Most of us have heard about the bird strike that brought down US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan, after both engines were disabled by a bird strike on January 15, 2009. The birds were just flying along…minding their own business. Then suddenly, there was a plane…right in their path. So my thought is what were the birds thinking in that instant before their death. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but I do believe animals can think, and like humans, they might be thinking, “Oh boy…this is it!!” And it was.
In the world of NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida, birds are a part of the territory too. NASA usually takes their feathered intruders in stride, and in turn, the birds provide an extra level of interest in launch photography. For NASA the bird problem can be largely attributed to the nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge’s 310 species of birds that love to swoop through for a visit. Most of the time it’s no big deal, but when they start poking around during a launch, it can be a bit more problematic.
Many of the bird species are not a problem, but one particular type of bird is causing concern for NASA…vultures. In 2005, they had a bird hit Discovery’s external tank during the launch. A vulture’s average weight ranges from 3 to 5 pounds, so a strike at a critical point on the shuttle…like the nose or wing leading thermal protection panels could cause catastrophic damage to the vehicle. The foam chunk that fatefully struck Columbia’s wing in 2003 weighed only 1.7 pounds. Even with the space shuttle launches cancelled, there are still launches at the Kennedy Space Center, and something needs to be done to protect the astronauts, rockets, and equipment, as well as the birds from the harm that occurs when nature collides with NASA. That said, NASA designed special radar to track any vultures around Launch Pad 39B during the countdown to liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-121. NASA is also trying to clean up anything, like “roadkill” around Kennedy in an effort to prevent the birds being drawn to the area. They are removing the easy food source that keeps the birds around.
Vultures search for food during the day, often circle high into the Florida sky, floating on the thermal gradients, getting a birds-eye view of food sources. To mitigate the danger, an avian radar system known as “Aircraft Birdstrike Avoidance Radar” has been installed to track their movement around the launch area and relay the data to launch control experts. The system was developed by a company called DeTect of Panama City, Florida, which primarily has served the commercial aviation industry and the military. Hopefully the radar can give the launch team locations in real-time so decisions can be made to avoid bird strikes in the future.
When one side of a war takes control of an area or a fort belonging to the other side, they often change the name of the area or fort to reflect the name of the hero who laid siege on it. Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen became a British hero in 1776, when he and a force of 3,000 Hessian mercenaries and 5,000 Redcoats laid siege to Fort Washington at the northern end and highest point of Manhattan Island on November 16, 1776.
Throughout that morning, Knyphausen met stiff resistance from the Patriot riflemen inside, but by afternoon, the Patriots were overwhelmed, and the garrison commander, Colonel Robert Magaw, surrendered. Nearly 3,000 Patriots were taken prisoner, and valuable ammunition and supplies were lost to the Hessians. The prisoners faced a particularly grim fate, because many later died aboard British prison ships anchored in New York Harbor. Among the 53 dead and 96 wounded Patriots were John and Margaret Corbin of Virginia. When John died in action, his wife Margaret took over his cannon, cleaning, loading, and firing the gun until she too was severely wounded. The first woman known to have fought for the Continental Army, Margaret survived, but lost the use of her left arm. Margaret Cochran (Corbin) was born in Western Pennsylvania on November 12, 1751 in what is now Franklin County. Her parents were Robert Cochran, a Scots-Irish immigrant, and his wife, Sarah. In 1756, when Margaret was five years old, her parents were attacked by Native Americans. Her father was killed, and her mother was kidnapped, never to be seen again. Margaret and her brother, John escaped the raid because they were not at home. They lived with their uncle for the rest of their childhood. Margaret became a survivor…not a victim, and I’m sure that was why she picked up where her husband left off and fought as well as any man there.
While Margaret, her husband, John, and many others showed great heroics in the attack, not everyone involved in Magaw’s army, were heroes. Two weeks earlier, one of Magaw’s officers, William Demont, had deserted the Fifth Pennsylvania Battalion and given British intelligence agents information about the Patriot defense of New York, including details about the location and defense of Fort Washington. Demont was the first traitor to the Patriot cause, and his treason contributed significantly to Knyphausen’s victory. What a vast difference there was between this horrible, traitorous man and the very brave Margaret Corbin!!
After the siege, and in honor of Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, who had stormed the post five days earlier, British Commander in Chief General William Howe renamed Fort Washington, “Fort Knyphausen” on November 17, 1776. It was a devastating loss to the patriots. Today, the site of Fort Washington is Bennett Park on Fort Washington Avenue, between West 183rd and West 185th streets in the neighborhood of the Washington Heights section of New York City. The locations of the fort’s walls are marked in the park by stones, along with a tablet commemorating the location of Fort Washington, and the brave troops who took back the fort on their triumphal entry into the city of New York on November 25, 1783. Nearby is a tablet indicating that the schist outcropping is the highest natural point on Manhattan Island, one of the reasons for the fort’s location. Bennett Park is located a few blocks north of the George Washington Bridge. Along the banks of the Hudson River below the Henry Hudson Parkway is Fort Washington Park and the small point of land alternately called Jeffrey’s Hook or Fort Washington Point, which is the site of the Little Red Lighthouse.
Living in New Jersey, does not necessarily mean that people work or shop in New Jersey. Since Manhattan is just across the Hudson River, many people work and shop there…who wouldn’t, given the chance. I suppose that at some point it was decided that there might soon be too many bridges over the river, and maybe a tunnel under it could be built. The first known underwater tunnel to be built was the Thames Tunnel, built beneath the River Thames in London, connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping. It was built between 1825 and 1843 using Marc Isambard Brunel’s and Thomas Cochrane’s newly invented tunneling shield technology, by Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel. So the idea was not new, and in fact, not even new to New York City. The Port Authority had acquired the Holland Tunnel in 1930, and soon after New York and New Jersey authorized the agency to proceed with its plan to build what was then called the Midtown Hudson Tunnel or the Midtown Vehicular Tunnel. Creating a 1.5-mile-long structure, even above ground, would be no small accomplishment, but to build it under a riverbed was a monumental task. Hundreds of huge iron rings, each weighing 21 tons, had to be assembled and bolstered together on site to form the lining of the tunnel. At some point it was decided that Midtown Vehicular Tunnel was not grand enough…so in the spirit of patriotism they named it the Lincoln Tunnel, because of the George Washington Bridge. On this day, December 22, 1937 the 8,216 foot center tube opened in 1937, followed by the 7,482 foot north tube in 1945. The 8,006 foot south tube was the last to open, in 1957.
On average, the Lincoln Tunnel sees upwards of 120,000 cars passing through every day. It is one of the busiest roadways in the country. On the afternoon of September 8, 1953, the tunnel became famous when two men, who had attempted to rob a house in South Orange New Jersey were chased away by its residents. Their car’s license plate was relayed to the police. Peter Simon and John Metcalf escaped into the Lincoln Tunnel and were spotted by transit authorities upon entering. A car chase ensued amid the traffic through the tunnel. Police commandeered a delivery truck and fired shots at the getaway car as it swerved around other vehicles. In all 28 shots were fired, and the driver, Peter Simon, was shot in the head about three quarters of the way to the other side of the tunnel. The gunfight was reported by The New York Times the next morning.
The Hudson River current has historically stayed close to the edge of Lower Manhattan, but with the construction of Battery Park City, which juts out into the river, part of the current has been rerouted. Its new location brings it more toward the river’s center and it’s uncovering much of the soil lying on top of the walls and ceiling of the Tunnel. As of 2009, some parts of the tunnel’s walls have seen a soil coverage decrease of about 25%, making them far more susceptible to shifting or cracking in the coming years. Not good!!
The process of building the 1.5 mile tunnel was grueling. To support the cavities that the workers dug out, they installed a series of 21 ton iron rings set into the walls. The workers who dug the tunnels, called sandhogs, had to use a series of airlocks to depressurize and re-pressurize their bodies while entering a new section of the tunnel. With no ventilation, the air in each pressurized section got stale quickly. The excavation involved digging, lining the walls with the rings, pouring cement into every crease and crack to the keep the water out, and finally they moved along to the next airlock. Clifford Holland, chief engineer and namesake of the Holland Tunnel, died of a heart attack at 41 years of age due to immense stress during the construction, as well as the growing toxicity of the air in the airlocks. The Lincoln Tunnel faired better, with no reported work-related deaths.
When we think of dinners with the President of the United States, we think of state dinners with tons of security, and massive pre-planning. Presidential dinners have changed distinctly since Washington’s day. The nation was much smaller for sure, and he could easily get together with all of his advisors and Congress in one place, I’m sure. In fact, George Washington was basically in uncharted waters. So, he decided that on Thursday evenings, he would have the brightest minds in the nation over for a casual dinner. At that time the nation’s capitol was still in New York City, so those casual dinners were never held in the White House. George Washington and his family lived in executive mansions in lower Manhattan, which was close to other governmental buildings in that era. While Washington entertained foreign dignitaries and other heads of state at public receptions on Tuesdays and Martha Washington regularly invited guests to their home on Fridays, Thursday evenings were reserved for formal dinners with congressional leaders, their wives and close personal friends of the Washingtons.
In reality, these dinners were elaborate affairs. They started promptly at 4:00pm, because Washington refused to wait for latecomers. I guess every president has his own idiosyncrasies. The parties numbered up to two dozen people, gathered around a table set with the Washington family silver and china. Unlike some state dinners, in which the President and his wife occupy the head of the table, Martha Washington preferred to sit in the middle of one side of the long table and President Washington sat directly across from her. The ends of the table were occupied by a secretary to help with the conversation and roast carving. The roast carving was necessary too, because there were a lot of roasts to be carved. The dinners were comprised of three courses, but that did no limit the selection. There would commonly be upwards of twenty different dishes in each course…all of which were brought to the table at the same time.
The various dishes were the finest that New York had to offer, and the guests were lavished with the exquisite meals. Manhattan was in the middle of New York City, but in 1700, it was still quite wild. The island had an assortment of venison, rabbit, and duck that were hunted for food. Oysters were abundant in the Hudson River. Jellies, dried fruits and nuts were served alongside, although you wouldn’t have seen potato or tomato dishes, because those foods were regarded as unfit for humans to eat in those days. Wine was drunk with dinner, although George Washington was said to prefer a tankard of ale over a glass of claret.
When dinner was over, Washington would raise a toast to the assembly, and then the ladies would retire to Martha’s drawing room for “coffee and civilized conversation.” The gentlemen would remain in the dining room, lingering over cigars and wine, but not for very long. The president only stayed another thirty minutes before joining the women in the drawing room. One of his personal secretaries would stay on in the dining room with the men to preside over political chats for another hour or so, until the company left and the Washingtons’ Thursday dinner was over…until the next week. George Washington passed away on this day, December 14, 1799.
World War II saw the shooting down of more of our military planes that most of us want to think about. We saw the loss by planes being shot down, but also transport planes lost, and planes lost in training accidents. The loss was felt deeply. I realize that accidents are a fact of life and during wartime they are probably more likely to happen than other times, but some accidents just have a bigger impact on our emotions than others. Such was the case of the accident of July 28, 1945.
That morning, the skies over New York City were filled with heavy fog. A B-52 Mitchell Bomber with two pilots and one passenger aboard, en route from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, was diverted because the fog was so thick. As it came into the metropolitan area on that Saturday morning, air-traffic controllers instructed the plane to fly to Newark Airport instead.
The new flight plan took the plane over Manhattan. The pilots were warned that the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the city at that time, was not visible. In an effort to gain better visibility, the pilot of the bomber was flying relatively slowly and quite low. As the plane came in straight at the Chrysler Building in midtown, it swerved to avoid the collision, thereby setting it in a collision path with the Empire State Building, hitting the building near the 79th floor. The fuel tanks exploded, filling the building with flames down to the 75th floor, and out of the building at the impact site. One engine from the plane went straight through the building and landed in a penthouse apartment across the street. Other plane parts were embedded in and on top of nearby buildings. The other engine snapped an elevator cable while at least one woman was riding in the elevator car. The emergency auto brake saved the woman from crashing to the bottom, but the engine fell down the shaft and landed on top of it. Thankfully, the rescuers pulled the woman from the elevator, thereby saving her life.
July 28th was a Saturday that year, so there were fewer people in the building. The loss of life in the Empire State Building was only 11 people, but death came by way of horrific burns from the jet fuel, or being thrown from the building. The 11 people killed were all workers from the War Relief Services Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference…the office that the plane crashed into on that fateful day. The other three deaths were the two pilots and their passenger. The crash left an 18 by 20 foot hole in the side of the Empire State Building. The building itself, stood however, because, this plane was nowhere near the size of the planes that took down the World Trade Center in Manhattan on Sept 11, 2001, an event that probably seemed eerily similar to those who were alive and living in New York City on July 28, 1945. The crash caused one million dollars in damage at that time, which would equate to about 10.5 million these days. For many people this was an event, much like 9-11 that would never be forgotten, even though it was not a terrorist attack, but rather a tragic accident.