Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Lift off of the hydrogen balloon that carried aloft the antenna of the American emergency radio transmitter BC-778, better known under the name “Gibson Girl.” Anon., “Gibson Girl to the rescue.” Flying Aces, septembre 1943, 30.

Guten tag / good day / bonjour, my reading friend. I hope that all is well with you. If yours truly may be so bold, what do you know about the flights over the seas and oceans made in the 1920s and 1930s to set distance records? Not much, you say? It’s no big deal. All you need to know is that many people from different countries initiated such flights in those years. Some of them, Charles Augustus Lindbergh and James Erroll Boyd, arrived at their destination and became heroes. Several other people disappeared, however, without leaving a trace. Others, like Amelia Mary Earhart and her navigator, Frederick Joseph “Fred” Noonan, sent brief radio messages before landing on the high seas and disappearing forever. Would it not be helpful to have on hand a solid and reliable emergency radio transmitter that a crew could use from an inflatable boat?

You seem puzzled, my reading friend. May I be of assistance? You do not see much of a link between the aforementioned flights and the picture above, taken from the September 1943 issue of the American monthly magazine Flying Aces? Fear not, everything will soon become clear. You have another question, I believe? You do not know who Boyd is / was? No, seriously?! Know that this First World War pilot was the first Canadian to cross the Atlantic in an aircraft, in October 1930, with an American navigator. This crew was one of the first, if not the first, to use an artificial horizon, an instrument universally used since then. The artificial horizon had been developed a short time before by an American company, Sperry Gyroscope Company, Incorporated.

The aircraft that Boyd and his navigator used, the Wright-Bellanca WB-2, was the very one that Lindbergh initially wanted to use for his solo transatlantic flight of May 1927. An American pilot better known than him until then, Clarence Duncan Chamberlin, made a transatlantic flight in June 1927 at the controls of the WB-2, with a passenger. Originally known as Columbia, this aircraft was renamed Maple Leaf for Boyd’s transatlantic flight, in honour of a very popular 1867 song, Canada’s unofficial national anthem, The Maple Leaf Forever.

The WB-2 was the direct ancestor of the many successful utility aircraft designed and made by Bellanca Aircraft Corporation in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1930-31, a well-known Canadian shipyard and aircraft manufacturer, Canadian Vickers Limited of Montréal, Québec, built 6 Bellanca CH-300 Pacemakers used by the Royal Canadian Air Force, especially within its photographic survey units. One of these aircraft later received an experimental autopilot designed in the United Kingdom by a world-renowned organisation, the Royal Aircraft Establishment – a Canadian first.

By a curious coincidence, Sperry Gyroscope played an important role in the history of autopilots. Demonstration flights of a gyroscopic stabilizer took place in France in 1914. The aircraft used by Lawrence Burst Sperry, the son of the designer of this equipment, Elmer Ambrose Sperry, was a Curtiss Model F flying boat, a flying machine mentioned in a September 2017 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Another flight, more or less legendary, made around 1916, in the United States, by Sperry junior and a young female passenger turned out to be rather more… interesting, but the potential presence of minors in the blogosphere prevents me from going further.

And yes, my reading friend, the formidable collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum includes a Pacemaker. This aircraft unfortunately wears phony Canadian colors and markings. It actually flew mostly in Alaska. Would it be a heresy to propose that this aircraft be loaned to a museum in that state to be repainted in its original colours and markings? Yes? No? My apologies, I digress.

The WB-2, one of the most famous aircraft designed by American engineer Giuseppe Mario “Joe / GM” Bellanca, was destroyed in a fire at the Bellanca Aircraft factory in January 1934. The Paramount Publix Corporation film studio was then preparing to shoot a movie detailing its career, but I digress. Again.

In early 1938, Boyd founded the Aviation Scouts of Canada with at least one other person. A well-known Canadian bush pilot, Clarence Alvin “Duke” Schiller, supported him. Ross Smyth, later director of public relations for Air Canada, Canada’s national airline, and author of The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, was one of the young members of the Aviation Scouts of Canada. The list of honorary members of this ephemeral group apparently included:
- Honorary Air Vice Marshal William Avery “Billy” Bishop, a very well known First World War Canadian fighter pilot,
- Dale Harbison Carnegie, American author of a very popular book published in 1936, How to Make Friends and Influence Others, and
- Howard Robard Hughes, Junior, a well-known American aviator who also headed a major airline, Transcontinental and Western Air Incorporated.
Let us now return to our subject after this unusually long digression, even for yours truly.

The air force of National Socialist Germany, or Luftwaffe, played a pioneering role in the development of a solid and reliable emergency radio transmitter. In the late 1930s, this service introduced an emergency device, the Notsendegerät 1 (NSG 1), whose transmitter was in a weatherproof container. The radio messages were transmitted through one of the 2 antennas included in the device. If there was wind, the crew of an aircraft which performed an emergency landing at sea only had to remove a collapsible box kite from its bag and fly it. Said kite was connected to the transmitter by a long (50 metres? / about 165 feet?) metal wire that acted as an antenna. In the absence of wind, the crew had to use the second antenna, made of 5 pieces of aluminum forming a thin tube of more than 5 metres (nearly 17 feet), the whole being surmounted by an umbrella-shaped element. This somewhat odd looking antenna was unstable and impractical. The emergency radio transmitter drew its energy from batteries.

As innovative as the NSG 1 was, this device was quite heavy and a little improvised. Its successor, the Notsendegerät 2 (NSG 2), was far more ingenious. This writer does not know who, of the armed forces or private enterprise, launched this project. Be that as it may, the Luftwaffe introduced the NSG 2 in 1941. Designed by Frieseke & Höpfner Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung, the new emergency device was relatively light and could float if need be. The emergency radio transmitter and its accessories were in 2 aluminum alloy containers. Said accessories consisted of 1 collapsible box kite, 2 balloons, 2 hydrogen generators and 1 instruction manual. The emergency radio transmitter drew its energy from a hand-cranked magneto mounted in the same rounded case. Able to send SOS messages automatically, it could also transmit messages in Morse code. The NSG 2 had a maximum range of more than 300 kilometres (nearly 200 miles / about 160 nautical miles).

If there was wind, the crew of an aircraft which performed an emergency landing at sea only had to take the kite out of his bag and fly it. Said kite was connected to the emergency radio transmitter by a long (80 metres? / over 260 feet?) metal wire that acted as an antenna. The antenna feeder was located in the case that contained the emergency radio transmitter and the hand-cranked magneto. In calm weather, the crew could launch the antenna using a balloon inflated from a hydrogen generator that contained chemicals capable of producing a good volume of gas when brought into contact with water. A crew member then placed the rounded case between his knees and turned the magneto’s crank to activate the emergency radio transmitter.

An NSG 2 fell into the hands of the British during the year 1941. The engineers who studied it were so impressed that they recommended the production of a copy. Known as the Dinghy Transmitter T1333, this emergency device differed somewhat from the NSG 2. The case that contained the emergency radio transmitter, the hand-cranked magneto and the antenna feeder, for example, did not have the rounded shape of its German counterpart. Rectangular in shape, it was fitted with external pads. The T1333 did not include any balloon or hydrogen generator. The antenna of the emergency radio transmitter could only be held in the air by means of the box kite.

Aware that the lack of wind would not allow said kite to fly, the British engineers called upon a rocket fired from a signal gun. This rocket took to the sky the kite, folded in a cylinder. Arrived at an altitude of about 60 metres (200 feet), re-said kite unfolded automatically. One only had to attach the antenna to its wire and unroll it.

A British military mission visiting the United States gave another NSG 2 to the American authorities even before the end of 1941. Their industry being unable to produce the T1333 in large quantities, the British hoped to convince an American company to produce this emergency device. A well-known company, Bendix Aviation Limited, indicated it was interested. Indeed, the United States Navy and the United States Army Air Forces were also showing real interest. Both services worked together to oversee the production of an emergency device that closely matched the NSG 2. The entry into the war of the United States, in December 1941, changed the situation. The number of devices ordered skyrocketed and other companies joined the production program. Bendix Aviation made the first production SCR-578 in May 1942.

The emergency radio transmitter and its accessories were in 2, then 1 waterproof bag. These accessories consisted of 1 collapsible box kite, 2 balloons, 2 hydrogen generators and 2 instruction manuals. The emergency device could be parachuted if need be.

The emergency radio transmitter, or BC-778, drew its energy from a hand-cranked magneto mounted in the same rounded case. Its operation was virtually identical to that of the NSG 2 and its maximum range was comparable to that of its German counterpart. Capable of sending SOS messages automatically, the emergency radio transmitter could also transmit Morse code messages.

An improved version of the American emergency device, the AN/CRT-3, went into service in 1945. The T-74 was the improved emergency radio transmitter included in this second version.

The American emergency radio transmitter T-74, better known under the name "Gibson Girl.” CASM.

The American emergency radio transmitter T-74, better known under the name "Gibson Girl.” CASM.

The rounded shapes of the BC-778 and T-74 emergency radio transmitters were reminiscent of the wasp waist of the independent and attractive young women drawn in the 1890s and 1900s by a well-known American designer, Charles Dana Gibson. It was quickly baptized “Gibson Girl.” The collapsible box kite, on the other hand, became the “Gibson Girl Kite.”

It goes without saying that no advertisement or article published during the Second World War in the United Kingdom or the United States mentioned the German origins of the T1333 or the SCR-578 and AN/CRT-3.

The SCR-578 and AN/CRT-3 were manufactured in numbers far superior to their German and British counterparts. In fact, the second remained in production for some time after the end of the Second World War. Airlines and many private pilots, both American and foreign, bought one or the other of these emergency devices from war surplus stores. They remained in service until at least the early 1970s.

Would you believe me, my reading friend, if I told you that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics introduced its own version of the “Gibson Girl” at a somewhat imprecise date (around 1945 or 1951?)? This Avariyny Radioperedatchik 45, or AVRA 45, remained in production, and in service, for a period of time. Imitation was / is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

Farewell, au revoir, auf wiedersehen and do svidaniya.

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Rénald Fortier