Sunday, October 21, 2012

Falling to Earth


I watched a man fall to earth last week...on purpose.

You  may have watched it as well. The man's name was Felix Baumgartner. I watched as he was carried aloft in a capsule hanging from a helium balloon to the very edge of space where he and I (thanks to technology) could actually see the curve of the earth and the edge of space. The only things he had to protect him were his space suit, a helmet and a parachute.

When Baumgartner reached the right height and after going through an exhaustive check-list he opened the hatch, stood on the platform and stepped off free falling for several thousand feet.

Baumgartner wanted to be the first person to break the sound barrier without the protection of a vehicle...and he did it! News sources report that at one point Baumgartner hit Mach 1.24, and tumbled at times to earth from a height of 128,00 feet or over 24 miles. In case you are wondering Mach 1.24 is somewhere around 833 miles per hour.

It took him two hours to get to the appropriate height, and it only took him four minutes and twenty seconds to complete the fall.  Most of that time I was holding my breath and more than likely so was the other 8 million or so others watching on television, YouTube and other sources around the world.

Baumgartner broke two other records, including the highest exit from a platform at 128,000 feet and the highest free-fall without a drogue parachute. One record Baumgartner did not break was the longest elapsed free-fall record. Joe Kittinger, Baumgartner's mentor and voice in his ear as he fell to earth, still holds the record he set in 1960. 

So...the whole event gave me pause to think about how far we've come since 1960 with technology and how the data gathered during Baumgartner's fall will be used to advance flight technology even further.

Then my mind settled on a post I wrote several months ago regarding Hugh Watson, an aviator from Douglasville. You can see that article at Douglasville Patch here.

Recently I found a couple of Atlanta Constitution articles involving Mr. Watson from his younger days when he first started flying. I've printed the newspaper articles in italics and my comments in regular type.

The first article dated December 8, 1918 and carried the headline...."100 Miles an Hour Made by Aviators".

The article reads:

At the average rate of 100 mph three aviators - Lieutenants Wilson, Weaver, and Moncrief - yesterday came from Taylor Field at Montgomery to Atlanta where they landed on the speedway at Hapeville. They only stop made en route was at Columbus.

All three aviators are stopping at the Ansley.  On Sunday afternoon Lieutenant Watson will fly to his home in Douglasville for a visit.

The Ansley refers to the Ansley Hotel built in 1913 by Edwin P. Ansley who is best known for developing the neighborhood still known as Ansley Park which is just east of Midtown and west of Piedmont Park. The Ansley Hotel was located on the 100 block of Forsyth Street. Later it was known as the Dinkler Plaza Hotel before being demolished in 1973.


Just a couple of days later another article appeared on December 10, 1919 with the following headline...."Aviators Crash to Earth Monday at the Speedway".

The article states:

Lieutenants Hugh Watson, of Douglasville, Georgia and Lincoln Weaver of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, both fliers from Taylor Field, Montgomery, Alabama are in the base hospital at Fort McPherson in a serious condition as a result of an attempted tailspin executed yesterday morning at 11 o'clock while the plane in which they were flying was at a height of about 300 to 350 feet and moving at a rate of speed too low to maintain its balance during the movement.

It would appear that Watson was making several cross-country trips at this point.

Douglas County historian, Fannie Mae Davis mentions the fact that Watson was a  flight instructor in Alabama.

Taylor Field was Montgomery's first military flying installation established November, 1917.  Approximately 139 pilots completed eight weeks of training there.

As a result of the attempted difficult air "stunt", instead of righting the plane after it had plunged downward for some distance, the two airmen lost control of the machine and it crashed to earth on the old Atlanta automobile race track about 3 1/2 miles beyond Fort McPherson.

The track the article refers to is Atlanta Speedway or Atlanta Motordome built by Asa Candler in 1909.   He wanted to build a racetrack that would rival the newly built track in Indianapolis, so he bought 287 acres bordering Virginia Avenue south of the city and got busy. The track was only open for two seasons, and if you haven't already guessed the property today is part of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Watson had the right idea at the time when he attempted to land there and/or crash landed at the speedway....it would later be the "right" spot.


Atlantans in an automobile happened to witness the accident and rushed to the badly damaged plane and pulled the lieutenants from underneath the wreckage.

They immediately rushed the injured airmen to the base hospital at Fort McPherson where they were given medical attention. 

Officials of the medical department at Fort McPherson last night stated that Lieutenant Watson suffered innumerable cuts, bruises and sprains, and although in a critical condition physicians at the fort believe that they can save his life.

My earlier article at Patch referred to this accident, but at the time I didn't have all of the details. It took Watson over a year to recover from his injuries and my research indicates the officer in charge at Taylor Field put the word out he didn't want any more "stunts" taking place with his planes.

...The accident occurred as the two lieutenants were flying to Atlanta Monday morning on a cross-country practice trip from Taylor Field. Experiencing some trouble en route, they made a successful landing on the old Atlanta Automobile Speedway and worked on the engines. After this was done they made ascension and after rising some 300 to 350 feet into the air fell into a tailspin that caused the accident. Lieutenant Watson is reported to have told medical officers at Fort McPherson Monday night that he could have righted the plane from the spin, but he misjudged the height at which they were flying and was too near the ground.

Information that the steel helmets worn by the lieutenants probably saved their lives was also supplied by officials at Fort McPherson who were told by those who pulled the two unconscious men from under the plane that heavy parts of the machine were resting on their heads when they were removed from the wreckage and that the steel helmets probably kept their  skulls from being crushed in.

Lieutenant Watson, who was formerly an automobile racing driver for the Sunbeam Company, is the son of M.B. Watson, prominent citizen of Douglasville.....

The fact that Hugh Watson drove race cars is a brand new fact for me. You can find out more about the Sunbeam Motor Car Company here.

The accident Monday was the second Lieutenant Watson has had in Atlanta while in a cross-country run from Taylor Field to his home in Douglasville to spend the day with his parents there, his machine crashed into a rough piece of ground just outside the city limits of Atlanta on Sunday, December 1st.  Lieutenant Watson escaped from the accident with a few slight bruises and small damage to his plane.

It's interesting to note that both crashes were within days of each other.

Accompanying him on this trip was Lieutenant E.T. Dennis, also of Taylor Field, who Lieutenant Watson had invited to visit his home with him for the day. He also had to make a forced landing in his plane due to gasoline trouble, but he was able to pick out a smooth piece of ground in east Atlanta and escaped practically uninjured.  

They resumed their trip the next morning and spent the day in Douglasville after which they returned to their planes at Taylor Field.

Crash after crash...yet early aviators kept getting back in the air. They kept flying. They kept forging ahead making new advances and laying the ground for the men in the 1960s like Kittinger, and then later in the 21st century astounding feats like Baumgartner's plummet to the earth could become a reality.

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