Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Germany Gave Me Back Bike Mojo


For the first two weeks of the trip, riding with bags hanging off both sides of the rear rack on my bicycle made me feel I was riding a Mack truck rather than a bike.

Travel is about discovery and I discovered I don't like riding a 60-pound bike.  In the process of discovering what I don't like gave me clarity about what I do like about riding.

The toughest day on the trip was riding from Bratislava, Slovakia, to the border of the Czech Republic. I started at 3 p.m. thinking I could easily ride 60 miles to Brno in the Czech Republic. Sundown was 9:30 p.m. The weather was clear. The wind, sadly, was 15-20 mph in my face, but I only had to average 10 mph to make by dark.

Four hours later, I had covered 34 miles. I stopped a mile up the road, got dinner and started riding the next day.

Yesterday, I rode to Wiesbaden from where I am staying in Darmstadt, Germany. When I got back from the 65-mile ride, I rode up to Frankenstein's Castle. The steep 1.5 mile climb made me happy. Without the bags, it was tough, but I was not crawling. And on the way down, I was flying through three switchbacks and a dozen sweeping turns.

Today I spent the day on a trip to a museum in a car, but when I got back, I went up and down both roads to Frankenstein, then did the steep road again.  For the rest of the trip, I will be riding without the bags.  I like that much better.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Delightfully Odd Guy from Alabama Flying to Serbia


On the plane from Paris to Belgrade, I sat next to an American couple from Alabama. Glenn Snyder introduced himself when he heard me speak English to the Flight Attendant.  Glenn is three years older than I am. He and his wife were on the way to visit friends from home who had been living in Belgrade for almost two years.  They went just to see the country and decided to stay. Glenn had never been to Europe and decided to visit his old friend.

A guy from Alabama with friends outside the country or who even travels outside the country is unusual. Alabama is third lowest in the nation of citizens with passports--just 22% of Alabamans have a passport.  Only Mississippi and West Virginia are lower.  Also, Glenn never served in the military. He said he had a high draft number and just never wanted to be in the military. Most of his family and the majority of the boys he grew up with served in the military.  He knew many people who had been to Viet Nam, Thailand, West Germany, or South Korea with the military, but never had passports, because soldiers on orders or on leave don't need them.

Then we talked about C.S. Lewis.  He had read Narnia and Mere Christianity. We talked about faith and books. He did not know about most of Lewis' other books. I told him about Screwtape. He thought portraying demons as bureaucrats in Hell would be fun to read.

And if Glenn wasn't already odd enough, he still cannot understand how people in the Baptist Church he grew up in could vote for Trump.  "They told us sex, drugs, rock and roll, smoking, dancing, were all of the devil....They vote for a guy who brags about doing everything they said was bad, and more those old Baptists didn't even think of!"

Wild Dogs and Angry Truckers, My Options in Macedonia


Now that I am done riding in Eastern Europe, I can say the scariest ride so far this trip was on a state highway that had no parallel superhighway. It was a twisty twelve-mile climb from Skopje, Macedonia, to the pass that marks the border with Kosovo. On the way up the mountain, two Semis got so close I was off the road and onto the foot-wide sand strip that constitutes a shoulder in Europe.  The second time the air from the truck pushed me far enough off the road that I had to stop.  I got right back on the road. Adrenaline. I really wanted to get to Kosovo.

When I got within sight of the border, I looked across the road and saw warning signs that drivers should watch for bicycles on the roadway on the way down. There were no signs on the way up. Maybe the truckers thought it meant open season on the climb.

The border was jammed with cars and trucks which could mean the bike/pedestrian crossing would be jammed also. Usually the bike crossing was better, but in Ukraine it was worse. I did not have enough time to cross and re-cross the border, so I turned around and rode as fast as I could down the mountain. After eight miles descending, I saw a sign pointing for bikes to take that road. The empty parallel road had weeds growing out of it.  At 27 mph (40 feet per second) I thought about taking the lumpy route the last four miles until I saw three dogs walking along the edge of the empty road.

Dog dinner or ride with Semis?

The lead dog had his head down and his tail seemed to be dragging. He looked hungry enough to eat an old bicyclist. Two days before on the ride toward Romania a dog shot out from under a bridge and sprinted at me. I sprinted and growled back. He gave up. These dogs looked more determined.

Given the choice between wild dogs and Semis, I stayed on the main road until I got back into the city. Then I pulled into a gas station and sat on the curb drinking a bottle of juice and calmed myself down.  I rolled back into Skopje on sidewalks and bike lanes.  The next day I could try to find a different route into Kosovo or go south toward Greece.  I went to Greece. Since that day, I only rode on state highways that have a parallel motorway. Otherwise I am on a narrow road with Semi after Semi.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Documentary Filmmaker at an Asian Restaurant in Berlin



In Berlin, I ate dinner at an Asian restaurant near the laundromat I used earlier in the day. I was going to ride back to my room and eat where I had a good internet signal. But it was a nice night so I sat at one of the two tables in front of the restaurant. A woman in her 50s was eating at the other table. She heard me speaking English and asked where I was riding.  We talked about traveling on a bike and about how bicycles were everywhere in Berlin and in Germany.  She is a documentary filmmaker. She asked about my job. I told her I am retired, but my last job was at a museum of the history of chemistry.
 
She really brightened up at that! It turns out she made a documentary about the history of plastic chairs--polyethylene chairs that are very common in Germany, especially the former East Germany. Sybelle said, "The chairs themselves were boring. Just blocks of plastic. So I researched the history. That was fascinating!" She was able to interview one of the two chemists who discovered the process for making polyethylene and polypropylene. She learned a lot about chemisty and polymer chemistry.  She knew of the existence of polyvinylidene fluoride, but did not know how it differed from Teflon. I could explain the difference in the two molecules.
Outside of a professional chemistry setting, I never met anyone on the street in the U.S. who knew or cared about polymer chemistry, of for that matter who had ever heard of polyvinylidene fluoride.

We also talked about politics. When she grew up, she was told people like me, the American Army in Germany, were occupying West Germany, but since she lived in Berlin, she knew very well that the wall was to keep East Germans in, more than to keep the rest of the world out.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cold War Soldier Visits Eastern Europe



Forty years after I looked across the East-West German border from the turret of an M60A1 tank. Now I am visiting the Warsaw Pact countries that sent soldiers to the other side of that border.  Every country I have been to is better off than the 1970s, at least for ordinary citizens.  It was relatively better to be a leader in a Soviet, or Soviet-dominated country, but the well-stocked stores and bright-colored clothes everywhere say life is much better now.

But in the former Yugoslavia I had the same feeling of being haunted by ghosts that I had when I first walked the streets of Wiesbaden in the 1970s. When I first walked around Cold War West Germany, I passed people in the streets who were old enough to have been adults during World War II, I thought `Were you a Nazi, were you part of the Holocaust, did you know?'  The beautiful city surrounded by a lush countryside stood in contrast to the horrors of its recent history.  

I had that same kind of moment hit me in Bosnia. I was riding my bicycle just over the border from Croatia. I came to a roundabout and pulled off the road halfway around. The first road I passed had a sign pointing to Banja-Luka, the second to Tuzla. I remembered these names as sites of massacres of Bosnians by Serbs.  That was two decades ago.  Everyone middle-aged and older was either a perpetrator or the relative of a victim.  That feeling stayed with me until I left the Balkans and was in Slovakia.

When we waited for war on the East-West border, most of the men on the other side were not there by choice. I wonder how many of them wished Patton had kept going and pushed the Soviet empire back out of Eastern Europe.

Certainly, the victims of the slaughter in the Balkans would have wanted the Russians to leave Yugoslavia with their guns instead of leaving the weapons with Serbs and death to the neighbors they hated.

I understood the hatred in Tito's wake only too well.  In 1980, the year after I left the Army, I took a Russian Lit. course at Penn State with a gruff, chain-smoking Serbian named Prof. Djorjevic. He escaped Yugoslavia in 1956 and end up in Central Pennsylvania. At the end of the course, the Prof. invited us to his house for dinner. I remember his mantelpiece over the fireplace vividly. He displayed two 8X10 black and white pictures. One was of a Serbian officer on a white horse, his grandfather. the picture was from the late 1800s. The other was of two Croatians with Nazi armbands sawing a Serbian woodsman in half with his own saw.  If Prof. Djorjevic could have killed a Croat and died doing it, he would have died happy.

Except for the Yugoslav mess, NATO has helped to keep the peace in Europe for 70 years. That has not happened for a millennia before that. Every place I visited in the former Yugoslavia is at peace now.  May it stay that way!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Auschwitz: Industrial Genocide



Yesterday, I left Prague on the morning train heading for Warsaw to go from there to the Baltic Republics. I thought my planned visit to Auschwitz would have to be on the way back from Russia instead of on the way.  Then the sign on the train that announces stations said the next stop would be Katowice, Poland, just 30 miles from Auschwitz.  We were still 160 miles from Warsaw. If I got off the train, there would be no way to get to St. Petersburg by the date on my Visa.

I got off the train. In a moment like Lot's wife, I looked back at the train, but did not turn to a pillar of salt. So I changed money, got coffee, found a place to stay, then headed for Auschwitz.  The ride was south on rolling hills through beautiful forests and villages.  I crossed a railroad bridge then entered the city of Oswiecim, where the Auschwitz museum and the Birkenau camp are located.  The Holocaust sites are on the north side of town so as soon as I entered the town, I was close.

I went to Birkenau first. The site is largely preserved, still ringed with barbed wire fences and guard towers and many of the buildings are still standing. The camp is a square kilometer in a flat field with a narrow road running next to the fence.  The buses park at a museum 300 meters from the camp gate so streams of people in randomly colored tourists clothes are walking back and forth from the parking lot to camp.  It is odd to see tourists trooping in lines through a place of so much suffering and death.  It was odder still to see life being so normal around the camp.

To get the size of the place I rode the perimeter. So many hundreds of barracks meant so much suffering, but the entire place was not that big.  The Auschwitz and Birkenau camps are about a mile apart. Inmates marched between them to work and then back to suffer the tortures of the night. The two camps and the road between them brought back many images from Primo Levi's book "Survival in Auschwitz." I think most often of the World War I veteran Levi wrote about. He won an Iron Cross for gallantry under fire and probably thought decorated veterans would not be despised by the Nazis who claimed to value courage and patriotism.  But racism eclipsed nationalism and even a man who earned the nation's highest honor in war was killed for being a Jew.

Between the two camps was, for me, the saddest site.  A small sign on the road between Birkenau and Auschwitz pointed to the "Judenrampe." The tiny road through a residential neighborhood was too narrow for buses, to VW bugs could not pass on this road.  With no bus traffic there were almost no tourists.  As I rode up I saw someone pushing a wheelchair back to the road.

The site is two old boxcars on a rusty rail siding. Two signs explain the site.  This rail siding is where Jews were unloaded from the boxcars and sorted into groups for work, death, medical experiments, and whatever other horrors their captors could inflict.  As I read the signs and looked at the boxcars wondering how horrible it was to be stuffed inside them, I heard kids laughing.  Behind me was a row a fir trees and a fence that separated a gated house from the Judenrampe. Kids were playing in a pool from the sounds.

It made me think how horrible it was for the people of Oswiecim that the Nazis chose their town to inflict this stain on all of humanity.  Hotels grow up around the site and people make money providing tours and selling stuff to tourists.  And the laughing kids grow up next to those boxcars.

Just as the American form of slavery was the worst of its kind in the history of the world, Auschwitz represents the impersonal extreme of genocide. The Nazis did everything they could to take every shred of humanity from the inmates before killing them, especially extinguishing hope. American slavery, unlike slavery in the ancient world or indentured servitude, also took away hope.  Slaves could never get out except through escape or death. Nor could Auschwitz inmates until the Nazis were defeated.

My next stop, if possible, will be Lviv, Ukraine.  For me, Auschwitz and Lviv have been the extremes of the Nazi genocide horror.  Auschwitz was the most industrial,
Lviv is the most personal. The people of the city joined with the Nazis, abetted the Nazis and killed their neighbors on the streets and in their homes.

Racism can begin with words, like the horrible Birther lie that was the basis of the Donald Trump's ascent to power. But when racism goes past words into action Auschwitz, Birkenau, Lviv, Sarjevo, Rwanda, and the slave market of New Orleans is the result.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

My Top Shelf Trip to Budapest

   I am on the train from Belgrade to Budapest. When I walked up to the platform the conductor gave me The Look. The universal FU look that says "Not on my train!"  

He motioned that I had to fold the bike and put it in the luggage rack. My bike is a Surly so I could. In five minutes I had the bike in pieces. Then the conductor said "Dva!"  And pointed to the next car. He let me take the bike apart before telling me I needed to go to the next car. So I carried the pieces to the next car and loaded them in the upper luggage rack. 


Ten minutes later he collected my ticket. He just said "Dobrey" and moved on. 


Nice to know I can quickly break down the bike. I will now know to break it down at the correct car. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Trip Begins with Errors





This trip began with joy, sleep deprivation and a $500 error.  I booked the trip as if I were immune to making mistakes flying. Over decades of flying on business, I have never missed a flight, so why would I start now?

Jet lag is different at 64, at least for me.

Instead of booking a direct flight, I took the cheaper route of booking a flight to Paris, then a second flight to Belgrade. I worried that my bike would not make it, but the bike arrived in the Paris baggage claim before my bag.  All I had to do was check in, wait six hours and fly to Belgrade.

My flight had a layover in Amsterdam. There were two flights to Amsterdam at 6:30 p.m. from Terminal 2 at Charles DeGaulle Airport.  I went to the wrong gate and fell asleep. When I woke up, my bike had been removed from the correct flight.  And the cheap ticket was cancelled. I could get a flight through Frankfort for $1100 or wait and book on Air Serbia--where I should have booked anyway.

So I arrived in Belgrade at 1 p.m. a day later.  I planned to put the bike together in the airport and ride to the hotel.  But I was missing a skewer nut, so I put my partially assembled bike in a cab, went the hotel then went on a walking search for a skewer.  A previous post tells that very happy tale, but the day which was to be a ride to Romania was a walk around town.

I did get the bike put together, rode in Belgrade then succumbed to jet lag.  It turns out I cannot push myself as hard as I could 20 years ago. This should not be a surprise.  But it was.

So I was a day behind schedule and the next day would be the shorter of the trips to neighboring countries: Croatia, and maybe Bosnia.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Bike Trip Became a Trip with a Bike


In the next few days as I have time I will write more about my trip so far: the people I have met, the places I have been, the things I have seen, and the mistakes I have made.

When I first thought about this trip it was going to be the kind of head down trip I have made riding to NYC in a day or to Canada in two.  I was going to ride from Odessa to Helsinki in honor of my paternal grandfather. He walked from Odessa to Finland in 1914-15 to avoid being killed by the Tsar's army.

The original route I dreamed up three years ago was more or less straight north, assuming grandpa had no way to navigate except the north star.  Then the political situation along the straight north route got bad.  Civil war in Eastern Ukraine included artillery duels. Artillery is very bad for bicycles. Then the political situation in Belarus got worse.  So my route moved further and further west into Poland and the Baltic states.

Then the trip got bigger.  I decided I could start in the Balkans and maybe ride in 20 countries on the way and even add a side trip to Israel.  As I added stops and changed the route, I did not make the trip longer.  My wife has math conferences in late July and early August, so I had to be back to take care of the boys while she travels for her real joy in life.

Today is June 13. My Russian visa says June 22-24. I have to get to St. Petersburg in nine days. So yesterday I got a car. For three days I will drive to and ride in several Balkan states, maybe Greece, then go back to Serbia and take trains north to the Baltic states, then Russia.  I am planning to ride in Poland and the Baltics on the way to Russia. I am also planning to ride some on the way back to Darmstadt, Germany, where I will visit my friend Cliff on June 29.

The 1,500 miles I was planning to ride will surely be less than a thousand.

But instead of riding past everything and making maximum mileage per day, I have visited two museums, eaten in lovely restaurants, walked and rode slowly in the cities I visited, and talked to people.

And finally, as I travel the former Yugoslavia, every country I ride in has been conquered by the Nazis the subjugated by the Soviets.  With freedom came the slaughter of the mid 1990s.  Everywhere along this route, racism led to mass slaughter and death.  Grandpa escaped Russia the first time when the Cossacks were killing Jews at the turn of the 20th Century. He escaped the second time when the Russian Army was using Jews to clear minefields and provide targets for German machine guns.

So the trip I am taking now will not be anywhere near my grandfather's route, but will take me to the places where racism used to hold sway, but for now civilization has come back.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Missing Nuts

 
Top: Skewers with and without nuts
Above: Vladimir 


I am starting small in the story of my bike trip. Smallest! A missing nut. When I arrived in Belgrade I took the bike out of the box to ride it to my hotel in the city. 
Except I couldn't. Somewhere on the trip the nut on the Skewer fell off and out of the box. The skewer holds the front wheel on. So I put the bike mostly together then got a cab. 
I walked to the nearest bike shop, but it was actually a bike tour company. No parts. But the owner, Vladimir, walked me over to a shop that sold me a new skewer. As we walked we talked about touring.  He has ridden from St. Petersburg to Barcelona!  And he is hoping to join a group riding from Cairo to Cape Town! Wow!
Thanks to Vladimir my front wheel is attached to my bike!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Riding in Fog: Every Sound Grabs My Ears


On the eve of my bicycle trip across Easter Europe, I was thinking about riding in fog. Of all the places I have ridden in the world, the thickest fog I ever rode through was on Mount Tamalpais, just across the bay from San Francisco in Marin County.

I was at a conference in San Francisco. Every morning for four days, I got up at 0530 and rode to the top of Mt. Tam and back. The 50-mile, 3-hour round trip from downtown to the peak began on city streets, then bayshore, then across the Golden Gate, through Sausalito and Marin, then the 11-mile climb up the mountain.

The third morning the legendary San Francisco fog was everywhere. It was thickest on the slopes of Mt. Tam. By five miles up I was starting to think I could grab the fog. Wisps of clouds clung to me. I was soaked. The air felt weirdly thick. I saw ghosts rush past as the white wisps took shape in the air. But the strangest sensation was sound. Since I could barely see two bike lengths in front of me, I heard everything. A chipmunk ran across the road. I would swear I heard his claws grip the pavement. Was that a pine cone dropping on the road? The climb is not steep so I was not breathing hard enough to wipe out other sounds. I felt water drip down my neck as the fog condensed on me. Did I hear it drip off me?

Then the sun blazed everywhere. One moment I could barely see. The next I was on an arid mountain in hot sun drying as I climbed the long grade.  After the next switchback I was facing south, looking where the city should be. San Francisco disappeared under a thick, white quilt of clouds. The piers of the Golden Gate raised their red arms through the fog, as did the radio tower on Mount Bruno. Nothing else was visible.

By the time I got to the top of Mt. Tam, turned around and rode down, the fog was thinner and lower. By the time I was back in the ground-level cloud I could see 100 meters ahead, important at downhill speeds.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Tanks are Symphony of Roars and Rattles


The M60A1 Patton tank that was my home and weapon in Colorado and West Germany was a symphony of sound I could never quite describe in prose, so I tried poetry:


M60A1, Fulda 1976

Growling, howling, eighteen hundred cubic inches
Of diesel engine roars, belches smoke and launches
Fifty-seven tons steel and rubber and flesh across a
German field.

While the engine roars, end connectors grind in the
Sprockets, center guides screech as they scrape
Aluminum road wheels lined with steel. Ammo racks
Rattle, White Phosphorus rounds in the Ready Rack shake.

Torsion bars creak, flexing over rocks and ruts. 
Ratchets, wrenches, track tools, clasps,
Hinges, and locks jangle and ring on the fenders.
Jerry cans clang in their tie downs on side of the turret

Hydraulic motor screams as the commander swings the
Turret over the driver. A cacophony of track blocks,
Bolts, rack handles, the coax ammo box,  
Cupola ammo doors, the tanker bar and Little Joe,

Assails the ears of the crew as they scan the horizon.
Across the fence, squat Soviet T-70s track the
Trundling Pattons as they parade north, roaring,
Rattling and ready to rain ruin in a moment.



Sunday, May 28, 2017

Memorial Day for an Old Soldier

World War I veteran. I'm not THAT old!

This year I am completely out of the Army after all the ambiguous years in which I was over the usual age limit. Now I have been out for a full year and my uniform is just for ceremonies, like honoring the dead.

Since my 18 years of service occurred over a 44-year period, I know a lot of soldiers who have died. I grew up in a neighborhood in which most of the men were World War II veterans, including my father.  I enlisted during the Vietnam War so I served with Korean War veterans who senior sergeants and officers in the 1970s Army.

Many of the senior sergeants and officers I served with after the Vietnam War and during the Cold War in the 70s and 80s have passed away. Most died after retirement. The 70s Army was not as obsessed with safety as the current Army, but that means I can recall a three soldiers I knew who died in training exercises in Europe.

From my Iraq War service, the soldiers I know personally who have died have taken their own lives.  Partly this is because I enlisted late in the war when combat deaths were infrequent compared to the early days of the war, and partly it is demographics: I am older than almost everyone I served with between 2007 and 2016, including the Generals and the Sergeant Majors.

So this weekend, I am thinking of the soldiers I know who served their country and have passed away: the World War II veterans who were the Dads of my childhood friends, the Vietnam and Korean War veterans who were my leaders during my first enlistment, and the Iraq veterans, especially those who suffered invisible wounds that led to them taking their own lives.

It was my honor and privilege to serve with every one of them.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Riding in China: Sprinting Away from a Snake


In July 1999 I made my first trip to China. It was a direct trip to Beijing and back. Between April 1998 and July 2001 I went overseas every month for a job I had as communications manager for a global maker of white pigment named Millennium Chemicals, Inc.

I had a day to myself at the end of the week, so I got a cab ride to a place 30 miles from the Great Wall and rode the rest of the way through the hills north of Beijing on Trek steel road bike.  As I approached the Great Wall, I was on a shaded road that had leaves lying on it--a road not used very often.  Even though there was no traffic, I rode on the right side of the road about a foot from the undergrowth along the tree-lined pavement.

Suddenly, I heard a metallic BANG! and my front wheel jerked left--not enough to flip me, but scary.  I looked down and saw a snake struck my wheel. I saw its body was whipping in the moment I glanced down. Then I looked up and sprinted to the middle of the road. I hammered the pedals for another 100 yards before I looked back. The snake was gone. I kept riding in the middle of that empty road all the way to the Great Wall.

In my travels on five continents, I have seen dead snakes in and along the road, but China is the only place I was hit by a snake.

I got to the Great Wall without further incident. I was riding in mountain bike shoes so I could climb the Wall and see what the soldiers on duty saw as they looked from this huge stone edifice.


Lucky for me, snakes have less mass than cats.  Five years before, I took a ride in an ambulance after a cat jumped from a ditch in southern Lancaster County, hit my front wheel and kept running.  I went over my handlebars and dislocated my right shoulder among other injuries.  

Compared to the cat, the snake was a piece of cake....

Monday, May 22, 2017

Field Guide to Flying Death: A Gun Wrapped with an Airplane


A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog" in flight.


The slowest and most nearly perfect aircraft flown by the U.S. Air Force is the A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog" ground support fighter plane.  This amazing aircraft entered active service during my first Army enlistment in the 1970s and remains in service now--the most beloved of USAF planes by ground troops taking enemy fire.

Most fighter aircraft are designed first to fight other aircraft in air-to-air combat, but they also can support ground troops.  Anyone who has used a carving knife to serve butter, or a butter knife to carve a roast knows that specialized tools work the best.

The Warthog was designed for ground support. Nothing else. It's huge turbofan engines allow it to take off with more than 10 tons of rockets and missiles plus 1,200 rounds of cannon ammo for its legendary gun, but the Warthog has a top speed under 400mph and cruises not a lot faster than a World War II bomber.

The GAU-8/A 30mm Gatling Gun 

The "Hog" was designed to "loiter" over a target, firing its cannon, dropping bombs, launching rockets and missiles, and importantly, flying just above the forward battle area, waiting for observers on the ground to identify targets.

A-10 firing its 7-barrel gun with a firing rate of 70 rounds per second.


High-performance jets from the Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom to the current F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon are supersonic aircraft that drop bombs and fire missiles on a target, but they can't hang around. The Phantom flew so fast that some pilots lowered their landing gear and extended flaps just to slow down over the target.  The Hog can put fire on a target then circle back to the target area waiting for the next opportunity to attack, or to see who survived the first strike.

During the Vietnam War, frustration with Phantoms flying in, attacking and blazing away led to deploying the A-1 Skyraider, taking this big, propellor-driven aircraft out of semi-retirement from Korean War service.  The A-1 and variants carried four 20mm cannons or eight .50 caliber machine guns and could be armed with up to four tons of rockets, bombs and missiles.  Like the Hog, it could loiter. Unlike to the Hog it was not very maneuverable and vulnerable to ground fire.

A-1 Skyraider 

Hog pilots are wrapped in a titanium pod, shielded from small arms and some larger arms.  The twin-engined, twin-tailed Hog can fly with an engine failure and big chunks of the wing and tail shot off.

The Hog was slated to be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II. This Swiss Army Knife aircraft is supposed to do everything. But the F-35 costs more than $200 million each, an A-10 costs a tenth of that.  The A-10 is now scheduled to begin phased retirement in 2022 and remain in service until 2040.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Field Guide to Flying Death: Rockets and Missiles on the Apache Helicopter

Apache Longbow Helicopter 38 rockets and eight Hellfire Missiles under its stub wings.

Death flies in many forms. Two weapons very often confused are rockets and missiles. In the broadest terms, missiles follow a guidance system to their target. Rockets are pointed at the target, fired and follow a ballistic path, gravity and wind resistance, to the target.

A missile is a guided rocket: a rocket is an unguided missile. 

The difference is similar to the difference between smart bombs and dumb bombs.  When released from an aircraft, smart bombs fall to their target but correct their course. Dumb bombs fall and hit wherever their ballistic path takes them. 

A good example o the difference between rockets and missiles is the basic load of the Apache attack helicopter. In all of its various models, the Apache carries both rockets and missiles.  The standard load is 38 rockets, 19 per pod on each side of the aircraft, and eight Hellfire missiles. 

Four Hellfire Missiles and a fully-loaded rocket pod. 

I watched Apaches fire salvos of Hydra 70mm rockets. The pilots point the aircraft at the target and release pairs of rockets, one from each pod, at the target.  The rockets blast from their tube to a speed nearly a half-mile a second, then fly unpowered up to five miles to their target. 

Hellfire missiles were originally designed as tank-buster missiles. They have a dual warhead in the nose with an armor-piercing shaped charge. When fired, it blazes to about 1,000 mph then flies up to five miles locked on the target. If the target moves, the guidance system steers the missile to the target. 

So why would fire rockets when missiles will track a moving target? Cost.  An Apache helicopter with a full load of 38 rockets and eight missiles has a million dollars in munitions hanging on its pylons: $900,000 worth of Hellire missiles at $115,000 each and $100,000 in rockets costing $2,800 each.  A full load of 38 rockets costs less than just one Hellfire missile. 

Rockets are dumb, missiles are smart, but if either one hits, the target is destroyed. 

Everything That Flies is Ballistic

Every flying object from a football to a Saturn V rocket follows a ballistic path through the air as soon as the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand or the rocket burns all of its fuel.  Rockets, missiles, bombs, bullets, and every sort of ball follows a ballistic path once it is thrown, fired, kicked, hit or launched. 

For Americans, the path followed by a long pass in a football game is a beautiful example of a ballistic path.  The thrown ball leaves the quarterback’s hands at about thirty degrees and climbs rapidly in a nearly straight path to its maximum height. After it reaches maximum height, the spinning football drops rapidly into the arms of the running receiver.

Rockets, missiles bullets and bombs follow the same path with a higher starting speed.  Until the advent of cruise missiles, the term ballistic missile was redundant.  The fuel burned in seconds and from then on, the missile was on a ballistic path all the way to its target. 

Cruise missiles are jet planes with one high-explosive passenger in Seat 1A.


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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Field Guide to Flying Death: Artillery

M198 Howitzer, 155mm. The 90-pound projectile jumps from the gun 
at nearly a half-mile per second. It can hit a target 18 miles away in less than a minute.

With so many wars either ramping up or about to begin, I decided to write about all the many, many projectiles that I have fired, I have seen fired, or have been fired at me.  My first post will be about artillery, then I will talk about bombs, bullets, ballistic missiles and guided missiles. I will also talk about how the various forms of flying death start their flights, whether from a gun, an airplane, a submarine or a ship.

Artillery comes in many shapes and sizes, but the M198 is typical. It fires a 90-pound shell anywhere from direct-fire right in front of the gun to nearly 20 miles away. A good crew can fire two rounds per minute for hours or up to four rounds in a minute for a short period. The most common round is HE, High Explosive: 90 pounds of detonator, explosive and a case designed to break into sharp fragments.  The round leaves the gun at more than 2,200-feet-per-second or almost a half-mile per second. The shell can fly to a target 18 miles away in less than 45 seconds.  The kill radius of the blast is 50 meters, the casualty radius is 100 meters.

Drop a 155mm shell from an M198 on a football field in the middle of the fifty-yard line and both teams including the coaches and players on the bench, the camera crews, the refs and everyone with midfield seats near the field will die. Injuries from shrapnel and blast will maim hundreds more in the stands and blow all the windows out of the fancy skyboxes.

But the most important specification is the price.  A brand new howitzer costs just over a half-million dollars.  High explosive rounds cost about $500 each.  So a million bucks buys a brand-new howitzer and a thousand rounds of ammo.

Relative to guided missiles, artillery is cheap and deadly. Dictators on a budget who cannot afford aircraft and high-tech missiles can buy lots of artillery.

And they do.

This cheap, traditional weapon is the key to why the malignant lunatic leader of North Korea holds the civilized world right by the short hairs. Kim Jong Un has thousands of artillery pieces and rocket launchers pointed at Seoul, the capital of South Korea.  If we attack North Korea, his guns start firing at Seoul.  More than 20 million people live in the Seoul metropolitan area and tens of thousands of Americans are also in range of those guns.

Unlike long range missiles and aircraft, there is nothing that can stop an artillery shell in flight. And there is no effect early warning system.  If North Korea starts firing artillery at Seoul the first salvo of shells and missiles will hit in one minute after the command to fire.  Crowded streets, markets, tall glass buildings, apartment complexes, and stadiums are perfect artillery targets.

When armies want to stop artillery, they have to find a way to blow up the enemy guns. Guns can be attacked by aircraft and by artillery, called counter battery fire. But there are too many North Korean guns.  Even if we win a war against North Korea, Seoul would be rubble.

Although accuracy hardly matters when firing artillery against civilians on streets and in glass buildings, modern guns are very accurate.  A well-trained crew will put their first round they fire within the 50-meters of the target at a distance of 20 miles. With a good observer guiding the crew, the next round could hit a golf cart.

Artillery is cheap, effective, mobile and terrible.



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Riding at Breakneck Speed, Literally, Almost Ended my Re-enlistment


As in this crash, no one was hurt but me in my big crash.

On May 9, 2007, at about 5 p.m., I started down Turkey Hill on River Road in Lancaster County with eleven other riders.  I hit 51 mph near the middle of the ¾-mile hill, then I hit another rider. It was more than a half-hour later that I reached the bottom of the hill, being carried on a stretcher heading for a MEDEVAC helicopter.

In seconds, my chances of re-enlisting in the Army at 54 years old went from good to gruesome.  Although I can remember nothing from five minutes before the accident until almost five months after, I could read a medical report when I was discharged form the hospital more than a week later.  I had broken нине bones, the worst was a smashed C7 vertebra that the neurosurgeon on call scraped out and replaced with a cadaver bone and a titanium plate. 

In addition to the smashed C7, I cracked C2, broke four ribs, my right collarbone and shoulder blade and my nose.  The worst obvious injury was my forehead peeled up at my eyebrows.  I got plastic surgery the same day. Neck surgery the next day. 

I was in a neck and chest brace until August 2, but I started walking as soon as I got out of the hospital and started running in June.  I was convinced I could still get back in the Army as long as that waiver took three months. 


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I flew in the chase bird on a few MEDEVAC missions in Iraq. Ten years ago, I was the on the back board and the cause of the MEDEVAC mission.