Book Review: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

If you have any interest in aviation history, pick up a copy of David McCullough’s latest book: The Wright Brothers, published earlier this year. Having read other books about this famous duo, it was with some apprehension that I opened this latest work.   It didn’t take more than a few pages to become captivated by the story, masterfully woven by McCullough. More so than the other books I am familiar with, this account made it feel like I knew Wilbur and Orville, as well as their sister, Katharine, another key member of the team. How these individuals from a seemingly “normal” middle class family in Dayton, Ohio managed to succeed over others better equipped and financed, is a fascinating tale that goes beyond the mechanics of aviation. This is why McCullough found it a worth story to research and share with the world.

coverThe first part of the book introduces the Wright family in some detail. Much of the foundation that set the course for the Wright Brothers is found there in the form of a rich home environment that provided a well-rounded education. Even though neither brother finished high school, there was “much encouragement to intellectual curiosity” that extended beyond the classroom. Their father, a bishop in his church who spent months at a time away from home, provided a role model that demonstrated both a strong work ethic, and that it was OK to be focused on a mission—even one that might not be popular. Conquering the problem of manned flight was not something that the brothers grew up with, as their interests and talents were quite broad including athletics, music, reading, even cooking.

An event that most likely did lead them to the “aviation question” was of a different nature. During his senior year in high school, Wilbur was struck in the face with a hockey stick, resulting in the loss of most of his upper teeth. This incident and the three-year convalescence that followed changed the direction of his life, causing him to drop plans of attending college. As largely a home-bound recluse, he began to read widely which brought Otto Lilienthal, the German glider enthusiast, to his attention. There are many twists and turns along the way, which McCullough does a masterful job of weaving into the story, making it hard to put down.

Wilbur Wright at the controls over Le Mans, France. This was the location of the first public demonstration of the Wright Flyer aircraft, which made the Wright Brothers famous overnight.

Wilbur Wright at the controls over Le Mans, France. This was the location of the first public demonstration of the Wright Flyer aircraft, which made the Wright brothers famous overnight.

The book fully describes the events leading to the famous 12 second flight in 1903 we celebrate as the “take off” of powered flight at Kitty Hawk. While a significant milestone, it was almost another five years of pain-staking trial and error development that followed before the real public roll-out of aviation. That occurred in Le Mans, France on August 8, 1908. On the track that was used for horse races, Wilbur made the first public demonstration of the Flyer. The French, at the time, were more active in aviation development than the United States, and considered themselves the leaders in this arena. Many believed that the Wright brothers were bluffing with regard to their accomplishments of “controlled flight.” Toward the end of that day, after long and careful preparations, Wilbur took off, flew a simple race-track pattern and landed almost exactly on the spot he had departed. It lasted only about two minutes, but the crowd went wild. Pilots in the audience, including Louis Bleriot, were stunned by the control that had been demonstrated. Overnight, Wilbur’s flight made worldwide headlines. Why this took place in France and not in the US is a fascinating part of the story, which I won’t risk spoiling.

Last week, I heard David McCullough speak about the Wright brothers, and some of the elements that most intrigued him about this story. He credited the home environment, created by their parents as providing the brothers an exposure to the world beyond their hometown. He pointed out that Dayton was the source of many patents at the time, including the invention of the cash register, which became a huge business there. McCullough noted that pre-1903 most of the population believed that manned flight was impossible. Consequently, people that pursued that goal were by definition suspect, if not outright wackos. He also observed that the brothers were able to learn from their failures, yet were not deterred from their quest.

The magnitude of their accomplishments went well beyond figuring out the design of an airplane. Wilbur and Orville taught themselves how to fly—a task that even today is no small undertaking. They realized that aviation was a potentially dangerous activity, which had killed earlier experimenters including German glider enthusiast Otto Lilienthal. Consequently, they implemented risk management practices. The brothers didn’t fly together, so that if a fatal crash occurred one would remain to continue the mission. It wasn’t until a celebration in 1910 that the two brothers flew together, for the first and only time, which McCullough cites as a recognition that they had accomplished their goal.

The Wright Brothers runs to over 250 pages, richly illustrated with photographs, diagrams and documents. It topped the New York Times Best Seller list for multiple months, which suggests that more than pilots are finding this piece of American history worth reading.  If you pick up a copy, be prepared to strap in and enjoy the ride!

 For a brief glimpse of Wilbur Wright flying in Le Mans, France in 1908, check out this short video.

Winging It: Where Alaska’s aviation system came from

A lot of my time is spent advocating for the aviation infrastructure that we count on to fly around Alaska.  Airports, nav aids, weather stations, Flight Service, weather cameras, etc. are all things that we use and often take for granted. But where did they come from?  If you are at all interested in that question, check out Jack Jefford’s book Winging It,  originally published in 1981, but more recently released in paperback.

winging it coverJack Jefford came to Alaska in the fall of 1937, to take a job flying for Hans Mirow in Nome.  Like many pilots of the time he learned to fly by shear persistence. Jefford kicked around the mid-west trying any way he could to make flying into a career—including a stint as a barn-stormer—before coming north.  Travel to and from Alaska at that time was by ship. Once arriving in Nome, the airplane was pressed into almost around-the-clock service transporting miners to the creeks for the short summer season.  Aviation was all by visual reference, when the weather allowed.  “City” airports were located at the larger communities like Fairbanks, Anchorage, Nome, Bethel. In-between, the airports literally were “fields” or gravel bars; frozen rivers, lakes and sea-ice in the winter months.

Pre-1940, radios were just starting to be installed in airplanes.  Not the VHF radios we know today, but HF radios initially requiring the pilot to learn Morse Code.  Even that was greatly appreciated, Jefford explains, when he crashed in the mountains east of Nome in severe winter conditions. The distress call he tapped out in code eventually brought local natives on dog teams to his rescue, ending his six day ordeal.

In the spring of 1940, Jefford made a change that corresponded with a huge growth spurt in aviation infrastructure development. He was hired by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (precursor to the FAA), as an Airways Flight Inspector just as the country was headed into World War II.  This was the start of his government career which “…would span thirty two years and over twenty thousand flying hours.” It put him in the cat-bird seat during the establishment of the initial airway structure that linked Alaska to Seattle, and connected the communities across the state.

The Japanese invading the Aleutian Islands certainly kicked military activity into high gear. A number of Jefford’s stories involve building the airports and airways down the chain.  The federal DLAND (Development of Landing Areas for National Defense) Program started in 1940, and poured $400 million into the development and improvement of military airfields across the nation.  Over two dozen airports in Alaska were constructed or improved under that program, many of which would later be turned over to the Territory (and eventually the State).  Jefford spent considerable time shuttling engineers and equipment between these construction projects.  Airstrips constructed under the DLAND program included King Salmon, Cordova, McGrath, Galena, Northway and Moses Point, to name a few.

At the same time, radio ranges to establish IFR airways were under construction.  These were low-frequency ranges that operated with dots and dashes to define the different “beams” leading to the station.

Not only did Jefford help site these facilities and transport the teams in to construct them, his job included flight checking and hauling the supplies to the technicians, specialists and families that staffed the network of facilities. Some of the most compelling stories center around rescue missions.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

One memorable event took place on December 11, 1950.  The CAA manager at the Illiamna station, also a relatively new private pilot, crashed his Piper Clipper near the small community of Nondalton, on the shores of Lake Clark– badly injuring himself and his passenger.  The military flew a doctor to Illiamna, who was transported by dog sled to treat the injured pilot and passenger. He reported that the pilot was in critical condition, not stable enough for dog sled transport, and in need of air evacuation to Anchorage. Snow and icing, severe enough to force a military rescue helicopter to retreat, thwarted an earlier rescue attempt.  Departing from Anchorage in the FAA’s DC-3, Jefford encountered moderate icing as he crossed the Alaska Range but made the approach into Illiamna, which was reporting a 500 foot ceiling and less than a mile visibility. He managed to land and waited for conditions to improve.  Reports from the doctor advised that the injured pilot probably wouldn’t survive the night if he couldn’t get advanced medical attention.  After testing the snow cover on the unplowed crosswind runway at Illiamna in a truck, Jefford asked the residents of Nondalton to put out an array of gas lanterns on the lake ice in front of the village.  The flight crew calculated how many minutes they could fly the north leg of the low-frequency range before arriving at Nondalton, knowing that beyond were the peaks of the Alaska Range.  Jefford took off and flew the prescribed number minutes before being forced to circle back—without seeing any lights. On the second try he extended slightly, and just as he started his turn back, a crew member spotted the lanterns, allowing them to land on the unconsolidated snow. The deceleration in the unpacked snow made for a very short landing roll, requiring all of Jeffords talents to keep the Dug from nosing over.  After loading the patient and doctor, it took multiple attempts before they were able to get airborne, and make the trip back across the mountains to Anchorage.

This book is not a traditional biography, but was developed from many hours of tape-recorded stories Jefford told over a five year period.  It reads as though you were listening to the master story teller himself.  He and the CAA/FAA employees of that era transformed Alaskan aviation, allowing the development of more reliable service.  Low frequency airways gave way to VOR-based airways that are now the “legacy system” we are watching transition to space-based navigation.  Even though Alaska still has a sparse network of infrastructure in comparison to the lower-48 states, it is good to look back and appreciate what aviation was like in earlier times.  A big THANK YOU to Jack’s daughter Carmen Jefford Fisher, who with the assistance of her husband Mark and the late Cliff Cernick, made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy Jack Jefford’s stories—and have a greater appreciation for the men and women who developed aviation system we rely on today!

Aerial photography: a time machine

Cameras and airplanes have been used together for many years.  The vantage point that an airplane provides—the ability to look down from above—is a powerful perspective when it comes to seeing patterns in the landscape.  One simply can’t get this view from standing on the ground.  While exciting to experience in flight, it is even more powerful to capture with a camera and bring this view back to earth.  Now one can examine the landscape in detail, take measurements, create maps and make all kinds of interpretations.  Geologists use them to help prospect for oil. Foresters determine the volume and location of wood resources. Biologists map animal habitat. The list goes on…

A fundamental property of a photograph is time.  The fraction of a second the shutter is open freezes a little slice of time, which turns a photograph into a record of the past from the instant the shutter closes.  So it was with much interest that I recently opened the August 25th edition of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner to discover an oblique aerial photograph taken over my home city (Fairbanks) some 70+ years ago.

A few days later, I was contacted by the Fairbanks metropolitan transportation planning organization, who had also seen the photograph, and wanted to locate a recent image from a similar vantage point for comparison.  A couple weeks later the weather cooperated, and I managed to bring camera and airplane together to orbit over Fairbanks and attempt to replicate the photo from the late 1940’s.  Then the real fun began, in comparing features from the two images.

Viewing 74 years of change

Aerial photograph of Fairbanks, taken June 17, 1393.

Aerial photograph of Fairbanks, taken June 17, 1939. Sources: Fairbanks Daily News Miner, Archive Source: Aerometric.

Modern view of Fairbanks, acquired September 24, 2013.

Modern view of Fairbanks, acquired September 24, 2013.

Fairbanks, Alaska in 1939.  Some research helped put a more precise date on the old aerial.  It was taken on June 17, 1939, and the negative of this image (frame 3224) is still in the archives at Aerometric in Anchorage.  [Coincidentally, this image was taken just a month after AOPA was incorporated. AOPA will be celebrating it’s 75th anniversary next year.]

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two images is the Chena River, which bisects down town Fairbanks. In the 1939 photo it much larger than today.  Even though the old image is black and white, the light tone of the river is because it was filled with water laden with glacial silt. At the time, this stretch of the river was a slough of the much larger Tanana River, whose main channel flows a few miles south of town (see map below).  Modern flood control structures upstream today (hopefully) keep the glacier fed Tanana river water out of the Chena, leaving it a smaller, but clearer river. And making the town to be less susceptible to flooding.

Then sporting a population of something over 3,000 people, Fairbanks has obviously grown with houses and buildings filling in where fields or undisturbed land once prevailed.  Today downtown Fairbanks has a population over 30,000 and the surrounding metro area is just shy of 100,000.  In the background of the 1939 picture, just on the southern edge of town is Weeks Field, the city airstrip.  As with airports at many communities then and now, the town grew up around the airport, eventually forcing it to move.  Today, the stretch of land that was Weeks Field is occupied by Lathrop High School and the Noel Wien Library on one end, extending to Growden Memorial Park, other ball fields, and the Carlson Community Activity Center on the other.

Looking ahead
In the upper right corner of the modern photograph—barely visible—is the northern edge of Fairbanks International Airport.   The map (below) is part of a 1952 USGS topographic map which at that time depicts Weeks Field as well as the newly constructed “Fairbanks Airport” that would grow to become a major transportation hub for Fairbanks and interior Alaska, responsible for over 2,000 jobs and a total economic impact of about $225 M annually to Fairbanks and the State of Alaska.

Portion of the 1952 USGS topo map of Fairbanks. White arrow shows location and direction of the aerial photos above. The map shows both the location of Weeks Field and the location of the modern Fairbanks International Airport.

Portion of the 1952 USGS topo map of Fairbanks. White arrow shows location and direction of the aerial photos above. The map shows both the location of Weeks Field and the location of the modern Fairbanks International Airport.

Comparing these two pictures certainly made me appreciate some of the changes that have taken place over time.  Photographs and images taken from the “aerial perspective” can be powerful tools to study the present and appreciate change through time.  In thinking about the next 75 years, we will need to remain vigilant to ensure that future growth at Fairbanks doesn’t threaten the viability of the airport, which fortunately has a good buffer of land around it today.  I hope someone acquiring an aerial image 75 years from now will be able to report that we were good stewards of our towns and airports for the generations to follow!

Centennial of Flight in Alaska

This Fourth of July marks 100 years since the first powered flight in Alaska.

Lily and James Martin with their Gage-Martin biplane in Fairbanks, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-081)

Lily and James Martin with their Gage-Martin biplane in Fairbanks, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-081)

It happened during the Fourth of July in 1913, in Fairbanks.  Early day aviator and inventor, James V. Martin and his wife Lily, (also a pilot) made the lengthy trip from Seattle to demonstrate what would come to be known as ‘the aviation.’  Sponsored by a group of local businessmen, the bi-winged Gage-Martin aircraft, with a 60 horse power motor, was crated and transported by ship through southeast Alaska to Skagway, transferred to the White Pass Railroad for the trip to Whitehorse and loaded on a stern-wheeler for the long trip down the Yukon to Tanana, The final leg up the journey was by another riverboat up the Tanana and Chena Rivers to Fairbanks.  According to aviation historian and University of Alaska Film Archivist Dirk Tordoff, the journey was made in just over twenty days—with good connections—which was quite efficient travel at that time.

The plan for Fairbanks was to make demonstration flights out of the local ball field, as part of the Fourth of July festivities. This timing was good, Tordoff asserts, as that holiday was the only time in the short summer season that the miners (which WAS the economy of the day) took time away from their diggings to celebrate.  The riverboat companies cut their fares in half, allowing miners from across the region to attend the holiday festivities.  So an audience was guaranteed. Tickets sold for $2.50 a head would cover the cost of the aerial demonstration.

Fairbanks flight on July 4, 1913.  (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-011d)

Fairbanks flight on July 4, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-011d)

Devil and details
But like most things in aviation, the devil is in the details.  Martin’s aircraft required high-octane fuel that had been ordered, but didn’t arrive for several days, forcing him to operate on low-octane fuel. The poor engine performance required securing the tail with a spring setup, which was released by his wife when full power was developed, and even then he barely made it into the air.  Another problem: it was a bad wildfire year, and the smoke in the area was thick enough that visibility was a factor (something that still plagues Fairbanks aviators on occasion).  Consequently, during his test flights on July 3rd, he only managed to climb a few hundred feet, and stayed over familiar landmarks, right over the city itself.  This allowed the population of the town, about 3,500 people at the time, to realize they didn’t need to buy a high priced ticket (almost 60 bucks in today’s dollars), but could easily view the show from their own roof or wood pile.  A series of five flights were made between July 3-5, according to Tordoff. While thrilling for Fairbanksians, it was a commercial disaster for the businessmen.  The further plan had been to sell the aircraft in Alaska, but given the limited performance, there were no takers and the plane was taken apart and shipped back to Seattle, where it disappeared from the historic record, Tordoff told an audience in Fairbanks recently.  While a commercial failure, this event signaled the start of aviation, which over the next few decades would significantly alter transportation in Alaska, with airplanes displacing mail routes otherwise served by dogsled, and transporting miners in two hours over a distance that previously took weeks to cover. This flight occurring just as the first successful climb of Mt. McKinley was completed—which required a combined total of almost 1,500 miles of dogsled, snowshoe, hiking and river travel—make the contrast of how airplanes have changed Alaska particularly noteworthy.

Commemorating that historic ‘waypoint’

AACentennial-PosterRecognizing that a century has passed since this event, the Alaska Airshow Association has organized an ambitious plan with a group of warbirds and other vintage aircraft to make the rounds of many Alaskan communities.  They started in Cordova on May 9th, and are scheduled to appear in Fairbanks to celebrate the actual first flights on July 4th.  They, and other vintage aircraft from Fairbanks, will launch just before noon and fly over celebrations in Ester, Fairbanks and North Pole before returning to the airport for further festivities.  This flight is timed to ‘parade’ over Pioneer Park at noon as part of their Fourth of July ceremony.

Back on the East Ramp at Fairbanks International Airport, The Alaska Airmen’s Association is coordinating an event in conjunction with the Airshow Association to treat the public to free hot dogs and popcorn (food you would find a hundred years ago), an opportunity to see the airplanes “up close and personal” and to meet the pilots.  At the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Facility, 3504 South University Avenue, a museum display about the centennial will be set up for viewing, youth activities are planned, and did I mention the free hot dogs?  Pilots will sign commemorative posters, and talk about the aircraft they are flying.  The finale will be at 3 p.m. when the aircraft take off and fly a race track pattern around the airport, before heading south to their next destination.  If you are in Fairbanks (or want to fly in for the occasion), come out to enjoy the fun, and reflect on how far aviation has progressed in 100 years. Or just to enjoy a free hot dog!

Book Review: The Long Way Home

In early December, 1941 a Pan Am fly boat commanded by Captain Robert Ford and his long way home book covercrew of ten had almost completed their scheduled flight from San Francisco across the Pacific to Auckland, New Zealand. As the radio operator scanned the airwaves, he caught an AM radio station broadcast with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor—which they had left only three days before.  Shortly thereafter, a Morse Coded message (their only long range form of communication) instructed them to “Implement Plan A” a Top Secret, sealed document all Pan Am captains had carried in the preceding months. Once opened, they realized that their world had changed.  The arrival in Auckland was uneventful, but that would be their home for more than a week, until further instructions were received. Now they learned that it was no longer possible to return along their normal routes. The crew was directed to remove any identifiable markings from the aircraft, maintain radio silence, under no circumstances allow the aircraft to fall into enemy hands, and proceed west to Laguardia, New York.  At the time, the company had no routes established “to the west” until reaching the Atlantic, off the coast of Africa.  They also had no charts, weather, radio frequencies or other information any pilot, GA or airline, would want to undertake such a trip.  They were literally, in uncharted territory!

What follows is an adventure, which I found fascinating on several counts. The story is chronicled in the book, The Long Way Home, Revised Edition, by Ed Dover.  Based on interviews with surviving members of the crew, and illustrated with flight logs and photographs of the aircraft and crew members, it was written in 1999 and revised in 2007. A Flight Radio Officer for Pan Am’s flying boats from 1942-1948, Dover knows first-hand the technologies and procedures of the day. He transports you back to a time when a combination of dead reckoning, celestial navigation fixes, and drift sights— augmented with a new low-frequency direction finder— were their tools to navigate the 2,400 nautical miles from California to Hawaii.  While not a typical GA aircraft at 82,500 pounds pushed along by four 1,600 horsepower radial engines burning 100 octane avgas, the Boeing 314 flew in the same part of the atmosphere most of us do today.  So as they encountered a cold front on the way to Hawaii, Captain Ford descended to 500 feet to get below the cloud bases.  I found the story to provide enough information for those of us that are pilots to have a good sense of their operating conditions, while still making the narrative read like a mystery novel.  To avoid robbing anyone of the opportunity to enjoy the story themselves, let me just say that when they took off to cross Australia, Indonesia, India, to the middle East and over Africa, it is an adventure!  To give you a clue—before leaving New Zealand they went to the local library and borrowed some atlases to select a route… To help follow the story, I fired up Google Earth and reconstructed the route, for my own “situational awareness.”

long way home route graphicView Boeing Clipper route around the world in Google Maps

I have a personal connection to this story. My great uncle, Captain Gordon George, flew the flying boats for Pan Am in this same time period. His career started as a Navy pilot flying seaplanes before joining the airlines, eventually retiring from the Boeing 707.  As a young pilot, I enjoyed his stories of this period. He described encountering 80 and 100 mile an hour winds enroute across the Pacific, only to have dispatch not believe them. Their credibility improved when the jet stream was “discovered” by the meteorological community, and it was recognized that there are bands of winds that reached those velocities.  I also remember his saying at the time he retired from Pan Am that flying had become little more than “being passed from one air traffic controller to another,” and that in his mind, “that wasn’t really flying”  After reading this book, I have a better understanding of the world that he operated in, and what he meant by the statement.

For a look at the start of true global aviation, in a time that seaplanes were the norm, and a global network of land-based airports was still in the future, I recommend this book.  Aviation, adventure and a war story all wrapped into one. My thanks to Ed Dover for taking the time to research and share this rich journey with us!