April 1, 2013
Ah, the romance of the airship. With its advent, passengers could finally be transported over great distances in comfort—even luxury. “On a plane you fly, but on the Graf Zeppelin you voyage,” remarked one pampered passenger. (For the Graf Zeppelin‘s first transatlantic flight, besotted crowds of 50,000 or more awaited its arrival at the landing field at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1928, even though it was delayed a day due to bad weather. Millions more watched as the airship slowly made its way up the East Coast, floating over Washington, D.C., past Baltimore and above New York City.) The airship experience, however, didn’t come cheap. In 1928, a round trip transatlantic ticket went for $3,000, worth about $40,000 in today’s dollars.
But what about the photograph shown here? The New York Times reports that in 1929, “Alfred E. Smith, the leader of a group of investors erecting the Empire State Building,” announced that the height of the building would be increased by 200 feet so that a mooring mast for dirigibles could be installed. Smith noted that passengers would exit the airship down a gangplank, and a mere seven minutes later could be on the street, ready to experience everything Manhattan had to offer.
Dr. Hugo Eckener, the commander of the Graf Zeppelin, reports the New York Times, dismissed the project as impractical, noting that dirigible landings required dozens of ground crew, not to mention plenty of rope. “[T]he notion that passengers would be able to descend an airport-style ramp from a moving airship to the tip of the tallest building in the world, even in excellent conditions, beggars belief,” notes the Times.
In 1930, International News Photos distributed this manipulated photograph. At the time, no airship had docked at the Empire State Building. That didn’t happen until September 1931, when a privately-owned dirigible docked for a mere three minutes, in a 40-mile-per-hour wind. “Traffic was tied up in the streets below for more than a half hour as the pilot, Lieutenant William McCraken jockeyed for position in the half gale about the tower 1,200 feet above the ground,” the Times reported in 1931.
This image—and 200 others—are on display at the National Gallery of Art in the exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop.” The exhibition runs through May 5, 2013.
November 21, 2012
Two months ago, on a flight from Brisbane to Melbourne, Australia, a crocodile got loose in the cargo hold of a Qantas aircraft. “The animal was quickly and safely secured when the aircraft arrived in Melbourne,” a Qantas spokesman told The Australian.
It’s not the first time a croc flew. Two years before that, a crocodile—carried on board in a large duffel bag—allegedly escaped on a Filair flight from Kinshasa to Bandundu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Pandemonium ensued,” reported msnbc.com. The Let L-410 Turbolet crashed, killing 20 on board. (The croc escaped, but was killed by ground crew.)
The earliest reference we can find of crocodilians becoming airborne dates to 1929. Yoav Di-Capua writes (in the summer 2008 issue of the Journal of Social History), “[I]n 1929, at the age of thirty, a bored employee at Bank Misr named Muhammad Sidqi decided to replace his wooden office chair with a posh leather seat in an airplane cockpit. Resigning his position, he enrolled in a German aviation school. A few months later…he purchased a modest monoplane with a 45-hp. engine and an overall weight of less than 250kg. With the enthusiastic cooperation of the Egyptian authorities, on December 15th he left from Berlin, and, via Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Venice and Malta, made his way to Libya. With him in the cockpit was a small crocodile that was presented to him in Berlin as a gift for the Cairo Zoological Gardens.”
On January 26, 1930, thousands of people — including the Egyptian Prime Minister — gathered to watch Sidqi land on a Cairo airstrip. The mob swarmed the rickety aircraft as it landed, and triumphantly carried the newly minted pilot through the Cairo streets. The next day the newspapers covered Sidqi’s feat, but “Not a word was written on the fate of the small crocodile that had bravely accompanied Sidqi on his perilous journey back home,” notes Di-Capua.
October 19, 2012
For a pilot delivering airmail in the early 1920s, navigation “technology” consisted of leaning out of the cockpit and using the landscape to find the way. “Follow the tracks of the Long Island Railroad past Belmont Park race track,” read the 1921 U.S. Air Mail Service Pilots’ Directions from Long Island to Cleveland. “Cross New York over the lower end of Central Park.” Even after radio navigation aids were introduced in the late 1920s, pilots still used landmarks to complete their trips.
The arrow with the figure “9″ (above), according to National Air and Space Museum records, indicates the mileage and direction to the nearest airport, in this case, Grand Central. The official Department of Commerce sprocket-shaped marker (with a center star) signified that approved accommodations and services could be had at the airport indicated by the arrow.
In the photograph above, taken in Massachusetts, the “C” in the circle with arrow and numeral “3″ gives the direction and distance to the nearest airfield.
“By 1941, some 13,000 marks had been painted on barns, hangars, skyscrapers, oil tanks, and train stations,” Roger Mola wrote for us in “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” “Though federal aviation agencies regulated every aspect of letter size (10 to 30 feet tall) to paint (Chrome Yellow Number 4 on a black background) to distance between markers (one every 15 miles was the goal), they never lifted a brush,” writes Mola. “Labor came from the Works Progress Administration, the Civil Air Patrol, the Civilian Conservation Corps, civic volunteers, scouting organizations, and the Ninety-Nines organization of women pilots.”
Landscape markers were so common that their histories were sometimes conflated with other scenic features, such as giant hillside letters. As Guy Rocha, former Nevada State Archivist, wrote in 2004, “The folklore is that the hillside letters found principally throughout the American west were created to help early 20th-century airplane pilots navigate and identify communities, presumably when the aviators could see the letters during daylight hours, with good weather, and no snow cover. The truth is the hillside letters are first and foremost symbols of school and community pride dating back to 1905. Early-day pilots found the hillside letters useful at times; however, any aeronautical value associated with the school and community letters came after the fact.”
Berkeley’s 70-foot-high “Big C,” notes James J. Parsons in Landscape, “[W]as built by the freshman and sophomore classes over two rainy days in the spring of 1905 and finished in time for official recognition at the annual Charter Day celebration. The traditional brawl between the two classes had degenerated into something close to guerrilla warfare, a kind of primal savagery known as ‘the rush’ that was likened by one contemporary to Anglo-Saxon raids on the British coast…. In a well-publicized truce, the classes…agreed to devote their energies to constructing a masonry C on the steep, grassy slope behind the campus.”
October 5, 2012
The odds of you being killed in an airplane crash, dear reader, are a million to one. But that didn’t stop the Discovery Channel from loading a 727 with a dazzling array of sensors and crashing it into the Mexican desert, all in the name of science. The results of the experiment will be aired this Sunday, October 7, as the season premiere of “Curiosity.”
Among other things, the filmmakers wanted to determine if there was anything a passenger could do to improve his or her odds of surviving. Where should you sit? Does bracing help, or is that an old wives’ tale? Crash-test dummies (which cost $150,000 each and provide 32 different types of data) were placed throughout the aircraft. Some were set in the brace position, while others were seated upright. “Low-tech dummies” were also used, either buckled into their seats, or seated without restraints.
An experiment on this scale, notes the film, has been tried only once before. In 1984, NASA spent millions crashing a Boeing 720 into Rogers Dry Lake in the California desert. But the aircraft lost control on the final approach and burst into flames after crashing—not good for collecting data. (The experiment was part of a joint research project between NASA and the FAA to test the effectiveness of a fire-suppressing fuel additive.)
Watch a clip from the show, below:
September 14, 2012
After recovering from wounds he received as an ambulance corps volunteer during World War I, Ernest Hemingway married Hadley Richardson in 1921. The following year the couple moved to Paris, where Ernest was the foreign correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star. The newspaper ran the following piece on September 9, 1922. (Reprinted in Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight, edited by Joseph J. Corn, 2011).
Strasburg, France, Aug. 23. — We were sitting in the cheapest of all the cheap restaurants that cheapen that very cheap and noisy street, the Rue des Petits Champs in Paris.
We were Mrs. Hemingway, William E. Nash, Mr. Nash’s little brother, and myself. Mr. Nash announced, somewhere between the lobster and the fried sole, that he was going to Munich the next day and was planning to fly from Paris to Strasburg. Mrs. Hemingway pondered this until the appearance of the rognons sautés aux champignons, when she asked, “Why don’t we ever fly anywhere? Why is everybody else always flying and we always staying home?”
That being one of those questions that cannot be answered by words, I went with Mr. Nash to the office of the Franco-Rumanian Aero Company and bought two tickets, half price for journalists, for 120 francs, good for one flight from Paris to Strasburg. The trip is ten hours and a half by best express train, and takes two hours and a half by plane.
My natural gloom at the prospect of flying, having flown once, was deepened when I learned that we flew over the Vosges mountains and would have to be at the offices of the company, just off the Avenue de l’Opera, at five o’clock in the morning….
The Nashes were waiting at the office for us…. The four of us rode out to Le Bourget, the ugliest ride in Paris, in a big limousine and had some more coffee in a shed there outside the flying field. A Frenchman in an oily jumper took our tickets, tore them in two and told us we were going in two different planes. Out of the window of the shed we could see them standing, small, silver-painted, taut and shining in the early morning sun in front of the airdrome. We were the only passengers.
Our suitcase was stowed aboard under a seat beside the pilot’s place. We climbed up a couple of steps into a stuffy little cabin and the mechanic handed us some cotton for our ears and locked the door. The pilot climbed into his seat back of the enclosed cock-pit where we sat, a mechanic pulled down on the propeller and the engine began to roar. I looked around at the pilot. He was a short little man, his cap backwards on his head, wearing an oil stained sheep-skin coat and big gloves. Then the plane began to move along the ground, bumping like a motorcycle, and then slowly rose into the air.
We headed almost straight east of Paris, rising in the air as though we were sitting inside a boat that was being lifted slowly by some giant, and the ground began to flatten out beneath us. It looked cut into brown squares, yellow squares, green squares and big flat blotches of green where there was a forest. I began to understand cubist painting.
Sometimes we came down quite low and could see bicyclists on the road looking like pennies rolling along a narrow, white strip…. We went over great forests that looked as soft as velvet, passed over Bar le Duc and Nancy, gray red-roofed towns, over St. Mihiel and the front and in an open field I could see the old trenches zig-zagging through a field pocked with shell holes. I shouted to Mrs. Hemingway to look but she didn’t hear me. Her chin was sunk forward into the collar of her new fur coat that she had wanted to christen with a plane trip. She was sound asleep.
You can read more about Hemingway’s aviation adventures in “Who Was Fatty Pearson?” in our October/November issue (on newsstands and posted to this site next week).
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