Saturday, December 3, 2011


Occasionally I’m going to “shake the stick” and tap the top of my flying helmet, passing control to a literary wingman. The following is from Budd Davisson’s “Air Bum” blog of November 2007. Considering the recent Thanksgiving holiday, it’s entirely suitable for this month’s Rant—in fact, for any month.

Circa 1997, when I got on-line, I found myself pulling cyber G’s with some Europeans over a variety of subjects, but especially the nature of America. (The reason they typed in English instead of German or Russian never occurred to them.) Eventually it was clear that there was no point arguing with some Euros because they were immune to facts and logic. Finally I disengaged with the summary, “Now I know why my ancestors came here in the 1630s—to get away from people like you!”

There’s a quote attributed to frontier scout Kit Carson (neck and neck with Jed Smith as the most man on the North American continent) about the nature of American settlers: “The cowards never started and the weak died on the way.” He could have been speaking of the Pilgrims or several generations that followed.

The point to be made is that we hear American politicians insist that we need to be more like the rest of the world. That is, of course, total batguano, because we did not get to be America by imitating anyone else. Quite the opposite: the founders and pioneers chose to leave behind the world they knew and risk all merely for the opportunity to start anew at risk of everything, often including their lives. So the next time anyone tells you that America needs to resemble the rest of the world, ask yourself one question: why does the rest of the world want to come here?

Over to Budd….

Years ago I ran into an old copy of Science Newsletter mixed in with other out-of-date magazines in a doctor’s lobby. A weekly publication, its purpose in life was to keep us up on what had happened in science that week. In this issue, a feature article described a study that seemingly proved risk takers to have discernibly different DNA making them a slightly different species from the rest of us. That got me thinking about America: weren’t we settled by a bunch of radical risk takers and does that explain something about our national character?

Those first boat loads of people who set off for America had no idea what they were getting into. What they did know was that America was pure wilderness and to get there they’d have to spend two months or so bobbing around in the Atlantic Ocean in a tiny boat. That’s a helluva risk, wouldn’t you say? No one would take that trip who wasn’t a risk taker. So, if you extend that thought, that means the breeding stock upon which much of America is based had a different DNA so we had no choice but to be a nation of risk takers?

Now, let’s take the above just a little further. When we were a string bean country that was clinging to the eastern seaboard, everything on the other side of the Appalachians, especially places like Kentucky, were looked at as if they were on the other side of the moon. In fact, the Indians (who we had yet to recognize as Native Americans) had lots of spook stories about the region around Kentucky. Still, colonists began pushing west, many lining up behind the likes of Daniel Boone, to wend their way through mountain passes and hostile natives to “go where no man had gone before.” It could clearly be said that those who left the security of the East Coast were more willing to take risks than those who they were leaving behind who have already been proven to be risk takers. Does this say something about the differences between peoples in various parts of the country?

The West has an image of daring do and it’s not entirely because of the movies. To this day, The West represents a hostile environment with the only difference between then and now, being that no one is shooting arrows at the residents any more. Even today, parts of The West literally dare man to try to do something with it and so he has. Not that Las Vegas or Phoenix are the pinnacle of anything, but considering where they are located, certainly no one would have attempted a settlement there who was afraid of risk.

Everything about the Old West challenged man and it weeded out those who weren’t strong and ready to match its challenges. Isn’t that the way we still see The West versus The East? One group is a little rough around the edges and more insular, but definitely ready to take on all comers while the other is more sedate, more group-oriented and less likely to have grease under their fingernails. One isn’t better than the other, but I do think this is part of the reason East and West don’t always get along.

So, if you put any faith in the DNA theory of risk, what we apparently have is a nation of born risk takers that range from your everyday risk taker in the East to hair-on-fire risk takers in the west. Yeah, I’d say that’s about right, wouldn’t you?

Thursday, November 10, 2011


As an historian I seldom delve into metaphysics, but in fiction I’ve had more opportunity. Or, to be more precise, I created the opportunity. Here’s how it came about:

My 1992 novel The Sixth Battle postulated a post-Soviet naval engagement in the Indian Ocean. It pitted a "Russian Federation" alliance with Southern African front-line states in conflict at sea and ashore. The main combatants were a U.S. Navy carrier battle group centered around the imaginary Forrestal class carrier USS Langley and a Russian task force including the carrier Varyag.

War gamers occasionally still contact me about The Sixth Battle, expressing their interest in the war-at-sea scenario, which would be impossible today.

To set the stage: Langley’s Air Wing 18 launched a long-range strike against the Soviet force, resulting in losses on both sides. One of the downed A-6E Intruders was “Killer 530” flown by Lieutenant Commander Peter Huggins and Lieutenant (jg) Justin Olsen. They ejected from their stricken bomber well clear of the target area but remained adrift in their small raft until finally found. The narrative resumes aboard an ammunition supply ship…

USS Mount St. Helens, Indian Ocean, 0148 Zulu

Lieutenant Commander James Rixey was having no luck with the debrief. Even though the most seriously-wounded survivors of Battle Group Charlie had been choppered to the amphibious force, Rixey’s ammunition ship and others in the underway replenishment group were stuffed with rescued crews. All of Rixey’s interviewees had been sailors—until now.

Sitting across from the two waterlogged aviators, the admin officer tried to convince them to open up But he couldn’t blame them for preferring food to conversation. Poor bastards—almost four days afloat in a rift in the middle of the damn Indian Ocean.

Wire-haired “Brillo” Huggins speared another mouthful of medium-rare steak. It was delicious. A corpsman stood by, gauging whether the Intruder crew was in danger of gorging on the unaccustomed feast. Ever since ejecting from Killer 530 after the strike against the Novorossiysk, the pilot and bombardier-navigator had subsisted on meager survival rations.

Rixey decided to try again. “Look, I know you guys are hungry. But your squadron will want to know about you right away. So will your families.”

The B/N, a straight-arrow Mormon ironically dubbed “Sleaze,” looked up. His bathrobe’s cuff almost dangled on his plate. “You mean we’ve already been reported MIA?”

The personnel officer shrugged. “Well, I don’t know for sure, after all the confusion. But it seems that with…”

“Pass the sauce,” Brillo asked. A steward shoved the Heinz to him.

“…the truce at sea, things will get sorted out.” Rixey sounded hopeful.

Sleaze laid down his fork. “Look, Commander, what more we can we tell you? We hit our target, took battle damage on the egress and punched out. Just say that Huggins and Olsen of VA-186 are still afloat.”

Rixey knew when to stop. “Okay, okay.” He rose to leave. “Say, if you don’t mind me asking, what did you guys do for four days in the water?”

Brillo shook more sauce onto his steak. “To tell you the truth, I thought we’d go crazy out there at first. But toward the end we broke the code.” He looked up. “We figured out The Meaning of Life.”

The admin officer gaped at the pilot, uncertain whether Huggins was serious or not. “You solved the mystery of the ages. Right.”

Sleaze pointed at his empty plate. “Hit me again, please,” he told the steward.

“No, it’s true,” Brillo insisted. “Well, actually, Justin here did most of it. We’re gonna publish a new dogma, ‘The Book of Sleaze.’”

The corpsman, the steward, and the officer all waited expectantly. Olsen accepted another mini steak and sighed aloud. “The Meaning of Life,” he intoned, “is infinite. It is precisely what every human soul chooses to make of it.” He plunked a salt shaker onto the molded plastic table top with a sound that rang, high and pure, through the eons.

0156 Zulu

The ship’s sleepy but excited chaplain, tape recorder in hand, paced into the galley, asking for Huggins and Olsen of VA-186.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


According to “experts,” a .50 caliber sniper rifle can destroy an airliner. Therefore, civilian ownership of .50 caliber rifles should be banned.

In 2005 CBS News aired a program addressing the “threat” that privately-owned .50s pose to air travel. The onscreen critic was Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center. He told CBS, "I just think that there are certain occasions when we say in our society, this product is such a threat to our health and safety, and in this case, our national security, we will not allow it."

The gun-rights side of the subject was provided by firearms maker Ronnie Barrett (no relation—I’ve asked him). Commenting upon his highly successful M82, he stated, "It's a target rifle…a high-end adult recreational toy. Any rifle in the hands of a terrorist is a deadly weapon." That includes airliners hijacked because passengers are prevented from defending themselves.

Apparently the worst-case realistic scenario floated by .50 banners is airplanes sitting on the ramp or taxiing. In fact, military snipers can use .50s on hard targets such as parked aircraft, radar dishes, or vehicles. Put a couple of 700-grainers through a jet engine, and that airplane is grounded pending repairs. But that’s an inconvenience, not a disaster.

Incidentally, rifle shooters (and some gun banners) know that any hunting-caliber round will easily penetrate the aluminum skin of any commercial and many military aircraft—from way out there. The difference is that gun banners are selective in what they tell you.

So, how about hitting an airliner in flight?

The only way to do so would be a plane taking off or landing. Assuming the .50-caliber terrorist got within range (perhaps between a quarter and half a mile) he would need a no-deflection shot for much chance of a hit. But that means positioning oneself directly behind or ahead of the flight path at a metropolitan airport—and firing in a matter of seconds.

A side aspect probably offers better chances for a shooting position. But from 400 to 500 yards, a full-deflection shot on a jetliner landing or climbing at 130 to 150 knots would require a lead of perhaps 100 to 150 feet or more to hit a desired spot—assuming the shooter was fast and accurate with a 30-pound piece of metal.

If anyone has a way to practice that shot, it would be fascinating to observe. First you’d have to rent a 737 or better—starting at about $120 a minute, never mind the return deposit on the airplane. Then you would need a haji jet pilot to fly it around the pattern until your shooter dials in his lead for a given speed and distance.

And incidentally, bargain-basement discount ammo goes for about $3.50 a pop.

Are you starting to see a pattern?

Assuming a hit, what would be the likely result?

We can tell you with some precision: it would be a half-inch diameter hole in an airplane weighing around 35 tons, not counting fuel, which would depend upon takeoff or landing.

Couldn’t that hit kill somebody?

Yes, conceivably it could. But why bother to shoot one or two airline passengers when you can blow up dozens of people with one bomb? Or thousands if you hijack an airliner full of defenseless passengers.

But could a .50 caliber hit destroy the airplane?

No. And here’s why.

During World War II and into the jet age, the standard U.S. fighter aircraft armament was six Browning M2 .50 calibers. They cycled at 800 rpm or more—at least 13 rounds per second. Times six equals 78 rounds for a one-second trigger squeeze. That’s a lot of hefty projectiles starting at 2,800 foot-seconds.

How effective was that armament? Across the board it typically resulted in 60 percent of enemy aircraft hit in air combat assessed as destroyed, though that figure is optimistic. We won’t address those credited as “probables” because their fate is unknowable, but the large majority certainly survived.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific Theater the combined efforts of Army, Navy, and Marine fliers resulted in nearly 1,000 Japanese aircraft damaged in aerial combat. Almost 800 more were damaged in the China-Burma theater. And remember that Japanese design philosophy minimized armor plate and protected fuel tanks.

In the European and Mediterranean theaters, Army Air Force fighters scored nonlethal hits on some 4,000 Axis fighters and bombers.

Over Korea, U.S. Air Force fighters (mostly F-86 Sabres) also had six .50s, firing at a higher cyclic rate than WW II. They damaged nearly 1,000 Communist aircraft—mostly MiG-15 jets.

The foregoing figures total some 6,700 enemy aircraft hosed by multi-gun batteries firing .50 caliber ammunition: ball, tracer, armor-piercing, and/or incendiary.

So: how much damage can be expected from one, two, or maybe five .50 caliber rounds on an airliner?

You can figure it for yourself. It ranges from insignificant on the high end to nonexistent on the low end.

Meanwhile, instead of banning rifles that pose no serious threat, the opponents of personal firearms should look elsewhere. By far the most serious threat to aircraft is the shoulder-mounted antiaircraft missile generically known as MANPADS (man-portable air defense system). The best known are the American Stinger and Soviet-designed SA-7 and later heat-seeking missiles, effective against jet airplanes and helicopters. A generic MANPADS brochure states that it can hit a 700 mph target above 15,000 feet.

When the NATO operation in Libya approached its height, apparently nobody in Brussels or in Washington considered that the late-unlamented Moamar Qadaffi (however his name was spelled) accumulated tons of them. Press accounts noted that some 20,000 disappeared when the rebels seized the colonel’s armories. Perhaps NATO could have prevented or minimized the theft, perhaps not. In any case, failure to do so represents a gigantic Oops that may return to haunt Western frequent fliers for years to come.

Meanwhile, no civilian casualties are known inflicted by privately-owned .50s, and certainly no airliners have been damaged.

However, if anyone wants to address criminal activity involving .50s, recall that under “Fast and Furious” BATFE not only permitted but encouraged dealers to sell them into Mexico, without an export license. Under federal law that’s a felony violation of the Arms Export Control Act and the International Traffic in Arms regulations. Maximum penalty is ten years and $10,000.

Just thought I’d mention it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Dear Readers,

In today's publishing world, authors have to do much of the heavy lifting in promoting their work. Therefore, I'm pleased almost beyond words to pass along the following endorsement of the Great War e-novel I wrote over a 14-year period (!) with two unindicted co-conspirators. The short review was posted by Budd Davisson (Flight Journal's editor) on the Bearhawk homebuilt aircraft builder's forum in August. Reprinted here with his kind permission.

"I finally got around to reading Duel Over Douai, the World War I epic penned by three of our own--Barrett Tillman, Boom Powell, and Jack Woodul--and I really loved it. I would have finished it sooner, but it's digital-only and Marlene doesn't like me taking her iPad into the head that often.

"This is a piece the detail freaks amongst us will love. All three authors are historians, writers, pilots, and shooters with thousands of biplane hours between them, including being very current in Dr.1 Fokkers, amongst other things. They all have such a natural understanding of mechanical stuff that they can insert meaningful details into a sentence in a way that it sounds "right," not contrived. It's like being in a Jim Dietz painting: you can feel it, you can smell it, you can hear it. The words have texture to them.

"The plot is one of those that is hard to describe because with so much being written about The Great War over the past 100 years, nothing can be said about it that hasn't become a cliché’. The surprise of the plot, however, is that everything weaves together so well that it somehow feels fresh. Although the final moment is unexpected, the rest is a journey we've all taken in one way or another but I'll absolutely guarantee that you've never been so sucked into that journey. Or understood it so well.

"The feeling of being totally immersed in a comedy within an adventure within a tragedy, which is what WWI aerial combat was, is palpable. And fun.

"It's available on (isn't everything?) and it's well worth the price. You've not read anything so devoid of fluff, mistakes, and exaggeration for a long time. The world they've created will stick with you for a long time. The mark of a good read. On top of that you'd learn so much about every aspect of WWI in the air that it should be required reading for military historians.

"Pass this on and give a great story some legs."