Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Starfighter as Metaphor

The F104 Starfighter was an early 1950's pursuit/interceptor aircraft designed and built by Lockheed for the US Air-force. It has always been one of my favorites, along with the A7 Corsair in the way that boys like airplanes, but recently it's been churning through my thoughts for some reason. After a couple of days of pondering it, I think I've figured out what the deeper issue is that's been making me think of this plane. It's that it was the last time the US had any real pretense of being honorable. And for me, that also means the society and world I live in has not been honorable since before I was born.

There's obviously a lot to this thought process, and it may help to know that it's been prompted by a book I wrote recently. One of the themes of that book is the different types of fighters, or warriors, or combat that there are. For the sake of illustration, here's an off the cuff list of the ones that come into my mind: guerrilla, marauder, sentry, defender, attacker, fighter, assassin, guard, destroyer, flanker, hunter, harasser, and so on. Interceptor is a really cool name, and it's also one of the most noble of warriors, one that waits calmly and when needed responds to an aggressor with overwhelming force.

The F104 was designed almost solely for one purpose: to be able to respond quickly and chase down and shoot down enemy attackers. By definition, it is a defensive weapon, and really isn't suited to any kind of aggressive use (though that didn't stop all sorts of militaries from modifying its use).

Its design brief was: fastest possible (to catch up to bombers or enemy fighters of the fastest types), longest range possible (can't stop and refuel with a tanker while you're chasing a Russian Bear bomber about to destroy Manhattan), carry armament to destroy the enemy aircraft when you catch it (for any aircraft defense scenario, the f104 would run away rather than fight).

In response to the brief, Lockheed took the most powerful engine available and the best new aircraft canon and shrink-wrapped them in an airframe that didn't compromise at all. It was just big enough to hold the engine and the weapon. The pilot and the fuel were squeezed in where there was room for them. Nothing else was put on the plane. All of its design attributes were full sell-outs towards speed and range. It had engine inlets that were fixed and optimized for mach2. Same for the wings. The f104 barely flew below mach1 and it couldn't turn much at all, and if you did try to turn in any combat scenario it would fall out of the sky and crash. The canon carried only enough ammunition for six seconds of fire.

But: it could take off from ready and chase down anything in the sky. Right now. Because that's when the bombers came over the north pole from the USSR. Right now. Not when anybody was ready for it.

So: it was an elegant design, designed for a purpose, not to feed somebody's ego or win a pissing contest or gain somebody a new contract. It was the last plane designed for an honorable purpose, as I see it. Soon ICBMs would obviate its purpose, and ever after planes were designed because they could be, to outmatch other planes on spec. The cold war.

What that meant was that from then on there were planes that were the fastest, but they couldn't do anything, because they sacrificed too much range, or because they were just like the f104, and not needed anymore. Or they were the best dogfighter, or bomber or whatever, but always at the expense of being not really able to function in any other role. And possibly coincidentally, but all these new planes only worked in a framework, with carriers and tankers and all sorts of logistics. And what that means is that they're really only aggressive offensive weapons. They're only any good when used at a predetermined time as part of a fixed battle plan.

And so: as a society, we're spending obscene amounts of money on weapons that only serve a purpose if we're going to be war-makers. War-starters.

I think, by definition, there is no honorable war for the US, not because we aren't well intentioned, but because we've spent generations worth of wealth buying devices which leave us ham-strung. We can't defend ourselves except by preemptive attack. Our only security comes from destroying anything that might become a threat.

I'm sure there are examples and arguments and counter arguments all over the place in the broader world, but in terms of airplanes it's pretty clear.

And it's sad. We don't have interceptors any more. It's not even part of the plan. If somebody were to attack the continental US, they wouldn't even need anything special. The 911 attacks weren't intercepted and those were commercial sub-sonic passenger planes. --Flew right into manhattan.

We've been so myopic as a society that we spent trillions of dollars on stealth aircraft, so we could sneak into other countries to blow stuff up, and we don't have any kind of defensive force on our mainland. So myopic that a guy with a pocket-knife could hijack a plane and devastate a major city and it didn't prompt anyone to investigate the lack of a homeland defensive force. Ever. We still don't have ready defenders of any kind, and in fact: the only tangible response to the terrorist attacks was to send more and more of our military halfway around the world to try to destroy the threat. Leaving us even more unguarded.

And there's something intrinsic about the plane. I think maybe that's why I've always liked the Starfighter, even though it's from before my time, because its purpose informs its appearance. It looks like a good and noble thing, where modern planes look peculiar and malformed and perverted.

The starfighter:

The warthog theatre ground attack aircraft:

also: they sound cool:

David DeHetre