Major Alexander P. de Seversky

A Prophet With Honor

 By N.W. Emmett


A mark of a man's excellence is how well he overcomes difficulties and comes back after shattering blows.  Few greater discouragements can be imagined than occurred to a young Russian naval pilot, Alexander Seversky, flying his first combat mission during the First World War.  He was so badly wounded that his right leg had to be amputated.  Nevertheless, after his recovery he returned to combat duty as a fighter pilot - he had been wounded flying a bomber over the Baltic - and shot down 13 German aircraft during 56 combat missions, becoming the Number One Russian Ace.  By 1917 he had risen to chief of Russian naval fighter aircraft in the Baltic, becoming so indispensable that he was asked to remain in service after the Russian revolution.  Five months after the Communists seized power, however, de Seversky, as Vice Chairman, Russian Aviation Mission to the U.S.A., he traveled through Siberia to the United States, arriving in March 1918. 

 He had an impressive record of achievements by then, although he was only 23 years old.  A graduate of the Imperial Naval Academy, he had B.S. degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, plus a naval post-graduate course in aeronautics.  He held every decoration his country could give him, including the order of the Knight of St. George (the equivalent of the U.S. Medal of Honor of the British Victoria Cross).  When he arrived in Washington, however, the administration which had so honored him had disappeared.  He set out to build himself a new life.

 De Seversky was born in Tiflis, Georgia, 7 June 1894.  He was taught to fly in 1910 by his father, who even then owned a private aircraft.  Destined for a naval career, he attended the Imperial Naval Academy, graduating in 1914.  After he had served briefly in destroyers, his aeronautical knowledge marked him for further training, and then to service in the Baltic Sea Bombing Squadron of the Imperial Russian Navy.  Like most airmen, he treated ground-based guns with complete contempt, until a 37-millimeter shell blew the front off his flying boat.  He went on, however, to amass 1600 combat hours, flying with an artificial leg. 

Once in the United States, he immediately volunteered for combat duty in France, but because of his aeronautical knowledge he was appointed as consulting engineer and test pilot to the Buffalo Aircraft Procurement District for the U.S. government.

The war over, in 1919 he became general manager, aeronautical engineer and test pilot for the Sikorsky-Hannevig Aircraft Corporation, working with another distinguished Russian expatriate, Igor Sikorsky.  In 1922, however, he struck out for himself, founding the Seversky Aero Corporation, which endured until 1935, part of the time concurrent with the Seversky Aircraft Corporation, which he organized in 1931.

 In 1924 de Seversky was licensed as a Professional Engineer in the State of New York.  He continued his association with Sperry until 1929.  During this time he became an American Citizen in 1927, and was commissioned a Major in the U.S. Army Air Corps Special Reserve in 1928.  He still introduces himself by the title of Major, although there are dozens of generals who would be glad to claim a tenth of his achievements.

 In 1931 he organized the Seversky Aircraft Corporation, which later became the Republic Aircraft Corporation.  As its director, he set about turning the new concepts he held about aircraft into practice.  In particular, he was convinced that fighter  aircraft should fly faster and higher than bombers, which at the time, with a ceiling of 30,000 feet and speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, were often superior to the fighters which were supposed to catch them.  The urgency of de Seversky's self-imposed job was increased as Hitler came to power in Germany, and de Seversky became more and more convinced that the Nazis wanted war. 

De Seversky broke new ground in 1933, when he built to his own design a twin-float all-metal amphibian aircraft, in days when practically every aircraft was covered with fabric and relied heavily upon the use of wood.  In 1935 he went on to build an all-metal low-wing basic trainer for the Army Air Corps.  Then, in 1937, he produced the P-35 fighter, again all-metal and low-wing, the first American fighter to exceed 300 miles per hour.  With aircraft of his own design he established many speed records, including two world's speed records for amphibians in 1933 and 1935; a New York-Havana speed record in 1937; and a trans-continental speed record in 1938.

 His fighters were notably superior to the bombers, but the bombardment experts in the USAAC would not listen to him.  In 1938, they declared that American bombers would fly high enough and fast enough to be able to bomb enemy targets with impunity.  De Seversky contended they could not operate successfully unless they were protected by long-range fighter escorts, and set about developing a fighter which could do the job.  The Second World War proved how right he was.  Such bomber attacks as the one in Schweinfurt in 1943, when 62 aircraft were lost and 38 damaged out of 228 unescorted bombers, proved that fighter escorts were needed, just as de Seversky had predicted.

 To provide these escorts, the need for which the air commanders in Europe now recognized, de Seversky had been busy developing the P-43, the first interceptor using a high-altitude turbo-supercharged air-cooled engine.  With future development this became the Republic Thunderbolt, the aircraft which shared escort duties with the P-51 Mustang and gave the B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators the capability to penetrate to distant German targets and pound the oil refineries and transport networks into rubble, attacks which later proved to have crippled the German war effort.   

In 1921 he was appointed special consultant to General William A. Mitchell, the great, controversial air power advocate, who was then engaged in the preliminaries to the famous bombing attacks, first on the German cruiser "Ostfriesland" in July 1921, and then on two obsolete American warships in September 1923, off the Virginia Capes, which set off decades of argument between airmen (naval and military) and "battleship admirals".  Mitchell needed an accurate bombsight, and de Seversky set to work, in collaboration with Elmer Sperry, and the Sperry Gyroscope Company, to design one.

 De Seversky's introduction to aircraft instruments had begun in his father's Farman IV.  The aircraft was fitted with nothing more complicated than an inverted glass cup with some castor oil sealed inside, which pulsed in tune with the engine slowly enough to allow Seversky to count the pulses with the aid of a stopwatch.  This substitute for a tachometer, together with the seat of his pants, constituted the first set of aircraft instruments.  Later a liquid compass was transferred from a small boat; with this de Seversky's father commuted from Georgia to St. Petersburg. 

While serving with his Russian bombing squadron, de Seversky had already developed a crude bombsight, stabilized by means of pendulums.  He had considered using gyroscopes, but the "state-of-the-art" had not advanced far enough by that time; a decade later he was to consider inertial navigation, to be stymied by the same difficulty.  In the period 1921-1923, still employed by the government but working with Sperry, he found that he could marry a Sperry gyroscope to an analog computer to build a bombsight, which used manual inputs of airspeed, altitude, and bomb ballistic characteristics.  One master gyro controlled other instruments through remote transmitters, which were equipped with differentials which could be adjusted to remove errors.  De Seversky had considered automatic inputs of airspeed and altitude, but with the slow, low aircraft of the day, manual inputs turned out to be almost as good.  The bombsight provided an indication of groundspeed, (the first such device to do so) as well as drift, on dials.  By using horizontal and vertical gyroscopes, a collision course could be automatically set up with the target, which could itself be moving, since the bombsight incorporated a "fourth vector" capability.   

 A contract for over $2,000,000 worth of de Seversky bombsights was signed by the U.S. Army Air Corps as a result of the demonstration off the Virginia Cape.  General Mason Patrick, then Chief of the Air Corps, stated that, "The device was recently tested and showed a degree of accuracy and versatility that excelled the hopes and expectations of those who had been interested in the undertaking".

 While working with Elmer Sperry on the bombsight, de Seversky wrote a memo which said "Air navigation will be sold by radio and gyroscope".  Faithful to this premise, during the Twenties, he helped to develop the gyro-stabilized flight instruments which gave the aircraft a blind-flying capability.  He also was active in developing radio-navigation gear; in 1935 he tested the first radio compass, developed by Bill Lear, flying from New York to Mexico and back.  In 1939 he flew using a Collins radio compass to Europe.

 During the war, de Seversky wrote his book "Victory Through  Air Power"  in 1942, which was made into a movie by Walt Disney.  A print of the movie was flown to Quebec during the Quebec Conference in 1943, on the orders of Winston Churchill, so that it could be shown to President Roosevelt and Combined Chiefs of Staff.  Churchill felt that the impact of the movie would help his planners to make up their mind as to the most effective time and place to plan the Normandy invasion.  De Seversky's sincerity in his efforts to wake the Allied world to the potentialities of air power was shown by the fact that he severed his connection with his own company in 1939 to allow himself a free hand without any hint of conflict of interest. 

 During the war, de Seversky made a long string of correct predictions.  On 31 July 1939, he predicted that Hitler would march in September, although many military experts believed Germany was not ready.  In 1939 he predicted that aircraft would soon reach a speed of 500 miles per hour, a statement so radical that his own company, Republic Aircraft, disclaimed responsibility for it.  In 1943 he said that aircraft would soon reach the speed of sound.  In 1940 he went on record that the RAF and its Spitfires would be able to protect Britain against a German invasion.

After the Second World War he continued to call the shots.  In 1950 Omar Bradley, the Army Chief of Staff, assured the public that the Korea "police action" would be over in a matter of weeks; de Seversky insisted that it would be long and costly and end in a stalemate, with America still  "at the end of a 5000-mile limb".  De Seversky also predicted the entry of Red China into the conflict; General Douglas MacArthur disbelieved him, with disastrous results.  In 1955, in an article published in This Week magazine, de Seversky warned the U.S.A. that Russia was outstripping America in space.  In 1957 the Sputnik orbited the earth, with all American satellites still on the ground.

 De Seversky continued to write, producing in 1950 Air Power, Key to Survival, and in 1961, America, Too Young to Die.  In both books he advocated an active scientific defense (i.e., weapons which will actively seek out and destroy hostile missiles) rather than a policy of retaliation and passive defense.  He also predicted that a nuclear war will not be mobile, but static, with the nuclear-armed fortresses shooting it out with each other, the decisive new weapon being electromagnetic interception of offensive missiles.  The nuclear  "balance of terror", he said, was transitory and the nation most burdened by the weight of the armament race would be bound to seek relief by war.  He was convinced that war under these conditions was inevitable, and civil defense is imperative.  As usual, few were taking de Seversky seriously.  He also advocated the creation of a single unified military service, with one uniform, one promotion list, and one chief of staff.  This experiment was first tried in Canada, which unified its three armed services in 1968.

 Besides his role as a military prophet, de Seversky continued his activity as a technological inventor and innovator.  In line with the emphasis on pollution, he invented a wet-type electrostatic precipitator for attaching air pollution.  This added to the list of new developments he previously pioneered, which included the cantilever-skin stressed aircraft wing structure, flight refueling, trailing-edge wing-flaps, and the "Ionocraft", a heavier-than-air levitation device depending on ionic emission, which was built and demonstrated.

 De Seversky,interviewed by this author when he was in his late Seventies, was still slim, still with snapping eyes behind his spectacles, and still with hair that was gray, not white.  The loss of a leg years ago had not hindered him.

 He had said that the way to keep young is to keep busy with new things and new interests.  In this he had certainly taken his own advice, and the aeronautical world, to which he had contributed so much, could look forward to the profit even more from his ideas, his advice, and his clear sight into the future.

 De Seversky found satisfaction in finding ideas of which he had himself been a proponent in the past becoming a reality, even when somebody else did the work.  He recounted this thrill he experienced in flying in the aircraft of the USAF Chief of Staff, which was equipped with a Litton LTN-51 Inertial Navigation System.  Inertial navigation was a technique whose feasibility and desirability he had himself predicted before 1921. Alexander P. de Seversky died in 1974 and with all his accurate predictions and achievements was a prophet with honor.