AidSpace Blog

Obscure Objects: Apollo Soucek’s High Altitude Flying Helmet

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What did Alaskan Natives contribute to the realm of high altitude flying?

Their knowledge of the physics of warmth.

When Navy pilot Lt. Apollo Soucek climbed in an open-cockpit Wright XF3W Apache airplane to a world record altitude of 13,160 meters (43,166 feet) on June 4, 1930, he was prepared for the cold temperatures he would endure. “I wore…a fur-lined leather suit, but nary of stitch of underclothes, the fur being next to my skin,” Soucek said in a first-person account in the September 1930 issue of Modern Mechanix. “Commander Frederick Ceres, flight surgeon at the Naval Air Station at Anacostia, D.C., figured this one out from the clothes of the Eskimos.”

This leather and mouton fur helmet was part of his flight ensemble. Mouton fur is actually sheepskin that has been chemically treated so that it has a moisture repellent finish and looks like another type of fur, in particular beaver or seal. The helmet has a slide fastener down the back and upper and lower buckle adjustment straps. You can see it in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Apollo Soucek’s high altitude flying helmet worn on his record-setting flight on June 4, 1930.

The back of Soucek’s helmet showing the slide fastener and buckle adjustment straps.

Over his eyes, Soucek wore a pair of electrically heated goggles devised by his brother Zeus. They were heated to prevent moisture inside the goggles from icing up, which had occurred on a previous high altitude test.

Soucek withstood mind-boggling extremes in temperature during his record-breaking flight. He recalled it was well over 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) in Washington, D.C. when he took off at 2:18 pm from Naval Air Station Anacostia, “sweating under the tremendous burden of my heavy equipment.” When he reached the airplane’s maximum height, it was about -60 C or -76 F. “Fortunately I did not suffer greatly from the effects of the extreme altitude and bitter cold,” he wrote.

Lt. Apollo Soucek waves from the cockpit of the Wright Apache. NASM A-4146-A

Describing the flight itself, he said, “I simply pulled back the control stick and then went straight up in the air until I reached the ‘ceiling,’ or maximum height of the plane.” A couple of times he achieved over 12,800 meters (42,000 feet), but “I couldn’t get it to stay there,” he said.

This was not the first altitude record for Soucek. He broke two records in 1929, achieving 11,929 meters (39,140 feet) in a land plane on May 8, and setting a seaplane altitude record of 11,753 meters (38,560 feet) on June 4. In all instances he flew the Wright Apache. Soucek received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his “hazardous high altitude flights and experiments to develop and perfect superchargers, propellers, oxygen breathing equipment and protective clothing.”

Soucek was a Naval Academy graduate and had a long distinguished career in the U.S. Navy, receiving the rank of vice admiral posthumously. He died July 12, 1955 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach is named Apollo Soucek Field in his honor.

Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum.

 

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Inside the Enterprise Studio Model

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As the Museum is assessing the 11-foot studio model of the Star Trek starship Enterprise, we’re trying to provide occasional updates to the many fans of this iconic artifact of American culture. The shooting model, which has been in the Museum’s collection since 1974, was removed from public display in September 2014 in order to be assessed and prepared for exhibit in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, opening in July 2016. Right now, the Museum is completing a painstaking process of analyzing the model.

Notably, conserving the Star Trek starship Enterprise studio model has allowed some wonderful cooperation between different branches of the Smithsonian institution. In December 2014 and again in January 2015, Tangara Cross of the National Zoological Park arranged for Marilyn Small and Peter Flowers, two National Zoo registered veterinary technicians (and Star Trek fans), to come to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, to examine the model used in filming of the original Star Trek television series (1966–1969).

Peter Flowers and Marilyn Small, of the National Zoo, position a portable radiography (x-ray) machine to capture the interior of the Star Trek starship Enterprise.

To give the Museum’s conservators a look inside the Enterprise model, Marilyn and Peter brought a portable radiography (x-ray) machine to the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory, which is a behind-the-scenes work space at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. Consisting of three pieces, the apparatus has an x-ray emitter that exposes a special digital photographic plate, which in turn communicates with a computer enabled with its own independent WiFi. But what really made it special was that this technology has also been used to examine zoo animals, even panda sensation, Bao Bao. (Talk about breaking the Internet! Consider combining the web power of Bao Bao and Star Trek!)

To organize the data, the radiology technicians/Star Trek fans first created a record for the “patient:”

ID: NCC-1701
Birthday: 1964
Sex: Other
Saucer as the “skull”
Secondary hull as the “body”
Nacelles as the “legs”

The x-ray apparatus produced images in a special format called “dicom” (which Peter explained, “makes a jpeg look like a pencil sketch”). To get each image, Peter and Marilyn worked with Engen Conservation Chair Malcolm Collum and Museum photographer Dane Penland to line up the radiography machine on one side of the artifact with the photographic plate positioned exactly opposite on the other side. They planned the overlapping images to provide a complete tricorder-like diagnostic of the model’s interior. As each image was shot, the digital plate communicated via WiFi with the laptop, capturing the image. To avoid a magnification effect, they positioned the plate as close to the body of the model as possible. They got the perfect exposure on the first try, based on Peter and Marilyn’s expert calculations comparing the probable density of the model versus the known density of biological specimens.

Working slowly, the participants planned the exposures to allow the images to be “stitched” together so conservators can get a more complete picture of the artifact. Our photographer, Dane, advised on how best to overlap the images so that they could be matched once the images had been taken back to a zoo computer to be processed. The composite image of the left nacelle shown here has been put back together by Museum conservator Ariel O’Connor. When printed at full size, it gives the conservators a clear map of the interior of the model, without disturbing any of the original structure. It’s worth noting how much the technology has improved since the last time the Enterprise model was x-rayed in the 1990s.

Studio model with an x-ray composite.

X-ray composite of the left nacelle.

The x-ray process involved a lot of back and forth—literally. Marilyn, Peter, and Malcolm wore lead shielding to protect themselves during the x-ray shooting. For the rest of us, after backing away during each shot to avoid being unshielded inside the scatter range of the x-rays, we all rushed back to the monitor as the image appeared to see what was revealed. Immediately, we could see the light bulbs inside the model as well as finishing nails, electronics, and wiring. Some of the images were so clear that we could see the grain in the wood used to build the model! The results will help the conservation team to make clear decisions about next steps when assessing the structure of the model.

From left Malcolm Collum, Peter Flowers, Margaret A. Weitekamp, and Marilyn Small.

It deserves mention that the entire group showed tremendous restraint. The group held off on using any Star Trek puns or doing their Scotty impressions until well into the saucer section shooting. Hey, we take our work seriously but we’re fans too.

Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator in the Museum’s Space History Department.


See more photos from this day and the latest on the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall renovation project.

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Arthur C. Clarke’s Personal Papers Arrive at the Museum

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For much of the latter half of the twentieth century Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) stood as one of the preeminent authors of science fiction, a noted futurist, and popularizer of science and technology. His collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey was one signature moment in this broader accomplishment.

For the last several years, we worked with the Arthur C. Clarke Trust to have the author’s papers donated to the Museum. One challenging factor was that the Trust and his papers sat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Clarke’s home for most of his adult life. Legal and logistical issues abounded. But in Summer 2014, we reached a legal agreement. At the same time, we were fortunate to gain the support of FedEx to help us get Clarke’s collection safely from Sri Lanka to the U.S. In December, my colleague Patti Williams and I traveled to Colombo, welcomed by longtime Clarke associates Rohan de Silva and Hector Ekanayake. We assessed and boxed the collection, and with much help from FedEx’s world-wide team and transportation network, transferred Clarke’s life’s work to its new home in the Museum archives. It is now being conserved and processed, perhaps ready for use by researchers later this fall.

NASM Collects Arthur C. Clarke Papers in Sri Lanka, December 1-9, 2014


From the collection: Images of Clarke through the years. In the lower left photo, Clarke is with his brother Fred and their mother, Nora.

In a future blog, Patti will share more about our effort in Sri Lanka. Here I want to point to why Clarke’s work merits attention. This goes beyond his famed role in 2001 and his standing as the “father” of satellite communications—a moniker earned for his prescient idea, well before the first satellites, of using such machines in geostationary orbit to facilitate communications over transcontinental distances.

What emerges from a first review of his papers is a deeply thoughtful man shaped by and creatively responding to his time—with World War II and the first decades of the Cold War as critically formative. From his early 20s through the rest of life he possessed a remarkably consistent vision and purpose of what was important to him: to make sense of a world experiencing tremendous advances in science and technology, the result of which, in his view, augured potentially radical changes in the fabric of social and cultural life. In the years after the war, this dynamic seemed especially  insistent, making the idea and reality of the “future” a critical problem in need of understanding. Through his career, this challenge led Clarke to advance his three laws of prediction (easily found via an internet search), an attempt to make serious the future as a shared, collective human concern but do so with a light touch.

From this vantage, Clarke’s interest in science fiction, as is evident throughout his papers, was not merely incidental but central: It was his essential tool, perhaps the best one, for sorting through and understanding this condition and educating readers about the time in which they were living. This insight helps makes sense, too, of his mix of professional activities: his many books and articles popularizing science and technology, especially on the themes of space technology and exploration, and his many speculations on the future. These efforts and his science fiction writing were all parts of the same project. In his later years, Clarke often said, if he was to have a legacy, he wanted it to be as a writer—asking to be seen whole, not fragmented across his different types of work.

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While in school in the 1930s, Clarke already had developed a keen interest in science and speculative fiction. This notebook from his school days in Taunton, Somerset, recorded his program of reading (detail below), in which he not only lists authors/titles, but his assessment of individual works (“G” for good, “VG” for very good, etc.). The notebook also is an indicator of Clarke’s systematic approach as he researched his interests—a characteristic continued through his professional life.

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An inside shot of Clarke’s 1930s reading log.

But refashioning the genre of science fiction was, in Clarke’s own estimation, perhaps his most challenging undertaking: he aimed to move this literary form long associated with narratives of escapism or fantasy to one that hewed closely to scientific and technical knowledge—to create a genuine opening for future-oriented reflection and discussion. In 1964, when Clarke and Kubrick began their collaboration on 2001, Clarke in correspondence emphasized their shared desire to create for the first time in cinema history a “really good science-fiction movie”—one organized around Clarkean perspectives.

But there was a deeper layer to Clarke’s thinking. One might simplify his life’s work as seeking an answer to the question of “Where is humanity headed?”—with the second half of the twentieth century as the context shaping both the question and possible answers. For Clarke, such a question was not merely future-leaning, but likely revolutionary. It embodied his belief that humanity was evolving into something fundamentally different, an evolution in which scientific and technical advance played critical parts. This was the reason for Clarke’s intense interest in space exploration: it especially would be the catalyst for an evolutionary change, much like lung-fish climbing out of the ocean millions of years ago to become land creatures (an analogy Clarke often used). But the “climbing out” now would be of humans into space, encountering new environments of change and adaptation, becoming something other than what they had been.

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This page from a 1964 manuscript highlights Clarke’s strong belief that interrelating actual science/technology, science fiction, and attempts to comprehend the future all were part of the same puzzle.

Clarke’s wide appeal as a twentieth century thinker was that in posing this as an emergent condition of the human he was not wild-eyed but a rationalist, believing that the everyday, powerful conjunction of science, technology, and their place in social life had profound implications. But he never delivered such a message baldly. His style, whether in writing, in public appearances, or on television, was unfailingly witty and wryly humorous. His method of education was to do so entertainingly, no matter the medium. This, too, perhaps was part of the historical moment in which he lived.

This sketch of Clarke leaves out much. I hope it suggests, though, in broad strokes, why he is an intriguing historical figure, not just for his role in 2001 or other individual accomplishments but as someone who sought to respond creatively to the world in which he lived. That creativity and placement in time are richly documented in his manuscript notes, his correspondence with a wide-range of contemporaries, and an extensive collection of photographs. I am sure in the months ahead we will have more to share on Clarke and his collection.

 Martin Collins is a curator in the Space History Department

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70 Years Ago: Flak-Bait’s 200th Mission

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On Tuesday, April 17, 1945, Flak-Bait completed its historic 200th mission as it led the 322nd Bombardment Group in a raid on Magdeburg, Germany. That journey, which began in late July 1943, made it the American airplane that flew the most sorties, or individual flights, during World War II. Overall, this one Marauder would fly a total 725 hours while delivering 375 tons of bombs, covering 177,460 miles, and consuming 157,850 gallons of gasoline. In the process, Flak-Bait accumulated over 1,000 patched holes from combat damage while bearing the wear-and-tear, scratches, and dings of flying in the air war against Nazi Germany.

Flak-Bait is second from the left as it leads the Marauders of the 322nd toward Magdeburg. Note the absence of the .50-caliber machine gun in the Plexiglas nose. (NASM-00068431)

Flak-Bait today bears the scars of its World War II combat service. Here it’s seen in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar (March 2015). Photo: Dane Penland

The above photograph shows the Army Air Forces personnel who flew Flak-Bait during the Magdeburg mission. Front row, left to right: First Lieutenant William D. Brearly, bombardier; Technical Sergeant Cecil Fisher, radio-gunner; Technical Sergeant Kenneth Locke, engineer-gunner; and First Lieutenant Arthur D. Perkins (position unknown). Standing, left to right: Colonel John S. Samuel, co-pilot; Captain William G. “Bill” Fort, pilot; and Technical Sergeant William J. Hess, tail gunner.

Bill Fort’s son, Grady, shared with us a story about his father’s April 17 flight as pilot of Flak-Bait. The co-pilot, Col. John S. Samuel, was the commanding officer of the 322nd Bombardment Group. He wanted to take part in that historic mission and selected Fort and his crew, usually assigned to another Marauder named Shorty, to accompany him. That was the only time any of them had flown in Flak-Bait.

The crew listing for the day also mentions a “W/C O.C. Hutton,” which makes a total of eight people on board that day. We’d love to hear if any of our readers have a connection to that individual?

Being able to recognize this important anniversary while Flak-Bait is undergoing preservation treatment in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar is important for the Museum. It allows us to share the artifact’s incredible story as we celebrate the people—the pilots, aircrew, mechanics, ground personnel, and the production workers—who made its flight, and the flights of so many other American aircraft, possible during World War II.

Jeremy Kinney is the curator for the Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder Flak-Bait in the Aeronautics Department.

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Remembering Marat N. Tishchenko

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Marat N. Tishchenko
Helicopter Designer
1931–2015

Marat N. Tishchenko

Marat Tishchenko developed helicopters that have affected the course of international affairs around the globe for five decades. He oversaw development for the most prolific designs to emerge from the Soviet Union’s Mil design bureau, and succeeded Mikhail Mil as the bureau’s chief designer in 1970. His greatest achievement was in modifying helicopters to contain the destroyed Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986.

The helicopters Tishchenko developed became known for their capability, durability, mechanical simplicity, and ease of use, which made them ideal for poorer nations and in regions with limited infrastructure. The Mi-8 has become the standard utility helicopter for many African and Asian nations. Also used widely throughout the former Soviet Union and its client states, it has helped tie outlying populations to state authority. It can handle extreme environmental conditions ranging from the Arctic to Mt. Everest to the Sahara desert.

Tishchenko’s technical achievements leave a conflicted legacy. The Mi-24 gunship, a mainstay of late Cold War era and subsequent conflicts, was used extensively by the Soviets in Afghanistan, Warsaw Pact nations, and much of what was then known as the “developing world.” It was an extremely capable but affordable aerial weapons platform, and often figured prominently in conflicts in the West associated with repressive regimes.

On the other hand, the Mi-26 has a much more peaceful reputation. The undisputed champion of operational heavy-lift helicopters, it has supported infrastructure development and humanitarian operations. It helped contain the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, most notably by lifting a 15–metric ton (33,000-pound) concrete cap into place over the exposed reactor. Equipped with a lead-lined cockpit, it was the only helicopter capable of accomplishing that feat. Tishchenko also developed the V-12, which could carry more than three times as much as any Western helicopter.

Tischenko ended his career instructing Americans in helicopter engineering, and he served on the University of Maryland faculty until not long before his death on March 13, 2015.

Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

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