Johns got into model airplanes as a kid, and he continued the hobby as an adult in the Air Force, wherever his duties took him. On a visit to Singapore in 2000, the deputy American ambassador introduced him to Selby. As a three-star general and deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, Johns rarely has the chance to fly in a single-seater plane like the A-10. So he gets his fix in miniature. To hear him describe it, it’s in many ways more difficult and more satisfying.
“The trick when testing airplanes,” Johns says as our caravan of three vehicles pulls up to the airstrip for the second day of flight time, “is to expand the envelope a little at a time.” Only one part of the process should be unknown at any given time, he explains, “so if you screw up, you have room to recover. That’s the same whether you’re testing Air Force One or one of Mike’s models.”
The airstrip is deserted on this hot Saturday morning. This is flat, green, fertile country, in the heart of the rice belt just outside Bangkok’s sprawling eastern suburbs. We unload to the sounds of chirping birds and lowing buffalo, and Selby and Saechour carefully spread their tools and parts out on bird-marked tables in the shade of a wooden pavilion. As their teammates assemble the plane, Johns and Davidson go out to walk the runway.
Selby and Johns are constantly on the move, chewing gum or, in Selby’s case, smoking a cigar. Bill Davidson, a larger man, provides an anchoring presence, moving as required, his large glasses hiding soft eyes that offer few hints of the intrigue that he has known in his career at the Pentagon and, earlier, in two decades as an agent of the Air Force’s secretive Office of Special Investigations.
“You know how people say, ‘If I told you that, I’d have to kill you’?” Johns had commented to me earlier. “There are guys who are just playing around—and then there are guys like Bill.”
When Johns and Davidson return from their runway inspection, the A-10 is assembled and fueled. Saechour clears everyone from the area behind the plane—the turbines exhale gases at a toasty 1,1000F—and starts the engines with a butane/propane mix. Once the engines reach a stable rpm and temperature, the fuel supply switches over to the pure Jet A formula in the internal tanks. After Johns and Selby double-check the pneumatic pressure, control surfaces and radio, Johns takes the controls, taxiing the plane out to the runway for the day’s first takeoff.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.