Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Duke" Cunningham

I was watching The History Channel last night. They had a show on aerial dogfights. They chose one from each of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and went into some detail as to how the aircraft fought.

For those of us who have played flight simulators, it was pretty interesting. They used "computer graphics", which looked like something from Microsoft Flight Combat Simulator, to recreate the combat.

(Aside: it's programs like this that really make the rest of the world growl at American television programs. The show covered four conflicts, but every dogfight involved Americans.

The World War I dogfight involved Eddie Rickenbacker. The U.S. came into that war way late, so Rickenbacker — the top American — only had 26 kills in his career. The dogfight they chose to show was pretty exciting, with Rickenbacker shooting down two aircraft out of a flight of four Fokker DVIIs and two two-seater reconaissance aircraft. Still, Rickenbacker had less than half the kills of Britains greatest ace and a little over a third of Canada's best ace.

The World War II dogfight involved Bud Anderson, a friend of the more famous Chuck Yeager. Anderson's group of four P-51 Mustangs encountered a group of four German Me-109s. Anderson shot down two German aircraft. The show made a big deal in each of its four segements to tick off the advantages for each side. Remarkably, Anderson's group were given two check marks and so were the Germans, with "combat experience" being a big one for the Germsns. However, virtually no one would equate the ME-109 with the Mustang. In fact, the program after this one made a point of explaining how the ME-109 was considered obsolete by the time the Mustang was released. They ignored that part to boost the "importance" of Anderson's dogfight, making it seem that he didn't have a big advantage over the Germans even before the battle started.)

The Vietnam War episode involved Randall "Duke" Cunningham, who was the first carrier borne Navy pilot to become an ace during that war. He flew in a two-seater F4 Phantom. The segment was quite good, showing how Cunningham's jet and the MiG-17 fought each other. Cunningham, who was one of the first pilots to graduate from the Navy's TOPGUN school, struck me as an intelligent pilot.

It was during this segment that a light bulb went off. I checked Wikipedia. Yep, this is the same Duke Cunningham who was a Republican congressman until earlier this year, when he was disgraced due to taking bribes from defence contractors. He's now serving a sentence of over eight years in a federal prison.

The Wikipedia entry is quite fascinating. It describes a man who was accomplished at one skill that took intelligence and raw talent (flying) and yet was a complete waste of oxygen as a politician. Read the article and you'll see what I mean. My favourite line in the article is, "In the Washingtonian feature 'Best & Worst of Congress' of 2004, Cunningham was rated (along with four other House members) as 'No Rocket Scientist' by a bipartisan survey of Congressional staff."

The most telling Cunningham anecdote involved his stance on drug dealers. Cunningham berated Clinton for appointing judges "soft on crime" and he called for tougher sentences on drug dealers. He even voted for the death penalty against major drug dealers. This "tough on drugs" stand ended at his family. His son Todd was arrested for helping to transport 400 lbs of marijuana from Massachusetts to California. At his son's sentencing hearing, Cunningham tearfully asked for leniency, with presumably no hint of irony.

Knowing that Cunningham was this successful fighter pilot makes his fall from grace as a congressman more interesting, yet also more pitiful. It just shows how most people in real life are more complicated than fictional characters. It's why I love history, and why history can be so engrossing (and why it's so sad when high schools murder the subject).


Michael said...

A minor point, perhaps, but it always rankles me when people refer to "kills" in discussions of WWI air combat. They were referred to as "victories" at the time, and for the good reason that a victory in air combat did not necessarily result in either the death of the opposing pilot or the destruction of his aircraft. For some allied pilots, perhaps one of every two victories would not have qualified as a "kill".

(I am so not looking forward to the upcoming Flyboys... but I'll no doubt end up seeing it anyway.

Allan Goodall said...

No, not a minor point. I should have caught it. The program used the term "kills", I believe, which is another knock against it. I did a quick check of Wikipedia before posting that entry, and they use "victories" on their World War I ace pages.

In my defence, I'm not feeling well this weekend. I caught something from Logan when he came back from Alana's ex's place. It isn't allergies, because Zyrtec doesn't touch it.

I want to see Flyboys but I doubt that I'll like it! The Flyboys official web site has a forum. Apparently all the German aircraft are black or red, an "artistic decision" to make it easier to tell who is whom in the combat sequences.

They defended their inclusion of an African-American, as the character is based on Eugene Bullard. Although I didn't know of Bullard, I suspected the movie was based on the Lafayette Escadrille because the African-American's uniform was blue, which I believed was French.

The big complaints among avaition buffs is that the aircraft physics will be all wrong and that the dogfights will be too congested.

They have a computer game for download on their site. I've been hoping for a good WWI computer game for a while, as I don't think my old Red Baron game will work properly on Windows XP.

Oh, and there's a free World War I miniatures game out there that looks really good. It's called Canvas Eagles, and it's based on the Blue Max board game. I wish we were close enough to game that. We had high hopes of painting up some "kites"...

Allan Goodall said...

Follow-up: they have a demo of a game available for download on their site. The actual game comes out on September 29.

I didn't bother downloading the demo. It might be okay, though the graphics in a trailer for the game didn't look that wonderful. The aircraft looked more realistically painted than in the movie, though.

Michael said...

Bullard is an interesting character, but he was not the ace (or even the successful fighter pilot) legend suggests. I don't believe he was ever a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, either. Of the French Air Service, yes. The Escadrille? No.

Making the German a/c uniformly red or black is sort of a time-honoured fudge, I suppose: Hughes did it in Hell's Angels, and it may have been done in a couple of other '20s aviation movies. This doesn't make it acceptable, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm not even going to comment on the fact that, in the trailer at least, most of the Germans seem to be flying Fokker Dr.1s... a good six months before the Dr.1 made its appearance at the front.

In terms of historical accuracy, all you really need to know about this movie it that it was produced by Dean Devlin... the man behind The Patriot.

Allan Goodall said...

Bullard is an interesting character, but he was not the ace (or even the successful fighter pilot) legend suggests. I don't believe he was ever a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, either. Of the French Air Service, yes. The Escadrille? No.

According to Wikipedia, and one of the sites the article references, he was a member of the Escadrille. Another site says he had only two victories, one of which was disputed.

You're right about the use of the Dr.1. They have a document on their web site listed as "Real vs. Reel" on Special Features section. Here's a quote:

"The Fokker triplane (Dr.1) was actually introduced about six months after the Nieuport 17 of the Lafayette Escadrille was phased out. However, the next series of Nieuports, the 24, 25 and 27’s, were virtually indistinguishable from the 17. In FLYBOYS, the Dr.1 was used so that the audience could distinguish the good guys from the bad guys and, for the same reason, painted red. The combat characteristics of the Dr.1 were arguably similar to other German aircraft for a short time. However, it was far from being popular or long-lived; only 600 or so were built."

Some of the other contentious issues I've heard about the film are mentioned. Apparently the events were all things that happened in the war, but not all to Escadrille pilots. In this way the film seems like Memphis Belle.

You might want to look at the document. It's interesting.

I'm concerned about this whole, "We used triplanes because it's easier for the audience to see what's happening." Perhaps for some people it's no more important than M48s being used in Patton to represent Shermans. For others, it hurts the suspension of disbelief. I can't understand why, for instance, they couldn't have given the Germans a losenge paint job and left the Americans fairly "clean"; that would allow them to distinguish the planes without having to resort to "everyone is a Red Baron" syndrome.

Allan Goodall said...

And, yes, the tag line "From the producers of Independence Day and The Patriot" does not inspire great enthusiasm.

On the other hand I'll wait until I see it. Gods and Generals got a lot of the details right (though a lot wrong, too) and it was very dull. At least if it's a semi-plausible movie with good action sequences it could be entertaining. If it is successful, perhaps other films will be made of the Great War.

Michael said...

At the risk of coming across as an even bigger geek than I apparently am, putting lozenge on the German aircraft would have been just as big a howler as painting them red. The lozenge camouflage wasn't introduced until after the period in which (I believe) the story is set. Certainly lozenge came out after the N. 17 was retired.

Tony Bill, the director, says the use of red tripes to represent the Germans was mostly a matter of cost: for most of the filming he had only one airworthy German plane, and it was a red tripe. The movie cost $80 million, and the cost would have gone up considerably if they'd had to CGI a bunch of vari-coloured Albatroses.

So he says, anyway. I'm still grumpy.

As for Eugene Bullard, he never served in N.124, the actual Lafayette Escadrille. He was a member, briefly, of two escadrilles in the Lafayette Flying Corps, a loosely defined unit that held the overflow of American volunteers in the French air service.

I read the "Real to Reel" document. The overwhelming conclusion I drew from it is that the writers and producers looked through a series of popular histories of WWI aviation, and if an outrageous event happened just once, anywhere, over the course of the war, it made it into the script. The ramming scenes particularly get up my nose.

Allan Goodall said...

Oops. I thought the losenge camouflage came earlier than that. I'm an idiot!

It's possible that the movie can be enjoyable "candy", but it really burns me that they keep saying that it is "Based on a true story". With that kind of reasoning you could pretty much say that Hogan's Heroes was "based on a true story" if anyone ever made a radio out of a coffee pot.

Michael said...

Actually, the producers sort of covered their butts on the "true story" front. The disclaimer says "inspired by..." Which actually makes your "Hogan's Heroes" comment even more apt.

Did some more looking into lozenge camouflage, and it turns out the first lozenge-pattern camo (four-colour) was introduced at the end of 1916. I should have remembered this: it was used on bombing aircraft. Use of lozenge on the western front began to happen in early summer 1917, but as late as autumn you'd still see German a/c in their earlier colour schemes.

None of this invalidates our argument, though. French Nieuports were finished in silver-tinted dope for pretty much all of 1917. So it would have been pretty easy to contrast the silver with the multi-coloured German a/c. (Wings would have been purple-and-green camo, fuselages a riot of colour and pattern.)

Do you suppose anyone else cares about this?

Allan Goodall said...

Did some more looking into lozenge camouflage, and it turns out the first lozenge-pattern camo (four-colour) was introduced at the end of 1916. I should have remembered this: it was used on bombing aircraft.

I want to get into model building again. I had those old WWI bomber kits as a kid, but I was too young to appreciate them. I'd love to do that Gotha bomber again, this time with lozenge camouflage on the wings.

Of course, if I tried doing smaller aircraft I could actually use them in games...

Do you suppose anyone else cares about this?

Anyone else reading this blog? Hard to say. It appears that a few people were complaining about the accuracy of the film on the movie's forum. Unfortunately, a number of people were willing to give the producers more latitude than I would.

Michael said...

If you're referring to the old Aurora kits, you can still find them on eBay. (The one I saw appears to have been the original, from the late '50s.) Found an online model-collectors store offering shrink-wrapped kits (some of them 50 years old) for prices in the hundreds. Don't think so...

There are a lot more WWI kits available now than there were when we were kids; of course, they're a lot more expensive, too, even if you're not trying to buy antique Aurora kits.

I have a couple hundred of these kits myself. I just don't have the time to build them.