Monday, July 21, 2008

Falling out of the sky

So what's the deal, guys?

0013729e4abe09ef65a062.jpg2008's been a bad year for the Air Force. We lost a B-52 and her crew today -- an airplane that was flying for probably 45 years, flew during (though not necessarily in) five or so wars, and had probably outlasted the first men to sit in her cockpit. Now granted, military flying is always dangerous and 45 year old airplanes carry their own dangers. But we are talking about a type with one of the best records in the Air Force -- probably not least because all the bugs had been worked out by now!

But that crash, off the island of Guam, comes just five months after the loss of a B-2 off the same island. The B-2 is almost the opposite of the B-52 -- new (though hardly so new as to have that new bomber smell anymore), high-tech, and built in such small numbers that the individual aircraft are almost flown as combat capable prototypes. The B-2 loss -- much better understood than the more recent accident, of course, since there's been time for investigation -- was due to the flight crew missing a pre-flight step that was necessary to ensure accurate air data was received. Moisture contaminated one of the plane's sensor and caused the fly-by-wire computers to have all sorts of crazy ideas as to what was going on and directly lead to the crash. As perposterous as this might sound, the technical reasons are reasonable and this sort of little foible is hardly unknown on cutting edge airplanes -- particularly ones that are built in such few numbers that it is easier to live with bugs than to fix them. But the problem was the lack of procedure documentation. Crew chiefs passed this lore -- that you switch the deice on before takeoff when the air data system might be contaminated -- on orally, like shamanistic traditions of how to summon spirits or something (That the B-2 is officially named Spirit was not lost on me when I wrote that analogy).

Again -- fine for the rarin' old days of Edwards Air Force Bace and Chuck Yeager and George Welch duking it out for first through the soundbarrier honors. But let's remember that Welch died not too many years later when his F-100 lost control -- and Yeager nearly lost it a few times himeself. This is 2008, not 1949, and there are certain things we don't say anymore (you catch that, Jessie Jackson?) and certain things we don't do anymore. And one of those things is pass on the knowledge necessary to fly a billion dollar airplane -- one of the two dozen most powerful military tools anywhere in the world -- by word of mouth.

Now I don't know what caused the loss of this B-52 and her crew. Were they in distress before the accident? Pushing their luck while preparing for a bit of showboating? Or a victim of sloppy, haphazard support like happened back five months ago? I'll grant you that Guam may be no-one's idea of a sexy duty station. You're not fighting the GWOT but you're not at home with the family in Louisiana either. So you're cranky, sullen, uncommunicative. And cranky, sullen, uncommunicative people don't do their jobs well... But the thought of any sort of endemic cultural problems in the military -- and right now particularly in this part of the military that handles such phenomenally powerful, valuable, and rare assets more -- is deeply unnerving. Just remember the B-52 that few cross country with some live nuclear warheads onboard last year. Alright, no-harm-no-foul works in a lot of situations, but live nukes haven't been wanderingn around the skies since the 1960's without very good and specific reason. All three of these incidents involved the former Strategic Air Command (SAC) -- long the Air Force's flying elite. And if this once so professional portion of the force is struggling so dramatically, my fear is that things in the less "bling" portions will be perportionately worse. Now I might be just plain out of date -- the old SAC days are long gone, and for very good reasons. But that's a lot of espret de corps to loose and loose fast.

Stategic_Air_Command_(film).jpgSo that's my question -- who is minding the store over there? Whoever you are, let me tell you that General Le May wouldn NOT be proud. You'd all have found yourself off flight duty and given a dressing down that even Admiral Rickover would have admired. I know I'm jumping to conclusions, but this isn't about a single crash -- its about something that seems too significantly clustered to be mere coincidence. And non-coincidences demand a search for universal causes.

Oh, and while I'm at it, and just to make sure the civilians don't get off too lightly, what's with the reporting here? Variously, I've had it described that today's B-52 crash occurred while the airplane was performing flyovers of a parade -- unlikely unless parades in Guan are held 25 miles out to sea. Granted, it might have been going to a flyover for one of Guam's national holidays, but the former makes it sound like a bomber augered in to a crowd of flag waving kids or such. And we like to save that particular trick for Russian airshows. The B-52 was also described in another report as a "fighter plane." Now I don't expect every hack reporter to know the subtle details and politics of military aircraft typing, but the difference betwen "fighter" and "bomber" has been intuitive since, oh, say, the Blitz! Flighter: small, puny bombload, mushes crewmembers around in aerobatic maneuvers. Bomber: big, devistates city blocks at a time, flies 34 hour long missions. Got it? "B" -- for bomber, guys.

No comments: