The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

On Aerial Photography
James Trautman
Program date: January 20, 2010

Jim Trautman
Trautman by Lansdale

Pan American Clippers
Pan Am Clippers

wright brothers 1903
Wright Bros. 1903

Silvert Dart
Silver Dart

Zeppelin Pod
Zeppelin Pod

Zeppelin over NYC
Zeppelin USS LA

Curtiss JN-4 Jenny

JN-4 barnstorming
JN-4 over Ontario

JN-4 barnstorming
JN-4 in Esso Ad 1951

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart by her airplane
Amelia Earhart

Robert Goddard
Robert Goddard

de Havilland Mosquito

Nagasaki bomb cloud
Nagasaki cloud

C-119 Flying Boxcar
C-119 Flying Boxcar

capsule recovery
Capsule pick-up

S42 Clipper
S42 Clipper

Pan Am Miami
Pan Am Miami

first airmail keys to havana
Airmail Key West

Boeing 314 Clipper
314 Clipper

Jim Trautman is a self-confessed Luddite. His children bought him a new computer to replace his eight year old machine - he hopes to begin using it real soon. His camera is an old 35mm film Pentax, but his editors are pressing him go digital. And he spoke without slides - film or digital. The Vietnam War veteran is a natural story teller, easily fielding questions with in-depth answers. He began life in Elizabeth, New Jersey next door to the airport where watching the DC-3s land sparked his love of aircraft. He presently lives in small town Southern Ontario. (PS. Jim just advised me that the new computer is up and running and he is using a digital camera to illustrate his latest writing project.)

Jim brought posters, some research notebooks and copies of his impressive 2007 book on the history of the famous Pan American Clippers (the aircraft that introduced travel by air to the well-heeled decades before a network of airports existed). When he started his Clippers book, he had no idea it would take him to the connection between aircraft and photography and the evolution of aircraft use from war to survey to passenger service.

Early aircraft history involved many people from upper New York State (Eastman, Fairchild, Curtis) and Southern Ontario (de Havilland). Today this industry has all but disappeared. While researching in Rochester, he discovered some fantastic early photographs taken by camera-equipped pigeons of all things.

The link between aircraft and photography in North America began with the Wright brother’s first recorded flight. The brothers made sure a camera was set up and ready to photograph their brief flight into history, recording its success for posterity. (Jim mentioned the first Canadian flight of the Silver Dart in 1909. A stamp was issued in 2009 to celebrate the centenary of the famous Silver Dart flight in Cape Breton. To the knowledgeable eye, the aircraft illustrating the stamp is a 1912 machine, not the Silver Dart.

The first photograph from an airplane was taken in 1909 by Wilbur Wright, a time when the machine was little more than an engine, seat, and wire struts. Wright took a soldier up for a flight two years later when the military began to take interest in the infant industry. The military considered the aircraft as a means to both deliver bombs, and collect intelligence via aerial photography. Before then, intelligence gathering relied on people strategically placed geographically. Aircraft could even photograph a target area before and after a bombing mission to verify its success.

Over 500,000 aerial photographs were taken by the Allied forces during the Great War. The slow aircraft of the day used large cumbersome cameras. Unfortunately, the enemy recognized the unarmed aircraft, making them an easy target. In response, a machine gun was added to the craft and the cameraman was obliged to operate both.

Flying “pod cars” were featured in the early science-fiction movies. The first authentic pod was designed in Germany as a “basket” lowered via cable from a Zeppelin airship. The basket carried an observer who could take photographs and pass information verbally to the airship hidden above the clouds via communication lines included as part of the tethering cable.

The Great War made the military realize that changes to both aircraft and aerial cameras were needed. Sherman Fairchild invented a large, robust, between-the-lens shutter for his aerial cameras to eliminate the distortion caused by earlier shutters. And he developed the first closed canopy airplane. The craft featured a single wing, and an enclosed heated cockpit significantly improving the cameraman’s comfort and results. These innovations opened up the survey business, a valuable alternative to war-time reconnaissance. Fairchild camera ©
1929 Fairchild ©

Fairchild camera front view
Fairchild Camera

Fairchild camera back view
Fairchild Camera

The 1929 Fairchild camera image is from the late KO Eckland's site Aerofiles, used here
courtesy of his daughter Taina. Click to visit his wonderful site.

Over 20,000 planes along with pilots, mechanics and other support systems became surplus when the war ended, setting the stage for the era of barnstorming, air shows, and the growth of commercial air services. Aviation continued to expand after the war. Many of the surplus aircraft were “Jennys” the practical little bi-plane made by Glen Curtiss in upstate New York. Curtiss later moved down to Florida and into commercial aviation.

Jim tied Toronto to the famous American pilot, Amelia Earhart, who disappeared on a flight in 1937. Ms Earhart came to Toronto in 1917 to visit her sister and stayed to work as a volunteer nurse at the Spadina Military Hospital when the 1918 flu pandemic hit the city (the building now houses Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto). A couple of years later, she and a friend went to watch an air show at the CNE and a stunt pilot buzzed the two girls. Instead of frightening Earhart, it awakened her interest in airplanes and becoming a pilot.

Robert Goddard in Massachusetts began putting his ideas for liquid fueled rockets to practice in 1921. These test firings brought about growing concerns and complaints from his neighbours. In 1929, he fired his first rocket carrying a payload - a barometer and a camera which took the first photographs from space. The famous Lindbergh became interested in Goddard’s work and eventually introduced him to the Guggenheims whose financial support allowed him to move his experiments to Roswell, New Mexico.

In 1920, Hollywood fell in love with aviation and books began to appear about aircraft and flying. The movie “Wings” won the first academy award for best picture. A decade later in 1930, Howard Hughes made the movie “Hell’s Angels”. In the course of filming the movie, Hughes converted it from a silent film to the new talkies. He used hundreds of pilots and cameramen both performing in live action scenes and filming the scenes. The filming was innovative, creative, and down right dangerous - some pilots died during the stunts. There was even a movie about airmail - Lindbergh started his career as a mail pilot in the 1920s when the US government was pushing the idea.

Jim recounted his experiences getting copies of some of Clyde Sunderland’s historic photographs of the Clippers. Sunderland was an aerial and survey photographer. For some assignments he followed other aircraft using a Fairchild camera to capture 1,000s of promotional photographs. Long passed into history, the Pan American archives were donated to the University of Miami where they remain in 1,600 unarchived boxes of papers, business records, and photographs due to a shortage of funds. Jim was granted permission to browse this mother lode of history and persuaded his wife to help him in a two week search for suitable material (the incentive was a vacation in the Keys following the research). He found many good photographs, but had trouble getting approval to use them in his book. Sunderland had married twice and both surviving wives claimed ownership of rights to the material. This was finally resolved when Pacific Aerial Survey of Oakland, California sued both wives. Sunderland had worked for Pacific Aerial while taking the photographs and the judge ruled the rights belonged to the company.

Jim mentioned de Havilland in Toronto, famous manufacturer of over a thousand Mosquito bombers during WW2. Today, only a few hangars (and the Canadian Air and Space Museum) remain at the Downsview facility as the land is put to new uses. Late in the 1930s with war imminent, Britain was concerned about resources since the US appeared reluctant to join the effort to oppose Hitler. A proposal was pitched to build a wooden aircraft, although this methodology had faded into history in the era of metal skinned aircraft. The result was the Mosquito twin engine aircraft built in Britain, Canada and Australia. Some parts for the aircraft were made literally in a cottage industry - even a toy company was pressed into service. The Mosquitos (Click to see vintage video clip) were fast low level aircraft equipped for reconnaissance without armament, and later as fighters and bombers. In 1940, Mosquitos flew the first reconnaissance mission over Brieske. The US used twin tailed Lockheed P-38s for most of its reconnaissance runs.

Aerial photography was important to the military. After a run, the covers (film canisters) were sent to a separate facility to be processed and analyzed with stereoscopes to detect buildings and other structures. Reconnaissance before and after bombing missions could determine the success of the mission, degree of damage wrought, etc. The photographers learned to turn their cameras on at least 20 seconds before reaching the target, and leaving them on about the same time after clearing the target so each object appeared in at least two frames.

High tech Fairchild cameras came into use to look for specific structures and targets. In a 1943 reconnaissance run the cameras uncovered the original V1 and V2 buzz bomb launch sites in Peenemunde. The cameras provided the Allies with the location of desired choice of targets allowing them to forgo carpet bombing and avoid civilian areas. In fact, the expertise for picking a specific single target was so successful that a mission could bomb prison facilities to make breaches in the walls so prisoners could escape.

Jim also commented on the first atomic bomb missions. The uranium came from a mine at Port Radium, NWT on the shores of Great Bear Lake. In planning for the mission, selected Japanese cities were kept free of any bombing attacks to better assess the impact of the atomic bomb. The discussion of bomb targets was very clinical yet hundreds of thousands of lives were at stake. The second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the secondary target that day - the primary target, Kokura, was spared by cloud cover. Reconnaissance flights recorded the targets before, during, and after the bombing.

The mechanics of atomic bombs were so uncertain that they were delivered to the Tinian airbase unarmed and assembled and armed once the bomber was within about 30 minutes of its target. No one wanted to risk a live bomb on board if take-off had to be abandoned, or the aircraft crashed. Post war, air reconnaissance was used to help monitor and assess the Bikini Atoll tests.

In the late 1970s two CIA analysts were reviewing old WW2 aerial photographs taken on May 21, 1944 by a South African Mosquito crew. The mission was flying over Poland searching for the IG Farben factories. The analysts discovered the cameras had been turned on prematurely and had accidentally recorded Auschwitz. When they compared the photographs to those taken months later by the same plane, the analysts realized they were looking at aerial views of the infamous concentration camp and death chambers. The beginning of the cold war brought more aerial photography advances with the famous U2 aircraft (remember Gary Powers?).

Fairchild founder Sherman Fairchild died in 1971. His company continued its involvement in aviation and many other fields. Its huge C-119 “Flying Boxcar” aircraft served a useful purpose before the days of GPS and satellites. Camera-bearing rockets were launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. After the desired photographs were taken, the camera and exposed film were ejected over Hawaii to parachute to earth. A C-119 rendezvoused with the parachute and its payload, circling in an attempt to capture the parachute with a long trailing wire that could be reeled into the aircraft with its treasure (the picture shows recovery of a payload from an orbiting satellite).

Jim wrapped up with some discussion about his book on the Pan American Clippers and his current project helping to recover the Philippine Clipper that crashed in California. The doomed aircraft was on a secret mission flying home from Hawaii. It was thought to carry photographs of Japanese islands and secret military information. Its passengers were all US naval officers. The aircraft flew into a storm just off San Francisco and speculation is that the pilot thought he had turned south for San Diego but instead had turned north. He seemed to have tried to reach a nearby lake, but crashed into the mountains. Once the crash site was discovered, a road was built to bring out the bodies and cargo. The site was then blown up and the road destroyed. Jim noted that the Clippers were often asked to deviate their routes slightly in the 1930s for military purposes to spy on Japanese islands. One such excursion picked up a model of Pearl Harbor created in preparation for the 1941 attack. The model was based on tourist photographs and Japanese air reconnaissance.

Jim spoke of a Canadian element in the first Pan American mail flight back in October 1927. Pan American was awarded the airmail contract but had no aircraft to make the run from Key West to Havana. The founder of Pan Am, Juan Trippe, was in Miami looking for a solution when he spotted Cy Caldwell sitting on the pontoon of his Fairchild airplane moored in Miami Harbor. Trippe hired the plane, pilot and co-pilot on the spot to get the mail to Havana within the terms of his contract. The volume of mail Caldwell picked up at Key West was so large his co-pilot had to stay behind. Caldwell went on to become a daredevil pilot. He was a Canadian who learned to fly with the RAF.

The flying boats introduced first class passenger service at a time of few airports. After WW2, airports existed in all major cities eliminating the need for flying boats and the majestic Clippers disappeared from passenger service. A few flying boats are used today on the west coast as water bombers fighting forest fires but none of the 28 Clippers has survived.

The Pan American Historical Foundation meets this year (2010) in San Francisco, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the first Clipper flight to Hawaii. California chose the 1936 photograph of a Clipper flying between the unfinished Golden Gate bridge towers for the front cover of its referendum book. San Francisco is perfect for the celebration. The Clippers operated out of terminals at Treasure Island in San Francisco harbor, buildings that are still standing. At the Clipper landing site in Ireland, enthusiasts are reconstructing a Clipper mockup complete with authentic furnishings, china, a hanger and even a restaurant with a 30s - 40s decor.

If you would like to learn more the famous Clippers, pick up a copy of Jim’s book “Pan American Clippers”.

GNUImage "Airmail Key West" on this page, is file name "FAM4_First_Flight_1927.jpg" and used under GNU Free Documentation: CC-BY-SA-3.0; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License; PD-STAMP.

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