How Many Will Die Flying the Atlantic this Season? (Aug, 1931)

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How Many Will Die Flying the Atlantic this Season?


No less than 11 trans-Atlantic flights, carrying 28 passengers, are being planned for this summer. Cold mathematics, based on a record of past performances, prove that 40% of these flights will fail and that upwards of 11 persons will die in them—unless recent advances in airplane construction afford this season’s pilots new factors of safety.

DESPITE the fact that the immutable law of averages decrees certain death for several of their number, more than two dozen pilots and passengers and 11 airplanes are going ahead with preparations to fly the Atlantic this summer.

Some of the flyers are making the trans-Atlantic flight for scientific reasons; others frankly have no regard for science, but look on the matter as a joy flight and a sporting proposition; others are probably thirsty for the newspaper fame which will surround them with a halo of national glory if they succeed.

But, regardless of their purposes, every man and woman who heads out to sea in an airplane is fighting the law of averages which says that 40% of the flyers who have attempted Atlantic crossings have landed in watery graves.

Grim and inexorable is the law of averages. It can’t he repealed. It is about as amenable to flattery, bribery, coaxing and persuasion as an Egyptian Sphinx. Its personality is as friendly as a set of multiplication tables from an arithmetic book. When it says something, it means it. And it says — make no mistake about it — that 11 trans-Atlantic flyers are going to die if they carry out their plans.

Maybe you don’t believe it. Maybe the trans-Atlantic flyers don’t believe it. But the law of averages doesn’t care. It will simply produce some such piece of irrefutable logic as this: Nine trans-Atlantic flights have failed, bringing death to pilots and passengers. Twenty-one persons perished on these expeditions. At the same time, 15 similar flights succeeded. Out of 24 attempts, therefore, 9 failed — slightly less than 40%. Applying this 40% average to the forthcoming flights, therefore, it is easy to predict that 4 or 5 flights will fail and that 40% of the 28 passengers—about 11— will perish.

There is a slight joker concealed in this statement, however, which you may have ferreted out for yourself. It is this: These averages were compiled on planes which made their trips, mostly, between 1927 and 1930. There is a vast difference between Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, for instance, and the Lockheed plane which Ruth Nichols hopes to pilot to Paris. Lindbergh’s ship had a 225 horsepower motor and a cruising speed of 95 miles per hour. The trans-Atlantic Lockheed has a 660 horsepower motor — almost three times as powerful as Lindbergh’s. The motor itself is slightly larger than Lindbergh’s, but most of the increase in horsepower is attributable to supercharging. With a cruising speed of 175 miles an hour, therefore, the hazards of an Atlantic crossing are considerably lessened. And there are other improvements, which will be mentioned a little later, that give the 1931 crop of flyers an advantage over their pioneering brothers.

Let’s turn to some of the projected flights and see what spectacular sort of fare will be offered to the aviation public this summer. First comes the round-the-world trip of Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon. They plan to circle the globe in two weeks, setting all sorts of new records, but they’re doing it purely for the fun of it. Science doesn’t interest them, except the science of navigation, which Hugh Herndon, only a couple of years out of college, learned under the expert tutelage of Lewis Yancey, who himself has flown the Atlantic from Maine to Spain. It’s a “joy flight” pure and simple, and the fact that it is costing in the neighborhood of $104,000 isn’t bothering the pilots a bit.

Then there are John Henry Mears and Vance Breese, all set to give Herndon and Pangborn a race for their money. They’re going around the world, too, following much the same trail as Herndon and Pangborn. The object is to lower the round-the-world speed record, which Mears has held twice, but which is now claimed by the Graf Zeppelin.

A third round-the-world entrant is Wylie V. Post of Oklahoma City, who is flying a Lockheed ship furnished him by Winnie Mae Hall, daughter of an oil magnate. Harold Catty is Post’s navigator. That makes three planes planning to circle the globe. All of them may have succeeded or failed by the time these words see the light of print.

Now for the lady claimants to trans-Atlantic honors. There are two of them, Ruth Nichols and Laura Ingalls, both of whom plan solo flights to Paris. Miss Nichols was on the point of hopping off the day these words were written; perhaps she has already completed her flight — or paid her debt to the law of averages. Miss Ingalls is completing arrangements for a solo hop across the Atlantic in a Lockheed ship similar to that of Miss Nichols. Patrick McCarty is planning a hop from Newfoundland to London, by way of Greenland and Iceland. His plan appeals to the imagination, for he is not taking off alone. He will use a tri-motored Bellanca seaplane, carrying eight passengers and a crew of four. There is a substantial purpose behind this flight, which is to prove the practicability of trans-Atlantic airplane passenger carriers. All of the flights thus far made have been by planes stripped down to bare essentials, where every person carried was a member of the crew, helping out in the piloting as the need arose. Two-thirds of the McCarty plane’s load will be passengers who will have nothing whatever to do with piloting the ship. But, pilots or not, they’re fighting the law of averages just the same.

Otto Hillig, a wealthy photographer of Liberty, N. Y., plans a 3,100-mile hop from Newfoundland to Copenhagen with his pilot, Holgar Hoiriis. Russell Boardman of Boston aspires to new non-stop distance honors in a flight to Constantinople or Moscow. Both Hillig and Boardman will use Bellanca planes, which have been favorites with ocean flyers because of their light wing loading and consequent ability to take off with heavy loads of gasoline without losing their ability to perform nicely when in the air. Roy W. Ammel of Chicago plans a solo New York to Paris hop in a low wing Lockheed, the same ship in which he flew from New York to Panama last fall. George Endres and Alexander Magyar plan to hop from Newfoundland to Budapest.

We’ve left to the last the forthcoming flight of Capt. Donald B. MacMillan, famous Arctic explorer, and his pilot, Charles F. Rocheville, for the reason that their flight will bring home to them forcibly just what the law of averages can do when it makes up its mind. They plan to fly across Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, and on to London to blaze a commercial air trail across the ocean. In flying over Labrador, Capt. MacMillan will make an effort to solve the baffling mystery of what became of Capt. Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, who dropped from sight in 1927, after taking off from France for America. It is a foregone conclusion that they were victims of the law of averages, but Capt. MacMillan hopes to find the wreckage of their plane, White Bird, which, it is thought, may have been driven off its course and forced down in the wilds of northern Labrador.

MacMillan and Rocheville, too, are using a Lockheed plane. That gives the Lockheed and Bellanca ships practically a monopoly on this season’s trans-Atlantic flights. Ruth Nichols, Laura Ingalls, Roy Ammel, Mears, Wylie Post, and MacMillan, put their trust in the tremendous speed of the barrel-bodied Lockheed. Herndon and Pangborn, McCarty, Otto Hillig, Boardman, and Endres and Magyar prefer the stamina of the Bellanca, which depends less on speed than on its staying power.

Others, planning trans-Atlantic flights, are still keeping the details secret. One of these is Wolfgang von Gronau, the German pilot who flew to America last year by way of Iceland. He is planning another trip this summer along a similar route.

Every trans-Atlantic pilot, it is safe to say, has all sorts of confidence in his ability to carry out his plans successfully. The United States government, however, as semi-officially represented by its weather bureau, doesn’t share this enthusiasm. In fact, it frowns upon these flights as suicidal, purposeless from a scientific point of view, and inspired by a desire for notoriety. It issues weather forecasts to flyers because it has done so in the past, but it does so grudgingly, realizing that it would be in for considerable criticism if a flight failed because of adverse weather conditions which the bureau failed to warn against.

Without mentioning any names, it frowns also on the “sex competition” which the projected solo flights of women have injected into the trans-Atlantic game. Being the first woman to fly the Atlantic, or to reach a certain altitude, or to do a dozen outside loops, doesn’t mean a thing to the coldly scientific bureau except that the women concerned have snatched a laurel wreath which may temporarily decorate their brows until some other woman snatches it off. When men have set and held all maximum air records, there is little scientific glory left for the woman who comes closest to matching the marks, in the view of the weather bureau, however much human interest there may be in her feat.

The reasons why, to a coldly scientific mind, a successful flight by Ruth Nichols to Paris would not be deserving of the same acclaim which greeted Lindbergh, may be found in the fact that the Lockheed plane which Miss Nichols flies has a cruising speed 80 miles an hour faster than Lindbergh’s; it has an engine three times as powerful which is extremely unlikely to fail in the air; it has a variable pitch propeller which enables a heavily loaded ship to take off easily, changing back to high speed pitch when in the air; it has a Sperry artificial horizon, which tells the position of the plane in fog or snow—that is, whether it is climbing, diving, or whether one wing is low; it has three compasses to warn of deviation from the course; it has warning instruments to indicate when ice is forming on the wings, giving the pilot a chance to climb to a stratum of air where ice cannot form.

What Miss Nichols’ flight may prove, therefore, is not that she is a feminine runner-up to Lindbergh, but that a modern airplane is to well powered and so well equipped that much of the danger of an ocean flight has been eliminated. Miss Nichols, in other words, is all set to start the law of averages working again on a new set of facts.

Let’s go back again to Hugh Herndon, Jr., and Clyde Pangborn. Hugh Herndon, Jr., just out of Princeton college and blessed with all the money he needs, related details of their $100,000 airplane joy flight in an exclusive story for Modern Mechanics and Inventions readers.

Clyde Pangborn, who has flown 1,250,000 miles and spent 17,000 hours in the air— more than any other pilot—has never been outside the United States. Herndon, who learned to fly abroad after being rejected by the U. S. Navy because of color blindness, met Pangborn when the latter was a test pilot for the Standard Aircraft Corporation. Shortly after they made a barnstorming tour of the country, taking up passengers at $5 a head. The decision to fly around the world together was an outgrowth of their association.

“Emil Roth, a great aviation enthusiast, induced Capt. Lewis A. Yancey, the famous flyer, to help us map out our course, teach me the art of navigation, and supervise the construction of a special plane,” Herndon told me.

“At first ‘Lon’ Yancey was reluctant to undertake those tasks. He was besieged with numerous other requests and what’s more, a shipping company was paying him the handsome salary of $12,500 a month for his advice in certain matters. Finally, when convinced of our ardor and sincerity, Lon swung around to us with unswerving devotion.

“For six months, right up to the moment that we completed the test hop from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, to Porto Rico early last May, Lon stuck by us to see that everything was shipshape and perfect. During those six months he taught me a thorough knowledge of navigation. He certainly was some teacher, too. I guess they don’t come any better as navigators than Capt. Yancey, “During the day we were out at the Bellanca factory watching the work progress on the plane, then at night, beginning at 7 o’clock sharp, Lon had me sitting down at a desk, drilling me in the rudiments of navigation and meteorology. It wasn’t a smattering of the art that he gave me, it was genuine, high-powered stuff. He didn’t let up on me until I passed the tests in that subject given the senior class at the Annapolis Naval Academy last June.

“Lon first got down to fundamentals, telling me the difference between a variation and a direction finder. Then he taught me how to use the bubble sextant, getting my sight, then by mathematical calculation getting the exact location in longitude and latitude.

“He gave me a special course in the use of the fine comparing watches, the Longines chronometers, so that I would be able to calculate the time in New York, over the ocean and in England simultaneously.

“Finally when the plane was ready for us at Roosevelt Field, my days were spent getting instruction in the use of the various instruments with which the dashboard was equipped, and then at night I buckled down to the business of improving my navigation. One room in which we worked was assigned to the study of navigation instruments alone, with scores of maps adorning the walls and tables.

“As for the plane, it was specially built for long distance hops, being constructed of metal, wood and fabric. It is a red Bellanca monoplane, equipped with a Pratt-Whitney Wasp, single motored, 425 horsepower engine.”

He explained that G. M. Bellanca, the noted plane designer, himself had been constantly present during the construction of the craft, so that no detail missed attention. Every attempt was made to reduce air resistance to a minimum, including the elimination of cabin doors. The entrance to the controls is through a window.

The plane, which has a capacity of 838.6 gallons of gasoline and 20 gallons of oil, is capable of flying 5,700 miles before needing to be refueled. The 17,000 mile course which was charted for it in the round-the-world jaunt was so planned that each stop was the site of an airport.

“Our plans,” Herndon told me just before the hop-off of their globe-girdling joyride, “indicate that the first stop will be in Moscow, a distance of 5,400 miles. Then we advance to Tchita, in Siberia, for a distance of another 3,285 miles.

“From there our next stop will be at Nome, Alaska, 3,128 miles away. Then we will fly another 2,231 miles to Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada. From that point we launch on our last leg, which is a distance of 2,209 miles to Roosevelt Field. We hope to average 145 miles an hour.

“Our route has been mapped out so as to include other airports along the line in case we are compelled to come down unexpectedly for any emergency. You will note that our flight will start in an easterly direction and that we will fly over London and the rest of Europe without a stop until we reach Moscow, the longest single hop ever attempted by airmen.

“On our return we will not fly over the Pacific, though there is no telling but what we might get whimsical and do it just to be the first flyers to make a nonstop flight over that ocean. Our specifications call for passage over the Bering Strait.

“Our stop-over at each terminal on our course will be only a matter of a few hours. After a little nap we will give the ship an inspection, take on fuel if necessary, attend to any other matters which might arise, and be off on our next stretch.”

As for food, two weeks rations for two of various concentrated foods were prepared for the flyers by a Baltimore dietician. The aviators figured they would be back at their starting point within that time.

Chief among these were the turn and bank indicator, the special thermo couple which gives the head-heat of each individual cylinder, showing the heat of the motor so that it is not too hot on the take-off, and a Sperry gyro-horizon. The latter is a small glass container in which there is a tiny plane. The miniature plane reveals the ship’s position. Two of each of these instruments ware taken on the flight as well as two compasses.

  1. Gregly says: August 21, 20089:46 am

    Wow. They get it wrong in the very first paragraph, assuming that the odds of surviving a trans-Atlantic trip will never change (ignoring little things like improved technology, and future flights learning from past flights’ mistakes), so naturally if 40% of past flights failed, 40% of future flights will surely fail as well!

  2. Gregly says: August 21, 20089:47 am

    Oops, totally missed the “unless” clause there. But even then they go on to say that it will mean “certain death” for some of their number. Talk about pessimism.

  3. Charlene says: August 21, 200810:27 pm

    Pessimistic but not totally unrealistic even in the medium-term. If you go back and look at aviation accident reports from the 50s and 60s it’s amazing how many accidents there were every year, and how many of the accidents killed 70, 80, or 100 passengers.

  4. Jack Roberts says: August 21, 200811:02 pm

    I have always believed that Pangborn had a Sperry artificial horizon in the plane. This is the first time I have seen it in print.

    Pang was my Grandmother’s cousin.

    A replica of Pang’s Plane “Miss Veedol” has been built with the hopes of replicating his Non Stop Trans Pacific Flight. www.spiritofwenatchee.o…

  5. Eliyahu says: August 22, 20087:25 am

    The author certainly let his biases against women show through. Anything a woman might do is obviously just because of technological improvements, but the future achievements of men are to be lauded…
    I would note that the cover illustration makes it obvious as to why people of that era thought of airplanes as flying death traps.

  6. Tracy B. says: August 22, 200812:40 pm

    Aircraft in the early thirties were rather unreliable– the DC-3 was not available until 1935.

  7. Torgo says: August 22, 20086:37 pm

    It’s amazing how fast aircraft technology was advancing at this time. Only 10 years later and they were drawing up plans for the B-36.

  8. Toronto says: August 22, 20087:54 pm

    They used plans for the B-36? I thought it was made from a handy length of culvert and as many engines it took to push it through the air. The cockpit looked like a welding accident.

    Then again, I like Lancasters, so to each his own.

    (And of course, the Dak/DC3/C47 was and is beautiful, and it *is* hard to imagine it was flown only a few years after this article was written. It surely was a heady period.)

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