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Monthly Archives: February 2018

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

In nature, Winter is death. It arrives with enormity and silently blankets all that is living and vibrant. Entombed under inches of bleak snow, blown by frozen air in stinging particles of diamond ice, it becomes dense silence. All that lives clings to desperate and painful survival.

In winter the contrast of living and dead is greater in a human suburb than anywhere on earth. Mere inches of insulated wall separate comfort from the torturous unrelenting cold and endless strife for survival outside. For the animals that live outside in suburbia, only the distant spring offers respite.

The contrast between feral cats and domestic cats is never greater than in winter. Our domestic cats have heated beds and warm blankets and electronic games and battery powered toys. They live in an artificial climate that rarely varies more than five degrees in temperature and never rains or snows. A feral cat dodges lethal street traffic, avoids dangerous dogs and raccoons and scavenges for varmints and garbage. It sneaks into garages for shelter and never enjoys a warm night living outside in winter. It walks on wet ground and has dense, black fur adapted for outdoor winters that is covered in snow flecks.

Mr. Blackie had disappeared without a trace. No information from neighbors after flyers were passed out. No one at the animal shelter told me he showed up there, unlikely anyway since a feral cat would never wind up in an animal shelter unless trapped. I posted on community message boards, followed up on leads and tips. Nothing. He just vanished. One tip reported an animal body by the side of the road at Ford Road and Telegraph Road. We grimly hurried there, only to find a dead raccoon. No Mr. Blackie.

November, December, January, mid-way through February. Not a trace.

I missed him. That was my mistake. I had gotten emotionally involved and that is always a mistake in dealing with wild things. Mr. Blackie would never be a domestic cat, but I entertained the notion that he and I could sit together on the back porch during the summer, me drinking coffee in the morning before starting work and him lazing on the warm concrete in the sun. Then we would part company and go about our business to repeat our ritual again tomorrow. Unfortunately for me, Mr. Blackie apparently did not share my quant vision. Animals’ priority is survival, and Mr. Blackie’s motives were clear. He was all business.

Mr. Blackie, you may recall, is a member of a feral cat clan that can be traced back forty years in this neighborhood. It is the reason we have no problem with rats here, and the population of squirrels and chipmunks and birds is healthy and held in check. There is a natural food chain, and the North Levagood Feral Clan sits firmly atop that food chain.

Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward.

Mr. Blackie’s older brother is Darth Vader. He is easy to spot. Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward at the tip, the result of some kind of altercation with another cat, a raccoon or something else.

While the two are brothers, they are vastly different in personality. While Mr. Blackie is aloof and guarded and entirely wild, Darth Vader is talkative and has a soft side. I have talked to him, he has meowed back in extended conversations. He has sniffed me, I have petted him. The exchanges in physical contact are brief, but the message is clear. Darth Vader knows me, I know him, we are friends and neighbors and we chat over the back fence whenever possible or necessary.

On Friday, February 16, 2018 I was returning from a run. Darth Vader was waiting for me, seated on the next-door neighbor’s front window sill outside. I went inside to get my camera to shoot some portraits of him, having not seen him weeks.

A massive series of snow storms had torn through Dearborn, dumping nearly a foot of total snowfall. Feral cats know to shelter in place during these weather events. It is too difficult and dangerous to travel and there is little food available anyway.

But the sun was out and the snow was well on its way to melting. Darth Vader took this first opportunity to visit the cat village behind our house, check in with our indoor cats through the windows and see if there was a trace of his younger brother, Mr. Blackie.

The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.

I asked Darth Vader about Mr. Blackie and his response was as clear and articulate as if he were a human sharing the same language. Darth Vader had not seen Mr. Blackie since fall. He came looking for him, and he was worried about him. While the two cats are not social, they are, in fact, competitive, Darth Vader does maintain his older brother role of at least checking in on Mr. Blackie.

Darth Vader and I chatted for some time. He had not seen Mr. Blackie, was surprised he was gone, knew nothing about his whereabouts, and was concerned. He was pleased to see me, sniffed me and let me pet him. Then, our reunion and business affairs complete, he hopped down from the window sill and sauntered across the street to another one of the houses he frequents on his patrols. While Mr. Blackie is entirely feral in behavior, Darth Vader appears to have mellowed in his age, now acting about… 50% feral. He lets me pet his coarse black fur with flecks of gray. He purrs, he meows. Mr. Blackie never uttered a word to me. Even on that last day. He only communicated with behavior and facial expressions. Never verbally. Darth Vader is significantly more articulate and conversant.

I maintain the feral cat village. Clearing snow, shoveling walkways. Now that the snow is thawing I keep the house dry and check the pressure activated heater. The straw is fresh, the houses are clean. But the village is empty. It is, I will admit, at least disappointing, somedays heartbreaking.

I worry about Mr. Blackie. Every single day I worry about him. I hold out hope that since there is no tangible evidence of demise that he may return. Maybe one early spring day I will look out the window and he will be sitting there, waiting for warm food and a fresh blanket. That our indoor cats will begin meowing and call me over to the window to see him patrolling the perimeter of the house for compliance with his territorial boundaries.

I still have hope.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Major Roman Filipov is dead. Last week in Syria he pulled the pin on a grenade, held it behind his head, let the firing lever go and shouted, “This is for our guys!”

And then he died.

Major Filipov was a combat pilot for the Russian air force. He flew the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft. You can think of the Su-25 as the Russian equivalent of our A-10 Warthog. A flying tank. Both of these planes fly the dangerous close air support and strike mission. Low and slow in the smoke, anti-aircraft missiles and flak. Major Filipov’s job was the modern day aerial equivalent of fighting in the trenches with bayonets. Ugly, dangerous, demanding and unforgiving.

Major Roman Filipov’s sturdy Sukhoi Su-25, “Red 06” before he was shot down.

And last week, Major Filipov’s luck ran out. But not his valor.

Before we go much further I want to answer your question about me writing about a Russian pilot. If you read this in the United States, a part of our upbringing is to believe that Russia is our adversary- our enemy even.

There are times when we are at odds with Russia. Politically, ideologically, economically. But to blankly condemn Russia as an “evil empire” because of the gulags, human rights violations, their communist legacy and more, is to view history through a straw. A more balanced perspective today is that Russia is not an enemy, but a roughly analogous superpower struggling, as the United States is, to maintain a foothold on this earth. In the sometimes bloody and inexcusable conduct of a nation, Russia has their atrocities and the United States has theirs. This is not to forgive either, far from it.

The story of Roman Filipov, the man, and his heroism is not about a discussion of the morality of nations. It is about the courage and resolve of one man; Roman Filipov, and the iron spirit of the Russian fighting man.

Roman Filipov fishing.

Before you broadly condemn Russia’s actions in Syria, consider that if they weren’t there fighting any number of ruthless terrorist organizations, expelled largely from Iraq by previous U.S. incursions there, the U.S. would be in Syria, fighting ISIL and its spin-offs instead. In the case of Syria, it is not too much of an oversimplification to suggest Russia is doing our dirty work for us. And yes, I acknowledge that the current Syrian “leadership”, President Bashar al-Assad, is, on the best of days, a despot. But there is a time honored saying in the Middle East: “The enemy of my enemy, is my friend.” And in this case, we may do well to consider Russia a friend for taking care of the Syrian mess, a mess the U.S. actively contributed to creating.

As they did in WWII, when Russia lost 14.2% of its population to the war (compared to 0.2% of the American population lost), the Russians have shouldered the burden of this war in the Syria. This has given the U.S. at least a partial reprieve from years of large scale wars in foreign countries that have helped to nearly bankrupt America.

Last week Major Roman Filipov was part of a recent Russian surge in daring low-altitude airstrikes around Idlib, Syria where a desperate band of terrorists aligned with ISIS is backed into a corner. Like anytime you corner a dangerous snake, it lashes out in one desperate attempt at survival. This is the Alamo for ISIS, their last stand of any substance in this region. And before their cancerous hate melts back into the dried blood red dirt and dusty ether of war-torn Syria to become malignant again elsewhere, they fight to the death. Major Roman Filipov’s job was to be sure the terrorists achieved their goal of martyrdom.

Filipov’s Su-25 operated at extreme low altitude, a daring tactic that the Russian air force has changed since his death. Video shot by insurgents on the ground show a hail of anti-aircraft shells streaking head-on into his Su-25 as though it were in a laser light show. But only every fifth shell had the phosphorus tracer, so for every shell you see, there are four more in between. But Major Filipov is determined to get his weapons on target, and that means flying low.

Filipov’s Sukhoi is hit. The right engine burns. It remains in level flight partially because the Sukhoi Su-25 is built like a flying tank with armor plating using simple, durable systems. Filipov ejects from his burning Sukhoi and parachutes to the ground, ISIS insurgent bullets cracking around him as he slowly descends into the seething cauldron of medieval street fighting that is Idlib, Syria. For a Russian pilot who just spent the last two days pounding lawless insurgents from the sky his chances for survival on the ground are precisely zero. Filipov knows this. They may behead him on video. They may burn him alive inside a cage. ISIS has done both of those things to unfortunate pilots they managed to capture alive. ISIS holds a particularly virulent hatred for combat pilots who rain death on them day after day with apparent impunity. They reserve the most grisly and agonizing executions for them.

Insurgent video of Major Roman Filipov’s Su-25 just after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire.

One could suggest that rather than parachuting to the ground in a vain attempt at survival, Major Filipov is drifting downward toward the insurgents specifically to exact some final revenge on them for destroying his Sukhoi. That is how the Russian warrior-mind works. He is armed with a handgun, three ammunition magazines and a hand grenade. And he is ready to fight.

Before you discount the admittedly romantic notion that Filipov parachuted to the ground with the express motive of mortal combat with his enemy, let me tell you a few quick stories about the Russian combatant mindset.

Sometime after midnight, on June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies surged into the Soviet Union in what would become the most titanic land battle in human history, the German invasion of Russia. Streams of Nazi bombers blotted out the sun as they thundered east over Russia. The German planes were well engineered, durably built and heavily armed. Many were crewed by experienced combat pilots. The Russians met them with sturdy, but obsolete, sluggish fighters that were not equipped with radios. Coordinating a cohesive air defense was impossible.

So, the Russian pilots simply rammed the German bombers with their aircraft in midair.

The Russians considered that trading one Russian fighter and one Russian pilot for an entire Nazi bomber and its multi-man crew was a reasonable trade-off. This lethal arithmetic was repeated nine times by Russian pilots in the first hour of the invasion alone.

Nine times in one hour.

Russian Lieutenant Leonid Illarionovich Ivanov flew his barrel-shaped little Polikarpov I-16, a plane that looked more at home in a circus that a dogfight, into the tail of an advanced Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 bomber. Lt. Ivanov did not survive his attack but knocked the Nazi Heinkel out of the sky. He was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

But it was not just the men who proved the national resolve of Mother Russia in the skies of WWII. Senior Lieutenant Yekaterina Ivanovna Zelenko dove her Sukhoi Su-2, an underpowered, sluggish, portly single-engine trainer aircraft into a vastly superior German Messerschmitt Bf-109. Neither Lt. Zelenko nor the German pilot survived, but Zelenko had traded an obsolete training aircraft for an advanced German fighter and its experienced combat pilot. Such is the bloody arithmetic of Russian air combat and its fearless pilots.

One of the first lessons I learned about Russian history was the story of the Siege of Stalingrad in 1942. A few tendrils of this horror have seeped into western media, including a popular Hollywood movie about Russia’s deadliest sniper, Vasily Zaytsev, nicknamed the “White Death” by the invading Germans. But from the same battle I learned of how hard Russians were willing to fight, especially on their own soil.

The Russian soldiers fighting for their nation’s survival on the outskirts of Stalingrad lived a hellish existence in freezing temperatures with no opportunity to get warm. Even a small fire would give away their position in the shattered ruins of their city to the Nazis. The fighting raged non-stop, day and night, with more soldiers succumbing to exposure, disease and starvation than enemy fire. Conditions were so horrific that surviving defenders resorted to cannibalism in a last, desperate attempt to remain alive long enough to kill one more Nazi on Russian homeland soil.

But here is the chilling part.

Some Russian infantry units on the outskirts of Stalingrad, isolated and alone against the advancing Nazis, ran completely out of grenades and ammunition. They had no radios to call for artillery support. One at a time the Russian soldiers, clad in tattered, long wool overcoats stolen off the corpses of dead Germans, would dart into the open long enough to convince the Germans they were an easy mark. Then they scurried back inside the toppled ruins of a bombed-out multi story building. The Nazis did not know the Russians had hacked holes in the upper floors of the buildings. When the Nazis took the bait, and stormed into the ruins in hopes of catching a Russian soldier, his comrades would drop huge chunks of concrete through the holes on top of the hapless Germans, crushing them to death. Then the Russians would take the dead German’s weapon and turn it back against them. Eventually the German invasion was repelled by the Russians, at a cost of, what one historian characterized as, “Rivers of blood”.

In any study of the Russian martial mindset, the stories about brutal resolve continue.

Consider further, and more recently, also in Syria, the case of Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko of Gorodki, Oblast, Russia.

Lt. Prokhorenko was a member of Russia’s elite Spetsnaz, roughly analogous to our U.S. Army Special Forces. His job on March 17, 2016 was to protect the priceless cultural and historical artifacts of Palmyra from destruction by ISIS. The ruins of Palmyra are an analogy for all of the Middle East. Built on and off again starting sometime around AD 32 (that is 1,986 years ago, or about 20 centuries) the city has been conquered, ruined, rebuilt and conquered again. Like much of the middle east the sediment around Palmyra holds not only the sands of time but the stratified blood of warriors from many nations who died there. Like Roman conquerors before him, Prokhorenko was there to make sure Palmyra did not fall one more time.

Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko.

Calling in airstrikes on advancing ISIS insurgents, the short story is that Lt. Prokhorenko found himself encircled and isolated. He fought like a rabid wolf, down to the final yards, calling in airstrikes over his radio. Russian history, like all history, is a subjective craft. The account based on who is telling the tale. The official Russian version of what happened is that, when Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko realized his position was encircled by ISIS and there was no escape, he transmitted this message:

“I am surrounded, they are outside, I don’t want them to take me and parade me, conduct the airstrike, they will make a mockery of me and this uniform. I want to die with dignity and take all these bastards with me. Please my last wish, conduct the airstrike, they will kill me either way. This is the end commander, thank you, tell my family and my country I love them. Tell them I was brave and I fought until I could no longer. Please take care of my family, avenge my death, goodbye commander, tell my family I love them” 

Whether this version of Lt. Prokhorenko’s last radio transmission is a verbatim transcript, a fortified dramatization or an outright fable will never be known, but given the Russian penchant for ferocious resistance against impossible odds, I don’t doubt at least its spirit, if not its authenticity. Never back a Russian into a corner.

So, the story of heroic conduct last week on the part of Major Roman Filipov is absolutely amazing, but not at all new for a Russian fighting man.

But as it glided, on fire, toward the ground last week there is another reason Major Roman Filipov’s Sukhoi remained in a slow, controlled descent just before he ejected, wings level, in its terminal plunge.

Our modern hero Roman Filipov grew up wanting to fly.

He was from Vladivostok, east Russia. His father was a decorated combat pilot. In casual photos of Filipov on holiday his face is deadpan. Serious. Stoic. Only one photo shows a smiling Filipov, when he is fishing. It is as if he were the perfect Russian character pilot Tom Clancy invented for one of his novels.

“The boy was fond of sports, he studied well. He dreamed of being a pilot,” his teacher Lyudmila Lazareva told reporters yesterday in Russia. “He was never childish, but adult, serious, reasonable and balanced. He was among the best.”

Miss Lazareva looks at the floor. “He had a sense of justice. That was how he behaved- he knew what was right.”

So, as I write this, I do not write exclusively about Russia, but also about a heroic pilot- an image that transcends nationalities and ideologies. Roman Filipov’s courage, determination and ferocity was greater than any one country, any one flag. His courage and heroism is the ideal of all combat fliers. Give the enemy hell from the air, die with your boots on.

There is an oft quoted Roman battle axiom by the great philosopher and sage Heraclitus:

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”

Regardless of the flag he flew under, fighter pilot, Hero of Russia award winner, combatant and officer, Major Roman Filipov was that one.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly is a U.S. correspondent for one of the world’s most widely read military aviation blogs, David Cenciotti’s TheAviationist.com published in Rome, Italy. He is a former member of a Long Range Surveillance Team and writes full-time from his home in the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

I have, in fact, grown old. This is how I know.

When I was a kid (you know you are old when you start stories like that) we would watch space missions on television in school. It was difficult. We had to check a television out of the library, the school only had one. The class leader helped the teacher wheel it to our room on a special cart. It took a while to get a picture.

Walter Cronkite talked about the space mission. There was a high pitched “beep” when the astronauts spoke and a long delay. The pictures were grainy if they were in space. If it was a launch the reporters set up a desk at Cape Canaveral.

These times were grand and dangerous and bold. We were shown this, the space program, in school. It was the height of aspiration. The grandest endeavor. Science. Daring. Space. Knowledge. We would cure diseases, end the energy crisis, find universal peace in space exploration and one day… find new life. This we were promised. This we would go to college for, study math for, join the military for, eat Pillsbury Space Food sticks and drink Tang for. We cut our hair short and dressed like astronauts on Halloween.

While all else on earth was mundane and tarnished and dull, space was unimpeachably hopeful. Every science fiction author from Roddenberry to Clarke promised salvation in space, as long as mankind could own its many foibles.

Space… the final frontier.

But today a businessman hurled a sports car into orbit and streamed it live on social media.

I watched the launch today. My heart went tearing back to a place I had not been since July 1969. It was summer, school was out. But there was no one on the streets on July 16. That day we began to make, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The sound of today’s Falcon Heavy entered my ears and grabbed the base of my spine. I hurtled back. I was eight years old again.

Eight years old was a magical age for a boy in 1969. I did not understand the politics of war, the scandal of Vietnam, Nixon had not yet been elected President. We watched films of President John F. Kennedy. He told us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” We reviewed the speech from six years earlier when Martin Luther King told the country he had a dream, “A dream deeply rooted in the American dream- one day this nation will rise up to its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal!”

At eight years old the needle on my moral compass had not yet begun to quiver from true north. Good was good, bad was bad. It was quite simple.

The astronauts landed on the moon. These men were heroes. This is the height of human achievement. This is the high bar. Everyone in class at Haigh Elementary School in Dearborn agreed, this was the biggest thing ever. Ever.

I never aspired to be an astronaut, although I idolized them. I had seen the missions on television. My aspirations lie elsewhere in the space program. When the astronauts re-entered the atmosphere, their capsule charred and weathered, the three bright red and white parachutes would open. They would fall, and fall, and fall into the ocean. Splashdown! And then my heroes, my men, the men I aspired to be, the frogmen, flew out in a Sea King helicopter and leapt into the deep, wild ocean to rescue the astronauts.

The astronauts may have been cool, but the frogmen who saved them were cooler.

Fast forward about twenty years and I am sitting in the door of a helicopter wearing too much equipment getting ready to jump into deep water. I’m grown up now, and I am in a U.S. Army long range surveillance unit. It is different than television, and I am scared. The engine is screaming, the rotors kick up heavy, opaque mist and I cannot see how far off the water we are. Will I float? Can I swim with all this crap on? Where is our rescue boat?

It was different than television. Walter Cronkite did not announce our arrival.

But I did manage to largely avoid adulthood as I flitted around the world trying to conjure my diluted version of the things I had read about from Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Reinhold Messner, Admiral Byrd, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau and later Tom Clancy.

It was never as grand and sparkling and true and… “right” as the astronauts though.

It was never that good, even though it was pretty darn good at times.

But today, for just a moment, that deep, structural, tearing sound of the air igniting returned for just an instant. The trail of flame was as long as the rocket itself. Did you see that? It thundered and crackled and growled in force so massive that only physics itself presided over it. All else were either spectator or passenger. And it arched up, up, into the long delirious burning blue…

But, in the end, it was a sports car with a dummy in it while a song from a cross-dressing gender-bender played in the background instead of hearing Walter Cronkite. And those things are new to me.

I guess times have changed. And I realized I had not.

 

 

 

Tom Demerly remembers old things about aviation and reports on new things about aviation for TheAviationist.com, the foremost defense and aerospace blog published by David Cenciotti in Rome, Italy. www.theaviationist.com

 

 

 

 

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