Monthly Archives: January 2015

Panama, 1913

Aerial view, 2013

One of the most spectacular, costly (in both money and lives) and ultimately productive engineering achievements of human history, the Panama Canal is something to see if you can swing a trip there.  Whether you can or not, historian David McCullogh’s The Path Between the Seas is a gripping account as history books go.

Traffic on the Canal

Shortly after the canal opened, American aviator R. G. Fowler shipped his 1912 Gage biplane to the site and made an epic “transcontinental” nonstop crossing from the Pacific to the Caribbean ends of the canal.  On board was a movie camera, and I think some of the aerial footage from the National Archives video below was from his flight.

The Gage biplane in which he made this flight survived to be preserved at the National Air & Space Museum, where it is an insufficiently appreciated exhibit at the museum’s Udvar Hazy Center next to Dulles airport in Virginia.

Canadian Warplane Heritage videos

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum just released the trailer for its upcoming television and DVD production, “Reunion of Giants,” documenting the CWH’s trip to Britain to stage displays with the two remaining airworthy Lancaster bombers in the summer of 2014.  Clearly this video was planned from the outset of the venture and carefully produced.  It looks to be an excellent production.

While on CWHM’s YouTube channel viewing that, I noticed their most recent previously posted video, a documentary made about CWH in the mid 1980s.  This would be of interest to anyone interested in the state of the World War II aircraft preservation movement thirty years ago, but especially for anyone like me who lived in Ontario around that time and saw all those planes.  Watching it is a bittersweet experience, for while many of the planes in the video are still going strong and looking even better now, too many have been destroyed in accidents, burned in a hangar fire suffered by CWH in 1993, or just lapsed out of flying status.  CWH itself underwent a contraction following the 1993 fire, and from the perspective of, say, the year 1996, this video would have been more bitter than sweet, as it seemed CWH had reached an apex in the 1980s that it would never see again, with the Lancaster being the bright spot in a dimming picture.  But things are very different now.  The CWHM has remade itself into, in some ways, a better organization than it was in the 1980s, with strong restoration and display programs and a great international reputation.  Thus CWH is able in its caption quite candidly to characterize the days of this video as “a high point of flyable aircraft for the museum” and not “the high point.”  Canadian vintage aircraft enthusiasts are grateful that this is so.

Postwar B-17s

I recently dug up some old photos of Dick Kamm’s for a researcher of postwar military use of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses.  While I was at it I added them to the site, but the rest of the B-17 page is still a mess, so here I’ll reproduce the galleries of just the old B-17 photos.

Dick’s first posting in the Air Force was mechanic training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi.  B-17s and other types left over from World War II were used as instructional airframes for the student mechanics to practice on, and some appeared on base from time to time as they were used as transports by the USAF.  Here are B-17G 42-102737 and B-17G 44-8095.  Also probably at Keesler was B-17G 44-6393 “Starduster,” which has survived to the present day as an exhibit at the March Field Museum in Riverside, California.  All of these pics are likely from 1947.

Next Dick went to Panama as a mechanic on RF-80As, where he spent the first half of 1948 and took the trouble to photograph some of the many and varied types based on or visiting France Field at Colon, Panama.  Among these aircraft were a couple of transport-converted B-17s that were kept busy shuttling between the various USAF bases along the Panama Canal, including France Field at the Carribbean end and Howard and Albrook Fields at the Pacific end.  Dick got his first B-17 ride in 44-85702 “Super Stud”; 44-85693 was a plane he may have just photographed while airplane-watching near the runway.

When Dick transferred to Germany with the 36th Fighter Group in mid-1948, there were more B-17s to see.  This is 44-6787 “Cannon Ball,” the personal transport of General John K. Cannon, commander of the USAF forces in Europe at the time.  Dick likely photographed it on a visit to his base of Furstenfeldbruck, or it could have been at some other base being visited by the Skyblazers display team when he traveled with them.

This final set of photos must have been taken later, since the ramp is full of T-28As and T-34s which entered service later in the 1950s.  It may have been at Eglin AFB or one of Dick’s other postings from that period.  The negatives are not in the best shape, but they show search and rescue B-17H 44-83793.  The paint scheme appears to be mostly red, a scheme that I associate with QB-17 drone aircraft that were based at Eglin, but I have not seen a record of 44-83793 being converted for drone work. 


Nice Ice

Bryant Park, behind the main Public Library branch in New York City, is transformed into an ice rink each winter.  Skating is free of charge if you bring your own skates, making it one of the best deals in town.  The rinks at Rockefeller Center and Central Park are for the tourists, but this is New York’s backyard rink.  I skate there two or three times a week, but this week has been exceptionally memorable.  An extended spell of cold weather cured the ice to the point where it was as hard and fast as the pond and marsh ice that I used to skate on in my youth.  Arena ice never gets that way, being frozen from below and constantly melting at the surface.  And unlike pond ice, the park rink this week was smooth and ripple-free, and there were no cat-tails to step around.  In the early morning when few skaters are out there, it’s one of the most pleasant things you can do in the city.


Je suis Charlie

Nous sommes tous Charlie.

Jerry Billing 1921-2015

Jerry Billing was a Canadian fighter, test and display pilot who flew Spitfires with the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force in Malta and western Europe during World War II.  He achieved six confirmed aerial victories and was shot down twice.  After the war Billing rejoined the RCAF and flew as an instructor, test and display pilot in jet fighters in Canada and, pursuant to a pilot exchange program, in Britain.

From the early 1970s to 1994, Billing flew restored Spitfires for various owners, and was North America’s most proficient Spitfire pilot.  He was best known as the pilot and custodian of Spitfire Mk.IXe MK923, owned by Hollywood actor Cliff Robertson.  Billing’s aerial displays in the Spitfire were graceful and precise, with his respect, familiarity and affection for the airplane evident in every maneuver.  He would have been much better known outside of southwestern Ontario and the midwestern United States if he and MK923 had toured more widely.  His flying was one of the things that got me hooked on vintage airplanes as a youngster and adolescent.

Billing died last Friday, January 9, aged 93.  He lived to see a full-scale Spitfire replica in his wartime markings erected in his hometown of Essex, Ontario.

Holiday Modeling in Metal


My 10-year-old son and I tackled this modeling project over the holidays.  This is one of those Metal Earth model kits, available in toy and book stores, that consists of a couple of plates of laser-etched metal out of which you cut and bend pieces to make any of a quite impressive array of architecture, animal, vehicle and other models.  It took a couple of evenings to get our Titanic together, most of it being New Year’s Eve when we used it to kill the hours between dinner and midnight.  These models are fiddly in the extreme, but the decals are impressive.  If I do any more, I’ll get a pointier pair of needle-nose pliers first.  Most of the pieces are held together by twisting tiny little metal tabs to lock them after feeding through slots, so the pliers are your most essential tool.


Best Airplane Forum Thread of the Year

And by “the year” I mean the new year, 2015.  How do I know what will be the best airplane forum thread of this year, just 11 days in?  Because its predecessors were the best of last year, and the year before that …

Duxford airfield in Cambridgeshire, England, is the single most awesome airport in the world for vintage aircraft lovers, and I think I could prove that statistically by the number of vintage aircraft on display, the number of vintage aircraft movements (both home-based and visiting) on typical non-airshow days, and the rarity and beauty of the machines to be seen.  Two guys who spend an inordinate amount of time on that field contribute photos to the Duxford Diary thread on the Key Publishing FlyPast forum at least every few days.  For a taste of what we are in for in 2015, check out 2014’s version of the thread.  The only thing wrong with this thread is how unfortunate it makes an airplane fancier feel for being wherever else he is.


Challenged to Build a Hurricane

Seattle-based lawyer, modeler, blogger and airplane-looker Jim Bates, a/k/a A Scale Canadian, wants to drag me into his Battle of the Barristers with a couple of other lawyer/modeler/blogger/airplane-lookers.  I don’t know either of the other battlers, but I’m sure they’re nice fellows; after all they’re lawyers, right?  The challenge is to build Airfix’s 1/72 Hawker Hurricane Mk.I by the end of 2015.  Oddly, there is no apparent competitive dimension to this “battle” of the kind you’d expect from lawyers, such as who can build it first, the most times, the most obnoxiously, or with the expenditure of the most money (preferably someone else’s).  Despite that, I suppose I’m in.

Airfix Hurricane

I’ll be building mine as L1669 flown by Canadian Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw in North Africa early in World War II.  I’ll be using an old IPMS Canada decal sheet of Canadian Aces and a tropical filter from a Heller kit.


Not-So-Big Thinking from Daniel Dennett

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new video on the Big Think YouTube channel that reflects the smallest thinking I’ve heard in a while from this usually quite engaging scholar.  In it, he takes issue with the recent rejection by many neuroscientists of the concept of “free will,” defined as having some discretion, given a particular set of conditions and state of your nervous system at a given moment, to make a choice other than what you make.  The basic argument of these scientists is that your brain is a meat computer that consists entirely of ordinary physical things (cells, molecules, electrical charges) and at any particular moment there is only one thing it can do next.  There is no non-physical mind or soul sitting on top of the brain overriding these processes; our feelings to the contrary are illusory.

A philosophical implication of the rejection of free will is that we deserve no credit or blame for our actions.  They’re just the consequence of our genetic inheritance, the total of all experiences that have programmed us up to a given moment, and the conditions with which we are presented.  Dennett devotes this talk not to whether free will exists, but to a thought experiment – for which he has famously but unnecessarily coined the term “intuition pump” – about how someone would behave if told he has no free will.  His point, expressed in the final 10 seconds of the video (the rest is really just padding), is that a person who believes that he has no choice in how he behaves has no incentive to take responsibility for his actions, and can argue that society also should not hold him responsible.

Dennett has been engaged in debates over this topic with other philosophers and with neuroscientists for several years, so it is irritating to see him address none of the arguments that have been made to his face and treat the subject as if he just thought of it.   One of these debaters has been Sam Harris, who has addressed much more sophisticated forms of these objections.  When you consider that the reward of good conduct and punishment of bad conduct affects the experience and programming of both the person who did the conduct and everyone else who knows about it, and therefore can potentially modify the future behavior of that person (rehabilitation) and everyone else (deterrence), the reasons for society to reward good behaviors and punish bad ones are largely untouched by the rejection of free will.  As Harris points out, the only reasons for punishment that become irrational are hatred-based (vengeance), and that’s not a bad thing.  And the person electing a course of conduct will be programmed by those expected societal reactions.  Thus it is not surprising to see real-world people who consider themselves to have no free will (e.g., neuroscientists) nevertheless going around behaving responsibly.  If Dennett has any point at all, it is that the recognition that there is no free will may eliminate self-hatred as a potential tool for regulating one’s own behavior.  And he says that as if it is a bad thing.