The navigator and last surviving crew member of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, passed away on July 28, 2014. On August 6, 1945, he guided the bomber to Hiroshima, Japan, the target of the first atomic bomb to be used in combat. Van Kirk’s experience during World War II illustrated the contributions of countless Americans trained to perform highly-specialized jobs, their role in the overall outcome of the war, and one man’s part in a pivotal moment in human history.
Born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, in February 1921, Van Kirk attended Susquehanna College before entering the U.S. Army Air Forces cadet training program in October 1941. He received his officer’s commission and navigator’s wings the following April and joined the Eighth Air Force’s 97th Bombardment Group in England. Van Kirk was the navigator aboard the 97th’s lead B-17 Flying Fortress, called the Red Gremlin and commanded by pilot Paul Tibbets with Tom Ferebee serving as bombardier. They led the group on its first strategic bombing missions over Europe and North Africa. They also performed special missions including transporting generals Mark Clark and Dwight Eisenhower to their needed locations in anticipation of the critical North African campaign during the fall of 1942. After 58 missions, Van Kirk returned to the United States in June 1943 to serve as a navigation instructor.
Van Kirk reunited with Tibbets and Ferebee in late 1944 to become the lead navigator for the 509th Composite Group, the world’s first atomic bombing force. After months of intensive training at Wendover, Utah, the 509th deployed to Tinian in the Marianas chain in the western Pacific in anticipation of attacking Imperial Japan. On August 6, 1945, Enola Gay followed the 1,500-mile route planned by Van Kirk to deliver an atomic bomb, called Little Boy, to the target city, Hiroshima. Planning the mission required the skilled use of navigational techniques and equipment ranging from the use of a sextant to a LORAN oscilloscope. Another 509th B-29 called Bockscar dropped the atomic bomb, Fat Man, on Nagasaki three days later. On August 15, a recorded radio address by Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies.
Van Kirk earned the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in World War II. After the war, Van Kirk and the 509th participated in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll under Operation Crossroads. He left the Army Air Forces shortly thereafter. Van Kirk attended Bucknell University, worked as a marketing executive for the DuPont Company, and raised a family. In his later years, Van Kirk shared his perspective on his service with the 509th as a voice for the World War II generation and its views on the use of atomic weapons.
Jeremy Kinney is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
Walking through the tall glass doors into the National Air and Space Museum for the first day of my internship wasn’t quite what I expected. I had always pictured a noisy museum bustling with tourists and crowds, but what I encountered was just the opposite. In the morning before people arrive, the museum is a quiet and awe-inspiring place. Historic planes and spacecraft hang from the high ceilings, and rockets stand on the floor, so tall they seem to barely fit. The Apollo 11 module, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1, and other impressive historical milestones greeted me the day I arrived.
But what truly captivated me this summer was feeling a personal connection to the history of aviation. I’ve always been interested in the topic, largely because my dad was a Marine Corps fighter pilot. Until this summer I hadn’t had a chance to truly dive into the subject, and finally learning about what my dad did as a pilot has given me a new perspective on his career.
He flew F -18s for most of his pilot days, but he also flew F-4 Phantoms, the same plane used for simulator rides here at the museum. I’m sure piloting the simulator isn’t nearly as thrilling (or difficult) as flying a real fighter jet, but it gave me a small taste of my dad’s everyday job. Just like in a real jet, for safety, I had to strap into the shoulder and lap belt harness. When the simulator started, I could perform many of the same maneuvers as a real airplane – even full barrel rolls. After taking off from an aircraft carrier, I used the control stick to chase the targets on the simulator screen, rolling side-to-side and flipping upside down. By the end of the ride, my heart was pounding. It’s hard to imagine the pressure of flying that way in real life – at least inside the simulator death isn’t a real fear. As soon as I hopped out of the ride, I emailed my dad to tell him how exciting my three minutes of pretend-jet-flying had been. He responded by telling me, not for the first time in my life, that he had the “best job in the world.” I never understood the excitement he felt until now.
A few weeks later I had another memorable experience with an F-4 Phantom II, this time with the actual plane my dad had flown. His squadron painted it the same way it had been when they were deployed in Da Nang, Vietnam, and now the plane is housed at the Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. I felt incredibly proud of my dad and this country when I stood next to his plane. The skill it takes to fly such a complicated piece of technology is astounding, and seeing the real aircraft and knowing the person who flew it make the task even more remarkable. Taking off and landing such a huge machine at high speeds with extreme precision requires a special kind of focus and dedication. I’m amazed at the abilities of the people in the U.S. military, and this museum reminds me everyday of what they have accomplished.
My dad retired from 29 years in the Marine Corps a few years ago and has been working at a U.S. Embassy in Africa for the State Department. Last weekend he returned from his two year assignment in Sudan, and I was finally able to show him in person all the artifacts I learned about and projects I worked on this summer. Communication was difficult while he was away, and we usually only spoke through email. Sometimes it would be weeks between conversations, but this internship has given me plenty to tell him. After riding the flight simulators and seeing his F-4 Phantom II, I met the four-star Marine General who directs the Museum (his dad has an airplane at the Museum too), and talked to a Top Gun instructor who taught while my dad was there. It’s moments like these, when I feel a deep connection between myself and the Museum, that I’ve enjoyed the most in these past few months.
This summer experience has been much more than a simple internship. I came to D.C. expecting to learn workplace skills, but I’ve gained something better: a new appreciation for my father and aviation.
Casey Tissue is a summer intern in the Web & New Media Department at the National Air and Space Museum.
Thursday, July 17, was an exciting day at the Paul E. Garber Restoration Facility, and another step towards the completion of one major aircraft currently undergoing restoration: the wing of the Heinkel He 219 Uhu night fighter was prepared for its move to the Udvar Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA. The He 219 was Germany’s best night fighter in World War II, and possibly the best night fighter of the war. It was a piston-engine aircraft specifically designed for night fighting operation — a status it shared with only one other aircraft in the war, the American Northrop P-61 Black Widow. Notable features include the first steerable nose wheel on an operational German aircraft, the world’s first ejection seats on an operational aircraft, and cannons mounted to fire at an oblique angle (the so-called “Schräge Musik”).
The Museum’s He 219, built in 1944, has been undergoing restoration for many years. Its fuselage and engines are already exhibited at Udvar-Hazy Center. The wing — with a span of about approximately 19 meters (63 feet) — had undergone painting at the Garber paint shop, while being kept on a special-built, two-piece stand that would enable the restoration team to rotate the wing from an upright attitude to its normal horizontal position, a necessary step to get the heavy and unwieldy object ready for transport on a flatbed truck.
On the morning of July 17, 2014, about a dozen employees from the restoration workshop and the Collections Processing Unit (CPU) were involved in flipping the wings 90 degrees, a process that took three hours and involved some heavy lifting, with the wings weighing in at about 2,223 kilograms (4,900 pounds), and the stand at an additional 454 kilograms (1,000 pounds).
Within the weeks to come, the wing will be taken to the Udvar-Hazy Center where it will receive its final coat of green/blue Wellenmuster (wave pattern) camouflage paint, before being assembled with the fuselage later this year. Meanwhile, curatorial staff, restoration experts, and volunteers are working on the last major component toward the completion of the aircraft — the replacement of the He 219’s famous ”stag antlers” FuG 220 antenna array. The Museum’s aircraft lost its antenna at some point in its lifetime. An original FuG 220 antenna array from a European museum will be brought to the Udvar-Hazy Center later this year, where Museum staff will reverse-engineer the components, in order to complete the night fighter’s identity. Once finished, our He 219 will be the only aircraft of its kind on display worldwide.
Evelyn Crellin is a curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Dave Wilson, museum specialist in the restoration workshop, contributed to this blog.
There is no question that the success of Project Apollo in the 1960s helped to create a culture of competence for NASA that translated into a level of confidence in American capability, and especially in the ability of government to perform effectively, to resolve any problem. Something that almost sounds unthinkable in the early twenty-first century but such was indeed the case in the 1960s.
Recollections of the Apollo program’s technology lead many to express wonder at the sophistication of the technical competence that made the Moon landings possible and the genius of those that built the rockets and spacecraft that carried Americans into space. Farouk el-Baz, a scientist who worked on the program, expressed well this sense of awe at the Moon landings: “Oh, the Apollo program! It was a unique effort all together. When I think about it some 40 years later, I still look at that time with wonder.”
This is all the more the case because of the relative lack of complexity of the technology used to go to the Moon in the 1960s. Many express wonder that there is more computing power in a pocket calculator than in the Apollo guidance computer. Others are surprised that something as simple as writing in space required the development of a new type of pen, with the ink under pressure so that it could write in a weightless environment.
American belief in the technical virtuosity of NASA, an agency that could accomplish any task assigned it, can be traced directly to the experience of Apollo and its legacy of success. The success in reaching the Moon established a popular conception that one could make virtually any demand and the space agency would deliver. This has remained a powerful image in American culture.
Despite tragedies along the way, including the near disaster of Apollo 13 and the very public Challenger and Columbia accidents that killed 14 astronauts, the vast majority of the public remains convinced that NASA has the capability to succeed at whatever it attempts. The Moon landings established that image in the American mind and it has been difficult to tarnish despite the space agency’s very public failures after Apollo.
Of course, there has also been concern about an undefined sense of declension present in so many parts of recent American society. They have expressed a desire to recapture what may be conceived of as a can-do spirit and a genuine technological virtuosity that existed in the 1960s but has declined since. For one, Farouk el-Baz bemoaned: “This is why I believe that my generation has failed the American people in one respect. We considered Apollo as an enormous challenge and a singular goal. To us, it was the end game. We knew that nothing like it ever happened in the past and behaved as if it would have no equal in the future.”
The technology required to reach the Moon was certainly more complex than anything ever attempted before, but was firmly understood at the time that the program began. NASA engineers reasoned, first, that they needed a truly powerful rocket with a larger payload capacity than any envisioned before. As a second priority, they recognized the need for a spacecraft that could preserve the life of fragile human beings for at least two weeks; this included both a vehicle akin to a small submarine but one that could operate in space and a second spacecraft in the form of a spacesuit that allowed the astronauts to perform tasks outside the larger vehicle. Third, they needed some type of landing craft that would be able to operate in an environment at the Moon far different from anything found on or near Earth. Finally, they needed to develop the technologies necessary for guidance and control, communication, and navigation to reach the Moon.
In every case, and this proved critical, planners at NASA understood the nature of the technical challenges before them in reaching for the Moon so they could chart a reasonable and well-defined technology development course for overcoming them.
For the generation of Americans who grew up during the 1960s watching NASA astronauts fly into space, beginning with 15-minute suborbital trajectories and culminating with six landings on the Moon, Project Apollo signaled in a very public manner how well the nation could do when it set its mind to it. Television coverage of real space adventures was long and intense, the stakes high, and the risks of life enormous. There were moments of both great danger and high anxiety.
Project Apollo was a triumph of management in meeting enormously difficult systems engineering, technological, and organizational integration requirements.
Indeed, the Moon landing program came to exemplify the best Americans could bring to any challenge, and has been routinely deployed to support the nation’s sense of greatness. As one example, Actor Carroll O’Connor perhaps said it best in the midst of the Moon landing effort in an episode of All in the Family in 1971. Portraying the character of Archie Bunker, the bigoted working class American whose perspectives were more common in our society than many observers were comfortable admitting, O’Connor represented well how most Americans embraced the success of the Apollo program. Archie Bunker observed to a visitor to his house in the sitcom that he had “a genuine facsimile of the Apollo 14 insignia. That’s the thing that sets the US of A apart from…all them other losers.” In very specific terms, Archie Bunker encapsulated for many what set the United States apart from other nations: success in space flight.
More recently, another reference from popular culture points up the lasting nature of this sense of success granted the nation through its Apollo Moon landings. In the critically acclaimed television situation comedy Sports Night, about a team that produces a nightly cable sports broadcast, one episode in 2001 included a telling discussion of space exploration. The fictional sports show’s executive producer, Isaac Jaffee, played by Robert Guillaume, is recovering from a stroke and disengaged from the daily hubbub of putting together the nightly show. His producer, Dana Whitaker, played by Felicity Huffman, keeps interrupting him as he reads a magazine about space exploration. Isaac tells her, “They’re talking about bio-engineering animals and terraforming Mars.” When I started reporting Gemini missions, just watching a Titan rocket liftoff was a sight to see. In the process, the Isaac Jaffee character affirms his basic faith in NASA to carry out any task in space exploration. “You put an X anyplace in the solar system,” he says, “and the engineers at NASA can land a spacecraft on it.”
The technological virtuosity remains to this day. It has long supported an emphasis on nation greatness and offers solace in the face of other setbacks. At a basic level the Moon landings provided the impetus for the perception of NASA as a successful organization, and the U.S. as the world leader in science and technology. Might NASA and the United States return to those thrilling days in the twenty-first century?
Roger D. Launius is associate director for collections and curatorial affairs at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Passed over S.F. Bay Bridge, along Embarcadero, Marina, Presidio, etc. Just after passing over Golden Gate Bridge encountered low cumulus clouds on the coast. “On top” from there on over “snowy desert.” Later clear & broken—smooth air. Early morning, “detoured” to south to avoid several storm areas. Arrived Honolulu (Pearl City) after passing over “Diamond Head” & Waikiki Beach. Very elaborate “Hawaiian welcome.”
These brief observations, written by Richard F. Bradley on October 21–22, 1936, hardly hint at the enormity of the occasion. The aviation manager for the San Francisco office of Standard Oil, Bradley was one of seven lucky people to acquire a ticket to fly that day on Pan American Airways’ Hawaii Clipper. Bradley, in fact, held Ticket No. 1 for that inaugural passenger flight to Hawaii.
Bradley wrote those words in a small souvenir log book, presented to him by Pan American Airways and now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum Archives. I came across it while looking for artifacts and images relating to travel to Hawaii. Leather bound and enclosed in its own sleeve, the log book is embossed with Bradley’s name and personally signed by Pan Am founder and president Juan Trippe.
In the log book, Bradley recorded the details of his flight from Pan Am’s base at Alameda on San Francisco Bay to Hawaii, and then on to Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, and back again. It includes a single page for each day of the 10-day flight, which accounts for Bradley’s brevity. He notes departure and arrival times, distances flown, average speeds, and times aloft, along with other things he saw or experienced.
As you travel the same route today in a jetliner, you probably don’t realize just how big a deal it once was to reach Hawaii by air. To get a better sense of why, turn and tilt a globe so the Hawaiian Islands are dead center. Nearly all the rest of that hemispherical view is water. Located near the middle of the world’s largest ocean, Hawaii is one of the most remote places on Earth. The route Bradley flew from San Francisco to Honolulu was at that time the longest landless air route in the world. Beyond the small rocky islands just past the Golden Gate, not a single spot of land breaks the waves for 2,400 miles. Out over the Pacific with nothing below me for hours but water, I still get a little nervous thinking about that.
Bradley’s flight on the Hawaii Clipper marked the beginning of transpacific air travel and followed years of planning and preparation. Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh had scouted a great circle route to the Orient for Pan Am that followed the North Pacific rim. But obtaining operating rights in Asia proved problematic, so Juan Trippe decided to create a route across the Central Pacific via Hawaii and other U.S. possessions. Pan Am had to plan and survey the route, establish bases on islands across the Pacific, and build hotels and other facilities for passengers on remote Midway Island, uninhabited Wake Island, and the territory of Guam.
Pan Am also needed a new seaplane large enough and powerful enough to carry a load big enough and far enough to make the whole enterprise feasible. The airline worked with the Glen L. Martin Company of Baltimore to develop such an aircraft. While Pan Am surveyed the route and built the bases, Martin designed and built the three largest air transports yet created: the Martin M-130 clippers. The China Clipper gained lasting fame on November 22, 1935, when it left San Francisco Bay to inaugurate regularly scheduled transpacific air service. For the next year, while passenger accommodations were being completed, the China Clipper and its sister ships, the Philippine Clipper and Hawaii Clipper, carried cargo and mail back and forth across the Pacific. By October 1936, the route was finally ready for passenger service.
The Martins were huge planes for their time, but even so, the extra fuel needed for the flight from California to Hawaii, the longest hop on the transpacific route, limited the number of passengers they could carry. Richard Bradley shared the spacious cabin with only six other passengers. Future flights would carry as many as 13, but more often the crew would outnumber the passengers.
That wasn’t the only thing that made membership in this particular flying club so exclusive. The one-way fare from San Francisco to Manila was set at $799. That amounts to almost $14,000 in today’s dollars. Not until after World War II and the introduction of faster and more economical aircraft would transpacific air travel begin to become more affordable.
Bradley’s log book contains a map of the route and a brief history of it, and then the 10 pages where Bradley wrote about each day’s flight. Here you can read his notes on winds and weather and the impact of storms on other clipper flights, about his crossings of the International Date Line, and about beautiful views and memorable meals. The end pages are devoted to autographs of the crew, passengers, and others he met. A few of the names may sound familiar.
Topping the list of crew signatures is Captain Edwin C. Musick, Pan Am’s most famous and accomplished pilot. Musick led the surveys that established the route and piloted the China Clipper on its first transpacific flight. In 1938 Musick and his crew perished on the Samoan Clipper when the aircraft exploded in flight.
Beneath Musick’s name is First Officer H. E. Gray, another top Pan Am pilot, one of the first 10 hired by Pan Am. Harold Gray became president of Pan Am after Juan Trippe retired in 1968 after leading the airline for more than 40 years.
Also on the crew list is the signature of another famous flyer, F. J. Noonan. One of the best navigators of his day, Fred Noonan later left Pan Am and accompanied Amelia Earhart on her ill-fated round-the-world flight in 1937, from which neither returned.
The Hawaii Clipper on which Bradley flew has its own tragic story. In 1938, six months after the Samoan Clipper explosion, the Hawaii Clipper and all its passengers and crew vanished without a trace somewhere between Guam and Manila. What happened to it is another of aviation’s enduring mysteries.
On the last page of Bradley’s log book is a final interesting item: his “Passenger’s Identification Coupon,” imprinted with a special commemorative stamp and stating his itinerary, baggage weight allowance, and fare. How much did it cost Bradley to take part in this “Special Inaugural Flight”? The fare printed on the coupon is $3,000—which amounts to more than $50,000 today.
Thanks for reading; I have to go. I’m putting the final touches on a new exhibition that will open in the Museum on July 25. It’s called Hawaii by Air.
David Romanowski, is the Writer-Editor in the Exhibits Department of the National Air and Space Museum.