Virgil Kauffman

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Virgil Kauffman
Virgil Kauffman Gold Medal.jpg

Virgil Kauffman (1898-1985) an American aerial photographer, photogrammatrist, aerial mapping pioneer, and early practicioner of airbourne magnetic surveying, and the donor who established the Virgil Kauffman Gold Medal.


The greatest thing about my company was the people who worked for it.--Virgil Kauffman

Contributed by Robert Dean Clark

The donor of the Kauffman Medal, one of the highest awards given by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, came to the science late and to the Society later still.

The union of Virgil Kauffman and geophysics was of mutual benefit, enriching the former and vastly extending the exploration scope of the latter. But it did not represent the zenith of Kauffman's career. He had already earned a place in the history books (he is currently in at least one, The Mapmakers, by John Noble Wilford) because of his pioneering work in aerial photography and photogrammetry.

A film of Kauffman's life would have to include scenes in every part of the non-communist world and roles for dozens of this century's most prominent names, including virtually everybody who was anybody at all in aviation. About the only exceptions are the Wright Brothers. Kauffman never met them. "I had a lot of friends who knew Orville. He lived a long time (until 1948; older brother Wilbur died in 1912) and I always meant to write him. But I never did," Kauffman says. It is one of the very few regrets in a long life intimately associated with some of the most interesting and important discoveries of his era.

Early Years

Kauffman was born in 1898 in the small town of Yardley, Pennsylvania, the site from where George Washington launched his surprise attack on the British (camped across the Delaware River in Trenton, New Jersey), and one of the pivotal moments in America's Revolutionary War. (Kauffman claims Washington crossed the river in a scow piloted by one of his wife's ancestors. "He wasn't standing up, either, as in the famous painting. He was sitting down with the horses.")

Kauffman was the son ("earliest and orneriest of eight children") of a school teacher who named him after the greatest Roman poet because he wanted him to be a scholar of classical languages. Kauffman, though, was generally uninterested and an utter disaster in Latin. But the elder Kauffman was consoled by another son, Hector (after the Trojan hero and always referred to by Virgil as "the smart one"). Hector went on to maintain the family's academic tradition.

Virgil's considerable gifts lay along more practical lines - outmaneuvering market-bound farmers, for example. Canals were still of commercial importance in those pre-motorcar times and farmers regularly used them to transport goods to Philadelphia, 30 miles downstream.

"They'd come by with the watermelons stacked up in pyramids. We'd drive in the canal and knock a few off the barge into the water. The farmer couldn't do anything but yell because he couldn't let go of the rudder. After the barge was gone, we'd go back and get the melons. I was a pretty wild kid. But then, they were pretty good melons."

World War I

World War I abruptly ended that Twainesque phase of Kauffman's life. He enlisted in a local battalion of engineers, "because I was promised I could carry a pistol and ride a horse." He quickly learned, as so many have before and since, that a recruiter's pledge is less binding than even a politician's. "My pistol turned out to be a shovel and my horse a pick." His first assignment was to help build Camp Dix (now Fort).

There, Kauffman's genius for the practical made its first significant impact on his financial status. He bought a small camera and began sending pictures and short stories about newly arriving recruits to local newspapers, including the New York Times. "Pretty soon I was making more money than the captain." The Army took note and sent him to photography school in Washington, D.C.

But the Army followed another strange but standard military practice and ignored Kauffman's photographic skills, developed at its own expense, when it sent him overseas. This put Kauffman directly into the trenches. It gave him perhaps the most dangerous duty of the war, clearing fields of fire for the infantry. It's the kind of thing not easily forgotten. More than six decades later Kauffman still thinks about it, and though he's had the nerve and skill to survive many serious crises while flying, he retains a horror of rats. The ones he saw in the French trenches were more than a foot long.

Aerial Photography

Eventually Kauffman was transferred to his division's photographic section where he had a memorable assignment taking pictures of General John J. Pershing, the American commander, reviewing troops. "Pershing spotted me and called me up on the reviewing stand. I got some great close-ups of him. Later, when he was in Walter Reed Hospital in the 1940s he autographed some of them for me."

Another Kauffman talent, leadership, also surfaced during his military service. He was a sergeant when the war ended and a commission was in the works, even though he was under 21. His first airplane ride was in France. The Army was trying some experimental aerial photography. He immediately developed an enthusiasm for flying and quickly got his pilot's license on returning to the US. "It only took a couple of hours of instruction to learn to fly the kind of planes we had in those days."

Aero Services Corp.

The next few years were spent in a rather haphazard study of law and real estate, the drudgery occasionally punctuated by some free-lance flying for Aero Service Corp., an enterprise founded in July, 1919 and thus the oldest aviation company in the world. In 1924 Aero Service offered Kauffman a full-time job at $50 a week. He took it, not knowing the company was in financial trouble. Things did not improve. Kauffman, not yet 30, found himself three years later president of the struggling company. It was the only job he held until his retirement in 1961.

"I always hated working for the government," Kauffman says. "If you didn't have a "t" crossed in your contract, the government lawyers would really work you over. During the New Deal, all the people in government were Democrats and they really hated Republicans. I was a Republican. They didn't think much of me and I didn't think much of them."

But ironically, dealings with the government have been the most important influences on Kauffman's professional life. The Army introduced him to both photography and flying. His first big contract, the one which put Aero on the road to prominence, came from a New Deal program. His relationship with the US Geological Survey led to his involvement with geophysics and lucrative mineral exploration following World War II.

Aero remained a small operation through the first years of Kauffman's leadership. He managed to keep the company solvent by gearing it basically to aerial photography. Kauffman himself did much of the initial experiment work - beginning with the most primitive arrangement possible, one pilot and one photographer who leaned out of the cockpit to shoot with a hand-held camera. "It was dangerous work," Kauffman recalls. "To reduce vibration for the picture taking, the pilot would throttle the motor way back. After the pictures, he'd push the throttle forward. If there was nothing there, it was kind of scary. That happened to me once or twice."

During those early years, Aero advanced the state of the art by cutting a hole in the floor of the plane so the camera could shoot straight down. They also had custom-built cameras and developed flight techniques so that pictures would overlap and could later be combined into maps of wide areas. Aero's maps of New Jersey were the first aerial maps of an entire state.

In the mid-1930s, Aero landed a large contract from the infant Tennessee Valley Authority, the first major deal in the company's history and the start of 25 years of steady growth. There were fewer than 15 employees then. By 1961, when Aero was purchased by Litton Industries, there were about 600 employees and a fleet of 35 airplanes.

As the company was progressing in the late 30s, Kauffman was sufficiently comfortable to install his family in a large plantation house, even then more than a century old, near his native Yardley. The neighborhood was eventually to become a choice residential tract in fashionable Bucks County. But it was undeveloped when Kauffman moved there. His house was the only one in the immediate area.

"There was nothing here but open fields. Many times I would fly here, land in the field, tie the plane to the fence, spend the night with the family and fly somewhere else the next morning."

During the time that Aero was developing aerial photographic techniques, another Philadelphia company, Brock and Weymouth, was inventing instruments by which aerial photographs could be converted into contour maps of great accuracy. However, Brock and Weymouth didn't survive the depression. Kauffman took a calculated risk, bought its equipment, and hired many of its former employees.

He thus found himself in prime position for contracts when aerial mapping became an important data source for such major projects as flood control, highway planning, and city mapping.

The mapping of certain rural locations involved a uniquely American peril, the wrath of moonshiners. They and their stills were obviously camera-shy. They shot at, and sometimes hit planes, although the damage was slight.

The political tensions of the late 1930s, which presaged World War II, created a climate putting Aero into defense work. It photographed for the government strategic areas such as the Caribbean and the Panama Canal.

World War II

Then, in World War II, Aero's mapping skills were heavily used by the military. It prepared the maps Patton used for the critical breakout in France. Aero also invented a technique, using a newly available material called plastic, to make three-dimensional topographic maps. Then, when combined with sophisticated flight simulators, let the crews of radar bombing squadrons make practice runs over their targets before they took off on the actual missions.

"You couldn't tell the difference between a radar picture of one of our maps from a radar map of the real thing," Kauffman says. "Aero made hundreds of these maps. We made maps of all the major target areas, a list that included Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Exploration Geophysics

Another secret, high priority project led to Kauffman's introduction to exploration geophysics. In 1943 Dr. Charles Park of the US Geological Survey told him about plans to adapt the magnetometer, one of the oldest geophysical tools, into an airborne method of locating submarines. Kauffman, sensing this idea could have commercial post-war significance, volunteered to test it.

Aero went on to spend about $100,000 in research, and in 1945 was ready to go into commercial operation when Kauffman learned that Gulf held the basic patents on the process. They had been secretly turned over to the US Navy on the understanding they would be used only for military purposes. So it became necessary to negotiate with Gulf.

One of their representatives was Dr. E. A. Eckhardt, a noted pioneer in geophysical exploration and a former SEG president (1939-40). Eckhardt predicted the airborne magnetometer would be a useful tool for only a few years before new discoveries made it obsolete. "That was one time the old doc was wrong because we flew millions of miles and they're still using it," Kauffman says.

Kauffman's faith in the new process was repaid shortly after the war. It discovered a huge iron ore deposit for Bethlehem Steel. Dr. Donald Fraser, their chief geologist, encouraged his company to try the new process even though he was skeptical.

"Bethlehem wanted us to explore an area which had been combed by its geologists," says Kauffman. "They were sure there was nothing there. But Fraser hired us just to be sure. He said there was always a chance that some damn fool like me would come along with a crazy idea and find something they'd overlooked and make them appear foolish. So they hired us just to confirm there was nothing there."

But Aero's planes picked up an intriguing anomaly. Although it wasn't on the target, it showed up when the planes were turning around. "That convinced Bethlehem that the thing was totally worthless because where we showed the anomaly was in an area clear off the formation." Nevertheless, Fraser urged Bethlehem to drill. They did. They struck iron at 1,400 feet, a deposit eventually worth $1 billion.

That dazzling success, and some work in Canada for International Nickel, "convinced people in a hurry that we were on to something." Those convinced, however, were primarily mining companies. The petroleum business, other than Gulf, was not particularly quick to adopt the new tool. "The oil people really didn't know what to do with the kind of records we were getting," Kauffman says. "It took a long time for the geophysicists to figure out how to interpret them. Now it's an important step in the preliminary exploration for petroleum and I was recently told that an oil field had been found in Sudan based strictly on the magnetic data."

The tepid response of the petroleum industry was disappointing to Kauffman because "we greatly preferred working with oil companies when doing mapping or geophysical work. There was a difference between the hard rock people and the petroleum people regarding exploration. The mining companies would treat the geologist sort of like a fifth wheel when they had ore. All they wanted him to do was to estimate how much was left. But when they began to run out, they'd frantically begin to look for it. They had no consistent search pattern. Sometimes they found it, sometimes they didn't.

"The oil companies were different. That was probably because they had a little more money available over the years. They had, and have, set exploration programs that aren't dependent on whether they make money or not in any particular year. We've got oil today because years ago they were looking for oil with an eye to 1980 and 1990. And we liked working for them because if you did a good job, they'd hire you again next year."

Despite the petroleum industry's slow response to the airborne magnetometer, Aero and Kauffman were quite busy after World War II. They soon became involved in mapping or exploration all over the non-communist world. Kauffman himself by 1957 had travelled over a million miles on just one airline.

Although he was Aero's only chief executive officer during its evolution to international operations, he takes pains to deprecate his being responsible. "The greatest thing about my company was the people who worked for it," he says. "You just couldn't pay men like that enough money. The only credit I can take is having selected them."

But mere selection was not the end of Kauffman's personnel work. He also had to coddle them, much as a coach whose team has too many outstanding talents must find ways to keep all those justifiably inflated egos soothed. Kauffman admits Aero had many prima donnas but he firmly defends their right to that title and its accoutrements. He points out that during his decades as president, Aero did not have a single air fatality despite flying frequently at dangerously low altitudes over unexplored terrain.

Kauffman quickly singles out pilot Charlie Stinchfield. "He performed the most astonishing feat I've ever seen - he covered 190,000 square miles in Saudi Arabia in '55 without a single reflight (do-over). In fact, Stinchfield called the shot on that one. He said to me, "I know what it costs to patch up a job. I'll save you a dollar a mile and I want half of it." I didn't think he could do it, but I went ahead and dickered him down to 15 cents. He did it in two weeks. The military never believed it."

Personal note

Although he has circulated among eminent and brilliantly talented people for nearly all his adult life, Kauffman treasures just as highly some relationships with less distinguished souls. "One of the best men we had at Aero was an old Scot named Mac. He was a security guard. He thought he was a good checkers player and I was fairly good. There were more than a few times when I would call him to my office and then tell my secretary to hold all my calls because I was in an important board meeting." Although officially retired since the Litton deal, Kauffman has rarely been idle. He has done occasional consulting work for friends, served a long and still current term on the visiting committee of the School of Earth Science at Stanford, and led a 1977 fund drive to raise a million dollars to honor the 50th anniversary of Lindbergh's epic flight. Considerable time has been spent with friends such as the late Ed Link (inventor of the famous pilot trainer) and Jimmy Doolittle, with whom he hunts twice a year.

Kauffman created a worldwide stir in 1969 when he led an expedition which found the exact spot on the Great Barrier Reef where the great explorer James Cook ran aground 200 years before. This was success where failure had dogged many expeditions, including those of the Australian government, for 100 years.

Kauffman has endowed two coveted honors, SEG's Kauffman Gold Medal for outstanding contributions in geophysics, and the Brock Award for landmark contributions in photogrammetry. He credits Dr. William Johnston, a geologist with the US Department of the Interior, for generating the chain of events leading to the creation of the Kauffman Medal in 1966. Kauffman was not an SEG member at the time but agreed to fund the award. He is now an SEG Life Member and an advisory member of SEG's Education Foundation Endowment Committee.

His ties with aviation, a relationship going back almost to the birth of powered flight, have been maintained. He is one of the few men who has flown in every kind of aircraft - from primitive fixed wing to the Concorde, plus open-air balloons, blimps and the marvelous but now extinct dirigibles. And he's connected with what may be the next step in the evolution of terrestrial flight; he's on the board of directors of a company headed by an ex-Aero employee and Kauffman prot g which is trying to combine the principles of the helicopter and lighter-than-air flight into an aircraft that would have incredible lifting power - perhaps 50-60 tons, five times more than the current maximum. A prototype, four helicopters attached to a 500-foot blimp, is scheduled for a test flight this fall.

Kauffman's involvement with such a project typifies his still formidable energy. In large part he remains, despite the years and the successes, the wild kid who grew up in a much different America. He owns a 200-acre farm a few miles from his house. It is much coveted by housing developers, but "won't be sold as long as I've alive." The corn fields are separated by a grass airstrip. Nearby is a small hangar, within it an old-fashioned open cockpit bi-plane in mint condition.