PROFESSOR THADDEUS LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

Lowe-down on aviation history
Reporter, The (Vacaville, CA) - Saturday, February 3, 2007
Author: Doug Ford

I seldom watch The History Channel on television, but during last Thanksgiving week, I watched two shows that made connections with my own life and the lives of quite a number of other Air Force retirees who live in Solano County. What we share is having been among the last Air Force observers, a rating that was replaced with that of "navigator" 50 years ago.

One program was about Thaddeus Lowe , the first military observer to use balloons effectively as a device to gain information on enemy forces during warfare.

The second program was "Desperate Crossing," the story of the Mayflower voyage in 1620. Fewer than half of the Mayflower's passengers survived the crossing of the Atlantic and the first winter in America. The first American Thanksgiving was a modest celebration by the survivors and the Native Americans who had befriended them during their first year in the new land. Thanksgiving would not become a national holiday until it was declared as such by President Lincoln in 1863.

What tied the two programs together was the birth of Peregrine White on the Mayflower shortly before the landing at Plymouth Rock. Thaddeus Lowe , born in 1832, was descended from Peregrine White.

The Lowe family connection with aviation history continued into our own time. Florence Lowe , better known as "Pancho" Barnes, was a granddaughter of Thaddeus Lowe . Involved in aviation all her life, she operated the Happy Bottom Riding Club at Muroc Army Air Corps Station, which would become Edwards Air Force Base. She was a featured personality in the movie "The Right Stuff," which told the story of the first seven astronauts of the Mercury Program.

Thaddeus Lowe began experimenting with balloons in the mid-1850s. A few days after the Civil War started with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, which he was unaware of, Lowe took off in a balloon to see how far it would carry him from Cincinnati, Ohio. His 900-mile flight ended in South Carolina, where he was arrested on charges of spying by the Confederate Army. He persuaded his captors of his innocence and returned to Cincinnati. From Cincinnati, he was sent to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Lincoln about the usefulness of tethered balloons for spying on enemy forces and directing artillery fire. Lincoln appointed him chief of the U.S. Army Aeronautic Corps and, as such, he made more than 3,000 ascents, some from ships at sea. Many were critical to the success of Union forces.

During his lifetime, Lowe made and lost several fortunes. He is known in California as one of the founders of the California Institute of Technology, and as the builder of the Mount Wilson Railway, which from 1893 to 1936 was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. A part of the History Channel program, designed to illustrate the range of vision from balloons, was filmed a few miles north of Dixon, along Putah Creek.

Another famous American, U.S. Sen. Everett Dirkson, who would play a key role in the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, served as a balloon observer in France during World War I. In that war, airplanes began to replace balloons as the primary platforms for observing enemy forces. As time went on, other roles were developed for men on flying machines, but until the mid-1950s all except pilots were rated as observers. By that time the most common function for nonpilot flying officers involved navigation, so the generic rating was changed to navigator. Now that role has mostly been taken over by computers and other electronic devices, but the rating still exists.

Anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating subject might do a search on the Internet, where there is an abundance of material about Thaddeus Lowe .

INDEX PAGE

BEFORE THE WAR

CIVIL WAR YEARS

INVENTIONS AND INDUSTRY

NORRISTOWN PENNSYLVANIA YEARS

PASADENA CALIFORNIA YEARS

MOUNT LOWE RAILWAY

AFTER THE RAILWAY

LOWE FAMILY

BOOKS ABOUT LOWE

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES

EVENTS AND REUNIONS

ARTIFACTS AND HISTORY

ENCYCLOPEDIA BIOGRAPHY

ACCLAMATIONS AND AWARDS

LINKS TO OTHER THADDEUS LOWE WEBSITES