George W. Goddard: Pursuing excellence in airborne optics

01 March 2024
By Jeff Hecht
Brigadier Gen. George W. Goddard. Photo credit: US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence

When the time came to plan aerial photography for the Allied D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France, the US Army Air Forces put Col. George W. Goddard in charge. Relieved of command in 1943 after clashing with superiors, Goddard was brought back by Col. Elliott Roosevelt, an aviation official who regarded him and had the additional clout of being the President’s son. Goddard prepared planes equipped with one of two types of flashes for night photography: brilliant flash bombs for high altitudes and electronic strobes for lower ones. On the night before the 6 June 1944 attack, a cloud layer at 3,000 feet blocked light from flash bombs from taking good photos, but a plane carrying a strobe had success from as low as 800 feet. Information from the photos helped the Allied nations attack and capture of the crucial beachhead.

In 1961, SPIE created an award for excellence in space and airborne optics named after Goddard, its first recipient, who had retired in 1953 as a US Air Force Brigadier General. The prize came 44 years after the luminary enlisted in the US Army Signal Corps as a private in hopes of becoming an aviator. During that period, he helped make aerial photography a vital reconnaissance tool, as exemplified by its use in the D-Day invasion.

Armies had started using airborne photography during World War I, and soon saw its military potential. Goddard’s interest in aviation was sparked by watching a 1916 flight by aviator Ruth Law while he was working in Chicago as an artist for a trade journal. Born in 1889, he enlisted in the Army Signal Corps in 1917, after the US had entered World War I, hoping to become a pilot. When officers learned he liked to take photos, they sent him to study photography for three months so he could teach it to military pilots.

Goddard did not earn his pilot rating until May 1919, after the war had ended. The next year, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant and put in charge of aerial photography at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio. He later became chief scientific officer for airborne mapping. At McCook, Goddard served under US Army Gen. Billy Mitchell, who is considered the father of today’s US Air Force.

Aerial photography in World War I had proved its military worth in daytime, but darkness hid enemy activity. Goddard wanted to expand aerial photography to the night, but the Army Air Service had only $30,000 a year for all aerial photography. Fortunately, he found a willing partner with deep pockets in C. E. Kenneth Mees, head of the Kodak Research Laboratories, which had a $5,000,000 annual research budget—worth about $90 million today.

A key goal of the partnership was developing brighter lights for night photos. The brightest then available were flash bombs. Goddard first used gliders to drop small flash bombs with explosions timed to light up the landscape. The next step was assembling an 80-pound flash bomb that would make a much brighter flash. It was loaded onto a plane Goddard flew over the Eastman Kodak Tower in downtown Rochester, New York, at about 11 pm on 20 November 1925.  As Goddard wrote in his book Overview: A Lifelong Adventure in Aerial Photography: “In about 20 seconds [the flash] exploded with a tremendous blast and a brilliant flash…so fast it took the place of a shutter in the camera.”

That test was a technical triumph, but no one had told city officials. When Goddard landed, Rochester was in a near panic, with its phone lines jammed for hours. Mees told Goddard, “It’s the picture that counts, man, the picture.” But as the worried Goddard later wrote: “I could see a picture of me in the guardhouse, and headlines screaming ARMY AIR SERVICE CREATES CHAOS IN ROCHESTER.” He calmed the chaos by searching out reporters and persuading them that the real story was taking the first photo from an airplane at night. Back in Dayton, his commanding officer greeted him with a letter saying, “from now on dammit let the people know before you scare the hell out of them…and congratulations for a terrific job.”

Goddard knew night photography would work better if the flash was matched to the camera’s shutter, so he tapped television pioneer Vladimir Zworykin of RCA to develop an electronic sensor that would trigger the shutter when the bomb flashed. Success came in 1926 and the flash-bomb and shutter system remained in use until the 1950s.

However, the size of flash bombs limited how many a plane could carry, limiting the number of shots, and the flash timing had to be matched with that of the shutter before the flight. The electronic strobe lamps invented by Harold “Doc” Edgerton of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1931 looked promising, but not until 1939 did Goddard have the funding to commission development of the brighter strobes needed for night aerial photography.

Edgerton calculated that a strobe powerful enough to illuminate the ground from a mile above would be too heavy for a plane to carry to that altitude. That didn’t scare Goddard, who knew planes with much heavier payloads were in development. Before he returned to his lab at Wright Field, also in Dayton, Goddard had persuaded Edgerton to develop bigger strobes.

Goddard at an SPIE meeting.

As World War II approached, Goddard was chief photographic officer at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base), where he was pioneering high-altitude aerial stereoscopic and color cameras, and the continuous-exposure film strip camera. But his enthusiasm for the film-strip camera got him into trouble.

To show how well the film-strip camera worked with its shutter open, Goddard gave sample photos to Life magazine. That angered Lieutenant Col. Minton Kaye, who did not share his enthusiasm, and—more importantly—outranked him as director of photography for what by then was the Army Air Corps. Goddard was exiled for a time to a base in Charlotte, North Carolina. Eventually, he escaped exile by pulling strings to get assigned to a US Navy aerial photography project, which led to being assigned to work on reconnaissance in Europe with Col. Roosevelt, who helped get him assigned to command aerial photography in preparation for the D-Day invasion. The successful strobe camera flight, Edgerton later wrote, “returned with photographs which were of considerable tactical importance, and which could not have been made by flash-bomb technique.”

Goddard returned to Wright Field in August 1945 as chief of the photographic laboratory, where he continued his work in aerial photography. He retired when he reached age 60 on 30 June 1949—standard practice at the time—but was recalled to duty the next day to continue as chief of the photographic lab.

In 1952, he was promoted to brigadier general and became director of reconnaissance for the Allied Air Forces in Central Europe, based in Fontainebleau, France. After he finally retired from regular duty in 1953, the Air Force called him their “leading aerial photo expert.” He was called back again during the 1962 missile crisis to make stereoscopic strip-camera images of Cuban sites.

Goddard shared his real-life adventures in aerial photography in his 1969 autobiography. And yet, in spite of a lifetime of achievements, Goddard told 1979 SPIE President Joe Houston that his proudest achievement was being depicted as a cartoon in Milton Caniff’s vintage adventure comic strip, Steve Canyon.

When you’re made into a comic, you know you have arrived.

Jeff Hecht is an SPIE Member and freelancer who writes about science and technology.


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