Goddard a pioneer in aerial, night reconnaissance
Nov. 20, 1925
As America was getting ready to join the fighting in World War I, a young artist from Chicago, George Goddard, decided to apply for a commission in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But on the train ride to New York City he met a recruiter for the Signal Corps Aviation Section.
Goddard was already fascinated with the new field of flight, so it wasn’t hard to convince him to switch to aviation, and he reported to the Signal Corps’ School of Military Aeronautics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., for pilot training.
The Army needed aerial photographers more than it needed pilots, however, so Goddard became a photographer and was put in charge of building an officer’s training school for aerial photography. French and British instructors taught the students the intricacies of photo interpretation, using actual photos taken along the front in France.
Once commissioned on Aug. 8, 1918, Goddard transferred to Langley Field, Va., where he learned about aerial cameras and field laboratories. He was sent to Fort Worth, Texas, to organize and equip three photographic sections for deployment to France. There, he finally got his wings, learning from two pilots assigned to him.
From that point on, Goddard would become teacher and innovator rather than student. His excitement about his new field was tempered with frustration over the Army’s apathy, despite the successes seen during the war. Goddard writes in his autobiography, “Overview: A Life-Long Adventure in Aerial Photography:”
“No one in the Air Service gave a tin nickel for the advancement of aerial photography. The young eagles who had come back from France were veteran fighter and bomber pilots and could only think in terms of better fighters and better bombers. Furthermore, neither the infantry nor the cavalry understood the value of photography. The cavalry thought reconnaissance was its job and the science of photoreconnaissance was something too highfalutin and alien for the man on horseback to accept. In fact, it’s safe to say that while the U.S. Army cared about reconnaissance, it cared very little about reconnaissance from the air, particularly since the war was over.
Undeterred, Goddard designed specialized mounts for cameras, viewfinders for pilots to use from the cockpit, found ways to make overlap and stereo photos possible and experimented with night photography. If he could perfect aerial photography at night, Goddard realized, the enemy could no longer hide under a cloak of darkness. He had experimented successfully with powder bombs — devices that would be dropped from a plane, explode and trigger a plane-mounted camera’s shutter simultaneous with the explosion.
Not only was this extremely dangerous, it was difficult to synchronize the brightest part of the blast with the camera’s shutter. The answer lay in using a photo-electric cell. The light from the powder bomb flash would hit the photo-electric cell located in the plane’s tail, and activate the shutter.
Goddard’s dream finally became a reality on Nov. 20, 1925, when he set up a test over Rochester, N.Y. His crew consisted of the pilot, two lieutenants from the Army Ordnance Corps, his research partner “Doc” Burke, and himself.
Armed with a super-size powder bomb, 14 feet long and eight inches in diameter and packed with eighty pounds of explosive, the crew took off. They dropped the bomb around 11 p.m. over the city. Twenty seconds later, it exploded with a tremendous blast and brilliant light which was so fast it took the place of a shutter in the camera.
The results took awhile to process, since they had to land the plane in darkness, get to their hotel — made more difficult because of the mass panic the explosion had caused. Later that day, the newspapers proudly displayed the world’s first photograph ever taken at night from an airplane. When they got back to Dayton there was a letter from Goddard’s commanding officer saying, “from now on [expletive] let the people know before you scare the hell out of them … and congratulations for a terrific job.”
The Army finally caught on to the value of aerial reconnaissance, and caught up with Goddard. During World War II, the Army Air Corps had an armada of photo reconnaissance planes in tactical reconnaissance squadrons that flew over 400 missions a month.
Goddard continued his pioneering work through the Korean War, and even after retirement from active duty as a brigadier general, worked as a consultant for a contractor who specialized in aerial photography.
George Goddard was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member of the Corps in 1987, the same year that he died. In 1991, Goddard Hall, part of the MI academic complex on Fort Huachuca, was named in his honor.