Archive for August, 2008

Delta Force Over Roseway


It was a normal Monday night yesterday. I was lounging on the couch around 7:30 watching The Simpsons and yelling at the cats in a vain attempt to keep them from climbing the drapes. Across the street, Tim was trying to sell a bike to a lesbian couple. Just your average lazy, hazy summer night in the neighborhood. Then all of a sudden, the house rattled violently. Out the living room window, I spied two small helicopters buzzing my front yard at less than a hundred feet. Seated precariously on benches outside of the aircraft were black clad commandos cradling assault rifles. It was totally a scene out of that movie Blackhawk Down. Apparently, my house was under a flight path these Army helicopters were using, because they kept buzzing the house until 10:30. Clearly, they were operating out of the Air National Guard base at PDX, but where they were going was hard to tell. Then on the 11:00 news, there was a brief segment about a joint training exercise downtown involving Department of Defense helicopters and the Portland Police Bureau. But who were those guys being ferried around on the outside of the helicopter? Probably personnel from the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D) - commonly known as Delta Force. It’s an open secret this counter-terrorism unit often trains in urban environments across the US…it’s just unusual to see this kind of in-your-face militarism in the People’s Republic of Portland.

A little more research yielded a press release from the mayor’s office, which elaborated a bit on the sketchy statements from the Portland Police. From what I gathered, these helicopters were transporting “members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and Army Special Operations Aviation Regiment” to “utilize buildings in the jurisdiction of the City of Portland for a training exercise.” I’m guess the Naval Special Warfare Development Group is what us civilians call the SEALS, so maybe I’m wrong about the commandos being Delta operators. The statement from the mayor’s office also said the training included “low visibility movement, military operations in urban terrain, manual and low weight explosive breaching, fast-rope insertion, live fire, low-power training ammunition, flash bang, surveillance, and counter-surveillance.” Just to make things interesting, these flights will occur again tomorrow. And I’ll be out in the yard hopefully capturing it all on super 8.


So what about those crazy small helicopters? They were MH-6 Little Birds from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) of which about a dozen are reported in existence. The MH-6 is so tiny; it can be transported in the belly of a C-130 transport aircraft. BTW, that Chuck Norris Delta Force movie had a ton of great actors besides Lee Marvin…like Joey Bishop, Robert Forster, George Kennedy, Robert Vaughn, and Shelley Winters. I’m gonna have to go rent that one of these days.

1 comment August 26th, 2008

Modern Wonder: The R-7 Semyorka


Unlike mid-century American rocket celebrity Wernher von Braun, the brains behind the Soviet space program was a mysterious figure simply referred to as the “Chief Designer”. The mystery man was actually Ukrainian born Sergei Korolev, a political prisoner during Stalin’s Great Purge of the late ’30s. It is remarkable Korolev ever had the opportunity to design rockets, let alone dream up his masterpiece the R-7, since he nearly died in the Siberian prison system known as the Gulag Archipelago. Although trained as an aircraft designer with several gliders under his belt, Korolev’s real skill was planning – and his visionary passion for space travel. While Korolev didn’t posses von Braun’s technical aptitude, he could identify and execute a good idea. And by scouring the technical journals of the west, picking the brains of Soviet rocket experts, and sifting through the remnants of the Nazi V-2 program, Korolev was able to devise a rocket that was years ahead of anything the west was developing. This rocket was called the R-7 Semyorka and its descendents are still in use to this day, transporting people and cargo to the International Space Station.

What made the R-7 Semyorka so revolutionary was its use of technology considered by the west as impractical – like steering motors instead of control vanes and separate strap-on rocket boosters. Like von Braun, Korolev also recognized one of the major shortcomings of the V-2 design was the use of internal fuel tanks, which added additional weight. Instead, the R-7 used the body of the rocket as a fuel tank, increasing the amount of fuel that could be carried and reducing the overall weight of the rocket.

But all of the revolutionary design features also translated into a difficult testing phase for the R-7. The whole world saw the launch pad failures of von Braun’s Redstone rocket, but nobody outside of the Soviet top leadership circle knew about the frighteningly high R-7 failure rate. Many of the misfires were eventually traced back to small issues, like improper wiring or forgotten parts – not design flaws. Once the vodka rations were cut back and more stringent quality control enforced, the program started to look promising. After hearing the American’s planned to orbit a satellite by 1957, Korolev lobbied the Soviet leadership for a chance to beat the Yanks. Up to this point, the R-7 had been designed as an ICBM, but work now commenced to modify the design to deliver a satellite into orbit. The satellite, called PS-1 or Sputnik 1, was a simple affair consisting only of a basic 1-watt radio transmitter producing the famous Sputnik “beep”. But despite its small stature, Sputnik made history by being the first man made object to reach orbit around the earth.

The reliability of R-7 allowed for a number of other firsts, like the first space dog, the first object to travel to the moon, and of course the first human into space. All these firsts took a toll on Korolev though, as he increasingly felt like he needed to constantly sing for his supper. Unlike the United States, where all space related activities were coordinated by one agency, NASA, the Soviets funded a multitude of competing programs. Money was often allocated on the basis of political connections rather than technical merits. Korolev was famous for being difficult and independent, which hurt his funding prospects going into the ‘60s. After hearing Kennedy’s speech about putting an American on the moon by the end of the decade, Korolev began to plan for a Soviet program that would do the same. Unfortunately, he had a hard time securing support for engine design and was unable to develop a rocket that would match von Braun’s Saturn V and its mighty F-1 engines. Korolev died in 1966 of a heart attack and the Soviet moon mission died a couple of years later from neglect and lack of funding. But the R-7 lives on in its various incarnations, still rocketing people and payloads into the heavens.

Vostok-1 Launch (first human in space)

1 comment August 6th, 2008


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