Friday, December 19, 2014

The Legacy of the Clobbered Turkey Tragedy

Apologies to my regular readers, as this article ended up going very long...none of the sources I found had the complete story, only various parts of it. But the story was so compelling I decided the whole thing really needed to be told in one place...so here it is.

Today's photo is another case where a rather innocuous-looking print was hiding a pretty amazing and tragic story, that of the Clobbered Turkey. The 8x10 is one of three that originated at the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron; my source found them at a flea market (the other two were featured in this post).

The Clobbered Turkey in flight over Alaska sometime between mid-1946 when the 46th RS was stood up, and December 1947 when it crashed.


The plane shown, named Clobbered Turkey, is a Boeing F-13 photo reconnaissance variant of the B-29 (serial 45-21775; earlier in its life it apparently was also known as the Forlorn Turkey; if anyone has diffinitive information on when the name changed please comment below!). The photo was most likely taken some time between mid-1946 and when it crashed in December, 1947. The crash, and the subsequent disasterous search-and-rescue efforts, led to major and lasting changes in how the Air Force prepared for and conducted rescue operations. The Clobbered Turkey was assigned to the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron (Very Long Range, Photographic), which was activated on June 1, 1946 and was based at Ladd Army Airfield, Fairbanks Alaska; on October 13, 1947, the squadron was redesignated the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron. Known as "The Secret Explorers", their mission was to provide long range reconnaissance over the Arctic for the new Strategic Air Command, especially along the Soviet Union's northern border, as part of Project NANOOK. The unit was also tasked with deep-penetration reconnaissance missions, which were kept classified Top Secret until 2001.

On Tuesday, December 23, 1947, the Clobbered Turkey departed Ladd Air Base for a supposedly ordinary 15-hour training mission, with a crew of eight, pilot Lt. Vern H. Arnett, co-pilot Lt. Donald B. Duesler, navigator Lt. Frederick E. Sheetz, flight engineer Lt. Lyle B. Larson, radar operator Lt. Francis Schaack, electrical mechanic T/Sgt Wilbur E. Decker, radio operator Sgt Olan R. Samford and photographer S/Sgt Leslie R. Warre (this National Park Service web page has a good photo of the crew). On the return leg of the flight, the plane crashed while flying straight and level into the rising slope of Hot Springs Mountain (though it's named a "mountain", it really is more like a hill) on Seward Peninsula, 95 nm north of Nome, Alaska. The elevation of the crash site is a mere 870 feet MSL. Later, after being rescued, Duesler described the incident to the press: "I asked the pilot if he was getting sleepy. He said, 'No,' and said he did not need me to spell him. Just then one of the crewmen yelled that the ground was coming up. I grabbed the wheel and pulled it back. The nose came up and the tail hit, breaking off. Then the rest of the plane smacked into the hill with a terrific crash and turned over."

This was not Lt. Arnett's first crash in a B-29. That had been a year earlier, in 45-21853, which had crashed on takeoff and caught fire at Ladd Field on December 12, 1946, though the whole crew had escaped safely; early reports indicated that two of the engines had failed. Then, on February 21, 1947, Arnett was leading the crew of sister F-13A Kee Bird (45-21768) on a polar navigation mission in which they were supposed to fly from Ladd to the geographic North Pole and then back again. On the return leg, they became lost in a storm, ending up over northern Greenland instead of Alaska (if you look at the world from the top, Greenland is a lot closer to the North Pole than Alaska is). Running low on fuel, they had to set down on the ice. A massive search-and-rescue effort ensued, and eventually the entire crew was airlifted home in a C-54. The Kee Bird became well-known in 1995 when Darryl Greenamyer and crew attempted to resurrected it and fly it back home. An improperly secured APU fuel tank led to a fire, though, which tragically destroyed the Superfortress.

The Clobbered Turkey's crash site on the Seward Peninsula, not all that far from Soviet territory.
All eight crew members of the Clobbered Turkey had actually survived the crash, the worst injuries being a crewmen with a broken leg and two with burns, one serious. The official investigation found the cause of the accident to be a defective altimeter. While the pilot thought that they were cruising at 10,000 feet, there were actually at less than a 1,000 feet, meaning that this was a classic case of CFIT, or controlled-flight-into-terrain. Though the plane broke up, the snow on the gentle slope cushioned the impact somewhat, allowing all the crew to survive. They took shelter in the tail, but after 48 hours of fighting the cold, on Christmas night, the pilot, Lt. Arnett and the navigator, Lt. Sheetz, decided to hike out for help. Sheetz believed their location to be on Ear Mountain, about twenty miles south of the Inuit village of Shishmaref. He was wrong, and the crash was located sixty miles further east than where he believed, and Shismaref was a good fifty miles to the west-northwest. According to other crew members, the two left wearing arctic clothing and had wrapped themselves in parachutes, and were carrying maps, compasses, knives and rations. They never made it.

For four days after the crash, a severe storm prevented search and rescue efforts by forces from both Ladd AFB and Marks AFB in Nome from finding the Turkey. On the evening of Saturday December 27, the storm finally abated enough that the F-13 was located by a P-51 Mustang that also spotted four figures near the plane, leading to widespread news reports that there were four survivors. As a part of the massive SAR response, the squadron started maintaining a constant overflight of the scene with B-29s. Supplies and radios were dropped to the scene, but the weather stayed nasty, with blowing snow and intermittent ground fog up to 7,000 feet thick.

Two civilian bush pilots, William Munz of the Munz Airline and Frank Whaley of Wien Alaska Airline, both extremely experienced with flying in the area, had offered their services to the Air Force, but were repeatedly rebuffed by Air Force officials.

The rescue efforts came close to further disaster on Sunday, when a C-47 Dakota towing a glider to the scene lost power to both engines, supposedly due to the effects of the extreme cold on the plane's fuel. Air Force officials had decided that the terrain near the crash site was too rough to risk a landing by a powered aircraft, and that a glider would be better suited for a rescue attempt. (During the war, the Army had determined that gliders were too expensive to abandon after one landing, and so developed the technique of airborne pickup, or "snatch pickup" of a glider by a C-47 tow plane; the C-47 trailing a hook would fly low and snag a line rigged between two poles connected to a braked drum inside the glider, and the glider would be accellerated from standstill to 120 mph in about seven seconds. This method of rescue had been used quite successfully in a well-publicized operation in May 1945 that rescued the injured survivors of a C-47 which had crashed in Hidden Valley, New Guinea. The method had also been considered during the Kee Bird operation.)

After losing power, the C-47 cut loose the CG-4A glider, which landed safely, and the crew of the C-47 attempted a dead-stick, wheels-up landing in the Imiruk Basin, sixty miles from the Turkey's crash site; according to news reports, the C-47 "crumpled" its belly. No one onboard was hurt, though, and a ski equipped C-54 (many early news reports called it a C-45, an easy dislexic mistake, but a big difference in aircraft types!), also on its way to the F-13 crash site, landed and picked up the five C-47 crewmen. The radio calls from the C-54 announcing it was landing were mistakenly interpreted to mean that it, too, was having an emergency, and the Nome Commanding Officer, Col. H. N. Burkhalter, then announced to the media that it, too, had crashed; this was shortly thereafter clarified. The two glider crewmen remained behind, well equipped with provisions, to prepare the glider for pickup by another C-47 tow plane.

Continuing to be shunned by the Air Force, Munz and Whaley (with Jack Cross, another Wien employee) decided to go check on the wreck themselves in their single-engine bush planes on Sunday. The winds were still gale-force, which whipped up the snow, and caused visibility to drop to less than a mile. Munz was unable to find the wreck site, and returned to Nome. Whaley managed to locate it, and circled it a few times, but saw no survivors. He described the wreckage as having broken in half, with the front part of the fuselage looking like it had burned, while a canvas covering had been rigged over the aft end of the fuselage. He also noted that the site sat about a thousand feet below the ridge line, and the strong winds were blowing perpendicular to the ridge, which would make landing there very difficult. A few miles away, though, he found a small frozen lake on which to land, and determined that it might make a good base camp for an overland rescue. Back at Nome, Whaley and Munz again approached the Air Force to describe what they'd found, and suggested that they be permitted to participate in the rescue operation. According to Munz's memoir of the incident, their offer was "politely but firmly declined".

Sunday night, three Air Force men volunteered to jump to the crash site, Flight Surgeon Lt. Albert C. Kinney, Jr. (news reports at the time initially identified the doctor incorrectly as Capt. Aiken Mays) and paratroopers 1st Sgt Santhell O. London and Airman T/5 Leon J. Casey. They flew to the site in a B-17 purportedly flown by General Everest, and paracuted down at about 8 pm (in winter there, just 50 miles below the Arctic Circle, the sun sets around 2pm on a clear day; it gets dark even earlier when overcast, so the jumpers went in completely blind, in the pitch-dark). After jumping, they disappeared, didn't call on the radio and never made it to the wreck. Initially, it was supposed that they merely had a radio failure, and an additional radio was dropped to the wreck site, but still no radio calls were received.

On Monday, the 29th, true to the spirit of Alaskan bush pilots, Munz and Whaley decided to ignore the Air Force's brush-off and organize their own rescue effort. Munz took a local dentist who also had some medical experience, Dr. M. R. Kennedy and Bud Richter, a local photographer, with him in his 1933 Stinson Reliant Junior. Whaley took dog musher Chuck O'Leary, a local legend, three dogs and a sled, expecting to have to go from the lake to the wreck site to make the rescue. Whaley had battery issues, so Munz arrived first at the scene, and though the weather was still much the same, he managed to find the wreck and land up-slope a few hundred yards away from it.

They found six very tired and cold survivors, three uninjured, one with a broken leg, one with minor burns and one with fairly serious burns. All six survivors were guided up the slope to Munz's Stinson and the injured plus one of the others were loaded on board. With the engine at full throttle, and the able-bodied men pushing, Munz taxiied to the top of the ridge just as Whaley and O'Leary finally arrived and joined in the pushing. Once cresting the ridge, the Stinson picked up speed going down the other side into the stiff wind, and was almost at once airborne. Whaley left O'Leary and his dog pack behind with Kennedy and Richter, and took off with the other two survivors. When both planes arrived back at Marks AFB, they were mobbed by Air Force personnel thrilled to have their comrades home.

Munz then returned for those that had been left at the crash site. This time, he landed on the crest of the hill, and during the takeoff, O'Leary pushed and then jumped in as the plane picked up speed, and there was some difficulty experienced as the other two men tried to pull him fully in and get the door closed as the plane climbed away. Finally he was in and four men and three dogs were squeezed into what was normally just a four-seat plane.

The search and rescue effort continued looking for the other five missing men, and the Air Force, under the glare of national media attention, was getting desperate. The Air Force sent out a B-17 to fly a grid pattern at low level with orders that if they spotted anyone alive, they were to crash-land if necessary in order to get the survivors into a semblance of shelter.

Munz continued to participate, and on January 5, flying with O'Leary as an observer, they found the body of Sgt. London, who had frozen to death, probably in the dark, about 500 yards from the crash site. They were unable to land to recover his body, though, and a couple of days later Whaley flew O'Leary and another musher to the frozen lake to set up a base camp. The dog teams would then go and recover the body and bring him back to be flown out. More dog teams arrived from Shishmaref, and the search grew.

Four days later, the military announced that the search teams had found a two-mile-long furrow in the snow, believing it to be from one of the paratroopers being dragged by his chute. Unable to see the ground in the dark, it is likely that he was injured in the landing and thus was unable to release his chute and the high winds had carried him off. On the 12th, the body of Casey was located seven miles away from the crash site.

That same day, the bodies of Arnett and Sheetz were also found, about four miles from the wreck site. It appeared as if they had decided to turn around and were trying to return to the downed Turkey.

The search was finally called off for Flight Surgeon, Lt. Kinney. Instead, the Air Force offered a reward of $300 to whoever found him. It took another six months, until July 2, 1948, for that to happen. He was finally spotted by bush pilot John Cross.

The subsequent investigation showed that the three jumpers were doomed because of a lack of training and lack of equipment. Lt. Kinney had no jump experience, and none of them had sufficient survival gear, nor even proper Arctic clothing. They had jumped in the dark and misjudged the 25-40 knot surface winds, and two were dragged across the tundra for long distances by their cutes.

All this, and the media attention that this incident received, resulted in the Clobbered Turkey crash becoming pivotal in the development of the Air Rescue Service, and helped show that the challenges faced by a pararescuer could be far different than ordinary paratrooper training was designed to address. This helped speed the process of developing pararescue teams with specialized training and equipped with the right gear. The idea of specific squadrons dedicated to rescuing downed aviators started in earnest during World War II, but other than a general mission statement that "Rescue forces must assume survivors in each crash until proved otherwise", there was little standardization in training, equipment and methodology. The Clobbered Turkey changed all that.  Shortly thereafter, the Air Force instituted the Air Rescue Specialty Course at their School of Aviation Medicine.

Because of the national media coverage, the Air Force finally changed their attitude towards the civilian pilots, and Munz and Whaley were awarded the Air Medal by President Truman.

No tragic crash story is ever quite complete without a little bit of a mystery and cover-up added in, and this one has an interesting twist. While the official story is, as was mentioned above, that a defective altimeter resulted in an incident of controlled-flight-into-terrain, there were persistent "rumors" floating around at the time that the situation was actually quite different, and much more dire for the crew. These stories are attributed to Alaskan locals, and conversations they had with the crew. According to the stories, the Clobbered Turkey had been on a mission to photograph the Soviet side of the Bearing Strait (the nearest Soviet land was a mere 125 miles due west of the crash site, or a half-hour at a B-29's cruising speed; in contrast, the crash site was 430 nm from their home base at Fairbanks), had been shot at and sustained damage, and at least one of the crew members had been injured when they took fire. The pilots had been struggling to keep the aircraft airborne until they could get back over Alaskan territory.

The local rumors contributed to a larger story which made national news with an Associated Press article published on April 15, 1948, under the headline Russ Planes Reported over Alaska. In the article, the publisher of the Ketchikan Chronicle, William L. Baker, is quoted as confirming what Representative Margaret C. Smith (R-Me; later Senator from Maine) had said publicly about Russian aircraft violating Alaskan airspace. His statements came after a three-week tour of Alaska in which he gathered evidence of the violations.

Now, keep in mind, the hype of the Red Scare was just starting to hit full-stride in the American media at this time, but Smith wasn't one to fan those flames. A moderate Republican, Smith served on the House Armed Services Committee, had voted against making the House Un-American Activities Committee permanent, and spoke out long and loud against McCarthyism. And yet, she also confirmed publicly that Soviet aircraft had been violating US airspace over Alaska, and complained that the Soviet media routinely referred to Alaska a part of Russia's territory.

As part of his fact-finding mission, Baker referred to reports from the local aviation community which said that when the Clobbered Turkey went down, it "had a Soviet shell in her belly". Supposedly, the crew had told the local pilots that they were struggling to keep their wounded Superfortress in the air, and had hoped to at least "get their asses over Alaska before going in". What's more, the local aviation community had become convinced that the reason the Air Force had refused help from the bush pilots was because of concerns about the classfied and thus highly sensitive exposed photographic plates that likely had survived the crash, and thus would be gravely harmful to the mission if discovered and publicized by civilians.

Thus, it isn't at all surprising that after the crew was rescued, an Air Force team went back and burned the wreckage, and then subsequently bombed it in order to destroy any evidence of the actual mission, an act that begs the question: if this were just a routine training mission, why would there be any sensitive data onboard worth such efforts to destroy?

So was the Turkey really shot down by the Sovs? We'll probably never really know, but if so, maybe it was a good thing that it was covered up at the time, as such an incident could easily have led to a shooting war.

The wreckage of the Clobbered Turkey remains to this day, protected as part of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Some interesting links:

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Recon Superforts over Alaska

The Archive recently acquired three origial 8x10 prints from the late 1940s that feature specially-outfitted reconnaissance Superfortresses in flight over Alaska. The two shown here are backstamped "Air Force Photo, 72 RCN. SQ. (VLR) PHOTO" and are dated Sep 18, 1948. The third, which features the infamous F-13 The Clobbered Turkey, will be featured in an upcoming article.
The lead plane's s/n is illegible, left wing is 45-21762 and right wing is 45-21773, Leaking Lena

The Boeing F-13 was a little-known variant of the B-29 Superfortress. In an era when fighter planes had "P" for "Pursuit" numbers, the Army Air Forces used the "F" designation for aircraft dedicated to photo reconnaissance. One hundred eighteen early B-29-BW and B-29A Superfortresses were converted to F-13/F-13A photo reconnaissance aircraft (later changed first to FB-29J and then to RB-29), and were equipped with six high powered cameras, three 9"x9" K-17Bs, two 9x9 K-22 and a 9x18 K-18. Some were assigned to the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron (Very Long Range, Photographic), which was activated on June 1, 1946 and was based at Ladd Army Airfield, Fairbanks Alaska. On October 13, 1947, the squadron was redesignated the 72nd Reconnaissance Squadron.

The Squadron was part of the newly-formed Strategic Air Command, and participated in a number of early SAC efforts, including Project NANOOK, as well as the subsequent LEOPARD. Their mission was to provide long range reconnaissance over the Arctic, especially along the Soviet Union's northern border. The unit was also tasked with deep-penetration reconnaissance missions over Soviet Union territory, which were kept classified Top Secret until 2001.

In order to accomplish its mission, the 46th/72nd RS pioneered a number of techniques, including the configuration of the aircraft (of eighteen B-29s that the squadron acquired, it converted eight of them to the F-13 configuration), and the Grid System of navigation for use in the polar environment where magnetic compasses were unreliable. Besides The Clobbered Turkey, the squadron also was home to another famous F-13A, Kee Bird. One of the F-13, 45-21848 (possibly shown in the photo below), was the first aircraft on record to fly over the geographic North Pole, on October 16, 1946.

The image's focus is not sufficiently clear to distinguish the tail numbers (see below), so I'll let you, the reader, try to guess which is which. That being said, the closest plane to the camera is possibly 45-21848, which was the first aircraft to fly over the geographic North Pole. Note the enlarged structure in place of the tail gunner's station on the lead plane...I'm guessing that it houses some additional electronics, since these were recon birds.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ambition vs. Storm: The Disappearance of Mrs. Grayson and The Dawn

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." (spoken by Zara in Act III, Scene VIII,  The Mourning Bride (1697) by William Congreve. The same could be said for a winter's Atlantic storm. So when the two meet, it's not likely much good will come of it.

The year 1927 was a difficult one for aviation, and especially for women in aviation. From the moment Lindbergh landed in Paris, the race was on to see who would become the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. Princess Anne of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg (who flew predominantly under her maiden name of Lady Anne Savile) and her pilot, WWI ace Leslie Hamilton disappeared in the middle of the Atlantic in their Fokker F.VIIa St. Raphael on August 31, 1927. Just a couple of weeks earlier, 22-year old Mildred Doran, a passenger on the Buhl Air Sedan Miss Doran, had disappeared while trying to cross the Pacific in the Dole Derby.

The Dawn on Old Orchard Beach, Maine, with a large crowd looking on. It has likely landed and just turned around to shut down (if it were about to take off, it is likely that there would be some members of the ground crew near the plane). The date is probably October 10, 1927. The pier had been a lot longer, but was heavily damaged in a storm in 1909. When it was rebuilt, the casino was moved in closer to the beach, to where it is shown here.



The tragedies continued. On September 7, a Fokker F.VIIa named Old Glory, sponsored by William Randolf Hearst, attempted the first flight from America to Rome, Italy; after departing from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, the crew was never seen again. The same day, a Stinson Detroiter named Sir John Carling in the first attempt at a London, Ontairo to London, England flight, took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, and also disappeared. The Royal Windsor, also a Stinson, was the plane to make the first attempt to fly from Windsor, Ontario to Windsor, England, and made it as far as Harbour Grace on September 7; enroute, it, too, stopped at Old Orchard Beach. The disappearance of Old Glory and Sir John Carling led pilots Phil Wood and Duke Schiller to wisely re-think things and give up the attempt.

It was thus against this backdrop that Mrs. Frances Grayson, a niece of President Woodrow Wilson, announced that she fully intended to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. A newspaper writer and real estate speculator in New York City, Grayson become somewhat obsessed with the idea after Lindbergh's feat. She convinced her friend Aage Ancker (whose father was Pittsburgh steel magnate Charles Sang) to put up the money so that she could buy a custom-modified S-36 amphibian, NX-1282, from Igor Sikorsky, the thought being that such a plane would give the team an extra measure of safety - if they had mechanical difficulties, they could always just land on the water. Grayson hoped to make the attempt early in October. The caveat to this flight was that, despite all the publicity she sought trumpeting this as being proof that women could do whatever men could, it would still by a man (Wilmer "Wild Bill" Stultz) flying the plane, and a man (Brice Goldsborough) navigating it; Grayson was only flying as a passenger (though she made it clear to the media that she was the flight's "commander").

Grayson had competition, though. Young actress-wannabe Ruth Elder, at 23, also announced an attempt to cross the Atlantic. An unlicensed student pilot, who promoted herself in the media as "Lady Lindy", she'd be making the attempt with pilot Capt. George Haldeman, and would be leaving in her Stinson Detroiter American Girl from Old Orchard Beach. She had even told one reporter, "I wish I were a man! No woman can cross the Atlantic alone! We are not strong enough!"

Both women were staging at Curtiss Field on Long Island. Both ladies repeatedly announced their imminent departures, followed by delays. On October 8, the US Weather Bureau announced that they were discontinuing Atlantic weather reporting for the season, and strongly suggested that the flying season was over for the year. Undeterred, Grayson and crew departed Long Island for Old Orchard Beach on a cold afternoon of Monday, October 10. The location was an ideal jumping-off spot for trans-Atlantic attempts, because when the tide was out, the beach sported a wide, five-mile long swath of hard-packed sand. Grayson told the newspapermen that she and crew would lay over in Maine for a few days getting things ready for the big flight, and waiting for the weather to clear.

Grayson was thus stunned to hear the news the next morning, October 11, that Elder and Haldeman had left Roosevelt Field for Paris, despite the bad weather! When the American Girl failed to show up in Paris, though, everyone feared the worst, though in the presumed tragedy, Grayson saw opportunity to still realize her goal. Word came on October 14, though, that Elder and Haldeman were safe. They had to ditch in the ocean due to a broken oil line, about 320 miles northeast of the Azores, but fortunately were able to do it right next to the Dutch ship Barendrecht, and came away unscathed.

On October 17, Grayson told the assembled reporters, "Nothing can stop me now. Destiny is with me!" She and the crew of The Dawn took off from Old Orchard Beach at 9:33am, and turned east. They only made it to the Cape Elizabeth Lightship, though, and were battling heavy headwinds and were barely able to remain aloft, when Stultz decided to turn back and ordered Goldsborough to dump most of their fuel; they made it back to the beach without further incident.

Grayson decided to try again on the 23rd, six days after her first failure. This time they made it 500 miles east before the weather started closing in and Stultz again turned back to Old Orchard Beach. Grayson was beside herself with fury over the decision, and pushed hard for a third attempt. Stultz would have none of it, though, and quit, flying The Dawn back to Roosevelt Field.

About this time, Hearst Newspapers columnist Arthur Brisban wrote that he hoped "hereafter American girls will stay on the ground or at least do their flying over land," an extremely disingenuous comment seeing as how Old Glory was owned by his boss, had editor Philip Payne on board as a passenger, and was crewed by men...and fared worse than Elder had!

Mrs. Grayson was undaunted by her experienced (and wise) pilot's decision, and decided to try again in December. No Atlantic storms would keep her land-bound! She hired Lt. Oskar Omdal, who'd served in the Norwegian Navy and had once flown with Roald Amundsen, to fly her. Goldsborough declined to follow Stultz out the door, and remained faithful to Grayson. They were joined by Wright engineer Frank Koehler, who would fly with them for the first leg of the journey. At 5:07 pm, December 23, the crew left Roosevelt Field behind and, hoping to make London on Christmas day, and then fly on to Copenhagen, where Aage Ancker waited for them. Their first stop would be Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. They never arrived.

The first leg of The Dawn's journey started at Roosevelt Field, lower left, and was supposed to end at Habour Grace, upper right.


The last time the plane was seen was at 7:10 pm by a French cable station at Orleans, Cape Cod. Off Nauset Beach, Cape Cod, the crew of the schooner Rose Anne Belliveau thought they heard the sound of airplane engines through the roar of a fierce gale, and also thought they heard the sound of a large splash, followed by the fading of the engine noise. The schooner crew spotted nothing, though.

Had Omdal, finding the storm too intense, spotted the schooner and attempted an open water landing? There are some clues that this is what had happened. First, a Canadian radio station on Sable Island picked up several fragmented transmissions which included The Dawn's prefix at about 9:45 pm. The first was a request for a navigational bearing. The second transmission was "Something wrong here." The last was, "Plane down." The radio operators on Sable Island estimated that, based on radio signal strength, the transmitter was about 80 nautical miles from the island (for reference, the closest point on Nova Scotia is about 90 miles from Sable Island). A radio operator north of Harbour Grace also received a broken transmission which included, "Where are we? Can you locate us?"

Despite a large search and rescue effort, no trace was found. (In a tragic twist, after their departure, Goldsborough's wife received an envelope from him inscribed "Do not open until Christmas". Inside was a bank draft for $500, which she donated to the search effort.)

Just over a year later, a boy found a bottle washed up on the beach at Salem Harbor, Mass. Inside was a yellowed note that read, "1928. We are freezing. Gas leaked and we are drifting off Grand Banks. Grayson." If genuine (and there's no reason to think it wasn't), it suggests that The Dawn landed intact and remained afloat for some time.

Mrs. Grayson's last public words, as she climbed into The Dawn for the fateful flight were, "All my life Christmas has been the same. The same friends, the same gifts that didn't mean anything. Telling people things you didn't mean. But this will be different." It certainly was, just not exactly how she expected it to be.

After returning to Old Orchard Beach after her second attempt in October, Grayson had penned a letter, sealed it in an envelope, and later handed it to a New York Times reporter with instructions that it only be opened someday if something "went wrong". In it she wrote, "Who am I? Sometimes I wonder. Am I a little nobody? Or am I a great dynamic force - powerful - in that I have a God-given birthright , and have all the power there is if only I will understand and us it? It is a great, living, breathing power of understanding my heritage ... Sometimes I am torn ... Can it be that I am wrong? Wrong after these many months of hard preparations, these many months of listening to that still small voice ... The sun is ever shining. ... It is now time for me to show my strength. I am who or what I really am, a little nobody or a living, forceful power to carry out part of His great plan: I will win. I must not quit too soon. Success is just ahead and the clouds between must disappear."

Grayson once wrote, "I will prove that woman can compete with man in his own undertakings" (this despite the fact that she was still relying on two men to get the job done). In a sense, she had succeeded: she had proven that a woman can do exactly what a man can do: they both die just as dead when they ignore the realities of Atlantic winter storms.

In an ironic footnote to the story, a woman finally did make it by air across the Atlantic, some six months later, landing on June 19, 1928 at Burry Point, Wales. She was a passenger - tasked with keeping the logbook current - in a plane flown by none other than Wild Bill Stultz, who chose to make his historic crossing in better weather. That passenger was Amelia Earhart.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Around the World in 8 Days with Winnie

Winnie Mae on display after the first round-the-world flight, but
before the second, sometime between June 1931 and July 1933. 
Note: After this article was posted on Nov. 8, the archive acquired the image on the left, which was taken earlier than the other two, so I'm reposting this update to include the new photo.

There are a few planes from Aviation's Golden Age that are undisputed all-stars, and Winnie Mae is certainly in that category. Because of the fame which its pilot, Wiley Post, brought the Lockheed Vega, much has been written about her, and so besides these previously unpublished photos, there isn't much new that I can contribute through my words here; besides the summary and bits of trivia below, if you want to know the detailed history, check the links at the bottom of this post.

Wiley Post set a number of records in Winnie Mae, a Lockheed Vega 5C (some sources refer to it as a 5B), registration NR105W. On August 27, 1930 he flew non-stop from Los Angeles to Chicago to win the National Air Race Derby. In June 1931, he and navigator Harold Gatty flew the plane around the world in eight days. After that, Post became interested in pioneering new aviation technologies, including the autopilot. He modified Winnie May with one and in July 1933, he again flew around the world, this time solo, and beating his previous time by 21 hours. Post next turned his attention to high-altitude flying, and Winnie Mae became a flight testbed, modified the plane with jettisonable landing gear and wearing a pressure suit that he also developed with BF Goodrich (which ultimately let to the suits worn decades later by the X-15 pilots) he explored flight in the stratosphere, discovering the jet stream and reaching between 50,000 and 55,000 feet (the onboard instrumentation failed, which prevented the flight from being registered as an official world record). This led to a jet stream-boosted high-altitude record-setting flight from LA to Cleveland on March 15, 1935. Shortly thereafter, Post, along with Will Rogers, was killed in the crash of his hybrid Lockheed Orion/Sirius in Alaska.

This photo (and detail below) was taken sometime between the
second world flight in 1933 and the high-altitude LA-Cleveland
flight in 1935, based on the records noted on the side of the plane.
Beyond the basics of Winnie Mae's history, there are a few seldom-mentioned tidbits of the story that I'd like to highlight. When people hear the name "Winnie Mae", they typically think of this plane, NC/NR105W, which has survived and is currently ensrined at the National Air & Space Museum (previously displayed at the Hazy center, she has recently been moved to the Mall facility). However, this is actually the second of three Lockheed Vegas to bear the name, all owned by Oklahoma oil tycoon Florence C. Hall; Hall had a penchant for naming his planes after his daughter, Winnie Mae Fain. Wiley Post had come up working the Oklahoma oil fields as a roughneck, and then took to flying, performing as a parachutist with the barnstorming act Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers. In 1928, after having lost one eye in an oilfield accident, he hired on with F. C. Hall as his personal pilot, flying the latest in aviation technology, the Jack Northrop-designed Lockheed Vega.

The first Winnie Mae, Vega Model 5 NC7954, fell victim to the Great Depression, and Hall had to sell it back to Lockheed in May 1929 (with no plane to fly for Hall, Post went to work flying for Lockheed as a test pilot for a short time). Hall's finances weren't troubled for long, though, and in June he picked up NC105W and sponsored Post's entry with it in the 1930 Derby. In a bit of irony, when Post and Winnie Mae #2 won the race, the plane they beat was the original Winnie Mae, flown by Art Goebel (there will be more on Art and WM #1 in an upcoming blog post).

The third WM was Vega 5B NC905Y, also painted white with blue trim, which Hall bought from Ben Wofford in late 1931, after Post and Gatty's around-the-world-in-eight-days record flight. Hall subsequently sold it to the Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles in 1932. It eventually made its way to Mexico, was involved in a number of crashes, the last in 1945 rendered it beyond repair.

At some point (probably about the time Hall bought Winnie Mae #3 after the first world flight), Hall sold NR105W to Post, and in 1936, after Post's demise, the Smithsonian bought the plane from his widow. It has been restored to the configuration it was in during the high-altitude research period, including a small cabin window on the right side, which isn't present in the above photo.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lindbergh and Tingmissartoq

When Charles Lindbergh finished his national tour in the Spirit of St. Louis, following his famous trans-Atlantic solo flight, he donated the now-iconic Ryan N-Y-P to the Smithsonian in April, 1928. To replace it, Ryan provided him with a B-2 Brougham, and that year he flew a number of other aircraft as well, but none of those really met his needs.

At the 1929 National Air Races, Lindbergh met Jerry Vultee of Lockheed, which had just been acquired by Detroit Aircraft Corp (which also would acquire Mahoney-Ryan the following year). Lindbergh described his ideal high-performace aircraft, and Vultee came up with some quick sketches, and the two planned to continue the discussion after the airshow. As it turned out, what Lindbergh was looking for was quite similar to the Lockheed Explorer, which Vultee and crew were developing for Harold Bromley"s planned trans-Pacific record attempt, and based on an earlier experiment started by Jack Northrop.The plane which ultimately came from the project was the Lockheed Model 8 Sirius, a two-seat, low-wing design that utilized the same molded plywood fuselage as the wildly successful Vega line.


Lindbergh's black and orange Sirius was the first of fifteen the Lockheed would build.  Originally intended to be an open cockpit aircraft, Lindbergh himself came up with the sliding canopies which he called "Coupe Tops".

On April 20, 1930, Charles and Ann Lindbergh set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles (presumably Glendale) to New York in 14 hours and 45 minutes. It is quite possible that our photo was taken during the preparations for that record flight.

Our photo was taken at Glendale's Grand Central Air Terminal and is an original Ray Talbot print. It appears to be one of at least two that were taken within moments of each other, the other being featured in the November 1930 edition of Popular Mechanics Magazine (the position of Lindbergh and the man he's talking to is slightly different in the two images). The accompanying article describes some of the experimentation Lindbergh participated in with the Lockheed engineers in developing the NACA cowling for optimal engine cooling.

With all the hecticness of life after his record flight and the touring the ensued, Lindbergh was ready for a break, and he and Ann decided to take a vacation which, as he described it, had "no start or finish, no diplomatic or commercial significance, and no records to be sought." That led to the couple modifying the Sirius with floats and flying to Asia in 1931. A second trip, in 1933, explored potential airline routes for Pan Am across the north Atlantic. It was during this trip that an Inuit boy in Greenland called the plane "Tingmissartoq", meaning "one who flies like a big bird". At the end of the trip, Lindbergh donated the plane to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and it is now at NASM.

For further reading:




Monday, November 3, 2014

Ode to a Lost Nomad

This past week, it was announced that a long-lost Canadian Northrop A-17 Nomad was recovered from the bottom of a lake. The CNN story can be seen here.

In honor of that recovery, I offer this completely unrelated photo of an Army Air Corps A-17. Obviously, given all the people in the scene, something was going on, but the plane (tail number 26) seems otherwise unremarkable. I really like the hangar architecture, but have no idea where it is. Ideas anyone?


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Gilmore's Electra

Just this past weekend, the Archive was privileged to acquire several old 8x10 prints from the estate of a Lockheed employee, and this is perhaps my favorite of the bunch, partly because this is such a storied aircraft.

After the successful introduction of the Lockheed Model 10 Electra 10-passenger airliner in 1935, the Bureau of Air Commerce saw the need for a smaller aircraft to be used by "feeder" airlines, and so sponsored a contest to promote the development of such a plane. Lockheed scaled down the Electra airframe (but kept the same 450-hp engines) and introduced it as the Model 12 Electra Junior. Because the other two competitors (one of which was the Beech 18) weren't ready by the June 30, 1936 deadline, the Electra Junior won by default.

NC18130 rolled off the assembly line at the end of June, 1937, was registered to oil tychoon F. C. Hall (of Winnie Mae fame) and was flown by Lockheed test pilot Milo Burcham in the 1937 Bendix Trophy race from Burbank to Cleveland, taking fifth place. Lockheed had modified the plane with an internal fuel tank, allowing Burcham to fly the course non-stop.

Right after the race, Gilmore Oil took delivery of the plane and used it as their executive transport. It is shown here in a Lockheed publicity photo (probably taken in November or December 1937) over the San Gabriel Mountains (the Cajon Pass and Mormon Rocks can be seen in the upper right corner, and the line across the upper middle is the Pearblossom Highway). Gilmore used the plane for four years, until November 1941 when it was sold to the Free French Air Force. It served the French through WWII, including, for a time, as the transport of General Maréchel LeClerc and General De Gaulle. Following the war, it bounced around Europe, including being owned for a while by the Earle of Granard.

The best part of all, though, is that this illustious Lockheed has been returned to the US, has received a complete restoration in Monroe, Washington, and is currently for sale! If you want to purchase (or just oogle the restoration pics), you can see its listing on the Warbird Connection website. A very detailed history (in PDF form) can be seen here.