Observations on Military Flying

It’s been almost fifty years since I stopped flying helicopters for the U.S. Navy, although I do maintain an interest in military aircraft. My first military trainer [in primary] was a T-34, not the turboprop variety later developed, but a pure piston-engine aircraft derived from the Beechcraft Bonanza, with a top speed of around 190 mph. The second was a T-28, with speeds and capabilities roughly equivalent to early 1940s Navy fighter planes, and was also the plane with which I made my first carrier landings in early 1967.

Now, since it’s been nearly fifty years since I last flew a military aircraft, I got to thinking. Fifty years before I first flew was in 1916, when all military aircraft were essentially low-powered, cloth-winged biplanes. Less than twenty-five years later, military aircraft were travelling three times as fast. And that progress continued. From WWII to the Vietnam War, fighter plane speeds increased by a factor of four.

And exactly what’s happened since then? Most top line fighter planes today have top speeds slightly less than the fastest F-4 of the 1970s, yet all of the current top-line fighters would take the F-4 to the cleaners, so to speak, because it turned out that speed was seldom ever used. Part of that lack of use was the fuel cost of speed. Full afterburner usage can drain a fighter’s tank in a matter of minutes, and enough fuel to keep the plane in the air longer would make it too heavy to take off [a slight over-simplification, but essentially true]. Maneuverability and weapons systems – and low radar profiles – have become the key to air superiority.

Unhappily all that technology doesn’t come cheap. In 2018 dollars, the flyaway cost of an F-4 would be roughly $19 million. An F-35 comes in at $80-$90 million, four times as much, and with the U.S. projected to buy 2,443 aircraft, the current cost estimate is an estimated US$323 billion. But then, in 2018 dollars, the roughly 4,000 F-4s procured by U.S. military forces [my estimate out of the roughly 5,200 built] cost around $80 billion in 2018 dollars. While we’re paying four times as much for a little more than half as many aircraft, an original F-4 can’t stand against fourth and fifth generation fighters – and if we built “new” F-4s with modern avionics and weapons, I have the feeling that they wouldn’t be all that much cheaper… and they’d likely cost more to operate and wouldn’t have as much range… and we’d likely lose more pilots.

What it all seems to mean is that air combat isn’t ever going to be any “faster” than it was 50 years ago, but it’s definitely more complex and more expensive and likely to keep getting more so… yet technology makes most other things cheaper. And that suggests that it’s getting more and more expensive to destroy things than to build them. But I don’t see much progress in realizing just how much more it’s costing to build more and more sophisticated systems of destruction as we engage in what might be called the Red Queen’s arms race.

Quit Bitching

For the last fifteen years, I’ve heard nothing but complaints from retailers, large and small, about how the internet is taking away their business. And, as an author, I’ve suffered as well from the internet’s “success” in destroying literally thousands of bookstores and retail outlets carrying books.

But part of the problem isn’t the internet; it’s the retailers. What was the response of Borders and Barnes and Noble to Amazon? Both of them cut their inventories and back stock, and tried to diversify. Borders always did have a poor ordering and inventory system, and carrying less stock made matters worse quickly. Then, when margins got tight, B&N started listening to the cost-cutting accountants. That’s almost always the kiss of death, and in B&N’s case, it almost was, because as they cut inventory and stock they sold fewer books, and the other merchandise didn’t make up the difference. B&N just got bought by a private fund that recently acquired the British bookstore chain of Waterstones, which, interestingly enough, has been making a comeback by, surprise of surprises, opening more and smaller bookstores closer to people. And I know a few bookstores who are still around because they address customer needs.

A retailer is in business to sell things. But if they aren’t where the customers are, or they don’t stock what the customer wants or needs, they can’t sell it. If you reduce the number of items you sell, you’re going to sell fewer goods, and your revenues will go down.

The other day I went to both of the only two big box stores in town. Both carry patio furniture, but this year neither carries the furniture covers I used to buy there. Neither does the single hardware store nor the furniture store. I still needed the furniture covers. So I had to buy them online.

It’s not just furniture covers. It’s everything from buffered aspirin [not a single grocery store or drug store in town carries it any more] to boots and shoes, from books to office supplies and printers. Even though Cedar City is now four times the size it was 20 years ago, we actually have to buy more and more goods that we used to purchase in town from the internet. There are small stores here in town – and elsewhere – that are surviving and sometimes even thriving, and it appears that they’re successful because they make the extra effort.

So… retailers…maybe you ought to focus more on what people need and where and when they need it instead of just cost margins.

Budget Busting & Taxes

The Democrats and Republicans have apparently come to a compromise over federal spending in the next two years, compromise meaning lifting the debt ceiling and incurring an even larger deficit, by an estimated additional $200 billion or more annually, with the result being a total annual deficit in excess of $1.2 trillion… and that’s if we don’t have a recession.

Neither party wants to cut spending nor to increase taxes, and the future result will either be high inflation or slow growth, if not both, and those are the best of the possible scenarios.

Everyone talks about taxes, and most of that talk centers on federal income taxes, but what people should think about isn’t just federal income taxes, but the total of all taxes that people pay. And, surprise of surprises, when you do that, it turns out that the taxes paid, both in dollars and as a percentage of income, have gone up for everyone – except for the top one percent or so of taxpayers, whose taxes have decreased significantly.

That’s because the combination of federal payroll taxes [Social Security and Medicare], state sales and income taxes, and local and county taxes increase every year. While most state income taxes are flat rate or reach a capped rate at moderate income levels, with each pay raise a worker gets, the government takes more. The same is true of Social Security taxes, at least until you make more than $128,000 [$132,000 next year], while Medicare taxes are applied to your full income, no matter how much or little one makes.

Because government measures of inflation don’t keep up with actual inflation, the vast majority of Americans actually end up with less spendable income every year, and under those circumstances, it’s understandable why they don’t want to pay higher federal income taxes.

As for the rich, even though their taxes, on average, have gone down significantly, they’re still complaining that they’re overtaxed. So the Republicans listen to the rich, and the Democrats to the average American, and they decide that they won’t raise taxes now… and that means that everyone’s children and grandchildren will pay a whole lot more, both in money and economic chaos.

Book Blurbs

A while ago, I read a blog by another author who complained about the blurbs placed on hardcover book jackets or on the back of mass-market paperbacks, blurbs which are supposed to intrigue would-be readers into picking up and hopefully buying the book. This particular author was not only upset by blurbs that turned out to be misleading, but particularly unhappy with blurbs that were composed of quotes of praise by well-known authors rather than a summary of the plot that might reveal whether a reader might like the book.

I can understand that author’s feelings, but, as is often the case, there’s another side to the “blurb problem,” one with which I’m all too familiar. In my entire career, I’ve never sold a book on a synopsis or a proposal. That’s because I’ve never found a way to accurately summarize one of my books, at least not in few enough words to fit on a book jacket or a rear cover, without creating a summary that wasn’t misleading in at least one major way… if not more, or wasn’t so generally simplistic as to be essentially meaningless. And merely emphasizing the main plot line can often be misleading and deceptive. Even when it’s not, in most good books there’s so much more.

Now… one could immediately conclude that I just can’t write a good summary, except that all of the editors and their assistants who’ve worked on my books for the last forty years have had the same problem, and I’m certainly not the only author with this problem. I’ve never seen a Gene Wolfe book blurb that wasn’t either overly general or highly misleading. Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness doesn’t lend itself to a short and meaningful summary, nor does Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning… or any number of other books.

In fact, I’d be inclined to suggest that most books [but not all] where an accurate summary, and one that doesn’t leave out major aspects of the work, can fit on the book jacket are books that are, shall I say, ones that I’m less likely to be re-read.

Nonetheless, editors and publicists do their best to convey the flavor of a book… and often even that is difficult to do accurately. For just that reason, at times, the editor writing the jacket copy may well feel that quotes from other authors are more accurate in giving a feel for a book than a misleading summary would be. Some books just don’t summarize, and to blame that on the publisher, publicist, or author is often unjustified. And that’s also why there’s just no substitute for reading a few pages.


This past weekend, I was shopping at one of the local grocery emporiums and had paused my cart to obtain an item, when I was rear-ended by another cart enthusiastically pushed by a young male of perhaps five or six years and which struck with a certain amount of force. The cart basket hit my lower back not quite hard enough to bruise anything, but the lower bar slammed into my legs just above the ankles with an impact that could have been painful, if not worse, except for the fact that I wear cowboy boots.

I turned to the young fellow and said sternly, but not loudly, “You need to watch where you’re going, young man.”

At that point, the boy’s father appeared and said to his son, “What do you say?”

He murmured, “I’m sorry.”

Then the father said, “It was an accident.”

Because I didn’t want to make a scene, I said, “These things happen.” Then I turned to the boy and said evenly, “I’m not angry with you, but you do need to be careful.”

What bothered me most about the entire, almost insignificant, incident were the father’s words, and the implication that there was no lack of care or responsibility on his part or on the part of the boy. Six year old boys should not be running full speed pushing grocery carts down an aisle, especially with their three or four year old sibling in the basket seat. If he’d run into one of the very old shoppers, they could have been injured. If he’d run the cart full speed into one of the adjoining freezer cases, his sibling could have been hurt.

But the father said nothing to his son, and they continued shopping, as if nothing had happened.

One of the lessons I attempted to impart to my children many long years ago was that while they might make a mistake and accidentally hurt someone, the fact that it was an “accident” didn’t change the fact that what they did hurt someone. It didn’t excuse their carelessness.

My wife the professor has come across the same lack of understanding with college students, the idea that because they didn’t intend to do harm, that because it was “an accident,” they bore diminished or no responsibility for adverse consequences.

And I just witnessed where it all starts.