Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Plight of the First Air Force One

3/27 update: Looks like there's hope after all! Be sure to read the addendum at the end of the article.

Our story starts like so many others around here...a little snapshot in a booth at an antique mall for a buck. A closer look showing that this might be something a bit more special, and some preliminary research that reveals a very cool story that's very relevant to today!

This photo is dated November, 1953 by the processing lab.

In the store, I showed this to my brother, and he noted the honor guard and the platform. "Must be someone important," was his comment. It occurred to me that President Eisenhower had used Connies as his presidential aircraft. So I paid the buck. The photo isn't as clear as I'd wish, but it's clear enough to make out the tail number, 8610 (aka 48-610), the very first Air Force One, and clear enough to see a man in black standing at the top of the stairs waving his hat to the crowd...presumably this is Ike.

The plane has a remarkable story (and I find it ironic that it's probable that this snapshot was taken by someone capturing the moment of Ike's arrival, with little or no interest in imaging the airplane itself), with the Air Force One aspect just a part of the story...and this is a story that's continuing today.

The plane was born as a Plain-Jane Lockheed C-121A Constellation (model L-749-79-36, c/n 749-2602), one of a lot of nine ordered in 1948. After rolling off the assembly line in Burbank, Lockheed bailed it from the Air Force to be used as a company transport in Alaska for a while, before finally being delivered to the Air Force in 1950, when it was converted to VIP configuration (VC-121A-LO) for use by Eisenhower, who named it Columbine II  (replacing a sister VC-121A, the original Columbine).

Some readers may take umbrage at my title for this post, protesting that there were earlier Presidential aircraft, and indeed they would be right. But this was the first "Air Force One". As most will recall, that title is not given to a specific airplane, it's a radio call sign used for any plane which POTUS is flying aboard. But it wasn't always so. Before 1953, the flight would simply used the plane's tail number, so for Columbine II, the call sign would be Air Force 8610. And this is exactly what happened on one day in 1953 when the Connie, with Ike onboard, was flying over New York. Unfortunately, at that moment also flying over New York was Eastern Airlines Flight 8610, and due to confusion induced by the similar call signs, the two planes almost collided. Eisenhower's pilot, Col. Billy Draper, is credited with finding the solution to the problem, coining the phrase "Air Force One" for use when the President was on board, and the tradition stuck (here's a great bio on Draper). Besides Eisenhower, a whole litany of other VIPs, including Queen Elizabeth II and Richard Nixon, flew on board Columbine II.

Columbine II, which was based on the civilian Constellation airliner, was replaced in November 1954 with Columbine III (VC-121E, 53-7885), which was based on the larger Lockheed 1049 Super Constellation. Stripped of its name and fame, 48-610 was leased by the Air Force to Pan American Airways and given the civilian registration N9907F for a short time, and then transferred to the Government of Thailand. It was returned to the USAF in June 1955, and the service continued to operate it as a normal airlifter until retiring the old gal to Davis-Monthan AFB in April, 1968.

Sometime around 1970, Christler Flying Service purchased several old Air Force Connies out of the boneyard, with the intent of turning them into large pest spraying aircraft. Unfortunately, 48-610 was in pretty rough shape, and Christler decided to simply use it as a source of spares to support the rest of their fleet. Enter the historians of the Smithsonian, who were researching the early presidential aircraft: they contacted Christler, who had no idea of the unique story behind their derelict, which they were getting ready to scrap. That changed everything, and funds were raised and the old gal was refurbished and actually returned to the air in 1990. The plane was flown to Abilene, Kansas, home of the Dwight D. Eisnhower Presidential Library and Museum for Ike's centennial. With fame rediscovered, Christler put the plane up for sale at auction, expecting that it would be picked up by a museum. It wasn't, and in 2005, she was flown back to Marana, Arizona, where she sits to this day. Ten years have taken a drastic toll on the plane and she is quite literally rotting away.

A logical place for the plane to be preserved is in Eisenhower's home state of Kansas, but all the big museums, and even Ike's presidential library, simply down have any desire to do anything to save Columbine II. Recently, the plight of Columbine II has been publicized through social media, as efforts continue to find a way to preserve this unique piece of history; the effort even has a Facebook page. Every seems to think that it's a great idea, at least until the subject of money comes up, at which point the subject politely gets changed. So in a way, the plane itself is a bit like our found photo: simply discarded as forgotten and irrelevent.

There are two short documentaries about the plight of Columbine II, and I would recommend both, as they have a lot of great footage and interviews from key players:

There's an interesting aside to this story, as well. As I mentioned, Columbine II was one of a lot of nine Connies which the Air Force bought in 1948, and of the eight others, five of them have either survived or had a story of their own. Here's a quick overview:

48-609: After a two-decade Air Force career, 609 was retired to Davis-Monthan, and then was part of the group purchased by Christler. After almost a decade and a half doing spray work in both the US and Canada, the plane was purchased by none other than John Travolta, who re-registered it as N494TW, but ended up putting it in storage. It was then sold to aerospace entreprenieur Vern Raburn in 1991, who put the Connie through an extensive restoration before it was then sent to South Korea, where it is part of the permanent collection of the Korean Airlines Museum in 2005.

48-612: Following its Air Force service, 612 was also purchased by Christler in 1970, and then by Raburn in 1993, who oversaw its restoration. The plane then went to the Netherlands, where it is registered as PH-LDF.

48-613: This was General MacArthur's VIP transport, and he named it Bataan. Upon retirement in 1966, the aircraft was transferred to NASA, who used it as a transport for the Apollo program, flying between the west coast, Houston and Florida. When NASA no longer had need of it, 613 ended up at the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, before being picked up by Planes of Fame at Valle, Arizona.

48-614: This was the original Columbine, assigned to Eisenhower while he was still an active duty Army General. It is currently part of the collection of the Pima Air Museum.

48-615: Named Dewdrop, this was General Vandenberg's ride. After the Air Force, it was another one of Christler's spray birds. In 1976 she became a movie star, featured in the film MacArthur. Sadly, she then was turned into a freighter and came to an untimely end while flying for the Dominican carrier Aerolineas Argo. While on approach to Harry Truman Airport in St. Thomas, VI during a heavy rainstorm on October 26, 1981, she crashed into the sea; the three crewmembers were killed, but the two passengers onboard survived. The plane sank in 150 feet of water.

3/27/15 update!
After posting, it came to light from a user on Reddit that Karl Stoltzfus and his Dynamic Aviation, along with Scott Glover and the Mid America Flight Museum are currently evaluating Columbine II for purchase and restoration, with a final decision to be announced April 28th. There are three online articles covering this development, and as I learn more, I'll post more updates here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Maryland's Corsair

Since today is the 95th anniversary of the launching of the battleship USS Maryland (BB-46), it's appropriate that we celebrate with a photo of her. The small print in the Archive's collection isn't dated, but the ship appears to be at rest at Pearl Harbor. Of interest to us, of course, is the Vought O2U Corsair bobbing contentedly behind the mighty ship.
If you look carefully, you can see two men on Maryland's turret catapult, probably preparing it for the hoist-aboard of the Corsair.The ship in the background is the USS New Mexico.

The Maryland, a dreadnaught of the Colorado class, was at Pearl during the infamous December 7th attack, but was only lightly damaged, and went on to lend her eight 16-inch guns to the effort in the Battles of Midway, Tarawa, Kwajalien, Saipan (where she took a torpedo to her bow), Leyte Gulf (hit by a kamikaze) and Okinawa (hit by yet another kamikaze). And yet she survived, at least until 1947 when she succumbed to the scrapper's torch.

Before posting this photo here, I had supplied it to, who used it on the Maryland's web page. There, researcher Alan Moore provided some valuable information on the plane itself. He wrote:
Two aspects of the aircraft's markings are date-indicative. The first is the fuselage markings, 5 / 8, which signify VO-5's (Observation Squadron 5's) eighth aircraft. The symbol for Observation Squadron would later be changed from "/" to "O," making the marking 5-O-8. 
The second is the solid-color painted tail surfaces. Prior to the adoption of this practice, the rudders where painted with vertical Red-White-Blue stripes. The solid-colored tails were to identify the aircraft of a squadron, each squadron having it's own tail color. Each Battleship Division had its own squadron, with the planes distributed among the ships of the Division. Therefore, the planes on the ships of a Division had the same tail color. So this photo was taken after the adoption of painted tail surfaces but before the change of / to O. I can't find a specific date for either practice, only a vague "around 1930" or (in the case of the O) "in 1930." 
A third factor leading to the date is the existence of the squadron, VO-5B. William Larkins, in his Battleship and Cruiser Aircraft of the United States Navy 1910-1949, writes "VO-5B was only in commission for three years, 1927-1930, so planes with these markings are rare." (page 176) 
In the same work Larkins lists BatDiv5's ships as West Virginia (BB-48) (Flagship), Tennessee (BB-43), Maryland and Colorado (BB-45).
From this photo I can't distinguish an O2U-2 from a -3 (Larkins lists both.) but it's definitely not an O2U-1, which had a different rudder. Appended is his aircraft breakdown for Maryland.

Date Division Squadron Aircraft
7/1926 Five VO-1 2 UO-1
7/1927 Five VO-1B 2 UO-1, 1 OL-3, 1 FU-1
7/1928 Five VO-5B 3 O2U-1, 1 OL-6
7/1929 Five VO-5B 11 O2U-1, 1 O2U-2 [These are the aircraft for the entire Division, not just MD.]
6/1930 Five 6 O2U-1, 1 O2U-3 [ditto: aircraft for entire Division]
7/1931 One VO-1B 4 O2U-1, 1 O3U-2 [ditto; (Larkins lists only two ships, MD and ID)]

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Short-Lived Vega

The story with this photo is pretty thin. Shown is Lockheed Vega 1 serial 12B, NC7425, and its pilot Ralph E. Morrison at Mills Field in San Francisco (which later became San Francisco International). The plane was delivered on August 21, 1928.

Hand-dated on back Feb. 1931

I've not been able to find any info on Morrison. The Vega suffered a forced landing near a place called “Fishtrap” on April 21, 1935 and was abandoned (not sure which state, as far as I can determine, there are four states that have a community called Fishtrap, Alabama, Kentucky, Montana and Washington...and it’s my guess that the crash took place either in Montana or Washington).

According to the French website Aeromovies, NC-7425 appears in the 1931 flick Air Eagles. Google translates the applicable paragraph from French to English as “At the end of the film, Eve and the agents of the mining company, embark on a Lockheed Vega 1 12B (NC7425) . This aircraft will be damaged during a forced landing in 1935 and abandoned. The Vega 1, released in 1927, was an ultra modern aircraft at the time and will be the source of a long line of famous aircraft.”

You can go see this utterly forgettable excuse for a movie for yourself at Free Classic Movies. The acting is terrible, the writing is boring, but if you want to see dog fights between a Travel Air (NC3621) and a Catron-Fisk CF-13 (NC3404, and the only CF-13 ever built, by the way) and later between two Travel Airs (the other being NC945Y) over the San Gabriel Mountains (flying was probably staged out of Glendale, and I’m pretty sure I recognized Big Tujunga Road at one point), then this is the blockbuster for you. And, where else can you still hear the smooth roar of a Lockheed Vega? The Vega makes its first appearance at 57:02, and its second at 1:05:56. I watched that first clip over and over again, and have come to the conclusion that Aeromovies is incorrect, the airplane featured isn’t NC7425, but rather sister ship it looks to me that there’s a “7” at the end of the number on the bottom of the wing, rather than a “5”. And this makes sense, too, as NC7427 was registered to Wilson Aircraft, and Al Wilson was a well-known movie pilot of the late 20s and early 30s (he was killed in a crash at the 1932 National Air Races).

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Volunteer at Rest

Here are three more photos from our small collection that came from the San Francisco UPI office when it closed in the late 1960s. The date is probably 1931 or 1932, the location is a Goodyear plant, probably in Southern California. The airship is the Volunteer, the same blimp featured in last week's photo.

The Volunteer was Goodyear’s second Type TZ airship, and fourth overall (after Pilgrim I and II, and the Puritan). Goodyear’s president, Paul Litchfield, had a penchant for naming the airships after America’s Cup yachts, seeing the blimps as yachts of the sky.

These three photos also feature Goodyear's west coast portable mooring mast, a 1930 Ford Model AA, the truck version of the Model A passenger car. It was fitted with a collapsable mooring mast and outriggers to keep it from tipping. The mast included a pivot which allowed the airship to weathervane. A Buick bus performed similar duties for Goodyear's east-coast airship. Now that Goodyear is transitioning from blimps to Zeppelins, they have selected a massive Mack truck to serve the same purpose in 21st Century.

The Volunteer series airships were the west-coast Goodyear advertising representatives. The first one first flew on April 27, 1929, and sported a 128-foot long, 36-foot diameter envelope which held up to 86,000 cubic feet of helium.

The Volunteer I was retired in late 1929, when Goodyear decided to replace the envelope with a larger, 96,000 cu. ft. one (it was 133 feet long with a 39 foot diameter), and the original 82hp Siemens-Halska engines were replaced with 110-hp Warner Scarabs. The “new” Volunteer retained the original car, and the original NC-8A registration number.

The II only lasted for two years (so, if my math is right, the II is the airship shown in our three photos), because Goodyear decided once again to expand the size of the envelope, installing 112,000 cu-ft bags. Ultimatey, there were three iterations of the Volunteer with this configuration, III, IV and V. In each case, the car and the registration were reused.

Odd little trivia twist: the Volunteer (the airship) was named after the Volunteer (the yacht) which was built in 1887 and successfully defended the America's Cup against the Scottish challenger Thistle that same year. The Volunteer, along with the two previous America's Cup yachts Puritan (1885) and Mayflower (1886) (which also had blimps named after them), was designed by Boston maritime architect Edward Burgess, the father of W. Starling Burgess who started the Burgess Company, the largest manufacturer of license-built Wright Brothers aircraft, until he sold out to Glenn Curtiss in 1916.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Busy Day at Glendale

For a few magical years before World War II, Glendale's Grand Central Air Terminal was the hub of the aviation scene in Southern California, and so there was always something going on. On this day, probably sometime in 1932 or 1933, Goodyear's Type TZ airship Volunteer descends steeply for a landing while T&WA's Fokker F-32 NC-333N taxis up to the terminal. Just another day at Glendale....

The Volunteer (and the registration NC-8A) was actually a series of airships that all utilized the same gondola or "car", but which were equipped with progressively larger envelopes. Our photo most likely shows the Volunteer III, which first flew on September 5, 1931.

Also visible in the photo is Roscoe Turner's Gilmore Oil Lockheed Air Express (NR3057), a parasol-wing variant of the venerable Vega, and just beyond it, the window line of a Lockheed Orion, probably one of Varney Air's Northrop Delta (several folks, including Tim Kalina and John Underwood, wrote to correct me on this one!).

Although Volunteer wasn't based at Glendale, she was a frequent visitor. The photo below comes from the Archive's R.C. Talbott negative collection and features California Governor James Rolph getting a ride on the Volunteer; there's no way to tell whether this was on the same day as the photo above, or another visit by the airship.

Glendale had its own "pet" dirigible, the City of Glendale developed by Slate Aircraft (see our post from August 20, 2013, for a history of this ill-fated project). In the overhead photo below, the City of Glendale pokes its nose out from its hangar. Both photos in today's post come from a small collection that was saved from UPI's San Francisco bureau office just before the vast bulk of their old photo archive was discarded after the office closed.

In the view below, from Google Earth, I've tried to get the same approximate angle as in the one above.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Ace 300 That's Not a Biplane

2/28 update: aviation historian par excellence sent me an email with a whole bunch of information about this plane, which I'm adding to the bottom of the post.

2/24 update: in response to a comment, I've added a sharpened and contrast-enhanced image of the logo on the tail.

Another day, another mystery photo. Okay, not a mystery in that this plane’s identity is unknown, but a mystery in that all the internet resources, the few that there are, which have any information about it are, well, to put it bluntly, wrong. (Gasp, you say, the internet might be wrong?)

Anyone want to take a stab at who this gent is? I believe the location is Oakland CA.
First stop on the research journey was and their database of historic aircraft registration numbers. NX952Y isn’t listed, but NC952Y is, as “Aircraft Engineering Co. Ace 500”. So that’s a start. Next stop was the invaluable Aerofiles. Aircraft Engineering Co. is listed as having been established in 1919 in New York, and a year later the rights to the designs were acquired by Horace Keane and the plant moved to Long Island. The only plane listed there is the K-1 Biplane (along with two photos of this very sexy-looking biplane), and a note at the end of the listing that reads “Also produced in 1931 with Salmson AD-9 [952Y] c/n 1, and LeBlond 5D [953Y] c/n 2, registered as Ace 300 and 200 respectively.” The rest of the internet resources (such as Wikipedia) parrot Aerofiles.

In one sense, Aerofiles is correct: from our photo, it’s clear that the model number is 300, not 500. And while the listing suggests strongly that the ACE is a variant of the K-1 biplane, it’s very clear that this is not a biplane, nor does it look anything like the K-1.

In the February 1931 issue of Flying magazine, there was a news item about Aircraft Engineering Co. introducing a new plane, the ACE 200, a two-place, high-wing monoplane with a Salmson AD-9 engine, which makes me question whether Aerofiles got the engine application for the ACE 200 and 300 reversed.

And that’s pretty much it for the references I could find. So, my theory, is that there were actually two unrelated companies using the same name, the one on the east coast in the 1920s, and the other on the west coast in the 1930s, and because of the company name, and the lack of photos of the ACE 200 and 300 (other than our photo here, I’ve not seen any anywhere) contributed to the belief that the latter models were just an update of the K-1. Have a different opinion or other thought? Please start the conversation in the comments below.

Excerpted from an email received from John
Contrast enhanced, clarifying the model number as "300"
Your picture of X952Y shows Richard Hardin, the designer, one of Douglas' World Cruiser engineers', who had formed his own company to manufacture both the Ace 300 and 2-place Ace 500. The operation involved the acquisition of Ace Airport, which had formerly been Murphy's Airport. Before that it was Calif. Airways; afterwards Sprott's and lastly Telegraph & Atlantic.

The 2-seater, X953Y, was powered by a 60-hp Le Blond whereas the single-seater had a 40-hp Salmson. Hardin and an attorney named Harry Miller, who was also a director of the company, took off from Ace Airport for both the St. Louis and Detroit shows. They were planning to fly East in formation with Frank Barber in the Model 300. In the vicinity of San Gorgonio Pass they encountered terrific winds and what happened next was probably due to wind sheer.

The Model 500 flipped over on its back and Miller was thrown out, possibly because his safety belt was either unbucked or it broke. His chute fouled in the tail and he was killed. Hardin bailed out successfully. All of this was witnessed by Barber, who made copious notes about it in his log book.

I knew the test pilot, Frank Barber. He was a retired AF brig. gen. who'd been sacked by Pacific Air Transport in 1928 for flying one of their Boeing mailplanes into a mountain concealed by a snow storm. He was also one of the 13 Black Cats.

Re Horace Keane. He was in no way involved with the foregoing Ace monoplanes. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mammoth French Flop

When I picked up this small photo of a large monstrosity, there were two things that I realized right away: the print was damaged, and I had no clue what plane it showed. My friend and photo restoration artist Bob Cohen took a stab at it, and took care of both below is the restored image, and he was able to come up with an identity, a Blériot 74 (or in Blériot's parlance, an LXXIV)...or is it?

After doing some more checking, it turns out that this is one of those murky corners of aviation history where things don't always make a lot of sense, and there are a whole lot of places on the internet where not a lot of care has gone into accuracy in image captions. Here's some of what I found in digging into this little mystery.

First, Frenchman Louis Blériot was the fellow who invented the first practical automobile headlamp. With that invention bringing a nice steady flow of cash, he could delve into his real passion, aeroplanes. In 1909, he hit the jackpot (in fame at least), and developed the world's first successful monoplane, the Type XI, and then used it to become the first person to fly across the English Channel, claiming the Daily Mail's £1,000 prize. His company produced around 900 airplanes, most of them based on the type XI. He later came to head a consortium called the Société pour les Appareils Deperdussin, which he renamed Société Pour L'Aviation et ses Dérivés, better known by its acronym SPAD.

At some point during WWI, Blériot started thinking big, really big. Bomber big. The results of this thinking took the form of five large one-off aircraft, the Type 67, 71, 73, 74 and 75. The first four were intended to be large, long-range bombers, and the last was to be an airliner variant based on the airliners. None of these planes were successful by any means. One of these planes is shown in the photo above, but figuring out which has proved to be harder than I expected, so I'll run through them here.

The first, the Type 67, is the one that, structurally, most resembles the plane in our photo, with a fuselage suspended between both wings. However, the Type 67 used Gnome rotary engines, and flew only once, on September 18, 1916, crashing at the end of the flight. By now, you've probably noticed the "67" written by hand in the lower right corner of our photo. Was this an indication of the subject, or just a negative number (which would be an odd coincidence)? The issue is, of course, that this photo clearly doesn't show the plane to be powered by rotary engines. Maybe Blériot started out with inline Hispano-Suizas and then changed his mind? Then I found this patent drawing of the Type 67 on a Russian web page called Their Flying Machines. While photos of the 67 clearly show Gnome radials (this one, for instance), the drawing shows the smaller cowlings that were used over the in-line engines shown in our photo.

Blériot's next attempt was the slightly larger Type 71 which debuted in November 1917, but the patent drawing for this one (which comes from this Blériot page on the Arizona Model Aircrafter's website) shows a fuselage, though similar in shape to the 67, now mounted directly on the lower wing.

The Type 73, an even stranger aircraft, followed in 1918, but was destroyed when it broke up in-flight on January 22, 1919. Here's its patent drawing...clearly not our bird.  A second Type 73 had been started, but after the crash of the first one, that attempt was abandoned, and the wings, which had already been built, were used on the Type 74, a whale of a plane. And then there was the 75, the airliner version. Thankfully it was also abandoned.

So, for our photo, my money is on the Type 67, which at one point or another was equipped with different engines than it eventually flew with. Have a different thought or opinion? I'd love to hear from you via the comments section below.