Tom Swift and His Air Glider

or, Seeking the Platinum Treasure

By Victor Appleton Book #12 ©1912

Review by JP Karenko, July 2005, Revised January 2007

Image of a White Quad dustjacket from the collection of Mark Snyder

Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.

Summary: No official summary was ever provided with any of the old Tom Swift books. However, without giving too much away, the plot can be summed up as follows:

The story opens with Tom flight testing a modified non-dirigible aircraft he is developing. The new/old ship can carry three, and has a modified geared motor, a new propeller and improved wing-tips. None of Tom's cohorts seem happy to accompany him, and Ned finally has to be teased and cajoled into being co-pilot. Ned's foreboding is justified, as the motor quits miles from home. Tom has to make a forced landing in a field next to a remote farmhouse. The Platinum contacts in the plane's magneto have fused due to poor quality metal. As luck has it in these stories, the inhabitant of the farmhouse, one Ivan Petrofsky, is a Russian expatriate who just happens to have a quantity of very pure Platinum, "just lying around." He gives it to Tom, who fixes the magneto on the spot. During the social time following the repair, Ivan tells Tom of a mine in Siberia where the precious metal can be found in abundance. It is in a region of the wilderness where the wind blows with gale force, year ėround. Tom is immediately engaged in a scheme to get more of the metal. Coincidently, Ivan's brother-a political prisoner of the Czar, is in need of rescue from a Siberian Gulag that happens to be near the mine.

To do all this, a transcontinental capable airship, the Falcon, is constructed. This XXL version of the Red Cloud is big enough to carry a full compliment of adventurers, food, fuel and supplies for 3000 mile hops "in comfort." It also carries an un-powered slope-soaring glider called the Vulture, in knocked-down form.

Hazards-foreign and domestic, as well as animal, meteorological and mineral-abound during the ensuing voyage. I'm sure you can guess the outcome, but you'll have to read the story to get the details.

The first 25 books in this series are available on-line at the Project Gutenberg website:

Go to and search on "Tom Swift."



Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)


Tom Swift-Intrepid inventor & mechanic. Plucky, lively, resourceful, brave and clever. Home-schooled at a college level by his father, Barton Swift. Athlete and hunter. Familiar with how to stalk game and firearms. Loves all things mechanical. Is a decent cook, too.

Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom, currently employed in Shopton 1st National Bank.

Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. In this tome is back in Waterford, NY.

Eradicate Sampson, A.K.A. Eradicate or Rad-Rad's middle names, (Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln, ) are no longer used. Aged stereotypical Negro journeyman jack-of-all-trades. He "eradicates dirt." Now is in full-time residence on the Swift estate, he maintains his own chicken coop. Heavy deep-south accent and Uncle Remus attitude. Caretaker of Boomerang, a cantankerous, aged and now ailing, mule.

Ivan Petrofsky-Russian revolutionary expatriate. Tall, bearded (of course...) and cultured. Ex-noble under the Czar. Exiled for working to "improve the lot of the common people."

Peter Petrofsky-No description given. Younger brother of Ivan, imprisoned in Siberian Gulag.

Aged Farmer-Walk-on part. No name or description given.

Jake Applesauer-No description given. Railroad ticket agent in nearby Waterville.

Detective Trivett- NFN or description given. Private Eye, hired to Locate kidnapped Ivan. Carries a revolver, but proves to be a lousy shot.

Trio of Terrible Trotskyites-Generic bumbling bearded bad-guy "spies". Think Boris & Natasha from Rocky the Flying Squirrel, but taller, bulkier and even more bumbling.

Mrs. Baggert-Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family since the time Tom's mother died. She is short of stature and has to stand on a soap box to kiss Tom goodbye on one of his voyages. Excitable, she seems to expect fatalities after any mishap involving Tom's inventions.

Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, apparently recovered from severe medical condition affecting his heart and circulation. Back at work on his new gyroscope.

Andy Foger-Red haired, squinty-eyed bully, who has made great trouble for Tom in the past. In this tome, is smarting from a recent defeat in City of Gold. (He didn't get any...) Back to his old tricks.

Mr. Foger-NFN given. Described only as a large man with florid complexion.

Miss Mary Nestor-Love interest of Our Hero. Passing mention, but has been promised a Platinum ring.

Gerard, the Garrulous Gaul-Russian informer/spy/Agent provocateur who tries to get Tom arrested for assault. Dresses roughly, but obviously not a "working man." Speaks with a "strange" French accent.

French Gendarmes-Apparently in league with or employed by the Czar. Try to waylay Tom & Co. during an unscheduled pit-stop in France.

Nicholas Androwsky & His Band of Merry Nihilists-No descriptions given except for "unpronounceable names" and a penchant for tossing bombs around.

Cantankerous Cossack Cavalry-Generic, mounted, sword-waving Russian Rough-Riders.

Officious Russian Governor-Bumbling Bureaucrat. Pompous and ineffective.

Villanous Viktor, A Russian Prison Guard-Usual simpleton. Mean spirited and easily duped.

Nicky the Nihilist, A Russian Prison Guard-Unusual simpleton. Good spirited and helpful.

Alexis Borious-Ragged Russian Refugee. Poorly dressed ex-Gulag inhabitant. Knows Ivan's brother.

Prolific Petersburg Peasants-No names or descriptions given. Cast of extras used for local color.

Polite Cossack Officer-No name given. Unusually nice demeanor for an otherwise officious ass.

More Cranky Cossacks-See above.

Officious Siberian Governor-More of the same. Ubiquitous bushy beard. See above.


Major Inventions

Tom Swift "invents" or at least constructs, several major items in this book. In the first part of the story, he is developing a medium-sized but unnamed monoplane. This new/old ship can carry three, and has a newly-rebuilt and modified geared motor, a new propeller and improved wing-tips. The Falcon, is an XXL version of the Red Cloud. It is of the usual ungainly biplane/dirigible configuration that figures so prominently in these stories. Propulsion is via the usual IC engine/dynamo/electric motor/dual propeller rig. The motor(s) have been "modified" to run on either kerosene or gasoline, via an "attachment." It is big enough to carry a full compliment of adventurers, food, fuel and supplies for 3000 mile hops "in comfort." The accommodations include a pilot house/steering tower forward, a living room/dining salon with glass portals in the floor for observation, a galley, sleeping quarters for 6, and an engine room. It is also presumed that there is a large storage/cargo area to hold provisions, fuel and the main invention of the story. This is an un-powered slope-soaring glider called the Vulture-the star of the show, so to speak. This mini-beast can "hover" in a 90mph wind. (See Errata.) Also, a "noiseless" variant of Falcon is being planned for a future episode.




Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata

It's amazing how much society and technology have changed in 95 years. Reading the old Tom Swift Sr. series has really given me an appreciation of all the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted, like modern transportation and communications. It also gives me an appreciation as to how much society has changed, too. I wonder what people will be taking for granted 100 years from now, and what they will think of our times, attitudes, and mores (or lack of them)?


Attitudes, Prejudices and Circumstances - Society and attitudes are/were very different at the beginning of the 1900's. African-Americans were heavily stereotyped and were invariably portrayed as poorly educated and speaking a deep-south slave-patois. Denigrating, and what we now call "racist" terms were used feely. Persons living in countries other than America were also described in denigrating terms.

It appears one can land an aeroplane just about anywhere around Shopton without risk or comment. The Nestor family now seems to reside in Shopton. No mention was made of a move from Mansburg, where they were said to live, in earlier tomes. Proximity makes Tom's visits to Mary, easier. Mr. Damon blesses his "Putty Blower." A Googleō search indicates that this is a (usually glass) blowgun "bean shooter." Small pieces of glazier's putty are propelled via a puff of air to annoy various real or perceived enemies. (We used split peas, dried beans or cinnamon dots candy, shot thru soda straws, when I was a kid.) Carriages, while still horse drawn, now sport rubber tires for rider comfort.

Once again, gunfire or display of firearms does not seem to have a deterrent effect on anyone involved.

French police carry swords, rather than clubs or guns.

The Russia of 1912 was already overrun with officialdom. No one dares act without orders or permission. This allows quick-thinking Americanskis to outwit several Contingents of Cranky Cossack Cavalry.


Speculation As To Author's Identity- Tom has an "attitude" at the beginning of the story that is very much out of character. He is testy and rude, comparing Mr. Damon (a good friend and prime traveling companion before Ned was introduced) to a bag of ballast. Tom & Ned are both very logical and "Hardy Boys-ish," in this tome. Much ado is made of "clews" and logical analysis, which is out of character for them. Methinks maybe "Franklin Dixon" (Leslie McFarlane) wrote this episode. Another mark of the temp ghost writer is that MANY characters are introduced and discarded without so much as mention of a name or a description. It's also one of several in the series that are basically travelogues. While the author was quite familiar with various exotic locations, this story still feels like it was thrown together in a hurry.


Errata-There is a running gag throughout this series. Mr. Damon's home keeps flip-flopping between Waterfield and Waterford, NY. Sometimes it is in neither, and several times in both places, at once. This is partly due to the enforced poor communication amongst the many ghostwriters at G&D that contributed to this series.

There are now 4 distinct categories. In this tome, Mr. D's home is back in Waterford, NY.

The tally for 12 volumes, to date is:

Waterfield-6, Both places-1, Waterford-3, and No mention-2.

Typos were rampant. P3 has Tom called masa (massa), p20 has the horros (horrors) of the mines, p62 "He's our (s) now, on p104 Tom takes a (t) rain to Paris, therefor (e) is used, p162 they park the plane on a plane (plain) and p199 has the craft being stanch as opposed to staunch.

The next story in the series (published as Tom Swift in Captivity) is listed as The Daring Escape From Captivity on the back of the title page and The Daring Escape By Airship in the catalog at the end of the book.


Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy

The motor(s) of the Falcon are said to be able to run on either gasoline as a primary fuel or kerosene, "in a pinch," via an "attachment." Until the advent of the turbine engine (a few years into the future,) most engines were either true Diesel or conventional gasoline/spark IC. The change in compression ratio needed to go from gas to kerosene/diesel would be real hard to do in the field. Use of fuel additives to boost the octane of "lighting" kerosene to gasoline's levels, was indeed in use, back then. This could be crudely accomplished by mixing "lamp oil" with 50% mineral turpentine or 20% gasoline. This resulted in a highly dangerous mix called "power kerosene." Running the PK mix was also hard to do, because if the motor cooled down for any reason, ( they were in Siberia, remember? ) the mix turned the motor into a giant mosquito fogger that soon quit running. The issue of supplying enough fuel volume to the motor(s) was also not addressed. This setup would have had to be rated in "gallons per mile" due to the lower energy content of the hybrid fuel. More can be learned about this witches brew at an Australian website

The Vulture (Air Glider) is said to operate on the same principle as a "box kite without a string." My total experience with kites is that if they get loose from their tethers, it involves saying "bye-bye" and watching them go out of sight-or crash. The author(s) may have seen or heard of slope gliding (as opposed to "vol-planing") aircraft, but it's real obvious they had no clew <sic> as to the physics involved. A simple explanation of slope gliding (what I am sure they were trying to describe) is given, below. Their explanation of hovering in Chapter IX would land them either in a heap, or in a place far, far away.

Aerodynamics 101- How can the Air Glider stay stationary or maneuver in mid-air without a motor? When an engineer looks at a problem of forces and motion, the first step is usually to draw a free body diagram (FBD) to represent the object in question. An "aeroplane" <sic> can be represented as a small mass that is subjected to the forces around it. These include thrust, drag, gravity and lift. I had an airplane graphic handy, so I used it instead of a "mass." (See Illustration No.1.)

1. Powered Horizontal Flight

In powered horizontal flight, air flow essentially comes into the airfoil as flat parallel lines. (Not really, but I'm trying to keep this simple.) Lift is created when the air flows around the airfoil. That air flow is created by the propeller/jet/rocket motor causing a (forward) motion relative to the air around the wing. (An artificial "wind," if you will.) In the absence of a major head wind that exceeds the plane's forward velocity, this is usually accompanied by a coincident motion relative to a ground-based observer. This is NOT in any way, a "hover," which implies a zero relative ground speed.

In un-powered horizontal flight (Motor turned off or not present) thrust is zero. Illustration No. 2 shows three forces on a plane. Since there is no force pulling (or pushing) the plane forward, changing the airfoil (wing) attack angle will only increase drag and yield little or no change in the direction of the lift vector. This means that the forces can't balance each-other out and the craft will move backwards, relative to a stationary observer. (Bye-bye Mr. Kite...) It will also always sink, since the coefficient of lift over any known wing will always be less than one. Without some forward or reactive force such as a propeller or a "kite string" attached to the ground, I cannot think of a way that in true horizontal flow, an aeroplane can glide motionless or hover-regardless of what is done to the CG, as is proposed in the story.

2. Un-Powered Horizontal Flight

The explanation as to why a glider can hover, and even move forward without power is WHERE you see such phenomena. The air flow around the glider is NOT completely horizontal, but actually rising. This typically happens in only two places: a) In a "thermal"(a rising spiral of air formed by uneven heating of the Earth by the Sun) or b) In "slope effect," found on hillsides and other geographic locations where the elevation of landscape changes abruptly and the wind blows with a favorable velocity and direction. I believe item b) is the situation more-or-less described in the book.

Just to cover all the bases: Thermals are the most widespread rising air phenomenon. Basically, there is at least one thermal under every one of those puffy Cumulus clouds you see on sunny Summer days. There are also many more that can't be seen, especially in drier climates. Spectacularly visible variants are found in places like the American Southwest, where they can be strong enough to suck the dust off the ground. They create a pencil-thin "Dust Devil" that can end up hundreds or even thousands of feet high and be seen from many miles away. (I speculate that one of these may have been the "Cloudy Pillar" sent by Yaweh to guide the Israelites through the desert during the Exodus from Egypt-but I digress....)

Clear Air "Dust Devil"

Thermals, by definition, are not stationary. They rotate and are displaced by any wind. As a result, any aircraft using them for lift will not "hover," but be carried both upward in a spiral and downwind in the general direction of the prevailing cloud movement. Birds (or gliders) using thermals to remain airborne, typically circle clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. This is against the usual rotation of the thermal and it maximizes lift. You will note that those birds are in continuous motion relative to the ground. They can rise out of sight without much more than occasionally twitching a wingtip. They do this only to remain inside the rising air column.

It has been my experience (and possibly yours) that you will be very hard pressed to find a bird hovering completely still on very flat land or in the middle of a large lake or ocean. Wind flow tends to be horizontal in these places (except in thermals, as noted, above.) Geography where flatland changes to hilly areas, on the edges of canyons, or edges of lakes where water turns to land create Slope Lift. All of these areas are places with significant updrafts. A free body diagram of an aeroplane with the wind rising upwards at an angle is shown, below, in Illustration 3. You can see that the lift force is angled forward, the drag is at the same angle as the wind, and gravity splits the two. If lift is great enough and at a sufficient angle to offset the drag, the resultant vector between the two forces will cancel out the force of gravity. This leaves a net force of zero on the plane. The aircraft will be stationary with respect to the ground. By varying its angle of attack and/or center of gravity, a glider can balance these forces and stay aloft in a "hover." I believe this is what the author(s) were trying to describe.

Note that in order to maintain a stable hover, the nose of the plane must be pointed downward at an angle. The plane is actually in a continuous dive, equal in rate to the vertical component of the rising wind. The horizontal component of the vector is equal to the value of drag. No apparent forward motion or altitude change is seen. (See Illustration No. 3)

3. Slope Soaring (Hovering)

How can the Air Glider move forward or maneuver? Illustration No. 4 shows that instead of the resultant vector of drag and lift being exactly opposite gravity (as in the previous free body diagram), it is pointing slightly forward and downward due to an increased rate of dive. The vector components can be shown with a larger force going forward and the other aiding gravity. The increase in dive speed will result in a forward motion relative to the ground, but the plane will "sink" relative to the ground. If held in this attitude for any length of time, the glider would eventually crash into the slope.

4. Slope Soaring (Maneuvering)

These phenomena only occur in regions of up-drafts (VERY strong ones in the case of the Vulture, since it weighs a ton...or more.) Such maneuvering is NOT possible in horizontal un-powered flight, at least near the ground. Without rising air, the Air Glider/Vulture could not even take off. Streamlined lightweight birds only need a small updraft to hover. The Air Glider needs a massive wind (90mph) because it carries 5 passengers, has massive drag from the biplane configuration, 12 inter-plane winglets, the struts and all the interconnecting stays and wires. Frankly, it would be hard to determine if such an updraft could possibly exist, even in a Siberian gale. The Vulture was a real aerodynamic Turkey, as described.

Another concern I have is the effect of this Siberian Gale on the Falcon. Falcon is said to be a "much larger" version of the old Red Cloud. Red Cloud was never given actual dimensions, but in my review of Volume #8 (TS in the Caves of Ice) I made some guesstimates of her size based on a dust jacket illustration. Red Cloud was at least 60ft tall by 120ft long across the rigid "gas bag." It had a wing span of at least 240ft. If Falcon was indeed a super-sized version, it must have been truly gigantic. Flying such a behemoth in a 90 mph wind would surely either shred it to bits or make Oz a possible final destination...Anchoring it down in anything but a mild breeze would be near impossible.

Back to reality. Below, is a 1984 snapshot of the author standing just to the right of #1 daughter, Karen, (in the green shorts.) The others are several "flying families." These friends make an annual trek to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We toss radio-controlled slope-soaring model gliders into the wind coming off Lake Michigan. The lake is at the upper right, about 700ft below us. This was where I gained practical knowledge about aircraft dynamics during un-powered flight. It's said that you know you had a fun time flying these models when at the end of the day, the roof of your mouth is sunburned. (We spent a LOT of time looking up, usually with mouth hanging open.) How times change-in 2006, my two grandsons, Tony and Joshua, made their first appearances at these sand dunes. Joshua's mom is the redhead in the green shorts and Tony's mom (my youngest daughter, Betty, who is not shown) was a toddler at the time this photo was taken.


Sleeping Bear Dunes - Empire, Michigan

Geography & Environment - Shopton is still a "village" in New York State and there is another new town (Hurdtown) nearby. Asbury Park and Sandy Hook, NJ, are noted as "desolate country." (These areas are now all prime seaside resort property.)

It appears that the author was at least semi-acquainted with world geography, and possibly had personal experience as a world traveler, due to the "travelogue-ish" feel of the story. The route of Falcon, as described was roundabout, but semi-logical. A 5-day Atlantic crossing via a non great circle route (ėround the Azores and near the location of the future Floating Airport) to France, meant the Falcon had a cruise speed of about 33mph. Impressive for something that large with only one motor. Known Russian landmarks were quoted as waypoints.

JP Karenko 7/10/05 revised 1/07

Tom Swift in the City of Gold | Tom Swift in Captivity | Back to the Index