Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tales of the Chopper: Firefight at FSB Ripcord, 1970

Here's another helicopter story from my social history of helicopters, The God Machine. This year is the 45th anniversary of the fight for  Fire Support Base Ripcordthe last major battle in Vietnam fought by American infantry. 

     = = = =

By April 1970 "Vietnamization" of the war was well underway. One spot of ground caught between the U.S. Army's old offensive style and its new deference to South Vietnamese allies was an American artillery base operating on a steep-sided hill in the northwest quadrant of South Vietnam, noted on tactical maps as FSB Ripcord.

It was a remote and roadless area, twelve miles from Laos, and too small for an aircraft landing strip. Helicopters were the only way in, and would be the only way out. 

Until the last weeks of June 1970, Ripcord appeared to be a viable strong point for executing Operation Texas Star, a series of patrols and forward artillery bases to block the movement of North Vietnamese supplies from hidden storehouses in the A Shau Valley

Something like a vast warehouse you might find at the end of a rail line, storehouses hidden throughout the A Shau received supplies via a major branch of the road called the Ho Chi Minh Trail

American forces had given up on trying to take and hold the A Shau itself. An assault on the A Shau in April 1968 called Operation Delaware resulted in ten helicopters shot down in a single day, and twenty-three damaged.

But perhaps the movement of North Vietnamese supplies from the A Shau storehouses, which flowed east to enemy forces on the coast, could be choked off without a frontal assault; at any rate, this was the aim of Operation Texas Star. Once Texas Star was well underway, the Third Brigade, 101st Airborne Division hoped to hand the fighting over to ARVN troops in the spirit of Vietnamization.

It would never happen. Ripcord had 200 troops of one battalion on hand on July 1, 1970, when nine battalions of North Vietnamese began carrying out orders to wipe it out, along with every perimeter camp held by American patrols.

The NVA plan was to reduce the base’s defenses with barrages of heavy mortar fire and nighttime sapper attacks. Anti-aircraft guns dug into nearby hillsides would shoot down helicopters offering assistance. These hillsides were so steep that the Air Force would not be able to use B-52 bombing raids to dislodge the attackers. Then the NVA would overrun the hilltop. This would remove the threat to the supply lines running out of the A Shau Valley and probably hasten the Americans’ exit from Vietnam.

The NVA's grand plan, encircle and choke, was on a smaller scale but otherwise much the same as had annihilated French forces at Dien Bien Phu in early 1954. Ripcord was even more isolated than Dien Bien Phu, which didn't bode well for the Americans.

Dien Bien Phu was an obscure village 175 miles west of Hanoi, near the Laotian border, when the French Expeditionary Corps decided in late 1953 to dispatch paratroopers to open up a stronghold there. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap identified the destruction of the base as his best opportunity to break the enemy’s will. Using diversionary attacks all around the country to disperse the under-strength French forces, Giap’s Viet Minh forces cut the supply lines to Dien Bien Phu and waited for monsoons to shut down French air support. Then Giap attacked in force in March 1954, broached the defenses by digging trenches and tunnels, and launched a final human-wave attack that prompted a mass surrender. It's still studied in war colleges.

The fort at Dien Bien Phu had take months to reduce, and similarly NVA troops had prepared for a long battle at Ripcord by digging log-reinforced bunkers into the steep hillsides. Deep tunnels connected many bunkers, so North Vietnamese troops could move to the best firing points without getting hit. They hoped their DShK heavy machine guns and the frequent low cloud cover would keep gunships away.

The shooting began on July 1. After two weeks, American forces at Ripcord were holding on but wearing down. 

Disaster looked certain after a spectacular mishap on July 18, when Vietnamese machine-gun fire from across the valley brought down a Chinook helicopter that was hovering over an ammunition dump. The helicopter crashed on top of its sling load of ammunition, caught fire, and triggered the entire cache in a spectacular series of thunderous blasts, fuel-air fireballs, and smoke trails.

The mayhem lasted for eight hours. While still under attack from NVA gunners outside, the troops had to dodge fire from inside as well: from their own cluster bombs, white-phosphorus rounds, grenades, artillery shells, and clouds of tear gas. The chaos also destroyed a battery of 105mm howitzers.

On July 22 the word came: a daisy chain was going to try to evacuate the troops, plus any equipment they could salvage. Gen. Sidney Berry, acting commander of the 101st Airborne in nearby Camp Eagle, had some misgivings when he wrote his wife that morning: “The mountains seem loaded with 12.7mm AA machine guns. Yesterday, we had two more helicopters shot down.”

Following an overnight bombardment of the base perimeter intended to discourage the enemy gunners, fourteen CH-47 Chinook helicopters launched before dawn. 

At the base they began hoisting everything of military value, including unwrecked howitzers, radar sets, and two bulldozers. Evacuation of troops began at 8:30 am. Mortar fire increased as the North Vietnamese realized that the foe was trying to slip away. Orders directed NVA squads to overrun the base without delay.

Using a nearby waterfall as a reference point, UH-1 Huey helicopters traveled a specific path, landed, and paused amid the exploding mortar rounds for excruciating seconds to let the troops board. The fire from the hilltops was so intense at first that troops were reluctant to leave the safety of bunkers and trenches to get on the Hueys. But they decided that things weren’t going to get any better.

Once loaded the helicopters turned and dived off the hilltop. The evacuation was over shortly after noon, at a high cost to the helicopter fleet (out of twenty Hueys used in the operation by the Ghostrider Company of the 158th Aviation Battalion, eleven were destroyed or damaged.) but with surprisingly few human casualties.

After the war Gen. Benjamin Harrison tracked down and interviewed several North Vietnamese commanders who had tried to overrun his forces at Firebase Ripcord, while researching a book on the battle. The retired enemies mentioned that the NVA feared American gunships in particular for the way they poured fire directly into bunkers dug into the sides of narrow valleys, where no other aircraft could touch them – not even the fearsome bombing runs by waves of B-52 bombers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Reminder on Patterns in Gun-Team Attacks

Sadly, it's time to remind readers that in the (very unlikely) event of an explosion outside your hotel or office, do not rush to the window. Planting two bombs in series is a standard terror tactic: the first is to draw people and emergency personnel within range, and the second is larger to inflict maximum injury, as in flying glass shards.

Over four years ago, in this post on Disaster-Wise, Patterns in AQ-LeT Gun Team Attacks, I commented that gun-team attacks on public places were not being taken seriously enough in the West, given the high leverage they were gaining for terror groups based in Chechnya, Iraq, and Pakistan. Here's a snip from my post in November 2010:
It's important to maintain basic citizen awareness of this very dangerous tactic, which poses a real threat even though the coordinated gun-team attack has not materialized recently in the West. While a gun-team attack in a major Western city would be up against a fast and capable security response, attackers tend to hold a tactical advantage in the early moments. The best response is to stop these before the shooting starts, and a vigilant citizenry may well help alert the police to precursor events, such as hostile reconnaissance or cache preparation. I understand that now the press is zeroed in on the attempted package-bomb attack last week on cargo airliners, but I recommend that the gun-team attack move up in the public's awareness.

While gun-team attacks don't happen often, they are terrible when they do: think of the killings at the Beslan school, the Moscow theater, and the school in Peshawar. 

Situational awareness, training, and mental preparation make a big difference when a shooter is on the loose. Check out the "Run, hide, fight" training or this video from Ready Houston:

The video has much good advice, such as gather information, put your phone on silent, call 911, and try to leave the building with others nearby, rather than freeze in fear. 

Don't waste time trying to contact relatives elsewhere to reassure them. That's a common and tragic mistake in extreme situations: people using up time on their phones that they should be spending in understanding the situation and looking at their survival options. (I can think of some protracted emergencies where contacting friends and relatives later might add to one's own awareness, but in the crucial early minutes of the crisis, don't spend time on the phone with anyone except a 911 dispatcher.) The happiest message you can send loved ones is that you're out and in safe hands.

If escape isn't possible, hide or barricade the doors. And if shelter is unavailable, look for ways to fight back, whether that's using a fire extinguisher or throwing something. 

Remember that a group of motivated people can be a very formidable defensive force. Here's a narrative of how bystanders at the shooting of Rep. Giffords in Arizona disarmed the gunman.

Finally, this: while the Paris killings didn't have the scale and intensity of the horror at Mumbai, the risk of a large-scale attack in some city is very real, and it's important to be aware of the ten common patterns in major gun-team attacks, in order of occurrence:
  1. Hostile reconnaissance of the target, possibly a year or more ahead: these operatives walk around with cameras and GPS devices to note hallways and doors. A list of ~200 principal targets around the world is already known from interrogations, ELINT, and captured computer files and we can hope the security people are watching the cameras for such behavior. 
  2. Gun-team training in a remote location, currently Pakistan but Yemen and Somalia are also likely. Gun teams receive intensive training based on such reconnaissance. They spend much time on tactical shooting and physical endurance. These men are young and highly motivated until captured, at which point their resistance seems to melt.
  3. Acquisition of special gear, like satellite phones, IEDs, SIM cards for cellphones, and inflatable boats. The attackers at Grozny were in touch with a handler by cellphone, as were the attackers in Mumbai. Given this pattern it's likely that authorities in major cities are now ready to shut down local cellphone networks.
  4. Sometimes, staging caches of supplies inside the primary targets.
  5. Final selection of gun teams at the training camp. The organizers try to screen out those who will balk at indiscriminate killing.
  6. Arrival in target city. Teams split up and try to reach the primary targets without detection. The idea is to penetrate deeply into the target without using most of the ammunition, leaving most of it for use in a confined space crowded with targets. This didn't work at Parliament House but only because the Indian Vice President's motorcade happened to be blocking the narrow gate the attackers were trying to use.
  7. First stage of attack: “Large-space attacks”. Timed for high traffic hours in a crowded public place like a mall, tourist destination, or train station. Teams throw grenades and fire automatic weapons at anyone in sight, killing as many as they can and then running off. If police return fire the gun teams will retreat and move to a softer target. If the space is large enough and has enough exits this stage of shooting might go on for an hour, and so the death toll is high. The gun teams are hard to stop unless police can arrive very quickly.
  8. Second stage of attack, “Small-space attacks”: A gun team leaves the first location and moves to someplace more confined. Most likely is a restaurant or club near a five-star hotel. They continue shooting there. They begin setting fires and taking hostages before they move to the final destination. If they don't break off the attack and try to escape, this leads to:
  9. The third stage of attack, “hostage-holding”: Hostages are brought to a defensible location, likely to be upper floors of a hotel or apartment building. More fires are set, and boobytraps may be laid. At this point the teams may join up with each other and try to establish regular communication with leaders in a remote location. The organizers want to prolong the event as long as possible, adding fires and explosions. Often this involves checking identification and making a big show of releasing Muslims.
  10. Fourth stage of attack, “martyrdom”: Die as martyrs in a firefight with police or in a bomb explosion.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Celebrating Low Temps

This week I helped Son No. 1 replace a dead battery in his car. Our garage was a parking lot while it was blowing snow, dark, and below zero.

Things didn't go as smoothly as they do in summertime, and occasionally we had to take our gloves off to get at some little part, or to make sure we didn't lose something important by dropping it into the engine compartment. Metal absorbs heat quickly so our fingers took some time thawing out afterwards.

That was enough fun for a half-hour or so, and reminded me of one group that can truly claim to be heroes of cold-weather repairs: the Russians manning Ice Station Vostok when it suffered a catastrophic fire at the start of the 1982 Antarctic winter. My blog post on that close call is here

And in celebration of another two months of frigid weather in Minnesota, here's a pointer to my Ice-Rules blog with more ice images and videos on the way. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

HiRISE Over Mars: Next best thing to being there

Even as writers obsess about when Elon Musk will land on Mars, the ever-expanding robot battalion continues to churn out valuable information.

Landers and rovers get much attention, but one of my favorite science packages is the HiRISE imager on board Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. HiRISE, managed by the U of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab, has been sending back thousands of amazing (and amazingly large), digital photographs of the Martian terrain, for scientists and citizens alike. It's a big beast:

And these are no ordinary snapshots. In full color, each HiRISE image is a strip 4K pixels high by 126K pixels wide. Here's a link to the optical and mechanical stuff. From orbit, the camera can resolve objects a foot across, or even smaller, depending on contrast.

HiRISE shows us that Mars is more diverse and interesting than we might gather from the typical "Mars: reddish god of war" photos. Here's a HiRISE view of Martian dunes:

Here's a link to an ebook in HiRISE's "Beautiful Mars" series: Exploring Mojave Crater.

Following is a composite using a HiRISE photo layered on one of my backyard ice images (note: this image is low-res):

HiRise photos are remarkable for the texture they provide, such as waves on sand dunes. I did the blending with Procreate, one of my favorite apps.

More on illustrating with an iPad

From time to time I detour from disasters and techno-history into creative angles. For those who read with their kids, here's a link to a children's book I illustrated on an iPad. It's on Kindle on a free promotion for a few days. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy 25th, Abyss

This year is the silver anniversary of one of my movie favorites, The Abyss (1989):

Underwater shooting in an abandoned nuclear power plant and a lake in Missouri drove the actors close to desperation

Until 2007, the full-scale set for Deepcore was still intact at the filming location:

Here's a video about building the sets (this is Part 1): 

Fortunately, given all the agony and risk that went into this edgy project, the director's cut has aged well. 

I regard one scene as a remarkably vivid depiction of what a massive system failure feels like for those trapped on the inside. It's a segment in which a massive crane collapses into a moonpool on the Benthic Explorer, and then plummets toward the Deepcore rig, setting off a harrowing chain of events. I've never seen a movie that captured this techno-suspense as well as Abyss. (I'm not a big fan of the last twenty minutes of the film, but the earlier part makes up for it.)

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, sorrows come in battalions rather than single spies, and this part of the movie captures the feeling of utter helplessness as machinery spins out of control.

As I mentioned in this post on the history of underwater exploration, during the 1970s offshore oil companies considered putting manned, underwater drill rigs on the deep ocean bottom, along the line of Deepcore, but in the end they opted for the conventional approach of leaving the wellheads at the mud line, and the drilling rigs on the surface, connected by a riser pipe. 

And it was a smart choice: since then, remotely-operated submersibles have proven to be the best method for carrying out work that's more than a few hundred feet of depth. There's a lot of work for ROVs to do in the deeps of the Gulf of Mexico, off Brazil, off West Africa, and other spots, particularly after production starts. Much of the production hardware -- valve trees, pipes, pumps -- runs along the seafloor, more than two miles down, and only ROVs can handle that kind of maintenance.