in Airbus in the event of a British pullout was part of what the coalition government from the West German 1966 elections wanted from Franz Josef Strauss and Karl Schiller- how to grow the nation's economy and despite the economic downturn of the time, the British pullout from Airbus presented an opportunity for the German economy. Once the British were out, negotiations began in earnest between West Germany and France on a new 50-50 workshare in Airbus. One of the few sticking points in the deal was that there was quite a bit of difference between the state of affairs of the West German aerospace industry and that of the French industry. Clearly the French were more built out and advanced in terms of their industrial capacity for large commercial aircraft production. This particular issue found its resolution via the solving the problem of the A300's wing which was the responsibility of Hawker Siddeley. The company was aghast with the British withdrawal from Airbus, but early on was very clear that it wanted to stay in Airbus even if the British government didn't contribute. Hawker was willing to fund 40% of the wing design and manufacture out of its own internal funds, but it needed the balance of the 60% to continue with Airbus. That majority portion of the funding for the A300's wing was to have come from the British government prior to their withdrawal. If Hawker was out, a new contractor for the wing would have to be secured and that was something the French didn't want as it was hard enough to convince the French government to continue supporting Airbus. Having to get a new wing would almost guarantee the death knell for Airbus and this was similarly the case for West Germany as well. They were on the cusp of getting a 50% stake in Airbus and there was no way for West Germany to go it alone if Hawker had to pull out and the French pulled the plug on their support. 

And that's at the moment Strauss intervened personally. He pressed the coalition government led by Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger to come up with the extra money to keep Hawker Siddeley in the consortium. Strauss sent word to Airbus that he was willing to double West Germany's financial contribution to Airbus from 500 million Deutschmarks to 1 billion Deutschmarks so Hawker's wing could be fully funded. Needless to say, Roger Béteille and his team at Airbus were quick to take up Strauss on his offer. The influx of German funds allowed Hawker to complete the work on the A300 wing with a fixed price contract for four wing sets- two for testing and two for the two prototype aircraft as well as the tooling and machinery to produce four wing sets per month for Airbus. 

Interestingly at the time of Strauss's intervention to save the Hawker wing, two of Germany's elder aircraft designers, Willy Messerschmitt and Ludwig Bölkow, insisted they had a better wing design than the Hawker wing. Both men were over 70 and claimed their wing was lighter and simpler than Hawker's design and pressed the government to abandon the British design. As one German official had put it, "We tried to prevent situations that could have been damaging for the two men, because basically one should not make famous people look ridiculous." Naturally the question became that if Messerschmitt's wing was lighter and simpler, could it still be strong and stand up to the strain of repeated takeoffs and landings in commercial service? The story goes that Messerschmitt took his design to Britain to lobby for it and was told something to the effect "Dr. Messerschmitt, I believe the fatigue life of a Bf 109 was about fifty hours provided it didn't meet a Spitfire!"

Strauss's work was crucial when Airbus was at its most vulnerable following the British withdrawal from the consortium. Strauss become the first head of Airbus's supervisory board in 1970. Increasing German participation in Airbus was also crucial to the rebuilding and expansion of the nation's aerospace industry. In honor of his contributions to supporting German aviation, the Munich Airport is named for Franz Josef Strauss. 

Source: Close to the Sun: How Airbus Challenged America's Domination of the Skies by Stephen Aris. Aurum Press, 2002, pp 35-46. Images: T-Mobile, Abendzeitung-Muenchen, Trucknetuk.com forum.

27 April 2015

The Mitsubishi J8M Shusui: The Tragic History of the Japanese Komet Fighter

In the fall of 1943, the Japanese military liaisons in Germany were given a demonstration of the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket fighter. They sent back enthusiastic reports on the potential of the Me 163 in defending against the predicted USAAF strategic bombing offensive that would start the following year. Despite their reports and the enthusiasm of some in the Japanese military of what the Komet might offer in the defense of the Home Islands, most of the Japanese military command had reservations about putting the Komet into service as the Japanese industry would have to master the production of large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine. Synthesizing the two rocket fuels used by the Komet would require a significant amount of electrical power. Others in the military command questioned whether the Komet's short endurance was a liability, particularly as a point-defense fighter it would have reach up to higher altitudes to attack the B-29 Superfortress than the altitudes over Europe where the Komet's main prey were unpressurized B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. Despite legitimate questions about the practicality of the Komet, negotiations for license production in Japan of the Me 163 proceeded which included not just the Komet airframe but also the Walter HWK 509A bi-fuel rocket motor. By 1 March 1944, the approval was reached and the Germans would supply Japan with complete blueprints and manufacturing data for the Me 163B variant as well as one complete airframe, two sets of sub-assemblies, and three complete rocket motors. A Japanese joint-service mission with Army and Navy representatives would also be sent to Germany to observe not just the manufacture of the Komet but also learn the procedures for operational use. As it was, events in Europe would keep the joint-service mission from arriving, but two Imperial Japanese Navy submarines were used to bring the cargo back home to Japan as a measure of redundancy in case one submarine was lost on the return voyage. The first submarine to depart was the former U-1224 which was handed over to the Japanese in February 1944 and named "Satsuki". The second submarine was I-29 "Matsu". 

The Mitsubishi J8M1 Shusui. This one was brought to the US after the war.
The Satsuki was sunk in the Atlantic by the destroyer escort USS Francis Robinson which was operating as part of the escort carrier USS Bogue's hunter-killer group. The Matsu, however, was able to reach Singapore on 14 July 1944 and its cargo was quickly flown to Tokyo for analysis. The staff of the 1st Naval Air Technical Arsenal met regularly at the naval base of Yokosuka to discuss whether to launch production of a Japanese Komet. The Battle of the Philippine Sea (the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot") had just taken place which had all but eliminated Japan's carrier fleet. With the imminent capture of the Marianas, it was only a matter of time before B-29 bases within easy reach of the Home Islands became operational. Despite the decline in Japan's war fortunes that summer, many in the daily discussions were wary of committing Japan's industrial resources to so radical a weapon. The balance was tipped in favor of production when the commander of the Yokosuka arsenal decided in favor of the aircraft, stating something to the effect that desperate times would call for desperate measures. 

Mitsubishi had been assigned the task of building the Komet as the J8M, but they refused to proceed with so much discord within the Japanese military command on the practicality of the aircraft. On 27 July 1944, a joint Army-Navy commission formally ordered the aircraft from Mitsubishi as the J8M Shusui ("Sword Stroke"). This is significant for Mitsubishi as the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Imperial Japanese Army took inter-service rivalry to new degrees that made the US armed services rivalry look like a minor disagreement. For both the IJN and IJA to jointly pursue a single design was nearly unprecedented and sent a message to Mitsubishi that they were serious about wanting a Japanese Komet. The Navy designation was J8M and the Army designation would be Ki-200 (though J8M is the more commonly referred to designation for the Shusui). From that point, the program took on a more serious effort and urgency. The cockpit mockup was reviewed on 8 September 1944 and the full scale mockup of the Shusui was reviewed 18 days later. A joint Army-Navy production schedule was drawn up with 155 aircraft to be delivered by March 1945, 1,300 by the following September and no fewer than 3,600 delivered by March 1946. Because of the loss of one of the submarine and the fact that joint-service commission never made it Germany to observe production, the Mitsubishi team had to make some educated guesses during the design process in preparing the Shusui for production. In addition, some of the basic equipment like batteries and radios were sized and weighed differently in Japan compared to German equipment, and this in turn affected not just airframe structure but also weight and balance of the aircraft. 

Pilot (possibly Cdr Inuzuka) in front of the Akikusa trainer.
In addition, the Shusui would have been the first tailless aircraft to be flown in Japan, so it was decided that the Yokosuka arsenal would build training gliders that were essentially unpowered Shusui aircraft. These gliders were designated MXY8 Akikusa ("Autumn Grass") and the first Akikusa glider was flown on 8 December 1944. The second Akikusa glider built was delivered to the Army for their own flight testing. On 1 December, the first structurally complete Shusui was reviewed and approved by both the Army and Navy. However, misfortune struck the program when an earthquake damaged Mitsubishi's plant in Nagoya and then a few days later the area was struck by B-29 Superfortresses. Despite the setbacks, Commander Toyohiko Inuzuka, who flew the first Akikusa gliders, made the first unpowered flight of the J8M Shusui on 8 January 1945. Other pre-production aircraft were test fitted with rocket motors while the unpowered Shusui flight test program continued. 

Mitsubishi was also responsible for getting the rocket motor which was designated Toku Ro.2 into production, but on the day of the first bench test of the motor, B-29s attacked the plant. Numerous technical problems mounted in the motor development as the Japanese had to substitute some materials for others in the design which would later turn out to be unsuitable for a production motor. By April 1945, the Shusui aircraft were ready but the rocket motor program was already 3 months behind schedule. It was decided if the Toku Ro.2 could run for just two minutes, they'd attempt the Shusui's first powered flight on 22 April, but the engine exploded during a ground test. B-29 attacks exerted their toll on the program with the engineering groups having to move to new facilities periodically. Eventually two groups were set up, each tasked with getting the Toko Ro.2 running. By June, one group had their motor on the bench running four minutes and the other group had their motor bench tested to three minutes. It was decided that these bench tested motors would be used for the Shusui's first flight. Ground runs continued to reveal problems with the motor and it wasn't until 5 July 1945 that they were ready for the first powered flight. 

Preparing for the J8M1's maiden flight or a ground test run.
On 7 July 1945, Toyohiko Inuzuka started up the motor for the first Shusui powered flight. After an 11-second takeoff run, the Shusui became airborne and jettisoned its takeoff dolly as planned. At 1,150 feet, Inuzuka began to have engine problems as the motor began to sputter and then quit. He was able to reach 1,640 feet, where he leveled off and turned for the glide back to Yokuku Airfield. Releasing his remaining fuel via emergency release valves, he realized he had made too many S-turns and was going to come short of the airfield. Aware he was about to hit a house on the airfield perimeter, Inuzuka deliberately stalled the Shusui by abruptly pulling the nose up. The aircraft cartwheeled and missed the house, but it was destroyed and Inuzuka would die a few days later from his injuries. Analysis showed that he suffered fuel starvation during his climb- the acceleration and his angle of climb caused the fuel to slosh back and recede from the tank outlet. A few days later, two other motors that were being bench tested for the flight test program exploded. This left only one complete rocket motor that had been tested and this one was in the possession of the Army for the installation in their Shusui prototype. As the Army and Navy struggled to get the program back on track, Hiroshima was bombed on 6 August and three days later on 9 August Nagasaki was bombed. Six days later, Japan unconditionally surrendered. 

The IJAAF's Ki-202 Shusui-Kai
On the day of surrender, there were four finished J8M Shusui airframes and six more nearing completion on the assembly line. Four production Toku Ro.2 motors had been finished and were ready for testing with two nearing completion with components for another 20 motors ready. On the day of the surrender, the Navy was looking at a powered version of the MXY8 Akikusa training glider to allow longer sorties as well as to incorporate water ballast to better simulate a fully fueled Shusui. While both services were committed to producing a common aircraft, the Navy was already working on the J8M2 Shusui-Kai which deleted one wing cannon for an extra fuel tank to give it more endurance. Even more ambitious, the Army was working on their own Shusui-Kai variant designated Ki-202 which was a substantial redesign of the Me 163B that was longer with more endurance. The Army had planned to use the Ki-200 (J8M) as an interim type until they could put the Ki-202 in service starting in 1946. 

From a model kit- the ones one the right are "what if" in service schemes
Three J8M Shusui aircraft survived the war. Two of them were captured by US occupation forces and shipped to the United States. One was on display at NAS Glenview in Illinois but was scrapped on site in 1946. The other one is on display today at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California. The third airframe was discovered in a cave in the 1960s in poor shape. It was on display for a while at Gifu AB where the JASDF's Air Development and Test Command is based. In 1999, Mitsubishi restored it and has it on display at their museum at their Komaki plant. While the story of the J8M is short and full of tragedy, when you consider that between the time the I-29 "Matsu" docked in Singapore with its precious cargo and the Japanese surrender, one year, one month, and one day elapsed. In that time despite the strain on Japanese industry by the B-29 attacks, they were able to get one aircraft to fly once, even though it did end badly. In his 1976 Air International article on the Shusui, author Yoshio Imagawa observed that "of Japanese national character that fanaticism and fatalism are innate ingredients." Given the growing desperation of the Japanese military in 1945, having their own version of the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet seems almost pre-ordained. 

Source: "Japan's Final Sword Stroke...The Story of Shusui" by Yoshio Imagawa. Air International, Volume 10, Number 6. June 1976, pp 283-288. Images: Wikipedia, Koku-Fan, Japanese aviation forums. 

22 April 2015

Texas International's Peanuts Fares and the Rise of Frank Lorenzo

Houston-based Texas International Airlines began in 1944 as Aviation Enterprises and in 1947 with a fleet of surplus Douglas DC-3s, renamed itself Trans-Texas Airways. As Trans-Texas grew as a local service carrier (what we would today call a regional airline only without the affiliation to a major airline like today), Trans-Texas expanded services beyond the state as it added Convair 240 piston twins. The Convairs were later re-engined with Rolls Royce Dart turboprops to become Convair 600s. By the start of the Sixties, the airline flew as far west as Albuquerque and El Paso and Memphis, Jackson, and New Orleans in the east. To maintain its competitive edge with the other Texas-based airline of the day, Braniff International, Trans-Texas added the Douglas DC-9 Series 10 to its fleet starting in 1967. Route expansion continued steadily and with the addition of a small handful of destinations in northern Mexico, the airline re-branded as Texas International in 1970, later unveiling a patriotic Lone Star livery in 1973 prior to the opening of the new DFW Airport. Unfortunately, Texas International's upgrades to jet equipment had saddled the airline with quite a bit of debt, not unlike what had happened to Mohawk Airlines just a few years earlier. Through the 1960s, Texas International and its larger rival Dallas-based Braniff International had more or less comfortably existed in a duopoly in the Texas airline market. That secure operating climate was upended in 1971 with the arrival of Southwest Airlines. Texas International had joined Braniff in the legal battle to quash the nascent upstart and lost, putting Texas International in the new position of having to compete to a degree it had not had to in its history. Combined with its mounting debts from the expansion in the 1960s and the upgrade to a jet fleet, the Houston-based operation was in need of help. 

N94205 TTA Trans-Texas Airways
Trans-Texas Airways (TTa) Convair 600 at Dallas Love Field

I had posted previously how in a similar financial situation, New York-based Mohawk Airlines had turned to the services of a small consulting firm called Jet Capital that was headed by a young and quite brash individual named Frank Lorenzo. Lorenzo and his primary business partner, Bob Carney, a fellow Harvard Business School classmate, had become a bit of an upstart darling on Wall Street for their financial wizardry in creating Jet Capital. In their stock offering, Lorenzo and Carney sold shares to the public at 10 cents each, but before the IPO for Jet Capital, they sold shares to friends at $3.50 each but more importantly, they sold shares to each other for 12 cents each. Investing only $44,000 of their money, the Jet Capital IPO netted them $1.5 million yet they controlled 75% of Jet Capital's shares. It was that seed money that Lorenzo used in his failed bid to takeover Mohawk Airlines. At the time of his Mohawk venture, Lorenzo had made friends with Don Burr, a mutual fund manager that had made a name for himself on Wall Street with some very astute aviation stock picks. With his clout as a mutual fund manager that held shares in Texas International, Burr convinced the airline to engage the consulting services of Jet Capital to effect a turnaround. Lorenzo arranged to have the airline's debt refinanced with Burr offering the injection of $5 million from his mutual fund. The result, of course, like their proposed Mohawk deal, was to take control of the airline, and like the Mohawk board several years earlier, the Texas International board was suspicious of Lorenzo and they might have scrapped the deal had it not been for two individuals that entered the ring to try to acquire Texas International themselves- Howard Hughes and Herb Kelleher. 

Ever since Hughes relinquished control of TWA in the late 1960s, he had been craving to get back into the airline business and got that chance with his acquisition of the local service carrier AirWest in 1970, immediately rebranding the airline has Hughes Airwest. But Hughes wanted something on the scope of TWA and his new airline only gave him the West Coast. Acquiring Texas International would get him 2/3 of the way across the country on his goal of recreating a transcontinental airline. For Herb Kelleher, getting Texas International would not only knock out a competitor who only recently tried to put Southwest out of business through legal action, it would also give Southwest the operating certificate of Texas International which permitted flights beyond the states of Texas, something Southwest wasn't able to do at the time. Faced with someone known to be eccentric and someone who they felt was bent on revenge for their failed bid to quash Southwest, the Texas International board sold the airline to Lorenzo in 1972. Like his structuring of Jet Capital, even though he controlled only 24% of the shares in Texas International, Lorenzo structured the deal to give him majority voting control of the airline. At only 32 years of age, Frank Lorenzo became the youngest airline chief since Juan Trippe at Pan Am. And he did it by defeating Herb Kelleher *and* Howard Hughes. Who wouldn't be on top of the world in those shoes?

Frank Lorenzo at the time he took control of Texas International
Don Burr left Wall Street in 1973 to work with Lorenzo in Houston running Texas International. At the time Southwest was adding its fifth and sixth Boeing 737-200 to its nascent fleet and even though Texas International had routes outside of the state of Texas, it was beginning to lose market share within Texas to Herb Kelleher's operation. It was at Texas International that Lorenzo began to earn his reputation as a union-buster- in order to better compete against Southwest, Lorenzo began making deep cuts in labor costs that sowed discord among the employees at Texas International. With labor contracts up for negotiation, the atmosphere became contentious at Texas International. In a pattern that set Lorenzo's pattern for negotiations with both unions and investors, he would often add or change at the last minute agreed-upon terms for the contract. This angered the unions at Texas International and they struck, the very first strike in the history of the small airline. The airline was grounded for four months, but back then in the days before deregulation, there was a mutual aid pact in place where other airlines gave financial support to airlines that were grounded by labor actions. As a result (and much to the other airline's chagrin who felt Lorenzo could have prevented the strike), Texas International got millions under the pact and the strike eventually ended. 

N3508T Texas International Airlines
Texas International Douglas DC-9 Series 30, the airline's largest aircraft

Having got his labor concessions the way he wanted, Lorenzo could now turn his attention to competing with Southwest. At the time, Southwest operated within the "Texas Triangle" of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, the state's three largest cities. Kelleher had engaged the services of a seasoned airline executive, Lamar Muse, to guide Southwest's growth. Muse picked the agricultural town of Harlingen in the Rio Grande Valley as Southwest's next destination. The city was ripe for the picking- being at least a seven hour drive from the nearest large city, Harlingen was dependent upon air services from Texas International and the four month strike at the airline had hurt the city economically. Muse had also astutely noted that Harlingen was a short drive from South Padre Island which was at the cusp of starting its tourist boom as a Gulf Coast beach destination. While Texas International would have charged a one way fare of $40 for Harlingen, Southwest charged only $25 and traffic soon boomed with thousands of passengers filling Southwest flights whereas the year prior, Texas International would have only had a few hundred a month. Before long, residents from northern Mexico were crossing the border to also take Southwest flights. Texas International tried various approaches, but it was painfully clear to Lorenzo that he wasn't able to compete head-to-head with Southwest. 

In the days before deregulation, airline fares were set by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in Washington. Any airline that operated beyond a single state was an interstate carrier and would fall under CAB regulation as was the case with Texas International. Southwest, however, only operated in Texas and therefore was free to set its fares whatever it wished as long as the state authorities in Austin had no objections, which was rarely the case. In November 1976, Lorenzo petitioned the CAB to be allowed to cut its fares- and not just to match Southwest, but to undercut Southwest with a 50% discount- what Lorenzo called "Peanuts Fares" since you could "fly for peanuts". For years airlines had been allowed to implement fare discounts by the CAB, but these were usually for charter flights, holiday flights and red-eye flights and were rarely ever long-term and only applied to a few flights. What Lorenzo was petitioning the CAB to be allowed to do was unprecedented in the airline industry- he was asking for individual authority to set his own ticket prices across the board based on market conditions. This had never been done in forty years, but there were already deregulation forces at work in Washington on the heels of Jimmy Carter's election to the White House. The CAB approved Lorenzo's petition and the Peanuts Fare" were introduced not just to Harlingen, but across Texas International's route system. By the end of the first week, passenger loads on the airline had shot up an astounding 600 percent. 

Peanuts Fares didn't just apply to routes where TI competed with Southwest
Peanuts Fares were a success for the airline and Frank Lorenzo was hailed as a hero by consumer advocate groups. But there was a catch that gnawed at him despite being flush with success at such a young age with such a small airline- the fare experiment suggested strongly that airlines were more than able to manage their own fares without the bureaucracy of the CAB. To the advocates of deregulation, it was ammunition in the battle to eliminate the CAB and deregulate the US airline industry. Just a few years earlier an airline executive could face criminal charges for setting fares without the approval of the CAB, now here was Texas International doing just that and making a huge pile of money in the process and stimulating a boom in passenger traffic. Lorenzo didn't want deregulation, though. Texas International at the time was only the 20th largest airline in the United States. He knew he could be crushed instantly by the Dallas-based giant Braniff International should deregulation happen. Even bigger American Airlines was growing its presence at the new DFW Airport as well, and American had resources and deep pockets that would make Texas International a quick snack in a fully free-market environment. During press interviews at the time, Lorenzo was quick to point out the experimental and temporary nature of the Peanuts Fares. For the time being, the CAB's bureaucracy did shelter him from being crushed by larger airlines for the time being, giving him time to plan his next move. 

But that'll be a blog post for a later date..........

Source: Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos by Thomas Petzinger. Times Business/Random House, 1996, pp 38-50. Grounded: Frank Lorenzo and the Destruction of Eastern Airlines by Aaron Bernstein. Beard Books, 1999, pp 11-15 Photos: Wikipedia, Flickr/Bob Garrard Collection

17 April 2015

The Last Savoia-Marchetti Airliner

Italian aeronautical engineer Alessandro Marchetti
The Italian aircraft manufacturer Savoia had a history dating back to its founding in 1915 by Umberto Savoia and after the end of World War I, it merged with SIAI (Società Idrovolanti Alta Italia), another firm known for its seaplanes. The company became Savoia-Marchetti (sometimes also referred to as SIAI-Marchetti) when the designer Alessandro Marchetti became its chief engineer in 1922 and quickly became famous for his work on the S.55 twin-hull flying boat. Many of Marchetti's designs during the interwar period would set speed and endurance records in flight. Most of what Alessandro Marchetti is best known for, though, was his line of three-engined aircraft that began with the SM.79 Sparviero that first flew in 1934 as a fast eight-passenger transport capable of air racing. With the storm clouds of war fast coming to Europe, the Sparviero became Italy's primary bomber aircraft and one of the few Italian designs produced in significant quantities during the Second World War. The trimotor layout of the Sparviero set the pattern for a whole seriesof aircraft from Savoia-Marchetti, In 1934 the Italian airline Ala Litorria asked Marchetti for a modern long range airliner to which the SM.75 Marsupiale transport resulted. The Marsupiale had its inaugural revenue flights with Ala Littoria in 1938 with the Italian air arm, the Regia Aeronautica, taking interest in the aircraft as a transport. 

With war embroiling Europe in 1941, Marchetti began work on a four-engined derivative of the SM.75 that accommodated 18 passengers on long-range flights. It was a departure from Marchetti's land plane designs which were nearly all trimotors save the obscure SM.74 of which only three were built of this pre-war shoulder-wing airliner. The new aircraft was designated the SM.95 and a prototype and two pre-production examples were built in 1942. In addition, work began on a long-range bomber version designated SM.95B. The original design called for either 14- or 18-cylinder Piaggio radial engines, but wartime availability meant that Marchetti had to settle for a 9-cylinder Alfa Romeo engine producing 780 horsepower. Typical for Marchetti's designs of the period, the SM.95 was of mixed construction with a welded steel tube fuselage with metal alloy skin for the nsoe section and underside and fabric covering for the rest of the fuselage. The wings were plywood-skinned with three wood wing spars. The mixed-material construction likely also made the aircraft much lighter given the fact that lower-powered engines were used instead of what was originally planned. 

The prototype first flew on 8 May 1943 and was immediately impressed into transport service by the Luftwaffe. The fate of the first pre-production aircraft is unknown but is believed to have also been impressed into Luftwaffe service. The second pre-production aircraft was stretched and designed SM.95GA for "Grande Autonomia", featuring increased fuel capacity and revised cockpit instrumentation. Work on the SM.95 was soon hampered by the Italian Armistice in September 1943, but work was completed on the SM.95B bomber prototype with had the wings, engines, and empennage of the transport variant married to a new fuselage that was deepened to allow a bomb bay below the wing spar carry-through structure. A glazed nose accommodated the bombardier with the flight deck moved forward with defensive armament consisting of 12.7mm Breda guns in a turret aft of the flight deck and lateral positions in the aft fuselage and a ventral position forward of the bomb bay. No known photographs of the SM.95B are known to exist though the bomber prototype did fly at least once in 1945. 

Alitalia's SM.95 I-DALL "Marco Polo"
The third SM.95, the SM.95GA, finally made its first flight on 28 July 1945. It and the next aircraft built were put into military service with the Aeronautica Militare. The stretched fuselage of the SM.95GA became the production standard, the nine-foot fuselage stretch allowing for the carriage of 30 passengers in three-abreast seating. The military transports entered operational service starting in May 1946. The new Italian flag airline Alitalia had just been established in September 1946 and orders for six SM.95s were placed. The first two were I-DALJ "Cristoforo Colombo" and I-DALK "Amerigo Vespucci", delivered at the end of 1947 to Alitalia and promptly put into airline service. The production SM.95s had upgraded 9-cylinder Alfa Romeo radials that had increased power output from 780 horsepower on the wartime prototypes to 930 horsepower to accommodate the increased weights of the increased fuel and stretched fuselage. The balance of Alitalia's order, though, was completed with British Bristol Pegasus engines that delivered 1,000 horsepower- these aircraft were I-DALL "Marco Polo", I-DALM, I-DALN "Sebastiano Caboto" and I-DALO "Ugolino Vivaldi". The first two Alitalia SM.95s were subsequently re-engined with the more powerful Bristol Pegasus. It was I-DALN "Sebastiano Caboto" that inaugurated Alitalia's first postwar services to Great Britain on 3 April 1948. 

One of LATI's three SM.95s, I-LATI "San Francesco"
Another Italian airline also ordered the SM.95- Linee Aeree Transcontinentali Italiane (LATI), which had operated air services between Italy and South America prior to the Second World War. LATI had ordered three SM.95s which were all delivered by 1949- I-LAIT "San Antonio", I-LATI "San Francesco" and I-LITA "San Cristoforo". When LATI ceased operations in 1950, their three SM.95s were assumed by Alitalia. Interestingly the only other airline operator of the SM.95 was SAIDE of Egypt, which operated three aircraft to connect Cairo with European capitals. While Alitalia configured its aircraft for 20 passengers, LATI flew shorter routes than Alitalia and configured its aircraft for 26 passengers but SAIDE operated even shorter routes and packed in 38 passengers on their aircraft. Both LATI and SAIDE's aircraft were powered not by the Pegasus radial engine but Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder engines producing 1,200 horsepower. 

Only a total of 12 production SM.95s operated commercial services out of a total of 20 airframes built including the prototypes. The mixed material construction wasn't terribly robust with the rigors of scheduled passenger services and lacking pressurization also limited their usefulness. Compared to the Douglas DC-4 and the Lockheed L-749 Constellation of the time, the SM.95 was an outdated design. The last passenger flights took place in 1950 less than a year after the last production aircraft was completed. 

Interestingly, there was a plan by the Regia Aeronautica called "Operation S" prior to the 1943 armistice that would have used a modified SM.95GA to fly at very long ranges to bomb New York City. Benito Mussolini, however, would only allow the mission to drop propaganda leaflets as he didn't want to alienate the large population of Italian-Americans in the city. The mission was under preparation when the 1943 armistice occurred. 

Source: Air International "Plane Facts" Volume 10 Number 2, February 1976. Photos: Wikipedia, Alitalia, Air International

12 April 2015

The Barrier Patrols: Extending the US Radar Net Out to Sea

The three main continental radar picket lines of  the Cold War
As early as 1946, the US Navy was already examining the possibility of large aircraft equipped with airborne radar as a means of extending the early warning detection times of fleets at sea. American defense planning in the early days of the Cold War assumed that whatever strike capabilities the United States had, the Soviets also had an equivalent. Since intercontinental ballistic missiles had yet to be fielded in significant numbers at the time, long range bombers like the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, its successor the B-50 Superfortress and the massive Convair B-36 Peacemaker formed the main strategic nuclear strike force of the United States. The assumptions of Soviet capabilities were validated with the unveiling of the Soviet reverse-engineered B-29, the Tupolev Tu-4 "Bull". With jet bombers on the drawing boards of US manufacturers, it was assumed that intercontinental jet bombers were also under development in the Soviet Union. Since the predominant Soviet bomber at the time was the Tu-4, its range meant that it would have to come over the North Pole to strike US targets. In November 1950, the United States and Canada agreed to build three lines of radar stations across the northern reaches of North America. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line formed the northernmost chain of stations that stretched from Alaska across the Canadian Arctic coast. The second line was the Mid-Canada Line that stretched across the northern parts of the Canadian provinces. The third line of radar stations was the Pinetree Line that stretched across the US-Canadian border. Several major defense studies at the time expressed concern that air refueling by the Soviets or use of bases secured in Alaska or Greenland and Iceland would allow Soviet bombers to fly around the three radar lines across Canada since they ended at the coasts. There was no doubt that there would be a need for a sea-based radar picket line in the Pacific and Atlantic, the problem was who was going to fund it and who was going to run it and on this count, the US Navy and the USAF couldn't agree on anything useful. Each service tried to push off the seaborne radar picket on the other- the Navy felt air defense as the USAF's job, so it should fund and run the system, but the USAF felt since it was sea-based, it should be the Navy's responsibility. 

Both services did come around the need to contribute to some sort of sea-based radar picket to extend the three radar lines in Alaska and Canada to prevent Soviet bombers flying around the land-based radars and approaching towards the west and east coast. The Navy's recommendation was for a combination of radar picket ships and airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft maintaining a barrier line in the mid-ocean in both the Atlantic and Pacific called SEADEW (SEAward-extension of the DEW Line). The AEW aircraft would fly racetrack orbits over the line of radar picket ships. When needed, both the picket ships and AEW aircraft could be called upon to support fleet operations. The USAF recommendation was slightly different, with AEW aircraft orbiting preset locations off the coasts and tied in by data-links to the land-based radar net. While similar in principle, the issue came down to funding as well as control. The Navy favored semi-autonomous ships and AEW aircraft that could also be used for fleet operations, offering flexibility. The USAF's Air Defense Command wanted a system that was tied into the existing radar net. Quite obviously, the Navy didn't want to fund and operate a system that was controlled by the USAF and vice versa. 

US Navy WV-2 Warning Star flies over a DER radar picket ship
Feeling that the USAF was dragging its feet and wanting a system operational that was flexible enough to support the fleet when needed, the Navy went ahead and proceeded to get the SEADEW operational during the Korean War. The Navy converted a number of destroyer escorts to destroyer escort radar (DER) vessels along with putting back into service some wartime radar picket destroyers. The Navy also procured the Lockheed WV-2 Warning Star, an AEW aircraft based on the Lockheed Super Constellation. Airborne early warning squadrons were established for the Atlantic and Pacific. The first units were multi-tasked with not just SEADEW missions but also fleet support and weather reconnaissance. VW-1 and VW-3 were assigned to the Pacific Fleet while VW-2 and VW-4 were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. It was VW-4 that would become well known as the original "Hurricane Hunters" before the mission was transferred to the USAF. In addition to these initial Warning Star squadrons, additional units were stood up devoted primarily to flying the radar barrier patrols- VW-11, VW-13, VW-15 and a training unit were assigned the Atlantic barrier and the VW-12, VW-16, VW-16 and a maintenance unit were assigned to the Pacific barrier. The Pacific Barrier was headquartered at NAS Barbers Point in Hawaii with the barrier line running between Midway Island to the Aleutians in Alaska. The Atlantic Barrier was based at NAS Argentia in Newfoundland and ran from Newfoundland to the Azores. The DER picket ships patrolled those lines as well. Because the Navy's barrier lines were further out, they offered anywhere from 2-4 hours advance warning time of a Soviet bomber attack. 

A USAF RC-121D Warning Star with two F-104 Starfighters
Despite competing with the Navy, the USAF's AEW line complemented the Navy barrier patrols as it was closer to shore and formed a second radar line behind the SEADEW. The USAF also procured the AEW version of the Lockheed Constellation with the designation RC-121C which was based on the L-749 Constellation and the RC-121D which was based on the longer L-1049 Super Constellation. Called the Contiguous Extension, the RC-121 fleet was the USAF's first organized airborne early warning endeavor. On the West Coast, the USAF Contiguous Extension was based out of McClellan AFB near Sacramento and the East Coast operation was headquartered out of Otis AFB on Cape Cod. Since the Navy was first out of the starting blocks and was further ahead in its AEW operation, until sufficient RC-121s arrived, the USAF had to send its personnel to train with the Navy. At Otis AFB, the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing had three squadrons and the 552d AEW&C Wing at McClellan AFB also had three squadrons. In less than two years, the USAF had six squadrons of fifty AEW aircraft and over 5,000 personnel operational! 

The Lockheed WV-2/RC-121s had a combat radius of over 1,000 miles which allowed them to patrol for 16 hours before returning to base. Five officers and thirteen enlisted made up the crews, but the aircraft had the room for up to 31 personnel on longer missions needing an augmented crew. Behind the flight deck were five radar stations. There was no automation or filtering of the radar information- what was seen on the scope was the raw feed and it was up to the skill of the operator to sort through the mess to determine what was significant. Each radar station was manned in just one hour stretches to prevent fatigue and inattention. The radar system and its associated electronics had over 3,000 vacuum tubes and two enlisted in the crew were devoted just to inflight maintenance of the electronics. Most of the electronics were in the aft cabin and generated a tremendous amount of heat- it wasn't unusual for the temperature inside the cabin to hit 100F! Weather rarely scrubbed a mission- the joke was that "If you can taxi, you can fly!" Often times USAF or US Navy crews departed in such atrocious weather that they had to divert to an alternate field on return from patrol. 

The Navy's aircraft did a lot of their data interpretation aloft as they operated on the barrier lines autonomously and would radio any findings by HF. The USAF's aircraft were tied in by datalinks to the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) system used by NORAD and operators ashore would sort through the radar data. Despite this level of automation, USAF RC-121s were staffed with full crews in the event the data links went down as well as have onsite personnel who could interpret radar data without waiting for the SAGE operators ashore. The USAF's RC-121s were later re-designated EC-121s and they flew their patrols around 15,000 feet. The Navy's WV-2s flew their patrols at lower altitudes between 5,000 to 8,000 feet. The strategic imperative of these radar missions was such that spare aircraft and crew were often prepared to be able to depart at a moment's notice should an aircraft en route to its patrol area had technical issues- and those were common given the cantankerous nature of the Constellation's Wright R-3350 engines. While the US Navy did its best to keep its barrier lines fully covered, the USAF settled on randomly patrolling parts of its Contiguous Extension, and more so as the main threat to the United States shifted from bombers to ICBMs. Each coast had nine patrol stations, odd numbered 1 through 9 in the Pacific with 1 near the Aleutians and 9 off the coast of Baja California. In the Atlantic, even numbered patrol stations 2 through 8 in the Atlantic were used. Each patrol station was a 100 mile racetrack orbit. In low tension periods, USAF EC-121s would only operated on one station and the station was randomly decided, the crew finding out which station once they had taken off. During periods of higher tension, more stations would be active. During such periods, all of the USAF stations were operated on both coasts and this meant every four hours an EC-121 departed from McClellan AFB and Otis AFB. 

Despite the maximum effort expended by the US Navy and the USAF, several air defense exercises in the late 1950s showed the barrier patrols weren't as effective as hoped. Electronic failures were the most common cause of a degraded mission with engine problems a distant second. At one point in 1959 the USAF's Air Defense Command had gotten so frustrated with electronic and engine issues with the EC-121 fleet a proposal was floated to transfer the Contiguous Extension operation to the US Navy! Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the USAF wasn't allowed to give its AEW experience. But the strain on men, aircraft, and budgets began to take its toll on both services. In 1960 the US Navy disestablished some Pacific Fleet squadrons, merging them into other units. During the FY1961 budget debate, questions arose as to the wisdom of continued funding of the barrier patrols in light of the shift in Soviet threat from bombers to ICBMs. The USAF and the Navy had other funding priorities and gradually, both the Navy and USAF barrier patrols were wound down. The Atlantic barrier line was pushed further east centered on a Greenland-Iceland-UK axis with the base of patrols at NAS Keflavik in Iceland. On 8 September 1965, the last AEW barrier mission was flown by a Navy EC-121P (in 1962 the Navy and USAF went to a unified designation system) out of Argentia, ending 10 years of barrier patrols over the Atlantic and Pacific by both the USAF and US Navy. 

So was it worth it? That's a tough question. In the 1950s the bomber threat was still the main nuclear threat and certainly there was deterrent value in the barrier patrols as potential adversaries were put on notice the great lengths the US military was taking to insure vigilance. Perhaps more importantly, it gave both the US Navy and USAF practical airborne early warning experience that laid the foundations for modern aircraft like the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye and the Boeing E-3 Sentry. 

Source: AWACS and Hawkeyes: The Complete History of Airborne Early Warning Aircraft by Edwin Leigh Armistead. Motorbooks International, 2002, pp 21-40. Photos: Wikipedia