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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.
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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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.
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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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.
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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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 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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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 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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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 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 Bl√©riot 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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Posted in America, Aviation, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Travel on Thursday, 13 February 2014
This edited article about aviation first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 551 published on 5 August 1972.
Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis in which he flew solo across the Atlantic, by Ron Embleton
In 1919, the year of the legendary’ Alcock and Brown trans-Atlantic flight, Raymond Orteig, a New York hotel owner, offered a prize of 25,000 dollars for the first crossing made between New York and Paris in a heavier-than-air machine. By the middle of the 1920′s many aviators were intent upon achieving this feat. Several attempts were made by well-known flyers. None was successful and some resulted in tragedy; a machine financed by the American Legion crashed on take-off and the two pilots Woster and Davis were killed and two brave Frenchmen who set off from Le Bourget, Paris, in their plane, the “White Bird” were never seen again.
In May 1927 three planes were ready in New York to try for the prize. The first two were a tri-motor plane built by the Fokker Company and a Wright-Bellanca, both were piloted by experienced men, Byrd and Chamberlin. The third aircraft was a single-engined monoplane. “The Spirit of St. Louis” built to the specifications of Charles A. Lindbergh, a young and little-known airman. The planes were grounded due to unfavourable weather conditions and the pilots waited impatiently.
The forecast was more favourable on the evening of May 19th and Lindbergh drove to Curtiss Airfield and had “The Spirit of St. Louis” prepared for a take-off on the following morning. He returned late that night to his hotel to snatch a brief couple of hours’ sleep before setting out once more for the airfield. He had decided that the Curtiss Field runway was not long enough for a take-off with his plane fully loaded with fuel – he had even abandoned his parachute considering the extra fuel he could carry instead to be more vital – and had her towed to the nearby Roosevelt Field.
He was the only one of the three contenders who thought the conditions good enough for an attempt and at 7.30 a.m. on 20th May “The Spirit of St. Louis” took off and for the next 33 ½ hours the world held its breath. When Lindbergh touched down at Le Bourget thousands of people ran to congratulate him – he had achieved his dream.
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Posted in Africa, Aviation, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Tuesday, 4 February 2014
This edited article about aviation first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 540 published on 20 May 1972.
An early flight on the North African route
“Down there!” the navigator shouted. “Try down there!”
The pilot of the Corsair flying boat looked at the River Dangu as it wound its way across what, in those pre-war days was known as the Belgian Congo. Sure enough, there was one comparatively straight stretch on which it might just be possible to get a flying boat down. He decided to have a go.
Flying boats were among the most comfortable aircraft ever invented, but they had snags, one of these being a total lack of brakes. There was absolutely no way of avoiding the mud bank that loomed ahead of the Corsair once she had touched down. There was a slithering crash and then a crunch as her hull caved in. Water poured through, and an aircraft that in those days cost the astronomical sum of £50,000 sank quietly in a few feet of water. Unhurt, the passengers made their way to a native village a few miles away, leaving the crew to tramp through swamp and bush until they came to a telegraph post from which it was possible to contact London.
Imperial Airways, the great company which developed Britain’s air routes across the globe before the formation of the British Overseas Airways’ Corporation, were not amused. Of course a brand new aircraft could not possibly be left in the river! In fact, a team of engineers would be flown immediately to the nearest landing ground, which happened to be some 200 miles away. The Corsair would be salvaged forthwith.
It was easy enough to say, but it did not work out quite as smoothly as that. For one thing, there were no roads from the airfield, and the engineers had to tramp on foot through the bush. When they arrived at their destination they stared aghast at the sight that awaited them. How did one refloat an aeroplane?
“It’s not really a plane,” someone pointed out at last. “It’s a flying boat. Maybe we’d better build a dry dock.”
So with the aid of local labour they built the dock and managed to haul the aircraft on to the river bank, where the hull was repaired. Then the question arose: how to get her airborne again. For if the straight stretch of river had been too short for her to get down, it was obviously not long enough for a take off. Eventually a stake was driven into the ground and the Corsair was tied to it with ropes while the engines were started up. When they were running flat out the ropes were cut and the flying boat shot off like an arrow from a bow – straight into a rock.
With the hull holed again, more repairs followed and by the time these were completed the dry season had started and there was even less water in the river than there had been before. At last an organising genius named Jock Halliday decided that there was nothing for it; they would just have to construct a dam. Because once they had that, they would have made themselves a lake.
A dam needed a big labour force and Halliday first had to build a village to house his native workmen, then make a road along which he could haul his timbers. But in the end, after nine months of back-breaking work, the job was done. This time the Corsair rose triumphantly into the blue sky, leaving behind her a new lake, a dam, a road and a brand new village which bore the appropriate name of “Corsairville.”
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Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Thursday, 23 January 2014
This edited article about aviation first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 525 published on 5 February 1972.
“We’re at roof level! I saw a church or something!”
Flight Engineer Binks pressed his face against the window of his engine compartment and tried desperately to see through the night that was made even more impenetrable by pouring rain. The streamlined, torpedo-like cabin he shared with his thundering Beardmore engine was suspended beneath a 780 feet long airship. Not just any airship, but the R.101, the brand new inter-continental load carrier that the Ministry of Aviation were convinced would put Britain in the very forefront of the aircraft building nations of the world. But how could he have seen a church? Binks wondered. This was the R.101′s maiden flight and they were on their way to India, passing over France, hundreds, if not thousands of feet above the ground.
But the engineer’s eyes had not been playing him tricks. What he had seen through the storm was, in fact, the spire of Beauvais Cathedral, 50 miles north west of Paris. And far from being destined to reach distant India, the R.101 was a doomed aircraft that wallowed blindly through the sky like some prehistoric monster with only a few minutes left to live.
It was through no fault of Flight Lieutenant Irwin, the airship’s captain, that the R.101 was off course and losing height. The blame for what was to be one of the greatest disasters in Britain’s aviation history could not be laid on his shoulders, nor on those of the 48 men who made up his crew, R.101 was in trouble because nothing had ever gone right for her from the start.
She was a dream that had become a nightmare. Now it was too late to wake up.
It had all seemed so easy four years earlier, back in 1925. In those days almost everyone agreed that airships were the answer to the problems of long distance air travel. The aeroplanes of the day were small, unreliable, and simply unable to carry sufficient fuel to qualify as a regular means of transport across the world. But the airship – that was another matter. Made buoyant by millions of cubic feet of gas, an airship would rise into the air carrying enormous loads, simply using her engines to drive her along. There was no difficulty about carrying huge quantities of fuel, and as for passenger accommodation – well, within a cigar-shaped structure the size of an Atlantic liner, they could enjoy saloons, private cabins, promenade decks; in fact everything a luxury loving passenger could wish for.
In the light of aircraft development nearly 50 years ago, this reasoning was not all that wrong. Airships such as the Graf Zeppelin did work, and crossed the Atlantic regularly, a feat impossible for any other flying machine.
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Posted in Aviation, Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Thursday, 16 January 2014
This edited article about World War Two first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 513 published on 13 November 1971.
A Gloster Gladiator flown by the Commonwealth Ace, Squadron Leader Pattle, by Wilf Hardy
20,000 feet above Athens a battle was raging. The fifteen remaining Royal Air Force planes in Greece, all of them Hawker Hurricanes, were taking on German Junkers 88 dive bombers, escorted by Messerschmitt 109s and 110s, whose target was the shipping in Piraeus Harbour. They were paying particular attention to a hospital ship.
The last R.A.F. flyer to arrive on the scene should not have been there at all. When the alarm had sounded at Eleusis aerodrome, Squadron Leader Thomas (Pat) Pattle D.F.C. and Bar, who had shot down more enemy planes than anyone else in the Air Force, was under blankets on a couch, shivering and fully dressed, with a high temperature. Months of fighting first against the Italians and then the Germans, always with the odds against him, was finally undermining his health.
The alarm siren had woken him. Instantly, he threw off his blankets and, ignoring the efforts of his adjutant, to stop him, he raced towards the nearest remaining plane.
Cannon shells from a Me 110 spat into the ground around him, but he reached the plane safely and moments later was airborne on his way to his last battle. It was April 20, 1941 – Hitler’s birthday – a day to remember!
“Pat” Pattle was a South African and a born fighter pilot and leader of men: the two things did not always go together, for dauntless as they were, most fighter pilots were so independent by nature that they needed a strong leader, like the legendary legless pilot, Douglas Bader, or Pat Pattle, to get the very most out of them.
For much of his spectacular eight-month career Pattle fought in outdated, though efficient, Gloster Gladiator biplanes over Africa and Greece, until at last he and his men were sent Hurricanes, which were faster, more modern and had twice the firepower. Though they were always outnumbered, Pattle had several great assets.
First there was his eyesight, which his men considered uncanny and which he kept improving with exercises. He forced himself to see farther and farther into the distance and this meant that he almost always spotted the enemy before they spotted him, so gaining that vital second which allowed him to run a fight as he wanted it.
Also, and unlike many fighter pilots, he was a brilliant shot. His men marvelled at the way he could regularly dispatch Italian bombers with two short spaced bursts of fire, one at the fuel tank, the other, as the tank started to leak, into the petrol vapour. To him air fighting was a science.
“Obey the rules,” he would tell his pilots. “Use the clouds to make an unseen approach. Learn about the enemy planes’ advantages and disadvantages. Manoeuvre to get them at a disadvantage.”
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