With all the activities going on lately about World War II aircraft, I’d like to tell the story of Russian naval pilot Alexander de Seversky, that country’s top naval ace in World War I, who later became one of the most influential proponents of the use of strategic air power in warfare — and Disney film star — in the United States.
De Seversky was born in Triflis, Russia on June 7, 1894, to an aristocratic family. He learned how to fly by age 14 from his father who owned one of the first airplanes in Russia. De Seversky earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Imperial Russian Naval Academy in 1914 — at the outbreak of World War I — and became a second lieutenant in the Imperial Naval Air Service the following year.
The first time de Seversky saw combat, he was shot down, losing his lower right leg in the process, but due to his grit and determination he was flying once again a year later, assigned to the Baltic fleet. His luck greatly improved, and during 57 missions de Seversky downed 13 German fighters, making him Russia’s top naval ace. He was awarded the highest honors his country could confer.
In 1918, de Seversky went to the United States as an assistant naval attaché to the Russian Embassy. This was a fortuitous assignment, as it gave him the chance to escape the Bolshevik Revolution by remaining in the U.S. Soon, he was working at the War Department as an aeronautical engineer and test pilot, acting for a time as a special consultant to the famed general, Billy Mitchell, with whom he agreed that supremacy in wartime could be achieved with aerial bombing, not battleships. This was de Seversky’s credo for his entire life.
After becoming a U.S. citizen in 1927, de Seversky received a commission in the Army Air Corps as a major.
De Seversky made numerous contributions to aviation. He filed a patent for aerial refueling in 1921 and developed the first bombsight stabilized with a gyroscope, and invented many other aeronautical instruments. He started an aircraft company and helped design and test his aircraft himself. De Seversky and his design team, headed by Alexander Kartveli, were responsible for the following innovative aircraft:
Although de Seversky was a design visionary and his company’s greatest salesman, his management skills were lacking and he was forced out when the company was reorganized as Republic Aviation Corporation in 1939. De Seversky then turned to writing, lecturing, and advising, becoming a leading expert on the strategy of aerial warfare. A flamboyant character, he was well-suited to public appearances and often acted as an expert commentator on television and in documentaries.
One of his most conspicuous achievements was the 1942 publication of his first book, Victory Through Air Power, which became a bestseller and a movie. Coming on the heels of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the book’s theme caught the eye of Walt Disney, who believed so strongly in it he financed a movie also called Victory Through Air Power. The two shared a common goal — to awaken the allies to the need for the greater use of strategic air power to combat Germany’s and Japan’s advances. While the first half of the movie is animated, de Seversky appears during the latter half and explains his theory in a multimedia presentation. You can watch the entire film, Victory Through Air Power, with an informative introduction by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, on YouTube.
For his efforts and commitment to the issue of the superiority of aerial bombardment, President Harry Truman presented de Seversky with the Medal of Merit.
De Seversky received many other honors in his adopted country, adding to his long list of Russian awards: the Sports Pilots Association Trophy in 1933, the International Harmon Trophy in 1939 and 1947, the General William E. Mitchell Memorial Award in 1962, and the Exceptional Service Award from the United States Air Force in 1969.
He was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1970 for “his achievements as a pilot, aeronautical engineer, inventor, industrialist, author, strategist, consultant, and scientific advances in aircraft design and aerospace technology.”
De Seversky was married to New Orleans socialite Evelyn Olliphant, who was also well-known as a pilot. She, in fact, learned to fly as a surprise for her husband, and the two of them flew on many trips together. De Seversky died on August 24, 1974.
Watch de Seversky explain his views in this 1957 interview with future 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace.
Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum.
In the morning hours, before the National Air and Space Museum opens to the public, I’m often in the galleries going about my work among some of the great aviation treasures of the world. At every turn there is an airplane that left its mark on history or pointed the way to the future. It’s an inspiring setting. History’s ghosts swirl in your imagination. But, as rich as this experience is, there are times, alone in the quiet of the Museum, that I cannot help but imagine what it would be like to see these airplanes come back to life—to experience the sights and sounds of these world-changing machines before they became silent milestones of history in the Museum. An opportunity to do just that will occur on May 8, 2015, over Washington, DC. During the noon hour on that day, the 70th anniversary of VE-Day, the Arsenal of Democracy: World War II Victory Capitol Flyover will bring more than 50 World War II aircraft over the nation’s capital. In 15 separate formations, representing key battles or moments in World War II, a spectacular gathering of original warbirds will fly over the city to honor the men and women who served our nation during that critical time in history, and made a vital contribution to the Allied victory. Representing the millions who served in the air, on the ground, and at home in America building the tools our servicemen took to battle, several hundred World War II veterans will be assembled at the National World War II Memorial on the Mall to witness the flyover. It will be a special moment for them to remember, and an important moment for the rest of us to recognize what they did and sacrificed to preserve the society we freely share today. In the spirit of the flyover, the Museum has created a special online audio gallery with curator talks, historic news reports, and music of the 1940s.
Of course, the airplanes participating in the flyover are not from the Museum’s collection. These specimens do not fly anymore. They have been preserved for posterity. The Museum’s World War II aircraft collection is among the finest in the world. We owe a debt of gratitude to General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. After the war, he gathered and set aside the core of this collection with the goal of creating a national air museum, which was soon realized with the passage of the National Air Museum Act in 1946, establishing the forerunner of today’s National Air and Space Museum. The Museum’s mission is to preserve historic aircraft and make them accessible to the public. As our goal is to conserve as much originality as possible and ensure the indefinite preservation of these aviation treasures, it necessitates that our collection remain static and preserved in a museum environment. However, the flyover is a marvelous opportunity to partner with organizations and individuals who maintain historic aircraft to fly, bringing to life the sights and sounds of these airplanes that were critical to our success in World War II. The common mission of the National Air and Space Museum and the groups participating in the flyover to preserve this heritage, in our complementary ways, will create a unique experience for the public. Through this event, the Museum and the flying aircraft will reinforce each other’s efforts to highlight the excitement and importance of commemorating World War II and the veterans who did so much for our nation. I spend most days caring for the collection within the walls of the Museum. On May 8, you can be sure I’ll be outside soaking up the excitement as the Arsenal of Democracy roars past the Museum. For those outside of Washington, DC, the Flyover will be webcast.
The honoring of our World War II veterans continues the Saturday, May 9, when more than 20 airplanes participating in the flyover will be on view, along with a range of public programs, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia for Fly-In to Victory Day: A Celebration of the End of World War II in Europe.
These events are all about recognizing those who served in and lived through World War II, those still with us and those who live in our memories. Please share a story of someone you know who lived during World War II and add to our collective memory of that pivotal era in our history.
Peter L. Jakab is chief curator at the National Air and Space Museum
The National Air and Space Museum Archives recently had the honor of receiving the Arthur C. Clarke Collection. My colleague, space history curator Martin Collins, recently wrote a post about the importance of these materials. As an acquisition archivist for the Museum, I accompanied Martin to Sri Lanka to pack up this historic collection and ensure its safe transfer to our care.
I have been the Museum’s acquisition archivist for almost 26 years, and during that time over 3,200 archival collections have been entrusted to us. Most of these materials have been personally delivered or shipped, but it has sometimes been necessary for me to travel to obtain a collection, whether to California, New York, or South Dakota. Sri Lanka has certainly been the furthest I’ve travelled for a collection.
While the distance was great and the overall size of the collection large (over 87 linear feet), the basic steps I needed to take to process the collection remained the same as projects closer to home:
1. Survey the collection.
2. Select the material to add to the Museum’s collection.
3. Create a box listing for the material.
4. Pack and arrange shipping.
From our conversations with the Arthur C. Clarke Trust, we knew that there were both artifacts and archival materials that were available for donation. Martin, as curator, reviewed all three-dimensional objects, while I reviewed the archival material.
Upon arriving at the Clarke home on December 1, 2014, I began by surveying the material. Most of the papers had been gathered in one room in a series of boxes on shelves and on the floor.
I set up my laptop beside the material and began to record the contents of the boxes and create a list of the materials I uncovered. While I created the box listing, I repacked the material into new shipping boxes provided by FedEx, who supported the trip and provided shipping.
When the surveying and packing of the collection was completed on December 9, the FedEx crew came and loaded more than 74 boxes into their truck. The boxes were then shipped from Colombo, Sri Lanka to our facility at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Quite fittingly the boxes arrived at our facility on December 16, the 97th anniversary of Clarke’s birth.
We were thrilled to receive this collection which we are now in the process of cataloging. We hope that it will be available to researchers later this year. Check back later this month as I will be posting a blog highlighting some of the fascinating material we have found in the collection.
Patti Williams is the acquisition archivist for the National Air and Space Museum.
Today, the MESSENGER spacecraft will succumb to the influence of gravity and impact on the surface of Mercury. Its last orbit correction maneuver was successfully executed on Tuesday, April 28– there’s nothing left in the fuel tank. I’ve been involved in the mission for more than a decade as a member of the science team and one of the team that tested and calibrated the Mercury Dual Imaging System cameras on the spacecraft.
How do I feel about the end of the MESSENGER mission? Of the planetary missions I’ve had the opportunity to be directly involved with, MESSENGER was the first. Although there’s no such thing as a run-of-the-mill planetary mission, MESSENGER is truly one for the record books. It was the first spacecraft to enter and operate in Mercury orbit where it has performed almost flawlessly for over four years. The images returned by the cameras were remarkable, and for the first time we saw the entire surface of Mercury at a level of detail that can only be captured from orbit. With the other instruments on MESSENGER, the topography, chemistry, gravity, magnetic field, and space environment of Mercury were all measured.
For someone like me who studies faults on Earth-like planets, it’s been an amazing experience. MESSENGER revealed the vastness of an array of large thrust fault scarps first discovered in the flybys of Mariner 10 in mid 1970s. These fault scarps look like a stair-step in the landscape formed when crustal materials are pushed together, break and are thrust upward along the fault making a scarp. They are evidence that Mercury has contracted over much of its geologic history. For the last phase of the mission, the minimum altitude of the spacecraft was lowered, giving us the opportunity to image the surface in much greater detail than ever before. In the highest resolution images, my team and I have discovered very small fault scarps – fault scarps so small they must be extremely young. These small scarps tell us that there has been very recent contraction of Mercury from continued cooling of the planet’s interior.
So, how do I feel about the end of the MESSENGER mission? I’m one of those people who gets overly attached to things, like cars. Recently I had to finally let go of a classic car I owned for a long time. It was the first new car I ever owned, and it felt like I’d lost an old friend; it still does. The impending loss of MESSENGER feels a lot like that – a classic you just can’t hold on to. The difference with MESSENGER is the rich legacy of images and data it will leave behind. The roughly 16 meter diameter crater it will make on impact will be a monument to a great mission and our first real exploration of Mercury.
Tom Watters is senior scientist and geologist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.