Saturday, February 25, 2023


 The current focus on Chinese and other balloons in U.S. airspace probably is so popular in part because it’s  so unusual.  But America’s experience with hot air and other balloons goes far, far back.

The French Montgolfier brothers captured France’s imagination with their hot air creations in the 1780s.  Though other nations took note, the first large-scale military use of balloons occurred during our Civil War (1861-1865).  Professor Thaddeus Lowe, a prolific inventor with four years ballooning experience, emerged as President Lincoln’s “chief aeronaut.”  His unit deployed several hydrogen balloons for observation of Confederate forces in the next two years, then was disbanded.

However, Lowe’s influence extended abroad.  His success drew European attention, including Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who returned to Germany with optimistic reports.  Subsequently the Prussian returned to obtain more information, leading to the rigid airships of Great War fame.

Before Zeppelins caught the world’s attention in 1914, tethered balloons were recognized as excellent observation platforms.  They were especially suited to modern artillery, which could engage targets far beyond visual range on the ground.  Usually filled with hydrogen, depending on winds aloft, “kite balloons” could fly at 4,000 feet, bearing one or two men armed with binoculars and voice communication with the ground crew.

Nearly 80 fighter pilots became “balloon aces” by flaming five or more “gasbags.” Thirty were German or Austrian; 26 were French; 15 British Commonwealth.  Due to limited opportunity, only five U.S. Air Service pilots achieved that distinction, led by Lt. Frank Luke, the famed “Arizona Balloon Buster” credited with 14 before his death in September 1918. 

America’s first balloon unit arrived in France at the end of 1917, training alongside French aeronauts.  By the end of the Great War in November 1918 the U.S. Army balloon corps logged nearly 7,000 hours aloft, losing 48 to all causes.  Contrarily, Yank pursuit pilots were credited with 69 German drachen destroyed.

A lighter-than-air sidebar involves hydrogen-filled barrage balloons.  The unmanned, tethered items were deployed by WW I combatants to deter air attack, some floating as high as 15,000 feet.  They were far more prevalent in WW II, especially in Britain to foil German dive bombers and later V-1 “buzz bombs.”  U.S. forces used them at the Normandy beach heads in 1944.

Though the Chinese spy balloon of early this year astounded millions of Americans, almost none knew of the offensive use of balloons almost 80 years before.  Japanese scientists had discovered the high-altitude jet stream in the 1920s when weather balloons revealed extremely fast winds aloft.  Eventually the northern stream was determined to flow west to east well above 30,000 feet, often at more than 100 mph, sometimes twice as much.

During WW II, Japan lacked the ability to attack the continental United States in any meaningful way.  A handful of submarine shore bombardments and a single sub-launched aircraft were limited to 1942.

However, the Japanese Army proved innovative and resourceful.  Beginning in late 1944, thousands of fu-go balloons were launched against America.

The paper or rubberized hydrogen balloons were about 30 feet in diameter, armed with as much as 80 pounds of incendiary and explosive bombs.  The goal was to ignite forest fires in the U.S. and Canada, but the Japanese recognized the low prospects for success.  One estimate held that 10 percent of fu-gos would survive a trip of perhaps 6,000 miles in two to four days.  That guess proved optimistic.

Fu-go engineers devised a sophisticated system for maintaining altitude during the Pacific crossing.  Aneroid barometers monitored air pressure, controlling duplicate systems for releasing weights to maintain desired altitude.  At the end of the journey the balloon descended to begin releasing its ordnance.  The timing of course was wildly erratic, with impacts spanning thousands of miles.

The balloons alit across the continent, in 18 states as far east as Michigan and six Canadian provinces.  A few even reached Mexico.  Among 9,300 launched from November 1944 to April 1945, at least 300 were found during the war, but the timing was poor.  When the fu-go campaign began, a record winter in North America severely limited the balloons’ potential effects.

But one balloon inflicted lethal damage.  In May 1945 a Sunday school outing in southeastern Oregon ended with six   dead when youngsters found a balloon and apparently wanted to play with it.

Fast forward to this month.

For reasons yet unexplained, the Biden administration allowed a Communist Chinese surveillance balloon to complete an eight-day, 4,000-mile mission across our continent.  The device finally was shot down off the East Coast on February 4.

The Pentagon embarrassed itself with obvious duplicity.  A general refused to tell reporters where the balloon was at a particular time owing to National Security Concerns when civilians not only tracked the object but photographed it.  Subsequently the defense secretary claimed that the U.S. refrained from downing the intruder to avoid damage on the ground.

That was absurd.

The balloon transited huge wide-open expanses in Alaska, western Canada, and the Great Plains.  The odds of harm to humans hovered around Absolute Zero.  According to FAA statistics, during the week-long transit, about three dozen planes crashed in the United States without any reports of harm to groundlings.

My current and retired airline friends with US Air, Delta, and Continental confirm that airliners seldom fly as high as 40,000 feet.  So the balloon usually was above commercial traffic, but of course there was no way to know if it would stay there.

When the thing finally was downed, an Air Force fighter expended a missile reckoned at $400,000 to accomplish the deed.  Some knowledgeable pundits asked why the far cheaper option of a jet’s 20mm cannon wasn’t used, at a cost of about $27 per round.  I asked some fighter pilots and learned that at 40,000 to 60,000 feet, often jets cannot maneuver precisely enough to line up for a gun kill.

Obviously embarrassed by the growing scandal, the government tried playing catch-up in a frenzy of balloon assassinations.  In the ensuing week or so, a variety of Air Force fighters downed four objects over Alaska, the Yukon, and Lake Huron.  The fact that rules of engagement permitted pilots to destroy unidentified objects (apparently including a Hobby Lobby toy) demonstrates the administration’s desperation to repair its image.

As ever, politics uber alles

Monday, December 26, 2022



Reprinted courtesy of The American Thinker.

Around Y2K the internet and media were full up with everyone’s list of Most Important Inventions.  Many were slam-dunks: the wheel, gunpowder, telegraph, radio, steam and internal combustion engines, airplanes, rockets, nuclear power, etc.

Near the top, often just below the wheel, was the printing press.  Well, no argument there, for all the obvious reasons.


What good was Herr Gutenberg’s 15th century invention without paper?  In half a dozen random lists I found paper on most of them but paper money rated high on two.  Paper generically was not included in two others.

(For those interested in pursuing the subject, the websites were Big Think, Cadcrowd, Tom Triumph, Live Science,, and the Exeter Daily.)

Alright then: we have a printing press and we have paper.

What’s missing?

You got it: ink!

Writing and/or alphabets are strangely missing from some lists, but both existed long before paper.  Consider Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform in clay tablets.  It took the combination of paper and ink to achieve written communication on a broad scale.  Even when many or most texts were laboriously copied by monks in candle-lit monasteries.  

So, I nominate ink as a leading contender among inventions that we take for granted—without a thought.

Did you ever wonder where ink comes from?

I’m a professional author with 40-plus books and 800 published articles, but the question never occurred to me until lately.  So I did some Googling.

According to Wikipedia, ancient-ancient Egyptians used red and black ink once papyrus was available.  Chinese and Indian civilizations also developed ink millennia ago.  Formulas varied as you would expect, involving iron, ochre, phosphate, animal hide glue, carbon black, and so on.

The ink in your disposable ballpoint pen is composed of colorants (pigments or dyes) and binders, or vehicles.  Pigments cost more but are color-fast whereas dye inks contain solvents for quick drying.

Which probably is more than you want to know the next time you write a check.  Or even when you endorse one.

Other taken for granted inventions

I consulted my email circle, composed of really bright, accomplished professionals in various fields.  They include mostly retirees from the military (submarines to jets), law and law enforcement, journalism and academia (one-each Rhodes Scholar.).  Some remain active authors.

Early responses included the button.

Think about that—which is the object of this exercise—where would we be without buttons?

Who first thought of sharpening a bone fragment, poking a hole in one end and using it to draw a string through a piece of leather or wool?  What was the string?  Plant fibers?  We’ll never know of course, but buttons are traced to the Indus Valley at least from 2,000 BC.  

Button holes also are found in surviving Roman garments.  So give a nod to 3,000 years of progress the next time you button your shirt or blouse.  

Then there are horses.

Saddles should feature in history’s significant inventions for obvious reasons.  

Enter the stirrup.

When my grandfather’s black gelding spooked and started bucking, my six-year-old feet remained in the shortened stirrups, avoiding a long fall from Omack’s quarter deck. 

Otherwise, even as an adult, getting aboard—and staying there—was problematical. As an Oregon ranch kid, when I swung onto Shorty’s saddle, or Rooster’s in Arizona, it was because of the stirrup.  

The Mongols probably did not have many horse whisperers—the Khan’s minions were not known for subtlety or kindness—but the steppes reverberated with racing hoofbeats for centuries.  Archaeology indicates that the Mongols likely perfected the metal stirrup around the 11th century, with advantages over the simple leather loop.  Metal imparted rigidity, the better to stand while galloping and aiming the powerful recurve bow.

Mounted knights could not joust or fight absent stiff stirrups, and Europe’s history might have been different otherwise.  

The foregoing examples remind us that much of what we take for granted is or has been essential to our civilization.  In a period when supply chains lapse or back up with items as basic as toilet paper, we might ponder everyday items such as paper, ink, and buttons, and what they mean to us. 

Friday, November 18, 2022



There’s been much coverage this month attending the loss of a Commemorative Air Force World War II Boeing B-17 and Bell P-63 at a Texas airshow.  All five people aboard the Flying Fortress were killed as well as the King Cobra pilot who collided with the bomber.

Immediately the bleating began.  “World War II airplanes are too old to fly.  They should be grounded.”

Well, bat guano.

Aircraft are among the most closely monitored and analyzed structures on Planet Earth.  Flight times are meticulously recorded, down to the tenth of an hour.  The fact is, whatever the Boeing or Bell or Consolidated or Grumman or other engineers calculated, there was no realistic way to predict an airframe’s service life

The variables were many, including aerodynamic stresses; temperatures and environment; corrosion; and quality of maintenance.  But for well maintained and inspected airframes, the upper limits are astonishing.

For proof, look no farther than the classic Douglas DC-3 airliner of the 1930s and its C-47 military counterpart of the 1940s.  The historic twin-engine transports have logged an eye-watering record for longevity.  Now-defunct Providencetown-Boston Airlines flew a dozen of them, including the world record high-timers.  Some went over 50,000 hours, apparently a couple in the 80,000 range, and the champion was retired with 91,500 hours.

To put those figures in context, Britain’s main World War II bomber was the four-engine Avro Lancaster.  About 7,300 were built and more than 40 percent (3,200) were lost during the war.  The RAF computed that the average “Lanc” survived 14 or 15 sorties—half the length of a typical aircrew combat tour.  

The main reason WW II airframes are so durable is that almost none were pressurized.  An exception was the B-29 Superfortress, successor to the B-17.  Pressurization’s advantages included a shirt-sleeve environment at most altitudes, reducing crew fatigue and need for heavy, bulky flight suits.

In contrast, pressurized airliners have been common throughout the jet age.  But there are complications.  The Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 that lost much of its forward fuselage in 1988 remains a prime example of structural fatigue.  The jetliner had logged over 35,000 flight hours with 90,000 “flight cycles” or pressurization/depressurization.  Reportedly that was twice the figure Boeing intended, though the crew landed safely with one fatality.

So it is as certain as magnetism and gravity that structurally, warbirds are not yet “too old to fly.”

Technical problems exist, of course, including spare parts.  Engines remain available if not plentiful, and components can be manufactured.  Not necessarily so with propellers, wheels, and even tires.  Furthermore, it’s uncertain how long suitable aviation gasoline will remain available.  World War II aircraft engines performed well with 100/130 octane gas but environmental concerns arose, and general aviation’s standard 80/87 became unavailable.  Now warbirds usually burn 100 low lead.

A factor often overlooked outside the warbird community is insurance.  The annual premiums for a P-51 vary widely depending on pilot experience and whether the owner wants hull insurance.  A leading insurer shows $1,000,000 annual coverage from $700 to $940 for pilots only while pilots and hull coverage range from $5,800 to $13,580.

As long as wealthy to filthy-rich pilots can support their habit, warbirds will continue flying.  In fact, as far back as the 1980s financial analysts identified historic aircraft as excellent investments.  

Warbird values have only increased.  Perhaps the classic example is Britain’s iconic Supermarine Spitfire fighter.  Recent prices for flyable Spits run in the $2 to $5 million range.  America’s most popular fighter, the P-51 Mustang, with about 250 airworthy, seldom goes for less than $2 million.  B-17s change hands so rarely that it’s hard to establish a baseline but $10 million has been cited.

Thus, the most popular warbirds are considered “recession- and panic-proof.”

I grew up in the antique/warbird community, and maybe 85-90 percent of my flight time was in machinery older than I was.  Creak.  Whether to fly 'em or ground 'em has been discussed for decades.  Some hard-core warbirders agree that when the survival count gets into low single digits, We should consider grounding.


When Dad and I restored and flew our Dauntless in the early 70s it was the only one airworthy.  The CAF had destroyed one a few years previously.  But we knew that other SBDs/A-24s were available for full restoration.  Today ours sits in original A-24B configuration at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.


The comparison I've long made is the difference between taxidermy and a zoo.  We can get up close to nose-rubbing distance in a taxidermy shop but in a zoo you get to see the creatures in something approaching their natural habitat. Just FWIW.


Thing is:


When many warbirds go for millions, who's going to take the financial hit?  If in fact the government decides no more flying, shouldn't the government pay market value? (My crotchety attitude: at one time in living memory The Govt had thousands of examples of many-most warbirds and seldom bothered to retain many.)


The situation is complicated by foreign types in the U.S.  For instance, no-kidding Messerschmitt 109s remain active in Europe. Should the ground 'em order apply to foreign aircraft owned by Americans?  Etc., etc.


I get really edgy at the notion of politicians and unaccountable bureaucrats deciding the subject.  Most appear driven by agendas and ignorance.  When the F-86 jet crashed into the ice cream parlor in Sacramento in 1972, the first pol to the mike exposed himself as an idiot.  "That plane was 20 years old. There is no reason it should be considered experimental." What the duty idiot did not bother to check is that nearly all ex-military jets, and some prop planes, are licensed Experimental because there's little or no basis for a Standard type certificate.  Man-o-man...


Idunno—maybe a mega tax credit to owners of grounded warbirds?  But outright banning amounting to confiscation is a guaranteed Supreme Court case.

As it should be.