Saturday, May 31, 2008

A dumb excuse - but full marks for creativity!

I'm fascinated to read of the excuse used by a young lady pulled over for drunk driving.

They say a lover's kiss can be intoxicating.

Gianna Vigliotti, who was pulled over by police as she swerved in and out of her lane on Northern Boulevard in Manhasset Friday night, said that's exactly what happened to her, according to court documents.

After the 17-year-old from Glen Cove recorded a .15 percent blood-alcohol level in a portable breath test - nearly the twice the legal limit of .08 percent - she told the officer who pulled her over, "I didn't drink! I was kissing a boy who was drunk," according to the police report.

It made no difference to Officer Michael Pallazzo whether Vigliotti's speech was slurred from smooching or from swigging. When he found four full beer bottles under the passenger seat of her Volkswagen and an empty beer can in her purse, he placed her under arrest, court documents said.

She pleaded not guilty the following day, and was released to probation without bail. She is next due in court June 18.


You know, to get enough alcohol from a kiss to give her a blood-alcohol content of 0.15%, I daresay it'd have to be just about the deepest kiss ever invented - deep enough, in fact, to suction the alcohol out of the kisser's stomach!

Somehow I don't think the court's going to buy this excuse . . .


The mystery of Stonehenge deepens

Archaeologists excavating sites around Stonehenge in England are uncovering some fascinating new material.

Stonehenge may have been a burial ground for an ancient royal family, British archaeologists said yesterday.

The original purpose of the stone monument in Wiltshire is one of archaeology’s most enduring enigmas. Previous theories have suggested that it was an astronomical observatory or a religious centre.

But radiocarbon analysis of human remains excavated from the site have revealed that it was used as a cemetery from its inception just after 3000BC until well after the largest circle of stones went up in about 2500BC. Previously, archaeologists had believed people were buried at Stonehenge only between 2700 and 2600BC.

Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield, who is leading an excavation of the site, said: “The hypothesis we are working on is that Stonehenge represents a place of the dead.

“A further twist is that the people buried at Stonehenge may have been the elite of their society, an ancient royal British dynasty, perhaps.”

Last year the same researchers found evidence of a large settlement of houses near by.

Professor Parker Pearson said that the latest findings reinforced his belief that the settlement and Stonehenge formed part of a larger ancient ceremonial complex along the River Avon. “What we suspect is that the river is the conduit between the two realms of the living and the dead. It was the prehistoric version of the River Styx.”

This is the first time that any of the cremation burials from Stonehenge have been radiocarbon-dated. The remains were excavated in the 1950s and have been kept at Salisbury Museum. Another 49 cremation burials were dug up at Stonehenge during the 1920s, but all were put back in the ground because they were thought to be of no scientific value.

The new research provides clues about the original purpose of the monument and shows that its use as a cemetery extended for more than 500 years. The earliest cremation burial dated – a small pile of burnt bones and teeth – came from one of the pits around Stonehenge’s edge known as the Aubrey Holes and dates to 3030-2880 BC, roughly the time when Stonehenge’s ditch-and-bank monument was cut into Salisbury Plain.

The most recent cremation comes from the ditch’s northern side and was of a 25-year-old woman; it dates to 2570-2340 BC, about the time that the first arrangements of sarsen stones appeared at Stonehenge. The team estimates that between 150 and 240 men, women and children were buried at Stonehenge over a 600-year period.

Earlier digs have revealed that there were at least two more formations like Stonehenge nearby, although they've long since disappeared.

One of the megalithic finds is a sandstone formation that marked a ritual burial mound; the other, a group of stones at the site of an ancient timber circle.

The new discoveries suggest that many similar monuments may have been erected in the shadow of Stonehenge, possibly forming part of a much larger complex, experts say.

National Geographic is a co-sponsor of the current excavations, and released this snippet of a forthcoming program on YouTube.

Of even greater interest (to me, at any rate) is the flood of discoveries of sites seemingly similar to Stonehenge in eastern Europe. So far, British archaeologists seem to be downplaying any possibility of a link between them: but there's enough smoke to convince me that there's a fire somewhere.

In 2004 Russian archaeologists found the first similar site.

Russian archaeologists have announced that they have found the remains of a 4,000-year-old structure that they compare to England's Stonehenge, according to recent reports issued by Pravda and Novosti, two Russian news services.

If the comparison holds true, the finding suggests that both ancient European and Russian populations held similar pagan beliefs that wove celestial cycles with human and animal life.

Since devotional objects and symbols are at the Russian site in the region of Ryazan, their meanings might shed light on pagan ceremonies that likely also took place at Stonehenge.

Just as the location of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, appeared to be significant for the megalith's creators, so too did Ryazan for the Russian builders. The site overlooks the junction of two rivers, the Oka and Pronya. It was highly traveled by numerous cultures in ancient times.

Ilya Ahmedov, lead archaeologist of the Ryazan excavation and a researcher in the State History Museum of Russia's department of archaeological monuments, described the remains of the structure to Novosti.

Ahmedov said he and his team found ground holes indicating a monument with a 22.97-feet diameter circle consisting of 1.6-foot thick wooden poles spaced at equal distances from each other. Inside the circle is a large rectangular hole with evidence that four posts once stood in that spot.

In 2005 Pravda announced that many similar discoveries had recently been made, with some startling common features.

Not amateurs but rather experienced researchers discovered these ancient observatories. As a rule, all of these constructions are based upon the same principle: on the day of the summer and winter solstice the sunrays fall upon some definite spot of a sanctuary made of megalith stones or wood. This is strange that none of the researchers has made an attempt to compare these discovered observatories and find out their common principles.

In June 2005, a new expedition of astronomers headed by journalist and orientalist Andrey Polyakov left for Staraya Ryazan. The researcher is known for his expeditions to Ararat and Nakhichevan in search of Noah’s Ark.

The sanctuary near Staraya Ryazan is situated on the highest hill in the junction of the rivers Oka and Pronya. The area is unique for the great variety of cultures presented there: from the upper paleolith to the early Middle Ages. The previous expedition in 1979 was very close to discovering the sanctuary but failed to find it.

The construction is a circle of seven meters in diameter hedged in with wooden columns each is half a meter thick, at the same distance from each other. There is a large rectangular hole in the center of the circle and a pole. The wooden columns were destroyed but one can clearly see the round holes where they used to stand.

Ilya Akhmedov says that there are two more holes with poles on the ends of the ground. Two more holes of this type situated eastward and in the south were discovered around the area, the researcher says.

Within the circle, two couples of the poles form some type of gates through which one can see the sunset in the summer. Another pole outside the circle points at the sunrise. Archeologists discovered a small ceramic vessel with a delicate design on it: short lines make a zigzag resembling sunrays and wavy lines on the top symbolize water. The vessel belongs to the bronze epoch. In 2003, archeologists made a conclusion that the pagan temple was connected with astronomy; there were no settlements close to the place, all inhabited places were located some distance away from the discovery.

Andrey Polyakov says that it is bad for health to get settled at the junction of rivers. But at the same time, this place situated away from settlements suited well for rituals and observatories. Indeed, no settlement was discovered close to Ryazan’s Stonehenge, at the time when discoveries of everyday articles such as ceramics and adornments were abundant in the area.

This fascinates me. Is it possible that groups of early humans, devoid of all contact with one another and seemingly from completely different 'root' communities, separated by thousands of miles, developed similar superstitions and primitive religious practices?

I look forward to finding out more as the excavations in England and Russia reveal more of our distant forefathers and how they lived.


Skydiving tragedy in Spain

I was saddened to read of the crash of a Pilatus PC-6 aircraft in Spain yesterday, killing the pilot and a skydiver. A further nine skydivers managed to jump to safety as the plane went down.

Nine skydivers leapt to safety from a stricken aircraft above central Spain before it plummeted to earth with the loss of two lives, Spanish media say.

The pilot and another skydiver were killed when the plane, which had taken off from Lillo in the province of Toledo, came down after losing a wing.

Four of the parachutists were injured, two of them seriously.

It was not immediately known why the wing came off. The skydivers were said to include several non-Spaniards.

The plane crashed shortly before 1600 (1400 GMT) on Friday, about 3km ( two miles) outside Lillo airfield, the Spanish news agency Efe reports.

The injured skydivers, all four of them Spanish, were taken to La Mancha Centro hospital in Alcazar de San Juan, it says.

One man, 23, suffered a back injury and another, 52, is being treated for a neck injury.

The other two had light injuries while the other five jumpers were unhurt.

The plane, a Pilatus PC-6 used for skydiving practice, burst into flames on impact.

According to El Mundo newspaper, it appears the skydiver who died had been sitting in the co-pilot's seat, and had been unable to jump.

The skydivers were apparently filming an advertisement for Channel Four, a British television station at the time. I'm sure they were following on the latest Honda advertisement aired in that country, showing skydivers forming the letters of the car-maker's name. The skydivers and aircraft were probably the same as those used for that previous effort. It was shown 'live' (i.e. as it happened, not pre-recorded) on Channel Four on the previous day, May 29th.

May those who died rest in peace. It's sad that advertising can lead to such tragedies.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Strange furniture - but interesting

I'm obliged to Mary K. for sending me a couple of e-mails giving details of some rather odd-looking furniture designs that are nonetheless interesting.

From Animi Causa we have the 'Feel seating system', as they call it. It's 120 soft round balls, covered with an elastic material, which can be positioned in any way one can imagine them. Click the picture for a larger image.

The next is a rocking bed from Private Cloud, a German company.

Strange-looking, but again, interesting. I don't know how safe it would be to get too energetic on or in it, though!

I'm neither a traditionalist or a modernist when it comes to furniture - in fact, economy is usually my watchword. Still, it's nice to have one's imagination stretched by designs like these.


The great eccentrics

I've always enjoyed reading about eccentrics and their dotty ways. An article in the Daily Mail is chock-full of spicy details about them.

A few examples:

Where would we be without Jonas Hanway, the 18th-century philanthropist who first dared to walk the streets of London while holding a wooden stick which supported a canopy of oiled silk over his head?

Oblivious to the ridicule of passing coachmen, Hanway persisted and soon his invention, the umbrella, was jeopardising the livelihoods of those very coachmen who had mocked him.

. . .

Charles Hamilton of Painshill Park in Surrey was one of many wealthy Englishmen who, in the mid-1700s, advertised for a hermit to live on his land, offering £700 in return for seven years of ascetic solitude spent studying the Bible while dressed in a camel-hair robe.

Sadly, the only known applicant had to be sacked when he was spotted at the local pub three weeks after moving in.

. . .

... perhaps the most remarkable character of the time was John 'Mad Jack' Mytton, a heavy-drinking Shropshire squire.

He owned a bear, named Nell, on the back of whom he once rode into a dinner party in full hunting gear, roaring "Tally ho!" as his guests dived for cover.

Nell later ate part of his leg,but this did not blunt Mad Jack's passion for animals; at one point there were estimated to be 2,000 dogs in his house.

They were fed steak and champagne and the dining room on the first floor was fitted with a trapdoor so his pet giraffe could join him for Sunday lunch.

Mad Jack could be rather less kind towards humans. One night after entertaining his doctor and local parson for dinner he dressed up as a highwayman and ambushed his two guests on their way home, firing shots over their heads and chasing after them as they ran for their lives.

. . .

But perhaps one of my most surprising discoveries was an Englishman who in some ways way matched the behaviour of such eccentrics as bearriding 'Mad Jack' Mytton.

Like Mytton before him, Hew Kennedy is a wealthy Shropshire landowner and he has spent years building a life-size replica of a trebuchet, a 30-ton medieval catapult, the height of a four-storey building.

He uses this to send sailing high across his estate dead cows, small cars and defunct grand pianos with explosives attached.

'Why?' I asked him. 'Because it's bloody good fun!' was the reply.

The author is publishing a book about English eccentrics. Details of it, and more stories of the weird and batty, are at the link. Good Saturday morning reading.


Children will learn by 'downloading' information???

I'm intrigued by the vision of Chris Parry, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council in Britain.

Children will learn by downloading information directly into their brains within 30 years, an education expert has predicted.

Chris Parry, the new chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, said "Matrix-style" technology would render traditional lessons obsolete.

He said: "It's a very short route from wireless technology to actually getting the electrical connections in your brain to absorb that knowledge."

Mr Parry, a former Rear Admiral, spent three years determining the future strategic context for the military in a senior role at the Ministry of Defence.

He said the Keanu Reeves thriller may not look like science fiction in 30 years' time.

"Within 30 years, sitting down and learning something will be a thing of the past," Mr Parry said.

"I think people will be able to directly access, Matrix-style, all the vocabulary you need for a foreign language, leaving you just to clear up the grammar."

Thought-provoking, certainly: but I question whether this can work in reality. After all, both the USA and England are faced with the reality that almost half the children who leave school are functionally illiterate. They simply haven't learned while they were there.

Can a hi-tech method of feeding information directly into their brain actually make them take it in, and understand it, and learn how to apply it?

I say not. What's your take, readers?


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Doofus Of The Day #29

I love it when doofus crooks get what they deserve!

A pizza delivery driver's quick defensive maneuver kept him from being a victim of theft and turned the tables on his would-be attacker.

Tim Vaughn, who works for Papa John's, was sitting in his delivery car at a stop sign on Indianapolis' east side early Tuesday morning when someone stuck a knife through his window and held it to his throat, telling him to get out of his car, 6 News' Rick Hightower reported.

In a split-second, Vaughn decided he didn't want to be injured or worse and took an unusual step that took the would-be robber on an unexpected ride.

Vaughn pulled out his seat belt and wrapped it around the man's arm.

"I just kind of pulled it out and his arm was sticking in the window, so he was right here," Vaughn said. "I pulled it out and around and wrapped it and stepped on the gas."

Vaughn dragged the man alongside his car for three blocks, north on Emerson Avenue, before undoing the seat belt and letting him go.

"He was just screaming, 'Let me go. Let me go'," Vaughn said.

. . .

"I didn't feel like getting stabbed that night," Vaughn said. "I'd been there for nine hours and just decided the best thing to do would be to get out of it without getting cut."

Vaughn is a Warren Central High School senior looking forward to graduation.

Outstanding, Mr. Vaughn! If I lived in Indianapolis, I'd buy a pizza from your store, and ask you to make the delivery, just so I could tip you an extra $50 or so as a 'thank-you' for taking care of business. Well done, indeed!

The only enhancement I could think of would be to drive all the way to the police station, dragging the doofus along for the ride. However, that probably wouldn't be politically correct, would it?



One of history's worst-timed decisions

Back in 1967, King Hussein of Jordan was not very popular with his hard-line Arab neighbor states. President Nasser of Egypt called him an 'imperialist lackey' for his tepid support of Arab nationalism.

Nasser, you will recall, had kicked the UN peacekeeping force out of the Sinai Peninsula, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and announced: "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight."

Israel, nobody's fool, had listened to Nasser's comments. Their as-yet-unspoken reaction was, "Oh, yeah?" They would give voice to that reaction in spectacularly effective fashion in the Six-Day War, less than a week away.

King Hussein chose this propitious moment to make buddies with Nasser.

King Hussein was met at Almaza military airport by the president on an unannounced visit to the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

Five hours later, Cairo Radio announced the two leaders had signed the deal stating that "the two countries consider any attack on either of them is an attack on both and will take measures including the use of armed forces to repulse such an attack".

Again, Israel's reaction was an emphatic, "Oh, yeah?"

As a result of his decision, Israel reoriented its plans and included the West Bank in them. Within two weeks of King Hussein's uncanny display of political acumen, Jordan had lost the West Bank and Jerusalem; Egypt had lost the Sinai Peninsula and control over the Suez Canal; Syria had lost the Golan Heights; the air forces and armies of all three nations lay in blazing wreckage and scattered bodies; and half a million refugees had flooded into Jordan from the West Bank, and into Egypt from the Gaza Strip, creating what was to become the Palestinian problem.

They do say that timing is everything. I daresay King Hussein had plenty of time to ponder that, and rue its truth, in subsequent years.



Every so often, someone comes up with a gadget that makes my brain go into buy-it-NOW mode, telling me, "You gotta get this!"

Here's the latest.

A toaster with a built-in egg steamer has gone on the market to ensure that clock-watching commuters can tuck in without missing their train.

The Toast n Egg from Tefal poaches the eggs while the bread toasts alongside.

It follows the firm's ActiFry fryer, which makes enough chips to feed a family of four with one spoonful of oil, and the QuickCup hot-water dispenser.

The toaster and egg-steamer inone costs £39 and Tefal claims the gadget will revolutionise breakfast time.

It comes with a poaching tray and toaster slots, and also boasts a steamer tray to hard-boil eggs and a warming tray to heat precooked meats. After carrying out tests on the gadget, the consumer magazine Which? said: 'First impressions are promising.'

Now, if they'll just produce a model for the US market - and if they'll make one that poaches two eggs at once - I'll be all over it. (In case you hadn't noticed, I'm a big fan of poached eggs on toast.)


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Doofus Of The Day #28

Our doofus today is an unknown gentleman guy from Florida.

A nude maid cleaned up good at a Florida man's home.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says the maid stole more than $40,000 from a Cheval home despite not wearing any clothes.

The 50-year-old man hired the maid from the Internet on Friday to clean his suburban Tampa home.

Authorities say the woman arrived at the home in a one-piece, light colored dress. She took off the dress and cleaned the house for $100-per-hour.

Sheriff's office spokeswoman Debbie Carter says the man told deputies he left the maid alone in the bedroom to clean.

When the man's wife came home from vacation, she discovered $40,000 in jewelry missing from their bedroom.

Police are investigating.

Yep. I bet they are! Sounds to me like a classic case of diversion before action.

I have only two burning questions.

First, where (and how) did she hide the jewelry before leaving?

(Don't bother to answer that question!)

Second, what was his wife's reaction when she learned just how her jewelry had disappeared?

I suspect nude housekeeping will be the least of his worries in future. Instead, he may have to worry about selling his clothes to pay alimony!


55 years ago . . .

. . . on May 29th, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing conquered Mount Everest for the first time.

The New Zealander Edmund Hillary, and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, have become the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest on the Nepal-Tibet border.

They reached the top of the world at 1130 local time after a gruelling climb up the southern face.

The two men hugged each other with relief and joy but only stayed on the summit for 15 minutes because they were low on oxygen.

Mr Hillary took several photographs of the scenery and of Sherpa Tenzing waving flags representing Britain, Nepal, the United Nations and India.

Sherpa Tenzing buried some sweets and biscuits in the snow as a Buddhist offering to the gods.

They looked for signs of George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine who had disappeared in 1924 in a similar attempt to conquer Everest, but found nothing.

Then they began the slow and tortuous descent to rejoin their team leader Colonel John Hunt further down the mountain at Camp VI.

When he saw the two men looking so exhausted Col Hunt assumed they had failed to reach the summit and started planning another attempt.

But then the two climbers pointed to the mountain and signalled they had reached the top, and there were celebrations all round.

A remarkable achievement, particularly considering the primitive technology of the time. By the 50th anniversary of their climb, over 1,300 had followed them to the summit. At least 200 have died in the attempt (in 1990, the mortality rate among climbers is said to have been a staggering 37%!). In recent years, as new technology has simplified the task, death rates have dropped.

Sherpa Tenzing died in 1986, and Sir Edmund Hillary early this year. May both rest in peace.


Who says the Civil War is over?

While researching a property covenant issue for a friend, I ran across the case of Mr. Henry E. Ingram Jr. of South Carolina. This dates back to 2006.

It seems that Mr. Ingram had no love for 'Yankees'. He accordingly imposed covenants upon some land he sold.

The property shall never be leased, sold, bequeathed, devised or otherwise transferred, permanently or temporarily, to any person or entity that may be described as being part of the Yankee race. "Yankee" ... shall mean any person or entity born or formed north of the Mason-Dixon line, or any person or entity who has lived or been located for a continuous period of one (1) year above said line.

. . .

The covenants and restrictions are necessary to ensure that the Yankees will never again own or control large tracts of land that rightfully belong in Southern hand and under Southern domination. They are intended to prevent Yankee ownership of property stolen or conscripted after the great war of Northern aggression after 1865 by the Yankee carpetbaggers and scalawags. Delta Plantation will once again be available to the true Southerners to view, camp, hunt, fish, use, enjoy and share as true Southerners are taught from birth.

Mr. Ingram further stipulated that the land could not be sold to purchasers with the last name of 'Sherman', or who had last names, the letters of which could be rearranged to form the name 'Sherman'. However, in a later modification, he was more generous.

Mr. Ingram has recently modified the covenants to allow Yankees to purchase the property if they take a "Southern oath" in which they promise that "when speaking of Yankees, I will refer to them as scalawags or carpetbaggers." Moreover, they must "whistle or hum 'Dixie' as a sign of [their] loyalty and as a token of [their] new outlook on life."

I'm still shaking my head in bemusement. I could have understood such sentiments in the generation - perhaps even two generations - immediately following the Civil war . . . but in 2006? Sheesh!

However, the consensus of opinion was that the covenants were unenforceable and in violation of several legal principles.

Thinking about this, I could impose a really weird set of covenants on my property. I was born in a British colony to British parents, and am now living in the USA. This state (Louisiana) was formerly a Spanish, then a French possession, which was sold to the USA. That gives no less than five potential national origins to commemorate by means of covenants, not to mention regional variations (Cajun, Creole, good ol' Southern redneck, and Heaven knows what combinations of them!)

The Bowie family lived hereabouts for some years, too, and they had some good old-fashioned ways of settling disputes, according to legend. I wonder if I could specify that disagreements over covenants should be settled in 'the traditional Bowie way'?

Hmmm . . .


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wrongful conviction - and a belated pardon for a wrongful execution

Two stories of wrongful conviction hit the news today.

In Chicago, a man convicted of rape fourteen years ago has been cleared by DNA evidence.

DNA tests have exonerated a South Side man who has served nearly 14 years in prison in the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl who was attacked in the fall of 1994 as she walked to school, the inmate's lawyer said Tuesday.

Dean Cage, 41, was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 40 years in prison despite his assertions that he was innocent and was home at the time of the attack.

"I have my life back," Cage said in a telephone interview with the Tribune from the Illinois River Correctional Center in Downstate Canton. "It means the world to me. I never had a doubt. I am happy and blessed."

Attorney Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, which investigates wrongful convictions, said he was informed by the Cook County state's attorney's office that Cage's conviction had been dismissed after DNA tests eliminated him as the attacker.

Cage was to be released as soon as Tuesday night.

The exoneration by DNA is the 29th such case in Illinois. The case is another example of an erroneous eyewitness identification leading to a wrongful conviction, said Alba Morales, an Innocence Project attorney who has been working on Cage's case for several years.

More than three-fourths of the wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA testing have involved faulty eyewitness testimony, she said. And, like Cage's case, many of those involved composite sketches of suspects.

And in Australia, a man executed for a similar crime 86 years ago has been exonerated.

An Australian governor gave a posthumous pardon Tuesday to a man hanged 86 years ago for the rape and murder of a young girl, after new research discredited the evidence used for his conviction.

Colin Campbell Ross, who was hanged in 1922 at the age of 28, was pardoned Tuesday by Victoria state Gov. David de Kretser.

Descendants of Ross and the 12-year-old victim, Alma Tirtschke, petitioned for the pardon.

Prosecutors alleged that Ross, who ran a wine saloon in Melbourne, gave Tirschke alcohol before raping and strangling her on New Year's Eve 1921. The only physical evidence connecting him to the crime were hairs on a blanket; prosecutors said the hairs were Tirtschke's.

While witnesses gave alibis for Ross, he was convicted and hanged four months later, protesting his innocence.

The pardon petition built on research by Kevin Morgan, who wrote a book about the case called "Gun Alley (Murder, Lies and the Failure of Justice)." Morgan arranged for forensic tests on the original hair samples and showed that the ones on Ross' blanket did not match Tirtschke's. He also gave new character evidence about the prosecution's main witness.

Victoria Attorney-General Rob Hulls said in a statement Tuesday that he referred the petition to the Supreme Court of Victoria and received an opinion "that there had been a miscarriage of justice in Mr. Ross' case."

These two cases, in a nutshell, explain why I'm opposed to the death penalty.

There have been literally dozens of people on death row in the USA who've been exonerated as a result of DNA evidence.

At least, if they've been given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty, such miscarriages of justice can be rectified. Even if they've lost many years of their lives behind bars, they can at least be declared innocent, and given some compensation.

For those who've been executed, it's too late. No apology and no amount of compensation can bring them back.

And for those who claim that it's never been proved that an innocent person has been executed in the USA . . . if you can look at all the exoneration statistics, and tell me bald-faced that you don't believe they imply that one or more innocent persons have, indeed, been executed in the past, then I respectfully submit that you're deluded.

The Innocence Project (which helped exonerate Mr. Cage) was established in response to an authoritative survey, according to its Wikipedia entry:

The Innocence Project was established in the wake of a landmark study by the United States Department of Justice and the United States Senate, in conjunction with The Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Among the study's estimates are a 5% failure rate in the U.S. justice system, which suggests as many as 100,000 falsely convicted prisoners at any given time in the U.S. prison population of over 2 million inmates on the federal, state, and local levels. Other reports place the estimate as high as 10% or approximately 200,000 inmates. 75% of wrongful convictions are caused by eyewitness misidentification.

It's a horrifying thing to think that we're accomplices to the judicial murder of innocent people: but I'm afraid we probably are. I don't argue that the death penalty may be a legitimate function of the powers of the State, and may be justified in terms of certain crimes: but if we can't be sure that we're executing only those truly deserving such a penalty, I respectfully submit that we simply don't have the moral right to impose it.

I'd rather see every murderer and rapist incarcerated for life, without probation or parole, than risk killing one innocent man or woman. At least, with such sentences, restitution is possible if they're later found to be wrongly convicted.

The sooner the death penalty is retired, the sooner this moral burden can be lifted from our shoulders.



I can't help thinking that in caveman times, Greenpeace would have been something of a contradiction in terms.

I mean, can you imagine a "Save The Saber-Toothed Tiger" campaign - when your main object in life was to avoid being eaten by the damn things?

Be that as it may, Greenpeace went caveman-retro in Brussels today.

"Fred and Wilma Flintstone" were arrested as they approached the European Parliament on Monday to protest about the influence of the auto industry on proposals to curb carbon dioxide emissions from cars.

Six Greenpeace activists dressed as cavemen and travelling in a Flintstones-style vehicle were detained along with three others for public order offences, police said.

A stone tablet accusing car lobbyists of driving climate change was confiscated before it could be delivered to lawmakers, a Greenpeace spokeswoman said.

Some intelligent chap has even preserved the occasion on YouTube.

Now, if only the cops could have got into the spirit of the thing. What if they'd brought along some velociraptors instead of police dogs? I'd have liked to see that Flintstones-style buggy breaking several Olympic human-pushing-vehicle speed records trying to get away!


Victim Selection Process Redux

Readers may remember my February post about a sudden and acute failure of the victim selection process. That was when two dorks decided to rob an Australian entertainment facility . . . while fifty members of a biker club (think Hell's Angels in the Southern Hemisphere) were using it.

This is what's known in the trade as Not. A. Good. Idea. For the results, see the earlier post linked above.

It now appears that a third member of the gang idiot has been caught. He was allegedly the one who drove off in a stolen car, narrowly missing various irate bikers. (Of course, the fact that they were throwing furniture at him at the time might explain his haste.)

The 24-year-old was one of three men involved in the raid on Regents Park Sporting Club, in Sydney's south west, in February.

He was charged this morning with armed robbery, using a weapon to avoid arrest, illegal use of a motor vehicle, possessing a prohibited drug and driving whilst disqualified, police said.

The two other men involved in the attack entered the club carrying machetes and demanded cash from staff, police alleged.

But they failed to notice 50 members of the Southern Cross Cruiser Club enjoying a drink in the nearby auditorium.

"Fifty of us jumped out of our seats and raced out to the main bar," club president Jerry "Jester" van Cornewal told in February.

One of the robbers charged through a glass door, leapt off a five-metre balcony and ran through a bowling green, Jester said. Police arrested him a short time later.

The other escaped through an exit behind the bar, but was caught by Jester.

Two other men involved in the robbery were charged with attempted robbery the day after the robbery took place.

Now me, I'd say that arresting him was a waste of time and taxpayers' money, and charging him even more so. Why not simply phone up our friend 'Jester' and advise him of the chap's address? I daresay fifty bikers remember their previous encounter very well, and would be delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it with him.

At some length.


Monday, May 26, 2008

A call for comment, please

I'm grateful that many readers keep coming back to this blog. In the less than five months I've been blogging, visits are up to almost 80,000 already, which is very flattering.

However, I'm a little puzzled by the lack of feedback in comments to my posts. Very few of you seem to want to say anything. I guess that means either that I'm not posting stuff that's interesting to you, or that you just don't see the need to comment.

I'd like to make this blog as good (and as popular) as it can be, so I'm asking for your comments to this post. What do you like about this blog? What don't you like, and would like to see changed? In particular, how do you like regular articles such as my 'Weekend Wings' series? Are they of interest to you, or just boring?

Please let me know how you feel. I'll try to respond to your comments, and improve the blog where necessary.

Many thanks.


2008 Cheese Roll a muddy success

Fans of wacky sports will be delighted to learn that the 2008 Gloucester Cheese Roll went off superbly, despite muddy terrain.

Torrential rains over previous days turned the course into a slippery nightmare. On the other hand, injuries were fewer than in previous years, probably thanks to contestants being cushioned by mud.

The Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling And Wake is a long-standing tradition in Gloucestershire, at least 200 years old. A cheese is released from the top of Cooper's Hill, and contestants race to be the first to catch it at the bottom. Speeds of up to 70 mph can be achieved, so injuries aren't infrequent. Indeed, it's not unknown for particularly speedy (or inept) contestants to reach the bottom of the hill before the cheese, as this video clip from 2007 illustrates.

The event has an official Web site, which is already preparing for the 2009 race. The local BBC station has a special section of its Web site devoted to the contest, including several video clips.

Here's a longer video clip, showing several of the 2007 races. I'm sure the 2008 event will be on YouTube within days.

All I can say is, whilst I love Gloucester and Double Gloucester cheese, I'm damned if I'm going to chase one down a hill! I'll just buy mine at the supermarket, thank you very much.



The police at Narita airport, Japan, are rather red-faced at the moment. According to the BBC:

An unwitting passenger arriving at Japan's Narita airport has received 142g of cannabis after a customs test went awry, officials say.

A customs officer hid a package of the banned substance in a side pocket of a randomly chosen suitcase in order to test airport security.

Sniffer dogs failed to detect the cannabis and the officer could not remember which bag he had put it in.

Anyone finding the package has been asked to contact customs officials.

If it was the right sort of passenger, he's probably praising Japanese hospitality to the skies right now! I can just picture him on the phone to his buddies back home, talking through a haze of smoke, saying dreamily, "Yeah, man . . . like . . . far out!"

Only problem is, he'd better not get caught with it. Japanese law is very strict against the possession of cannabis - and what cop's going to believe that he found the stuff in his suitcase after going through Customs?


'Space metal' pistols raise questions

The BBC reports that a pair of historic pistols are raising all sorts of interesting questions.

They were a gift to President Madison (fourth President of the USA, 1809-1817) from General Ignacio Alvarez Thomas of Argentina.

The intricately decorated guns were said to have been forged from the iron of a fallen meteorite.

They were a unique gift from the commander of a South American region, which would later become Argentina, to the fourth US president, James Madison.

"Permit me therefore to present to your Excellency... a specimen of the first essays of the manufacture of arms established in the provinces of Buenos Ayres and Tucuman," wrote General Ignacio Alvarez in an accompanying 14-page letter.

Over time, they passed into the hands of Madison's successor - James Monroe - and are now on display at a museum dedicated to him.

Scientists have recently subjected the pistols to a battery of tests to determine whether the story of their origin is correct - and found that they're not made of meteoritic metal after all. Moreover, the intricately decorated handles aren't made of silver, but of an alloy unique to that part of South America at the time. Also, the pistols proved to be fully functioning weapons, not the decorative imitations they'd been presumed to be for so long.

"It brings up all kinds of questions," said Ms Budinger.

"What exactly was General Alvarez's motivation? He wrote this very flowery letter saying how much he admired the United States and how much he admired Madison but then he gives them a gift that was not where he said it was from and it was made from cheaper materials."

There is a possibility that the General was duped - that he was told the pistols were made of meteoritic iron and gifted them in good faith.

"He may not have known what he was giving to Madison - at the time there would have been no way to prove it one way or the other," said Ms Budinger.

The partially solved mystery could stop there; but the research team have one further avenue to explore.

A third pistol is mentioned in General Alvarez's letter that was also supposedly forged from Campo del Cielo iron.

"We're trying to track that down," explained Ms Budinger.

If it is located and can be put through the same battery of tests as the first pair it could finally give historians clues to the real origin of the pistols.

"If it looks exactly the same that tells us that all three pistols were manufactured by the same person and that either General Alverez was duped or that it means he was lying and that none of the pistols were made from the Campo del Cielo crater.

"If the third pistol is different entirely then I think we have fairly good evidence that our pistols may not be the Madison pistols at all," said Ms Budinger

"In which case it's a whole new mystery."

I'll look forward to hearing the results of the investigations.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

A coffin bar???

And while on the subject of the undead (see the previous post), I'm somewhat at a loss to understand the latest idea to generate tourist traffic in Truskavets, Ukraine.

Visitors to the Ukrainian resort town of Truskavets, already renowned for its life-preserving mineral springs, will soon be able to tempt fate by drinking in the world's largest coffin.

The coffin, 20 metres long, six metres wide, and six metres high will be called "Eternity" and is the brainchild of a local group of undertakers.

"Thirty cubic metres of pine have been used for the construction," said Andri, one of those behind the new enterprise. He refused to give his surname.

Once the bar is fitted out, coffins of a normal dimension will serve as tables. On each of these will be a candle, Andri said.

"It's our director Stepan Pyrianyk who had the idea," explained Andri. "He loves his work and reckons the project will bring tourists to Truskavets."


Listen, Andri, ol' buddy. There are certain things that might well tempt me to travel several thousand miles from my home to visit a place. Drinking in a large coffin ain't one of them!

However, local moonshiners might be interested. Their product's been locally known as 'coffin varnish' for some decades (centuries?). Might as well suit the environment to the name!


Annual 'zombie walk'???

I note with some trepidation that the city of Brisbane, Australia, has just held its annual Zombie walk.

More than 1500 people gathered at Roma Street Parklands adorned in costumes ranging from undead pirates to slaughtered nurses and even a deathly bride or two.

This year's walk, the third to be held in Brisbane, is part of a movement of zombie walks which has spread across the United States and Canada in recent years.

In yesterday's march, the fetid and rotting participants dragged their re-animated bodies along Adelaide Street through the city and on to Fortitude Valley.

Once in the valley the horde coalesced at The Planet Nightclub where, as zombies don't need sleep, celebrations went on well into the night.

Hmm. Personally, I have no ambitions to take on the appearance of the undead. I enjoy living too much, thank you all the same!

And I don't know whether a 'zombie walk' would be a good idea where I live. Round these parts, folks refer to such things as a 'target rich environment'.


Er . . . no, that won't buff out!

You've probably read about the crash of a Boeing 747-200 freighter aircraft at Brussels airport today. Fortunately, no-one was hurt, but the aircraft (fully loaded with fuel) broke in half and skidded to a halt just yards short of a railway line, and a few hundred yards from a group of houses.

The pictures of the crash site are very sobering. It's not yet known what caused the crash, but I reckon the crew need to be giving thanks to the Man Upstairs that the fuel didn't catch fire!


Weekend Wings #19: The Greatest Air Race Of All Time?

Air travel between England and Australia was slow to get under way, largely due to the enormous distances involved and the many navigational hazards en route.

In order to get things moving, in 1919 the Australian government offered a £10,000 prize to the first crew to fly from England to Australia within 720 hours (30 days). Six crews attempted to win the prize, of whom only two managed to complete the distance, and only one in the specified time. The winning aircraft was a commercial version of the Vickers Vimy bomber (a type we've met before, as the first aircraft to complete a non-stop crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean). Captained by Ross Macpherson Smith, with his brother Keith as co-pilot, and two mechanics, Sergeants Jim Bennett and Wally Shiers, they covered the distance in 135 flying hours and 28 days, departing on November 12th, 1919 and arriving in Darwin on December 10th. (Click on this and all pictures for a larger view.)

Both pilots were knighted for their achievement, and the two Sergeants were commissioned. The four shared the £10,000 prize money equally between them.

Over the next thirteen years, there were other flights to Australia from England and the USA, notably the first trans-Pacific flight by Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith and his crew in 1928. They flew a Fokker F.VIIb/3m trimotor aircraft named the Southern Cross.

During that same period there were flights from Australia to other countries, and many other record-breaking feats in aviation history. We've looked at the crossing of the Atlantic in the last three Weekend Wings articles, and there were many other flights across Africa, Asia, and other places. Aviation was still in its pioneer days in many ways - as the large number of fatalities demonstrated all too clearly.

The city of Melbourne in Australia was founded in 1835. In the early 1930's, as its centenary approached, the leading citizens of the city began to consider how best to celebrate and commemorate the occasion. The world was still in the grip of the Great Depression, with many countries only slowly beginning to emerge from their economic malaise.

Sir Macpherson Robertson was the founder of MacRobertson Steam Confectionery Works, a candy-making business. He had become a leading businessman in Melbourne. He offered to sponsor a great air race from England to Melbourne, to the tune of fifteen thousand pounds (US $75,000, worth about $1.5 million today). He is shown below with the MacRobertson Trophy, named after his business, to be presented to the winner.

The race would be decided in two categories. For the fastest speed, a first prize of £10,000 (equivalent to about $50,000 at then-current exchange rates, and about $1 million today) would be awarded, plus a gold cup worth £500. Second prize would be £1,500, and third prize £500. For the handicap section, a first prize of £2,000 was offered, and a second prize of £1,000. Aircraft would be handicapped depending on a number of factors, including speed, payload, range, etc. In the event that an aircraft placed in both the speed and the handicap races, the pilot would elect which prize to receive. All prizes would be paid in Melbourne in Australian currency, and all pilots finishing the course within sixteen calendar days would also receive a gold medal.

There were few rules. Any individual, organization or nation could enter, and there were no limits on the type or power of the aircraft. Five compulsory checkpoints were set up, at Baghdad, Iraq; Allahabad, India; Singapore; Darwin; and Charleville, in east central Australia. Pilots were free to stop at 20 other points where fuel and facilities had been provided, or make their own arrangements, provided that they also stopped at the five compulsory checkpoints. The pilot(s) had to complete the entire journey, and could not be replaced en route. Each aircraft had to carry food and water for its crew sufficient for three days, and lifebelts for each person for over-water flight, as well as smoke signals. Minimum instrumentation was specified, and aircraft had to bear a certificate of registration from their countries of origin, testifying that it conformed to the minimum airworthiness requirements specified for the race.

The announcement of the race aroused enormous international interest. It's difficult for us today to comprehend the magnitude of this event in the days when aviation was only just becoming something normal, not yet fully accepted as a genuinely useful means of transportation. Airline travel was still the exception rather than the rule, and accidents were frequent. A race of this enormous length (approximately 11,300 miles) was a huge challenge to the aircraft of the day, particularly when speed was emphasized. There was also the factor of the Great Depression: news of the race helped to lift people's spirits, helping them to focus on something outside the economic misery of their times. The race is reported to have received greater coverage in the news media than the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942, or the launch of the first Sputnik in 1957 - an indication of how great was the interest in this event.

The interest from the aviation community was equally overwhelming. Many of the world's most prominent aviators (and those who would become prominent) entered: from the USA, Jacqueline Cochran and Roscoe Turner; from England, Tom Campbell Black, Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison; from Ireland, James Fitzmaurice; from Australia, Don Bennett and Ray Parer. They are shown below. Top row, left to right, Cochran, Turner, Campbell Black and Johnson; bottom row, Mollison, Fitzmaurice, Bennett and Parer.

Over 60 aircraft entered for the race, but they were cut to 20 by the time it started. Difficulties included differing national standards for certificates of airworthiness, leading to the Royal Aero Club and the organizers rejecting some aircraft as being not airworthy; a lack of compliance with even the minimal instrumentation standards laid down for the race; entrants not allowing enough time to have their aircraft inspected for compliance (which eliminated James Fitzmaurice, for example, who must have been highly favored to win - he was excluded from the race the night before it began, because his aircraft had not completed load testing for fuel capacity); and sponsorship and funding problems.

The organizers went to enormous lengths to ensure that the race would be a success. Aircraft flew various sections of the route to identify suitable landing grounds; national governments were encouraged to improve facilities; the Shell oil company was contracted to supply aviation gasoline and lubricants at many out-of-the-way airstrips; search and rescue facilities were arranged, to be on standby during the race; and the co-operation of the Royal Air Force was sought, with RAF Mildenhall selected as the start point for the race due to its large capacity (for both aircraft and spectators) and (for the time) up-to-date facilities. For example, here's a DH.88 on the compass swing at Mildenhall, which allowed the aircraft to be pointed in several known directions and the compass adjusted:

Here's the airfield being swept:

And here's the ultra-modern radio equipment used by the organizers to control the start (and it really was modern for those days - most radio transmissions were still in Morse code!):

The organizers tried to provide as much information as possible to the competitors. They issued route maps of the race, as shown below. This one has been compiled from three different scans (at different resolutions) of different portions of the map, which means it's not all to the same scale: but it shows the direct routes to the five compulsory checkpoints, plus the 22 intermediate stops arranged for shorter-ranged aircraft. It's an interesting piece of aviation history. I wish I'd been able to find a full scan of the whole map, all in the same scale, but unfortunately one doesn't seem to be available.

From the point of view of aviation history, the MacRobertson Trophy race is particularly important. It fell towards the end of the so-called 'Golden Age' of aviation, when the pioneers who'd blazed the trails were giving way to regular air routes and the commercialization of what had been a hazardous sport for the wealthy (and those with wealthy sponsors). The aircraft that entered the race illustrate this very well. Some came from the old-fashioned biplane and fabric construction era. Others were innovative in their use of traditional materials in new ways, and would give rise to other famous aircraft in their turn. Yet others used completely new materials and construction methods, which would prove to be the foundation of the future of aviation. Let's take a look at a few examples.

The Fairey III was a reconnaissance biplane that first flew in 1917. Later versions, produced in the 1920's, including an all-metal fuselage (and, later still, all-metal wings). One of these later types, a IIIF, took part in the race, and is shown below. It was piloted by Flying Officer C.G. Davies and Lieutenant Commander C.N. Hill. Unfortunately, they were unable to reach Melbourne within the sixteen-day limit for the race, but pressed on, finally getting there on November 24th, 1934 - a valiant effort.

Another Fairey aircraft to take part was the Fox. Two of these biplanes were entered. One, piloted by Ray Parer and G. Hensworth, also failed to complete the race within the sixteen-day limit, eventually arriving on February 13th, 1935. Their aircraft is shown below, before the race.

The second Fox had a tragic accident. Flying Officer Harold D. Gilman and James K. Baines (shown below) crashed near Palazzo San Gervasio after taking off from Rome, Italy. Both were killed.

The de Havilland Aircraft Company of Britain was one of the most prolific and innovative manufacturers in the world. It had produced a large variety of very good aircraft in earlier times, and was well represented in the MacRobertson Trophy race.

The youngest entrant, C. J. 'Jimmy' Melrose, was only 20 years old. He'd just set an Australia-to-England record in his de Havilland DH.80 Puss Moth aircraft, named My Hildegarde for his mother, and entered the MacRobertson Trophy race to get home again! His Puss Moth was a high-wing monoplane, part of the long line of de Havilland 'Moth' biplanes and monoplanes. He would finish seventh in the speed category and take second place on handicap - an outstanding achievement. His would also be the only Australian aircraft to finish within the allotted time.

Another de Havilland aircraft in the race was the Tainui, a DH.89 Dragon Rapide airliner. This New Zealand entry was flown by Squadron Leader J. D. Hewitt and Flying Officer Kay. They would finish fifth overall and third on handicap.

All of the de Havilland aircraft illustrated so far were of wood and fabric construction: but the company was both technologically innovative, and patriotic. It was aware that the threat from new metal-construction American aircraft was very real. A year before the race, de Havilland announced it would offer a purpose-built racing aircraft, to be designed specifically for the MacRobertson Trophy event. Orders had to be placed by nine months before the race. Only five of the DH.88 Comet racers were built: but they were to make history - and a substantial contribution to British aviation during World war II.

The DH.88 was built of stressed plywood. The de Havilland engineers reasoned that such a structure would provide great strength for the lowest possible weight. A very detailed account of the design, construction and operation of the Comet may be found here. That Web site also covers some of the other aircraft in the race.

The use of stressed plywood was so successful that de Havilland continued to use it for future aircraft, such as the extremely elegant and fast DH.91 Albatross airliner of 1938-39.

This construction method culminated in the world-famous DH.98 Mosquito multi-role aircraft of World War II (covered in the very first Weekend Wings). One can trace a direct line of descent from the 1934 DH.88 to the 1940 DH.98. I'm sure Luftwaffe pilots would rather the racer had never existed, as its descendants gave them a severe headache!

de Havilland sold the DH.88's at far below their production cost, reasoning that it was only in this way that a British aircraft (with sufficient performance to win) could be entered for the race. They sold three to prospective participants, and their vision was to be amply rewarded.

Another British manufacturer was Airspeed Ltd. One of their AS.5 Courier single-engined monoplanes was entered in the race by Squadron Leader D.E. Stodart and Sergeant K.G. Stodart. It came sixth overall, with an elapsed time of 9 days 18 hours. This innovative monoplane was one of the first aircraft to feature a retractable undercarriage.

The Courier was enlarged into the AS.6 Envoy, a twin-engined version of the monoplane, also with retractable undercarriage. A single example of the AS.6 was modified to become the unique AS.8 Viceroy, built to the specifications of Captain T. Neville Stack and Sidney L. Turner to participate in the MacRobertson Trophy race. It failed to finish, encountering brake problems at Athens, Greece.

An unusual and extremely innovative design was the Pander S.4 trimotor monoplane, built by H. Pander & Sons in the Hague, Netherlands. It was designed to make the trip from Holland to Batavia (today part of Indonesia) in less than 50 hours, carrying mail. To that end, it had three engines, a sleek, streamlined fuselage, and some unique features. It successfully made a test flight to Batavia and back in 1933.

The wing was thick, to allow for large internal fuel tanks, and the undercarriage used wide, fat tires, inflated to low pressures, to allow the plane to land on soft or muddy surfaces.

The wings had strange fixed 'winglets' (for want of a better word) above the outer rear surface, looking not unlike the spoilers one finds at the rear of some modern sports cars. They can be seen on the outboard wings in the first picture above, and in this rear view.

There were so many advanced innovations on the S.4 that it attracted enormous interest when it arrived at RAF Mildenhall to start the race. Below you can see the reception committee!

Only one prototype S.4 was built. For the MacRobertson Trophy race, it was piloted by Gerritt Johannes Geijsendorffer (center, below), with co-pilot Dirk Lucas Asjes (right) and radio operator Pieter Pronk (left).

Sadly, it did not finish the race. On take-off at night from Allahabad in northern India, it clipped a high-standing searchlight with a wing. Reports suggest that the searchlight blinded the pilots, who could not see that their wing was too close to it. The hundreds of gallons of aviation gasoline in the wing tanks sprayed out, and were ignited by sparks from the engine exhaust. Trailing burning fuel, the aircraft crashed. The three crew managed to escape, with help from bystanders, although Geijsendorffer and Asjes were badly burned. Two bystanders were also severely injured. The aircraft was completely destroyed.

The United States fielded a strong presence. A brand-new Douglas DC-2 airliner, named Uiver, was entered by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. This sleek, all-metal monoplane with retractable undercarriage was faster than most of the other aircraft in the field. Uniquely, KLM insisted on running it as a commercial flight. It undertook the race with four crew and three paying passengers!

It was piloted by Captain K. D. Parmentier (right) with co-pilot J. J. Moll (left).

The DC-2's great rival, the Boeing 247, was leased from United Airlines by Roscoe Turner for the MacRobertson Trophy race. It was similar in size to the DC-2, but accommodated only 10 passengers compared to the latter's 12, and had the disadvantage that the main spar of the wing ran through the cabin, forcing passengers and crew to climb over it. The aircraft entered for the race had all passenger seats and other fittings stripped out, to make room for eight additional fuel tanks.

An extremely interesting American entry was the Granville Gee Bee R-6H.

Only one was built, the last in the line of Gee Bee racing aircraft developed by the Granville brothers in the 1920's and 1930's. They had a reputation for being viciously unforgiving aircraft, that would crash at the slightest inattention on behalf of the pilot: but they also had extremely high performance for their day. For example, James Doolittle piloted a Gee Bee R-1 to victory in the Thompson Race on September 5th, 1932 - and lapped all the other competitors in the process!

The R-6H was powered by a 675hp. Pratt & Whitney Hornet engine. The photograph below, showing the aircraft with propeller and cowling removed, is a good illustration of this nine-cylinder radial engine.

The R-6H, named 'Quod Erat Demonstrandum', or 'Q.E.D.', was piloted by Jacqueline Cochran, with co-pilot Wesley Smith. Regrettably, the first leg of the race was also their last. They flew non-stop to Bucharest, Romania, over the Alps. Reportedly the air was so cold at altitude that Ms. Cochran had to be lifted from the plane after it landed. The aircraft's flaps were damaged during the landing, and it could not continue with the race.

The R-6H was later used by a Mexican pilot, Francisco Sarabia, in an attempt to establish a new record from Mexico to New York City. He renamed it El Conquistador del Cielo. Sadly, it crashed on June 7th, 1939, killing him. It was restored, and is today preserved in a museum in Mexico, although no longer in flying condition.

The Lockheed Vega was a high-wing single-engined monoplane, made famous by Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post in their record-breaking flights. One was entered in the MacRobertson Trophy race, flown by J. Woods and D. Bennett.

Interestingly, the Vega used the same plywood stressed-skin construction method as the de Havilland DH.88. However, Lockheed did not pursue this, choosing to switch to metal construction for its future designs. The Vega did not complete the race: it overturned on landing at Aleppo. Its crew survived with only minor injuries.

Finally, a Lambert Monocoupe D-145 named Baby Ruth was entered in the race by J. H. Wright and his crew from the USA. Only one of this particular model was built, specially for the MacRobertson Trophy race. It withdrew at Calcutta, India, with mechanical problems.

As the start date approached, aircraft flew in from all over, and the atmosphere at RAF Mildenhall was electric. The organizers and the Royal Aero Club were run off their feet checking aircraft for conformity to the regulations, issuing maps and other information, and trying to accommodate the thousands of spectators who thronged the airfield.

The race began on October 20th, 1934. The hangar doors opened at 3 a.m., and take-off time was set for dawn at 6.30 a.m. Over 60,000 spectators showed up - a sign of how immensely popular the race was with the general public, and how it had caught their imagination. At 45-second intervals, the participating aircraft roared down the grass field at Mildenhall and climbed slowly away, heavy with fuel. First off were Jim Mollison and his wife, Amy Johnson, in a de Havilland DH.88 Comet named Black Magic. They were considered 12-1 favorites to win the race by British bookmakers. Last away, fifteen minutes later, were Captain Tony Stack and Sidney Turner in their Airspeed AS.8 Viceroy. They carried with them film of the start, to be shown in Melbourne on their arrival.

TIME magazine, in its issue of October 29th, 1934, described the race as follows:

The course covered 16 countries and three continents, required night & day flying over country perilous with jagged mountains, snake-infested jungles, deserts, hurricanes and typhoons. Toughest stretch was across the Syrian Desert where blinding sandstorms sometimes rise 20,000 ft. and huge kitebirds menace aerial navigation. Not much easier was the 2,210-mile jump from Allahabad to Singapore, with its Bay of Bengal water hop nearly as long as the North Atlantic. To the participants in the race Lloyd's of London gave a 1-in-12 chance of being killed.

Purely a long-distance speed race, the MacRobertson Derby was a free-for-all with virtually no restrictions. Chief requirement was that contestants land at five specified control points: Bagdad, Irak; Allahabad, India; Singapore, Malay Straits; Darwin and Charleville, Australia. The finish was at Melbourne's great Flemington Racecourse, where more than 100,000 persons awaited the winner.

First Day. First to drop out of the race were Wesley Smith and Jacqueline Cochran, sole U.S. woman entry. They quit at Bucharest. First plane into Athens was the Douglas D.C.-2 flown by Pilots J. J. Moll and Koene D. Parmentier of Royal Dutch Airlines. Their longtime service on the Amsterdam-Batavia airway (three-fourths of the MacRobertson route) gave them a decided edge over other contestants. On board their plane were three paying passengers -- two bankers and famed German Aviatrix Thea Rasche.

Turner reached Athens an hour after the Dutch entry, complained of a splitting headache. Speeding non-stop from England, the Mollisons leaped sensationally into first place when they swooped into Bagdad, first control point, hours ahead of the field. There Amy kept Irak officials waiting while she took a hot bath, her husband waiting while she made a little speech.

Hardly had the dust of the departing Mollisons settled on the Bagdad field when in dropped a second British plane, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Charles William Anderson Scott and Captain T. Campbell Black, famed for his spectacular rescue of Ernst Udet, German War ace, in the desert wastes of the treacherous Nile country three years ago. Lost, Scott & Black had made a previous stop at Kirkuk, where they beg-borrowed 20 gallons of "petrol" to continue. They left Bagdad close on the Mollisons' heels, flew straight to Allahabad, second control point, to take over the lead. The Mollisons had landed at Karachi to refuel, had taken off only to be forced back ten minutes later with landing-gear trouble. Seven hours behind the leader was Roscoe Turner. At Bagdad he became confused, made a down-wind landing, nearly cracked up. Stuck in Paris was Captain Stack with his complete newsreel of the flight's start.

Second Day. Still far in the lead were Britons Scott & Black in their De Havilland Comet GROSVENOR HOUSE. Behind them as they sped over the Bay of Bengal for Singapore were Parmentier & Moll. At Allahabad these two had lost valuable minutes when they carelessly took off without one of their passengers, had to return to pick him up.

Two other Hollanders, Asjes & Geysendorfer, smashed their undercarriage landing at Allahabad. Their mishap put Turner & Pangborn in fourth place, which soon became third when they passed the Mollisons at Karachi.

The Mollisons left there two minutes later, got lost, developed motor trouble, limped back to Karachi. Turner & Pangborn likewise got lost, nearly ran out of gas, finally landed at Allahabad. First accident of the race occurred at Aleppo, Syria, when Australians Woods & Bennett turned over in landing.

Scott & Black, pushing their engines to the limit, swept into Singapore that night with heavy black smoke pouring from their exhaust. Alarmed field officials rushed out with fire engines. Scott asked for two glasses of beer, danced with nervous impatience to be off. Onetime light heavyweight champion of the R.A.F., he was visibly suffering from the terrific strain of his flight. Eight hours after Scott's departure, Parmentier reached Singapore. Said that doughty Dutchman: "I'm in a great hurry."

Back at Karachi the Mollisons got off a third time, had engine trouble all the way to Allahabad, were grounded there with a broken oil line. Hopelessly behind in the race was Captain Stack with the newsreel of the start at Mildenhall. Grounded at Marseille, harassed by motor trouble, he announced he would continue as an "amateur."

Third Day. Biggest sensation of the race came just before dawn of the third day, when burly Lieutenant Scott and dapper Captain Black flew their scarlet Comet into Darwin. They had covered the last 300 miles over water on one motor, risked death landing on a field made soggy by the first rain in seven months. Said sandy-haired Lieutenant Scott: "We've had a devil of a trip." But they had flown 9,000 miles in two days, had broken the England-Australia record of 162 hr. in the unbelievable time of 52 hr. 33 min., were only 2,000 miles from their goal at Melbourne.

First fatality of the race brought Death to two Britons, Flying Officer Harold D. Gilman and Amateur Pilot James Baines. Bad luck had plagued them from the start. Taking off from Rome, 10,000 miles behind the race leaders, they crashed near Palazzo San Gervasio, were burned beyond recognition.

Scott & Black, keeping up their sensational pace, flashed into Charleville, refueled, sped toward the finish where waiting thousands cheered their progress, reported over loudspeakers. With one motor dead, with only two hours sleep since leaving England, the Britons triumphantly set their scarlet torpedo down in Melbourne at 3:34 p.m. In 71 hr. 1 min. 3 sec. - just under three days - they had flown halfway around the world.

It was a truly remarkable achievement by Tom Campbell Black and his co-pilot, Charles Scott. They conquered extreme exhaustion to win the race. By the time they reached Charleville in central Australia, Scott was so tired that he had to be helped from the aircraft and led to the terminal, shown below.

Black and Scott were desperate to get away, as the KLM DC-2 was close on their heels, but both cylinder heads of their engines had to be replaced. While mechanics worked frantically, the two had a quick meal, then took off again. Both were so tired that they tried to take half-hour turns at the controls, allowing the other to sleep, but even this proved impractical. They ended up each flying for ten minutes at a time - all they could handle.

On arrival at Melbourne they had to fly over Flemington Racecourse, where 100,000 people had assembled to greet them, and pass between two pylons at less than 200 feet altitude. They then flew on to an airstrip at Laverton, where they landed.

As soon as they'd come to a stop, they were hurried to a Puss Moth (seen waiting for them in the picture above) and flown back to Flemington Racecourse (their DH.88 needed a longer landing run than was available there). As an observer described it:

The scene at Flemington Racecourse was long to be remembered by everyone there, and indeed is still remembered. Ruth Church, who was then a girl, recalls that the air was electric with excitement as that little red plane shot over our heads. A roar went up from the crowd and every man threw his hat into the air. In the distance the crowds, happily chanting and singing, saw the Moth land and its occupants alight and transfer to a procession of cars already lined up and waiting. In the first car were Scott and Black, both looking grimed and slightly dazed but still upright, and they made their way to the dias where the Lord Mayor, Sir Harold Gengoult-Smith, began the formal welcome, "You have thrilled the world, and earned the Empire's admiration and Australia's homage".

Congratulations poured in from all over the world. A telegram from King George V read: "The Queen and I warmly congratulate you both on your wonderful feat. We are very glad we saw you at Mildenhall before setting out on your great adventure, and trust that you are not unduly tired after the strain of the past few days."

Meanwhile, the other competitors were coming in. Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the race happened to the KLM DC-2. As Wikipedia describes it:

The most dramatic part of the race was when the 'Uiver', hopelessly lost after becoming caught in a thunderstorm, ended up over Albury, New South Wales. The townsfolk responded magnificently - a postal clerk, Mr R. J. Turner, went to the power station and signalled "Albury" to the plane by turning the town lights on and off, and Arthur Newnham, the announcer on radio station 2CO Corowa, appealed for cars to line up on the racecourse to light up a runway for the plane. The plane landed, and next morning was pulled out of the mud by locals to fly on and win the handicap section of the race. In gratitude KLM made a large donation to Albury Hospital and Alf Waugh, the Mayor of Albury, was awarded a title in Dutch nobility.

This incident had a lasting effect on the residents of Albury. They bought a derelict DC-2 and set it up as a permanent memorial, and it's currently undergoing restoration. The video clip below shows their memory of what happened that night.

The DC-2 finished second in elapsed time, and first on handicap. As per the rules of the race, the pilot had to choose which prize to accept. Given that first prize for a handicap win was £2,000, while second prize on elapsed time was £1,500, it didn't take long for Captain Parmentier to choose the handicap prize! The next entrant to finish was Roscoe Turner in his Boeing 247D, and he took the second-place prize for elapsed time. It was very significant that the second and third places had been taken by commercial airliners, not specialized racing aircraft like the winner. This showed the enormous progress in aviation that had been made in America, and was a boost to both Douglas and Boeing in their efforts to sell modern aircraft to the airlines of the day.

Eventually nine of the twenty entrants were to reach Melbourne inside the sixteen-day deadline to complete the race. Three more arrived after the deadline, and were not counted as official finishers. Five withdrew due to problems of one sort or another. Three were damaged or destroyed in crashes, with two fatalities and four people (including two bystanders) seriously injured.

A number of the aircraft that took part in the MacRobertson Trophy race are still with us. The winning aircraft, DH.88 Grosvenor House, has been restored, and is today owned and operated by the Shuttleworth Collection in England. It still puts on taxiing demonstrations, but can't fly at present because the runway at Shuttleworth's present airstrip is too short. It's being extended, so the odds are good that Grosvenor House will soon be in the air again. She's shown below at a previous Shuttleworth flying demonstration.

Another DH.88, Jim Mollison's and Amy Johnson's Black Magic, was shipped to Portugal after the race. It was recently rediscovered there, and is being restored. Hopefully this classic racer will share the skies with Grosvenor House soon.

The DC-2 Uiver crashed some time after the race, killing all aboard. However, KLM operates another DC-2, the only one still in flying condition anywhere in the world, which has been restored to a duplicate of Uiver. A video clip of it flying can be seen here.

The DC-2 was to give rise to the DC-3, perhaps the most important transport aircraft in history, given its role in World War II. Likewise, the Boeing 247 was to influence the design of the B-17 Flying Fortress, which equipped the USAAF during World War II in both the European and Pacific theaters of operation.

As Arthur Swinson observed in his 1968 book, 'The Great Air Race':

From casual beginnings, as an extra attraction in the Melbourne Centenary celebrations, the MacRobertson International Air Race grew into the sporting event of the century. Nothing of a similar nature before or since has received so much newspaper and wireless coverage. A trial of strength on the grand scale, it had attracted all the legendary pilots of the day; Jim Mollison, Amy Johnson, Ray Parer, Jacqueline Cochran, Colonel Roscoe Turner, as well as the winners Scott and Black. The public, encouraged by enthusiastic Press panegyrics, came to expect miracles; and for once they were not disappointed. This race had everything: drama, suspense, comedy, tragedy and, above all, speed, as every existing record was broken by seemingly impossible margins.

In retrospect, the MacRobertson Race can be seen as a watershed in aviation history; the last flourish of the heroic, pioneer age. The astonishing performances of the giant
Douglas and Boeing aircraft, which held their own with the racing Comets, demonstrated that flying was no longer a dangerous, arduous sport for irresponsible speed-addicts, but safe, practical and very fast. In a few days the world had shrunk to a third of its former size. "A new element," said Winston Churchill, "has been conquered for the use of man."