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,
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/