Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Vindicating the Cock-up Theory of History



The recent Whale sighting in NYC caused flash-back induced hyperventilation among New Yorkers, and furious finger pointing among a great many others.

The spiked pulse rates and stairwell pell-mells: of course.

However, there really is no excuse for the sort of uninformed speculation in this Ann Althouse post. (h/t erp)

So, in no particular order, I am going to do some informed speculation.


  • The photo flight did not cost the taxpayers anything. The Air Force manages flight time through the Flight Hour Program (FHP). Each aircraft type is allocated a specific number of hours per year based upon possessed airframes, number of pilots, and mission. Unlike commercial aircraft, Air Force 1 (AF1) does not have a high direct mission utilization rate; therefore, much of the FHP is for pilot proficiency. Since flight hours for the photo-opp were going to be used anyway -- all aircraft types execute their respective FHPs to the tenth of an hour -- the incremental cost to the taxpayer is precisely zero. Bandying about the $357,000 figure is sheer ignorance that could have been eliminated by talking to any AF pilot.

  • Fauxtoshopping is harder than you think. One of the best ways to detect whether a photo has been faked is to look at lighting angles. Getting those right between two components of a composite is very difficult; for a combination of an aircraft in flight and a cityscape is nearly impossible. My company has a fair number of publicity photos of the aircraft I fly. All but one are composites: they look good, but they don't look right.

  • The F-16 is a great photo platform. It has a bubble canopy, providing a near panoramic view. It is highly maneuverable, so the pilot can quickly put the plane where the photographer needs it to be. The canopy is essentially free of distortions -- it has to be. If it introduced distortion and light flares, pilots wouldn't be able to fly the airplane and, in the particular case of the F-16, fight with it. The cockpit is tight, but not inconveniently so for a backseat photographer using a roughly 50 mm focal length lens.

  • Fighter aircraft, at the low speeds apparent in this situation, are barely above stall speed and subject to significant buffeting. They are not stable photographic platforms. This is true of any light aircraft, particularly when compared with much larger aircraft. This is distilled, 100% pure, stinking to the heavens, bovine effluence. Take a look at the Whale: its wings are clean. That means it flying at least 220 knots. The Lawn Dart could probably pull 3Gs at that speed. It is not close to stall, it is not subject to any buffeting.

  • No military aircraft leaves the ground, anywhere, without those high up on the chain of command knowing about it and authorizing it. This would be so for Air Force One unless the Obama administration allows the aircraft to be treated like a privately owned light aircraft hangered in Uncle Fred's barn. Wrong. For nearly all flight operations, the operations group commander (or, perhaps, the wing commander) is the approval authority. Tasking might come from above, and certainly did in this case. In general, however, it is up to each unit to conduct its FHP according to the relevant regulations.


Here is my informed guess. Someone asked for a photo opp flyby of NYC. No crime in that. Tasking came down the the Special Airlift Missions squadron. They made the arrangements, including coordination with New York TRACON. Standard Operating Procedure for AF1 almost certainly precludes advance notification of its movements. Whoever tasked the mission did not know that, and those executing it were too close to the trees to see the forest.

So, a routine request went wrong. Cock-up leads to kerfuffle.

I have some first hand experience with this. In a previous life, I was tasked to lead a four-ship of F-111s to do a missing man flyover for a POW-MIA ceremony at RAF Fairford. I did extensive coordination with the commander's office at Fairford, including a rehearsal the day prior.

The day of the flyover, five of us took off an hour and a half early: we had an airspare, and the early takeoff allowed further backup to go to groundspares. Since things went fine, we headed to an air-to-ground weapons range in The Wash (southeast UK). Following that, en route to RAF Fairford, we got a call to head back to base.

Per SOP, I had cited all times in Zulu with RAF Fairford's wing commander. The people running the ceremony were using local. In most parts of the world, the difference is obvious.

Not in England, though. My flight was an hour late.

Thereby, as here, vindicating the cock-up theory of history.

15 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That clears that up.

My question -- probably unanswerable -- is how many out of how many New Yorkers got the willies?

1%? 10%? 0.1%?

I don't recall from the plane in the river story, how many people had the first thought -- Methodists again!

I am on the verge of alleging that it was a non-story, pumped up by rightwing interests. Like the California beauty queen story (first version). (Second version, pumped up by leftwing interests, I suppose.)

I was amused when The Maui News reprinted a Bill O'Reilly column Sunday (about the first version). It was embarrassingly out-of-date by the time our readers saw it. (Embarrassing to O'Reilly, that is.)

As far as reporting goes (and I haven't paid the slightest attention to this story until reading your post), some reporter must have asked somebody how much the flight cost. And the answer, from somebody, was $327K/hr. The answer to the reporter was not $0.00.

So the question becomes: did the reporter ask the right person? Reasonably ask someone who he thought should know? Get lied to? Or misinformed by someone who knew less than he thought he did?

There seems to have been a lot of that going around.

May 12, 2009 2:44 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Do you think Caldera should have fallen on his sword?

May 12, 2009 6:29 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I am on the verge of alleging that it was a non-story, pumped up by rightwing interests.With sufficient knowledge -- always a problem with the MSM -- reporters would have quickly gotten to the cock-up theory.

Unfortunately, a failure to do basic reporting, combined with a great many people who, having learned not a damn thing from CDS or BDS, are possessed with ODS, led to a seeming physical impossibility: lots of heat, no light.

... some reporter must have asked somebody how much the flight cost. And the answer, from somebody, was $327K/hr.Why not Google? That number, seemingly well sourced, is a bit dated. So how about we round up to $10,000 per hour. Then toss in the Lawn Dart at another $10K per hour. Probably twice reality, but so what.

An hour from Andrews to NYC, an hour doing the day dick-around, and an hour back: three block hours per plane, six hours total, times $10K. That gets me to $60K, not $327K.

Once again, I ask the question: why does the MSM so completely cock-up their (alleged) core competency?

Of course, once the story got rolling, there was nothing to be gained by the Obama administration arguing it the the real cost was less than a fifth of some obviously fantastical number.

I have no idea what the reporter did, but whatever it was, he did it badly, and did it without making the tiniest dent in his or her precious supply of common sense.

Riddle me this, if it really cost that much money to fly a few hours, how is it the airlines are not losing trillions of dollars every day?

All that reporter would have had to do -- if Google is too hard, or if the reporter wanted to sanity check his facts -- is look up ticket prices for a United flight from ORD to LHR, calculate the revenue from a full flight, and divide by the flight time.

It was a non-story pumped up by a sensationalist, incompetent MSM, which is so in Obama's pocket that they could scarcely be accused of susceptibility to right wing interests.

++++

erp:

Do you think Caldera should have fallen on his sword?In reality, or in politics?

Speaking only for reality here, no. Sometimes, as with my schlamozzle, things just happen. The point of such episodes is to learn from them, not crucify people.

In my case, I had the good judgment to keep a very good Pearl Harbor file of what I had talked about, with whom, and when. Clearly, I had correctly communicated my plan, and the rehearsal went without a hitch, on Zulu time. Why no one there spotted the disconnect, I have no idea.

Now, if Caldera was pressuring people to do things they advised against, or insisted upon confidentiality despite cautions, then maybe.

But I doubt it. Not being an expert, he probably made the request to those who were, and let them run with it.

Remind me some time to tell you how I stopped Milosevich from landing at the wrong airport during the Dayton Peace talks.

May 13, 2009 12:35 AM  
Blogger Gaw said...

How refreshing to come across genuine technical knowledge used in the service (rescue?) of journalism.

I grew up near Fairford-on-the-Farm, as I think you chaps called it. Were you based there?

May 13, 2009 3:13 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Why did they fail to get any good pictures or, if they did, why not release them? I delete pictures of that quality in my own photography.

Also, there was the claim that the F-16 squadron was identified and that squadron has no two-seat F-16s (a single seat being the standard configuration). Was that inaccurate?

May 13, 2009 5:43 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Gaw:

I was based at RAF Upper Heyford.

++++

SH:

Why did they fail to get any good pictures or, if they did, why not release them?I have no idea. Because the shooting environment is so dynamic, it is much harder to get the right set up at the right moment with the lighting just right, and with the proper perspective.

That said, I have participated in similar things, and there is no substitute for plotting each move, taking into account time of day, and having a sufficiently savvy photographer to figure out where the chase has to be with what lens in order to get the Whale and the skyline just right.

That would have been an excellent use for Photoshop -- doing a mock-up of the desired result solves all those problems.

So it is mystifying why that picture is so bad. It doesn't help to think it was the least mediocre of the bunch.

Also, there was the claim that the F-16 squadron was identified and that squadron has no two-seat F-16s (a single seat being the standard configuration). Was that inaccurate?I don't know.

I think it would be unusual for a F-16squadron to not have a family model for things like checkrides and re-currency / training flights.

However, simulators are so good now that maybe they do all that in the box. My company does.

I do know that it is a violation of Air Force regs for the pilot to be using a camera (other than the installed HUD camera, of course) in the cockpit.

So it had better have been a family model, or the Lawn Dart driver ought to be in a heap of trouble.

(The rule came about from a A-7 hitting his fight lead while filming the rejoin.)

May 13, 2009 7:53 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'All that reporter would have had to do -- if Google is too hard, or if the reporter wanted to sanity check his facts -- is look up ticket prices for a United flight from ORD to LHR, calculate the revenue from a full flight, and divide by the flight time.'

Actually, I did that myself a few years ago when the airlines were threatening to cut back flights to Hawaii. I didn't even need the back of an envelope.

Multiply the then-price of a ticket by the number of seats on an L-1011. I came up with $250K for a flight from LA to Honolulu.

So, when I read the $327K figure, I did not think it was outrageously high.

May 13, 2009 9:39 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Multiply the then-price of a ticket by the number of seats on an L-1011. I came up with $250K for a flight from LA to Honolulu.Yes, but what about the flight time?

IIRC, it is 5.5 hours HNL - LAX.

Therefore, my generous allowance for the photo-opp flight time of three hours means the cost of the Whale would be three fifths of $250K -- $150K. (It is right about an hour gate - gate from DC to JFK; since there is no landing - gate - takeoff cycle at JFK, subtract half an hour; also, I doubt they spent more than half an hour over NYC.)

That is less than half the cited cost, and the Lawn Dart sure didn't make up the difference.

It is also worth noting the reason 747-400s are flying and L1011s are not. The former are cheaper to operate than the latter.

So I would take $150K to be the absolute upper limit.

Maybe an error by a factor of two isn't outrageous to you, but it sure is to me.

The moment I saw the $327K figure, every BS flag I possess went right up.

May 13, 2009 10:09 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Also, another way to figure it is by fuel burn and cost.

747-400 burns about 24,000#/hr; Jet-A is about 6.7#/gal, and costs $1.55/gal today.

That makes the fuel cost per hour $5500. For an airline, fuel cost is about 1/3 total operating cost (that is, every penny the airline spends staying in business), so that points to about $16,000 per hour for an airline to run a 747-400.

AF1 would be less -- no tax on the fuel, and fewer business related overhead to amortize.

However, even ignoring those, the 747 could not have cost more than $60,000 to go from Andrews to NYC and return, including an hour loiter time.

May 13, 2009 10:33 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Remind me some time to tell you how I stopped Milosevich from landing at the wrong airport during the Dayton Peace talks.

Skipper, No time like the present and please tell Eric, I like it.

May 13, 2009 12:18 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry's question -- how many out of how many New Yorkers got the willies??

Got the willies eh? This guy didn't get the willies, he showed us all how a hero behaves, but then there are no heroes in your world are there. Harry.

Pity that.

May 13, 2009 12:58 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'm not disputing your figures, Skipper. And I'm willing to bet whoever was the reporter on that story didn't have my modest background on flight op costs.

What I'm saying is that if I were reporting that story, and somebody who ought to know said $327K, I wouldn't have found it so far outside the ballpark that I would have started wondering if he knew what he was talking about.

Maybe a reporter for Aviation Week would have spotted the problem. But a GA? Probably not.

As a reporter, I do a simple, in-the-head math check on every national statistic I hear: Divide by 5000. That gives you the rough proportion of whatever it is that should exist in Polk County, Iowa. (Iowa is one of 50 states, with just about one-50th of the nation's acreage and 1% of its population and it has 99 counties.)

Since I lived there for a long time, if the result sounds about right, I tend to accept it.

May 13, 2009 2:30 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Perhaps they should have used a camerate with exposure bracketing, which lets you take a sequence of shots in rapid succession, each at a different exposure. My camera does that, but if you want to claim that the people involved in this are less competent at taking pictures than I am, I can accept that.

May 13, 2009 2:37 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Harry:

What I'm saying is that if I were reporting that story, and somebody who ought to know said $327K ...Two words: fact check.

Who is to say some right winger with an axe to grind didn't leak that $327K number, hoping the reporter would run with it?

I have only read a few stories on The Whale that Terrified NYC, but each of them cited the same number.

Not one of them sourced it.

I didn't use any piloty sense to sniff this out, just a normal dose of skepticism and south of 11 seconds on Google.

++++

AOG:

My two year old, sub-$1000 SLR does exposure bracketing.

It doesn't suss that a photographer worth tossing in the back seat of a Lawn Dart would not have either the knowledge or the camera to make that happen.

May 13, 2009 9:05 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

My point exactly.

May 14, 2009 6:14 AM  

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