I am a big fan of the author Bill Bryson. I have enjoyed all his books and recently have been rereading “One Summer: America, 1927”. His sparkling account joyously brings that time to life. Looking back at 1927 from April to October, Bryson chronicles an amazing time: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehring, Coolidge and Harding, the first ‘talking’ pictures bringing revolution to Hollywood, and of course, Lucky Lindy. Yes, I recommend you buy Bryson’s book and read it.
Especially study the part about the Orteg prize and the competition to be the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. As I read about aviation in 1927, I am powerfully aware of the many folks — people who would influence space policy today — who continue to draw comparisons between aviation in the ‘golden age’ and space exploration.
Remembering the actual events of those years should give those advocates pause to consider the risks that were considered acceptable in 1927. An unbelievable number of those early aviators were ill-prepared, took risks that were outside the limits of good judgment, or let ego and the pursuit of fame blind them to the realities of what they were about to do. Stupidity seemed to be more typical than not.
Let me excerpt some passages from Bryson’s book which gives an accounting of aviation in those electric months of 1927 (with sincere apologies to the author as I do violent excision of his words):
“America had three teams in the running . . . Columbia, America, American Legion . . . The leader of the America team was thirty-seven-year-old naval commander Richard Evelyn Byrd . . . On April 6, 1927, just before six in the evening, [Anthony] Fokker . . . copilot Floyd Bennett, navigator George Noville, and Byrd himself eagerly crowded into the cockpit . . . As America came in to land . . . it came down nose-first. The problem was that the weight was up front and there was no way for any of the four men to move to the back to redistribute the load . . . a piece of the propeller ripped through the cockpit and pierced Bennett’s chest . . . Byrd . . . failed to notice that his left arm had snapped like a twig . . . For the time being, the Byrd team was out of the running.
Clarence Chamberlin . . . a short flight above Long Island . . . the landing gear fell apart during the takeoff . . . the wing hit the ground and the damage to the plane was sufficient to set back the Columbia’s plans considerably.
Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster . . . were smart, able aviators, and their plane, a Keystone Pathfinder . . . was 1,150 lbs heavier than it was supposed to . . . On April 26 . . . they would take off with a full load of seventeen thousand pounds . . . the plane struggled to get airborne . . . not enough to clear a line of trees . . . stalled and fell to earth with a sickening crash. Davis and Wooster died instantly . . .
. . . Paris, where at dawn on May 8 . . . Captain Charles Nungesser and Captain Francois Coli . . . war heroes . . men at ease with danger . . . called their plane L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird) and painted it white so that it would be easier to find if it came down at sea. . . they could carry no more than about forty hours’ worth of fuel, which left them almost no margin for error. . . after loading supplies, their plane weighed almost eleven thousand pounds. It had never taken off with that much weight before . . . the plane slowly gathered speed . . . lifted briefly, but then came down again and bouncily proceeded another three hundred yards before finally, agonizingly, and barely getting airborne. The chief engineer, who had run along beside the plane much of the way, fell to his knees and wept. . . . One hour and twenty-seven minutes later . . . Nungesser and Coli reached the chalky sea cliffs of Normandy at Etretat. A squadron of four escort planes tipped their wings in salute and peeled away and L’Oiseau Blanc flew off alone in the direction of the British Isles and the cold Atlantic beyond. . . . Nugesser and Coli . . . missing and feared lost. . . The one thing that wasn’t found was any trace of the White Bird or its occupants.
At the same time . . . another ambitious French flight . . . got under way when three aviators, Pierre de Saint-Roman, Herve Mouneyres, and Louis Petit, took off from Senegal . . . and headed for Brazil . . . no wreckage was ever found . . . In nine months, eleven people had died in the quest to fly the Atlantic . . . nothing was going right for anyone . . .
. . . Lindbergh . . .
With the Atlantic conquered, attention turned to the Pacific – specifically the 2,400 miles . . . between California and Hawaii. . . the Dole Pacific race with $35,000 in prize money . . . from the municipal airport in Oakland, California . . . to Oahu. . . . Three competitors died in crashes before they even reached Oakland. Another plane crashed in the sea as it approached the Oakland airfield . . . another plane was not allowed to depart after it became evident that the pilot had no idea how much fuel he needed to reach Hawaii and didn’t have a fuel tank nearly big enough . . . By the day of the race, the number of planes taking part had been reduced to eight, and four of those scratched before takeoff or turned back soon after. Of the four planes that set off, two made it to Hawaii and two more were lost en route. . . . When word got back that six people were missing, a pilot named William Erwin took off from Oakland to look for them, but he disappeared, too. . . ten people died in the Dole race . . .
. . . people were suddenly announcing daring and risky flights all over the place. Paul Redfern . . . proposing to fly 4,600 miles – farther and anyone had evern flown before – over ocean and jungle, into a realm far beyond the range of reliable maps and weather reports . . . it would take him at least sixty hours to reach Rio. But before he even cleared the Caribbean he was lost . . . it was the last anyone ever saw of him . . . in 1938, at the request of Redfern’s wife . . . Redfern was declared officially dead by a court in Detroit.
In Britain an unlikely sixty-two-year old woman, Princess Anne of Lowenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg . . . a dashing young captain named Leslie Hamilton expressed a desire to cross the Atlantic from east to west, she funded the flight on the understanding that she would accompany the fliers. With Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Minchin as copilot, they took off from an airfield near Salisbury in Wiltshire. The princess wore a stylish hat and an ocelot coat . . . They were sighted over Ireland and again from a ship about halfway across the Atlantic, but they never reached American and no trace of them was ever found.
At about the same time, a plane called Old Glory . . . took off from Old Orchard Beach in Maine . . . bound for Rome . . . piloted by Lloyd Bertaud . . . copilot was James DeWitt Hill, and along for the ride as passenger was Philip A. Payne, editor of Hearst’s Daily Mirror. Just three and a half hours after takeoff they issued an urgent, unexplained SOS. They were never seen again. A few hours later, two Canadian airmen, Captain Terrence Tully and Lieutenant James Medcalf took off from Newfoundland, bound for London in a plan called the Sir John Carling. They were never heard from again either. “
So the question remains: how good an analogy is early aviation to the current state of space exploration?
And how much risk are we willing to take to go to space these days? A prudent amount? What does that mean? Is your standard the same as mine? And what will the lawyers say when the heirs file their lawsuits? And who will be the next Lindbergh?
2014 is not 1927: no Babe Ruth in sight. Hopefully nobody will repeat those days . . . . Sadly, nobody will repeat those days . . . .