The life and times of pioneering American aviator Albert Francis Hegenberger

Albert Francis Hegenberger had a rich history in the world of aviation. The United States Air Force (USAF) Major General has several accomplishments to his credit. He has won numerous trophies and contributed greatly to the advancement of aeronautical technology.

Pioneer events

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 30, 1895, Hegenberger was both a skilled engineer and a pilot. He served in the military between 1917 and 1949, receiving a Distinguished Service Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross for his contribution.

It was a driving force in military and civilian air transport. Impressively, in June 1927 he jumped into the Fokker C-2 Bird of Paradise with Lt. Lester J. Maitland to make the first transoceanic flight to Hawaii from the American mainland on a trip between California and Hawaii. The flight won the couple a Mackay Trophy and was performed to experiment with the deployment of radio beacon aids to air navigation.


This feat boosted Hegenberger’s confidence. Thereafter, he went on to further revolutionize the application of air navigation instruments and would perform the first-ever solo instrument approach and landing.

Significant impact

Altogether, he worked out a simplified instrument system that used the refinement of the radio compass to “steer towards non-directional beacons (NDBs)”. Unlike directional radio beacons and other navigational aids, this type does not involve inherent directional information.

Innovation and the Development of Flight shares the following on Hegenberger’s successes:

“Hegenberger had begun testing the system in September 1931. He aligned two low-frequency non-directional beacons with the centerline of the runway at McCook Field, Ohio, one 1,500 feet from the field boundary and the another 1½ miles away.Collocated with the NDBs were very high frequency marker beacons.About fifty miles from McCook, Hegenberger tuned the NDB to the inner marker (“A”) and turned his plane to until his radio compass needle points to zero, he would then fly towards “A” until a light came on in the cockpit, indicating his passage over the station.

“Immediately starting his receiver on the NDB at the outer beacon (“B”), he would fly towards that spot, noting the drift of the wind, until the appropriate signal light came on. Turning 180 degrees, Hegenberger tuned “A” again. He followed the radio compass indicator, adjusting to the wind and descending at a normal glide angle, until he passed over “A”. He then cut its power, placed the aircraft in a proper landing attitude and waited for its wheels to touch the ground.

Outstanding Achievements

On May 7, 1932, the aviator made his first blind landing, carrying CD Carbulesco as a safety pilot. The next day, he performed two more successful tests. He then made the first-ever blind solo landing. Although there was not much ado about Hegenberger’s system for a few years, his efforts were noticed in May 1934 and he received an oak leaf cluster decoration to add to his Distinguished Flying Cross.

Additionally, he won the prestigious Collier Trophy for his “outstanding contribution to the development of aeronautics”. Notably, his project became the preferred instrument landing system within the Army Air Corps and the Department of Commerce. It became standard for civilian operations and was quickly installed along the transcontinental network.

Importantly, the system was not as expensive as other aviation upgrades. It was not considered an airport improvement, so it was transparently funded by the United States government.

Instrument landing systems (ILS) are a staple in aviation today. It is thanks to the work of people like Hegenberger that has helped to evolve this field.

Hegenberger served in both World Wars and retired four years after World War II. He died at the age of 87 in Goldenrod, Florida on August 31, 1983. The innovator continued to be recognized for years after his retirement, particularly in regard to his demonstration of beacon capability radio.

What do you think of Albert Francis Hegenberger’s contribution to aviation over the years? What do you think of the overall journey of the aviator? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Source: Flight Innovation and Development, Roger D. Launius, Texas A&M University Press, 1999

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