World War II’s massive industrial innovations improved many things, but weather forecasting isn’t often counted among them. But because of pioneering work of U.S. aviation engineers, post-World War II aircraft—like the B-29—were now capable of flying further North than ever before, and in the November 1948 issue, Popular Mechanics dove deep into how that new capability was revolutionizing weather forecasting.
Shuttling between Alaska and the North Pole on a timetable schedule, Air Force B-29s are seeking an answer to that simple question so vital to picnickers, generals, and farmers—“What’s the weather next week?”
Minus fanfare and plugging along routinely over a hazardous route with monotonous safety, the Superfortress weather men are laying the foundations for long-range forecasting for North America. From total experience and over 110 missions have already flown the 3,290-nautical-mile track successfully—the Air Force hopes to uncover much of the unknown about the arctic-born blasts that sweep across Canada and the United States.
There has been practically no information available on weather north of 70 degrees latitude. Until recently, only a few widely spaced expeditions had ever reached the pole, and their findings were meager. Ground reporting stations on the arctic icecap were an impossibility. Meteorologists had early recognized the potentialities of aircraft, but the “top of the world” was beyond pre-war aircraft range.
Out of the war, where accurate weather reconnaissance was vital to victory, came the big, fast, long-range aircraft meteorologists had dreamed about as a tool to unlock the Arctic’s weather secrets. By March 1947, long months of preparation ended and the first over-the-pole airline was ready for business.
Selected to fly the Ptarmigan missions, so called after an arctic bird, was the 375th Reconnaissance Squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. Karl T. Rauk. Veterans of the Bikini tests, the squadron’s “home office” is Ladd Air Force Base at Fairbanks, Alaska. With all the surface casualness of young fellows taking a quiet ride in the country, the crews roar north from there every other day for 15 to 19 hours’ work over one of the bleakest routes in the world, two thirds of it over an ice-choked ocean.
The normal 11-man crew consists of a pilot, copilot, meteorologist, two navigators, two radar officers, flight engineer, crew chief and two radiomen. Three other personnel who are in training for crew positions or other qualified observers may also participate.
On the day before they fly, the entire crew is thoroughly briefed. Full flight information from the previous day’s mission is reviewed and the up-to-the-minute weather probabilities are described. On the basis of those factors, the first navigator charts his intended course for the next day, subject to change if the weather picture alters radically.
The pilot winds up the meeting with instructions on the clothing to be worn, the personal equipment to be carried along and assigns specific plane positions to each crew member for use during take-off and in case of an emergency ditching. He orders a parachute for each crew member and an extra one for each compartment in case of emergency. A final announcement sums up the rescue and survival equipment to be stowed aboard.
Unless it is known that the aircraft will explode and a fast dive won’t put out the fire, crews rarely bail out in the Arctic. They have learned from experience that their chances for survival are much greater if they ride the crippled plane down and rely on its size and shape to attract air-rescue parties. Meanwhile, the craft offers protection from the weather.
During the extreme cold, when the temperature drops below zero inside the plane, the men wear as much as three pairs of gloves (nylon, wool and leather), heavy wool underwear, shirt, pants, sweater and a muffler, covered by a wool flying suit with fleece-lined pants and a parka. On their feet are several pairs of socks, felt inner liners, inner soles and a pair of mukluks.
At 4:35 one late summer morning, our typical mission, piloted by Lt. David Laughman of Hanover, Pa., got off the ground. The big B-29s are gasoline-heavy, loading 8000 gallons—at about six pounds per gallon-for the trip, and they use every inch of the runway on take-off. Burning fuel at the rate of approximately 350 gallons per hour, they can expect to arrive back at Ladd with a safe margin of about 1,500 to 2,000 gallons.
The missions followed a “synoptic” or fixed track, since regular observations from the same locations and at the same altitude are of more value to forecasters than those from scattered points and at different heights. In effect, it creates a chain of fixed weather stations at places from which reports would otherwise be unobtainable.
Technical meteorological observations are taken every half hour, except when existing conditions warrant additional checks. Less than a half hour after each observation starts, the complete information has been radioed back to Ladd, checked there for transmission errors by the me teorologist from the previous mission, and sent along on a Teletype for international use. It is made available to every nation in the world. Hour by hour, the procedure is repeated during the entire flight.
Depending on the wind, the five-legged course is flown either clockwise or counterclockwise at 18,000 feet. Laughman headed counterclockwise, making his first check point Aklavik, near the northern tip of Canada, then veered up toward his second check station at Prince Patrick Island.
Upsetting a conventional notion, airmen report ice formations in the water below are generally tightest at about 80 degrees latitude, gradually loosening up as they head north.
At 12:07 Alaska time, 812 hours after take-off, Laughman’s plane turned around the North Pole and headed home. The first southbound leg, from the pole to Point Barrow, longest of the mission, required little more than six hours. Another two hours and the weary crew climbed down to familiar ground at Ladd Air Force Base, mission completed.
From countless flights like that of Laughman and his crew, the Air Force is learning about polar weather, valuable knowledge for war or peacetime purposes. Flyers discovered the weather generally looked worse than it was. The air, they found, was mostly stable, with fog, snow and ice haze the main hindrances.
Contrary to previous conceptions, it was found that both lows and highs are constantly moving across the region. The lows were found to be more intense than those to the south, but the resulting weather was not as severe. Experience soon established the prevalence of propeller-icing hazards and the extraordinary tenacity of rime-ice formations.
The missions recognize no “no flying” time, though the twilight transition periods early in the spring and fall present the greatest difficulty. Then the navigators plan flights to concur with phases and positions of the moon or the brighter planets, Venus, Jupiter or Saturn. During this time, there is a 40-minute leeway each way, during which the flights have to go or be canceled.
Use of the astro-compass in conjunction with a recently devised new form of navigation, called grid navigation, instead of the magnetic compass, eliminates the shifting North Magnetic Pole as a navigational problem. When possible, navigators prefer to work with the sun because it requires fewer corrections.
During the beginning of the twilight transition periods, when the sun is just a glow on the horizon to the south, missions fly out with the sun. They move through about two hours of twilight as they near the pole, depending on the automatic pilot and the directional gyros to hold a correct heading. Then they fly back through the darkness on the other side of the twilight band after the turn at the pole.
On March 16 this year, just prior to the vernal equinox, one crew had the odd experience of seeing two sunrises and two sunsets during a normal length flight. The sun didn’t appear until they were on their way, set when they were almost at the pole, reappeared as they headed south and had set again by the time they landed at Fairbanks.
The science of weather is still relatively unexplored. As knowledge of the upper atmosphere increases, the forecasters’ requirements change. More study is constantly being directed toward factors such as atmospheric electricity, radiation and ozone measurements, water-drop size and pollen count.
Some of these factors may hold the key to virtually exact weather forecasting, or even to the control of weather, as some confidently believe. But the first big step has been taken now and the USAF’s “commuter runs” over the pole are taking the mystery out of arctic weather.
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