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Subject: ‘Aviation’

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The first airmail service began during the Siege of Paris

Posted in Aviation, Communications, Historical articles, History, Transport, War on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about communications first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

First airmail service 1870,  picture, image, illustration
The world's first regular airmail service was established in 1870 when manned balloons were used to carry sacks of letters from the besieged city of Paris to the outside world

Air-mail letters led a somewhat adventurous life in the pioneer days of flight. Balloons tended to get blown off course and land in out of the way places and the early aircraft, even if they took-off safely, could never be relied upon to land in one piece.

In the besieged city of Paris in 1870 it seemed as though the struggle against the encircling Prussian armies was hopeless. The tight ring of steel around the sprawling capital of France was complete and the sound of gunfire could be heard throughout the city. The last trickle of refugees had stopped and food supplies were already running short.

Yet for all their mastery of the land the Prussians could not cut off Paris completely from the rest of the world. Every two or three days a huge manned balloon would rise up from the centre of the city, rapidly gaining height until the stronger air currents could carry it safely over the Prussian lines. With the pilots in the gondola of these frail machines were bags of letters, keeping the world informed of their plight and maintaining the morale of defenders by linking them with their relatives in the safety of provincial France.

This was the world’s first regular air-mail letter service and despite the apparent calm and peace once the balloon was airborne, it was a dangerous and exciting business. First came the breathtaking view of Paris with the Seine running through it like a silver ribbon. There was little time to admire the view, however, for any loss of height might put them within range of the enemy sharpshooters below. Then, for all their skill, the pilots were likely to be at the mercy of the winds.

One balloon had the misfortune to strike some very contrary winds and landed in Bavaria, 470 miles away and in the heart of the enemy’s territory. Another had an incredible 14 hour journey during which hurricane force winds swept it over 1,000 miles to Lifjeld in Norway and at speeds exceeding 100 mph.

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Following a jungle stream saved Juliane Koepcke’s life

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about aviation disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Lost in the jungle, picture, image, illustration
Juliane had the will to survive this ordeal by Graham Coton

Flight 508 from Lima, the capital of Peru, to Pucallpa, 475 miles away in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, was on schedule. Everything appeared to be normal. Half an hour after take off ground control received the routine message from the captain, “We will land at Pucallpa in thirty-eight minutes.” Then, suddenly, radio contact was lost. The plane had vanished.

After ten days of fruitless searching all hope was lost. The dense jungle refused to reveal what had happened to the aircraft and the ninety-two people on board. There was no sign of wreckage or survivors. Missionary Clyde Peters parachuted into the area but he found nothing and eventually had to be rescued himself.

And then, on January 4th, 1972, eleven days after the aeroplane’s mysterious disappearance, a blonde, seventeen-year-old girl staggered out of the jungle – the only survivor from that ill-fated flight. Juliane Koepcke, her body racked with pain, her clothes torn to shreds, had somehow walked twenty-five kilometres through a jungle of danger to safety.

Thirty minutes after take off the plane hit a patch of turbulence, a not uncommon occurrence over jungle terrain. Rain beat against the windows. The skies darkened. Lightning flashed. Luggage fell from the racks on to the passengers. A woman screamed. Juliane looked at her mother. “This is the end of everything,” she said.

Seconds later Juliane realised she was no longer in the aircraft. She was being hurtled through the air, still strapped in her seat. At 10,000 feet the plane had disintegrated. Then Juliane lost consciousness – everything went black.

As she came to she became aware of the splashing of the rain on her body and the ceaseless croaking of frogs all around her. Her foot was bleeding and there were bumps on her head and face. She tried to look around but her vision was blurred and no matter how hard she tried she could not summon sufficient energy to move. That night she slept where she had fallen, her seat over her, lost in the middle of the jungle. The frogs continued their croaking.

In the morning, although still a little dizzy, she managed to get up. Her seat, was all she could find of the plane. A short distance away she found a small parcel inside which there were some toys and a piece of Christmas cake. It was Christmas day. She tried eating the cake but it was saturated with the dampness of the jungle and the taste was not very pleasant. Juliane’s first thought was for her mother. She searched the area in vain. Although Juliane did not know it at the time, her mother was already dead.

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Stranded on the Greenland ice cap after a plane crash

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about aviation disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 587 published on 14 April 1973.

Few flyers can have faced such daunting prospects as did the captain and crew of the four-engined Hastings aircraft which crashed on the Greenland ice cap on September 16, 1952.

They were marooned far from civilisation. The ice cap, covering most of Greenland, the world’s largest island, is a frozen waste of snow and ice. The Hastings, which belonged to R.A.F. Transport Command, Topcliffe, Yorkshire, was ferrying supplies for the British North Greenland Expedition. Engine trouble developed suddenly as the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Michael Clancy, from Limerick, was making a second run-in.

The crash followed so swiftly that one of the crew, Lance-Corporal B. Hussey, said afterwards that the first he knew about it was that “a thousand ice-cold needles” stabbed his cheeks. They were snow particles. Then he saw the radio operator, Flight Sergeant Burke, with blood streaming down his face. Their machine was on the Ice Cap, with a broken port wing.

Appalling danger threatened as fire broke out, but the disciplined crew put the flames out so quickly that they averted what could easily have been complete disaster.

They were a mixed crew of twelve – seven from the R.A.F., four from the Army, one from the U.S. Air Force. All were shaken and bruised and three had bad injuries. Flight Sergeant Burke had been hurled against his radio panel and cut about the head; the American, Captain Charles Stovey, had two ribs broken; an Army representative, Major D. S. Barker-Simpson, had a fractured ankle.

While some rendered first-aid, others curtained off a part of the aircraft as a sick bay. The intense cold was crippling and a biting wind was sweeping across the ice cap. The point where they had crashed was 8,000 feet up.

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A Soviet air rescue saved the passengers of S.S. Chelyuskin

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about the S S Chelyuskin disaster first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Slowly, painfully, its screws whirring frantically, the S.S. Chelyuskin fought its way through the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean. On her deck, her captain, Julius Schmidt, worriedly watched the ice pack inexorably closing in on his vessel. He had good cause for concern. In this area, more sturdy ships than his had disappeared without a trace, crushed to death by the terrible ice-floes. Of course, these were the chances that sailors took when they travelled in this area. But the S.S. Chelyuskin was no ordinary ship, inasmuch as she carried no less than 103 people aboard, including ten women and two children. It was a grave responsibility for a captain to carry on his shoulders.

The S.S. Chelyuskin was a Soviet ship which had set off from Russia in the August of 1933, with the express purpose of proving that an ordinary cargo vessel could voyage through the north-east passage and back within a single season. In the previous year, a Soviet ice-breaker under the command of Julius Schmidt had managed to make the journey. But unlike the Chelyuskin, she had been specially built to withstand the enormous pressure of the ice-floes.

Even so, the Chelyuskin had so far come through magnificently. After collecting a party of Russian scientists and their families from Wrangel Island, she had weathered blizzards and storms and had so far sailed through hundreds of miles of pack-ice without misadventure.

But now was the true testing time. Some way ahead of the vessel lay the open Pacific. But to reach it there were still some miles of water to be navigated, water that was filled with drifting gigantic ice-floes which could smash in the sides of the vessel like matchwood.

Desperately, the vessel twisted and turned, its bows throwing up a steady shower of ice splinters. Every now and then the vessel would halt abruptly, trapped between two walls of ice. Whenever this happened, the crew would jump overboard with cans of explosive which they planted on the ice. Numbed with the cold and breathless from their exertions, they scrambled back on the ship each time, only seconds before the explosives went up.

Then suddenly, miraculously, the Chelyuskin was only six miles from the open seas of the Pacific Ocean. Surely now, after going through so much, they would reach their goal without misadventure? The sunshine that came out at this point, softening the bleak outlines of the ice, certainly seemed to indicate that the worst was over.

Then, without warning, and as if from nowhere, a raging blizzard descended on the Chelyuskin, driving the ice floes forward until they formed a solid barrier in front of the vessel. Now it began to move forward, grinding remorselessly against the ship’s sides, until it had broken her ribs at the bows, torn a hole in her forward, and snapped off her rudder.

It was at this point that Julius Schmidt went to the radio to inform the world of their desperate plight. But even after that the ship still continued to survive for another three and a half weeks before the ice forced the occupants of the beleaguered ship to abandon her.

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Balloonists braved the skies long before pilots and aeroplanes

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about pioneering balloon flight first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.

de Rozier and D'Arlandes,  picture, image, illustration
Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes flew over Paris for 25 minutes in a hot-air balloon made by the Montgolfier brothers, by Wilf Hardy

They were only a few miles from the French coast, but it seemed certain that their historic trip was destined to end, not in a blaze of glory but in the waters of the English Channel. They had hoped to be the first men to cross the Channel by air, but their leaking balloon was lowering them steadily towards the waves.

The two men were Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a famous French balloonist, and an American doctor called John Jeffries, and the extraordinary thing about their adventure was that it happened as far back as 1785. We tend to think of flying as very much a 20th century achievement, and that only in our own times have men been able to look down on the Earth from above. Yet the balloon age began on November 21, 1783.

On that great day, Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes flew over Paris for 25 minutes in a hot-air balloon. It had been made by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Etienne, who were French paper-makers by trade. They got their idea after noticing how open paper bags floated into the air after being thrown on a fire.

They made a balloon of linen and paper and lit a fire under it, and its pull was so strong that it needed eight men to hold it. Suddenly, it shot up to 6,000 feet and came down a mile away.

The first passengers were a chicken, a duck and a sheep. Then came the first manned flight.

It was a dangerous one, because a brazier was fixed to the neck of a new balloon and the two “aeronauts” were ordered to keep the fire stoked after the balloon had been “blasted off” by a fire under the launching platform. During the five mile flight, the two had to keep putting out fires that started in the inflammable painted cloth of the balloon, but they survived.

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An RAF raid which broke open the jail at Amiens

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Saturday, 1 March 2014

This edited article about World War Two first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

Raid on Amiens jail,  picture, image, illustration
Group Captain Charles Pickard led the raid to free many imprisoned members of the Resistance, by Wilf Hardy

A blanket of snow covered northern France. Behind the grim walls of Amiens jail, 700 or so prisoners were trying unsuccessfully to keep themselves warm.

Many of the prisoners were under sentence of death, for they were men and women of the French Resistance, the secret civilian army which had refused to surrender to the Germans when they conquered and occupied France in 1940. Ever since then, their numbers had grown steadily and they had waged a deadly guerrilla war of ambush and sabotage against their conquerors. But, inevitably, many Resistance heroes and heroines had been caught, which was why the jail at Amiens was so full.

The Allied invasion to liberate France and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe was now only a few months away, for this bleak, snowy day was 18th February, 1944, but the chances of the prisoners’ survival seemed slim. Many of them had been tortured by the Gestapo, the hated German secret police, and some were due to die within 48 hours. Others were destined for the horrors of concentration camps and a later, even more terrible death in a gas chamber.

Yet on that dismal February morning an incredible piece of news was circulating through the jail – the Royal Air Force was going to make a low-level attack on the prison walls and blast a hole in them. Then, in the ensuing confusion, the prisoners could escape. Yet even if this rumour was true, could any planes get through a snowstorm which showed no sign of letting up? Surely it would be sheer suicide to attempt it?

Back in Britain the weather was also bad, so bad that there was talk of the raid being called off. Nineteen de Havilland Mosquitoes were standing by for the raid, which was to be led by one of the R.A.F.’s finest pilots, Group Captain Pickard, D.S.O. and two bars, D.F.C. Under him were six Mosquitoes from 21 Squadron, R.A.F., six from 487 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force, and six from 464 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, also a photographic reconnaissance plane.

The Mosquito was one of the wonder planes of the Second World War. It had originally been designed as a light bomber, but had become famous as a first-rate fighter-bomber, a long-range fighter, a reconnaissance aircraft, and as a “Pathfinder,” flying daringly low to drop flares to guide oncoming heavy bombers.

It carried a bomb load of 4,000 lbs., and a crew of two, a pilot and a navigator / bomb-aimer. It had a top speed of around 400 mph and could outstrip most German planes, and it was built of wood, which not only made it easier to manufacture, but also saved valuable metal. Added to this, it was a beautiful plane and – more important – very successful indeed!

Pickard’s men knew their target well, for they had all studied it from a plaster of Paris model which showed what the jail would look like to them from four miles away and at a height of 1,500 feet. The 500 lb. delayed action bombs which they would be carrying had to be dropped from a very low altitude, so timing was absolutely vital. The jail walls were three feet thick and 20 feet high, and some of the bombs were destined for the barracks where the German guards lived.

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Otto Lilienthal glided into aviation history and disaster

Posted in Aviation, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about aviation pioneers first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 570 published on 16 December 1972.

Otto Lilienthal,  picture, image, illustration
The first man to fly: Otto Lilienthal

“Hold it Herr Lilienthal! Just one moment!” cried the photographer from beneath his voluminous black cloth. Fifty feet above him a strange moth-like shape swung in the air.

“I am doing my best, mein herr,” shouted its pilot. “but I don’t rule the wind you know!” Even as Otto Lilienthal spoke, the breeze dropped and his flimsy glider soared away towards the foot of the hill.

“OK, I have the picture!” the photographer shouted in triumph – but nobody was listening. Otto Lilienthal was busy making a safe landing while the gaggle of journalists who had gathered to see some real flying were now rushing down the hill to interview the greatest man in the aviation world.

They reached Lilienthal as he was extricating himself from the glider. The year was 1895 and Lilienthal had proved that man could at least glide, even if nobody had as yet managed to build a flying machine with an engine.

“Herr – herr Lilienthal,” said the first of the journalists to reach the glider. “Tell me about this wonderful machine of yours.”

Otto Lilienthal smiled at his eager audience.

“This is my biplane, so called because it has two wings one above the other. I have given it the number 13. I have made three biplanes so far, with wing areas of 18, 10.5 and 20 square metres. They are very stable, which came as a surprise to me, and I have flown in winds of about 25 m.p.h., as you yourselves saw. Ah, here comes, our photographer! I hope your picture is a success mein Herr. As I was saying, when the wind is strong my glider seems to remain stationary. But there are many more problems to solve.”

Otto Lilienthal was a quiet and rather humble man, though he was ever eager to spread his discoveries around and perhaps encourage other people to experiment. Many men before him had tried to fly. Many had died or at least suffered injury, but Otto Lilienthal was a new type of “aeronaut.” He approached the subject carefully and slowly with a scientific mind, though this care in no way dampened his fanatical determination to fly.

Ever since he had been a boy back in the 1850′s Otto Lilienthal had longed to fly. He and his brother even made a six wing ornithopter which was supposed to fly by flapping its wings like a bird. It failed, but right up to his death Lilienthal believed he could build a flying machine that would flap its way into the air. Fortunately for himself, and for the science of aviation, Otto decided to learn as much about flying by gliding as he could.

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America court-martialled her most visionary military patriot

Posted in America, Aviation, Ships, Weapons, World War 1, World War 2 on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.

William Mitchell in WW1,  picture, image, illustration
William Mitchell and the bombers of World War I by Graham Coton

The ex-German submarine, U-117, could be seen lying at anchor as the mist rose off the calm waters beyond the Virginian coastline. Near the sub – but not too near – were ships of the United States Atlantic Fleet, and on the decks of one of them, the Henderson, were Congressmen, Government officials, admirals, generals and observers from foreign countries, all staring at the once-sinister sub.

Suddenly, everyone looked skywards. The best American bombers, fragile and out-of-date, were heading for their target. For the first time, aircraft were going to try to sink a ship. Actually, there were four targets, only one of which was to be attacked that June day in 1921. The others, due for later assaults, included the “unsinkable” veteran of the Battle of Jutland, the battleship Ostfriesland.

The planes were led by Brigadier-General William Mitchell who had had the “ridiculous” idea that ships without air cover could be sunk by planes. Service chiefs thought him mad, though he was a war hero and was now Assistant Chief of Military Aviation of the U.S. Army, and therefore a man to whom they had to listen. But now they were lined up to enjoy his anticipated downfall.

Instead, in a matter of minutes, twelve small bombs had sent the U-boat to the bottom. But this great moment in the history of warfare was dismissed by one admiral with a sneering, “It proves nothing. Our guns could have sunk it in half the time!”

This was the beginning of a saga which resulted in the greatest prophet in the story of military flying being court-martialled and disgraced, and then to die shortly before his theories were proved right in the most dramatic way imaginable.

“Billy” Mitchell had joined the army in 1898. Later, he met the Wright Brothers, who, in 1903, achieved the first manned, powered flight, and he became keenly interested in flying. In the First World War, which the U.S.A. entered in 1917, he was the first American to fly over enemy lines.

He had an uncanny vision of the shape of aerial warfare to come, visualising a whole division of soldiers being dropped by parachute from 1,200 bombers. In fact, he was 20 years ahead of his time.

Yet even if his advanced ideas could not be put into practice, the air attacks he organised were great successes. But he ended the war convinced that the U.S. Army Air Force had been betrayed. Despite huge sums granted it, only 196 planes, many of them “flying coffins,” had reached France by the end of the war.

More urgent was the future. After several years of campaigning which did not even convince the brighter brass hats, he at last got permission for his demonstration.

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Frank Whittle designed the first jet-powered aeroplane

Posted in Aviation, Engineering, Famous Inventors, World War 2 on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about aviation first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 565 published on 11 November 1972.

The first jet,  picture, image, illustration
Gloster-Whittle E28 by Wilf Hardy

The month of May 1941 was far from uneventful for the people of Britain. In North Africa, British troops were under siege at Tobruk. An allied army was evacuated from Crete. In one night of bombing, 3,000 people were killed or injured in London. Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament were damaged and 2,000 fires were lit. Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, parachuted into Scotland. And the battleships Hood and Bismarck were sunk.

Of all these events, however, history will undoubtedly record that the most far reaching occurred over the Cranwell RAF College on May 15, 1941.

At 7.40 p.m. on that day, an aircraft was wheeled on to the runway and her engines roared into life. It was not the sound normally associated with an aeroplane, but a high-pitched whine which increased as the plane taxied and took off. Still screaming, the plane headed west at high speed. Then it roared back, executed a series of breathtaking, swooping turns and howled in to land.

That was all. No public announcement, no news cameras to record the scene. In fact, of those who were there on that historic day, only a small group knew that this short flight by the Gloster-Whittle E28/39 jet plane marked a landmark in aviation history. The world had been thrust forward into a new era where flights of giant aircraft carrying hundreds of passengers at great heights and at twice the speed of sound would be commonplace.

So well had the secret been kept that later an RAF officer was seen sitting in the mess with a frown on his face. When asked what was wrong, he replied that he had just seen an aeroplane going at a terrific speed, but there had been something odd about it. Then suddenly he stiffened. “I must be going round the bend,” he said. “It hadn’t got a propeller.”

Among those watching that May flight was Frank Whittle, the designer of this, the first British jet aircraft engine. For Whittle, the moment was the culmination of a dogged fight against great odds to bring to life an idea which, as a Cranwell cadet some 13 years before, he had suggested in a paper called “Future Developments in Aircraft Design.” In the paper, Whittle stated that if high speeds were to be combined with long range, it would be necessary to fly at great heights where the thinner air would reduce resistance to speed.

After leaving Cranwell as an officer, Frank Whittle put sketches and calculations for a gas turbine jet engine before the Air Ministry in 1929. They replied that they considered the scheme impracticable, as there were no metals strong enough to withstand the stresses and high temperatures necessary.

So to safeguard his idea Whittle took out a patent and told the Air Ministry, but they showed no interest.

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Tazio Nuvolari, the wiry little wizard of the racing track

Posted in Aviation, Cars, Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Friday, 21 February 2014

This edited article about motor racing first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 562 published on 21 October 1972.

Tazio Nuvolari,  picture, image, illustration
Tazio Nuvolari driving an Alfa Romeo by Graham Coton

Tazio Nuvolari was a wiry little wizard who always drove to win. Once his engine blew up, once his petrol tank burst into flames, and once he leapt from his car at 100 m.p.h. – and each time he survived

Pappa Nuvolari puffed away at his cigar imperturbably, as if it was an everyday occurrence to have an aeroplane on the roof of his house.

“I want to see if he makes it,” Pappa said, as he watched his son, Tazio, climb into the cockpit of the Bleriot aeroplane he had constructed from bits and pieces bought from a factory.

Tazio had seen the dismantled Blériot in Milan and bought it for £20. After it had been shipped to his home, he put it together with the help of a friend.

But Tazio struck trouble when he tried to fly the machine, for this was 1912, when both flying – and Tazio, who was twenty – were young. No matter what he did to it, the machine would not leave the ground.

Undaunted, Tazio fixed up a hoist and hauled the plane on to the flat roof of his house.

Once he had moored the plane with a rope, Tazio climbed into the cockpit and revved up the engine. When he thought it was turning fast enough, he signalled to his friend to cut the rope.

Tazio tensed at the controls, gazing skywards in eager anticipation of a swoop into the clouds. Instead, the engine coughed a few times a trifle wheezily and plopped on to a haystack just below the house.

Almost immediately, the petrol caught fire and the haystack became a mass of flames.

Pappa Nuvolari went on puffing at his cigar. He was used to his son’s crazy antics. Soon, out of the flames came Tazio, unhurt and unworried.

As a flyer, he was a non-starter. But as Italy’s king of speed on motor cycles and racing cars, he became a daring risk-taker, seemingly incapable of experiencing fear.

“It was my father who taught me never to be afraid,” said Nuvolari. “When I was five, I was badly kicked by our horse. Three or four days later, father threw a silver coin between the horse’s legs and told me to pick it up and keep it for myself. I got it all right, and the horse didn’t move. This was my very first lesson, never to fear danger. And, to tell you the truth, I have never known the meaning of fear.”

Men who raced against him on the world’s tracks knew how true this was. In all his races, he finished second only seventeen times and third only ten times. As a rule, he won – or smashed up the car in the attempt.

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