The effect of favorable air currents in successful flights, the value of dead reckoning while the wind remains constant in direction, the ceaseless dread that an unknown and therefore incalculable variation of current may occur, the fear of being carried away and lost in the air from drift, the race against time and fuel supply, the discomfort and danger of flying in fog or at freezing heights, the fickleness of wireless, the uncertainty of the 'landfall' in ocean flights, the obstacles to the recognition and choice of landing places—all these and other navigational hazards have been demonstrated in turn in all long-distance flights, which are and must remain 'hops for heroes only.'
The tragic fate of Saint-Roman and his two companions, and of Nungesser and Coli, had been overshadowed and almost forgotten in the brilliant success of Colonel Lindbergh and the exploits of Chamberlin and Commander Byrd; but as the flying season progressed tragic failure followed tragic failure and the adventures that succeeded only showed in clearer light how much weather and wind and sheer luck were the determining factors of triumph or disaster. During 1927 the North Atlantic has been crossed four times in nonstop flights; twice only, did the pilots arrive and land safely at the intended destination and without mishap, and twelve lives were lost in disastrous ventures. During the year the Pacific has been traversed by air from California to Honolulu four times, three times without mishap, while seven perished in attempting this ocean crossing and three were killed in preparatory flights. The causes of failure in the many disasters over the seas will forever remain hidden. Saint-Roman, Nungesser, Frost of the Golden Eagle, Pedlar of the Miss Doran, Redfern, Colonel Minchin, Lloyd Bertaud, Captain Tully, and their companions have left no trace. The SOS of Captain Erwin,
We went into a tail spin... We have come out of it... It was a close call... We are in a spin... SOS...
points to the peril that is ever present in flight. It will never be known whether the tragedies were brought about by engine failure, overloading, lubricating trouble, or some mechanical defect, by adverse winds, shortage of fuel, or loss of direction, or by sudden movements and violent upheavals of the air which are the concomitants of thunderstorms and unstable weather conditions. The efficiency of the machines in the successful flights and the testimony of pilots show the perfection to which the internal-combustion engine has attained, but in the air a trifling mechanical defect may lead to precipitate disaster, for an aeroplane, to keep in the air, must keep going.
All the long-distance flights had started in favorable weather, for ships at sea were sending special reports so that the forecasts could be made with as much accuracy as possible. Moreover, the ships crossing the oceans were warned of the intended flights and asked to report passage and render assistance if necessary. As events proved, ships had as much to do with these long-distance flights; and the stability of ships on the sea, their perfection of navigation, their reserve of fuel and power, their true mobility, their capacity to succor, are in striking and ludicrous contrast to the frailties and limitations of air machines.
The Pacific Fleet organized a search for the victims of the Dole Race. After the search a report was submitted by Admiral R. H. Jackson, Commander in Chief of the Battle Fleet. According to this report the flagship Holland, one light cruiser, twenty-three destroyers, two aircraft carriers (with many planes), twenty-three submarines, and three tenders of the Pacific had searched an area of 350,000 square miles. They had steamed 153,235 miles, the planes had flown 9000 miles, and 3,751,050 gallons of fuel had been consumed. It is true that some small proportion of this search could be classed in 'schedule operations,' but the figures given do not include the extensive search operations by district craft carried on under the supervision of district naval commanders or the search by ships of the mercantile marine.
Again, when the Old Glory sent out the SOS message, four vessels took took in the signal—the Transylvania, the Carmania, the Lapland, and the California. The first two of these great liners were nearest to the estimated position of the plane, and altered course at once in search. Captain David Bone and the officers of the Transylvania kept a strict watch on the horizon for over fifteen hours and zigzagged over an area where it was supposed the Old Glory dropped into the sea. 'During all this time fourteen Lookouts with binoculars and telescopes tried to find some trace.' All these ships and other vessels cooperated and different areas were searched—all to no avail. Trying to find an aeroplane in the ocean was like looking for a needle in a haystack, and after twenty-four hours there was little hope of possible survival in view of the rough seas at the time of the forced descent. The cost of this fruitless search by these great liners—entirely ignoring the passengers' loss of time has been estimated at £4000; but ships are in duty bound to endeavor to save life at sea, with no remuneration except in value of the material saved. Some nine days later the S.S. Kyle, detailed for special search, came upon wreckage 650 miles due east of Newfoundland; of the unfortunate aviators no sign was seen.
At last the futility of long-distance flights, with the sacrifice of lives toward no end, was amply demonstrated. Facts could no longer be ignored. What should have been known, what could readily have been foreseen, by giving thought to the problems, was now manifest. The reaction was immediate. A conference was called at Washington, President Coolidge was deeply concerned, the American Bar Association demanded legislation, the Australian Commonwealth decided to take action, and the Canadian Government proposed to introduce legislation prohibiting ocean flights. Agitation spread. The press in America and Europe discussed the tragedies and the wisdom or necessity of controlling ocean flights; newspapers spoke of 'the mobs that made heroes of Lindbergh and others,' 'the lavishly advertised performances of aviators acclaimed for their self-devotion to death.' 'Why do people not ask themselves what is the use of it?' 'Has one of these flights contributed in the slightest degree to the success of the next one or added one iota to the progress of aviation?' Some who had been loud in applauding the initial successes as proofs of the conquest of the air were now censuring the waste of life and courage, and insisting on the limitations of the aeroplane and on the influence of the wind, maintaining that the successes were due to the concurrence of good luck and good weather, that flights in which disaster is narrowly escaped through good fortune teach the world little. Public opinion, which was being educated toward 'airmindedness,' was held largely responsible for the tragedies!
The aeronautical correspondent of the Times of London said:—
These flights of the Atlantic are simply the result of a public opinion, which shortsightedly has awarded praise out of all proportion... and the remedy lies in that same public opinion positively discouraging brave but foolhardy men from gambling their lives against the chance of a short-lived notoriety.
The British Air Ministry, 'after mature consideration,' said little; its attitude was noncommittal—'it would not be wise to interfere.' The position was indeed difficult, for the Air ViceMarshal, Sir Sefton Brancker, Director of Civil Aviation, had expressed his opinion in no uncertain terms after the loss of the St. Raphael:—
The flight from East to West has to be done, and it is idle to talk of prohibiting the attempt. Courage, courage, courage, should be our motto... Do not let us always be playing for safety. I could have put money on Minchin getting across safely.
And Lord Thomson, late Secretary of State for Air, had proclaimed in January 1927 that sensational nonstop flights had 'great practical value,' that the entire future of British aviation was summed up in two words, 'long hops,' that 'with the advent of "long hops" aviation will begin to assert itself as a means of locomotion and will acquire full commercial status.' This exponent of the air was frankly alarmed:—
I am afraid it is going to do harm to aviation... I don't like some of the things that are happening... I am particularly against the carrying of passengers.
As a London newspaper expressed idea the next day, 'The effort should be made unhampered by passengers who serve no useful or desirable purpose.' Fuel is indeed the only freight for long-distance flights. It had at last become manifest that these ventures had no bearing upon the development of aerial transport. It was nothing but a gamble, with human lives as the stakes and the dice loaded—doubly loaded—against the flyers toward the West.
The aeroplane had demonstrated its deficiencies and its inherent limitations gravity had shown the force of its grip and wind the power of its embrace, but the public were not left to ponder on these things. No sooner was the illusion dispelled than another one was projected. 'The flights have been attempted in quite unsuitable machines'; 'Ocean flights ought not to be attempted in landplanes'; 'What is wanted to-day is safe flying'; 'Seaplanes should be used for the sea-flying boats for the ocean.'
Machines are needed which are so staunchly built of metal that they would survive even if they came down on the water in rough weather. Sea craft should be able to ride out a storm. They further require wireless powerful enough to summon help in the event of any mischance; they must have multiple engines and carry a very large quantity of petrol in order to avoid the risk of fuel failure if adverse weather and winds are encountered or if direction is temporarily lost.
No one can find fault with these requirements; they are the elementary essentials for safety; but a little reflection will soon destroy the illusion that such conditions are possible. The law of gravity makes no distinction between an aeropIane and a flying boat: modifications in design can readily be made in accordance with the purpose for which the plane is desired, variation is made in the distribution of the load, but the maximum load that can be lifted for any engine power is the same. The stronger the seaplane is made in an effort to attain seaworthiness, the heavier will be its structure and the less weight remains for fuel, for wireless, or for crew: if a powerful wireless is taken, still less fuel can be carried; with little fuel the voyage is strictly limited. The carrying of an anchor is no light matter. A seaplane must take this gear with her and lift it into the air. The heavier it is, the less fuel can be carried; if it is too light, the safety of the craft is endangered.