In the 1920s, Only One Man Held the Key to Aerial Navigation

Very interesting article. Lindbergh had good luck with the winds, the pilots that followed, not so much.

Lindbergh still made landfall in Ireland within three miles of his intended site, an extraordinary feat. Did he possess some kind of superhuman sense of direction? His skill in maintaining a heading while exhausted is an indisputable achievement, but the National Aeronautic Association observer for the flight, John Heinmuller, also noted that the pressure distribution over the Atlantic on the two days of the flight was such that the net wind drift was zero—“the first time such unusual weather conditions have been recorded by weather experts.”

The magnitude of Lindbergh’s accomplishment led many to believe that transoceanic air navigation was simply a matter of determination. At least 15 people died in ocean-crossing attempts through the rest of 1927, leading to calls for federal regulation. While inexperience played a role in many of these accidents, inadequate navigation technology had let nearly everyone down, causing everything from inconvenience to fatalities.

The ‘one man’ was Weems.

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Pure luck. I believe that if the track could have been recorded it would show a large S curve that ended near where planned. The course changes were skill, the landfall was luck.

Even today with electronic navaids, flight planning for many long flights, especially in low altitude routes, involves careful study of pressure gradients to take advantage of favorable winds. Flying the isobars,even though they may not follow the straight line route, can save a great deal of time and fuel.

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There’s a lot of interesting details in that article. For example Lindbergh mitigated the risk of the reliance on dead reckoning by carrying extra fuel.

Radio navigation, the method that sent John Rodgers sailing to Hawaii, was clearly unreliable and the equipment was heavy.

Instead, Lindbergh reasoned that his airplane’s payload was better used for extra fuel that could be consumed to correct any significant deviations from the flight plan once he reached land; Western Europe was, after all, a big target. He relied entirely on dead reckoning, calculating his position from point to point by tracking his airspeed. He used a clock and compass just as he had between checkpoints while flying airmail.

When I had a transatlantic delivery job lined up I got a book called Ocean Flying that had all kinds of interesting and now archaic navigation methods in it. One of the more interesting ones was “pressure pattern flying”. I can post some scans if anyone wants a look.
There was also the “single drift correction”, I need to dive into that again, it has been so long I can’t recall how that works.

Curtis LeMay was also a pioneer of aerial navigation:

He was Chief of Staff for the first two years of my four year Air Force tour. A real lesson in what a no sh*t organization looked like.




It was kind of difficult to get current weather and barometer while flying across the Atlantic at 100 mph in 1927, especially while constantly changing altitude and in cloud with no way to fix position or calculate drift. While Lindbergh had some weather info available for the departure and projected arrival, he flew his planned great circle route and really did get lucky with the position of highs and lows along the route.