February 2012

The Lockheed U-2 flew at 70,000 feet, an altitude so high that it was virtually invulnerable to the jet interceptors and even surface-to-air missiles of the era.

Today would have been the 102nd birthday of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the famed aircraft engineer and founder of the legendary “Skunk Works”. Johnson’s accomplishments are simply amazing — think of him as the Steve Jobs of the aerospace industry, except that he had both the engineering AND design skills. Here are just some of the aircraft that he was largely responsible for:

    P-38 Lightning
    P-80 Shooting Star
    F-104 Starfighter
    SR-71 Blackbird (and its predecessor, the A-12)

Johnson won the prestigious Collier Trophy twice, once for the F-104 and again for the SR-71. The Blackbird, which first flew in 1964 remains the fastest aircraft ever built and still holds the record for altitude for a conventional plane.

Johnson was able to accomplish these remarkable feats of engineering by isolating his team in a building just off the main Burbank campus, a blacked-out structure dubbed the “Skunk Works”. He kept the team relatively small and focused, bypassing long-held industry protocols by sometimes allowing work to proceed before drawings were finalized and having the men on the floor design parts from sketches. He was not necessarily a fun guy to work for, but he engendered a great deal of loyalty and his track record is unassailable.

When Johnson was working on the U-2 spyplane for the CIA, the work was so secret, he was sent cheques to his personal mailbox to cover the cost of R&D. The Air Force was not too happy when they found out that the CIA had gone behind their back to start their own covert air arm. Pilots overflying the Soviet Union had to resign their Air Force commissions and become civilians. The CIA aircraft bore no national markings. It was the height of the Cold War and the Skunk Works led by Johnson played a huge part in gathering intelligence. It is unlikely that any aircraft will ever duplicate the feats of the U-2 and SR-71.

Today, aircraft are designed and built by consortiums comprised of multiple companies across multiple countries. The days where Kelly could sell the Air Force a new jet based just on his sales pitch and then retire to the Skunk Works to preside over its creation are gone forever.

John Glenn orbits the earth in Friendship 7.

This week marked the 50th anniversary of Mercury Friendship 7 and the orbital flight of John Glenn. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth and this mission began to bring the American space program on a par with the Soviets. Glenn was launched on top of an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral on February 20th, 1962 and completed three orbits before successfully splashing down into the Atlantic Ocean. It was a huge success for the U.S. and a triumph that NASA (the civilian agency charged with the American space program) really needed.

John Glenn’s Mercury Spacecraft, Friendship 7, on display at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

The USSR had embarrassed the U.S. to this point by being the first nation to orbit an artificial satellite (Sputnik I), put a living being into space (Laika the dog on Sputnik II), and not only put a man in space (Yuri Gagarin on Vostok I), but have him orbit the earth before returning safely. The Russians were capable of these amazing feats because they had developed much more powerful booster rockets in order to be able to deliver their atomic weapons, which were larger than their American counterparts.

There was, however, a barely detectable element of superficiality to these successes that, upon closer examination, revealed that it would be the Americans who would prevail in the Cold War Space Race. For example, Gagarin had no control over his spacecraft — it was controlled entirely from the ground, as would most of the Soviet spaceflights. As the Mercury program progressed, the U.S. astronauts were able to execute more and more maneuvers in space via manual control.

Ed White floating outside of Gemini 4, June 3, 1965

The Soviets had performed the first spacewalk (Alexei Leonov on Voskhod II), causing many to view the the later U.S. equivalent (Ed White on Gemini 4) as a redundant imitation. Leonov’s mission, though, was almost a publicity stunt in retrospect. The Russians were ill-prepared for extra-vehicular activity and Leonov’s suit expanded after he squeezed out the makeshift hatch — he barely made it back in. By contrast, White floated easily and freely outside the Gemini spacecraft and even was able to control his movement via a small hand-held rocket unit. Future Gemini missions would perfect the ability to work in space, which NASA felt was a critical component of achieving their ultimate goal of going to the moon.

The Russians were the first to have two spacecraft approach each other in space (Vostok III and IV), but it was the Gemini program that performed the first “rendezvous” as Gemini 6 and 7 maneuvered to within a foot of each other and then Gemini 8 actually docked with an unmanned Agena vehicle. These accomplishments were much more important to the future success of the lunar programs than simply being “first”.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon — ironically, there are almost no photos of Neil Armstrong on the moon since he was the astronaut with the camera.

The space race truly ended on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong’s boot touched the powdery lunar surface at Tranquility Base. The Americans had put a man on the moon, the only “first” that really mattered.

Neil Armstrong inside the Eagle on the lunar surface.

The amazing Jim Brown turns 76 today. Brown, who had an outstanding career at Syracuse, is considered to be the best running back in NFL history. He played 9 seasons for the Cleveland Browns, led the NFL in rushing 8 times, and finished his career as the leading rusher in league history. In addition, he set the NFL records for yardage in a single season (1863) and yards per carry (5.2). All of these records were set in a 12- and 14-game season as opposed to the 16-game season.

In a startling move, Brown retired after the 1965 season (and was Pro Bowl Back of the Game in his final contest). His career rushing record was not eclipsed until Walter Payton overtook him in 1984, a testament to the magnitude of that achievement.

Brown went into acting with some success and has championed many activist causes. He has remained true to his ideals, despite the fact that this has rubbed many the wrong way. Nonetheless, nothing can detract from his performance on the gridiron, where his accomplishments still stand up today. And at a playing height and weight of 6’2″ and 232 pounds, there is little doubt that a young Jim Brown would be able to be effective if not dominant in the NFL today.

Manningham’s clutch 38-yard catch that spurred the New York Giants winning drive in Superbowl XLVI.

Pencil on Strathmore 80lb sketch paper. Click on the image for a larger version.

It was not the stunning upset of the 18-0 juggernaut in 2007, but the New York Giants victory over the New England Patriots in Superbowl XLVI was almost as memorable. Once again, there were three quarters of sporadic, marginally interesting football followed by an electrifying fourth quarter which saw the Giants and their quarterback, Eli Manning, once again deny Bill Belichick and Tom Brady of the ultimate prize.

The game began on an odd (and, it turns out, ominous) note, with Brady dropping back into his own endzone and launching a bomb down the middle of the field to…no one. He was called for intentional grounding and, because the penalty occurred in the endzone, a safety was awarded to the Giants, who now led 2-0 (Pittsburgh Steelers fans and trivia buffs will note that the Steelers led Superbowl IX over the Minnesota Vikings at halftime by that score). Manning drove the Giants to a touchdown, passing to Victor Cruz for the score and, a short salsa dance later, the Giants led 9-0. The Patriots being the Patriots meant that this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk, however. Brady started a string of 16 straight completions as the Patriots scored 17 unanswered points to take a 17-9 lead in the third quarter.

The Giants continued to chip away, adding a pair of Lawrence Tynes field goals and the Pats only led 17-15 to start the fourth quarter. New York’s defense kept things hot for Brady, with Justin Tuck sacking him twice. Uncharacteristically, Brady uncorked an ill-timed pass down the middle of the field intended for his tight end, Rob Gronkowski, that was intercepted by Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn. Later, Wes Welker dropped a pass from Brady that would have set up the Pats at the New York 20 yard line and allowed them to burn up much of the clock. Instead, with 3:46 remaining, Manning and Giants had the ball deep in their own end at the 12-yard line. Manning went back to pass and threw a rainbow that nestled into the hands of Mario Manningham along the left sideline. The incredible throw and catch put the Giants in business at midfield. Manning continued to complete passes and eat up the clock until the Giants were at the New England 11, at which point the Patriots decided to let New York score so they could get the ball back with enough time for Brady to work a miracle. Try as he might to fall down at the one yard line, Ahmad Bradshaw fell over the goal line for a 21-17 lead. The two-point conversion failed and Brady took over at his own 14 with less than a minute to go. However, after completing a clutch fourth-and-16 play to Deion Branch, the Patriots ran out of miracles as Brady’s desperation heave fell incomplete in the endzone.

For the game, Manning completed 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards and the touchdown to Cruz without turning the ball over. His steady performance earned him his second Superbowl MVP trophy and has ended the argument as to whether he deserves to be considered an “elite” quarterback. He joins Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, and Tom Brady as the only players to be named Superbowl MVP multiple times.

Click on the image for a larger version.

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