FIRST Transatlantic Air Line LINKS TWO CONTINENTS (Feb, 1933)

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By Rene Leonhardt

SLIDING down the map 1,800 miles from the bulging west coast of upper Africa to the projecting northeastern tip of South America, a few weeks hence, a flying boat will inaugurate the world’s first regularly-scheduled transatlantic airline.

This aerial bridge across the South Atlantic will link Bathurst, just west of the Sahara, in British Gambia, with Pernambuco, south of the Amazon, in Brazil. It will clip nine days from the traveling time between Berlin, Germany, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

At first, the big machines, on a biweekly schedule, will carry only mail and express. Later, passengers will be accommodated as well. Following the trail blazed by daring ocean flyers, the pilots will take off surrounded by elaborate precautions and aided by the last word in navigation instruments. For behind the project lies more than three years of intensive preparation by the Lufthansa, the great air transportation organization of Germany.

While German ships will be the first to shuttle back and forth in an air service over the South Atlantic, the planes of other nations will be close behind. Both France and Italy have entered the lists and at this writing are putting finishing touches on plans for similar links across the sea to South America.

Four large flying boats are nearing completion in French factories for use in a transatlantic airline which will connect Paris with Buenos Aires, 8,200 miles away in the Argentine. On this route, the hop-off for the ocean crossing will be made from the African coast at Dakar, on Cape Verde, a hundred miles north of Bathurst.

For the last two years, Italian experts have been busy compiling weather data and other information vital to a transoceanic airline. They have even worked out time-tables and elaborate cost figures. Latest advices from Rome indicate that the construction of the Italian planes will be pushed forward at top speed.

While the race is thus on over the South Atlantic, the powerful Pan-American Airways, in the United States, announces it is building six giant flying boats, larger than anything hitherto flown on commercial airlines, for use over the North Atlantic between America and Europe. These fifty-passenger planes, designed to fly 2,500 miles with full load, will probably go by way of Greenland and Iceland. They may also pioneer on an airway to the Orient, crossing the Pacific with one stop at the Hawaiian Islands. The keels of these superplanes have already been laid and work on them is progressing at the Sikorsky plant, Bridgeport, Conn., and at the Glenn L. Martin factory, Baltimore, Md. In 1927, when Charles A. Lindbergh made his historic thirty-three-hour dash to Paris, the possibility of transatlantic airlines was discussed on all sides. Predictions were made that they would be in operation at dates that ranged from a decade to a century hence. The average between the time set by the most optimistic and the most conservative prophets indicated that a generation would pass before they became a reality. Yet children born in 1927 will hardly be in first grade when the German boat climbs into the air on its first scheduled transatlantic run to South America in March or April of this year!

The most unusual feature of the German plan is the Westfalen, a 6,000-ton North German Lloyd liner, which will cruise about in circles 900 miles from shore and act as a refueling station and repair depot for the aerial fleet in mid-ocean. The 409-foot vessel will carry tools, spare parts, fuel and oil. Expert mechanics will stand ready to repair or tune up an incoming plane at a moment’s notice. From a powerful broadcasting station on board, signals will flash to the airliners speeding toward the circling ship, giving its position and hourly weather reports. In storms or heavy weather, the Westjalen will form a midocean harbor of refuge for the planes.

Under such conditions, one part of the unique vessel’s equipment will be of special value. This is an immense drag sail of heavy canvas, similar to the one carried by the Swedish cruiser Gotland, which served as the basis of the cover design of last month’s issue of Popular Science Monthly. Fifty feet wide and more than half a block long, it will trail over the water from the stern of the vessel, allowing the ship to pick up seaplanes from the water while traveling at full speed. Crosswise pontoons near the end have a braking effect, keeping the canvas taut. The flying boats, with engines running, land in the wake of the steamer, slide up on the trailing edge of the canvas, and then are hauled up the incline to the deck by a powerful crane of special design. In stormy weather the dragging canvas will create a strip of relatively smooth water behind it, thus aiding the pilot in landing his heavy ship.

A few days ago German liners, steaming out into the North Sea from Hamburg and Bremen, passed the Westfalen off the island of Helgoland. It was dragging its long white train behind it, carrying out painstaking experiments to determine the best speeds for different water conditions. Time and again, during this three-day test, a big Dornier-Wal flying boat swooped down, skimmed over the water and slid up on the canvas while the Westfalen was being driven ahead at full speed by her 2,700-horsepower engines.

Immediately afterwards, the big ship docked at Bremen. Here, workmen began installing the world’s biggest aerial catapult on her deck. Driven by giant blasts of compressed air from a battery of heavy steel cylinders, this 150-foot gun will have sufficient power to shoot a loaded fifteen-ton flying boat into the air at takeoff speed. After the machines of the ocean service have been pulled up the canvas drag sail and refueled, they will be shot off the deck from the catapult to begin the second leg of their over-water journey to Pernambuco.

The present catapult launching record is held by England. In the summer of 1931, at the Farnborough flying field of the Royal Air Force, near London, a land catapult, with a 4,000-horsepower compressed air engine, hurled a nine-ton bombing plane into the air with a run of ninety feet. The Westfalen catapult, mightiest of all, will be similar in general design to those now used on the North German Lloyd liners, Europa and Bremen, to launch mailplanes as the vessels draw near to the coasts of either North America or of Europe.

Because of his wide experience with these catapults, Heinz Blankenburg, a veteran ship-to-shore pilot, has been selected to handle the controls on the initial transatlantic flight of the new airline. The 6,000-mile route, over which planes will fly on their three-day race from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro, will carry them above mountains, deserts and jungles, as well as over the South Atlantic.

Imagine that journey. The start from Berlin is a little before noon. Tempelhof Airport, the busy hub of European skyways, is at the height of its activity. Air liners are coming and going. The roar of big motors fills the air. At the starter’s signal, the land plane, which will cover the first legs of the long journey, speeds down the runway, climbs slowly into the air, and heads south over a patchwork carpet of farms spread out half a mile below. Potsdam, Leipzig, Nuremberg pass by. Ahead, is the blue water of Lake Con-stance with the white backbone of the Swiss Alps rising above it. A few minutes later, the plane spirals down to a landing at Friedrichshafen, 400 miles south of the point at which it took off.

Fuel is pumped into the tanks, mail is stored away on board, and the ship is off again, out over the lake and the huge Zeppelin sheds on its shore. In wide circles it climbs to nearly 15,000 feet before it heads south, clearing the snow-covered barrier of mountains and sliding down over southern France to the “second landing at Marseilles, 800 miles from Berlin. Here, it refuels and takes off by floodlight, climbing over the Pyrenees and heading diagonally across Spain. The landscape below spreads out in moonlight. Finally, the ship comes down in the bluish glare of the floodlights at the airport at Cadiz, eighty miles up the Atlantic coast from Gibraltar, fourteen hours after the takeoff in Berlin.

There the Bathurst plane is warmed up for its 1,800-mile dash southward across Africa. Leaving at sunrise, it sweeps down the Spanish coast, out over the Rock of Gibraltar and the narrow entrance to the Mediterranean, and begins the lonely flight across mountainous Morocco and the wastes of the western Sahara. All day long, hour after hour, it rushes through the sky above desert sand, rolling and monotonous. Toward evening, the Senegal River winds across its path. Tangled jungles are now below. Three hours later, the lights of Bathurst appear in the dusk. The plane slips down with throttled motors to a landing on the floodlighted field. It has been in the air eighteen hours in one stretch.

FOR the ocean leg of the journey, winged boats produced by the famous Dornier factory are used exclusively. The first machines put in service will be twin-engined Dornier “Whales.” Later, it is planned to substitute giant twelve-engined DO-X models, fitted with special staterooms and Pullman beds for passengers.

The twin-engined machines have the motors placed in tandem above the high monoplane wing, one pushing, the other pulling. In the hull, below the wing, immense gasoline tanks hold sufficient fuel to drive the two 400-horse-power engines for nearly fourteen hours. With throttles wide open, the Whales will rush through the air at more than two miles a minute.

Both on tropical airways and in northern Siberia, these sturdy machines have demonstrated their endurance. A remarkable example is the old Dornier-Wal, D1422, which recently was retired from service and placed on exhibit in the museum of Munich, Germany.

It began its career in 1925 above the Arctic ice when Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth tried to fly to the North Pole. Two years later, Capt. Frank T. Courtney, the British war ace and test pilot, used it in an attempt to fly the Atlantic from east to west, starting from the Azores. Finally, in 1930, the veteran of the air carried Wolfgang von Gronau and his companions on their pioneer flight from Germany to America, in which they followed the trail of the Norsemen, flying by way of Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. After seven years of exploring uncharted skyways, D1422 was still flying when it was retired from service.

Before daylight the next morning, the Dornier is packed with mail and express, ready for the takeoff. At the nose of the long hull, the pilot sits behind a control wheel. In front of the cockpit is an empty anti-collision chamber to reduce the hazards of a head-on smash. Just back of the pilot is the radio room. Here the operator, with his 2,500-mile short-wave transmitter, and his receiving set, will keep in touch with the shore and the Westfalen during the flight. Back of the radio room is the mail and express compartment and back of it a storage space for extra gasoline supply and motor oil.

WITH idling engines, the plane swings slowly out to sea. The pilot opens the throttles. His speed increases. There is a flash of spray, a dizzying rush of water and the craft is in the air. The ocean drops away. Rapidly, the coast line recedes into the morning mist. The plane is over the sea heading for a tiny 400-foot island floating in mid-ocean, nearly a thousand miles away!

On the top of the white hull is something looking like a barrel hoop standing upright and pointing straight ahead. It is the loop antenna of the radio compass. Like a bloodhound’s nose, it will lead to the goal, following the radio waves coming from the Westfalen.

The strength of the signals received depends upon the position of the loop, which can be moved on a vertical axis. When it is edgewise to the direction from which the signals come, the volume is greatest; when the opening of the loop faces the direction of source, the volume is least. By adjusting the loop to keep the signals at their maximum volume, the radio operator guides the boat through the sky to its moving target.

This route over the ocean will slice across the Equator from twelve degrees north, the position of Bathurst, to eight degrees south, the position of Pernambuco. From time to time, the radio man passes up weather reports. All are favorable. Only small tropical showers, that pound on the seventy-four-foot wings and the hull of the boat for a few minutes and then are gone, break the monotony of the flight.

A little after noon, the pilot sees far in the distance, a toy ship trailing a faint black thread of smoke. Behind it, appears a tiny white blotch. It is the Westfalen with the drag sail ready. The vessel is heading into the wind. The plane comes down in a long slant, skims over the water, slows down in a cloud of spray, and slides up on the canvas without a jar. Mechanics, clambering on the wing, attach the hoisting cable and it is pulled slowly to the deck. The first half of the sea flight is over.

Less than half an hour later the Dornier is refueled, tuned up, and on the launching rails of the great catapult. Before a row of gages the man in charge of the 150-foot air-gun stands ready. With racing engines, the pilot signals for the start. An instant later the big plane whizzes down the steel track as though shot from a giant sling. One breathtaking rush and it is in the air. In five minutes the Westfalen is again a toy ship.

A little after two in the afternoon the craft passes the Equator. From then on until dusk it plows straight ahead for the Brazilian coast. Near sunset it passes three or four vessels steaming slowly across the water below. But darkness falls before the island of Fernando Noronha, the first point of land met on the westward passage is sighted. It is nine o’clock when the cluster of lights marking Pernambuco appears dead ahead and the pilot dips downward and plows to a stop in the bay. He has crossed the Atlantic in slightly more than eighteen hours. By catching the night plane for the south, passengers can reach Rio de Janeiro by mid-morning and complete the 6,000-mile air journey from the capital of Germany to the capital of Brazil in less than three days.

THE trip in the reverse direction, crossing the Atlantic from west to east, takes from half a day to a day longer. Near the Equator, where the ocean crossing is made, trade winds blow steadily from the east, speeding up planes flying west and slowing them down flying east. This is exactly the reverse of conditions over the North Atlantic.

The first pilots who bridged the South Atlantic on wings all made the westward passage to get full advantage of steady tail winds.

It is interesting to note that the first machine to blaze an air trail from Europe to South America was an early model of the Dornier-Wal, the type of ship to be employed on the new airway. In 1926, Capt. Ramon Franco and three companions flew from Spain to Buenos Aires, taking two weeks for the journey and making frequent stops. The takeoff of the historic flight was made from the very bay of Huelva out of which Christopher Columbus, 434 years before, had sailed in his Santa Maria on his voyage to the New World.

The first non-stop crossing came in October 1927, five months after Lindbergh’s dash to Paris. With one companion, the famous French flyer, Capt. Dieudonne Costes, left St. Louis, Senegal, Africa, and headed his Breguet land plane southwest over the Atlantic, landing nineteen hours and twenty minutes later at Natal, Brazil.

In the two years after Costes’ exploit three pilots flew non-stop from Europe to South America. Two started from Seville, Spain, while the third, Major Carlo del Prete, took off from Rome, Italy, remained in the air fifty-one hours and fifty-nine minutes, and covered 4,450 miles before he brought his record-breaking monoplane to earth at Natal.

The most careful survey of conditions over the ocean airway between Africa and South America was made during the past two years by the Graf Zeppelin. Under the direction of Lufthansa officials this famous German dirigible made ten round trips between Friedrichshafen and Brazil. During the previous summer it had crossed the South Atlantic six times.

From these pioneering flights information was gathered which will be of value to the daring men who lead the way on a regularly-scheduled transatlantic air service. When the Santa Maria of this service, the first Dornier-Wal, takes off and heads out to sea, it will mark an important step toward dramatic possibilities which lie ahead.

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