DON’T TRUST AN ARMY MAN!

Archibald Black was a budding entrepreneur who found his niche as an airport engineering expert in the early 1920s. Bom in Scotland in 1888, Black emigrated to the United States in 1906 and became a citizen in 1913. His education was something of a hodge-podge, including three years at New York City’s Cooper Institute, plus courses at the Cass Technical Institute in Detroit and Columbia University’s extension school. Black became an electrical engineer and worked on a variety of electrical and construction jobs until discovering aviation in 1910. In 1915 he began working for Curtiss Aeroplane Company in 1915, transforming a hobby into a full-time vocation. Within a year, he had become an airplane designer for Curtiss. In 1917, he took a new job as chief engineer for L. W.F. Engineering Company where he designed the first airplane to incorporate the famous Liberty engine. A wartime stint in the Navy brought him to Washington where he was put in charge of preparing all of the Navy’s aeronautical specifications.5

After the war, he began a long and productive career as a consulting engineer. Over the decade he would emerge as the most influential figure in the design of

American airports. But it was with much bravado that the 33-year old would assert in a letter to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover that: “in addition to being the most experienced consulting engineer in this field in the country, the recent dissolution of a competing firm now makes ours the oldest also.”6 It was a bold claim that said more about the newness of aviation than it did about Black’s engineering expertise.

Still, within a year, Black had managed to gain quite a bit of attention for himself. His article, “How to Lay Out and Build an Airplane Landing Field,” appearing in Engineering News-Record, was selected for reprinting by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in its Technical Memorandum Series. Aerial Age said the paper was “probably the first really constructive discussion of the subject published.”7 Black, who had spent much energy beating the drums in a generic pitch for the contributions engineers could make to aviation, suddenly found a rhythm which resonated. While he never lost his broad interests in advancing commercial air transport, Black became a champion for “scientifically arranged landing fields in America.”8

In 1922, landing fields (the word airport was not in common usage until the late 1920s) for airplanes did not seem like much. In comparison with the stupendously complex civil engineering design projects for bridges, tunnels, canals, railroads, and hydroelectric dams, the small square (usually) sod fields with a wooden hanger, a gas tank, and a wind cone hardly seemed to demand the services of an expert, let alone a specially-trained engineer. Appearances were deceiving according to Black. Even in his earliest articles, he argues for careful planning based on significant technical knowledge of civil and mechanical engineering, meteorology, and construction technology. The term “scientifically arranged” referred only to the design of a facility which enabled aircraft to get in and out of the air.

Thus, Black’s early articles emphasize that the shape and size of the plot required the detailed scrutiny of meteorological data. The sky was not benign and aircraft were fragile. Soil samples were required to design the surfaces for take-off and landings. Regular use required a prepared surface able to bear the loads exerted by an airplane. There were formulas for calculating the impact of obstacles such as trees or tall buildings, landing gear stresses, and how much grass seed should be sown. The type and arrangement of buildings needed to be optimized for safety and functionality. And finally, it was necessary to develop various communications systems that enabled ground personnel to relay vital information to airborne pilots.9

Black was not the first to suggest these things, however. Desperately casting about for a postwar mission, aviation officers in the Army embraced the idea of sharing with the public the knowledge gained during the war. Right after the war the Army had decided to plan its own national airway system and had begun to survey potential sites for airports. That work was endorsed by President Harding who stated during a special message to Congress in April 1921 that the Army Air Service should take the lead and aid the “establishment of national transcontinental airways, and, in co-operation with the states, in the establishment of local airdromes and landing fields.”10

Harding’s pronouncement led to the establishment of the Airways Section within the Training and War Plans Division of the Air Service the following December and the creation of a “Model Airways” program in June 1922. Fulfilling its obligation for the “promulgation of information pertaining to airdromes and airways,” the Air Service issued “Airways and Landing Fields,” a new Information Circular in March 1923.11

Like its earlier “Specifications for Municipal Airports,”12 this Army circular includes details about what constituted an ideal landing field. The Army “ideal” was developed in the context of an expanded model airway that served, first and foremost, military objectives which were to provide for the aerial defense of the nation. The Army had included in the specifications for its very first airplane (ordered from the Wrights in 1908) that the airplane be easily disassembled and, preferably, easily shipped in a standard Army wagon crate 13 After the war, however, the Army expected to be able to fly from base to base. The typical range of aircraft in the early twenties required frequent stops (indeed, the working assumption of the time was that safety required an airfield every 10-25 miles). Lieutenant F. O. Carroll, a Landing Field Officer for the Army Air Service, wrote that the Army would follow along the same routes of the Conestoga pioneers and continental railroads. His challenge was to “arouse the interest and secure the co-operation of the cities in this important national enterprise, and make them see that their future and the future of the country depends on the establishment of landing fields.”14

What the Army wanted most of all was air fields that conformed to a set of standards. Recognizing that all communities could not afford to build the same sort of facility, the specifications proposed four classes of landing fields. A fourth class field was for emergency use only; its landing surface might be just a narrow strip of land about 600 feet in length. The very best, the first class field, would be a square field at least 2,700 feet in any direction. The surface for landing and taking-off would be improved – level, smooth, sodded and well-drained. All approaches to the field would be free from obstacles such as telephone poles, electrical lines, trees and tall buildings. The field would be well marked with a landing circle (a large white circle, 100 feet in diameter, set into the ground), wind direction indicators, and the name of the facility in 15 foot high letters. Finally, a well-developed field had hangars, shops, gasoline, oil, telephones and transportation to the nearest town. Second and third class fields had slightly smaller dimensions and fewer amenities although standards for marking the field remained the same. There was little change in the basic requirements for air fields between 1920 and 1922, although the “square” field design was no longer the only preferred landing field shape – An “L” shaped field was considered almost as good as the square-shaped field.15

There were some who felt the Army’s vision for airways and airports left something to be desired. It was not the generic vision of a well-functioning system of airports and airways that was problematic to these individuals. Rather it was the belief that the Army’s own airfields had little to commend about them and that most Army officers were unable to render good advice on how to design and build an airport. The leading critic was the engineer, Archibald Black. Black’s main purpose in making his complaint was to lend support to his conviction that the best possible training for a would-be airport designer was engineering. Pilots, of course, had a great interest in airports, but Black believed that merely possessing the skill to pilot an airplane was not adequate qualification to design an airfield.16

Black actually had three related concerns. His first concern related to the quality of existing Army air fields. The tremendous urgency to build military air fields during the war had meant relying on firms which had neither experience in designing and building such facilities nor the time to make a thorough study of the problems that were unique to aviation. This observation was not intended to be an indictment of either the Army or the construction companies. Rather, Black believed that given the poor result there was “no reason for ignoring past experience and common sense, and arranging fields without careful consideration of the entire subject beforehand.”17

Black’s second concern about relying on the Army example was that subsequent to the war, some of the fields the Army had completed were of very high standard – too high to be meaningful for the average municipality. “Army equipment,” he wrote, “is considerably more elaborate than is likely to become necessary at municipal fields for some time.”18 In one article scrutinizing various airport designs, Black was equally critical of fields that were too large or elaborate as he was of small or “carelessly” organized layouts. The former represented unforgivable profligacy with public monies; the latter were safety hazards.19

Black’s third and most doggedly asserted criticism was reserved for “the customary practice of consulting some local hero, in the person of a former Army pilot.. ..”20 The veteran pilot while worthy of veneration was unlikely to be familiar with both air field design and current commercial aircraft technology. Black repeated this assertion at every opportunity. In American City he wrote, for example, “it is more advisable either to obtain the services of a specialist or to appoint, as a substitute, a well-rounded committee to do the planning. Any other policy may prove surprisingly expensive at some later date and the cost may be counted in human lives as well as in dollars.”21

The resolution to all these concerns, according to Black was to establish airport design as an engineering function. Thus, the essence of good design was one which placed safety paramount, followed by the careful expenditure of funds.22 His fullest statement on this subject was in an article written for Landscape Architecture in 1923. The piece, “Air Terminal Engineering,” began: “The selection, arrangement and construction of aircraft landing fields and other types of air terminals represent an entirely new phase of engineering which is yet very much in the paper state.”23 The benefits to relying on an “airport engineer” were three-fold. First and foremost, while a bad design would absolutely result in crashes, a good design would prevent costly accidents. Second, good design would result in the best overall construction price. And third, Black believed an engineer was best suited to determine the airport location, as well as to plan the buildings at the facility to take advantage of existing ground transportation and power, water, and telephone utilities.24

Black had recently returned from a European study trip and his head was swimming with details related to airport construction. It was in Europe that he first formed the belief that airports ought to be engineered. He was especially enthusiastic about the developments at Croydon Airdrome in London. There were three airports in London but Croydon had become the city’s main commercial facility after the war. Black was undeniably impressed by what he saw but two things seem to have been especially influential – Croydon’s airport lighting system and its carefully designed landing area surface.25

In his influential Engineering News-Record article, it becomes especially clear why Black believed airport design should be done by engineers. In this article, Black makes a strong case for special analytical skills an engineer might bring to the problem of design. Existing grass fields were fast proving inadequate. As the number of airplanes taking off and landing at any given airport increased beyond a small handful, the sod-covered surfaces rapidly disintegrated. Airplanes of this period were all “tail-draggers” and their skids carved deep gouges into rain-softened surfaces. The Army had experimented with concrete landing and take-off crosses. Black urgently warned readers about the pitfalls of concrete as a landing surface (it was fine for taking off). In addition to the great expense, it was too smooth for an era when airplanes did not have brakes and pilots relied on a rougher surface to slow down the vehicle.26

There was a prevalent misconception that turf was “softer” than concrete and therefore safer. Black dismissed such ideas. The landing gear and tires of an airplane were designed to bear specific loads; one surface or another made little difference to the airplane (assuming the initial design was adequate). Based upon Black’s analysis of airplane tire sizes and their normal loads, he readily concluded that most landing surfaces were not adequate. He became an early advocate for “runways,” special strips 75 feet wide and 1000 feet long. Runways were part of the larger landing surface area but they would be specially designed and constructed to carry the full load of an airplane during take-off and landing. This necessitated careful preparation of the subgrade as well as some kind of special surfacing. It also required renewed attention to drainage matters. Conventional roads relied on crowning as the central element of drainage design but Black found that such curved surfaces were very hazardous.27

Black pursued his studies of runways, consulting with highway engineers as well as experts at the Bureau of Public Roads. In later articles (and books) he provided much more substantial discussion of runway surfaces as well as providing specifications and cost analysis information.28 These articles were of noticeably different character from the literature being supplied by the Army which continued in the “do-it-yourself’ manner. What Black wanted to demonstrate was that airport design would only mature when the designers were able to comprehend fully the assumptions and methods employed by aircraft engineers in the design of airplanes. Black, who had spent several years designing aircraft, believed that the symbiotic relationship between airplane and airport could be best characterized in engineering terms – in a language of speed, power, weight, size, wing loading, power loading, lift, drag, and aspect ratios. The development of airports and airplanes needed to proceed in a coordinated fashion or commercial aviation would falter. These lessons became especially ingrained during his tenure with the group of engineers writing the Aeronautic Safety Code. By 1925, it was clear that Black had made his point, although the full impact of it would not be perceived until the passage of the Air Commerce Act in May 1926.29

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