What was the use of Iwo Jima?

I did not know why Iwo Jima was important, but the answer has to do with airpower.  For one thing, the island has a couple airstrips (those and a volcano seem to be about all it does have) and is about halfway to Tokyo from Saipan, and so was a good place to land if there was trouble on the flight.

But it sounds like what was more important was that it was hard to fly from Saipan without going past Iwo Jima, and the Japanese forces there would let Tokyo know that a bombing flight was on its way.  There is much less point in bombing at all if they know you’re coming.  So they had to stop Iwo Jima from being an early warning system.

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Iwo Jima Battle Shows Limits of Airpower

I am working on a children’s book about a veteran of Iwo Jima whom I know.  I suppose Iwo Jima is as good an example as any of the limits of airpower.  The island was strafed and bombed for weeks before the Marines landed, so rumor had it that there couldn’t be anyone alive there and the whole thing would be over by lunchtime, or three or four days at most.  Instead, it was a month later, after the worst battle in Marine history.

The Japanese survived all the bombing because they were dug in on the island, living in 14 miles’ worth of holes, tunnels, and caves, some big enough to stand up and run through.  The only way to take the island was personal, on-the-ground fighting for each hole and tunnel entrance.  As the Japanese did not expect to live, but had been ordered to kill 10 Americans each before they died, it was kill or be killed.

It seems you are safe from the air if you can dig yourself far enough into the earth.  But you have to watch out for those Marines.

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Aircraft design and sculpting

During the 36 years that powered flight had seen at the time Saint-Exupery’s book was published, the airplane went from being wings attached to a box you might call a fuselage to being one unit closed in with skin all round.  He has some poetic words about this change, but I think it’s interesting to consider how the same process has continued since then to bring us the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk, and even the E-2 and E-3.

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away….

It results from this that perfection of invention touches hands with absence of invention, as if that line which the human eye will follow with effortless delight were a line that had not been invented but simply discovered, had in the beginning been hidden by nature and in the end been found by the engineer.  There is an ancient myth about the image asleep in the block of marble until it is carefully disengaged by the sculptor….

In this spirit do engineers, physicists concerned with thermodynamics, and the swarm of preoccupied draughtsmen tackle their work.  In appearance, but only in appearance, they seem to be polishing surfaces and refining away angles, easing this joint or stabilizing that wing, rendering these parts invisible, so that in the end there is no longer a wing hooked to a framework but a form flawless in its perfection, completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused together and resembling in their unity a poem.

–Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand, and Stars, trans. Lewis Galantiere (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1939), 42

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When vintage airplanes weren’t yet

When vintage aircraft weren’t vintage yet – in 1939, a pilot a few years older than powered flight, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, wrote these words about the day when people would be nostalgic for aircraft.

Little by little the machine will become part of humanity.  Read the history of the railways in France, and doubtless elsewhere too:  they had all the trouble in the world to tame the people of our villages. The locomotive was an iron monster.  Time had to pass before men forgot what it was made of.  Mysteriously, life began to run through it, and now it is wrinkled and old.  What is it today for the villager except a humble friend who calls every evening at six?

The sailing vessel itself was once  a machine born of the calculations of engineers, yet it does not disturb our philosophers.  The sloop took its place in the speech of men.  There is a poetry of sailing as old as the world.   There have always been seamen in recorded time.  The man who assumes that there is an essential difference between the sloop and the airplane lacks historical perspective.

Every machine will gradually take on this patina and lose its identity in its function.

–Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand, and Stars, trans. Lewis Galantiere (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1939), 46-47

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The Red Baron entertains the English with bombs

I’m still working on a magazine article about the Red Baron, and am amazed by what he accomplished in those early aircraft.  But he wasn’t always a pilot, and in fact, he flew in bombers before he was a pilot.  Here he expresses what I think most people think of bombs, if they can be honest about their reaction and separate it from the thought of the purpose of the bombs.

One fine day we flew our large battle plane to entertain the English with our bombs.  We reached the target and dropped the first bombs.  It is, naturally, very interesting to watch the results of such a mission.   At least one always likes to see the explosion.  But my large battle plane, which was well-suited for carrying bombs, had a stupid peculiarity that made it hard to see the explosion of the bombs dropped, for immediately after the drop the airplane moved over the target and covered it completely with its wings.  This always made me angry, since one  had so little fun because of it.  When the bomb bursts below and one sees the lovely gray-white cloud of the explosion near the target, it is very pleasing.

–Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron: The Fabled Ace’s Story in His Own Words, ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff, trans. Peter Kilduff (New York: Ace Books, 1969), 38

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Article about history of radar

Speaking of the Battle of Britain, here is an article on myths about radar during that time.  It talks about the effect radar did and didn’t have on the air war and the inevitability of bombers getting through.  It discusses evidence that the Germans had better radar earlier than the British, but didn’t exploit it as well, not thinking of the possible defensive uses nor of what would happen if their offensive use of it was countered.

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Life of a fighter pilot

Reading about the Battle of Britain, I came across a quote from a pilot sort of apologizing for his drunken spree after fighting air battles.  He said reading a book or going to the cinema would be physically possible, but unnatural, and that now he understood how fighter pilots had acquired their wild reputation.

This reminds me of the Lafayette Escadrille, US pilots fighting for France before the US entered WWI.  As the very first US fighter pilots, they set a lot of precedents, and they were the generation whose stories a Battle of Britain pilot would have grown up with.  I think it summarizes their reputation to note that their mascots, named Whiskey and Soda, were two actual lion cubs.

I think it makes sense that when spending the day faced with life and death, mindless entertainment isn’t going to be a big enough distraction, and your mind would be too tired for any mental challenge.  Besides, what game or puzzle wouldn’t seem trivial in comparison?  I can imagine there would be only two choices: focus on the God you might be about to meet, or do the most forceful things you can to get your mind off any subject that reminds you of Him.

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Richthofen flies his first solo

I am working on an article about von Richthofen for a children’s magazine, which reminded me that the Red Baron didn’t claim to be a great pilot.  Actually in the aces’ writings I’ve read, I think they’ve all said something to the effect that aerobatics are for the people back home; fancy flying is an often fatal distraction from combat.

Here’s what von Richthofen said about his first solo flight, on 10 October 1915:

There are few moments in life that produce as nervous a sensation as the first solo flight.

Zeumer, my teacher, announced to me one afternoon: “You are ready to fly alone.”  I must say that I would rather have answered: “I am too afraid.”  But this could never come from a defender of the fatherland.  Therefore, good or bad, I had to swallow my cowardice and sit in the machine.

Once again he explained every theory of movement to me.  I barely heard what he said, for I was of the firm conviction I would forget half of what he told me.

The engine started with a roar.  I gave it the gas and the machine began to pick up speed, and suddenly I could not help but notice that I was really flying.  Suddenly it was no longer an anxious feeling, but, rather, one of daring.  Now it was all up to me.  No matter what happened, I was no longer frightened.  With contempt for death I made a wide curve to the left, shut off the engine precisely over the designated tree, and waited to see what would happen now.  Then came the most difficult part, the landing.  I remembered the essential manipulations; I performed them mechanically.  However, the machine reacted differently than when Zeumer sat in it.  I lost my balance, made some wrong movements, and landed nose-first with what was once the instruction machine.  Sadly I looked at the slight damage, amid laughter from all sides.

Two days later I went to my airplane with mad passion, and suddenly all went wonderfully well.

Two weeks later I was ready to take my first examination.  I flew the prescribed figure eight and the ordered number of landings, whereupon I proudly got out of the machine and heard, to my great surprise, that I had failed.  There was nothing else to do but try once more to pass the first examination.

–Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron: The Fabled Ace’s Story in His Own Words, ed. Stanley M. Ulanoff, trans. Peter Kilduff (New York: Ace Books, 1969), 42-43

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World War I planes getting publicity

Article on Vintage Aero Flying Museum (VAFM) here.

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B-52, B-29, and Bugatti Veyron

Just updated the aviation t-shirt art page with all of Ewan’s designs of this type so far, including not only the B-52 and B-29 but also the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter, the Galloping Goose train engine, and the Bugatti Veyron.

He plans to sell directly to museums, so silkscreening can be done in quantity.  But if you really need a t-shirt with one of the designs on it, just contact him; something can surely be arranged.

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