Even Lindbergh Got Lost

In the 1920s, only one man held the key to aerial navigation.

In May 1928, Navy Lieutenant Commander Philip V.H. Weems took Charles Lindbergh on a series of flights to teach him a new way to navigate. Clockwise from left: Lindbergh’s sun lines of position, plotted from Washington, D.C., to New York to Michigan; Weems’ personal log; the bubble sextant used in Lindbergh’s training; an article in Popular Science that documented the lessons; and Weems’ book on line of position. (Photo by Hugh Talman, Smithsonian National Museum of American History)
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Weems and Lindbergh took a series of flights together in May 1928 in a Ryan Brougham given to the pilot by Benjamin Franklin Mahoney, owner of Ryan Airlines (the San Diego company that built the Spirit). The first flight was from Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., to Long Island’s Curtiss Field. Even with Weems’ innovations, celestially navigating while flying was a two-person job. Weems did the calculations, though he noted, “Lindbergh flew his ship with one hand and took a sextant altitude of the sun with the other! I am confident that this was the first time in history such a thing had ever been done.” But Weems’ system was still a work in progress: He noted that Lindbergh’s accuracy in this walking-and-chewing-gum mode could be off by as much as 15 or 20 miles. Shooting the sun next to the pilot, however, Weems was eventually able to fix position to an accuracy of three miles—a margin of error unacceptable today, but the position was certainly good enough to put a pilot within sight of an island.

After stopping in New York, the pair headed to Detroit to meet Henry Ford. Although Lindbergh never made the around-the-world flight, his lessons were not in vain. He helped establish cross-country air routes for Trans­continen­tal Air Transport (known as the “Lindbergh Line” and later as TWA), and was also courted by Juan Trippe of Pan American Airways to establish transatlantic air routes. Because the continental United States was covered by a network of radio beacons, celestial navigation had little application there, but the method became essential for the overseas routes that Trippe was eyeing.

Lindbergh was a remarkably good sport about the publicity over his shortfall in navigational knowledge, and was willing to have Weems draw attention to it—even allowing his Paris navigation to be described as “little more than the automobile tourist” following street signs. The press coverage of Lindbergh’s lessons, along with his ringing endorsement, allowed Weems to launch an aerial navigation consulting business while he was still serving at sea aboard a Navy oiler. The two men kept up a close exchange on navigational questions over the next decade, including collaborating on a variant of the Second-Setting watch, which converted time to arc, the 360 units in which the globe is marked. The improved Lindbergh Hour Angle watch, as it was marketed, helped speed up one of the many calculations with which a navigator was tasked.

With Lindbergh as its first disciple, the Weems System of Navigation quickly attracted a broad range of aviators who were eager to learn the latest techniques. Armed with a set of tools, including the bubble sextant, the Second-Setting watch, and celestial plotting forms for making calculations from the Star Altitude Curves and Line of Position books (and by the mid-1930s, an Air Almanac, Lunar Ephemeris for Aviators, and a Mark II plotter—which every student pilot still receives today), Weems’ pupils now had everything they needed to find their position while in flight. One of the first clients was Australian navigator Harold Gatty, whom Weems quickly hired as chief instructor at his new school in San Diego, California, the first dedicated to air navigation. The two collaborated on numerous advances in navigation, including the Gatty Drift Meter, used to measure an aircraft’s drift from a track. Gatty taught Anne Morrow Lindbergh the Weems system. When Charles Lindbergh took Trippe up on his offer and began planning overseas survey flights for Pan American in a Lockheed Sirius, he realized that his wife Anne would have to assist with navigation. Gatty proved to be an excellent instructor. Lindbergh wrote to Weems that “we used one of your sextants and a great deal from your System of Navigation on our last transcontinental trip [April 1930]. Mrs. Lindbergh took all of the sextant readings in addition to working them out and doing most of the navigation.”

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.

About Roger Connor

Roger Connor is a curator in the Aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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