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.
March 1, 2013
Remember the final scene in Thunderball? After foiling a nuclear attack, 007 (Sean Connery) and femme fatale Domino (Claudine Auger) are hauled on board a passing B-17 by the Fulton Skyhook system. The aerial retrieval system consisted of a package that could be dropped to a person on the ground, who would don a harness attached to a 500-foot line. A balloon, inflated with a portable helium bottle, raised the line to its full height.
A pickup aircraft (note the “horns” on the nose) would then fly directly at the line, aiming at a marker placed at an altitude of 425 feet. As the line was caught on the forks, the balloon would release, and a spring-loaded mechanism would secure the line to the aircraft. The person was then winched up the line.
The first live test of Robert Fulton’s system was done with a pig, notes the CIA’s page on Fulton and Operation Coldfeet. “Lifted off the ground, the pig began to spin as it flew through the air at 125 mph. It arrived on board undamaged but in a disoriented state. Once it recovered, it attacked the crew.” (We aren’t surprised, are we?)
The National Air and Space Museum is in the process of conserving its Fulton Skyhook suit, which was donated to the Museum in 1972 by the U.S. Air Force. “Skyhook was meant to be universal,” says Steven Pickman, a conservator in the Museum’s Conservation Laboratory. “It fit any size adult, and was suitable for any environment.” When they first inspected the suit, the conservation team was alarmed by a white material on its surface. The haze wasn’t mold or salt efflorescence, and, in fact, wasn’t harmful at all, so the team just added storage supports and left the suit alone.
The Fulton manual notes that “The effect of the induced acceleration forces on the human body due to the aerial pickup by this system has been carefully evaluated. The recorded accelerations, from numerous tests, have ranged from 4.5 Gs to 10.2 Gs with a mean value of 5.5 Gs.” While the system was capable—in theory—of rescuing three 200-pound men at one time, the manual points out that “Since the feasibility of multiple pickups has only been proven with animals at this time, it is judged that multiple pickups of human beings will not normally be used until thoroughly tested.”
February 4, 2013
The aviation inspection checklist seems to go on forever. There are more than 40 items to evaluate on the catapult list alone. Add another 39 for the arresting gear systems, and you still won’t have completed even one page of the nine-page spreadsheet. But it’s all in a day’s work for members of the Inspection and Survey team, who inspect all of the U.S. Navy’s ships and reports on their readiness. The system was put in place by Congress 130 years ago, and last month the U.S. Navy announced major changes to its ship inspection program.
Ships used to be inspected every five years; now they’ll be evaluated every 30 months. The inspections are critical: In the past, reports the Navy Times, commanding officers have been relieved of duty if their ship failed to pass. In 2010, the cruiser Philippine Sea and the frigate Nicholas failed inspection. In 2011, the cruiser Mobile Bay failed; Rear Admiral Rob Wray, president of the Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) noted “severe problems with engines, missiles, guns, links, comms and aviation.”
We asked Captain Kris Croeber, director of external operations on the Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) to explain how inspectors—the Board has around 60 of them—evaluate a ship. Croeber, who has been an INSURV inspector for three years, spoke to us by email last month.
A&S: How long is the training, and what does it consist of?
Croeber: The most important part of the training of an INSURV inspector is the years of maintenance and operational experience a member brings to the board; our inspectors arrive at the board with an average of over 20 years of experience. The training for a newly reported inspector includes required reading (instructions, references, and navy technical standards) and several under instruction (UI) inspections: this is on-the-job training that includes pairing up with a qualified inspector. The average training time is 3 months, but that depends on the experience the member arrives with and how long it takes the new member to gain the required proficiency.
A&S: How long does an inspection take, and how many inspectors evaluate each ship?
Croeber: A typical inspection will take 5 work days and is completed by a team of 15 to 25 uniformed inspectors and approximately 40 technical assistants (depending on the ship size and installed systems); a CVN [nuclear aircraft carrier] or LHD/LHA [amphibious assault ships] will be about double that. Inspectors with qualifications and experience in each particular area of a ship will inspect their portion and a qualified senior inspector (a captain with significant experience at sea) will compile all the data from the individual functional areas and pull it all together.
A&S: When you inspect an aircraft carrier, what are you looking for on the flight deck, the hangar bay, etc.?
Croeber: We inspect all installed equipment aboard the ship. For an aircraft carrier, we are not just inspecting the aviation aspects. Everything from propulsion to habitability to combat systems is inspected. From an aviation aspect, the operation and material condition of everything on the flight deck and hangar bay (catapults, arresting gear, visual landing aides, fuel systems, firefighting, electrical power, elevators, etc.) must support uninhibited flight operations. The crew operates their equipment to demonstrate it based on standard operating procedures…. We observe as the crew conducts the equipment checks.
A&S: How many inspections do you complete in a year?
Croeber: Each inspector completes an average of approximately 20 inspections a year.
A&S: What’s the most difficult part of the job?
Croeber: Telling a ship’s crew that even though they have worked hard, certain systems or equipment do not meet the Navy’s material readiness standards. We have to give the crew and their chain of command the unvarnished truth, but sometimes that can be unpleasant. On the other hand, in the pursuit of determining the unvarnished truth, there are many instances that we are able to help the inspected ship. For example, by noting issues that pertain to Integrated Logistics Support, or other issues, the ship can then use this information to more easily correct the equipment that is not performing to standards.
A&S: What’s the most rewarding aspect?
Croeber: The opportunity to share my knowledge and experience of a 27-year career with young sailors to help them do their jobs better and prepare their ship for combat.
January 11, 2013
As the U.S. government was gearing up to send the first man into space in the 1950s, questions abounded as to how people would survive in this foreign environment: What kind of vehicle would best protect them? How should environmental controls be configured? Will people even survive the radiation levels, unprotected by the Earth’s atmosphere?
One way to prepare for the journey was to send biological material — plants and animals — to near-space on a balloon, with various instruments, and measure the effects. In 1955, doctor and writer Webb Haymaker followed around a Navy crew as they launched balloons from Minnesota and raced to recover the live payloads. He published the account in what was likely one of the more exciting articles to appear in the journal Military Medicine.
“Operation Stratomouse,” as Haymaker dubbed it, began with the biggest foil of balloon launches: the weather. The many last-minute “no-gos” finally started to turn the anxious crew members against each other. “Once, after a favorable forecast had ushered in utterly impossible weather, and a crew member had remarked that ‘that crowd of parasitic bandits over in the weather station ought to be sent up in one of the balloons,’ [launching chief Ed] Lewis squelched him by commenting quietly that he would be dispatching them in the wrong direction!”
Mice, those perennial lab creatures, were among the payloads to be studied for any effect from cosmic rays. Project lead Otto Winzen noted that although they had “sent balloons up for many purposes, even some with rockets dangling from them which are fired into the upper stratosphere when the balloons reach 80,000 feet… the flights to come have a particular significance because of their living cargoes.”
And those living cargoes required special packing:
They were in a flat wire mesh cage, each in its own compartment, gnawing away on pieces of raw potato, which would quench their thirst on the long cruise. The cage was placed on the platform which covers the lower hemisphere of the gondola. Then the two hemispheres were sealed airtight by means of 134 bolts and nuts, and around the sphere went a thick shell of insulating plastic and over that a layer of shiny aluminum foil to reflect the sun’s rays. The oxygen tanks were strapped into place, and filled to capacity. The gondola purred from the vibration of its cooling fans like something alive.
While certainly risky for the near-space-traveling mice, it wasn’t always a safe venture for the human crew, either.
[Balloon] Evelyn A leaped skyward, giving off an agonizing, crashing, echoing sound. As she moved swiftly in the direction of the truck, a gust of wind caused her to hesitate; her long nylon rope then lashed out to one side in an undulating movement as though it were a whip being cracked. Agile little Herk Ballman, standing at the level of the beacon, just managed to jump out of its way. An old hand at balloon launching, he had always been successful at outwitting a rampaging balloon. His close call brought to mind a launching in Europe in which one crewman had had his scalp ripped from one end to the other by a rising gondola, and another his forearm mangled and his shoulder dislocated by a swerving nylon rope which had momentarily looped itself around his arm.
Once aloft, the 175 foot-diameter balloon was quite the sight:
“There’s something eloquent about a gigantic balloon when being launched, whether it slips away tranquilly into the unknown or goes charging forward like an enraged elephant,” Winzen went on to say. “Each has a personality of its own and every one is a solo performer. From where I stand on the launch platform, I can catch from one balloon the satiny swish of a wedding gown as a breeze twists it, and from another the full resilience of a four-master after it has lurched suddenly before a gust of wind.”
The team had a C-47 at their disposal to chase the balloon, which would travel hundreds of miles away, giving the gondola payload extended exposure to near-space. Meanwhile, calls of flying saucer sightings came pouring in to newspapers and even the FBI as the balloon floated over farms and nearby towns. But Haymaker was taken with the romance of the sight:
Brilliantly lighted by the setting sun, she looks like the evening star. A little later, having taken on a harvest moon hue, she is outshone by Venus. A pity that she is expendable! Tomorrow, after she has accomplished her noble mission, a segment of her wall will be ripped out by a line attached to the top of the falling parachute, and she will wallow and sink, like a harpooned whale, and ultimately be found in farmers’ refrigerators, reduced to vegetable bags.
The Navy boys were just as excited, but less moony-eyed, as one sergeant observed “that she is ’tighter’n a bullfighter’s pants,’ and should be belching off some gas soon.” Eventually, the gondolas were cut from the balloons and parachuted to the ground, where the crew frantically searched for it before time — that is, the oxygen — ran out. “They are looking for congregations of cows, who are curious about gondolas, and for a line-up of cars along a road, for farmers, too, take advantage of extraordinary diversions such as this.”
Sometimes it was good news, such as when the gondola from Evelyn A was recovered: “There they were, all 60 mice cocking their eyes at the warden and me as though asking for food.” Other times, it was total loss, such as when the gondola on Emma V didn’t sever properly, the payload clinging on far too long for the animals to survive. Emma V continued on its flight, making newspapers around the region as the crew tried anything to get it down:
Our Emma V was described as an unruly giant. The following morning the account was continued, the caption reading, ”Balloon Dips But Evades Plane Guns”… On the fifth morning there was this surprising announcement: ”Wandering Balloon is First Satellite.” The Emma V was sighted over Bathhurst, New Brunswick, and was headed over the Atlantic for ”a high-altitude European tour.”
Haymaker grandly concluded his story about the ballooners, championing their role in future spaceflight:
Up there, in the as yet hostile and forbidding fringes of space, where it is always night, the ubiquitous mouse has gained a foothold. Before man can do likewise, or, indeed, pierce the stratosphere and travel through the black unknown beyond, he will continue to need balloon-borne animals as forerunners-unless, per chance, man himself is willing to serve as “guinea pig” for his fellowman.
December 18, 2012
When World War II broke out, Britain was gripped by “Fifth Column Neurosis,” an almost universal belief that the country was riddled with enemy spies, not all of them human. Ben MacIntyre writes in the wonderful Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Crown, 2012), “When six cows stampeded on the tiny island of Eilean Mor in the Scottish Hebrides, this was immediately ascribed to secret enemy activity. That the spies were invisible was merely proof of how fiendishly clever they were at disguising themselves. Even pigeons were suspect, since it was widely believed that enemy agents had secret caches of homing pigeons around the country that they used to send messages back to Germany.”
Pigeon paranoia was actually a logical response. More than 100,000 pigeons flew missions in World War I, including the heroic Cher Ami, a Black Check cock carrier pigeon, part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France. Cher Ami delivered 12 important messages within the American sector at Verdun. On his last mission, on October 4, 1918, he was shot through the breast and leg, but still managed to deliver his message—which saved 194 troops of Major Charles S. Whittlesey’s “Lost Battalion.”
During World War II, some 250,000 pigeons were deployed by the British, part of a special section of MI5 headed by Flight Lieutenant Richard Melville Walker. Walker was convinced, says author MacIntyre, “that Nazi pigeons were…pouring into Britain, by parachute, high-speed motor launch, and by U-boat.” The anti-avian frenzy was so extreme that “Some experts claimed to be able to identify a pigeon with a German ‘accent.’ ”
“Animal-based espionage and sabotage was all the rage among Allied plotters,” explains MacIntyre. British Special Operations Executive agents stuffed dead rats with explosives, while the Americans worked on a plan to attack Japan using Mexican bats carrying incendiaries. But Flight Lieutenant Walker, who “flourished in that gray area between ingenuity and insanity,” says MacIntyre, gets top honors for his Pigeon Contamination Plan.
Walker disguised hundreds of British pigeons as German pigeons (by decking them out with forged leg rings and counterfeit German wing markings), and sent them off to infiltrate and take down the German war machine from within. The plan was a bust, says MacIntyre: “The Germans never detected the double-agent pigeons in their midst.”
Avian spies are still among us. In May 2010, police in Punjab, India, arrested a pigeon believed to be spying for Pakistan. (The bird was kept under armed guard in a special air-conditioned room and refused visitors.) In January 2011, Saudi Arabian officials detained a vulture, stating it was an unwitting Mossad operative. And on December 10, 2012, Sudanese officials in the Darfur region of Sudan arrested a vulture, alleging it was on a surveillance mission for Israel. (The bird’s leg tag was marked “Israel Nature Service” and “Hebrew University, Jerusalem.”)
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