Category Archives: Military Aviation

Origin of the Pilot’s Checklist

On October 30, 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton , Ohio , the U.S. Army Air Corps held a flight competition for airplane manufacturers vying to build its next-generation long-range bomber. It wasn’t supposed to be much of a competition. In early evaluations, the Boeing Corporation’s gleaming aluminum-alloy Model 299 had trounced the designs of Martin and Douglas. Boeing’s plane could carry five times as many bombs as the Army had requested; it could fly faster than previous bombers, and almost twice as far.

A Seattle newspaperman who had glimpsed the plane called it the “flying fortress,” and the name stuck. The flight “competition,” according to the military historian Phillip Meilinger, was regarded as a mere formality. The Army planned to order at least sixty-five of the aircraft.

A small crowd of Army brass and manufacturing executives watched as the Model 299 test plane taxied onto the runway. It was sleek and impressive, with a hundred-and-three-foot wingspan and four engines jutting out from the wings, rather than the usual two. The plane roared down the tarmac, lifted off smoothly and climbed sharply to three hundred feet. Then it stalled, turned on one wing and crashed in a fiery explosion. Two of the five crew members died, including the pilot, Major Ployer P. Hill (thus Hill AFB , Ogden , UT ).

An investigation revealed that nothing mechanical had gone wrong. The crash had been due to “pilot error,” the report said. Substantially more complex than previous aircraft, the new plane required the pilot to attend to the four engines, a retractable landing gear, new wing flaps, electric trim tabs that needed adjustment to maintain control at different airspeeds, and constant-speed propellers whose pitch had to be regulated with hydraulic controls, among other features.

While doing all this, Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. The Boeing model was deemed, as a newspaper put it, “too much airplane for one man to fly.” The Army Air Corps declared Douglas ‘s smaller design the winner. Boeing nearly went bankrupt.

Still, the Army purchased a few aircraft from Boeing as test planes, and some insiders remained convinced that the aircraft was flyable. So a group of test pilots got together and considered what to do.

They could have required Model 299 pilots to undergo more training. But it was hard to imagine having more experience and expertise than Major Hill, who had been the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Chief of Flight Testing. Instead, they came up with an ingeniously simple approach: they created a pilot’s checklist, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. Its mere existence indicated how far aeronautics had advanced.

In the early years of flight, getting an aircraft into the air might have been nerve-racking, but it was hardly complex. Using a checklist for takeoff would no more have occurred to a pilot than to a driver backing a car out of the garage… But this new plane was too complicated to be left to the memory of any pilot, however expert.

With the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a total of 18 million miles without one accident. The Army ultimately ordered almost thirteen thousand of the aircraft, which it dubbed the B-17. And, because flying the behemoth was now possible, the Army gained a decisive air advantage in the Second World War which enabled its devastating bombing campaign across Nazi Germany.

Requiem For A Fighter Pilot

Losing a Friend

The news came as a shock. I made the connection between “missing man formation” and Lex LeFon with disbelief, hoping that it meant something else. After opening the comments section, I suddenly realized many others were coming to terms with the loss of a good friend. For the past six years, I had come to appreciate his writings, along with thousands of others (Neptunus Lex actually began 2003) which communicated patriotism, airmanship, incisive political commentary, humor and love of God and family. It was hard not to like him. Ultimately, I began commenting and I’d occasionally send a controversial article or interesting flying story to get his reaction. Here’s a a guy that earned a platform to speak: A naval academy graduate with a masters degree in systems engineering; commander of an operational FA-18 squadron, TOPGUN Executive officer; licensed  Airline Transport Pilot; and  an O-6 with a sphere of influence in U.S.Naval Training Operations spanning 55,000 sailors in the Pacific Fleet.

Last summer, I asked Lex if he could help with some background regarding another military pilot relative to a job opening and to my surprise, he expressed interest which led to subsequent phone calls and e-mails. He was smart, aggressive and had the necessary experience and background. We spent the full day together in Milwaukee where he impressed others that he had the “right stuff”.  I had proposed a tentative offer working on my team, but during that time, ATAC had as well.

Thanks for bringing me out and showing me the operation. I really do appreciate the confidence you showed but  I got a phone call from ATAC yesterday and they are making me an offer to fly Kfirs for them out of Point Mugu, which I intend to accept. You only get so many flying years. My deepest gratitude to you personally for your thoughts and prayers over a difficult time, and thanks again for considering me as a part of your team. My very best wishes for your continued success.”

 It left me to wonder “what if” but I know he wouldn’t have been happy in any other profession where the office didn’t have a stick and throttle within easy reach of the seat. It’s what he loved. You only get so many flying years.

His talented writing and wisdom attracted an articulate, high caliber, diverse group of “commenters” which I found unique in the blogosphere. I’m sure it’s awkward when everyone sort of “knows” much about the Lex history, placing him at a disadvantage when we’ve shared less about ourselves upon meeting him in person. I’m sure his wife Mary felt the same way when I greeted her on the phone with: “It’s nice talking with you!” and she’s thinking: “Who the heck is this guy on the phone?” Through his writings we became in a small way, part of the family-

 One of the things we talked about on the trip back to the airport were differences in military versus general aviation and Lex believed there were inherently more risks associated with GA: Far less rigor and quality of training, fewer defined operating limits, reduced support for the “mission” and type of aircraft. Ironically, the high risk profession  of flying tactical jets, especially an old F-21, claimed his life.

 He left us too soon. Thanks go to Bill (Pinch) Paisley who e-mailed me this picture.

Fair winds and following seas. You will be remembered.


An excellent write up by FBL on the services to honor Lex yesterday,

Lest the Deck Rise up to Smite Thee

I commend thee to abide by these general aviation commandments:

1. Thou shalt abstain from the intersection takeoff for, verily, the runway behind thee, as the altitude above thee, cometh not to thine aid when thou needest them.

2. Thou shalt not linger on active runways lest thou become like unto ground sirloin.

3. Ignorest thou not thy checklists for many are the switches, handles, gauges and other demons awaiting to take cruel vengeance upon thee.

4. Thou shalt cast thine eyes to thy right and also to thy left as thou passeth through the air lest thy fellow pilots bring flowers to thy widow and comfort her in other ways.

5. Buzzeth not, for this shall surely incur the wrath of thy neighbors and the fury of the FAA shall be called down upon thy head.

6. Thou shalt be ever mindful of thy fuel lest there be nothing in thy tank to sustain thee upon the air and thy days be made short.

7. Trust not thine eyes to lead thee through the cloud lest the Archangel Gabriel await thee therein.

8. Thou shalt not trespass into the thunderstorm lest the tempest rend the wings from thy chariot and cast thee naked into the air.

9. Put not thy trust in weather prophets, for when the truth is not in, then they shall not accompany thee among thy ancestors.

10. Often shalt thou confirm thine airspeed on final lest the earth rise up and smite thee.

And if flying the Sukhoi SU-33 Flanker, there is a corollary to commandment 10:  Thou shalt confirm glideslope with the Optical Landing System lest the deck rise up to smite thee.

A short prayer may have been invoked during the high alpha go around.

Fifteen Spitfires

Recreating the Battle of Britain

The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world except in the abodes of the guilty goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Of course, the the famous lines from Sir Winston Churchill.

The Battle of Britain was the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces and it was Germany’s attempt to force Britain to negotiate a  surrender. ‘The Few’ were 2,353 young men from Great Britain and 574 from overseas, both pilots and aircrew.  544 lost their lives during the  the Battle, and another 791 were killed in action before the wars end. It was a major defeat for Germany and one of the turning points of the war.

The Brits have sought to honor those men in this air show (Footage from PlanesTV). It’s a much  different mix of planes than we normally see over here.

American Patriot

One of the more famous recipients of the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam conflict was Colonel George “Bud” Day.  He is a man who defines the word courage with his exemplary leadership while in captivity. The Air Force Cross was actually awarded for his leadership in the  Hoa Lo “Hanoi Hilton”. The Medal of Honor was for escaping and evading the enemy…until he was recaptured.  He is the most decorated living serviceman with 70 awards. I gained a new respect and appreciation for Col. Day after reading American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day. What sustained him during those years of torture and confinement? The goal to Return with Honor. It’s a notion that’s in short supply these days. The idea of a commitment to something greater than oneself.  I was pleased to see Col. Day honored today by the Collings Foundation who will add the F-100 Super Sabre to their list of available aircraft.

On March 29th the Collings Foundation will unveil the F-100F Super Sabre newly painted in honor of Col. Bud Day’s original fighter. With a backdrop of the Foundation’s Wings of Freedom tour, AD-4 Skyraider and Vietnam Memorial aircraft, Col. Day will fly again in “his fighter” for the first time since he was shot down 43 years ago. In a special event he will join an honorary formation fly-over featuring the F-4 Phantom, TA-4 Skyhawk, T-33 Shooting Star and “Huey” helicopter. Other Medal of Honor recipients such as James Flemming, Vietnam Veterans, POWs and VIPs will make remarks commemorating this monumental event

The  Super Sabre was the first super sonic jet and was employed in the famous Misty fast forward air controller program.  “Bury Us Upside Down” is the riveting desription of the Misty (actually named after the song) FAC’s and their harrowing missions . No word if you can fly the F-100 yet but I expect it might eventually be possible along with the the F-4 Phantom II and, A-4 Skyhawk planes which I mentioned last month.

Continue reading

Virtual Museum

If you’re going to fly cross-country in a light airplane, it helps to have a mission. Not that you need one. This was better than the $100 hamburger (which, thanks to the cost of Avgas no longer exists). My brother and I flew to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. It is, without question, one of the two absolute best places on this earth to see static displays of aircraft. (Smithsonian / Udvar Hazy is the other) . Now you can see the whole thing without flying or driving.

All 92 high-definition panoramic ‘nodes’ are now online,” said Lt. Gen. (Ret) John L. Hudson, museum director. “With all the photos uploaded, visitors can now better experience the museum while at home or on the go.

Take a tour of the place via map or by following the green arrows. Zoom in. Look up. “Walk” around. After spending time on the site, you’ll most definitely want to drive (or fly) to see it all in person. Anyone that loves planes will love this.

Honey I Shrunk the Checkbook

Last month, I visited with a gentleman who had a model of an F-104 Starfighter on his desk. Nearby was a portrait of him next to the “manned missile”. He explained that while he didn’t have a pilot’s license, he actually went through two days of training and later flew in the aircraft. I didn’t know any were still airworthy, much less the thought of getting a hop in one. This was a piece of history, one of Kelly Johnson’s (Skunkworks!) more famous efforts. It’s fast , has a terrific rate of climb but wasn’t much of a dog fighter. The F-104 was intended to deliver nuclear ordnance and bug out at mach 2 during the cold war era. It also saw limited service in Vietnam. So how do you get to strap into the rear seat in one of these? Through Incredible Adventures whose motto is: “All you need is the dream,  We take care of the rest”. More accurately all you need is a dream and  $30,000.

We’ll introduce you to the stomach-crunching g-forces of a high-speed vertical climb and the incredible sensations of freefall and weightlessness sure to be part of future civilian space flights. We’ll top that off with a rapid descent and shuttle-style landing on one of the world’s longest runways.

That means a take off and landing from the Kennedy Space Center which would be pretty amazing.  So it ain’t cheap, but for most pilots (and non pilots), it would be the flight of a lifetime.

Not to be outdone, the Collings Foundation received an FAA flight exemption that allows them to offer the “Vietnam Memorial Flight Program” to both pilots and non-pilots. (Featured at Airventure this year). The F-4 and A-4 Flight Programs take place at their Houston, Texas campus. Each participant will take part in academic sessions on board the aircraft, including safety procedures, ejection seat training and cockpit orientation, before putting on a fight-suit and manning the cat bird seat. While the Starfighter has one J-79 engine, the Phantom has two, making it one of the most powerful civilian operated fighters in the world. The F-4 Phantom program is $12,500, while the A-4 Skyhawk is $7,800.

While a fraction of the Starfighter flight, the price tag is still pretty hefty. This would fund a year (or more) of bugsmashing for many GA types but there IS something special about warbirds. You’re flying a piece of history. The stick has the gun and / or bomb release switches.  As you ready for take off, your eyes scan an analog cockpit with the wear and tear of countless missions. The harness is tight, seat is armed and the view out the canopy is nothing short of spectacular. Sit back, relax and enjoy pulling some G’s. The pilot in command is responsible to bring back the bird with all the parts attached and no one’s shooting at you.

All it takes is airspeed…and lots of money.

Point Click Kill

MQ-8B Fire Scout

Last August, I highlighted a helo drone gone awol in DC restricted airspace, a scenario that should strike fear in the most devoted UAV proponents. Nonetheless, UAV’s are here to stay. They’re much less expensive then manned systems with long loiter times. This one has seven hours.  
I thought a  helo drone was intended only for recon when it was introduced years ago with a payload of 200 pounds. That’s not much. The MQ-8B Fire Scout can bring hellfire and brimstone to a neighborhood near you. Or at least to a bad guys hideout. It’s pretty small with VTOL capability which is mighty handy in tight spots. Those pods carry the fire-and-forget AGM-114 Hellfire missiles,, the laser/GPS-guided GBU-44/B Viper Strike missile, and the rather cheerfully named Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System. When the Navy decided it wasn’t for them, Army jumped all over it since attack helicopters are very much an Army thing. Once the Army committed, the Navy reconsidered and now both service braches will fly it.

Flights of the Army variant take place this month. Another addition to the growing arsenal of unmanned vehicles, a trend that shows no sign of abating. Makes you wonder about the future role of manned vehicles whether it fixed or rotary wing.

Will it evolve to commercial activites? What happens when your engine sucks in a flight of sea birds as happened to Chesley Sullenberger? Who or what will tell the aircraft that the safest/ best place to land is the Hudson River?

h/t to Ed for the photo

Inside the Mustang

 A P-51 RedTail at the Geneseo Air Show with a high resolution view inside. Zoom way in to read all the gauges, placards. (You’ll need to wait for the color to fill in).

This one’s pretty good too.

h/t to Tom

Raiders Remembered

There were many great WWII aircraft. Mustang; Liberator; Thunderbolt to name a few. While I love the fighters, I have a special attraction to the B-25 Mitchell. Mostly due to The Doolittle Raid.  Courageous men that created an important turning point in the war with a one way trip to destiny. Doolittle thought the raid had been a failure, that he would be court-martialed, but not so. It caused the Japanese to recall experienced fighter squadrons to defend the home islands, and resulted in Japan ‘s weakened air capabilities at the upcoming Battle of Midway. A B-25J arrived at our EAA chapter fly in, the one with the eight 50 caliber machine guns in the nose. It just looked lethal sitting in front of our dinner table and I could imagine  screaming down the chute in the left seat, strafing enemy trains. I thought of the brave men who learned to fly bombers off carriers into an incredibly hazardous journey with low odds of returning.

B-25J ‘Pacific Princess’ and crew participates in the largest gathering of B-25’s since WWII for the 68th Doolittle Raiders Reunion held April 17th & 18th, 2010 at USAF Museum, Wright Field Dayton OH. 17 B-25’s formed up for a  the Doolittle Memorial ceremony. 8 Doolittle Raiders of the original 79 remain, 4 were able to attend the 2010 event.

Not many remain. If you have spare time, read a first hand account of what it was like to be there.