AidSpace Blog

Fear and Concealment: Military Aircraft Disguises and Transformations

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The Museum’s annual Air & Scare event is taking place this Saturday at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. At the event kids, and even some parents, will don disguises and transform themselves into the perfect Halloween character—whether a princess, robot, or something spookier. In the spirit of disguises, costumes, and just plain scary stuff, I thought I would share some examples from the history of military aviation where things were not as they seemed.


Camouflaging Aircraft
Camouflage is all about making something invisible to enemy eyes and hiding its true identity. The wings of our Albatros D.Va, a German biplane fighter, feature a distinctive lozenge pattern camouflage. This type of camouflage was used on aircraft during World War I by the Central Powers.

Image: National Air and Space Museum, NASM 2001-10347


Disguising a Factory
Camouflage was of great value on the ground as well. These before and after photos feature what was called the “famous Lockheed disappearing act” of World War II. A faux suburban neighborhood placed on top of the Lockheed’s Burbank, California factory in 1942 disguised it from enemy eyes overhead. Sheets of painted fabric supported by telephone poles were spread over the plant to create the transformation.

Burbank California Air Plant

Images: Courtesy of Lockheed Aircraft Company


Hiding Jet Technology
To confuse enemy spies from seeing America’s first jet aircraft, U.S. Army Air Forces’ personnel added a fake propeller to the Bell XP-59A Airacomet when it was on the ground during its first flight tests in the fall of 1942. A cover was also added over the engine exhausts and intakes to help avoid unwanted attention and questions regarding this new propulsion system.

Image: U.S. Air Force


Disguising Enemy Aircraft in WWII
In 1943, a defecting Romanian pilot flew this Junkers Ju 88 to Cyprus. The bomber made its way to the United States where it became part of the Axis air fleet operated at Wright Field. The U.S. insignia and large American flags kept it safe from attack from unknowing American military aircraft over the Midwestern countryside. Disguising the German airplane as an American one worked, the Ju 88 survived the war and is now on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Image: National Air and Space Museum, NASM 2000-11212


Transforming Aircraft with Nose Art
Scary masks are always part of Halloween. The most famous masks for aircraft have to be the shark faces of the American Volunteer Group flying for Nationalist China in late 1941 and 1942. Fighting units from both the Allies and Axis adorned their fighters and bombers with the faces of sharks, tigers, dragons, even parrots and bats, during World War II, which is a practice that has continued to the present day.

Image: NASM 2004-36599


Portraying Sinister Personas in WWI
Military aviation units assumed rather sinister personas as they represented themselves and their line of work. The Works Progress Administration Art Program recreated the “Grim Reaper” insignia of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 13th Attack Squadron for display at the Smithsonian in the 1930s. This one was so scary that the person in charge of labeling the panel misspelled “squadron!”

Image: National Air and Space Museum

What character will you become this Halloween? Whatever your disguise, we wish you a safe and happy Halloween!

Jeremy Kinney curates the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s American military aircraft collection at the National Air and Space Museum

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Obscure Objects: Octave Chanute and the Richard Anemometer

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Many people, if not most, have never heard of Octave Chanute or know what an anemometer is, but the man and the instrument both played an important part in Orville and Wilbur Wright’s aeronautical experiments.

First, some background on Chanute. Octave Chanute was a Paris-born civil engineer in the United States who played a significant role in the burgeoning field of heavier-than-air flight in the late nineteenth century. When he retired in the 1880s after a long and distinguished engineering career, Chanute was able to focus full-time on what had always been of interest to him — flight. His exhaustive research into previous successful and unsuccessful attempts at flight led to the publication of a book in 1894, Progress in Flying Machines, which became the most important work of its kind at that time. This book would later be used by the Wright brothers in their research.

Octave Chanute

Portrait of Octave Chanute photographed by William Louis Koehne. Image: NASM 2003-12100

In 1896, his gilder, which the pilot controlled by shifting his weight, was flown successfully. That aircraft’s bracing system especially drew the attention of the Wright brothers. Steel wires crisscrossed between vertical wooden struts that supported the upper and lower wings, creating a simple, rigid structure. The Wrights adapted this bracing system to their first aircraft, a kite they built in 1899 to test their control idea.

Chanute was not stingy with his aeronautical knowledge, and the Wrights discussed their ideas with him as they designed their aircraft. Finding the need for a way to measure wind velocity in the field, they wrote to Chanute for advice. He replied in a letter dated March 26, 1901:

The convenient anemometer for field use is the kind with very light flat vanes. The best is made by Richard in Paris (metric units). I have one of them, also a registering instrument graduated to British measure made in Liverpool. Both have been tested and are proved with a formula for corrections. I will lend them, either you like, when you are ready to experiment.

The Wrights chose the Richard anemometer, which helped them measure the wind velocity and calculate the airspeed of their gliders.

The borrowed Richard anemometer used by the Wright brothers. Image: NASM 2002-779

Chanute’s estate donated the anemometer to the Aeronautics Division of the Library of Congress in 1932. In 1952 the Library of Congress transferred it to the National Air Museum, which later became the National Air and Space Museum. This anemometer is currently on display in the exhibition The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age in the Museum in Washington, DC. There is a similar Richard anemometer mounted on the 1903 Wright Flyer as part of the instrument package the Wrights used to gather flight data on the first powered airplane.

Ten years after the first flight, Orville Wright wrote about the measurements taken at the time of their first flight in an article titled, How We Made the First Flight, which appeared in an issue of Flying and the Aero Club of America Bulletin:

We had a “Richard” hand anemometer with which we measured the velocity of the wind. Measurements made just before starting the first flight showed velocities of 11 to 12 meters per second, or 24 to 27 miles per hour. Measurements made just before the last flight gave between 9 and 10 meters per second. One made just after showed a little over 8 meters. The records of the Government Weather Bureau at Kitty Hawk gave the velocity of the wind between the hours of 10:30 and 12 o’clock, the time during which the four flights were made, as averaging 27 miles at the time of the first flight and 24 miles at the of the last.

In this photo from left to right are, Octave Chanute, Orville Wright, Wilbur Wright, A. M. Herring, George Spratt, and Dan Tate, taken when Chanute visited the Wright camp. The Wrights’ older brother, Lorin, who was also visiting Kitty Hawk, took the photo on October 10, 1902.

Unfortunately, Chanute’s relationship with the Wright brothers soured by 1905 when his belief that technical information was a public commodity clashed with the Wrights’ desire to control the technology of flight. Nevertheless, when Chanute died in 1910, Wilbur Wright delivered Chanute’s eulogy, saying, “His labors had vast influence in bringing about the era of human flight.”

A good way to learn more about Octave Chanute is by reading Locomotive to Aeromotive: Octave Chanute and the Transportation Revolution by Simine Short, which features a foreword written by National Air and Space Museum senior curator Tom Crouch. There is also a museum dedicated to informing the public about Chanute at the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, the Chanute Air Museum.

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

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Apollo Guidance Computer and the First Silicon Chips

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Put all your eggs in one basket—AND WATCH THAT BASKET!
      – Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar (1897), Chapter 15

As the Apollo program took form in the early 1960s, NASA engineers always kept the safety of their astronauts at the fore in light of the enormous risks they knew were inherent in the goal of landing on the Moon and returning safely. Wherever possible, they designed backup systems so that if a primary system failed the crew would still have the means to return home safely.

Sometimes creating a backup was not always practical. For example, the Service Module’s engine needed to fire while the crew was behind the Moon to place them in a trajectory that would return them to Earth. There was no practical backup if the engine failed. But even in that instance a plan was worked out to use the Lunar Module’s (LM) engine as a backup. During Apollo 8, which carried no LM, this wasn’t a practical solution, but during the Apollo 13 mission the LM engine was used to help return the astronauts safely to Earth. There are numerous other examples of similar trade-offs that illustrate the need for safety against the need to venture so far away from Earth orbit, and to meet President Kennedy’s deadline of putting a man on the Moon by 1969.

One of the most interesting examples of these decisions concerned the Apollo Guidance and Navigation system, controlled by the Apollo Guidance Computer. Due to size, weight, and power constraints, the Command and Lunar Modules would each carry only one computer, which had to work. What was more, the designers of the computer, at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, decided to build the computer using the newly-invented integrated circuit, or silicon “chip” as we now know it. That seems obvious in retrospect, as today we enjoy the fruits of integrated circuit technology in our consumer devices. But in the early 1960s, when this decision was made, the chip was untested, and its reliability was a large unknown.

MIT’s decision did not go unchallenged. Early in the Apollo program, NASA contracted with AT&T to provide technical and managerial assistance for select technical issues. AT&T in turn established Bellcomm, an entity that carried out these analyses. In late 1962, Bellcomm recommended that IBM, not MIT, supply the computers for the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules. The arguments were complex and contentious and even reached members of the House of Representatives. In a letter to NASA administrator James Webb, Representative Joseph E. Karth (D-Minnesota) listed a number of questions. Among them were these:

2. There has always been apprehension about the MIT guidance system achieving the required reliability to ensure a safe mission. Is there documented test-proven data to show that it will meet the needs of APOLLO/LEM?

3. In regard to the previous question, is there a back-up guidance function of sufficient breadth and proven development that can allow the APOLLO/LEM mission to attain success … in the event of catastrophic failure of the MIT guidance? …

7. Is a backup system still contemplated for either APOLLO or LEM?

The letter listed five other questions, but of all the questions raised, one stood out: Was the MIT system reliable?

Bellcomm’s recommendation was due in part to IBM’s role as supplier of the computer that guided the Saturn V rocket into Earth orbit and then to a lunar trajectory. The IBM Launch Vehicle Digital Computer did not use integrated circuits, but rather a more conservative circuit developed at IBM called “Unit Logic Device.” What was more, the circuits in the computer were installed in threes—so called “Triple Modular Redundancy” so that a failure of a single circuit would be “outvoted” by the other two.

Wernher Von Braun, left, examines the Launch Vehicle Digital Computer used to guide the Saturn V rocket.

The engineers at the MIT Instrumentation Lab mounted a vigorous defense of their design and were able to persuade NASA to not use the IBM computers in the Command and Lunar Module. In short, MIT chose to follow Puddin’head Wilson and make the computer work right the first time. The Lab worked closely with Fairchild Semiconductor, the California company where the integrated circuit was invented, to ensure reliability. Chips were tested under rigorous conditions of temperature, vibration, contamination, and so on. If a chip failed these tests, the entire lot from which it came from was discarded. If a chip passed these tests, one could be confident that it would not fail during a mission. Although Fairchild was offering a line of chips that could be used to make a computer, MIT chose only one type, giving them an ability to test it more thoroughly and to allow the manufacturer to build up more experience making them reliably. No Apollo Guidance Computer, on either the Command or Lunar Modules, ever experienced a hardware failure during a mission.

Apollo Production Area

Apollo production line in Landsdale, Pennsylvania. Photo: David Chester, Philco

MIT did not entirely prevail, however, as NASA specified that primary navigation for Apollo would be conducted from Houston, using its array of large mainframe computers (supplied by IBM), with the on-board system as a secondary. The wisdom of that decision was proven during Apollo 13 when the Command Module’s power was lost. In other missions, the on-board computers and navigation systems worked perfectly and worked more in tandem with Houston than as a backup. It also functioned reliably during the burns of the Service Module engine behind the Moon, when there was no communication with Houston.

Grumman Aerospace, the builder of the Lunar Module, insisted that a small back-up controller be installed in case of a computer failure. Grumman envisioned this “Abort Guidance System” (AGS) as a modest controller intended only to get the crew off the Moon quickly and into Lunar Orbit, where they would be rescued by the Command Module pilot. As finally supplied by TRW Inc., it grew into a general-purpose computer of its own, with its own display and keyboard. Like the Apollo Guidance Computer, it also used integrated circuits. It was tested successfully during the Apollo 10 mission, but it was never needed.

Microscopic view of dual, three-element NOR gate, the inside of a silicon chip, used in Apollo. Photo: Lisa Young, Smithsonian

And this brings us to one of the ironies of the Apollo decision to use integrated circuits. In 1965, a Fairchild Semiconductor employee named Gordon Moore wrote a provocative essay on “cramming more components onto integrated circuits.” Thus was born Moore’s Law: The density of computer chips would double every year, later stretched out to every 18 months. It is still going on more than 50 years later. For Apollo, it meant that by the time astronauts were flying Apollo 7 in October 1968, the six-device circuit specified for the computer was way obsolete. Fairchild and others were supplying chips that incorporated several hundred devices on a chip, but there was no way to test these new chips and incorporate them into the Apollo Guidance Computer. The area of Santa Clara County, where Fairchild and its competitors were located, began going by the name “Silicon Valley” by the end of the decade. The Apollo contract was not the sole reason for the transformation of the Valley, but it was a major factor.

In truth, Fairchild ended up not being the main supplier of Apollo chips after all. Their design was licensed to Philco of suburban Philadelphia, which supplied the thousands of integrated circuits used in all the Apollo Guidance Computers. And because the Abort Guidance System was specified a year or two after the Apollo Guidance Computer, its designers were able to take advantage of newer circuit designs, not from Fairchild but from one of its Silicon Valley competitors, Signetics.

By the time of the last Apollo missions, to the Moon in 1972 and to a rendezvous with a Soviet Soyuz in 1975, the Silicon Valley revolution was in full swing. As we enjoy the products and software flowing like a torrent out of the Valley, we should recall its modest beginnings and the courage of the Apollo engineers who were bold enough to choose a circuit that “crammed” all of six devices on a sliver of silicon.

Paul Ceruzzi is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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A (Tech)Quest for Inspiration

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Only a few short months after I began my job as coordinator of the Explainers Program at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the opportunity to help create a new program was on my desk. Fresh from graduate school and settling into my work with a team of wonderful student educators, our Explainers, I jumped at the chance to be a part of something new.

Smithsonian TechQuest: Eye in the Sky was the first in a series of alternate reality games that engaged visitors by challenging them to take on the role of an aerospace expert and complete a mission. Eye in the Sky took months of planning and working with a large team of educators to develop content and activities for the game. Then came months of training my corps of over 30 students about content and facilitation. After months of preparing and then launching Eye in the Sky, in the blink of an eye we were already moving on to prepare for the second game.

Eye in the Sky took players miles above Earth on a mission to collect and analyze photo reconnaissance in a Cold War era rescue mission. They learned about America’s first spy satellite and the fastest aircraft at the Museum. How were we going to top that in the second version?

There were a lot of things to take into consideration when the TechQuest team began forming for the second version of the game. Did we need such a large planning team? How could our Explainers be involved in its development? (They are, after all, the ones facilitating the game.) Did the format of the last game work? Were activities well received? What about content?

Working with gloves is one of the hardest parts of astronaut training.

Explainer Katelyn Warner teaches a group about some of the most prominent features on Mars.

The success of the first game made me want to push even further, literally and figuratively. The decision was made to take Smithsonian TechQuest out of orbit and on a mission to Mars. Smithsonian TechQuest: Astronaut Academy features more activities, both facilitated and independent. There is a dramatic departure from the story-driven, Cold War mission, the second version of the game focuses on astronaut training, allowing visitors to choose a crew position and complete tasks to become “certified” in that job—from a pilot to a medical officer, there are plenty of roles to fill.

Almost two months in and Astronaut Academy is everything I hoped it would be. It’s bigger, busier, and more hands on. Players learn everything from working in astronaut gloves to calculating the nutrition of their own space “sandwich” (built, of course, with tortillas instead of bread to keep those pesky crumbs out of onboard systems). Hands-on activities far outnumber passive ones. Visitors are coming to astronaut “graduation” beaming at their accomplishments from training.

Young visitors learn that robotics are a key component of many delicate jobs in space.

Three astronaut candidates complete their graduation and take a photo by our “Mars-scape.”

Everything I hoped it would be, however, is a little overwhelming. With bigger, busier, and more hands-on activities come the challenges of maintenance and training. Instead of two activities to learn, the Explainers need to be familiar with 12. Maintaining the cipher wheel from Eye in the Sky is suddenly small potatoes compared to robot batteries dying, simulators crashing, and rocket launchers buckling under the pressure. (And that was just the first weekend.)

Soon we will start thinking about where to go next. My head is already swimming with ideas for the third iteration of Smithsonian TechQuest, which is slated to debut in the summer of 2016. It may sound daunting to try and top Astronaut Academy, which is already on track to be a resounding success, but two very different versions of the game have taught me a lot about what successful programs can look like.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Until it’s time to put the lid on Astronaut Academy, I’ll keep rebooting simulators, replacing batteries, and soaking up the enormous smiles on the faces of our new astronauts.

Hopefully I’ll see YOU on your next visit to the Udvar-Hazy Center, choosing your astronaut job and mastering the skills you’ll need for a mission to Mars.

Shannon Marriott is the Explainers Program coordinator at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

See a write-up on Smithsonian TechQuest: Astronaut Academy in the Washington Post. 


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In the Archives: The Good Old Hockey Game

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This summer, I took myself out to the ball game, spending hours at Camden Yards and Nationals Park, with quick side trips to Fenway Park and U.S. Cellular Field (part of me will always believe the White Sox still play at Comiskey). Fall Sundays are devoted to football and memories of my team back in the days of John Riggins, Darrell Green, and Art Monk. I’ve been able to turn my sports fandom into quite a few AirSpace blog posts about baseball and football. But I spend many cold winter days at the hockey rink, cheering for my beloved Washington Capitals. I’ve driven to Montreal to see the Caps play in Canada. I’ve even bundled up to attend outdoor Winter Classic games in both Pittsburgh and DC. I have searched the corners and top shelf of the National Air and Space Museum Archives collections for hockey-related content and been shutout—until now!

Goal! Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation hockey team, circa 1945. Photo: NASM 9A12175-069-A

The John E. Parker Collection contains four scrapbooks with beautiful wooden covers.  Inside one of those covers was my archives Stanley Cup—a photograph of the Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation’s hockey team!

Assembling up to 15 wooden gliders a day in the St. Paul, Minnesota factory during World War II, a group of Northwestern employees played hockey in their spare time. According to company president Parker, the hockey team was quite good and, “led the league out there for a couple of years.” I tried to learn more about the team, but, unfortunately, we have very few issues of Tow Lines, the company newsletter. Those issues that we have are not from hockey season. I could tell you quite a bit about the bowling team!

Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation employees also had a baseball team and an active community life, which included baby beauty contests for war bond drives. You may see a bit more from these scrapbooks in the upcoming months.

But it’s October now! Hockey season has begun! Drop the puck! Let’s go Caps!

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum Archives Department.

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month-long blog-a-thon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

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