Tuesday, August 29, 2017


In the century since World War I, nearly 1,450 American pilots have been accorded the status of fighter ace— credited with downing at least five enemy aircraft in aerial combat.  Most flew American planes in American uniform.  Some did not, serving with France or Britain in the world wars, although some of those transferred to U.S. service.  But all who had American citizenship were eligible for inclusion in the vaunted roster of aces.

The first U.S. ace was Raoul Lufbery, leading light of the famed Lafayette Escadrille in 1916-17, composed of idealists and adventurers who took war into the third dimension over the Great War’s western front.  After 16 victories he died in action as a major leading the equally famed 94th “Hat in the Ring” Squadron in 1918.

The last U.S. ace was then-Captain Steve Ritchie who, with two back-seaters in his F-4 Phantoms, downed five North Vietnamese MiGs in 1972.  He continued flying high-performance jets after retiring as a brigadier general.

As of this writing, the American Fighter Aces Association (AFAA) counts only 46 survivors.  The current top gun is Air Force Colonel Clarence “Bud” Anderson, our last living triple ace well known for his Mustangs named Old Crow.  His book, To Fly and Fight, still is one of the best aviation memoirs yet written.  Next in line is another P-51 pilot, James L. Brooks with 13 victories in the Mediterranean Theater.

Two other Mustang jockeys round out the remaining double aces.

About twenty Navy aces survive from 373 since World War I.  The most senior is Rear Admiral E.L. “Whitey” Feightner, now 95 years young.  A Wildcat-Hellcat ace of 1942-44 vintage with nine victories, he also flew solo demonstrations with the Blue Angels in the 1950s.

The remaining Marine from 120 of all time is Dean Caswell who was rare among flying leathernecks in scoring his seven kills as a carrier aviator.

Of 41 U.S. aces in the Korean War, three survive including Lieutenant General Charles “Chick” Cleveland, current AFAA president.

While AFAA only recognizes those with their hands on the stick and throttle, three F-4 Phantom back-seaters logged five kills over Vietnam in 1972.  The first was Navy Lieutenant (JG) Willy Driscoll, Lieutenant Randy Cunningham’s radar operator flying from USS Constellation. 

Two Air Force “GIBs” (Guy In Back) were Captains Chuck DeBellevue, who shared four of Ritchie’s kills plus two others; and Jeff Feinstein who participated in five victories.  After the war DeBellevue and Feinstein became Air Force pilots.

Since America ended its Vietnam combat in early 1973, air combat has been extremely rare.  Only 56 shootdowns have been credited to U.S. airmen in those 44 years, including 37 in Operation Desert Storm during 1991.  The highest individual score in that period is three, credited to an F-16 pilot over Yugoslavia in 1999.

Despite the dearth of aerial combat, America continues buying new aircraft dedicated to the air superiority mission, at appalling prices for questionable return.  All three services worship at the stealth altar, purchasing trouble-plagued “low observable” fifth-generation jets that suck the economic oxygen out of the room for more useful types.

The Air Force’s F-22 Raptor overcame many and varied problems after years of post-delivery trouble shooting, but acquisition was limited by mounting costs.  That has not been a concern with the tri-service F-35 joint strike fighter, the most expensive military acquisition ever.  Now in its 21st year, the Lightning II program still is incapable of matching “the brochure” in any of the variants for the Air Force, Navy, or Marines.

It would make vastly better sense to slash or even cancel the ghastly expensive stealth programs and spend some of the savings on upgraded versions of existing “fourth generation” fighters: Air Force F-15s and F-16s with naval FA-18s.  The stealth mission generally can be handled by far less costly electronic countermeasures which, unlike stealth, can be added on to existing airframes.  But with corporate welfare a continuing mandate in the D.C. political swamp, any such policy change appears nearly impossible.

One of the selling points for stealth fighters was the technical advantage that presumably would offset “the enemy’s” superior numbers.  Which enemy remains unknown with collapse of the Soviet Union 27 years ago.  Since Vietnam the one-day record for U.S. aerial victories remains 11 scored by the Navy and the Air Force in three separate engagements on May 10, 1972.

The last time American jets downed 15 hostiles in one day was in June 1953.  The last time American fighters claimed more than 20 was on August 15, 1945—the last day of World War II.

Thus, at this late date we have seen the era of the American fighter ace come and go in barely half a century.  The breed’s 56-year epoch from 1916 to 1972 was only extended by a decade with crowning the last Israeli aces in 1982. 

So where does that leave the American fighter ace today?

It’s a near certainty that there will be no more U.S. aces.  Even now the next-generation air superiority fighters are being touted as remotely-controlled drones capable of inhumanly high-G maneuvers, cyberly linked to god’s-eye observers.  It’s a nifty concept that requires perfect coordination and uninterrupted data-link connectivity.

Incidentally, the Iranians have already demonstrated the ability to hijack our drones in flight.

Meanwhile, America’s dwindling inventory of air-combat warriors provides dual benefits to their services and to the nation.  They represent an irreplaceable link to our airpower heritage, harking back to the dawn of military aviation when anemic engines lifted fabric-covered wings into hostile skies.

The aces also afford a precious perspective that saw technology expanded almost beyond reckoning.  Much hype has been touted about “the greatest generation” of WW II veterans, an indefensible assertion when compared to the Republic’s founders.  But the WW II generation surely provided the greatest airmen, who learned to fly in 80-knot biplanes and finished their careers in Mach 2 jets.  No comparable advance is possible.

So here’s all honor to the American fighter ace, the storied “knight of the air” whose gift of air superiority typically began as a starry-eyed kid inspired to follow his mentors into the contrail country.

We shall not see his like again.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


The summer’s smash movie hit is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a micro-focused telling of the British Expeditionary Force’s near-miraculous evacuation from France during nine days of May and June of 1940.  The precursor to The Battle of Britain provided some 338,000 allied soldiers standing by to repel the expected German invasion.  (The fact that Adolf Hitler lacked the will and the ability to force an amphibious assault was little realized then—or since.)  Although perhaps 40,000 French troops fell into captivity, the cost could have been much worse.

Certainly Nolan is a significant film maker.  Including the enormously successful Batman franchise, his movies have won seven Oscars among 26 nominations, earning more than $4 billion.

What’s little realized is that the Dunkirk saga frequently has been filmed over the past 75 years, including a major portion of the wartime drama Mrs. Miniver directed by William Wyler, and Briton Leslie Norman’s 1958 solid docudrama, likewise Dunkirk.  Additionally, the 1969 epic The Battle of Britain begins with Dunkirk’s beach strewn with abandoned British gear.  (Incidentally, Ridley Scott of Alien and Black Hawk Down has announced his intention to remake “BoB,” to the delight of warbird enthusiasts everywhere.)

There’s also a major Dunkirk segment in Ewan McEwan’s 2001 romance, Atonement.  It’s still cited by film students for its impressive five-minute single take with a tracking shot along the crowded, event-filled beach.

When surveys indicate that about one-third of Britons know that the Battle of Britain occurred in WW II, and that Germany was the enemy rather than an ally, Dunkirk offers a teachable moment—or 106 minutes, ek-chually.   Nolan does a nifty job of educating his 21st century audience as to where Dunkirk is, thanks to German propaganda leaflets dropped over the shrinking Allied lines.  Essentially, the rough map says, “You are here and We are everywhere else.”

Nolan is known for non-linear story telling, and Dunkirk is no different.  The opening scenes are oddly labeled “one day” and “one hour.”  You do not have a sense of time, partly because the three parallel stories (land, sea, and air) alternate day and night, back and forth within the span of a few minutes of real time. 

Though told as an integrated trilogy with a handful of significant characters, we don’t get to know many of them.  Their names are seldom if ever revealed, the major exception being George, the youngest son of the boat owner (well portrayed by Mark Rylance) who’s among the first to set out for Dunkirk.  The lead character is a sympathetic British private played by Fionn Whitehead, who according to internet sources is 20 or 21 years old.

The film fails in a major way: you have no idea of the immense effort by naval and privately-owned vessels in a daringly successful operation.  Some 860 British and allied ships were involved, with more than 200 lost.  About 700 private vessels participated, making an essential contribution ferrying soldiers from shallow water to the ships farther offshore.  Nobel Prize laureate John Masefield described the massive, hastily organized evacuation as “the greatest thing this nation has ever done.”  The film gives almost no indication of the magnitude of the achievement that was Operation Dynamo.  

Hans Zimmer’s musical score has drawn lavish praise but I admit—I don’t get it.  Some recurring passages often are discordant and repetitively long.  A couple of them reminded me of the muted flugelhorns (or whatever) accompanying the Great War poison gas attack in 1969’s Fraulein Doktor.

The studio I attended had Dolby Stereo—unfortunately.  It’s just too damn much.  After the shockingly unexpected burst of gunfire at the start, the repeated effects are overwhelming, including the screaming sirens on radio-controlled Stuka dive bombers.  (Which, by the way tend to drop from a banked turn which does dreadful things to accuracy.)

Aviation buffs eagerly anticipated the aerial combat sequences, which generally are well done.  The in-flight Spitfire pilot close-ups were accomplished by modifying a Russian-built Yak trainer’s front cockpit with a Spit type canopy and windscreen while the actual pilot flew off-screen from behind.  Usually it works, although some shots with wingroot-mounted cameras clearly show a Yak rather than a Spit.

Some operational procedures are violated for the sake of drama.  Though the Spitfire canopy could be locked open or even jettisoned, Nolan ignores reality (and common sense) in having a pilot ditch his shot-up fighter with the canopy shut.  Guess what?  The impact jams the “hood” almost fully closed, and the aeroplane begins to sink.  For some damn reason the movie squadron threw away the regulation crowbar clipped to the access door on the left side of the cockpit…

At the end of the movie one of the RAF pilots has exceeded his fuel supply and must set down along the French coast.  At that point two inconsistencies arise.  The pilot could land ashore near the British force or he could ditch or bail out for pickup by the hundreds of evacuation smallcraft offshore.  Not a bit of it: he lands far down the beach, away from thousands of friendly chaps, AND HE PUMPS HIS LANDING GEAR DOWN.  Having accomplished that entirely unnecessary evolution, he climbs out, wields his flare gun, and fires it into the cockpit.  The Spit burns as shadowy Germans emerge from the gathering gloom.

Throughout the movie we never get a clear view of a German.

The producers had access to three Spitfires and a Spanish-built Messerschmitt 109, the Merlin-powered Ha-1112.  For reasons unstated, Nolan decided against computer graphics to produce a realistic formation of German bombers with shoals of fighter escorts.  Instead, each aerial encounter pits a solitary Heinkel 111 with the duty “Messerspit” occasionally doubled as leader and wingman.

The Heinkel is a large-scale radio-controlled model, which serves well to its capability.  But in the film the Luftwaffe continually sends lone bombers to Dunkirk, escorted by one or two 109s—a problem that should have been solved with some basic computer graphics.

Meanwhile, pegging the trivia meter:

Camouflage and markings buffs (and there are legions of them) note the LC squadron code letters on the three Spitfires.  But “London Charlie” was never assigned to an operational squadron, being used by the base operations flight at RAF Feltwell in Norfolk.  For obscure reasons, none of the Spits have individual letters—just a blank space on the fuselage. 

A questionable historical aspect is the German submarine torpedo that sinks one ship loading troops.  No account of Dunkirk that I've seen references any U-boat activity during the evacuation, which certainly is understandable.  The water depth offshore likely would render subs far too vulnerable.  

I’d give Dunkirk three stars out of five.  However, the movie I attended previewed a promising release with Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour as the wartime Winston Churchill, and other WW II themes are forthcoming including Pegasus Bridge, the British commando raid preceding the D-Day landings, and the Spielberg-Hanks miniseries about the U.S. Eighth Air Force.

In short, World War II isn’t dead and it isn’t dying.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


If you’ve never heard of Charles A. Lyford, III, you can still benefit from his example.

Early this month Chuck’s friends were stunned to receive this message on his email account:

Today at the Festival of Speed in Spokane, Washington my Elva Mark 7 left the track at very high speed, encountered boulders which launched me end over end over beyond a high bank into a pile of tires. Both the car and I sustained unsurvivable injuries.  I lived a magical life full of joy and adventure and I treasured your friendship and the fun we shared. 

“My parting words to you sent with love...

“Every day counts!”

That shocker was posted by Pam Lyford on her husband’s behalf.  But the voice was entirely in keeping with Chuck’s philosophy.

Chuck Lyford was one of those rare people who lived his 75 years to the fullest, often tip-toeing along the precipice or walking the proverbial high-wire without a net.  

I first saw Chuck and his great friend Ben Hall when they flew near-identical P-51 Mustangs at the Pendleton, Oregon air show around 1964.  At the time Chuck was about 22, already an experienced, capable warbird pilot. 

Chuck recalled, “Ben Hall was one of my greatest mentors.  I started flying Mustangs when I was 19 and would trade engine work that I learned while boat racing for flight time.  While at San Jose State I purchased my first airplane, a P-51D fresh from the California Air National Guard.  I would never have learned how to fly that airplane as well as I did without Ben.”

In the popular Top Gun movie phrase, Chuck felt “the need for speed.” He would race absolutely anything, from cars to boats to airplanes—to reclining chairs.  In the 1950s he drove unlimited-class hydroplanes, recalled by fellow competitor and mentor Brien Wygle.  “Chuck was 16 years old when he worked on my Thriftway II as a crew member.  Then he set limited-class records in his hydroplane Challenger.”

Subsequently Chuck set a world record in the 48 cubic-inch class and won the seven-liter national championship.

Wygle concluded, “He was agile and quick on his feet and he did a lot of things better than anybody else.”

One of those things was high-performance air racing.  In the premiere 1964 event he finished second in the cross-country race from Florida to Nevada.  The next year he was second in the unlimited race, just behind arch rival Darrel Greenamyer. 

Chuck also enjoyed a joke.  Flying his modified Mustang, Bardahl Special, in the 1967 race, Chuck decided to confound the legendary event coordinator Bob Hoover.  Chuck obtained a weather balloon, intending to inflate it in Hoover’s hotel room, but security was lacking and somebody pumped up the balloon in Chuck’s room.  In trying to dislodge the offending object, Chuck perforated it with impressive results.  Shreds of the envelope were strewn throughout the room, which Chuck tried unsuccessfully to clean out.  Lacking more time—he had a race to fly—he stuck a $10 bill on the mirror for the maid.  When he returned, the Alexander Hamilton was gone but there was a note: “Not enough.”

The race began with Chuck neck and neck with Greenamyer’s Grumman Bearcat.  But on the back stretch Bardahl began streaming smoke—an expensive sign.  Chuck pulled up, trading speed for altitude to execute an emergency landing.  The audience appreciated his artistry, as Flying Magazine described “a beautiful approach, and at the last minute popped his gear.”  He rolled to the end of the runway with a dead Merlin engine and the all-white racer streaked with hot engine oil.

Much as he enjoyed competing with other racers, Chuck sought a higher form of competition—literally.  In 1969 he got his shot at combat.  Chuck was one of three Americans recruited to fly Mustangs for El Salvador in the brief border war with Honduras, and a stronger lineup hardly could be found.  Chuck joined fellow racer Ben Hall and Korean War ace Bob Love, willing and able to test themselves against Honduras’ Vought Corsairs.  It was the last time that piston-engine fighters fought each other.

Working with Chuck on his 2014 Flight Journal article was a memorable experience.  He had been in prime condition for the Central American adventure he described.  At age 28 he had 3,500 hours of flight time including an impressive 800 in Mustangs.  And as I recall he had 150 in Corsairs.  His experience was priceless—hundreds of meaningful hours in the two fighters, racing, chasing tails, and aerobatics. 

As it developed, the gringos arrived just a tad late.  The “soccer war” (so-called because the two countries opposed one another in the 1969 World Cup) wound down before any of them could engage in air combat.  The aerial phase was resolved in favor of Honduras, with a senior Corsair piloto downing three El Salvador fighters.

Then there were the reclining-chair races.

Various accounts have described Chuck’s path to Barkolounger glory, but here’s the most common:

With Chuck’s well-worn reclining sofa banished from the living room, he mounted it on a wheeled platform with remote-control steering.  He set the contraption into motion outside his home, into the path of two Seattle bicyclists—Bill and Melinda Gates.  Subsequently Chuck used the sofa to steer his friend and shooting instructor, Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, around the Seattle Museum of Flight. 

Things evolved from there…

In 2005 the Pacific Raceways debut event, eight motorized chairs (one an Air Force ejection seat) spooled up with Chuck setting the style wearing a fuzzy blue bathrobe and slippers.  Daughter Kim represented The Housewives of Madison Park. 

The flag dropped, the electric-powered seats whined off, and hydroplane legend Billy Schumacher took the checkered. 

Meanwhile, Chuck and Pam entered rally events all over the world, including North Africa and South America, some exceeding 6,000 miles.  As I recall from their far-flung reports, they routinely won their class.  They favored the vintage category, winning the 2013 Cape Horn event in their 1938 Chevy.  And they won again in 2016.

Chuck’s lifelong friend Bruce McCaw spoke for many:
“We all thought Chuck was invincible.  He lived life fully on his own terms, right on the edge and always at full throttle. Anytime you were with Chuck and Pam, you knew that you were in for an adventure."

Wherever Chuck Lyford went, he lived by his own motto:

“Every day counts!”