Sunday, April 23, 2023

Book Review: Mighty Bad Land is a memorable scientific adventure

Mighty Bad Land: A Perilous Expedition to Antarctica Reveals Clues to an Eighth Continent

by Bruce Luyendyk, with Foreword by Edward J. Larson

Permuted Press, 2023, 320pp.

How many people have discovered a continent? While geophysicist Bruce Luyendyk makes a point of sharing credit, he is the man who named Zealandia, a mostly sunken continent half the size of Australia and represented above the water by New Zealand and scattered islands. In this book, he chronicles the first of his three Antarctic expeditions that provided proof the continent separated about 85 million years ago from the ancient supercontinent Gondwana.  

In 1989, Dr. Luyendyk led a six-person expedition to Marie Byrd Land, a huge, unclaimed region nicknamed Mighty Bad Land. There was no airstrip, and they were beyond the reach of helicopters. His team had to be deposited and retrieved by ski-equipped military C-130s landing on the open ice. It happens that, I, too, have many flights in C-130s. They're uncomfortable under the best conditions, and Antarctica offers anything but. 

Luyendyk was the right man for the job, scientifically, but he makes clear he just barely made it through this trip. Nearly fifty years old, concealing injury, with chronic asthma and no experience leading a group in such a remote area, he cleared the medical and mental hurdles basically by force of will. It was his first trip to Antarctica, and he describes his adjustment to everything from eternal sun to conflicting chains of command. Luyendyk also recounts two humorous incidents at the American base, McMurdo Station, where he drew interest from women in a place where women are very scarce but lost both due to indecision about a "sort of relationship" in California (that did not, sadly, work out).   

Then it’s on to the ice, and the gripping story of the oft-beleaguered expedition. With him went two mountaineers and three other scientists, including his graduate student Christine Smith (who, yes, had a couple of incidents with male jerks). Luyendyk is frank about his own errors and uncertainties. He discovered many unexpected hurdles, adjusting plans on the fly for weather, ground hazards, aircraft schedules, internal conflicts, two near-death incidents, and even proper supervision of his grad student’s work given they were in different subpecialties.  But his team had the chance to do historic science, and they persevered.

The results were spectacular. The ton of rocks hauled out (barely) by a heavily loaded C-130 provided key parts of the puzzle that is Zealandia. Luyendyk’s painstakingly-taken core samples showed the magnetic shifts the area had undergone and how the mountain ranges had been “twisted and shuffled” over time, while geochronologist Dave Kimbrough dated rocks in all the locations they visited. Steve Richard and Chris Smith studied metamorphic minerals from the Fosdick Mountain range to determine its history and past deformations. The data from this and subsequent expeditions, synthesized and analyzed, told them why and when the new continent split off from Gondwana and proved the mostly-submerged region highlighted by New Zealand – thus, Zealandia – met all the criteria to be declared the eighth continent. Luyendyk published the name in 1995. The result revolutionized our understanding of the hemisphere’s geologic history and, incidentally, greatly expanded the seafloor territory over which New Zealand could claim economic sovereignty.

The author deserves great credit for making all this understandable. As a non-geologist, it took me two reads of some of the more technical sections to make me feel comfortable that I understood it, but I'd have needed at least twice that effort to gain a comparable understanding through textbooks or Web courses. Education and adventure are memorably entwined in a book that will enthrall anyone interested in the exploration, history, or geology of this still-mysterious land and its more-mysterious spinoff – our newest continent. Take this harrowing trip with Luyendyk and company, and you'll learn as well. 

Photos from the expedition (used by permission: credits at

    1. The geologists relax on Christmas Eve, 1989, atop Swarm Peak 

    2. The author peers out the ramp of a C-130

    3. The full team (four geologists, two mountaineers) in the luxurious accommodations of a C-130 en route to the study site

The author wasn’t sure whether he should make another expedition after barely staggering through the first, but, as he says, “We get to discover,” and that drew him back twice. These  trips aren’t described here, but there is more information on

  Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Review: Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the US Air Force

Beyond the Wild Blue 

by Walter J. Boyne, Colonel, USAF (retired)

1998: St. Martin's Griffin

Boyne took on a huge task here, a single-volume history of the Air Force’s first 50 years pressed into 321 pages plus appendices.  For the most part, he delivers very well. He’s a good writer, knows his subject, loves the Air Force but is willing to criticize it, and has the right touch for mixing the anecdotal and the epic. I’m not sure the task could have been done much better without doubling the length.  

Boyne covers the organizational and policy issues throughout.  The terms and policies of Secretaries of Defense and the Air Force, Presidents, Chiefs of Staff, and the like are all chronicled. So are major debates like strategic v. tactical airpower.


Most of the history and detail about operations is, of course, about flying.  I’m not an expert on the history of the flying side, so I won’t attempt to critique what Boyne might have gotten right or wrong. I will say that, to nonflier, this book reads as an understandable, well-explained, cogent account of activities that shaped, not just American airpower, but often the world. The evolution and changes of the major commands and organizations are here, and so are the lives of the flyers, maintainers, and support personnel at every level.  The descriptions of the planes and other weapons are compact, accurate to my knowledge (I did read a lot on the old airplanes), and fitted into the bigger context of strategy and tactics. 

I am an expert on missiles and military space programs, so this is an unusual review, one focused mainly on one side of the story That means I largely skipped over the main events before those programs began, including World War II, the post-war reorganization, and Korea. That also means there’s more of a focus than a flyer, or a general reviewer, would have on perceived errors and misunderstandings. 

Boyne’s Cold War ethos and solid support of all American’s modern wars have drawn criticism, some of it valid. Still, his view jibes with what military and civilian leaders thought at the times, and the “Cold War mindset” is to me, a Cold Warrior who spent years in a missile silo holding the keys to Hell, basically accurate. 

 His belief that Vietnam was a just war and we almost won it in 1972 are not popular opinions, although that’s not to say he’s wrong.  (Personally, I don’t think we could have won in 1972 no matter what you think of the effectiveness of the bombing: the ground forces, with Vietnamese troops of uneven quality and American troops reduced greatly in number, weren’t adequate to take full advantage of the damage aircraft did to the enemy.)

There’s no denying that American aviators, as Boyne vividly describes, valiantly did their duty In Vietnam despite every possible handicap. They had to deal with airplanes and tactics meant to fight the USSR in Europe, constantly increasing micromanagement by non-experts thousands of miles away, rules of engagement that killed countless American flyers, the universal American misunderstanding of the enemy, and endless changes of strategy. Boyne gets a point for even-handedness here: while he despises the Communist regime, he admires the way their soldiers, no matter what we threw at them, time and again adapted and fought even harder. 

I naturally wondered how a book that is, by necessity, 90% about flying would treat missiles and space. The answer is, “pretty well.” Boyne’s admiration for the multiple missile development programs General Bernard Schriever juggled and advanced, mainly in the decade 1955-65, knows no bounds. He thinks it was more difficult to pull off than the Manhattan project, and he makes a good argument.

There are a couple of places where he errs. He paints the USAF as having a continually advancing missile program from about 1947 on.  It didn’t happen that way.  Some Air Force leaders, military and civilian, were strongly against pouring billions into this new and uncertain weapon system. Successes like the Consolidated MX-774 were not part of a well-planned program but often made advances and then faded back into purgatory.  Once Boyne gets to the Schriever era, though, he gets it right.  He does not address the second-class citizen status of the missile people who were, he notes, an entirely different personality type compared to the gung-ho pilots from the WWII era with whom they had to work.  Nothing was ever done to give missileers the prestige, rated status, or promotion opportunities of pilots, and if that sounds to you like the disgruntled complaints of an ex-missileer who wanted to be a fighter pilot but was medically disqualified, you’re absolutely right. Boyne should have paid some attention to this topic.  

There is one other item about missiles that deserves attention, and it’s connected to Boyne’s unusually positive treatment of the controversial Chief of Staff Tony McPeak (1990-94).   To Boyne, if McPeak left behind a lot of broken crockery, from drastic reorganizations to the despised “bus driver” uniform, most of that crockery needed breaking to face political, military, and budgetary realities.  He notes McPeak’s unpopularity with many officers. Having been an Air Force officer until 1992, I would characterize what I heard from officers in flying units more as blistering hatred, even though Boyne makes his case that some of the McPeak reorgs were necessary. 

Oddly, Boyne cites McPeak’s move of the ICBM force to Air Combat Command instead of Space Command as one of McPeak’s few mistakes.  It wasn’t. When his successor moved ICBMs to Space Command, it created a culture clash that never ended. To people in the two organizations, it made as much sense as moving fighter squadrons into Military Airlift Command because they both used airplanes.  I honestly can’t remember meeting a leader in missiles or space who thought it a good idea.  

A couple of other thoughts. 

Boyle describes the 1982 creation and 1988 formalization of Total Quality Management as an unqualified success, and maybe it was in some organizations in the earlier years. His book, though, goes well into the years when it became a slog through square-filling and buzzwords, and he should have revisited it. 

On a broader scale, Army and Navy advocates won’t much like the extent to which Boyne says that, from the 1950s on, many USAF management and other practices and organizational structures were envied or copied by the other Services: I don’t know much about that, so I’ll let historians fight it out.

Boyne gives space forces their du. He endorses the creation of Air Force Space Command and the original U.S. Space Command.  He does a good job of documenting the major programs, activities, and benefits.  He has a warm spot, as do I, for the 1960s CORONA satellite people who persevered through 12 failures (something that would never be tolerated today) to get workable spy satellites in place.  The only mistake he makes, which he partly remedies later on, is saying the differing strategies of the US and USSR (a few exquisite satellites vs. many shorter-lived ones) developed out of differing experiences, when it was always a deliberate choice based on the Americans’ superior technology and desire for more and more standing communications capability and higher-resolution imagery.  That and Boyne's failure to treat the battle over large vs. small satellites, which was still one-sided but at least  heating up by 1997, or examine reasons for the endless schedule and cost overruns of the major space programs, are my nitpicks on space.

This is as good a place as any to note the book’s biggest weakness from a scholarly viewpoint. Inexplicably, it has no footnotes or endnotes. While many sources are cited in the text, and there are lists of interviews and so on, there’s no way the book can rank as the definitive history it should be without specific references for the decisions, battles, and activities it describes.  

As a writer of a book for a broad readership, though, Boyne generally navigates these five decades well and in the end lands on the runway pretty close to the centerline.  He tells a coherent story, works many, many complex events into a timeline that gives the reader a consistently good picture of how the Air Force was and what it was doing at any given time, and has made a valuable contribution, even if not a flawless one. 

 Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He is a former USAF officer. He can be reached at Website:


Sunday, April 16, 2023

Book review: Monsters of the Pine Tree State

 Monsters of the Pine Tree State: Cryptids & Legends of Maine 

Eerie Lights Publishing, 2023, 240pp.
by David Weatherly. Foreword by Loren Coleman, art by Sam Shearon  
Weatherly's state-by-state collection of cryptid stories has reached my birth state, Maine, so I looked forward to this one. It's a lot of fun. Since there have been two recent Maine cryptid books by Michelle Souliere, there is some inevitable overlap, and Weatherly cites her a couple of times. Nonetheless, there's some new material here and many interesting stories. 

We meet Wessie, the out-of-place anaconda (surely dead of cold by now), "black panthers," Bigfoot and other apelike cryptids, and more. Weatherly's curiosity extends to topics outside cryptozoology, so we read tales of bipedal wolflike creatures, hard-to-describe horrors, and of course the state's huge, famous spectral moose. My favorite section is, as often happens, the one on sea serpents and strange marine creatures, and Weatherly has a couple of items here I'd forgotten about.  Weatherly also notes the Wendigo of Maine's Indigenous people is nothing like the horned monster of modern lore. He does not footnote, but some sources are given in the text, and there's a bibliography There is a list of publications and websites, which oddly consists of titles only, without addresses or URLs. Shearon's cover and interior art is, as always, superb. This is an enjoyable book best read in the evening, by a fireplace, with pine trees visible outside the windows. Good work!

 Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!