Even Lindbergh Got Lost
In the 1920’s, only one man held the key to aerial navigation.
- By Roger Connor
- Air & Space magazine, February 2013
Photo by Hugh Talman, Smithsonian National Museum of American History
(Page 3 of 3)
These flights were textbook examples of the Weems System. In fact, Weems became the Lindberghs’ official chronicler for the 1933 airline survey flight and used it as a case study for his Air Navigation textbook. In stark contrast to what happened on the Paris flight six years earlier, on the survey flight, the Lindberghs, carrying nearly the full suite of Weems navigation products, were able, almost without exception, to find their position.
Lindbergh and Gatty spread the Weems System through much of the aviation community in the United States and elsewhere. Gatty persuaded Lindbergh to bring Pan Am on as a client for the Weems System. The military services lacked enough instructors to train cadets for World War II, so Pan Am’s school served as a leading source of navigators for the Army Air Forces and Royal Air Force at the start of the war. In 1932, Gatty became chief navigation advisor to the Army Air Corps Frontier Defense Research Unit, which developed the service’s first viable navigation techniques for long-range strategic bombers. (One of Gatty’s first students was the architect of air power and later chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, Curtis LeMay.) American Airlines and TWA also adopted the Weems System in the late 1930s as they began considering transatlantic routes. About the only entity not heavily influenced by Weems was his own branch of the service, the Navy. Focused on carrier-based aviation, in which celestial navigation was of little value, the service largely ignored the needs of its long-range patrol squadrons until the late 1930s, when it had to race to catch up.
For many decades, the Weems System was the principal means of fixing position in over-water navigation for the U.S. military and airlines, along with many of the famed record setters and endurance fliers. In 1937, the astounding transpolar flights that the Soviet Union achieved in Tupolev ANT-25s were made by aviators who were using the Weems System; U.S. observers noted that the Soviet aircraft had a hand-copied version of Weems’ Star Altitude Curves on board.
Lindbergh’s training was also the model for a great number of aeronautical celebrities who sought out Weems for personal instruction and guidance, including Richard Byrd, Howard Hughes, and Amy Johnson, Britain’s pioneering female aviator of the time. Weems tried to entice Amelia Earhart into training several months before departure on her ill-fated around-the-world flight with Fred Noonan, who, as Pan Am’s master navigator, had been an early student. Earhart’s husband, G.P. Putnam, declined, stating she was too busy.
Weems continued to be fascinated by navigational problems throughout his life. He collaborated with Ed Link to develop the Celestial Navigation Trainer, part flight simulator and part planetarium, which trained many World War II navigators. Awed, like the rest of the world, by Sputnik and the dawn of the Space Age, he began to adapt his aerial navigation techniques for the unique challenges of orbital mechanics; the adaptations were put to use in the Apollo program. Weems also founded the Institute of Navigation, which is still the leading professional society devoted to the advancement of navigation.
The mariner whose navigation pursuits started out as an annoyance to his superiors spent the rest of his career changing the way pilots fly around the world and in space. Weems created a community of aerial navigation experts and practitioners where none had existed. And if Lindbergh hadn’t been a good enough pupil to absorb Weems’ new techniques and a humble enough man to let his experience serve as an example to other aviators, professional standards of aerial navigation would have taken longer to develop, with a cost in lives lost and flights unmade.
Roger Connor is co-curating the National Air and Space Museum’s Time and Navigation exhibit.