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The Relationship Between Flight and Time

Aviation commentator Dan Patterson has a different kind of story this week, not about a famous date in history - but instead about the connection between flight and time. You can always spot a pilot, he says,  by his or her outsized wristwatch. It's a relationship that goes back to the earliest flights.

The Wright Brother's 1903 airplane had three instruments which were attached to the strut, the world's first instrument panel.  They had a wind speed indicator, they could record the propeller revolutions, and they had a stopwatch that turned off automatically when the engine was shut off, providing a time record. Along with the propeller revolutions, they could add up the data and compute their distance flown.  The first ever flight at Kitty Hawk was 120 feet; the fourth and last flight that day was timed at 59 seconds and went over 800 feet. If they had not had that stopwatch, we wouldn't know how far they flew that day. 

Two years, in 1905, at Huffman Prairie near Dayton where the Wrights were flying, they had solved the issue of reliable flight.  Once again using stopwatch, they were flying over and over again for nearly an hour.  In 1905 that was unheard of anywhere on earth.

Credit Dan Patterson
The cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis, the clock center/right. The handwriting detail can be seen at the top of the panel.

Twenty-two years later, Charles Lindbergh was planning to cross the Atlantic solo.  The Lone Eagle studied the problems of navigation over the ocean and made his flight plans based on the time since take off and compass corrections made each hour in time aloft.  His great book, The Spirit of St. Louis, recounts his flight and his thoughts by noting at the top of each chapter the time since takeoff.  He wrote, "The nineteenth hour and the time 1:52 a.m." and reminded himself that he must change course each hour; the twenty-eight hour when he seized the Irish coast.  The thirty-third hour found him over Paris to be met by thousands of French who had followed every minute of his progress since being spotted crossing the Irish coast.  The news flashed ahead of him by radio and telegraph.  Without keeping careful time, Lindbergh would have never made it.

Every aviation record requires a time piece. Aviation speed records made headlines. We take for granted supersonic flight.

Every aviation record requires a time piece.  Aviation speed records made headlines.  We take for granted supersonic flight.  In the 1920s and 30s, reaching 300 miles per hour was big news. The great names of early aviation were all about being the fastest.  Jimmy Doolittle crossed the USA faster than anyone had before.  Howard Hughes went around the world faster than thought possible at that time. 

In his iconic book about aviators and astronauts, The Right Stuff, author Tom Wolfe describes the pilot's large wright-watch as having dials for recording everything short of the sound of enemy guns.  In 1959, the astronaut selection process was top secret.  The candidates were ordered to report to the Pentagon disguised as civilians, but this proved impossible, Wolfe writes.  Aside from undisguisable physical characteristics such as crew cuts, suntans and the unmistakable rolling gait of fighter jocks, the pilots were wearing the same clothes, cheap suits that cost about a quarter as much as their wrist-watches. 

Today, pilots' watches are being replaced by smart phones and iPads.  So if you know a retired pilot, or have an uncle or grandpa who flew, and they decide to leave their big watch to you, now you may understand what that big watch means to them.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Support for aviation programming on WYSO comes from The National Aviation Heritage Alliance.