1981 Ford Aerospace

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Ford Aerospace - Jamboree Road at Ford Road • Newport Beach, California - The whole defense industry was interesting and hysterical at the time, and there are so many stories to tell about these weapons systems. You work around and swap companies, or are swapping people with other companies; so it was a whole subculture. But the programming of this stuff was insanely funny, in the way that non-life-or-death software can never be. Software and people can be so amusing when they aren't meaning to be.



Ford Aerospace had done some work with the PIVAD (Product

Improved Vulcan Air Defense) system. Basically, this is a Vulcan machine Gatling-gun, on a tank track, with a radar system on top to be used as an anti-missile or anti-aircraft defense. The development goes something like this:

  1. You write the code, take it out to the desert, and test it out. This thing throws 3,000 20mm rounds per minute with spent uranium shells (or twice that with the dual cannon model).
  2. You fly in a drone, turn it on, and see what happens. The thing goes haywire and starts hosing down the sky like a 3-year-old trying to hold onto a fire hose. People are swearing, generals hitting the deck; amusing as hell, once you get it turned off and clean out your shorts. Turns out, the radar is way too sensitive. It can track the outgoing rounds, sees them as the closest threat, and it is trying desperately to shoot down the closest threat. Now it takes a while to figure that out, but that's a huge, "duh!" That's the kind of fun I just couldn't have on my home computer.
  3. So then you fix that (over weeks), take it out, and try again. In comes the drone, and it fires, takes out the drone, and keeps taking out the drone. It's chopping the drone to bits and won't stop until the gun overheats or it runs out of ammo. Hmmmm. The software algorithm was made sloppier than before; it doesn't consider anything smaller than a basketball a threat. The flipside of that is it sees everything larger than a basketball as a threat and is trying to chop up the mutilated drone into pieces that are smaller than a basketball before they're allowed to hit the ground. Time to totally rethink this algorithm.
  4. Solution: throw a certain amount of lead at a target and consider it marked dead for a minute or so, and move on to the next one. But these aren't things you think of beforehand.

Sergeant York


Ford Aerospace had done some work with the PIVAD (Product

The last of the Ford Aerospace stories was about how you put a different gun (a 40mm bofors anti-aircraft gun), on an upgraded track and radar, and made it anti-Helicopter - since jets can reach out and touch someone from much further away. So you program it to look for a flashing radar signature (like a helicopter rotor) and leverage your design a while longer. You test it a few times, to make sure it works, but it's basically just upgraded, so everything should work fine, right?

  1. Then you take this puppy out to the desert, put generals in some stands, and show it off. Look what we can do!
  2. You bring in the drone helicopter, turn it live, and say go.
  3. The gun swivels around, tracking past the stands where generals are literally jumping out of their seats when staring down the barrels of a few thousand rounds in self-loading machine canon, when the thing goes off. It blows the shit (literally) out of an outhouse that was just past the stands. Turns out there was a fan on the crapper that looks an awful lot like a flashing rotor radar signature to the computer in the Sgt. York, and it was a lot closer than the drone; so was the highest priority threat. Fortunately, no one had to use the toilet after that, since they'd all emptied their bowels in the pants when the gun tracked past them and went off.

Remember, the ammo these babies are going through is in the many tens of thousands of dollars worth, or more, on each of these tests. These are expensive life lessons; much more amusing when they are other people's money than when they are your own. Trouble is that I'm paying for it, out of each of my checks (in taxes). Experiences like this let you know how limited a sense of humor of some generals have, especially if you can't stop laughing.



Common sense would make you think the Army and Air force and Navy and Marines are all militaries, so they share knowledge and experiences. With the exception of the Marines and Navy, a little, you'd be wrong. In the 1980s, they were all developing similar systems, completely separately from one another. So when the Navy created their Phalanx (Ship Mounted) variant of the same system, they took it out and live fire tested it. There was a plane pulling a drone, so they marked the tow-plane as a non-threat and turned it on against the drone. The gun ignores the drone, spins on the tow-plane, and starts trying to ventilate it while panicked people are hitting abort. Enough rounds got off that there was one very pissed off pilot expanding people's vocabularies and making accusations about their parentage. Fortunately, he was uninjured, and the plane survived with a little patching.

To make a short story long, it turns out the radar was able to see the tow-cable. While humans saw them as two separate planes, the Phalanx saw it as one long plane, and it was shooting at the leading edge.


The soldiers get to play with the toys, but there's a perverse sense of humor in working on them or making them as well. Where in the hell are you going to have fun like that programming in the commercial world?


📚 References

Written 2003.05.05