Just in time for Halloween, a collection of aviation mysteries.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- Air & Space magazine, October 2012
Louise Bourgeouis sculpture outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Photograph courtesy Brian Colson
Have a spooky aviation story of your own? Leave us a comment, below.
Spiders at 30,000 Feet
On February 27, 1920, test pilot Rudolph W. “Shorty” Schroeder of the Army's McCook Field in Ohio set a new world altitude record, taking his LePere biplane fitted with a General Electric turbo-supercharger to 33,114 feet. He almost didn't make it back. During the flight, writes Edith Dodd Culver in Talespins: A Story of Early Aviation Days, Schroeder’s oxygen supply failed, he passed out, and his eyelids froze to his eyeballs. As his aircraft plummeted toward Earth, Schroeder regained consciousness in time to land safely. And once on the ground, he had a strange tale to tell.
“He flew through an area more than seven miles [sic] above the earth where there was a cloud bank of tiny creatures, each about the size of the point of a pencil," writes Culver. "They clung to the wings and crawled into the cockpit, and even squirmed in behind the instrument panel. These creatures, which looked like spiders, were still alive when he landed, so he sent some of them to the zoology department at Yale University. The professors there said yes, there are spiders in the sky…. Perhaps these were the same creatures described by some early aviators as cloud worms, which they sometimes found on the wings and in the cockpit as well as in their hair and ears.”
We contacted Yale University to see if arachnids actually swarm the skies. Professor Oswald Schmitz replied to us by email, “This is a case of baby spiders ballooning—basically they let out a strand of spider silk, and that catches in the wind and carries them away from their birth site. It is a common dispersal strategy. Depending on air currents and wind speeds, they can travel quite high in the atmosphere and very long distances. So it is not an incredible event at all.”
Maybe not incredible to you, Dr. Schmitz. Culver reports that Schroeder “suffered from the effects of this harrowing flight into the stratosphere for the rest of his life.”