Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Belated Technological Appendix for April, 1950: Sites and Things

First impressions come when they come. I read G. C. Edmondson's 1965 The Ship that Sailed the Time Stream and its sequel, 1981's To Sail the Century Seas at a very young age (too young, apparently, to pick up the casual racism and sexism), long before my callow transformation into a young Reaganite, of which the less said the better. All the more wonder that I still and so vividly record the protagonist realising that he had returned to 1970s San Diego waters when he picked up one of the local radio commentators. The vividness of the memory probably has something to do with the author's palpable disgust for paleo-conservatism. Whatever: It is a first impresson.San Diego=appalling, hateful, racist, anti-communist conservatism. Got it! 

Nuance is surely badly wanted, but this technological appendix isn't about politics --well, it's not going to escape labour politics, but that's another matter. It is about the San Diego-built Consolidated/Convair PB4Y-2 Privateer. such as, for example,  "Turbulent Turtle."  BuNo 59645 belonged to the "secret Special Electronic Search Project," but was attached to VP26, then stationed at Port Lyautey, Morocco, was sub-detached to Wiesbaden for a ferret flight along the Baltic coast of the Soviet Union, during which it was shot down by a La-11 of the PVO on 8 April 1950. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Postblogging Technology, April 1950, II: Rite of Spring

R_. C_.,
The Majestic,

Dear Father:

As you've probably heard, the Reds have received a group of Russian fighters, which is really heating up the Koumintang's silly little air war. (I'm not sure it's so silly if you're a poor Egg family getting hour home shot up, but this war is being fought for the common folk of China, whether they like it or not.)


The upshot is that I'm not going to be seeing any relief from this whatever-it-is mission any time soon. The fighters will probably come with radars, and that will mean ferret flights. Whether USN personnel get involved is another matter. But if we do, I have the exciting prospect of ending up like those poor guys from VP-26. At least it'll give me something to do. 

I'm not getting as much sympathy as I expected about that from Ronnie, surprise surprise. You've heard by now that Uncle George has got Ronnie a summer job with Mr. Wu. He says Ronnie's job will be to get the big man lunch between movies, which I almost believe. Wu's main star makes twenty movies a year! If I had a vote, I would vote against making "kung fu" movies during a Hong Kong summer, but on the other hand that puts Ronnie close as these things go, and we'll be able to see each other on the weekends, providing that the war doesn't get hot enough that the Reds start shooting down airliners. 

By September, if all goes well, this silly little war will be over and I'll be able to get a stateside posting watching rockets go up and sometimes go down, and Ronnie can reap the rewards of first year by coasting through second year Law, as, I understand, is how you do things unless you want to be on the Law Review. It's not how I would run a school, but they don't do partial differential equations in law school, and maybe lawyers are smart enough to realise that you don't want to make everyone quite in second year. On the other hand, who'd teach high school math, then? 

Your Loving Son,

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Postlbogging Technology, April 1950, I: Low Down Dishonest Paperchase

R_. C_.,

Dear Father:

I hope this finds you well, because I am going to be so brief that you will probably be very disappointed in me. Please don't be, as I have to save my energy in order to sell blood to pay for my phone bill this month! (If Nationalist China ever has a working phone system, I will have paid my share!)

Your Loving Son,

PS: Ronnie's exams went fine, but I'm sure she told you that herself. First year Law, done! 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, March 1950: We Need To Talk About Martin

Martin B-26 Marauder: The "Baltimore Widomaker"

On 29 August 1948, Northwest Airlines Flight 421, a Martin 2-0-2 crashed near Winona, Minnesota, killing all 37 aboard. The plane went down on the slopes of a steep gully (I didn't know they had those in Minnesota!) and body recovery was extremely traumatic to would-be rescuers. 

When an observant captain asked that another Northwest Airline 2-0-2 with similar flying hours be inspected for handling issues that same day, attention was drawn to a stress failure at a wing skin-spar joint, and the cause of loss in the Winona accident was determined to be a wing falling off due to stress failure. 

The appellate judge does a good job of summarising the technical details in the 1955 judgement that let Martin off the hook for  negligence. (Northwest oversaw production in detail, so no one principal was more negligent than the other.) Martin adopted an high-strength aluminum-magnesium alloys that was relatively new to the aviation industry due to its high notch sensitivity. It had been used with great success in the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, and was a definite late-war fad, although so were the stress-corrosion related groundings of the late Forties, and considering the way the Zero was used in service it's not hard to believe that stress corrosion problems were overlooked. 

Call me lazy or call me a victim of industry capture of aviation journalism, but I was surprised to read, last month about the 7 March 1950 loss of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 307, another Martin 2-0-2, while trying to land at Minneapolis. Although the crash was determined to be the result of the pilot losing ground reference while landing in a snowstorm, the actual cause of the crash was a seventy-foot flagpole, causing a section of the left wing to detach. Obviously no-one is asking that an aircraft wing survive a collision like this, but the 2-0-2s had been grounded, at great expense to the airline while the problem was being fixed, and the suspicion has to arise that the fix had been less than completely successful. 

We can also, of course, reasonably ask why there was only a pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit at the time. CAA regulations did allow for this, and it was a pretty straightforward implication of the idea of a "DC-3 replacement" that the Martin 2-0-2 be operable by two crew. Tens of thousands of DC-3s had landed safely in similar conditions across Canada and the United States, but it has to be said that airlines picked approach routes that didn't have 70ft flagpoles on them. The Minneapolis approach route didn't have one, either, but the plane was off course, if only by a little more than a mile; which would seem to be at least as important a factor in the crash as the fact that it was too low. 

So much for one accident involving a half-full plane. It  turns out that a Northwest Orient training flight crashed near Almelund, Minnesota, on 13 October 1950, with six casualties; that Northwest Orient Flight 115 crashed near Butte, Montana, on 7 November 1950, with 21 fatalities; that another Flight 115 2-0-2 crashed near Reardon, Washington, on 16 January 1951 after unexplained loss of control in flight. This last had only ten people on board, which suggests that the news was getting out to the travelling public, although that didn't stop a strange Japan Airlines/Northwest Flight 301 crash in Japan with 37 fatalities. Rearden was the last straw for Northwest, which sold its remaining 2-0-2 fleet to Allegheny Airlines. Since Allegheny (and Transworld) operated the 2-0-2 happily for another ten years, either the problems really were ironed out, or it was all just a terrible series of coincidences. 

The problem is that in 1950, Allegheny's fine record was in the future, and the Glenn L. Martin Aviation Company looks really, really bad. While it's not the only company saddled with a dangerous airliner in this era, but the stunning series of 2-0-2 accidents is hardly going to help a company that operated, after all, in what was practically a suburb of Washington, DC. People are going to talk!

It's also not the the end of the story from March of 1950. We've still got an (undersourced) internal, blistering report on the Matador/Mace program, already prefigured in Aviation Week's recent lament that no-one could possibly expect industry prime contractors to master all the science involved in a guided missile. And although that report is still several years away, it turns out that the guided missile that's setting records of reliability and usefulness down at White Sands according to various anonymous sources is the Martin Matador.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Bishops' Sea: Who Is This "Henry" Guy, Again?

The anonymous author of the Wikipedia life of Marinid Sultan Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman (1297--1351) seems to really like the way that this 1930 German textbook map contextualises the affairs of Ceuta and Gibraltar. Sultan Abu al-Hasan captured Gibraltar from Castile in 1319, and then tried to use it as the springboard for a more ambitious campaign against Tarifa, aiming to restore a Marinid Moroccan presence in Iberia, provoking an ambiguously enthusiastic response from the Nasrids of Granada and the last, successful defensive campaign of the Reconquista. 

My question for this week is whether it actually contextualises this:

I'm not trying to ask a profound question here. The Boas Esperanca is no Kon Tiki or Olympias. It's a pretty good reconstruction of a well-known and historically important ship type. We may not know exactly what a Fifteenth Century caravel looked like, but this is fine and it's surely close enough for counting. There's really no significant questions about the vessel itself. But this is, occasionally, a blog about the history of technology, and one of the more important current set-piece arguments about the role of technology in history is that it was invented by one Prince Henry the Navigator. 

"The caravel (Portuguese: caravela, IPA: [kɐɾɐˈvɛlɐ]) was a small, highly manoeuvrable sailing ship developed in the 15th century by the Portuguese to explore along the West African coast and into the Atlantic Ocean." Which is bullshit, in that it's just a big old fishing boat, but also pretty amazing considering that biographers of the Portuguese prince have been spending decades purging the public sphere of the idea of Prince Henry as a teacher and master of the arts of celestial navigation, teaching the sciences of the sea to a generation of young explorers at an ascetic academy on Point Sagres, opening up the world to European--- 

--So, yeah, anyway.  Point is, the moment that Nineteenth Century notion is thrown on the ash heap of history, it sneaks back in again through the back door, an obvious nod to a narrative of technological determinism in which you need the services of a great man to exogenously introduce the necessary technology to change all history. 

Why not? It's how it works in Sid Meier's Civilisation! Navigation takes a ton of Science points, but the moment you have it, you can dump 600 gold into a caravel and, if you're lucky, have enough luxury goods flowing back to your ports to bring your empire back to positive happiness in a turn or three. 

Some pushback, even if not dispositive, seems warranted. And you'll probably guess from my choice of two really, really bad reconstructions that I have an axe to grind, and that "pushback" is likely to turn out to be a hatchet job. Long time readers probably won't be surprised. Anyone else, I'm just being upfront. Though not so upfront that I can't do a driveby on the Trireme Trust!