Airports Across The Ocean
CHARLES LINDBERGH’S SOLO NONSTOP FLIGHT ACROSS THE Atlantic in May 1927 caused widespread public excitement and sped up innovation in aviation around the world. By 1929 more than 400,000 passengers were traveling the world’s airlines, nine times as many as a decade before. Business interests saw a great potential for rapid air transportation of mail, cargo, and passengers, and transatlantic service would be invaluable. But there was one big problem. Most people expected that no airplane in the near future would be able to fly economically beyond a 500-mile range. Lindbergh, and many others before him, had crossed the Atlantic, but doing so safely, reliably, and regularly with a load of passengers and cargo was still decades in the future.
A leading authority on the challenges of transoceanic flight was Edward R. Armstrong, a Canadian-born American engineer who specialized in aviation design and construction. Armstrong was convinced that “in any type plane, now developed or proposed, equipped for ocean flying… it will require almost an engineering miracle to extend [any useful] payload to a thousand miles…. Fundamentals of design and performance fix very definite limits to economic flight distance—distances that fall very short of spanning either the Atlantic or Pacific.”
So how could flying either the Atlantic or Pacific be made possible? Armstrong had a solution: seadromes. A seadrome would be a “floating landing deck,” essentially an anchored, stormproof airport and refueling station. It would ride high above the waves, moored at one end so as to trail the wind (thus always staying in the best position for landings), and be big enough to permit the landing and takeoff of most planes. It would be supported 70 feet or more above the surface by tubular columns that would allow waves to pass through underneath. The columns would terminate in ballast tanks 100 feet below the surface, where they would be stable, since waves are surface disturbances only. Armstrong said eight of them, “anchored to the bottom of the Atlantic, at intervals of approximately 350 miles,” would be enough to reach Europe.
He had begun exploring the idea in 1913. Two years later, he had completed the first design, and in 1922 he built a 1/300 scale model. French investors showed moderate interest but declined to finance the venture, so Armstrong set to work refining his plans. Meanwhile, he earned a living in various engineering jobs. Born in 1876 in Guelph, Ontario, he had worked in Texas at the beginning of the twentieth century developing oil-well-drilling machinery. In 1909 he went to St. Louis as an automotive and aviation engineer, and in 1916 he went to oversee the construction of DuPont’s huge guncotton plant in Hopewell, Virginia. Before long, he was chief of the plant’s mechanical research department. He kept at his floatingairfield idea, and in 1924 he quit DuPont to devote himself to building models and conducting tests.
In 1926 he incorporated the Armstrong Seadrome Development Company, of Wilmington, Delaware. That same year, he performed a test that he filmed and showed tirelessly to potential backers for the next decade. He put scale models of his seadrome and the ocean liner Majestic in a tank of water and used a fan to create what he said were the equivalent of 40-foot waves. Sure enough, the waves capsized the ship but left the seadrome undisturbed.
This and other tests, along with detailed plans and financial projections and the enthusiasm created by Lindbergh’s flight, helped Armstrong raise enough money to move his research out of the laboratory. Lindbergh, Louis Blériot, and other prominent fliers endorsed the plan; Hollywood luminaries threw parties for him; executives from DuPont and General Motors promised cash. By early 1929, Armstrong was envisioning service between America and Europe with planes leaving hourly in both directions and a flying time of 30 hours. But he realized that to get the large amount of capital he’d need—at least $32 million for the eight transatlantic seadromes—he’d first have to demonstrate publicly the complete practicality of the scheme. To accomplish that, Armstrong’s company planned to put into place an airway connecting New York City and Atlantic City with Bermuda that would require only one seadrome.
Flying time for each leg would be approximately three hours. Passenger service would be scheduled only during daylight hours, but a night mail plane would deliver the New York newspapers for sale in Bermuda in the morning. For those wishing an overnight experience on the seadrome, there would be a hotel with 40 guest rooms, and during the day a café, a lounge, and other facilities would serve up to 350 people.
The New York-to-Bermuda seadrome would have a steel deck 70 feet above sea level, 1,100 feet long and 340 feet wide in the middle and 200 feet wide at the ends. It would be supported by streamlined iron columns mounted on 32 buoyancy tanks, and the whole thing would weigh about 50,000 tons. With its ballast tanks flooded, the seadrome would have a service draft of 177 feet. The task of designing an anchoring system to hold this huge monster in place was given to John A. Roebling’s Sons, the makers of steel bridge cable, in Trenton, New Jersey. A 40,000-pound anchor made by Merritt, Chapman, & Scott of New York City would be attached to two parallel 150-foot lengths of forged-steel anchor chain fastened in turn to galvanized-steel anchor cables up to 3¾ inches across.
In the summer of 1929, Armstrong assembled a 1/32 scale model, 35 feet long, 10½ feet wide, and with a draft of about 6 feet. He made it of sheet steel and anchored it in the Choptauk River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay, near Cambridge, Maryland. Over six weeks, he tested it against a variety of wind, wave, and current conditions. The results, Armstrong said, indicated that a full-scale seadrome in the open ocean could survive 280-mile-per-hour winds and waves to 144 feet high.
On October 22 Armstrong told the press that the first week of tests had been successful. “Most of us were skeptical six months ago when we started work on this project,” he said, “but we are all certain now that it is feasible.” Construction of a full-size seadrome would begin in the Chesapeake in December, and the finished structure would be towed to sea the following summer.
Armstrong’s remarks appeared in the next day’s New York Times under the headline WORK ON SEADROME TO BEGIN IN 60 DAYS . On the front page appeared equally optimistic words: STOCKS GAIN SHARPLY BUT SLIP NEAR CLOSE / VIGOROUS RECOVERY MARKS MOST OF DAY AND MANY ISSUES SHOW NET ADVANCES / MARKET GLOOM LESSENED . It was the last day for a long time that readers would find anything reassuring about seadromes or the stock market. The next day reality Set in: PRICES OF STOCKS CRASH IN HEAVY LIQUIDATION, TOTAL DROP OF BILLIONS . Though Armstrong talked bravely of accelerating construction in time for tourist traffic in the winter of 1929-30, he knew the fortunes of his wealthy backers had evaporated and the plan would have to be postponed.
In 1930 he continued to promote his plan, which he said would get under way “as soon as problems of finance and organization can be arranged.” He was eager to follow it with a transatlantic system, for he estimated that of the more than two million people who crossed the Atlantic annually, at least 15 percent could be attracted to go by air, at a comparable cost of about $350, in a much quicker 30 hours, and by a safe, reliable, and frequent service. However, economic conditions continued to decline, and investors were not forthcoming.
The next year, Armstrong changed his plan yet again. Now, instead of building a seadrome on the way to Bermuda, he planned what a newspaper reporter called “an ocean Utopia … a sort of Havana in the Gulf Stream,” with a hotel, restaurants, lounges, dancing, and fishing, all “beyond the influence of the later constitutional amendments,” meaning Prohibition. This artificial resort would be established within two hours’ flight of New York City and could be reached for a fare of perhaps $25. Armstrong said construction would begin “probably within three months.”
The deepening Depression made even this scaled-down plan unworkable. In 1932 Armstrong and Hugh Duncan Grant, the former head meteorologist for the British navy, tried to sell a scheme for an eight-seadrome transatlantic system that the United States would own jointly with Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Unfortunately, those countries didn’t have any money either.
In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal gave fresh hope to America, and Armstrong took advantage of the surge of optimism it created. In September a new corporate entity, the Seadrome Ocean Dock Corporation, with Armstrong as president, applied to the Public Works Administration (PWA) for a loan of $30 million to build and deploy five seadromes across the Atlantic. In this version, there would be no service to Bermuda. The chain of seadromes would stretch across the Atlantic to the Azores, from which planes would continue on to Spain, with connections to the rest of Europe. The seadromes would be equipped with patrol boats and Seasleds so that, as a newspaper article explained, “a disabled plane forced down … between seadromes, could be reached in five hours or less.”
In November the Secretary of Commerce, Daniel C. Roper, announced the government’s agreement to a three-step plan. Under it, Armstrong’s company would build the system and the government would own it, paying a licensing fee for Armstrong’s patents. In the first stage, the PWA would allocate $1.5 million for a quarter seadrome section, 300 feet lone, for all-weather testing in the North Atlantic. If that succeeded, an additional $4.5 million would be made available for a full-scale seadrome. When that proved its feasibility, the rest of the $30 million would follow.
The next day, Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, who had jurisdiction over the PWA, poured cold water on the plan. Before even a test could be financed, he said, rulings would have to be received from the State Department on the seadromes’ status under international law, from the Attorney General on the legality of spending PWA funds outside the United States, and from the Navy on security matters. In early December, Ickes said that the PWA could not participate in the plan unless foreign governments guaranteed the seadromes’ neutrality in time of war and backed up their guarantees with financial participation. This virtually unattainable condition doomed the effort.
Even so, at Roper’s urging, Armstrong was invited to dinner with President Roosevelt at the White House, where he showed his films of the seadrome model tests. With the President enthusiastic about the concept, Armstrong decided in 1934 to try again, asking the government for $7 million to build one seadrome. Roper supported the notion, but he asked that Armstrong first solicit the endorsement of the Federal Aviation Commission (today’s Federal Aviation Administration). The commission said it would need to hold hearings.
The outlook was clouded, for beginning in 1933, Armstrong’s support had begun to falter. Continuing advances in airplane and motor design suggested that a transatlantic service might soon be feasible without seadromes. In November 1933, he presented his idea to 500 members of the aviation section of New York’s branch of the Society of Automotive Engineers, and the vice president of the section, Clarence D. Chamberlin, pronounced it “aeronautically obsolete.” Chamberlin, an aviation veteran who in 1927, with a co-pilot, had flown across the Atlantic all the way to Berlin, declared, “If they build one of those things and stick it out in the ocean, it will be merely a monument to somebody’s stupidity and not much else.”
In Germany, zeppelin proponents foresaw increased transatlantic airship service. The Graf Zeppelin , carrying 20 passengers, had first crossed the ocean in 1928 and had begun scheduled transatlantic service to Brazil in 1931. The giant Hindenburg , which would travel the North American route, was being built to accommodate 50 passengers in luxury and 20 tons of freight. Martin Wronsky, the director of Lufthansa, referred to Armstrong’s seadromes as “swimming islands.” More important, Pan American Airways had contracted in 1932 for six flying boats for new North and South Atlantic routes (reaching northern Europe, for example, via Newfoundland and Ireland). They and the zeppelins made seadromes a very dubious proposition, said a New York Times editorial on November 16, 1933.
The Federal Aviation Commission convened its hearings on November 1, 1934, with invited testimony from Armstrong and other aviation experts, foremost among them Charles Eindbergh. Only a few short years before, Eindbergh had been a supporter of the seadrome concept, but now he was affiliated with Pan Am, and he testified that there would soon be “airplanes with a range of from 6,000 to 8,000 miles, capable of flying in excess of 350 miles per hour, at altitudes ranging from 60 to 80 thousand feet.” He said it would be “a year at most… before we would be flying in the stratosphere with airplanes having a 4,000 mile range, and it would be inefficient to take the time to land and refuel.” Lindbergh’s testimony, as well as that of Igor Sikorsky and Eddie Rickenbacker, ended any hope of obtaining government funds or other financial backing for the building of seadromes.
In his obsession with his seadromes, Armstrong had allowed himself to fatally underestimate the advances being made in aircraft design and technology. Still, he remained committed to his concept. As late as 1943, the president of Pennsylvania Central Airlines (which would eventually become part of United) proposed to revive Armstrong’s scheme after the war, this time with three seadromes to be financed with private capital. The plan was dropped, and in the 1950s larger and more powerful land-based airplanes began routinely flying nonstop across the Atlantic.
In recent years, Armstrong’s concept of floating islands has been given new life by the U.S. Navy. As overseas land bases become more vulnerable to being shut down because of host-country demands, the Navy is looking at the possibility of building large, floating offshore islands to accommodate ships and aircraft and serve as forwarddeployed mobilization facilities. The Navy calls this a mobile ocean-basing system, or MOBS.
In January 1998, the Office of Naval Research contracted with Kvaerner Maritime to assess a mobile offshore base, known as “SeaBase,” that would be the world’s largest marine structure, more than a mile long and composed of three large semisubmersible platforms linked by semibuoyant flexible platforms. That isn’t built yet, but the Guinness Book of World Records now recognizes as the largest man-made floating island the Japanese-built MegaFloat. A joint research project of the shipbuilding and steel industries, it measures 3,280 by 397 feet and draws 10 feet. It was completed in 1999, and among its purposes is to demonstrate the feasibility of floating airports. Armstrong foresaw other uses for seadromes too. He envisioned military “airdromes” serving as early-warning stations. Active until his death in 1955, he spoke of systems to intercept and destroy atomic weapons fired at the United States, possibly in a defensive ring around the country. He also anticipated the use of seadromes by oil companies for drilling beyond the continental shelf.
Modern-day seadrome projects have not progressed beyond paper studies and scale-model tests. People still talk about them and await motivation, opportunity, and money. Armstrong would understand and sympathize. *