The Future of Aerial Transport

"The force of gravity ever pulling the plane and its load to earth, will ever set a limit to the achievements of aircraft and be an insurmountable barrier to commercial success in the air"
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Few subjects interest the world as does the marvel of human flight, no prospect is so alluring as 'the conquest of the air,' and when airmen, greatly daring, cross the wide seas they call forth admiration and wonder at their enterprise and courage, their skill and endurance: yet so narrow is the gulf between amazing success and tragic failure, so far are the determining factors beyond the control of the pilot, that enthusiasm yields to misgiving and even to censure, mingled with increasing skepticism regarding the value of long-distance flights.

Eight years have elapsed since Sir John Alcock, an Englishman, and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown, of American birth, crossing the Atlantic in the first nonstop flight, won the Daily Mail prize of £10,000. They started from St. John's, Newfoundland, on June 14, 1919, and landed at Clifden, Ireland, after 16 hours and 192 minutes. They had crossed the ocean at 118 miles per hour, which is still the speed record for Atlantic flights. Since that time millions have been spent on the development of the aeroplane, on the improvement of the engine, on navigational and other instruments, in order to advance and encourage the art of flying; and much also has been expended on the study of meteorology. It was therefore natural to assume that, if continuous and definite progress or startling advance in aeronautics was possible, long-distance flights could now be undertaken in more efficient machines with engines of much higher performance, with more reliable instruments of navigation, more accurate forecasts of wind and weather, with greater certainty of achievement, and less discomfort.

The £5000 New York-Paris nonstop prize offered a test of progress in aeronautics and of the practicability of long-distance ocean flights; and when the events of the past season are examined and weighed against earlier ones it will be seen that they show an advance in performance, no further 'control over the powers of Nature,' no nearer approach to commercial transport. In truth the only essential difference between the successful efforts of 1919 and the recent flights is in the load of fuel taken for the voyage. Much more petrol is now taken aboard than would then have been attempted. Special and longer runs have arranged in the direction of the prevailing or favorable winds, enormous tires and other aids are unsparingly supplied; all 'comforts' are reduced to their lowest limits to allow the last drop of fuel to be carried. Yet, in spite of these preparations, the start is more perilous. In September 1926, when Captain Rene Fonck, the ace of the French airmen, essayed the flight, disaster was immediate. The pilot took off, but the plane was overloaded, and in a few seconds it crashed to the ground in flames. The two mechanics, Clavier and Islamoff, were burned to death, and the fourteen-ton Sikorsky was utterly destroyed. In the next venture for the same prize, two more victims were claimed. On April 26, 1927, Commander Davis and Lieutenant Wooster of the United States Navy made a test flight with too heavy a load and, failing to clear a line of trees, fell into a marsh.

Lindbergh loaded up to his limit and took off with difficulty, Chamberlin carried so much fuel that the plane would not leave the ground at the first start. Byrd took as much as he dared. The hazards from dangerously full loading present themselves at the start of all long-distance flights; ambulances are placed at points where trouble is feared, and fire fighters are held in readiness for the critical moment. Yet, though a safe start be made, the load may still prove overmuch and entail misfortune or disaster. The second attempt of R.A.F. pilots to fly to India ended after one and one-half hours. Excessive heat had been engendered by the engines running at full throttle to support the great load, and a leak developed in the oiling system. The flight had been abandoned, and Flight Lieutenant Carr made a skillful landing at Martlesham aerodrome. Had such a trouble developed over the ocean, tragedy would have been well-nigh inevitable. When the Old Glory left Maine on a nonstop flight to Rome it was so heavy with fuel that it ran along the hard-packed sand of the beach for nearly two miles before it could rise in the air, for it carried 'a heavier load than any single-motored monoplane ever tried to lift before.' The wireless message received some hours later, 'The ship is heavy, but everything is going fine,' supplies the only clue to the disaster that ensued.

Thus the most difficult mechanical problem in these long-distance flights is the suspension of the great loads in the air against the natural force of gravity. Reflection shows that in no other form of transport is the propelling power expected to lift the vehicle and its load, in addition to propelling it forward. This being so, it is not surprising to find enormous horsepower installed to transport what is relatively an insignificant load. For a long nonstop flight much fuel is necessary; all the available load to the last pound must be taken in petrol, and vigilance and scrupulous care must be exercised to discard everything that is not essential to success.

When the Marchese cli Pinedo started from Trepassey, Newfoundland, on May 23, 1927, on his flight of 1500 miles to the Azores, he loaded up with petrol, and at the last moment decided to discard his wireless equipment, weighing 400 pounds, judging it safer to take the weight in fuel. Nevertheless it was not enough, for on the voyage he encountered such an adverse air current that his progress over the sea was reduced to 60 miles per hour and he saw his petrol would not last out. Fortunately before it was spent he sighted a schooner and was taken in tow.

Before the two Junker monoplanes Europa and Bremen started on their attempt to cross the Atlantic in August, 'everybody and everything belonging to the expedition was carefully weighed, and nonessential articles destined to comfort or sustain the airmen had reluctantly to be abandoned in order to keep the weight down to 3800 kilogrammes, of which some 2400 represent fuel.' Nevertheless the Bremen, which alone reached the Atlantic, was obliged to turn back, for as time went on Captain Kohl realized that his fuel would not take him to Newfoundland. 'It was useless to continue the struggle,' for the wind was westerly and he was making little or no headway in the adverse current. On his return to Germany Captain Kohl declared, 'If the weather had been merely bad I would have kept on, but I could not fight along at the rate of four miles per hour.' Yet this Junker monoplane was capable of covering 125 miles per hour, and was no doubt flying at this actual speed in the moving air.

II

The domination of the wind over aircraft is complete. An aeroplane in the air cannot use the wind. There can be no comparison between the action of wind on a sailing ship and the action of wind - moving air - on an aeroplane flying in it and completely surrounded by it. In the air there can be no 'trimming of sails,' no 'beating to windward,' for to all the courses of the air and to its full speed the aeroplane unconsciously and completely conforms. A 'sea' of air envelops it; within this moving 'sea' the airman unconsciously drives his plane and steers a course. His course over land or sea and his speed 'made good' are the resultant of known and unknown factors. Adequate provision can be made for the known factors, and should no engine trouble occur or compass errors develop, and were the 'sea' in which the airman flies as stationary as the sea or land beneath him, the airman must arrive at his destination and at the prearranged time; were even the movement of the medium known, and could it be relied upon not to alter in rate and direction during the whole journey, the time of safe arrival could be calculated beforehand; but should the aviator's 'sea' take some unexpected course during passage, the time of arrival is uncertain—in a long flight the end may never be known. The skill of the pilot cannot ensure success or avert disaster, for the wind is at the helm, imposing upon a craft its own direction and speed.

This can be as readily shown by simple arithmetic as it has been demonstrated in recent flights. Take a flight between two capitals separated by 3000 miles of sea, by a plane developing no defects, with an average speed of 100 miles per hour and a load of 40 hours' fuel at this speed. In a dead calm the destination will be safely reached in 30 hours with 10 hours' fuel remaining. In a directly favorable and constant wind of only 30 miles per hour (a very moderate wind at flying heights) the aeroplane, making 130 miles per hour, will reach its goal in 23 hours, the pilot will have 17 hours' fuel remaining in tanks, and, if he wishes, he can fly on in the same direction for 2200 miles and set up a new record.

It is absurd to reverse the conditions, for the airman would not set off; but, were he so rash as to start, he would, with the 30-miles-per-hour current directly against him, be obliged to come down or would fall into the 200 miles from his proposed destination. Thus, with the favorable wind he could cover 59,00 miles, with the unfavorable about 2800 only, —a difference of some 2400 miles,—nevertheless in neither case would he lose direction. If his compasses were correct he would land somewhere along the predetermined route of 3000 geographical miles.

A change of wind on passage, however, upsets all calculations. Should the 30-miles-per-hour favorable wind shift 8 points (90∞), say, 10 hours from the start, after he has flown 1800 miles he will have covered at the end of the next 10 hours some 1044 miles toward his destination, but will be, in the absence of external warning, 300 miles off his intended course. In truth he will be lost on the ocean, for the aeroplane itself, when fixed points are available, cannot detect changes in the wind and cannot therefore know the drift. Hence the constant anxiety of the navigator and the necessity of ascertaining the position of the aeroplane and its course from passing vessels at sea, and the reliance upon wireless from land or ship stations—a stay which may prove a broken reed.

The comments of the New York Meteorological Office after the successful flight of Colonel Lindbergh and that of Chamberlin and Mr. Levine merit special consideration. This bureau had been receiving weather reports twice daily from ten ocean liners by radio, and five hundred ships had sent their observations by mail. The report of the meteorologist is significant: —

There really have been only three times since April 20 when a transatlantic flight would have been safe. The first began, strangely enough, on the day that Acosta and Chamberlin started their endurance flight in the Bellanca. If they had taken off for Europe instead of circling over Manhattan, they would undoubtedly have reached it without any trouble. The second time when Lindbergh made his successful (May 20) and the third when Chamberlin took off (June 4).

Colonel Lindbergh was fortunate in his weather; and his luck in having the wind over the Atlantic, as he expected, was amazing. He trusted to a small compass and dead reckoning; his plans for navigation were simple: when he left the seaboard and America behind, following the steamer route, he would every one hundred miles (one hour by his watch) alter course. The weather was better than he expected, 'better than the Weather Bureau had expected.' He saw little during the ocean crossing and though the fog obscured his view, the constancy of the wind favored his dead reckoning. In the afternoon he saw some fishing boats.

Was he on the right road to Ireland? When he assured himself that 'it was Ireland rather than Spain or some other country, the rest was child's play.' That he came on the Irish coast just three miles from where he expected was 'a pure coincidence,' and a remarkable one.

Clarence Chamberlin and Mr. Levine placed reliance upon an earth-induction compass, but soon it sas 'running wild' and they were left with the ordinary magnetic compass. Icebergs helped in the estimation of drift, but when they had lost direction, and did not know whether they would hit Spain or Ireland, they luckily came upon the Mauretania and found that they were 'somewhere near Ireland or England.'

The Pride of Detroit was more fortunate in the wind than its airmen knew; when they reached land after crossing the ocean they 'hadn't any idea what country it was.' After flying about for two hours they inquired by primitive means where they were, and intelligent and resourceful coastguardsmen coastguardsmen, by promptly spreading out a Union Jack, gave the airmen the information they needed to make Croydon.

Were the wind and weather not the main factors in long flights, it would be inexplicable that 'the most experienced and careful navigator, Commander Byrd, and the best-equipped aeroplane, the America, should have failed to achieve what others had succeeded in accomplishing.' He, with three companions, left New York on June 29, and though 'conditions over most of the Atlantic were quite favorable,' the weather did not behave in accordance with expert forecasts, and the flight nearly ended in disaster. After reaching the French coast in safety, while darkness was setting in and the weather was getting rainy and thick, something went wrong with the compasses and the wireless failed to work. Commander Byrd found he was flying in a circle instead of a straight line, but whether to the right or to the left he did not know; his petrol was fast giving out and he decided to come down on water.

The United States Meteorological Report comments thus upon these three Atlantic crossings:—

Had Lindbergh encountered the cross winds that Byrd did, the Spirit of St. Louis would have been blown off her course as far as was the America, in spite of the perfect piloting of the man controlling her destinies; and had Chamberlin encountered the poor visibility conditions that hindered Byrd, it is almost certain that his courageous flight would have ended in disaster. To sum up, one may say almost everything depends upon the weather.
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