Big Guns Defend San Francisco Bay circa 1905

One does not typically affiliate Easter weekend with Big Guns, but when you keep your eyes open for World War 1 era history these things sneak up on you.

My wife and I visited our daughter who lives in San Francisco over the Easter weekend and decided to get out of town and take a short hike.  We headed over the Golden Gate Bridge through Mill Valley to Rodeo Beach.  The sky was crisp clear blue and the wind was really blowing.  After our brief hike and ruined hairdo’s we headed further up the hill to the Point Bonita Lighthouse where the wind was really howling.  My daughter pointed out the concrete ruins of Battery Mendell.  She described it as being an old war time gun post for protecting San Francisco Bay.  For me it was more interesting than a lighthouse, but being from Southern California I had crossed other World War II era gun posts in Ventura and Santa Barbara so I was not expecting much.

No question the skyline of the ruins were significant, dug in at the top of the ridge.

far view

When I got to the Battery and read the fine print on the monument next to it I was surprised to find the construction predated World War II by some 40 years.  The facility was built in 1905.


Digging into the history it became clear that the lineage of the Battery Mendell goes pretty far back. In 1885, after the conclusion of the Spanish American War, President Grover Cleveland must have heard the drums beating across the ocean and was concerned with world war coming.  He appointed a joint army, navy and civilian board known as the Board of Fortifications headed by the Secretary of War William C. Endicott to determine the military readiness of our country to defend its borders.


Harbor defense construction had not been revisited since the 1870’s and advancement in ship design and heavy artillery changed the focus of what systems were required to defend our coastline.  The findings of this board resulted in a $127 million dollar construction program for cannons, mortars, floating batteries and submarine mines.  The San Francisco Bay was considered second only to New York regarding the importance of its security.  Based on the map below, the rest of California was somewhat expendable!

1- US Map

The approach to protecting the bay continued into the 1940’s and 1950’s with a whole series of gun posts and bunkers at a number of locations.  There are a number of websites that identify maps and trails to find these old artifacts from the pre-nuclear era.

The diagram below gives a chilling impression of how serious these strategies were.

2- SF Map

But back to Battery Mendell.  Construction began in 1901, completed in 1905.  It was named after Col George H Mendell, a civil engineer who served in the Civil War and was actively involved in the construction of defenses of the United States on both the east and west coast in the 1860’s.  Eventually he became the President of the Board Public Works in the City of San Francisco where he died in 1902.


The facility itself was designed to be self contained with its own generator to operate motors to raise and lower the guns.  Guns where set down in pits to protect them from return fire.  The theory was that these guns would slow an enemy fleet and allow our navy ships to move in and drive them off.  After the Spanish-American war, planners believed future enemy fleets would have steel armored hulls requiring massive weapons to penetrate the ship’s armor.

4- plan

Here are some historical images of the guns themselves ( as well as perhaps someone else’s Easter visit to the site….).  There were two 12″ guns manufactured by the Bethlehem Steel Company and were over 400 inches long.

5- vintage pics

Here is a preserved set of smaller guns at a different location ( Northern Washington State I believe) that give a better understanding of how the guns work.  The lowering of the guns also made it easier to load the shells from the adjoining deck.

5.2 - canon

When you walk the site it becomes clear why they picked this location.  In the Google Earth images below you can see the Golden Gate Bridge at the top left corner.

5.5 - areal

The battery is pretty much stripped of any hardware, all spalling concrete, rusted doors and anchors, plenty of graffiti.


Incredible 180 degree view with blustery wind that could knock you off your feet if you are not careful. Hard to imagine what it was like up there when they actually fired those guns.

7 - pics

During World War 1 a number of these types of installations where decommissioned so the gun tubes could be reused.  A second battery is visible a little further inland that eventually replaced this installation in the 1940’s.   In some ways this installation involved engineering, politics and military planning that spanned from the Civil War to World War II.

Thankfully on a beautiful Easter weekend,  it was just an interesting walk.


Mein name ist Gerhardt Rupp und das is mein Skizzenbuch.


And so it begins….the first line in my project “Rupp’s Skizzenbuch” is the title of this post.

I have reached an important milestone for this project.  I have gotten to the stage where I am developing the storyboards for the sketchbook and creating the written part of the story.  It is a relief to get to the writing.  I have focused so much on technique that I was concerned that I would have trouble with writing the text.  Now that I have completed Rupp’s introduction of himself to the story I am feeling better about it.  The joy of this is the  research, the technique, the sketching and the writing.  In the best circumstance all four are happening at the same time.  My theory is I am not an expert in any one area, but if I can have reasonable success in all four the overall project will ring true.

The photo above shows the story board pages ( labelled by “Episode” ) and the first Journal Entry in the word document ( I left it intentionally fuzzy, not looking to give up too much ahead of the completed project).  I threw in one of the quick sketches of Bruno Stachel ( who was nicknamed “The Cobra”) and the Skizzenbuch itself.

The whole project is going to take time, my best estimate is about two years, but I am in no hurry ( I do have a day job and a life after all!).  That puts me into 2017 for a document ready for publication.  My intent is to create a separate “Rupp’s Skizzenbuch” website and publish the journal entries one “episode” at a time after the whole project is complete.   Jack Hunter’s original novel “The Blue Max” started in February 1918 and ended in August 1918.  Rupp’s Skizzenbuch will do the same.  Considering the timing I am seriously considering waiting until 2018 and publishing it in “real time” during the 100 year anniversary of “The Blue Max” storyline.

What a great way to honor the conclusion of the 100 year centennial of “The Great War”.


Story Telling with WW I Archival Film…Success & Failure

In my journal project I intend to mix sketches with WW1 archival photos to support telling a story.  With the centennial of the Great War upon us, there are many examples out there where creative people have attempted to use World War I archival footage to support their story telling.   Some succeed and some do not.

Apocalypse is one of the big players out there.  Created by Clarke Costelle & Company located in Paris, France, they have produced a number of historical programs using cinematic archives.

The first three examples come from their company or collaboration with others using their archival expertise.

Slide1These Apocalypse War Series documentaries are certainly well done.  You can find them on cable networks like the History channel.  They aggressively colorize the footage and their audio dubbing adds voices, gunshots, clinking gear to make the footage seem complete and real.  Technically it is impressive and engaging, but for me there is something both about the company name ( Apocalypse) and the technique that feels like it is “amping up”  history.   There are times when shows like these start feeling like a “True Crime” drama instead of connecting to us emotionally.


Valiant Hearts is a  wonderful video game tied to World War I history.  It tells the story of several characters in a puzzle / adventure game environment. Real historical facts are interwoven in the story.  Colorized images are used here as still photographs on fact cards that you can pull up in the game as you discover objects or reach milestones.  The objects, the images, the information all back up the story and the  animated characters that you really care about.  Even better, as you can see above with the flag hung from rifles, the archival information is reinforced in the game itself.  A very satisfying collaboration.


After experiencing Valiant Hearts, I was thrilled to see “Apocalypse 10 Lives” show up on the Ipad.  This story telling game shoots very high with the concept here and it is a wonderful premise.  Ten lives, downloadable stories of characters in World War I from all different countries.  You download the character and run thru a series of graphic novel style dramas.  The character’s overlap and little icons at the top of the page show you when a second character’s story is intersecting.  You can jump from a soldier’s story to the nurse who is caring for him.  Videos of archival footage are mixed in so when nurses on a ship are chatting on the deck, shouts ring out and archival footage pops up of a torpedo hurtling towards them.


Unfortunately the game falls short on so many fronts.  For children of the 60’s the graphic novel images will remind you of “Chuck Cargo” cartoons .  They are pretty rough and most of the animation involves panning the camera and zooming in.  This you could overcome, but the writing and the voice acting is just bad.  Like Valiant Hearts there are some nice features like objects in the story that can be opened, letter, books etc. but I found myself relieved when the video footage came up.  It definitely got me thinking about my own project. No matter how good the “concept” is, if you don’t manage to connect to the audience emotionally you will not succeed.


Finally there is “14 Diaries of the Great War”.  This is an eight episode series available on Netflix.  To me this series is successful on so many fronts.  You can read more about the production here.

The series focuses on real stories about real people and how they were impacted by the war.  The episodes focus on themes, young men and women being drawn into the war, what they experienced once in battle, the impact back at home, the impact on world culture.  All this is done with interwoven stories from Russia, England, France and Germany.  Characters speak their native language with subtitles, sometimes transitioning into English.  The stories are personal and real, even if the theme of the episode is more global.  When they introduce a theme using archival photos the graphics are inventive and rich.


Where the series shines is when they integrate archival footage in the story telling. Footage integrates directly into the story.

An actor is in a trench and his face lights up from a flare, he looks up…..and the flare is archival footage.

A nurse is working in a nursery and cares for a starving baby in Germany and when she reaches for supplies….real archival footage of nurses in a nursery.

In the images below French soldiers have a conversation and then turn their backs to the camera trudging along the trench, it immediately cuts to archival footage of French soldiers walking towards you with audio of sloshing feet in the mud.


A Russian girl who wants to be a Cossack is given a saber, while she is practicing the image switches to real footage of Russian soldiers going thru saber drills


Finally this very simple graphic shows while the narrator  describes how almost every  households was the impacted by the loss of family members.  Image after image of family portraits come up and slowly one family member fades away. So simple and so direct.


Fantastic stuff.  With the centennial here we are lucky to have so many examples to experience.

It makes clear to me that when you do it right the result can be heartfelt and impactful.

Ghost Soldiers – Finding the Past in the Present

It started with a rainy day.

The Blue Max Project involves the creation of a soldier’s journal with written thoughts, sketches and photographs.  I have been musing about how I will use photographs.  I don’t want to grab archival photos and pretend it is something that happened in the story.  I want to create photos that reinforce the story.  I had been thinking about photos that aren’t really photos.  Something I create that use historical photos as a source but allows me to compose my own image.  A mix of imagination and reality.  Since the project involves a focus on aviation I thought I would experiment taking photographs of cloudy skies and mix in airplane images to see if I could “create” a photograph.

So on a rainy Sunday morning I became a “cloud hunter”.  With my dog on leash I took a morning walk with camera in hand along a bike trail near where I live.  The trail follows along a long row of high voltage power lines over an easement of scrub grasses.  Not sure I know how to photograph clouds very well just yet, became clear that walking by power lines was not the ideal location to photograph the sky, but got a number of images including this one.

SkyAs I was walking back, figuring I had pretty much gotten what I was going to get, I started to look down instead of up.  With the help of my friends at The Great War Forum  I had spent the last few weeks researching the military service of my wife’s grandfather William Rigg.  I had spent the night before reading through the dozens of battles his regiment had participated in during his four years of service.  Names like the Somme, Bapaume, Arras, Ypres, Lys, Menin Road….. the maps, the details and casualty statistics where dizzying.  What his life was like during those four years was hard to imagine.

I started noticing the potholes filled with water in the access road under the power lines.  Was wondering if I could photograph a field and compose a crash scene from The Blue Max.  Than I came upon some rutted tire tracks going up a muddy road.  It immediately made me think of the foot soldier, trodding along a road.  I took a number of photos including this one.


Back at home, I dug through Google Images, searching for views of soldiers walking along the front.  This image stood out right away.

WW1 Photo

I used photoshop to take my muddy road shot, clip out the house and sky in the background and combine it with my cloudy sky shot.  I converted everything to black and white and clipped out the soldiers from the vintage photo and duplicated them on my roadway, attempting a composition that felt right.  Some soldiers I used twice or reversed them so they looked like they naturally followed the roadway.

Test Run2This is where it got tricky.  My initial tries of drawing over the soldiers was very cartoony because of all the details on them.  I wanted something that evoked memory and perhaps emotion, not a drafting exercise.  I used my line drawings as a source and added shading to give them a three dimensional look.  I left the outline but removed the detail lines and gave them shadows to stand off the page.  Finally I applied a filter to the backround drawing to make it look a little less real.  I decided to leave them somewhat transparent and title the work “Ghost Soldiers”

Ghost Soldiers

I want to dedicate this week’s blog and the “Ghost Soldiers” image above to the men and women at The Great War Forum for the work they do helping others research their family’s history.

KevinBattle, Roughdiamond, Tom Lang and many others helped me with gathering information to better understand William Rigg and his life during his service to his country.  That journey is not over yet and eventually I will share more of what I have gathered with the help of their efforts.

“Ghost Soldiers” for me  became a reference for the journey people make researching documents and records in the present day to give flesh and spirit to the past.  The path is muddy and difficult, the image will always be a bit unclear, but the reward for your efforts is a connection between the past and the present that gives us perspective on our history, our family and our own lives.




Kilsyth’s “Thank you” to a WWI Vet…..100 years later.

When my mother passed away I was the trustee for her estate.  I dutifully sorted through her possessions to  separate out those things that were precious from those that should be distributed among family members, sold or taken to a thrift store.  It wasn’t so much about getting value for things as it was about finding homes for them, like placing orphans with good families where they will be loved.  If you have been through this yourself, occasionally you find something that was clearly saved for a long time, but you have no idea what made it special.  Maybe it meant something to your mother’s mother?   You will never know, but you can’t bring yourself to sell it or throw it away so you put it in a box and save it.  With each generation it’s value fades because its story is unknown.

My wife’s mother had two pocket watches hanging on hooks under little glass domes on her mantle.  I remember when she bought the glass domes.  Her husband had retired after working many years at Amtrak and she bought him a decorative pocket watch with a train on it. The train would go round and round on the dial with the second hand.   It was bit gaudy looking, a manufacturer’s best effort at making something from the 1990’s look like an antique. She wanted to create a set with an older pocket watch she already had and bought the domes to put them on display.  She never said a thing to us about the older pocket watch, but it was quite plain looking next to the train watch.  After she passed away we kept things that meant something to us and sold the things that we were not interested in.  The watches “made the cut”, so we packed them and the glass domes carefully and moved them with us to Northern California.  They sat on an upper shelf in our laundry room for almost fifteen years.

A few weeks ago my wife got the decorating bug  and pulled them out of storage.  She asked me to clean them up and repaint the bases.  Dusting things off,  I took a closer look at the older watch.  It was very plain, no markings on it.  I popped open the cover and saw that it was handsome with roman numerals and slender watch hands. It looked pretty old.  I gave the stem a few turns and it immediately started to tick, the second hand sweeping around the clock face.  “Wow”,  I thought, “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking!”. DSC_0123I turned the watch over and took a look at the back side.  It was also blank but I notice a slight finger edge on the side.  I have looked at old watches before and it’s not unusual for both sides to open.  Many times the back side has small mechanical controls for making fine adjustments to the watch. When I opened the back I was surprised to find it highly polished and elaborately engraved.  I started to read it and immediately got a chill.

” Presented by the People of Kilsyth and District to L-Corprl. William Rigg  A. & S. H. in recognition of having won the Military Medal 4/2/19″ DSC_0125   I have written about William Rigg in the past in this blog.  He served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders for Scotland during the war.  He is my wife’s grandfather and I consider him my one true personal connection to World War 1 history because I shook his hand when I was dating his granddaughter and he told me about his service and how awful chlorine gas was.  With my passion about World War 1 history, I had carefully preserved all the relics of his military history that I found, just a handful of things.  His medals, his picture, his badge from his uniform and some papers.  I had no idea that this “Thank you” for his service was sitting in a box in the closet.  In some ways it was so much more personal than the other items, a gold watch from his home town, celebrating his bravery in battle that earned him a Military Medal and welcoming him home after over  four years of service as a soldier in the Great War.

It made me think of the controversial treatment of veterans returning from Viet Nam or the young men and women struggling to get proper healthcare after returning from Afghanistan.  You could pretend that the 1918 was a simpler time, but regarding the wars effect on people, I don’t think so.  Thousands of men came back scarred and broken, and tried to fit back in with their families.  The medals, the discharge papers and the watch all tell a story.  Disembodied the15th of January 1919,  Payment of Soldiers Account, the 19th of January, 1919.  The watch was presented on the 4th of February, 1919.

The “Certificate of Employment During the War” is an interesting document.  It is intended as something to give a potential employer when you go back to your old job after being gone for several years, surviving the hell of trench warfare, constant artillery bombing and choking chlorine gas.  The document is signed by a Major and states;

“Has proved himself a very good efficient soldier and bears a very good character.  He has been awarded the “MM” (military medal) for brave, good conduct in the field.”

One quick sentence, they both sign the paper, a handshake and off the soldier goes back home.  How many of these did the Major sign?  He must have seen thousands of men in all conditions, some ready to go back to their family and their jobs and others that would never be the same.

In Wully’s case he was returning to his job as a coal miner. “The toughest job there is” he told me, on the same day he described his military career.   When a coal miner is transported down into the mine it is pitch black.  One wonders what thoughts and images went through his mind as descended into the dark, returning  to work for the first time.  Maybe the watch helped.  I don’t know…. but I do know that the watch will now be carefully preserved among the other artifacts I have gathered.  And I do know that grouped with the medals, portraits and papers it tells an important part of the story of a soldiers return home to friends and family.







….and one more document thanks to the folks at The Great War Forum!



Spiritual Objects & the Making of a Soldier’s Sketchbook

I once worked on a Catholic church that was designed in the round and had a stone altar. It was designed to look like it was carved out of a granite boulder with a polished top that had engravings on it.  The creation of the altar had all the elements of a typical construction project of this scale, design discussions, shop drawings, engineer’s analysis, coordination with fabricators and contractors.  I was on the jobsite just before opening doing a punch list and an older women carefully approached the alter, touched the top, blessed herself and walked back to her seat to pray.

It caught me off guard.

I appreciated the design of the altar, but to me it was just one element in a complicated project.  I could remember arguments over cost, discussions over constructability and working with the contractor to decide how to get it into the church. When did it cross the line and become something sacred?  The cynic in me could shrug it off, but I couldn’t.  I began to realize that regardless of your religious beliefs  the artist had successfully designed something that could inspire someone spiritually.  At that point the altar no longer belonged to the artist, or the fabricator or the contractor.  It belonged to the church, the parishioners, this woman, and it had begun its own life as a spiritual object.

When I settled that the “The Blue Max Project” was going to involve a soldier’s sketchbook, I hunted on-line until I found a small leather note book that had the right look and feel.



I new I would have to “age” the book in some manner and at first thought I would try to do this digitally in photoshop.  The examples I saw did not inspire me much and when I stumbled onto the article in Air & Space that showed an example of an actual journal of a World War I pilot, I knew I was going to have to do a lot more than put a few filters on a digital image to make this shiny new leather book with its gold edging look like this.


I researched techniques for aging paper, found that most of them involved single sheets, not whole books, but settled on a method that involved “basting” each sheet with brewed coffee, wiping it off and blow drying with a hair dryer.  I found I had to place a plastic cutting board between sheets to avoid the whole book from getting too saturated


Over three weeks I worked page by page, wrinkling the sheet with my hands, pulling at the corners, randomly making folds and crunching the edge.  The binding started to split and the book became fragile and fat with the wrinkled pages.  To get it to lay flat I ironed the pages and at night I put the whole book under a pile of heavy books ( like putting your brand new baseball glove under your mattress after you oiled it).  Some wonderful random things started to happen. Pages soaked thru, telegraphing stains between pages.  I tried to control it a bit but not too much.


For the cover I took sandpaper and distressed the surface, focusing on the edges.  I cut off the ribbon bookmark and bought a leather string to hold the book together


Over the last year I have fussed over the approach to this project, struggled with the copy stand, the camera, pens and format.  There is still a long way to go.  The most intimidating part of the project still lies ahead with the writing the story and developing the artwork that will fill this journal.  Is this just an interesting folly, one man’s art project?  Will it be authentic enough that it will give readers another vantage point to view history?  Will it eventually cross the line like the stone altar did and become a real artifact in the reader’s mind?

As I hold this fragile, empty sketchbook in my hand, I am beginning to feel like I did when I was in that church that day, when I realized that the altar was not mine any more and that the object had begun its own spiritual life.  It sits empty under a pile of heavy books waiting for me to complete it.  I hope I am up to the task!!




It’s Alive!!! ( Large Format Copy Stand)

“The Contraption” as my wife refers to it,  is complete!

its aliveAnd yes it does carry a vague resemblance to Dr. Frankenstein’s work table illustrated above.  Some seven months ago I hit a bit of a wall on making progress on “The Blue Max Project” when I mocked up this copy stand.


I made a number of discoveries with this mock up.  My digital camera was not good enough to allow for low f stop long exposure work.  The masonite work surface was not the right backdrop for the journal photos.  Taking over the dining room with the set up above was not acceptable both from keeping my marraige in tact and having a consistant set up for creating images.  After considering a large format scanner ( too expensive) or buying a standard copy stand ( too small) I decided to build my own….and here it is.


The steel post table base was purchased for $10 from Craigslist, as was the padded stool  in the fore ground.  My original masonite copy stand is set on the table in this picture and is now a small drafting board.  I hope to use the copy stand as my sketchboard for doing ink sketches for the journal.  There is a plug strip attached to the stand below to plug in the clamp on lights.  When setting up for a shoot, there are fold up arms to allow setting the lights at a 45 degree angle from the artifact being photographed.  They can be set at any angle and uses wingnuts to tighten them up once adjusted.



There is an aluminum tube across the top with clamps to hold in place and camera quick release hardware in the center.  I chose to leave the tube clamped instead of bolted to allow for making adjustments.  I am especially pleased with the camera attachment.  I found a website that sells small camera hardware and the $12 “cheese plate” is a 1/4″ steel plate with multiple holes, some threaded some not to recieve camera hardware.  I was able to buy a standard tripod quick release and bolt it to the plate.  It means the camera can be quickly attached or removed, but that the set up is stable and consistent between each session.

Pic7 Pic8



The camera was a gift from Santa, an entry level Nikon DSLR…the 3200.  Many outlets had it on sale over the holidays for $499 with both a 18-55mm lense and a 55-200mm lense and a camera case.  Considering the camera alone was selling for $450 before Christmas, I felt good about the purchase.  It can operate like a “sure shot” style camera or be fully manual, adjusting film speed, shutter speed and focal length.  I purist likely would have used a fixed 55mm lense for a copy stand, but the advantage of having a zoom lense is my camera can be in a fixed location and adjusted based on what is on the stand.  I set the camera so that fully zoomed out I get the whole 36″ x 30″ work surface.  You start getting bending to the image and glare from the lamps when fully pulled back like this.  This is not where I would typically be shooting.


…but I can  zoom into the book alone.  The book in this image is 12″ x 10″…already too big for a conventional scanner.  Most of them are 8/1/2″ x 14″.


And if you open the book up than you have a 12″ x 20″ original.


With the large focal length on the camera you can add objects with thickness and still be in focus.


Yes, that is a Glengarry Bonnet with my wife’s grandfather’s badge from his Argyll and Sutherland uniform.  The book was a gift from my daughter, perhaps I will post a review once I am done reading it.

Still not satisfied with the photography, but will take a lot more testing to fine tune.  A few things are going on right now.  I believe I let the camera select the film speed so it chose a high speed and a shorter exposure length.  The image is good but not great and I think with slower film and a longer exposure the image will get crisper.  Also shiny pages that don’t lay flat cause glare to pop out.  There are solutions to this as well.   All of that will take time and experimentation, but for now I at least have my “sandbox” to play in.

As Doctor Frankenstien once said…”Time to get back to the lab and see if I can bring this beast to life!”

Happy New Year.


Sikorsky’s connection with Hollywood…..and me!

Sometimes the end of the year brings a flurry of house cleaning and resolutions.  It’s part of putting one year away and preparing for the next.  While clearing out my studio / office / man cave to make room for my almost complete copy stand, I came across this old photo in my small collection of family artifacts.

Asurion002Years ago my brother, knowing about my obsession with aviation, sent me a scan of this photo when he discovered it in an old family photo album.  At that time I posted it on a flight sim forum (SimHQ) asking for help identifying the german bomber in the picture.  I believe it was WomenFly2 who identified it as a movie prop and pointed me towards the Howard Hughe’s film “Hells Angels”.  My brother eventually sent me the original photo and penciled on the back is “Bomber Hells Angels Summer 1928”.

Hells-Angels movie poster

In the closing scenes of the film, the hero cooks up a scheme to sneak behind enemy lines to bomb positions in a plane disquised as a german bomber.  Although the bombing run was successful the hero and his gunner met their fate at the hands of the famous german ace Manfred Von Richthofen.


The photo looks a bit like it was taken on a sandy beach and when I read about the film they mentioned some of it was filmed in Oakland so I assumed that was where the photo was taken. The photo is quite rare when you consider the “bomber” was destroyed while filming the scene above and tragically two crew members where killed when they failed to bail out.  The mystery was solved, but I was a little bit dissappointed that the plane was not a real german bomber, just some old mail plane they mounted a gun turret on and painted black.  I thought it might make an interesting blog post so I dug a little deeper in my research and soon realized just how rare this plane really was.

First let’s solve geography and help explain why it makes sense that one of my family members were “onsite”.  “Hells Angels” was filmed at several locations, but most of the aerial work was done in southern California staging in a cow pasture purchased by Howard Hughes just west of the Van Nuys airport.  Hughes named the site “Caddo Field” and in the photo above you see the San Gabriel mountains in the backround.  The arrow below marks the approximate location of the field at the intersection of Balboa and Roscoe Blvd. In the second photo you can see the east west runway as well as the familiar mountain ranges on the horizon.

( special thanks to GoDickson’s blog for the map views)

Van Nuys Van_Nuys_Airport_1946VanNuys2

Regarding the family connection, my Granparent’s family home in that era was located at 6500 Moore Drive in Los Angeles.  My grandfather once told me that he sold ice cream at airshows so it would make sense that there was enough interest in aviation to make the short half hour drive to get a look at Mr. Hughe’s grand adventure since it was going on right in their neighborhood.


And regarding it “looking like the beach” to me, here is another photo at Caddo field with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background and the same sandy field,

Caddo Field

But this only scratches the surface of the history of the plane itself….

Igor Sikorsky, was a Russian aviation engineer who designed the Ilya Muromets S-22 in 1914.  This was one of the first passenger aircraft designed shortly after the Wright Brothers era.  At the start of World War 1 it was converted to a bomber.  It was hugely successful at the start of the war but a lack of materials for further development led to it being outclassed by more modern bombers in the later stages of the war.  After the war Sikorsky immigrated to New York in 1919.  A talented engineer, unknown in the United States he struggled to continue his aviation career.  A family friend and former lieutenant in the Russian Navy, Victor Utgoff owned a chicken farm and gave Sikorsky a place to design and assemble his next plane.  He hired Russian immigrants and they built the plane from found materials and raided junkyards.  The frame was built up from angle iron from discarded bed frames, turnbuckles were purchased at Woolworth’d drug store.  They had no jacks to raise the plane so his brother Dmitry, who was ditch digger, dug a trench so they could install the landing gear below ground and than pull the plane from the ditch.

On the brink of financial ruin, selling stock in the company to buy food for his dwindling staff, his business was saved in the end by the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff visited the chicken house in a limousine and inspected the aircraft.  He wrote a check for $5,000 on the spot ( the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s dollars) and saved Sikorsky’s project and career.  Sikorsky went on to make many aviation breakthroughs most notably in the design of the helicopter.  You can read more about that history here.

The result of Sikorsky’s first effort in America was the protoype S-29A ( “A” for America) an all metal twin engine, closed cabin fourteen passenger transport.  You can see it’s roots in the original World War 1 era S-22 bomber.

Sikorsky 2-29A

Only one plane was built and it failed to attract the customers Sikosky sought out.  It was eventually sold to private owners and had a varied history including a stint as a “flying cigar store” when owned by Roscoe Turner.  The image below comes from the Roscoe Turner papers at the University of Wyoming.

Flying Cigar

In the late 1920’s it was bought by Howard Hughes and modified to get as close as Hollywood could to a German Gotha.  In the end it was destoyed during filming, with its last moments documented for all time in the “Hells Angels” film.


That complete’s Sikorsky’s Hollywood connection and indirectly a connection to my family as well.

If I squint my eyes I can imagine my grandfather grabbing a few friends and driving up Sunset Blvd to get to Van Nuys (all surface streets, there were no freeways in the valley in 1928).  Parking his car on the sandy field, they would have tromped out to take a look at the planes.  Amid the mayhem of cast and crew, roaring engines and gasoline fumes, he encourages a friend to stand in front of the big black bomber and takes a quick snapshot.  I wonder if he knew about the history of the plane?  His father was born in Hagen, Westphalia and immigrated to San Francisco in the late 1890’s before the Great War began.  Only ten years removed from the war itself, I am sure the evil looking black plane with its skull and german markings still gave chills to some who saw it in person.

He would never have guessed that 86 years later his grandson would still be talking about the snapshot.

Cantus “All is Calm”

“We will remember them”

That is what is read aloud every evening at 8:00 pm at the town of Ypres, France  at the Gates of Menin.  Thousands of men made there way through these gates on the way to the front during World War I and a hundred years later they are still remembered.

But how really do we remember things that happened a hundred years ago?  And why bother really at this point?  We read books, watch movies, if you are lucky you remember a conversation with a relative who was there…. but those memories are rapidly fading.  I was very lucky to have a chance to see a unique way of remembering history on Friday night this week.

The 1914 Christmas Truce.

Cantus is a vocal chamber ensemble that preserves history by performing songs.  Some are classic works you might hear a choir perform in church, others could be belted out by friends in a pub with grins on their faces and full pints in their hands.  Peter Rothstein approached them in 2012 to put together a performance that told the story of the Christmas Truce.  This “truce” occured in 1914 in the Fields of Flanders during the Great War on Christmas day.  This truce is well documented by many eyewitnesses at the time. Soldiers in the trenches, moved by the spirit of the holidays ignored the normal rules of war and crossed the trenches to exchange greetings, gifts and share an evening of peace. All this against a backdrop of a war that would stretch on for years.

The stage is sparce, nine men dressed in black with three actors sitting in front of them on tall stools. The actors recite from historical letters, poems and other documents in German, Scottish, Irish and English accents.  They are careful to name the soldier, his rank and what unit he served in after each reading, emphasising that this is no fantasy, but a real event that effected real people.   The content and tone of the singing and reading follows a timeline.  The euphoria of the new recruit, full of patriotism and pride, leaving on a grand adventure.  The grim reality of trench warfare.  The mix of horror and humor that surrounds men who are unsure they will ever make it home again.  The suprise and euphoria when that burden is lifted for one short night, only to be put back in place the next day.


You feel every bit of that sitting in the audience.  Hard to replicate that in a blog, but I have placed five of the songs and dialogue in chronological order below.  In a world saturated with media and special effects, this approach is simple and effective.   The Christmas Truce resonates this time of year because it gives us hope that even in the darkest of times, the best parts of the human spirit is still there, right below the surface.

I hope you enjoy the perfomance and I hope you and your family have a fine holiday.

Come On and Join ( a call to enlist)

The Old Barbed Wire (humor and grim circumstance mix together)

Angels We Heard on High ( a small miracle in the middle of the madness)

We’re Here Because We’re Here ( the title says it all, the miracle ends and the war goes on)

Last Post: Silent Night


Museum’s App teaches Kids about WW1 Aviation

Using graphic arts, aviation simulation and story telling to explain and engage participants in World War 1 Aviation?  Well that sure resonates with the goals of this blog.  Combine that with the extensive collection at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum and a desire to reach out to kids under ten years old and you have something really special.

Here is their museum website and if you look at the blow up on the right, the example WW1 aircraft inside the museum.

Pic0You can download the app “Air Academy” for free on I-tunes.  Here is the link that describes the program on their website ( the promo video is a little cheesy).

What is unique about the program is it teaches the principles of flight and some of the primary skills a pilot needed in World War 1 included aircraft identification and observation utilizing the aircraft and artifacts at the museum.  The “basic training” is simple and intuitive, the graphics and dialogue crisp and clean.  This is more of a teaching tool than a flight sim, They targeted young children, but I found it engaging enough that I worked thru all the levels.  My only disappointment was that the lessons seemed to be building up to a solo flight that ended very abruptly.  Not sure if this is a work in progress or the final product, but one more level that allowed more free flight at the end would be nice.

Pic1Flight Lieutanant Turnbull is your guide through training….betting this is based on a real historical figure from Ontario…. John Howard “Jack” Turnbull


Before each lesson you get to visit the plane in the hanger and can rotate it around to give it a close look.  Small blue circles generate pop-up detail photos of the actual plane in the musuem with detail facts ( to bad you can’t zoom in, the models are very nice)


Basic lessons on lift, drag, control surfaces using the planes in the collection including the Maurice Farman S.11 Shorthorn, Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck”.  Simple swipe commands, to illustrate the concepts


Now it starts getting fun, fly over from high altitude in the Nieuport 12 and show your skills at identifying key targets like airfields and bridges


A lesson on aircraft identification both by insignia and wing shapes and a beautiful graphic with criss crossing planes at various altitudes and some clouds to see if you can identify the enemy aircraft.  Planes in the hanger for these are the Junkers J.1 and the Bristol F.2B


As  a reward you unlock more detail artifacts, click on the picture and get the story.

2014-11-21 19.53.37

The final lesson involves some navigation and target shooting, controlling the aircraft by tilting and turning the ipad in the Sopwith Camel 2F.1  I enjoyed it, but over way too fast.

You have to give the CAS folks credit for using current technology to educate young kids about military history and aviation.  Only thing I found missing was some historically accurate information about what the risks were for a typical pilot.  Many men lost their lives during World War 1 and the life span of a typical pilot was very, very short.  Without that information, this is just a video game and I’m pretty sure they were aiming higher than that with this effort.