Supersonic Flight: The Shape of Things to Come (Part 2) December 12, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Airshows, Concorde, Museums & Archives
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In last week’s blog post, we discussed one of the great impediments to commercially successful supersonic aircraft: the sonic boom. A theory based on shaping of supersonic booms in order to reduce the pressure wave—the noise—began to emerge in the late 1960s.
The theoretical models—first developed by two Cornell University aerospace engineers, Richard Seebass and Albert George—focused on techniques for the reduction of the first or front part of the supersonic N-wave. Despite the development of Seebass-George theory in the late 1960s, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the computational resources—in the form of more capable Computational Fluid Dynamics software enabled by faster hardware—necessary to design the shape of the test aircraft in accordance with the dictates of Seebass-George theory became available. Nearly thirty-five years passed before this theory was subjected to flight-testing in August 2003 and January 2004 as a part of the DARPA Quiet Supersonic Platform (QSP) program.
During the QSP program, Seebass-George theory eventually met practice in the guise of the SSBD aircraft, a heavily modified F-5E. The F-5E was chosen after flight test program proposals based on modifying a Firebee II drone or an SR-71 were rejected for technical risks and costs. The F-5E worked because of the wide range of nose shapes already flown as a part of the F-5 family (the nose of the reconnaissance version RF-5 differs from the F-5E, and the two-seat F-5F is different still) and because of the familiarity of one of the QSP contractors, Northrop Grumman, with the F-5. Prior to its merger with Grumman, Northrop manufactured more than 900 of the F-5E/F series of aircraft and more than 2000 of the closely related T-38 and first-generation F-5 airframes.
SSBD design work began in late 2001. Construction of the Seebass-George glove to replace the F-5E’s nose took place at Northrop Grumman’s El Segundo operation in California, and the glove was installed on the F-5E airframe in January 2003 at Northrop Grumman’s St. Augustine facility in Florida. Prior to testing, the SSBD’s fuselage was emblazoned with a paintjob that graphically depicted two N-waves superimposed upon each other, one, in red, an unmodified waveform and the other, in blue, with the “flat-top” signature that indicates a reduced sonic boom.
Most of the SSBD flight test program consisted of identical runs through Edwards Air Force Base airspace by the SSBD and an unmodified Navy F-5E. The two aircraft, flying at Mach 1.36 and 32,000 feet, were separated by 45 seconds, a timeframe deemed long enough to allow the shockwave from the SSBD to dissipate, but short enough so that the unmodified F-5E passed through an atmosphere that hadn’t evolved enough to invalidate comparisons between the two runs. Other test runs involved collecting pressure measurements from a NASA F-15B flying in the SSBD’s shockwave. A glider flying beneath the test flight path also collected test data. By the end of the two test sequences, more than 1300 sound and pressure measurements were taken on the ground and in the air.
The flight test sequence confirmed the nearly one-third reduction in the leading portion of the pressure wave by the reshaped nose (the glove), as predicted by Seebass-George theory. The test team exhibited a high degree of confidence in the theory from the beginning of the program. The results indicated that the shape of the new nose prevented the bunched pressure waves from forming into one large shock wave.
After completion of the flight tests, the SSBD aircraft was given over to the Valiant Air Command (VAC) Warbird Museum located just a stone’s throw from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the grounds of the TICO airport in Titusville, Florida. The VAC’s mission dictates that its collection only include warbirds. VAC Public Affairs Officer Terry Yon, a retired Army colonel and helicopter pilot who flew in Vietnam, says that the museum happily made a “squishy argument” based on the SSBD’s origins as a Navy aggressor aircraft to include it in the museum’s collection. After all, few truly unique aircraft exist, and this modified F-5E is indeed one of a kind.
If supersonic transports and business jets are ever to reach the air, let alone their potential, it must be demonstrated that they can fly over land at supersonic speeds without causing a ruckus. By confirming the potential for shaping supersonic shockwaves in a manner that diminishes their impact, the SSBD program took the first step toward accomplishing sonic boom-lite flight. As such, the SSBD program is destined to have long-lasting effects.
Bernard Roussett, COO of HyperMach, one of the companies announcing an super-sonic business jet at Le Bourget 2011, told us in an email about the SonicStar: “Yes, our solution for reducing significantly the sonic boom at high mach number (still supersonic!) is partly inspired from the DARPA program.” Only months before Concorde flew its final commercial flights, the SSBD aircraft made a supersonic future seem possible again.
Supersonic Flight: The Shape of Things to Come (Part 1) December 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Airshows, Concorde, Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives
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Concorde, known for its supersonic, trans-Atlantic flights of yesteryear, was in the news just past week, as a French court overturned manslaughter convictions and upheld civil damages in relation to the Air France 4590 crash in 2000. To some, this story might seem an afterthought to the dashed hopes for supersonic flight.
The dream of commercial, supersonic transports capable of safely and cheaply whisking business passengers through a geographically dispersed day, breakfast in London, lunch in New York City, and back to London for dinner, is nearly as old as supersonic flight itself. By the mid-1950s, mainstream publications like the Saturday Evening Post were breathlessly predicting, “No doubt we’ll be flying faster than sound by the thousands in a few years.”
The closest that commercial aviation ever came to realizing that prediction was Concorde. But Concorde, never able to fly profitably even in the best of times, was done in by steadily increasing fuel costs, decreased travel after 9/11, and a deadly accident. It’s been nearly a decade since Concorde’s last revenue flight in 2003.
Less than a decade ago, test flights by the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration (SSBD) aircraft renewed hope for commercially viable supersonic flight. New designs for commercial supersonic aircraft turn up at the major international air shows regularly and increasingly target the lucrative business-jet market, the so-called supersonic business jets (SSBJ). These designs owe much to the ground-breaking technology established by the SSBD.
In the days prior to this year’s Farnbourough International Airshow, media outlets were rife with rumours of an announcement that had NASA joining forces with some combination of Gulfstream, Boeing, or Lockheed-Martin to bring a version of the X-54 SSBJ to market by 2030. Despite the frenzied anticipation, no such announcement was made.
At Le Bourget 2011, the Euro-conglomerate European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), the parent company of Airbus, announced the Zero-Emission High Speed Transport (ZEHST), a technology demonstrator featuring three separate propulsion systems—turbofan, ramjet, and cryogenic rocket engines—that will take to the skies in 2050. A second design, the SonicStar, a supersonic business jet with a more immediate timetable of first flight in 2021, was also announced at Le Bourget 2011, presented by British aerospace startup HyperMach. Both designs claimed to incorporate engineering solutions for addressing an aspect of the fundamental physics of supersonic flight that has accompanied every breaking through the sound barrier since Chuck Yeager’s 1947 flight, the sonic boom.
The passage of an aircraft through our planet’s ocean of air is often likened to a boat moving across the water. The boat’s passage is marked by waves of reflected energy as its hull pushes through the water. Visualizing a boat’s wake is misleading to a degree because we only see the two-dimensional “V” spreading out from the boat on the water’s surface. In reality, the mechanical wave and its associated pressure increase are also spreading out underneath the boat. In physics, a mechanical wave is one that requires a medium—water for the boat, air for the airplane—in which to travel, as opposed to an electromagnetic wave, which can propagate in a vacuum.
The mechanical waves generated by an aircraft are sound waves, miniscule increases in pressure generated by the aircraft’s body pushing and compressing air molecules as it passes. Below the speed of sound, these pressure waves radiate outward from the aircraft in three dimensions. As an aircraft approaches the speed of sound (761 mph at sea level and 59 F), the pressure waves are only moving slightly faster than the aircraft, so they bunch up together just in front of the aircraft’s surfaces (cf. “Supersonic Revolution” by Richard Hallion, Aviation History, July 2011): the nose, the wing leading edges, and the empennage. As an aircraft reaches the speed of sound, the bunched pressure waves actually combine into a big single shock wave. That shock wave is heard as a sonic boom.
The sonic boom is characterized by the dramatic increase in pressure at the aircraft’s nose and by a steady decrease in pressure to below atmospheric levels at the aircraft’s tail. After the supersonic aircraft passes, the pressure sharply increases to return to atmospheric levels. The two pressure increases—one at the aircraft’s nose and the other after it passes—produce the sonic boom’s double-bang sound. This sequence of increase–linear decrease–increase in pressure gives the wave its characteristic shape (up, down, up) and name: the N-wave.
In an interview for the NOVA program Supersonic Dream on Concorde, James Hamilton, at one-time the Director-General of Concorde, compared the sound of an aircraft approaching at subsonic speeds with the surprise arrival of sound associated with a supersonic aircraft: “You hear nothing until you get all the noise collected together, as it were, and when that happens, instead of a getting a continuous rumble of noise, you get a very sharp boom.”
Federal Aviation Regulation 91.817 prohibits flying over land at supersonic speeds for civil aircraft in the United States. The regulation specifies that aircraft “will not cause a sonic boom to reach the surface within the United States.” In the mid-1960s, the FAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force conducted a six-month experiment into the effects of sonic booms on a human population by performing supersonic overflights of Oklahoma City. Using a mixture of F-101s, F-104s, F-106s, and B-58s, the experiment, initially designed to provide favorable support for continuing the development of an American version of Concorde, the supersonic transport (SST), subjected the residents of Oklahoma City to 1,253 sonic booms. In the end, public outcry led to the early cessation of the experiment and, ultimately, a class action suit that the government lost.
After it was prohibited by law, the inability to conduct overland supersonic flight restricted the usefulness and profitability of Concorde by limiting it to a handful of transatlantic routes.
The X-54, ZEST, and SonicStar are being designed to make use of sonic boom mitigation techniques, techniques that will attempt to reduce the pressure wave that reaches the ground by shaping the shock wave that emanates from an aircraft traveling faster than sound, techniques that were pioneered by the SSBD.
Next Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at this aircraft with looks that only an engineer could love.
On Finding an Agent: Working, Working, Working September 5, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Airshows, Space Shuttle
Good news! Two weeks ago, we signed with a literary agent who wants to represent our book about following the end of the space shuttle program. In fact, we sent out eight queries in mid-July, had three requests for our book proposal, and signed with the agent we most wanted before September 1. Easy as pie! Not—
Not so fast. Not fast, and not so easy. In fact, the phrase easy as pie refers to the eating of the delicious desert, not to the making of it, not to the effort of rolling the dough at the perfect temperature and moisture level to the perfect thickness—or thinness—not to achieving the proper flakiness of crust, nor to the slow simmering of berries and sugar. Writing isn’t just about finding an agent, though that’s part of the recipe for those of us writing novels or nonfiction in hopes of eventual book publication. Writing is about making something.
Of course, we’re thrilled to be working with Alice Tasman. We’re excited about what this might mean, and we’ve toasted our recent success. We’re also grateful to Emily Gray Tedrowe, a novelist we met at Ragdale, for putting us in touch with her agent, who is now our agent. And we’re pleased to hear that novelist Timothy Schaffert has been represented by Alice Tasman for a decade and is still thrilled.
But signing with an agent is part of a much larger process, the process of working together, of writing week to week. Having an agent, like many other steps in this process, is a reason to keep writing. Each step in the larger process is both a goal and a motivation. We have an agent—that means we get to keep working on this project.
Our two-week residency at Ragdale in February of this year was the same sort of step. Being awarded a writing residency was a goal we had, something we wanted to achieve—something we want the opportunity to do again. It’s a reward we had to work toward, writing for a long time and developing a focus before we felt ready to try to prove ourselves worthy as nonfiction writers to a judging panel. But that writing residency was motivation, too, the kick-off to Anna’s sabbatical and to the work we did together on the book proposal, including drafting chapters of the book. Those two weeks were the most productive writing time we’ve ever had, separately or together, and propelled us into the steady work we’ve done over the following six months on what we’re now calling Generation Space.
Certainly, we can trace the work for this project back a couple of years, before Ragdale. We started this blog in July of 2010 with a commitment to post every Wednesday. We actually post more often, and we’ve done a series of guest posts and a series of video interviews, but the most important thing was that we set a goal—post every Wednesday—that gave us a reason to keep writing together. By the end of that October, we were flying off to Florida to see one of the last space shuttle launches. We traveled to the Space Coast four times in nine months. We applied for media credentials; that’s what writers who want to cover events do. We did our homework; that’s what writers who want to produce in-depth nonfiction do. We wrote, then we wrote some more; writing is what writers do most. We worked steadily, we revised, and we took some risks and learned from mistakes. We did what we were supposed to do.
We can trace the process even further back. In the summer of 2004, we presented a paper about aviation museums at a conference in Amsterdam. During our early days together in Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio, we had made our way to local air shows and had tossed around the idea of writing a book about the air show culture generally or WWII pilots in particular. We’d been going to aviation museums too, so on a whim, we sent in an abstract for a conference call for papers. The goal was Amsterdam, but presenting that paper was a reason to keep pursuing the topic of aviation and spaceflight. We followed up with two articles together, one in an edited collection called Bombs Away! and the other in the journal Curator. We had started writing about what interested us most, and editors gave us a nod. It wasn’t fast or easy, but that’s how things are supposed to work.
Each thing we were supposed to do, each step a writer is supposed to take, seemed both a reward and a motivation for us over the last ten years. Sure, the process is different for every writer, and also different for different projects. Sure, we failed to see Discovery’s last launch after we optimistically flew cross-country to the Space Coast two years ago. Sure, we’ve been strung along for months by an editor at a mainstream magazine, only to be rejected in the end—and we’ve been rejected without being strung along, too. We haven’t finished the complete draft of our book (though that’s partly because we have yet to follow Endeavour and Atlantis to their museum homes this year), so we’re absolutely not finished doing what we’re supposed to do.
Every writer—every project—must find his or her own path and pace. But we found that the system works, as long as we keep working, keep writing. And we’re not the only ones who’ve discovered this. Our writer friend and Anna’s occasional collaborator on matters of pedagogy, Stephanie Vanderslice, recently signed with an agent too. Like us, Stephanie found that, if you get a call from an agent, that means she’s enthusiastic and really gets what you’re trying to accomplish. And Stephanie recognizes the importance of editors and agents: “Her [the agent’s] suggestions made complete sense; she is a shrewd and perceptive editor—not surprisingly, since that’s what she was for ten years before becoming an agent. I went back to the novel immediately knowing exactly what I wanted to do and feeling really good about it (knock wood). I’ll have a piece coming out in the Huffington Post this week about all the reasons we should fear a world without editors–this is yet another reason why.” We appreciate editors and agents too; we don’t always succeed, but we’ve become better writers as we’ve negotiated this system.
Doug’s grandmother used to chide, “Working, working, working.” She was one of those work-ethic believers, someone who thought good people work hard, someone who thought working hard made you a good person. For writers, the quality of the work matters, and timing matters. We have our own writing process, the habits that keep us immersed in sentences and paragraphs. But it’s also the larger process that keeps us working week to week, that keeps us looking ahead.
On This Date: Radium, Tu-144, and Earthquakes December 26, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Airshows, Concorde, Earthquakes, Nobel Prize
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On most Mondays, we post either a piece by a guest blogger (first and third Mondays) or a video interview (second and fourth Mondays). We do have video interviews queued up for the new year (and just wait ’til you see who!), but today we take the opportunity for one of our “on this date” posts.
In 1898, just three years into their marriage, one of our favorite collaborative couples of yesteryear announced at the French Academy of Sciences that they’d isolated radium. Marie and Pierre Curie had isolated the element five days earlier, though it wasn’t named until the following year. They did come up with the term radioactivity, and radium was the second ray-producing element they’d discovered that year. The first was polonium. They continued to work with an enormous amount of pitchblende to isolate a wee bit of radium. And they didn’t patent their processes, thereby allowing the larger scientific community to readily use their work.
Radium was applied as luminescence on watch dials and aircraft switches, which, it turned out, was quite dangerous for those who painted those dials and switches. It was also added to cosmetics before such a glow was considered hazardous. Later, it was used to treat cancer, though, of course, because it is radioactive and because the body processes it like calcium, it likely caused the leukemia and related illnesses from which Marie Curie died in 1934.
Marie Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry, in part for her role in discovering radium. (Because Pierre died in 1906, he did not share in this award.) Her earlier Nobel Prize, which she shared with Pierre and Henri Becquerel in 1903, was in physics for their work in radiation. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, the first person to be awarded a second, and one of just two people to be awarded Nobel Prizes in different fields. (Linus Pauling is the other.) We’ve written about Marie Curie before—click HERE to read more.
Today is also the anniversary of the Tupolev Tu-144’s entry into supersonic transport service in the Soviet Union. The Soviet government began developing this aircraft in 1963. But the first production airliner crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1973. Accusations of espionage and cover-ups surrounded the investigation. With delays after this debacle, the Tu-144 ended up first flying mail on this date in 1975, with commercial flights beginning almost two years later (and almost as long after Concorde started its commercial routes). The Tu-144, which shares so many design cues with Concorde (dropped nose, cranked wing, and slender fuselage) that its nickname in the Western press was Concordski, was riddled with problems and had only a short commercial run, flying passengers from November 1, 1977 through June 1, 1978. A more recent use of the Tu-144 was as a flying laboratory for NASA.
This past year, one of the top news stories was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent damage to the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi. (Read some of that HERE and HERE.) Today is the seventh anniversary of another devastating earthquake, a 9.2 (numbers vary by source) quake in Indonesia, India Thailand, and the surrounding areas, that also produced tsunamis. It was so strong that some estimate that the entire world moved a full centimeter. As with most recent earthquakes, this one in the Indian Ocean was the result of subduction, or one tectonic plate scraping under an adjacent tectonic plate. In this case, hundreds of miles of a tectonic plate moved about 50 feet.
When this subduction occurred, the seabed rose, pushing water up. In the vast, deep ocean, that sort of wave isn’t much of a problem and is difficult to detect. But as the tsunami reaches shores, the wave can be devastating, and no warning system was in place for the Indian Ocean. The tsunami, of course, reached different shorelines at different times—several minutes or several hours—depending on the distance of the land from the earthquake’s epicenter. In some places, the waves washed a mile inland.
This natural disaster killed almost 230,000 people and is considered one of the ten deadliest natural disasters of all time. In addition to the cost of human life, it devasted coral reefs and wetlands and contaminated freshwater sources. Haiti’s earthquake, the second anniversary of which occurs next month, was even deadlier. Earthquakes change the face of the earth and the faces of the world.
Blue Sky Metropolis December 14, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Airshows, Museums & Archives, Physics, Space Shuttle, WWII
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Today’s post is going up a little later than usual because we spent part of today listening to Yakir Aharonov, our colleague at Chapman University, explain quantum mechanics and Alice in Wonderland. We’ll get back to Aharonov and the Aharonov-Bohm effect at some point at Lofty Ambitions.
Time is running out, though, on the Blue Sky Metropolis exhibition at the Huntington Library, so we wanted to share our recent viewing of that while there’s time for area residents and visitors to catch it before it closes on January 9, 2012. Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in California was one of our happy accidents. Our colleague Jana Remy invited us to present in the Past Tense series at the Huntington Library on November 18, and we hung out afterward to see some of what there was to see there, including this exhibit, which is tied to a forthcoming edited essay collection by the same title.
The first international air meet was held in Dominguez Hills, California, in 1910, thus beginning California’s aerospace history. Like air shows today, it was incredibly popular, attracting 226,000 watchers during its ten-day run. During the 1920s, commercial aviation took off, and Southern California became a hub for that industry with 28 aircraft manufacturing companies in 1928.
Word War II made aviation the largest industry in the world, and Southern California remained a go-go and a region for building aircraft. As the placard script noted, “Southern California aircraft factories employed 2 million people; some individual plants had 100,000 workers each, with shifts working around the clock.”
Of course, by 1957, with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, the industry expanded its notions and helped put an American satellite into orbit in 1958. Though it was launched from Florida, Explorer I was built at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as part of the International Geophysical Year (see our photo of a geodetic in a previous post HERE). Of course, the recently retired space shuttle orbiters were born and took their first, albeit tentative, steps in Southern California (see the shuttle’s first flight video below).
The boom-and-bust cycle of space exploration and Cold War defense programs kept the California aerospace industry a dynamic, ever-changing part of the regional economy. Now, California’s aerospace industry is expanding into commercial space exploration.
Blue Sky Metropolis covers this aerospace history with a roomful of selected artifacts, including many photos, letters, and memos. In fact, though it’s no surprise at a library, this exhibit is one of the more text-heavy displays we’ve seen in our travels to archives and museums. That makes sense, of course, because these letters and memos articulated the decision-making throughout the growth of the industry.
Kelly Johnson, who grew up in Ishpeming, Michigan, where Anna’s grandfather was raised, is featured prominently. A course notebook from his Aeronautics course at the University of Michigan in 1931 documents an assignment to analyze a “performance problem” by calculating characteristics from an aircraft blueprint. He writes, “In general, the performance of this plane is good. The Clark Y wing is a speed wing, and the speed for this plane at sea level is probably from 120-125 m/p/h. All computations in this report are given at 5000 foot altitude and with empty tanks.” While still at the University of Michigan, Johnson performed wind tunnel tests on Lockheed’s Model 10 Electra. (See our Lofty post about the Electra Junior HERE.) Those early assignments led Kelly Johnson to a four-decade career in the aerospace industry, in which he contributed to the design of aircraft like the P-38 Lightning, the family of Constellations, the F-104 Starfighter, the C-130 Hercules, and the U-2 spy plane.
Also featured in the exhibit is Willis Hawkins, another engineer educated at the University of Michigan whose career at Lockheed spanned decades. Some of his more philosophical writings are included. He writes, “One group of men can be blamed however, if there is cause for blame, and that group goes by the name of engineers. An engineer is fundamentally a mechanic whose dexterity with the tools of physics has made it possible for him to create inanimate machines which propelled by some form of thinking pilot can produce material miracles of transportation or creation.”
A memo from D.A. Shields about “a satellite and space exploration program” asserts, “The feasibility of the proposed program is probably the most exciting part of the entire idea.” That’s dated 29 September 1959. Less than three years later, President John F. Kennedy thought going to the Moon was indeed feasible.
The tidbits mount up and are worth seeing: a wall-sized blueprint of the Spruce Goose HK-1 from 1944 (read Spruce Goose curator’s guest post HERE and our original HK-1 post HERE), a photo of Kelly Johnson and Amelia Earhart working together in ta Lockheed hangar during the 1930s, a letter from Willis Hawkins in 1992 replying to a middle-school student who asks how something can fly, and a one-way ticket for Transcontinental Air Transport dated October 19, 1929 (a year later, TAT would be bankrupt).
Blue Sky Metropolis is worth a flyby! And of course, there’s lots more at the Huntington Library, including the Beautiful Science exhibit in the same building.
On This Date: Lunar Eclipse & More! December 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Airshows, Biology, Chemistry, Nobel Prize, Physics, Railroads, Wright Brothers
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Last night, we set our alarm for 5:30a.m. so that we could take a look at the total lunar eclipse. A total eclipse had occurred earlier this year, in June, but it wasn’t visible from North America.
The moon hung in our western sky, its face three-quarters in shadow. We watched the slow process, which takes several hours, for about ten minutes. Then set the alarm for 6:15a.m. to see how much it had changed. By then, the sun was rising over our backs, and the moon had sunk behind trees that line the street a couple of blocks away. Still, we could make out the reddish glow of the lunar orb.
If you remember your grade-school science lessons, you’ll recall that a lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth gets in between the Sun and the Moon and blocks the Sun’s rays from striking the Moon. Lunar eclipses are beautiful in part because the alignment necessary happens to occur when the Moon is full. In fact, even before the eclipse, last night’s Moon was striking.
We didn’t brush up on our how-to-photograph-the-Moon instructions, but Universe Today has some amazing photos and a video HERE. MSNBC also has a great collection of photos HERE. A Seattle blogger also has amazing shots from around the globe HERE.
If you missed this weekend’s eclipse, mark your calendar for April 15, 2014.
If you’re looking for other events to commemorate today, it’s the anniversary of the awarding of the first Nobel Prizes in 1901. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in Physics that year.
Jacobus van ‘t Hoff was awarded the chemistry prize for his work on dilute solutions and how they behaved, mathematically speaking, like gasses. In his address, he espoused the role of imagination in science.
The prize in physiology or medicine that year went to Emil von Behring, who came up with the diphtheria vaccine and also a serum to prevent tetanus. If you haven’t had a tetanus booster in more than ten years, you could commemorate this anniversary with the CDC-recommended tetanus shot to prevent the potentially deadly bacterial infection of the nervous system. Of course, consult your doctor because contraindications exist too.
There’s some controversy as to whether von Behring should have shared the financial rewards for the diphtheria serum and the Nobel Prize with Paul Ehrlich, who shared the prize in 1908 for work in immunity. A year later, Ehrlich developed a cure for syphilis, though even now, no vaccine is available.
Today is also the anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental flight across the United States and the first cross-country airmail, which began on September 17, 1911. Clearly, not a nonstop! In fact, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, great-grandson of Matthew Perry, stopped 70 times (not all planned), finally landing in Long Beach, California, on December 10. The last twenty miles from Pasadena had included two stops and a broken ankle. To celebrate and fully complete his transit, the pilot taxied his plane (the Vin Fizz, named to advertise a grape soda) into the Pacific Ocean. Only a few months later, on April 3, 1912, in a sad bit of irony, Rodgers, who had received about 90 minutes of flight instruction before his first solo in June 1911, perished when his exhibition flight over Long Beach ended in the ocean near where he had completed his transcontinental trek.
We end today’s post with an excerpt from a poem by Emily Dickinson, who was born on this date in 1830. Though the poem isn’t about a lunar eclipse (the full poem is available at The Academy of American Poets), it does resonate with our viewing early this morning:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
There’s No Business Like Air Show Business (Part 4) November 30, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Airshows, Museums & Archives, Serendipity, WWII
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We’ve sung the praises of serendipity—that chance occurrence that connects a single, unanticipated event to our larger projects—on a number of occasions (HERE and HERE and HERE). But we’re also big believers in preparation, doing the research, and being ready to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Our recent trip to the Eighth Annual Jacqueline Cochran Air Show provided just such an opportunity. We’ve already described some of the events that took place at this air show, but the signature moment for us took place shortly after we arrived.
After making our way through the gate, we headed towards the C-17 transport sitting at the southern end of the flight line. Its gigantic wings offered shade from the desert sun, giving us the chance to pull our thoughts together. We then walked the length of the flight line in order to reconnoiter the aircraft, the crowd, and the vendors, a standard tactic to get the lay of the land.
Long before we reached the end of the flight line, we began see occasional flashes of bright, reflected sunlight. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence at air shows. Many WWII-era aircraft are displayed unpainted, finished in their original aluminum skin. But this was different. The reflected light was vibrant, more intense. When we arrived at its source, we saw why: a 1939 Lockheed 12A Electra Junior.
This aircraft’s owner is Les Whittlesey. He spoke with us about the aircraft’s lifespan, gave us a tour of this magnificent piece of aviation history, and showed us various Lockheed ephemera he’s been collecting, often finding something on eBay. (Click here for another article about Les and his plane.)
A product of aviation’s Golden Age in the 1930s, the Electra Junior, so named for its relationship to the larger Lockheed 10 Electra, is a living exemplar of architect Louis Sullivan’s form follows function maxim. Many of the aircraft of the late 1920s and early 1930s were still boxlike structures, covered with fabric, dope, and paint. Recently developed aluminum-based manufacturing techniques gave aeronautical engineers like Kelly Johnson, a native of Ishpeming, Michigan, also Anna’s grandfather’s hometown, the ability to experiment with a new design language which emphasized spare, streamlined shapes. The Electra Junior, a twin-engine, six-passenger plane, was just such a new aircraft shape.
It’s often assumed that the era’s defining architectural and design style, Art Deco, was deeply influenced by the aviation industry and developed its love of curves and shining metal surfaces from the era’s aircraft. In reality, the relationship among aviation, industrial design, and art deco is a more complex, symbiotic one. Art deco had always been a reflection of modernism with its roots in machines and mechanisms. As the ne plus ultra machine of its day, it was only natural that the speed and dynamism of the airplane would influence art deco and that designers steeped in the vernacular of art deco would turn that knowledge back on the flying machine.
Les Whittlesey’s Electra Junior was originally built in 1939 for aviation and automotive magnate Errett Lobban “E. L.” Cord. Cord, as owner of Auburn Automobile Company (in addition to the Stinson Aircraft Company, Lycoming Engines, and several others), was no stranger to futuristic designs. The Auburn Boattail Speedster, designed in the early 1930s by Al Leamy, was an aggressively streamlined shape. Cord took delivery of the Electra Junior in 1940, but he was only able to enjoy it briefly.
In 1941, the U.S. Treasury Department commandeered the aircraft (Cord was paid for it) in preparation for the coming war. The Electra Junior was given the military designation of C-40 and shipped off to England as a part of the Lend-Lease program. As a transport during the war, the aircraft survived a friendly-fire incident over Belgium (the damage was uncovered during its most recent restoration), and there’s a “rumor” (Whittlesey’s word) that Prime Minister Winston Churchill flew in the aircraft. The January 2012 edition of Aviation History contains an article about Churchill learning to fly. Who knows, perhaps Churchill even graced the co-pilot’s seat of this aircraft.
The Electra Junior evokes a different era, one of, as the sales brochure announces, “real comfort when you fly.” In fact, an Electra Junior (and a cutout of one) was used as the Air France aircraft in the penultimate scene in Casablanca (see the video clip below). Although Air France never operated the Lockheed 12A, Hollywood’s artistic license led to the correct choice of style over accuracy in this case.
The Electra Junior’s indisputable style plays a leading role in the Cal Aero Aviation Country Club at Chino Airport, an events venue owned and operated by Les and his wife Susan. During our interview, Les related the fact that aviation-themed country clubs—think standard country club but with runways instead of golf greens—were popular in Southern California in the 1930s. Yes, as we sat in the passenger seats aboard the Electra Junior, we could almost hear the strains of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”
One of this particular aircraft’s greatest achievements was winning the 2006 Grand Champion award at the AirVenture in Oshkosh. It turns out we were there that year, which serves to remind us of a great value of air shows. These events are traveling archives, and each artifact has its own knowledgeable docent. This time, initially attracted by its aesthetic appeal, we grew to understand the story of an Electra Junior.
There’s No Business Like Air Show Business (Part 3) November 23, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Airshows, Serendipity, WWII
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On this date in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that “the Women Airforce Service Pilots as having served on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States for purposes of laws administered by the Veterans Administration.” After the Navy decided in the mid-1970s that women could fly government planes, this legislation picked up a bill that had fallen by the wayside in 1944. WASPs who’d served during World War II did so as civilians and, until Carter signed this law more than thirty years later, had no formal military benefits.
We started this series (for the first two parts, click HERE and HERE) after attending this year’s Jacqueline Cochran Air Show in the desert. For the last few weeks, we’ve planned to add a segment today and to get more specific about that show’s performers. What great serendipity that, when Anna turned the page in her calendar (yes, she keeps an old-fashioned paper calendar) this weekend, there was a note in the margin for Wednesday: Carter & WASPs. After all, it was Jackie Cochran who, in 1939 immediately after Germany’s invasion of Warsaw, wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt suggesting that women could be used as military pilots.
The WASP program quickly grew out of the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, which had been organized by Cochran, and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which had been organized by Nancy Harkness Love. We won’t go into the rivalry and politicking between these two women here, but Jackie Cochran became the WASP’s director and Nancy Love continued to oversee its ferrying operations to move aircraft about the country. When the WASP program ended in December 1944, largely because male pilots were being rotated home after flying overseas, 38 WASPs had died in service and 916 were still serving.
Among the women who lost their lives as WASPs were some of the most talented aviators in America. Cornelia Clark Fort was the first woman pilot to die in the service. After surviving Pearl Harbor—she was attacked by a Zero while giving a flying lesson—Fort ran out of luck and perished in a mid-air collision over Texas in March 1943. In the movie Tora-Tora-Tora, Fort was portrayed by a man.
Hazel Ying Lee, another WASP, was born in Portland, Oregon in 1912 and, in 1932, became the first Chinese-American woman to earn a pilot’s certificate. Once, after a forced landing, she was chased around her aircraft by a pitchfork-wielding Kansan who assumed she was at the vanguard of a Japanese invasion force. While delivering a Bell P-63 Kingcobra to Great Falls, Montana, as a Lend-Lease aircraft destined for Russia, Lee collided with another P-63 after a control tower error. She died two days later.
Jackie Cochran, the only woman in the Bendix air race in 1937, went on to become the first women to break the sound barrier. For that record, she flew an F-86 Sabre, one of the two planes in the heritage flight at this year’s Jacqueline Cochran Air Show. Over the years, she held more records than any other pilot. Later in her career, Cochran initially championed the possibility of thirteen women as astronaut candidates, only to testify against allowing women to become astronauts later.
Her namesake air show’s website points out, “She was a long-time resident of the Coachella Valley, and is buried in Coachella Valley Cemetery. She regularly utilized Thermal Airport over the course of her long aviation career.” So on the morning of November 5, we headed into the mountains to see what there was to see there. The Thermal Airport is nestled in a valley formed by the San Bernadino Mountains to the north and northeast and the San Jacinto Mountains to the south and southwest. Nearby is the Salton Sea.
As soon as we parked the car, it was clear that the how was underway. The sky was the cloudless, deep-blue that we’ve come to associate with the desert. As we walked toward the runways of the Thermal Airport, a Korean War era F-86 Sabre flashed overhead, its aluminum skin shimmering in the mid-morning sun. Piloted by Steven Hinton, president of Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino and veteran film and television pilot, the F-86’s routine was focused, enclosed by the nearby mountains that ring the airport. Up was the only direction that wasn’t constraining the sixty-year-old warbird, so again and again it finished high-speed passes down the runways centerline with soaring climbs.
Most current air shows feature acrobatic demonstrations, and the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show is no exception, with no fewer than four of the day’s sessions devoted to acrobatic flying: Doug Jardine, Rob Harrison, Jon Melby, and Melissa Pemberton. In honor of the barnstorming and acrobatic women flyers of decades past, we give a special nod to Melissa Pemberton today.
A hundred years ago, Harriet Quimby became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license. (What better names for little girl characters than Harriet the Spy and Ramona Quimby?) Nowadays, Melissa Pemberton, who is in her mid-twenties, flies torque rolls and gyroscopic tumbles above crowds at air shows not just here in the United States but also in Japan, Spain, and El Salvador. Melissa learned to fly with her grandfather, and she’s been flying aerobatics since she was 17 years old.
Melissa and her husband Rex, who was the youngest Australian to climb Mt. Everest, are both skydivers. Melissa performs with three other women—the only all-women four-way free-fly team. This year at the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show, Melissa flew her Edge 540 while her husband wafted to the ground in his wingsuit, which has webbing between limbs so that he can fly three feet forward for every foot he drops.
They came up with this act that combines skydiving and aircraft aerobatics to combine their skills and create something new for the air show circuit. It was quite a sight as traced Rex’s descent by the smoke trailing behind him. Likewise, Melissa’s plane trailed smoke, drawing relatively tight circles around Rex’s path. They also both have radios to banter with each other and the crowd as the shapes in the sky form.
The Jacqueline Cochran Air Show wrapped up this year’s season for Melissa Pemberton. Lofty Ambitions hasn’t quite wrapped up this air show series, though.
There’s No Business Like Air Show Business (Part 2) November 19, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
As we wrote on Wednesday (click HERE for that), air shows are unusual events, in that they represent a confluence of American history: they’re political, they’re technological, and they’re commercial. Today, we’re focusing on the technological history.
One amazing outcome of the air show is the possibility of seeing in person artifacts representing the arc of aviation history, from the Stearman biplane heavily used in the 1930s and 1940s to jets currently flying commercially and for the military. Sometimes, even a replica of the Wright flyer, the plane to first achieve controlled manned flight in 1903, will show up. While no air show offers the entirety of the technology’s history, few other histories are thrown together for a weekend as comprehensively as on the air show circuit.
The underlying reasons we can see the arc of aviation history are that this narrative is only about a hundred years old and because often a model of aircraft will fly in military, commercial, and/or private service for decades. The Boeing-737 made its first flight in 1967 and was flying passengers the next year. Forty-some years later, when you get on a Southwest Airlines flight, you’re flying in a 737. In fact, Southwest started flying passengers in 1971 but didn’t start routinely retiring planes in its fleet until 2007. Compare that with another well-known, perhaps taken-for-granted technology: the computer. Chances are, you’re in need of a new laptop if yours is even five years old.
An airplane doesn’t hold up safely forever, and every pressurization cycle (based on takeoff and landing) stresses the fuselage and wings. Eventually, in commercial aviation, a plane nears the number of pressurization cycles it can accumulate without significant risk of damage and becomes cheaper to scrap than to maintain because large portions would need to be replaced. Some aircraft we see at air shows have had so many parts replaced that they are new planes in a sense. Human beings replace cells all the time; the skin we had as children is long-ago shed, and we are, in that sense, completely rebuilt on our surface.
So the brevity of aviation history combined with the longevity of individual models and airplanes means that air shows often encapsulate 80 or more years worth of this particular technology story. When we head to an air show, we’re not sure exactly what we’ll see, but we expect to see a historical arc.
The first North American Aviation T-6 took flight in 1935, and this model is still making rounds on the air show circuit. In fact, you can pretty much expect to see a T-6 as you walk around the grounds. The P-51 Mustang, a slender aluminum cruciform object against the blue sky, is a regular at air shows. We usually see a Corsair, with its distinctive gull wings, often a dark blue that somehow catches the sun and our eyes especially well.
Ford Trimotors occasionally turn up, and they first flew in 1926. The WWII-era Japanese Zero is a rare sight; as of last year, there existed only three airworthy Zeroes and only several more intact. FIFI is the only remaining airworthy B-29, so that’s an exceptionally rare air show participant; this aircraft tours the air show circuit (this year included Oshkosh and St. Louis) and spends the winter at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum.
Heritage flights are a relative newcomer to air shows. We don’t remember such a thing from our early adventures together twenty years ago. Begun in 1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Air Force, the Heritage Flight Program established a non-profit in 2010 to help keep this popular but expensive air show feature afloat. This year, we’ve seen two heritage flights: one at the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show featuring the F-86 and F-16, and the other at Miramar (posts HERE for photos and HERE for more) featuring the P-51 and F-16. The idea is to present a vintage aircraft alongside a current one so that viewers like us can understand the technological and performance differences and also begin to grasp through examples the larger story of aviation history.
Both the F-86 and the F-16 are single-engine fighters. The F-86 set a world speed record only months after aircraft starting rolling out of production in 1948: 670.9 miles per hour. The F-16, which the Air Force started flying in 1978, can top speeds of Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, and can pull 9-g—g-forces on the plane and pilot—maneuvers, for which it has a reclined seat to help prevent the pilot from passing out by keeping blood better distributed under high g-forces. Lest you think the F-86 is a speed slouch, in its day, which was the Korean War, it bested the MiG-15 with a 10:1 victory ratio.
Likewise, lest you think that military aircraft are all about U.S. superiority, keep in mind that the F-16 was built by a consortium of four—now five—NATO countries and, therefore, represents international technological collaboration. In fact, seeing the Korean War-era fighter zip by on the flight line followed by a fighter currently being used in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq points out that the history of technology is intertwined with our larger history, politics, and culture.
One fascinating aspect of the history represented by seeing the F-86 and F-16 together, particularly considering the longevity of an aircraft model, is that each individual plane at any air show is almost always exceptionally well documented. When a plane crashes, we all know that investigators can trace its entire maintenance history. Safety requires a regular maintenance established by the manufacturer for all aircraft. If a tire blows or a valve sticks, the repair or replacement is written down and filed away officially. More than once, we’ve sat in a plane at the gate waiting for the pilot to get permission to take off while maintenance files the paperwork. The military, of course, keeps careful records too, and even private pilots have to file maintenance and flight plan paperwork.
When a visitor walked into the Palm Spring Air Museum and said, I think that’s the plane I flew at Naval Station Great Lakes, the museum’s staff was able to look at the records and confirm that. We included photos of and information about that plane in our post on November 11 (click HERE for that).
A man like Les Whittlesey can buy a Lockheed Electra Junior, an L-12, and know exactly who owned the plane for how long over the course of its entire lifespan. When we see the gleaming plane at the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show, Les can recount an abbreviated version of that plane’s story to us. In fact, this Electra deserves its own post, so that’s in the works at Lofty Ambitions.
More than three years ago, we moved to California in part to have easier access to the nation’s aviation history. Lockheed was and now Lockheed Martin is based in Southern California. North American, manufacturer of the T-6 and the P-51 and now subsumed by Boeing, was based here too. Just down the road in Tustin are two WWII-era blimp hangars of the type we grew to appreciate during our visits to Tillamook, Oregon, and its aviation museum. Just up the road is Chino’s Planes of Fame Air Museum, and Chino is a hub for aircraft restoration. And of course, the space shuttle was born here in California.
We went to the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show earlier this month. In the Midwest, that just wouldn’t be possible. Illinois doesn’t host air shows in November. California, on the other, offered us a sunny November afternoon to spend wending our way among rows of aircraft, eyeing the technology’s history up close one plane after the other. For hours, we also peered into the sky to watch the history retold.
There’s No Business Like Air Show Business (Part 1) November 16, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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Two Saturdays ago, we made our first trip to Palm Springs and Palm Desert to attend the 8th Annual Jacqueline Cochran Air Show (actually held near Palm Desert in Thermal, California). We’ve already posted two photo essays of our visit to the Palm Springs Air Museum that weekend (click HERE and HERE for those).
Here at Lofty Ambitions, we’ve made no secret of our affection for air shows. We’ve attended almost every variant of air show. We’re not alone at these events. In recent years, some 25-26 million people have attended air shows in the United States and Canada. Air shows are the second most popular sporting events by attendance (well behind only Major League Baseball at 70+ million).
Some of our favorite air shows have been small, family-oriented gatherings like the College Park Air Show in Maryland; the Stearman Fly-In in Galesburg, Illinois; and Wings of Victory in Lancaster, Ohio. The smaller air shows allow us the opportunity to interact with aircraft and owners in ways that we can’t predict. Once, at College Park, an aircraft owner and restorer took us into his workshop—on the airport’s grounds—to see his most recent work on a long-term restoration project. He was painstakingly removing fasteners from seventy-year-old corrugated aluminum wings. Anna wrote a poem about that air show that made its way into her chapbook Turns about a Point. We never found out how far the man got with his restoration project, but his goal was to see the airplane fly again.
We’ve also attended themed air shows, like our recent visits to the MCAS Miramar Air Show (click HERE and HERE for posts on that), with its emphasis on Marine Corps aviation and the centennial of Navy aviation. Last fall, we traipsed over to nearby Zamperini Field (named for the man who serves as subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s new book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption) in Torrance, California, for their “Salute to North American Aviation” (click HERE for that post). Academics that we are, themed air shows have the feel of an upper-level seminar, a chance to dive deeply into some particular aspect of aviation.
Our experiences at the large, multi-day aviation events have also been rewarding and sometimes overwhelming. We aren’t Oshkosh mainstays like our friends Jim Amundson and his father, Glen. Glen Amundson has attended EAA AirVenture each year since 1987, and Jim has joined his father at nearly half those shows. Still, we’ve twice sweated out Oshkosh (see our Oshkosh post HERE) with best of them on those brutally hot and humid late July days. (The best of them would be Lisa, Jim’s wife, who once attended while six months pregnant.) We’ve also managed to take in the corporate-aviation-heavy shows like the Dayton Air Show and Chicago’s Air and Water Show. The size and scale of these shows (and even the parking) can be intimidating, but the pay-off comes in the range of aircraft and the quality of the performers we’ve seen.
Air shows are unusual events, in that they represent a confluence of American history: they’re political, they’re technological, and they’re commercial. For the next post, we’ll focus on the technological history, for air shows offer, in just an afternoon, a recap of the entire history of this technological achievement. Along the way in this series, of course, we’ll include photos, particularly of the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show earlier this month.