Wednesday, October 5, 2016

I wasn't doing very well in plane geometry

 so Dad decided to do something about it.

He taught me spherical geometry.

What? What? Your dad taught you spherical geometry? How did that work?

Actually it worked out pretty good because I was motivated. He didn't sit down with a textbook and bore me to tears. He taught me to navigate a B-29 on imaginary raids over Japan. It wasn't all spherical, either. It was a myraid of mathematical calculations that has served me well through the years and allowed me to build more than one career with it.

"OK, Kid. You're not doing well in the classroom. It's time I taught you how to navigate a B-29," he said.

THAT got my attention. 

He sent me up into the hall closet for an old box of stuff and we went through it. There was a nautical almanac dated 1945 along with a flight computer and a few celestial air tables from 1945. There were also notes and sheets and a couple of textbooks.

There were also a couple of old pictures, both of which presently grace my walls.

He then bought me a wrist watch with a second sweep and we went upstairs to my shortwave and tuned to the CHU Canada time ticks and set the watch to the second. CHU sent out Eastern Standard time so I added 4 hours to have the watch set to then what was called Greeenwich Mean Time. Dad said I was to keep the watch syncronized to GMT regularly.

That's when school began. He explained to me that every fifteen degrees of longitude was an hour. In every degree there were sixty minutes of angle and in every minute there were sixty seconds of angle.

Then he explained the celestial sphere to me. We also sat down and wrote a letter to the National Geographic people asking for maps between Tinian and Japan. He explained why and while I was getting the basics a package of maps showed up. I guess that was back in the day when companies were generous. It was free.

The latter didn't ask for the maps. It asked what they would cost. We were surprised.

Over the next several months I learned the skills of navigation. He started with basic rate, time and distance problems and when I was adept at that he taught me to use the flight computer which made them a snap.

From there it was on to the sun and the stars and all of the math required to solve the triangles that resulted from a sextent shot. It was a bitch at first and it took time but I mastered it. When I had that mastered that he taught me how to use the air tables which were precalculated solutions to the triangles.

On it went and once I had those figured out it was imaginary missions. He would give me a basic briefing of the mission and hand me an initial point I had to figure my way to.

That's when he started to really make me thing because he was constantly throwing  wrenches into things. I remember when I calculated that we were going 550 knots. The airplane was capable of 310 knots. I looked up and told dad we had one hell of a tailwind and he grinned. I rechecked everything and we were going 500+ knots.

That's when he explained the workings of the jet stream to me and how to deal with it.

It took a couple of evenings to figure my way to the initial point but I hit it and dad seemed pleased. We had taken off in darkness and it was just a touch after dawn when we hit the shores of Japan. This meant I had shot several wheels of stars and performed the reduction calculations. The first few times I had to do this in longhand but after he saw I was comfortable I was allowed to use the tables.

When we hit  the imaginary intial point he told me "Get your ass up in the nose. You have a bomb run to make!"

I switched seats. We were working at the kitchen table.

"You're getting a freebie tonight because it's late," he said. "You're going to 'toggle the leader. Bombs away! Tomorrow night you're going to have to figure the vector to the target. You have one hell of a cross wind to deal with."

I mimed flipping a switch, for up walked into the next room, returned. "Bomb bay clear. Let's get out of here," I said.

Dad chuckled and I was off to bed.

This wasn't a fast process. I make it sound fast as I write it but this took place over the course of a several weeks.

The next day I had school and insead of a study hall third period, I opted for the library and dug up a copy of Chapmans. I knew by this time that the basics of air and sea navgation were pretty much the same.

The next night dad made me plot the vectors from the IP to the target. I had to juggle it and I came up with a pretty damned close compass heading. I also plotted several landmarks between the IP and the target. In theory I was supposed to be flying the plane using the bomb sight.

I plotted the vectors for the 200+knot tailwind. Dad shook his head but let me run. When the imaginary bomb bay was empty dad threw a wrench into things, as usual.

"Flak," he said. 

"Is it reaching us?" I asked.

"No, it's below us."

"When we clear the flak, drop altitude 5000 feet," I said.

"You'll burn more fuel," he warned.

"We'll have a 200+ knot headwind if we don't," I answered.

"Good call, Kiddo." he said. "Now we have to calculate time of flight of the bombs."

Thirty-two feet per second per second until terminal velocity is achieved. The numbers were mind boggling.

On top of that I had to figure out how to get back to Tinian. The sun was high in the sky and we were flyng over the ocean. There were no landmarks and no stars. I had to use the sun. There was also the question of fuel consumption.

Sometime during the process my mom stepped in and asked my father how this was going to help me in school. He handed her my notebook full of calculations. "Can you do this?" he asked her. "He can."

She never questioned it again. 

This went on for a long time, several months. The final came as a surprise. Dad woke me up at about one in the morning. I didn't know it but my final exam was to last twenty hours.

"The weather broke, we fly," he said. "Shit, shave and shower. Breakfast in twenty minutes. Briefing at 0230. Eat big. It's going to be a long day. No lunch or dinner. Sixteen plus hours in the air."

I reached over to my desk and there was a thunk as I clicked the switch of my shortwave. When it warmed up I synchronized my watch on CHU Canada.

I ate like a horse that morning. Dad commented that a lot of guys used to only be able to force down a cup of coffee because of preflight nerves. Dad said early on he learned to force down a breakfast. 

I ate relaxed because I was only facing kitchen table combat.

At 0230 I got the information and took copious notes. There was the target, a shipyard. Weather information, the route, the IP, the whole Mary Ann. I asked a couple of questions. The target was a shipyard and with no landmarks on the water I had to use an inland IP to like the bomb run with. Expected flak reports were included along with an order to bomb at 22,000 feet. It was a lot of information to absorb. 

I asked the mission date. It was in early February, 1945. Dad second guessed me.

"No, you can't refuel at Iwo Jima. We don't own that one yet. Christ! There's still a jillion of those little bastards on that place! You want your head cut off? You have to be damned careful with fuel on this mission!"

About 0330 the briefing was over and we went outside and just fooled around a while as the imaginary pilots and ground guys did their thing. At about 0400 it was back in the kitchen table and I assembled my stuff and checked out my stuff. It was there. I figured out the time of flight of a blockbuster falling from 22,000 feet in advance for something to do. Actually there was a table for it. I had done it longhand a couple of times but it is a real brain boggler.

We broke ground at 0500 and relaxed as the imaginary pilot brought us up to altitude and started in on a long, slow journey to the imaginary Yamaguchi shipyard. Dad poured a cup of coffee and smoked.

By about 0600 the imaginary formation was assembled and I went to work.

Dad fed me the sextant readings and times every 20 minutes and I plotted them. It was twilight and this was the last wheel of stars I would be able to plot. The rest of the navigation was going to be done with sun lines. By 0640 I had run out of star shots and by 0655 the sun had come up over the horizon. Dad fed me the raw sun angle and time and I reduced and  plotted it. I kept advancing the sun line to get a running fix. By 1000 I advanced the 0715 sun line, skipping over the others and got a pretty good idea of where we were and changed our course a couple of degrees.

About 1000 I had a couple of sandwiches from the box lunch dad had prepared. I watched him cook himself a burger which I think he did to try and distract me. It didn't work. I was focused on what I was doing.

Well before 1100 I started calculations for the bomb run and got an ETA for the IP and readied us for the bomb run. The jet stream had gotten us there a couple of hours early with a good tailwind. I ordered us down to bombing altitude so I could get our ground speed. Dad threw a couple more sun angles at me and I reduced and plotted them and calculated our ground speed.

It was about a minute before bombs away when the shit hit the fan! Dad slapped the kitchen table. BAM!  Flak!

"One minute to bombs away," I reported. I kept one eye opened and waited. I toggled on cue, said, "Let's get the hell outta here!"

I ran into the dining room and returned. "Bomb bay clear!"

Dad kept me busy for the next hour and a half with imaginary problems that pertained to the running of the aircraft itself. He was trying to screw up my navigation. He was clearly amused with himself.

When things settled down I had not been able to plot anything. I simply used the target and advanced it an hour and a half down along the compass course and used that just to get some idea of where we were. I could correct things later.

I calculated an ETA and asked for a fuel check. "Bam, bam, pop, pop, hmmmm." said Dad. 
"What's that?" I asked.

"The engineer leaning the living hell out of the engines," he chuckled. "It used to scare the hell out of me until I got used to it."

As it stood now we had enough fuel to make it home.

Dad threw me another sun angle and I reduced it and plotted it. My plotting sheet was a mess so I started another one. I recalculated another ETA. According to the airspeed the pilot gave me we had a small headwind. It added a few minutes to the ETA.

I spent the next few hours calculating sun lines until about 1900. I knew in real life they would be homing in on a radio beam but continued to plot things in case the beam went out. I did notice the headwind had changed to a tailwind and we did have enough fuel.

By 1930 dad declared that Tinian was in sight. He lit a smoke, poured a cup of coffee and we waited. I ate the last of the sandwiches and washed them down with tepid coffee.

At 2000 dad declared we were on the ground and reached for a bottle of rye and poured himself a shot. "Mission whisky," he said with a wink. He poured a beer into a tall glass and put a bottle of ginger ale next to the glass in front of me. "You earned it," he said. The ginger ale was in case mom walked in. This was a super ultra rare occurrence. 

The 'debriefing' lasted about an hour. The questions dad asked me were intense about everything under the sun. By 2100 dad declared the mission complete. I had passed the test and I was doing well in geometry at school.

I hit the rack. I was mentally beat.

As I was dozing off I thought for a second. Dad had to be pretty damned good as a navigator because he had to do every problem he gave me backwards to be able go give me the angles on cue! It had probably taken him weeks to plan. I was astonished. He hadn't done that since 1945, twenty years earlier.

I later asked him about that and he said it was easier to back calculate the sun than the stars. It had taken him quite some time to put the test together.


I was told to stay after class for a minute in my Plane Geometry class. The teacher handed me my navigator's notebook. Apparently dad had proudly schlepped it to him. He marveled at it and said he almost didn't believe it until he realized it was in my handwriting.

Years later I was in the service and became an artillery surveyor. I was doing average in class and one of the NCOs teaching it told me that I might flunk out during astronomy week. I had best be ready for a job in the infantry.

At the end of astro week I was at the head of the class and the same NCO called me after class and shook his head. I had clobbered the astronomy part with no problems. He was astonished I did so well.

Several years after that I went down to the Coast Guard exam center and passed my captain's license test with no problems. I only had to glance through the navigation part to study up for it. I spent the rest of my study time on Rules of the Road and Deck General.

In addition to passing geometry, dad had taught me two careers, both of which have served me well.

I have not used a sextant in over 2 and a half decades and I'm likely rusty as hell and need a brush up. Still, it is there for me to break out when and if I need it. It can't be taken away from me.

As for the wristwatch, I kept it on GMT the entire time I had it and it died the following summer when the crystal got cracked and someone pushed me off the pier at Damon's Point. I replaced it early in the fall of my junior year and set the new watch to local time. I habitually-and I still do this- hacked it weekly. 

I played hell for a few weeks relearning to tell time again because I had been used to subtracting 4 or 5 hours from what it read, depending on Daylight savings or not.

In fact, even now, a half-century later I wear a Timex Expedition because it has two time zones. As a ham radio operator all radio work is done in UTC which is new speak for GMT.

To find out why the blog is pink just cut and paste this: NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED IN THE WRITING OF TODAY'S ESSAY


  1. You had one hell of a good imaginative and caring Dad. Besides teaching you navigation, he made you go through what he did. What a great man.

  2. SOmeone pointed out that my 20+ hour final exam would be considered child abuse today. Go figure.

  3. Incidentally there was nobody shooting at me.

    There WERE people shooting at him back in 1945.