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Harold Gatty: Aerial Navigation Expert

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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After 26 hours in the air, the elegant Emsco monoplane City of Tacoma was in the clouds somewhere off the coast of Japan, returning to Sabishiro from an unsuccessful attempt to span the Pacific Ocean. Glimpsing a small break below, the airplane's exhausted pilot, Harold Bromley, dived steeply. When the plane finally broke into the clear only a few hundred feet from the ocean, it was headed straight for a steamship. 'I don't know who was more scared—the people on the ship or me,' the Emsco's navigator, Harold Gatty, recalled. Moments later, the airmen sighted the lighthouse they had passed the previous day, shortly after taking off from a nearby beach. Their gallant attempt to become the first to fly nonstop across the Pacific came to an end as they landed on the beach.

The year was 1930, and despite the failure of his transpacific flight, Gatty was on his way to becoming the man Charles Lindbergh called the 'Prince of Navigators.' World-circling pioneer Wiley Post and racing hero Roscoe Turner relied on Gatty's navigating brilliance to steer them into the record books. Lindbergh, Clyde Pangborne and Howard Hughes would also seek him out for assistance in preparing for pioneering flights, and when the U.S. military and Pan American Airways needed a navigation expert, they turned to the Australian Gatty.

Gatty's interest in navigation went back to 1917, when he was appointed a cadet midshipman at the Royal Australian Naval College at age 14. Surprisingly, his academic career was lackluster, particularly in navigation. When World War I ended in 1918, Gatty was discharged from the service. Bent on a career at sea, he joined the Australian merchant navy as an apprentice (cadet officer) on a steamship plying the route between Australia and New Zealand. While standing watch at night, Gatty studied the stars. In the log he kept for many years, he wrote: 'I suppose my imagination was appealed to by the stars and the moon which play such an important part in navigation. I spent many nights watching the stars. I soon reached a stage where I could tell the time by the position of the stars in the heavens. I learned the changes in their positions in the various seasons of the year.'

He eventually gained a second mate's ticket and served on several ships, including an oil tanker that sailed regularly to San Luis Obispo, Calif. Australia was plagued by recession after the war ended, and Gatty tried many jobs—skippering a cutter, working as an able seaman and running a waterborne shop in Sydney Harbor, delivering supplies to naval ships.

In 1927 he emigrated to the United States with his wife and 6-month-old son. Settling in California, he landed a five-month job navigating the 200-ton super yacht Goodwill, owned by sporting goods millionaire Keith Spaulding. Later on, when he decided that he wanted to spend more time with his family, he turned down a full-time position aboard Goodwill and opened a school for navigators in Los Angeles.

In the early days, Gatty mostly taught marine navigation to yachtsmen. Toward the end of 1928, however, his interest focused on aerial navigation—probably spurred on by the recent, highly publicized transpacific flight of Australian airmen Charles Kingsford-Smith and Charles Ulm in the Fokker trimotor Southern Cross. In Gatty's eyes, the key performer in this pioneering flight would have been Harry Lyons, the American ship's navigator, who kept the Fokker on course to its tiny island stepping stones.

Gatty perceived a promising future in devising and teaching a formal method of air navigation. His plan was to cater, in particular, to the needs of pilots making long overwater flights, where the aviator's traditional method of map reading by identifying features on the ground was no use. He realized that such training could well have saved lives in the disastrous 1927 Pacific Air Race, when three planes carrying seven fliers vanished while flying from California to Hawaii. One of his first students was Arthur 'Art' Goebel, the winner of that tragic race.

His aviation students learned the intricacies of navigating by the sun and stars, as well as how to determine and apply drift over the ocean. For many aviators at that time, it was a hand-to-mouth existence. Those who were unable to pay helped Gatty to gain flight experience, since he accepted informal flying lessons in lieu of his fees.

Gatty eventually collaborated with Lt. Cmdr. Philip Charles Weems, a brilliant U.S. naval officer who had a navigation school in San Diego that taught the use of precalculated position lines called Weems curves. That technique had been used by Lindbergh, as well as by Admiral Richard Byrd and Hubert Wilkins on their polar flights. Gatty and Weems had much in common and enjoyed working together. The system they developed led to Weems' generously declaring that Gatty 'has done more practical work on celestial navigation than any other person in the world today.'

Weems also enlisted Gatty as an instructor, so in addition to running his own school, the Australian drove regularly to San Diego to teach. When Weems was assigned as a navigation instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Gatty became manager of the San Diego school.

In addition to his teaching and navigational skills, Gatty was a prolific inventor. His first invention was an air sextant that used a spirit level to provide an artificial horizon. Next he produced an 'aerochronometer' that offset the inaccuracies that aircraft speed produced when a flier was taking a navigational observation. His most important contribution, however, was the Gatty drift sight, which he refined into a superb ground speed and drift indicator widely used by airmen during the late 1930s and eventually sold to the U.S. Army Air Corps.

In 1929 Gatty was approached by Roscoe Turner, then the operations manager for tiny Nevada Airlines, which operated Lockheed Vega monoplanes between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Reno. To help promote the company as 'the fastest airline in the world,' Turner was planning a flight between Los Angeles and New York, intended to prove the feasibility of a fast intercontinental passenger service.

Turner asked Gatty to lay out a course for the flight and accompany him as the Vega's navigator. Also on board were three passengers, a turtle and a lucky teddy bear. Turner and Gatty made four refueling stops on the 2,520-mile flight and, despite strong headwinds on the last two legs, completed the flight in 19 hours 53 minutes. Although their time was a couple of hours outside the existing coast-to-coast record set by Frank Hawks in a Lockheed Air Express, Turner claimed a new record for a commercial airliner.

The next would-be record breaker to approach Gatty was Canadian-born Harold Bromley, who until recently had been flying for a small Mexican airline. A former Royal Flying Corps pilot, Bromley dreamed of emulating Lindbergh. Instead of the Atlantic, however, he wanted to be the first to fly nonstop across the Pacific. Like Lindbergh, who named his plane for his St. Louis sponsors, Bromley's City of Tacoma recognized his backers—Tacoma, Wash., lumber tycoon John Buffelen and the city's chamber of commerce. Aware of the immense publicity generated by Lindbergh's flight, they were confident that Bromley would put their little city on the map.

Following Lindbergh's epochal Atlantic crossing, the Japanese had mounted an all-out mission to fly the Pacific in a purpose-built Kawanishi K-12 monoplane christened Sakura (cherry blossom). Modeled roughly on Lindbergh's Ryan Spirit of St Louis, but much larger, Kawanishi's flawed design was based on the theory that greater size would produce the range required for the 4,700-mile transpacific route—1,100 miles more than Lindbergh's New York–Paris flight. The Japanese attempt ended in July 1928, when test flights disclosed that, fully loaded with fuel, the K-12 exceeded its safe design weight limit, could not meet minimum climb requirements and had a range of only 3,782 miles. Kawanishi hung the expensive white elephant over its assembly shop. Attached was a sign proclaiming 'How not to design or build a special-purpose airplane.'

Bromley initially planned to fly the Pacific solo in an experimental Lockheed Explorer monoplane that had been designed for the 1928 transpolar flight made by Australian Hubert Wilkins and his gifted American pilot Carl Ben Eielson. It had languished in the factory after Wilkins had instead chosen Lockheed's new Vega monoplane. Unfortunately, the Explorer's landing gear collapsed during takeoff on Bromley's first transpacific attempt. Two more Explorers were constructed, but both crashed during flight testing. The first came down out of control after tail flutter caused its rudder to fall off in flight. The second crashed and burned while attempting a full-load takeoff test from Muroc Dry Lake, killing Lockheed test pilot Ben Catlin, who staggered from the inferno wreathed in flames.

Bromley's long-suffering Tacoma backers agreed to fund one more attempt. This time the Canadian chose an Emsco monoplane and asked Harold Gatty to be his navigator. Built by the little-known E.M. Smith and Company, the big machine was powered by a 450-hp Wasp engine and had a maximum range in still air of 4,400 statute miles, about 400 miles short of the distance between Tacoma and Tokyo. Unable to increase the Emsco's fuel load, Bromley and Gatty decided to reverse the route and start from Japan. The airmen were confident that they could make up the 400-mile shortfall by riding the eastbound tail winds that generally prevailed over the North Pacific.

In the midst of preparations for the flight, Anne Morrow Lindbergh arrived at Gatty's school. Her husband had used Weems curves on his transatlantic crossing, and on the naval officer's recommendation had sent her to Gatty for navigation training. Lindbergh was planning a transcontinental dash followed by a flight to Central America in his new Lockheed Cirrus, with his wife serving as his navigator. Lindbergh also asked Gatty to prepare route maps and Weems curves for the flights.

On Easter Sunday, 1930, the Lindberghs crossed the continent in 14 hours and 45 minutes, setting a transcontinental record. Afterward Anne Lindbergh wrote to Gatty: 'I was very much surprised at how easy it was to take the sights and how quickly and easily one could use the curve and transfer it onto the mercator chart and, finally, how increasingly good the lines of position turned out to be….Thank you very warmly for everything you did to help us (including the plotting board and your kind word of encouragement, and for our two very absorbing and interesting weeks of work).'

In August 1930, after shipping City of Tacoma to Tokyo, Bromley and Gatty flew it to a nearby naval aerodrome. When tests proved that the runway was too short for a full-load takeoff, the airmen searched for another site and eventually chose the beach at Sabishiro, about 200 miles north of Tokyo.

At low tide the sand stretched for 1l¼4 miles. Even so, with a full fuel load, the airmen still needed a ski jump–style ramp to boost the Emsco's takeoff performance. Over a period of three weeks, local villagers helped build a sand hill, which they compacted with a steamroller before laying a runway of planks leading down to the beach.

On September 15, 1930, the improvised airstrip was ready. The generous villagers, who refused to accept any payment for their labor, lined the beach to watch the takeoff. Perched at the top of the ramp, anchored to a big pile by a thick rope, the Emsco strained as Bromley checked the engine. Confident that the Wasp was delivering full power, he signaled to an axman to sever the rope. Even with the ramp's assistance, the Emsco gathered speed very slowly. Lifting off at the very end of the beach, it staggered along, just above a stall, requiring climb power just to remain airborne.

Bromley was eventually able to start a slow climb as fuel was used up and the plane's weight decreased. Four hours out, they encountered fog. Soon after that, the exhaust collector ring fractured and carbon monoxide fumes began to seep into the cockpit. Neither man realized how dangerous it was—even though Bromley found himself laughing uncontrollably and Gatty was suffering from coughing spasms.

Unable to climb above the clouds, Gatty relied throughout the flight on a few snatched sightings of the sun and moon and dead-reckoning navigation. Bromley's task of blind-flying was not helped when the Emsco's early model Sperry artificial horizon 'turned over on its back and died,' as Gatty later described it. The wind-driven fuel pump also failed, forcing Gatty to spend much of his time operating the emergency hand pump to keep the engine's main fuel tank topped off. He recalled, 'The first hour was pure hell, but after that I didn't feel anything.'

While there was a break in the clouds Gatty was able to get a positive fix, which disclosed that they had covered only 1,250 miles so far. Meanwhile, the anticipated tail wind had not materialized, and after some rapid calculations, Gatty estimated that they were still 36 hours' flying time away from Tacoma. It was clear that they had insufficient fuel left—their only option was to return to Japan. Gatty remembered being worried that Bromley continued his fits of laughter despite knowing that the enterprise had failed.

Bromley's erratic behavior worsened. At one stage he put the Emsco into a steep dive. Unable to break the pilot's grip on the controls, Gatty was forced to hit his partner with a spanner, after which Gatty took over and regained control. Bromley recovered his senses after that, and the two men took turns flying back to Japan. Gatty did not publicly disclose that episode after the flight, but he later told members of his family and his friend Weems about it.

As they headed back toward Sabishiro, leaks developed in the fuel lines, which Gatty repaired with friction tape. Bromley was again on the verge of passing out by the time Gatty's immaculate navigation brought them back to the lighthouse near Sabishiro. The Canadian wisely elected to land on the first clear stretch of beach. As the Emsco came to a stop, Bromley, apparently convinced they had ditched in the sea, grabbed the life raft and dashed toward the water with Gatty in pursuit. A few yards from the water's edge Bromley blacked out.

The airman awoke two hours later, and a doctor diagnosed that Bromley was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Three days later, Gatty collapsed in the street from the delayed effects of the gas. He had to spend several weeks in a Tokyo hospital.

When Bromley and Gatty learned that there was no chance of getting further backing from America, they returned home, leaving City of Tacoma behind in Japan to be sold. Two years later, Bromley made a long-distance flight in a diesel-powered Lockheed Vega, and there was talk of his making another transpacific attempt. But the Canadian airman failed to find backers, and he eventually joined the Bureau of Air Commerce as an inspector and vanished from the limelight. Looking back on his former partner's career, Gatty recalled, 'He never made the big time, but he was a magnificent pilot.'

Early in 1931, Wiley Post asked the Australian to join him in an attempt to break the around-the-world record of 21 days held by the German airship Graf Zeppelin. The one-eyed American airman, who planned to fly his Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae flat out, realized that it was vitally important to have a navigator who was not only skilled in map reading but who could also handle long overwater flights. The previous year, Gatty had prepared the charts that had helped Post win the Aerial Derby from Los Angeles to Chicago, held as part of the 1930 National Air Races. Gatty also prepared charts for Art Goebel, who took second place in the race. Post was impressed by Gatty's navigation credentials as well as his calm, no-nonsense manner.

Gatty was to receive $5,000 whether or not they broke the record. More important, he was confident that the globe-circling flight would make world headlines and, if successful, would prove beyond all doubt the value of his navigation methods. For several months the two men studied all available maps, charts, airfield diagrams and weather information. Their problem was to find a route with suitable landing fields spaced within the Vega's range. A shortage of airfields near the equator forced them to settle on a 15,000-mile route across Europe, Russia and Siberia.

Gatty prepared route charts for the whole flight with headings and timing based on still-air conditions. These he would adjust with actual data gained in flight from his drift and ground-speed indicator, backed by shots of sun and stars taken with his air sextant. To help speed up his in-flight navigation fixing, Gatty also prepared preplotted Weems curves for every leg of the flight.

Post and Gatty took off from New York's Roosevelt Field on June 23, 1931, and flew to Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, in less than seven hours, averaging a sizzling 184 mph. As they refueled, Gatty bought lunch at the airport cafe. He had just one dollar in his pocket, which he spent on sandwiches. Post was a little better off, with $28 tucked in his wallet.

Gatty later recalled the scene as his companion ran up the Vega's 450-hp Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine prior to the transatlantic takeoff: 'Wiley let the motor roar out its defiance to the 1,900 miles or more of open water which lay beyond the tranquil harbour. He cocked his one good ear to the tune of the exhaust, and his one good eye was glued to the tachometer.'

In fact, clouds and rain forced Post to fly virtually blind for much of the Atlantic crossing. Crammed down in the back behind a huge cockpit fuel tank, Gatty pored over his charts and occasionally peered down through his drift indicator. From time to time, he called to Post through a specially installed speaking tube, saying, 'Three degrees more to the left, Wiley,' or 'a little more to the right.

They landed at Royal Air Force Base Sealand, near Liverpool, England, having crossed the Atlantic in a record time of 16 hours and 17 minutes. Later that day they reached Berlin, where a huge crowd assembled. Utterly exhausted after 35 hours without sleep, the airmen took a nine-hour break.

The flight to Moscow was made in terrible conditions, with the plane battered by head winds and their speed reduced to 100 mph. Gatty wrote in his log: 'Heavy rain, hedge-hopping. No visibility.' Minutes later he added: 'Hell! Rain and more rain. Strong headwinds. Toughest part of the flight so far.' Post later said they could have never completed that leg had they not had blind-flying instrumentation.

Moscow's October Airport was deserted when they arrived. Later that night, however, the two airmen were feted at an elaborate banquet—and managed to get only two hours' sleep. The following morning they headed toward Siberia, where, during the refueling stop at rain-soaked Khabarovsk, a team of horses was needed to pull the Vega out of the mud.

While they were crossing the Bering Sea, storms forced them down to the wave tops. When they landed on the beach at Solomon, Alaska, the Vega hit a patch of soft sand and nosed over, bending a prop. Here, Post's years of laboring on an oil rig paid off. Using a hammer, a wrench and a flat stone, he managed to straighten the blades.

There was another brush with disaster when they prepared to restart the engine. As Gatty turned the propeller to prime the engine, it backfired and the flat side of the blade caught the navigator on the shoulder. Dazed and badly bruised, Gatty clambered back on board, after which Post took off for Fairbanks, where mechanics installed a new propeller.

Arriving in pouring rain at Edmonton, Canada, they were besieged by newsmen. 'Say something,' beseeched radio reporters, shoving microphones at the exhausted airmen. 'I'm tired of sitting down,' grunted Post. 'We're tired and we're dirty and not much to look at anyway,' added Gatty. The next morning, fearful of bogging down on Edmonton's soaked airfield, Post took off from the paved street leading into the city.

All hell broke loose when Winnie Mae touched down back at Roosevelt Field after a flight lasting eight days, 15 hours and 51 minutes. The pair was mobbed by a cheering crowd, and New York gave them the city's traditional hero's greeting, a ticker tape parade.

The following year, after Congress passed a special bill that allowed the government to award the Distinguished Flying Cross to civilians, President Herbert Hoover pinned the medals on Post and Gatty. The Australian was also offered immediate U.S. citizenship, so he could take up the specially created post of senior aerial navigation engineer for the U.S. Army Air Corps. When Gatty advised American officials that he wished to remain an Australian citizen, Congress passed another act that allowed a foreigner to hold the position.

Soon after that, Gatty was approached by financier Floyd Odlum, who wanted to enter a Douglas DC-2 in the 1934 MacRobertson England–Australia Air Race. Gatty had old-fashioned ideas about women pilots, however, and he refused the job of navigating the flight when he learned that his pilot was to be Odlum's girlfriend Jacqueline Cochran. During this time Gatty struck up a friendship with Donald Douglas and the two men formed the South Seas Commercial Company, with plans to use Douglas DC-2 airliners on an island-hopping transpacific air service.

When Pan American Airways, a Douglas customer, complained that the two men were interfering with its business, Gatty and Douglas sold South Seas Commercial Company to the airline. Pan Am then appointed Douglas to its board and employed Gatty to organize a similar island route to New Zealand for the carrier's seaplanes. He also collaborated with Pan Am's chief navigator, Fred Noonan, in establishing the navigation procedures to be used by the crews of the airline's transoceanic Clipper flying boats.

Gatty was in Auckland in 1937, organizing Pan Am's service to New Zealand, when he received a cable from Howard Hughes. The tycoon wanted Gatty to manage his forthcoming around-the-world record attempt and join him as navigator in his Lockheed 14. Gatty was tempted, but he decided to see through his Pan Am assignment. He did, however, suggest three of the four crewmen who eventually accompanied Hughes, including navigator Thomas Thurlow, a former Gatty student.

In March 1937, Gatty was the first to greet Pan Am's Captain Edwin Musick and his crew when their Sikorsky S-42 Samoan Clipper completed the first airline link between America and New Zealand. As Pan Am's man in the South Pacific, he had high hopes of extending the service to Australia when the events at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, put a temporary stop to the airline's plans.

During World War II, Gatty was made an honorary Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) group captain and worked for Lt. Gen. George H. Brett, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) in the South Pacific, organizing the aerial evacuation of thousands of civilian refugees and service personnel from Java. Following the fall of the Dutch East Indies, Gatty was appointed director of Air Transport for the Allied forces, attached to General Douglas MacArthur's Australian headquarters. Gatty coordinated the operations of RAAF and USAAF transports and a Special Transport Flight, which comprised a motley collection of aircraft that had formerly flown with Australia's domestic airlines and with KNILM in the Dutch East Indies. Their mission was to carry troops and supplies to New Guinea.

Early in 1943, after the Fifth U.S. Army Air Force took over his job, Gatty's Special Transport Flight was disbanded. At that point Gatty, who had found MacArthur extremely difficult to work with, resigned his post and returned to Washington, where he was employed by the U.S. Navy to write a book to help downed Navy airmen survive and navigate in their dinghies. Called The Raft Book, it was so successful that it was placed in the survival kits of all Allied airmen serving in the Pacific.

Following World War II, Gatty settled in Fiji with his Dutch-born second wife, where he served as a member of the government and formed Fiji Airways—the forerunner of Air Pacific. He also wrote a book on navigation titled Nature Is Your Guide, published posthumously shortly after he was suddenly struck down by a stroke in 1957. He was just 54.

Howard Hughes summed up the life of this remarkable airman in a cable he sent Gatty in July 1938, shortly after completing his record-shattering around-the-world flight in the Lockheed 14. Hughes proclaimed: 'Greetings and gratitude, trail-blazing pioneer. We only followed where you led.'

Contributing editor Terry Gwynn-Jones died of cancer in March 2001. A prolific aviation author, he made his home in Brisbane, Australia. For additional reading, he recommended: Gatty: Prince of Navigators, by Bruce Brown; and Around the World in Eight Days, by Harold Gatty.

This article was originally published in the September 2001 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!

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2 Responses to “Harold Gatty: Aerial Navigation Expert”


  1. 1
    brian beckham says:

    I have a fully operational us army air core sextant from 1929 with all updated patents and would like to know what its worth.thanks for your help.Brian Beckham

  2. 2


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