Monday, January 31, 2011

Question of the Week

Groundhog Day

This Wednesday, cute and cuddly Punxsutawney Phil (officially known as "Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary") will emerge (well, actually, he will be pulled) from his burrow to predict how much longer winter will last.  If he sees his shadow, we will have 6 more weeks of winter.  If he does not see his shadow, spring is on the way.

Groundhog Day was first celebrated in Pennsylvania on February 2, 1886, making this the 125th anniversary. 

Do you know why February 2 was selected as the official date?

Extra Credit:  Do you think Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow this year?

Answer:  February 2 is approximately the middle of winter or halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.  The tradition was brought to Pennsylvania by German settlers and was originally called Candlemas Day.

In case you have not heard, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow.  Will we have an early spring this year?  Only time will tell...

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wings of World War II

Before the United States became involved in the Second World War, the US Army Air Corps published specifications of the various badges or “wings” for those serving in military aircraft. Each wing was to be no more than three inches from tip to tip and made of sterling silver (although many are simply silver plated and others were made of bronze and some in gold). Various manufacturers throughout the US made these wings by following the simple description of design issued for each by the War Department. Here are a few of the nearly 250 wings from the Virginia Aviation Museum collection.

Pilot Wings
Pilot wings were described by the War Department as “The shield of the United States of America without stars in the shield at the center of the wings”.
Senior Pilot Wings
The Senior Pilot wings look the same as the Pilot wings but with a star over the shield. These wings were given to pilots who had given five years of service and at least 1,500 hours in flight.

Women’s Air Service Pilot Wings
Also known as WASPs, the Women’s Air Service Pilot wings were issued to women who served as pilots in non-combat missions. Things wings have a small diamond shaped center and are considered to be highly rare.

Glider Pilot Wings
While being a pilot in WWII was a dangerous job, being a glider pilot was often considered even more so as the Glider Pilot flew unarmed aircraft of supplies and troops behind enemy lines. These wings are rare as there were only 6,000 glider pilots during the war and consist of “the letter G in clear relief against a horizontally lined background on the outline of the shield of the United States”.

Liaison Pilot WingsThe Liaison pilot acted as an observer and assisted in delivering medical aid, aircraft, and weaponry. This badge has an "L" in the center of the shield and the person who bore it often flew smaller aircraft such as Piper Cubs.

Air Crew Wings
This is a very common badge from the WWII era. It was issued after fifteen combat flight hours to those in a great variety of positions including aerial gunners, crew chiefs, radio operators and others who were a part of an aircraft’s flight crew. This badge consists of “the coat of arms of the United States in clear relief against horizontally lined back-ground on a disk with a raised rim”.

There are a great many more wings including Flight Surgeon wings, Aerial Gunner wings, and Air Transport Command wings, just to name a few. As a result of the many companies that manufactured wings during the war, there are slight variations in each: shield sizes will vary, as does the amount of detail on the feather of the wings.

Do you have any WWII era wings that need identifying? Post a comment below and I’ll do my best to determine what you have.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Question of the Week

What do you think of cold weather?  Polar bears love it!  Their thick fur coat covers a layer of insulating fat, allowing them to be quite comfortable in the frigid Arctic.

Why do you think polar bears walk at such a leisurely pace?
     a.  they are watching for thin ice
     b.  they are afraid of slipping on the ice
     c.  they get overheated when they run
     d.  they are too heavy to move faster 

Arctic Adventure, our new traveling exhibit, opens this Saturday, January 29.

Answer:  c.  they get overheated when they run.

Polar bears have more trouble with overheating than cold, especially when they run.  They are not terribly worried about falling through thin ice; they are strong swimmers and can swim for several hours in icy water.  Their feet are covered with small bumps called papillae to keep them from slipping on the ice. Even though polar bears are heavy (males weigh 500-1700 lbs. and females weigh 200-700 lbs), they can run as fast as a horse over short distances.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Get to Know Virginia Aviation History: The Roma Disaster

Recently I discovered a scrapbook at the Virginia Aviation Museum. Glued inside a bound ledger of the “Southern Fire Insurance Company, Inc. of Lynchburg, VA”, were newspaper clippings spanning from the early 1920s to the late 1930s describing various advancements and events in the progress of aviation technology. Eighty-two of the pages are filled with descriptions of Amelia Earhart, the Zeppelin, and Byrd’s Antarctic Expedition (even with a photo of the Stars and Stripes!). In addition, a few pages were devoted completely to the Roma disaster that occurred over the Norfolk Army base in 1922.

The Roma was a dirigible, or a lighter-than-air airship, that was purchased by the US Army from the Italian government in 1921. The ship was taken apart and shipped to Langley Field, Virginia where its steel skeleton and fabric exterior reassembled. The airship was able to fly at 60 miles per hour and was the largest semi-rigid dirigible at that time at 410 feet long and 90 feet in diameter. An interior gas bag filled with hydrogen gas kept it in air. The Army made three successful test flights with the Roma before disaster stuck.

On February 21st, 1922, the crew made a fourth test flight and flew for forty-five minutes without incident. They flew from Langley Field to Hampton, to Newport News, and finally to Norfolk. It was above Norfolk that the rudder (a device that allows for control over the direction of the nose of the airplane) malfunctioned. The exact cause of the rudder’s failure was never determined other than that it, in most simple terms, structurally failed. This failure caused the nose to dip downward, causing the Roma to descend slowly. Because of this slow glide, there may not have been such a catastrophe had the ship not touched electrical wires. However, the contact with the electricity caused the hydrogen in the ship to explode as well as the gasoline tanks. Thirty-four of the forty-five man crew would perish in the accident over the Norfolk base.
This was the last dirigible used by the US Army, and the last time hydrogen was used in dirigibles. This scrapbook documents the worst and most deadly aircraft accident the US military had seen at that time and an important, but unfortunate moment in Virginia Aviation history.
[Top photo courtesy the National Museum of the US Air Force.]

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Question of the Week

Today is National Popcorn Day! 

Do you know why popcorn pops?

Answer:  Popcorn must have 2 important properties to pop:
  • The moisture in each kernel must be close to 13.5%.
  • The kernels must not be cracked or damaged in any way.

How does it work?  When popcorn kernels are heated, the moisture inside turns to steam.  The steam expands and breaks the outer hull, turning the kernel inside out with a popping noise.  Voila! you have fluffy popcorn.

What can go wrong?  If the kernels do not have enough moisture, the steam does not build up enough pressure to pop.  If there is too much moisture, the kernels pop into dense spheres instead of fluffy popcorn.  If the hulls are cracked or damaged, the steam will escape gradually... with maybe a hiss, but not a pop.

What about other grains?  So why can't we pop wheat, rice or regular corn? Popcorn hulls are nonporous, allowing pressure to build up as the moisture is heated.  Other grains have porous hulls which allows the steam to escape gradually.  Pressure does not build up so no popping occurs.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The LeMay Bombing Leaflet

On August 1, 1945, over one hundred US B-29 Superfortresses flew over Japan at around 20,000 feet. At this height they dropped 500-pound containers, each holding leaflets that warned the Japanese civilians of the necessity of surrender. At around 4,000 feet the containers opened and released millions of leaflets that fluttered down to the people below.

These leaflets were produced in Saipan, a US occupied island just north of Guam, by the US Office of War Information. Walter J. Cox, Jr. was stationed in Saipan and was able to acquire the above leaflets from a Red Cross worker who went “ashore” to Japan and brought them back. Cox in turn sent them to his wife back home.

These leaflets in the collection of the Virginia Aviation Museum were used as a propaganda tool in order to cause Japanese civilians to distrust their military leaders and to push for an end to the war. Of the five pamphlets that Cox was able to send home, the most significant is the leaflet at the bottom center in the above photograph. This was called the “LeMay bombing leaflet” after Major General Curtis E. LeMay who was the commander of the Pacific Theater of war during this time. It was he who requested that this particular leaflet be dropped over Japan. This leaflet was dropped over 35 cities, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The front of the leaflet depicts numerous American B-29s with hundreds of bombs descending and a list of potential targeted cities. The reverse reads in Japanese:

“Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or friend. In the next few days, some or all of the cities named on the reverse side will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique which they are using to prolong this useless war. But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives. America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace which America will bring will free the people from the oppression of the military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan. You can restore peace by demanding new and good leaders who will end the war. We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked but some or all of them will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately”.
Other leaflets include (clockwise from top left) a depiction of the Japanese Army pulling a Japanese civilian and home over a cliff; a description of the treatment the Japanese would receive with photographs of smiling Americans on one side, and smiling Japanese civilians on the other; a Japanese newspaper printed by the United States; the LeMay leaflet; and a list of radio stations to listen to for warnings and news.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Question of the Week

Today in Richmond, we are experiencing a messy and somewhat hazardous mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain. 

Do you know what atmospheric conditions cause each kind of frozen precipitation?

Answer:  Winter precipitation types generally depend on the vertical temperature profile of the atmosphere.
  • Snow falls when the temperature of the entire depth of the atmosphere from the cloud to the ground is below freezing (32 F or 0 C).
  • Sleet falls when there is a fairly shallow layer of warmer air (above freezing) between the cloud and the ground but the temperature at the ground is below freezing.  Snow falls from the cloud, then partially melts in the warmer layer and then refreezes in the colder layer near the surface, forming pellets of ice.
  • Freezing rain falls when there is a deep layer of warmer air (above freezing) but the temperature is below freezing at the ground.  Snow falls from the cloud, melts completely in the warm layer and then refreezes either just before hitting the ground or on contact with the cold surface.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Anti-G Suit

During World War II, aviators were able to fly their aircraft higher and faster than ever before. But this was not without problems. There were accidents that could not be accounted for: pilots were not shot down, there were no malfunctions in the aircraft and yet they were crashing. What was happening was that when pilots were performing high-speed maneuvers such as pulling up hard out of a dive or making fast and tight turns to evade the enemy, they were creating strong centrifugal forces on the lower parts of their bodies.

So what does this mean? It means that as a result of G-forces (or gravitational force), blood pools in the lower part of the body, mainly the legs and abdomen. It’s kinda like when you eat a lot of food and feel sleepy after the meal: some of the blood from your head has gone to your stomach to help the digestion process. But in this case, so much blood has left the head that a pilot begins to feel some physical affects.

Let’s look at some stats. The force that is exerted by earth’s gravity on your body when you are on the ground (or your weight) is 1 G. If you were moving at 3 G’s you would weigh three times your normal weight and at 7 G’s your blood is as heavy as iron.

So without proper protection, the average person would “greyout” at 4 G’s, meaning that he or she would be unable to see color; “blackout” at 5 G’s and at 6 G’s the pilot would be unconscious.

The pilots of WWII that were crashing were experiencing G forces so great that they became unconscious and did not have control over their aircraft. This is called orthostatic intolerance.

To stop this from happening, in the 1940s Wilbur Franks of the University of Toronto was able to create a version of the G suit that you can see me wearing in the photo above.

So how does it work? There are bladders inside the suit at the legs and the abdomen. The tube on the suit receives air from the engine which had a valve that had a spring-mounted weight that would send air into the suit only if the G force was higher than 2 G’s. When the valve was engaged, air would go through the suit, inflate the bladders on the legs and abdomen which would push against the muscles of these body parts. The muscles would then squeeze the blood back up to the heart and up to the head, thus avoiding unconsciousness.

The suit I am wearing in the photograph is a modern issue Anti-G Suit like the ones that pilots in the US Air Force wear today. They wear it with a flight suit underneath, gloves, boots and of course, a helmet with oxygen mask.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Question of the Week

Happy New Year to all the fabulous fans of the Science Museum of Virginia!  Here's the first Question of the Week of 2011:

What do you think are the most popular New Year's resolutions? 

(There are lots of opinions, but I am using an "official" source.)

Answer:  According to, these New Year's resolutions are popular year after year:
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Get a better education
  • Get a better job
  • Get fit
  • Lose weight
  • Manage debt
  • Manage stress
  • Quit smoking now
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle
  • Save money
  • Take a trip
  • Volunteer to help others
Did you make any of those resolutions?  How are you doing so far?