“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”


Basically there are two things in aviation—safety and reliability. We all understand safety. Reliability means primarily the ability to adhere to schedule, to go where you want to go, when you want to go, with what you want to take. So the basic concept behind the Full-Flight Laboratory was how to make aviation more reliable, more able to go regardless of weather conditions. And the two great deterrents were fog and icing.

We approached the matter of fog two ways: how could you disperse fog, and if you couldn’t disperse it, how could you cope with it? There was a chap in Cleveland named Harry Raeder. He had a unique way of breaking rock in his quarry. He used a huge blowtorch, with a nozzle perhaps eighteen inches in diameter, and he would heat the side of the quarry, and the uneven expansion and contraction of the heated and unheated rock would cause the rock to break and fall. Over the years Raeder had noticed that the heat of his blowtorch dispersed fog for a considerable distance. We hired him and brought him and his torch to Mitchel Field to test his concept. After a period of months we finally got a zero-zero fog one morning. Well, it was true that in the vicinity of the huge torch the fog was dispersed. Unfortunately the fog was not stationary, and as quick as the torch dispersed the fog, a new fog moved in. So we came to the conclusion that it was probably impossible to disperse a moving fog.

I think, however, that I should point out that during World War n, in England, where the fog was quite stationary, a similar system called FIDO —Fog Intense Dispersal Of—was practiced very successfully. They had great burners on the sides of the runways, and we saved thousands of men and aircraft that would have been lost, by bringing them into the tunnels created by FIDO .

Since you couldn’t disperse fog, how did you go about coping with it?

To begin with, I developed through trial and error a method of literally flying an airplane into the ground. At the far end of the field I had a radio beacon toward which I flew. At the other end I had a fan beacon of lights that marked my approach. On passing the fan beacon at a prescribed altitude, there was a mark on the throttle segment to which I put the throttle. That mark gave me just enough throttle to come down in a very flat glide, and I would just fly right into the ground, and the airplane would scarcely bounce. This technique, along with the new instruments we were able to acquire, allowed me to practice blind landings with a canvas hood over the cockpit.

What sort of instruments?

It was immediately obvious that the instruments then available—the altimeter, rate-of-climb, air-speed, and bank and turn indicators—were not adequate, particularly in bumpy weather. I heard about a chap named [Paul] Kollsman who had developed a very sensitive barometric altimeter, and I went to see him at his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He had built an altimeter that would show the altitude down to about ten feet, whereas the instruments we had been using were only accurate down to about one hundred feet. I took Kollsman—he was holding his altimeter on his lap—up on the first flight test of his device, which was the father of all altimeters used today. Another group that was extremely helpful was the Radio Frequency Laboratory in Boonton, New Jersey, which installed a lot of equipment in our test planes for following beams and beacons and so forth. In those days they didn’t yet have an instrument that pointed whether you were left or right of the radio beacon. What we had were two vibrating reeds. If you were to the right of the beacon, one reed would vibrate more. If you were to the left, the other reed would. To keep on course you had to visually maintain an equal vibration of the two reeds, which stopped vibrating altogether when you passed directly over the beacon. These were the primitive devices out of which today’s fine system finally evolved.

Were any new instruments developed by the Full-Flight Lab?

Two things I knew I needed were a directional gyroscope, which could be periodically set with a compass to give you always your true north, and an instrument that showed the nose and wings of the airplane in relation to the horizon. Various attempts had been made to build such instruments, but they had never been successful. So I went to Elmer Sperry, Sr., who was then the world’s outstanding gyro-scope man, and I drew him a picture of what I wanted. It was a combination instrument in which a simulated airplane would be fixed on the face of the dial and the artificial horizon would be a bar that moved up and down and rolled sideways. And below the horizon bar would be a dial that showed the degrees of north, east, south, and west. Mr. Sperry said he could make that instrument but that it would be very complex and take a long time. He recommended two instruments, a directional gyroscope and an artificial horizon. I said fine, and he assigned the work to his son, Elmer junior. From then on, Elmer junior was an integral part of the blind-flying team. He and his wife became friends of ours and still were when they both passed on. I couldn’t possibly give too much credit to the Sperry people for what they did. Incidentally, about two years ago I climbed into a transport plane, and to my amazement, there on the instrument board was almost an exact replica of the original combination instrument I drew for Elmer Sperry, Sr., in 1928.

Who were the members of the blind-flying team?