When a Jet Wore a Costume
Two weeks before Halloween in 1944, a small jet fighter plane was parked on an Ohio airfield. The plane was wearing a kind of costume. It had fake propellers attached to the front of its wings. Was this jet getting dressed up so it could zoom off trick-or-treating at airports around the country?
Not exactly. Those fake propellers weren’t a Halloween prank. They were serious business, a disguise that the Army hoped would fool enemy spies.
Jet planes don’t use propellers, the spinning blades that give other aircraft the power to fly. A jet’s power comes from jet engines attached to the under side of its wings. A jet engine sucks in air and spins the air very fast inside the engine. The air is then mixed with gas fuel in the engine and an electric spark sets the gas-air mixture on fire. This burning mixture blasts out of the back of the engine with so much force that the plane can move forward and zoom up and away.
In 1944, World War II was still raging. For most of the war, military planes had been propeller planes, both for the United States and Britain, as well as for their enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. Jet engines had only been invented a few years before the war began but weren’t used in military planes until early 1944, when Germany became the first country to use a jet fighter in battle.
The U.S. had built a jet plane—the XP-59A—but it was still being tested. In the fall of 1944, a version of this new jet, called the YP-59A, was shipped for testing to Wright Field, an Army aviation test center in Dayton, Ohio. To keep spies from finding out about the plane, it not only had fake propellers but also an armed soldier standing guard.
On October 14, 1944, test pilots took turns test-flying this jet at Wright Field, after the fake propellers were removed! They noted problems, so none of these U.S. jets were ever used in the war. But although the plane never made history winning any battles, one of the pilots testing it did make history that October day: 26-year-old Ann Baumgartner Carl. That day she became the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft. She was one of the WASP pilots--Women Airforce Service Pilots—the first women’s unit to fly for the U.S military.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPS, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "When a Jet Wore a Costume." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/when-a-jet-wore-a-costume.
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
What do the words on this list have in common?
Hint: They describe an amusement park attraction that goes round and round.
As you probably guessed, they’re names people have used for a ride you may call a merry-go-round or carousel. No matter their names, these rides have roots in the days of knights in shining armor.
Nearly a thousand years ago, European knights traveled to the Middle East to fight in the Crusades. They saw Turkish and Arabian fighters training in an unusual way: galloping on horseback in a circle while tossing balls to each other, to become more skilled horsemen. European knights named this a “carosella,” an old Spanish word for “little war.” When they returned home, they began having “carosella” contests as part of their tournaments. The French called these contests “carrousels.”
By the 1600s, carrousel contests changed to having knights use a long lance to spear a metal ring dangling from a tree or post overhead. In the late 1600s, some young French knights began using pretend carrousels to practice ring-spearing. Wooden horses or small chariots—arranged in a circle—were raised up in the air, attached by strong chains to wooden bars jutting out near the top of a tall pole in the center of the circle. Men on the ground (or a real horse) would pull the wooden horses so they would circle around the pole, as riders practiced spearing rings dangling from above.
By the 1700s, rides like this started being built just for fun, not as knight training. They became popular in Europe and really took off in the United States in the late 1800s when newly invented steam engines began powering them. These engines provided much more power than a worker or horse could. So bigger carousels with more wooden animals could be built. No longer suspended in midair, the animals were attached to round wooden platforms.
Most merry-go-rounds today are powered by electricity, not steam engines. Many carousel animals created now are made of aluminum or fiberglass, but some are still carved from wood. Of the more than 350 carousels operating in the U.S., more than 200 are old-time classics with wooden animals. A few carousels even let riders try to snag an overhead ring as they circle round and round.
Click here for a listing of carousels in the U.S. today.
Sources for this article may be found on the author's website
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells the surprising civil rights history behind one of the classic wooden merry-go-rounds that still offer rides every day—the Carousel on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Knight Time Fun." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18 May 2018,
Music That's Out of This World
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
When musicians play a lively tune, they often find themselves spontaneously tapping their toes and moving about to the pulsing beat. But when Ellen Ochoa played her flute at work one day in 1993, she couldn’t be spontaneous at all. If she hadn’t made careful plans, she could have been blown about the room, just by playing one long note on her flute. That’s because she was an astronaut working on the U.S. Space Shuttle as it circled Earth more than a hundred miles out in space.
Gravity is so weak far out in space that astronauts—and any of their gear that isn’t fastened down—will float about inside a space craft. Blowing air into her flute could have created enough force to actually send Ochoa zipping about the space shuttle cabin. So, to keep herself in place as she played, she had to slip her feet into strong loops attached to the floor.
Dr. Ochoa, now the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, was the first U.S. astronaut to bring a flute on a space mission, but she wasn’t the first to make music in space. Nearly thirty years earlier, in December 1965, two astronauts onboard the Gemini 6 space craft played a musical joke on mission control officials down on Earth. Those astronauts—Walter M. Schirra, Jr., and Thomas P. Stafford—told mission control that they saw an unusual object near their spaceship, a satellite perhaps, moving from North to South. They said they would try to pick up some sound from this mysterious object. Then they used the harmonica and bells they had secretly brought with them on that December mission to surprise folks listening down below by playing “Jingle Bells.”
In recent years, other astronauts have brought musical instruments on space missions to help lift their spirits, especially those who spend many months on the International Space Station. Like Dr. Ochoa, these astronaut musicians have to make adjustments, such as using a bungee cord to attach an electronic piano keyboard to a pianist’s leg.
Some astronauts have composed music in space, including Canadian Chris Hadfield. On May 6, 2013, he sang the song he wrote—called “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)”—in a live TV broadcast from the space station as thousands of Canadian schoolchildren sang along with him down on Earth. Click here for a recording of that space-to-Earth performance
Learning to play an instrument can be fun and, at times, frustrating. Amy Nathan's lively book helps young people cope with the difficulties involved in learning a new instrument and remaining dedicated to playing and practicing. Teens from renowned music programs - including the Juilliard School's Pre-College Program and Boston University's Tanglewood Institute - join pro musicians in offering practical answers to questions from what instrument to play to where the musical road may lead. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Music That's Out of This World." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 11 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Caterpillars to the Rescue
I learned about the Caterpillar Club when I interviewed some flying WASPs—not the kind that buzz around on tiny wings. These WASPs were airplane pilots, the first women to fly for the United States military. They served during World War II: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP, for short).
The Caterpillar Club they told me about was named for silkworm caterpillars that helped save pilots’ lives. If a plane developed engine trouble in midair, pilots could float to safety by using a parachute made from silk, a lightweight cloth that silkworm caterpillars help create. These caterpillars use a spit-like substance in their mouths to spin a long silk thread that they wrap around themselves, forming a cocoon that they live in for several weeks until they become moths. Those long silk threads can then be unwound from the cocoons and woven together to make silk cloth.
About twenty years before World War II, a parachute company started the Caterpillar Club for people whose lives were saved by using a parachute to escape from a disabled plane. People could write to the company about their parachute rescue, pay a membership fee, and the company would send them a little caterpillar pin.
However, the WASP pilots I spoke with said that some pilots liked to feel they were part of the Caterpillar Club even if it wasn’t an aircraft’s fault that led them to use a parachute. During World War II, pilots—both men and women—trained to fly military aircraft for the Army in small open planes. The planes didn’t have a roof. If a nervous pilot-in-training forgot to buckle the seat belt and the plane tipped over, the pilot could fall out! Fortunately, they always wore a parachute. Landing safely—thanks to the parachute—not only let them feel part of the Caterpillar Club, but also helped the students remember to never, ever forget to buckle up again.
However, by World War II, many parachutes used by U.S. pilots weren’t made of silk. The silk-producing areas of the world were controlled then by Japan, which the U.S. was fighting in this war. Because U.S. companies could no longer get silk cloth, they began making parachutes from a new material scientists had just invented—nylon. Most parachutes are made of nylon today. Even so, the Caterpillar Club lives on.
Click here for source notes on this article.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPs, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Through firsthand accounts, she tells how these early pilots they test-flew newly repaired aircraft, dragged banners behind their planes so male trainees could practice shooting moving targets with live ammunition (!), and ferried all kinds of aircraft from factories to military bases.
Yankee Doodle Gals will give you a new look at World War II and show you just how dramatically society has changed since then. Click here for more information.
Rosa Parks is famous for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Buses were segregated there, with rules that made African Americans sit in the back. However, Rosa Parks wasn’t the first to protest against such unfair bus rules. Others had done so earlier, including Sarah Keys Evans, a young private in the United States Army who made her stand for justice three years before Rosa Parks.
In August 1952, Sarah was traveling home to North Carolina from Ft. Dix in New Jersey, where she was stationed. Early that summer morning, she boarded a bus in New Jersey—where buses weren’t segregated—and sat toward the middle of the bus. After midnight, the bus entered Roanoke Rapids, a town in North Carolina. Sarah’s hometown was farther south. A new bus driver took over the bus and ordered her to move to the back. When she didn’t, she was arrested. She had to spend the night in jail and pay a $25 fine the next morning. Police put her on another bus that took her the rest of the way home, forcing her to sit in the back.
With the help of a young African American lawyer, Dovey Roundtree, Sarah Keys Evans filed a complaint against the bus company with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Sarah won!
The ICC was in charge of interstate transportation—buses and trains that travel from state to state. The ICC said it was wrong for interstate buses to force people to sit in certain seats because of their race. This victory was announced one week before Rosa Parks made her stand on a different kind of bus—a local city bus, not an interstate one. Rosa Parks’ action led to a year-long protest in Montgomery and a Supreme Court victory that called for an end to segregation on local buses, too. It would take several years, however, and more protests before both of these rulings were finally obeyed in all parts of the country.
In recent years, Sarah Keys Evans has received several important honors, including an award from the U.S. Department of Justice, a proclamation from Congress, and a plaque at the Women’s Memorial in Washington. She was also honored in the place where her troubles began. An exhibit about her role in civil rights history was installed in the town museum of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.
Source notes for this Minute may be found by clicking here.
"Amy Nathan tells Sarah’s story dexterously, writing the nonfiction narrative in a very simple yet compelling way that makes the book hard to put down. Sarah’s courage and determination show through in Amy’s writing, and you can easily hear Sarah’s strong spirit speaking. Take A Seat, Make A Stand is an inspiring book of a young woman’s audacity and her act of civil disobedience that changed the way Americans are treated today." Review from New Moon magazine.
" Nathan strikes just the right balance of emotion and facts necessary to reach children within the context of a history lesson. As a result, this thin volume would be a good choice for elementary classrooms as part of a Civil Rights unit. A winner. " Kirkus review.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Sarah Keys: An Early Pioneer for Justice." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 15 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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