February 24, 2004


Question for Wilbur and the other aerial bloggers. Other than friends and Bush partisans, can anyone find anything that suggested the F-102A Delta Dagger was a "widowmaker," ie a particularly dangerous aircraft to fly? (For instance, a commenter here calls it "a flying coffin held together by bailing wire and spit.") Cause I can't find a single non-partisan source that claims that, myself. Just curious.

UPDATE: The ever-valuable Cecil T. comes up with stats for the answer. Turns out in the 1960s, of the four fighter aircraft in major use by the US Air Force (ie, over 100,000 flying hours per year... the F-102, F-100 Super Sabre, F-105 Thunderchief and F-101 Voodoo), the F-102 was the safest overall, with fewer serious accidents than any of the other types in 7 of those 10 years. That comparison could be skewed, but probably not in the F-102's favour, as it excludes several dangerous planes that weren't in nearly as widespread use as the others, such as the F-104 Starfighter:

Category A accidents per 100,000 flying hours per year, 1961-70:

F105 --18.3
F100 --14.4
F101 --13.2
F102 --9.9.

Part of this no doubt had to do with the greater use of F-105s (the most dangerous plane, with nearly twice as many accidents as the F-102) in South East Asia... most F-102s stayed stateside. And as Cecil points out in Flitters, compared to today's even safer fighter jets, it's fair to say even the F-102 was not exactly a Naderesque example of increased safety consciousness through design. That said, compared to all its fighter squadron peers, the F-102 was not only not the "widowmaker" but in fact a very safe aircraft for its time.

UPDATE #2: In Flitters, Cecil takes issue with the metric above. It's only meant to show the relative danger levels of flying the major types of USAF fighter in the 1960s, not lifetime comparisons, which might be misleading in their own way, given the general improvement in all aspects of flight technology from the 1950s to the present.

Cecil also says that leaving out the larger USAF aircraft (the C-130 and B-52) is misleading. But while it's true larger multiengine planes crashed catastrophically less often, surely it's also true that those crashes have to be regarded as individually more catastrophic as well, as more aircrew would have died in each one. Fortunately, his stats allow us to try another way to factor that in: pilot and passenger fatalities per 100,000 hours.

Taking the four year period 1968-71 to represent the Bush flying years, we come up with this:

Total hours
per 100K hrs

As you can see, in absolute terms, Bush's F-102 killed by far the fewest pilots/aircrew/passengers in this period... only six fatalities in the four year period he would have been keenly interested in that particular stat. That's to be expected, though: its fleet size was smaller than some of the others, and as a single seater jet, only the pilot would generally have been at risk.

On the other hand, if you factor out the number of hours flown, the F-102 becomes quite astonishingly safer than the others, with 1.15 fatalities per 100,000 hours, as opposed to around 5 per 100,000 for all the other fighters, the B-52, AND the C-130.

Even when you only count pilot fatalities, per hour flown the F-102 was far safer than any of the other major USAF combat aircraft in this period, and comparable to the C-130, a four-engined transport plane.

Yes, flying a fighter plane is never safe. And Lt. Bush would have had no choice over which plane his squadron flew. But compared to what he could have flown instead, in the time period he would have been flying or planning to fly it, his plane was not an unsafe one by any means. Quite the opposite.

*NB: Cecil points out the C130 and B52 numbers might be better halved to get an accurate comparison with the fighters, because the planes would have had both a pilot and copilot. If the number is used as a standin for the risk per plane per hour of flight, perhaps so; if the question is which plane type was creating more pilot widows at the time, perhaps not.

Posted by BruceR at 01:16 PM


The generally solid military correspondent Chris Wattie misses the big upshot in his piece in the Post today, describing Canadian air force plans to shut four or five airbases (the navy and army are actually worse off, he admits, but he hasn't been leaked the details on their fiscal disaster plans yet).

The air force proposal, if the story's accurate (and I have no info other than Wattie's article on that), appears to involve shutting down all the fighter wing bases except Cold Lake, in Alberta, including Bagotville in Quebec. That would essentially leave the air force without the ability to interdict aircraft anywhere on a "scramble" basis (ie, without air-to-air refuelling) except Alberta. Which of course, would seem to leave all of eastern Canada's population (and neighboring American areas) vulnerable to all the various commandeered civilian air-type threats we all have nightmares about these days.

Whether shooting down a hijacked airliner (or a drug smuggling plane, or a mysterious crop duster) could ever really be an option is a debatable question. But the air force seems to have no choice by this point but to surrender its capability to do so, regardless.

This of course comes close on the navy's admission to a Senate committee that it no longer patrols Canada's coasts in any real way, due to the need to keep up its foreign commitments (mostly supporting US carrier groups). The army has yet to be officially heard from, but it's generally assumed at this point that the Afghan and/or Bosnian missions will have to be all-but abandoned by the end of this year.

Also alarming in today's report is the floater of closing down Trenton -- Canada's chief air transport base -- because there won't be any transport aircraft left in 10 years. That would seem to also end any remaining airborne capability, as well as any ability for rapid airlift, either abroad, or to any of Canada's distant corners. Already reliant on commercial shipping to move troops by sea, we would become reliant on commercial lift to move by air, as well.

Welcome home, chickens. Roost's over to your left.

Posted by BruceR at 01:13 PM


1. Google. Only in this day and age could I have a vague recollection of a book I loved as a four year-old, type a couple keyword searches into a computer, and have it recalled for me that it was, in fact, Dear Garbage Man, by Gene Zion. Now I just need to find a copy...

2. .38 Special. As a 14 year-old, this was my favourite group. Still love "Caught Up In You" with a passion...

"It took so long to change my mind
I thought that love was a game
I played around enough to find
No two are ever the same
You made me realize the love I'd missed
So hot, love I couldn't quite resist
When its right, the light just comes shinin thru..."

Sounds as true to me now as it did back then, when love was something older kids did. Sigh.

3. The Canadian Naval Reserve. Spent the last weekend as their guest. Again, as always in my limited experience with them, a totally switched-on outfit: reservist service done right, in every way that counts. Every time I near despair at the limited contributions citizen-soldiers can make to a modern military, I see what these guys do for Canada and it reminds me of the goals as a leader I'm supposed to aspire to for the land-force units I work in. If I had a friend or relative joining the reserves today, and there was a choice between them joining me on the army side, or going to the Senior Service instead, I'd push them the other way, I swear.

I also had the pleasure, btw, of meeting Prof. Sunil Ram, probably the most contrarian of the current Canadian military analysts, and long a guilty reading pleasure of mine. Here's a sample castigation of the recent Afghan missions.

Posted by BruceR at 01:40 AM