Landing with Cables: the Systems of Blériot, Brodie and Reitsch

During World War II, James H. Brodie, a captain in the United States Army Air Force, sought to create portable airports that could be quickly installed anywhere (see his patents here). The idea behind the “Brodie Landing System for Light Aircraft” was to catch an aircraft in flight with a hook attached to the aircraft by means of a sling associated with a cable system (similar to what happens on aircraft carriers with braking cables, only “hunting” the aircraft in flight). Here is a video showing one of the tests.

The test plane, a Stinson L-5 Sentinel, is currently housed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. These aircraft were used throughout World War II for various missions. In this case, to test the Brodie System, several launch and recovery tests were carried out in 1943 with a cable system installed on the side of a ship, without using the ship’s deck in any case. The Brodie idea was successfully put into practice towards the end of the war in the Pacific, for example in Okinawa.

Tests carried out on board the USS City of Dalhart (IX-156) showed that this system could be useful in facilitating the landing of light aircraft in inaccessible places, either in the ocean or where the terrain is unsuitable for creating a conventional airstrip.

After more than ten successful take-offs and recoveries and after many other ground tests were carried out at Moisant Field, New Orleans, with a Taylorcraft L-2 Grasshopper aircraft, Sergeant Raymond A. Gregory’s flights proved that Brodie’s idea was usable.

Some experiments had been carried out in the 1930s to recover small planes from airships, but Brodie’s system went much further. Brodie’s various patents describe evolutions of this method to be applied even in larger airplanes. During the war the system was useful for use at sea, as it could be installed quickly and economically on ships that were not designed to use aircraft.

Although at first, despite the positive results, it did not arouse the interest of the Army, Brodie insisted and managed to see his idea in action. The cable system was installed on the tank landing ship LST-776 (later the same was done on the LST-393).

The USS LST-776 during the testing of the Brodie system in New Orleans, 1943. (Image US Navy).

In tests carried out in New Orleans and San Diego, planes were launched and picked up dozens of times, before being operationally used in war zone flights in the Pacific Ocean. After the war, despite the improvements Brodie introduced, the system was largely abandoned after the arrival of the helicopters.

Evolution of the Brodie system. US patent 2,488,051.

At that time, on the other side of the world, the famous German test pilot Hanna Reitsch was at the top of her career in the Luftwaffe. Years after the conflict, in 1951, she published an autobiographical book, Fliegen, Mein Leben, in which she mentions the tests carried out with a method reminiscent of Brodie’s. In this case the German proposal consisted of a kind of “bed of ropes”, equipped with braking systems, on which gliders could land. The tests were very dangerous and were not repeated.

On the left, Hanna Reitsch. On the right, the glider landing system. (The Sky My Kingdom. 1955).

Naturally, before ending this matter, it would be unforgivable to forget that before the aforementioned examples, the pioneer Louis Blériot had already proposed a similar idea. The trace of this forgotten system is to be found in the August 2, 1913 edition of Flight, published by the British Royal Aero Club. There it was mentioned the tests carried out by Blériot on a method for taking off with planes hanging from a hook and a system of cables between towers that was reminiscent of Brodie’s idea. Its possible naval use is also mentioned, but finally it was never used beyond those initial tests.

Blériot system tested in 1913. Source: Textbook of naval aeronautics, by Henry Woodhouse (1917).

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