A unique form of high level education, Part 2

A modified Douglas DC-6 operated by the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction. Anon., “Airborne educational TV.” Flying, July 1961, 96.

Welcome back, my reading friend. Are we ready? Not quite? Are you still studying for the test? Too bad, so sad. It’s time to start. Even though trials took place in May 1961, for 500 000 pupils / students, the Midwest Program on Airborne Television Instruction (MPATI) began to regularly broadcast to schools in September of that year. The televised signal came in loud and clear. One could truly say of this mini network that when its 2 flying television stations was on the air, it was also in it. Sorry, poor pun. To be more precise, only one of the Douglas DC-6s operated by Purdue Aeronautics Corporation, a division of Purdue University, flew at one time. The other airplane was on the ground, on standby. Purdue Aeronautics, if you must know, also operated 6 or so Douglas DC-3s to train pilots enrolled in the university’s aviation technology department and to offer the odd charter flight, but I digress.

The DC-6, as you well know, was / is a faster, heavier, longer and more powerful development of the DC-4 airliner, and ... What’s this? You do not care about the airplane? You actually want to know why an airliner would be fitted with a ginormous folding boom containing a television antenna, an appendage the length of a telephone pole that pointed straight down at all times, regardless of the airplane’s movements, all this thanks to a gyroscope?! I am shocked, and appalled, and … Never mind. There is actually more to life than airplanes. In any event, the DC-4 was briefly mentioned in a November 2017 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. And yes, my concerned reading friend, the aforementioned appendage, a television antenna if you must know, was folded against the lower fuselage of the DC-6 prior to landing.

And yes, there is a DC-3 in the amazing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. This airplane is actually the first DC-3 operated by government-owned Trans-Canada Air Lines, today’s privatised Air Canada. If you’re a pleasant reading friend, yours truly may write a brief text about this airplane at a later point. If you’re not pleasant, I shall write a 3-part article, but back to our story.

The MPATI DC-6 on duty would fly a figure eight pattern, maintaining at a fairly high altitude, to maximise coverage. A 5 hour broadcast would be equivalent to a 2 750 kilometre (1 700 miles) trip, a distance that a mid size jetliner in use in 2018 could cover in 3 hours or less. Pilots of the MPATI airplanes were said to be bored out of their skull. The 2 distinct set of signals the flying television station sent out simultaneously, with the help of several tonnes of onboard equipment, could be picked up to 325 kilometres (200 miles) away in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Said equipment was developed and tested by Westinghouse Electric Corporation in cooperation with Douglas Aircraft Company Incorporated.

By the end of the 1961-62 school year, MPATI provided 20 hours of instruction each week (4 days per week) to more than a million students in 2 200 schools. Primary and secondary lessons lasted 15 to 20 minutes while those for college students lasted 30 minutes. The geographical area covered by 2 television channels MPATI operated was by far the largest in the world. Given time and money, its promoters hoped to reach 5 million students in 13 000 schools and colleges in the 6 aforementioned states. These same promoters hoped that the Midwest trials would bring about the development of similar programmes in other regions of the United States and in underdeveloped / developing countries. Some of them believed that, if used overseas, aerial broadcasts showing the wonders of the American way of life could change the course of the Cold War. You do know what the Cold War is, now don’t you?

Sigh. Please take the time to go online and do some reading. I will wait day and night. I will wait for your return forever. Apologies for paraphrasing a 1938 French adaptation of Tornerai, a 1933 song from Italy, popularised by several artists, including Dalida, a French singer born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti, in the mid 1970s. All right. Back to our story. The broadcasts transmitted by the “Satellites of the Sixties,” as the Stratovision airplanes were sometimes called, proved quite popular, especially in schools, often rural ones, lacking the resources needed to beef up their curriculum. Let’s not forget that, around 1960, a quarter of the schools operating in the United States were one teacher institutions. Some / many of the MPATI teachers became minor celebrities who received enthusiastic welcomes when they made appearances in schools and / or colleges. By and large, MPATI’s educational programming got better review in primary schools than in secondary schools or colleges. Indeed, as one might expect, there were problems.

Funding from the Ford Foundation was apparently unavailable for the third year of the program. This meant that MPATI had to knock on the doors of a great many schools to sell memberships and many principals had doubts. Availability of the television classes was a tricky issue. Students saw nothing but snowy images on more than one occasion. One has to remember that the heavy and bulky video tape equipment carried onboard the DC-6s used large numbers of vacuum tubes, which needed a powerful air conditioning system. Said tubes did not take kindly to the shake, rattle and roll encountered during some of the flights. In addition, not all the schools were in the same time zone, which made scheduling difficult, and many teachers did not have access to videotape recorders.

Topping this off, MPATI could only count on 2 signals, in other words 2 channels, because the Federal Communications Commission refused to allocate more to the project. Said channels, by the way, were in the ultra high frequency (UHF) band that certain brands of television sets could not receive without the help of a converter. The cherry on top, of course, was that the broadcast were not scrambled. Any school equipped with a television set and, if need be, a converter could receive the MPATI broadcasts without having to pay a penny.

Sadly, the hope expressed by some / many that that the MPATI experiment could lead to the development of similar programmes in other regions of the United States and in underdeveloped / developing countries remained unfulfilled. Plagued with financial problems and faced with technological advances, the first telecommunication satellites for example, MPATI ended its broadcasts and gave up both its airplanes and television licenses in 1967-68. Revamped and reorganized, it became a videotape library, catering to the needs of member schools. In 1971, the tapes were donated to an instructional television library and MPATI, a true pioneering effort in the field of distance learning, ceased to exist.

By then, of course, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) had come into being. One of the first 2 member stations, in 1969, was, you guessed it, WTTW Channel 11, in Chicago, Illinois. I readily admit that I just love PBS and… Never mind. One could argue that many MPATI promoters were tele-utopians who believed that the new medium could revolutionize education. The same had been said of radio, actually. What would these true believers think of reality television, I wonder? So, end of story? Well, not quite.

Would you believe that, between 1966 and 1972, the American military operated a Stratovision network of its own over Saigon, South Vietnam, today’s Thành phô Hô Chí Minh, Vietnam, using a pair of aircraft? One of the channels broadcasted South Vietnamese government programmes and / or propaganda to the local population while the other, containing both news and entertainment programmes, was aimed at American troops stationed / fighting in that East Asian country. That scheme was apparently derived from a single airplane project used to channel radio and television programmes into the Dominican Republic and Cuba, one a small island country faced with several serious crises in the early to mid 1960s and the other a small island country whose leader, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, was about as popular in the United States as the Antichrist.

This concludes our broadcast for the week. Yours truly decided to drop the test. See ya.

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Rénald Fortier