By Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
The interview started with a throwaway question for an Air Force pilot, “What’s your favorite plane to fly?” But Gen. Paul J. Selva managed to get the theme of the interview – technology – into the answer.
The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon interviewed the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last week and used the old flying question to get things started. Selva used the question to segue into the theme.
The general has flown more than 3,100 hours in seven different aircraft in his Air Force career. He is still a rated pilot. “I don’t have a favorite,” the general said. “But I will say the airplanes that I’ve flown have spanned technology from the ’50s to modern-day technology.”
Selva flew KC-135 tanker aircraft that were built from the Boeing 707 – the first of which flew in 1957. He also flew the C-17 Globemaster 3, the most modern transport aircraft in the inventory. “There is an astronomical difference between what you can do with an airplane that was built in the 1950s and what you can do with an airplane today because of the way we’ve incorporated humans into the airplane and present information to them,” he said.
That comes at a cost. “The ones that are the most fun to fly are the ones that were built in the ’50s because you can feel the airplane,” he said. “The ones that are most interesting to fly are the ones where all the information is optimized to be presented to the person flying the airplane.”
O’Hanlon’s next question dealt with another old aircraft – the B-52 Stratofortress. He asked Selva how scared the North Koreans are of a 60-year-old aircraft.
The B-52 is an interesting example of innovation and adding new capabilities to old technology, the general said. “It shouldn’t be lost on you that the engineers that designed the B-52 did it with a thing we call a slide rule, which most people in this room don’t know how to use,” Selva said. A slide rule was not as precise as today’s computer computations.
In designing the aircraft, the engineers “applied a safety factor of 2.0, which means the airplane is vastly over-engineered,” he said. “So any equation that they built, they factored in the possibility that they might be off by a factor of two.”
As a result, the B-52 is an incredibly robust aircraft that the Air Force has modified over its long career. The last B-52 – an H model – rolled off the assembly line in 1963.
“If you were to look at a B-52 circa 1973 (when it was used to bomb North Vietnam) and walk into a B-52 today and see how the information is presented to the flight crew, it’s a vastly different process,” Selva said. “We’ve computerized an analog airplane, and we’ve made it more effective. It won’t last forever, but it will last probably into its 80th year.”
By the way, the general never did say what his favorite aircraft was.
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