Today we celebrate the birthday of Charles F. Blair, an aviator made famous by his solo flight over the North Pole, whose real accomplishment is often overlooked.
Blair was a pilot for commercial airlines including United Airlines, Pan American Airlines, and American Export Airlines (which later became American Overseas Airlines). While working as a commercial pilot, Blair would become bored on long flights and decided to teach himself celestial navigation for the fun of it.
One evening at a bar, Blair made a bet that would change the course of his career. He was hanging out with Air Force crew members who were involved in mapping the fastest route to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. At the time, flying over the North Pole to reach the U.S.S.R. was a difficult feat that required three navigators and a thousand pounds of navigational equipment. Blair knew he could do better.
Blair bet the crew members that he could make a flight from Norway to Alaska with just a $12 surplus astrocompass in a P-51 Mustang. On May 29, 1951, Blair set out in his single-seat P-51 (renamed the Excalibur III) and made his 3,260-mile, record-setting flight from Norway to Alaska.
Blair’s stunt was a major success, and signified to the U.S. military that there were some big changes to be made to current navigation systems.
As a civilian, Blair became an active duty colonel in the Air Force and was assigned to the task of taking a jet fighter plane and turning it into a long-distance nuclear delivery system that the U.S. could use against the Soviet Union.
Blair used two different navigation systems to address this problem. The first was an inertial navigation system, which helped navigate by using a computer, motion sensor, and rotation sensor to calculate the direction and speed of the plane. The other system he worked with was pre-computed navigation astrotrackers. Naval officer and navigation expert P.V.H. Weems worked to create the pre-comp calculations for Blair.
Blair’s dual-navigation systems were never actually used with jet fighters in the Soviet Union, but they were put into place during the Vietnam War in the F-105 Thunderchief. Blair’s navigational systems made it possible to compute a fix to within 100-200 feet. In the pre-GPS era, this kind of technology was revolutionary.
When the U.S. developed the SR-71 Blackbird in 1966, they installed a navigation system like Blair’s, which after the release of Star Wars in 1976, became known as R2D2 for how it rode just behind the cockpit with its sensor looking to the sky. Today only high-end military aircraft still have this system in place so they are still able to operate even if the GPS is destroyed.
While Blair’s solo flight over the pole in itself was exciting, his time in the Air Force developing advanced celestial navigation systems is the legacy that he should be remembered for every July 19th.