Behind the Scenes


How Did Early Airmail Pilots Find their Way?

Museum Employees Fly Back in Time

Early YearEven though it took Museum photographer Eric Long and education specialist Tim Grove a long time to thaw out, this was an experience they will never forget: flying along the early transcontinental airmail route in Pennsylvania. This portion of the route was called "Hell Stretch" because of how many pilots were killed flying it.

Air mail mapAir mail mapSo Why Did They do It?

Grove, as one of the educators on the America by Air exhibition team, is developing a mechanical interactive device as part of the gallery's section on the early years of air mail. The focal point of the activity is a pilot's sketch (left) of part of the airmail route in Pennsylvania. (Photo at right:  One of the old air mail pilot landmarks is the confluence of two branches of the Susquehanna River at Sunbury, PA)

The device will focus on contact flying and the importance of identifying landmarks. "Contact flying" is defined as navigation by visual observation of the horizon or of landmarks. Visitors will match a series of aerial photos of some of these landmarks, putting them in the correct order as if they were flying the route.

Board membersGroupingBoard Member to the Rescue

Since photos of these landmarks could not be located in any archives, Grove needed a way to take some. Fortunately, Grove and Long were able to get the aerial shots from a helicopter owned and piloted by Museum board member, Tom Pumpelly, who along with his wife Jamie have been long-time supporters of the Museum. Pumpelly has volunteered his time and helicopter on multiple occasions so that Museum photographers could take aerial photographs of the Udvar-Hazy Center. (Photo at left: Left to right: Eric Long, Tim Grove, Bob Hines, Tom Pumpelly and Spencer Pumpelly,   Photo at right:  During the flight, left to right: Tom Pumpelly at the controls, Bob Hines and Tim Grove in the back (covering their microphones because of the wind).

Cold and Loud, but Well Worth It

With Pumpelly and his son Spencer at the controls, the group picked up a guide from the local Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter, Bob Hines, at State College, Pa. "Using the 1921 pilots' directions and the sketch, we flew 30 miles east along the airmail route and back," Grove said. "Amazingly a lot of the landmarks are still there. It was a long day — we were in the air six or seven hours. It was cold and windy but an incredible experience that gave us all a great appreciation for the bravery and dedication of early airmail pilots.".

Photographer Eric Long used a Canon 1DS 35mm digital camera and lenses ranging from 17mm to 300mm, producing a 48mb file. He was strapped in by a seat belt while shooting out the open doors. Long is experienced in taking aerial photos from a helicopter, but he had never done so for the length of time he did for this shoot, and he, too, was affected by the temperature. "The cold didn't seem so bad on the ground, but at 1000 feet, the air currents made it feel 20 or more degrees colder."

"I can understand why they called it Hell Stretch," he said. "We flew on a day with pretty good visibility and still had trouble seeing some of the points of interest. The air mail pilots flew in all kinds of weather and had to navigate according to what was on the ground -- and dodge the mountains at the same time."

A Little Help from GPS

Tom Pumpelly noted that originally they tried to follow the map by ground reference alone, but it was very difficult to find any of the landmarks. “Finally, on our way back, I used the helicopter’s global positioning system (GPS), and the GPS path was right on the money. Only on that portion of the trip did we find and photograph most of the landmarks we had been looking for.”

“It is indeed interesting that we had to depend on satellites and fancy navigational aids to find and fly along a path that had been set so perfectly by compasses and visual landmarks,” Pumpelly continued.  “Another credit to the people who were so creative during the early days of flight.”

Contact flying panelGrove and others on the exhibit team are currently putting the finishing touches on the device, which will be ready in time for the exhibit opening. The image at left shows the graphic panel that will accompany the contact flying interactive device, with photos taken on the flight along the bottom.


Behind The Scenes