July 10, 2013
Anyone with a passing interest in World War II aviation was disappointed to learn that a treasure trove of Supermarine Spitfires, thought to have been buried in their shipping crates at a Royal Air Force base in Burma (today known as Myanmar) was only a dream.
Certainly no one was more disappointed than David Cundall, a 62-year-old farmer from Lincolnshire, England, who had searched for the airplanes for 16 years and come to the conclusion that they could be found near Burma International Airport, which, during World War II, was the site of RAF Mingaladon. Cundall had heard from veterans of the U.S. Navy Seabees that the Spitfires had been buried, and he still believes they are in Myanmar somewhere. But after a careful excavation of the Mingaladon site—careful, among other reasons, because it was the site of combat during World War II and coming upon unexploded ordnance, whether through archaeology or just dumb luck, ends badly—a group of scientists funded by online game developer Wargaming announced last January: No Spitfires here.
Last month Wargaming’s director of special projects, Tracy Spaight, organized a presentation of the group’s findings at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in North London. Here is a video brief of the evidence presented by the team of archaeologists and geophysicsts who traveled to Myanmar to search.
June 17, 2013
For those of you who’ve been asking when Air & Space will be available for the iPad, the wait is over.
Our June/July issue, the first produced in tablet as well as print format, is now in the app store. It’s free to Air & Space print subscribers; readers who prefer digital-only access can subscribe for $1.99 a month, or buy a single issue for $3.99.
With the tablet edition, you’ll be able to do more than read about aviation and space travel. You can watch videos, explore interactive graphics, and see more photos than we can fit in the print version — some of which let you examine an object from all angles and zoom in to see details.
We’re looking forward to using these new tools to tell stories about our favorite subject, and hope you are too. Welcome aboard.
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.
May 10, 2013
Their name originally was Loughead, Scottish for “lake’s head.” We know them today as the Lockheed brothers, Allan and Malcolm, who in 1912 founded what became one of the world’s biggest aerospace companies. Allan, the younger brother, had taught himself to fly two years earlier in a Curtiss pusher airplane — the kind of daring common among that pioneering generation of aviators.
For the sons of Flora Loughead, risk-taking was nothing unusual, because she herself may have been the most adventurous member of the family.
Born Flora Haines in 1855, she took the name of her second husband, John Loughead, at the age of 30, and within three years gave birth to Malcolm and Alan. She was no stay-at-home housewife, living vicariously through her kids. As Lockheed biographer Walter Boyne sums up, “She was a journalist, married three times, had five children by two husbands, worked her own mining claims, farmed thirty-five acres, wrote many articles and more than a dozen books, taught her children at home, and in general behaved in a manner that would be widely applauded today but was unheard of at the time.”
As a newspaper reporter, she covered everything from bicycle races to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and as an author she wrote both fiction and nonfiction books. You can read some of them here.
Flora wasn’t, however, the one who got her boys interested in aviation. That was eldest son Victor, who wrote (in 1910 as Victor Lougheed), Vehicles of the Air.
Always independent and a little cheeky, Flora wrote — at a time when her future aviators were just five and two years old — a book that any modern parent can relate to: Quick Cooking: A Book of Culinary Heresies for the Busy Wives and Mothers of the Land. It was signed “By One of the Heretics.”
April 29, 2013
They’re small, secretive, nocturnal, and look creepy hanging upside down in caves. And at one point during World War II, they were recruited as potential killing machines.
Yep, bats as weapons of mass destruction.
“A plan to turn millions of bats into suicide bombers bearing tiny napalm time bombs was the most spectacular of the special projects at Louis Fieser’s Harvard laboratory,” writes Robert M. Neer in his new book, Napalm: An American Biography.
The project was the brainchild of Lytle Adams, a Pennsylvania dentist with a passionate hatred of the misunderstood Chiroptera.
The “lowest form of life is the BAT, associated in history with the underworld and regions of darkness and evil,” Adams wrote in a 1942 memo to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Until now reasons for its creation have remained unexplained. As I vision it the millions of bats that have for ages inhabited our belfries, tunnels and caverns were placed there by God to await this hour to play their part in the scheme of free human existence, and to frustrate any attempt of those who dare to desecrate our way of life.”
Seems a tad harsh, no?
The bats were to be loaded with a tiny (17.5 gram) napalm bomb, stuffed into a North American B-25, and flown over Japan. Upon reaching the target, 26,000 angry bats would be tossed out of the aircraft (they had parachutes), and would land upon highly flammable Japanese houses.
A test run over Carlsbad Auxiliary Army Air Field, New Mexico, with bats bearing dummy bombs went surprisingly well.
Fieser and his team, however, wanted to have the test filmed, so a second trial was set, using six bats with armed bombs.
Unexpectedly, the bats took off, and shortly after, the barracks burst into flames. “Flames…jumped from building to building,” writes Neer. “Many structures lay in ashes.”
“Unfortunately,” he writes, “to preserve secrecy…the team had deemed fire equipment unnecessary.” In a masterpiece of understatement, Fieser summed up the experiment: “We made a little mistake out there.”
And that was the end of the bomber bats.
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