One of the more attractive and hopeful aspects of the human personality is our capacity for wonder, curiosity and the joy of the “Eureka” moment discovering the solution to seemingly insurmountable, vexing challenges.  A story from the past week brought this marvel to mind.

Public Broadcasting’s NOVA series ran a program about Hugh Hunt, a Cambridge University engineering professor, and his inquiry into an early WWII bombing raid by Great Britain that temporarily shut down the heartland of the Third Reich’s war equipment industry in the Ruhr Valley.  In 1942 with the war against Hitler in grave danger a British engineer, Barnes Wallis, convinced the Royal Air Force that he could breach the immense Möhne and Eder dams, which would flood coal mines and deprive the steel plants of necessary water and hydroelectric power to disrupt the production of tanks, planes and munitions for the German war machine.  Fearsome anti aircraft emplacements and the inaccuracy of bombs of the early war (only 10% hit within 5 miles of their targets) thus far had kept the dams safe.  To prevent air dropped torpedoes from reaching the dams, large, steel submarine nets were installed below the waterline across the huge lakes.  Wallis designed the famous “bouncing bombs”, code named “Upkeep”, which could skip across the water and sink adjacent to the dams, detonating after they dropped thirty feet below the surface. Delivery necessitated low level, risky flying.

On the night of May 16, 1943 a 617 RAF Squadron of 19 Lancaster bombers attacked the dams with the “Upkeep” bombs suspended beneath their fuselages. The concussive wave from their explosives, magnified by the weight of the water above them, blew out large sections of the dams and flooded the valleys.  In addition to damaging the mines and power plants, 25 bridges were washed out.  Eight bombers and fifty three members of the “Dam Busters” squadron did not survive the raid, but their success was one of the most significant of the war.

In 2011, Hugh Hunt was intrigued by how Wallis managed to skip what looked like oil drums across the water.  Most of the 1940’s notes were lost in local floods in 1960, and no one had been able to duplicate Barnes Wallis’s achievement since.  After months of meticulous research, Hunt was ready to test his theories at a remote lake in Canada.  He assembled a team that included a dam engineer and contractor to build a 30’ high model of the original dam.  They poured hundreds of concrete 2’ x 2’ x 4’ blocks that interlocked like Lego blocks, overcoming numerous design, soil type and topography problems.  First they cut a deep channel from the lake then built the dam in the middle of it.  Once it was completed, the last barrier of soil separating the channel from the lake was dug out, filling the channel behind the dam. It took six intense weeks to complete.

Two weeks of field testing in the lake required Arnie Schreder, a bush pilot with thirty years of experience, to fly his two engine WWII vintage DC-4 over 200 MPH only 50 feet above the water to achieve the necessary angle and speed of entry for the barrel.  Flying that low put the plane at risk of being damaged or even broken up by the impact splash when the barrel hit the lake.  Experiments with cement filled barrels had proven that a backspin of over 700 RPM was necessary to make them skip.  In Wallis’s version, an engine had been fitted to the bomb release mechanism under the plane to achieve the necessary spin.  Hugh Hunt devised a low budget solution that required spinning up the barrel with a large commercial drill to 1,600 RPM on the ground, and then releasing it over the lake before it slowed below 700.

At the last minute, tests proved their commercial drop mechanism designed for forest fire fighting was inadequate for the task, putting the barrel into the water at an angle, instead of the perfect parallel it required.  Two days before the crucial final drop, Hunt rented a local machine shop to alter the arms on the mount, personally cutting and welding into the night.  The day before the critical drop, Jim Bellevance, the dam contractor, stopped the leaks and finished the dam.  As each difficult hurdle was cleared, the team celebrated with shouts and hugs all around.

On the day of the final test, explosives were lowered into the water adjacent to the dam. The Canadian government’s toleration of this motley team of scientists, flyers and builders did not extend to letting them fly over sovereign territory with live bombs.  Hugh Hunt’s promise to Arnie Schreder was that if he could manage to skip the 300 pound barrel five times down the lake, into the channel and against the dam, Hunt would detonate the charge beneath it.  The crew pulled back to a safe distance and tensely watched the dénouement of a year’s planning and effort.  Arnie flew tight on the right line and low.  The barrel released perfectly and bounced hard five times and into the top of the dam.  When the dam blew, Hunt danced like a child, hugged one of his engineers and pumped his fist into the air.  No one watching could see scientists as detached and undemonstrative.

I was reminded of my 3 year old granddaughter, Gianna.  She will spend a half hour painstakingly building a Lego structure with windows, towers, bridges, cars, stairs and doors. Her intense focus is a marvel.  When it is finally finished to her satisfaction, she will look at us and her creation with great satisfaction, then delight in smashing it to oblivion.  Absolute delight.  Exultation.  The joy of simply being human.

Fair is what we see, Fairer what we have perceived, Fairest what is still in veil.

Blessed Nicolas Steno.  Father of modern geology with significant contributions to anatomy and paleontology as well.  Danish Bishop. Born January 11, 1638. Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

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