Aviation and the Superman

Dorothy Thompson

The Pasadena Post/January 21, 1937

Since the last airliner crash, in which Martin Johnson lost his life, I have spent many hours with aviation reporters and trained flyers, asking the question: Why do these accidents happen? What is to blame?

Conceivably they may be laid at four doors: the machine; the instruments; the weather; the man.

All my informants agree in exonerating the machine. As a cause of accident the airplane can be as generally eliminated as the construction of the modern automobile. Once engines failed, as once automobile steering gears broke in an emergency, or almost-new tires exploded. But today the great gleaming metal birds function with god-like precision. Mechanically, the domain of the sky is conquered.

Are the instruments to blame? Does the radio fail? Is the weather responsible? Are accidents “acts of God?”

The official statements issued by the companies operating the lines usually divide the blame between the two: Instruments and weather. Icing conditions; thunderstorms; radio beam off-course or silent; radio receivers failing. We have heard all this many times.

No instrument in the world is always, under all conditions, 100 per cent perfect, but the pilot flies with the aid of many instruments, devised with incredible subtlety to supplement, check, offset and correct each other. There are two or three radio sets in each airliner, with two or three types of antennae, each set checked at the end of each flight. Sets do go dead; radio beams do bend; static under certain weather conditions does interrupt the constant Morse code tick in the pilot’s earphones which tells him that he is flying the beam and flying in the right quadrant. But even a bent beam can be followed to a safe destination. And the pilot is never entirely dependent on radio. He is not unprepared for ice. And, curiously, the worst accidents have not occurred in the worst weather, as the worst automobile accidents do not occur on the worst roads. Call them contributing factors, they are not, thereby, the cause.

Blame Events

The Department of Commerce reports on accidents on the mail and passenger lines place most of the blame on the elements. But the aircraft accident reports in the military services tell a quite different story. They say: Ninety per cent of accidents are due neither to machines nor instruments nor weather. They are due to men. The military reports are not cagey. And what the Army says about its accidents, the most disinterested experts whom I have been able to find say about all accidents. Your chance of getting from Newark to Los Angeles in safety depends chiefly, overwhelmingly, on the two men up there in front and the personnel on the ground. It depends not only on their skill—they are all skillful. Not only on their judgment, their adaptability, their concentration, their experiences, but on subtler traits. It depends upon their character. Aviation will be safe when the knights of the air are no more, and the engineers of the air pilot planes; when there is a new creed governing, when the aviator is not a hero but a craftsman; not a rugged individualist, but a co-operator. The race of birdmen is not yet bred.

He’s Not An Angel

Man has got himself wings, but it hasn’t made him an angel. He can manage the most grandiose machine, the most subtle instruments, better than he can manage himself. He trusts his wits, his skill, his flair, his luck; he will not always subordinate himself to discipline, not even the discipline of his instruments. So say the candid pilots. “Present-day scientific airline equipment has eliminated all expected failings except human incompetence, disobedience and poor judgment,” said Bill Taylor, a flyer, in “The Sportsman Pilot” last May.

How About Fuel?

If a pilot forced by storm into a long detour makes a forced landing in an unlikely spot because his gas is out, when did he last refuel? Not at every station. It would delay the flight. He shares the blame with the administrative personnel. If he chisels in on his fellows by reporting that he will arrive earlier than he knows he will, at the rendezvous before the airport, whence all ships are ordered into port; if, by this false report, he gels himself ahead of the line, only to keep someone else up in the air and circling around with gas failing—well, he gets in on time, and gets the kudos. Perhaps the other fellow doesn’t. This complaint is commonly made by airmen. If a pilot with a full load of passengers, his radio not functioning, and gas to spare, tries to come through the ceiling in the middle of notoriously mountainous country, and pancakes on a hillside, are the mountains, the radio, the ceiling to blame? Or is it human judgment?

Don’t Choose Veterans

“Don’t fly with veterans,” says my mentor. Choose for a pilot a pink-faced boy. He may belong to the future race. He doesn’t sit around swapping yarns of the time when flying was flying; he doesn’t brag of miraculous flights; he doesn’t get gloriously drunk the night before he is going to fly. He isn’t a barnstormer. He is a member of a guild. “When all the war flyers are underground, and the romantic tradition of flying is definitely past then perhaps we shall have flyers whose wings become them.”

Lindbergh hates publicity. Perhaps he senses deeply just why. Perhaps he knows that personal glorification may negate personal skill. Others called him “The Lone Eagle.” He wrote a book called “We.”

Consider Executives

Consider not only the pilots. There are executives bent on holding the mail subsidies, lost or diminished if the mail is entrained. There are politicians in and out of government bent on whitewashing their own bureaus, or raising publicity for themselves in flashy “investigations.” There is competition, in which the schedule as well as safety is reckoned. There are all the rules that are not enforced, and there is the insufficiency of rules that are universal, too many of them made by bureaucrats with too little collaboration with the men who actually fly. And there are the passengers whining and complaining to the company when the flight is interrupted and they must go part way by train. So say the candid aviators.

When they telephoned you that your son was in the hospital with compound fractures, and his car a wreck by the roadside, was the car to blame? Was it the slippery road? Was the traffic light not functioning? Or was he taking a curve too fast, or disregarding the light, seeing no car in sight and “knowing this road so well?” If men hate law on the ground, will they love it in the air?

Outstanding Person

The good aviator is, to start with, an outstanding individual. He must have ebullient health, a sense of adventure, a willingness to take risks of training. Not by nature pedestrian. And that man must lake his individualism, so great an asset, must be tempered by social discipline, hardened into obedience, elevated into responsibility. Before he gets to a school for aviators he has gone through the public schools and been influenced by the habits of the society about him. How good is his preparation?

After all, the question is part of the whole social problem. The 20th century is upon us, bright, swift and powerful. But man, so noble in reason, so infinite in faculty, is still the quintessence of dust.

Enlarges Pictures

A device using a spiral mirror revolved by an electric motor has, been invented in Germany that enlarges television pictures to a size that enables them to be shown on a large screen to theater audiences.

Protects Motor

For protection of airplane motors an automatic propeller mounting operated by oil pressure has been invented that permits a motor to run at a desired speed regardless of the altitude or speed of a plane.

Stabilizing Fins

Stabilizing fins that operate automatically as the draft rolls have been fitted to an English Channel steamship in experiments that are expected to lead to more comfort for passengers crossing the channel.

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