Project Casey Jones

Casey Jones Cover Sheet

Yesterday I was poking around eBay looking for things I just can’t live without when I stumbled on an auction that caught my eye. One of my canned eBay search criteria – ‘aerial mapping’ – triggered a hit for an auction for a US Air Force publication on something called Project Casey Jones. The subtitle was the real attention getter: ‘Post-Hostilities Aerial Mapping; Iceland, Europe, North Africa, June 1945 – December 1946′.  I was intrigued but the eBay seller was asking far (far) too much for the document. But since this was an official USAF publication I figured there was a good chance it was already available on-line in digital format. A quick Google search turned up a the document in PDF format on an on-line library and I grabbed a copy.

As I started to read the report it dawned on me that I never really knew where the base mapping imagery came from that allowed the Army Map Service to re-map all of western Europe and North Africa quickly and accurately right after the close of WWII. I just assumed the aerial photo missions were done on a piecemeal as-needed basis by US assets or we collaborated with host countries like France or Italy to obtain civilian aerial photo coverage.

As it turns out the collection of aerial mapping imagery at the close of WWII was a far more centralized and directed effort than I could have imagined. The fact that the project was carried out so quickly, comprehensively and effectively is remarkable and is one of the great untold stories in the US Army’s topographic history.

In 1944 it was clear to senior Allied leadership that Germany’s days were numbered and thinking started to turn to projects that would help secure the US position in post-war Europe. A huge issue that had emerged from both the ground and air campaigns in Europe was the lack of accurate and up-to-date maps and air charts. During the war the Allies’ mapping services, like the US Army Map Service, scrambled to meet the demand for large and medium scale maps. They often relied on outdated local maps of dubious accuracy, supplemented where possible by photo mosaics or photomaps based on aerial photography taken by reconnaissance aircraft. The science of mapping using stereo aerial mapping photography was well understood at the time, and the US Army Air Force (USAAF) had the necessary cameras and aircraft at their disposal, but flying long, slow and precise flight lines over enemy held territory was out of the question while both sides were still shooting at each other.

Allied military leadership realized that once the shooting stopped there would be a very short window of opportunity during which they would be able to fly photomapping coverage of most of western Europe. The idea was to get the job done while the American’s still had the political clout and the resources in Europe. The US Government and the USAAF applied a carrot and stick approach to the problem. In concert with the British Royal Air Force, the USAAF would fly the conquered territories (Germany, Austria, Italy, etc.)  at will (“we won, you lost, tough luck”), and the Allied, newly liberated or neutral nations (France, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, etc.) would be offered a copy of all aerial imagery collected over their territories (“we’re your friends and we’re just helping you get back on your feet”). In the end it worked, and over two million square miles of new stereo aerial imagery was collected in about 18 months.

Casey Jones Airfields

The Project Casey Jones report brings to light some very interesting historical tidbits. The first were the technical issues. How do you keep a big, heavy bomber like a B-17 on a straight, steady course for hundreds of miles? The answer turned out to be ingenious. After the pilots failed multiple early attempts to keep the aircraft flying straight and level the job was turned over to the bombadiers and their Norden bomb sights. Since the Norden bomb sight effectively took control of the aircraft once the bombing run to the release point was initiated – controlling aircraft attitude, direction of flight and compensating for wind drift and other factors – it became a relatively simple matter to re-program the sight so that visual check points along the photographic flight line became the ‘release points’, and the bombardier actually controlled the flight by flying from check point to check point along the flightline path using the Norden. Simple but effective.


Norden bomb sight in the nose of a B-17. From this station the bombardier took control of the aircraft and flew from check point to check point along the flightline. Many of the flightlines were 200 or more miles long

The other interesting factor was quality control. The USAAF was flying to meet US Army Corps of Engineer (Army Map Service) requirements and had to adhere to mapping imagery standards for image overlap, side lap, aircraft attitude, cloud cover, haze and other factors. In the beginning the rejection rate of aerial imagery was unacceptably high – some flight crews only hitting the mark 20% of the time. Part of the problem was a lack of familiarity with the mission, part was mechanical problems with the installation of the mapping camera systems, and part was weather and atmospheric conditions. To help solve the problems and improve the success rate for the photo missions the Corps of Engineers put photomapping officers and technicians in each of the squadrons. These personnel would grab the film as soon as the aircraft landed, develop it and quickly review it while the flight crews were still in the area. They could do a quick post mortem on the success or failure of the flight and provide the crews with valuable feedback on what was needed on upcoming missions. As air crew experience increased the success rate increased, and towards the end of 1946 the success rates for each mission hovered around 60%.

Other factors worked against the project; weather during one of the worst winters in modern memory (1945 – 46), high personnel turn-over rates caused by rapid demobilization and political issues that delayed or canceled overflight permission. But in the end the USAAF was successful, and Project Casey Jones was effectively complete by September 1946.

So what became of the two million square miles of mapping photography flown during Project Casey Jones? It was immediately transferred to the the Army Map Service and was used as a primary cartographic data source for at least the next 20 years. It was used in the wide-scale production of up-to-date tactical and operational scale maps of western Europe by American and British military mapping agencies, maps that supported the operational backbone of NATO well into the 1960’s and perhaps beyond.


Lost Over The Pacific

Here’s a great story published today on the GPS World website about what happens when an aircraft loses all electrical power and ‘goes dark’, leaving the crew unsure of their position on a long over water flight. The navigator’s solution? Pull out the airplane’s bubble sextant and start taking readings to calculate a line of position!

GPS World

(Just click on the image to open the article)

Based on the author’s description of the event and his mention that the GPS equipment racks were in-place but the units were not yet installed I’m guessing this incident occurred sometime in the very late 1980’s or early 1990’s. It’s a fascinating tale of how old analogue equipment and basic navigation skills, mixed with a little educated guesswork based on experience, can save the day.

Think this same thing can’t happen today? Think again. Modern aircraft are little more than computers with wings, and the number of points of failure on these ‘systems’ are exponentially greater than older aircraft. Not only can a modern aircraft experience a complete loss of power, it will happen at some point. It’s all a matter of odds. When the odds are against you the electrons will stop flowing. Then what?

The author interestingly contrasts this experience with what would likely happen today. Crew members would pull out handheld GPS units or smartphones and the plane would safely navigate to its destination with little drama beyond an ass-chewing for the maintenance team and some great bar room “There we were at angels 20…!” stories. But like modern aircraft, GPS receivers and smart phones require electricity to run. Let’s hope everybody charges up before boarding the airplane!


Be Sure To Get Some Insurance Before Your Next Flight To Eniwetok

Those were the days. Piston driven airplane engines, unpressurized cabins, in flight food service that consisted of a box lunch tossed at you by a loadmaster, and your luggage not just flying on the same plane, but often flying right next to you on a pallet lashed to the bare aircraft floor. Aaaah, to be a serviceman in the 1960’s headed of for exotic ports of call like Johnston Island, Keflavik, Tripoli or Karachi.  All courtesy of the US Air Force’s Military Air Transport Service and the US Air Force Europe’s 322nd Air Division.

But hey Soldier, before you board that plane why not get yourself some flight insurance? Who knows when that engine was last overhauled or the hydraulic fluid levels were checked? The responsible thing is to leave Mom & Dad a little pocket money should the unexpected happen. So step over to the Mutual of Omaha insurance desk right here in the MATS terminal and sign up for a few hundred dollars, or even a few thousand dollars of flight insurance. It’ll give you peace of mind and maybe even help the folks pay for that new Oldsmobile they’ve been seeing in the commercials on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Flight Insurance

After WWII the US Air Force recognized the need to maintain the ability to transport personnel to make sure they could get the people and supplies where they were needed, often to places commercial airlines couldn’t or wouldn’t fly. This led to the creation of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). While MATS operations were severely restricted inside the United States (the commercial airlines didn’t like the idea of competing with Uncle Sam), the Air Force operated regularly scheduled personnel and logistics flights to a wide variety of duty posts as far flung as Thule, Greenland and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

The map on this post card neatly reflects the state of our military commitments in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. At the time we had a heavy presence in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. We tied the Pacific basin together with bases on Johnston Island, the Marshall Islands, Iwo Jima, Manila and Saigon. One of the goals of all this activity was to let the Soviets know, in clear terms, that we could move what we wanted, when we wanted, to where we wanted. At the time we were a true global power and everyone knew it.

But back to our poor Soldier about to climb aboard that rickety C-54 transport and fly a thousand miles at night to a small spot in the middle of the Atlantic known as the Azores. Suddenly buying a few hundred bucks worth of flight insurance doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. After all, you just never know. Good thing Mutual of Omaha is johnny on the spot with an insurance counter where you fill out your form, slip it and some cash into an envelope and drop it into the collections slot, hoping like hell your folks never see a return on the investment.

I’m not sure when this postcard was printed, but I’m guessing the late 1950’s or early 1960’s based on the flights into France (Charles de Gaulle kicked us out in 1967) and the fact that the Military Air Transport Service became the Military Airlift Command in 1966. The back of the card shows no marking to indicate the date of printing, but it does helpfully remind us that insurance is available at all MATS or ALS terminals. Just in case our Soldier wants more insurance for the second leg of his trip.

Flight Insurance 2

Flight insurance was a common offering in airport terminals in those days. As a kid I remember seeing the insurance counters during our infrequent trips to the airport to pick up visiting relatives or say goodbye on those rare occasions when one of our family members flew. Flying was frightfully expensive in those days, and the insurance counters served as a reminder that flight was still something a bit daring and risky.

– Brian