Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The iFighter

In a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Arthur Herman suggested that the Pentagon's procurement woes could be solved (in part) by opening up the defense contracting business and putting civilian businessmen and entrepreneurs firmly in charge--just like we did in World War II.

Ah, nostalgia.

Through the prism of history, American defense production in the Second World War has become the stuff of legend. Quickly ramping up for the effort, U.S. firms churned out an amazing amount of war material, enough to equip not only the 16 million Americans who served in our military, but tremendous quantities of planes, ships, tanks and guns that were used by our allies.

The list is both impressive and staggering: In just over three years, U.S factories built over 75,000 Sherman tanks, used by U.S., British and Soviet forces (among others). Our shipyards built two dozen Essex-class fleet carriers between 1942 and 1945, while airplane manufacturers produced thousands of fighter and attack aircraft that flew from their decks. To transport war goods to far-flung outposts, we cranked out one new Liberty ship every day. Automobile companies switched from producing cars to aircraft, allowing the us to manufacture almost 20,000 heavy bombers, far more than all the Axis powers combined. And the story was repeated over and over again, in every category of war implements. America truly was the Arsenal of Democracy that doomed facism to the ash heap of history.

Yet, while our war production was both historical (and military decisive), it wasn't necessarily innovative or revolutionary. The civilians who led the procurement effort were quite adept at manufacturing weapons that were efficient, reliable and easy to maintain, but in some cases, their products suffered from material or manufacturing defects, or they were vastly inferior to their enemy counterparts on the battlefield.

Consider the M-4 Sherman tank, the mainstay of allied armored forces in World War II. Developed just before Pearl Harbor, the Sherman was more than a match for German tanks inn the early days of the war. But thanks to Army obstinance and a procurement system focused more on production that system refinement, the Sherman quickly fell behind the next generation of German tanks, the Panther and the Tiger.

With their high-velocity 88mm main gun, the Tiger and Panther could make quick work of a Sherman. Most of the U.S.-built M-4s were equipped with a 75mm gun that could not penetrate the frontal armor of their foes. By the time of the Normany invasion, many U.S. armored units had to rely on air and artillery support to defeat Panzer units, along with the sheer number of Shermans on the battlefield.

In some battles, U.S. tank crews would gamely engage the German tanks head-on, while their colleagues maneuvered around to fire on the Panthers or Tigers from behind--the only area where armor on the German tanks was thin enough to be penetrated by a round from the Sherman's main gun. Meanwhile, an American model that was capable of fighting the Germans on equal terms (the M-26 Pershing) was delayed by development problems and outdated Army doctrine on the roles of tanks, tank destroyers and anti-tank guns in maneuver warfare. The British Army suffered similar problems with their Shermans; noting the M-4s tendency to catch fire, Brit tank crews nicknamed them "Ronsons," after the cigarette lighter that lit "first time, every time."

How inferior was the Sherman? Consider these statistics from the Third Armored Division, which fought its way from the hedgerows of France to the heart of the Third Reich. In eleven months of heavy fighting, the unit lost over 700 Shermans destroyed and many more that were damaged, but repaired and returned to service. The units cumulative tank loss rate from D-Day to VE Day was roughly 700 percent. Only the ready availability of replacement tanks and crews(and the ability of maintenance personnel to repair damaged Shermans) kept the division in the fight.

And the Sherman isn't the only example of poor procurement during the golden days of World War II. Confronted by mounting bomber losses over Europe, the civilian acquisition whizzes commissioned General Motors to develop a long-range escort fighter. What eventually emerged was something call the P-75 Eagle, an ungainly contraption that was cobbled together with components from other aircraft, complete with contra-rotating propellers. The P-75 never lived up to expectations and was mercifully cancelled, after someone else hit on the idea of putting a British Merlin engine in the P-51 Mustang, a fighter that no one initially wanted.

U.S. torpedoes represented another procurement debacle. Early in the war, it became evident that torpedoes fired by our submarines had serious problems; they ran "deeper" than programmed, causing many to pass harmlessly beneath their targets. And when they ran at the correct depth, their fusing often failed. During one engagement early in the war, a U.S. sub fired eight torpedoes at Japanese ships; only one torpedo functioned correctly. It wasn't until 1944 that the problems were fixed, and submarine crews finally had a reliable weapon to use against Japan's Navy and its merchant fleet.

Even the vaunted Liberty ships had their problems. Using modular construction techniques, the transport vessels were literally welded together, section by section. Many suffered from structural cracks due to poor welds and the low-grade steel used in structural components. Several Liberty ships actually broke up in heavy seas, carrying their crews to the bottom. Some merchant sailors dubbed them "Kaiser's coffins," after the industrialist who produced them.

To be fair, our procurement system produced far more successes than failures, and even the pre-war team created some remarkable weapons systems (the B-17 bomber comes to mind). But America's real genius was in our rapid transformation from a peacetime to a wartime economy, and the stunning output that ensued.

Could we do the same thing today? Sadly, the answer is "no." The weapons of today are infinitely more complex and the expertise to produce such implements rests with a handful of companies. During World War II, Newport News Shipbuilding was only one of several yards that could build an aircraft carrier. Today, when the Navy needs a new carrier, Newport News is the only company that can handle the job.

There's also the question of who might be interested enough to enter the defense sector. Many of today's high-tech companies already have a presence in the military IT sector. As for the hardware component, the recent trend has been towards consolidation, rather than expansion. It would take billions of dollars to create such an enterprise, with meager prospects for success.
Consider the sheer number of companies that produced aircraft for the military during World War II, a group that included Boeing, Vought, Lockheed, Grumman, North American, Douglas, McDonnell and Consolidated (among others). Today, only Boeing and Lockheed survive as aircraft manufacturers. Grumman, which merged with Northrop a few years back, is primarily a defense IT firm. The rest were absorbed by rivals--or went out of business--long ago.

Apple certainly has the resources and technical expertise to enter the defense sector, but why put up with a difficult customer when you can make billions selling iPods and iPads to consumers? Besides, most of Apple's manufacturing capability is located overseas, which doesn't mesh well with production of sensitive military hardware.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


An Air Force C-17 transport takes off from Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa Friday evening. The airlift landed at the general aviation facility by mistake while enroute to nearby MacDill AFB (photo by Michael Egger via Aviation News in the Raw).

Flying into Tampa isn't as easy as you might think. Along with the traffic--and occasional bad weather--there's the relatively close proximity of runways for three airports: MacDill AFB, Tampa International and Peter O. Knight Field, a general aviation airfield. Pilots fly roughly the same heading to land at each facility, creating the potential for confusion.

Over the years, there have been "accidental" landings by pilots who mistake the runway at another field for their intended landing site. Most of these have occured when commercial pilots landed their jets at MacDill, where they're greeted by armed security forces personnel. Back in 2004, two pilots made the same mistake in the same week, and there have been other--though infrequent--mistakes involving commercial jets touching down at the Air Force base.

However, we haven't heard of any military planes mistaking Peter O. Knight for MacDill or Tampa International. Until yesterday.

That's when an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III touched down at the general aviation field. As you might expect, the large transport needs a fair amount of runway to take off and land, more than 3,000 feet, to be exact. The longest runway at Peter O. Knight is 3.405 feet long; according to one eyewitness, the C-17 stopped with almost no room to spare (h/t Aviation News in the Raw):

“I was supposed to leave about five minutes after that plane landed,” said Ryan Gucwa, 29, a corporate pilot from Tampa. He was scheduled to pick up passengers at Tampa International and get them to Georgia on Friday afternoon. Instead, he caught a cellphone video of the C-17′s amazing landing.

“It stopped about 6 feet from the end of the runway; any farther and it would have been grass,” Gucwa said.

And that prompted immediate speculation as to how the transport aircraft would leave the airport. When a Boeing 727 made an "accidental" landing at Knight Airport back in the 1980s, it had to be disassembled and trucked away; the runways were simply too short for the airliner to take off.

But that wasn't the case for the C-17. A few hours later, after its load had been significantly reduced, the airlifter took off for the short hop to MacDill. Aviation News in the Raw has the video of that event.

A spokesman at MacDill said he wasn't sure why the transport landed at Knight instead of the Air Force base. The C-17, with 19 crew members and 23 passengers, was returning from Southwest Asia when it touched down at Peter O. Knight airport around 1:20 Friday afternoon. It finally arrived at MacDill Friday evening, after seven hours on the ground at the general aviation airport.

One thing is certain: this will be the last flight for the C-17 pilot and co-pilot until the Air Force can figure out what went wrong. Crew complacency is the most likely culprit.
ADDENDUM: The aircraft and crew are assigned to the 305th Mobility Wing at McGuire AFB, New Jersey. A spokesman there declined comment on the incident. The normal crew for a C-17 is three, a pilot, co-pilot and loadmaster. The large number of crew members on board suggests the flight was a rotator mission, bringing crews back to McGuire after a deployment to Southwest Asia.

Friday, July 20, 2012

When Journalism Was

Hard to believe, but once upon a time, serious journalists cared about reporting a story accurately.

Thirty years ago, if you were watching ABC's coverage of the assassination attempt on President Reagan, you saw a rather unusual outburst from anchorman Frank Reynolds. Early reports suggested Mr. Reagan had not been hit by gunfire, but that information was quickly proved to be erroneous. At that point, Reynolds literally shouted at an off-camera staffer to "speak up" as more details arrived.

A few moments later, various news outlets began reporting that Presidential Press Secretary James Brady had died from a head wound he received, and that President Regan had not only been hit by gunfire, but had died as well. Both accounts were quickly corrected, but Reynolds appeared noticeably upset on camera and angrily snapped at the newsroom staff:

"Let's get it nailed down...somebody...let's find out. Let's get it straight so we can report this thing accurately."

What many viewers didn't know is that Reynolds was a close friend of Jim Brady and had developed a friendship with the Reagans during the 1976 presidential campaign. When Mr. Reynolds died from complications from cancer and liver failure in 1983, the President and First Lady attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Two years later, Reynolds was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. Clearly, Mr. Reynolds had a personal connection to the Reagans and Jim Brady, but as a journalist, he cared deeply about getting the story straight during a national tragedy.

My, my, how times have changed.

Flash forward to this morning, and ABC's early coverage of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In a moment that represents a new low for broadcast journalism, Brian Ross, the "Chief Investigative Correspondent" for ABC News, speculated that James Holmes (the man arrested for the Colorado rampage) might be affiliated with the Tea Party. Ross offered his little "scoop" to Good Morning America co-host George Stephanopoulos, who voiced no concerns about the report, which was little more than a circumstantial accusation, based on what he found on the internet (we can only imagine how Frank Reynolds would have reacted).

Politico (among other sites) has the video.

As a reformed journalist, the "reporting" on ABC was simply jaw-dropping. Their claim was the result of linking a common name--there are at least 30 "Jim Holmes" in the Denver area--and his affiliation with the local Tea Party, which appeared on the organization's web site.

Quite predictably, Mr. Ross got it wrong. Very wrong. Turns out that Jim Holmes who belongs to the Colorado Tea Party is a 54-year-old Hispanic man. The individual with the same name who was arrested for the theater killings is white, roughly 30 years younger, and a PhD student at the University of Colorado.

Within a couple of hours, ABC admitted its report was inaccurate and issued an apology. Sorry guys, that won't cut it. The real question is why you put out information that "wasn't properly vetted." And, with more than 30 men who have that name in the Denver region, why did ABC focus on the individual with Tea Party ties? Sadly, I think we know the answer to that one.

And don't hand me that crap about the "heat of the moment," and seeing the "editing process on the air in a breaking news situation." When Ronald Reagan was shot, all three broadcast networks got it wrong, reporting that the President had died from his wounds. That didn't matter to Frank Reynolds; he didn't care that NBC and CBS made the same mistake; his only concern was that ABC was accurate in its reporting.

I didn't see anything remotely approaching those standards on ABC this morning. Just a couple of agenda-driven hacks, trying to make a tragedy fit their template. When broadcast journalism was a real profession, this stuff never made it on the air and if it did, the "reporter" was usually looking for a new job the next day.

Here's hoping that the Jim Holmes who was smeared in the ABC report gets himself a lawyer and sues the network. I'll even donate the first $100 towards a legal fund for Mr. Holmes.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tehran Strikes Back

Israel is blaming Iran for today's attack on a busload of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. According to early press reports, at least four Israelis were killed when their tour bus was blown apart by a bomb in a seaside resort. Other outlets claimed a second bus was also bombed, although that report was not immediately confirmed and it's unclear if the other bus was also carrying Israelis: From the AP:

A bus carrying Israeli youth exploded Wednesday in a Bulgarian resort, killing at least four people and wounding 27, police and hospital officials said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it "an Iranian terror attack" and promised a tough response.

The explosion took place in the Black Sea city of Burgas, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of the capital, Sofia. Images shown on Israeli and Bulgarian media showed smoke billowing from the scene - a parking lot at the local airport, where the Israeli tourists had apparently just landed. Several buses and cars were on fire near the carcass of the targeted vehicle.

Bulgaria, an eastern European nation bordering Greece and Turkey, is a popular tourist destination for Israelis.

It was not yet certain what caused the blast - whether it was the result of a suicide bomber or a device remotely detonated - and no group immediately claimed responsibility.

One survivor told Israeli Army Radio the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber near the entrance to the lead bus, but Bulgarian officials claim the bomb was placed in the luggage compartment of one of the vehicles.

Mr. Netanyahu wasted little time in blaming Iran, and Tehran's operatives certainly lead the suspect list. For more than two years, Israel has been conducting targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and launching cyber-attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities. Not only have these strikes proved embarrassing, they have also created significant delays in Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. That alone provides a powerful incentive for revenge. Unable to hit Israel at home--without triggering a major regional war--Iran opted for a traditional terrorist strike, going after soft targets (Israeli tourists), in a neutral country with obvious security gaps.

Of course, Iran may get more than it bargained from the Israelis. Prime Minister Netanyahu is pledging a "tough response," and Israel has a variety of options to choose from, including ramped up cyber-attacks and direct measures, to military strikes against Iranian targets. Israel has repeatedly warned that the window for action against Iran is closing, and it's not inconceivable that Mr. Netanyahu could use today's strike--and similar attempts in recent months--as a pretext for a military response.

Whatever Israel decides, it is very clear that war clouds are gathering in the Middle East. Along with the Iranian problem, Tel Aviv is deeply concerned about the situation in Syria. There is the very real possibility that Damascus and Tehran may create a new conflict between Hizballah and Israel in Lebanon, in an effort to divert attention away from the Syrian civil war, and unite the populace against a common foe. Additi onally, there are rising concerns about control of Syria's large stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. Israel may be forced to take military action to neutralize or secure those assets, to prevent them from falling in the hands of terrorists.

And if you need more proof of how quickly the crisis is escalating, consider this: the Obama Administration has ordered another U.S. aircraft carrier to the Middle East four months ahead of schedule, to ensure we have two carriers in the region throughout the fall. Few would accuse our current commander-in-chief of being militaristic. The early dispatch of another carrier is hardly an encouraging sign. Early bets on an "October surprise" point to the Middle East.


Since the bombing, we've learned of a rather bitter irony in this tragedy. The suspected bomber, a Swedish convert to Islam, is an alumni of the U.S. terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Mehdi Ghezali was captured during the battle at Tora Bora in 2001, and sent to Gitmo, along with other terrorists.

But Ghezali, who was born in Algeria, quickly because a cause celebre in his adopted homeland. The Swedish Prime Minister personally petitioned the U.S. for his transfer to Sweden, and we obliged. Upon Ghezali's return, the Swedish government set him free, announcing they could find no evidence he had committed any crimes. Predictably, Ghezali returned to his jihadi career, culminating in this week's attack against the Israeli tourists. As Mark Steyn observed yesterday: we can be sure that Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes will wind up on death row, or spend the rest of his life in prison for murdering 12 people in a movie theater.

But we have no such assurances about terrorists who kill innocents of all backgrounds. In fact, Ghezali is merely the latest murderer who was freed from Gitmo, and given an opportunity to kill again.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Fear the Drones

Normally, Rich Lowry of National Review is a keen and reliable observer of the American scene. But like any columnist, Mr. Lowry pens an occasional clunker, like the one last week about the "Great Drone Panic of 2012." Noting that many conservatives--including Charles Krauthamer and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul--want them banned for domestic use (because of privacy concerns), Mr. Lowry describes their opposition as "Luddism masquerading as civil libertarianism." Drones are here to stay, Lowry writes, might as well get used to it:

"...Ultimately, it is not the technology that matters, but the use to which it is put. A can of pepper spray is technologically unsophisticated. Yet it can be an instrument of cruelty if wielded arbitrarily by a cop. The drone is potentially a powerful tool. Vigilance is advisable; panic is silly."

Or is it? The civilian drone market is about to explode, with scores of companies and organizations, public and private, set to send UAVs aloft, mostly in support of surveillance and security functions. So, Rich Lowry is right about one thing: at this point, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop the drone revolution.

But on the other hand, the proliferation of UAVs in domestic airspace will create a number of civil liberties issues, with little regard for how those matters will be resolved.

For starters, there's the question of random versus targeted surveillance. Presumably, police drones will be able to operate like helicopters, flying routine patrols above their jurisdiction. If suspicious or criminal behavior is observed, drone operators should have the same rights as other officers to follow and monitor those individuals.

But what if the individual (or a particular residence) is earmarked for extended surveillance, concentrating largely on a certain suspect, or activities at their home address. In that regard, near-continuous UAV surveillance is similar to a wiretap, which requires probable cause and authorization from a judge. At what point will similar requirements be mandated for police drone surveillance? And what about the neighbors or other Innocent bystanders who may be caught in the surveillance zone? How will their rights be protected?

There's also the matter of how information collected by law enforcement drones will be stored and protected. Towards the end of my intel career, I was given a tour of an Air Force Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS), which receives, analyzes and processes information collected by military UAVs, like the Predator and Reaper systems. Incidentally, this was before the service expanded its "orbits" to more than 30, and added additional DCGS facilities with guard and reserve units.

What many don't realize is the enormous "support" element required for a drone mission. Along with the two-person "operational crew" (pilot and sensor operator), there is an additional team consisting of 12-24 intelligence specialists, assigned to conduct initial analysis on information collected by the UAVs sensors and provide support to troops on the ground.

As you might expect, the amount of information collected by these missions is enormous; at the time of my tour, that single DCGS facility (part of an Air Force intelligence wing) had surveillance data that was already measured in terabytes (emphasis mine), and that was more than five years ago. With the ensuring, dramatic increase in UAV operations, we can only imagine how much information is now retained in vast storage facilities, which can be readily accessed by intelligence analysts throughout the community.

And to its credit, the military has done a remarkably good job safeguarding this information. As a rule, the only drone footage that has "leaked" is released by the Pentagon. Still, there is cause for concern; after all, the U.S. intelligence apparatus thought much of its data was secure until a traitorous Private (Bradley Manning) began downloading reams of classified info from various "secure" networks and transmitted it to WikiLeaks.

On the civilian side, no one has been able to answer the questions of what will be collected by police drones, who will have access to the data and how it will be safeguarded.  True, many law enforcement UAVs will have only a limited collection capability, but larger police organizations (or consortium's) will be able to employ state-of-the-art systems, capable of collecting vast amounts of data.  How will it be stored?  What security measures will be in place to protect the rights of individuals?  

Additionally, what assurances (if any) does the public have that the UAV's "down-link" won't be accessed or  pirated?  In Afghanistan, the signal from Predator drones wasn't encrypted until U.S. troops made a startling discovery.  Taliban fighters had figured out a way to intercept the drone's surveillance feed, and they were watching what we were seeing.  It's doubtful that local law enforcement organizations (or even the feds) will run military-grade encryption for their guidance and surveillance signals, creating the real possibility that others can intercept or spoof them.  Not long ago, a professor at the University of Texas demonstrated how easily it can be accomplished, successfully "pirating" a drone flying over the football stadium.  

These are the types of issues that must be resolved before large numbers of drones start orbiting in American skies.  As is often the case, technology has leap-frogged ahead of legal and privacy concerns, forcing everyone to play catch-up.  Except in this case, there appears to be relatively little concern about the civil liberties aspect.  Indeed, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (who has been mentioned as a possible running mate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney) recently heralded drone technology as a great leap forward for law enforcement.  

Governor McDonnell is certainly right about that, but more attention must be paid to who will be operating these drones, how they will collect information (or more correctly, how they will be allowed to gather data) and procedures for not only safe-guarding the collection haul, but the rights of ordinary Americans who may find themselves under the gaze of a police UAV.     

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Andy Griffith, R.I.P.

Mayberry--and the rest of America--is in mourning.

Andy Griffith, the iconic actor best known as a small-town sheriff on the sitcom that bore his name, died this morning at his home on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. He was 86. Cause of death was not disclosed, but Griffith suffered a heart attack (and quadruple by-pass surgery) in 2000. Griffith was laid to rest on the island about five hours after his death, in accordance with family wishes.

Despite a 60-year acting career that stretched from the Broadway stage to the silver screen, Griffith will be forever known as Sheriff Andy Taylor, the folksy lawman who kept the peace in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

It was a role that he seemed to play effortlessly and naturally. After all, Griffith was born and raised in the small North Carolina town of Mount Airy, a hamlet not unlike Mayberry during his boyhood in the 1920s and 1930s. He went on to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning a degree in music. While at UNC, he was active in campus theatrical productions, but after graduation, he took a job as a high school teacher in Goldsboro, about 80 miles east of Chapel Hill. Early in his tenure, Griffith and other teachers were invited to describe their courses at a school assembly. "Take my choral music class," he told the students, "it's hard to fail."

But performing was never far from his mind. Along with his first wife, Barbara, he developed an act, entertaining local civic clubs and church groups. In the late 1940s and early 50s, he also acted in "The Lost Colony," a drama about the first English colony along North Carolina's outer banks. Griffith eventually worked his way into the lead role of Sir Walter Raleigh, the English explorer who founded the settlement. Until the night of his death, Griffith's videotaped introduction provided a greeting for audiences attending the production.

Griffith also worked the club circuit along the "Redneck Riviera" in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, appearing alongside comedy legends like Brother Dave Gardner. Griffith soon realized that, as a monologist, his longer routines didn't always work in a club environment. He also found it frustrating that the stream-of-consciousness style used by Gardner (and other comedians) drew more laughs--and attention--than his material.

Records proved a better fit for Griffith and his story-telling approach. In 1953, he recorded "What it Was, Was Football," a backwoodsman's description of his first college football game. The record was a smash, reaching #9 on the Billboard charts in 1954, and creating new opportunities for Griffith. Within a year, he was starring in the U.S. Steel Hour production of the military comedy "No Time for Sergeants," a role he reprised on Broadway and in film. During the play's New York run, he became close friends with another cast member, Don Knotts, who shared a similar, small town background. For his work in "Sergeants," Griffith received a Tony nomination, and he picked up a second nod for a starring performance in the musical "Destry Rides Again."

Between his appearances on Broadway, Griffith earned his best film road, playing a vagabond-turned-megalomaniac-TV personality in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd." While Griffith received good notices for his performance as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, critical reaction to the production was mixed. As we observed in 2005, Hollywood politics of that era might be the reason the film--and Griffith's brilliant performance--were largely ignored:

"...Liberals often describe the film as a study of the manipulation of the media (and the public) by greedy performers and corporate interests. But from a conservative perspective, Kazan's film is also a cautionary tale about the unholy alliance between between politics, the media and celebrities, decades before Hollywood became a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. Whatever its intended message, the film ranks with the best of Kazan's work, and Griffith turns in a mesmerizing performance as the cold, calculating, yet cornpone Rhodes."

Whatever the reason, the film ignored by the Academy Awards and Griffith did not receive a nomination as Best Actor. Some have speculated that the actions of Kazan and screenwriter Budd Sberg may have prompted the slight. Both Kazan and Schulberg cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee in exposing communists in Hollywood.

Years later, Griffith told an interviewer that the film role "changed him," causing the actor to briefly take on some of Rhodes' unflattering traits. After his run in Destry, Griffith decided to try a TV series, and he struck pure gold. "The Andy Griffith Show" is widely considered one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, and some of us put the program at the top of the list. More than fiftyyears after its debut on CBS, the show holds up remarkably well, while many of the "hip" comedies that came after it have all-but-disappeared.

Yet, as many fans know, the program that became a TV classic was slightly different than what Griffith and producers Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas originally envisioned. Sheriff Andy Taylor made his debut on an episode of Thomas's long-running "Make Room for Daddy," which served as a back-door pilot for the Griffith show. As the actor told a reporter in 1993, "I was supposed to be the funny one," and that's evident in the pilot, with Andy Taylor (who doubles as the local justice of the peace and newspaper editor) milking Thomas's "arrest" on speeding charges for maximum comedic value. Compared to the series that followed, the laughs in the pilot seem forced and a bit stilted. Griffith later observed that if the program had followed the original template, it might have been cancelled in a few weeks.

Enter Don Knotts. After early success on Broadway (and as a member of Steve Allen's comedy troupe), Knotts career had cooled in the late 1950s. Hearing that his friend would soon launch a new series, Knotts called Griffith and told him "I guess you'll be needing a deputy." Griffith agreed and Knotts signed on the perfectly flappable Barney Fife. While he began as a relatively minor figure, the high-strung, calamity-prone deputy became one of TV's first breakout characters, with many of the plots revolving around Barney and his antics. Griffith wisely took on the role of straight man, confident in his own talent and cognizant that Knotts was a major factor in the show's success.

The Andy Griffith show ran for eight years, still ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings when it left the air in 1968. Many fans believe the series slipped a bit (in terms of quality) when Don Knotts left and the episodes were filmed in color. The series popularity--during its original airing on CBS and in thousands of re-runs since--was a testament to Griffith's popularity as a performer and his insistence on quality. While he never claimed a writer's credit on the show, Griffith was heavily involved in script development and refinement. One former associate remembered him as one of the best script doctors in the business and he valued input from all cast members--even a seven-year-old Ron Howard, as recounted in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.

After "The Andy Griffith Show" left the airwaves, its star made a few feature films, appeared in scores of made-for-TV movies, and tried three television series in the 1970s, two on CBS and one for ABC. He finally hit ratings pay-dirt with Matlock, playing a criminal defense lawyer who specialized in high-profile murder cases. The show ran for nine seasons, first on NBC and later, on ABC. Griffith brought the same exacting standards to that program, and won a new generation of fans.

He acted sporadically over the last years of his life, with a notable appearance in "Waitress" the 2007 film starring Keri Russell. Griffith also taped a campaign video for Barack Obama and commercials touting health care reform. A life-long Democrat, Griffith was an active donor to the party and filmed endorsements for a number of candidates. However, unlike many younger celebrities, Griffith was never obnoxious about his party affiliation, or expressed open contempt for the GOP. And ironically enough, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from a Republican president, George W. Bush, in 2005.

Despite his impressive body of work, Griffith received surprisingly little professional recognition for his work. He was never nominated for an Emmy on "The Andy Griffith Show" (Don Knotts won five times in a row for Best Supporting Actor), and didn't get his first nomination until 1980, for a role in a TV movie. He later received a lifetime achievement award from the television academy. Griffith won a Grammy for a 1996 gospel music album, I Love to Tell the Story.

There were personal setbacks along the way; a bout with Guillian-Barre syndrome left his legs paralyzed for seven months in 1983; his first two marriages ended in divorce, and his son Sam died in 1996 after a long struggle with drugs and alcohol. In one of his last interviews, a reporter asked Griffith what he would change about his life. "Everything," he replied, speaking as someone who had experienced triumph and tragedy along the way.

Of course, Andy Griffith will be forever linked with his counterpart from Mayberry, Andy Taylor. And that's a fitting tribute; creating one of TV's most enduring characters and imbuing him with your own virtues is no mean feat. As more than one critic has noted, Mayberry was--and is--a refuge for us, even if you weren't lucky enough to grow up in a small town, and regardless of how you got along with your father. That's why so many of us will pause and watch "Opie the Birdman" or "The Pickle Story" for the 100th time. It connects us with a better place and time, even if it only existed in our minds.

A former writer for the Raleigh News and Observer said it best, in a column that appeared more than 25 years ago: "Every day at 5 o'clock [when re-runs of "The Andy Griffith Show aired on WRAL-TV], I go home." And thanks to Andy Griffith, we can keep making that journey.


A Lack of Air Support

Four members of the North Carolina Air National Guard died Sunday evening, when their C-130, configured for fire-fighting, crashed in South Dakota.  More from Air Force Times:

[Initially] "There was no official word on death or injuries, but the family of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, N.C., confirmed they were notified early Monday that he had died in the C-130 crash Sunday evening.  The Air Force later announced that three other members of the crew also perished.

The 42-year-old married father of two was a veteran pilot who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Six crew members were aboard the C-130 from the North Carolina Air National Guard in Charlotte, N.C., said Lt. Col. Robert Carver. The plane crashed after dropping fire retardant."

The Charlotte unit is one of four (three ANG, one Air Force Reserve) that is trained and equipped for the fire-fighting mission.  A total of eight C-130s currently have that capability, which has been performed by specially-trained Guard and Reserve crews for the past forty years.  The crash is the first in the history of Air Force aerial fire-fighting flights.  The seven remaining aircraft have been temporarily grounded, while investigators try to determine what caused the South Dakota crash.

But there's another element to this story, one that's being somewhat ignored by the mainstream media.  Military tankers are pressed into service when the U.S. Forest Service runs short of civilian fire-fighting aircraft.  And this year, the problem has been compounded by the Obama Administration's decision to cancel the contract of a firm that has been providing aerial tankers for decades.  As Audrey Hudson of Human Events reported last fall:

Nearly half of the federal government’s firefighting air tankers are siting idle at a California airport, grounded by the Obama administration in a contract dispute just weeks before wildfires swept through Texas killing a mother and her child, and destroying 100,000 acres.

The massive blazes forced Texas Gov. and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry to abruptly call off a campaign appearance in South Carolina earlier this week to respond to the crisis, and may force him to cancel his first debate appearance Wednesday night.

The U.S. Forest Service terminated the contract with Aero Union five weeks ago to operate seven P-3 Orions that are critical to the agency’s firefighting mission, leaving the federal government with 11 tankers under contract to help battle more than 50 large uncontained wildfires now burning nationwide.

That’s down from 40 tankers used by the Forest Service just a decade ago, according to Rep. Dan Lungren (R.-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Administration, who is challenging the decision to dismiss the largest provider of heavy air-tanker support to the federal government.
Unfortunately, Lungren and other Congressional opponents lost the battle; the Forest Service stood firm, and Aero Union--which had a 50-year history of providing air tankers to the government--was forced to close its doors. 

Consequently, the Forest Service began the fire season with just nine fixed-wing, fire-fighting aircraft.  That total was raised to 13 in early June, and the addition of the Guard and Reserve C-130s brought the inventory to 21--barely enough for the mission, according to experts.   

Now, with the military aircraft grounded, the air tanker fleet is under-strength again.  Making matters worse, the government uses very large tankers only when needed, making it impractical for operators to sustain their services.  Wildfire expert Bill Gabbert noted earlier this week that the Forest Service refuses to use the Boeing 747 "Supertanker," developed by Evergreen International.

Capable of delivering 20,000 gallons of water in a single drop, the Supertanker has been tested, but never used operationally.  Evergreen speculates that government contracting rules have effectively barred the Supertanker from being used; currently, only small businesses may bid on air tanker contracts, and none of those firms have the resources to operate a jumbo jet.  By its own estimate, Evergreen has invested more than $50 million in the Supertanker.  The Forest Service offered Evergreen a "call when needed" contract, but the company says such an agreement cannot generate the revenue needed to keep the Supertanker flying.  A rival firm (which operates DC-10 air tankers) has deployed one aircraft to Idaho, but there are questions as to how long it can sustain that operation, since the aircraft is only used periodically.

Meanwhile, the west continues to burn.  Obviously, problems with the air tanker fleet didn't begin with the Obama White House, but the current administration has done nothing to resolve the problem, and some would argue the situation is increasingly dire.  Much of the fire season is still ahead, and the Forest Service's meager tanker fleet will be hard-pressed to support fire crews on the ground.

Incidentally, Mr. Obama visited with firefighters earlier this week, during a visit to Colorado Springs.  As far as we can tell, the subject of air tankers never came up, at least publicly.