Novel Update And An Observation

So, I’m close to the end of The Lair of Filth, the sequel to The Sure Bet King. It’ll take touching up, polishing, and so forth, but I’m in the final arc of the draft. With that in mind, I’m already thinking of the plans for my next novel. While exact details need to be outlined, I’ve settled on “a pop epic about aviation” as the general subject.

It seems like quite the leap to go from sports betting to air transport. Or is it? When looking at the economics, I was a little (pleasantly) surprised at the similarities between the two seemingly opposite industries.

  • First for the most obvious and most unpleasant: Both are volatile, low-margin industries. The revenues from sports betting are dwarfed by other casino games (particularly slot machines), and revenue can swing on events like all the favorites winning. Similarly, airlines are barely-to-unprofitable with the exception of a few outliers like Southwest and Ryanair. And they are an incredibly cyclical, event-vulnerable industry.
  • Second, the barriers to entry are, for the most part, extremely low. Certainly lower than one might think. Stuff like pay per heads and aircraft leasing, or similar turnkey solutions, allow for many entrants, particularly in the less-demanding offshore world. Of course, maintaining that business is a lot harder…
  • Third, the products are almost commodotized. It’s numbers on a screen/an airplane with seats in it. There just isn’t much except for deals and pricing that distinguishes one sportsbook/airline from another most of the time. And both have also been hit hard by the ability of consumers to price shop on the internet.

So maybe it won’t be that different after all…

From Single To Multi-Talented Athletes

Most athletes are single-focused. When they try to do more advanced sports than what they’re used to, it often doesn’t work. See Herb “I can run fast” Washington. Likewise, when multi-talents go against specialists, unless the physical difference is vast, they can’t compete. But there’s a few who’ve gone the distance. Take Bob Hayes, gold medal sprinter, Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer. Or Mariusz Pudzianowski , a Polish weightlifter and strongman-who became a champion mixed martial artist.

This is of course not true for everyone. Most sprinters couldn’t be wide receivers. Most weightlifters couldn’t handle actual fighting. But there are always outliers like those two. There’s also an interesting number of legendary hockey/soccer crossover players like Lev Yashin (hockey, famous in soccer) and Vsevolod Bobrov (soccer, famous in hockey)

What would be interesting would be multi-sport stars who aren’t physical outliers with an obvious advantage (ie Bo Jackson) or people who can take advantage of playing in a similar sport (some Caribbean baseball players who also played cricket growing up).

Cold War Kitona

The Fuldapocalypse has traditionally been opened with a vast set of Soviet special operations that involve varying degrees of risk, realism, and audacity. Red Storm Rising famously had one such jury-rigged gamble resulting in the capture of Iceland. I’ve found another possibility that would involve my two obsessions of past and present: Conventional World War IIIs and commercial airplanes.

While the Second Congo War is about as far in terms of tone and nature from a Fuldapocalypse as it’s possible to get, its opening act nonetheless could have been lifted from the pages of a technothriller. In Operation Kitona, Rwandan and Ugandan troops seized four airliners and flew west to sever the DRC’s links to the outside world. The initial landing worked, but external support for the Congolese government doomed the offensive, plunging central and southern Africa into a long, bloody, and horrific war.

So it’s not too terribly farfetched to imagine planes being filled with “unruly passengers” happening to land at important dual-purpose airports at the worst possible prewar time…

The Ameriyak That Never Was

Soviet airliners have an understandably poor reputation and record. It’s gotten to the point where one should be fair and point out that their less than ideal safety record was more to the issues with infrastructure and human resources and less to the mechanical design of the aircraft themselves. But it isn’t excessive criticism to point out that in spite of their rough-field capability, they were fuel-inefficient, uncomfortable, and only able to succeed in a politically closed field.

But there were still some diamonds in the rough, and not just giants like the Antonov beasts. The three-engined Yak-40 was interesting for being a pioneer in the field of light regional jets when the rest of the world was still using propeller planes for that role.

Which leads to a detente-era footnote: The plans to build and sell a version of the Codling (yes, that was its reporting name) in America. Amazingly, this was not a project from the legendarily Kremlin-friendly Armand Hammer. But it could have been. The potential plants were located in the depressed locations of Youngstown and Niagara Falls. The engines and avionics would be replaced with western models. A memo in the White House of all places (pgs 22-26) details the lofty goals for the LC-3, as it was planned to be called.

Of course, the deal unsurprisingly fell through. But it’s still an interesting piece of aircraft history. As is, it was the first Soviet civilian aircraft to attract legitimate attention from western airlines. And the irony of an airplane designed by a communist state being used to ferry rich private-sector VIPs to their vacations in Aspen is too fun not to smile at.

Cargo and Charters

My love of the big, weird, and military aircraft has made me neglect the humble workhorse transport. Until now. What I’ve taken an interest in is the world of air cargo and charters, especially cargo charters. So in terms of looking at never-were designs, this leads me to see something and ponder where its place in the commercial air ecosystem would be.

In most cases this is be pretty obvious. Where a superjumbo goes and where a tiny STOL plane goes are very simple. Likewise for any one craft in between. The biggest issue comes from the real exotics, like supersonics and VTOLS. I guess you could be reasonable and say “clearly their expense makes them impractical for civilian air transport at all”, but where’s the fun in that?

Furthermore, looking at air transport in general has given me flashbacks to my first novel. After all, the airline industry is incredibly low margin (at best!), volatile, and has very few ways of distinguishing one participant from another. So is the sports betting industry….

The Big Sports Betting Weird Thing

When I wrote The Sure Bet King, I patterned its climax in large part on the Mayweather-McGregor boxing match, especially in how the mixed martial artist who never had a professional boxing match somehow got a gargantuan pile of money wagered on him over the undefeated all-time-great boxer. I thought “that must be the craziest gambling moment, or at least one of them”. Up there with suspicious table tennis matches attracting a bizarrely large amount of handle.

Then this scam involving con artists and farmers in India happened. Locals were hired to put on appropriate kits and pretend to be participants in the Indian Premier League, the world’s most prominent and lucrative cricket competition. Their marks were Russians who apparently knew almost nothing about cricket. If they did, they would have noticed that the real IPL had long since concluded its season.

Somehow the “tournament” got all the way to the “quarterfinals” before it was noticed and shut down. And when I read it, I was like “wow. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.” It was something. And a reminder that while fiction has to make sense, reality does not.

Superjumbos

I’ve always been intrigued by “superjumbos, which I unscientifically define as “any airliner which is bigger and/or can carry more passengers than a 747.” Perhaps the only mass-produced superjumbo has been Airbus’ doomed A380, a luxurious plane that was nonetheless brought down by an inability to be used as a freighter and a shift away from the “hub and spoke” model that it was designed for.

But with the hub and spoke model in place, and with air travel increasing, the superjumbo does make at least conceptual sense. The justification works like this: If, thanks to a lack of runway space, you can only get X number of flights per major airport, you might as well give them to a bigger plane. To oversimplify it, the choice isn’t between two planes with 300 passengers each or one with 600, it’s between one with 300 or one with 600.

Granted, there are many, many practical obstacles too, like if your superjumbo needs more engines and/or is less fuel efficient (neither an unreasonable thought). But the place for these aerial titans is a legitimate one. Or at least an excusable one with regards to getting one or more of the many on the drawing board designs into alternate production.

And of course, mammoth aircraft that, unlike the A380, were designed to be heavy freighters, do have a niche role in carrying big and oversized loads. See the late An-225 (which had a passenger variant proposed!) and the Super Guppy/Beluga/Dreamlifter oversized transport planes.

It’s all food for thought. After all, what aviation enthusiast doesn’t like gargantuan planes?

The Nuclear Assumptions

The one thing going in the would-be nuclear terrorists favor is that nuclear weapons have a lot of “slack” built into their design. IE, they can be ridiculously “inefficient” and still be devastating. Even a rough-implosion sub-kiloton warhead is still a much hotter, radioactive version of this:

But that’s it. Everything else works against them. There’s a lot of attention paid to nuclear material ever since the 1940s for obvious reasons. The materials require specialized personnel and are hazardous (radiation is the least of the worries-both uranium and plutonium are extremely flammable, for one). I used the analogy of Y2K in my review of the best book on the subject that I’ve read.

While reading Brian Michael Jenkins’ own book, one passage jumped at me. This was Jenkins, a renowned terrorism and security expert, talking about how the yields increased.

We have too easily slid from the scientists’ first estimates of terrorist nuclear devices with yields likely to be in the tenths of a kiloton range to a now-assumed standard of a ten-kiloton terrorist bomb. The worst case has become the baseline assessment.

-Brian Michael Jenkins. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Kindle Locations 3611-3612). Kindle Edition.

And yet, both seem valid. Ten kilotons is slightly less than Little Boy, an extremely simple “bang two chunks of HEU together” design whose biggest limiter is that it requires a lot of fissile material. Less than a kiloton is what’s often theorized for a very basic implosion design, necessary with plutonium as the explosive material. Since in the 1970s there was justified fear around the glut of plutonium, that is not an unreasonable assumption. Likewise, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that with access to Little Boy levels of material (Cold War “Surplus”?) one could make a Little Boy level bomb.

There are no real case studies to go on. Aum Shinrikyo conducted the only known and most credible attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by a terror group. It never got beyond basic theoretical designs, as has every other terror daydream. With a (thankful) sample size of zero, all planners can do is base the possibilities on theory.

The Hungry King

High-intensity warfare uses up a LOT of artillery shells. Like, a lot. How much? Well, these charts from the Light OPFOR Tactical (for eastern calibers) and FM 101-10-1/2, 1987 edition (for western calibers) give a notional example. They’re not identical-the OPFOR norms chart is shells fired towards a target while the FM 101-10-1 one is shells used up by a certain artillery piece per day-but they both show how much metal and explosive is going to fly (the answer: A lot).

Artillery is called the “king of battle”, and the king can get very, very hungry sometimes. Moving large quantities of heavy, highly explosive shells is no small feat, and to succeed or fail with that task means the difference between victory and defeat. A conventional Fuldapocalyptic World War III in the 1980s would have a massive quantity of artillery shells fired every day.

The Plutonium Red Team Study

In the mid-1990s, a “Red Team” (simulated adversary) was launched by the Sandia national laboratory. It looked at all the processes for disposing of excess plutonium (especially after the fall of the USSR) and studied their potential vulnerabilities for unsavory acquisition of nuclear materials. The report is a very interesting read.

Everything from fuel assemblies to mixed/ceramic encased disposed plutonium is studied. The vulnerabilities studied include both accessing it at the storage site and separating the weapons-usable material. It’s quite interesting, yet gives the impression that most nuclear thieves would need to be employed by either a state or the cast of Payday 2. Which is kind of the point, showing the difference between more and less plausible points of failure.