The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed

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This is the fascinating story of the dream of a completely new aircraft, a hybrid of the plane and the rigid airship - huge, wingless, moving slowly through the lower sky. John McPhee chronicles the perhaps unfathomable perseverance of the aircraft's sucessive progenitors.

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The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed

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This is the fascinating story of the dream of a completely new aircraft, a hybrid of the plane and the rigid airship - huge, wingless, moving slowly through the lower sky. John McPhee chronicles the perhaps unfathomable perseverance of the aircraft's sucessive progenitors.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It's a book Leonardo da Vinci would have warmed to, a set of experiments he's have changed."—Paul West, The Washington Post

"What gives [McPhee's] writing its powerful fascination is the strange, raw quality of fact: it all really happened, just the way . . . McPhee watches so intently that the Aereon and its people become real and important to the reader."—John Skow, Los Angeles Times

"McPhee has a genius for writing about unusual people whose activities border on the eccentric, and the Aereon project abounded with them. His engrossing account can be read at a sitting."—Donald R. Morris, The Houston Post

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374516352
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/1/1992
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 815,610
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

John McPhee

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.  In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.  He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."

This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.

The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.

He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."

The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.

The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.

"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."

Good To Know

The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.

His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.

Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John A. McPhee
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, The

IN GREAT SECRECY, on a private airstrip about fifty miles southwest of New York, Aereon 7 got ready to fly. Conditions were good. It was a clear August evening in 1970, humid, but not remarkably so for that time of year near the coastal plain. In dark stands of ash and oak by the field, leaves were not moving. A wind sock, almost half a mile away, hung still; and far beyond that, on the horizon of this flat landscape, stood barracks of the state police, where no activity was discernible, and where the flags of New Jersey and the United States hung without motion from tall poles.

The 7, as the aircraft was called, was bright orange. It had no wings. It had a deep belly and a broad, arching back. Seen from above, it was a delta. From the side, it looked like a fat and tremendous pumpkin seed. Stabilizing fins, vertical and anhedral, framed the trailing edge. The aircraft's shape had been figured out by a computer inValley Forge, Pennsylvania, and the computer had sought a shrewd and practical compromise between an airfoil and a sphere. The 7 stood on tricycle landing gear. Above and just behind its nose was a plastic canopy. Mounted above the aircraft's trailing edge was an engine fitted with a pusher propeller. Aereon 7 had cost about five thousand dollars. To reach this moment, though, well over a million dollars had been spent in the past eleven years. The money had been drawn from various individuals, many of them in New Jersey, in amounts ranging from five hundred dollars to three hundred thousand dollars. Nothing had been contributed by the government or by any major aircraft corporation. By training, the several men attending the aircraft were all engineers (aeronautical and mechanical) except one, and he was a Master of Theology. His name was William Miller, and he was of middle height and middle weight and had a look in his clear blue eyes that all at once seemed to be prayerful, patient, lonely, trusting, and nervous. Except in technical matters, the others deferred to him. He had brought them together, and they were in his employ.

The engine started and began to thrum. The 7 vibrated, suggesting an airliner getting ready to leave its bay. For two or three minutes, it stayed where it was, near the edge of the field, then it turned slowly and began to taxi, under remote control. It seemed to grow as it rolled. In that milieu—the deserted airstrip, the flat expanse, the complete absence of all other aircraft anywhere in sight—perspective went where it pleased. The 7 was exactly seven feet long, but, taxiing out there by itself, with no human being anywhere near it, it took on added proportion untilit seemed huge—as huge as its progeny were intended to be. It waddled toward the head of the runway. Its flaps moved up and down in final checkout, its rudders back and forth. The 7 had flown a number of times before this outing, but not smoothly. It had a tendency to jackrabbit, to fly in short oscillations that frequently intersected the ground, to bounce, to bounce again, and bounce again, and flop, and skid on its nose. It had never been in a state of steady flight. It had not yet attained an altitude above fifty inches. Now, turning on the broad white stripes at the head of the runway, it sat for a while, pointing toward the far end, waiting for clearance. Then the sound of the engine rose, and the 7 began to move. Smoothly, steadily, its bulbous frame collected speed. Its engine roar cut up the summer air. After three hundred feet, the aircraft rotated around its center of gravity, gently lifting its nose wheel off the ground. Then, after five hundred feet, it firmly took to the air. It climbed out nicely to an altitude of a hundred inches, threw one blade of its propeller, sank rapidly, landed heavily, and scraped its nose. The propeller was replaced and the 7 made a few fast runs without lift-off, but there was no more flying that day. Data had been collected, despite the accident, and the data were to be analyzed before further testing. Miller said, "We want to be able to use the 7 again and not lose it in some spectacular display of virtuosity. We still have a lot to learn from it." The aircraft taxied in, wheeled around, and stopped. Its engine shut down. Debriefing, the engineers spilled their thoughts—totally technical—into a cassette recorder.

In a hangar at an even remoter airfield, some thirty-five miles farther down into southern New Jersey, was Aereon7's fraternal twin, Aereon 26. With Sheetrock and two-by-fours, the 26 had been hidden away in a huge box that filled a large part of the hangar—this to thwart not only a paid spy but also any innocent but curious observer who, for example, might say to friends, "My God, you'll never believe what I saw today at Red Lion Airport! They've got a plane there, a big orange thing, with no wings." Stories like that tend to expand and to travel, and that is what Miller deeply feared. Aereon 26 had been built in a small shop near Lakehurst, New Jersey, by a retired airship rigger named Everett Linkenhoker. He built the aircraft in two parts, and eventually he secured them, one at a time, to the roof of his station wagon and drove them in the dead of night to Red Lion, where he put the two halves together and hid the 26 in the Sheetrock box. The advantage of Red Lion was its obscurity. Over a period of many months, various taxi tests were conducted on the runway there, always at odd hours—just before dusk, or in the early morning. A car towed the 26 around while friction drag was measured with a hook-and-eye scale of the type that is used to weigh swordfish.

There had been other Aereons. In existence still, in a basement in Trenton, was an Aereon twenty inches long. There had been a series of four-foot Aereons. Now there were the 7 and the 26; and as yet unbuilt, but much alive in Miller's imagination, were a fifty-two-foot Aereon, a two-hundred-foot Aereon, a three-hundred-and-forty-foot Aereon, and an Aereon whose length over all might approach a thousand feet. But the 26 was the key vehicle. It would nourish or finish the Aereon project. It would embarrass or vindicate the computer in Valley Forge. Itwould fly, or try to, with a pilot under its canopy. His name was John Olcott. Because Aereon 7 was now nearing the end of its test series, the time had at last come to take the 26 out of concealment at Red Lion, where the runway was not adequate for flight tests, and, risking exposure, move the vehicle to a major airfield.

Even farther down into New Jersey, off the southern edge of the Pine Barrens, is an airfield more or less the size of Kennedy International. Planes of all United States airlines go in and out of there, but without passengers. The place is known as NAFEC—an acronym that long ago swallowed its own meaning—and NAFEC is where the Federal Aviation Administration tests and evaluates aircraft of all sizes and types. August 13, 1970, at Red Lion, Aereon 26 was chained to the bed of a tractor-trailer ordinarily used to transport bulldozers. The aircraft's markings were covered by sheets of newspaper stuck on with masking tape. The engine and propeller were sheathed with canvas, and the cockpit's plastic bubble was masked out, too. As a wide load, the rig was not permitted to move on New Jersey roads in darkness, so it left Red Lion Airport the following morning at dawn, scraping bushes and limbs on narrow blacktop roads, and eventually moving south on Route 206 to Hammonton Circle and east on the White Horse Pike to NAFEC—forty miles, at speeds ranging from ten to twenty miles per hour. Miller shepherded the 26 in his Mercedes-Benz. As the journey progressed, he befrazzled himself with worry that sinister eyes would fall upon his creation.

The main building at NAFEC is immense, with sliding steel doors seventy feet high closing the ends of a room inwhich several big jets and any number of small planes can be housed at the same time. The floor personnel there have worked on just about everything, military or civilian, that flies in American sky. It is hard to imagine any sort of aircraft that would draw from them more than a glance. Around nine o'clock in the morning, though, on that August day, when Aereon 26 came in and was lifted off the flatbed trailer, men from every part of the hangar left the planes they were working on and collected in a wide circle around it. They looked at it in silence. In time, they would be making cynical remarks about the wingless orange vehicle and its trials, but now they just stood there and took it in. The 26 was placed at one side of the hangar. Two fifty-pound weights were hung from its nose, because its balance was so critical that, without a pilot inside it, the 26 would otherwise have canted backward. Stanchions were put around it. It was roped off like an exhibit in a museum. As the NAFEC men watched, the Trenton Times was peeled away from the orange fuselage. A big sheet came off the side revealing black registration numbers, "N2627." More newspaper came off the underbelly, introducing to the NAFEC people the name "AEREON 26." And still more news came off the vertical fins, where black lettering said "AERERON AEROBODY 001."

Somewhere in the administrative modules of the big building, a telephone rang, and a motorist who had been out on the White Horse Pike asked what was that big orange saucer that had gone into NAFEC by truck. The call was referred to McGuire Air Force Base, which is on the far side of the Pine Barrens, fifty miles away—609-724-2100.The switchboard at McGuire is one of the darker jungles in the topography of communication. Call after call goes in there and is never heard from again. The query about the Aereon died there.

Copyright © 1973 by John McPhee

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2012

    Weak on aviation history, Strong on greed

    The bare essentials of the nuts and bolts of the aircraft. Those few scraps are still interesting.

    The book is an inadvertent chronical of a project where everyone thought they were involved in an idea with huge potential for profit, ultimately paralizing the project until it died.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2000

    Mozambique needs McPhee's insight

    The tragedy in Mozambique highlights the importance of re-inventing airships. Designers of modern aircraft are too caught up with speed. A modern airship would be the perfect craft for relief efforts becuase it can move large amounts of food and medical supplies to areas without landing strips.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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