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We Did It, Let's Quit!

bob7947

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Last week, I posted an article on the Wifcon Forum in which Dr. Mark J. Lewis, the Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Modernization provided some thoughts about defense projects.  The article was entitled Risk Aversion Impedes Hypersonics Development.  Within the article was a 44- minute video that includes, in part, his discussion of the race for hypersonic weapons systems.  I listened to the video and found it interesting.  The article itself started with this quote:

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Speeding ahead with the development of hypersonic weapons, both offensive and defensive, will require the Defense Department to look back to the 1960s — a time when it was far less risk-averse than it is now . . .

* * * * *

We need to be less risk-averse. And that doesn't mean we seek to maximize risk. But it also means we're not afraid to take risks, or we're not afraid to fail, as long as they're what I term noble failures . . .

I lived through the 1960s and I'm in no hurry to go back there.  What did Dr. Lewis mean?  In so many words he was saying, being the fallible humans that we are, expect failures as we push the current envelope of technology.  It's hard moving forward into something new.  He mentioned two types of failures, the first one he called a noble failure.  Think about it.  We do our homework, test, and something unexpected happens.  From that failure, learn from it, and move forward with the program.  The second type of failure is one that is caused by a stupid mistake and you don't learn much, if anything, from it.  He also noted that since we must expect failures, we must have the resources to test, correct, and move the system forward. 

As an example of having available resources for testing, he mentioned the X-15 research vehicle that had 199 test flights in the 1950s and 1960s.  The X-15 was dropped from a B-52, its small rocket engine was ignited for a little over a minute so it could reach space.  It would then glide to earth and land on its skis.  He contrasted that to DoD's X-51 program that had 4 test flights planned from 2010 through 2013.  In short, looking back to the 1960s means that you learn from testing if you plan for enough tests.  I agree.

I took Dr. Lewis's advice and went back to the 1960s and looked on my own.  In truth, I've been looking at the 1960s for some time.   Here is an excerpt from Dr. Lewis's article that caught my attention.  About hypersonic weapons, he said.

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The speed, maneuverability, and trajectories of hypersonic weapons will give whomever masters them first an advantage, Lewis said. A hypersonic weapon traveling at Mach 5, faster than around 3,800 miles per hour, he said, presents challenges to adversaries. 

* * * * *

But developing and delivering a hypersonic cruise missile or a hypersonic boost/glide system will take some time, he said. He said he expects the department to be able to deliver whatever systems are determined to be most useful "at scale" sometime around the mid-2020s

If DoD and Dr. Lewis believe hypersonic weapons are important to develop again and field again, then do it with adequate testing and resources.  But what if we already tested such a system in a real operational airplane, in less than 5 years, over 60 years ago.  Here is an excerpt from Clarence  L "Kelly" Johnson's book, KELLEY, More than My Share of it All.  He was writing about the Air Force's YF-12A, first flown in 1963, which is a derivative of the CIA's A-12, first flown in 1962.  The YF-12A was being tested to drop missiles from its bomb-bay doors.  Now compare the numbers in the quote below to those in Dr. Lewis's above quote.

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Launched from the airplane at well above Mach 3  [about 2,100 mph], and accelerating on its own at another Mach 4, the missile was speeding hypersonically at Mach 7 at the peak of its course.  We fired at target drones at altitudes ranging from sea level to more than 100,000 feet, and hit targets more than 140 miles away.  We proved we could hit targets over ocean or over land.

* * * * *

Our success rate was better than 90 percent hits.

Although the YF-12A was sending hypersonic missiles at targets successfully in 1963, we now are hoping to do it in 2025.  That's over 60 years after we first did it.  What happened?  Well, the YF-12A program was killed by Robert Strange McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, who is infamous for his efforts in Southeast Asia.  Accoding to Kelley Johnson, McNamara said:

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. . . no need existed for such a high-performance airplane, that our potential enemies did not have anything comparable, and that an airplane couldn't hit a target going that fast anyway.

McNamara was working in the moment and had no vision of the future.  Although Congress appropriated money for the YF-12A program for three successive years, McNamara refused to use our technological advantage with hypersonic systems and move forward with it.  Before the program was killed, there were 3 YF-12A's built but only one exists today at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.  Here it is.  

Now, let me take you and Dr. Lewis back to the 1960s and design, develop, and field real airplanes and beat his 5-year window.  Let's start at the beginning of 1960 when the A-12 contract was signed by Kelly Johnson and the CIA.  In April 1962, 2 1/2 years later, the A-12 was on its first flight.  The YF-12A was an A-12 derivative that the Air Force and Kelly Johnson converted to an interceptor.  It's first flight was in August 1963.  The SR-71, another A-12 derivative, built by Kelly Johnson and the Air Force, had its first flight in November 1964--less than 5 years after the award of the A-12 contract.  Let's slip back into the mid 1950s for a moment and the U-2.  Kelly Johnson built the U-2 in 8 months.  You've caught on--Kelly Johnson was an absolute aviation genius and his U-2, A-12, YF-12A, and SR-71 were incredible operational airplanes.  The A-12, YF-12A, and SR-71 were all Mach 3.2 airplanes.  They didn't reach Mach 3.2 with afterburners for a few minutes.  They cruised at that speed for hours.  By the way, the U-2 is still flying and Lockheed is still selling it--about 65 years after its first flight.  

If Dr. Lewis wants to go back to the 1960s for ideas on how to field real airpalnes quickly, he's going to have to go back and resurrect Kelly Johnson.   

Let's take one last brief trip back to the 1960s.  How about July 20, 1969 as the United States was landing humans on the Moon.  A few years later, that program was ended as a result of budget cuts.  After the Moon landing, I went to my Summer job in the factory that I worked at during my college years.  I expected to see happy faces and hear loud talk about our country's great achievement.  As I approached my workspace on the factory floor, I heard grumbling from the workers.  It was depressing, I was ready for Mars and theses guys were still dreaming about P-38s--which, of course, Kelly Johnson helped to build.  All I heard from the workers was something like:  we did it, let's quit.

I agree with much of what Dr. Lewis says but he stated the obvious.  However, more is needed.  We built technology to down enemy aircraft with hypersonic missiles in 1963 but that achievement was squandered by a politiical appointee who couldn't see past his green eyeshades when he terminated the YF-12A.  Now, nearly 60 years later, we're competing with China and Russia in a race to build hypersonic weapons.  Did we take a technology break so the rest of Earth could catch-up?

We landed humans on the moon in 1969, politicians terminated the program to save money, and we are now among several nations hoping to land on the moon--50 years after the United States did it before.  Did we take a success break?

If we achieve something truly remarkable and important this year, how do we know our politicians and political appointees will recognize its importance and build on the achievement.  Or, will they decide that we did it, let's quit.



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Wonderful analysis and story,  Bob. I once read an article where it was said that we couldn’t recreate a Saturn V rocket and deploy it without re-engineering it because the original design documentation had been destroyed. There are, of course, some Original examples still in existence. Once upon a time, my neighbor in Hartford, WS was a design engineer at the Chrysler Outboard factory down the street. He told me that he quit to go to work at Harley Davidson because all Chrysler did was to buy Johnson, Evinrude and Mercury outboards and reverse engineer them.

Too bad that those “guys” are now all retired and possibly dead. Most all of the Saturn program designers and technicians are, including my ex-father-in-law. 😁

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Joel:

With the success of the prototype YF-12As (I know I referred to them as operational), the Air Force ordered 93 F-12Bs which would have been the production run of the YF-12A.  As I wrote, Robert Strange McNamara failed to release funding for the production run although it was appropriated.  Here is a quote from the Kelly book.

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We retained [Lockheed] the tooling for three years, but then were ordered to scrap it--which we did at 7 1/2 cents per pound.

Do me a favor.  If anyone you know refers to McNamara in a conversation, make sure that you use his full name.  

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Bob, my father worked in the X-15 engine so I'm tickled to hear the anecdote. Thanks for that.

But I have to take issue with your assertion that it was one man (Kelly Johnson) who made it all happen. Truly, he was a great designer and leader, but there were other factors that permitted the Skunk Works to work so efficiently. First and foremost, it was an isolated team, protected from bureaucratic interference. It was a lean team as well. Everybody knew each other and they operated as one team.

Another factor worth considering was governmental oversight. There wasn't very much at the time; the government customer(s) trusted Kelly and his team to get the job done, and they delivered time and time again. There was a true partnership between government and contractor, which is something that rarely happens any more.

Finally, let's discuss security. The more security the government put on the Skunk Works' projects, the harder it got to deliver them. Ben Rich (who succeeded Kelly) wrote in his memoir about the "Have Blue" (F-117A) project:

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"Ben," Kelly warned me, "the security they're sticking onto this thing will kill you. It will increase your costs twenty-five percent and lower your efficiency to the point where you won't get any work done. The restrictions will eat you alive. Make them reclassify this thing or drop it." On matters like that, Kelly was seldom wrong.

  The government felt that adding more security created an opportunity for reduced bureaucracy and oversight. In that same memoir, General Larry Welch (former USAF Chief of Staff) is quoted as follows:

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The management approach we developed was unique and marvelous. Once a month, I'd meet with Dr. Perry at the Pentagon and inform him about decisions we required from him as Undersecretary of Defense. Sometimes he agreed, sometimes not, but we never had delays or time wasted with goddam useless meetings. Because we were so highly classified, the bureaucracy was cut and that made a tremendous difference. Frankly, that was a damned gutsy way to operate inside the Pentagon, but the reason we could afford to be so gutsy was our abiding faith in the Skunk Works.

Look at what worked. It wasn't necessarily one man that created the difference. It was one team and a partnership between government and contractor. I think one might plausibly argue that it was that same partnership, that shared vision, that led to the success of the Apollo program. At least, that's my take.

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Yes sir!  Indeed, Robert STRANGE  McNamara hugely impacted history.

I would agree with those that  said that a force of YF-12’s as USAF Air Defense Command Interceptors would have been prohibitively expensive to operate and maintain and operationally impractical due to the complexity of the plane, the crew having to don and wear what amounted to space suits, the resources and time involved in launching the planes, etc.

I was at the Air Force Academy at the time. We were taught a lot of information about capabilities, limitations of the Air Force, including Air Defense operations, enemy capabilities, strategic war scenarios, etc.  One must put that timeframe into more perspective.

At the time, the Air Force was very strapped for funding and had higher priorities than more advanced defense against enemy bombers, which were mostly propeller driven “Bear” aircraft. ADC was shutting down radar sites and bases and consolidating their command and control centers, shifting to satellite detection systems, etc. We had F 106’s as the prime Interceptor fleet with some F-101 sites.

Viet Nam and NATO were sucking up most of the total Air Force and DOD budget along with with the Strategic Air Command missile and bomber resources, nuclear submarines, etc.

Defense Interceptors would have to be capable of quickly launching and perhaps relocating ASAP if there had been a missle launch.  Air Force bases were listed targets. Many ADC aircraft sites were co-located at B52 and other SAC bases. An SR 71 or F12 couldn’t operate out of just any conventional, alternate airfield for survivability between missile attacks and Arrival of Soviet Bombers.

SAC was so strapped for cash that many base support organizations didn’t have sufficient funds to effectively operate. Our snow removal fleet barely limped along throughout the long Upper Michigan winters with lack of spare parts - we had hangar queen snowplows and big blower trucks that were stripped down to the cabs and frames each year and had to be completely rebuilt - we couldn’t afford to scrap them because there would have been no replacements. The Bomb Squadrons even had a couple of Hangar queen B-52’s! SAC facilities, which were already essentially basic concrete block buildings didn’t get maintained, military housing was in the same boat. Then there was the energy crisis with skyrocketing energy prices. Priorities shifted to save and convert energy sources. I discovered that Redstone Arsenal, for example, covered many of their brick and block buildings with insulated, corregated metal sheeting in the 70’s to save energy.

We often have a perspective from the Reagan years, starting in 1980. He literally spent the Soviets into near bankruptcy and breakup. 

i agree that Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works were geniuses and an American Treasure. But before Reagan tripled the Defense Budget in two years, the Air Force was  literally cash broke. With widespread opposition to the Vietnam war and with other national priorities during the 1970s there was no will to adequately fund The Department of Defense, especially with the huge cost of the war, nuclear Air Force and Navy needs, soaring energy costs, inflation, etc.. Thankfully, Nixon essentially doubled military salaries, which were pitiful as of 1971 but that further strained the Defense budget for other needs. 

The answer to hypersonic flight might be technically available to us based upon the 60 year old capabilities of those planes.  They depended upon large quantities of titanium due to the expansion, contraction and heat  capabilities needed for high speed flight. The leading producer countries  of titanium are -  China and Russia, followed by Japan..  Bob, you may have written about how the US obtained enough titanium to build the planes by deception and by using cloak and dagger means... 

 

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H-2-H:

Quote

But I have to take issue with your assertion that it was one man (Kelly Johnson) who made it all happen. Truly, he was a great designer and leader, but there were other factors that permitted the Skunk Works to work so efficiently. First and foremost, it was an isolated team, protected from bureaucratic interference. It was a lean team as well. Everybody knew each other and they operated as one team.

I read portions of Ben Rich's book too.  In it, he mentions members of the elite team in Kelly's skunk works in the early 1960s.  So, I should have said something about Kelly's Team.  My article took me all day Sunday and a couple of proofs Monday morning and I was hurrying to get it done because I am determined to get my 20-page article on the A-12 done this month.  I realized what Dr. Lewis's article was really about and wanted to diplomatically counter it, so I cut some corners.

If Dr. Lewis wanted to return to the 1960s, he didn't really explian about the 1960s in his article.  Yes, Kelly was very angry when the CIA forced one bureaucrat to monitor his team's work on the A-12.  Apparently, that guy ended up fitting in with the team too.

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Joel:

Quote

The answer to hypersonic flight might be technically available to us based upon the 60 year old capabilities of those planes.  They depend upon large quantities of titanium due to the expansion, contraction and heat  capabilities needed for high speed flight. The leading producer countries  of titanium are -  China and Russia, followed by Japan..  Bob, you may have written about how the US obtained enough titanium to build the planes by deception and by using cloak and dagger means... 

I know.  I'm writing about the A-12.  Anyone that sees something that looks like the SR-71, is really looking at a derivative of the A-12.  The A-12 was an impossibility that Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works created anyway.  I'm trying to keep it to 20-pages so it will be read but still tell a complete story about the airplane.  That also may be an impossibility for me.

The best I can hope for is that someone

  • reads my humble article,
  • is as fascinated as I am about the A-12, 
  • visits an A-12, the YF-12A in Dayton, or even an SR-71 in a museum, 
  • stares at the titanium beast in front of them and understands what it is, and
  • holds the airplane and the people who built them in awe.

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45 minutes ago, bob7947 said:

Joel:

I know.  I'm writing about the A-12.  Anyone that sees something that looks like the SR-71, is really looking at a derivative of the A-12.  The A-12 was an impossibility that Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works created anyway.  I'm trying to keep it to 20-pages so it will be read but still tell a complete story about the airplane.  That also may be an impossibility for me.

The best I can hope for is that someone

  • reads my humble article,
  • is as fascinated as I am about the A-12, 
  • visits an A-12, the YF-12A in Dayton, or even an SR-71 in a museum, 
  • stares at the titanium beast in front of them and understands what it is, and
  • holds the airplane and the people who built them in awe.

Absolutely!!!

The plane at the Battleship Alabama aircraft pavilion in Mobile, AL is said to be a CIA operated, A-12 (according to their website). 

My USAF Academy Squadron sponsor in 1969-1971 and afterward was the SR 71 Wing at Beale Air Force Base, CA.

Although I wasn’t crazy about Robert STRANGE McNamara,  I wanted to put his decision to cancel the F-12 production into some context that may have justified it.

We needed the SR-71, regardless of the affordability but couldn’t afford and didn’t put a priority on an advanced interceptor aircraft at the time.

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The US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville has an A-12 on display outside the Museum. I remember seeing it in an outside storage yard with miscellaneous rocket and missile parts, behind a shed, for many years, awaiting enough restoration to display it. 

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H-2-H:

I listened to that one.  I have much more to add in my paper.

Joel:

I know where each A-12 is.  Alabama has another at Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham.  The one there is CIA article 131, serial number 60-6937.  It flew in Operation Black Shield (probably from Kadena) although I have not verified that.  The tail number on it is wrong. It is an A-12 though.

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H-2-H:

Here is a video for you.  The speaker is the pilot narrating the video some 30 years later.  It's April 1962 and the A-12 had a pre-flight and then its first flight.

This airplane has 2 J-75 engines not the A-12s J-58s.  The J-58s were not ready for first flight.

 

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17 hours ago, bob7947 said:

H-2-H:

Here is a video for you.  The speaker is the pilot narrating the video some 30 years later.  It's April 1962 and the A-12 had a pre-flight and then its first flight.

 

Watched it. Thanks for the history lesson. 

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H-2-H:

I learn something new every time I look at the A-12.  I've read about the spikes in the engine nacelles many times but it wasn't until last night that it registered in my head that they were 6 feet long.  This morning I looked at that video a couple more times and I remembered to look at the spikes.  They're huge.

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On 7/7/2020 at 4:11 PM, bob7947 said:

H-2-H:

I listened to that one.  I have much more to add in my paper.

Joel:

I know where each A-12 is.  Alabama has another at Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham.  The one there is CIA article 131, serial number 60-6937.  It flew in Operation Black Shield (probably from Kadena) although I have not verified that.  The tail number on it is wrong. It is an A-12 though.

This is a special A-12.  Notice the tail number "77835."  This is Article 131 with the real CIA tail number 60-6937 which made the final A-12 flight from Groom Lake, Nevada to Palmdale, California.  The tail number that the A-12 is currently wearing was from Operation Black Shield which flew missions over Vietnam in 1967 - 1968.  After each mission the tail numbers were changed to hide their identity from the spy boats that were outside of Kadena AFB in Okinawa.  This A-12 is now at the Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham, Alabama.  Since this airplane was the last to leave Kadena for its retirement flight in the U. S., they probably didn't have time to change the tail number or they decided it no longer mattered.  Also notice the aluminum painted rear wheels.

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