Perfect Couple Aviation and Meteorology

Hot-air balloons, airships ("blimps"), and fixed-wing aircraft all operate in the atmosphere. From the time these first flying machines lifted off, the futures of aeronautics and meteorology became inextricably entwined. Observers in 19th-century hot-air balloons collected atmospheric data, but these were not systematic efforts. Once pilots determined that sharing atmospheric data with meteorologists directly enhanced flight safety, a symbiotic relationship developed between aviators and meteorologists.

On the morning of December 17, 1903, Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright took their wood and canvas biplane to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for a test flight. Kitty Hawk had not become the launch site by chance. The Wrights had gathered clima-tological information about a number of potential takeoff sites before deciding that Kitty Hawk would provide the best conditions. With high pressure just to the east, the fragile little plane with Orville at the controls faced nose-first into a 20-mile- (32-km)-per-hour wind—providing just enough lift to get the Wright Flyer off the ground for 12 seconds of controlled, manned flight. By the fourth flight of the day, Orville was able to keep the plane airborne for 59 seconds and cover a total distance of 852 feet (260 m). The winds that enabled the Wrights to become airborne became gusty later in the day, flipped the plane over, and ended flights for the day. The connection between weather conditions and successful flight had been made.

The first Wright Flyer did not have a practical future. The Wrights continued to perfect their airplane and within three years were marketing a biplane. The U.S. Army purchased its first Wright airplane in 1909 for $25,000—the advent of military aeronautics. By the time World War I ended, the United States military had 14,000 airplanes. Most had been flown to France—a long, dangerous flight across the Atlantic with little weather information—for use by the American Expeditionary Force. The thousands of daredevil pilots released from active duty at war's end provided the manpower to get commercial avia-


Motorized flyer

Motorized flyer

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Aviation advances, including the launch of the Wright Flyer in 1903, required additional scientific studies of the upper atmosphere.

tion off the ground at the end of the century's second decade. The few remaining on active duty flew Army Signal Corps aircraft delivering U.S. mail between major cities.

Planes and pilots were in the air, but they received little viable weather support. Pilot balloon observations were becoming routine, but not every landing strip had an upper-air station. Some pilots contacted U.S. Weather Bureau city offices for takeoff and landing conditions. Others developed their own network of communications, with arriving pilots advising departing pilots about recently encountered flying conditions.

Commercial aviation started in Europe in February 1919, just three months after the signing of the armistice. Germany inaugurated commercial airplane service that linked Berlin, Leipzig, and Weimar. By the end of the summer, the rigid airships of the German Zeppelin firm DELAG resumed carrying passengers between Berlin and Friedrichshafen. Two British firms began flying between London and Paris, and French airlines started carrying passengers between Paris and Brussels. Aviation companies anticipated that aircraft would become the mode of transportation and cargo delivery in the future, and they were eager to be a part of it.

Flight forecasting did not immediately connect with airlines. Pilots were not always sure what weather information they wanted or needed. Some pilots knew exactly what they wanted: detailed, accurate forecasts for the entire continent days in advance—a completely impossible goal. Other pilots, still in the military daredevil mode, did not think they needed weather services. They were absolutely sure their planes could withstand any weather event, including thunderstorms, severe hail, icing, and high winds. Aircraft owners were eager for good meteorological support. If their planes crashed in bad weather, it would be difficult to attract paying passengers or contracts to carry the U.S. mail.

For their part, meteorologists needed the opportunities to explore the atmosphere that aviation could provide. Aircraft could carry meteorological instruments and take back data to weather stations. If the new airline transportation companies wanted better forecasts, they needed to provide funds for additional research and thus help to advance meteorological theory.

Some countries, including Great Britain and France, placed their weather services under the control of military authorities. In France, even academic meteorology posts were "militarized," much to the disappointment of meteorologists, who saw the discipline as being international and therefore not tied to the armed forces.

Aviation also changed international agreements on just what constituted a weather observation and how it would be transmitted via telegram. The same code number could indicate drizzle or a heavy downpour. Clouds were reported by the percentage of cloud cover— not by the kinds of clouds that were in the area. It made a tremendous difference to pilots whether there was a low, thin stratus layer that they could fly through to clear skies or numerous cumulonimbus clouds ("thunderclouds"), whose violent internal winds could knock their planes right out of the sky. Pilots also needed to know the expected visibility at the landing site. If fog was dense and horizontal visibility extremely limited, they would be forced to find another landing strip. Pilots had few options if they did not have enough fuel to reach the closest landing strip.

Taking observations once or twice a day had never been sufficient for analyzing atmospheric conditions, but until aviation requirements became clear, meteorologists could not argue for additional money to pay for those observations. Flight meteorologists needed many more observations per day to ensure safe takeoff and landing conditions. They needed to make forecasts for the next few hours, not for the next day. Aircraft could not fly across the United States or Europe on one tank of gas. They needed to land, refuel, and take off again. Pilots would get a weather prediction for the next stop, several hours away, and then take off. Meteorologists provided information on cloud cover, precipitation, surface winds, and visibility at the station, as well as information on winds aloft at flight levels between 3,000 and 6,000 feet (914 and 1,829 m).

As the decade closed, meteorologists all agreed that aviation support meant changes in observational techniques, reporting, and transmission. They did not agree on how to make the forecasts. Would they rely on their feel for the atmosphere—or would they move toward scientific techniques that offered the promise of calculating the weather?

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