Flying High with Aluminum

Flying chairThe date was July 2nd, 1982. As the TWA pilot approached the Long Beach Municipal Airport in California, he couldn’t believe his eyes.  There, at 16,000 feet, sat a man in a lawn chair held aloft by dozens of balloons!  He held a gun in his lap and had a parachute strapped to his back.  Was this some kind of novel terrorist activity?  No, it was Larry Walters, an adventurer who had planned to balloon across the Mojave Desert in an aluminum lawn chair attached to 45 weather balloons filled with helium.  Larry had dreamed of becoming a pilot but his eyesight was not good enough to meet Air Force requirements.  But he figured it was good enough to fly a lawn chair.

Why the need for a gun?  That was his landing gear.  Larry had planned to come back to earth by bursting his balloons with pellets!  Unfortunately the landing was not quite as soft as he had hoped.  He got entangled in power lines and had to be rescued by firemen.  His punishment was a fine for operating a civil aircraft with no “air-worthiness certificate.”

Actually, Larry had planned the air-worthiness of his craft quite carefully.  That’s why he chose an aluminum lawn chair.  He knew that the metal was durable and extremely light!  In fact the pilot who spotted the strange flying contraption was himself at the controls of an aircraft made largely of the same metal.  Aluminum is ideal for such uses.  Besides being light, it doesn’t corrode easily and can be economically produced.  Jules Verne was one of the first to recognize the potential of aluminum in flight.  In his classic work, “From The Earth To The Moon,” written in 1865, he described aluminum as “easily wrought, very widely distributed, forming the basis of most of the rocks, three times lighter than iron and seems to have been created for the express purpose of furnishing us with the material for our projectile.”  Verne certainly was a visionary.  The first satellite to be launched into earth orbit, The Soviets’ “Sputnik” was made of aluminum, as is much of the Space Shuttle.  Back in 1865 though, constructing such a large object out of aluminum was just a figment of the imagination.

Aluminum was certainly known at the time, and it wasn’t rare.  Actually, it is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust.  But the metal is not found in its elemental state, it only occurs in combination with other elements.  Clay consists of aluminum silicates and most of the rocks in the world contain aluminum.  Bauxite, named after Les Baux in France, where huge deposits were first found, is basically made of aluminum oxide.  Separating aluminum from the other elements defied scientists until 1827 when Friedrich Wohler in Germany managed to tease a few bits of aluminum out of aluminum chloride by reacting it with potassium in a platinum crucible.  Still, aluminum remained a laboratory curiosity until the middle 1800s when Henri Sainte-Claire Deville found a way to isolate the metal by passing an electric current through aluminum chloride fused with sodium.  This was not a commercially viable process, but did make aluminum available in small amounts.  As long as someone was willing to pay the price!  Aluminum at the time was judged to be more precious than gold and at the Paris Exposition of 1855 a small ingot was exhibited next to the crown jewels.  Cost it seems, was not an impediment to Emperor Louis Napoleon III, who ordered a set of cutlery made entirely of aluminum.  But it was not for everyday use.  The aluminum utensils were rolled out only for state occasions.  On a daily basis, members of the royal household had to make do with gold cutlery!

Americans were not to be outdone by the trappings of the French court.  When the Washington Monument was constructed in 1884, architects searched for a unique way to top it off.  It was decided that a pyramid made of aluminum would be a fitting crown for the monument that was destined to become, and remain the tallest structure in the city of Washington.  The little pyramid weighed only about six pounds but at the time was the largest piece of aluminum that had ever been cast.

Then in 1886, along came Charles Martin Hall.  He had just graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio where his chemistry professor, Frank Fanning Jewett, had been a former pupil of Wohler’s and had often regaled his students with stories about Wohler’s attempts to produce aluminum on a large scale.  A fortune would await anyone, he said, who solved this problem.  At the tender age of twenty-two, Hall did exactly that!  Using a homemade battery, he discovered that electrolysis of a solution of aluminum oxide dissolved in cryolite (sodium aluminum fluoride) resulted in the release of oxygen at the positive electrode as molten aluminum collected around the negative electrode.  The process was relatively easily scaled up and by 1890 aluminum was available for 60 cents a pound.  Curiously, the same year that Hall made his discovery, Paul-Louis-Toussaint Heroult, also twenty-two years old, independently came up with the same process in France.  A further bizarre quirk is that both men were born in December 1863 and died at the young age of fifty-one in December 1914.

The Hall-Heroult process quickly converted aluminum from a precious metal to a commodity product.  By 1893 when the aluminum Statue of Eros was unveiled in London’s Piccadilly Circus, the metal was no longer a rarity.  Aluminum foil was manufactured in France as early as 1903, the same year the Wright brothers made their first historic flight.  And that flight would not have happened without aluminum!  The airplane could accommodate only 200 pounds for the engine and the only material light enough was aluminum.  The Wrights, like Larry Walters knew that if they wanted to fly, they needed aluminum.  The brothers of course became famous.  And Larry?  He paid his $1500 fine and went on the talk show circuit.  He even made a Timex commercial featuring an adventurer’s watch.  You guessed it, the watch casing was made of aluminum.

Unfortunately in the end Larrry had a very hard landing.  For a brief time he had some success as a motivational speaker, but after breaking up with his girlfriend he had a tough time and sadly ended up committing suicide.

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