Thursday, September 29, 2011

Great Book by Brit Chinook Pilot

I wrote a review for Books and Culture of Sweating the Metal by Alex Duncan, Chinook Pilot in Afghanistan:


Sweating the Metal

Happy 50th Anniversary to the Chinook helicopter.
Happy 50th Anniversary to the Chinook helicopter! This month, the huge, twin-rotor aircraft capable of carrying 40 soldiers and tons of cargo marks 50 years of service in the US military and in the air forces of more than two dozen other nations.
In 2011, the Chinook was in the news around the world. On May 2, the Chinook helicopter on the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden extracted the Navy Seal team as well as the crew of the ill-fated Blackhawk that crashed on landing at the Bin Laden compound. Bin Laden's body left Pakistan on the Chinook. The Chinook's size made it possible to complete the mission when the primary Blackhawk was down.
In August, that same colossal size (a full 99 feet from the front of the forward rotor to the back of the aft rotor) made a Chinook a big enough target that a single Taliban gunner with a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) could bring the copter down. More than 30 Navy SEALs, Afghan commandos, and crewmembers were onboard for a night mission. All were killed.
But neither of these incidents is typical of the tough-under-fire utility of this hulking helicopter. For a rousing description of flying a Chinook in combat, look no further than Sweating the Metal by Chinook pilot Alex Duncan. Written at a breathless pace, the book shifts easily from technical descriptions of aircraft and procedures to clipped dialogue and action-packed combat narrative.
Although Duncan never goes three pages without using the f-word, he does spare his audience transcription of the speech of British soldiers. Both when I served in Germany in the 1970s and in Iraq in 2009, I trained with British troops. Their ability to cram properly pronounced foul language into every sentence surprised even the most foul-mouthed American soldiers.
A British sergeant leading an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) briefing in Iraq pronounced the "ing" clearly when using the f-word as a verbal adjective for each of the 30 IEDs he showed us. Duncan uses the f-word five times in one three-line paragraph to convey the alarm of one of his crewmembers who landed under fire in the wrong place, but for the most part he limits himself to a few per page. When I try to describe life in the army, particularly the 77-man tent I lived in for three weeks in Kuwait, I find it is a tricky balance to convey the profane speech without coming near transcription. Duncan does a good f-ing job.
Another balance Duncan tries to strike on every page describing combat is the use of acronyms. Soldiers in general and aircrew in particular have an opaque language of acronyms that is real speech to them. I currently serve in a Combat Aviation Brigade, and I find pilot jargon beyond incomprehensible when they speak to each other. Readers who have never flown in a military aircraft will be turning repeatedly to the seven-page glossary at the end of the book. Since some of Duncan's jargon is peculiar to the RAF, I found myself looking up LCJ (Load Carrying Jacket), CAS (Chief of Air Staff or Close Air Support depending on context), and a few others.
Duncan writes in the first person. So, when he is angry the reader can feel the warm temperature of the page. In Chapter 14 (of 40), he talks about waiting for a seat on a flight home. This is one of the chapters with high f-word density, including spelling out the acronym REMF. I will leave it to the reader to look on page 105 or Google it. The chapter is about the hassles of combat soldiers when they are marooned on a large base with non-combat soldiers.
The dispute dates back at least as far as the era of King David, who is recorded in Scripture as commanding that those who guard the baggage get a share of the spoils along with the frontline troops. Duncan clearly would cut the REMFs out of the distribution of any benefits. Yet he makes clear in this chapter that the soldiers he disparages live through daily mortar and rocket attacks, eat dust, and regularly deal with the contempt of people like him.
Many of the missions Duncan flies are what the US Army would call MEDEVAC. The Brits have their own acronyms. Several chapters describe rescuing wounded soldiers under direct fire. I read one of these chapters to my 12-year-old sons. They were caught up in the excitement, but it was a lot of work for me translating those acronyms into something the boys could understand, not to mention bowdlerizing the text and substituting exclamations.
When Duncan mentioned weapons, the boys' questions led me into a ten-minute digression on the M60 machine gun mounted on the Chinook's tail ramp and the miniguns mounted in the doors. They were so excited with what tracers are and how they look when they arc to the ground that we barely got back to the story. They especially liked the British nickname for the 3000-round-per-minute miniguns: Crowd Pleasers, the Brits call them. The next night we went back to Tom Sawyer.
Duncan is very good at technical explanations. Little by little, the reader learns technical details of the controls and instruments of the Chinook helicopter. Page 135, for example, features an excellent description of Night Vision Goggles (always called NVGs by the crews). We also learn chapter-by-chapter about life at home in Britain as well as on the big base at Kandahar and on the forward bases. One cumulative effect of Duncan's descriptions was to make me jealous of British deployment. Tours for US soldiers are one year long. British flight crews spend two months in country. Ground troops, six months.
In the course of the story, the reader gets a sense of how pervasive American popular culture is in the life of British soldiers—and really for all English-speaking soldiers. He says "Let's get out of Dodge" over the intercom, knowing the crew will understand his intent. Same with "Captain Obvious" and many other references to American movies, American songs, and so on, no doubt including some that I am too old to recognize.
And speaking of popular culture, Duncan mentions the DVDs that are everyone's favorite at their base on Camp Bastion: The HBO Series Band of Brothers. Soldiers can be as cynical about war films as doctors are about hospital dramas, but I have never heard a bad word about Band of Brothers. The men I served with in Iraq and Duncan's mates all at some level want to follow Major Dick Winters from Normandy to Berchtesgaden in World War II.
While these descriptions gave me a real feeling for Duncan's life, they helped to make the book too long. The climactic scene when Duncan's Chinook is hit by an RPG begins almost 220 pages into this 300-page book. If the book were shorter by a third, tightened by a ruthless editor, it would be even better.
That said, I would happily recommend Sweating the Metal to anyone who wants to get a good sense of the war in Afghanistan and what it's like to fly the biggest helicopter in the Army inventory.
Neil Gussman is communications manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He blogs

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

NASCAR at my Day Job

Sometimes I post on the blog where I work.  This time about NASCAR and Octane.

And while I was looking up something else, I saw this: radio interview just for those of us who are well past the age to join AARP.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Amazing Race

My sister is a personal trainer living in the Boston Area.  She thinks that the two of us should try to compete in The Amazing Race which begins a new season tonight.  I haven't ever seen the show, but will watch tonight's episode.  If any of you are fans, let me know what you think.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Happy 50th Birthday Chinook! Flood Rescue Videos

Happy Birthday Chinook!!  The big helicopters mark 50 years of service today.
You can follow links from my battalion's Facebook page if you want to know more.

Scroll down and you can watch videos of our helicopters rescuing flood victims two weeks ago.

By the way, if you have not LIKEd our page yet, please do so, and send the link to your friends.  I post all the pictures from drill weekends on the battalion page and my page.

In Iraq, a very funny soldier who hated wearing PT belts on base created a PT Belt fan page that has more than 16,000 fans.   

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Firing the M203 Grenade Launcher

Continuing with my Heaven in Camo weekend, this morning I got to fire a half dozen rounds from an M203 Grenade Launcher--the standard grenade launcher for all army units.  M203 is the designation for the entire weapon. The grenade launcher itself is the 12-inch tube underneath the barrel of the rifle  or carbine it is attached to.

The weapon fires 40mm grenades and loads like a shotgun.  We fired dummy rounds.  The live rounds are high explosive and have a kill radius of 5 meters so you don't have to make a direct hit to be effective.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

300 on the Fitness Test!!

I got the maximum score on today's Annual Physical Fitness Test:  300!  55 pushups and 80 situps in two minutes each and 22 minutes to ride 10k on the bike.  The bike is pass/fail.  I had 28 minutes to pass.  The last five times I took the test I scored between 288 and 297.  It was great to finally get 300.  If you are wondering how I could ride the bike--above age 55 I get my choice of running, walking, or riding.  Once I got the max score on the other two events, I did not want to mess up like last time and run 20 seconds too slow and miss 300.

For the rest of the day, I took pictures of a blackhawk and a chinook picking up Officer Candidates School trainees and went to the battalion picnic with Nigel and Jacari.  After that I talked to a couple of friends at the armory and rode 30 miles.

Life doesn't get much better than that!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

PT Test and Picnic This Saturday

The first day of drill this weekend begins with the annual Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) in the morning, then the battalion picnic in the afternoon.  My sons are going to the picnic.  They will spend the morning at Jacari's former foster Mom, who lives six miles from Fort Indiantown Gap.

I have a lot of wonderful days in my life, but a day that includes working out, riding my bike, competing, eating grilled meat, hanging out with the boys--life doesn't get much better than that!

Except next month when will have a three-day drill and get to fire rifles and maybe machine guns.

When SFC Larry Christman said, "Gussman thinks all this training is an amusement park" he had my number.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Another Warning Order--and NASCAR Tickets

Flooding across eastern Pennsylvania is bad enough that I got another warning order about activating the Guard for flood control.  What a mess!!!  They evacuated Wilkes-Barre today.  Rivers are cresting way above flood stage all across the mid state.

On the plus side, if I don't get activated my oldest daughter got me and my sons tickets for the Richmond NASCAR race.  Richmond is arguably one of the best tracks on the circuit:  short, fast, wide enough for passing.  I hope we get to go!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On WGAL TV Last Night

In a series about 9-11, the producer wanted someone who served during Viet Nam and in Iraq.  It's a still-photo montage.  Nicely done.  Video here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Writing About Presidential Candidates at Work

I occasionally write for a blog at work called Periodic Tabloid about the history of science.  Today's post is about how very modern the views of many Republican candidates can be.

I Went to a Movie!!!

Ok.  Not a big deal for most of you, but the second to last time I was in a movie theater was in 2005 to watch "The Devil Wears Prada" with my whole family.  Meryl Streep is as mean as two buckets of rattlesnakes in that movie.  It was a lot of fun.

I also remember the last two movies I saw, though I could not watch the second one to the end.  When I deployed, my roommates insisted that I had to watch "Full Metal Jacket."  I liked it a lot more than I thought I would because the guy who went crazy in basic training was Vincent D'Onofrio, later the star of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent."  The other movie they wanted me to see was "300."  They thought I would like it because it was historical.  It was horrible.  It was the battle of Thermopylae made into a cartoon.

The last time I was in a movie theater was to see "Restrepo" with a friend who just returned from Afghanistan--and was on the way back.  This documentary of life at the worst outpost in Afghanistan kept me staring at the screen.

The movie I saw yesterday was "Senna" the story of three-time Formula One World Champion (1988, 1990, 1991) driver Ayrton Senna da Silva.  I took my sons Nigel (Named after 1992 World Champion Nigel Mansell) and Jacari to the movie at the Bourse Theater in Philadelphia.  Since I did not read about the movie in advance, I did not realize half of it would be subtitled.  Senna is Brazilian.  His main rival, Alain Prost is French.  The boys can't read fast enough to follow subtitles, but there was a lot of historic car racing footage so they could enjoy at least half of the movie. And since this the second time I have been to a theater with Nigel (Devil Wears Prada) and the first with Jacari, they were fascinated with the whole idea of Dad in a theater.

They sat on either side of me in the third row, far in front of the other patrons.  And at the end they were both whipping their heads back and forth between me and the screen.  Senna died in the Imola race in a 170-mph crash.  I remember the race.  A rookie driver died in qualifying the day before.  It had been almost 10 years since a Formula One driver died in the car and Senna was, in most fans eyes, the best driver in the world at the time.  

When a car crashes, it is swarmed by the corner workers, the men and women who stand just behind the fences and wave flags, then run to crash sites.  Most times they workers are doing everything they can to get the driver out of the car.  And you see the swarm just after the crash with the camera at track level.  then they switch scenes and show the car from the helicopter a moment later.  Instead of the swarm, they showed a half-dozen corner workers six feet from the car with their backs toward the stricken machine.

When the corner workers do that, the driver is dead.  I started to tell the boys thats what the corner workers body language meant, but instead, I started to cry.  The boys had never seen that either.  They started to cry.   The movie ended a few minutes later.  They were Ok.  I wanted some time to think.  so I told the boys to double knot their sneakers we ere going running.  We ran back and forth across the Ben Franklin Bridge--1.5 miles each way across the bridge and a half-mile back and forth to the bridge.

Should you see the movie?  Only if you are a racing fan.

Speaking of the boys, I am starting a new blog today.  My wife and I are driving to State College to talk to the social worker of a boy who may be our next adopted child.  The blog is Adoptive Dad.  Just as the Senna movie is mostly interesting for race fans, this new blog is mostly for parents I would assume.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Tonight after we left the Apple Store, I went three stores down in the Park City Mall and got a new pair of Gap Boot Cut Jeans.  The jeans I currently own are Gap Boot Cut Jeans size 34-34.  

I tried on a new pair of the same size.  They were huge.  I bought size 32-34.  They fit fine.  Did my waist shrink two inches in the five years since I bought the last pair?  Not likely, I weigh 4 or 5 pounds less, but that's not two inches of waist size.  

It turns out Gap has joined every other retailer in shrinking putting smaller size labels on larger clothes.  So the 32 waist jeans I bought today are about the same fit as the 34s I bought in 2006.  We live in a fat country.  Maybe in 2016 I will buy 30-34 jeans.

Writing Checks

My wife pays all the bills in our house, so I don't write checks.  I don't think I have written a check in a store in the last decade, certainly not in this millennium.  But I do look out for people who still write checks.  I live in Lancaster County PA, so people really do.  In grocery stores the best way to avoid a check writer is by going to the automated check out line.  No one who writes checks in public would be in that line.

Just now I am sitting in the Apple store waiting for my appointment with a Genius (the repair guys in the Apple store).  While waiting in the Apple line--seated at a stool with my laptop using their WiFi--I saw a guy at the Genius bar paying for something his teenage son got repaired.  The guy was writing a check!!  First time for everything.  I have never seen a check written in an Apple store.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Savage Hot Air

Tonight I couldn't sleep so I went to the gym.  The students are back in class, so the gym is open from 6 am to Midnight.  On the 0.7-mile drive to the gym I tuned to the "Savage Nation."  This talk show is at the extreme of bad taste in the world of talk radio.  In that two-minute trip Michael Savage (born Michael Weiner) said, "Whoever put the Navy SEALs on a slow Chinook helicopter that can't turn should be tried for murder."

Pathetic Asshole that he is, Weiner is not restrained by facts.  The Chinook is the fastest of the Army's four main helicopters:  the Blackhawk, Apache Longbow and the Kiowa.  As to its ability to turn, I have ridden in Chinooks both in the US and Iraq.  They can land in tiny Forward Operating Bases and take off spinning around in barely more than their own length.  Chinook pilots can fly their 60-foot aircraft (99 feet from blade tip to blade tip) 50 feet or less off the ground at 160 knots.  The Chinook is a great aircraft, but it is not rocket proof.  The loss of the SEALs, the air crew and other soldiers was a tragedy.  But if a dozen SEALs and four crewmen had been shot down in a Blackhawk would our nation have mourned less?

Like any right-wing talk show host, the 69-year-old Weiner spent the Viet Nam War accumulating degrees and deferments.  Had he paid attention to anything military when he was 19, he might have noticed the Army fielded a new helicopter in September of 1962--The CH-47 Chinook.  That helicopter celebrates its 50th anniversary in service this year.  Now in its sixth version, the F Model has been in service with the Army since 2007.  In July Bravo Company of my unit became the first Army National Guard unit equipped with the new helicopter.

We live in a country that allows Westboro Baptist Church members and ignorant fools like Savage Weiner to address the public.  Conventional wisdom says that is a good thing.  I must be too old to remember why this is good.

Who Fights Our Wars? CSM Donald C. Cubbison, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division

In the fall of 1977, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division got a new Command Sergeant's Major.  Donald C. Cubbison, veteran of the Vietna...