The world was stunned when Francis Gary Powers was downed over the Former Soviet Union flying the Lockheed U-2 in 1960. In context, the U.S. has conducted more than 50,000 such ‘surveillance’ flights since WWII, using aircraft carrying national colors and designations (U.S. Air Force, Navy, etc.), flying ‘mostly’ in international airspace. The U-2 was an unmarked spy plane. Dangerous stuff. I can’t say more: this arena remains highly classified. The CIA, who commissioned the U-2 in 1955, and its brilliant designer Kelly Johnson at Lockheed’s ‘Skunk Works’ in Burbank, California, thought its ability to fly high would keep it safe. True, for a while. The Soviets knew it was there, from their radar. They bagged it with SAMs—surface-to-air missiles. While learning, they … [Read more...]

The Space Shuttle: Going, going . . .

Let us now mourn the end of an era: the Space Shuttle. With the 2011 Atlantis launch, it’s over. It was the E-ticket ride of a lifetime, atop millions of Newtons of main-engine thrust, including rocket energy from the two solid-state boosters that launched it. The experience was memorable and engaged hundreds of millions of earthbound mortals and a few lucky astronauts. This pilot was fortunate to see one small step in its history. “. . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . we have liftoff”—familiar words in my headset. I am about to fly the world’s biggest and costliest glider, the billion-dollar Space Shuttle—well, actually, the Shuttle Mission Simulator, or SMS—at NASA-Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center. The SMS, a core element in astronaut training, … [Read more...]

Second bite of a delicious apple

Nostalgia attacks at the Laguna Seca race track as I fling my leg over this lovely, iconic Norton ‘Featherbed,’ known the world over as one of the finest race motorcycles ever conceived: all the old familiar sights and sounds, the identical saddle, throttle, footpegs and lever ergonomics. I’m home again. It’s as if I never left. Great motorcycles—like great . . . anything—live forever. The sensations are immensely pleasing. I am transported back to my youth as if by magic, watching Geoff Duke and John Surtees win on the Island, on Featherbeds, then having the chance to ride one as a motojournalist, wishing I could have raced it but waaaay too slow. Take a deep breath. Force down the upwelling of memories and concentrate. Make every instant count. The owner’s wife … [Read more...]

Racing dinghies, and a woman

The scene: sailing the 5-0-5 racing dinghy at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco. The ‘Five-Oh,’ as it is called, designed by John Westell in 1953 but still a thrill to sail and race, is five meters and five centimeters of brutal physical test, a beast in boat’s clothing. Beautiful but deadly. The Ferrari of racing dinghies, never rivaled in half a century, sailed worldwide by the thousand, capable of 15 knots and faster ‘on the plane.’ In this demonic device, the skipper steers, controls the mainsheet and centerboard, and manages the show. He or she is in sole charge. The crew handles the jib and spinnaker, rides the trapeze and obeys orders promptly. Managing the jib and spinnaker sheets requires an athletic combination of dexterity and strength, as well as … [Read more...]

Ducati 1098/1198: The Superbike Redefined

This is a sequel to the author's earlier work (with Alan Cathcart), "Ducati 999: Birth of a Legend," which covered the evolution of the predecessor to the recent 1098/1198 sportbike leaders in the Ducati lineup, now superseded by the Panigale. The 1098/1198 was a radical step forward for Ducati in power, torque and weight, thus 'redefining' the sport motorcycle and creating the book's theme. It was as radical a departure for Ducati as the beautiful 916, and replaced the 999, a machine that many considered an exercise in ugly that was completely atypical of the Bologna manufacturer. … [Read more...]

Name to a Face

Friends whose reading judgment I respect urged me to read Goddard and one of them lent me this book. I wish I had not wasted my time on it. None of us--I include myself--would like to be judged on the basis of one book, but if this is the best Mr. Goddard can do (and some of the more critical Amazon reviewers say that it isn't), then he is greatly overrated. The problem, to put it succintly, is that he is a careless writer who puts howlers on the page and drenches the reader in baffling illogic. Howlers? One example, of many, will do (page 34), involving the book title itself: "He . . . could not put a name to a face he felt disablingly certain he knew very well." … [Read more...]