"Calling Destroyer Command. Flying Fortress crew down at sea taking to life rafts need help position "
"Walkie-talkie report from Colonel Jones. Nearing position of flyers forced down in jungle. Signal from their 'Gibson Girl' coming in strong."
"Base to rescue party. Men from Liberator crew report desert heat affecting them badly. Can you speed up contact?"
Such radioed reports reach the Air Transport Command from all over the globe. Within the outwardly prosaic files in the ATC offices, just outside of Washington, DC, lie some of the most thrilling stories the world has known. A little later in this article we will take a peek into those files. Woven inextricably into the stories is another tale that of a small, manually-operated life-saving radio the "Gibson Girl."
This nickname was given the set during its secret development by engineers of Bendix Aviation, Ltd, North Hollywood, CA, and was later picked up by American flyers. Officially the SCR-578, the "Gibson Girl's" nickname came from its wasp-waisted construction, curved in the center so that it may be held firmly between the knees on a liferaft. The device is a handpowered, foolproof emergency radio transmitter, designed primarily to speed the rescue of airmen forced down at sea. Already thousands of planes are equipped with these sets and more are being turned out daily at the Bendix plant.
It weighs 33 pounds, including all accessories, and is unsinkable and waterproof. By simply turning a small crank on its top the transmitter generates an automatic SOS with an effective area of 100,000 square miles. It is pre-tuned to the international distress frequency of 500 kilocycles.
All ships at sea and all Coast Guard stations keep a 24-hour watch on this frequency. Under peacetime conditions the distress signal will trip autoalarms, establishing a signal circuit and setting off gongs, sirens, or other attention-compelling devices.
The only preparation for sending out a signal on the "Gibson Girl" is the raising of an aerial. This is done by means of a kite or, if the weather is calm, by a balloon. Hydrogen for the balloon can be produced by immersing a simple generator in the sea.
The balloon or kite is flown with light wire which serves as the aerial. Best results are obtained when an altitude of 300 feet is reached. Tests have shown that the five-foot balloons are capable of remaining aloft under adverse weather conditions for as long as a week.
When the crank on the transmitter is turned, a series of gears and discs attached to the crankshaft spells out the SOS in code. By continuous operation the set becomes a transmitting station on which pilots can tune their automatic radio compasses and ride the "beam" to its origin.
In addition to its automatic features, the "Gibson Girl" can be operated manually, enabling an experienced radio operator to send messages in code. It is also equipped with a signal light which can be used either for illumination or operated as a "blinker" light to send code messages.
Designed to operate under difficult conditions, this small set has meant life to many an airman. It is a close friend to all who fly. Now, for the first time, some of the extraordinary and unusual rescues, outside the routine of picking up flyers forced down at sea, effected through this radio can be told here. An official memorandum declares:
"The 'Gibson Girl' and the yellow life-belt called the 'Mae West' are becoming a celebrated lifesaving pair.
"The SCR-578 originally was intended for use in aircraft making extended flights over water. But it has proved its worth in aircraft making long hops over sandy wastes and tangled forests and is now installed on all Army planes flying great distances over water, desert and jungle.
"All occupants of an Army aircraft making such a flight are carefully briefed on the location of the 'Gibson Girl' in the ship's emergency equipment and how to use it.
"The transmitter is rugged. It has functioned after being dropped into the water from great heights. It has withstood corrosion, salt water and sudden, drastic changes in temperature. It has shown itself extremely reliable in operation."
So much for the mechanical side of the "Gibson Girl." For its operation under emergency conditions let us compose a story typical of many reports received from airmen on the battle fronts.
"Our Flying Fortress was badly hit. We had outrun enemy fighters but were rapidly losing our formation and it was pretty evident that we were going to have to make a forced landing in the ocean.
"The pilot gave the order to abandon ship. At an altitude of about 500 feet we parachuted two buoyant bags of equipment, strapped together, and followed them over the side. The water was plenty rough. We pulled the trigger that automatically inflated our 'Mae West,' found our liferafts and automatically inflated them. A couple of the boys were badly shot up but we managed to pull them onto the rafts.
"The going was pretty bad, but we spotted our 'Gibson Girl' in short order. (The bags containing the equipment are painted a bright yellow. They hold the transmitter, a collapsible box kite, two deflated balloons, two hydrogen generators, a spare roll of aerial wire, a signal light and a book of instructions.)
"We got the aerial up in nothing flat. The raft was pitching so badly that it was necessary to use the webbing straps on the set to hold it in position between the operator's legs. He started to grind away while we shivered and prayed. It looked like a helluva small and impractical dingus to get us out of this mess.
"But it wasn't so awfully long although it seemed like two or three lifetimes before a destroyer showed up on the horizon heading directly for us. 'Sparks' kept on cranking like crazy, switching to code and telling the ship our wounded were in bad shape and needed help quickly. The destroyer was soon alongside, picking us up. All of us will live to fight again."
Included in the memorandum released by the Air Transport Command are two case histories which are characteristic of an increasing number filed away in Washington.
"During the spring of 1943, a US Army bomber bound for the Middle East theater of operations was forced down in the African desert by mechanical trouble. The bomber was damaged badly but its crew escaped serious injury. They hoisted the antenna of their 'Gibson Girl' by balloon and radioed for help. They had come down along a well-traveled airway and their SOS was soon picked up by a plane which got a fix on the location of the flyers. The plane radioed this information to the nearest air base which immediately dispatched a flyer to drop water, food and medicines and started a rescue party to the scene. Three days later all members of the disabled bomber's crew had been rescued."
The second example had its locale some place in the South Atlantic between the bulge of Brazil and the West African air base.
"This summer an Air Transport Command plane flying the South Atlantic spotted a half dozen survivors of a United Nations steamship floating on a wooden raft. The plane dropped a liferaft, provisioned with food, water, medicines, fishing tackle. and a 'Gibson Girl' to the castaways. The mariners used the 'Gibson Girl' to send out an SOS and direct their rescuers to them. They were picked up within a short time by a surface vessel. This is believed to be one of the first times that a plane has effected the rescue of survivors of a surface vessel by dropping the SCR-578 into the sea near them.
"The 'Gibson Girl' has figured in the rescue of flyers from jungle areas of South America, from the Greenland icecap, from North Atlantic waters and from many areas in the Pacific," the Air Transport Command relates. "During the fall of 1942, the crews of two downed planes on the Greenland icecap maintained radio communication for several weeks with planes overhead and nearby air bases by means of the 'Gibson Girls.' Survivors of both plane crashes eventually were rescued."
The story behind the development and production of the "Gibson Girl" is almost as amazing as the device itself. It was born shortly before Pearl Harbor when the British Air Ministry expressed an interest in an emergency radio transmitter of rough, German design, taken from a liferaft found floating on the Atlantic.
A small group of American manufacturers were permitted to make a hasty study of the set. Representing Bendix was Bert Hemingway, director of the radio sales division.
On information sent to the North Hollywood Bendix radio laboratory by telephone and airmail from Washington, DC, a working model was developed and submitted to the British Air Commission within a ten-day period. This was the set later destined to become the "Gibson Girl."
Invocation of the lend-lease program brought Bendix into close collaboration with the Army Signal Corps, which made engineering contributions to the set through its aircraft radio laboratory at Wright Field.
A triple engineering job, calling for ingenuity in the fields of radio, mechanics and chemistry, was involved in perfecting the "Gibson Girl." Developing an efficient radio circuit was only one of many problems successfully faced.
Devised among other things were a lightweight, watertight transmitter case; a satisfactory generator for chemically producing hydrogen under the most adverse conditions; a powerful, yet compact electrical generator and a collapsible kite.
An interesting outgrowth of the "Gibson Girl's" development and use is the formation of the "Order of Gibson Girls." To qualify for membership in this organization, military personnel must have been rescued through the use of this radio.
This article was originally published in the May, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, no 5, pp 48, 144, 148.
The PDF of this article includes a photo of two men in Mae Wests working a Gibson Girl in a life raft and one of the kit as carried in the airplane.
Photos credited to Signal Corps, Bendix.