Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wings Over Antarctica, Part Deux

Yesterday I wrote about the history of the Miskatonic University Antarctic expedition logo. Today I want to discuss why the second version of that design used the Dornier Do-J "Wal" as the expedition aircraft, and what ultimately made me change my mind about that identification. If you're not into historical research, or are easily bored, I'd suggest skipping to the end.

The text of Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" provides few hard details about what model of aircraft was flown by Dyer's party. That's understandable given that he was more concerned with crafting a thrilling weird tale than a treatise on aviation. Complicating things is the fact that the information he does share is somewhat confusing. Again, that's not unexpected. Lovecraft was a master at incorporating historic and scientific details that would give his stories a sense of believability, but he never let the real world get in the way of the story. Surprisingly, the vague details in the story point to a single specific aircraft. Here is what he tells us:

"Four large Dornier aëroplanes, designed especially for the tremendous altitude flying necessary on the antarctic plateau and with added fuel-warming and quick-starting devices worked out by Pabodie, could transport our entire expedition from a base at the edge of the great ice barrier to various suitable inland points, and from these points a sufficient quota of dogs would serve us."

"Later, when not using all the other planes for moving apparatus, we would employ one or two in a shuttle transportation service between this cache and another permanent base on the great plateau from 600 to 700 miles southward, beyond Beardmore Glacier."

"Danforth and I, studying the notes made by Pabodie in his afternoon flight and checking up with a sextant, had calculated that the lowest available pass in the range lay somewhat to the right of us, within sight of camp, and about 23,000 or 24,000 feet above sea-level."

"We were now, after a slow ascent, at a height of 23,570 feet according to the aneroid; and had left the region of clinging snow definitely below us."

"It did not seem necessary to protect the plane with a snow banking for so brief a time and in so comfortable an absence of high winds at this level; hence we merely saw that the landing skis were safely lodged, and that the vital parts of the mechanism were guarded against the cold."

"At a very high level there must have been great disturbance, since the ice-dust clouds of the zenith were doing all sorts of fantastic things; but at 24,000 feet, the height we needed for the pass, we found navigation quite practicable."

Put that all together and you have the Dyer expedition's airplane - a Dornier model available in late 1929 to early 1930 with a flight range of at least 800 miles and a maximum flight ceiling at or above 24,000 feet. Oh, and it has to have landing skis. There's a good deal of wiggle room about the plane's flight characteristics based on the conjectural modifications carried out by Dornier and Frank Pabodie, but the presence of landing skis narrows it down to only one plane: the Dornier Do-B, most likely the "Merkur II" variant.

All of the other general aviation Dorniers at the time were flying boats that wouldn't need skis to touch down on ice and snow. In fact, the addition of skis to the aircraft, most likely attached to the wingtips, would have been downright dangerous. A block of ice or dip in the terrain could have catastrophically ripped apart the wing.

That leads to an obvious question. Why did I insist that the expedition used the Dornier Do-J "Wal" up until now, when Lovecraft's mention of landing skis conclusively identified the aircraft?

The answer is that I deferred to the expertise of some of the best Lovecraft scholars in the world. The identification of the Wal as the Dyer party's aircraft appears in S.T. Joshi's The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft and again in The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories , credited to Jason C. Eckhardt. From the former:

"More exactly, as Jason C. Eckhardt ("Behind the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraft and the Antarctic in 1930," Lovecraft Studies No. 14 [Spring 1987]:31-38) points out, Dornier Do-J "Wal" airplanes, a twin-engine, single-wing flying boat used primarily for passenger service."

"The Dornier-Wal planes were capable of carrying 7000 pounds of cargo. Eckhardt, basing his calculations on those supplied by Byrd, has conjectured that the total cargo of the Miskatonic Expedition may have come to about 21,000 pounds (12 men = 2400 lbs.; 36 dogs [80 lbs each] = 2880 lbs.; human food = 2160 lbs.; dog food = 3888 lbs.; gasoline = 9000 lbs.; miscellaneous cargo = 1300 lbs.), well within the capacity of the four planes."

That's the citation I relied on. Eckhardt's scholarship makes perfect sense, and is an example of the kind of historical research I delight in, but it ignores the presence of landing skis on the aircraft. I want to make clear that I'm not pointing a finger of blame at either Eckhardt or Joshi, who I have an immense amount of respect for. I just think the seemingly trivial issue of the skis has more importance than they do.

What complicates matters even further is that I think Lovecraft intended the planes to be Wals. We know that Roald Amundsen's expeditions to both the North and South polar areas were among his inspirations for "At the Mountains of Madness". The Wal seems perfect for polar exploration, as Amundsen demonstrated during his historic attempt at reaching the North Pole in 1925. The tough aluminum hull was ideal for operations on ice or water, the dual engines provided a comforting measure of redundancy in case of trouble, and the sheer carrying capacity of the plane allowed for extended operations.

More intriguingly, the Wal's long distance flying characteristics were front page news in the months leading up to Lovecraft writing ATMOM. He penned the tale in February and March of 1931. On August 26th, 1930 Wolfgang von Gronau and his crew completed an epic flight across the Atlantic and landed in the Hudson at New York City. His plane was one of the pair used by Amundsen on his expedition, refurbished and repaired since it's previous adventure. For the rest of the year von Gonau made regular appearances in the news as he and his crew were feted at events across the United States and Europe.

Given all that I don't think it's too much of a stretch that the gleaming silver hull of the Wal was what Lovecraft pictured in his mind as the story of the Dyer expedition flowed out of his pen. It's a distinctive, beautiful plane with a sterling record of exploration and long distance flight that's perfect for the needs of the story.

Then Lovecraft adds landing skis and...poof...reality replaces the Wal with the Merkur II.

Later this week I'll go over a few of the modifications the stock Merkur II would need to bring it in line with Lovecraft's story. Ironically, most of them are the same ones our old friend Herr von Gronau was secretly carrying out on a brand new version of the Wal at the same time ATMOM was being written. Following that I'll have the new logo for the Miskatonic Antarctic expedition featuring the Merkur II.


Charles, Belfast. said...

I cannot find the reference at the moment but I read that Amundsen re-inforced the hull of the Wal with longitudinal, wooden, skids. However these were not separate skis as such. This makes sense to me but also ties in with Lovecraft's description.

CoastConFan said...

Nice scholarship. Lovecraft was not always the most precise in real-world or archeological detail. For him, it was about a bolster for the story which needed large doses of reality to support a truly wild creation. I take my hat off to you Propnomicon for your good detective work and careful research.

Interestingly enough, I have been putting together some information on period flying boats for game play and a post.

Don Simpson said...

Some skis (or "skids") added at the ends of those lower sideways projections that the wing spars go down to would make landings on many surfaces (ice, thin snow) much more stable; you don't want the plane supported only on the keel, which would tip it sideways, making takeoffs a problem. And the Wal is such a nice looking plane....

Charles, Belfast said...

Hi, regarding which Dornier, I attach the following link to a photo of the front of the Amundsen Wal which shows reinforcing skids or 'skis' on the hull (other photos also show them on the sponsons).
I would argue that, with its association to the Amundsen expedition and its track record that this is the aircraft Lovecraft had in mind in the story. The German 1938 expedition used an evolution of the Wal, the Do 18.
Many thanks for this great blog.