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Charles Lindbergh arrives at Paris/Le Bourget, May 21st, 1927

Crowd at Le Bourget airport greeting arrival of American aviator Charles Lindbergh after his touchdown to historic solo transatlantic flight. Paris, France. May 21st, 1927. (Time/Life)

Crowd atop building at Le Bourget airport awaiting arrival of American aviator Charles Lindbergh for the touchdown of his solo transatlantic flight. Paris, France. May 21st, 1927. (Time/Life)

(Left to right) American aviator Charles Lindbergh, British aviator Sir Alan Cobham and American Ambassador Myron T. Herrick, at window of the French Aero Club where Lindbergh received its gold medal for his transatlantic flight. Paris, France. May 1927. (Time/Life)

Frenchmen standing guard beside American aviator Charles Lindbergh's plane "Spirit of St. Louis" to protect it from souvenir hunters in wake of historic solo transatlantic flight. Paris, France. May 22nd, 1927. (Time/Life)

American aviator Charles Lindbergh's plane "Spirit of St. Louis" in a hanger at La Bourget airport to protect it from souvenir hunters in wake of historic solo transatlantic flight. (Note: Holes along side of plane were made by souvenir hunters.) Paris, France. May 22nd, 1927. (Time/Life)

RELATED: An amusing anecdote regarding the American ambassador’s hero-worship, and the rather more down-to-earth King George V, from Leonard Mosley’s Lindbergh: A Biography.

His most perfervid admirer was Ambassador [Myron] Herrick, for whom Charles Lindbergh had become almost a winged god brought temporarily to earth.

“I am not a religious man,” he said, shortly after Lindbergh’s arrival, “but I believe there are certain things that happen in life that can only be described as interpretation of a Divine Act… Lindbergh brought you the spirit of America in a manner in which it could never be brought in a diplomatic sack.”

Not quite so extravagant was King George V of England, but he told his courtiers that Lindbergh was “quite a feller.”  When the flier had been rescued from the hysterical crowds which greeted him at Croydon Airport on his arrival in Britain, he was taken to the American embassy and told that the King wanted to receive him in audience.  The American envoy, Ambassador Alanson Houghton, happened to be on vacation and his place was taken by the chargé d’affaires who was, Lindbergh recalled later, “a boiled shirt who was rather in a state because I was in an ordinary business suit and had no frock coat” in which to be received by the King.

In the car on the way to Buckingham Palace, the chargé kept nervously instructing Lindbergh in court protocol, how and when he was to bow, and above all else when he was to walk backward.

“He got me kind o’ scared by the time we arrived,” Lindbergh said later.  “And there at the door was a lord who said that the King wanted to see me alone.  So I was taken into his room and I remembered to bow and we sat down.”

The young flier and the aging King-Emperor sat facing each other for an awkward moment, and then the monarch leaned forward.

“Now tell me, Captain Lindbergh,” he said.  “There is one thing I long to know.  How did you pee?”

It was a question which, Lindbergh said later, “sort of put me at my ease.”

“Well, you see, sir,” he said, “I had a sort of aluminum container.  I dropped the thing when I was over France.  I was not going to be caught with the thing on me at Le Bourget.”

— Mosley, Leonard. Lindbergh: A Biography.  New York: Doubleday, 1976.

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Elinor Smith, the “Flying Flapper of Freeport”, 1911-2010

As with so many pioneering men and women of the Golden Age, we tend to learn of their extraordinary deeds only when they go to their final rest.

Ms. Elinor Smith had a rather remarkable career, and it is with no small shame I concede that I had not heard of her until today. She started her flying instruction at the tender age of ten, and Elinor’s instructor—one Clyde Pangborn, an aviator of some renown himself—had to tie blocks to the rudder pedals so her feet could reach them.

Among Ms. Elinor Smith’s many interesting exploits:

  • At age 15, three months after her first solo flight, she set a light plane altitude record of 11,889 feet.
  • In September of 1927—at the age of 16—she became the youngest US government licensed private pilot then on record.  (Today you can take the written test at 15, but must be 17 to be a licensed private pilot.)
  • On a dare, she flew a Waco 9 biplane under all four of New York City’s East River bridges in mid-October 1928.  To her credit, Elinor did study the local weather conditions, tidal variations and even the designs of the bridges themsevles before making the attempt.  The city of New York gave her an unofficial grounding for ten days, while mayor James J. Walker intervened with federal authorities to prevent any actual, official suspension.
  • In 1929, set the women’s endurance record (flying solo for 26½ hours), women’s speed record (190.8 mph, or 165.8 knots) and the women’s endurance record with aerial refueling (with Bobbi Trout), flying 42½ hours.
  • Broke the world altitude record by a mile in 1930, flying to 27,419 feet.
  • In May of 1930—not yet 19 years old—Elinor became the youngest pilot to receive an Airline Transport License (ATP).  In October of the same year, she was voted “Best Woman Pilot in America” by her licensed peers; Jimmy Doolittle was the “Best Male Pilot in America” that year.
  • Retired from flying for 20 years to raise children, started flying again in 1956 after the death of her husband.  Was given the opportunity to fly the T-33 Shooting Star and C-119 Flying Boxcar via membership in the Air Force Association.
  • In 2000, became the oldest person (89yrs) to successfully land the Space Shuttle simulator—after botching her first attempt.  I think we can cut her some slack for that.  At 89 I’d consider myself lucky if I could still pilot my fork to my mouth.

Elinor Smith passed away on March 19th, 2010.  I’m making a note to reserve her book at the library.

…Now the airlines and the military are finally letting down the bars to admit qualified young women, so this is a good time to recall the difficulties most women fliers encountered during our early struggles for recognition and employment.

Why did we persist in a business that offered so few financial rewards and took lives at such a cruel rate? It’s a question that had as many answers as there were pilots. In my case it was the daily challenge and the sheer beauty of flight that drew me back again and again. It was such a wonderful age to fly through. I was privileged to know all of those gallant pilots, both men and women, and gifted designers. Their efforts should never be forgotten nor their triumphs overlooked. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have participated and played a small part in it. “To most people, the sky is the limit; to Elinor the sky is home.”

— Smith, Elinor.  “Preface.” Aviatrix.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Low key pioneer: a review of West with the Night

A review of West with the Night by Beryl Markham
293 pages.  North Point Press, 1983.

I was motivated to read this book based on its prominence (within the top ten) on National Geographic Adventure‘s “100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time” list.  My anticipation was further heightened by an endorsement on the back of the book from one Ernest Hemingway, himself no slouch in the writing department:

I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.

After that kind of build-up, it would be easy to disappoint; but Hemingway is not exaggerating.

Beryl Markham

West with the Night is concisely written and edited; it will evoke the sights, sounds and emotions of bygone days with exquisite and almost effortless efficiency.  The prose is not sparse, but there is not a wasted word in the whole volume.  Its series of chronologically-ordered vignettes recount Markham’s childhood and adult experiences in what was British East Africa of the early 20th century, and they are all rather captivating.  These accounts are bookended by more contemporary events in her flying career, although the aviation-related portions are written with the layman in mind and a minimum of technical jargon.  Here is a taste of the prose:

[Woody] was flying a German Klemm monoplane equipped with a ninety-five horsepower British Pobjoy motor.  If this combination had any virtue in such vast and unpredictable country, it was that the extraordinary wingspan of the plane allowed for long gliding range and slow landing speed.

Swiftness, distance, and the ability to withstand rough weather were, none of them, merits of the Klemm.  Neither the plane nor the engine it carried was designed for more than casual flying over well-inhabited, carefully charted country, and its use by East African Airways for both transport messenger service seemed to us in Kenya, who flew for a living, to indicate a somewhat reckless persistence in the pioneer tradition.

— Markham, Beryl.  “The Stamp of Wilderness.” West with the Night.  New York: North Point Press, 2001.  p. 35.

Like her contemporary Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (who wrote the much more famous novel Out of Africa), Markham’s personal life had its share of marital disappointment and ill-fated affairs.  But more remarkably, not a word of this makes it into print; the focus is squarely on capital-A adventures and exceptional events.  Markham spares no narrative room for the angst-ridden worries of the heart, not even to let us know she got married a couple of times.  All very understandable, as her life was exciting enough and there was no need to mine her romantic life for additional drama.

There are other useful comparisons between the two books, as well.  Out of Africa reflects an adult European’s concern with bringing agricultural and social order to Africa’s wilderness, and paradoxically having that very wildness and freedom tame the European.  West with the Night is a much more interesting tale of growing up African, possessing that sense of limitless freedom from the very start.  Karen von Blixen is often held up as a bit of a feminist icon, but to these eyes she seems to spend more time struggling than achieving.  Beryl Markham, on the other hand, easily gains access to male-dominated roles both in the native and European realms.  She acts with easy confidence and never agonises over her choices nor the demanding situations that sometimes result.  Markham’s winning attitude and technical competence (whether in horse training or pilotage) seem to have won her de facto equality amongst her male peers; unlike von Blixen, it is a thing already attained, not some future status to strive for.

Markham's aircraft after crash-landing

For gentlemen, this is part and parcel of its charm; West with the Night is Out of Africa for men.  Instead of being filled with the latter’s agricultural drudgery and melancholy tone, Markham’s tale is hopeful and confident, featuring adventures with native villagers, wild predators, and superior airmanship.  It does turn reflective and melancholy at times, but it is not a defining feature of the story.

I will relate one personal anecdote which ought to underscore my appreciation for this work:  I had initially obtained a copy via the public library, and long before the pages on the final chapters had been turned, I had resolved to purchase it.

Recommendation: Buy

NOTE: I’ve borrowed Bob Tarantino‘s Buy/Borrow/Avoid rating system, and I should take a moment to explain my rendition of it.

Buys are well-crafted and arresting books which I judge to have enduring usefulness as works of reference, or lasting appeal upon re-reading.  I would consider keeping these on my bookshelf for at least a decade, if not more.

Borrows are engaging books which can not sustain interest in successive readings, or will otherwise not survive a ten-year span on my bookshelf.  This may be due to choice of subject matter, or a narrowly contemporary topicality soon overtaken by events, and so on.

Avoids are books whose authors or publishers fail in their primary purpose, to produce a well-crafted, appealing work of literature.

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Flight Students, 1939

A group of Dave Raub's female flight students posed around a Stinson Reliant biplane, summer 1939. Left to right: (standing) Jean Adams Cook (airport manager), Anne Beach, Grace Larkin Coffin, Edith Jenney, Kathryn Cady (married Dave Raub), Winifred Williams; (seated) Linda Loring, Doris Gilman. (Nantucket Historical Assocation, image number PH23-10) Flickr: Flight Students, 1939, originally uploaded by nha.library.

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Airship designs of the Golden Age

A photo essay on airship designs, 1906-1937, using imagery sourced from Flickr.

America; non-rigid civil airship. Launched 1906, lost at sea in 1910 due to engine failure during an attempted transatlantic crossing. Crew (including ship's cat) recovered by RMS Trent near Bermuda; no losses. Wellman airship “America” seen from Trent 1910, originally uploaded by amphalon.

de Marçay-Kluytmans prototype airship with central rotating propeller ring (an evolutionary dead end). Rigid construction. c. 1907. Dirigible of Baron deMarcay, originally uploaded by amphalon.

LZ 4 / Z2. German military zeppelin; rigid construction. Launched June 1908, fatally damaged while moored August 1908. Zeppelin Landing on the Bodensee, originally uploaded by amphalon.

La République, French military reconnaissance airship. Semi-rigid construction. Launched June 1908, crashed September 1909. All four crew members were killed. The French airship “Republique”, originally uploaded by gregory lee.

Clément-Bayard, French experimental non-rigid airship. Has four lobes rather than fins for stability; the lobes retarded the maximum forward velocity of the airship. c1909. Dirigible Airship in its Shed, originally uploaded by amphalon.

R34 / G-FAAG; RNAS rigid airship. Launched March 1919, written off in 1921 after CFIT into North York Moors. Airship R34, originally uploaded by University of Glasgow Library.

ZR-3 USS Los Angeles; US Navy rigid airship. German-built, launched as LZ 126 in 1924; decommissioned in 1932, dismantled in 1939. Longest-serving US military airship. USS Los Angeles moored to USS Patoka 1931, originally uploaded by lazzo51.

USSR-W6 Osoaviahim; Russian military airship. Semi-rigid construction, designed by Italian engineer Umberto Nobile. Launched November 1934, lost February 1938 due to CFIT into Mount Nebo. 16 of 19 crew killed, crash spelled the end of the Soviet airship program. CCCP-B6, originally uploaded by lazzo51.

LZ 129 Hindenburg; German civil airship. Rigid construction. Launched March 1936, lost May 1937 due to fire. 36 passengers and 61 crew on board, 13 passengers and 22 crew died. Hindenburg in Curitiba (1936), originally uploaded by llvsboston.

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