With the depredations of Nazi Germany dominating the international memory of the middle decades of the twentieth century, many German social, cultural, and technical contributions not associated with the tainted influence of the Third Reich have been forgotten or overlooked. One of the individuals who contributed significantly to the prospects of regular transatlantic air service before open warfare ended such endeavors was Wolfgang von Gronau. Between 1930 and 1932, von Gronau undertook a series of flights in Dornier Do J Wals (“whales”) that did much to determine the viability of using Greenland as a way station on aerial North Atlantic routes, particularly for flying boats.
Von Gronau began his aviation career in World War I as a naval aviator who quickly rose through the ranks. By the end of the war, he was adjutant to the commander of aviation in the German high seas fleet and had introduced a number of innovations for German flying boats and floatplanes. In post-war Germany, he found a niche in commercial aviation. By 1926, he headed the Lufthansa seaplane school on the island of Sylt in the North Sea. Von Gronau took the opportunity in that role to begin considering the form of transatlantic commercial air service. His aircraft preference was for Dornier flying boats, particularly the Do J Wal, which had already established a reputation for reliability and ruggedness in harsh long-distance flights. Von Gronau began exploring routes to Iceland from northwestern Europe as part of his training exercises. The German government appeared ambivalent about this type of effort. Germany’s airship program and pioneering Lufthansa commercial services were bringing the nation much-needed prestige at a difficult time and authorities were likely reluctant to encourage risky endeavors that could call German equipment or personnel into question.
Von Gronau’s airplane had a remarkable history. Polar explorer Roald Amundsen had escaped death in it during a failed attempt to reach the North Pole in 1925. It was also the aircraft in which Irish aviator Frank Courtney had nearly perished in while adrift in the middle of the Atlantic after an engine fire in 1928 (it was ultimately destroyed in a 1944 Allied bombing raid against Munich that leveled the Deutches Museum). By 1930, the American media was abuzz with speculation on whether von Gronau was likely to utilize Greenland as a way station for a transatlantic flight to the United States. The reason for the interest was uncertainty over the reliability or practicality of commercial air service across oceans.
While Charles Lindbergh and a number of other pioneering aviators had flown the Atlantic in the previous eleven years, prospects for oceanic commercial airplane service still appeared remote. Lindbergh’s continuous and exhausting thirty-three and a half hours in the air were not a viable option for large commercial transport aircraft. The shorter arctic great circle routes had the advantage of providing a more affordable route with stopovers in Canada, Greenland and Iceland. However, Greenland was a significant challenge. While the sparsely-populated Danish territory had seen some exploration by air, including by the U.S. Navy in 1925, it lacked suitable facilities for supporting landplanes. No one knew enough about the coast to judge the safety of flying boat operations on the southern coast and the weather was exceptionally unpredictable and often extreme. However, the success of the Graf Zeppelin in circling the globe as a herald for global commercial service during 1929 placed Germany at the center of North American and European hopes for reliable air transport between continents. It was in this context that von Gronau’s flights generated excitement, especially as the massive twelve-engine Dornier Do X airliner appeared to be preparing for its first demonstration of transatlantic passenger service.
In August 1930, von Gronau reached Greenland from Iceland and then flew to Nova Scotia where officials greeted him and his three crewmembers with great enthusiasm for making the first complete transit of the northern transatlantic great circle route since the U.S. Army Air Service around-the-world flight of 1924. The essential difference between von Gronau’s flight and the Army flight was that the latter had a massive logistical effort behind it, whereas von Gronau improvised his arrangements. This included scavenging fuel from stores left behind from Swedish pilot Albin Ahrenberg during his successful rescue of British scientist Augustine Courtauld from Greenland’s interior three months earlier.
Von Gronau continued on to New York City, arriving on August 26 to even greater acclaim. A little over a week later, President Hoover invited him to the White House. Von Gronau attempted to wave off the attention, arguing that it was principally a training flight (one of his crewmembers was a pilot cadet). The lack of clear (or at least public) German government support allowed advocates for DELAG, the German airship corporation, the opportunity to disparage von Gronau. Graf Zeppelin captain Ernst Lehmann argued, “it proves nothing; in the first place, because the northern route is hopeless most of the year on account of fogs, and secondly I don’t believe planes are adapted to these long hops. It is asking too much of a motor, as numerous failures in the past prove.”
Ultimately, Lehmann was partially right. The German government continued its preference for transatlantic airship service through the 1930s until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. The Dornier Do X did indeed make a transatlantic flight beginning in 1930, but it was a debacle in which significant accidents and mechanical trouble disrupted almost every leg of the flight resulting in a ten-month voyage to New York. With the poor showing and the Depression descending to its depths, the Do X was a hopelessly expensive leviathan that made even rigid airships appear profitable. By the time transatlantic airplane service became economically viable in the late 1930s, aircraft performance had increased to the point that stops in Greenland were no longer necessary and direct hops from Labrador to Ireland and back were possible.
Nonetheless, von Gronau’s 1930 flight, along with a repeat flight in 1931 and an around-the-world flight in 1932 (both with a new Wal he called the “Greenland Whale”), revealed several key considerations in northern transatlantic service. First, and foremost, was the issue of weather. The weather near Greenland was remarkably unpredictable and could be disastrous if it obscured suitable landing sites with fog. Von Gronau singled out the lack of reliable meteorological data as one of the largest obstacles to regular air service. In terms of navigation, von Gronau felt that the unpredictability of the weather in this region made reliance on celestial navigation impractical and suggested that construction of a network of radio navigation beacons would be essential to reliable air service. His vision did come to form but only during World War II when the Army Air Forces Air Transport Command and other agencies established significant navigation and meteorological facilities in Greenland, including LORAN stations, that were critical to supporting the movement of aircraft to Europe during the war. One other outcome of von Gronau’s 1930 flight was that it was another nail in the coffin of Edward Armstrong’s “seadrome” project of building floating airfields strung across the Atlantic every 375 miles. The simple expedient of improvising new landing or harbor facilities in Greenland was a far more economically viable option than spending billions on offshore platforms at a time when the Depression had radically constrained government spending.
The Dornier Wal’s eventual role in commercial transatlantic flight was small, but significant. In mid-1933, Lufthansa began to evaluate the aircraft for shortening mail service across the South Atlantic by using “catapult ships.” Crossing the South Atlantic even at its shortest distance, between Bathurst (Gambia, Africa) and Natal, Brazil, would still have meant more than 3,000 kilometers, and about eleven hours flying time. By using a freighter as catapult ship, Lufthansa broke this distance into shorter legs, and helped pilots with navigation. After successful trials in 1933, Lufthansa established a regular service in 1934 with the former freighter “Westfalen,” stationed west of Bathurst in the South Atlantic as a floating relay station and radio navigational beacon. Mail arrived from Germany via Stuttgart-Böblingen, Seville, Las Palamas de Gran Canaria, and then to Bathurst. A Dornier Wal took the mail to the “Westfalen.” There, the Wal made a water landing and the ship’s crew hoisted it aboard for maintenance, refueling, and catapulting towards South America. Soon, a second ship, the “Schwabenland,” was stationed near Fernando de Noronha. By the end of 1934, Lufthansa had four Dornier Wal flying boats in regular service in the South Atlantic, with one flight in each direction per week.
Von Gronau’s flights of the early 1930s established him as one of the nation’s premier aviators (and perhaps its best long-distance air navigator), allowing him to become an undersecretary in the air ministry in 1933 and, subsequently, president of the German Aero Club. His ambivalence for Nazi leadership resulted in something of a self-imposed exile as air attaché in Germany’s Tokyo embassy on the eve of World War II where he served out the remainder of the war. Post-war he became a technical advisor to Lufthansa as they developed their transatlantic service – though with landplanes rather than flying boats.
Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
Until the nineteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci was generally known only as a painter. Little or nothing of his sculpture or engineering works survived, and his notebooks, the only surviving evidence of his insatiable curiosity and fertile mind regarding science and technology, were long hidden away, dispersed in private hands. It was only after 1800 that the record of his intellectual and technical accomplishments, the thousands of pages of writings and drawings that we collectively refer to today as Leonardo’s codices, began to surface, be studied, and published. With the rediscovery of the Leonardo codices, the artist who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper was recast as the Renaissance visionary who saw the modern world before it was realized.
Among the many subjects Leonardo studied, the possibility of human mechanical flight held particular fascination. He produced more than 35,000 words and 500 sketches dealing with flying machines, the nature of air, and bird flight. These investigations of flight are scattered throughout the many da Vinci codices and manuscript collections, but he did produce one short codex almost entirely on the subject in 1505-1506, the Codice sul volo degli uccelli (Codex on the Flight of Birds).
Leonardo’s interest in flight appears to have stemmed from his extensive work on military technology which he performed in the employ of the Milanese court. He filled many notebooks with countless sketches of weapons, military machines, and fortifications. They included a giant crossbow, a tank, and a submarine, to name just a few. However, as far as it is known, none of these inventions were ever built. Leonardo’s focus on military technology and tactics lead him to the idea of aerial reconnaissance. Once engaged with the notion of a flying machine, it became an obsession.
Given his close observance and use of nature as a foundation for many of his ideas, emulating natural flight was an obvious place to begin. Most of Leonardo’s aeronautical designs were ornithopters, machines that employed flapping wings to generate both lift and propulsion. He sketched such flying machines with the pilot prone, standing vertically, using arms, using legs. He drew detailed sketches of flapping wing mechanisms and means for actuating them. Imaginative as these designs were, the fundamental barrier to an ornithopter is the demonstrably limited muscle power and endurance of humans compared to birds. Leonardo could never have overcome this basic fact of human physiology.
Interestingly, most of these avian mimicking designs predated Leonardo’s serious study of bird flight, which we find in the Codex on the Flight of Birds, begun in 1505. In this work, compiled during the same period as the Mona Lisa was painted, we see some of the ideas and observations by Leonardo about flight that were more forward looking than his better known earlier ornithopter drawings. In the Codex, da Vinci discusses the crucial concept of the relationship between the center of gravity and the center of lifting pressure on a bird’s wing. He explains the behavior of birds as they ascend against the wind, foreshadowing the modern concept of a stall. He demonstrates a rudimentary understanding of the relationship between a curved wing section and lift. He grasps the concept of air as a fluid, a foundation of the science of aerodynamics. Leonardo makes insightful observations of gliding flight by birds and the way in which they balance themselves with their wings and tail, just as the Wright brothers would do as they evolved their first aeronautical designs. He comments on the pilot’s position in a potential flying machine and how control could be achieved by shifting the body weight, precisely as the early glider pioneers of the late nineteenth century would do. He notes the importance of lightweight structures that aircraft would require. He even hints at the force Newton would later define as gravity.
In less than 20 pages of notes and drawings, the Codex on the Flight of Birds outlines a number of observations and beginning concepts that would find a place in the development of a successful airplane in the early twentieth century. Leonardo never abandoned his preoccupation with flapping wing designs, and did not develop the insights he recorded in the Codex on the Flight of Birds in any practical way. Nonetheless, centuries before any real progress toward a practical flying machine was achieved, the seeds of the ideas that would lead to humans spreading their wings germinated in the mind of da Vinci. In aeronautics, as with so many of the subjects he studied, he strode where no one had before. Leonardo lived a fifteenth century life, but a vision of the modern world spread before his mind’s eye.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum from September 13—October 22, 2013, in The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age gallery.
Peter L. Jakab, Chief Curator, Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum
The Viking program represents a major effort by the United States to explore Mars, with the particular goal of performing experiments on Martian soil to look for possible evidence of life. Four individual spacecraft were sent to Mars as part of the Viking project, two orbiters and two landers, launched as identical orbiter/lander pairs.
The Viking 1 spacecraft was launched from Cape Kennedy on August 20, 1975, using a Titan IIIE/Centaur rocket. The Titan launch vehicle consisted of a regular Titan missile with two large solid-fuel rockets attached to it, giving the total package a greatly increased launch thrust over that of the Titan by itself; the extra thrust was needed in order to lift the combined orbiter/lander spacecraft and the Centaur upper stage from the Earth. The Centaur upper stage then carried the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and onto its journey to Mars. The Viking 1 spacecraft was inserted into orbit at Mars on June 19, 1976, by the firing of a rocket motor on the orbiter that slowed the spacecraft enough to be captured in orbit around the Red Planet. The orbiter carried two cameras, an infrared mapping experiment, and an instrument that measured the amount of water vapor in the thin Martian atmosphere (intended to aide in identifying a landing site that had access to water vapor, which might have aided any life on the surface).
The Viking 1 lander was carried to Mars within a special covering case (the white object visible in the photo of the Viking spacecraft) after undergoing very extensive decontamination prior to launch. Since the mission was intended to search for possible life on Mars, the scientists wanted to make sure that no Earth organisms had been inadvertently carried to Mars on the lander spacecraft itself. On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 lander successfully landed on Mars in the Chryse Plantia region, becoming the first spacecraft to return useful data from the surface of Mars. The lander included two scanning cameras, which provided stereo images of the landing site, and an extendable arm to collect samples and deliver them to the experiments inside the body of the spacecraft. Three separate experiments looked for evidence of life in the Martian soil: the Pyrolytic Release experiment (PR), the Labeled Release experiment (LR), and the Gas Exchange experiment (GEX). The lander also had a Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) that could make very precise measurements of the composition and abundance of any organic compounds in the soil. The PR, GEX, and GCMS all gave negative results, while the LP gave initial positive signals. However, long-term LR runs showed no subsequent labeled gas release (interpreted to indicate a positive biologic reaction) for the samples that gave initial positive responses, even when additional labeled liquid was repeatedly added to these soil samples. Most scientists now consider the LR results were produced by inorganic chemical reactions in the soil, but this conclusion is still actively contested by some researchers. The Viking 1 orbiter operated until August 17, 1980, after completing 1,485 orbits of the planet. The Viking 1 lander operated until November 11, 1982, after operating for 2,306 Earth days (more than six Earth years).
Jim Zimbelman is a geologist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.
On August 15, 1935, in a plane crash near Point Barrow Alaska, famed aviator Wiley Post perished alongside his close friend, the renowned humorist and popular culture icon Will Rogers. With the exception of Charles Lindbergh, no American aviator of the time was as celebrated as Post, while Rogers was widely considered as the nation’s most gifted commentator on American society. Their loss impacted the two brightest spots in American culture during the Depression – aviation and film – and was especially devastating because of it.
The nation entered a state of mourning that it has rarely done outside of the death of presidents. Flags were ordered lowered to half-staff by federal and state authorities. 12,000 motion picture theater screens went dark for two minutes at 2:00 pm on August 22 in tribute. Famed German aviator Ernst Udet eulogized Post, stating, “I consider Post the greatest flier of all time. He was a real pioneer. He ranked first both as regards positive accomplishments and fruitfulness of new ideas. He was the most advanced and courageous man aviation has thus brought forth.” Newspaper editorials called on President Roosevelt to declare a national holiday and day of mourning. Hollywood studios attempted to ban their actors from flying – even if not currently filming a picture.
Both Post and Rogers resonated with Americans in the 1930s because they were regarded as being the epitome of the “self-made man” ideal that resonated so strongly at the height of the Depression. They were Oklahomans who “made good” from the part of the nation most affected by the Dust Bowl and the economic collapse. Post came from humble roots on a farmstead and Rogers grew up on a ranch, son of a Cherokee who fought for the Confederacy. Both had dropped out of school, yet had become two of the most beloved faces of American perseverance.
Will Rogers’ rise to fame began on the vaudeville circuit as a trick roper in the early years of the century. He steadily grew in prominence through World War I as he expanded his repertoire and by the 1920s he had made a successful transition to silent films. His status as popular culture icon exploded in 1922 when he began to write syndicated columns for the New York Times that embodied an effective blend of folk witticisms and astute commentary on Americans’ sensibilities and their place in the world. Unlike many silent film actors, his screen persona translated well to the talkies and at the time of his death he was at the height of his fame.
Wiley Post’s early adulthood consisted of a brief stateside stint in the Army during World War I, work as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oil patch, and being arrested for armed robbery. He entered aviation in the mid-1920s as a parachutist for a flying circus. An accident at an oil rig cost him his left eye, but the injury payout allowed him to learn to fly and acquire his own aircraft. Because depth perception is often an important part of the pilot’s skill set, his later career as an aviator is all the more remarkable.
Post soon became the personal pilot for oilman F.C. Hall and by 1928, was flying a Lockheed Vega named for Hall’s daughter – Winnie Mae. Two years later, Hall acquired a second Vega – also named Winnie Mae – and the increasingly ambitious Post talked Hall into allowing him to enter the Los Angeles to Chicago Men’s Air Derby and attempt to break the cross-country speed record. Post’s successful win gave him the confidence to attempt the breaking of the around-the-world record established by the Graf Zeppelin. In 1931, with navigator Harold Gatty, he succeeded in cutting the record to a little under nine days (from twenty-one by the German airship). Post gained widespread fame for the feat, which generated considerable international acclaim at a time when most headlines were dire economic reports. Some of this attention was captured on newsreels:
Post bought the Winnie Mae from Hall after the flight and attempted (mostly unsuccessfully) to convert his newfound fame to economic prosperity. By 1933, most of Post’s ventures had not taken off and he decided to repeat the around-the-world flight, but did so solo, in order to generate further funds and publicity. Post was not a navigator and took the risky step of trusting in several new technical innovations to guide his way. These included the prototype for the first generation production Sperry autopilots and a new Army radio compass. He also added a Smith hollow-steel variable pitch propeller. Fortunately for Post, the equipment performed superbly and he succeeded in cutting his record by nearly a day in spite of poor weather and airfield conditions along the route. He was celebrated upon his return:
Now regarded as an aviator in the same league as Lindbergh, Post found his niche gaining sponsors for new records with the Winnie Mae. Given that newer model aircraft, which Post could not afford, outperformed the Vega, he found an unusual new niche — high altitude (approaching 50,000 feet) flight, which would allow the Winnie Mae to utilize the better than 100 miles per hour speeds of the jet stream. His first step was to acquire a pressure suit. The only problem was that no one had yet made a practical pressure suit for aircraft. He worked closely with the Goodrich Company to construct several prototypes.
With the fitting of a supercharger to Winnie Mae and the completion of testing of the pressure suit in a high altitude chamber, Post embarked on the most ambitious series of high altitude tests in an airplane up to that time. To eliminate weight, he had the landing gear on the Winnie Mae made jettisonable and reinforced the bottom of the aircraft so that it could be belly-landed on a soft field with the propeller stopped and suffer no damage. If Post’s around-the-world flights had been simply prestige “stunts,” the high altitude testing in the world’s first practical pressure suit demonstrated that Post was a legitimate aeronautical innovator and respect for him in the aviation community grew even further.
Post had become close with Will Rogers after his 1931 around-the-world flight. Rogers was an ardent aviation enthusiast and frequently sang Post’s praises in his newspaper column. In 1935, Post suggested a flying getaway to Rogers who was under considerable pressure from his newspaper editor and Hollywood agent to maintain his previous output. Rogers jumped at the opportunity. By this time, the Winnie Mae was largely obsolete and worn out. Post had replaced it with a new aircraft which combined a Lockheed Orion fuselage mated with wings from a different model Lockheed aircraft – an Explorer. As Post was not an aeronautical engineer, the combination was potentially hazardous and he made it more so by adding floats from a larger Fokker aircraft. This made the aircraft dangerously nose-heavy. Nonetheless, Post and Rogers set off to explore Alaska and Russia. The aircraft performed adequately at first, but the engine sputtered while taking off from a small lake in the tundra near Point Barrow and Post could not recover. Both men were killed when the plane struck the water and flipped. An investigation raised serious questions about Post’s decision to cobble together major parts of his aircraft from different models. Supposition centered on engine problems possibly brought on by carburetor icing and an insufficient amount of elevator surface to counteract the nose heavy loading of the aircraft in a glide.
The loss of Post and Rogers near the height of their fame helped ensure their enduring stature as icons of Depression-era America, but their accomplishments stand as evidence that there was still a popular spirit of adventure in the United States that economic crisis could not dampen. The Smithsonian Institution moved quickly to acquire artifacts from Post’s record flights well before his fatal accident, though the actual transfer was mostly facilitated by his widow, Mae Post (no relation to the plane’s namesake).
Evidence of Post’s significance was apparent when Congress stepped in to help fund the acquisition of the Winnie Mae. Mae Post donated many other items, including her husband’s pressure suit, his first prototype pressure helmet, and even aircraft components from his fatal crash and the milestone Sperry autopilot used on the 1931 around-the-world flight. The Winnie Mae and Post’s other items have long been some of the most treasured items in the National Air and Space Museum’s collection. On this anniversary of his passing, we’d like to share some of the images and artifacts associated with this remarkable man from a remarkable period in our history.
Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
This past month National Air and Space Museum and Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) interns were able to travel to Frederica, Delaware to visit the International Latex Corporation Dover (ILC). It is one of several companies that produces the “soft materials” or non-metal components of spacesuits for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). ILC was started in 1932 by Abram Spanel, and eventually made latex products to support the Allied troops in World War II. While today the company creates a range of products from personal protection equipment (PPE) to materials for the pharmaceutical industry, it is probably best known for producing spacesuits for the Apollo program. That means that ILC was responsible for designing and making the spacesuit that Neil Armstrong wore when he first stepped on the Moon in 1969.
Our visit to ILC was in part inspired by our desire to know how a spacesuit is made, and it was further prompted by a current research project to determine why many of the aluminum wrist disconnects of the Museum’s spacesuit gloves (the colored metal ring of the glove that connects it to the spacesuit) are corroding. Part of that research includes understanding the history and methods used to fabricate the gloves.
During our visit, interns were able to tour the facilities. ILC has its own onsite gallery featuring military and aerospace artifacts, and some of these objects are on loan from the National Air and Space Museum. Our guide Bill Ayrey, a Product Testing Engineer at ILC who also volunteers his time for historical research projects at the Museum, discussed how ILC competed with other companies, such as David Clark and B.F. Goodrich, to fabricate the winning spacesuit design in the 1960s. We also learned about the history of the ”Space Race”, and how ILC developed new products to better protect and provide comfort for men and women traveling to space. We even had a chance to hold a pair of 50 lb. pants from the 280 pound space station suit. Interns also got a special behind-the-scenes preview of the factory spaces. Museum and MCI interns learned how patterns are cut and about the different materials used for the space gloves. We observed how the gloves are sewn together, most of which is done manually rather than by machine. Upon completion, gloves are also tested by hand (requiring a hundred or more finger, wrist, and hand flexes) to ensure the integrity of the materials and to “break-in” the gloves for their intended astronauts. Our hands are sore just thinking about it!
Thanks to Mr. Ayrey’s tour of ILC, the interns were able to better appreciate the accomplishments of the United States Air Force and NASA in developing the gear and technology that would eventually get us to space. There was a significant amount of history at ILC and being there was like walking through an actual timeline of the evolution from pressure suits to spacesuits. By having access to artifacts such as the liquid-cooling-undergarment, which astronauts wore underneath the spacesuits to stabilize body temperature, along with extra vehicular activity gloves, helmets, and countless other artifacts, one can begin to really appreciate and respect the efforts and accomplishments of humankind to place a man on the Moon!
Thank you to our supervisors and the ILC staff for a great tour. ILC is still producing spacesuits for NASA projects — check out their website to learn more.
If you had to design your own personal spacesuit, what would it look like? What sort of features would be ”must–haves” for you?
Christina L. Simms and Jaleel Hill are interns in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum.