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.
May 3, 2013
Odds are that every person reading these words has flown somewhere, at some time, on a Boeing 747. It doesn’t have a snazzy name like Dreamliner or Stratocruiser, as do other Boeing products, current and historic. But, with its characteristic fore-fuselage hump, which exists for delightfully non-aerodynamic reasons, it is probably the most recognizable airliner in the world.
Last week, the National Air and Space Museum recognized the man who led the design of the 747 with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Joe Sutter, who retired in 1986 after more than 40 years at Boeing, helped design six of the company’s 7×7 series of airliners. Sutter took the occasion as an opportunity to urge educators to inspire the youngest students in schools to pursue careers in the areas of engineering, math, and science so that, like him, “they can stand back and see the results of their efforts, and feel a sense of accomplishment.” As the 747 project engineer, Sutter led a team of 4,500, so he knows a thing or two about leadership. During his remarks, he told the audience about a leader who had inspired him: Theodore Roosevelt. Here’s what he had to say:
“I first heard of [Theodore Roosevelt] because he was leading a group of cavalry during the Spanish-American War. He got on his white charger and gave a resounding cheer and told his people to follow him. And his charge up San Juan Hill was so impressive that the opposition dropped their guns and fled. As a young man, I had the impression that he won that war all by himself. Roosevelt’s actions helped me believe I could do something worthwhile as well.”
In his book 747, Sutter reveals the hard-fought conflicts and company politics that his team had to overcome to get the 747 into production. He ended his acceptance speech with this quote from Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither defeat nor victory.”
April 25, 2013
As early as 1919, airlines in Europe hired attendants—all male—to serve passengers during flights. But it wasn’t until 1926 that Stout Air Services in the United States engaged stewards for its service between Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over the next few years, the in-flight attendant job was deemed best suited for female nurses. As Victoria Vantoch writes in her new book The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), the decision was influenced by the family of William Patterson, a vice president at Boeing. Patterson’s wife and children, says Vantoch, always got airsick when traveling: “My mother and I didn’t want young boys holding our hair when we got sick—no customer wanted that—so we told my dad to hire women instead,” recalls Patricia, Patterson’s daughter.
When the DC-3 arrived six years later, Vantoch writes, passenger miles increased 600 percent between 1931 and 1941. With the DC-3, “the airline industry began to focus on passenger service and the stewardess was catapulted to new importance,” and the number of flight attendants rose from below 400 to 1,000.
By the mid-1940s, “stewardess candidates had to be twenty-one to twenty-eight years old,” writes Vantoch, “unmarried, 5’3″ to 5’6″ tall, no more than 125 pounds, with good posture and an ‘attractive appearance,’ and preferably with some college education.” (The nursing requirement had been dropped because nurses were required for the war effort and could not be spared for airline service.) “Stewardess training was also arduous,” notes Vantoch, “with strict rules, fifty subjects (including flight physics, emergency procedures, radio navigation, and meteorology), and a series of intense exams.”
The transformation of the stewardess from all-American girl next door to a sexier image, was largely the work of the Burnett advertising agency, which won the United account in 1965, and Mary Wells, the advertising director of Braniff Airlines. Leo Burnett’s team realized that young consumers were an emerging market—and appropriating aspects of the 1960s counter-culture “could help market United to older Americans who still wanted to feel young and hip.” At the same time that the Burnett agency was struggling with its campaign, Branniff kicked off its “Air Strip” television ad, in which a stewardess slowly removed pieces of her Pucci uniform during the flight. Shortly after, United’s ads promised consumers that stewardesses would “go all out to please you!” The sexual revolution had infiltrated the airlines, and other carriers soon modified their images as well.
April 23, 2013
German photographer Dietmar Eckell is drawn to abandoned objects: neglected railroad tracks, stranded ships, detritus from past Olympic Games. His latest project, titled Happy End, documents aircraft wreckage—but only from accidents where everyone on board survived.
The photograph above, the last image in the series, shows a B-24 that crashed in Papua New Guinea during World War II. “I wanted a warbird in the jungle with a miracle story,” Eckell wrote in an email, “and always loved the stories of the Pacific wrecks, so I started looking in Papua New Guinea.” According to his information, all nine crew members on board survived the crash.
The Douglas C-47 above was the first aircraft Eckell documented during the two-year project. “I’ve been there [Yukon Territory, Canada] twice already, and next time I want to go back in February, as the crash happened in February 1950. The pilot walked all the way to the Alaskan Highway to get help.”
Eckell asks local pilots to help pinpoint exact locations and provide story details, and he searches for information in local archives. “I [was originally] inspired by paintings of shipwrecks in the romantic period,” he writes. “But soon I got hooked on these planes and stories, and it was like a pilgrimage to ‘wonders’ around the world.”
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