Tag Archives: USA

B-52 Stratofortress, nuclear disarmament and The Boneyard

One of the oldest flying aircraft in the US air force is the bomber B-52 Stratofortress, built during the 1950s. Over 700 of them were built during a decade with only above 70 today being used in the active or reserve forces. The retired ones are either in museums or in The Boneyard.

Part of B-52 retired fleet.

Part of B-52 retired fleet.

During the visit to AMARG, the guide explained us one historical anecdote taking the following picture as the departing point:

B-52 Stratofortress without horizontal tail plane.

B-52 Stratofortress without horizontal tail plane.

The curiosity of the picture: as you can see the aircraft has no horizontal tail plane (HTP). 

The story went as follows: as part of Arms Control and Disarmament agreements between the USA and USSR, the USA had to retire a certain number of B-52 aircraft from service (over 300 of them). At some point a soviet delegation visited The Boneyard at Tucson to witness the retirement of those A/C. However, they said that being the AF base right there, side by side of the boneyard, the USSR could not have any guarantee that those B-52s would not be immediately put back into active service just after the soviets had left the city, and thus required that Americans dismantled the HTPs from all B-52s that were to be retired as part of the agreements. In that way they could always check via satellite image whether they had those HTP on or off…

Later on I checked the story in the Wikipedia where you may see the whole background of the START agreement. Some of the aircraft were chopped into 5 pieces. Those you cannot see in the guided visit to Davis-Monthan AFB but you can see them in satellite image here:

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The Boneyard

The US Air Force’s 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), known as “The Boneyard”, is one of the places that I had wanted to visit since many years ago. Luca and I visited it a couple of weeks ago.

The Boneyard is an aircraft and equipment storage facility located at Davis-Monthan AF Base near Tucson (Arizona). The are over 4,000 military aircraft stored at the place. Most of them come from the USA (not only from the air force, but from other services as well) but there are some aircraft from foreign countries. The aircraft are stored for several reasons and in different conditions.

  • Some of them are maintained waiting for a possible future use of them (be it with US armed forces or through some foreign military sale, that is the case of several old versions of C-130, F-16).
  • Other aircraft are kept so their parts can be used as spare parts for other active flying aircraft (e.g. C-130, KC-135).
  • Finally, there are aircraft which are stored waiting to be scrapped so the metal can be reused somewhere else.
KC-135 partly scrapped.

KC-135 partly scrapped.

Hundreds of C-130.

Hundreds of C-130.

There are whole fleets of retired aircraft: C-141 Starlifter (retired once the C-17 took over their role), half of the C-5 Galaxy fleet (the A versions, due to budget constrains and fleet strategic decisions), the Vietnam-era helicopters Hueys and Cobras

The Boneyard can be visited with a guided tour organised by the Pima Air and Space Museum (I will write about this museum in another post).  The tour is made with a bus which goes through the Boneyard very slowly and making several stops (though guests cannot exit the bus). The guides are veterans from the US armed forces, who have flown or maintained some of those models that you get to see. The wealth of knowledge that they have about them, the anecdotes and stories that they tell during the tour are worth much more than the 7$ that the tour costs.

The place is impressive, overwhelming. Not only there are thousands of aircraft but the seeing of them fully aligned, whole fleets of different models helps you put things into perspective:

  • World commercial airliner fleet (over 100 pax) has about 16,000 aircraft vs. the 4,000 at The Boneyard.
  • The largest airline fleets have about 1,200 aircraft.
  • Spanish AF has 14 C-130 Hercules vs. the hundreds of them you see at The Boneyard.
  • The dozens of retired Lockheed C-5A Galaxy that you can see there have a combined payload capacity of over 5,000 tonnes… which is more than the complete payload capability of any other air force in the world except the US one…

You may want to take a look at satellite images from the Boneyard here:


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San Diego Marathon

“The next time you’re in the USA, run a marathon there”. Those were the words from by brother Jaime after he took part in Chicago marathon in 2011.

It has taken me 2 years to go back there. This time for my honeymoon. This did not stop me to follow the advice. I went through a website with all the marathons in California and found that San Diego Rock’n’Roll marathon was taking place on the very last day of the trip. Perfect! That way the muscle soreness of the following days would not interrupt the tourism activities.

June 2nd, the day of the race was only one month and a half after March 17th, when we ran Rome marathon, thus I did not follow any special training plan for this marathon. I just tried to keep the form with which I arrived to Rome by running often, though I didn’t do any series session and only one long run… I paid for that.

The atmosphere was very good but only in some neighbourhoods, in others not so many people cheering the runners. Along the road 163, during the steepest (up to 6% along 1km) and longest (about 4km) climb there was almost nobody. Even if the overall profile is a descent I found the course quite tough. The times of the first 3 runners seem to say the same (2h15 for the winner, 20 minutes more for the second…). The other thing that I didn’t like much was the solid or the lack of abundant and varied solid supplies along the course. I thus only relied on my 3 energetic gels and drinks.

Course of San Diego marathon as recorded by my Garmin.

Course of San Diego marathon as recorded by my Garmin.

San Diego marathon profile.

San Diego marathon profile.

At 5:30am, before departing.

At 5:30am, before departing.

I went quite well at the expected pace (below 5’20” / km) for the first 28 kilometres, then I started to miss endurance and right afterwards the long climb “killed” me. I, however, did not stop and kept running up, if very slow (most of the runners in my time -between 3h45 and 4h- where walking during those kms). I’ve gone through much tougher situations in the last years, thus I only thought “well, slow the rhythm and the climb will finish at some point, keep up”.

Running at some point of San Diego marathon.

Running at some point of San Diego marathon.

In the end I finished in some 3h56’19” as clocked by the official chip (see the report of the race as recorded by my Garmin here). I was happy enough with the result and with having finished the second marathon in the year, another sub-4-hour marathon (the 4th in a row under 4h) and the 9th overall.

San Diego marathon finisher diploma.

San Diego marathon finisher diploma.

San Diego marathon medal.

San Diego marathon medal.

9 marathons!

9 marathons!

Enjoying the feat.

Enjoying the feat (behind me: San Diego Padres baseball stadium).


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Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards AF Base

During the recent honeymoon trip to the USA, Luca and I managed to visit 5 aerospace museums, 3 airplane assembly lines, 2 US air force bases and 1 space observatory… be sure some of the coming posts will be related to that side of the trip.

Air Force Flight Test Center Museum at Edwards AF Base

Since we were going to visit California and we would be around the desert of Mojave I thought that we could make a detour to visit Edwards Air Force Base, where the Flight Test Center of the USAF is located.

The Flight Test Center has got a museum which is open to the public, for which identification is needed and no carry on items able to take pictures of videos are permitted. The museum is free and opens 5 days a week. On top of that there is a monthly guided visit of the air base, flight line included. This tour is offered only once a month and you have to subscribe with some time in advance.

Several dozens of aircraft have first flown at Edwards and that, together with Rogers dry lake is what makes the place so special.

First Flights Wall at Edwards AFB (public domain image).

Some very famous flights at Edwards: the Bell XS-1 which first reached the speed of sound with “Chuck” Yeager at the controls, the test campaigns of the YC-130 (Hercules), C-17 Globemaster III (and the prototype YC-15 from which it got many features), testing of the Space Shuttle, testing of today’s state of the art fighters F-22 and F-35… take a look at the wall to get an idea.

Rogers Dry Lake is by itself a national historic landmark. The lake formed thousands of years ago, and today it’s mostly dry along the year and the strength of the ground permits it to have several unpaved very long runways in its lakebed. The longest one being over 12 kilometers long. It also has the world’s greatest compass rose marked into the lake to help flight test pilots guide themselves. It was there, in the lake, where the now retired Space Shuttle would land in its return from space.

Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards (public domain image).

The exhibit at the museum displays a replica of the XS-1, the first 2 F-22 prototypes, an exhibit about the formation of the lake, the history of the base, some remarkable test pilots, etc. The outdoors display has as a highlight a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (a classic in US aviation museums).

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird at Edwards (public domain image).

The area of the base is of 1,200 km2 (this is about 1/7th of the region of Madrid). The visit to it, museum included, lasts about 3 hours. There are veterans offering explanations at the museum and at one restoration hangar within the base. Our guided tour was led by a young aerial photographer, Jet Set  (what a name! :-)), who made if very enjoyable.

Along the flight line of the base, for the pleasure of European-based spotters (who don’t have the chance to see them often), were some test F-35s, F-22s, C-17s, Global Hawks, F-16s, etc. Apart from some aircraft flying around. I, however, missed seeing the B-2 that was somewhere “hidden” in the base (next time!).

Edwards AF Base entrance.

Edwards AF Base entrance.

Rosamond Dry Lake (a lake close to Rogers Dry Lake).

Rosamond Dry Lake (a lake close to Rogers Dry Lake).




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After many weeks here I am, back with the blog. Married and with a honey moon just finished, you can bet that most of the coming blog posts will be related to experiences we have lived during the trip. I will post them randomly, as I get to write them, without theme or chronological order…

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary

This was one of the visits that we had arranged in advance. As you probably know Alcatraz was a high-security federal prison which is now closed, quite famous for having hosted some specific inmates such as Al Capone. There were many facts and stories about the prison that I wasn’t aware of before coming and called my attention. To name a few:

  • The fact of being a federal prison versus a state prison made that many of the inmates were not particularly dangerous in my eyes (as in serial killers, let’s say) but offenders of federal crimes such as tax evasion. On the one hand we could think tax evaders not as especially dangerous types so why would you put them in such a place, on the other hand and seeing the levels of corruption we suffer nowadays, it could be exemplary to put tax evaders right away in maximum security prisons, as indeed they’re committing a crime against all of us.
  • Contrary to some vague image I had in my mind, also due to being a federal prison instead of a state one (with fewer resources) made conditions in Alcatraz even better for the inmates (such as food).
  • The fact that within the island some officers’ families were living at that time, kind of uneasy feeling. But hearing the memories of some of the girls whose father worked at the prison, the island felt to them as an ideal place to live!

Together with the ticket you get an audio guide which provides a terrific amount of information and voices that really get you into the atmosphere and do guide you through the place. You get to see the cells of some famous inmates, isolation cells, the library, dinning room, you receive explanations about riots that happened within the prison and escape attempts, etc.

We took one of the night tours (and we recommend doing so), which departs late in the afternoon and includes a whole series of extra activities at night once the general visit is finished: a detailed explanation of the June 1962 Alcatraz escape (possibly the only successful one), a demonstration of the cells’ doors’ opening and closing system (see the video below), the hospital, etc. In the end we spent over 3 hours in the island.

See some of the pictures we took below:

Alcatraz from afar.

Alcatraz from afar.

Up close view of Alcatraz.

Up close view of Alcatraz.

One of the cells.

One of the cells.

In one of the corridors.

In one of the corridors.

Behind the bars.

Behind the bars.

Great views of San Francisco from the island.

Great views of San Francisco from the island.

Hole used in the June 1962 escpae.

Hole used in the June 1962 escape.

Listen to the slamming of the cells doors (the guide made some emphasis to us trying to think what did that sound convey us):

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Quiz: How loaded do US Air Force transport aircraft operate?

Let me share with you one funny quiz I did for some colleagues at the office:

On average, how loaded do US Air Force transport aircraft, C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster, operate? (as a percentage of their maximum payload capacity: let’s take the figures reported by the US Air Force, ~16.5 tonnes for the C-130 -“maximum normal payload”-and 77.5 tonnes for the C-17)

Before continuing reading below, take your chance in the poll below, where I offer 4 possible responses: 3 from my colleagues’ responses to the quiz plus the correct one:

Background. Before posing the quiz to my colleagues we were commenting on a piece of news of an Antonov 124 which had landed in Spain to load some equipment weighing 1,000 kg. The An-124 reported payload capacity is 150 metric tonnes. For those not being number-crunchers: that means using the one of the biggest cargo aircraft to load it up to 0.7% of its capacity.

After having read this last paragraph you may have changed your opinion as to which is the correct answer to the quiz.

I based the correct result on a news release from the US Air Force dating from the beginning of 2007. At that time I was working in Airbus Military strategy where I would like to pick up any number related to aircraft and play with it (the hobby has stayed). That release offered figures US Central Command air transport operations, including operations Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Iraqi Freedom. Find the results from that short number play:

US Air Force average loads (in tonnes) for C-130 and C-17 during 2005 and 2006.

US Air Force average loads (in tonnes) for C-130 and C-17 during 2005 and 2006.

If you do the math, you will immediately get the right answer: C-130 Hercules, 22% and C-17 Globemaster, 17%.

“What a waste of resources!” you may think. A former senior colleague pointed to that result: “You buy a Mercedes to travel with the family and baggage, then on a Sunday when having to go out to get some bread or any week day when you go alone to work… when you get to the garage and find a Mercedes… Guess which car you take?”

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Looking at History through US Foreign Military Sales

If an alien came to Earth and had to quickly make sense of the last half century of History, he could get a first glimpse of geographical hot spots and changes of regime by looking at US Foreign Military Sales program data (please refer to my previous post for an explanation of the program and sources of data).

For example, take the figure below. It shows the historical data of FMS deliveries (in thousands of $) from 1970 to 2010. As you can see deliveries stopped in 1980. What is even more telling, in the 4 years to 1979 (from 1976-79) the arms sales delivered to this country represented a whole 34% of the complete US FMS program over that period (see the total volume of deliveries in this graphic from a previous post). Which country do you think it coud be?

Which country could this be?

This alien, combining these data would know that something that happened in that country, from representing a third of military sales to not taking part in the program ever again… you may have guessed right: Iran, where the Islamic Revolution started in 1978, the Shah left the country in 1979 and at the end of that year the hostage crisis started.

Having taken a look at the graphic of Iran, find below the one for Iraq:


In the graphic you can see that from 1970 to 2005 there were not FMS agreements and deliveries from 2006. Nevertheless you can see that during the 1970’s and 1980’s there were commercial arms sales to Iraq from American contractors (this is also published by DSCA), which deliveries stopped altogether in 1990 (invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and subsequent first Gulf war). Then, once the second Gulf war had changed the regime, commercial and FMS sales restarted from 2003.

There are plenty of cases to look at: Cuba not forming part of FMS since before 1970, Russia neither (though receiving commercial arms since 1992), Spain having been always part of FMS program (including during dictator Franco’s time) but which agreements surged in 1982 with the order of 72 McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 fighters (the same year in which it joined NATO), Chile, Venezuela, China

Russia: never part of FMS.

Before concluding this post let me show again the distribution of FMS deliveries during the last 60 years per region (shown in the previous post) and a table with the main receivers in each region:

FMS Sales per region (1950-2010, source: DSCA).

FMS Agreements per region and selected countries (1950-2010, in k$ – source: DSCA).

Which have been then the top receivers of FMS Arms sales agreements in the period 1950-2010? In order:

  1. Saudi Arabia (16.9% of global FMS program)
  2. Egypt (7.3%)
  3. Israel (7.1%)
  4. Australia (4.1%)
  5. Korea (South) (4.0%)
  6. United Kingdom (4.0%)
  7. Turkey (4.0%)
  8. Japan (3.7%)
  9. Germany (3.3%)
  10. Greece (2.7%)

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US Foreign Military Sales

The Foreign Military Sales (FMS) is a program managed and operated by US Department of Defense (DoD) on a no-profit and no-loss basis. Countries and international organizations participating in the program pay for defense articles and services at prices that recoup the actual costs incurred by the United States. This includes a fee (currently 3.8% of what the defense articles and/or services cost, in most instances) to cover the cost of administering the program.

Foreign countries may also opt to procure directly from American contractors in Direct Commercial Sales, though FMS ensures third countries rates similar to those received by the DoD (bargaining power) but the items will be the standard procured by the USA, not especially tailored to the needs of other countries. In any case the sales will have to pass the same approval requirements for the sale of defense materials to third countries.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) is the one managing this program and the one which publishes the different deals (Major Arms Sales Notification and FMS Contract Awards).

The DSCA also publishes historical data of the FMS sales by year and per country and region. (I have always admired the openness of the different US agencies in their publishing of data to work with).

In the graphic below you can see the total US arms sales agreements with foreign countries and FMS-program agreements during the last 40 years.

Total Military Sales (*) and FMS-program agreements (in k$) per year.
[(*) Total Sales includes foreign sales not made through FMS program]

You can see how most of the agreements are close within the FMS program, which ensures moderate costs to the third countries and a standardization for US allies. You can notice as well how the first Gulf war and the recent wars in Irak and Afghanistan have increased FMS agreements.

However, given that military equipment takes time to build, there is a lag between those sales agreements and when the arms are delivered. See below the two lines representing FMS agreements and FMS deliveries (both in k$).

FMS (in k$): agreements vs deliveries per year.

You can see how the deliveries show a growth trend since the 1970’s, with peak at the end of ’90s.

The following question is: to which countries were those sales…

FMS Sales (1950-2010) per region.

I will end this post with this graphic, showing how the Middle East (“Near East & South East Asia”) is the region which received the most of FMS during the last 60 years. In a following post I will dive into which specific countries as that is a very interesting analysis deserving a single post.


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Where do you come from?

WordPress introduced a feature showing the geographical origin of the visits to the blog back in February (find below a map offered by WordPress – the host service of this blog). After 3 months, I decided to take a look at those stats.

Readers’ origin map provided by WordPress.

In these three months the blog received slightly above 7,700 visits; over 2,000 came from the United States and above 1,300 came from Spain (my country of origin). The top ten countries of origin summed up 75% of the visits (USA, Spain, UK, France, Germany, Canada, NL, Australia, Ireland & India). Following the famous “80/20 rule” or a Pareto distribution, the top 20% of the countries of origin summed up 85% of the visits (out of 117 countries).

Pareto distribution of blog readers per country of origin.

Finally, I had the curiosity to analyze the origin by world region. For this purpose, I compared the proportion of readers to the proportion of world population, internet users and internet penetration per region (internet users/population).

Blog readers, world population, internet users and internet penetration.

Europe, mainly due to Spain (my family and most of friends’ origin), is overrepresented (higher % of readers in relation to internet users). The other two regions overrepresented among readership are North America and Oceania, this must be due to the fact that most of the blog’s articles are written in English. Those three regions are also the ones where internet penetration is the highest.

China. In the last 3 months my blog only received 8 visits from China, that is 0.1% of the visits. China with over 1.3 billion inhabitants represents almost 20% of the world population; it counts with over 500 million internet users, over 22% of  the total; and the internet penetration is above 38%. China is clearly underrepresented among the countries of origin of the readers of the blog (0.5%). Shall I start writing more about China or in chinese language?

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Space Shuttle last ride

I already wrote that my childhood dream job was to be an astronaut and that led to pursuing aerospace studies. In the same post I recalled a small toy of the Challenger Space Shuttle and how this toy contributed to that dream. Well, this post is just an homage paid to the Space Shuttle, or officially the NASA Space Transportation System, STS.

The last mission of the STS is scheduled for next Friday, July 8th. When the Atlantis is supposed to make the last lift-off for the mission STS-135 which, after 12 days, will end the 30 years of Shuttle flights.

During our last visit to the USA, Luca and I had the chance to see one of the Space Shuttle vehicles at the National Air & Space Museum (NASM). The vehicle at display there is the Enterprise.

I already mentioned in that post there that the Enterprise is the only vehicle of the fleet which never went to outer space. It was used for training purposes, to let the astronauts train the gliding descend they would have to make once the vehicle re-entered in the atmosphere. Thus, some parts of that vehicle are dummies.

The Enterprise hasn’t got the same thermal protection tiles since it wouldn’t need them, however its surface replicates the tiles with some kind of rubber ones so the flow of air around them would be the same as in the other vehicles. Another difference is in the engines at the back. The 3 engines that the Shuttle has at the back are its orbital maneuvering system, which allow it to adjust its orbit (they’re not atmospheric engines to propel the Shuttle in its flight back to Florida). Again, since the Enterprise would never go to outer space it wouldn’t need to adjust its orbit and the engines it has are just dummies to provide the same distribution of weight and forms in the vehicle.

I also mentioned in the previous post about the visit to NASM that the vehicle was going to be named Constitution until a public campaign achieved its goal of naming it Enterprise after the spaceship featured in Star Trek.

Find below some pictures of the Enterprise at NASM:

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The Economist features this week 3 articles about the Space Shuttle program. I found parts of them very critic of the costs of the program, but nevertheless they give a somewhat complete picture of the history of the Space Shuttle and what may lay ahead for space exploration.

The different Shuttle vehicles (and other related materials) will be distributed among several museums and educational institutions. The Enterprise will leave the NASM and will go to the USS Intrepid in NYC while the Discovery will be hosted at NASM. You may find other locations in this article.

Finally, NASA just unveiled last Friday a wonderful documentary (80 minutes) about the history of the program: its launch, the vast engineering undertaking, the first mission, the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the improvements that the accidents brought, etc. To close the circle, the documentary is narrated by William Shatner, an actor of Worldly fame as he featured James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek. See a small trailer of the video:

PD: In the full length video, in the images shown of the mission STS-95 which brought John Glenn back to Space at age 77, appears Pedro Duque a Spanish astronaut that coincidentally was my teacher at the aerospace engineering school.

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