Library: Air Navigation

Air NavigationThanks to Rock Toews of Back Creek Books, the Line of Position library now boasts a fine third-edition copy of Capt. PVH Weems’ seminal book Air Navigation. Printed in 1943, at the height of World War II when military air navigators were in great demand to guide bombers and patrol aircraft over Europe and the Pacific, the book includes a wealth of information including line art, photos, tables, two fold-out charts (a sectional chart and a weather map), and, in a back pocket, a full-size reproduction of the navigation log from zoologist Richard Archbold’s 1938-39 aerial expedition to New Guinea in the flying boat Guba.

The book’s 18 chapters and three appendices cover the essential materials (charts, compasses, and radios), the basics of “air pilotage,” and the various forms of navigation — dead reckoning, instrument flying (plus a chapter on meteorology), and celestial navigation.

In the preface to the third edition, Capt. Weems writes:

This edition goes to press under critical war conditions with the purpose of assisting national defense. Material on civil airways and other phases of air navigation, which would have been treated more fully under normal conditions, has been reduced or omitted in order to make the text as suitable as possible for practical navigation under war conditions.

From the above quote, it sounds like it will be worth acquiring other editions of the book from both before and after the war, to compare the evolution of civil air navigation techniques.

The Guba chart in the back of the book was a particularly pleasant surprise; it brought back some great memories from my college internship at the (tragically defunct) United Technologies Archive and Historical Resource Center in East Hartford, Connecticut. That’s where I first heard of Richard Archbold and the Guba, a Consolidated PBY Catalina. Because the Catalina was powered by Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp radial engines that drove Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propellers, both companies (which later became units of United Technologies Corporation) published plenty of marketing and public-relations materials touting their parts in the Guba’s pioneering, long-range flights — much of which I got to read while I was there.

It was one of the first times that I learned that there were so many forgotten and overlooked stories in the history of aviation, that one could devote a lifetime to learning about them. It was at the UT Archive that I began researching and writing about some of them, beginning with the history of Westinghouse Electric’s all-but-forgotten contributions to jet engine development — work that eventually led me to an internship at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and then to a Master’s in history — and, today, to my research into the life of Capt. Weems and the history of air navigation.

And so things have come full circle!

Collections: Weems, Link, and Herrick

I am in the process of identifying archival and manuscript collections that I will consult during my research in the history of air navigation. Here are finding aids and guides for collections related to three key people, all pioneers of aerial navigation and early presidents of the Institute of Navigation: Philip Van Horn Weems, Edwin A. Link, and Samuel Herrick.

Library: Box Kite to Bali

Box Kite to Bali (cover)Box Kite to Bali: The Last Great Adventure of a U.S. Navy Pilot is a delightful story of a memorable trip based on drafts of a never-published article for The Saturday Evening Post by George Thackray Weems, Naval aviator son of PVH Weems. In early 1950, Weems, nicknamed “Bee,” convinced his father, Capt. PVH Weems, to join him on a trip halfway around the world in a prewar biplane along with Bee’s aviator friend Willie Eddins and aircraft engineer James WH Smith. The story of their journey from England to Australia — four men and a plucky wood-and-fabric biplane battling monsoons, red tape, and postwar political upheaval all while maintaining a sense of humor — makes for a fast and fun, but highly informative, read in classic travel-narrative style.

Box Kite to Bali was edited by Gwen Manseau, great-granddaughter of PVH Weems. It is lavishly illustrated with photos taken on the trip as well as reproductions of documents such as letters and telegrams from the trip and saved by the Weems family. It also offers some valuable insights into the character of PVH Weems, who was a spry 61 at the time of the trip.

I highly encourage anyone who’s interested in the history of PVH Weems, air navigation, postwar European and Southeast Asian history, or travel narratives to get a copy. You will enjoy it. I am grateful to Ms. Manseau and the Weems family for correcting The Saturday Evening Post’s oversight in sharing this charming tale with the reading public.

Box Kite to Bali is available from publisher Fox Road Press and on Amazon.

Library: Most Probable Position

Most Probable PositionThe book that launched my interest in air navigation was Monte Duane Wright’s Most Probable Position: a History of Aerial Navigation to 1941 (University Press of Kansas, 1972), which I picked up while browsing the history section of Wonder Book & Video in Frederick, Maryland, while in college. I must admit that the reason I picked it up was not so much interest, as resignation!

The bookstore had several copies of the book, and as I browsed the chaotically disorganized shelves, I would keep bumping into another copy. Then when I would return to the store again a few weeks later, I would again bump into them. After a few such visits, it became something of a game—where would I find Most Probable Position this time? Eventually, I picked up a copy and flipped through it, and realized that it was not a dry textbook, but a well-researched and engagingly written trove of early aviation history, science, and technology. So I ended up buying a copy. And wouldn’t you know it, the next time I visited the store, there were no copies to be found.

I’m not superstitious by any means, but sometimes it seems that there are things that you are just meant to find.

Monte Wright joined the United States Air Force in 1951, where he specialized in radar interception systems, plans and analysis, and—not surprisingly—navigation instruction. He earned a doctorate from Duke University and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. After serving as an associate professor of history at the USAF Academy, Wright joined the NASA History Office where he eventually became director and, ultimately, served as NASA’s second-ever Chief Historian from 1978-1982.

Information on Dr. Wright is unfortunately scarce online, but I would love to discover whether he is still active in aerospace history. I owe him a debt of gratitude, as his work serves as the foundation for Line of Position and was my first introduction to Captain PVH Weems, USN.

If you are just starting out in the history of air navigation, or in the history of aviation science and technology in general, do yourself a favor and get a copy of this book! Don’t take a chance on missing out on it, like I almost did.

Introducing “Line of Position”

Hello!

I am Paul Lagasse, a full-time freelance generalist writer/editor with a lifelong interest in the history of aviation. Line of Position will be the online home of my research into the life and work of Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, USN, widely recognized as the founder of air navigation.

I have a BA and MA in history as well as an MLS in archival studies. For my Master’s thesis I wrote what is probably still the definitive history of Westinghouse Electric’s jet engine R&D and manufacturing program 1940-1960. (One of the advantages of picking a topic related to an all-but-forgotten chapter of technology and business history is that it allows you to be able to still call your thesis “definitive” twenty years later!)

Topics that I will cover here include the biography of Captain Weems and other pioneers of air navigation; the history of maritime, air, and space navigation; books, articles, and other scholarship of interest; and conferences and events related to the history of air navigation. You can read more about Line of Position on the About page.

Welcome! I hope that Line of Position will eventually become a hub for people who share an interest in the history of air navigation. Please feel free to leave a comment and share links of interest. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone who has an interest in the history of air navigation!