40 Years of Voyager

Launch of Voyager 1

Launch of Voyager 1 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, September 5, 1977, (Public Domain via NASA)

There were many things happening in September 1977. Some were good,  and some were bad.  On the good side,  I started my undergraduate career at Brighton Polytechnic (now part of the University of Brighton).   On the negative side, if you remember  Peter Gabriel’s lyrics,  you’ll know that in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko was killed by officers of the South African state security services following his arrest in August. This event, and Gabriel’s commemorative song on his third album (Peter Gabriel III  informally known as Melt, released in 1980)  had a profound effect on public consciousness of the Anti-Apartheid movement in the UK and elsewhere.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, on September 5, 1977, Voyager 1,  the subject of this article, was launched  from Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, aboard a Titan IIIE.

Voyager is currently the most distant man-made object from Earth at approximately 139 AU (Astronomical units – 1 AU is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun). It is also the most distant object in the solar system whose location is known.

I am amazed when an aircraft celebrates 40 years in service, and this is happening fairly frequently as design life causes aircraft which I thought to be modern to be consigned to museums, whereas others are kept in service as there is simply no conceivable replacement.  I was shocked when I noticed the 40th Anniversary of the Panavia Tornado had occurred a couple of years ago (probably more). So for a Spacecraft to be functioning 40 years after launch is a thing of considerable wonder.

There are many things to wonder about the Voyager mission as a whole.  The famous Golden Records with images, recordings of voices, music and sounds (including the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”) are just one feature. Look at the Voyager website for more images and information on the mission than I could ever want to squeeze into a blog post.

For me – the picture below is the real kicker.  The “Pale Blue Dot”,  as it has become known, is a photograph of Earth taken on February 14, 1990 by Voyager 1 from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU). It was part of the Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.  That’s us. Planet Earth takes up approximately half a pixel and is visible just over half way down the brown band on the right of the picture. The bands of colour are caused apparently by sunlight in the camera’s optics,  even from a distance of 40.5 AU.

The 'Pale Blue Dot’ - Earth seen from Voyager 1, 1990

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed ‘Pale Blue Dot’, is a part of the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. (Public Domain via NASA)

I’ve lifted the quote below from the Wikipedia page on the Pale Blue Dot and apart from taking out a couple of the hyperlinks, present it here unaltered.  I always loved the things Carl Sagan had to say about the Cosmos, and this is another of them.  It makes an excellent way to close the article.

During a public lecture at Cornell University in 1994, Carl Sagan presented the image to the audience and shared his reflections on the deeper meaning behind the idea of the Pale Blue Dot

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

 This image and others are available at https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/downloads/

 

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79 Years Going The Wrong Way

douglas_groce_corrigan_28afdotmil29

Douglas Corrigan beside his Curtiss Robin aircraft – (Public Domain)

On July 17th 1938,  Douglas Corrigan took off in an easterly direction from Floyd Bennett field and kept on going.   Just over 28 hours later he landed at Baldonnel field near Dublin,  and until the end of his life he maintained he’d been trying to get back to Long Beach, California.  His aircraft was a nine-year old Curtiss OX-5 Robin,  partially re-engined with the best parts from two J-6-5 Wright Whirlwinds, (making it a J-1 Robin, technically)  and otherwise modified for long-distance flight.

Corrigan was a aircraft mechanic and a devotee of Charles Lindbergh.  Corrigan assisted in the construction of the Spirit of St. Louis and it was Corrigan who pulled the chocks away from the Ryan NYP at the start of Lindbergh’s solo flight in 1927.  It’s a sad irony that Lindbergh never did acknowledge Corrigan’s Atlantic crossing eleven years later. Other notable Americans from Howard Hughes to Henry Ford congratulated him.

Corrigan retired from aviation in 1950, but apparently on the 50th anniversary of his flight in 1988 allowed a group of enthusiasts to retrieve the Robin from its hangar and start it up.  There is humorous comment on the Wikipedia page that Corrigan himself, by then aged 81, may have wanted to take the aircraft up for a spin.

Douglas Corrigan

“As I looked over it at the Dublin airdrome I really marveled that anyone should have been rash enough even to go in the air with it, much less try to fly the Atlantic. He built it, or rebuilt it, practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates. It looked it. The nose of the engine hood was a mass of patches soldered by Corrigan himself into a crazy-quilt design.”
Knickerbocker, H.R. (1941) quoted in Wikipedia.
Corrigan and his modified Curtiss Robin “Sunshine”

Rumours persist that,  later in life,  Corrigan dispersed the parts of the Robin to prevent it from being stolen.  I haven’t managed to track down any references to dispersed Robin parts in the Santa Ana area of California although I have no doubt a few such articles exist.

There are a few nice pictures of Corrigan and the Robin at Baldonnel in the collections of the National Library of Ireland, and Bryan Swopes on This Day in Aviation has a picture of Corrigan and the Robin in 1988 at the 50th Anniversary celebrations. The the card model site Fiddlers Green has a different signed photo of Corrigan and the Robin taken at around that time.

If you’d like to see the man himself explain things,  try this public domain clip from YouTube.

I wonder if some parts of the Robin will emerge in 2018 when we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the flight?

14th June, 1919

Alcock and Brown Take Off, 14th June, 1919.

Alcock and Brown depart St. John’s, Newfoundland in their Vickers Vimy.  14th June, 1919 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

I remember going to the Science Museum in London when I was small and seeing the Vickers Vimy  that Alcock and Brown used to make the first non-stop Atlantic crossing.  Until today it had never actually struck me on which day the crossing had taken place. Admittedly it was on the 14th/15th June.   You can read about some of the trials and tribulations of the flight  on their Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transatlantic_flight_of_Alcock_and_Brown

A couple of things I didn’t know about the flight:

  1. John Alcock had been a POW in Turkey in the First World War while flying with the Royal Naval Air Service – while a POW he dreamed of making the Atlantic crossing.
  2. There was a very real competition between Vickers and Handley-Page (among others) to win a 10,000 GBP prized offered by the Daily Mail. The Handley-Page team were still testing their aircraft when the Vickers team arrived, assembled their aircraft and took off.
  3. Alcock approached Vickers suggesting they use a modified Vimy bomber for the attempt. Vickers were impressed and made him their pilot.
  4. Arthur Whitten-Brown was apparently unemployed and approached Vickers looking for a job.

It’s amazing how a series of chances came together. One would say it was a very British undertaking.

Dragon Lady

1 May 1960 is the anniversary of Francis Gary Powers being shot down somewhere over the Soviet Union in his U-2A  by what I call a SAM-2  and everyone else calls an S-75. I assumed the event took place earlier in the year and have to thank my regular engagements with Bryan Swopes’ blog for reminding me.   Funnily enough I mentioned the U-2 incident to my American History class last week.  Every so often I get close to an anniversary like this, but mostly it’s coincidence.   In March 2014 I happened to hit the 70th Anniversary of the “Great Escape” and subjected my class to a few minutes of Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.

The engine of the downed American Lockheed U-2

The engine of the downed American Lockheed U-2 plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers on view in Gorky Park. (RIA Novosti archive, image #35173 / Chernov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

I had a quick riffle through the pages of Wikipedia to find a Public Domain picture of an original U-2 and read briefly that another U-2 was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis.   I didn’t managed to teach that part and will have to look it up.   I will also have refresh myself on the clandestine overflights that were carried out by Canberras and RB-45s flown by RAF aircrews (and the RB-45s had RAF markings) a few years previously.

Lockheed U-2A

Lockheed U-2A at the National Museum of the US Air Force

Many years ago I saw a TR-2 (I think it was)  derivative of the U-2 climbing out of RAF Alconbury  and watched as best I could while I was driving down the M11 Motorway at the time. I believe I did see the NMUSAF example (basking in the sun in the picture above)  at Dayton some years ago.   I’m looking forward to going again sometime soon.

A Little Quiet Recently

My fault.   Mostly just getting caught up with the daily life of an adjunct professor and occasionally doing some teaching.   We’re into the 1960s next week, which means about three weeks of the semester remains and then into the long-ish summer break.  I do have a little prep work for the Fall Semester, in which I assume I’m still teaching.

In the meantime.   I want to pause and remember that we have just passed the 20th Anniversary of the crash of ATL-98 Carvair N83FA in Griffin, Georgia on April 4th. On that day I actually did sit back for a moment and took a moment for prayer and reflection.    I never for a moment imagined that a blog article which was born from reading a John Le Carre novel and thinking “huh?” would generate so much interest.  Looking at the WordPress statistics for the blog, it always seems to get a couple of hits most weeks. I was touched and honored to have received comments from Kris Whittington, son of pilot Larry Whittington who was killed in the crash of N83FA, and recently Vanessa Presley, who as a child in Griffin saw and heard the crash and who suffers from the after effects to this day.  My deepest thanks to everyone who contributed to expand a little piece of aviation history here.

HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip board an ANA C-54 (VH-INY) at Western Junction, Tasmania. Feb 20, 1954. This C-54 would seven years later be converted into a Carvair which, with the registration N83FA, would crash on take-off at Griffin, Georgia in April 1997
http://catalogue.statelibrary.tas.gov.au/item/?id=AB713-1-2859

 

My research project,  the history of B-24J-1-FO  42-50535  “Joplin Jalopy” got a boost this month.  For some reason an article appeared in the Joplin Globe a couple of weeks ago (which I have managed not to read) but which, I am told, listed the correct number of operations the Jalopy flew.  This would then indicate that someone read some of the research material I forked over to the globe in 2006.     Shortly afterwards I received an email from Ray Foreman from KODE12  TV in Joplin  (Hi Ray!)  who had seen my January 2016 post commemorating the anniversary of the start of the now defunct “Joplin’s Bomber”  blog.   Apart from being a military aviation history enthusiast Ray has some connection with the Joplin Civil Air Patrol so I hope to have a chat with him, and them in the near future.  This has been a timely prod not to let all that information  go to waste.

B-24 Joplin Jalopy

B24J-1-FO 42-50535 “Joplin Jalopy” – 506BS / 44BG

I was relating all of this to one of my colleagues at Pittsburg State who then said “you ought to write this up for a journal article”  (in one of the local academic journals) ,  so given a long enough period of rest  I may actually do that.

In the meantime I will continue to be fascinated by little snippets that float into my field of vision from the world of aviation.

Happy Birthday

5th March 1936, first flight of K5054 the Supermarine Type 300 Spitfire prototype, or so the common theory says.

Jeffrey Quill in his book Spitfire: A Test Pilot’s Story is adamant that the first flight actually took place on 6th March,  because he flew Vickers’  Miles Falcon G-ADTD from Brooklands to Martlesham Heath, picking up  Captain Joseph “Mutt”  Summers (Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot) and transporting him to Eastleigh for the flight.  Quill also says he gave brief joyrides to Major H.J Payn,  R.J Mitchell’s Technical Assistant, and Stuart Scott-Hall, Air Ministry technical officer in place at Supermarine.  They were also at Eastleigh for the first flight.     It doesn’t help that Dr. Alfred Price when preparing Spitfire: A Complete Fighting History, quoted an account sheet with a note, hand written by Mitchell updating a line from “Not yet flown” to “Flew 5 Mar 36.”

While we’re in uncertain territory, what did “Mutt” Summers  say when he landed K5054 after that first flight?  Quill says he said “I don’t want anything touched”   which has been widely misquoted (the Wikipedia article says he said “Don’t touch anything”).   Bryan Swopes in This Day in Aviation quotes him as saying “Don’t change a thing!”    People wonder why I like being a history teacher.  What one person said in front of a group of witnesses 81 years ago is a matter of debate and interpretation.  Perhaps in the future our record keeping will be better, but somehow I doubt that important speeches and sayings will ever be clearly recorded or remembered.

I’m inclined to agree with Quill who says it’s unlikely  that after a test flight of a few minutes in which he didn’t even retract the undercarriage,  that Summers thought the aircraft was perfect and didn’t need any refinement.  It’s much more likely he didn’t want anyone fiddling with the aircraft before he flew it again.

Wherever the truth lies, at least we know how the story developed.

 

Spitfire Mark VB

Spitfire Mark VB (AD233, ‘ZD-F’) being flown on 25 May 1942 by Squadron Leader Richard Milne, Commanding Officer of No. 222 Squadron based at North Weald, Essex.
By RAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Interlude – Pardon my Intruder

There is comfort in listening to familiar pieces of music and also, in my view, from re-reading a favourite book.  From time to time I re-read Stephen Coonts’ Flight of the Intruder, and when I do, I’m always a little bit impressed with the laconic style and its evocation of life as a US Navy A-6 pilot in 1972. I’ve never read any of Coonts’ other novels, and only realized a few days ago there was actually a sequel (Final Flight, published 1988) and a prequel to the sequel – (The Intruders, published 1994!) to Flight of the Intruder.  I should have a look at them when I have time.

I’ve had two or three copies of Flight of the Intruder in paperback, one of which came free with the computer game of the same name,  and all have continued their journeys in life  – i.e. I never got any of them back.  I decided to buy a cheap copy from Alibris a few months ago, and ended up to my delight with a 1986 first edition, published by the the Naval Institute Press, for the grand total of 99 cents (plus shipping, which was more than the cost of the book.  No matter.)

Having read it again a few days ago, I was thinking a little bit more about A-6s and aircraft carriers, and cast my mind back a little.  It occurred to me that almost exactly forty years ago, in February 1977,  I found myself in the Bay of Naples,  standing on the flight deck of the USS John F Kennedy (CV-67) with a few of my secondary school friends.  It was an amazing experience, and how we got there is probably best left to another blog entry.  I still don’t know how one of the teachers wangled the visit – it was certainly more interesting to me than a free afternoon dodging the citizenry of Naples.  My visit was not long after the incidents of September 1976 in which the destroyer Bordelon collided with the JFK during night replenishment, and an F-14 dropped off the ship after a catapult issue. The resulting race with the Soviet navy to recover the aircraft and its AIM-54 Phoenix missiles was redolent of Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy.

USS John F. Kennedy , 1968.

USS John F. Kennedy (at that time designated CVA-67) underway in the Atlantic Ocean during her shakedown cruise in November/December 1968. Visible on the flight deck are EA-3B, A-4, RA-5C, and F-4 aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW-1).  I’ll have a look at a bigger picture another time and try to identify the helicopter. 
(U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo)

I remember that one of our guides on the tour was a Bombardier-Navigator (BN) from one of the A-6 Squadrons embarked on the JFK.  He had a fairly marked accent from one of the Southern states, and when one of the teachers asked him what would happen if the proverbial balloon were to go up,  he replied “This is all for one Nucular Strike” –  Cue stunned silence from group of English school kids.

Grumman A-6E Intruder, 1976

Typical of what I might have seen at the time – US Navy Grumman A-6E Intruder Bu No 154142 “AB-504” of Attack Squadron VA-34 “Blue Blasters” aboard the USS John F Kennedy, 1976.
By RuthAS (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back, it was quite an experience.  I sorely regret that I ran out of 35mm film for my camera and hadn’t had a chance to stock up before the excursion.  There were F-14s,  S-3s, A-6s of different kinds, (they didn’t want us to photograph an EA-6B on the flight deck), A-7s, a couple of E-2s and apparently a C-2A Greyhound which one of the guides said looked like “something Jimmy Doolittle would have flown”.  One of our hosts was an S-3 pilot (I think) who seemed like the archetypal well groomed ROTC youth transposed into uniform on his first tour – he didn’t seem much older than us, although he clearly was. The A-6 guy was much older and a little more grizzled, and it pains me when I think back, that no-one asked him if he or any of the A-6 crews had been in action in South East Asia.  I am sure some of them must have done so.  This was only 1977 after all,  and even Steven Coonts was still serving in the US Navy – he was honorably discharged in 1977 with the rank of Lieutenant.

Now, CV-67 has been decommissioned and the new Gerald R Ford Class CVN-79 will take the JFK name in 2020.  The A-6, A-7 and F-14 are all retired from the US Navy.  The S-3 retired from front-line service in 2009 although there is some unconfirmed speculation that mothballed S-3s could be returned to USN service in 2019 as tankers, in the face of perceived ballistic missile threats from the naval forces of the People’s Republic of China.

I’ve said in some other piece of writing, familiar books and familiar records are a time machine.  Listening to a piece of music I first heard in 1981 transports me instantly to the location where I first heard it because of some vivid memory.   I hadn’t quite made the connection between Flight of the Intruder and my cruise round the Mediterranean in 1977, but I have now. I tip my hat in a little salute to that day 40 years ago.