Sunday, May 21, 2023

A Technnological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, January 1953: 488,000lb of Actor-Network Theory


So, anyway, from Wikipedia:

 B-52 strikes were an important part of Operation Desert Storm. . . . a flight of B-52Gs flew from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, refueled in the air enroute, struck targets in Iraq, and returned home – a journey of 35 hours and 14,000 miles (23,000 km) round trip. It set a record for the longest-distance combat mission, breaking the record previously held by an RAF Vulcan bomber in 1982; however, this was achieved using forward refueling.[9][194]  . . .  B-52Gs operating from the King Abdullah Air Base at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom, Morón Air Base, Spain, and the island of Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory flew bombing missions over Iraq . . . In August 2007, a B-52H ferrying AGM-129[s] . . . from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base for dismantling was mistakenly loaded . . . [218][219] Four of 18 B-52Hs from Barksdale Air Force Base were retired  . .  at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.[220]

The exterior of a B-52 cockpit.
B-52H "Ghost Rider" leaving the "bone yard".

 .  . . B-52s are periodically refurbished at USAF maintenance depots such as Tinker Air Force BaseOklahoma.[223]  On 9 April 2016, an undisclosed number of B-52s arrived at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, part of the military intervention against ISIL. T as a platform to test a Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) missile.[239] . . .In late October 2022, ABC News reported that the USAF intended to deploy six B-52s at RAAF Tindal in Australia in the near future, which would include building provisions to handle the aircraft.[240]

 I'm mainly familiar with Actor-Network Theory from Bruno Latour vanishing up his own butt in Aramis, or, The Love of Technology, and considering that I've never taken a serious crack at the book, that might be grossly unfair. The thing is, this 

"Actor–network theory (ANT) is a theoretical and methodological approach to social theory where everything in the social and natural worlds exists in constantly shifting networks of relationships. It posits that nothing exists outside those relationships. All the factors involved in a social situation are on the same level, and thus there are no external social forces beyond what and how the network participants interact at present. Thus, objects, ideas, processes, and any other relevant factors are seen as just as important in creating social situations as humans"

sounds like the kind of academic bafflegab too easily reduced to the kind of cynical nihilism that makes everything about politics. And then you realise that, never mind never-built new paradigms of subway transit being characters in their own sociological studies, the B-52 doesn't exist. (Except as the mediator of a network of relationships between the natural, technological, and social worlds.)

Okay, sure, this looks like it exists. It's up there in the sky, and in the worst case scenario it is about to make the world safe for democracy all over you and a few thousand of your closest friends. It's hard to argue with something dropping 70,000lbs of bombs on you! (Even if it is a bit disillusioning to realise that a much smaller plane like the Victor could theoretically drop the same load.) But it is 488,000lbs of something when it takes off, which is more than half the maximum load of a C-5A, with more performance than has ever been asked of an airliner. After 35 hours in the air or so, it is going to have to land somewhere, and there are not a lot of locations it can take off from again with an operational load. 

The B-52 does not exist. B-52 bases exist. If you decide to read through the interwar numbers of Flight, you will hear a lot about grass presses (I forget the actual language) and gang mowers. Airports still had grass fields, and they made a lot of money by selling the mow as livestock fodder. Aircraft design was constrained by the turf's ability to support wheels and skids, and mechanical engineers worked in a tradition going back more than 3500 years in which the ideas of "baggage," and "park" are entangled with "field," and. ultimately, a green. Today, golf course groundskeepers think like that. No-one else does. 

A mole killed King Billy. True story. Youtube knows me; there was a Clorox bleach ad ahead this clip from Caddyshack. They used to bleach things by stretching them out in a field, although that was for the Sun to work, not grass.  

In the summary introduction to Philip Gordon Hudson's "The Development and Construction of Airfields and Runways for the Royal Air Force, 1939--1945," in Civil Engineer in War, 2: 4--47, Hudson notes that in the peak year of construction, 1942, sixty thousand labourers (or by a more comprehensive count, 130,000 personnel) were working on what would  ultimately be 175 million square yards of concrete, asphalt and "other hard surfacing areas" for the 444 RAF airfields built in Britain between 1939 and 1945. In 1939, only nine airfields had paved runways, of 1000x50 yards, intended to take a Wellington Bomber at an all up weight of 32,000lbs and a tire pressure of 45lb per square inch. By 1945 there was a "station" under construction with runways designed to take 360,000lb aircraft with 120lb tires, bases which required the excavation of three million cubic yards of soil, the erection of half a million cubic yards of earthworks, and the pouring of 400,000 cubic yards of concrete proved to a strength of more than 4500lb per square inch. Hudson doesn't mention the concrete specification, but does mention that existing runways intended to take 140,000lb aircraft with 85lb tires required a 12" thick plate of concrete. The Corps of Engineers says that the runways at Minot Air Force base are currently being reconstructed with 14.5" thick concrete bases, and the commercial site of a tire pressure gauge maker says that the B-52's maximum unloaded pressure is 200psi, at which point we are finally getting to a tighter tire than the Specialized Elite I intend to ride from Vancouver to Kamloops via Grand Forks this summer.  (If you are thinking that your bicycle tires take a much higher pressure,  you are right; street bicycle tires are actually pretty extreme from a road surface bearing point of view!)

Concrete is, of course, cast in much greater thicknesses than this. What makes these pieces so extraordinary is that they are parts of runways, which in modern practice are 10,000yds, or about 9km. That entire length has to be reasonably flat, because it consists of rigid plates of concrete, which means no subsidence and drainage through its entire length, which means building the entire runway up over the local water table. Preparing the ground to take the concrete over its entire length involves excavating, infilling with gravel, consolidating and compacting and laying services. From the perspective of 1939, increasing runway length had an exponential rather than a linear effect because the cost of getting a straight, flat runway became so much greater as the runway stretched out over the landscape, dipping and rolling. Very large areas of impermeable surface presented drainage problems of their own and ultimately absorbed vast quantities of cast iron.  

The Very Heavy Bomber and Special Airfields being built for the B-29 in 1944--45 were planned with three runways, each 3000 yards by 100 yards, so far short of modern standards. But this meant strip widths of 400 yards and 250 yards, 200 yards of clearance beyond the ends of runways, and an approach gradiant of 1 in 100, achieved by levelling trees and structures if necessary.  

There are two main ways to build an airport that expands on this to get the full 10,000yd runway. The first is to spend a lot of money. This is why big city airports are so expensive and consequential undertakings, and why I started this post with British Airway's 1983 "Manhattan landing" ad. London/Heathrow Airport is the central site (yes, that word) of modernity because it is the hub of the eastbound Atlantic bridge in a way that no single North American airport is.
The other way of doing it is scouring the world for places where you can build airfields from which a B-52 can take off at 488,000lb full load. Which is why I followed up on the British Airways ad with that edited biography of the B-52 and its airfields. They are not the only airfields that can take a B-52 by a long shot, but the seventy year career of this enormous aircraft is defined by the runways from which it can take off. There is a reason that the B-52 lives in North Dakota and Louisiana, and there is a reason that China is currently getting its knickers in a knot over a B-52 deployment to Australia. 

Four USAF stations are associated with the B-52. Leaving aside Andersen on Guam, these are the now-decommissioned Castle AFB south of Sacramento near Merced, California' Minot Air Force Base near Minot, North Dakota; and Barksdale AFB, within the municipal boundaries of Shreveport, Louisiana. Castle, developed during WWII, was used as a B-29 and KB-29 base from immediately after the war, so received its "Super Class A" runways at some point in the late war period. Construction of Minot AFB began in May of 1956 as a SAC base supporting a SAGE facility and an F-106 squadron belatedly transferred from Suffolk AFB, Long Island, New York in the winter of 1960. Barksdale has the most interesting history of the three, the parcel of land on which it sits having been assembled by the city of Shreveport in the 1920s with the specific intention of luring an air force base. The site does not seem to have been favoured by the Corps of Engineers, and at least the story is that it would have been closed in at some point were it not for the forceful intervention of Representative Joe Waggoner, although this would have been long after the runways were upgraded to take B-29s. Minot similarly benefitted from a strong advocate in Congress. Whoever this person was (Usher Burdick seems like the most logical candidate), he or she won the Garrison Dam for Minot as well as the air force base. There is something vaguely ironic about a maverick liberal Republican doing so much for the citizens of a rock-ribbed conservative state, and through the agency of the Air Force no less, although it does not sound as though the USAF community is well-integrated into Minot. 

In line with the principal of saying as little as possible about the concrete (heh) details of civil engineering around here even on days when I'm not trying to finish a post after a hectic week of schedule reorganisation, I will pass on to the conceit that the B-52 is best understood (and a lot better understood than many candidate objects of study) via actor-network theory. As the last post made clear, the B-52 is a pretty dumb aircraft. It exists ultimately because of the isolationist fantasy of America striking back at foreign enemies across intercontinental distances without entangling alliances with only scarcely less-distasteful other foreigners. That such a vision makes no strategic sense whatsoever does not change the fact that it was generally perceived as something that "isolationist" senators like Robert Taft wanted. We aren't just riffing on the pulp science fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs here.  


On the other hand, why did Senator Taft want it? We know why the politicians who got USAF bases for Minot and Shreveport wanted it; I assume that Senator Taft wanted it for Wright-Patterson AFB and Air Materiel Command. The B-52 is precisely transactional. It's the best design available for the purposes of making Barksdale, Castle and Minot AFBs possible. It could then be left to the industry to turn the B-52 from a plane that existed into a plane that functioned. Which, more or less, they did. 

No comments:

Post a Comment