Ralph Heintz, 1927

Ralph Heintz

By the 1920s, pilots, explorers, and adventurers were pressing for improved communications, as the possibilities for shortwave radio significantly improved navigation and safety. Shortwave’s higher frequency needed less power, allowing for lighter and smaller apparatus; its shorter wavelength allowed for smaller antennas. Ralph Heintz (1892-1980) would play a key role in these developments.

After serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I and finishing his bachelor’s degree at Stanford in 1920, Heintz began developing specialized high quality radio apparatus. Heintz and Kaufman (H&K) apparatus became the choice of explorers and wealthy adventurers, including Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith’s 1928 record-breaking transpacific flights of the Southern Cross, and the transcontinental flight portions of the Mears-Collyer ‘Round the World’ record. That year, both Sir George Wilkins and Admiral Richard Byrd carried H&K equipment on their polar expeditions, for long distance communication as well as a radio beacon.

By the end of the 1920s, H&K equipment was also used in more mundane airborne settings. Boeing was then a local West Coast mail carrying service that hoped to make it big as a commercial carrier (the passengers sat among the mail bags). It became the first commercial airline to carry “radio phones.” Heintz went on to work on specialized aircraft shortwave, high frequency radio equipment, aviation electronics, and guided missile controls until his retirement in 1948.

Lessons from the 1927 Dole Air Race

Shortly after Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris, the Dole Air Race challenged pilots to fly from Oakland to Honolulu, the longest and most dangerous air event yet attempted. A crowd of more than 75,000 gathered, in fog and drizzling rain, to watch them take off on August 16, 1927. This tragic competition resulted in ten deaths, but led to major improvements to radio communication for navigation and safety.

Ralph Heinz outfitted the Pabco Flyer as the first plane equipped with short wave radio. After it crashed on take-off, the equipment was reinstalled in the Dallas Spirit. The navigator transmitted cheerfully for seven hours using the 33-meter shortwave transmitter and wind-driven 400-cycle alternating current generator until the pilot suddenly had tailspin problems. Horrified operators heard its last message, an SOS as the plane went down in “graveyard tailspin.”

Fred Roebuck and Ralph M. Heintz outfitting the Pabco Flyer before take-off, August 1927. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)
Fred Roebuck and Ralph M. Heintz outfitting the Pabco Flyer before take-off, August 1927. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

Ralph Heintz dramatically improved the equipment for the 1928 transpacific flight of the Southern Cross. Its crew could use shortwave radio to communicate with shore stations and the more traditional long wave for navigation, using radio beacon signals from vessels at sea. He also provided a special battery-operated, watertight emergency transmitter that could be taken into a life raft. This work set the standard for Heintz’s future work with explorers and expeditions around the world.