Ejection Seats

I pulled a few pranks in the military, but the one that got pulled on me took years off of my life.

Alone in the Cockpit
There isn’t anything cooler for a 19-year old then getting into the cockpit of a fighter plane. While most of my time was spent in the shop repairing electronic warfare receivers, every once in awhile I got called out to the flightline to troubleshoot a problem that couldn’t be duplicated on the bench. In the year and a half I was in Thailand I climbed in and out of the cockpits of F-4’s, F-105 Wild Weasels and A-7’s.

If you worked during the day, the flightline felt like organized chaos and viewed from above it might have looked like an anthill (if it had 500lb bombs.) Planes were prepped for maintenance and had all the service equipment you needed and a crew chief nearby. But at night the flightline had a different, slower tempo. You’d catch a ride to the revetment, and you’d be out there alone watching the moths and baht bugs dance in out of the beams of the portable light carts. You’d have a “start cart” towed to the plane, lug a power cord the size of a fire hose and plug in the external power to the plane, climb the ladder, open the canopy, and get into the cockpit, turn on the aircraft circuit breakers and power up my electronic countermeasures equipment (no I never got to start the engines.)  It was way cool. Even more so at night when the cockpit lighting and displays and the stars above made you realize that even a delivery vehicle of death could be beautiful.

It made you forget you were sitting on top of a rocket two inches from your rear end.

Ejection Seats
All military fighter and bomber aircraft are equipped with ejection seats. If the plane is damaged in combat the pilot (and crew) can escape before the plane crashes.  To eject the pilot pulls a handle and the next thing he knows he’s hopefully seeing his chute above him and damaged plane spiraling into the ground. Ejection seats work on a simple principle. Underneath each of the seat(s) is a rocket designed to shoot the crewmember out of the damaged plane. The seat is mounted on rails that guide the seat out of the plane. After clearing the plane the seat then falls away and a parachute deploys to gently land the crewmember/pilot.

Each type of military plane has a slightly different ejection sequence. On fighter planes they work by blowing the cockpit canopy off and then firing the rocket under the seat. On bombers they worked by blowing hatches off and then firing the crew up, or in some cases down, away from the aircraft.

The last thing you want is a seat going off by accident when some maintenance guy sticks his hands to rummage under the ejection seat when he dropped his screwdriver. (Something I did many times.)

When the airplane is parked the crew chief inserts safety pins to “safe” the seat. These pins stop the mechanical systems used to fire the seat.  The pins had long red streamers attached to them that said “Remove before flight.”

Into the Hanger Ceiling
Each time you got to an airbase you’d get briefed on aircraft safety on the “egress” systems. Someone in your shop would take you out to an aircraft and show you where each of the pins were supposed to go and make sure you knew what not to touch, kick or remove.

The accidents that happened when something did go wrong were gruesome. When I got to my first airbase in Florida they first thing they told me was, “You might want to pay attention, we scraped some airman off the hanger ceiling three months ago.” And a few months later at my base in Thailand the same thing happened again.

B-52 Egress Training
When I came home from Thailand I was stationed on a B-52 bomber base. These 8-engine bombers carried nuclear weapons and had a crew of six in a two-story cockpit. On the upper deck the pilot and co-pilot faced forward, and right behind them sat the Electronic Warfare Officer and the Tail Gunner facing backwards. All four crewmembers had upward firing ejection seats just like the fighter planes I had worked on.

But on the bottom deck sat the Navigator and the Radar Navigator (the bombardier) and their seats ejected downwards.

Two of my new shop mates took me out to my first B-52 to get me “checked out.”  You entered the plane from a hatch in the bottom deck and climbed a ladder to the top deck. We started on each of the four seats on top as they taught me where all the safety pins went.

As they showed me around the cockpit they kept emphasizing how much more dangerous the B-52 ejection systems were than those I was used to on fighters. “These are really old planes and these ejection systems are really, really touchy.”  By the time we got to the bottom deck, I was gaining a real respect for these seats. “Oh, these seats down here?  If they ever went off you’d be fired right into the ground and then burned to death by the rocket.”

They sat me in the Navigators seat as they kept telling me more and more horrific B-52 ejection seat stories. “Yeah on these seats the ejection sequence automatically starts when it grabs your legs. The rocket fires in 10 seconds.” Sitting in the navigators seat, I was processing that when they said, “Move your legs back to get some more room.” I kicked my legs back and then heard a loud metallic noise.

All of a sudden my legs couldn’t move. Something had grabbed my ankles.

My shop mates looked at me and yelled, “Holly sxxt! He’s initiated the ejection system! The rocket is going to fire!! Lets get out of here!”

I looked in horror as they jumped out of the hatch and left me alone to die. I struggled to find a way to get out of the seat. Through the open hatch I could hear my shop mates counting down waiting for the seat to fire. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

I closed my eyes and prepared to die.

Time passed. I was still alive. I could hear laughter coming from the hatch as my shop mates came back up and unlocked the leg restraints. (They were just mechanical devices that didn’t arm the ejection system.)

As they helped me down out of the hatch there must have been 10 more of my shop mates gathered on the tarmac.

“Hey, he didn’t even wet his pants.”

I had just been initiated as a maintenance technician on the B-52.

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Airman Roachclip, Ashley P.

I thought today was an appropriate time to tell this story. I’m hoping the Statute of Limitations has run out.


As I’ve gotten older, I realized that one of the skills I have is pattern recognition across large data sets.  When I was young, I didn’t have much data. So back then I constructed “what if…” scenarios in my head to amuse myself. The first time I did this I created havoc on an Air Force base by convincing everyone that gravity would be turned off. This time what was meant as a private joke accidentally ended up involving the entire U.S. Air Force Pacific Command in the middle of the Vietnam War.

The Night Shift
I was 20 years old in Thailand repairing electronic countermeasures receivers on the “graveyard” shift (midnight-to-eight in the morning.) Outside our air-conditioned shop, the nights were still warm and muggy as other maintenance technicians were also working through the night repairing all the broken parts of fighter planes; navigation, radar, jet engines, etc. The fighters would sit in their protective revetments until morning slowly being reassembled for the next days shift over North Vietnam. As the early morning sun was lighting up the flightline I could hear the rumble of the fighters taking off. I’d get off work with the sun still low in the morning sky and watch them taxi to the ready line, arm their weapons and roar down the runway.

Since I was responsible for my tiny part of the 150+ person shop, I had the keys to the electronic warfare administrative office. Giving a 20-year old with an active imagination and a history of large scale pranks access to an administrative office was a bad idea. The office had file cabinets with personnel records, training records, administrative records, etc.  And with time on my hands I went through everybody’s files, and while there was nothing particularly interesting, it kept me busy reading for weeks.

As I looked at all these personnel records, I thought it would be funny to create an entirely new person who didn’t exist.  To amuse myself, my project over the next few months would be to create all the records for this fictional persona. But what to name him?  Cheech and Chong, a comedy team in the early 1970’s, had come up with a character whose name I had found laugh-out-loud funny (remember I was 20) – Ashley Roachclip.

That’s who I was going to have join the war effort –  Airman Ashley P. Roachclip.

Airman Ashley P. Roachclip Reporting For Duty
Each evening after I finished repairing microwave warning receivers that hopefully would allow our fighter planes to see the North Vietnamese Surface to Air Missiles before they launched, I sat and typed away. I spent weeks copying all the personnel and training forms, assembling a complete dossier for Airman Roachclip. This was my first attempt at creative writing, and I gave him a very interesting career (he was a very bad airman.) When I was done, there must have been 70 pages in Airman Ashley P. Roachclip’s personal file.

Airman Roachclip was now part of the Vietnam war effort. Feeling fulfilled, I put his records back in the files and never had a second thought.

Fast forward a few months. Most of the time my only interaction with our shop’s military hierarchy was getting briefed by the swing shift which preceded me, and me briefing the day shift which followed me. We’d discuss transition issues about equipment problems or talk about parts needed to fix the remaining equipment, etc.

But one day as I came into work, the swing shift said, “There is a mandatory military formation (meeting) at 0900.” And the meeting wasn’t just for me, it was for the entire 150+ people in the shop.

At 0900 we stepped out into the bright Thai sunlight and formed up. And I realized that it’s not just our shop, but it looks like it’s most of the 500 person avionics squadron.

On the Record
A few captains surrounded the assistant base commander. For an enlisted man sighting of an officer other than the flight crews was never a good sign. I managed to work my way to the back row. Stacked on a long table in front of the officers were boxes of personnel records. As we formed up, we’re all asking each other, “What’s going on?”

Finally someone calls us all to attention, and the assistant base commander announced, “We’re here today because of a personnel matter. This base submitted the total number of airmen we have to Pacific Headquarters in Hawaii.  According to USAF records, 123,912 airmen were sent to Southeast Asia, but they have records showing that are 123,913 airmen here. That means there is one extra airman we can’t account for. Headquarters has traced that one extra airman in the entire Pacific theatre down to this avionics squadron.”

“When we call your name come up to the table, report in to your shop chief and pick up your personnel record. We’ll start with the radar shop,” a captain announced.

At this moment I realized the personnel record I created had somehow gotten reported as being a real member of our shop and had screwed up the system. I’m in a war zone, and I’m probably going to be shot for this.

The captain read names alphabetically through each shop. When he called out, “Airman Jones,” you went up, saluted and picked up your records. They looked at it, they looked at you, and then you were dismissed.  I died a bit at each time they called a name. They called all the names in radar shop, then the nav shop and now they were down to the electronic warfare shop.

He’s A Mythical Character Sir
The names became a blur, “Airman Johnson, yes, sir, Airman Potts, yes sir…” I couldn’t tell if I was sweating from standing in the Thai sunlight or out sheer terror. How did this happen? Unlike my previous prank I had no intention of this one becoming public. Now I was wondering if they’d arrest me in front of my entire shop. And I wondered what kind of prison the military had.

Finally the captain calls out, “Airman Roachclip,” … Silence.  They call again, this time louder, “Airman Roachclip front and center.” People began to snicker, as they yell again, “Airman Ashley P. Roachclip front and center.”  And all of a sudden all the young guys started to laugh out loud.

The assistant base commander who had been irritated at the start of this process was now really mad. He walked out from behind the table and put his face right in front of one of my shop mates who had been laughing the loudest. “What’s so funny, airman?” He shouted. The startled airmen replied, “Sir, Ashley P. Roachclip is a mythical character, sir.”

This time it was the major’s turn to be surprised, “What did you say, son?”  My shop mate managed to stammer out, “Sir, Ashley Roachclip is in a Cheech and Chong album and he’s the President of the United Heads For Hemp.”  The base commander started to turn red, but before he could say anything else someone else volunteered, “I have the album in my barracks, sir. I can get it for you.”

Finally the base commander asks, “Are you telling me Ashley P. Roachclip is not an airman in the United States Air Force?” The airman replied, “ Yes, sir, no he’s not, sir.”

You can just imagine the fur ball of activity this revelation created among the officers and shop chiefs. All I could think is: “Why did I do this again?  It was the same chaos that happened the last time I pulled a prank in the military. I promised myself that if I somehow got out of this one without being caught, I was never going to do another practical joke again.

After 15 minutes of further discussion, (and after review of the clearly fantastic accomplishments in Airman Roachclip’s personnel record) they dismissed us. For the next three months I thought they would dust the personnel record for fingerprints, find out it was me, and send me to jail.

And then one day the air war was over the North was over. We were all going home.

I never did do another prank…

Until 20 years later when I put the Moon Rock in the Rocket Science lobby.

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The Seven Days of Christmas

I’m sitting next to the fireplace in my favorite chair listening to holiday music, looking at the ocean and making occasional attempts to “help” get ready for Christmas dinner. We went for a hike checking out our new trail signs and playing “spot the bobcat.” Our kids are home for the school break, some friends are visiting from the east coast and we have everything for the holidays but snow on the California coast.

My kids are now almost the age I was long ago at another Christmas.

So This is Christmas
As a 20-year old in Thailand in the middle of the chaos of the Vietnam War, my days were filled being a infinitesimal part of the synchronized machinery of maintaining, arming, and launching row after row of fighter planes parked in their revetments –
F-105 Wild Weasels, F-4’s, A-7’s, as well AC-130 Spectre gunships.

There was something both awe-inspiring and incongruous watching fighter planes with bombs on the wing racks take off two at a time. They would accelerate down the runway with full afterburners with sound you could feel in your chest, climb steeply banking sharply to avoid the towering thunderstorms and seem to fly through double rainbows so bright and beautiful they looked painted on the sky.

While I spent most of my time in an air-conditioned avionics shop, my forays out to the flight-line forever made the smell of JP-4 (jet fuel) an integral part of my life. I still associate the kerosene odor with the ballet-like choreography and precision of hundreds of bomb loaders, pod loaders, start-carts, maintenance crews and the cacophonous sound of dozens of jet engines and fighters purposefully taxiing to the runway. As I look out of the window from a seat of a commercial airplane and see the fuel trucks and baggage carts scurry about, the smell of jet fuel still makes me remember somewhere else.

Halfway through my tour of duty I got to go on vacation – what the military called R&R (rest and recreation.) All my buddies went to Bangkok or somewhere equally exotic. I decided to go to Ann Arbor Michigan to see my girlfriend. Normally you got 5 days off and then it was time to forget civilian life and get back to the war. Somehow (lost in the mist of time, or perhaps it was because my R&R would occur over the Christmas holidays) I managed to make my R&R 7 days.

One day I was in the middle of Thailand and the next I was hopping space-available military flights to snow-bound Michigan.

So This is Christmas
To my girlfriend Christmas was the high point of her year. Getting off the plane I was in a jet-lagged daze, standing out with very short-hair in a ‘70’s college town, as she met me by at the gate reminding me that having me back was her best Christmas present. As soon as we left the airport we began a 7-day frenzy of a full-immersion Christmas. (All of this was new for me, as I was raised by a single mother who never celebrated holidays- secular or religious, including events like birthdays.)

I still remember some of the things we did; making wrapping paper by tie-dying plain tissue paper, baking Christmas cookies and Gingerbread men and fruitcake. We made our own Christmas ornaments. I even believe, given how little money we had, we made each other our presents. We went caroling in the snow and had Christmas dinner with friends.

Yet with all of that holiday activity the one thing I still remember, the one thing I can still feel after almost 40 years, was regardless of the adventures you have, how important coming home to a family was.

Of all the goals I set in my life coming home to a family was the one I set standing in the snow that Christmas.


Duality of Man
On the flight back I had plenty of time to think of the contradictions of war with the messages of peace, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

From our family to yours.

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Thirty-Six Years Later

One of my first posts (here) was learning about bats, moths and electronic countermeasures in natural systems in Thailand in the middle of the War in Vietnam.

Catching up on my back issues of Science magazine all I could do was smile when I read the title of an article in the July 17th issue:  Tiger Moth Jams Bat Sonar

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Gravity Will be Turned Off

Part of marketing is the ability to communicate a message to thousands of people and convince them to believe your version of reality. When I was 19 I accidentally had a test run of my ability to do so. I created havoc at an air force base by convincing thousands of airman that gravity would be turned off so that the Air Force could make repairs under their buildings. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Two Million Students
First some background. Ever since WWII U.S. Air Force aircraft have carried sophisticated avionics equipment – radar, navigation, electronic warfare, etc. While the sharp end of the stick were the pilot and/or crew, each of these systems required a cadre of technicians to maintain and repair the equipment. Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi was the Training Center responsible for teaching 10’s of thousands of students a year how to repair radar, communications, and electronics. Some 2 million students have trained there since it opened in 1942. Think of it as the ultimate vocational training school.

Trade School
At the height of the Vietnam War, I was at Keesler learning how to repair electronic warfare equipment, a skill which had gone from theory (our B-52 bombers might one day have to use this stuff –once – penetrating the Soviet Air Defense system) to practice (our fighter/bombers were encountering the murderously effective North Vietnamese air defense system every day.)

In hindsight the USAF did a damn good job. We spent the first five months learning basic electronics theory and the next months getting our hands dirty with the theory and practice of electronic warfare receivers and jammers. As it was a vocational school, I think the most math we had to do was to figure out whether we got a passing grade, and no one was in any danger of actually designing new equipment, but I left with an excellent education in troubleshooting, and solving complex problems in real-time.

Duality – Student Life – in the Military
Here we were, thousands of students with an average age of 19 going to school and living in barracks on the airbase. The barracks were like college dorms except we had to polish the brass doorknobs, wax and buff the hallway floors and make our beds.  We attended classes from 6am to noon – five days a week.  And we had to march to class (I’m convinced it was the only way they figured they were going to get us up and out of bed at that hour).

There was a duality to our existence.  On one hand, we were in a rigid command and control system where we had to follow orders, salute officers and understand the military hierarchy, yet on the other we were in an educational institution where we were encouraged to ask all the questions you wanted.  And we had afternoons and weekends off.  We could go off base and do anything a group of 19-year olds wanted to, like skydiving, but that’s another story.

Library Hours
I loved libraries since I was a kid. Growing up in New York, the library was the only calm and stable place in my life, a refuge from home. I read my way through our small neighborhood library.

My fondness for libraries and my reading habit carried through to the Air Force, and this technical school had an awesome technology library. One day I opened up a Scientific American magazine and read an article on a prank that had been pulled at CalTech the year before. And something about the story clicked for me. I thought that this practical joke would be even funnier in a military organization than it was at Caltech. (I’ll describe the actual prank in a bit.)

Alone with Letterhead
Every evening someone in the barracks had to serve as the “fire warden” for the night.  In hindsight, fire warden meant you were a manual smoke alarm. You walked around the barracks and made sure the building wasn’t on fire. (Anytime you put 10,000 19-year olds on a base you can bet one of them will go to sleep with a cigarette and burn his mattress, if not the building.)

The other minor duty of the fire warden was to update the squadron bulletin board. This was the one place you had to go daily to read all the official notices, and orders.  Reading official military notices and memos always seemed funny to me as they had the most verbose and obtuse ways of saying even the simplest things. You usually had to read two pages to realize the memo said, “No Smoking Indoors,” or “Mandatory meeting on Thursday.”

Following Orders
One night it was my turn on fire warden duty, and with way too much time on my hands, I was mulling over the philosophical contradictions of the literal interpretation that my fellow military students placed on even the most trivial orders.  Orders didn’t have to make sense, we were told, “an order is an order. Don’t think, just follow it.” I wondered how far that would really go.

Then I thought of the Caltech prank. If it worked on a college campus, I wonder what would happen on a military base?

So working into the wee hours of the morning I typed up a version of the Cal Tech prank (on official base letterhead,) translating it into military phraseology. I typed 30 copies, and using the master key I went into every squadron building bulletin board, and posted these orders from the base commander on all 30.

The memo I posted looked something like this:gravity 1gravity 2Friday Formation
I had posted my memo on Wednesday, got a good chuckle over it and promptly forget all about it. I thought it was very funny, a good one-time joke and people would laugh and then remove it from the bulletin board. But a few days had passed, and I hadn’t heard anything, so I thought the joke had fallen flat on its face.

Every building/squadron had an officer in charge of us, and all 300 hundred or so would gather in the courtyard every Friday for our squadron meeting, where our lieutenant would give us orders for the weekend, (usually have a good time) and answer any questions.

We’re standing in the Friday squadron formation, and the lieutenant comes out, who is all of 22 years old. The sergeant calls, “Squadron a-ten hut,” we all snap to attention. The lieutenant reads the orders of the weekend, blah, blah, blah, and then says, “okay, any questions?”  And usually there weren’t any questions because everyone wants to go and be dismissed for the weekend.  But today was going to be a bit different.

I’m ready to run for the gate, but wait, there’s a raised hand.

“Sir, about the gravity being turned off, what if we have fish?  Should we cover their bowls?” I almost burst out laughing surprised there was at least one person in the squadron who believed the memo. The lieutenant is silent for a long minute, staring at the airman who asked the question, and calculating whether he heard it correctly or was being made fun of. But before he could respond, someone else raised his hand and says, “Sir, what if we have small children and they’re crawling, and we can’t get them off base, will they affected by the gravity?”

Ok, I think, maybe there were two.

But that was the cue for 10 more people simultaneously to burst out with questions, (“How about motorcycles will they be OK? Can we go to the bathroom when the gravity is turned off?”) And I started to panic as it dawns on me that this conversation is occurring 30 times the 300 people in each of the 30 squadrons on this airbase.

The lieutenant looks stunned.  Were we all on drugs?  What on earth were we talking about?  He sent the sergeant to get the memo from the bulletin board, reads it and he starts looking really confused.  It can’t be real, but yet… it does look like an official order from the base commander.

The lieutenant leaves to call the base commander,(about the same time 29 other lieutenants were doing the same.) “But sir, the order came from you.” An hour and a half later we finally get dismissed with a, “Ignore that order, it wasn’t really an order.”

Years later at different air bases, at the most unexpected times, I’d hear someone bring up, “Hey, were you at Keesler when they had those orders about the gravity being turned off?”  And I always say, “No, never heard of it, tell me about it.”  The story was even better when someone else told it.

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The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part VIb: Every World War II Movie was Wrong

This is Part VI of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“. This post makes a lot more sense if you look at the earlier posts as well as the video and slides.


The next piece of the Secret History of Silicon Valley puzzle came together when Tom Byers, and Tina Seelig invited me to teach entrepreneurship in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) in Stanford’s School of Engineering. My office was in the (now demolished) Terman Engineering Building.

Fred Terman – the Cover Story
I’d heard of Terman but I didn’t really know what he did – his biography said that he was one of the preeminent radio engineers in the 1930’s literally writing the textbooks. He was the professor who helped his students Bill Hewlett and David Packard start a company in 1939.  In World War II he headed up something called the Harvard Radio Research Lab. There was plenty in his biography about his post WWII activities: chair of electrical engineering in 1937, dean of engineering in 1946, provost in 1955. He started the Stanford Honors Co-op in 1954 which allowed companies in the valley to send their engineers to Stanford graduate engineering programs.

Since I was interested in the history of Silicon Valley, Entrepreneurship, and now Terman, I began to understand that Terman had a lot to do with the proliferation of microwave companies in Silicon Valley in the 1950’s and ’60’s. But how? And why? So I started to read all I could find on the development of microwaves. That led me back to the history of radar in World War II – and a story you may not know.

What Does WWII Have to Do with Silicon Valley?
Just a quick history refresher. In December 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and Germany declares war on the United States. And while the Soviets are fighting the Germans in massive land battles in eastern Europe, until the allies invade Western Europe in June 1944, the only way the U.S. and Britian can affect German war-fighting capability is by mounting a Strategic Bombing campaign, from England. Their goal was to destroy the German capability to wage war by aerial bombing the critical infrastructure of the German war machine. 

The allies bombed the German petroleum infrastructure, aircraft manufacturing infrastructure, chemical infrastructure, and transportation infrastructure. The Americans and British split up the air campaign: the British bombed at night, the Americans during the day.


b-17The Odds Weren’t Good
These bombers flew for 7+ hours from England and over occupied Europe, through a gauntlet of intense antiaircraft fire and continuous attack by German fighter planes. And they got it coming and going to the target.

But what the bomber crews didn’t know was that the antiaircraft fire and German fighters they encountered were controlled via a sophisticated radar-guided electronic air defense system covering all of occupied Europe and Germany.

The German electronic air defense system was designed to detect the allied bomber raids, target and aim the German radar-guided weapons, and destroy the American and British bombers. The German air defense system had 100’s of early warning radars, and thousands of radar controlled anti-aircraft guns, and Ground Controlled Intercept radars to guide the fighters into the bombers.


And the German night fighters had their own on-board radar. In all the Germans had over 7,500 radars dedicated to tracking and killing the allied bombers.


Each allied bombing mission lost 2-20% of their planes. Bomber crews had to fly 25 missions to go home. 160,000 U.S. and British airmen were killed. The German objective was to make strategic bombing too costly for the Allies to continue.  

By 1942 the Allied Air Command recognized they needed to reduce allied losses to fighters and flak. They needed a way to shut down the German Air Defense system. (Bear with me as this history takes you from the skies of Europe to Fred Terman.)

The Electronic Shield
To shut it down we first needed to understand the German “Radar Order of Battle.” What radars did the Germans have and what were their technical characteristics? How effective they were? What weapons were they associated with? We needed to find out all this stuff and then we needed to figure out how to confuse it and make it ineffective. 

So the U.S. set up a top secret, 800-person lab to do just that, first, to gather electronic intelligence to understand the “Radar Order of Battle” and then, to wage “electronic warfare” by building mechanical and electronic devices to severely hamper the Germans’ ability to target and aim their weapons.

Ferrets and Crows  Electronic Intelligence
The first job of the secret lab was to find and understand the German air defense system. So we invented the U.S. Electronic Intelligence industry in about 12 months (with help from their British counterparts at the Telecommunications Research Establishment.) These mission of the planes called Ferrets, manned by crews called Crows, was to find and understand the German electronic air defense system.  We stripped out B-24 bombers, took out all the bomb racks, took out all the bombs and even took out all the guns.  And we filled it with racks of receivers and displays, wire and strip recorders and communications intercept equipment that could search the electromagnetic spectrum from 50 megahertz to 3 gigahertz, and this is 1943. 

We flew these unarmed planes in and out of Germany alongside our bombers and basically built up the “radar order of battle.” We now understood where the German radars were, their technical details and what weapons they controlled.

Tin Foil Rain – Chaff
We first decided to shut down the German radars that were directing the anti-aircraft guns and the fighter planes. And to do that we dropped tin foil on the Germans. No kidding. Radar engineers had observed if you cut a strip of aluminum foil to 1/2 the wavelength of a radar transmitter and throw it in front of the radars antenna, the radar signal would reflect perfectly. All the radar operator would see was noise, rather than airplanes. 

Well, you couldn’t stand in front of the German radars and throw out tin foil, but you could if you had a fleet of airplanes. Each plane threw out packets of aluminum foil (called “chaff”.) The raid on Hamburg in July, 1943 was the first use of chaff in World War II.  It completely shut down the German air defense system in and around Hamburg.  The British and then the Americans firebombed the city with minimal air losses.

Chaff used 3/4’s of all the aluminum foil in the U.S. in World War II, because by the end of the war, every bomber stream was dumping chaff on every mission.

Jam It and Shut it Down – Electronic Warfare
But this secret lab was focused on electronic warfare. So they systematically designed electronic devices called “jammers” to shut down each part of the German air defense system.  Think of a “jammer” as a radio transmitter broadcasting noise on the same frequency of the enemy radar set. The goal is to overwhelm the enemy radar with noise so they couldn’t see the bombers. We built electronic jammers to target each part of the German air defense system: their early warning radars, the short range radars, the antiaircraft gun radars, the Ground Control Intercept Radars, the air to ground radio links and even the radars onboard the German night fighters. By the end of the war we had put multiple jammers on every one of our bombers, and while their power output was ridiculously low, these jammers were flying in formation with 100’s or even 1,000 other planes with their jammers on, and the combined power was enough to confuse the radar operators.

Just to give you a sense of scale of how big this electronic warfare effort was, we built over 30,000 jammers, with entire factories running 24/7 in the U.S. making nothing but jammers to put on our bombers.

By the end of World War II, over Europe, a bomber stream no longer consisted of just planes with bombs.  Now the bombers were accompanied by electronics intelligence planes looking for new radar signals, escort bombers just full of jammers and others full of chaff, as well as P-51 fighter planes patrolling alongside our bomber stream.


Every WWII Movie and Book with a Bomber was Wrong
While there were lots of stories about how the British early warning radar system, called “Chain Home” saved England during the Battle of Britain by giving the Spitfire pilots time to scramble to intercept German bombers, there wasn’t a coherent story about American and British bombers encountering the German radar-guided air defense system. (The best book on the subject is the Nuremberg Raid.)

This lack of information meant that every World War II movie or book that had airplanes on bombing missions in it was wrong.  Every one of them. (To someone who had grown up with reruns of WWII war movies on TV, this was a shock.) Every movie I had seen – 12 O’clock High, Memphis Belle, etc. –  assumed that there were no electronics other than radios on these bombers. Wrong. Not only didn’t the movie makers know, but the pilots and crews didn’t know about the German radar guided system trying to kill them. Nor did they know about the electronic shield being assembled to try to protect them.

But while this may be a great story what the does this have to do with the history of Silicon Valley?

The answer lies with who ran this lab and became the father of electronic warfare and Electronic Intelligence in the Cold War for the next 20 years.

Who Ran the Most Secret Lab You Never Heard of?
It was Fred Terman of Stanford.  The Harvard Radio Research Lab was his creation. A Stanford professor was at Harvard in World War II because the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development thought Terman was the best radio engineer in the country. (Why couldn’t he have set up a lab at Stanford?  Apparently, the Office of Scientific Research and Development thought that the rest of Stanford’s engineering department was second rate.)

Finally, I had an answer to the question I had asked 35 years earlier when I was in Thailand: “How did electronic warfare get started?” Now I knew that it began in the early days of World War II as a crash program to reduce the losses of bombers to the German air defense network.  Electronic warfare and electronic intelligence in the U.S. started with Fred Terman and the Harvard Radio Research Lab.

Spooky Music
Reading about Terman was like finding the missing link in my career.  Here was the guy who invented the field I had spent the first five years of my adult life working on. And 30 years later I was teaching at Stanford in a building named after him and never knew a thing about him.  Play spooky music here.

I began to realize a few things: First, everything we had done in electronic warfare in the Vietnam War was just a slightly more modern version of what we had done over occupied Europe in World War II.  (And in hindsight, we seemed a bit more agile and innovative in WWII.)

Unbelievably, in less than two years, Terman’s Radio Research lab invented an industry and had turned out a flurry of new electronic devices the likes of which had never been seen.  Yet decades later the military lacked the agility to write a requirements in two years, let alone get 10’s of thousands of new systems deployed on aircraft as Terman had done.  How was this possible?  In 21st century terminology we’d say that Terman built the Radio Research lab into a customer-centric organization doing agile development. And Vannevar Bush with OSRD had turned the U.S. military into an ambidextrous organization.

Just the Beginning
The public history of Terman’s involvement with the military ends when he returns back to Stanford at the end of the war. Nothing in his biography or any Stanford history mentions anything as exciting as his work in World War II. The public story of his last 20 years at Stanford, in the 1950’s and ’60’s, seems to have him settle into the role of the kindly dean and innovative provost.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Secret Life of Fred Terman in a War you never heard of in Part VII of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

The Story Behind the Secret History Part II. Getting B-52s through the Soviet Air Defense System

This is post II of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.

1974. The Vietnam war was winding down. After been stationed at three fighter bases in Thailand (Ubon, Udorn and Korat) and working on Electronic Warfare suites on F-4’s, A-7’s, F-105’s and AC-130’s, I got orders to report to a Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 bomber base in Oscoda Michigan.

Imagine how hot, humid and unbearable the weather was in Thailand. Now I was on an airbase that issued some very ‘cool’ gear – bunny boots and N-3B arctic parkas.  The downside was that the average winter temperature was about 10 degrees.  I remember the few times I had to go out to the flight line, it was usually 15 below zero (Fahrenheit.)

The B-52 – When it Absolutely Had to Get There the Next Day
During the Cold War, the B-52 bomber was one-third of what was called our strategic triad – meaning, it made up one-third  of the U.S.’s strategic weapons: ICBMs, nuclear submarines, and manned bombers.  The notion was that while the Soviets could knock any one or any two of those out, we still had a retaliatory capability.  (That was our strategic posture from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the ’80s, and I think maybe even through the ’90s. Now we have ditched the cold war triad in the 21st century since the Soviet Union became Russia again and discovered its own style of capitalism.)

Think of a plane the length of a 767 airliner (but with 30 foot longer wings and 8 engines rather than 2) whose only mission was to FedEx 70,000 pounds of nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union.


Soviet Air Defense – PVO Strany
The B-52s had to get through a massive Soviet air defense system that had been built and evolved over two decades and was designed to shoot down manned bombers.  Not only did Soviet Air Defense have the same SA-2 missiles the North Vietnamese had (since they had given it to them), but the Soviet air defense environment was much denser with a layered defensive system of radars, Surface to Air Missiles (old SA-1’s and newer SA-3s, SA-5s) and a huge manned 1000+ plane fighter interceptor fleet.  In fact, the Soviet National Air Defense Forces, PVO, was so important in the defense of the Motherland it was a separate branch of their military.

And just to make the problem harder, the North Vietnamese had shot down B-52s in December 1972 and given the Soviets the captured electronic countermeasures equipment.  Even though the bombers we lost over North Vietnam were older versions, called B-52 D-models, many of the systems were the same.  Now the Soviets had first hand knowledge of how their air defense systems would work against the nuclear armed B-52G and H models in an operational environment.

Ann Arbor to Oscoda – 180 Miles and a Major Culture Gap
While I never got tired of looking at the planes, one my fondest memories of this base was driving down U.S. 23 to Ann Arbor when the leaves turned in the fall.  Late September to mid-October the riot of the colors was so intense I pulled the car off to the side of the road to just stare for awhile. Each week as I would head down south, I could track the progress of the trees putting on their electric reds and yellows fall colors as they also headed south.  I’d spend a weekend in a college town, without a uniform, in a world as far away from nuclear weapons and the Strategic Air Command in politics and culture as you could get. While it seemed a bit incongruous, it was fun listening to my friends in graduate school over dinner worrying about grades and jobs. Then I would return back north to the much drabber green palette of bombers and uniforms and continue to defend democracy.  I had plenty of time in those three hour drives to ponder the value of universal National Service.

The Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) and the Nielsen Ratings
The largest payload next to the nuclear weapons on B-52s was the electronic warfare equipment, which was to designed to help the bomber jam its way through the radar environment in the Soviet Union.  The bombers had wideband panoramic receivers and displays, chaff, and kilowatts of jammers up and down the frequency band.  One of the six crew members was solely dedicated to get the plane to the target through the gauntlet of the Soviet air defense system: the EWO or Electronic Warfare Officer.

When I first got to this B-52 base, I started asking: “What are we working on?” Again, just like in Thailand, the answer was, “Just fix the damn boxes.” I’d always be the one in the shop going, well, “Why? What are we jamming, how many Soviet radar types are there what does each one of them they do, how do we know about them, how did someone know to build these jammers to these specifications, how do these bombers penetrate Soviet airspace, how, when and where did the EWO use his equipment?” People used to just look at me: why are you asking these questions?

But I was now running the part of the electronic warfare shop that repaired the receivers and could get some of my questions answered.  The receiver I worked on, the ALR-20, when turned off looked like nothing more than a big orange TV display. But it was the main display for the EWO on the B-52 for situational awareness.  When it was on, he could see every signal from one end of the electromagnetic spectrum to the other and for a long way out around the aircraft.  Think of the most amazing spectrum analyzer you could build with 1960s technology.  Then think some more.

In time of war, the B-52’s would be piloted into Soviet territory at 500mph at 500 feet above the ground (by eyeball and by using some pretty sophisticated  low-light TV and infrared cameras.) Sitting behind the pilots, the EWO was also steering the plane, but he was taking it through the hostile electromagnetic spectrum.  He was constantly looking at the multiple lines on the ALR-20 display and could see the Soviet radar order of battle: ground to air communications, what radars were around (search, acquisition, tracking, etc.), were they about to get locked on the bomber and whether they were going to get a SAM up their rear or was it going to be an air-to-air missile from a fighter.  And because of his training, an EWO could identify and prioritize the threats.

The signals displayed by the ALR-20 were used to control the jammers of the rest of electronic countermeasures systems – putting out enormous number of kilowatts using brute force noise jamming and later on some much more sophisticated jamming techniques. All of this designed to make the plane if not invisible to Soviet radar, at least really difficult to lock onto and shoot down.

Just to rank how difficult it was to protect a B-52 in a dense defensive radar environment, our current B-2 stealth bomber has a radar signature of about an aluminum marble, while the B-52 designed in 1950 has the radar signature of a 170-foot sphere.  It was like trying to fly a whale through a fish tank and not get noticed.

(I remember a few times when the bombers were flying practice missions over their test ranges. On the way home the Electronic Warfare Officer would “accidentally” turn on the communications jammers over populated parts of the U.S. and shut down television and FM radio stations for hundreds of miles. This stuff was so powerful it probably could affect the Nielsen ratings. When they landed, the EWOs would write it up as an “equipment malfunction.” I could never tell if they had a sense of humor or just wanted to see if the equipment would work in the real world.)

Peace Is Our Profession – Is It a Drill?
In front of the entrance to every Strategic Air Command air base was a sign that said, “Peace is our Profession.” No joke.  Really.  Yet every time I came back to base, I kept thinking about whether this was the day for the alert drills.

At this time in the cold war, several B-52s at every Strategic Air Command base were on ground alert – they were loaded with nuclear weapons, had their orders and targets and were cocked and ready to take off to execute their mission – to destroy some part of the Soviet Union with large nuclear weapons.  All as an integral part of the Strategic Integrated Operating Plan – our war-fighting plan to destroy the Soviet Union.  When the alert sirens sounded, the bomber crews and the ground crews raced for their planes and they and their KC-135 refueling tankers would take off − hoping to miss the incoming Soviet ICBMs and SLBMs intended to destroy the bombers, the base and a good chunk of Michigan.

The problem for the rest of us on the base was that when the alert sirens went off, you did not know it was a drill.  I would always look at my watch and count down 10 minutes to see if we would be vaporized by a submarine-launched attack, and then hold my breath for another 15 minutes to see if there were ICBMs coming across the pole to take us out.  I wondered if I would actually see the flash or feel anything.  At these times, you never forgot that peace was the last profession we were in.

I never got used to it.

Stay Hungry, Stay Curious
When these bombers got their first modern Electronic Countermeasures suite (the ALQ-117 with automatic wide-band receivers and jammers), I got sent back to school for three months (to scenic Biloxi Mississippi again) to learn how to repair it.  This equipment was modern in the sense that it used integrated circuits rather than transistors, and it responded to threats “automagically” rather than requiring the EWO to do something. Learning about integrated circuits in the mid 1970s was fun as it meant learning a whole new language of digital versus analog computing and learning how to use a logic analyzer instead of just an oscilloscope.  Little did I know that these integrated circuits were coming from a place I would one day call home, and I’d be working at the companies who were designing them.

But once again, learning about the new electronic warfare equipment meant learning more about the Soviet threat environment and what we knew about the latest Soviet radar order of battle.

So now with a bit more “need to know” and a lot more “I want to know,” I started reading all the technical manuals I could get my hands on.  One of the wonderful things about a classified location is once you are inside, you have access to everything and can read anything − and I did.  I not only knew about my equipment but everyone else’s in the shop.  And I began to understand a bit about the Soviet radar order of battle at the height of the cold war from reverse engineering what our jammers were designed to counter and what frequencies our receivers were looking at and how the EWOs were trained to use our equipment.

I was always kind of curious. I was always curious about, and asking about, the big picture.

I was 22.


Part III of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

Listen to the podcast here

Download the podcast here

If I Told You I’d Have to Kill You: The Story Behind “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”

About a month ago I had one of the strangest phones call of my life. “Steve my name is Donald xx, and I’m the head of external affairs of the CIA’s venture capital firm and we’d like you to keynote our conference.” CIA?  “Do you mean the Culinary Institute of America?  And you’d like me to do my talk on Customer Development and startups?”  “No, we’re the other CIA.”

So I gave my “The Secret History of Silicon Valley” talk as the keynote to the CIA’s venture capital conference.

Their VC firm, In-Q-Tel, has been in business for 10 years, and like most VC firms they have an annual event where they show off their new portfolio companies to their limited partners and other VC partners.  Except at this VC conference, 100 or so of the 300 attendees had badges that had their first name and only the last initial of their last name.  (And I could have sworn they all had the same badge.) They were all from somewhere in the intelligence community.

As I was leaving someone asked me, “You must have been working on this story for awhile.” Until then I had never thought about how long I had been thinking about this.  But as I got into my car I realized that this talk was the result of my never-ending asking “how come” for 36 years. So this post is how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”.  (I’ll post more about the history itself later.)

So here it is in five parts.

Part I. Thailand: Bats, Moths and John Scoggins

I was 19 in 1973 and in Thailand in the Air Force working on electronic warfare equipment on fighter planes, gunships and Wild Weasels, at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  I remember asking out of the blue one day, “Where does our equipment come from, what is exactly that we’re doing?”

My sergeant looked at me like the dog just talked: “What do you mean, what are we doing?  We’re fixing this equipment; that’s your job. When the pilots say it doesn’t work we take the stuff out of the plane, bring it to the shop make sure it really is broken, you know, and unbreak it.”  And I went, “No, no, no, but why are we doing this?”

I wanted to understand more about the North Vietnamese and their surface to air missiles and radar guided AAA they got from the Russians, and how we were trying to out-smart them with receivers to pick up their radar and jammers to jam the acquisition radars and missile guidance uplink signals — a little of which I had learned in my one year of training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi.  Since it was the military and I was a lowly airman (I was outranked by the rest of the entire air force), the answer I got was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Shut up and keep fixing that equipment.”

But I kept on asking enough questions until finally I got the attention again of the guy who had brought me off of the very hot and humid flight line into the shop in the first place, John Scoggins.  John said, “You’re really interested in this stuff, aren’t you?”  I said, “Yeah, you know, like where did it come from, I mean, how long have the Russians had this stuff? Why did they build it? How did we figure out how to build jammers?” There was no public history about surface to air missiles, though I’m sure there were probably some good classified histories, which I didn’t have access to.

John said, “Well, Steve, it’s been going on for tens of millions of years.”  I said, “What are you talking about?  I’m asking about electronic warfare and countermeasures.”  He said, “Tens of millions of years.”  And I said, “What?”  And he said, “Meet me at the tennis courts tonight.”

John was a lifer, who I guess in hindsight was a nerd and was in his element as an enlisted guy, but a master sergeant.  He must have been in his 30s, so a real “old” guy to a 19 year old.

So, he said, tennis courts, 8:00 PM tonight.  You’re on an airbase with 180 fighter planes, but we had a tennis court and gym and all kinds of accoutrements to give thousands of airmen in the middle of a war zone an alternative to almost free drugs and women (note to military, nice try but it didn’t work.)

The tennis courts had these very bright lights, and they would attract all kinds of bizarre tropical insects, including these large flying water beetles. I don’t know their actual genus, but they were called “Baht Bugs” because the Thai locals would come and capture them and sell them for a nickel each since they were a delicacy, and the Thais would take the raw bugs and literally slurp out their insides in real time.  So, they would be running around the tennis courts collecting Baht Bugs.

Baht Bugs

Baht Bugs

There were also these large moths that would attract bats.

So, I go to the tennis court, and there’s John Scoggins, and there’s a pile of electronic equipment in the corner, and it’s night, and no one played tennis at night, even though they lit the tennis court.  But there’s a pile of electronic equipment under one of the lights with a parabolic dish antenna, kind of a miniature setup of stuff we had in the labs and our shop.

And I said, “What on earth is this?”  John put on headphones, and he gave me a set of headphones, and all of a sudden I could hear this chirping sound.  And I said, “What are we listening to?”  He said, “Bats.”  “What?”  “Bats.”

John explained that bats have the equivalent of radar.  Not radar in terms of microwave radar frequencies, but they use ultrasonic frequencies to locate their prey at night, and so it’s essentially radar to locate bugs.  And since they fly at night, they don’t use vision; their ultrasonics are essentially their eyes.  They’ve build up a mental map −– just like our vision −– with echolocation.  They send out these chirps, and when one bounces off an object, it comes back.  Then they would go after the moths. That’s what I was hearing was the radar signals of a bat.

We’re listening, and it’s very cool.  And John was recording all this stuff on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, recording the flight of the bats as they were going after bugs.  Every couple minutes he’d say, now listen to this one, and you’d hear the bat chirp, and then every once in a while you’d hear even a higher frequency but lower volume sound.

John said, “Listen, you can hear the jammer.”  The what?  “The jammer,” he said, “Watch the moths.”  It turns out the moths, through evolution, had developed their own electronic countermeasures to jam the bat radar. They had developed ultrasonic receivers and ultrasonic jammers and physical countermeasures. When they picked up the bat radar illuminating them by sensitive hairs on their antennas, they would send out their own little squirt of ultrasonics by rubbing their legs together, jam the bat radar, and then they would immediately take evasive action and dive to the left and right.

Through Darwinian selection over millions of years, these moths had developed an entire electronic warfare, electronic countermeasures, electronic countercounter-measures suite, and here was a guy in 1973 in Thailand who was figuring this stuff out.  To be honest, it was my first insight that there was really a bigger picture.

So, John’s point was, “I keep trying to tell officers way above me that there’s probably a ton we could learn from watching these natural systems.  What we’re doing in the air war over the North is just nothing more than something that’s been going on in nature for millions of years, but I can’t seem to get anybody’s attention.”  (Thirty years later MIT would develop the Insect Lab and work on swarm behaviors for UAV’s and robotics.)

Years later, I searched Google for anything written on moth/bat radar and countermeasures, and while now there are quite a few papers, John had never published anything on the subject.  If he did he would have been 20 years ahead of everyone else. But I always had thought the bat and moth thing was incredibly cool, and it answered a question I had never even asked: where is all this coming from?

In exchange for helping John with his bats and bugs, I learned about the big picture −– about the North Vietnamese air defense radar network and SAMs and what systems our equipment were trying to shut down, what the Wild Weasels were doing, and what John had heard from friends in Utapao and Guam on why we lost all those B-52’s in Linebacker II, what worked and didn’t over the north, almost all which was classified way past my pay level (and his.)

But I was always a sponge for new data and curious about where it came from, and what the history was, and what we were trying to do.  Most of it went in one ear and out the other.  But some of it was sticking.  And all of it was interesting.  It gave me a sense of purpose for the rest of the war.  Under John’s tutelage I ended up running a small shift and part a very large shop and was being sent to other bases in Thailand to train others how to repair the new equipment.

Thanks John, wherever you are.

I had just turned 20.

Steve at 19

Part II of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

Listen to the podcast here

Download the podcast here

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