Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Life in the Early Congress, Part Two: "The most contemptible and degraded of beings"

In honor of the new political season, I'm reprinting an article I wrote for Smithsonian in 1995:

The first part is here:

The camaraderie of boardinghouse life mattered enormously, because for decades there were few respectable things to do in Washington at night. Social life picked up over the years--and so did the social reputation of politicians, particularly members of the House, who were initially snubbed as yokels by such few Washington hostesses as there were. (Senators, always more staid than Congressmen, got a bit more respect.) But for years, by far the biggest nighttime diversion was cards--whist, faro and brag--played at those boardinghouses whose rules permitted it. One unhappy Congressman reported losing $3,500--more than a year's salary circa 1856--in a single evening.

Whenever they really got fed up, Congressmen agitated to move the nation's capital (it had been moved twice already), claiming that anywhere would be better than Washington in summer. During an early debate on the question of moving the capital, when citizens opposing the move turned up in the gallery, Senator James Jackson of Georgia threatened to call in the military and have them all shot. Threats of violence, however, were usually directed at other Congressmen. The House, particularly, was rough and raucous. The chamber's high, elliptical ceiling echoed and amplified every stray sound, from mild chatter and rustling newspapers to shouts. With all the noise, it was said at the time, no more than one-third of the members had any idea what was going on. With little chance, compared with today, of being instantly heard, either by colleagues or constituents, some members saw no need to curb their language. According to Augustus Foster, aide to England's minister to the United States, to "judge from their Congress, one should suppose the nation to be the most blackguard society that was ever brought together."

Whether they acted well or badly, Congressmen didn't expect to stay around very long. There were no term limits, but voters, then as now, were a fickle lot. More important, before the great increase in federal power that set in after FDR and World War II, much of the political action was back in the state capitals. During the first four decades of Congress' existence, 41 percent of the House, on average, dropped out every two years.

Even so, both houses had their share of memorable and often contentious characters, some short-run, many very long-run indeed. A relative short-runner was Davy Crockett, "fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator," who served as Representative from Tennessee for three terms. This portrait by John Gadsby Chapman: 

Starting in 1827, Crockett made quite an impression, but he never managed to pass the bill he cared about, opening government land in Tennessee to poor settlers. After losing his seat in 1835 Crockett told voters they could all go to hell. For his part, he was going to Texas (where he died--at the Alamo--within a year).

South Carolina's John C. Calhoun had been in the House for five years when, in 1816, Congress voted to give itself a substantial pay increase. The public was outraged, so the next year the measure was reversed. Calhoun, who predicted that men of high caliber would no longer seek Congressional office if salaries were not raised to equal or exceed those of Presidential appointees, resigned --to take on the higher-paying job of Secretary of War. Eventually, though, he returned to Congress, becoming one of those men who spent entire careers--or significant chunks of them--on Capitol Hill. After serving as Vice President from 1825 to 1832 under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Calhoun went to the Senate, and remained there, minus one year as Secretary of State to President John Tyler, until his death in 1850.

Daniel Webster, the renowned legal orator who could outwit the Devil himself, chose not to run in 1816. Seven years later, he was reelected to the House, went on to a seat in the Senate, where--despite being famously eloquent on the subjects of the sacredness of the Union and the need for abolition--he remained, off and on (mostly on), until 1850.

Calhoun's and Webster's careers resemble those of today's Congressional stars--rising from the House to the Senate or positions in the Cabinet--but their careers were unusual for their time. Today, most Senators voted out of office would sooner retire from politics than run for a seat in the lower house. But back then, the House of Representatives was where the real political power in Washington lay, and there were no high-paying lobbying firms, consulting groups or think tanks to absorb out-of-work politicians.

A spectacular example was John Quincy Adams, who got himself elected to the House after leaving the Presidency in 1829. Adams, a great public servant and defender of the citizen's right of petition, was appalled when, in 1836, Congress imposed a ban on the reading of abolitionist petitions--or any petition regarding slavery--in session. In protest, for nine years running, Adams opened each new session by reading aloud petitions he had received on the issue. "Nothing daunts him," said an observer at the time; "the House may ring with the cries of 'Order, order!'--unmoved, contemptuous, he stands amid the tempest, and, like an oak that knows his gnarled and knotted strength, stretches his arms forth, and defies the blast." Adams' dramatic brand of civil disobedience led to the repeal of the gag rule in 1844.

John Randolph of Virginia, another career Congressman, also took full advantage of his freedom of speech. Tall and pale, with black hair, Randolph dressed in buckskin riding clothes, carried a riding crop and often strode into the House with one or two hunting dogs at heel. But what truly distinguished him was his savage wit. He had a habit of pointing an index finger like grim Death while hurling remarks at adversaries. He once described a colleague as "the most contemptible and degraded of beings, whom no man ought to touch, unless with a pair of tongs."

First elected to Congress in 1799, Randolph was a brilliant orator, a strong defender of states' rights and a political maverick, holding seats in the House or Senate for most of the years until his death in 1833. Eventually, his language grew so sarcastic and abusive that many Senators simply left the chamber when he was speaking.

The one man in Congress who could control Randolph, it was believed, was Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Western Star," who was elected Speaker by his colleagues on his very first day in the House in 1811. He served in that office for six terms--the longest tenure as Speaker of the House in the 19th century--his popularity due in part to his ability to squelch Randolph. 

The Clay-Randolph feud began in 1812, when Clay refused to entertain Randolph's resolution against the declaration of war. In 1820, after the House approved the Missouri Compromise--which temporarily helped maintain a balance between slave and free states--Clay again thwarted Randolph, this time refusing his motion to reconsider the bill. Not that Clay thought the action would change the vote--he simply didn't want to give Randolph the satisfaction of seeming to control the business of the House. At every turn, the two men butted heads. In 1826, they finally faced off in a duel.

Randolph--who despised Clay, but also secretly admired him--accepted Clay's challenge, declaring that he preferred "to be killed by Clay to any other death." But after two volleys, with the only injury a hole drilled through Randolph's flowing white coat, the two shook hands. ("You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay," Randolph said, to which Clay--then the Secretary of State--replied, "I am glad the debt is no greater.") It was, according to Senator Thomas Hart Benton (who had taken part in a few duels himself), "about the last high-toned duel that I have witnessed."

We think of duels as being fought with pistols or swords, but at least one Congressional duel was fought with rifles at a distance of 100 yards. After this particularly tragic encounter, dueling was outlawed in the capital. In 1838 Jonathan Cilley, a freshman Democratic Representative from Maine, made some comments in session that offended another first-termer, Whig William Graves of Kentucky. As was the custom, Graves challenged Cilley to a duel. The whole matter might have ended with everyone's honor and health intact, had it not been for a Tyler Democrat named Henry A. Wise, who represented the state of Virginia.

A fiery defender of slavery, Wise--who later, as governor of Virginia, would have John Brown hanged--was, by all accounts, an angry, abrasive fellow. According to Benjamin Brown French, the Clerk of the House, Wise had "shot his former friend, Coke, through the arm, in a duel. His wife and brother have died, his house has been burned, he has been either a principal, or second, in three duels, in each of which blood has been shed."

Wise was even more riled up by Cilley's comments than was Representative Graves, and offered to serve as second to Graves, encouraging him to "kill that damned Yankee." On February 24, 1838, the two contestants met on the old dueling grounds in nearby Bladensburg, Maryland. Each took two shots at a distance of 100 yards. Both missed. That would have satisfied honor had not Wise insisted the duel continue. On the next round, Graves killed Cilley.

Congress, and the public, were shocked. The newspapers made much of Wise's murderous role. The next year, Congress passed a law banning the giving, delivering or accepting of a challenge to a duel in the District of Columbia.

Over the next ten years, Congress continued to lose its insularity. In 1848 a telegraphic network called the Associated Press began flashing accounts to newspapers all over the Eastern Seaboard. A few years later, the new Pitman system of speed stenography allowed Capitol Hill reporters to capture every word of Congressional debate. Transport and accommodations improved. Wives and families came to Washington, and a whole new, somewhat more decorous, social life expanded. The boardinghouse life was fading. By 1850, less than half of the Senators still lodged in the old communal fashion.

Despite all the altercations, the early Congresses managed to cover a considerable amount of legislative ground, ranging from what paintings should hang in the Rotunda to a tariff on imported pasta to the construction of a national road (from Maryland to Illinois) to the settlement of international boundary disputes with Spain and Britain. Congress also brought increasing order to its dealings in the form of a growing body of precedents, committees and subcommittees--during a period when the country, and its Congress, more than doubled in size and complexity.

Yet the ire of the men Dickens called "desperate adventurers" did not fade, especially as the struggle over the ratio of new slave states to free states began to burn hotter still. During debates on the Compromise of 1850--through which Congress hoped to avoid civil war--Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, who favored compromise, advanced in a rage on Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi. Foote pulled out a big pistol. Benton, safely restrained by his colleagues, shouted, "Let him fire!. . . I have no pistol! I disdain to carry arms! Stand out of the way, and let the assassin fire!" One Senator said that during the stressful 1850s the only members not carrying a knife and a revolver were those carrying two revolvers.

The Compromise--an attempt to resolve disputes over slavery in the Western territories lately gained in the Mexican War--allowed Congress to avoid the issue for several years, but in the end, it did not work. Six years after its passage, Representative Brooks brutally beat abolitionist Senator Sumner. It took three and a half years for Sumner to recover fully, and by then, the country was on the brink of civil war.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Life in the Early Congress, Part One: "Every Bad Inclination"

In honor of the new political season, I'm reprinting an article I wrote for Smithsonian in 1995:

When Charles Dickens visited the U.S. Congress in 1842, he found "some men of high character and great abilities." But many, the noted English novelist reported, practiced "despicable trickery at elections; underhanded tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents," not to mention "aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the popular mind."

During his visit, Dickens heard one Congressman threaten to cut another's throat, and was surprised that the House did nothing to discipline the scoundrel. "There he sat among them," the stunned novelist wrote, "not crushed by the general feeling of the assembly--but as good a man as any."

Members of the House, Dickens also noted, sat at their desks with their feet propped up, lavishly spitting tobacco juice. "Both houses are handsomely carpeted; but the state to which these carpets are reduced by the universal disregard of the spittoon . . . do not admit of being described." Strangers, he continued, should be wary of picking up any article from the floor "with an ungloved hand."

Anyone inclined to dismiss Dickens as a snobbish and sarcastic Briton with heightened powers of description need only consult other local sources. In 1837, according to a contemporary newspaper reporter, you could easily slip on the "disgusting compound of tobacco juice, wafers and sand" that coated the floor of the House of Representatives. Young messengers often slid down the aisles on the loose papers that accumulated there. "Not all the soap and scrubbing-brushes in Christendom," the reporter' wrote of the chamber, "would make it fit for a peasant's hut."

It was at about this time, too, that the House found itself reduced to fining members who missed roll call. To avoid the $2 fine, some Honorable Members were not above scooting in through open windows or sliding down columns from the gallery.

Indeed, voters who share the current dissatisfaction with the goings-on of the people's representatives on Capitol Hill, or deplore the current levels of partisanship in American politics, should take a measure of comfort from a look at how things used to be in the good old days.

In the first half of the 19th century, members of Congress, untroubled by the relentless gaze of C-SPAN, were not under the direct scrutiny of the public eye. Like many Americans in a rough-and-tumble new nation, they indulged in bad manners, unruly behavior and sometimes outright violence. Long before Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into unconsciousness in a celebrated 1856 dispute over slavery, Congressmen regularly attacked one another--with words and, on occasion, weapons.

There was much to get violent about. Every time a new territory clamored for statehood, it threatened the balance of Congressional power between the various rival regions (East versus West, North versus South) and eventually between slave states and free states. Congressmen battled tooth and nail over tariffs--the federal government's main source of income--which helped the commercial Northeast at the expense of the agricultural South, and gave more power to the federal government than the states' rights followers of Thomas Jefferson thought tolerable.

Long before the Civil War, South Carolina talked hotly of nullifying the Constitution on this issue, even of outright secession from the Union. The question of whether or not to have a national bank sundered state from state and brother from brother at a time when many Americans still thought lending money at interest was not only unchristian but akin to theft. And farmers (circa 1830, about 70 percent of the population) just knew that people who didn't plant and harvest--that is, urban stock-jobbers and Northern money men--were not to be trusted.

A good deal of Congressional exacerbation had to do with conditions in the nation's new capital, a muggy, barren spot regarded for years as a provincial and unhealthy outpost by the diplomatic corps of European nations. For decades the capital city seemed raw and only half-built, with weed-choked bare lots and streets of yellow clay. To keep carriages from thundering in heavy rains, logs had to be thrown into the deepest mud holes of Washington's unpaved roads. One Representative who ventured out at night for a social visit in 1818 complained that he slipped into gutters, fell over dirt piles and tripped over bricks and barrels--because the District of Columbia, then as now, fiscally feckless, hadn't supplied the streetlamps with fuel. Hogs got to be such a nuisance that in 1828 the police issued a stern warning: any porker found running loose in the streets would be arrested--and promptly sold.

Like their modern-day counterparts, early Congressmen had to wrangle together and somehow pass the expanding nation's laws. But their lifestyles, like those of most Americans, were totally different from today's. Forget about weekend jaunts home to campaign or see friends. Until the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the arrival of rail connections in the mid-1830s, members rarely got home at all during the session,which began in December and lasted from four to six months. The journey from Washington to Boston took 11 days by coach in 1807, and sometimes coaches could not get through at all. Until the early 1850s, most of the members did not bring their wives and families to Washington.

Today, staff for 535 Senators and Representatives runs to about 18,000 people, with an annual payroll of more than $1 billion. But for the first century of Congress, our public servants had little or no personal staff to help draft legislation or answer letters. And they did receive letters; in those days citizens took their right of petition seriously. During a two-year term starting in 1817, Delegate .John Scott from the Territory of Missouri received more than 1,000 petitions on subjects ranging from widows' woes to patent applications to damage claims for property destroyed during Indian raids. At the time, the entire population of Missouri was something like 65,000.

Without staff, Congressmen had no need for the suites of offices their successors have today. In fact, most had no offices at all. They spent their days at assigned desks in the House or Senate chamber. At night, there was still no privacy from politically hostile colleagues. Until the mid-1840s, most Congressmen lived together in boardinghouses and were sometimes obliged to bunk two to a room.

Finding a boardinghouse was a Congressman's first job on arriving in Washington. Dozens of these establishments were advertised in city papers like the National Intelligencer. ("Mrs. Cottringer, in Ninth street a few doors South of E street," read an 1831 notice, "can accommodate a Mess of Members of Congress, or other strangers visiting the City.")

Congressional boardinghouses clustered in three places around town. Some of the oldest were in Georgetown, a long, bumpy carriage ride from the Capitol, but already well established by 1800, the year when the capital was moved from Philadelphia to the raw, new city of Washington. Another clutch of House and Senate hostelries sat back on Capitol Hill, where today's Supreme Court and Library of Congress now stand. A third group ranged itself along the base of the Hill, facing what are now the Mall and the Washington Monument.

In 1835, $8 -- a full day's pay for House members -- bought Representative John Fairfield of Maine a room and his meals for a week, fuel for his fireplace and two spermaceti candles to read by. Meals were substantial: Fairfield commonly sat down to a breakfast of coffee, beefsteak, mutton, sausage, hominy and buckwheat cakes, corncakes or biscuits. At meals, Congressmen sat like schoolboys at assigned places, with the proprietor at the head of the table.

Boarders slept and lived upstairs but often gathered, as at an English inn, in first-floor common rooms. Such gatherings were not always congenial. "At Capt. Coyle's . . . there are 16 of us," Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire complained to his diary in 1806. "This is too many--We have too much noise. . . . In each chamber there are two lodgers--This is very inconvenient. 'Tis difficult to obtain an hour's quiet. . . . your papers are too much exposed or you must constantly be on your guard. I believe I have kept mine secret."

Here's an illustration of Rep. Abraham Lincoln at his boardinghouse in Washington, from The Boy's Life of Lincoln (1905): 

With President Jefferson (who had lived in a boardinghouse himself when he was Washington's Vice President), poor Plumer found himself outnumbered by Federalist housemates who opposed Jefferson's attempts to limit federal power: hence his care in guarding his papers. "I dare not invite a gentleman to call upon me whose politics are different," he wrote, "lest these violent inmates should treat him with rudeness & insult." Plumer once asked his Federalist housemates to notify him before they invited a certain Federalist to dinner, because, he said, he couldn't stand to eat with the gentleman.

A few years earlier, at a dinner in Miss Shields' boardinghouse, Representative John Randolph of Virginia, another Jeffersonian, and Representative Willis Alston, a Federalist from North Carolina, ended an evening of verbal insult by throwing glassware at each other. They managed not to interact for the next six years--until Alston insulted Randolph one day on their way out of session. Randolph whacked Alston on the head with his riding crop, drawing blood, and paid a fine of $20 for the privilege.

If tempers did not noticeably improve, eventually the supply of Congressional boardinghouses did, enough so that single bedrooms became the norm. Congressmen also got better at sorting themselves out into more or less congenial groups. Over the years, predominantly Republican or Federalist houses evolved, as well as houses that catered to highly partisan political tastes. Quite early, there was a "War Hawks" boardinghouse (for supporters of the War of 1812) and, starting in the 1830S, a hostelry known as "Abolition House" for those opposing slavery (who, for years, tended to be dismissed as crackpots and political madmen).

Of course, parties and political allegiances evolved over time. A Representative who started out in 1800 as a Federalist conceivably might have joined Madison and Jefferson's new "Republican" Party (which later became the Democratic Party) after the Federalist Party petered out in 1814, supported Andrew Jackson as a Democrat in the late 1820s, and finally bolted to the Whigs after Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States by removing federal funds from it in 1833. But whatever his political views, he could still find a "mess" of boarders somewhere who agreed with him.

Thus organized, the boardinghouses became the political "war rooms" of the day. Following a plan hatched in the boardinghouse known as the "war mess," a number of War Hawks burst into the House one night in June 1812. A group of Federalists had held the floor nonstop for three days, trying to fend off a vote on the declaration of war against Britain. The intruders grabbed brass spittoons from the floor, banging on the metal and flinging them around the room. The Federalist speaker, startled, abruptly shut up and sat down. A War Hawk instantly moved to cut off debate, and the fateful measure shot through the House like the proverbial hot knife through butter.

When the declaration came up for a vote in the Senate on June 18, the War Hawks apparently rounded up a drunken member, usually absent from important sessions, to help carry the vote. The nation was at war. When the news reached the war mess on New Jersey Avenue, 30-year-old Representative John C. Calhoun of South Carolina-often described as somber and humorless--reportedly threw his arms around the neck of Speaker of the House Henry Clay and joined his comrades in a Shawnee war dance around the boardinghouse table. ("I don't like Henry Clay," Calhoun once said. "He is a bad man, an impostor, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God, I love him.")

To be continued!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Arrival, the Movie: Helicopter notes

Enjoyed Arrival a great deal. Without giving anything away, here's my review of the helicopter in its supporting role in the first act. 
One of the trailers is here: 

As in the first act of numerous other action and suspense movies (such as Cliffhanger), a helicopter arrives with much ado to pick up the protagonist, played by Amy Adams. A helicopter in the front yard quickly establishes that this character is critical to resolving whatever conflict is looming. In the world of TV Tropes this falls under the category of surprise vehicle.

It's the civilian version of the sturdy Sikorsky H-3 model, an S-61 without the outboard sponsons that offshore models use. Here are the characters standing in front of it, upon arrival in the principal setting of Arrival.

Cabin noise: Arrival is one of the few movies I've seen that conveys the fact that it's very hard to talk with somebody inside a helicopter cabin and impossible if the other person isn't very close. That's why passengers wear headsets. With the exception of heavily-insulated VIP models, riding in a helo isn't like riding in an airliner. Here's a Richistan-review of the VIP version of the Sikorsky S-92: 

Range: Under normal circumstances helicopters aren't used for trips over 150 to 200 miles, so we're left to think that her lakeside house is within this distance.

Helmets: Every time I've ridden in a federally funded helicopter (as this one is supposed to be), it's been a no-exceptions rule that I had to wear a flight helmet. The reason is crash survival. Helmets are always good in a crash, and particularly important for anybody at the front or back of the machine. In a vertical crash the rotor blades can bend down so much they smash through the cabin at head level. Typically these carry a heavy weight at the tip, so the blades make good battering rams. 

Landing zone precautions: Not shown, but civilian helicopter crews who value their lives will dispatch an advance team whenever planning to land in a built-up area. This is critical for night landings. Before the helicopter approaches, these people scout for wires, trees, poles, and other obstructions, and mark a safe landing zone with strobes. They keep bystanders back and stay on the radio. Once the helo is down, they guard the tail rotor. Here's info on that. 

Rotor and turbine noise in landing zone: Seemed accurate. Medium and heavy transports make a tremendous racket close to the ground.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

WikiLeaks, Casting a Wide Net

My name's in WikiLeaks too ... My article on the Hughes 500P "Quiet One" stealth helicopter, built for a 1972 CIA wiretapping mission into North Vietnam, was copied into an email by a Stratfor guy. This was part of chatter about the stealth MH-60 used in the Bin Laden raid. 

Here's the WikiLeaks link:

Here's the article as it appeared in Air&Space:

Here's one of the photos that Shep Johnson sent me, showing the ship parked at the secret base in Laos:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fellowship of the Ring Finger: Safety tips from an oil-rig medic

I'm not a big follower of celebrity news, but Lindsay Lohan did a service by letting people know about a severe finger injury during a boating expedition. Apparently one of her rings snagged as the anchor line ran out, injuring a digit. It might make help people more careful. 

The word for the injury that can happen when a ring snags is avulsion. Think of eating a corn dog on a stick – the corn dog slides off the stick bite by bite. Among other celebrity-ring-finger sufferers are Jimmy Fallon and soccer star Kevin McHugh.

Prevention is a lot better than relying on surgery to make it right. I saw the prevention mindset in action minutes after I landed on a Transocean deepwater drillship far out in the Gulf of Mexico called Discoverer Enterprise for a magazine article. I spent four days watching the drilling and completion of a deepwater well for BP. It was an impressive vessel, with two drilling rigs:

As a first-time visitor, my first job upon leaving the helideck was to grab my gear and sit down with the ship's medic for a safety briefing, which I figured would cover just a few basics like my lifeboat station.

The medic did that, but there was a good deal more. He started by showing me around the clinic, which looked impressive enough, then made this case: “But this isn't for surgery and I'm not an MD. If you get seriously hurt out here it'll take at least four hours for a copter to come and fly you to a hospital, so you've got to watch out for yourself.”

He was not only persuasive, he was persistent. For one thing, he insisted I remove my wedding ring. I pointed out that the only time before that I'd tried to get it off, it wouldn't budge past the first knuckle. (That was before going up the the gantry at Cape Kennedy's Vertical Assembly Building to take a look at the Columbia. The main reason for this was NASA's worry about jewelry or other loose objects falling from visitors onto the delicate tiles. My NASA minder had accepted that removal of my ring was impractical, and had been satisfied with wrapping some tape around my ring finger.

Not good enough, the Discoverer Enterprise medic said. This was a working drill rig with a lot of moving parts, big ones, and a ring was an accident waiting to happen: it could catch on something and tear my finger off, or electrocute me if I closed an open circuit with it.

(Apparently he hadn't given much credit to the plot of Abyss, where a wedding ring is a lifesaver, not a life-taker: in the movie, the character played by Ed Harris saves himself from drowning in his undersea drilling rig by jamming his wedding ring into a bulkhead door before it closes, giving rescuers a chance to force it open.)

So the medic showed me how to get around the knuckle problem by wrapping the joint with waxed flossing string. That compressed it enough to let me work the ring off in good order.

Here's another tip he taught me, which I use daily: He said one of the most avoidable accidents he sees on board oil rigs is to fall down the stairs. It's easy to do, he said, because the stairs on ships are steep and made of metal, and tend to be slippery, given that everybody is wearing boots and the surfaces collect moisture.

“Just keep a hand on damn handrail, and you'll be okay,” he said. I did, and still do.  

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Hold the High Ground: Helicopter war at the top of the world

Watching this week's fighting across the Line of Control that separates the forces of Pakistan and India in Kashmir reminded me to post another excerpt from my book on the social history of helicopters, The God Machine. The section is about how helicopters participated in one of the more obscure exchanges of fire between the two countries, and it also concerned Kashmir. 

Note on this week's headlines: while there have been many high-stress moments between the two nations (such as after the attack on India's Parliament, or the massacre at Mumbai), the latest fighting has real potential to grow beyond anything we've seen in SE Asia so far, because there seems to be a feeling that the presence of nuclear weapons on the opponent's side shouldn't be a deterrent to escalation. It's a flashpoint that popped up when I was researching my article on the history of DEFCON alerts. 


Starting in 1984, a unique helicopter war took shape across the Karakoram Range. Called the Siachen Conflict, it lasted almost two decades, and was highest-altitude war in history.

The dispute dated to 1949 and a disagreement over the exact course of the India-Pakistan border where it passed through the old kingdom of Kashmir. The disagreement was academic until an Indian Army officer noticed in 1977 that the Pakistanis were issuing permits for mountaineering parties to climb certain high mountains that India claimed. A race was on to control the Siachen Glacier and three high passes. At 50 miles long and two miles wide, the Siachen was one of the world’s largest glaciers outside of the polar regions.

In a secret mission called Operation Cloud Messenger, the Indian Army used helicopters to reach the high ground first, in April 1984. Indian troops planted fiberglass igloos at altitudes as high as 22,000 feet in the Saltoro Range forming the west rim of the glacier.

Most of the fighting was conducted with cannons and mortars, which fired any time that the weather was clear enough to pick out a target. Indian Mi-8 helicopters brought light cannons to 17,000 feet and troops dragged the hardware the rest of the way, a few agonizing feet at a time. While the lower-altitude Pakistanis could depend on trucks and pack animals, Indian forces were totally dependent on helicopters for the last stage of their supply chain, and for lifting out hundreds of men debilitated by the conditions.

The machine of choice was the Aerospatiale Lama, along with an Indian-manufactured version called the Cheetah. For almost 20 years, each side attempted to leapfrog the other, looking for gun emplacements that could shell but not be shelled in return. One solution: the high-altitude helicopter raid. 

In April 1989 a Lama helicopter carried a squad of Pakistani troops one at a time and dropped them onto a saddle-shaped ridge at Chumik Pass, altitude 22,100 feet, allowing them to sneak up on an Indian post. 

The high-altitude war ended with a cease-fire in 2003.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Gunfights of the Old West: Not always cinematic

Occasionally trends in movie-making catch my interest. Not many studios make Western movies now, but two are in the theaters, a remake of The Magnificent Seven and something called Stagecoach

This return to the Western genre prompted me to think about a relative, an ex-guerrilla fighter of the Civil War named James J. Chiles. I knew Chiles died of gunshot wounds during a fight with a deputy marshal in downtown Independence, Missouri, in 1873. I knew the town had quite a reputation for violence at the time. Being just east of the Missouri River Independence was not the Wild West, but Wild Midwest.

And I knew James Chiles had a long and bloody record. He killed one man before the war and at least four people in fights following the Civil War. He certainly killed a lot more men during the war, because he rode with the rebel bands led by William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson. He joined in the murderous raid on Lawrence, Kansas, which attempted to shoot down every able-bodied man in the Jayhawker stronghold. Chiles must have been comfortable with guns, lots of them: a typical horseman in Quantrill's group carried six revolvers and a carbine.

Here's a picture of Chiles taken during the war:

My great-great aunts were furious when my parents gave me the first name James, but my folks figured enough years had passed to let it go. Or maybe it was acknowledgment that for all his faults, Chiles was bigger than life. He was on a first name basis with Wild Bill Hickok and Frank and Jesse James. Harry Truman thought enough of him to note that James Chiles was his uncle by marriage. The character "Jack Bull Chiles" in Ang Lee's movie Ride with the Devil is based on James Chiles.

So ... did Chiles's death scene in Independence measure up to what we expect from Western downtown-showdowns? Local papers called him a "noted desperado," after all. First, the odds are against the fight being on an epic scale. There were surprisingly few movie-worthy street battles in all the decades of the real West, and even fewer walk-down duels. Among the authentic battles were the shootout at the OK Corral, the Lincoln County War, and a string of fights about county seats.

These are way outnumbered by fictional face-to-face shootouts, such as those featured in the two Magnificent Seven movies, Clint Eastwood's westerns, High Noon, The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Open Range, and heaps of others,

Chiles's death by gunfire was tragic but hardly epic. The newspaper reports don't agree on everything that happened on Sunday, September 21, 1873, but events certainly came quickly:

That afternoon Chiles was upset with a town deputy marshal named James Peacock, and he found Peacock and his son on a sidewalk in the town square. (The reason isn't clear but might have gone back to when Chiles was a lawman himself. Chiles owned a saloon called The Headquarters at this time.)

Chiles had his own son, named Elijah, with him. Chiles walked up to Peacock and slapped the deputy. Peacock struck back and as usually happens in real fights, the men lost their balance and fell to the boardwalk, grappling. 

It might have ended there except Chiles' son Elijah saw a revolver fall out of Chiles' pocket as the men separated and started to gain their feet. Elijah grabbed the gun and shot the deputy in the back, wounding him but not critically.

Peacock drew his own gun and shot James Chiles in the forehead, killing him instantly. Peacock's son Charles found another gun and shot Elijah Chiles, who died soon after.  Another shot winged the city marshal as he arrived. 

By Western standards Chiles probably would have been cast as one of the villains in a black hat, one who falls in the last scene, so perhaps he measured up to some of the fictional standard after all.