Tuesday, January 31, 2017


President Donald Trump wasted no time after his inauguration.  That week he repeated his campaign pledge to rebuild the U.S. military, worn down from 15 years of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Naval aviation figured prominently in Trump’s reckoning as he expressed willingness to slash the trouble-plagued Lockheed-Martin F-35 triservice fighter-bomber.  Defense Secretary James Mattis has directed a thorough investigation of the perennially late, over-budget Lightning II, still incomplete in its twentieth year of development.  Trump has mentioned possibly upgrading the Navy and Marine Corps’ current FA-18 Hornet, less capable than intended for F-35 but a proven entity and far more affordable.

Meanwhile, the new administration appears willing to continue the new-generation aircraft carrier.  The USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78) also has suffered significant delays and cost over-runs, and likely will be delivered without full operational capability.  But two sister ships have been approved, and they are unlikely to be cut.  Thus, the Trump administration seems to grasp the world-historic significance of American seapower.
In December 1941 the aircraft carrier burst upon the world stage in a 20th century version of Shock and Awe.  Literally overnight the flattop leapt into the global spotlight with the stunning Pearl Harbor attack.  Thus, the carrier resembled the proverbial country-western musician who worked twenty years to become an overnight sensation.

The U.S. and Japanese navies had commissioned their first carriers in 1922, beginning two decades of perfecting ships, aircraft, operating technique and doctrine.  But the global leader was the British Royal Navy, which initiated the carrier to combat in World War I.  In 1917 the battle cruiser HMS Furious was converted to operate Sopwith biplanes, and the next year she launched what a future generation termed a “power projection” mission against a German Zeppelin base.

Actually, the aircraft carrier’s origins predated the Great War.  In November 1910, pioneer flyer Eugene Ely of the Glenn Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company demonstrated the potential of ship-based aircraft by taking off from a platform rigged on a U.S. Navy cruiser.  Two months later he plunked his pusher down on the improvised deck of another warship, dragged to a stop by hooks that snagged ropes stretched across the platform.  The captain of USS Birmingham declared Ely’s feat the most important landing since the dove returned to Noah’s ark.

Both ships were anchored, and neither stunt was repeated.  But the seed had been planted; it germinated, sprouted, and cropped.
During the 1920s and 30s ships and aircraft evolved, forming an increasingly potent binary.  Fabric-covered biplanes gave way to all-metal monoplanes with greater speed, range, and ordnance capacity. 

When World War II erupted in 1939 the Royal Navy was confronted with enemies in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean—and potentially in the Pacific.  Though possessing the world’s most powerful fleet, Britain had to allocate its ships according to geo-strategic need.  Thus, in November 1940 HMS Illustrious launched 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplanes to attack the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor.  The nocturnal attack was a spectacular success, sinking or sidelining three enemy battleships.  The naval balance in the Middle Sea had shifted—overnight.

Historians still argue the influence of Taranto on Japanese plans for Hawaii, but the similarities are obvious. 

Carriers defined the Pacific War: in fact, only flattops could have launched the attack against Hawaii in December 1941.  The Imperial Navy showed the world the way to naval supremacy by grouping six carriers into a unified striking force—something that no one else had remotely approached.  When the smoke cleared on December 8, the world’s greatest ocean became a giant chessboard with squares defined by degrees of latitude and longitude.  With America’s naval kings—battleships—sidelined, the mobile, long-range queens carried the fight. 

Over the next four years aircraft carriers were essential to both navies.  Four major carrier battles were fought in 1942, providing America essential victories at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal.  Midway in June proved decisive: U.S. carrier planes sank all four Japanese carriers engaged, with one American flattop lost.  Thereafter Japan never regained the strategic initiative.

A new generation of U.S. carriers spearheaded the Central Pacific offensive of 1943-45.  With new aircraft on their decks, Essex and Independence class ships enabled nearly every amphibious operation of the Pacific War.  Their victory off the Mariana Islands in June 1944 ended the Imperial Navy as an offensive arm, and provided roosts for General Curtis LeMay’s firebirds as B-29s began searing Japanese urban-industrial areas.

Meanwhile, carriers proved vital in the Atlantic.  U.S. and British escort carriers—small, slow ships operating specially-trained antisubmarine squadrons, helped defeat Admiral Karl Doenitz’s U-boats.  The mission largely was accomplished by May 1943, clearing the translatantic convoy routes that enabled the D-Day landings 13 months later.
Since then the carrier has never lost its prominence on the world’s oceans.

But new threats arose in new realms.  Only five years after VJ Day, when America possessed 99 carriers of all types, merely fifteen remained in commission.  When General Quarters sounded in Korea, just five were assigned to the Pacific Fleet.

For the next three years U.S. and British carriers launched an endless succession of strike and interdiction sorties against Communist forces.  During the critical weeks of summer 1950, tailhook aircraft were essential to staving off total defeat for the South Korean and American armies.  Compressed into the shrinking Pusan pocket, with few Air Force units remaining on the peninsula, allied ground forces could not have survived without naval aviation.  Later that year, blue airplanes helped offset the enormous disparity of ground forces when China’s quilted masses spilled south of the Yalu.

Long story short: aircraft carriers helped save the Republic of Korea.
Throughout the Cold War, carriers stood sentry on the periphery of the Soviet empire, a capability that Russia still cannot match.  Naval aviators logged more than half the sorties over North Vietnam, and however misdirected “Mr. Johnson’s War,” tailhookers were always there, always “ready on arrival.”
Since then, carriers have launched jets in an immense variety of seas and missions, including Britain’s Sea Harriers that enabled retaking the Falklands in 1982.  Subsequently sea-based airpower has been felt repeatedly in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and now Syria. 

War at sea is nearly extinct, and there can never be another Midway, let alone a Leyte Gulf.  But for territorial independence and oceanic power projection, the carrier remains unrivaled as America’s world-spanning ace card.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a world-historic event that officially launched America into the Second World War.  Yet among the public attention in nearly every account, the stellar player often is taken for granted.

I refer to the Imperial Navy’s carrier striking force, the Mobile Unit or Kido Butai.

That Sunday morning the aircraft carrier was much like the proverbial musician who works 20 years to become an overnight sensation.  When the Imperial Navy stunned the world on December 7, Japan and America had two decades of experience operating carriers, perfecting equipment and techniques.  Both navies had commissioned their first flattops in 1922. 

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had risen to command the Combined Fleet in August 1939, days before the new war in Europe.  An aviation advocate, he had supported Japan’s carrier program and, once committed to war, he backed the Hawaii plan as preferable to the doctrinal “decisive battle” in mid-Pacific.  He had served in America between the wars, and realized that a pre-emptive strike was essential to Japan’s success—if success were possible at all.

Spurred by America’s embargo to protest Japanese aggression against China, the “Hawaii plan” began with a preliminary study in January 1941.  More details developed from April onward under Rear Admiral Ryūnosuke Kusaka, chief of staff of the newly formed First Air Fleet.  There was nothing else like it on earth: all of Japan’s six large carriers concentrated under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

By comparison, neither the U.S. nor British navies had operated more than three carriers together—and never as a permanent unit with integrated operations.

However, in November 1940 HMS Illustrious launched a successful nocturnal strike against the Italian base at Taranto in the “heel” of the boot.  Three major combatants were knocked out of action, altering the naval balance in the Mediterranean literally overnight.  Taranto’s influence on the Pearl Harbor attack is still debated, but the concept was proven.

Intensive training began in late August, affording Nagumo’s aircrews barely three months to perfect tactics and techniques.  Commander Minoru Genda’s plan involved a triple blow: high-altitude level bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo planes.  However, Pearl Harbor presented a problem: the average depth was barely 40 feet, and Japanese torpedoes needed twice as much to recover, rise to the desired depth, and run safely.  Ordnance engineers found an inspired solution: disposable wooden fins that let the torpedoes run at a shallow setting.
The six carriers bound for Hawaiian waters were arrayed in pairs: the giant sisters Akagi and Kaga in the First Carrier Division; Soryu and Hiryu in the Second; and newly-commissioned Shokaku and Zuikaku in the Fifth.  They embarked some 420 bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters, while battleships and cruisers operated catapult-launched floatplanes. 

The carriers were escorted by two battleships, three cruisers, nine destroyers, and nourished by seven tankers.  The latter were more important than the escorts, as the striking force could not reach Hawaiian waters and return without replenishing at sea.

Kido Butai sortied from the Kurile Islands on November 26.  Crossing nearly 4,000 miles of the North Pacific under radio silence, the task force avoided detection during the eleven-day transit.  Meanwhile, submarines had already departed home waters and bases in the Marshall Islands.

Emperor Hirohito had approved war against the Western powers barely a month before, but did not permit the attack until December 1.  Thus, Nagumo’s force represented an arrow launched at the heart of the U.S. Pacific Fleet that might have been recalled in flight.  Instead, it flew straight to its target.

Early that morning, 230 statute miles north of Oahu, Kido Butai’s six carriers lofted 183 aircraft in 15 minutes—an achievement under any condition, let alone the Pacific’s pitching swells.  Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s practiced air groups quickly assembled, formed up, and set course.  A second wave of 167 followed.

The first wave was timed to arrive over Pearl about 30 minutes after Japanese diplomats delivered Tokyo’s refusal to accept Washington’s demands.  But the message from Tokyo took too long to decode, so the attack proceeded as a surprise.  The result was boiling anger throughout America, fueling a surging rage that never abated until VJ-Day.

While the leading squadrons winged southward under Lieutenant Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, Kido Butai continued as briefed.  At 7:15 the second wave of 168 planes lifted off its decks, comprising 54 level bombers, 78 dive bombers, and 36 fighters.

The first bombers over the target were 16 Nakajimas from Soryu and Hiryu.  Briefed to hit carriers on Ford Island’s northwest coast, they went for alternate objectives, destroying the target ship USS Utah and damaging a cruiser.

Akagi’s torpedo squadron led a devastating attack.  The Nakajimas swept in from the north shore of the harbor, skimming low between Hickam Field and the fuel tank farm, then nudging downward over the water.  Making 100 mph at 65 feet, they deployed as per individual briefings and turned onto their attack headings.  A quarter mile ahead lay the gray monoliths along Battleship Row.
Of 36 torpedoes dropped, probably 19 found their targets.  Hardest hit were West Virginia and Oklahoma moored outboard at the head of Battleship Row.  California, farther ahead of the others, took two hits and slowly settled onto the mud.

Five torpedo planes were shot down, all from succeeding waves as the defenders responded and fought back. 

The high-level bombers each carried an 800 kg armor-piercing weapon, designed to penetrate a battleship’s thick armor.  The ten planes targeting Arizona scored four hits and three near misses.  One of them found the sweet spot, smashing into Arizona’s forward magazine.  The 1,760-pound bomb ignited tons of gunpowder, destroying the ship in seconds with three-fourths of the crew.

At 8:40, almost half an hour after the first attack, 167 aircraft of the second wave were led by Zuikaku’s senior aviator, Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki.  No torpedo planes participated but 54 Nakajima level bombers struck three air bases.  The 78 Aichi dive bombers were assigned any carriers in port with cruisers as secondary goals.  Nearly three dozen Zero fighters established air superiority over Hickam and Bellows Fields plus Kaneohe Naval Air Station.
Much of the effort was wasted as many dive bomber pilots probably misidentified ship types; perhaps 28 Aichis dove on destroyers or auxiliary vessels. 

Brunt of the second dive-bombing attack was Nevada, the only battleship to get underway.  Already holed by a torpedo, she took six bombs in a few minutes and developed a list.  To avoid sinking, she was beached near the harbor entrance.

When the second wave departed northward, the entire attack had lasted not quite two hours, from 7:55 to 9:45.  In their slipstream the Japanese left a stunned result on Oahu, both physical and emotional.

The attack killed 2,335 U.S. military personnel and 68 civilians. 

Arizona was destroyed and Oklahoma written off.  Pennsylvania and Maryland were lightly damaged but saw no action until 1943. Tennessee and Nevada were refitted in 1942 and ‘43; California and West Virginia were refloated and fully repaired in 1944. 

Three cruisers and three destroyers were repaired or rebuilt from 1942 to 1944.  Finally, a minelayer was sunk but repaired and operational in 1944.

Combined U.S. aircraft losses ran as high as 350 destroyed or damaged—there is wide disparity in details.
At 11:15 Kido Butai began landing the second wave, completed an hour later.  The fliers were jubilant.  They knew they had inflicted severe damage and were eager to complete the task.  But Nagumo opted for prudence.  More than 70 returning planes were damaged, and he needed to conserve fuel oil.  The Imperial Navy had too few fleet tankers in 1941 and never caught up.  Nagumo turned for home.

None of the six Kido Butai carriers survived the war.  Four died at Midway six months later; another off the Marianas in June 1944, and the last, Zuikaku, at Leyte Gulf four months later.

Naval historian John Lundstrom aptly described Kido Butai as “a 1941 atom bomb.”  In contrast, the U.S. Navy did not field six big-deck carriers until early 1944.  So while honoring the defenders of Pearl Harbor, we should remember that the attackers demonstrated a high order of organization, competence and imagination—exceeding our own, truth be told.

We had to relearn that lesson on September 11, 2001.  We should never have to learn it again.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Among the groups of people I most admire are self-employed professionals such as farmers, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs.  But that’s a subject for another blog.  This month I want to pay tribute to one of the most self-employed people I ever knew—Michael J. Dillon.

Mike departed the pattern early this month at the age of 81.  I was privileged to know him nearly 30 years, as our mutual interests cross-pollinated with aviation and firearms.  Mike was a standout innovator in both realms.  Moreover, he smiled more than anyone I ever knew.

Born in Philadelphia in 1935, Mike spent his youth up and down the East Coast while his father was a merchant marine officer.  Along the way Mike acquired a taste for machinery—fast, exotic machinery—starting with race cars and ending with a privately-owned jet.

The aviation bug bit Mike permanently—and hard.  In the early to mid 60s he was working his way through college, partly by flying spray planes in the south and southwest, and was within two credits of graduation when he dropped out to fly full time.  Eventually he cadged a right-seat assignment with TWA (“Try Walking Across”) and flew as a first officer for 13 years.  Then, possibly within months of upgrading to captain, again he struck out on his own.  That was Mike—the eternal optimist, a self-composed individual with enough confidence to fill a hangar full of exotic airplanes.  Which, incidentally, he did.

Along the way, Mike was blessed with Carol, his extraordinary wife who, in son Steve’s words, “inspired him to be more than he was.”  She continued her teaching career while raising a family.  Not surprisingly, their three children learned to fly, up to and including commercial tickets.

Mike Dillon was a dreamer who created his own reality.  On a trip through Texas he had spotted a badly neglected Curtiss P-40.  Long story short: he bought the WW II fighter and fetched it back to Phoenix.  Years of weekends and nights passed, but with some devoted friends, Mike finished the job and painted the Warhawk a warlike red.  He flew it enough to begin a partial career as a magazine writer, ably assisted by his photographer friend Nyle Leatham.  That was how I learned about Mike—reading his articles in Air Progress.

Eventually Mike sold the P-40 and bought a North American AT-6 trainer.  Many years later I asked him how many hours he had in each warbird but he just unzipped that patented Dillon grin.  “I didn’t keep a logbook,” he said, “because it could be used against you!”  Without being specific, he alluded to something called the statute of limitations…

Mike was a passionate maverick but he always followed his own moral compass.  When a friend killed himself and a passenger in the AT-6, Mike refused the widow’s offer of restitution.  He told her, “You didn’t wreck the plane so you’re not responsible.”  It was a case of good karma coming around because the lady insisted on giving Mike some of her husband’s automatic weapons, leading in directions we have noted above.

Nonetheless, the birds began accumulating in the barn.  Mike moved into a large, new building on Scottsdale Airport, and over the years he had two Beechcraft T-34 trainers (capable of bombing and strafing), a rare two-seat Vought Pinto jet trainer, and two helicopters.  He flew his UH-1B Huey to New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, delivering supplies and relief crews to devastated areas.  He never asked for a dime of compensation—it was simply the right thing to do.  Restored to Vietnam configuration, the Huey became a test bed for Dillon Aero’s minigun.

And thereby hangs another tale.

After TWA Mike said he never worked another day in his life.  He was a born inventor, with that innate curiosity and imagination ever percolating inside.  Of inventiveness he confided, “It’s a curse because it never shuts off.”  But the challenge of perfecting equipment for loading ammunition was another time at bat, swinging for the bleachers.  And he connected.

“It’s outta here, folks!”

Mike got involved in hand-loading ammunition to feed his growing collection of firearms.  Starting with a Star single-stage press, the Dillon evolutionary process led to the rotating multi-stage concept so common today.  The numbers told the story: from the 300 to the 650 and beyond, each indicating the expected ammo production per hour.  Different tool heads allowed an owner to load a variety of calibers on the same machine—an elegant concept.

Eventually man and moment met.  In the late 80s Mike obtained one of a very few civilian General Electric M134 miniguns, a highspeed six-barrel gatling that spewed 3,000 rounds or more of 7.62 mm per minute.  But the design was unnecessarily complex—the reasons had to do with corporate security—and required considerable maintenance.  Mike began pondering improvements by the process he called “water cooler engineering.”  He and other Dillonites often congregated around casually to commiserate on things.  The upshot: a simpler, more easily produced and maintained minigun.  Ironically, Mike found that he had unknowingly reverse-engineered GE’s original design. 

The Dillon M134D was an immediate hit.  Mike logged a lot of travel time demonstrating the minigun to potential users in the U.S. and abroad.  In fact, the SUV-mounted gun, dubbed Raptor, was unavailable here owing to federal regulations but it found a market among sheiks and emirs the Middle East.  But the U.S. armed forces seized upon the newer, slicker minigun to mount it on vehicles, aircraft, and ships for in-port defense.  Dillon Aero received a commendation from Special Operations Task Force 160 in appreciation of the 134D.

Meanwhile, the Dillon Precision side of the house was going gangbusters.  At first, everybody did everything, from designing and assembling reloaders to shipping them and answering the phones.  But as the business grew, Mike discerned the advantage of more specialization to meet customer needs.  His staff features longevity, and today some of the original hires are still working. 

Mike’s ironclad warranty is famous in the industry.  The company will replace any part or major component, no questions asked.  Aside from the ethical aspects, Mike said that customer loyalty was enhanced by his policy, and in all those years he only suspected a couple of clients taking advantage of his offer.

That was Mike Dillon: dreamer, pragmatist, inventor, ethicist, friend.  And just the nicest man.