A Brief History of 1923's Midair Refueling Experiments

United States Air Force // Public Domain
United States Air Force // Public Domain

On June 27, 1923, two biplane pilots made history by swapping fuel through a hose while in flight. It was an Army experiment, working to make practical a stunt that wing-walkers had tried—with some success—previously.

Captain Lowell H. Smith and Lieutenant John P. Richter took off in an Airco DH-4B biplane from Rockwell Field in San Diego. An identical second biplane took off shortly after, flown by First Lieutenants Virgil Hine and Frank Seifert. Because both planes were piloted from the front seat, that left the men in the second seats to mess around with fuel lines. The cockpits were all open, without glass shields to complicate things.

Seifert lowered a hose from his plane, flying just a bit higher, and Richter grabbed it. Richter crammed it into his biplane's fuel tank, gave the high sign to Seifert, and the gas started flowing from the higher tank to the lower. It worked, transferring fuel until Seifert cut off the flow and retracted the hose. The teams landed successfully, then celebrated the first true mid-air refueling in aviation history.

Here's film of the event:

Two months later the Army topped that feat by flying three identical biplanes (again Airco DH-4Bs), two of them acting as support tankers for the third, which was again piloted by Smith. They proceeded to repeat the earlier procedure over and over, and ended up keeping Smith's plane flying continuously for 37 hours—an endurance record at the time. (The other two planes took turns landing and refueling throughout.)

This latter attempt was truly intense. In all, the trio of planes transferred 687 gallons of gas and 38 gallons of oil over the day-and-a-half-long flight. (The oil transfer was necessary because engines of the day bled oil at an incredible rate.) A similar—albeit far more automated—midair refueling process is still in use today.

Although these two flights in 1923 are considered the first "true" midair refueling procedures, technically gas was transferred between planes almost two years earlier. In 1921, the trio of Wes May, Frank Hawks, and Earl Daugherty hatched a plan. May was a stuntman and skilled wing-walker, who was capable of wild things like handstands on the wings of planes in the air. Maybe he could transfer gas between two planes in flight?

May strapped a five-gallon tank of gas onto his back and got in the passenger seat of Hawks's Lincoln Standard biplane. They took off and approached a Curtis Jenny, which was piloted solo by Daugherty in the rear seat. While the two planes flew side by side (these pilots were barnstormers), May climbed out of his seat, walked across the Lincoln's wing, and scrambled onto the wing of the Curtis Jenny. He then climbed into the front seat, unscrewed the fuel tank, and carefully poured in the gas. It worked, but it was slow and extraordinarily dangerous. (Plus the procedure was sufficiently slow that it didn't give a practical benefit to the recipient aircraft.)

For a nice history of earlier midair refueling, check out this Historic Wings article or watch this video history.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)