Glimpses into the life of Captain Philip Van Horne Weems

Captain Philip Van Horne Weems is a legend. He id the father of Celestial Navigation. He taught Lindberg to navigate. He taught Admiral Byrd to fly. He was  was an archeologist.  He was a writer and a historian. The list is long and distiguished. The following pages give some glimpses into his life and his greatness.



N. W. Emmot

PVH Weems

If the captain of the ships in which Saint Paul was wrecked on Malta had come back to earth in 1730 he would have felt very much at home.  Navigation methods would have scarcely changed in 1650 years.  Had he come  back half a century later, however, the art and science of navigation would have changed out of all recognition.  The marine sextant, unchanged in its essentials today, was demonstrated in 1731.  Just two centuries ago the Nautical Almanac was first published, giving sea captains the means,  together with their sextants, of doing serious celestial navigation.  By 1770 the Harrison chronometer was in use.  In the first third of the 19th century the Sumner method of plotting celestial position lines was introduced.  Except for minor details, marine navigation, and to a very large extent  air navigation as well, remained the same from then until the Nineteen-Thirties.

 The Thirties began a period of revolutionary changes in navigation.  Foremost among those responsible for these improvements is Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, U.S. Navy (Retired). Weems, born in 1889 and orphaned as a child, grew up on a Tennessee farm, with his six brothers and one sister worked themselves after their widowed mother died.  In 1908, after a year at a prep school, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy, where he sailed on the last cruise of the Navy’s square-rigged sailing ship Hartford. During his student days he began his love affair with the stars which lasted the rest of his life.  After he graduated in 1912, he specialized in navigation, especially celestial navigation, practicing it at sea and instructing midshipmen in Annapolis classrooms.

When Weems first used his “hambone” sextant aboard the ships of the pre-World-War-I fleet, he used the American Nautical Almanac, which still contained tables for the solution of longitude by means of lunar distances.  First published in 1757, these tables allowed navigators to calculate their longitude even without an accurate chronometer, but the observations were so difficult, and the method of reducing the observations so complicated and lengthy, that Weems had never met a navigator who knew a navigator who ever made practical use of the technique.

 The Nautical Almanac still tabulated the positions of the heavenly bodies using hours and minutes of Right Ascension.  Celestial observations were still worked out by  most navigators by solving the celestial spherical triangle by means of logarithms, the biggest improvement here during the previous century being the adoption of the Marcq  St. Hilaire azimuth  intercept method, coupled with improved haversine tables devised by Percy L.H. Davis.  (The big advantage of haversines is that they are always positive, and obviate blunders from giving quantities the wrong signs).  Solving a celestial sight, however, was a long process that required a lot of arithmetic, although with eight-knot ships nobody was in much of a hurry.

 By the time Weems had been in the navigation business for ten years, however, he had begun to do a very un-expert-like thing -- he was trying to simplify matters.  Ordinarily, people who become experts have a vested interest in keeping things complicated, since this makes their expertise more valuable.  Weems, however, had begun to interest himself in aviation, and particularly air navigation, where the ten-fold increase in speed meant that the navigator wais always in a hurry.  The old ways, hallowed by centuries of use aboard ships, were no longer fast enough for those who had to cope with the winds aloft.

 By  1928 Weems was well enough known in navigation circles to take a month’s leave to teach celestial navigation to Charles A. Lindbergh, who was well known as being the 105th man to fly the Atlantic, as well as the third man to fly it non-stop, and the first to fly it solo.  While taking sun-sights for practice, Major Tom Lanphier, U.S. Army Air Corps, at Selfridge Field, Michigan, pointed out the weaknesses in transferring a sun-line ahead for an hour to get a running fix, as had been done for decades aboard ship.  This set Weems to thinking that a fix obtained from sights on the sun and also the moon would provide an accurate fix, the difficulty being that reducing the moon observation was fearsomely complicated.

 Weems turned the matter over in his mind, until one morning at 4:00 AM a partial solution occurred to him, which he forthwith suggested to the Naval Observatory superintendent.  Solving sights involved adding or subtracting longitude, which is recorded in degrees, from right ascension, which was then  recorded in hours (at fifteen degrees per hour).  After receiving suggestions from several other navigators, Weems in 1929 came up with his “Lunar Ephemeris for Aviators,” which tabulated the moon’s Greenwich Hour Angle in degrees of arc against ten minute intervals of Greenwich mean time.  This was an enormous simplification from the practice followed by the Nautical Almanac, and is essentially the same as that used today by the Air Almanac, and also the Nautical Almanac (though here the periods are hourly),  The idea was so good that Weems extended it to stars, planets, and the sun, coming up with his “Air Almanac” in 1933.

 A prophet, however, has no honor in his own country, and the Air Almanac was discontinued in 1934.  In 1936 the idea was suggested to the British, who grasped it enthusiastically, and have published it every year since 1937 in a book whose  cover bears a design of an Elizabethan seaman shooting the sun with a cross-staff, together with the slogan “Man Is Not Lost.”

 The United States began publishing the American version of the Air Almanac in  1941, and then shortly after the war the United Kingdom and the United States began publishing it jointly.  Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, as a mark of respect to Capt. Weems, provided him with advance copies free of charge; the United States provides him with as many copies as he wishes to pay for.  The Nautical Almanac was also re-designed to bring it into line with the streamlined methods which had worked out well in the air.    

 Meanwhile Weems was progressing further in his endeavor to simplify celestial navigation in the air.  Working out celestial sights by logarithms was still popular at sea, but “short”  methods  were gaining favor.  “Short” tables (which air navigators paradoxically thought were long ones) short-circuited the logarithm route by tabulating certain values (which were, indeed, often logarithms themselves) which, when added and subtracted according to a set of rules, arrived at a star azimuth to plot  (i.e., the direction to look to see the star) and also a tabulated height (i.e., the altitude at which the star  would appear if the navigation were actually located at the navigator’s assumed position).  Almost always these tables relied on the principle that splitting any spherical triangle into two right-angle triangles by dropping a perpendicular from the apex to one side wouldl make the solution easier.  The calculations and table-searches for “short” tables were easier than they were when using logarithms, but they were still rather lengthy and vulnerable to error, especially when the navigator  was in a hurry, which he usually was aboard an aircraft.  There were a myriad of short methods, including Ageton’s, Ogura’s, Dreisonstok’s, Smart and Shearme, and Comrie’s tables, to name only a few.

 The big  advantage  of short methods were that they were usually contained in a small book.  Their chief competitor was the pre-computed table, which did all the computational work beforehand and then tabulated the actual altitude and azimuth for any combination of even degrees of latitude and hour-angle, combined with the declination of the body being observed.  Examples of these tables were the British Air Navigation Tables and HO 218, first used during the Second World War,  HO 214 widely used for surface navigation, and HO 249, the simplified and improved version published  since the early  50’s.  These tables were convenient and faster than the short methods, but they required a large number of books.

 Weems pondered the matter at length and came up with a method which depended on the fact that circles of equal altitude (really the position-circles which the navigator wishes to plot) ring the sub-stellar point of each star (the point on the earth’s surface immediately beneath the star) like the circular ripples around a stone dropped in the water.  This family of circles travels around the world at the same speed as the rotation of the earth.  The longitude of any portion of this set of concentric circles depends on the hour-angle of the star (i.e., the difference in longitude between  the sub-stellar point of the star and the aircraft).  Weems, with immense labor, selected a number of pairs of stars whose families of circles intersected at convenient angles (i.e., gave a good “cut”) and  plotted them for given bands of latitude and hour-angle.  The navigator had only to pick the right page for his latitude and longitude, observe  the two stars plus Polaris for a latitude-line, change his Greenwich Mean Time to hour-angle, and enter the star-altitude tables like a graph to obtain his fix.

 Weems, who had retired in 1933 with the rank of Commander, published the famous  Star-Altitude Curves, sinking most of his personal funds into the enterprise.  The Navy, however, was not too interested.  The U.S. Army Corps on the other hand  was, and gave him a small contract for his tables.  Before the war was over he had  received, as the President of Weems System of Navigation , a contract for a million dollar’s worth -- for which he gave a discount of 80%.

 Weems’ interest in Star Altitude Curves did not stop him from retaining a concern for the more traditional methods.  While he was an instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy, he was explaining the use of tables to determine the azimuth of a heavenly body to a class of students.  One of the students, a Lieutenant Ageton, contended that if a set of tables could be used to compute azimuth, which it did by solving the celestial triangle, it could be used to solve for altitude as well.  Nobody had thought of this before.  Weems encouraged the young officer, and before long Ageton’s  tables (HO 211)   were in use as possibly the most compact set of “short” tables in existence.  Getting the new concept into print, however, was a harrowing experience; from several authorities, Weems and Ageton received nothing but obstruction, on the ground that the old ways were perfectly good enough.

 Weems was recalled after the outbreak of the war, as a Convoy Commodore  (the senior naval officer with a convoy, one of whose main tasks is to keep the merchant ships from bumping into each other).  In the interim, however, he had not been idle.  He had  published his epoch making book, Air Navigation   and came  up with the device which is associated most closely with his name -- the Weems Plotter.  This combination protractor, straightedge and parallel rule has appeared  in dozens of sizes, guises and modifications, and was the standard plotter for the U.S. Air Force.

 Another of Weems’ inventions was the second-setting watch.  At sea, celestial sights had to be taken with the aid of a hack watch which was set to the ship’s chronometer.  It was difficult, however, to set the watch exactly, which meant that it differed slightly from the chronometer, which in turn differed from Greenwich Mean Time.  Weems reasoned that the difficulty in setting the watch came from the fact that at the time it was almost impossible to set the second hand exactly.  However, if the second hand could not be set to match the dial perfectly, it might be possible to make the dial movable, so that the dial and the second hand were synchronized at the right time.  The fact that Weems’ father-in-law was a patent attorney  helped him considerably in getting the idea patented, but patent  it he did, and he had dozens of claims based on the second -setting watch patent.

 Weems was also the author of the Line of Position Book  which was originally published by the United States Naval Institute, plus some fifteen other books on the various aspects of navigation.  He, and his company, pioneered and developed a variety of devices, including a complete celestial navigation system, a sunset-sunrise computer, the celestial coordinator invented  by  Wyatt, and a method of using altitudes between two stars, without a visible horizon, developed by an Australian named Burton, and Precomp Navigation, which was a super short tabular method.

 Weems cotninued working on sea  and air navigation, but space navigation had not escaped his attention.  In 1961, at the age of 72, he was recalled to service to work with four clever ensigns to develop a system of space navigation.  This indeed they did,  using Weems’ constant companion of half a century, a sextant.  During this effort, Weems and his colleagues picked up another four or five patents.

Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae

 During his career Weems  met most of the great and near-great of navigation and aviation.  One of them was Orville Wright.  In his files, also, he has a copy of an invoice for $10.00, sent to Wrong-Way Corrigan.  Corrigan always insisted that he flew the Atlantic from New York to Ireland back in 1938 in a light plane strictly by mistake, since he planned to fly to Los Angeles and misread his compass.  However, the invoice records that the information and charts he wanted from Weems were all about the North Atlantic.  Possibly he studied the wrong area by mistake, also.

 Weems flew to the North Pole, when it was far from the routine matter it is today, in 1948, and flew around the world in 1950, both times keeping detailed and accurate logs and charts and being intimately concerned with the navigation.  He also navigated a light plane, flown by his son, the late Cdr. George T. Weems, USN, from London to Alice Springs in  Central Australia.  In the early Thirties Admiral Richard Byrd invited him to accompany him to the South Pole, and Weems was sorely  tempted to go, but he was about to establish his own business, and the two years he would have had to spend in the Antarctic would have set him back seriously.  Regretfully he declined.

Built for Admiral Byrd for Polar Expeditions

 Weems retired again at the end of the Second World War, but kept as busy as ever.  One of his achievements, in his spare time, was to join with two friends of his, likewise interested in navigation, to establish the U.S. Institute of Navigation in 1945. Because of Weems’ reputation and knowledge, Col. Charles Blair sought him out, as Lindbergh had done earlier, for instruction in celestial navigation when Blair planned to fly over the North Pole, from Norway to Point Barrow in his modified P-51 Mustang single-seat fighter in 1951.  Weems settled  on a totally pre-computed solution for Blair, which involved plotting his flight in advance, and working out the altitude of the sun for a number of points along the path.  These sun-altitudes were then  joined to form a graph.  In flight, all Blair had to do was to take a sight and  compare his observation with the predicted altitude from the graph.  The difference between the two values indicated how for he was off track or off schedule.  Weems and Blair carried out the computations four times, in case Blair had to delay his take-off by a day and also to allow for having to delay the hour of take-off from noon to one o’clock.  Everything worked as planned, with Blair not having to lay pencil to paper after he passed Spitzbergen on the Norwegian side of the pole.  He made his landfall at Point Barrow one minute ahead of his ETA.

 Weems, however, overheard Blair saying, “It was nothing”, to an engineer when queried about his navigation.  “Don’t say that!” said Weems.  “That kind of navigation is still fairly complicated, and if you tell people there’s nothing to it, they’ll try to fly over the pole in ignorance of all the ins and outs of celestial, and kill  themselves!”  Blair agreed, and toned down his navigational modesty.

 Weems lived in Randall House, a historic 30 room building, built in 1717 and bought by him in 1939.  Its position is 38  degrees 58.8 minutes North latitude, 76 degrees 29.4 minutes West   longitude.  Weems had to know this, since he was constantly trying out new techniques which involved observing the sun and the stars from his front porch with a marine sextant or a bubble sextant. Visitors who were interested in the art were always invited to take a few sights, which Weems carefully entered into the log he kept for many years.   Weems affection for his house was not diminished by the fact that it layed exactly eight-tenths of a minute of longitude West of the Maine Mast at the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he graduated 57 years ago.

 Weems had several other distinctions besides his achievements in aviation.  He was on the Olympic wrestling team in Antwerp in 1920, he was an All-American center with the Navy football team, he won the South Atlantic amateur light-heavyweight wrestling championship in 1925 when he was 30, he was a proficient skin-diver and in 1959 he joined an expedition to explore Port Royal in Jamaica, where the pirates of the Spanish Main had their capital two centuries ago.

 In December 1968 Weems was presented with the gold John Oliver la Gorce Medal by the National Geographic Society, in token of his life’s work in air, sea and space navigation, rather than in appreciation of any specific achievement.  Quite a different acknowledgment of Weems’ contribution to navigation was paid by Ben Carlin, the author of  the book Half- Safe who says:

“Of all the professions, trades that are shrouded by their professional practitioners  in an aura of self-protective bull, celestial navigation just about takes the cake.

‘Well it is rather complex, old man - you wouldn’t understand - y’really need forty years at sea for this sort of  thing.’  Thanks largely to air navigators, the  Hydrographic Office of the U.S. Navy, and Commander Weems, this primeval   veil has been ripped away in recent years.  It’s  not a matter of mathematical  proficiency - I can’t count to twenty with my shoes on; the fantastic ease  with which, given a modicum of elementary understanding, the correct time, an almanac, a book of tables, a sextant and a patch of clear sky, one can determine osition within a mile or so anywhere  on the earth’s surface, never fails to fascinate me.   Let no one interested flinch from tackling it - but on the right lines.  No, I have    never met Commander Weems or corresponded  with him in any way.”

 His life, however, has not to be unmarred by tragedy.  Both his sons met untimely deaths, Major Philip Van Horn Jr. being killed in the Southwest Pacific in 1943, and Lt. Cmdr. George Thrackray (Weems always referred to him as “Bee”) being killed at 30 in 1951 testing an aircraft.  Weems and his wife Margaret had a married daughter, Margaret Dodds, who had three children.

 Other people may be impressed by Weems’ accomplishments, but Weems himself was not.  He was at all times completely approachable, polite and pleasant.  Letters to him were always answered promptly, and sometimes in his own handwriting.  Those who met him always found him a thorough gentleman.  Captain Weems died June 2, 1979 at the age of ninety  and will always be remembered as one of the great navigators of the Twentieth  Century. In memory and in honor of Weem’s  significant contributions to navigation, The Institute of Navigation created an award given annually to an outstanding individual “For Continuing Contributions to the Art and Science of Navigation.”

Weems and Plath

In May of 1919, eight years before Lindberg's famous solo flight, three small planes set out from Newfoundland headed for London in an attempt to make the first trans-Atlantic flight. Only one of them made it. Twenty-five hundred feet below on board a station tracking ship, a young navigator, Lt. Cdr. Philip Van Horn Weems, U.S. Navy, gazed up and thought there must be a safer and simpler way than using a small armada of ships as beacons for the flight.
For centuries, man had relied on the heavens, on the circling planets and the constant horizon, to guide him in his travels. A compass, a sextant, and charts were the necessary tools for plotting a course, but these required time for computations and a place to spread out and study the charts. The timeworn system of celestial navigation was ill suited to the cockpit, but the airplane was here to stay. Lt. Cdr. Weems, a brilliant, inventive, and determined young man knew as he tracked that first flight that navigation was his destiny and he went on to revolutionize the field with his ideas, writings, and inventions.
The challenge he undertook was complex and involved the invention of new methods and new tools. It required a horizon system independent of the sea horizon that was often not visible from the cockpit of a plane. Weems worked for years to develop a new kind of sextant and to find someone to manufacture it. When an accurate timepiece was needed, Weems invented the Second Setting Watch with its inner rotating dial. He produced the famous Weems Plotter; the more precise and easier to use plotting tool which is still one of the most popular plotters.
All his life Weems continued to improve the instruments and broaden the applications of his methods until they came to include radio astronomy, polar exploration, and even space navigation. He published numerous articles and taught navigation at the Naval Academy in the 1920's. He went on to establish his own school in Annapolis to teach The Weems System of Navigation. Charles Lindberg studied with Weems before attempting his trans-Atlantic flight. And Admiral Byrd, a classmate of Weems at the Naval Academy, came to Weems for instruction before setting out for the North Pole. As did many others.
A century earlier, Carl Plath's company in Hamburg, Germany - C. Plath, had been manufacturing the finest commercial sextants and magnetic compasses available . C-Plath developed the first gyrocompass installed on a commercial vessel in 1913. Weems school for navigation had become the purveyor of Weems' instruments. It was a natural development for Weems' company to become the North American source for C. Plath's fine instruments also. Hence the alliance of two distinguished names - Weems and Plath.
Today Weems & Plath is still located in the Chesapeake Bay town of Annapolis where it began so many years ago. It is committed to supplying the world with the finest nautical products available while maintaining the high standards of service that have distinguished Weems & Plath from its inception.
To commemorate its 175 years, Longines also commissioned the historian Laurence Marti to produce a magnificent tome entitled A Region in Time: A socio-economic history of the Swiss valley of Saint-Imier and the surrounding area, 1700-2007. The work not only covers the extraordinary history of the region and its diverse industries, but also underlines the importance of the role Longines played in its development.
Walter von Känel, Longines’President, in his own inimitable and good-humoured manner, welcomed the local dignitaries to the special event and after underlining the various milestones of the company in its lengthy history of producing an incredible 34 million timepieces since its founding, proudly stated that, “… in the St Imier’s turbulent horological years from the 1700s through to 2007, there is a Great Lady, Longines, that is still here!”

Weems Second-Setting Watch

But Longines is about watches and to accompany the event the brand chose to tip its hat to the aviation pioneers by way of the Weems Second-Setting Watch and The Lindberg Hour Angle Watch.
Before Lindberg and his Hour Angle Watch, Captain Philip van Horn Weems – often referred to as the Grand Old Man of Navigation - developed the ‘Weems System of Navigation’ and invented the Second Setting Watch - a watch enabling navigators to find Greenwich Mean Time from the watch’s dial. When setting a watch, hours and minute hands can be adjusted, but the second hand continues on its continuous path. To most people, the loss or gaining of twenty seconds is of no consequence, but for a navigator prior to the GPS systems it was often of life threatening consequences. Having noted the time difference in seconds when they synchronized their watch with the GMT or any other observatory time, navigators had to continually make calculations, but Weems mounted a movable rim on his watch, marked the sixty seconds and, since he was unable to adjust the second hand to the watch dial, he simply adjusted the dial to the hand. The year was 1927, which, as it happens, is the year Europa Star was founded.

Exactly 80 years later, Longines has been inspired to revive this simple system and place it into an elegant and functional Weems Second-Setting Watch (47.50 mm) as a tribute to the American navigator.



Stainless steel (47.50 mm) second-setting watch equipped with a Calibre L699 (ETA A07 111) mechanical automatic movement. White lacquered dial, rotating dial centre in silvered opaline for the synchronization of the seconds, blued ‘Breguet’-style hands, exterior black painted railway track indicating the minutes, painted Arab numerals, sapphire crystal, engraved caseback with opening, ‘Louis XV’ style crown, brown alligator strap, water-resistant to 30 metres.

The Lindberg Hour Angle Watch

Charles A. Lindberg, a pupil of Weems, took up the Weems concept after his transatlantic solo flight from New York to Paris in 33 hours and 30 minutes. He used it as an additional feature in his own Hour Angle Watch, patented in 1935, and since then Longines has adapted a time correction feature using rotating dials on some of its watches equipped with a central seconds hand.


Stainless steel watch (47,50 mm) equipped with a self-winding mechanical movement L699 (ETA A07 111) with a 42-hour power reserve. Hours, minutes and seconds functions, indication of longitude in degrees and minutes of arc, rotating centre dial for synchronization of the seconds hand with a radio time signal, rotating bezel for variations in the equation of time. ‘Louis XV’ style crown, silvered rotating centre dial, blued Breguet-style hands, leather strap, water-resistant to 30 metres.

At 47.45 mm, this ‘oversized’ model reverts back to the original dimensions of the watch, based on the patent registered in conjunction with Longines by Captain Weems. Basically the watch could be synchronized to the nearest second with a radio time signal using the outer bezel of the central dial. The watch was ‘oversized’ because in the darkness of the cockpit of a ‘plane it is easier to read and manipulate – especially with its large, knurled crown.
This imposing, yet resplendent timepiece is in stainless steel with a pair of Breguet-style hands and the seconds on a white lacquered dial. The seconds hand is synchronized to a radio time signal via the silvered rotating centre dial with its black painted double minute track and red numerals. The blue and black Arabic numerals engraved on the case’s rotating bezel serve to adjust it to daily variations in the equation of time. The watch is completed by a hinged back cover which can be lifted to reveal a sapphire caseback.
Two brilliant additions to the magnificent Longines collections, but then we have come to expect that from them, just as we expect aviators to be lusting after their watches.

Source: Europa Star April-May 2007 Magazine Issue

 The Adventurers

Charles Lindbergh

In May 21, 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh completed the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight in history on the "Spirit of St Louis." The 3,610-mile journey between New York and Paris took a mere 33 hours and 30 minutes. This historic event not only propelled Lindbergh to the status of a world hero, but also established to the world that air travel was safe and efficient. Aircraft industry stocks, along with general interest in aviation skyrocketed.

In 1926, Weems encountered Colonel Charles Lindbergh on an airfield in California. Weems walked up to the plane and said "Colonel Lindbergh, I would like to show you my sextant and watch." Lindbergh took the sextant and looked through the eyepiece, and replied "Commander, I am very much interested in this; I would like to get together with you on it."

The conversation lasted only a few minutes and Weems thought he would not hear from Colonel Lindbergh again. But, within a year, President Calvin Coolidge's office sent Weems new orders to report to Washington immediately to work with Colonel Lindbergh for a series of instruction on navigation. Weems began training "Lindy." And they developed a mutual respect that led to Lindbergh endorsing the Weems System of Navigation.

Frederick J. Noonan

Fred Noonan was hired as a Chief Navigator for Pan Am in 1925 and developed his skills at the Weems School of Navigation. From 1925 until 1936, Noonan surveyed and charted courses for the Pan Am fleet of Flying Clipper Ships. Noonan, using the Weems System, played an important role in permanently changing the world's concept of time and space and opening up international air travel for the public.

"Wrong-Way" Corrigan

In 1938, early aviator Douglas Corrigan requested permission to emulate Lindbergh's historic trans-Atlantic flight in his own plane, but authorities denied his request claiming the plane was overweight for take-off. After secret preparations, Corrigan took off from New York claiming he was headed back to California. Twenty-three hours and 13 minutes later, Corrigan landed in Dublin. Ireland. Tongue-in-cheek, Corrigan proclaimed "I flew the wrong way. My compass got stuck."

This navigation mistake gained him the nickname "Wrong-way Corrigan,' and rewarded him with fame - from a ticker tape parade down Broadway, to a book and a movie deal.Throughout his life, Corrigan maintained that his Atlantic flight was the result of faulty navigational techniques. But he clearly knew what he was doing. Weems had developed a navigationally responsible flight plan for Corrigan when he began his quest for flying the Atlantic in 1936.

Harold Gatty: Aerial Navigation Expert

A groundbreaker in aerial navigation, Australian Harold Gatty flew with and worked for many of the great names of aviation's golden age.

By Terry Gwynn-Jones

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. 




In May of 1919, eight years before Lindberg’s famous solo flight, three small planes set out from Newfoundland headed for London in an attempt to make the first trans-Atlantic flight. Only one of them made it. Twenty-five hundred feet below on board a station tracking ship, a young navigator, Lt. Cdr. Weems, U.S. Navy, gazed up and thought there must be a safer and simpler way of aerial navigation. Weems taught navigation at the Naval Academy in the 1920’s and went on to establish his own school in Annapolis to teach The Weems System of Navigation. Charles Lindberg studied with Weems before attempting his trans-Atlantic flight. Admiral Byrd, a classmate of Weems at the Naval Academy, came to Weems for instruction before setting out for the North Pole. As did many others. The Marine Corps came in 1942 when it assigned five Marine officers to the school and established the Aerial Navigation School at the Weems School of Navigation.

In the earliest days of aviation, the military had little need for aerial navigators because their planes had limited range and capability. For the Marine Corps, that need did not exist until the advent of the Douglas C-47 (R4D). Formed in March of 1942, VMJ-253 was the pioneer squadron of Marine Corps aerial transportation as well as the parent squadron for the joint air transport organization dubbed the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command (SCAT). Crews were quickly formed and ordered to report to the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California to begin training on the new aircraft. Working with the aircraft engineers, they helped design an area of the aircraft for the navigators compartment. The first aerial navigators were recruited from some of the existing pilots and crew chiefs and trained by the U.S Navy at NAS North Island, California. By November of 1942 they had already supported combat operations on Guadalcanal and moved to Camp Kearney in Mesa, California in late 1942. A year later the school was on the move again, this time to MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, where they graduated their first class of navigators in January of 1945. However, this training program existed only as a ground school and was deactivated in March 1948.

In March 1952, after the beginning of the Korean conflict, the Aerial Navigation School was reactivated as part of the Airborne Operators Schools (AOS), located at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. The AOS consisted of the Aerial Navigation School, the Radio Operator School and the Electronic Countermeasure (ECM) School. During this time, Marine navigators trained in such aircraft as C-54’s, R4D-6’s (C-478), and R4D-8’s (Super DC-3). The Aerial Navigation School remained at Cherry Point until January 1971, at which time it was moved to NAS Pensacola, Florida, when the Navy assumed responsibility for the flight support. A detachment, VT -29, of T -29 aircraft from NAS Corpus Christi which had been previously assigned for Navy support, now provided flight support for the Aerial Navigation School at Pensacola. At this point, the name of the school was changed to the Marine Aerial Navigation School (MANS). After two years at Pensacola, the Navy moved the detachment of T - 29’s and MANS moved to NAS Corpus Christi in order to continue the T -29 flight support. Finally, due to the phasing out of the T -29’s at Corpus Christi, the school moved once again in 1976 to Mather AF8, California and joined with the U.S. Air Force. MANS operated as a separate organization at Mather, with the only Air Force contact being the sharing of the sophisticated facilities, the T -43 aircraft, the T -45 simulator, the Navigation Procedures Laboratory, the Planetarium and the Learning Center. The school remained at Mather for 17 years and in January of 1993 made it’s final move to Randolph AF8, Texas.

During the past 62 years MANS has supplied the worlds finest aerial navigators in support of Marine Corps aviation. Presently, there are approximately 115 active-duty Marine navigators. Over the years the school has furnished navigators for aircraft such as the R5C (C-46), R4D (C-47), P84Y-2 (single tail 8-24), P8J (8-25), R4Q (C-119), R5D (C-54) and currently on the KC-130 F/R/ T.

Marine instructors utilizing the 12th Flying Training Wing navigation training facilities staff the Marine Aerial Navigation School. The mission of MANS has been to train and qualify enlisted Marines in the “Science and Art of Navigation” as navigators aboard tactical transport aircraft in support of Fleet Marine Forces.

The Story of Weems & Plath

Long before the invention of the satellite Global Positioning System, sailors traveled the seas with little more than the stars and sun and courage to guide their journeys. Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, a 1912 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, focused on improving navigational techniques and devices.

In 1919, Weems was promoted to Lt. Commander and assigned to the destroyer USS O'Brien. Weems and the crew of the O'Brien were a part of a historic transatlantic flight in May of that year. The NC-4 Curtiss Flying Boat crossed the Atlantic Ocean from May 16 to 27, guided by 20 ships at 50-mile intervals along the route. Weems was one of the Navigators charged with calculating his ship's exact location, and thus helping to guide the aircraft across the vast waters.

Weems realized, however, that attempting to navigate a plane by sight alone was fraught with difficulties, including fog and cloud cover. While ships didn't rely on landmarks, but on complicated calculations based upon celestial bodies, air crews could not spend the time working out difficult computations. Even then, in the early days of navigation, planes just went too fast.

While teaching navigation at the Naval Academy from 1924 to 1927, Weems continued to think about air navigation. An illness laid him up for a while, and he took advantage of his recuperation as a time to complete his work. The Weems System of Navigation used the same calculations that had always guided ships, but organized these calculations (already computed) into an easy-to-read table. By eliminating much of the work of making these calculations, navigation could be done faster and more accurately. He also invented a special watch—the Second Setting Watch—for the accurate determination of Greenwich Mean Time, a particularly important part of celestial navigation. He even made modifications to that old stand-by, the sextant, making it a faster and more reliable instrument as well.

With the help of his wife, Weems began to market his system. He provided correspondence courses and sold navigational instruments, and later was sent on an official mission to Washington , D.C. to train Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh in the Weems System of Navigation for his upcoming round-the-world flight.

In 1933, Weems retired from the Navy, but continued his work in navigation. He moved his company back to his hometown of Annapolis , and in 1961, at the age of 71, he was called back to active duty in order to teach four young ensigns about space navigation.

The story of Weems & Plath began when Weems established his company. The Plath half of the company's name refers to C-Plath, a German maker of fine commercial sextants and magnetic compasses. By 1953, a working relationship with Weems had been established to market and sell C-Plath's array of high quality marine instruments.

Peter Trogdon, president of Weems & Plath today, was introduced to the company about 12 years ago when he worked for what is now known as Northrop Grumman. The company had acquired Weems & Plath, and placed it in a division managed by Trogdon. A couple of years later, when the division was being divested, he was able to negotiate the purchase of Weems & Plath.

“It just happened that when it came for sale that it was something I was passionate about,” he explained. “I have a real love for the products, and what we're doing here, and the people that are here.”

Though the company could be located almost anywhere on the planet, “these people we have here are so knowledgeable, so dedicated,” he continued. “We're not just a warehouse where there's product in, product out. There's a lot of production work going on, and talent about servicing and repairs, as well as assembly, and people who know how to buy this and know what they're buying. It would be far riskier to take this away from here. We're close to our customers. They walk in all the time.”

Today, the company produces a full spectrum of precision marine instruments for pleasure boaters, commercial vessels, cruisers, serious yacht racers, and the military. These include brass nautical clocks and barometers, navigation tools, high-end oil lamps, Imray books and charts, binoculars, children's books, and more.

“If someone wanted an oil brass lamp for their home, or a nautical lamp for their boat or their home,” Trogdon said, “we probably have 250 to choose from. Nobody has that kind of [selection]. That's just what we do.”

Navigation tools sell the most units, and expensive clocks and barometers are biggest sellers in terms of dollars. The company's beginnings were rooted in navigation tools—parallel rules, plotters, etc. “We're selling these more than ever,” he said. “We sell hundreds of thousands of navigation tools every year.”

Trogdon said it is a niche business, and “we're really big at what we do. There's probably no one in the world that sells as much of this stuff as we do, and has been doing it as long as we have. We're the largest traditional navigation tool manufacturer.”

With a staff of 25 employees, Weems & Plath offers few overt clues of its multinational clout. The company has factories and distribution channels scattered all over the globe. Its humble Eastport facility consists of administrative and sales offices, a small workshop, and a relatively large storage area for the shipments of parts and products from overseas.

Weems & Plath has two main places where products are made—Europe and Asia . In Europe, they come mostly from Germany and Switzerland , with some from Denmark and Italy . “These companies are older than we are—over 100 years,” Trogdon noted.

“We have a core of products coming from both China and Taiwan ,” he continued. “It's not always about cheaper. We're trying to get the best value. We're always trying to get the highest level of quality. The labor is cheaper, but the quality is real high. These metal workers are really good. So, we've got our tooling there, and we design our products in conjunction with them.”

Weems & Plath sells through boat supply retailers. “We have about a thousand stores we sell to,” he said. “Some of them order hundreds at a time.” Primarily located near salt water, locations of stores include “everywhere in California and down through Mexico and a few places in Chile . We do foreign navies and coast guards, commercial fleets, and a lot of yacht businesses.”

The company has a large stockpile of parts. “We can service anything back about 20 years,” Trogdon noted. “Most of our products have a lifetime warranty, so we'll take care of it.”

Yet Weems & Plath continues to look forward, even as they maintain older products. “We do design work here, and we have engineering staff that we use in different places to help us,” Trogdon said. “We also have inventors come to us with their ideas. There's pretty significant opportunity for innovation. We come out with about 15 to 20 new products every year.”

Weems & Plath has a New Product Committee consisting of key people who review all ideas for new products. “Every month we sit down with the committee, and we have a list,” Trogdon explained. “Some of those products never get made. They're on that list. They're ideas. Some move right to the top quickly, and some take years. Some get done and nobody wants one, and that's a total failure on our part because we put it through all these steps. Ninety percent—9 out of 10—are successful. Some are successful for a lot of years, and some are successful for a shorter period of time, for whatever reason. Obviously, our goal is for a product that really performs and lasts a long time, and has a great track record in terms of sales.”

The market for navigation tools? “The primary market for this will be the yachtsman,” he said. Day sailors who are always in sight of their port do not do a lot of navigating. “They just try to avoid the shallow water.” Navigation is important for longer excursions, especially to unfamiliar areas. “Most people today have GPS, but they have paper charts as a backup. You can locate your GPS position on the paper charts using these tools.”

Weems & Plath also provides a customized engraving service. “This has been a huge benefit to the company,” he said. “Yacht clubs and corporations want a nautical gift, but they want it customized. We're doing a lot of that. People come from the neighborhood, all the churches come, the city, and the Naval Academy —with all kinds of projects.”

The marine instruments business is very dynamic. “There are new factories to see,” Trogdon explained. “There are new products coming out. There are new markets to go after—like the corporate market, the engraving market. Our sales overseas are growing. We're trying to do more and more business overseas throughout the product range. I'm traveling into Europe to expand our sales efforts, and visiting factories at the same time to try to get better production, better quality, better finishes, better accuracy.”

He continued: “There's the dynamic of having 25 people managing the brand, trying to get the sales out the door, with no mistakes in shipping, at the right price. The people buying it, do they see the value and are we selling it at the right price? There's always constant change. To think that you can sit still and rest is the beginning of the end.”

Trogdon concluded: “For me, it's how hard do I want to push myself? You gotta create some balance. I ride my bike to and from work most of the year, from Severna Park , because the fresh air and exercise is a great thing.”


Peter Trogdon, President
Weems & Plath, Inc.
214 Eastern Avenue
Annapolis , MD 21403
410-263-6700 x16

In May of 1919, eight years before Lindbergh's famous solo flight, three small planes set out from Newfoundland headed for London in an attempt to make the first transatlantic flight.

Only one of them made it.

Twenty-five hundred feet below on board a station tracking ship, a young navigator, Lt. Cdr. Philip Van Horn Weems, U.S. Navy, gazed up and thought there must be safer and simpler way than using a small armada of ships as beacons for the flight.

As a recreational boater, you may ask, what does this have to do with me?

For centuries, man has relied on the stars, circling planets and the constant horizon to guide him in his travels. A compass, sextant and charts were the necessary tools for plotting a course. However, due to lengthy computations and the space needed for large charts, the timeworn system of celestial navigation was ill suited to the airplane cockpit.

Weems, a brilliant, inventive and determined young man knew as he tracked that first flight that navigation was his destiny. He went on to revolutionize the field with his ideas, writings and inventions. Whether you have traveled across a lake, sea or skies, chances are you have benefited from his contributions to navigation.

In the early 1930s, Capt. Weems was widely credited with vastly improving navigational techniques which were in essence, unchanged since the early 1800s. When an accurate timepiece was needed, Weems invented the Second Setting Watch with its inner rotating dial that allowed the second hand to match the dial perfectly. This made finding Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) easier --a critical step for celestial navigators, as miscalculating the seconds in GMT could mean the difference between life or death.


 P.V.H. Weems


P. V. H. Weems, internationally known air navigator, was born March 29, 1889, at Turbine, the son of Joseph Burch and May Elizabeth Rye Weems. He attended Walnut Grove Country School in Montgomery County and Branham and Hughes School in Spring Hill before receiving an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1908. While at the academy, Weems excelled in crew, football, boxing and wrestling, winning a place on the 1920 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. He graduated in 1912 and was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy. He married Margaret Thackray in New York in 1915.

In 1927 Weems served with the Aircraft Squadron Battle Fleet, began research in air navigation, and published Line of Position Book. From 1928 to 1930 he served as executive officer on U.S.S. Cuyama and wrote the textbook Air Navigation (1931), which received international acclaim and won a gold medal awarded by the Aero Club of France.

In addition to his military career, Weems established with his wife the Weems School of Navigation (1927). He perfected his air navigation system by simplifying the method of determining latitude and longitude by aerial observations, improving sextants, and adapting chronometers to air use. He taught air navigation to Charles Lindbergh and assisted in the aviator's global flight to determine commercial airways for Pan American Airways. In 1933 Weems went on the naval retired list and devoted his energies to further perfecting his navigation system. That year he designed the first Air Almanac. Two years later he patented the Mark II Plotter and published Marine Navigation and Star Altitude Curves.

Weems returned to active duty in 1942 and won a Bronze Star for his service as a convoy commander. He was promoted to captain and received the wings of Naval Air Navigator in 1945. He retired from active duty for the second time in 1946.

As he had earlier, Weems continued his private career in air navigation. In 1960 the American Institute of Navigation awarded Weems a gold medal in honor of fifty years of outstanding achievement in air navigation. As the space age got underway Weems taught a pilot class in space navigation at the U.S. Naval Academy (1961-62). Weems furthered knowledge of the world through his mapping and navigation research. His papers are preserved at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Pleasant Plains Farm

Annapolis, MD

Pleasant Plains Farm (circa 1920) -- owned at the time by the Kaiser Family.

The Pleasant Plains area was originally part of Providence, the first European settlement in Anne Arundel County, which was founded in  December 1649. Situated on the south side of Ridout Creek, Pleasant Plains Farm once encompassed more than 700 acres, and was originally settled and farmed in the mid-17th century. The main house at Pleasant Plains Farm is thought to have been built by John Ridout about 1830. John Ridout, son of Horatio Ridout, was the grandson of John Ridout—who was secretary to Governor Sharp—and nephew of Orlando Ridout (I).

The farm was purchased by the Weems family in the 1940s. On the untimely death of Lt. Cdr. George T. Weems in a plane crash, his father Capt. P.V.H. Weems transferred the south portion of the farm in trust for his grandson Philip V.W. Dodds in 1951, and the north portion to his granddaughter Thackray Dodds Seznec.

Capt. P.V.H. Weems manged the farm in the 40's and early 50's.

Philip’s father, Capt. Charles Dodds, retired from the Navy in 1957 and moved the family to the farm. For the next 25 years, Pleasant Plains was a full working farm with—among other things—hogs, cattle, corn, oats, hay, and horse boarding. When the two large barns on the property burned, the fields were leased to a turf operation and Capt. Dodds retired.

Capt. and Mrs. Dodds continued to live at the farm until Mrs. Dodds died in 1998. During 1999, Philip and Susan Dodds began the restoration of the house and surrounding buildings then moved back to the farm on completion.   


Capt. Dodds and Bob Hunteman, late '60s -- father nearly always wore a tie.

Many people still recall the wonderful “gatherings” at PPF over the past 45 years, full of music, poetry and art. Charlie Dodds frequently played his accordion and sang old Navy songs, while others brought guitars, banjos and basses to play bluegrass, barbershop, and blues. Meanwhile, Missy Weems Dodds, a locally well-known and accomplished artist, evolved her unique impressionistic abstract style in her studio in the north parlor. (The Dodds’ still have the majority of her works and are planning a retrospective exhibition in the near future.

Restoration and Susan mapped out the strategy to fully restore the 170-year-old house during 1999. Having restored the Bordley-Randall House, which was used in 1990 as the Designers Show House for the benefit of the Anne Arundel Medical Center Auxiliary, the Dodds’ thought they knew pretty much what to expect at Pleasant Plains.

The farmhouse, however, proved to be more of a challenge than the Bordley-Randall house. Even though it is much older (1715), the Bordley-Randall House had been upgraded, repaired and improved over the years; the farm house had not. All three floors and the wing needed to be completely replastered, all wiring and plumbing needed to be replaced, a new heating and air conditioning system was needed, and major structural work was required.

Mindful of the Show House deadlines, demolition began in late 1999, and the majority of structural work was completed early in 2000. Working from the top down, the interior walls were refurbished, replastered, and new mechanical services installed. It is expected that the interior work will be completed by mid-year 2000; the Auxiliary has use of the premises starting August 2000.

(Upper Left) Sue Dodds, with cell phone clipped and plans in hand inspects the third floor.

(Right) Philip Dodds works at his old Civil War period plantation desk (which was his desk as a child), now located to the basement for the duration.  He does his day job there while while overseeing the work in progress.  Nearly complete, but not quite, he plans to finish the restoration of the desk after the show house.

(Lower left) Alison Dodds -- note the quite fetching coating of plaster dust on her face -- uncovers well persevered mouse bones.   We keep searching, but no treasures have turned up between the walls so far.  Sigh.

Pleasant Plains Farm Restoration

Before the invention of the Global Positioning System, or GPS, Captain Philip Van Horn Weems modernized the art of celestial navigation by simplifying techniques and inventing time saving methods.

The genius of this 1912 graduate of the Naval Academy has touched all types of navigation -- from maritime to aviation, from underwater to outer space.

Delve into the world of this renowned Annapolitan and see how he paved the way for 21st century modern navigation, letting us take knowing exactly where we are… for granted.

Maritime Institute of Technology Hosted a Reception
to Mark Opening of Annapolis Maritime Museum exhibit
Thursday, June 9

The Annapolis Maritime Museum exhibit “Before GPS: the Genius of Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, 20th Century Navigation Pioneer,” is currently on display at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS). An evening reception to promote the exhibit was ehld on Thursday, June 9, 2005, at MITAGS’ Linthicum campus. Philip Van Horn Weems Dodds gave a special presentation, which detailed his grandfather’s remarkable career as a navigator, educator, and entrepreneur.

MITAGS teaches state-of-the-art maritime training (including navigation) to mariners from around the world. In addition to its educational curriculum, the MITAGS facility also supports a full-service conference center and numerous displays that chronicle the role of merchant mariners throughout history.

The Weems exhibit was introduced by the Annapolis Maritime Museum in the summer of 2003. However, its availability for viewing at the museum was short-lived due to the devastation that was caused by Hurricane Isabel. Fortunately, volunteers were able to retrieve the exhibit.

For additional information on the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, please call admissions toll-free at 866 656-5568. You may also visit the MITAGS website at

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 Col PVH


Two Men in a Hurry


Time magazine

He was where he was because, after an excellent record as testpilot for the Lockheed factory, he got a job as aerial chauffeur for Frank C. Hall, onetime drug clerk who struck a fortune in Oklahoma oil. In this same plane, named for the oilman's daughter Mrs. Winnie Mae Fain, Post won the Los Angeles-Chicago air derby last year. Then Hall financed him for the attempt to break the round-world record of the Graf Zeppelin—21 days, 7 hr.

Busier than Pilot Post as the Winnie Mac streaked over the water was Harold Gatty. Cramped into a tiny space behind a wall of special fuel tanks he alternately poked his sextant through a port in the roof, scribbled his computations, passed written directions to the pilot, and pumped gasoline up into the wing tanks. Hard work, but nothing compared to the ordeal of last summer when he and Harold Bromley got 1,200 mi. from Japan in an attempt flight to the U. S. and then had to fight their way back to shore with a broken exhaust ring spewing carbon mon- oxide gas into the cabin. That put him in a hospital for two months. This navigating business had been his forte since he entered the Royal Australian Naval College at 13. For many years he was a mariner, then studied aerial navigation under famed Lieut. Commander Philip Van Horn Weems U. S. N., later taught the Weems system, instructed Mrs. Charles Augustus Lindbergh at request of her husband.

Time magazine hilip Van Horn Weems,   Forrest

DIED. Philip Van Horn Weems, 90, navigation expert; of pneumonia; in Annapolis, Md. A Tennessee farm boy who graduated with the same U.S. Naval Academy class ('12) as Explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, Weems developed many navigational methods and devices, among them the Weems plotter, treasured by pilots from World War II on. An adviser to Byrd and Charles Lindbergh, Weems was often called back to duty after retiring as a Navy captain in 1933, the last time to devise an instrument allowing astronauts to find their way without using computers.No


Who invented the Global Positioning System?


by Richard Easton
Monday, May 22, 2006

Alexander von Humboldt observed that there are three stages in scientific discovery: first people deny that it is true; then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.
—cited in A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, p. 421

Arguments are rife over priority in major scientific and technological advances. An example is the role of Newton versus Leibnitz in the development of calculus. Another is the controversy over Langley versus the Wright Brothers in the airplane. For many years, the Smithsonian put forth the claim of Langley, its former head, and the Wright Brothers boycotted it. (Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, who helped resolve this controversy, played a major role in aviation navigation and later played a peripheral role in the developments recounted below.) The Smithsonian dropped its claim about Langley and Orville Wright allowed the Smithsonian to exhibit the Wright planes. Similarly, the origination of the Global Positioning System (GPS) is in dispute.

tePhilip Van Horn Weems Papers, 1833-1965. 31 linear feet. TSLA.

This collection of retired U.S. Navy Captain, author, former partner of Weems System of Navigation, inventor and teacher, Philip Van Horn Weems, contain accounts, correspondence, diaries, biographical and genealogical data, inventions, photographs, materials on naval and navigation, records of Weems System of Navigation, and student records and courses taught in schools of Weems System of Navigation.

Genealogical data on the following families includes Atlee, Barber, Carmichael, Haldeman, Jenkens, Riegard, Rush, Robbins, Chapman, Hagewood, Lansdale, Lock, Pearson, West, Phillips, Van Horn Weems, and Weems’ kindred families.

An 1857-1861 diary and account book kept by a medical doctor in Tennessee, Thomas H. Rye, gives information such as medical fees at the time.

There are thirty diaries which cover the years 1911-1963 intermittently, the heaviest concentration of which is during the years when Weems was a Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy

Weems Family Interviews, 1973. 5 reels. TSLA.
The Weems Family Interviews collection consists of taped interviews with various members of the Weems family. The Weems family was originally from Tennessee, but most members of the family settled in Maryland, which is where the interviews took place. The interviews concentrate on the life of Phillip Van Horn Weems, a noted inventor and aviator. Phillip Van Horn Weems was known for creating various instruments that were used as navigational aids by pilots, as well as authoring several books regarding aviation. Additionally, the interviews talk about other family members and the various activities associated with their lives.

Please note, this collection is housed in the cold storage vault. Please allow 24 hours for tapes to acclimate before using this collection.

A Short History of C.PLATH



The C.Plath company was originally founded in Hamburg in 1837 by David Filby, son of an innkeeper in Husum on the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein in North Germany. David Filby traded in nautical literature, charts and sextants imported from England.

Ebony octant with ivory inlay bearing the inscription:

D. Filby Hamburg. Ca. 1840

Carl Christian Plath, to whom David Filby sold his highly reputable business in 1862, was born on Christmas Day in 1825. His father was the pastor of the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg "New Town", a church known to seamen all over the world as the "Hamburger Michel". On leaving school he began an apprenticeship as an instrument maker in Hamburg. After completion his apprenticeship, Carl Plath, following the custom of the time, went on his travels to Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Munich before he set up a workshop for the production of surveying instruments in 1857.

Carl Plath with his family.

Extreme right, the young Theodor Plath

When Carl Plath purchased Filby's business in 1862 he sold his own business to his former employee J. C. Dennert. With his new business Carl Plath concentrated on the manufacture of sextants, magnetic compasses, binnacles and barometers. In August 1887 Carl Plath was awarded a German Reich Patent for his newly developed compass card.

The Herrerngraben Canal overlooked by the back of the Plath business premises, Stubbenhuk 25

In 1882, three years after Filby's death, Carl Plath sold the nautical literature and charts department of the business to the newly established firm of Eckardt & Messtorff, a bookshop which still exists today.

Carl Plath was awarded the Gold Medal at the Hamburg Crafts and Industry Exhibition in 1889 for his nautical instruments, in particular for the excellent precision work.

Also in 1889 Carl Plath's son, Theodor Christian Plath, born in 1868, became co-owner of the company.

Carl and Theodor Plath exhibited a collection of nautical instruments in the Pavilion of the German Shipping Exhibition at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 and were awarded the Silver Medal as mark of the highest distinction for nautical instruments in commercial shipping.

Silver Medal, engraved with the firm's name 'C.Plath', awarded by the Prize Committee of the Paris World Exhibition in 1900

In 1905 at the advanced age of 80, Carl Plath retired. Three years later he handed over his share of the business to his son Theodor, who with effect from 30th April, 1908 became sole owner of the firm C.Plath.

Theodor Christian Plath

C.Plath standard sextant, ca. 1885

A boat compass built by C.Plath at the turn of the century


The "Sun-Shooter" trademark was registered on 23 October, 1905 and published in the Trademark Gazette of the Imperial Patent Office of March 1906.

Trademark Gazette of the Imperial Patent Office of March 1906 with the registered trademark of the Sun-Shooter of 23 October, 1905

Dr Hermann Anschuetz-Kaempfe was granted a patent for the first gyrocompass in 1905 and this new development was closely followed by Theodor Plath, and it was no surprise when in 1912 C.Plath became a sales and service agent for Anschuetz for the merchant marine market, whereas Anschuetz concentrated its efforts on the German Imperial Navy. This business relationship came to an end when the German Reich collapsed at the end of World War II.


The four-screw steamer Imperator of the Hamburg-America Line was in 1913 the first merchant ship in the world to be equipped, on Theodor Plath's initiative, with a gyrocompass system. Here seen leaving the port of Hamburg on it's maiden voyage.

Theodor's only son, Johann Christian, died at the age of only 27 in 1929 and wishing to keep the firm in the family, he handed the business over to his son-in-law Johannes Boysen in 1937, but only after he, at the age of 32, had served an apprenticeship as an instrument maker.

Title page of the C.Plath catalogue No. 12 with a photo of Captain Wittemann using the Plath bubble sextant in the airship Graf Zeppelin during its round-the-world flight in 1929

After the end of World War II, C.Plath turned to alternative products for survival and started production on a small scale of typewriters, spray guns, machines for making whipped cream and movements for railway station clocks. A modest repair service was also set up in the old head office overlooking the port.


Nevertheless, C.Plath was dismantled completely by the occupation forces. Between May 1948 and May 1949 a total of 143 machines were confiscated and dismantled by the occupying powers.


The relaxation of the various prohibitions in meant that by 1949 C.Plath could begin again the production of its classic range of nautical instruments. Also in 1949 C.Plath was offered a gyrocompass patent and in 1951 the first gyrocompass designed to this patent was presented to the public. C.Plath had now progressed from the role of instrument maker to that of a modern marine navigation equipment manufacturer. In the following years the product range was expanded by many more modern designs such as autopilots, speed logs, radio direction finders, etc.

The first C.Plath gyrocompass KK 51, also known as Type A

At the beginning of 1953 Johannes Boysen , together with the well-known American navigator P.V.H. Weems, founded in Washington the firm of Weems & Plath Inc., whose main purpose was to step up the sale of C.Plath sextants in the USA.

The German training ship Gorch Foch, built in 1958, which since 1963 has been portrayed on the ten Mark note, was fitted with a C.Plath magnetic comnpass system


Theodor Plath retires from the firm on 31 December 1950 at the age of 82 and gives up his limited partnership. He died at the age of 91 on 16 February 1960.

In 1962 C.Plath was acquired by Litton Industries, a large American concern with its head office in Beverly Hills, California. Work was immediately started on the production of the LN-3 inertial navigation system for the F 104-G Starfighter for the German Airforce.

C.Plath North American Division is set up in 1978 in College Park near Washington.

After the end of the cold war in 1992, the C.Plath production facilities were moved to sister company Litef in Freiburg in the Black Forest. Engineering, sales and service remained in Hamburg.

1996 saw the introduction of the world's first fiber-optic solid-state gyrocompass by C.Plath. The first ever gyrocompass with no moving parts.

Sperry Marine was formed in 1997 with the combination of C.Plath, Decca Marine and Sperry Marine.

After 163 years, C.Plath changes its name to Sperry Marine in May 2000.

In 2001 Sperry Marine becomes part of the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

Wiley Post

Pilot of the Winnie Mae

First to Fly Solo Around the World, Lost over Alaska

AcePilots Main Page

The Planes

Aviation Pioneers

Wiley Post on his Lockheed Vega 'Winnie Mae'

When Wiley Post and Will Rogers crashed at Point Barrow, Alaska on August 15, 1935, the world mourned the loss of the great flier and the beloved humorist.

Post twice set the record for flying around the world:

Also a scientific innovator, Post developed a pressure suit that permitted him to fly the Winnie Mae into the stratosphere.

Winnie Mae

Later Hall bought a Lockheed Vega, largely for Post's use, nicknamed Winnie Mae for the oilman's daughter. The Depression intervened, and Hall was sold the plane back to Lockheed. In 1930 Hall bought a later version of the Lockheed Vega, a model 5-C, again nicknamed Winnie Mae. This later aircraft is the one most often seen in photographs of Wiley Post.

(When I was a child, my Dad, a lifelong aviation buff, had a model of the Winnie Mae in the house. It's weird aerodymanic 'pants' over the wheels fascinated me, as did its blue-on-white color scheme, its large NR-105-W registration number on the wings, and the list of faraway cities on its world itinerary.) In 1930, the Lockheed Vega was the hottest airplane of its type. Specifications and performance data for the "Wasp" powered Lockheed Vega 5-C:

length 27'8", wing span 41', height 8'6", wing area 275 sq. ft,
empty weight 2361 lbs., useful load 1672, payload 1012, gross wt. 4033 lbs.,
max. speed 170 MPH, cruise 140 MPH, landing 54 MPH, ceiling 20,000 ft.,
gas capacity 96 gal., oil 10 gal., range 725 miles.
price at the factory, July 1928 - $18,500.
The Lockheed Vega was one of the most famous record-breaking airplanes of the early 1930s. The beautifully streamlined, high-wing, single-engine monoplane was designed by John Northrop and Gerrard Vultee, two aviation pioneers who later established their own aircraft companies. Although the Vega first flew in July, 1927, it was during the early 1930s that the plane established its reputation for rugged reliability and airworthiness. It was designed as a small transport aircraft, carrying six passengers and a crew of two. Lockheed built about 130 of them between 1927 and 1934.

In addition to Wiley Post, two female aviators, Amelia Earhart and Ruth Nichols flew the planes.

Post first achieved national prominence in 1930,when he won the National Air Race Derby, from Los Angeles to Chicago. The side of the Winnie Mae's fuselage was inscribed: "Los Angeles to Chicago 9 hrs. 9 min. 4 sec. Aug. 27, 1930." The Winnie May is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM).

Around the World in Eight Days

In 1931, he flew around the world in the Winnie Mae with his navigator, Harold Gatty. (Gatty was a renowned aviator in his own right. An Australian naval cadet, he had accompanied Roscoe Turner on a trans-contintental flight in 1929. In 1930, he flew with Harold Bromley on an unsuccessful Trans-Pacific attempt. He devised the ground-speed and drift indicator which formed the basis of the automatic pilot. During the War, he served on McArthur's staff as Director of Air Transport and wrote the Raft Book-a survival manual for downed Allied aircrews. He founded Fiji Airways, now Air Pacific, in 1951.)

On June 23, 1931, Post and Gatty left Roosevelt Field, New York. They made fourteen stops: first at Harbor Grace, Newfoundland; then Chester, England; Hanover and Berlin, Germany; Moscow, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk, all in the Soviet Union; Nome, Alaska; and Edmonton, Canada. They then flew to Cleveland, and back to New York on July 1, having traveled 15,474 miles.

Here's their partial itinerary, copied from the program of the July 7 Hotel Astor Banquet.

(New York Daylight Savings Time)

4:56 A.M. - Took off from Roosevelt Field, N.Y.
11:48 A.M. - Landed at Harbor Grace, N.F.
3:28 P.M. - Took off from Harbor Grace

7:45 A.M. - Landed at Sealand Airdrome, near Chester, England
9:05 A.M. - Took off from Sealand Airdrome
12:45 P.M. - Landed at Hanover, Germany
1:50 P.M. - Took off from Hanover (Returned immediately for fuel.)
2:15 P.M. - Again took off from Hanover
3:30 P.M. - Landed at Tempelhof Airdrome, Berlin

2:38 A.M. - Took off from Berlin
11:30 A.M. - Landed at October Airport, Moscow
11:00 P.M. - Took off from Moscow

7:05 A.M. - Passed over Omsk, Siberia
9:32 A.M. - Landed at Novo-Sibirsk
6:45 P.M. - Took off from Novo-Sibirsk

A.M. - Landed at Irkutsk, Siberia

JUNE 28 - JULY 1
- Blagovyeschensk, Siberia
- Khabarovsk, Siberia
- Solomon, near Nome, Alaska
- Fairbanks, Alaska
- Edmonton, Canada
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Landed at Roosevelt Field, N.Y.

 The Graf Zepplin

The Hindenberg

The Hindenberg