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Airplanes; Flight  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
5 Jan 1999

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Radio Expeditions
Peter McMillan/ Don Smith
January 5, 1999

DS
00:02:15 Who are you?00:02:17

PM
00:02:18 My name is Peter McMillan and I have uh, I¿m a I was an aviation historian or an aviation enthusiast and I have conducted a couple of flights across remote parts of the world in antique airplanes in an effort to relive some of those past adventures and really get some real life experience for what the past was like.

DS
00:02:45 Airplanes made some obvious contributions to exploring.00:02:51

PM
00:02:52 Indeed they did. I think the aerial perspective was in a funny sense I think it shrunk the world faster than any other medium of transportation or technology. What is most remarkable is that all of it has happened in this century.

DS
00:03:11 It allowed people to go into areas where people hadn¿t been before.00:03:15

PM
00:03:16 Absolutely, I think also to communicate in a method that they had not been able to do so before. But I think another thing that¿s interesting about the advent of aviation in the early part of the century is that the maritime powers like Great Britain and so forth they dominated commerce and military activities and the advent of the airplane enabled smaller nations with lesser resources to be suddenly spread out as broadly and the air, commerce of the air was open to everybody.

DS
00:03:56 Aviation allowed us to explore the skies. What is up there for us to see that we don¿t see in a 747? 00:04:07

PM
00:04:09 I think that most of the expeditions that we have done, flying these old open-cockpit biplanes, I¿d say more than anything else it gives you a chance to see that the earth is composed of villages and it¿s a little difficult to explain but when you are flying over these villages at 60-70 mph in countries such as India or Indonesia or Burma, wherever they might be, you really get a clear perspective of cultural issues by seeing the way that they¿ve organized their villages and how permanent the villages are and what their means of transportation. So you can gather all kinds of insights but most of all you realize that the earth is made up of villages not cities. 00:04:56

DS
00:04:57 There¿s a pure joy in flying I guess.00:05:00

PM
00:05:01 Absolutely, and particularly flying old machines, there¿s quite a bit of technique involved and it takes some time to become comfortable. It really feels like you¿re doing something, it¿s a very active process and your mind is attentive to it at all times.

DS
00:05:18 What is it about vintage airplanes that attracts you to them? 00:05:21

PM
00:05:23 I think in a sense that vintage airplanes were designed in an period where style was as important as efficiency and styling was ¿ styling and sturdiness because obviously, antique planes were meant to be operated off unimproved fields or grass strips or muddy paddocks so they had to be very rugged but at the same time there was a very strong sense of styling as with many products in the 20¿s and 30¿s and 40¿s. And little by little that¿s given way to efficiency and to what actually functions as opposed to what really is pleasing to the eye.

DS
00:06:01 So that¿s why you prefer older planes? 00:06:03

PM
00:06:04 That and also they represent a period when aviators were separated from the ordinary men because they could do something that was very special.

DS
00:06:15 We tend to look at flying as a safe thing to do. It wasn¿t like that in the early days though.00:06:20

PM
00:06:21 No, and I think that had less to do with technology of the aircraft themselves than it was to, with forecasting weather which is obviously the pilot¿s worst enemy. Clearly meteorology and science have advanced dramatically but really it was really the weather that was the adversary for pilots who were conducting mail flights and very, very hazardous duties like that.

DS
00:06:50 Was it just that the planes weren¿t built for the weather. They don¿t look very substantial? 00:06:55

PM
00:06:56 Indeed obviously the planes of the early years were open cockpit so the pilot was exposed to all the meteorological conditions that he faced but they just didn¿t have the instrumentation that allowed the pilots that gave the pilots enough information to determine where they were and where they were going. That obviously resulted in many accidents and icing conditions the planes didn¿t have deicing conditions. And yet, these bold pilots pushed on because someone had to be the first to get somewhere.

DS
00:07:28 Reliability was a problem in these planes? 00:07:30

PM
00:07:31 Reliability was a problem. The engines weren¿t really designed to last more than, in the early years more than 100-150 hours at most and so it wasn¿t uncommon for vital bits to be flying off an engine as it spun around.

DS
00:07:48 Crashes were fairly common.00:07:50

PM
00:07:52 They were. Crashes were very common. Again, I think that that was also due to the fact that the whole method of training pilots wasn¿t as thoroughly developed as the are today but the planes were built to be fairly crash worthy. I would say that a relatively low percentage of them resulted in fatalities but there certainly were structural failures of planes because we really didn¿t have the same kind of testing ability that we do now. Testing and simulation that we do these days for any kind of new aircraft.

DS
00:08:29 I remember Amelia Earhart crashed on a fairly regular basis.00:08:33

PM
00:08:34 She did. A.E. Was conducting , obviously many, many long flights and I think in some circumstances that her plane was overloaded. Certainly, the very well known crash that she had in Hawaii was the result of a plane that was probably overloaded, as she was attempting an around the world record flight. But even the great aviators have had a few mishaps.

DS
00:08:58You¿ve had a few close calls on your own.00:09:02

PM
00:09:03 We did. We were flying a 1919 Vicars(?) biplane from London to Sydney, Australia and we actually had an engine failure over the island of Sumatra and were obliged to land rather hurriedly in a rice paddy and I think it was a rather remarkable experience that we didn¿t endure more damage but certainly it was a spectacular affair for the locals because most of them had never seen an airplane before.

DS
00:09:32 If you went down in a remote are in those days you were pretty much out of luck.00:09:39

PM
00:09:41 Well, Absolutely if the ¿.Charles Lindbergh for example had a number of forced landing and he then had to find the nearest train station to carry on the mail runs that he was conducting.

DS
00:09:58 What¿s it like flying a vintage airplane? 00:10:03

PM
00:10:04 It¿s very windy and noisy and it obviously brings on a fatigue that you wouldn¿t have flying a modern airplane but I guess the thing that¿s most noteworthy about it is that you really have to hold onto the control wheel with both hands at all times because aerodynamically old planes are very unstable and so if you are not guiding them at all times they will suddenly guide you in a hurry.

DS
00:10:30 But those pioneers must have had something about flying that really drove them on. 00:10:45

PM
00:10:46 Absolutely. I think that there¿s a real freedom about being able to control yourself in the air and being able to move about in all three dimensions. Particularly if the weather is nice, it¿s a very exhilarating feeling and I do think that many the early aviators were driven by nothing but the sheer joy of that accomplishment. Obviously there were some monetary prizes for some of the great long distance flights but I think that they really did it more for glory and I think to demonstrate the future of aviation than they did it for any other reason.

DS
00:11:27 Ross Smith? 00:11:32

PM
00:11:34 Captain Ross Smith was a great pioneer. He had actually been in the war, the first WW. He had been a personal pilot for Lawrence of Arabia and so I think that he was exposed to adventure in many facets and I think that at the end of the first WW, he was a participant in a race to be the first airman across the British empire from London to Australia. Unfortunately, most of the other airmen in the race were killed and it certainly raised the stakes for the race and he and his brother Keith accomplished the world¿s first aerial survey by completing that flight in the vicars Vemee and the they brought back many of the first aerial photographs taken of the great landmarks of the world like the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids and the Alps and Capt. Ross Smith subsequently published his account in the National Geographic magazine and I think that it was one of the largest articles that they had published. I think that he was arguably the first who could say that he had seen the world from the air and he also was quite a visionary and an optimist and I think the his flight demonstrated really what the future of aviation was all about and that it would ultimately be a safe means of bringing the world closer together.

DS
00:12:53 What led you to recreate that flight? 00:13:02

PM
00:13:03 I think in reading his story that it became evident to me that he really was an imminent figure that has really been largely forgotten because of his premature death and we thought that it would be great to produce sort of a living biography of this man and what he represented and we certainly got carried away as I think sometimes biographers do and so we felt compelled to build this gigantic 80 ft. biplane and then relive the experience that he had and really to see how the world had changed in 75 years simply by comparing his pictures with ours and looking at all the different cultures and peoples and terrain that we experience.

DS
00:13:52 I guess a lot had changed.00:13:59

PM
00:14:00 Yes when we conducted our flight 75 years after he did obviously the world was no longer dominated by the British empire and so we obviously experienced a good deal of red tape and delays and air traffic control issues and military clearances and logistical situations that he did not encounter. On the other hand he encountered lots of hostile tribesmen that they would have to fend off from time to time and every single day was improv with them as the really didn¿t know where it was going to end so they really had to be masters of their own destiny.

DS
00:14:43 Tell me about the Bangkok incident.00:14:50

PM
00:14:51We were taking off from Bangkok and we had extremely bad weather and we were forced to fly very, very low around all kinds of terrain, mountains and some very severe thunderstorms so we began essentially having to navigate by roads as we eventually were pushing across Malaysia one of our engines began missing quite badly. We were fortunate to find a small strip on an island called Lankawi in Malaysia where we set down to make repairs.

DS
00:15:34 Pretty hair raising.00:15:36

PM
00:15:37 It certainly was we were I guess, what was most perilous was that we were flying up a very narrow canyon over very dens jungles as well and the clouds got lower and lower and it wasn¿t very clear we could only see maybe about a half a mile ahead of us and we were never sure if the cloud was going to squeeze us right down into the jungle and in fact the canyon was in some areas too narrow for us to turn around. We were fortunate that we managed only about 100 ft of clearance over the trees until we eventually crossed over the peninsula of Malaysia to the Gulf of Thailand on the other side.

DS
00:16:21 You had trouble steering. 00:16:24

PM
00:16:25 We did, we actually¿. Actually this is and incident that happened a bit little later on when we were flying over Sumatra the engine actually failed and essentially the engine was, the airplane was pulling very, very hard to the right side because the right engine had failed and my copilot and I both had our feet on the rudders trying to keep the airplane stable and straight and we were beginning to lose altitude fairly rapidly. We started to look around for our best option which was to put the airplane down in a rice paddy fairly abruptly, it broke all the axles and so forth but we were very fortunate that the airplane didn¿t turn over.

DS
00:17:07 That must have been awful. 00:17:20

PM
00:17:21 It was, we could maintain a little bit of control. It wasn¿t that the airplane was completely out of control but at the same time we couldn¿t with the one engine operating we couldn¿t maintain our altitude and we were just circling very quickly trying to find the best option, we had a jungle all around and there was this very narrow road, far too narrow for us to land in and then there was this rice paddy that was being burned off so part of the paddy was still and smoldering fire when we put the plane down and we were obviously very concerned that the plane would catch fire and suddenly it was swarmed around by thousands of villagers who had seen this very funny looking airplane coming out of the sky. So the whole thing was a fairly surreal experience.

DS
00:18:07 Do you think Smith had experiences like that?00:18:10

PM
00:18:11They had a number of mishaps, they did have a number of experiences flying in bad weather. They had an amazing incident that occurred to them only about a hundred miles from where our mishap occurred. And that was when they landed on what they thought was a firm field but instead it actuality it was a boggy field full of mud. And the plane settled up to the axles in mud and they very much thought as we did that, it was the end of their quest to be the very first to cross the empire by air. In fact what they did was they managed to get the local villagers to tear down their huts and they used the walls and the roof of the huts to build a runway and they took the local farmer. They local farmers lifted the plane out of the mud and put it up onto the bamboo runway and then they took off and they succeeded.

DS
00:19:05 They had a lot of presence I guess. 00:19:15

PM
00:19:16 They did. They only had themselves to rely on, themselves and their equipment and I think that¿s one of the things that inspires me and hopefully others about reading these tales of pioneers of the air is that they did rely on themselves and their equipment, the quality of their equipment. They didn¿t seek other types of indemnity or protection, or insurance. They just did the best with what they had. The went out and they measured and they took their own risks. They had no one to blame in failure and no one to credit but themselves in success and I think that¿s the inspirational message that we hope to deliver through in our project is that¿s the attitude that really gets things done and ultimately leads to progress.

DS
00:20:03 There¿s a club sort of camaraderie among pilots.00:20:11

PM
00:20:13 Very much so, but I think it¿s also it¿s a very inclusive group of people that are involved, in aviation and particularly antiques as a hobby. People who, like myself are very excited about spreading the word and the message about what kind of a debt that we really owe to the pioneers of the air.

DS
00:20:35 Why is Lindbergh so special to early aviation? 00:20:53

PM
00:20:55 Well, I think that Lindbergh was a figure that represents many, many things beyond aviation. He truly represented that spirit of going out, being self reliant and getting something done against all the odds. Everybody wanted to see al little bit of themselves in his personal fortitude. He was the first to fly the Atlantic and he did it solo. He very much conducted this who exercise, the construction of the Spirit of St. Louis that was all done, obviously with the assistance of others but it was obviously his own dream and he took both the blame and the credit for what went wrong and what went right. I think he , it was said, that personal.. the Lone Eagle they called him, that very personal commitment to success that made him so impressive to people and why his name has endured.

DS
00:21:55 It was a big deal to fly across the Atlantic back then.00:22:03

PM
00:22:04 Well, keep in mind that he also. Well, he wasn¿t the first to fly across the Atlantic, there had been others actually a Vicars Vemee, similar to ours was the first to cross the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland in June of 1919. That¿s a flight that obviously not much is known about. But Lindbergh was very significant in that his flight was not only the first solo but the first to join two major cities. He flew from New York to Paris and in doing so, I think that¿s why he flight was so immensely inspirational to people that ultimately the airplane would be used to bring the world closer together.

DS
00:22:45 The urge to be first drove also of early aviation didn¿t it? 00:22:50

PM
00:22:51 It absolutely did but coupled with that was that spirit that people knew that they could measure and take their own risks free from interference from regulatory bodies and other agencies and also really free from the skeptics. If they wanted to go out and do it, if they could conduct themselves professionally, and produce a good engineering product then they could go out and attempt it. Again, that¿s what Lindbergh was probably the best example of. Because between the time that he really came up with this concept of a single engine airplane being the first to cross the Atlantic which was very much his idea to the time that he actually accomplished the flight was a span of only about five months.

DS
00:23:42 How important was the military? 00:23:47

PM
00:23:48 The military was very important as military technology is obviously the leading edge of so many technological developments. The early military fliers demonstrated great bravery not only in combat but in flying such primitive machines. The resources that they had produced great advancement in aviation but as importantly some many of the military products, like the Vicars Veemee, which was designed as a bomber ultimately really did become the first long distance aircraft to span the continents so there have been many good civil developments that emerged out of military technologies.

DS
00:24:37 What do you see for the future, will these recreations continue?00:24:46

PM
00:24:47 I hope so, I think because the machines themselves have a great message, I think particularly to young people that often they call our machine, because it¿s so large and so slow, it¿s an 80 foot open cockpit biplane, they call it the Galleon of the Skies because it was airplanes like that that did pioneer the was much the same as the early mariners crossed the oceans. And I think that it¿s great for children to see these artifacts such that they are and see them so that they can actually function and fly and think about the heroes that really conducted these feats for the first time because I think that the important message is that it is the risk takers that will ultimately build a bridge to progress and they are the ones that make dreams come true by taking those risks and it¿s not the those who sit around and wait and watch and criticize.

(End by talking about future plans and what PM is doing now)

Jessica- asking about future of aviation

00:29:37 I think that the, if anything we can look at the examples of the pioneers and look at how many different utilities there are about aviation and flying. I think that the real goal is to be able to move passengers fast and faster and to ultimately be able to achieve effective means supersonic transport to shrink the world even further. I think that there are many new developments possible in that arena and even perhaps atmospheric type flight. I think, pardon the pun, that the skies the limit for the imagination of scientist and engineers to create products that we can¿t even dream of at this state. Airliners that can skip across the atmosphere and so forth¿. The ability to create new products will accelerate in the coming century.

(Asides)
PM
00:31:19 About Lindbergh¿
He was the first really publicly popular figure. Immediately after his flight he was the most recognized man in the world. So I think that it was he that more than anybody else inspired young people to the excitement and the breadth.. He was a great example, he was from a small town in the mid west and here was through this medium he could be vaulted onto the world stage and he could become such a great hero and again he was able to do that through the airplane and the skills he developed, in a funny way it was something that was inspirational to people ambitions in all fields that even the ordinary man can do extraordinary things. And I think that¿s why the public gravitated to him so much.

Talking about Amelia Earhart

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