Monday, July 8, 2013

BUFF Versus Aardvark

On the left, the B-52, weighing in at 185,000 pounds.
On the right, the F-111, weighing in at 92,657 pounds (max).
Once upon a time I was stationed at Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters (HQ) at Offutt Air Force Base (AFB) in Nebraska (NE). Seriously (srsly). Oops  went overboard on the old acronyms didn't I? Harrumph! C'est la guerre!

After beating around at a couple of inane, useless jobs (all gov't organizations have them, even the military) I found myself the NCOIC of the MAJCOM Programming Branch, (sigh, NCOIC = Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge, MAJCOM = Major Command, sorry civilian-types, you can take the boy out of the military but you can't take the military out of the boy).

One of the first things I discovered there was that the division chief expected us to answer the phone with "MAJCOM Programming Branch, this is Sergeant So and So, how may I help you?" Naturally we did nothing of the sort. Our division chief was a civilian (no military service) who served one function - attend meetings with generals. We didn't like him, he didn't like us.

Now how did we answer the phone? Glad you asked.

"MASMS, this is Sergeant So and So".

MASMS (yes, it's another acronym, sorry) was what we worked on, the Military Airspace Management System. And that's all we did. Essentially we maintained and upgraded (as necessary) the software which did all of the scheduling of every single piece of military-owned air space in the continental United States. Military Operating Areas (MOAs as we called them, the Powder River MOA being my personal favorite) and Military Training Routes (MTRs) could not be utilized without going through our system.

Aircrew across the nation would log into our system and do their flight planning while reserving the space to actually fly in. Of course, that's an awful lot of airspace and an awful lot of aircraft and aircrews. So our system would also deconflict airspace which had already been reserved as needed.

Sometimes the crews would log onto the system and plan a mission, but not actually "save" it. In other words, they could play around with the system to game a number of "what if" type scenarios. Only at the end of their session would they actually have to "commit" to actually reserving the airspace. But while they were "gaming" the system, our system had to pretend that they had actually reserved the airspace. That way someone couldn't "steal" their MOA or MTR while they were still playing "what if".

Like I said, there was a lot of dynamic and sometimes constantly changing flight plans in the system.

One day the FAA down in Kansas City had a bright idea. Seems they wanted reports of every single change made in the system. (Probably so they could generate statistics as to how busy they were. Heh.)

We asked them, "You just want the committed changes right? The airspace the crews actually reserve, right?" Well, some "I know everything dumbass" in KC told our point of contact (POC), rather gruffly, "What part of everything did you not understand?"

Well, our POC (whose name was actually Phil Collins, ISYK*) tried to explain that it would probably overwhelm their data network, but Mr Know It All insisted. So we figured out what we'd need to do, agreed with the FAA the type of data and the format they wanted it in and made the changes to the system. With agreement with the FAA in KC, the "upgraded" system would go live on a Monday, at 0600.

That day arrived and as usual I arrived at the office around 0700. My guy who was in place to reboot the system showed up and told us that the FAA was going (pardon my French) apeshit. Seems that in the first 30 minutes of the new system going live it has crashed their network and their servers. Of course we found that to be hysterically funny. After all, there were no "safety of flight" issues involved, we were just providing masses of data to officious (and obnoxious) know it alls. And this made them look really, really stupid. Especially after we had patiently explained to them the risks of their concept.

Of course I immediately called our POC over at HQ and told him to "execute the rollback", he agreed with that approach and shortly thereafter the FAA called back and said they were back up and running. Mr Know It All also asked, "So what was your idea again?" We fixed their problem of getting exactly what they asked for and moved on with life.

Not a very exciting story, I know. As I've mentioned before, there are no "exciting" computer stories. But I do have an exciting computer-related story involving MASMS. It's the story of the BUFF versus the Aardvark. First of all, some background information -

The General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" was a medium-range interdictor and tactical strike aircraft that also filled the roles of strategic bomber, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare in its various versions. Developed in the 1960s by General Dynamics, it first entered service in 1967 with the United States Air Force. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also ordered the type and began operating F-111Cs in 1973.

Contractor: General Dynamics
Armament: One 20mm M61A1 cannon and up to 24 conventional or nuclear weapons 
Engines: Two Pratt & Whitney TF30-P-3 of 18,500 lbs. thrust each
Maximum speed: 1,452 mph 
Cruising speed: 685 mph 
Range: 3,632 miles 
Ceiling: 57,000 ft.
Wingspan: 32 ft. swept; 63 ft. extended 
Length: 73 ft. 6 in. 
Height: 17 ft. 
Weight: 92,657 lbs. maximum 

The BUFF, (Big Ugly Flying Fellow, actually think of another word that starts with "f" and rhymes with "truck"), or Boeing B-52 Stratofortress is a long-range, subsonic, jet-powered strategic bomber. The B-52 was designed and built by Boeing, which has continued to provide support and upgrades. It has been operated by the United States Air Force (USAF) since the 1950s. The bomber carries up to 70,000 pounds (32,000 kg) of weapons.

Contractor: Boeing Military Airplane Co.
Armament: Approximately 70,000 pounds (31,500 kilograms) mixed ordnance -- bombs, mines and missiles. (Modified to carry air-launched cruise missiles)
Engines: Eight Pratt & Whitney engines TF33-P-3/103 turbofan
Speed: 650 miles per hour (Mach 0.84)
Range: 8,800 miles (7,652 nautical miles)
Ceiling: 50,000 feet (15,151.5 meters)
Wingspan: 185 feet (56.4 meters)
Length: 159 feet, 4 inches (48.5 meters)
Height: 40 feet, 8 inches (12.4 meters)
Weight: Approximately 185,000 pounds (83,250 kilograms)

Two aircraft cannot, obviously, occupy the same space at the same time. Also it should be noted that MASMS could reserve airspace but could not actually prevent another aircraft from perhaps illegally or unknowingly traversing the airspace which some aircrew had reserved. Though we did look into employing sharks, with laser beams on their heads. No, not really. (As if you'd believe that anyway!)

Well, one day (another Monday why is it always freaking Mondays?) I show up for work a little later than normal (of course) to find my office and our building swarming with headquarters and staff officer types. All looking like Southern Baptist preachers who have discovered a bottle of booze in the choir loft.

One of my Staff Sergeants took me aside and told me that over the weekend there had nearly been a midair between a BUFF and an Aardvark.

"You're sh!tt!ng me!" was my immediate reaction.

"I sh!t you not", my subordinate informed me.

"Damn!" was my studied response. "Damn!"

"So what are all these guys doing here?"

"Well, they seem to think there is an error in MASMS which would allow two aircraft to schedule the same space at the same time." my sergeant explained further.

"That's not possible..." I started.

"I know, I know. Norm is walking them through the code right now"

Now Norm was my main man. He had worked MASMS from the beginning. He'd also pitched in the minor leagues (not that that has anything to do with this story, I might also mention that Cardinal's great Bob Gibson was his next door neighbor, also not important but kind of cool). Norm later went on to get his commission as a Second Lieutenant. So I guess he wasn't that smart. No wait, yes he was, Second Looeys make more money than Staff Sergeants. At the time about $600 a month more. Someday I'll tell you the story of how I know that.

At any rate, Norm proved to the two guys who were paying attention (as opposed to the other six or seven who were running around like the proverbial chicken sans head) that there was no way our system would allow two aircrews to schedule the same airspace at the same time. Norm also showed them the minimum altitude and time separation required of all scheduled airspace.

When asked how something like this could happen, Norm responded with "One of the dumbasses didn't stick to their route. That's the only way that could happen." One captain started to get a little "excited" that a mere enlisted puke might refer to a commissioned pilot as a "dumbass" until the major next to him (who was wearing pilot's wings) remarked, "Yup, must have been a real dumbass flying one of those birds."

Well, not too long afterward we did actually get the results of the investigation. Not officially of course, we were, after all, lowly enlisted swine, but our POC (a pilot wearing railroad tracks, i.e. captain's bars) told us the result. They had to tell him, for he was the "owner" of MASMS.

Seems that the F-111 was the first into the route. The plan was for him to bomb a simulated target then fly on "down the road" so to speak. Well, seems the Aardvark driver missed the target. No doubt the pilot (AC or aircraft commander) turned to his weapons systems officer aka in Aardvark parlance the "YOT" (you over there) and said, we're going to go around and try again.

No doubt the YOT pointed out the wrong headedness of such a maneuver but was (no doubt) overruled by the AC.

Also, there is little doubt in my mind that after reversing course, and seeing the windscreen rapidly filling with one each massive B-52, both members of that particular crew were in sore need of laundry services vis a vis the condition of their flight suits. (No doubt the crew chief enjoyed cleaning up that cockpit post mission!)

Yup, the Aardvark driver had screwed the pooch, turned around on a one way street as it were. We also heard that the chap flying the B-52 may (or may not) have been a Wing Commander. A rather important personage in the SAC scheme of things. Especially as the US government trusts such an august fellow with the command of an entire wing of B-52s. All capable of carrying nuclear weapons. And dropping them, of course.

The 'Vark driver (we heard) went on to a satisfying career flying a desk somewhere in the Northern Reaches of the Arctic circle. Doubt he ever had a midair with another desk, but one never knows.

We never heard what happened to the YOT. Poor bastard...

*ISYK = I Sh!t You Not


  1. LOL, great stories, and it's ALWAYS the pilot's fault in the AF. At least in the Navy "I" was actually the MC and could (and did a few times) overrule pilots... And the YOT? He probably went on to a successful career (in BUFFs)

  2. Heh. You're gonna have to retract that ol' "There ain't no good programming stories" thing, coz this was great.

    And then there was this...

    Well, one day (another Monday why is it always freaking Mondays?)

    In my bidniz it was always FRIDAY, about a half-hour before we were set to adjourn to Happy Hour. Always, no freakin' exceptions. Or else my phone would ring about a half-hour into Happy Hour, just before I was gettin' ready to order my second drink, with a "Buck, we need you here" message. It hardly ever failed.

    1. Well, not to be pedantic (snicker) or anything, but I said there were no "exciting" programming stories. Heh.

      Back in my flight line days it was always Friday. The whole frickin' week could go by with no emergencies but then late Friday afternoon some colonel would get his panties in a bunch and we'd wind up working into the next shift or coming in on Saturday.

      My current job reminds me of my flight line days. Management never seems to get a handle on what's going on until Friday. Then they panic. Normally over something that we've been trying to get them to move on all week.



Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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