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Radio Navigation Aids

pilots posed with aircraft
Pilot James Kinney and check pilot Clarence Young with the hooded Curtiss Fledgling aircraft used in blind flying experiments, College Park, 1933.
CPAM Photograph, Kear Collection
The Bureau of Standards came to College Park Airport, first in 1918 and again in 1926, to tackle the problem of flying in all-blind or zero degree visibility. In 1931 the first all-instrument landing was made at College Park Airfield and in 1934 the first completely blind flight was made from College Park to busy Newark Airport near New York City, making headlines all over the world. This system is the basis for the modern Instrument Landing System used by pilots today.

A conference organizing a cooperative radio guidance program between the Navy Department, Post Office Department, and the National Bureau of Standards, with the Army Air Service also interested, selected College Park Airport as the site for the first landing experiments. A two-seat Curtiss R-4L (39365) upgraded with a Liberty engine and used by the Post Office as a mail plane, was outfitted with coils under its wings and used for the landing tests. After initial tests, the Post Office lacked the resources to fund further development of radio aids for practical use in its airmail activities.

The passage of the Air Commerce Act on May 20, 1926 generated renewed interest in aircraft navigation systems and led to the creation of the Aeronautics Branch in the Department of Commerce. It designated the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) to take the lead in specific areas of aeronautical research, including developing radio aids to navigation. In the summer of 1926, the NBS started developing a field site for its aeronautical activities at College Park. The field was equipped with a 70-foot wooden tower supporting two antennas and a 500-watt radio transmitter. The first aircraft made available to the NBS was a DH-4M1 (NS-2), formerly used a mail plane. It proved unsuitable, and more modern equipment was sought. Made available by the Aeronautics Branch, Department of Commerce, the Fairchild FC-2 was an enclosed-cabin high-wing monoplane with the registration number NS-8. Its lack of accommodation for a check pilot for blind flying tests was its major flaw. In 1927, this aircraft was used for early radio beam tests, equipped with the newly developed "vibrating reed" visual radio beacon indicator, which enabled the pilot to monitor the radio signal but still maintain voice radio communications.

In 1931, a brand-new Fledgling J-1 Special, a 2-place open cockpit biplane trainer (a civilian version of the Navy Curtiss N2C-2), was acquired for blind flying tests and registered NS-39. It had a collapsible hood that could cover the pilot's cockpit for blind flying tests without obstructing the view of the backup pilot. On September 5, 1931, the NS-39 aircraft accomplished the first blind landing at College Park, piloted by Marshall S. Boggs with James L. Kinney as check pilot. Flown by Kinney, with Clarence Young as check pilot, the NS-39 aircraft demonstrated the system to the public at Newark Airport, one of the first commercial airports in the country so equipped.

In the latter half of 1933, stringent economy was forced on the NBS, resulting in the curtailment of the aeronautical program. A by-product of this action was the establishment of the Washington Institute of Technology (WIT) by several of the former NBS employees, including Frank G. Kear. Operating at the College Park Airport, the WIT continued in pioneering development of radio navigation aids under contract. George Brinckerhoff tested some of these devices for WIT. He operated a Fleet Model 8, which was equipped with a blind flying hood over the rear cockpit, as well as a Fleet Model 1 and a Model 2.

On May 1, 1934, Navy Lt. Frank Akers took off from Anacostia Naval Air Station in a Berliner-Joyce OJ-2, and performed a blind landing at College Park. The Navy had a contract with WIT to provide the instruments necessary for such experiments. A little over a year later, on July 30, 1935, Akers performed a blind landing in another OJ-2, this time landing on the U.S.S. Langley, while it was under way off the coast of San Diego. Despite these successful tests, the Navy did not pursue this blind landing technology for aircraft carrier operations.

By July 1934, the cooperative development program between the NBS and the Aeronautical Branch had been phased out, and all experimental equipment was removed from College Park.