October 29, 2013
Harriet Baskas likes going to small museums that don’t get many visitors—collections of lightbulbs, hoards of Barbie dolls, piles of nuts. In these kinds of places, Baskas writes in her new book Hidden Treasures, “the volunteer on duty is apt to follow you around.” She often asks her minders to point out their favorite items. Sometimes, the best stuff isn’t on display; perhaps the artifact is too valuable, or extremely fragile. Or maybe it’s not on view because it is too politically or culturally sensitive.
Baskas uncovered many of these hidden treasures for a 26-part NPR radio project, which she’s now turned into a book. Of course we had to find out if she included anything aviation-related. And she did!
First up: Katharine Wright’s knickers. As Baskas writes, “Katharine was sometimes referred to as the ‘third Wright Brother,’ yet her life story and her role in the birth and growth of aviation has been generally overlooked. The collection at the International Women’s Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, includes a dress that Katharine wore to the White House in 1909 when her brothers received the Aero Club of America award, as well as a pair of knickers. Only the dress is on display. “If we were an Edwardian museum or a fashion museum, the knickers [would] be used in an exhibit,” collections manager Cris Takacs is quoted as saying. “We have not displayed them, in part because there are still some members of the Wright family around.”
Next: Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. The Apollo suits, says Baskas, were designed “to withstand temperatures of plus or minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit, radiation, and the possible penetration of particles traveling up to 18,000 miles an hour.” But they weren’t meant to last more than six months. Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum almost continuously from 1973 to 2001, she writes, but was removed due to concerns about damage from humidity and light. It now lives in a cold vault at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.
Third on our list: The metal detector that screened terrorists at the Portland, Maine, airport on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The detector is now in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) headquarters building in Washington, D.C., and isn’t meant to be part of a public tour. “TSA historian Michael Smith says that’s partly because his department has only two staff people,” Baskas writes, “but it’s mostly because the main goal of the project is to share the history of the agency with the TSA workforce, which now includes more than 50,000 people at more than 400 airports across the country. ‘A lot of people…they were just teenagers when it happened,’ says Smith. ‘So it’s important to tell that story to all of our employees.’”
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, Baskas writes, all of the screening equipment was owned by the airlines. “Delta Air Lines owned the Rapiscan machine the terrorists walked through in Portland, and after 9/11 the FAA pulled that machine off the line.” Eventually Delta put the machine in storage, where it remained until 2005, when the airline donated it to the TSA.
Last on our list is Colton Harris-Moore’s—aka the “Barefoot Bandit”—pilot’s operating handbook. Baskas notes that Harris-Moore became famous during “a multiyear crime spree that stretched from Washington state’s San Juan islands to Canada and the Bahamas and included dozens of burglaries and break-ins and the theft of cars, boats, bikes, and planes.” Harris-Moore was sentenced to seven years in state prison. In November 2012, the local sheriff’s office on Orcas Island called the Historical Museum and asked if they’d like multiple boxes of evidence from the trial. Included in the boxes were the pilot’s flight manuals that Harris-Moore used. The museum asked for input from the community on whether the items should be put on display, Baskas notes, as many of the locals were victims of Harris-Moore. Eirena Birkenfeld, the museum’s former community outreach coordinator, told Baskas “On the one hand is the fact that Colton Harris-Moore is now part of Orcas Island history. His presence dominated the island for many months. On the other side is the feeling that we shouldn’t be giving him any more notoriety.”
October 16, 2013
Things were going well for the Wright brothers in early 1909, following their first public flights in America and Europe. The U.S. Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and the Aero Club of America all wanted to award them medals, to be presented at the “Wright Brothers’ Home Day Celebration” in Dayton, Ohio, on June 17-18.
The Wrights, though, wanted none of it.
The inventors found the festivities a waste of time, writes Tom Crouch in his 1989 book The Bishop’s Boys. “The Dayton presentation has been made the excuse for an elaborate carnival and advertisement of the city under the guise of being an honor to us,” Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute on June 6. “As it was done against our known wishes, we are not as appreciative as we might be.”
“The great carnival,” writes Crouch, “included receptions, spectacular parades, band concerts, and fireworks featuring pyrotechnic portraits of Wilbur and Orville, intertwined with the flag, eight feet tall…. A gigantic ‘living flag,’ composed of schoolchildren dressed in red, white, and blue, topped off the festivities with a serenade.” The event concluded with an automobile parade.
Now, a rare poster from this event will be auctioned October 18, 2013 at New York’s Swann Galleries. “They’re old, and they were meant to be ephemeral,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Auction Galleries, and a frequent contributor to PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, of the three Wright brothers posters in the auction. “The only reason people kept them is they were so damn pretty.”
The Dayton poster isn’t by a known artist. “So as a work of art,” says Lowry, “it has less interest, but as a seminal event in American aviation history it it is hugely important.”
The poster at right, by artist Hans Rudi Erdt, advertises Orville Wright’s flights over Tempelhof Field in Germany. In the summer and fall of 1909, Orville made 19 demonstration flights to promote the brothers’ aircraft, which was being manufactured in Germany. “Keep in mind,” says Lowry, “the German poster is over four feet high. It’s actually so big it’s printed on two pieces of paper. It’s joined in the middle. You can see the seam right below the lower wing. To keep something that big, for so long, that’s impressive. And a little crazy. Poster people—there’s a beautiful kind of mania that’s involved in [collecting posters].”
The third and final poster up for auction is the rarest of all. By René Hermann-Paul, the drawing depicts a Wright brothers’ airplane flying at the Aérodrome de Cannes in early 1909. It was flown by Count Charles graaf de Lambert, who was trained by Wilbur Wright and was the eighth person in France to obtain a pilot’s license. The Wright biplane featured in the poster was constructed by Ariel, the exclusive producer of the Wright brothers aircraft in France. The poster has come up for sale only once before that Lowry can recall. “Hermann-Paul was a very famous artist at the time,” Lowry says. “He mostly did music hall stuff, so this is very atypical for him.” Hermann-Paul must have been interested in aviation; one of his other works is a portrait of Wilbur Wright.
Do other Wright brothers posters exist? Lowry thinks for a second, then replies, “Actually, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other ones.” The Dayton poster actually came to Antiques Roadshow in 2009; watch Lowry’s appraisal here.
October 4, 2013
In 1858, Félix Tournachon, better known by his professional name, “Nadar,” took a camera up in a tethered hot air balloon and became the first aerial photographer.
Five years later, he launched the world’s largest gas balloon, known as Le Géant (Giant). The 196-foot-tall balloon had required more than 300 seamstresses to assemble its 22,000 yards of silk, and at the time was the most elaborate aerial vehicle ever devised.
Donald Dale Jackson described Le Géant in his 1981 book The Aeronauts:
It was an airborne cottage. Made of wicker, two stories high with a balcony on its roof, it contained six compartments: two cabins, a printing room, a photographic office, a lavatory and a storeroom. The balloon made two ascents from Paris in October of 1863, attracting the largest crowds for any aeronautical event since the historic flight of Jacques Charles 80 years before. But it was just as well that the crowds were not around for the landings.
Nadar and his two deputies, the ballooning brothers Jules and Louis Godard, carried 12 eager passengers on Le Géant‘s much-publicized maiden voyage on October 4. By the time they lifted off, late in the afternoon, spectators had become so impatient with the tedious inflation process that they watched the ascent in petulant silence. Anticipating an all-night ride across Europe, the passengers had thoughtfully provided themselves with guidebooks and passports, but it was soon evident they would not need them: The balloon dropped violently to earth after only 15 miles, dragging the wicker bungalow on its side for a bone-rattling mile.
If the first flight was a disappointment, the second, a fortnight later, was a catastrophe. The audience for this ascent, estimated at half a million, included both the Emperor Napoleon III and the King of Greece. Again the lift-off was delayed, but this time the great balloon sailed gracefully off to the northeast, climbing easily to an altitude of 4,000 feet. The six passengers and three crewmen repaired to the balcony for a fine meal as the balloon floated toward Belgium, then over the Netherlands and into Germany. By dawn they had traveled some 400 miles. As they watched a brilliant sunrise, Nadar, fearing that the sun’s heat would cause the balloon to burst, ordered a descent.
Suddenly the idyll was transformed into a roller-coaster ride as the monster balloon encountered strong winds near the ground. They had valved gas so liberally on the way down that they were unable to reascend. Le Géant bounded across woods and fields, tearing through trees and bouncing off the earth, Nadar said, ‘like an India rubber ball from the hands of an indefatigable player.’ Nadar saw to his dismay that they were on a collision course with a railroad train. ‘A few more revolutions of the wheels and it will all be over,’ he wrote in a fervid memoir. ‘A single cry escapes our throats, but what a cry!’ The engineer whistled in reply and halted the train with feet to spare. Moments later the runaway balloon finally stopped at the edge of a wood, and burst. The passengers, most of whom had jumped or had been thrown from the car, were strewn over the ground like so many fallen apples.”
Le Géant made just five flights. But even after his grand experiment failed, Nadar remained interested in ballooning; during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune (the government that briefly ruled Paris in 1871), he provided, at his own expense, reconnaissance and postal balloons. These efforts bankrupted him, although he regained much of his wealth by 1885.
July 25, 2013
Eighty years ago this month, on July 22, 1933, Wiley Post completed the first solo flight around the world. He made the circuit in seven days, 18 hours, and 49 1/2 minutes, taking off and returning to Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island, New York.
It wasn’t Post’s first around-the-world trip. In 1931, accompanied by navigator Harold Gatty, Post circumnavigated the world in a little over eight days. The attempt was so popular with the public that the duo wrote a book, appropriately titled Around the World in Eight Days.
What Post didn’t reveal in that 1931 memoir, was that he was an ex-con, convicted of highway robbery. As Bryan Sterling and Frances Sterling note in their 2001 book Forgotten Eagle, in April 1921, Post pleaded guilty to highway robbery, and was sentenced to ten years at the Oklahoma state penitentiary.
The Sterlings write:
The robber’s strategem that Wiley employed was basic…. A robber would simply place some lure—be it a small suitcase, a bag of sugar, or a new-looking tire—into the center of a quiet stretch of country road, hide nearby and await the arrival of an inquisitive and acquisitive victim. Seeing by serendipity a relatively costly item that apparently had fallen off some truck, the imminent victim would stop his car to step out and retrieve it. The robber would then pounce from his hiding place with his gun or rifle at the ready, and demand money and valuables.
In June 1922, after serving time for a little over one year, Post was paroled; according to the Sterlings, prison doctors were concerned that Post was “racing toward a state of total psychological failure.”
After his parole, Post headed for the Oklahoma oil fields. While on a drilling job in eastern Oklahoma, write the Sterlings, Post saw a handbill for Burrell Tibbs’ Flying Circus. He promptly asked Tibbs for a job, and was in luck: Peter Lewis, the featured parachute jumper, had been hurt in the previous show. Would Post like the job? (Post’s previous aviation “experience” consisted of seeing a Curtiss Pusher flown by barnstormer Art Smith at the 1912 Lawton, Oklahoma, annual fair.) Post agreed, became a member of the flying circus, and embraced a career in aviation.
On December 27, 1934, then-Governor William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray granted Wiley Post—then a household name for his two around-the-world flights—a full pardon.
June 7, 2013
The Mercury Seven astronauts had a rendezvous with destiny, and it turns out their wives did too.
“To be an astronaut wife,” writes Lily Koppel in her new book The Astronaut Wives Club, “meant tea with Jackie Kennedy, high society galas, and instant celebrity.” When their husbands were selected by NASA, these seven women went from being military wives on Navy and Air Force bases to intense, unrelenting scrutiny in the public eye.
Koppel, who interviewed many of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo wives, fills the book with interesting tidbits: While a student at the University of Hawaii, Trudy Cooper flew a Piper Cub, making her the only pilot in the group. Who would have guessed that demure Betty Grissom (pegged as an “unsophisticated Hoosier”) owned a pair of fur hot pants? The nine Gemini wives were given “$1,000 gift certificates to Neiman Marcus from an anonymous priest,” who had anticipated that the women would not always be able to afford the right clothes for their many galas. Koppel also describes friction between the Mercury and Gemini wives, at least initially. For the last Mercury mission, on May 15, 1963, the Gemini wives were invited to watch the launch party at Trudy Cooper’s house—but they watched Gordo Cooper’s blastoff on the living room television, while the Mercury wives huddled in the master bedroom.
Eventually, the women developed a kind of sisterhood—they were sharing the same experiences, after all. When an astronaut kid played house, for instance, you might overhear him say, “Good-bye now, I’m going to work. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.” The wives contended with “sightseers from the space tour buses who climbed over fences to steal a glimpse of a real spaceman,” and the morning ritual of removing sunbathing copperheads from the warm hoods of parked station wagons.
There were many perks, though, including post-spaceflight world tours. When Gemini 5 wives Jane Conrad and Trudy Cooper exited the airplane at Haile Selassie’s Jubilee Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, “a noble and slightly bored lion greeted them at the top of the metal steps and had to be led down with great ceremony before they could disembark. Two chained leopardesses greeted them on the palace steps, which smelled of big-cat urine.”
Now, that’s a memory.
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