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.
August 16, 2013
The media is beside itself with the news that certain information about Area 51 — like the fact that there is such a place — and the aerial goings-on there has recently been “declassified.” But the reaction of most aviation enthusiasts has been [sound of crickets chirping].
An e-mail exchange with T.D. Barnes, president of Roadrunners Internationale, an organization devoted to “preserving the history of the aviation pioneers and programs that developed the U-2, A-12, and YF-12″ reveals that…nothing new is really being revealed. He writes:
In 2010, I led an Oxcart Legacy Tour to Washington, where we did a panel presentation at the National Air and Space Museum [See video below] as well as at numerous other agencies. During our presentation at the CIA, Dr. David Robarge, Chief Historian moderating our panel, officially lifted the restriction on the use of the name Area 51.
This current flurry is about the name no longer being redacted on formerly declassified documents. This is a common practice. For example, the existence of the A-12 Oxcart planes was declassified in 1991, the missions in 2007, and the identities of us working on the project in 2010. This is just now showing up in document releases, but we’ve had some of these documents on our websites for months.
The Agency is acutely aware that much of the Cold War legacy was never recorded and is being lost with the passing of the participants. That was one of the purposes of the legacy tour and a prime purpose of our Roadrunners Internationale website, which is supported with material by the agency.
Thank you, Mr. Barnes.
May 31, 2013
In 1941, writes Stephen Budiansky in his wonderful new book, Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare, “after a year of unbroken and devastating U-boat onslaughts, the British War Cabinet decided to try a new strategy in the foundering naval campaign. To do so, they hired an intensely private, bohemian physicist [named Patrick Blackett,] who was also an ardent socialist.”
Some of Britain’s best minds were already working on the Enigma project, attempting to decipher Germany’s coded radio messages. So Blackett put together an unusual team of “leftover” scientists: chemists, astronomers, actuaries, and biologists—including one who specialized in the sex life of the oyster. And for the next year, they put aside their own research and devoted themselves to solving the U-boat problem. According to Budiansky:
In April 1941, a month after starting work at Coastal Command, [Blackett] paid a visit to the operations room of Western Approaches Command in Liverpool, where a large wall map displayed the current estimated positions of all U-boats in the Atlantic. Blackett knew the number of hours being flown by Coastal Command aircraft and the areas they were patrolling. “I calculated in a few lines of arithmetic on the back of an envelope the number of U-boats which should have been sighted by the aircraft,” given the actual number of U-boats operating in the area as shown on the wall of the Western Approaches Command. The theoretical number Blackett obtained from his quick calculation was four times the actual number of sightings that Coastal Command air patrols were reporting. “This discrepancy,” Blackett continued, “could be explained either by assuming the U-boats cruised submerged or by assuming that they cruised on the surface and in about four cases out of five saw the aircraft and dived before being seen by the aircraft. Since U-boat prisoners asserted that U-boats seldom submerged except when aircraft were sighted, the second explanation was probably correct.” All of the obvious solutions were recommended: equipping the aircrews with better binoculars, avoiding flying into the sun, improving training. Then, discussing the problem one day, an RAF wing commander asked Blackett, “What color are Coastal aircraft?”
They were in fact mainly black, as they were mostly night bombers diverted from Bomber Command. Night bombers were painted black to reflect as little light as possible from searchlights. But by day, under most conditions of cloud and sun, an aircraft is seen as a dark object against a light sky. Tests were quickly ordered and it was verified that repainting the aircraft white reduced by a fifth the average maximum distance at which the planes could be seen. The undersurfaces of the wings were the part of the aircraft that stood out in particular contrast to the sky, and a scheme of using glossy reflective white paint for these surfaces was adopted. [Physicist E.J.] Williams calculated that the change to white camouflage would increase the number of U-boat sightings, and sinkings, by 30 percent. The plan was implemented within a few months. Air patrols during the winter had been yielding one U-boat sighting per every 700 hours of flying. By summer 1941, with the camouflage change and other improvements, the yield had doubled to one sighting per 350 hours.
November 29, 2012
For 20 months during World War II, northern Italians were caught between the retreating Nazi front and invading Allied forces. As confusion reigned, one story circulated among civilians time and again: An elusive and unidentified airplane, nicknamed “Pippo,” was said to fly over northern Italy each night—solo—sometimes strafing and bombing the landscape, other times performing reconnaissance. In all of the accounts of Pippo found in newspapers, letters, diaries, and oral histories, not a single person claimed to have seen Pippo. But the aircraft’s distinctive sound made it easy to recognize.
The nicknaming of solitary night intruders wasn’t unusual, writes folklorist Alan Perry (Gettysburg College) in his 2003 article in the Journal of Folklore Research. Members of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 416th Night Fighter Squadron, assigned to the Ninth Air Force in the European Theater of Operations, referred to the Junkers Ju-88 flying overhead as “Reccie Joe.” Marines who fought on Guadalcanal had the Japanese “Washing Machine Charlie” to deal with. And GI’s fighting in North Africa and Italy called the night fighter they heard “Bed-Check Charlie.” (“Bed-Check Charlie” also made an appearance during the Korean War.)
What made Pippo different was that your political allegiance determined his identity. For those who opposed the Germans, Pippo, says Perry, was a friendly Allied pilot conducting reconnaissance. For those upset that Italy had betrayed its former German ally, Pippo was a sinister German intent on dropping bombs.
Perry looked for evidence of lone fighters waging psychological warfare in northern Italy. He notes that in 1944, “night intruder missions became an integral part of Operation Strangle, an effort to destroy German attempts to reinforce ground troops.” Night fighter squadrons of both the RAF (the 255th, the 256th, and the 600th) and the U.S. Army Air Forces (the 414th, 416th, and 417th) were part of this effort. Could Pippo have been a Bristol Beaufighter, a Northrop P-61, or a de Havilland Mosquito? Some Italian historians lean toward the Mosquito.
An interesting footnote: During Perry’s research, he ran across a contemporary piece in the daily Il Giornale by correspondent Fausto Biloslavo. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Biloslavo was sent to Afghanistan to cover the U.S.-led bombing of Afghan training camps and Taliban air defenses. Biloslavo writes, “The scheme for the raids is always the same: before the attack an airplane with normal wings, not delta shaped like the fighters, circles very high above the targets. It’s either a reconnoitering aircraft or an electronic jewel that interrupts enemy communications and perhaps advanced defense weapon systems. In fact, we’ve noticed that during the flight of Pippo, as we’ve nicknamed him, there is no way to use the satellite phones. Soon after, the bombers come in pairs of two and dive upon their targets.”
November 15, 2012
While fighter pilots risk being shot down, or, in the case of F-22 pilots, suffering oxygen deprivation, it turns out that one of the hazards of flying an unmanned drone is boredom—or at least that’s what researchers at MIT have concluded.
“You might park a UAV over a house, waiting for someone to come in or come out, and that’s where the boredom comes in,” said Mary “Missy” Cummings, quoted in a study released yesterday by MITNews.
Cummings, a former F/A-18 pilot, is the director of the Humans and Automation Lab in MIT’s department of aeronautics and astronautics. She and her team set up a UAV simulation in which operators monitored the activity of four UAVs during a four-hour shift. Each subject was videotaped, and researchers noted when the operators were engaged, and when they were distracted. Not surprisingly, the operator with the highest score was the one who paid the most attention during the simulation. “She’s the person we’d like to clone for a boring, low-workload environment,” Cummings said.
The next-best performers were distracted a whopping 30 percent of the time—either reading a book, getting up to find a snack, or checking their cellphones.
Is being an unmanned aerial vehicle operator that bad? According to CareerCast.com, the worst job of 2012 is lumberjack, followed by dairy farmer and—wait for it—enlisted military soldier. Other hellish jobs include newspaper reporter, meter reader, and conservationist.
In the MIT experiment, participants were asked to rank their personality traits, including extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Top performers ranked “conscientiousness” as their strong trait. Sounds good, right? Maybe not. “You could have a Catch-22,” says Cummings. “If you’re high on conscientiousness, you might be good to watch a nuclear reactor, but whether these same people would be effective in such military settings is unclear.”
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