Archive for October, 2007

Seaplane Strike Force

The notion of a strategic bomber in the guise of a seaplane seems quaint today. But between 1955 and 1959, the US Navy operated 11 giant P6M Sea Masters from the waters of Chesapeake Bay. These aircraft were manufactured by the Martin Company and featured four afterburning jet engines that pushed the lumbering aircraft to the edge of the speed of sound. Much of the design was cutting edge, like the watertight rotating bomb bay that could accommodate 30,000 pounds of conventional or nuclear ordinance. The Sea Master was the product of envy; specifically the Navy’s envy of the Air Force and their sexy strategic bombers, like the B-58 Hustler and B-47 Stratojet. In the late 1940s, the Navy lacked the means to deliver nuclear weapons into the heart of the Soviet Union. Bombers deployed from aircraft carriers had limited range and submarines were armed only with primitive cruise missiles. The Navy decided to try and beat the Air Force at their own game and embarked on a project to build and field a strategic nuclear strike force.

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The plan was ambitious. This seaplane strike force would be mobile. Support ships would be deployed to forward position to refuel Sea Masters or rearm for follow up attacks. Larger ships would provide maintenance support. Floating caches and submarines would provide emergency fuel and weapons. The role of the Sea Master was flexible. It could be converted from bomber to mine layer in hours. The Sea Master also had the ability to take on even more varied tasks, like airborne tanker and electronic surveillance. But it was the technical challenges of just getting the aircraft off the ground, sorry water, that ultimately lead to the programs termination. That and the fact the Navy had developed more effective strategic weapon systems by 1960 (like the Polaris missile).

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It’s too bad the Sea Master was never fully operational. It could have carved a niche for itself in the Navy. I imagine the Sea Master providing refueling for Navy aircraft in Vietnam. The Sea Master also could have offered long range surveillance in that conflict as well. More recently, the Sea Master could have given special forces another tool for maritime interdiction. It could have also provided long range search and rescue capability. But there are a lot of seaplane haters. They point out the simple fact that seaplanes require relatively calm seas for operation (a very valid criticism BTW). Still, it’s fun to think about what could have been if the Sea Master would have gone into full scale production.

1 comment October 24th, 2007

Early ‘90s Nostalgia and Saint Etienne

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Maybe it’s the fact a Clinton is running for president again. Or maybe I’m just feeling old and disconnected from current popular culture. Whatever the reason, I’ve been afflicted with a spell of early ‘90s nostalgia which leads me to mull the dilemma of Saint Etienne and their place in what I’m sure will someday be called the history of “alternative” music. I guess they probably won’t even warrant a footnote, since they can’t take credit for the birth on a sub genre (like Portishead and Massive Attack with trip hop) or represent the pinnacle of a cultural phenomenon (think Nirvana and the whole grunge scene). Saint Etienne’s music is elusive. It’s pop, but they often mixed elements of electronica, folk, and psychedelica into the musical cocktails they served up. My favorite album from Saint Etienne is still their 1991 release Foxbase Alpha, which was also their first. The band kicked things off with a strange French soccer promo before launching into a cover of Neil Young’s Only Love and Break Your Heart, which, BTW, was sung not by Sarah Cracknell, the band’s singer, but by Moira Lambert. The album moves on to curious, spoken word style tracks like Girl VII, which name checks random geographic locales and references June 4th, 1989, the date of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. My favorite track from the album come about halfway through with Spring, a breezily tune featuring xylophones and big strings. The song sounds almost like it was lifted from a ‘60s movie soundtrack. And that leads me to one of the things I love so much about Saint Etienne: they almost sound like a fictional band from a fictional movie. There is something so intangible about their earlier albums, like they just magically and effortlessly came together. It’s music that seems to exist somewhere else, like in some kind of alternate universe, or between the pages of a novel.

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Now I have to admit, I wasn’t listening to Saint Etienne in the early ‘90s. Grunge had its stiff grip on me during a time when my tastes in cinema tended to skew toward Pulp Fiction and Hong Kong action pictures. It wasn’t until the new millennium came around that I started checking out Saint Etienne’s back catalog. By the late ‘90s, the band had kind of lost its way, threatening to become a latter day ABBA, only to come back strong in 1998 with the release of Good Humour, or the best album The Cardigans never made (courtesy of Swedish producer Tore Johansson). In a twist of sweet irony, Saint Etienne had their final revenge on grunge by signing to Sub Pop in the late ‘90s and continued to release albums after their Seattle rivals had long faded away (or died in many cases). If Hilary Clinton wants to add some ‘90s magic to her campaign, she should totally use Nothing Can Stop Us Now as her official theme song.

1 comment October 17th, 2007


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