AidSpace Blog

Three Pilots – One War: Commemorating World War I

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One-hundred years ago, World War I was raging in Europe. In the end, over 17 million lives were lost, among them seven million civilians. More than 40 countries were involved in the most widespread war the world had ever seen, a war that was fought in Europe, the Near East, Africa, East Asia, and on the world’s oceans.

Starting just 11 years after the invention of powered flight, the Great War was the first major conflict in which pilots and airplanes were involved, experiencing their baptism by fire. At the beginning of the war, military applications of the new technology were barely known. At the end of the war, there was a vast array of fighter planes, reconnaissance planes, and bombers. Dogfighting tactics and bombing strategies had been developed, with weapons and armaments now essential elements in military aircraft. World War I transformed fragile flying contraptions, made of wood and fabric, into reliable killing tools, performing at parameters the world could not have imagined just a few years earlier. The image of pilots took on a similar transformation: The intrepid, adventurous birdmen of pre-war years became romantically adored “knights of the air” like Manfred von Richthofen (Germany), Albert Ball (Great Britain), George Guynemer (France), and Eddie Rickenbacker (USA). The lives and kills of these pilot-aces became material for legendary folklore and national propaganda.

I recently returned from Germany where I met with the creators of an amazing online project that allows us to experience this metamorphosis of aviation through the eyes of three ordinary people involved: British pilot Bernard Rice, French pilot Jean Chaput, and German pilot Peter Falkenstein. Three Pilots – One War is a shared project of the Royal Air Force Museum in London, the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace in Paris Airport/Le Bourget, and the Military History Museum of the German Armed Forces/Air Force in Berlin-Gatow. The website has published the letters of these three pilots exactly 100 years after they were first written. Transcribed and translated in all three languages (English, French, and German), the notes allow a glimpse into the everyday life of three young men who were thrown into the upheaval of war. We read about the banalities and dangers of war life, about them showing courage in battle and missing their loved ones. We experience the pride all three of them feel in being a wartime pilot. Enhanced by other personal documents and information, intimate images of the young men begin to emerge before our eyes as we follow their story. The project will continue until the end of 2018, a worthy endeavor to remember the birth of military aviation, and the lives of three young pilots in the Great War—a war that one of them would not survive.


From left: British pilot Bernard Rice, French pilot Jean Chaput, and German pilot Peter Falkenstein. Photos used with permission of the Three Pilots – One War.

The National Air and Space Museum holds a large collection of objects related to World War I aviation that complement the stories told in Three Pilots – One War. At the Museum in Washington, DC, our exhibition Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air reexamines the romantic notions about early aerial warfare and contrasts it with reality. The exhibition also holds a number of rare aircraft: from Germany the Pfalz D.XIIAlbatros D.Va, and Fokker D.VII fighters; from Great Britain the rare Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe fighter; and from France the Voisin Type 8 bomber, the oldest surviving aircraft specifically designed as a bomber. There’s also a SPAD XIII fighter, a type which had been flown by many of the famous Allied pilots of World War I. The SPAD XIII was purchased from its French manufacturer and thus is operationally an American airplane, exclusively flown by an American pilot in an American unit.

The Spad XIII “Smith IV” on display in Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air.

Visitors to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia will find World War I aircraft there as well. Among them are a Caudron G.4, one of the very few remaining multi-engine aircraft of this early period; a Nieuport 28C.1, the first fighter aircraft to serve with an American fighter unit under American command in the war; and a Spad XVI, which was piloted by General William “Billy” Mitchell during many observation flights during the last months of the war. Udvar-Hazy holds a German aircraft of World War I, the Halberstadt CL.IV, one of the best ground attack aircraft of the war.

The 1917 French twin-engine Caudron G.4 has great significance as an early light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. It was a principal type used when critical air power missions were being conceived and pioneered in World War I.

Studying these aircraft and exploring the personal stories of the pilots who flew them illuminates the rapid functional and technological development that military aircraft experienced between 1914 and 1918.

Evelyn Crellin is curator for European Aviation at the National Air and Space Museum. Many thanks to chief curator Peter Jakab for his significant contributions to this blog.

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Finding Pluto With the Blink Comparator

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It all started at a special public lecture at the Museum in July 2014 given by Alan Stern, the lead scientist for the New Horizons mission, which will fly past Pluto this July. Among the attendees was William Lowell Putnam IV, sole trustee of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—the place where Pluto was found in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. It was an exciting evening, not only to learn about the impending flyby but also having a chance to speak with Putnam and the director of the Lowell Observatory, Jeff Hall. I shared with them the Museum’s plans for an upcoming display of a full-scale, mock-up of the New Horizons spacecraft. We had acquired the model from the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in late 2007. It was initially on temporary display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, but at the time of our conversation it was slated for transfer to the Museum in Washington, DC in an upgraded Exploring the Planets gallery, in time for the flyby. Upon hearing of our plans, Putnam suggested that we might like to juxtapose New Horizons with the instrument that Tombaugh used at Lowell to find Pluto in the first place. After all, a portion of Tombaugh’s ashes were sent aboard New Horizons to meet the planet he discovered. Why not commemorate the link by placing the device he used to make the discovery next to the full-scale model?

We excitedly agreed to the generous offer, appreciating that the loan was one of the most significant instruments from Lowell Observatory’s history. On my many visits to the Observatory, partly because I am a member of its advisory board, I always stopped in at the Slipher Building to see the displays celebrating the discovery of Pluto. It shared center stage with another of Lowell’s feats: a spectrograph that V. M. Slipher used on the Lowell Observatory’s 61-centimeter (24-inch) refractor in the years 1912 through 1915 to make the first detections of the expanding universe.

The blink comparator on display in Exploring the Planets.

The device that Tombaugh used to discover Pluto did not work in a telescope dome, but in an office. It is a special form of microscope that allows the user to examine and compare two photographic plates in very close order. The photographic plates Tombaugh was comparing with this machine were 36 x 43 centimeters (14 x 17 inches), and were long exposures taken with a telescopic camera that sported a powerful 33-centimeter (13-inch) diameter lens. Tombaugh took exposures at night, covering areas of the sky where Percival Lowell had predicted years earlier that a planet must be lurking. He then developed those plates, and during the day compared them, spending weeks and months searching vast depths of space looking for something moving among the thousands of stars exposed on those plates. In February 1930, finally, he found something that he could not explain away as a nearby asteroid or some other form of space debris. It moved too slowly to be an asteroid. If it was a planet, it was farther than Neptune, just as Lowell predicted.

Tombaugh operated the instrument, built by the Zeiss company and popularly called a “blink comparator,” by rotating a small dial that flipped a mirror back and forth between the beams from two microscopes. Blinking between two plates taken on January 23 and 29, 1930, he found something. The below animation is flipping between the two plates. Can you find it?  If you’re having trouble spotting Pluto, take a look at the next animation with arrows marking the elusive object. It’s not an easy job, to be sure. The time exposures do not always yield the same brightness, and the orientation of the two fields is not exact.


Images originally from the Lowell Observatory and animated by the author.


Images originally from the Lowell Observatory and animated by the author.

Following up on Putnam’s offer, I contacted Samantha Thompson, who curates the exhibits and archives at Lowell Observatory. Sam was an intern here several years ago and then went on for graduate training in the history of science at Imperial College and then at UC Santa Barbara. Given that Putnam made the offer, she readily complied and set the wheels in motion at Lowell to dismantle a portion of their display, making it ready for a custom art shipper to pack and ship it to Washington.

The blink arrived at the National Air and Space Museum’s Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory at the Udvar-Hazy Center in late March. A team of conservation staff, led by Lisa Young, set to work cleaning it, evaluating it, and taking care that all conditions for display would be met. At the Lowell Observatory, visitors could press a button and solenoids would flip the mirror remotely. The Lowell staff made this modification in the 1990s for their display, and it worked nicely. Visitors could peer through the actual eyepiece, though they could not touch the rest of the instrument itself as it sat inside a Plexiglas case. We decided, however, that even this creative solution was insufficient to guarantee full protection under the conditions we have found to be common at the Museum in Washington, DC with its millions of visitors. Our goal was to remove any chance that a visitor could remove something, or insert something into the vitrine. In three years, the instrument will be returned to the Lowell Observatory 100% intact. While we will completely protect the blink within a case, a video will show how the blinking takes place, complete with arrows of course!

Conservators (from left) Greta Glaser, Steve Pickman, and Lisa Young worked to prepare the blink comparator for display at the Museum in Washington, DC.

We’re excited to share this incredible artifact and the story of the blink comparator in our Exploring the Planets gallery and online. Were you able to spot the moving planet or did you need the help of the arrows?

David DeVorkin is a senior curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

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Did the Brooklyn Dodgers help get us to the Moon?

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In his memoir Moon Lander, Grumman project manager Thomas Kelly describes the exhilaration at Grumman for winning the contract to build what became the Lunar Module (LM), followed by trepidation when the design team realized the severe weight restraints they had to work under in order to get two astronauts safely to the lunar surface and back to lunar orbit. At the outset, Grumman and NASA worked with an initial estimate of 30,200 pounds, which was within the limits of the Saturn V’s booster capability; but this began to grow ominously as the work progressed.  Aircraft engineers were accustomed to a general increase of about 5 to 10 percent from the calculated weight from the engineering drawings to the actual weight of a craft as measured after construction. But  “…the inexorable growth in LM weight was threatening the whole Apollo mission” (page 115 of Moon Lander). The weight of the Ascent Stage, initially budgeted at 10,800 pounds, was especially critical. Any additional pound of weight there generated a “multiplier effect” of requiring more propellant, and with that larger and heavier tanks, etc. on the Descent Stage, which in turn required more thrust, hence more propellant and weight, from the upper stages of the Saturn V booster—all the way down to the Saturn’s first stage.

In late summer 1963, the Grumman engineers came up with a breakthrough that, in hindsight, was a critical factor in achieving President Kennedy’s goal of achieving a landing by the end of the decade. That was to remove the seats from the Ascent Stage, and have the crew stand up. The Moon’s gravity was only 1/6th that of Earth’s; during descent and ascent the crew would be subject to no more than 1/3 G. For those G-forces, a person’s legs make excellent shock absorbers. Removing the seats saved weight and enabled the crew to stand closer to the windows, which in turn could be smaller, and therefore lighter and stronger, while still affording an adequate view. It increased the volume available to the crew in the LM dramatically and made it easier for the crew to don and doff their spacesuits before venturing out on to the Moon’s surface. That decision alone did not solve the weight problem, but it helped a lot. It was one of many critical breakthroughs made during the Apollo program that in hindsight seem miraculous, yet also seem to have happened on a daily basis. (In the official NASA history of the LM program, Chariots for Apollo, the authors Courtney G Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson credit NASA engineers with the idea; Kelly says diplomatically that it was a joint decision, as the teams worked so closely with one another during the planning stages.)

Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad called it a “trolley car configuration,” and enthusiastically supported the design. What did Pete mean by that?

Grumman was an established aircraft manufacturer, located in Bethpage, Long Island (New York). It supplied the U.S. Navy with a number of aircraft, and its experience with designing aircraft that would withstand hard carrier landings probably helped it win the contract for the LM. Most of the Apollo/Saturn development and construction was done in the South or West, but Grumman (and the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, located in Massachusetts), were the exceptions. Bethpage is about 48 kilometers (30 miles) east of the Brooklyn borough of New York. In the early twentieth century, Brooklyn was crisscrossed by a dense network of trolley cars, which ran on the surface of streets. Snobbish residents of Manhattan, which had more underground subways than surface trolleys, called residents of Brooklyn “Trolley Dodgers.” The local Brooklyn baseball team adopted that moniker, later they shortened it to the “Brooklyn Dodgers.”  Here is where Pete Conrad’s observation comes in. Trolley cars were operated not by an “engineer” but by a “motorman,” almost exclusively male. He did not sit in a seat, but rather he stood up (sometimes resting on a tall stool). With his left hand he controlled a device that cut in amounts of electrical current, to regulate the speed—not strictly speaking a throttle but it had the same function. His right hand held a lever that served as a brake.

trolly final

The author at the controls of two trolleys, Baltimore Streetcar Museum. Photo: Diane Wendt

In the Lunar Module, the Commander and Lunar Module Pilot each had a set of controls they operated with each hand. For the Commander, the left hand held a T-shaped handle that regulated the rate of descent, and thrust. The right hand held a joystick that controlled the LM’s attitude and translation across the lunar surface. Not quite the same as a “trolley car configuration” but close.


NASA engineers in 1964 decided that astronauts could stand in the lunar module cabin during the trip to the lunar surface. Illustration: NASA

Neil Armstrong standing in the LM simulator. Note the T-shaped control on the right. Photo: NASA

Did the Grumman engineers have that view in the back of their minds as they struggled with the design of the LM? We don’t know but it is tempting to think so. Professor George Basalla of the University of Delaware wrote, in his book The Evolution of Technology, that what we perceive as technological breakthroughs often have strong evolutionary lines going back into the past. He gives a number of examples, such as the relationship between the Glidden patent for barbed wire, an invention that played a large role in the settlement of the American Great Plains, and the thorns of the Osage Orange bush, used by early pioneers to keep livestock from straying. He mentions others, but not the Lunar Module-Trolley connection. I suggest we add the connection, and with it the Brooklyn “Trolley Dodgers,” America’s most beloved baseball team.


ISS Astronaut Terry Virts celebrating the 68th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, April 15, 2015. @AstroTerry

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




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Happy Mother’s Day

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On Sunday, May 10, the United States and many other countries will be celebrating Mother’s Day. Several National Air and Space Museum Archives collections contain photographs of aviators and their mothers. Here are a few.

Before he was promoted to Brigadier General for leading the 1942 bombing raids on Tokyo, James H. Doolittle was just little Jimmy in Nome, Alaska. His family had followed his father to Alaska to stake their claim in the Gold Rush. During their time there, Jimmy posed with his mother and a cat outside their house (you can even see the snow piles in the background). This photo can be found in the James H. Doolittle Scrapbooks (Acc. No. XXXX-0501), featuring Doolittle’s early years in Nome, his international and domestic travels, the Tokyo raids, and family events.

Jimmy Doolittle and his mother, Rosa Ceremah Shephard Doolittle, in Nome, Alaska. NASM 2002-995

It is probably not easy being the mother of a daring record breaker. Evangeline Lodge Land Lindbergh’s first words upon hearing of her son Charles’ successful solo crossing of the Atlantic were: “I am grateful. There is no use attempting to find words to express my happiness.”  The Lindberghs had separated when young Charles was seven and he and Evangeline frequently traveled between California, Minnesota, and Washington, DC, where Lindbergh’s father, also Charles, was a congressman. In 1923, Lindbergh took his mother barnstorming in Minnesota and Iowa. It is no wonder she posed proudly with her famous son.

Charles Lindbergh poses with his mother, Evangeline Lodge Land Lindbergh. NASM A-2782

Cecil M. Peoli began his aviation career as an award winning model builder and soon was taken under the wing of Captain Thomas S. Baldwin as an exhibition aviator. In August 1912, he made headlines with his plans to break the American passenger-carrying record by flying with his mother, Cassandra Peoli, from Mineola to Governor’s Island in a Baldwin Red Devil. Unfortunately, Peoli died in a 1915 test flight crash in College Park, Maryland, at the age of 22.

Cecil M. Peoli prepares to fly with his mother, Cassandra. NASM 9A01907

Even when not present, his mother was rarely far from an aviator’s mind. During World War II, Sgt. Edmund C. Kock, a member of a heavy bombardment group of the U.S. Army 15th AF, based in southern Italy, looked at a photograph and began his letter to Mrs. George Berruarch with, as the Army Air Force caption reads, “Two little words, familiar to Army men everywhere.” “Dear Mom.”

Sgt. Edmund C. Kock, based in southern Italy with the 15th Air Force, writes a letter home to his mother, Mrs. George Berruarch. NASM 97-17025

Happy Mother’s Day!!

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department. She loves her mother and has fond memories of window shopping with her in downtown DC


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Alexander de Seversky: Influential World War II Air Power Advocate

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With all the activities going on lately about World War II aircraft, I’d like to tell the story of Russian naval pilot Alexander de Seversky, that country’s top naval ace in World War I, who later became one of the most influential proponents of the use of strategic air power in warfare — and Disney film star — in the United States.

De Seversky was born in Triflis, Russia on June 7, 1894, to an aristocratic family. He learned how to fly by age 14 from his father who owned one of the first airplanes in Russia. De Seversky earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Imperial Russian Naval Academy in 1914 — at the outbreak of World War I — and became a second lieutenant in the Imperial Naval Air Service the following year.

Alexander Nikolaievich Prokofiev de Seversky at the controls of an early aircraft. NASM 2003-18715

The first time de Seversky saw combat, he was shot down, losing his lower right leg in the process, but due to his grit and determination he was flying once again a year later, assigned to the Baltic fleet. His luck greatly improved, and during 57 missions de Seversky downed 13 German fighters, making him Russia’s top naval ace. He was awarded the highest honors his country could confer.

In 1918, de Seversky went to the United States as an assistant naval attaché to the Russian Embassy. This was a fortuitous assignment, as it gave him the chance to escape the Bolshevik Revolution by remaining in the U.S. Soon, he was working at the War Department as an aeronautical engineer and test pilot, acting for a time as a special consultant to the famed general, Billy Mitchell, with whom he agreed that supremacy in wartime could be achieved with aerial bombing, not battleships. This was de Seversky’s credo for his entire life.

After becoming a U.S. citizen in 1927, de Seversky received a commission in the Army Air Corps as a major.

De Seversky made numerous contributions to aviation. He filed a patent for aerial refueling in 1921 and developed the first bombsight stabilized with a gyroscope, and invented many other aeronautical instruments. He started an aircraft company and helped design and test his aircraft himself. De Seversky and his design team, headed by Alexander Kartveli, were responsible for the following innovative aircraft:

  • An advanced design amphibian in which he set world speed records from 1933 to 1935
  • The BT-8, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ first monoplane basic trainer developed for that purpose
  • An all metal monoplane that set speed records in the 1933-39 National Air Races and a transcontinental record in 1938
  • The P-35 fighter, predecessor to the P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the great WWII fighters

Alexander de Seversky waves from the cockpit of the Seversky SEV-3M WW. NASM 00174627

Although de Seversky was a design visionary and his company’s greatest salesman, his management skills were lacking and he was forced out when the company was reorganized as Republic Aviation Corporation in 1939. De Seversky then turned to writing, lecturing, and advising, becoming a leading expert on the strategy of aerial warfare. A flamboyant character, he was well-suited to public appearances and often acted as an expert commentator on television and in documentaries.

One of his most conspicuous achievements was the 1942 publication of his first book, Victory Through Air Power, which became a bestseller and a movie. Coming on the heels of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the book’s theme caught the eye of Walt Disney, who believed so strongly in it he financed a movie also called Victory Through Air Power. The two shared a common goal — to awaken the allies to the need for the greater use of strategic air power to combat Germany’s and Japan’s advances. While the first half of the movie is animated, de Seversky appears during the latter half and explains his theory in a multimedia presentation. You can watch the entire film, Victory Through Air Power, with an informative introduction by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, on YouTube.

For his efforts and commitment to the issue of the superiority of aerial bombardment, President Harry Truman presented de Seversky with the Medal of Merit.

De Seversky received many other honors in his adopted country, adding to his long list of Russian awards: the Sports Pilots Association Trophy in 1933, the International Harmon Trophy in 1939 and 1947, the General William E. Mitchell Memorial Award in 1962, and the Exceptional Service Award from the United States Air Force in 1969.

In a June 24, 1947 ceremony on the White House lawn, President Harry S. Truman awarded the International Harmon Trophy to Major Alexander P. de Seversky. The Ligue Internationale des Aviateurs awarded the trophy to de Seversky for "outstanding leadership, patriotism, and unselfish devotion to the security and aeronautical progress of the United States." From left to right: Mrs. Evelyn de Seversky, Major Alexander de Seversky, Secretary of War Robert Patterson, and President Harry S. Truman. Photo courtesy the Harry Truman Library

In a June 24, 1947 ceremony on the White House lawn, President Harry S. Truman awarded the International Harmon Trophy to Major Alexander P. de Seversky. The Ligue Internationale des Aviateurs awarded the trophy to de Seversky for “outstanding leadership, patriotism, and unselfish devotion to the security and aeronautical progress of the United States.” From left to right: Mrs. Evelyn de Seversky, Major Alexander de Seversky, Secretary of War Robert Patterson, and President Harry S. Truman. Photo courtesy the Harry Truman Library

He was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1970 for “his achievements as a pilot, aeronautical engineer, inventor, industrialist, author, strategist, consultant, and scientific advances in aircraft design and aerospace technology.”

De Seversky was married to New Orleans socialite Evelyn Olliphant, who was also well-known as a pilot. She, in fact, learned to fly as a surprise for her husband, and the two of them flew on many trips together. De Seversky died on August 24, 1974.

Watch de Seversky explain his views in this 1957 interview with future 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace.

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

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