Posts Tagged ‘1974’

Philippe Petit might not be a name that immediately attaches itself to a face.  In fact, I wouldn’t know a single thing about the man except that I read his name as a youngster in an old copy of the Guiness Book of World Records.

Most all of us, however, know about the World Trade Center.  The North and South Towers stand forever etched in our minds, though they stand no longer. As we approach the 10th anniversary of their terrible destruction at the hands of terrorists, it stands to reason that there will be memorials, television specials, and tears.  But let’s look at a somewhat lighter, happier story, one that connects our country’s most famous buildings and a Frenchman you don’t know.

Philippe Petit was a high-wire artist.  Well, he was many things (all of them much safer).  He juggled, performed magic tricks, and enjoyed rock-climbing and horses, among other things.  But when a teen-aged Petit first stepped on the wire in the mid 1960s, he had apparently found his calling.

He had soon taught himself the tricks of the trade – riding bicycles and unicycles on the wire, doing somersaults, stuff like that.  But he wanted more.  And the answer was height.  There were the towers of the Notre Dame.  There was the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  But bigger, or rather, taller, was yet to come.

He saw a model of the to-be-built Twin Towers in 1968, and just knew they would have to be conquered.  For six years he prepared.  And the preparation involved more than practice…there was spy-work as well, because security wouldn’t just let some guy run up a wire between the buildings and have at it.  He made fake IDs to gain access to the roof.  He posed as a writer of a French architectural magazine so he could interview workers during construction.  He watched the workers, noting their clothes so he could closely match them and blend in.

The night before what he came to call his “coup”, he moved a 450-foot steel cable up the service elevator, along with a bow and arrow.  He and his helpers then shot the arrow with fishing line attached across the space between the Towers.  Assistants in the second Tower passed ropes back and forth until the cable could be supported, pulled across, and stabilized.

And on August 7, 1974, he made his move.  At 7:15am, he stepped onto the wire, carrying  just his 55-foot balancing pole.  And from a height of 1,368 feet, he did his thing for 45 minutes.  I imagine that no one on the ground noticed at first.  Then someone looked up for some odd reason, saw something moving, and pointed.  Then another looked, then two more, then five, then a dozen.  Pretty soon he everyone in the area was watching.  Petit traversed the wire an incredible 8 times.  He sat on the wire.  He laid on the wire.  He waved to the crowds.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I helped Dad tear down his old garage.  It took quite a bit of courage for me to get up on that 10-foot high roof and balance myself to rip off the old boards.  Petit was 130 times higher than I was, standing on a wire.  This morning, I walked part way across the High Trestle Trail Bridge, 120 feet above the Des Moines River Valley, on a 10-foot wide bike path with nice high railings.  Petit was 10 times higher than I was, standing on a wire.

I can only shake my head.  Just looking at the photo above gives me a shiver.

You don’t have to be crazy to be a high-wire artist, but I think it probably helps.

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When we took off from Sky Harbor Airport last Sunday to return home from Phoenix, our airplane got delayed a bit.  An airplane in front of us had a mechanical issue and had to stop, turn around, and return to its gate.  This meant that every plane behind it (of which ours was one) got held up.  We sat at our gate for an extra 20 minutes or so, then had to join what appeared to be a 25-plane procession to the runway.  Needless to say, we left the ground almost 40 minutes later than planned.

But oh boy, did we leave the ground in a hurry!  I don’t fly all that often, so I probably don’t have a great frame of reference, but our pilot seemed to tilt that plane on end and give it the beans, rocketing us skyward.  For a guy that already doesn’t much like to fly, it was a bit disconcerting.  He then came on the intercom and told us we’d be landing on time…uh, what?!?  He said our initial “at altitude” speed would be 530mph, but he’d be bumping it up “just a bit” from there once we burned a bit of fuel.  I don’t know how fast we were going, but it was fast.  But still, he was going to make up 40 minutes in a two-and-a-half-hour flight?  He most certainly was, and he most certainly did…I believe we landed one minute late.

So that’s flying at a pretty high speed, but it’s a far cry from what Major James Sullivan achieved on September 1, 1974.  He piloted his aircraft from New York City to London (roughly 3,500 miles) in 1 hour, 54 minutes, and 56 seconds.  Of course, Sullivan wasn’t flying a Canadair CRJ900.  He was strapped into a Lockheed SR-71 BlackbirdWe’ve talked about that plane – no, it’s really not a plane, it’s a faster-than-a-bullet missile that can be steered by man – on a couple of occasions.  That amount of distance in that period of time translates to well over twice the speed of sound…nearly 1,450mph.

Keep in mind that, at that speed, the Blackbird burns fuel at a prodigious rate, so a slowdown (to about 350mph) was required for in-flight refueling.  It’s not unlike Usain Bolt (the world’s fastest human) running the 100-meter dash, stopping to tie his shoes, and still finishing in 9.70 seconds.  For the sake of comparison, the Concorde (the world’s fastest passenger jet) requires an additional hour to make the trip, and a standard passenger jet takes twice as long as the Concorde.

Highway speeds in many places are 60mph, but at “maximum warp” (the term is strangely appropriate here), the Blackbird is covering 33 miles…per minute.  Thirty-three miles in one minute.  At Lenscrafters, you can get eyeglasses “in about an hour.”  Have 20/20 vision?  Borrow a Blackbird and travel from New York City to LA in the same time.  Des Moines to Chicago in 10 minutes.  It’s sickeningly fast.  Speeds like this are really, really hard to comprehend.

But for an SR-71 Blackbird, it’s just another day at the office.

Recommended Reading: SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story

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When any of us boards an airplane, I wonder if we ever give any real thought to how much work, design, and planning went into building and testing it.  I’m not a big fan of flying by any means, so I usually hope that the plane I enter merely conquers gravity for the 90 minutes or 2 hours I’m in its clutches.  I’m too preoccupied to give much thought to testing.

But it’s the testing that, even more than the construction, proves the designers got it right.  The real-world, gravity-defying arena of “in the air” is where the truth is verified.  That is true for any aircraft that has entered production, starting with the one Orville and Wilbur crafted more than a century ago.  So while this topic could be written about any plane, I choose to focus on McDonnell Douglas’ fabulous F-15 Eagle.

As avid readers will remember, the F-15 first flew in July of 1972.  You might also recall that it was born of two parents.  The father was the realization that interceptors (like the F-102/106 Delta Dagger/Dart and F-4 Phantoms) couldn’t really fight other aircraft very effectively without the use of sophisticated avionics and stand-off missiles…this was the story of the air war in Vietnam.  The mother was the more immediate issue of answering the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat, the ultimate interceptor that initially looked like a fighter to the West.

So the baby that was the F-15 was not just the continuation of an existing concept, but a radically new design built out of new thinking using new, lightweight, exotic materials.  And once built, these would all be asked to operate in a performance envelope (high maneuverability and Mach 2+ speed and standoff capability) that stressed them to their limits.

Which meant that, after that first introductory flight, the Eagle would spend more than 2 years in verification tests.  The radar systems had to be checked out.  The landing gear needed to be checked…no fair having to land on its belly.  The massive Pratt and Whitney turbofan engines (the pair of which gave the fighter the ability to accelerate while completely vertical) were run through an entire battery of tests.

The advanced airframe was tested at (and beyond) its limits, which included one of the most dangerous maneuvers for a test pilot…the spin tests.  Here the pilot purposely induced a flat spin to test how the plane can be made to recover before becoming a smoking hole in the ground.

Over and over the new mark was put through its paces, with adjustments and tweaks made all along the way.  So when President Gerald Ford visited the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis on November 14, 1974 and took delivery of the first production F-15 (a single-seat A model), the Air Force he commanded knew it was getting an aircraft that was not only superior to any other fighter on the planet, but one that had been extensively tested.

I hope every airplane in which I’m forced to fly has been tested as thoroughly.

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As we’ve looked at various aircraft, there’s a trend of “action-reaction” that I hope you’ve noticed.  An airplane was produced (North American’s XB-70 Valkyrie), which prompted the Russians to produce an aircraft (the MiG-25 Foxbat).  The Foxbat caused the U.S. military immense alarm, and that led to the incredible McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle.  Cause and effect…action and reaction.

The subject of Today’s History Lesson is the “reaction” to the F-15, though not the Soviet response (which was the MiG-29 Fulcrum, a remarkable airplane that also deserves its day on these pages).  Rather, this response actually came from the U.S. military itself.

The Vietnam War brought to light a real deficiency in military thinking with regards to airpower.  Up until then, “interceptors” were the rage…planes with high straight-line speeds loaded with missiles for long-range, standoff attacks.  High manueverability, low wing-loading, and dogfight capabilities were not deemed relevant anymore…until Air Force interceptors-turned-fighters (like the F-4 Phantom II and, to a lesser degree, Republic’s F-105 Thunderchief) started getting swatted from the Southeast Asian skies with alarming frequency in close-in engagements with true enemy fighters.  All of a sudden, the “lightweight, gun-carrying fighter” concept from World War II suddenly looked a lot more enticing.

The military went to work, requesting proposals for a lightweight fighter design.  And then the Soviet Foxbat was spotted, and the lightweight fighter was temporarily shelved in favor of the F-15 Eagle.  But the idea of a true dogfighter was never forgotten.  As the F-15 came to production, it became clear that, despite its awesome capabilities, its fly-away cost-per-plane was going to be very large.  The idea of a smaller, less expensive compliment was raised and, suddenly, the lightweight fighter was back on the table.

Five companies submitted design proposals, and two (Northrop and General Dynamics) were selected by the Air Force as worthy of actual prototypes.  The first “official” flight of the YF-16 was scheduled for (and performed) on February 2, 1974.  But its first actual flight was back on January 20th, due to a malfunction.  While accelerating the plane to near-takeoff speeds, oscillations forced the test pilot to lift off for a 6-minute unplanned flight in order to prevent damage.

In the end, Northrop’s proposal, the YF-17, finished second in the competition, but would later be modified and purchased by the Navy and Marine Corps as the F-18 Hornet.  The winner of the competition, the YF-16, would be purchased by the Air Force and christened the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

We’ve covered very little of the plane’s actual capabilities, we’ve not spoken at all of its widespread use all over the world, nor have we mentioned the fact that, 35 years after its first flight, it’s still in production (though not for domestic purchase).  But we’ll talk more about the F-16 in the future as anniversary dates arrive, because there’s a lot to talk about.

Recommended Reading: World Air Power Journal – Volume V focuses on the F-16 (as do a couple others).  Now out of print and nearly impossible to find, this $19-per-quarterly-issue subscription was a tour-de-force.  The finest periodical ever.  I treasure my copies.  Or, fly an F-16 yourself!!

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