There are surprisingly few pure attack helicopters. Even The Night Stalkers of the US Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment don’t actually use a pure attack helicopter. They have an MH-6M Little Bird that can be configured for transport or attack (the AH-6M [attack] is nicknamed the Killer Egg for its egg shape and incredible ability to lay down fire), and the same with the MH-60M Black Hawk. I’m not saying these aren’t incredibly lethal aircraft when configured as gunships, the MH-60M in its DAP (Direct Action Penetrator) configuration may well be the most dangerous rotorcraft in any military today.
But pure attack rotorcraft are actually exceedingly rare:
US Army: AH-64 Apache Longbow
US Marine Corps: AH-1 Cobras which are rapidly becoming AH-1Z Vipers with upgrades
Airbus: EC665 Tiger used by several European countries
Italy: Agusta A129 Mongoose
China: CIAC Z-10 (they have 2 others but like the MH-6M, they’re multi-role)
Russia: Kamov Ka-52 Alligator
Russia: Mil Mi-24 Hind (a monstrous and very formidable gunship)
Russia: Mil Mi-28 Havoc (a very nasty machine)
I might have missed a few minor ones, but otherwise that’s it.
Not for Everybody
Most aircraft are so expensive to design that it is necessary to spread the cost over as many sales as possible. Manufacturers are always seeking and lobbying for access to foreign markets.
Conventional helicopters of every type are easily found in multiple military arsenals…except the gunships. Despite manufacturer’s best efforts, these are rarely exported. The ones that are go only to very, very friendly nations.
For example, Sikorsky Black Hawks are in use by at least twenty-eight countries. The AH-1 has only ever been used in four. Perhaps that fact that the US sold 202 of them to Iran under the Shah in 1971 and they’ve been in use continuously since his 1979 overthrow has something to do with it. And how badly does America wish it could take back the 42 sold to Turkey in the 1990s. Will we soon be regretting the 62 we sold to Taiwan?
Choosing Your Weapon
I named the book before I wrote the story. I really wanted to use the Ka-52 Alligator, it’s such an interesting aircraft. It sports: coaxial counter-rotating rotors and, in the single-pilot Ka-50 Black Shark version, it has one of the only ejection seats in any rotorcraft [the first blast blows off the rotor blades, the second jettisons the canopy, and the third ejects the pilot]). As I said, fascinating.
So Havoc was almost named Alligator but I couldn’t quite justify that as a title. I seriously considered Black Shark as a title but it only has one pilot, not a pilot and a gunner. I knew that I had would have to get my villain and my hero in the helicopter together before the book was over. And while I could have had great fun with the big Hind (which can also carry eight troops in a small emergency evacuation bay–perhaps able to lift Miranda’s entire team to safety in a crisis moment?), I didn’t think that was quite the title I was after either.
In the End…
I was left with a deep, and slightly terrified, understanding of these lethal machines. As to how they flew in the book, you’ll have to read it to find out.
And since the book was focusing on Holly Harper… What title could better describe my favorite chaos demon than:
Next week on June 23rd, Miranda Chase #4, Ghostrider, will be officially released. (Due to a few quirks of indie publishing the print is already available, and due to a promotion, Apple fans are already reading it. But in general, it releases next Tuesday.)
And one of the joys of being a writer is getting to mess with a place. If even just the movies that have thrashed New York were to be true, it would be something nasty in reality! Salt and The Bourne Ultimatum tore up the NY streets. Ghostbusters thrashed the crap out of it and made many things very gooey. Armageddon gave it a meteor shower, a job already done thoroughly in Sean Connery’s Meteor. Deep Impact flooded it. The Day After Tomorrow flooded it then turned it into a glacier. Independence Day just blew it up. Yeah, fiction is rough on the landscape.
But as a writer destroys or otherwise mangles a place in fiction, they learn a lot of cool facts about it. So, for Ghostrider, I’ll pick a pair of the many places I researched and was then unkind to: Aspen and Catalina Island.
I have a good friend who grew up in Aspen. I went there as a kid in 1974 and as slightly less of a kid in 1980. I’ve hiked the hills, swum in the glacial Maroon Bells lake (briefly, it was still freakin’ cold in June), free camped in the hills, and bought a cool egg-shaped rock in some rock store.
So, we were chatting about my memories versus the current reality and he told me a local saying: “The millionaires ruined it for the hippies and the billionaires ruined it for the millionaires.” So, I decided it was the perfect place to crash a large military plane. (Yeah, I know, it’s just the way writers think. I liked the ’70s hippie version of Aspen.)
However, blasting out the entire town seemed a little drastic. It would also require a fair amount more ammunition that my AC-130 gunship was likely to carry. Aspen, even back in the hippie days, was a major ski resort. So, I thought about hitting them where it hurt. That led me to Snowmass, one of the country’s premier ski areas which opened in 1967. Still, it’s a massive ski area and hard to target with a single crash.
But they had made an interesting addition in 1997. They added a Poma lift. (Basically a long bar dangling down from a wire with a Frisbee screwed to the bottom. You slip it between your legs and kinda lean back on the Frisbee as it pulls you upslope on your skis.) It wasn’t just anywhere. It was at the very top of the area and opened up a cirque’s headwall for double-black-diamond (expert) skiing.
A cirque is a half-bowl shape carved into a mountain top by a glacier. Here’s a nice shot of a small one that I hiked a number of times as a kid (though I never skied it).
What caught NerdGuy’s attention was the effort that Snowmass made to appease the last of the lingering hippies and the rising eco-terrorism movement that culminated just a year later in the burning of the Vail ski lodge.
While the ground was still frozen, they sent in the backhoes to punch down the holes for the foundations, then covered them back up. The top of the mountain is a major summertime breeding habitat for a wide variety of species, so they waited until fall. Then, at great expense, they airlifted in concrete and all of the steel work.
I won’t delve into it deeply, but this was an insanely expensive proposition. Steel is easy. A stanchion for a Poma lift might weigh a few tons. Concrete weighs two tons per cubic yard. At 10-15 yards per footing, 20-30 tons, that’s an amazing challenge, especially at 12,000′ elevation where helicopter blades have a third less air to bite into than at sea level.
NerdBonus: Think about what it means that a helicopter loses carrying capacity as it climbs. The great heavy-lifter, the Erickson S-64 Sky Crane, has a max takeoff weight of 42,000 pounds. But it weighs 20,000 pounds empty. Then there is the other trivia like 1,300 gallons of fuel for another 8,840 pounds. So, where does the 20-30% reduction in lift capacity at 12,000′ elevation come out of? 100% of it comes out of the payload capacity:
42,000 * .8 = 33,600 pounds capacity
33,600 pounds total capacity – 28,840 pounds helo and fuel = not much extra payload capacity. Certainly not 10-15 yards of concrete. Not going to get into the operational tricks like running with less fuel but more refuelings or the exact capacities of the Sky Crane, just know that it’s a big challenge.
While researching my book, Wild Fire, I had the great fortune to be able to witness a flight test for new rotor blades at Erickson’s headquarters in Oregon. Many thanks to the folks!
So, after all of the that work, once the ground refroze, Snowmass strung the final cables for the Cirque Poma lift (one article says it was a J-bar in the beginning, but it’s definitely a Poma now). In the winter it’s a ski area. In the summer, it’s an undamaged breeding reserve. Nice, huh?
Well, I did my own little bout of eco-terrorism and blew the crap out of it. Not really a strike against the billionaires, or even the millionaires…but it was fun.
Santa Catalina Island, California
I thrashed Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island. But you’ll have to read the book to see that. Instead, I’m going to nerd out about one of the most dangerous airports in the world.
As a former private pilot, I’m fascinated by such things. One of the finest lists is this one on Forbes: 17 Most Dangerous Airports in the World. Most lists don’t include: AVX, the Airport in the Sky. This is probably because no commercial flights land there, it’s all general aviation.
First we need to look at the three types of aviation:
Military – the best trained pilots anywhere.
Commercial – passenger and cargo planes. Their pilots are often retired military.
General – any dang fool who can get through ground school and get their pilot’s license.
Sport & Experimental – this fourth category has such a high death rate that calling it flying seems rather silly. The FAA inspectors hate this category because it is so many of their accident calls. It falls more in the category of “death wish” and includes home-made ultralights and such. The “Sport” license (created since I stopped flying) means that you require 1/2 the training that I had as a private pilot. Strikes this NerdGuy as a good reason to stay out of the sky.
So, AVX (Catalina Island airport’s official International Air Transport Association identifier) sits in an unremarked quirky place of its own.
It truly is The Airport in the Sky. Though the island is only 8 x 22 miles, it rises over 2,000′ out of the Pacific Ocean just two dozen miles west of Los Angeles. The airport officially lies at 1,602′ above mean sea level.
“Officially” is a fun point here. Most mountain-top airports, look at the ones in the article I mentioned above, are shaped like a shallow bowl (the two ends are clearly visible from either end and the middle is lower). AVX is shaped like an inverted bowl, which means that you can’t see the far end of the runway from either end.
This makes for several exciting problems:
It is possible for two aircraft to try and depart from opposite ends of the runway at the same time without seeing each other. Or even to land at one end while someone is taking off at the other. Either way, we’re talking about the potential for head-on collisions when they can finally see each other. Planes don’t stop on a dime…unless they hit something hard. (Careful radio communication takes care of this, but see the Sport & Experimental categories above and see if it gives you the chills.)
A landing aircraft will have the definite illusion that they’ve reached the end of the runway when they’re only halfway along and still moving fast. As they approach the mid-field crest, that can’t see that the runway keeps going. Hard-braking, hard-turning, nose-overs that destroy propellers…none of these are unusual occurrences at AVX. Local Los Angeles plane rental companies insist on at least one landing there with a trainer pilot, no matter what your skill level, before they let you hire the aircraft.
Now, we’ll ignore that the runway is only 3,000′ long as a hazard. You’re fully loaded bizjet needs 3,400′ to stop and you didn’t think about that? Bye-bye.
This is fun point #2 about AVX…there’s no overrun stopway. Next time you’re at an airport, notice that in almost every case, there’s a chunk of runway that sticks out past the heavily hashed threshold where your plane turns the other way onto the runway. That’s for bad landings, late aborts of takeoffs, and so on.
AVX doesn’t have these. Instead it has cliff edges where the land falls steeply away. Come in too low and you don’t land on the Stopway, you bang head-on into a cliff. Which takes us to fun point #3:
AVX lies draped across the top of a mountain. Wind comes from one side of the island, climbs the cliff, creating all sorts of extra lift. Then, after racing down the runway, it dives off the other end of the cliff making some spectacular downdrafts.
When Miranda Chase’s team flies into AVX… No, I’m just teasing. I didn’t crash them. But I had a good time having Miranda be a total NerdGal about it.
“Puff, the Magic Dragon was a Peter, Paul, and Mary song I grew up singing along with. It was probably the first song I knew all the words to, maybe even before I had the alphabet down (the order of “J” vs. “K” still screws me up sometimes, I have to get a running start at “H” to be sure).
“(Ghost) Riders In the Sky” (The Outlaws Version) rang through my senior year at college (with the too twangy Johnny Cash version before that). During those years, Southern Rock was sweeping the campuses, even where I went to school up in Maine. Charlie Daniels Band, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Allman Brothers, and many others. “Riders” was a hard-dancing fixture at any number of parties.
The next time I ran into it were the endless trailers for the 2007 movie Ghost Rider with Nicholas Cage (a fairly poor Marvel movie before Marvel figured out what they were doing) and the heavy metal theme song by Spiderbait (screwed up from my familiar Southern Rock–not my fav).
AC-47 “Puff, the Magic Dragon”
This has a much more intriguing origin and is the core of today’s NerdGuy.
It actually all began back in the Vietnam War. The Air Force did some testing with a Convair C-131 that said you could point a gun out the side of an airplane and it would be fairly easy to bank in a circle above a target and shoot consistently at the same spot.
After a few false starts and stops, in 1964 the Air Force chose one of my favorite planes (it’s almost every fliers favorite), a Douglas DC-3 (which the Air Force calls the C-47). They side-mounted a line of three mini-guns aiming out the port (left) side, placed a firing button on the pilot’s control wheel, and made a grease pencil mark on his left window. It became the AC-47 Spooky. “A” for Attack.
A Pylon Turn is something that every beginning pilot practices (including me when I used to fly). The challenge is to retain steady, consistent control throughout a banked turn. The instructor would pick a point on the ground (like a water tank). When I came up even with it (not above it but off to the side), I’d try to circle around it and always keep it aligned with the tip of my left wing. The better I got, the steadier the tip of my wing was on that tank until I could keep it centered at the top of the tanks dome, not just the tank itself.
That’s what the grease pencil mark was on the inside of the pilot’s window. He sits too far ahead of the wing, and each pilot is a different height, so needs a different mark. But once set up, a one-second burst on the miniguns could deliver six thousand rounds into an area as small as a few dozen square yards–every time!
It completely changed the nature of many battles. When in close quarter combat with an enemy troop, an AC-47 Spooky could lay down a massive suppressive fire from an untouchable height above the battle. An immediate order went out for more of these aircraft…which they couldn’t provide because there were so few miniguns in existence at that time. But those wrinkles were soon worked out.
They operated mostly at night. They’d drop a parachute flare to illuminate the enemy, bank, and spit fire at them from above. No suprise that it was nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and often flew with the simple call sign of “Puff.”
Bigger Dragons are Spooky
So, if a small dragon was good, a big dragon might be better? Indeed it was.
The C-130 Hercules is perhaps the most successful cargo plane the world has ever known. It is used in all walks of life from US Coast Guard Search-and-Rescue to fighting wildfires to…an AC-130 gunship.
By 1970, these had completely replaced Puffs in Vietnam. Where the Puff could fire three guns worth of 7.62 mm bullets (.308″), the AC-130s first added 20 mm rounds (3/4″) fired from a rotary autocannon, with 40mm (1-1/2″) following close behind.
The big change, literally, happened in 1971, when a 105 mm (4.1″) howitzer was adapted to the big plane. Now, instead of small bullets, high-explosive rounds weighing 15 kg (36 pounds) could be heaved down from above. A single mini-gun, a 40 mm cannon, and the big howitzer could hit the same point with devastating effect…at the same time!
The plane itself went through many names, Pave, Pronto, Aegis, Spooky, Stinger, Dragon Spear, even Surprise Package. But it was the squadron’s call sign that stuck. From the AC-130A to the AC-130U (only 6 of letters were used) , these gunships were all best known as the Spectre. (Yes, it is totally appropriate to have the James Bond theme playing in your head right now.)
Hercules meets Super Hercules
After sixty-five years (yes, 65) the C-130 Hercules is still going strong in many roles. At the turn of the century, at the age of 45, it received its first comprehensive end to end update with new engines and new avionics. The C-130J Super Hercules flies farther, faster, and higher than all of its older brothers. (I’d warn my older brothers, but I don’t have any. However, I have an older sister…who I learned ages ago to never ever mess with. Older sisters are scary!)
It was only natural that this was the time to rethink the AC-130 gunship. The main thought was, “Why would you use a slow, propeller-driven, fat plane into a battle zone?” The main answer, “Until we think up something better (a new plane design can take a decade or more), we need something.”
And along came the AC-130J Super Hercules “Ghostrider.” In addition to everything else it’s older brothers did so well, the Ghostrider has added a new trick, a HEL-A laser.
I’ll geek out about this at another time. Let’s just say that the FDA regulations kick in at 5 mW (milliWatts). A 1 W laser can instantly blind you or char your skin. The High-Energy Laser – Airborne in the AC-130J is rumored to be at or above the 150 kW range. That’s 30 million times brighter than your cat’s laser pointer. (Trying to imagine 30 million times? Pull out a one-dollar bill. If you had 30M of those, it would be a stack over 2 miles high.)
Cobra and Apache helicopters, A-10 Thunderbolt jets, the Russian…oh, wait…they’re just now developing their own copy of the C-130 because they couldn’t figure out how to do it better themselves.
Yes, this plane may have venerable origins, but it will still be a factor on battlefields for years to come, just as it has in every single conflict involving the USA since the Vietnam War.
So, when Miranda Chase went looking for her fourth major air-crash investigation, the conclusion to the Preflight Quartet begun with Drone, Thunderbolt, and Condor, she found…a Ghostrider. Coming June 23rd. (Special: Available from Apple starting June 9th!!!)
“Tom Clancy fans open to a strong female lead will clamor for more.” – Publisher’s Weekly
The lead NTSB air-crash investigator—trapped between a stealth drone and a hard crash.
A US Air Force C-130 transport plane, bearing top-secret cargo, lies shattered in the Nevada desert at Area 51’s Groom Lake. China’s prototype fifth-generation jet fighter goes missing. Far above, a stealth drone flies a very lethal, and very covert Black Op. The CIA, the US military command, and the secretive National Reconnaissance Office are all locked in a political battle for control of the nation’s future.
Miranda Chase, the NTSB’s autistic air-crash genius, lands in the center of the gathering maelstrom. Burdened with a new team and a unique personality, she must connect the pieces to stay alive. And she must do it before the wreckage of her past crashes down upon her and destroys US-China relations forever.
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