An early mustang on a test flight in 1942

How a World War II Plane Could Easily Defeat the Joint Strike Fighter

P-51 Mustang vs. Twenty Years of Bureaucracy 

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is facing delays, again. Aviation Week & Space Technology says the schedule for the newest fighter of the skies is slipping due to continued software problems, weapons integration issues and complications with good old fashioned aerodynamics.

It’s useless to try and figure out where the delays begin and end for the perennially plagued program as there appears to be delays in announcing delays. But 73 years ago today, a team of engineers, designers and craftsmen were busy building a fighter aircraft that could easily defeat its technologically superior cousin of today simply by showing up early to the fight.

In April of 1940, with a world war just beginning, the British Royal Air Force signed a contract with North American Aviation to develop a new fighter aircraft. But the order for 320 airplanes came with a strict caveat, the prototype must be delivered in 120 days.

After 117 days a new airplane designated the NA-73 rolled out of North American’s California factory. Unfortunately it arrived before the engine maker was ready, but by late October the airplane made its first flight. It would take two years to complete flight and operational testing. But not long after it entered service for both Britain and the United States, the renamed P-51 Mustang began helping change the tide of the war.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35A Joint Strike Fighter

Using a similar starting point of a contract signed with the United Kingdom in 1995, the X-35 made its first flight five years later in 2000. Today after 13 years of flight and operational testing, there appears to be no end to the delays. Many of the problems are in offices, not the cockpit. There’s little doubt that if desperately needed, the F-35 could have been pressed into service much earlier. As it stands in the current atmosphere, the Pentagon hopes the first JSF version will be combat ready with the Marines by the end of 2015.

When the F-35 is finally given the go ahead to fight, it will have been at least 20 years from concept to combat ready.

To be fair, the P-51 Mustang was developed in an obviously different era. First off there was a pressing need for the airplane to be ready. And the airplane had none of the electronics and software issues plaguing the F-35. Electricity flow was pretty much limited to the starter motor, a few instruments and the simple radios used for communication and navigation.

But the Mustang did come with a range of innovative new technological features despite the time crunch in which it was produced. It’s laminar flow wing was one of the first and meant less drag as it moved through the air, giving the airplane an advantageous top speed. Even more impressive was the radiator used for the liquid cooled engine. Normally a large source of drag as it scoops up air, the P-51 used an idea developed by a British engineer known as the Meredith Effect to offset much of the drag. A few hundred pounds of thrust is generated simply by carefully ducting the heated, expanding air downstream of the radiator.

Both of these innovations were developed independent of the Mustang. They were “open source” type ideas, developed through government research or published in academic journals. But due to a combination of the right solutions, at the right time in an era of tremendous need, a somewhat accidental success story was born.

It’s a stretch to really think the P-51 Mustang could ever defeat the Joint Strike Fighter in air-to-air combat. But it could win simply by flying and being ready to fight years ahead of the F-35. All the technology in the world won’t save you in a dogfight if you’re still defenseless and bogged down in bureaucracy on the ground.

Next Story — Drone Strike Killed Six in Oregon — in 1945
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image: U.S. Air force Museum

Drone Strike Killed Six in Oregon — in 1945

The United States suffered its first deadly attack from the use of an unmanned aircraft in the forests of southern Oregon. It was a picnic-worthy day in early May. Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife Elsie had taken five children on a fishing trip in southern Oregon when they came across a large paper balloon stuck in a tree. The kids scampered ahead curiously. A young hand reached out to tug on a piece of the debris. Mitchell had heard about the balloon bombs, but before he could yell out his warning, a shattering blast killed his wife and all of the children.

Unmanned aerial drones have evolved into precision weapons of war and assassination. But their precursors, like many military innovations, began haphazardly, with strategically insignificant, tragic results.

Elise Mitchell and the children — only the husband survived — became the only American casualties during World War II in the continental United States on May 5, 1945. At the time it wasn’t even called a drone attack. The term “drone” still referred to the unmanned airplanes the military used for target practice. So after a news blackout was lifted, the New York Times ran a slightly different headline nearly a month later on June 1.

“Six Killed In West By A Balloon Bomb — Released in Japan, It Explodes in Oregon Forest When Found by a Young Girl”

The event marks a little known footnote in the history of the fighting, but it underscores the still imprecise remote killing tactics that are increasingly at the center of American military power.

The balloon and its deadly bomb found in southern Oregon was one of more than 9,000 released in Japan late in 1944 that drifted across the Pacific. Most are thought to have sunk in the ocean, but several hundred were found in the United States and Canada, including as far east as Michigan. It’s not known how long the one that exploded sat on the forest floor before the eleven year old girl found the paper balloon and its payload.

When the balloon was released in Japan, there was absolutely no way for it to be guided to any specific target other than something downwind thanks to the jet stream, which had only been discovered a few decades earlier by a scientist in Japan. The Japanese expected the balloons and their bombs would wreak some havoc, but they likely never imagined the curious paper contraption would lure a troupe of children and a pregnant woman to their deaths.

Today’s drone wars are very different than the use of an unmanned balloon that drifts thousands of miles with nothing more than a westerly wind for navigation. Modern unmanned aircraft can loiter at high altitudes for a day over a specific area, the pilots and operators watching with powerful cameras for something as subtle as a door opening miles away. Once a target is identified, guided bombs and missiles descend from above with precision guidance. But despite the difference in technology, the results can be the same. Not everybody killed is the intended target.

Unmanned aircraft have become one of the most discussed and debated aspects of modern warfare as their use has grown exponentially in recent years. Since 1995, modern unmanned aircraft have been widely deployed in combat zones from the Balkans to Afghanistan. They were initially used as observation platforms, as they were first intended. But after September 11, 2001 the push to arm the drones led to their near ubiquitous use in multiple war zones around the world.

A young Austrian named Franz von Uchatius came up with the idea of using explosives attached to balloons as an unguided war machine. It was 1849, Venice was under revolt and he wanted to find a new way to lay siege to the city. In what is thought to be one of the first aerial attacks — and the first use of an aircraft carrier as many were launched from a ship — several hundred balloons were released with 33 pounds of explosives each. As is often the case, the pioneering effort didn’t go so well. The Venetians knew the balloons were coming thanks to an advance warning given by the Austrians months earlier. And when they did arrive, most exploded high above the city, causing those below to gather on the streets and cheer “bravo!” when the fireworks-like attack commenced. After a shift in the winds blew several of the “drones” back over the Austrians, the idea was shelved and more traditional warfare continued.

The helium drone attacks of World War II were a bit more sophisticated. The Japanese balloons climbed as the helium expanded, warmed by the daytime sun, and descended during the night. Sand bags carried on board were automatically cut loose if the balloon dropped below about 30,000 feet. This cycle was repeated until all of the sand bags were gone, at which time the bomb was dropped. One of the primary goals of the campaign was to start a massive forest fire, or cause some other sort of significant destruction diverting manpower and resources in the continental United States. Many of them ended up being tracked across the United States and Canada. People would see them drifting overhead, and a few were even shot down. But by the end of the war the deaths in Oregon would be the only fatalities from the thousands of balloon attacks launched against the United States.

Newspaper accounts at the time recount little other than the tragic killing of the six victims back in 1945. The news was controlled in an effort to not give the Japanese any information regarding how successful their drone attacks were going on the other side of the Pacific. Undersecretary of War Robert P. Patterson warned residents of the western states to “take precautions against the sporadic balloon-bomb attacks” from “the enemy homeland,” but people largely went about their business. There was little fear that the balloon attacks of 1945 were anything like the drone attacks of 2013. When the bomb went off in Oregon, fear spread among the campers and loggers of the area according to the New York Times. But the slowly drifting balloons turned out to be mostly ineffective, and once word spread, those found on the ground were left alone.

The drone attacks of today do not happen in an Oregon forest, or anywhere close to the United States. More than 60 years later, perhaps the only similarity between Japan’s balloon drones and modern war is the surprise and anguish of indiscriminate death that takes place half a world away.

Next Story — Do Lawyers Make Aviation Any Safer?
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Do Lawyers Make Aviation Any Safer? 

The news that some of the passengers who were on board Asiana Flight 214 are taking the first steps to sue Boeing, some of its suppliers and the airline was probably inevitable. It’s hard to imagine any kind of accident or tragedy today that doesn’t result in some sort of lawsuit.

The investigation is just beginning into what caused the Boeing 777 to impact the ground short of the runway at the San Francisco International Airport. But the attorneys at Ribbeck Law Chartered International in Chicago have indicated they already know the reasons for the accident.

According to its website, “Ribbeck Law Chartered International is passionately devoted to improving international passenger safety and seeking justice for aviation tragedy victims and their families.” But there is no information listed as to how the company has improved safety. The firm claims “our cases have changed policies and laws,” but there are no examples. Instead of stating the policies and laws it has changed, the firm only lists “multi-million dollar settlement” next to some of its cases.

The question is who determines who is responsible for improving passenger safety after an accident? Do the airplane makers play a role in how they change designs on an airliner after an accident? Are the investigators who sift through the wreckage, and analyze the data from the flight responsible for providing any of the information needed? What about the airlines and the pilots who are developing new training and operational procedures based on the investigation?

Or is it the lawyers, who days after the accident announce they are seeking justice for an aviation tragedy as the investigation is just beginning?

There is little doubt companies like Boeing and Airbus have passenger safety in mind when they design an airplane. I have no inside information related to what kind of discussion happens within the walls of the manufacturers after one of their airplanes is involved in an accident. But my experience in talking with them outside the direct context of an accident is that they are trying to design an airplane that provides safe transportation for airline passengers.

After nearly 20 years in service and millions of flight hours, the Boeing 777 has been involved in two accidents resulting in a “hull loss,” and Asiana 214 is the only one with fatalities. While something obviously went wrong leading to the crash in San Francisco, it’s a testament to the safety of modern airplanes that there are 288 passengers who survived the accident, 83 of whom are involved with the lawsuit according to firm.

I also have no inside information to what is being said inside the walls of a law office once an accident occurs. There are lawyers out there who believe they are making the world a safer place, and take steps to ensure negligence is kept to a minimum. But if a law firm does not sue the companies involved with an airline accident, is the assumption that no lessons will be learned and no safety improvements would be made once the investigation is complete?

Safety improvements are often implemented after an accident and after a lawsuit. But are they only the result of the lawsuit? Do market forces and the desire to sell aircraft and safe transportation play a role in determining how the industry reacts?

Ribbeck Law Chartered International lists many of the aviation accidents from around the world that it has been involved with over the years on its website, including TWA Flight 800, Swiss Air Flight 111, and American Airlines Flight 587. The firm also prominently displays the logos of many television channels on its homepage, linking to the numerous media appearances it has made while seeking justice for the passengers and families of those involved in the accidents.

A quick look at some of the accidents listed on the firm’s website shows a variety of causes led to the airplane crash cases it has litigated over the years. Without a thorough look through each accident investigation, it’s difficult to determine who provided the necessary information the industry used to prevent a similar accident in the future.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Ribbeck Law Chartered International cites “mechanical malfunction of the auto-throttle” as one of the issues that may have caused the crash of the Boeing 777,leading to the death of three of the passengers on board the airplane. The National Transportation Safety Board said it concluded its work at San Francisco Airport on Monday and is moving on to the next phase of the investigation that will require more interviews, more data and wreckage analysis, and a more in-depth look at the accident itself.

Last week during her daily press conferences, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman regularly stressed the importance of only reporting what is known, and that there are many questions remaining as to why the airplane’s speed was allowed to drop well below the ideal airspeed for the approach to landing. The auto-throttle system has been a key focal point of the investigation, but it is not yet known whether they were functioning properly or not. Hersman reminded reporters that it typically takes 12 to 18 months to complete its investigation and reports, though if critical safety issues are found in the investigation, they will be released sooner to be implemented across the fleet.

Hersman also explained to reporters some of the design features of the Boeing 777 — including landing gear that is designed to break away cleanly from the wings without rupturing the fuel tanks — that likely limited the amount of damage that occurred. She explained because the gear broke off when it hit the sea wall and did not damage the fuel tanks, there was no fuel fed fire. Hersman said the fire that did eventually spread to the cabin once the passengers were off of the airplane was started by oil dripping on to a hot section of the engine. Its spread was slowed by flame resistant materials used in the airplane according to the NTSB.

There is no doubt that passengers who board an airplane for a flight want to arrive at their destination in good health. I am one of them. I’m just not sure it is the law firms that are responsible for my safe arrival every time I step off of an airplane in one piece.

Next Story — Want To Be A Rocket Scientist? You’re Hired!
Currently Reading - Want To Be A Rocket Scientist? You’re Hired!

Photo: SPaceX

Want To Be A Rocket Scientist? You’re Hired! 

Last night a winged rocket was dropped from an airplane off the California coast and launched a new telescope into orbit, giving scientists a new way to look at the sun. But the launch also highlights something equally remarkable down here on the ground: the white hot demand for rocket scientists demonstrates what it takes to find a job in the midst of what many believe is a largely jobless economic recovery.

The unemployment rate in the U.S. still hovers around the mid-seven percent range. But those in charge of delivering products to space are desperately trying to fill vacant spots. If you can design a rocket motor, or a spacecraft, or simply want to work for a company where going to space is what pays the bills, there may be a job waiting for you.

A Bachelors Degree (BA/BS) in Chemistry, Engineering, Math, Physics

That, along with seven years experience, is the very short list of qualifications for the opening of Principal Engineer at Orbital Sciences, the company that launched the rocket last night.What will your job include? Apparently plenty of rocket fuel and launch pad work.

Manage scheduling of fluid and gas supply chain to ensure uninterrupted availability of commodities for launch vehicle and launch complex test and operations.

Finding the person who launched little Estes rockets in the backyard as a kid, and graduating them to overseeing a 133 foot tall Antares rocket weighing in at 530,000 pounds is just one of 21 jobs Orbital is looking to fill.

The private launch business is growing, fast. Several companies from new rocket startups, to the established prime contractors are facing the same challenge found in other expanding sectors of the recovering economy: Where are the people who can fill the jobs?

Inside the hangar at Orbital Science’s Wallops Island launch facility. Photo: Jason Paur

Former NASA engineers, scientists and even astronauts are filling some of the jobs. But all of the companies are eagerly hiring recent college graduates and others from outside the industry. Today the industry is seeking the kind people who want to make the same impact on the private space race, that the 20- and 30-something engineers had on the original space race 50 years ago.

Space tourism companies like the relatively big Virgin Galactic has 44 open listings. Its smaller neighbor at the Mojave Air and Space Port, XCOR, has four jobs open. Both are competing with each other and others in the space industry. The competition is to to find enough people with enough math and science, the STEM crowd. They are looking for well rounded, actual rocket scientists:

[Virgin Galactic] is seeking a multidisciplinary engineer with a strong background in rocket propulsion systems including composite case rocket motors and high pressure fluid systems (preferably hybrid rocket propulsion systems). Background should include design, manufacturing, assembly and testing.

I’m not sure how the brain surgeon job market is right now, but it’s clear if you can fulfill the other stereotype of a smart person, your paycheck is waiting. Perhaps it’s no big surprise that many of these jobs can trace their origins to another booming job market right now, the computer/software industry.

Paul Allen made a few bucks at Microsoft and spent some of it investing in SpaceShipOne, the project from Scaled Composites and Burt Rutan that led to Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.

Jeff Bezos’ secretive Blue Origin rocket has a somewhat sparse website compared to its cousin. But every page lists the company’s 26 job openings on the right column.

David Masten left the software and IT world to create a workshop full of small autonomous rockets that can take off and land on their own. He’s got seven openings including yet another rocket engineer:

Masten Space Systems seeks a Propulsion Engineer capable of designing, as well as managing production and testing of a range of reusable liquid propellant rocket engines.
One of SpaceX’s Merlin engines undergoing testing at its Texas test facility. Photo: SpaceX

Elon Musk converted his PayPal payday into several companies, including SpaceX. Today with a backlog of launches for both private and government customers, Musk’s company has 203 job openings to fill. And the company isn’t shy about it’s goals or what a new hire might be working on:

Senior Propulsion Analyst - Turbomachinery
The Falcon Launch Vehicle and Dragon Spacecraft programs are some of the most ambitious engineering systems in the world, designed to support our ultimate goals of aviation-like spaceflight capability and making humanity a multi-planet species.

Of course not everybody wants to be (or is cut out to be) a rocket scientist. But the booming space launch business has you covered if you’re in HR,you’re a business manager, a line cook (at SpaceX HQ), and naturally they’re looking to hire “recruitment coordinators” to headhunt the other spots. The industry is much hotter than the 2.7K that fills the vacuum of space.

Even with the hundreds of other listings at companies like ATK, Bigelow, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Aerojet/Rocketdyne, rocket scientists alone won’t push the unemployment rate back to pre-recession levels. But the writing in the sky is pretty clear. The geeks who played with rockets as kids are doing well in the jobless recovery.

Next Story — Just Pay the Government to Take Your Data
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Just Pay the Government to Take Your Data

 The Perfect Pitch, To A Captive Audience

“But their line has seven agents, ours has zero!”

The increasingly frustrated passenger was pointing to the equally long line for non-citizens waiting to have their passports checked at the airport. He was trying to explain to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent walking by that it doesn’t matter how much faster the process is for U.S. and Canadian citizens. With no agent, it’s going to move pretty slow.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be back,” the agent replied. “Did you know there is a program that allows you to avoid this line entirely? You can simply check yourself through at one of our kiosks over there.”

It was the perfect pitch, at the perfect time. Something you don’t usually hear from a guy wearing a uniform and a gun on his hip. The line of passengers were already three hours behind schedule. Their flight had been delayed, and after more than 10 hours in the air, the last thing they wanted to see was the only customs agent who had been processing their passports, get up and leave. Gasps of disbelief and murmurings about “what a total joke” the process was were not missed by the CBP pitchman.

“We’re all trying to get by with what we have, you know the government is cutting back right now,” he tried to explain.

The agent was actually doing a decent job of diffusing the anger. He had a smile on his face and his lines about the Global Entry program had the frustrated passengers snapping up the brochures. Some wondered why he couldn’t just put down the brochures and check passports himself. But as he quickly ran out of the glossy handouts, it was apparent the sales job was working. With Global Entry he explained, you simply step up to the kiosk, insert your passport, have your fingerprint scanned and your done. Oh, and it costs just $100 to be in the Global Entry program for five years.

It’s hard not to miss the convenient circumstances that has put airline passengers in the position where they are eager to pay the government so they can volunteer personal information in an interview, add to a traveler database, and a scan of their biometric data. After all, if there were more agents (or at least one), the lines at the airport might move much quicker. And if you’re moving quickly through line after a long transatlantic flight, there isn’t as much incentive to apply and pay $100 so the government can know more about you.

With all the data, metadata and biometric data already gathered by both voluntary and involuntary means, perhaps it’s worth it to add a few more (dozen, hundred, thousand?) data points in order to avoid the long lines when returning from overseas. More than a million people have signed up for Global Entry already. Another 50,000 are applying every month. It begs the question of what will happen when the long lines form at the kiosk. If that happens, there won’t be an AWOL agent to blame, just the same person who can’t figure out how to use the card swipe machine at the grocery store.

What will the next pitch be? How can we volunteer more data and find a shorter line home?

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