Lockheed U-2C
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Today marks the 55th anniversary of the Francis Gary Powers U-2 Incident. In the late 50’s, the United States was desperate for information about the Soviet military capabilities, especially their bomber force and nuclear missile sites. Lockheed submitted a proposal developed by legendary aeronautical engineer Kelly Johnson based on his high performance F-104 Starfighter interceptor, but it was rejected by the Air Force. The CIA, however, got wind of this and they contracted Lockheed to develop the high altitude reconnaissance aircraft that could overfly Russia and bring back photographic details of these installations. Johnson and his secret “Skunk Works” lab finished the U-2 prototype after only 8 months. During this period, the CIA even sent personal cheques to Johnson’s home in amounts totalling millions to keep the project funded while they worked through the red tape in Washington. To meet the required altitude requirements, Kelly drove his team to make the aircraft lighter and lighter, resulting in an airframe that met the requirements, but was quite flimsy. On one occasion, a worker dropped a wrench and it tore a hole in the thin metal fuselage.

The CIA commenced overflights of Russia and gained valuable intelligence. The planes were unmarked and flew with civilian pilots, some of whom were not even U.S. citizens. President Dwight Eisenhower personally authorized the flights and in the spring of 1960, he was getting more nervous about having a U-2 shot down over the Soviet Union. Despite his concerns, he authorized a mission to take place in late April that, due to weather considerations, was postponed until May 1st — May Day in the Soviet Union. The pilot for that fateful mission would be Francis Gary Powers, a Captain in the Air Force, but technically retired and operating as a civilian. He would overfly the Baikonur Cosmodrome, plutonium generating facilities, and other important installations after taking off from Peshawar, Pakistan with the intention of landing at Bodø, Norway.

Flying at 70,000ft, the U-2 was virtually immune to Soviet air defenses. The aircraft were tracked on radar even before they entered Soviet airspace, but there was nothing the frustrated Russians could do about it. Their interceptors would flame out long before they could get close to the U-2’s altitude and their surface-to-air missiles were not accurate enough to hit anything flying that high. Unfortunately for the U.S. and Powers, their luck had run out. The new SA-2 anti-aircraft missile was unleashed on Power’s U-2 and exploded near the high-flying plane. The concussion blast blew the wings off the U-2 and basically caused it to split in two. Powers was unable to hit the self-destruct button and barely escaped the plummeting wreckage. He bailed out and landed in a farmer’s field where he was immediately taken into custody.

Naturally, the backlash was enormous and the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev played it up for all it was worth, letting Eisenhower dig himself a huge hole with his “off-course NASA plane” cover story. Powers was paraded in front of the cameras, as was the U-2 wreckage. Powers was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, but was returned home in a “spy exchange” in 1962 for Rudolph Abel. Some in the CIA suggested it was like trading “Mickey Mantle for a goddamn bullpen catcher.” This was only the beginning of a cold reception for Powers. Many criticized him for not making sure the U-2 self-destruct was activated and some went so far as to suggest he should have utilized the fatal poison needle device issued to all U-2 pilots to avoid telling the Soviets anything valuable. Eventually, a commission cleared Powers and commended him on his conduct under these difficult circumstances. He went on to work for Lockheed for several years as a test pilot, then flew a traffic helicopter for a Los Angeles news station. He died when his helicopter’s faulty fuel gauge caused him to run out of gas and crash. A hero to the end, the analysis of the crash revealed he potentially could have landed safely, but changed his course to avoid children he saw playing near his landing area.

The U-2 continues to fly today, used for high-altitude experiments as well as its original reconnaissance role. It is one of very few aircraft to be in service for over 50 years.

There are many artifacts relating to the Francis Gary Powers incident at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Below is the U-2C on display at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC. This is not exactly like the plane used in 1960 in that it is actually a modified U-2A upgraded to a U-2C. You can get a good view of the huge glider-like wings that gave the U-2 lift even at 70,000ft.

Here is the camera used in the U-2 to photograph Soviet installations, designed by Edwin Land. These photos showed the CIA that the Soviets did not have nearly as many ICBM’s or strategic bombers as originally thought. This valuable intelligence was key in keeping the Cold War cold. A few years later, a U-2 flight would reveal Soviet missiles in Cuba and set off the Cuban Missile Crisis.

U-2 Pilot survival kit, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.

U-2 Pilot mannequin demonstrating how the pilot lined up the camera, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC.

Francis Gary Powers artifacts from his imprisonment, including a rug he made and used to hide his diary, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC. Click on the image for a larger version.

Iwo Jima Mount Suribachi

February 23, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima.

You can read the history of the brave Marines who took the tiny island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese in 1945 here. One of the most enduring images in history emerged from this conflict when Joe Rosenthal snapped the photo of a group of Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. It was actually the second flag raising that day, but it produced one of the most memorable images of WWII and one of the most reproduced photos of all time.

Iwo Jima became a haven for American B-29 bombers returning from sorties over Japan. The bloody battle for this little volcanic speck in the Pacific Ocean has become synonymous with the description of any titanic struggle. To gauge the magnitude of this conflict, we only need to recount this stark statistic: of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers stationed on Iwo Jima, only 216 were taken prisoner.

Pencil on Strathmore Multimedia board. Click on the image for a larger version.

Tom Brady, New England Patriots
After defeating the Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers respectively, the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks now square off in Super Bowl XLIX.

The Seahawks played a mediocre game against the Packers, but forced the Pack to settle for field goals on several trips inside the red zone. That left the door open for huge Seattle comeback in the fourth quarter as Russell Wilson found his groove (after throwing 4 interceptions) and Marshawn Lynch started rambling. A fortuitous onside kick recovery and a great throw by Wilson in overtime allowed the Seahawks to prevail.

The Patriots, on the other hand, dismantled a good Colts squad 45-7, but are now ensnared in one of the biggest controversies to hit the NFL, DeflateGate. Eleven of the twelve New England footballs were found to be underinflated which presumably gave the Pats an advantage gripping the ball, especially considering the weather conditions. This did not really affect the outcome, but anything that threatens the integrity of the game is taken very seriously by the league and its fans.

If the Seahawks play as poorly against New England as they played for most of the game against Green Bay, the Patriots will win big. However, New England needs to generate favorable matchups for Rob Gronkowski against the excellent set of linebackers and safeties that Seattle fields. Brady’s accurate passing will be going against what is probably the best secondary in the NFL, but injuries to both cornerback Richard Sherman (elbow) and safety Earl Thomas (shoulder) will lessen their effectiveness. An X-factor could be running back LeGarrette Blount, who has the size to pound away at the Seattle front and has excelled in post-season games.

Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick will take away the best offensive option, which for Seattle would be running back Marshawn Lynch. The Pats will force Russell Wilson to win the game. New England will try to minimize Wilson’s scrambling out of the pocket as well.

As far as special teams go, it would seem to be a wash — each kicker and punter is very capable. A possible differentiator here might be Patriot punt returner Julian Edelmann, who is fearless in dashing up the field. A line drive punt by Seattle might be a deciding factor.

If the Patriots can force Wilson to throw from the pocket on defense and get Gronk open on offense, they should win the game. However, it should be a fairly close contest, New England 31, Seattle 24.

Watercolor on Strathmore Multimedia board. Click on the image for a larger version. You can also purchase a print here.

Ezekiel Elliott

The Ohio State Buckeyes crushed the Oregon Ducks in the first National Championship Game played following a four-team playoff, beating them 42-20. The high scoring Ducks opened the game with a long touchdown drive, capped by a touchdown pass from the Heisman-winning QB, Marcus Mariota. Oregon’s quick start proved to be a complete mirage, as the game then turned entirely in the Buckeye’s favor for most of the remainder of the contest. OSU drove for the tying touchdown, scored by Ezekiel Elliott on a 33-yard scamper. From there on in, Oregon’s offense seemed out of sync going against the Buckeyes and the Ohio State offense, led by its huge and talented offensive line, pushed the Ducks around. After the opening drive, Oregon was seldom able to get into the tempo of their “Blur” offense and mistakes and lack of execution on 3rd and 4th down caused several drives to fizzle. Oregon was particularly ineffective in the red zone, scoring only that opening TD and settling for field goals or turning the ball over on their other opportunities.

For the Buckeyes, Elliott capped off one of the great 3-game streaks in college football history, rushing for a three-game total of nearly 700 yards against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon.

In the championship game, Elliott ran 36 times for 246 yards and 4 touchdowns. He kept drives alive with 3rd- and 4th-down plunges and broke several long gainers that broke the back of the Oregon defense. Along with his teammate, Cardale Jones, Elliott turned in a postseason performance that catapulted the Buckeyes from the fringe of the playoff picture to National Champions. Ohio State returns many talented players next year, including Elliott and Jones, and must be considered the favorite to win it all again in 2015.

Watercolor on Strathmore Multimedia board. Click on the image for a larger version. This painting is also available from Fine Art America.

Marcus Mariota Oregon Ducks

Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks lived up to their hype as they blasted the defending champion Florida State Seminoles in the first NCAA Division I playoff game in history. The #2 ranked Ducks blew open a tight game in the third quarter and won going away, 59-20, over a tough FSU team that had managed to meet every challenge this season. Their 29 game win streak is over and it is likely that the talented but controversial Jameis Winston has played his last game in a Seminole uniform.

The game was 18-13 at the half, with the Ducks in the lead. In the third quarter, though, the Ducks offense and defence asserted themselves and a torrent of points piled up. Aided by 4 FSU turnovers, the fast-paced Ducks scored 6 touchdowns in the second half. Mariota, who has had one of the most outstanding careers in college football history, passed for 338 yards on 26 of 36 passing and 2 TD’s while also rushing for 62 yards and a touchdown as well. He kept the Ducks’ Blur Offense rolling and didn’t make any critical mistakes, outdueling his fellow Heisman winner Winston.

Oregon now takes on Ohio State for the National Championship on January 12th.

Watercolor on Strathmore Mixed Media board. Click on the image for a larger version. You can also purchase a print here.

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