Thursday, February 28, 2013




The coverage of issues in this Great Country is a curious business. The information is normally out there—somewhere—but fundamental issues of huge importance all too often do not get either the coverage or the analysis they deserve. Instead the media obsess about the Oscars, or a celebrity murder, or a whole host of other matters which really do not deserve that level of attention. The concept of “The News as Entertainment” has a lot to answer for. Distraction from the issues that really matter is the result.

Are the media deliberately keeping us distracted? Well, I cannot speak for individual journalists—some of whom are excellent—but it is clear that the policies of many of the media are driven by commercial agendas which are not motivated by a desire to advance our best interests. Consider Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. The former is a blatant propaganda machine, and the latter is not a great deal less biased—even though it is clothed in the robes of being a serious and respected journal. Given the track record of the owner, Rupert Murdoch, that is an unconvincing disguise.

An issue of the most profound importance is the financialization of the U.S. Economy—the structuring of the economy is such a way, particularly through legislation and massive financial support, that the financial sector—dominated by the Big Banks--can extract a disproportionate share of profit while contributing only a minimum amount in terms of productive investment, added value, and employment.

The end result is an economy which just doesn’t work too well for most Americans—which is exactly where we are right now. Growth is minimal, unemployment is way too high, high wage jobs are being replaced by low wage jobs, demand is being sucked out of the country, investment in infrastructure is entirely inadequate, business investment is far from what it needs to be, and Wall Street is driven almost entirely by speculation rather than acting as a conduit for productive investment.

Evan Soltas has just written a fascinating blog on the share of profits now going to the financial sector. I commend his observations to you. Let me quote an extract:

But most of it is a huge increase in the profit per man-hour worked in the financial industry. Making some rough approximations about the financial industry's share of payroll employment, I can estimate that the average hour worked in the financial industry generates nearly 30 times the average per-man-hour profit in the rest of the economy. That's up from six times the average in 1964.

The dominance of the U.S. economy by the financial sector is a systemic problem of such magnitude that it constitutes an existential threat to the future of this country. Yet most of us are not even aware that such a problem exists.

Remedial action could and should be taken by Congress—but who owns Congress? Why, Big Money, of course.

Well, surely the Federal Reserve can do something—apart from supporting the banks? Then again, perhaps not. After all, let’s appreciate that it is not a government agency (though it masquerades as one). It is owned by the banks.


Orso Clip Art

Wednesday, February 27, 2013



I wrote yesterday that it was hard to do Bob Fulton justice—something of an understatement—but the following is an extract from the CIA’s web site. Frankly, it doesn’t come close to telling the full story—but it’s a start. The photo below is of Bob Fulton—at the time a much younger man compared to when  I knew him.

I’m sure Bob had his flaws. I have yet to meet the perfect human being. Nonetheless, based on my experience, he was a fascinating and delightful man; and both thoughtful and kind. And he could be incredibly funny.

Bob aged physically—though less that most of us. However, he remained young and inventive into his Nineties. The man was a phenomenon. I was honored to be his friend.

Robert Fulton's Skyhook and Operation Coldfeet

A good pick-me-up

The infiltration of agents behind enemy lines during World War II could be accomplished without undue technical difficulty, thanks to the use of parachutes. Thousands of individuals descended upon occupied Europe through "Joe holes" in Royal Air Force Halifaxes and Army Air Force B-24s, or out the side doors of C-47s. Extraction of personnel, however, proved a far more challenging task. Usually, individuals had to exfiltrate enemy territory by hazardous land routes. Sometimes they could be flown out by light aircraft, like the British Lysander, that landed at night on makeshift airstrips.

All American System

An innovative extraction method, reportedly used by the British toward the end of the war, involved the use of a modified version of a mail pickup system that had been invented by Lytle S. Brown during the 1920s and perfected before Pearl Harbor by All American Aviation. The All American system used two steel poles, set 54 feet apart, with a transfer line strung between them. An aircraft approached the ground station in a gentle glide of 90 mph, while a flight mechanic paid out a 50-foot steel cable. As the aircraft pulled up, a four-finger grapple at the end of the cable engaged the transfer rope, shock absorbers cushioned the impact, and then the flight mechanic winched the mail pouch on board.(1)

In July 1943, the need to rescue airmen from difficult terrain led to tests of this system by the Army Air Forces. Initial results, using instrumented containers, were not promising. The instruments recorded accelerations in excess of 17 g's following the pickup, a force far in excess of what the human body could tolerate. Changes in the transfer line and modifications in the parachute harness, however, brought this down to a more acceptable 7 g's. The first live test, with a sheep, failed when the harness twisted and strangled the animal. On subsequent tests other sheep fared better.

Lt. Alex Doster, a paratrooper, volunteered for the first human pickup, made on 5 September 1943. After a Stinson engaged the transfer rope at 125 mph, Doster was first yanked vertically off the ground, then soared off behind the aircraft. It took less than three minutes to retrieve him.

The Air Force continued to improve the system, even developing a package containing telescoping poles, transfer line, and harness that could be dropped by air. The first operational use of the system came in February 1944, when a C-47 snagged a glider in a remote location in Burma and returned it to India. Although the Air Force never used it to pick up individuals, the British apparently did use it to retrieve agents.


CIA Involvement

During the Korean war, CIA became interested in the All American system. In the spring and summer of 1952, CIA tried to establish a resistance network in Manchuria. Civil Air Transport (CAT), its air proprietary, dropped agents and supplies into Kirin Province as part of a project known to the pilots as Operation Tropic. The All American system seemed to answer the problem of how to bring people out of Manchuria.

In the fall of 1952, CAT pilots in Japan made a number of static pickups, then successfully retrieved mechanic Ronald E. Lewis. On the evening of 29 November 1952, a CAT C-47 with CIA officers John T. Downey and Richard G. Fecteau departed Seoul for Kirin Province, intending to pick up members of a team that had been inserted the previous July.

But a double agent had betrayed the team, and the Chinese shot down the C-47 as it came in for the pickup, killing the pilots and capturing the CIA officers. Fecteau was not released until December 1971; Downey was freed in March 1973.(2)


A Remarkable Inventor

Robert Edison Fulton, Jr., a talented inventor, had observed a demonstration of the All American system in London after World War II. He believed that he could do better, although at the time he was busy formulating plans for a flying automobile.

Fulton may have been a collateral descendant of the steamboat inventor, but he never bothered to check the genealogical connection. Moreover, Edison had been a family name long before it became associated with the famous inventor. Nonetheless, with Fulton and Edison as part of his name, he seemed destined for a career as an inventor.

Born in 1909, Fulton grew up in affluent circumstances in the New York area, where his father was president of the Mack Truck Company. He attended Choate and Harvard, then studied architecture in Vienna. In 1932, he embarked on a 17-month motorcycle adventure, visiting 32 countries and traveling 40,000 miles. Interested in photography, he worked for Pan American Airways in the mid-1930s, taking pictures of the development of the trans-Pacific air route.(3)

Following the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, Fulton began work on an aerial gunnery trainer. He developed a static device that used films to simulate aerial combat.

Fulton demonstrated his trainer in May 1942 to Cdr. Luis de Florez, who was in the process of establishing a Special Devices Division for the Navy. De Florez endorsed Fulton's trainer and provided developmental funds. Eventually, the Navy ordered 500 trainers at a cost of $6 million. Together with a gunnery manual written by Fulton, the trainer became the Navy's primary simulator for teaching air-to-air marksmanship.(4)


The Airphibian

After the war, Fulton bought 15 acres of land adjoining the airport at Danbury, Connecticut, where he built a house and workshop. He devoted most of his time and remaining funds to the development of a flying automobile.

Fulton built and tested eight versions of the "airphibian" and was about 90-percent finished when he ran out of money. He sold control of his company in order to raise funds to complete the lengthy government certification process, but the new owners decided not to continue the project.(5)


A New Challenge

While flight-testing the airphibian, Fulton often had wondered what might happen if he had been forced down in inaccessible terrain. A helicopter had only limited range. The All American system, he believed, was not the answer. Following the disappointment of the airphibian venture, he decided to try to create a more viable pickup system.(6)

Experiments began in 1950. Using a weather balloon, nylon line, and 10- to 15-pound weights, Fulton made numerous pickup attempts as he sought to develop a reliable procedure. Successful at last, he had his son photograph the operation. Fulton then took the film to Admiral de Florez, who had become the first director of technical research at the CIA.(7)Believing that the program could best be handled by the military, de Florez put Fulton in touch with the Office of Naval Research (ONR). Thanks to de Florez's interest, Fulton received a development contract from ONR's Air Programs Division.

Over the next few years, Fulton refined the air and ground equipment for the pickup system. Based at El Centro, California, he conducted numerous flights over the desert, using a Navy P2V for the pickups. He gradually increased the weight of the pickup until the line began to break. A braided nylon line with a test strength of 4,000 pounds solved the problem. More vexing were the difficulties that were experienced with the locking device, or sky anchor, that secured the line to the aircraft. Fulton eventually resolved this problem, which he considered the most demanding part of the entire developmental process.(8)


The Skyhook System

By 1958, the Fulton aerial retrieval system, or Skyhook, had taken its final shape. A package that easily could be dropped from an aircraft contained the necessary ground equipment for a pickup. It featured a harness, for cargo or person, that was attached to a 500-foot, high-strength, braided nylon line. A portable helium bottle inflated a dirigible-shaped balloon, raising the line to its full height.

The pickup aircraft sported two tubular steel "horns" protruding from its nose, 30 feet long and spread at a 70-degree angle. The aircraft would fly into the line, aiming at a bright mylar marker placed at the 425-foot level. As the line was caught between the forks on the nose of the aircraft, the balloon was released at the same time the spring-loaded trigger mechanism (sky anchor) secured the line to the aircraft. As the line streamlined under the fuselage, it was snared by the pickup crew, using a J-hook. It was then attached to a powered winch and pulled on board.

Fulton first used instrumented dummies as he prepared for a live pickup. He next used a pig, as pigs have nervous systems close to humans. Lifted off the ground, the pig began to spin as it flew through the air at 125 mph. It arrived on board undamaged but in a disoriented state. Once it recovered, it attacked the crew.


Human Pickups

The first human pickup took place on 12 August 1958, when S. Sgt. Levi W. Woods, USMC, was winched on board the P2V. Because of the geometry involved, the person being picked up experienced less of a shock than during a parachute opening. After the initial contact, which was described by one individual as similar to "a kick in the pants," the person rose vertically at a slow rate to about 100 feet, then began to streamline behind the aircraft. Extension of arms and legs prevented the oscillation that plagued the pig, as the individual was winched on board. The process took about six minutes.(9)

In August 1960, Capt. Edward A. Rodgers, commander of the Naval Air Development Unit, flew a Skyhook-equipped P2V to Point Barrow, Alaska, to conduct pickup tests under the direction of Dr. Max Brewer, head of the Navy's Arctic Research Laboratory. With Fulton on board to monitor the equipment, the P2V picked up mail from Floating Ice Island T-3, retrieved artifacts, including mastodon tusks, from an archeological party on the tundra, and secured geological samples from Peters Lake Camp. The high point of the trials came when the P2V dropped a rescue package near the icebreaker USS Burton Island. Retrieved by a ship's boat, the package was brought on deck, the balloon inflated, and the pickup accomplished.(10)

[Top of page]

Operation Coldfeet

The stage was now set for the first operational use of Skyhook. What became known as Operation Coldfeet began in May 1961, when a naval aircraft flying an aeromagnetic survey over the Arctic Ocean reported sighting an abandoned Soviet drift station. A few days later, the Soviets announced that had been forced to leave Station NP 9 when the ice runway used to supply it had cracked.

The prospect of examining an abandoned Soviet ice station attracted ONR's interest. The previous year, ONR had set an acoustical surveillance network on a US drift station used to monitor Soviet submarines. ONR assumed that the Soviets would have a similar system to keep track of American submarines as they transited the polar ice pack, but there was no direct evidence to support this. Also, ONR wanted to compare Soviet efforts on drift stations with US operations.

The problem was how to get to NP 9. It was far too deep into the ice pack to be reached by an icebreaker, and it was out of helicopter range. Fulton's Skyhook seemed to provide the answer. To Capt. John Cadwalader, who would command Operation Coldfeet, it looked like "a wonderful opportunity" to make use of the pickup system.(11)

Following a recommendation by Dr. Max Britton, head of the Arctic program in the Geography Branch of ONR, RAdm. L. D. Coates, Chief of Naval Research, authorized preliminary planning for the mission while he sought final approval from the Chief of Naval Operations. The mission was scheduled for September, a time of good weather and ample daylight. NP 9 would be within 600 miles of the US Air Force base at Thule, Greenland, the planned launching point for the operation.

ONR selected two highly qualified investigators for the ground assignment. Maj. James Smith, USAF, was an experienced paratrooper and Russian linguist who had served on US Drift Stations Alpha and Charlie. Lt. Leonard A. LeSchack, USNR, a former Antarctic geophysicist, had set up the surveillance system on T-3 in 1960. Although not jump qualified, he quickly went through the course at Lakehurst Naval Air Station. During the summer, the two men trained on the Fulton retrieval system, working in Maryland with an experienced P2V crew at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River.


Some Problems

Meanwhile, ONR's scheme was running into difficulty at the Navy's highest level, as skeptics argued that the plan would never work and likely would cost the lives of the investigators. Thanks largely to Dr. Britton's efforts, approval eventually came through, but not until late September.(12) This meant that the operation could not be launched until the return of well-below-freezing temperatures. When equipment was sent to Eglin Air Force Base for testing in the cold chamber, problems with the gear developed that took several weeks to correct. Also, promises for a support aircraft fell through. All the while, NP 9 kept moving farther away from Thule. "The winter dragged without solution," Captain Cadwalader lamented.


New Target

In March 1962, the mission planners received the unexpected news that the Soviets had abandoned ice station NP 8 in haste after a pressure ridge destroyed its ice runway. A more up-to-date facility than NP 9, it also was in a more accessible position at 83°N 135°W. "With the operation finally about ready to take off," Cadwalader reported, "the target was shifted to this new and tempting target." After the Canadian Government readily agreed to the use of the Royal Canadian Air Force base at Resolute Bay, 600 miles from NP 8, Project Coldfeet got under way.

In mid-April, the P2V and a C-130 support aircraft from Squadron VX-6 departed Patuxent River for Resolute Bay via Fort Churchill. Captain Cadwalader, the project's commander, had hoped that the Hydrographic Office's monthly ice reconnaissance flight that flew between Thule and Point Barrow would provide an up-to-date position on NP 8; bad weather and a navigational error, however, prevented a sighting. Still, with the last known position only a month old and given the general dependability of the Hydrographic Office's drift predictions, he expected no difficulty in finding the target. The C-130 carrying the drop party would locate NP 8, while the P2V would be standing by in case an immediate extraction was necessary.

The hunt for NP 8 began in perfect weather. The C-130 flew to the station's last known position, then began a box search at 10-mile intervals. Hours went by, but nothing could be seen except ice. The next day, the C-130 started searching at five-mile intervals. It spotted the abandoned US Ice Station Charlie but not NP 8. Four more searches failed to reveal the elusive Soviet drift station. With the flight time available for the C-130 running out and the weather deteriorating, Cadwalader called off the operation.


Back in Business

The expedition had no sooner returned to the US when the monthly ice reconnaissance flight on 4 May spotted NP 8 well to the east of its predicted position. ONR remained convinced that Coldfeet could work, but its funding for the project had run out. Perhaps the Intelligence Community, which had displayed interest in the scheme, might be persuaded to support the operation.

As it happened, Fulton had been working with CIA on the development of Skyhook since the fall of 1961. Intermountain Aviation, an Agency proprietary at Marana, Arizona, that specialized in aerial delivery techniques, had equipped a B-17 with the Fulton gear in October. Over the next six months, Intermountain's veteran CIA-contract pilots Connie W. Seigrist and Douglas Price flew numerous practice missions to perfect the equipment needed to infiltrate and extract agents. (They later conducted demonstrations for the Forest Service and Air Force while training for a covert operation to extract fellow CIA-contract pilot Allen L. Pope from an Indonesian prison.)(13)

Fulton then approached Intermountain about participating in Coldfeet. Garfield M. Thorsrud, head of the proprietary, liked the idea. After $30,000 was made available by the Defense Intelligence Agency, Coldfeet was ready to resume, with Intermountain furnishing the Skyhook-equipped B-17 and a C-46 support aircraft for the project.(14)

Photo: "Intermountain Aviation's B-17 at Point Barrow, May 1962. (Credit: Robert E. Fulton)"

[Top of page]

The Search for NP 8

On 26 May, the B-17 and C-46 reached Point Barrow, which was selected to replace Resolute Bay in order to avoid the delay in obtaining the necessary diplomatic clearance from the Canadian Government. Carrying William Jordan, an experienced Pan American Airways polar navigator who had been hired by Intermountain, the B-17 began the search for NP 8 the next day.

Seigrist and Price flew a northerly heading at 8,000 feet for almost four hours until they reached the ice station's predicted position. They then descended to 1,500 feet and initiated a square search pattern. The visibility was poor--"a forbidding dusky grey," Siegrist recalled. "It was the most desolate, inhospitable looking and uninviting place I had ever seen." NP 8 never appeared, and the B-17 returned to Point Barrow after more than 13 hours in the air.(15)

On 28 May, assisted by a P2V from Patrol Squadron One at Kodiak, the B-17 located NP 8. Seigrist circled the station while Major Smith and pickup coordinator John D. Wall selected a drop point. Drift streamers determined the wind, then Smith left the aircraft through a "Joe hole," followed by LeSchack. After dropping supplies to the men and receiving a favorable report from Smith over his UHF hand-held radio, the B-17 departed.

The plan called for Smith and LeSchack to have 72 hours to explore the Soviet base. While they conducted their explorations, Intermountain mechanics Leo Turk and Carson Gerken installed the pickup booms on the nose of the B-17. Seigrist and Price tested the equipment on 30 May by making a practice pickup in front of the Arctic Research Laboratory at Point Barrow.

The next day the mission to retrieve Smith and LeSchack got under way. In addition to pilots Seigrist and Price, the B-17 carried navigator Jordan, coordinator Wall, jumpmaster Miles L. Johnson, winch operator Jerrold B. Daniels, nose-trigger operator Randolph Scott, and tail-position operator Robert H. Nicol. Cadwalader, Fulton, and Thorsrud also climbed aboard to observe the operation.

The weather, Seigrist and Price soon learned, had deteriorated since their last trip over the frozen sea. Warmer temperatures had heated the ice mass, causing dense fog to form. The target eluded the B-17, and it returned to Point Barrow.

After a second fruitless search on 1 June, Thorsrud asked Cadwalader to call out the P2V. The next morning, the P2V took off from Point Barrow two hours and 30 minutes before the B-17. Using its more sophisticated navigational equipment, it quickly located NP 8, then guided the trailing aircraft by UHF/DF steers to the location.


Up, Up, and Away

Conditions for the pickup were marginal at best. The ice had a grey hue, and it was difficult to make out an horizon. The surface wind was blowing at 30 knots, nearing the limits of Skyhook's capability. After inflating the balloon attached to 150 pounds of exposed film, documents, and equipment samples, Smith and LeSchack had to keep a tight hold on the canvas bag containing the cargo lest it be blown away.

As Seigrist lined up for the pickup, the horizon disappeared. "I was instantly in a situation," he recalled, "what could be imagined as flying in a void." The pickup line and its bright orange mylar marker, however, provided sufficient visual clues to enable Seigrist to keep his wings level. He flew into the line, made a good contact, then immediately went over to instrument flying to avoid vertigo. Winch-operator Daniels brought the cargo on board without difficulty.

As prearranged, Price, a former Navy pilot, now took over the left seat to make the pickup of LeSchack. The wind was blowing stronger, and Smith had to struggle to hold LeSchack from being blown away. As the rising balloon caught the wind, LeSchack tore away from Smith's grasp, pitched forward on his stomach, and began to drag across the ice. After 300 feet, his progress was stopped by an ice block. As he lay on the ice and tried to catch his breath, Price hooked into the line.

Smith watched as LeSchack rose slowly into the air, then disappeared throughout the overcast. Although LeSchack rode through the air facing forward, he managed to turn around and assume the correct position before being hauled on board the B-17.

Price and Seigrist again changed seats so that Seigrist could make the final pickup. Smith held tightly to a tractor as he inflated his balloon. Still, he started to drag across the ice until he managed to catch a crack with his heels. He lay on his back as Seigrist approached the line. "The line made contact on the outer portion of the left horn," Seigrist remembers. "It just hung there for what to me was an eternity."

Slowly, the line slid down the horn and into the catching mechanism. As the line streamed along the bottom of fuselage, assistant jumpmaster Johnson reached down through the "Joe hole" and placed a clamp on it. He then signaled nose-trigger operator Scott to release the line. Next, tail-position operator Nicol secured the line, Johnson released his clamp, and winch-operator Daniels quickly brought Smith on board. He received a warm welcome from Fulton, Cadwalader, and Thorsrud--and a drink of "medicinal" Scotch.

Valuable Intelligence

Operation Coldfeet, Cadwalader reported, produced intelligence "of very great value." ONR learned that the Soviet station was configured to permit extended periods of silent operation, confirming the importance that the Soviets attached to acoustical work. In addition, equipment and documents obtained from NP 8 showed that Soviet research in polar meteorology and oceanography was superior to US efforts. "In general," Cadwalader summarized, "the remarkable Soviet accomplishments in their drift stations reflect their long experience in this field and the great importance that their government attaches to it."(16)


Operational Success

Beyond the intelligence obtained, Cadwalader wrote, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Coldfeet "was to prove the practicality of paradrop and aerotriever recovery to conduct investigations in otherwise inaccessible areas." Certainly, Coldfeet had been an outstanding operational success. The recovery of Smith and LeSchack had been especially challenging. As Admiral Coates wrote to Thorsrud, the pickup had been conducted "under stronger winds and lower visibility than had previously been attempted; nonetheless, through the exceptional skill of pilots and the coordination and efficiency of the crew, all pickups were made without a hitch, and in the best time (6 1/2 minutes) yet achieved."(17)

While the Skyhook system provided an important asset for all manner of intelligence operations, its utility as a long-range pickup system was somewhat undermined during the 1960s by the development of an aerial refueling capability for helicopters. Still, it appears likely that Fulton's Skyhook did find employment in a number of specialized clandestine operations following Coldfeet, although its subsequent use by CIA and the military services remains shrouded in secrecy.



(1) The All American system is best described in W. David Lewis and William F. Trimble, The Airway to Everywhere: A History of All American Aviation, 1937-1953 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988).

(2) On Operation Tropic, see William M. Leary, Perilous Missions: Civil Air Transport and CIA Covert Operations in Asia (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1984), pp. 138-42.

(3) Fulton's background is detailed in Wesley Price, "The Automobile Gets Wings," Saturday Evening Post 219 (17 May 1947): pp. 51-52, 54, 56. He describes his motorcycle trip in One-Man Caravan (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937).

(4) Interview with Fulton, 9 November 1988; Robert Lewis Taylor, "Captain Among the Synthetics," New Yorker 11 (11 November, 1944): pp. 34-43, and (18 November 1944): pp. 32-43.

(5) Price, "The Automobile Gets Wings"; James R. Chiles, "Flying Cars Were a Dream That Never Got Off the Ground." Smithsonian 19 (February 1989): pp. 144-46, 148, 150, 152, 154, 156, 158-60, 162; interview with Fulton, 9 November 1988.

(6) Interview with Fulton, 28 September 1988.

(7) Harvey M. Sapolsky, Science and the Navy: The History of the Office of Naval Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 51.

(8) Interview with Fulton, 9 November 1988.

(9) "Skyhook-Aerotriever System: Operations Conducted by NADU," Naval Research Reviews(October 1960): pp. 18-21; Leonard A. LeSchack, "Skyhook Retrieval," United States Naval Institute Proceedings 92 (March 1966): pp. 138-42.

(10) `'Skyhook," Naval Research Reviews (October 1960); pp. 18-21.

(11) John Cadwalader, "Operation Coldfeet: An Investigation of the Abandoned Soviet Arctic Drift Station NP 8," ONI Review 17 (August 1962): pp. 344-55. I am indebted to Dr. Edward J. Marolda, head, Contemporary History Branch, Naval Historical Center, for a copy of this declassified report.

(12) Cadwalader to the author, 30 October, 1989.

(13) Connie W. Seigrist, "Coldfeet,"n.d. The author is grateful to Captain Seigrist for a copy of this narrative account of his participation in the operation. Pope had been shot down on 18 May 1958, while flying a B-26 for the CIA-supported rebel group that was trying to topple the Sukarno government. The planned rescue attempt proved unnecessary after Attorney General Robert Kennedy obtained Pope's release in July 1962.

(14) The operation finally cost nearly twice the project figure of $30,000 because bad weather led to increased flying time.

(15) Seigrist, "Coldfeet." My account of events in May and June 1962 is also based on a telephone interview with Garfield M. Thorsrud, 7 February 1994; Cadwalader, "Project Coldfeet," and the Robert Fulton Company, "Pictorial Report of Operation `Cold-feet,' " 23 June 1962. I am indebted to Mr. Fulton for a copy of this report. The accounts vary somewhat in detail, and I have had to reconstruct events on the basis of what seemed to me most logical.

(16) Cadwalader, "Project Coldfeet."

(17) Coates to Thorsrud, n.d.; copy courtesy of Mr. Thorsrud.

[Top of page]

Historical Document

Posted: Apr 14, 2007 07:03 PM

Last Updated: Jun 27, 2008 09:48 AM

Last Reviewed: Apr 14, 2007 07:03 PM

Tuesday, February 26, 2013




I have written about Bob before, but I am prompted to write about him today because I have just heard from Bob’s son, Rawn Fulton—a very talented documentary filmmaker. I was delighted to do so. I had vowed never to lose touch with the Fultons—an extraordinarily talented family—but sometimes life does not cooperate. I am ashamed of my omission. Bob’s memory deserves better.

Bob and I became friends when I was researching his invention, SKYHOOK, to feature in THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINT.

Skyhook is a rather extraordinary rescue system. An aircraft drops a package which consists of a flight suit, a cable, a balloon and helium—and then a specially equipped aircraft captures the balloon, the subject rises into the sky—and is then reeled into the aircraft. Yes, I know it sounds impossible—surely the subject would be wrenched to his death—but geometry doesn’t work that way. In fact, the subject rises at an an acceptable speed and can be safely recovered. The Fulton system was used for years with only one fatality. In that case the subject was reeled in successfully, but then just fell out of the aircraft whose rear was open. Lessons were learned from that tragedy. Skyhook was used extensively for several decades, but eventually it was felt that helicopters could do a more cost effective job. Arguably they can, if within range, but Skyhook can be used anywhere.  This is a debate that has not yet been resolved.

Bob Fulton then invited me to visit and stay, and I was just plain fascinated with the man. We talked then, and subsequently, for many hours. Although already in his early Nineties, he had all his faculties and was an extremely entertaining conversationalist. Later on he visited me in Ireland and stayed with me. He was a perfect guest. He was a spare, elegant, humorous, interesting man. As I witnessed when we we went to a party nearby, regardless of his age, women were fascinated by him.

Bob did so much in his life that there is no way I can do him justice in a blog. He really demands a book. However, pending that, I have learned from Rawn’s Searchlight Films website that there are at least two documentaries on him—both Rawn’s work, needless to say.

ONE MAN CARAVAN, 3 part series, 30 minutes each. The life, travels and inventions of my father, Robert E. Fulton, Jr., who in 1932 rode a Douglas motorcycle around the world, then invented the Gunairstructor (the first-ever fighter pilot fixed aerial gunnery trainer), the Airphibian (the first flying car ever approved as airworthy by the FAA, now in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) and Skyhook (an air-rescue system to pick up a man with an airplane in flight). Independently produced with Antenne 2, France. Broadcast in France and French territories worldwide. Also available in english.  Director, Cinematographer, Editor.

TWICE UPON A CARAVAN, 53 minutes. 1932-33 solo around-the-world motorcycle trip filmed by my father,Robert E. Fulton, Jr. Original 35mm footage taken by him at age 23 has been edited with his reflections about the trip from his perspective as an older man. A unique & rare look at countries, landscapes, monuments and civilizations that no longer exist. It also serves as primary source material for anthropological, cultural and history studies. Music by Steven Schoenberg.  Distributed by Whitehorse Press. Winner: Telluride Indie Festival. Producer, Editor.

The following is a quoted from Bob’s book, ONE MAN CARAVAN

“All of us,' he said, 'have hopes of being poet, artist, discoverer, philosopher, scientist; of possessing the attributes of all these simultaneously. Few are permitted to achieve any of them in daily life. But in travel we attain them all. Then we have our day of glory, when all our dreams come true, when we can be anything we like, as long as we like, and, when we are tired of it, pull up stakes and move on. Travel -- the solitude of the mountains, the emptiness of the desert, the delicacy of the minaret; eternal change, limitless contrast, unending variety.' (Eric Lang)”
Robert Edison Fulton Jr., One Man Caravan

Monday, February 25, 2013



I wrote yesterday—with some passion—about the travails of writing, and the need to keep going regardless. Hard to overstress the importance of sheer, unadulterated perseverance. That made me think about other outsiders who have questioned the status quo, been proven right again and again, yet have been rejected by “the system.”

Several are my friends and stem from both the arcane world of counter-terrorism, and from the military. All have risked their lives in the National Interest, and done outstanding work in their respective fields.

Their offense has been to refuse to conform intellectually (they have followed the rules of their particular organizations)—so the system has rejected them. Being right is not considered an adequate excuse. Having achieved significant results in defense of National Security is also no justification. The strength of the system lies not in its effectiveness and integrity, but in its ability to benefit those who go along to get long. Typically, it protects an elite, and those who want to be part of that elite.

“The system,” a mindset rather than a monolith, is nonetheless something which pervades the American Way of Life. Given the authoritarian nature of this money driven corporate/government world we have created, and now seem to accept in place of democracy, we should probably not be surprised. It is underpinned by a careerist mentality which puts self-interest before the mission, self-advancement ahead of the public good. It is almost entirely lacking in social concern. Though it is clear that many are unhappy with it—perhaps even a majority—it remains dominant in our society. Why not, indeed, it controls the levers of power.

Have the rejected turned into “beautiful people” as explained in Elizabeth Kubler Ros’s memorable observation (see above). Not quite, based upon my experience—unless one takes a very charitable view of beautiful people—but I have to say her general principle is not only true, but beautifully expressed. Adversity does, in many cases, breed understanding and compassion. Unfortunately, it can also breed bitterness.

Do beautiful people really exist? Yes, they do, but they are also flawed and human. That is part of their charm.


Orso Clip Art




Sunday, February 24, 2013




Photo: So important to remember this.My beautiful sister Lucy’s web site has once again produced an admirable graphic. She must be telepathic.

Sometimes I think that everybody can write, but what stops most people is the amount of stamina required. We are talking years, at best, and probably longer. Of course my comment about everybody being able to write is not true—a great many people can scarcely construct a coherent paragraph, let alone write a 400 page book, but I am just saying it to emphasize that making a living from writing requires more endurance than you can imagine. And the number of people who believe in you may shrink to a frighteningly small total. The good news is that all you need is one. The bad news is that you may not have even that—unless, and until, you are financially successful. Becoming a good writer, in the critical sense, does not cut it because we—such value being part of our current cultural norms--are conditioned to regard financial success as the only determinant. True, it is important and useful—but, it is not, and should not be, the sole standard by which we judge achievement.

People will support almost anyone doing anything for a limited time—frequently without understanding it—but they get very exasperated when months stretch into years; and their support evaporates and tends to be replaced by frustration, irritation and anger.

Why so? Because most of us live corporate or government manipulated, structured lives which are divided into predictable bite-sized bits within the context of short time frames. Pay is generally predictable—as long as you have a job, which you can lose if you step out of line—and comes every couple of weeks or every month. Accordingly someone who is prepared to wait for years for an uncertain payoff is considered both irresponsible and arguably insane. And he or she is certainly different—and different is not considered to be good. People are uncomfortable around you. They wonder what you do all day—suspect it has to be something dubious—and marginalize you. If nothing else, you are the antithesis of the corporate/government mindset—so your very existence threatens the status quo. You really need to be put down—literally, metaphorically; or both..

Welcome to my writer’s world. Is it worth it? Many would think not. I can’t think of anything more invigorating. Do I mind the setbacks, the judgmental attitudes, the negative comments and the criticism?

What I mind is irrelevant. I just know I have got to continue. I guess, if we were talking about religion, we would call that faith—and perhaps it is.

My heart goes out to my fellow struggling writers—and all writers, whether successful or not, struggle. Hang in there! You may have no immediate support, but you are not alone. I doubt you give a damn. You have writing.


Orso Clip Art

Saturday, February 23, 2013



I’m completing my packing, and moving shortly, so my daily blogs are likely to be shorter than normal—and there maybe some gaps. But, I’ll fill them in later. I’m dedicated to achieving a blog a day until I have completed a year. Then, I’ll take a fresh look at the situation.

I have made a lot of progress at moving with less stuff, but am far from the ideal as yet.

Theoretically, all a writer needs this days are a few clothes and a computer—but the reality tends to be different—at least in my case.

I’m working in it.


Orso Clip Art

Friday, February 22, 2013





My gorgeous sister, Lucy, featured the above anecdote on Facebook—and it set me to thinking. Lucy’s observations have a tendency to do that. She is the youngest member of the family, and almost certainly the wisest—and she has an excellent visual sense.

Where conversation is concerned, the reputation of the Irish is already legendary—whether the Blarney stone has been kissed or not. If you haven’t heard of the Blarney stone, I will say no more except to report that legend has it that if you do kiss it (you need a head for heights to do this) you will have the gift of the gab forever. Frankly, I don’t think most Irish need such encouragement.

So, let me turn to the written word. Here, I am nothing if not biased because my life is focused on just that—words—and written words at that. Whether such words are printed on paper, or read on an e-reader, tablet, or Smart Phone makes scant difference to the process of writing (although I detect a tendency for e-books to be shorter). But writing is writing.

Where writing is concerned, as it happens, Ireland, an extremely small country in terms of population—a  little over 6 million in a world of 7 billion—has produced an impressive number of world class writers, and continues to do so; one of them being that truly admirable teller of tales, the late Maeve Binchy quoted above.

Another being my own son, Christian O’Reilly, who apart from being an award winning playwright, has one movie to his credit—more than I have so far—and now writes for the BBC (which is the literary equivalent of qualifying as a Navy SEAL; it’s that tough).

They are both part of a magnificent tradition.

I could go on. There is that phenomenal poet, Seamus Heaney, and that beautiful writer, Peter Cunningham.

And then we come to to movie director Neil Jordan, who is also an author of surpassing talent. Can you place Neil Jordan? Think INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE with Tom Cruise—and much else besides.

All in all, even if one does not hark back to such literary luminaries as Swift, Yeats and Wilde, the roll call of Irish talent (both past and current)constitutes a long, long, list—longer than most people realize because Irish writers are also often claimed by the British as well! Indeed they claim the Duke of Wellington, himself a very fine writer, as a British military hero. But the man was Irish, I will have you know. Yes he did say: “Being born in a stable doesn’t make one a horse,” but nobody is perfect.

What can I say! It’s a complex relationship, and the British are not exactly short of bards (let me throw in Shakespeare, who is generally reckoned to be culturally acceptable)) but they still like to claim the successful Irish as their own, when they can. I suspect this stems from their empire complex—a feeling that they have a right to sail the world and grab whatever they can. Appreciate that a lot of Vikings settled in Britain and contributed to the gene pool. Indeed, the Normans, who won the Battle of Hastings and thus conquered England in 1066, were originally Vikings. Not many people know that.

But let me offer a few thoughts on how Ireland’s continuing literary tradition has come about. Much as the Vikings long had a tradition of raiding, pillage, rape and destruction (which somehow has produced the extraordinarily peaceful and economically successful Scandinavian countries) the Irish have long been besotted with words. Think “grand passion.” This is not a minor dalliance.

And here we are talking about a love affair that has endured for roughly a millennium and a half—a singular display of affection and fidelity. For most of that time it has been predominately oral, but the written word has been present—principally because of the influence of monks—for longer than most people realize. Nonetheless, the dominant tradition was oral.

Here is an insight from Wikipedia:

Poetry in Irish represents the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. The earliest examples date from the 6th century, and are generally short lyrics on themes from religion or the world of nature. They were frequently written by their scribe authors in the margins of the illuminated manuscripts that they were copying. The best known example is Pangur Bán.

It was practical for poems to be short because the Irish recognized that it was necessary to use any means necessary to make the poems lasting in their oral culture. To accomplish such a feat as well as they have, they used complicated rhyme schemes that would render a poem nonsensical if any of the key words were changed from the original version.

In an oral culture, Irish poetry had many uses. A poem could be used to immortalize both the poet and the subject of the poem; oftentimes kings would commission poets to create a piece about them. Such poems would be passed on to descendants so they would remember the great deeds of past generations.

But why are the Irish oral and literary traditions so distinctive and so enduring?

  • They are endemic to the culture. Words and what you can do with them, are enormously important to the Irish—and wit is considered fundamental to the human condition.
  • Oppression under English rule for many hundreds of years meant that, for many, words and dreams were all the Irish had left—so they made the most of them. In Ireland, dreams have substance.
  • Success breeds success. It is singularly inspiring to have so many extraordinarily talented role models for generation after generation.
  • The juxtaposition of the Irish and English languages—with Irish adding something very special to the way English is both spoken and written.
  • The high status of education in Ireland which has long resulted in an extremely literate population.
  • The active support of the Irish government from the foundation of the state in the belief that the nourishment of the culture was –and remains—singularly important.

The results, I am delighted to say, have been—and continue to be—spectacular, despite Ireland’s current economic woes. Enlightened societies have long known that investing in a nation’s culture generates  both tangible and intangible added value—and that the free market alone is not sufficient. This raises the interesting question of what tangible benefits could be generated if the U.S. ever decided to invest in the arts in a serious way. Current support for the arts, in a nation of about 315 million, is little more than tokenism.

I suspect we would be agreeably surprised, economic growth would be stimulated, and the quality of our lives would be enhanced.

It would be interesting to pick one state and really experiment—because if one could show definitively what the effect of supporting the arts could be, the consequences could change our thinking profoundly.

If you doubt me, just take a trip to Europe and there just imagine the economic effects of the Renaissance. Wander, browse, look and think. Stare in awe. Wander around Verona. Soak up the beauty of Florence. Watch the palio—it’s a horse race--in Sienna. Gaze in admiration at St. Peters. Consider what these people created.

The impact of that extraordinary time must have exceeded that of the Marshall Plan many times.

I rest my case.


Orso Clip Art







Thursday, February 21, 2013




Blue Wildebeest

I receive a great deal of fan mail—all of it welcome, by the way—which I try to answer individually. That may be unwise, because it takes a great deal of time to deal with correspondence (which, arguably, I could be putting to better use by writing new books) but I am deeply grateful to those who take the trouble, not only to support me, but to write—and somehow feel they deserve a personal response. As you will appreciate, that is not a rational decision—it comes from the heart—but it has been deeply rewarded by my making some some very good friends, and by feeling that I have been doing the right thing, albeit not the sensible thing.

The trouble with replying personally is that a thoughtful reply tends to generate further correspondence—and, before you know it, you are swamped. Still, some readers stand out—and one of them was (and remains) Pieter Stofberg. He likes my books and I’m fascinated by what he does. Big game hunting harks back to many books of high adventure I read when younger—and to Hemingway.

Pieter StofbergPieter runs a big game hunting operation in Namibia, Africa—and by all accounts does a magnificent job. His clients rave about him, and he is aided by the fact that Namibia, the country, is absolutely spectacular.

In short, going on safari there is not like going down to Cancun, Mexico, for two weeks in the sun. It is the experience of a lifetime.

Going on safari doesn’t mean you have to hunt with a gun—that’s a personal choice. You can also use a camera, or just revel in a completely different way of life. Or you can fish. Namibia offers a range of choices. The important thing is the experience—which is so different from the current Western way of life as to change your way of thinking—for the better.

I haven’t yet set a Fitzduane novel in Africa—though certain episodes from his past are set in the Congo. But that may change.

Pieter’s company is called African Days and his e-mail is


Orso Clip Art

Wednesday, February 20, 2013



twitter vine examples

When I was writing about airships the other day—and commented on the advantages of the Airlander hybrid airship in disasters (particularly because such a hybrid aircraft is unaffected by buckled roads and broken bridges, and does not require a runway—yet can carry many tons of cargo), my mind quickly recalled that such a disaster is highly likely to hit Seattle—where I happen to be living right now.


This is earthquake territory with a vengeance—and sooner or later the Big One will hit.

Gulp! Pause… while fingers of fear do what such things do.

But earthquakes are a predicable hazard—even if difficult to predict with any precision—so if the ground shakes and is ripped open; and if I fall six floors before the roof falls on me—into Lake Washington where drowning seems highly likely on top of my being crushed—I shall be able to console myself with the thought that such an event was not entirely unexpected—though a little warning would have been nice. In effect, I will have died in my comfort zone. What a relief!

In truth, I am much more concerned (and interested) about the unpredictability of life—in a more fundamental sense of the threat being unknown—and I am somewhat of a believer in Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory. Here is what Wikipedia says about it:

The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that is a surprise (to the observer), has a major effect, and after the fact is often inappropriately rationalized with the benefit of hindsight.

The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:

  1. The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology
  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
  3. The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs

Unlike the earlier philosophical "black swan problem," the "black swan theory" refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events, considered extreme outliers, collectively play vastly larger roles than regular occurrences.[1]

The question now is whether I am thinking of all this from a personal point of view, or as a writer. Am I revealing some of my own inner fears—or am I thinking in terms of plotting another story? Frankly, I am damned if I can tell the difference.

I find it hard to express the joy that last sentence gives me. My life, and my writing life, have now become one (and it only took a few decades).

But let me close with a quote that encapsulates the very essence of what I feel about good books. They are not just a pleasure to read, or an inspiration to the intellect—marvelous though that is: They are a call for action. Ideas are what move us forward.

“ A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting. ”
- Henry David Thoreau


Orso Clip Art

Tuesday, February 19, 2013



My much loved sister Lucy keeps on pulling family photos out her mysterious horde—which begs the question as to where they are coming from. I thought I had the main repository—and mine are all in store. Yet Lucy keeps on issuing such photos on Facebook. Time for me to ask, I suspect. Either way, I’m delighted. I had thought some of these were lost.

My mother—an only child—was brought up in Newtown House, Termonfeckin, Co. Loth, Ireland—a place large enough to be an institution. It now is one—and has been so for many decades. It is the headquarters of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, and seems to be mainly used as a training center. It is now called An Grianan.

An Grianan Adult Education Center (Termonfeckin (Tearmann Feichín))

The ICA purchased what was then known as Newtown House, in trust for the benefit of the people of Ireland. In October 1954 An Grianán was officially opened by the then President of Ireland, Mr. Seán T. O'Kelly. It is now open all year for a wide range of Adult education classes. Open to pubic for visitors. Garden center open.

My mother was educated by French governesses up to her mid teens. My much loved grandmother meant well—such an upbringing was the norm in her privileged world—but the results were disastrous. My mother felt oppressed by the governesses, missed the companionship of other children, and eventually rebelled completely.

When she was old enough, and WW II broke out, she took off for London and enlisted in the WAAF as a radar operator—and otherwise had what they call “a good war.” Men and women lived as if there was no tomorrow, because all too often, there wasn’t. Civilians died in their tens of thousands in the Blitz. Soldiers, sailors and airman died wherever they were sent. It wasn’t called a World War for nothing. They died throughout the globe. Meanwhile, when on leave, they did what young and frightened people do. They threw caution to the winds and sought comfort in each other’s arms.

I was one of the results. I, too, rebelled. It seems to be something of a family tradition. Children are one of life’s greatest pleasures—and worth every second of dedication—but difficult. And they don’t remain children. Such is the nature of the human condition. I don’t expect it to change.


Orso Clip Art

Monday, February 18, 2013



The above headline is the title of a fascinating piece in the e-magazine Alternet by Susie on February 15, 2013.

Alternet is a Left Wing publication which tends to be prone to excessive headlines—in my judgment—but which still publishes some truly thought-provoking articles. I check out about 20 publications with some regularity, and Alternet is one of them.

In this case the writer was commenting on a book by Bonnie Ware, an Australian palliative nurse who recorded her extensive experiences of the dying in a blog and then went on to write a book called THE TOP FIVE REGRETS OF THE DYING.

Needless to say, it immediately made me wonder what regrets I will have as I lie on my deathbed waiting for Father Time to wield his scythe (if I have the luxury of time to contemplate my life before it is terminated) so I read on with interest. Had I made the same mistakes as everyone else—which seemed highly likely—or what?

What I found surprised me and made me feel decidedly better about some of the decisions I have taken. Of course I have regrets—one can always do better—but the following list is, mostly, NOT applicable in my case, though I do wish I had tried harder to keep in touch with friends (and I have tried).

In particular, despite many difficulties, I followed my dream—which was to become a writer.

I give thanks every day that I made that decision and had the fortitude to execute it against formidable odds. In truth, I am still facing considerable difficulties, but am not persuaded I should give up writing.

The following is the list of regrets that, according to Nurse Bonnie Ware, people have at the end of their lives. They are well worth thinking about. I was particularly struck by the phrase in Regret 2: “The treadmill of a work existence”—doing something every day which fundamentally you hate. If that is the best we can do as a society, we need to change—soon, and drastically. It cannot be good for either the individual concerned, or society as a whole, for people to be be made miserable by their work. It also cannot be good business.

As it happens, I love my work—writing—with more passion that I can put into words. As a consequence I feel both fortunate and privileged . However, the transition from conventional business to a writing career was extremely difficult, and did not happen by accident—and the life, itself, remains financially insecure.

I guess we all make choices and have to live with the consequences.


1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

"This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it."

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.

"This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

"Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result."

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

"Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

"This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again."


Orso Clip Art



Sunday, February 17, 2013




I have absolutely no idea why I love airships--much as I have no insight as to why I am fascinated by—amongst other things—geodesic domes, high-tech yurts, monorails and FastShips (which are a new type of short, wide, high speed cargo ship designed to fill the gap between fast but expensive air-freight, and slow but less expensive sea-freight). However, clearly I root for the underdog, because these are all marginal areas of technology which—despite their promise—do not seem to have encouraging futures, except possibly, in works of fiction. Of course one never knows. The development of almost any new concept—whatever its merits—tends to be vastly harder than is generally appreciated because it is up against some very powerful forces. The ones that immediately come to mind are vested interests, inertia, ignorance—and lack of money.

In fact, I included an airship sequence in my thriller RULES OF THE HUNT. This was prompted by the very real presence of a Japanese police airship which hovers over Tokyo most of the time—and which is just taken for granted by most people. Presumably, it is packed full of surveillance equipment, but it doesn’t feel intrusive—which is one of the advantages of airships. They can hover, virtually silently, for extended periods of time—days if necessary—high enough to be part of the scenery. In contrast, helicopters are low-flying, noisy, intrusive, extremely expensive to run, and have very limited endurance—typically only two to three hours. All of that said, I will admit that helicopters fascinate me too—and I have faith they can be vastly improved. But, that is another story.

The compromise, where surveillance is concerned, would appear to be drones which are evolving so fast they are rather hard to write about. I tend to feel that by the time I finish a piece on them, the opening paragraphs are already obsolete.

We all know that they are controlled from the ground, sometimes by operators who are thousands of miles away—an extraordinary concept in itself—but perhaps we should be aware that more and more ground vehicles and aircraft can control themselves for much, or all, of their operational time. Whatever be the purpose of such scientific progress, we are talking about a series of major technological achievements here.

Be that as it may, here is a short extract from a recent Wired magazine article. Danger Room is Wired’s excellent military technology section. Highly recommended.

Say goodbye to the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV. Built by Northrop Grumman, it’s a dimpled blimp as long as a football field; seven stories high; and carries a price tag of over half a billion dollars. The plan was to use the blimp over Afghanistan, where its gondola could haul seven tons of cargo — including advanced camera gear able to see dozens of square miles of terrain with crystal-clear resolution at a single blink. It would stay 20,000 feet above the warzone for weeks at a time, something beyond the capabilities of any spy plane, manned or piloted. Trials over Afghanistan were slated for early this year.

Not anymore. A report in InsideDefense citing anonymous sources said LEMV quietly met the Army budget axe last week. The Army confirmed it, on the record, to Danger Room late on Thursday.

It strikes me as quite an achievement to get the price of a single blimp—even with a dimple—up to over half a billion dollars (that is “billion” with a “b.”). But Northrop Gruman, the very model of a modern high cost, high margin, defense contractor, doesn’t really think in small figures, even though it never actually designed the aircraft. That distinction belongs to Hybrid Air Vehicles of the UK who rightly felt they needed a U.S. alliance if they were ever to crack the U.S. defense market. Many have had the same thought and perished in the process. 

Why “Hybrid” in the name?

Well, the LEMV actually gets only 60% of its lift from helium and the remaining 40% from aerodynamic lift. That makes it hybrid in terms of lift—and much easier to control. For instance, on the ground its own mass keeps it in place and it can move around on built-in air-cushions—rather like a hovercraft. Similarly, in the air, its own mass makes it much more stable in adverse weather conditions. Because it needs to be actively flown to obtain part of its lift, that makes the engines much more important, and it is noteworthy that the designers have planned in roughly ten times the power than would normally be available on a traditional blimp.

There is a civilian version of the LEMV known as the Airlander. One of the great advantages of such an aircraft is that theoretically it can airlift considerable quantities of material—50 tons has been mentioned—over great distances much more economically than by conventional aircraft; and it can land and take off from any cleared, relatively flat area—without the need for either a runway or ground crew. These are huge advantages.

Will this ever actually happen? Not unless more money is invested in this area. Great ideas tend to need fine-tuning to get the end result perfected, and that requires development money. 

Surveillance apart—which was the U.S. Army’s area of initial interest, potential applications are many and various. Appreciate the advantages of being able to transport heavy loads over considerable distances in a cost efficient manner without the needs for either roads or airports—while remaining unaffected by the terrain below, whether it be land, water or ice. Whole areas of the world would become accessible at last. Significant aid could be brought in fast after disasters—especially where the roads and bridges have been destroyed.

I have no idea whether Hybrid Air Vehicles have a sound design as yet or not, but this is a concept that really should be pursued.


Orso Clip Art

Saturday, February 16, 2013




I first visited the U.S. in the early Seventies. At the time I was the founder and Managing Director of the UK subsidiary of the Addmaster Corporation of California (the latter still exists, and is thriving, I’m proud to say). The subsidiary was called Addmaster UK—and despite great odds, we were very successful.

At that time, though I am Irish—albeit Anglo-Irish—I lived in London. Many Irish still do. That is where the work was—and still is.

Back to the Seventies: In that era, the main commercial threat came from the Japanese, flying was still enjoyable, there was no accepted terrorist threat in the U.S., and the American Middle Class was still in good shape (though the Vietnam War had exacted a heavy toll in American lives and treasure—and, most crucially, on American self-confidence).

Just about everything, from the American diet to the cost of Healthcare, was to change over the next 40 years—and mostly not for the better as far as most Americans were concerned. Perhaps the most disturbing development was that rising American prosperity, stemming from significant increases in productivity, ceased being shared. Previously, since the end of WW II in 1945, all the stakeholders—shareholders, management and workers—benefited, more or less proportionately. That ended around that time.

Subsequently, after the early Seventies, the Rich got ever richer, but the bulk of the population—the Middle Class—saw virtually no increase in earnings at all. And now Middle Class earnings are in decline; and unions have been virtually crushed—at least in the private sector. The Rich have won—and some have stated quite publicly that they are unhappy with that fact.

I’m far from sure this is the way the U.S. is meant to be; needs to be; or should be. It is not the American way to want to pull down those who are successful, but neither is a low wage economy, combined with a steady downward pressure on earnings, acceptable—especially because costs are going up. Sinking wages combined with rising costs does not happiness make; nor does it make for a healthy democracy.

It kills the American Dream.

I have written about all this in my book, TITANIC NATION: How To Avoid Icebergs.


Orso Clip Art