Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Modest Proposal

The fuss over the...umm, unavailability of services from the KDCA tower one evening last week seems to continue unabated. Oh, what to do? At present we appear to be headed toward assigning two controllers on the midnight shift whose primary responsibility will be to keep each other awake while nothing else happens for hours.

A look at the data for KDCA for last night (courtesy of FlightAware.com) is presumably typical, and revelatory. From 11:30 PM to 6:30 AM local time, there were a grand total of four arrivals:

AWI3650 CRJ2 KCMH Wed 06:23 EDT
AAL1900 B738 KDFW Wed 01:00 EDT
AAL1012 B738 KMIA Wed 00:33 EDT
AWI3789 CRJ2 KPHL Wed 00:16 EDT
DAL1438 A320 KATL Wed 00:16 EDT
AAL532  B738 KORD Tue 23:41 EDT
UAL628  A320 KORD Tue 23:36 EDT
Of course, with the curfew in effect there were no departures during that period. We have two valuable FAA employees in the tower to manage four airplanes. This makes no sense at all.

The solution is simple. Close the tower from midnight to 06:00 AM local time! It's not like they're doing anything useful. The control tower's job is to ensure sequencing and separation on the runway when traffic levels rise to a point where alternate means of separation are not acceptable. When the airport is busy, local control from the tower is essential. When the airport is deathly quiet, the tower is absolutely unnecessary.

I "grew up" in aviation flying into and out of Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR) in Stratford, CT. KBDR is a towered airport and the tower is closed from 0300Z until 1130Z the next morning. Arriving aircraft are handled by New York Approach, and released to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) where they announce their positions and intentions. It all works; nothing unusual about it.

Sarah and her friends at Potomac Consolidated TRACON (PCT, aka "Potomac Approach") are entirely capable of keeping KDCA out of trouble in the wee hours of the morning. PCT will clear one airplane at a time into the airport, and put any succeeding aircraft into a hold until the landing aircraft cancels IFR or reports itself on the ground. No problem!

From the pilot's perspective, operating into a non-towered airport in a low traffic environment is straightforward. In fact, as long as the situation is normal and expected, it may be safer than a towered field with a single sleepy controller.

To sum up:

  • The tower's only function is to provide separation on the runway.
  • In periods of very low traffic, TRACON is equipped to discharge that responsibility.
  • The pilots just won't care.
  • Ergo, closing the KDCA tower from 2400 to 0600 local time is perfectly reasonable.
"But, wait!" (someone cries), "What about SECURITY!!"

Oh, come on. Think about it. The control tower has no meaningful role to play in the security aspects of the DC airspace. By the time an aircraft is told to "contact tower", there is no security issue. The integrity of the SFRA, the FRZ and the several Prohibited areas are in the hands of Potomac Approach. And they deal with that nonsense as well as any organization could.

So, Scott, how about it? Would a recommendation to close the KDCA tower in the wee hours fly?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Belated Happy Birthday

In the previous post, I ought to have noted that the flight I was describing occurred on an auspicious anniversary. Exactly 34 years earlier, on 18 March 1977, Cessna production test pilot Jim Ballard took off from Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport for a 1.3 hour flight in a brand new 182. It was N631S's maiden flight.

For an airplane of a certain age, I think 31 Sierra is holding up rather well!

The weather forecast for tomorrow morning looks good for a flight from KVKX up to KBDR in Connecticut, departing about 12Z. The Terminal Area Forecasts look like this:

KDCA 271723Z 2718/2818 35008KT P6SM FEW050 BKN080 
     FM272100 32007KT P6SM SCT060 
     FM280000 VRB04KT P6SM SCT060 SCT250 
     FM280600 35008KT P6SM SCT150 BKN250 
     FM281600 32008G15KT P6SM SCT150
KBDR 271722Z 2718/2818 30012G18KT P6SM FEW250 
     FM272300 31009KT P6SM FEW250 
     FM281200 32012G18KT P6SM FEW250 
     FM281700 32014G22KT P6SM FEW250
The high clouds will make low temperatures aloft irrelevant and the gusty breezes at KBDR won't be too far off the centerline of Runway 29. FltPlan.com is telling me to expect 1 hour + 54 minutes en route.

...and from the "nobody-asked-me-but..." department: You have to wonder what it is that the non-flying public thinks control towers are for! After last week's admittedly unfortunate "sleepy controller" incident at KDCA, many of the press reports seemed amazed that two commercial flights were able somehow to land without "help" from the tower. And today's Detroit News published an article under this breathless headline: Some Michigan airports leave towers unmanned overnight. Amazing!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Friday's flight from KBDR to KVKX was not a great example of the joy of aviation. For the first couple of hours of the 2.8 hour trip N631S and I got to experience strong headwinds and fairly continuous light turbulence. Nothing nasty, just tedious and uncomfortable.

The wind field forecast by XM Weather on the Garmin GPSmap 396 for 9,000 feet (left) showed about 50 knots pretty much right on the nose. At our assigned altitude of 8,000 feet it was a bit better, but I was still getting a ground speed about 45 knots less than N631S's true airspeed.

A few minutes after snapping that screenshot this conversation occurred on New York Approach's frequency:

FlightStar 36: Approach, FlightStar 36 would like to descend to 6,000 to get out of this scattered layer. It's pretty bumpy in here.
Approach: FlightStar 36, descend and maintain 6,000.
FlightStar 36: FlightStar 36, down to 6,000. Thanks.
N631S: Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra.
Approach: 631 Sierra, go ahead.
N631S: Any chance of 31 Sierra getting 6,000 too?
Approach: Noooo. Not 'til you get down near Solberg. Will that be what you're looking for?
N631S: Actually, 31 Sierra would like direct LANNA and a descent to 6,000 as soon as those will work for you.
Approach: Well, you can go direct LANNA from there. Join Victor 30 and I'll get lower for you when I can.
N631S: 31 Sierra direct LANNA. Thank you sir.

The early turn to the south toward LANNA intersection pointed me toward lower wind speeds, and after only about 10 miles Approach gave me a descent to 7,000 feet and a few miles later to 6,000 feet. At that altitude the ride was a bit better and I picked up 8 or 10 knots ground speed.

Later as we approached Potomac Airfield from the east shortly before sunset, the combination of sun glare and haze made visibility a real challenge. The final controller had descended me to 2,000 feet and turned me toward the airport, asking that I report the field in sight. I did so, and received clearance for the visual approach to KVKX with the usual option to cancel IFR in the air then, or to wait until I was on the ground.

Now, I just about always cancel in the air. But this time I didn't - not right away. If any of my friends from the Mt. Vernon Sector of PCT are reading this, I'd like to offer a few words of explanation.

When I reported the field in sight, I wasn't fibbing. I could see prominent features that I know are associated with the airport. But with the challenging visibility I didn't feel certain that I'd be able to keep the field in sight. Landing was not, as they say, assured so I chose to stay in the system.

But as I descended below the floor of the Class Bravo airspace, to about 1,400 feet, I passed below the base of the haze layer. In seconds, visibility about doubled. I went back over to Approach frequency and cancelled IFR.

And that's the answer, if you were thinking, "What the %#!! is he doing?"

When I left Connecticut on Friday I thought the weather forecast for Monday looked quite promising for a return flight. As of now (Sunday afternoon) it isn't so hot. A fast moving low pressure system will be sweeping across the northeast early on the first full day of spring, bringing clouds, light rain and low freezing levels. So I'll be with AmTrak tomorrow morning and will be happy when we finally get back to consistently warm weather aloft.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Henry 3/15/1995 - 3/16/2011

Henry, a bichon frisé of unusual coloration, went West last evening. He was 16 years old. At the end, he left us peacefully, held in the arms of someone he loved and trusted.

Henry owed his non-standard fur color to a quirk of genetics but he had a full measure of the haughty attitude common to his breed. In his prime, he considered it to be his job to provide security services and intruder alerts for the Van Haste household and he pursued these tasks with zeal.

He had a long life by the standards of his species and it was full of canine satisfactions. His last years were of good quality and his final illness lasted just a few days. Henry is survived by his "pack", Rich, Pat and Frank, who are left now with a treasury of memories and a feeling of something missing from our lives that will persist for some time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Warming of the Sky

'Tis the season. We who fly in the Northeast look forward each year to the time, in the progression of the seasons, when the normal IFR altitudes - from 5,000 feet MSL to 9,000 feet MSL - are, on a more than occasional basis, above freezing.

The clip at left is the NAM forecast for 00Z20110319 (a.k.a. 8 PM Friday the 18th). The cold front is draped across southern Connecticut and, I expect, showers and clouds can be expected. A month ago, contemplating a Friday afternoon departure from KBDR, I'd have already been making AMTRAK reservations.
But here, at left, is the evidence of the changing season. Dare we hope, the advent of Spring? It shows the locations of the isotherms at about 9,000 feet MSL at 00Z - the same time as the clip above.

As I'll be departing a few hours before the depicted time, I conclude that I'll be able to get up to 8,000 feet (in the shmoo or not, I don't care), where ATC wants me for the routing west from KBDR to Sparta thence Allentown thence Lancaster and ultimately home. I anticipate a nice IFR departure from Connecticut and then progressively improving conditions as I make my way to the south toward the DC area. And, if I can get wheels up early enough, perhaps a landing at KVKX before the fall night.

The coming of Spring is an aviator's delight!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review: "Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War" by Robert Coram

John R. Boyd was a genius. He was also profane, obnoxious, arrogant, uncouth, insensitive and monomaniacal. He repeatedly developed revolutionary insights that were transformative in their fields. He also put his wife and children through sheer hell.

He wore the uniform of the United States Air Force for twenty-four years and became, in some ways, the Air Force's worst nightmare. But he is most honored - almost venerated - by the United States Marine Corps. It is difficult to understand Boyd's work in all of its complexity and interdependency, and it is virtually impossible to understand the man. But in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Robert Coram makes a worthy effort and the result is a book that is essential for anyone seeking to understand the modern US military.

John Boyd was born in 1927 and grew up in Erie, PA, in a single parent home. His father died when John was very young, leaving his mother with very limited resources to care for five children including one with major health issues.

After high school he enlisted in the Army, and then attended the University of Iowa where he majored in economics and participated in the ROTC program. Upon graduation he entered the Air Force and was trained as a pilot. He went to Korea where he flew the F-86 Sabre for a few combat missions but he never had the chance there to engage the enemy in air-to-air combat.

But all agreed that John Boyd excelled as a fighter pilot. In the 1950's, USAF fighter squadrons sent their best pilots to the Fighter Weapons School (FWS) at Nellis AFB in Nevada. John Boyd went to FWS and found himself in his element.

After honing the skills of the best pilots, FWS would retain the best of the best as instructor pilots. John Boyd stayed at Nellis to instruct and soon the legend of "Forty-Second Boyd" was born. The legend began, as the author tells it, because many of the students arriving at Nellis were already quite impressed with themselves. It is an occasional pedagogic necessity to demonstrate to a student that he really isn't as good as he thinks he is. Boyd did it with flair.

The North American F-100 Super Sabre was an unforgiving airplane. John Boyd loved it. He loved pushing it into corners of its performance envelope that no sensible pilot sought out. He could make the "Hun" dance. He would bet any pilot $20 that he could let him set up at his six o'clock position within gun range, and that within 40 seconds of "Fight's on!", he'd have their positions reversed.

He never lost the bet.

While he was instructing at FWS and "pushing the envelope" in the F-100, Boyd was continually refining his understanding of aerial combat. He used his experiences in simulated air combat with the students to refine his theories and used his theoretical concepts to bring his techniques to the highest levels. When it was time for him to move on, he knew he'd have to write a manual on air-to-air tactics.

The author describes how Boyd, working on his own time, created his manual and then forced it, at considerable risk to his career, on an establishment that wanted only to shelve it. His Aerial Attack Study became a fighter pilot's bible. After its initial grudging acceptance of his work, the USAF finally realized its value and awarded him the Legion of Merit in recognition of the "first instance in the history of fighter aviation in which tactics have been reduced to an objective state." His commendation said that he was "undisputed master in the area of aerial combat."

The Aerial Attack Study was the sort of achievement that crowns a career. John Boyd was just getting started.

Boyd desperately wanted to make rigorous analyses of the combat capabilities of fighter aircraft. And he wanted those analyses to be mathematically bullet-proof and credible. To those ends, he needed further education in engineering so he manipulated the Air Force system to get it. He went to Georgia Tech for a second bachelor's degree, this time in Industrial Engineering. The author follows Boyd through this process, observing that he kept a focus on aircraft performance throughout his engineering course work. He was looking for a breakthrough in understanding and he found it in thermodynamics class.

Thermo came hard to Boyd...it's hard for most people. But when insight came on the interplay of energy and entropy in closed systems, it brought with it the tools he needed for his second major achievement. He called it "Energy-Maneuverability Theory."

Fighter pilots have always known that the "high ground" in aerial combat lay in having speed and/or altitude advantages over your opponent. John Boyd reduced that instinctive knowledge to rigorous mathematical formulae, derivable for any aircraft in any energy state, and most critically, to an ability to chart the comparative capabilities of any pair of aircraft. He gave pilots the tools needed to understand what parts of their airplane's performance envelope were advantageous against a likely adversary, and what portions were disadvantageous...or even suicidal.

Below, as an example, is an E-M diagram for a Mig-21. It is a simple matter to overlay upon it a comparable diagram for an F-4E Phantom II. From this, the F-4 driver can understand how to best engage an enemy flying the Mig-21. With this work, John Boyd saved lives.

Boyd took his early E-M work back to Eglin AFB and proceeded to plot the performance envelopes of every fighter aircraft in the USAF inventory, as well as those of adversary aircraft. He did this "off the side of his desk," as it was not an authorized project. It required immense amounts of computer time. John Boyd stole the data processing hours.

Author Robert Coram describes well, how word of Boyd's E-M work trickled through USAF networks until the General who ran Tactical Air Command (TAC) heard of it and asked to be "briefed." As it happens, the Briefing is an art form in the military and John Boyd was a master of the art. The TAC commander's staff gave him 20 minutes...and the briefing wound up consuming nearly two days. The TAC boss, Gen. Walt Sweeney, was convinced, and that led to then-Maj. John Boyd's ideas being heard throughout the Air Force.

These events occurred in the mid-1960's, as the Air Force's activities in Southeast Asia were heating up. F-4's and F-105's were encountering Mig-19's and Mig-21's and the outcomes were not gratifying. Boyd was summoned to the Pentagon where he used his E-M diagrams to show that those big, fast, unwieldy airplanes were dog meat in a turning fight with the more agile Mig's. It would be only a matter of time before John R. Boyd would be at the Pentagon, working the problem. It remained unclear whether the Air Force could deal with that.

The author chronicles an eventful decade, from the mid-1960's to 1975 when Boyd was instrumental in transforming the nature of the Air Force. With remarkable bureaucratic in-fighting skill backed up by technical credibility (derived from E-M analyses) he transformed the F-X program. That design, which began as a bloated, unwieldy multi-role F-111 successor, became the F-15 Eagle, the world's best air superiority fighter for three decades. Then, disillusioned by the "gold plating" of the F-15 design, he energized a "Lightweight Fighter" program that began as a bootleg design "study" and ultimately produced the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Along the way, his office produced the data that terminated the B-1A bomber program and provided critical support to the A-10 close support aircraft - another successful airplane the Air Force did not want.

Of course, John Boyd did not work alone. He had the ability to attract and inspire other crusaders. Boyd, it would seem, did not have friends. He had apostles; followers who referred to themselves as "the Acolytes". To enter Boyd's inner circle was a nearly spiritual act, a conversion. Men such as Pierre Sprey, Chuck Spinney and Col. Mike Wyly were powers in their own rights, but they orbited about John Boyd.

At the mid-point of this turbulent decade, Boyd left the Pentagon for a one year combat assignment. The war in Southeast Asia was still hot and he was assigned to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai AFB (also known as NKP or occasionally, "Naked Fanny"). NKP was on the "dark" side of the war, home to special ops units, Combat Search and Rescue squadrons, Forward Air Controllers and classified Intelligence and Electronic Warfare groups.

Boyd came to NKP as Vice Commander of the project responsible for "bugging" the Ho Chi Minh trail. Later, he became NKP's Base Commander (the "landlord" for all resident units). Coram tells how he excelled in each role, garnering superb evaluations from his superiors.

While at NKP, Col. Boyd never missed an opportunity to travel to bases where the F-4 Phantom drivers worked, to brief them on the E-M data for their aircraft as compared to their likely adversaries, especially the Mig-21. A number of F-4 pilots owed their lives to these briefings.

John Boyd had a great deal of time to think while he was at NKP a half-world away from the Pentagon (and his family). Much of his thinking focused on ideation, creativity and theories of problem-solving. He formulated ideas that would provide the intellectual basis for the final act of his professional life. He began to see that destruction was a pre-requisite for creation.

Boyd returned to the Pentagon after his tour at NKP ended. He evaluated the B-1A program (fatally), and monitored the Lightweight Fighter program's prototype competitive fly-off that pitted the General Dynamics YF-16 against the Northrop YF-17. All of Boyd's E-M data and analysis seemed to indicate a close win for the YF-16.

He was right...the YF-16 won. But he was wrong...it wasn't close. Nowhere near it. The fighter pilots who flew both airplanes loved the YF-16 and considered it vastly superior to the YF-17. E-M theory did not account for this. The difference, it emerged, lay in the YF-16's agility, its quickness. It could transition from one maneuver to the next much faster than any other airplane. Boyd called these transitions "fast transients." He filed this away with his thinking on Creation and Destruction, for future use.

On 25 June 1975 the Secretary of the Air Force presented the service's most prestigious scientific award, the Harold Brown Award, to Col. John R. Boyd, acknowledging the role of E-M theory in the design of both the F-15 and the F-16. E-M gave the Air Force the means to "forge a superior fighter force in the decades ahead."

On 31 August 1975, after 24 years of service, Col. John R. Boyd retired. It was time for the third phase.

Almost a year to the day after his retirement, Boyd released
Destruction and Creation. An extraordinarily dense eight-or-so pages, it weaves concepts from Gödel and Heisenberg with the Second Law of Thermodynamics to offer a theoretical underpinning for the analysis/synthesis sequence of creativity. The paper is the only formal written document John Boyd ever created aside from Air Force technical publications. It is the starting point for all of his subsequent work.

With the issuance of "Creation and Destruction," Boyd set about understanding the "fast transients" phenomenon in its context. He went back to his beginnings, to the F-86 Sabre in Korea. It was easy to argue that the Mig-15 was the better airplane. E-M analysis suggested that they were closely matched. So why did the Sabre rack up a 14:1 kill ratio? Were our pilots really that much better? Boyd focused on the fact that the F-86 had hydraulically actuated flight controls while the Mig relied on cables and bell cranks. As a result, the Sabre could be flown with a much higher maneuvering tempo. It was agile, it was quick, and it was deadly. The Sabre pilot was quickly one or two steps ahead of the Mig pilot. He was operating inside the Mig pilot's time scale. (Sadly, 15 years later in the case of the F-4 and F-105 vs. the Mig-21, the situation was reversed.)

Boyd looked for other historic examples where operational tempo was decisive. He found Heinz Guderian's blitzkrieg attacks in 1940 and the Israeli commandos' raid at Entebbe to be instructive. He absorbed and built on Sun Tzu's Art of War and he read and found fault with Clausewitz.

He distilled all of this into a masterful briefing he called Patterns of Conflict.

The briefing, Boyd's Meisterstück, introduces us to the concept of the OODA Loop. This is John Boyd's best known legacy and it is, unfortunately, often mis-interpreted. OODA is an acronym for "Observe - Orient - Decide - Act." Every operator must cycle through an OODA loop, and the victor will be the one who can function inside the time-scale of his opponent's OODA loop. Many conclude that you have to be faster than your opponent. That is simplistic. In fact, Boyd teaches that you must be more "intellectually agile" than your adversary. (N.B.: The present writer's recent reading of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs gave the distinct impression that Grant "got it", a century before John Boyd codified it.)

Boyd had expanded his world-view to include ground warfare. This did not particularly interest the Air Force, as every academic study of the theories of warfare concluded that air power was subordinate to and properly in the service of ground forces. Boyd was in need of a new audience. He got one.

In 1980, Lt. Col. Mike Wyly invited Col. John Boyd to brief his class at the USMC's Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, VA. And the rest, as they say, is history. Author Coram describes how Boyd's theories of warfare propagated from this starting point, enveloping the Marine Corps and penetrating the Army. A decade later when Gulf War I was fought, John Boyd's ideas were dominant. Describing how the coalition forces had completely befuddled the Iraqi army, Marine BGen. Richard Neal said "We kind of got inside his decision cycle."

John Boyd had won his war.

Col. John R. Boyd, USAF (Ret'd) succumbed to cancer and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At his memorial service on 20 March 1997 the Air force was under-represented. The Marines were present in force. A Marine Colonel placed the Eagle, Globe and Anchor next to the urn containing John Boyd's ashes. That, a remarkable act in the context of Corps tradition, says it all.

How do you sum up John Boyd? Author Robert Coram quotes his advice to a junior officer - one of the very, very few quotable passages that he ever produced - as follows:

"Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road. And you're going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something - something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.

To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?"

Col. John R. Boyd chose to do something and we are eternally in his debt.

Here is a video recording of John Boyd doing Q&A at the end of a brief. The video is of poor quality but the audio is good. The aggregate length of the four videos is 32:23.