Saturday, July 30, 2016

Stearman Star: Before She Was Famous

By and large, the planes featured in our vintage photos haven't survived into the 21st century. So when my brother, Eric Radecki of Vonrad Vintage in Fresno, discovered this old 8x10 glossy print and donated it to the archive, I made the assumption that the Stearman's hazardous line of work probably meant it hadn't survived, either. Was I wrong! Boeing Stearmans, to be sure, a durable and hardy lot, and N68405, built as a PT-17 in 1943 (c/n 75-7759), is one of those happy exceptions, and this is yet another example of a random, lost photo uncovering a fun story!

N68405 at Hawke Field, Merced CA on September 19, 1977.
Photo courtesy of Geoff Goodall, used with permission
The Steaman was a mere 20-something years young when an unknown photographer took this photo of the beginning of a crop dusting pass - under the wires! - in the mid-1960s. Today, N68405 is a movie and TV veteran owned and flown by Michael Samuel Mason, she graces the skies above Sequim, Washington (more about that in a minute!).

After serving (and surviving) as an Army Air Corps trainer in World War II, the Stearman was surplussed into the crop dusting world (an old duster I once knew told me "If you want to be a crop duster and live to 50, start at 49." I presume that goes for the planes, too!). In the above right photo by Geoff Goodall (from his website), our girl is seen still hard at work in September, 1977 at the Flying M Ranch's Hawke Field near Merced, California.

Production still from Airwolf as found on the "Wings-on-Film" Wikia
Like so many dreaming of stardom, the Stearman eventually left the farm and headed for Southern California and the world of movie and TV flying. When Airwolf debuted as a mid-season replacement show in the spring of 1984, N68405 made a guest appearance in the 11th episode, To Catch a Wolf (this same episode also features an appeance of the C-133s in the Mojave boneyard!). While owned by Mike Dewey, the Stearman was also flown in the Bruce Willis/James Garner comedy western Sunset. 

Before Mason bought it, the old gal was owned by Eric Newman and was used in Independence Day. The original ending envisioned for the movie included a suicide mission inwhich the Stearman (instead of the F/A-18 used) was flown up into the evil alien ship (you can see that version in this YouTube excerpt).

Our Stearman has also appeared in several music videos, including Aerosmith's "Amazing" (she shows up at 5:33 in this version on YouTube), and there's some gorgeous footage of the bright red Stearman doing aerobatics in the official music video for Mark Wills' "High, Low and In Between" (you can see it here on YouTube).

Photo by Brian Lockett, linked by permission
In August, 2005, aviation photographer Brian Lockett caught up with N68405 on display at the Santa Paula Airfair (right). Current owner Mike Mason grew up in Santa Paula, and his uncle still has two other Stearmans based there. Now in Sequim, Washington, Mike and and his wife Marilyn use the plane as a training platform in their unique Mason Wing Walking Academy, the only such school in the world! (They still do a bit of movie and TV work with it as well.)

Just as the name suggests, anyone with the $850 fee and an adventurous spirit can spend a day or two learning how to wing walk on top of this bright red Steaman. Mike does the flying, and Marilyn does the instructing. The world-wide population of wing-walkers is relatively small, as one might guess, and over 90% of them have been trained by Marilyn. One recent Academy student was Boston Marathon bombing survivor Megan Williams, and her experiences learning to wingwalk, profiled in an article in this great Sequim Gazette article, helped in her recovery journey.

It's wonderful to see this beauty still going strong a half-century after our feature photo was taken. One presumes that these days, Mason and crew keep a safer distance from power lines!

Courtesy of Mike Mason, Mason Wing Walking Academy
(Huge thanks to Eric for the print and Mike Mason for taking the time to share the past of his Stearman!)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

From Glendale to London with Peace, Pingpong Balls, and the Ritz

Meet Lady Peace, a grand dame of a plane with some incredible stories that have all but been forgotten about. Seventy-nine years ago today, she left on a flight that was intended to set a new round-trip trans-Atlantic speed record.

GLENDALE, CALIF. - Heading for New [York] and their round-trip flight to London within a few days, Harry Richman, night-club singer and aviator, and Dick Merrill, transport pilot, this afternoon took off from Grand Central Air Terminal in their Vultee monoplane, "Lady Peace". The two flyers plan to fly to London over the Great Circle course by way of Newfoundland. They hope to complete the round trip in 32 hours. Just before taking off they accepted their course charts from Lieut. Commander Clarence Williams, mapmaker for Amelia Earhart and Clyde Pangborn. Their low-wing all-metal plane has a cruising speed of 235-miles per hour, and is powered by a 1000-horsepower motor. Fully loaded with 1002 gallons of gasoline the plane weighs 13,300 pounds, Richman said, and has a cruising radius of 4000 miles. Innovations include a buoyant wing and tail space lining of 30,000 table tennis balls to float the craft in the event they are forced down in mid-ocean. PHOTO SHOWS: Vultee transport plane bearing Harry Richman and Dick Merrill to New York, for the start of their projected round-trip flight to London. The plane is shown as it took off from Glendale, California today. 8-17-36 (photo from Wide World Photos, Los Angeles Bureau)

Back in January, 2013, we ran a post featuring a couple photos of American Airlines's Vultee V1-As, and told the story about how the plane came to be, and pretty much left off with American dumping the planes when the Bureau of Air Commerce banned single-engine airliners. The forced early retirement was only the beginning of the story for NC-13770, which was the eighth V1-A off of Vultee's Glendale assembly line. (And yes, it's properly "V1-A", not V-1A like may sources mis-write it).

American Airlines had been attracted to the Vultees because they were fast and, for their time, had long legs. Retirement didn't slow them down. Enter Col. (H) George. R. Hutchinson, who had a dream of establishing the first trans-Atlantic freight operation which he named the New York, London, Moscow Airlines (and yes, that was the proposed route). The new company "nominated", or sponsored Hutchinson and NR-13770 as an entry in the speed portion of one of the biggest air races of all time, the MacRobertson Race from Mildenhall, England, to Melbourne, Australia, which started on October 29, 1934. Hutchinson was to be the pilot, with Peter Redpath as navigator and co-pilot and Donald H. Vance as radio operator. Unfortunately, the Vultee is listed as "Failed to Start" - and that outcome pretty much also describes what happened to the proposed airline. (A second V1-A, Race 64, had also been entered in the MacRobertson, to be flown by H. W. G. Penny, but it too failed to start.)

Our Vultee next found a home as a corporate transport for Shell Oil, where she was piloted by Jimmy Doolittle. On January 15, 1935, Doolittle, along with his wife Josephine and Shell Oil executive Robert Adams, took off from Burbank and headed for Floyd Bennett Field in New York, with three California oranges on board. The flight set a transcontinental record of 11 hours, 59 minutes, and Doolittle flew most of the portion from Colorado to Virginia on instruments (they were also forced off course by 300 miles by the inclement weather). The oranges were delivered to Newark Mayor Meyer C. Ellenstein.

Not to be outdone, Doolittle's brother-in-law Leland Andrews took the controls of NR-13770 on February 21st and flew the same route, shaving 25 minutes off of the time, which included a stop in Washington D.C. where he delivered some orchids to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Andrews later set another record, Los Angeles to Mexico City in 8:08.

Meanwhile, singer and night-club owner Harry Richman had found that aviation was a great hobby to spend his excess cash on. Richman had hit the big time by singing the previously unknown Irving Berlin showtune "Putin' on the Ritz" in the 1930 movie of the same name (Clark Gable and Fred Astaire would also sing it in later movies). Richman had learned to fly and then began to seek a way to fulfill his dream of becoming the first person to fly the Atlantic round-trip. Along the way, he purchased a Sikorsky and set several records in it.

Henry T. "Dick" Merrill had the same dream, but as the chief pilot for Eastern Airways, he didn't have the financial resources to make it happen. The two met while Merrill was on an Eastern Airlines layover in New York, and visited Richman's club. Of course the conversation turned to flying, and the idea of not just an Atlantic crossing, but a trans-Atlantic round-trip, to be accomplished, ideally, within a total of 48 hours.It was later famously reported that Richman told Merrill, "take the plane to Europe...gas her up and fly her back. It’s never been done."

Richman agreed to purchase Shell's Vultee and sponsor the modifications needed, as well as other expenses of the flight, the total bill being in the neighborhood of $360,000. The 700-horse Pratt & Whitney was removed and replaced with a 1,000-horse Wright Cyclone giving a 215 mph cruising speed. Extra fuel tanks were fitted, and Richman had insisted that, as a safety measure, empty spaces throughout the plane be filled with the thousands of ping pong balls (the RAF had tested this little trick, with some success; the number of balls is uncertain - contemporary sources such as the caption for our photo list 30,000, while different modern websites have numbers approaching 41,000; following the flight, Richman for years sold autographed balls as a way of raising money for charity; if you watch, you can sometimes see signed balls show up on eBay).

The plane was ferried from Glendale, California to New York on August 17, 1936, and then after some final preparations and a lot of media coverage, the pair left for the Atlantic crossing on September 2nd.

The original caption pasted to the back of this Acme press photo reads: "BOUND FOR EUROPE: Dick Merrill, veteran air line pilot, and Harry Richman, nightclub entertainer, roared away from Floyd Bennett Field, New York City, September 2,  in a 1,000 hp monoplane on a projected round-trip flight to London. Their plane, the "Lady Peace", is pictured passion over Long Island a few minutes after takeoff."

Flying a Great Circle route, all went quite well until about 600 miles from their destination, when the Lady Peace encountered some rather nasty weather. After battling the elements for a good four hours, Merrill and Richman finally found themselves over the UK, but short on fuel. The decision was made to land at Llandila, in South Wales, about 175 miles shy of London. Even so, at 18 hours, 36 minutes, they'd set a record for the fastest Atlantic crossing to that date. The overnighted at Llandila and then flew on to London the following morning, September 4th.

Their goal of a 48 hour total round-trip was out the window, unfortunately, and with that pressure off, they took their time getting ready to head back west. Finally on September 14th, the left, taking off from the beach near Southport Pier, England. Again, all was going relatively well, until they encountered some very stiff headwinds. What happened next is a bit controversial, and the story varies depending on what source you read.

One story is that Richman was at the controls, and panicked in the face of the headwinds, and, dumped about 500 gallons of gas in order to lighten the plane. Another version is that Merrill was flying and had no idea why there was less gas onboard than there was supposed to be, and that it was only after Eddie Rickenbacker, a close friend of Merrill's, joined them at the scene that it was noticed that the emergency fuel dump valve was stuck partially open. So was this an intentional rookie-mistake dumping, or an accident of a stuck valve?

In any case, the bottom line was there wasn't enough gas to make it to New York. Merrill picked what looked like an open field near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland, but when they touched down, it turned out to be a fairly soft bog, and the Vultee ended up on its nose and suffered some minor damage. The relationship between the pilots also suffered a fair bit of damage. [Editorial commentary: I find the reference below to the helpful local Newfoundlanders as "surrounded by natives" - as if they were some exotic tribesmen - to be quite amusing.]

The caption for this Acme press photo reads: "ROUND TRIP COMPLETED: Surrounded by natives, the "Lady Peace", which bore Harry Richman and Dick Merrill safely across the Atlantic twice, is shown where it cracked up in a bog at Musgrave Harbor, Newfoundland. While Captain Eddie Rickenbacker speeds to the spot, relations between Richman and Merrill are strained because of differences which arose while they were winging westward across the Atlantic. 9/16/36."

After several days of repairs, just enough fuel was loaded on to make the short hop to Harbor Grace, since the ground was so soft and they didn't want to risk making the plane any heavier. More waiting was needed to overcome strong winds, and finally Lady Peace, escorted by Eddie Rickenbacker in a DC-2, finally returned to New York City on September 21st. But their problems weren't over yet. Merrill happened to get the wheels off the edge of the runway at Floyd Bennett, where they sank in soft mud. The plane had to be then towed to the ramp.

A trip that had been originally envisioned to take only 48 hours ended up consuming 19 days. And there's a possible explanation for why, if like some pilots of that era, you're superstitious (Merrill, as a devout Christian, wasn't, it must be noted). Merrill and Eddie Rickenbacker were close family friends, and ten-year-old William Rickenbacker looked up to Merrill as to a bigger-than-life hero. But, the boy was ill and thus unable to see the Lady Peace off on her trans-Atlantic journey. So instead, William, in a bedside farewell, gave Merrill something that he thought would bring them luck: his favorite Ace of Spades playing card, completely unaware that most pilots of that era considered that to be a strong omen of bad luck. Eddie's wife Adelaide was terribly upset by what her son had done, however. When the fliers finally returned, Merrill greeted William with a jubilant bear hug, but Adelaide began making vocal and profuse apologies for the gift her son had given him, to the point that poor young William was mortally embarrassed and the event was reportedly ruined for him, creating a long-lasting emotional scar.

In a very odd twist of irony, the Lady Peace next went to war. With hostilities breaking out in Spain, American planes were bought up in record number and shipped to Europe to join in the fighting. Vultee V1-As, with their speed and durability, were thought to make idea light bombers and ground attack aircraft, and most of the ex-American Airlines planes saw combat. Lady Peace was included, being sold with the other Vultees by an aircraft broker to the Republicans, in what became known in the press as the "Vimalert Affair", which led to President Roosevelt demanding that Congress to impose an embargo against shipments to Spain.

However, the ship that the Vultee and the other planes were on, the Mar Cantabrinco, left before the embargo was imposed, and was instead intercepted by Franco's navy in the Bay of Biscay, and thus the planes were taken over by the Nationalists. Lady Peace was re-christened Capitan Haya, after Captain Carlos de Haya González de Ubieta, one of their hero pilots who had been killed in action. Unlike the Vultee's namesake, the plane survived the war, and continued in the service of the Spanish Air Force, until being unceremoniously scrapped in 1953.

In 1937, a Hollywood film about the flight of the Lady Peace was produced and released under the name Atlantic Flight...and it starred none other than Dick Merrill as himself. Merrill went on to set a number of aviation records, including logging one of the highest totals of flight hours of any pilot in history (a nice mini-bio can be found here).

Only one Vultee V1-A survives, a special custom version built for William Randolf Hearst. Eventually, it was acquired by the Virgina Aviation Museum, of which Dick Merrill was a co-curator. The plane was restored and rechristened Lady Peace II, and for a time was flown at airshows by Merrill.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Tragedy and Triumph of the Dole

Eighty-eight years ago today, on August 16th 1927, one of the most tragic events of the Golden Age of Aviation began, an air race from California to Hawaii which, in the weeks before and after, dominated the American press.

8x10 press photo of the start of the Dole Air Race in Oakland, California on August 16, 1927. Caption pasted on the back reads, "General view of flying field where four planes took off for Honolulu in the Dole $35,000 prize air derby. The Oklahoma is seen on the starting line, with other planes in rear awaiting their turn. Underwood photo."

With the Atlantic Ocean conquered by Charles Lindbergh only three month earlier, the next biggest prize was the next biggest ocean, the Pacific. James D. Dole, the American entrepreneur who, with his Hawaiian Pineapple Company, had taken a South American fruit and turned it into a major plantation crop on the Hawaiian Islands. Dole was, however, at the mercy of the shipping lines, especially Matson, to get his crop to the mainland, and when Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize by demonstrating that aviation could conquer oceans, Dole realized that aviation could also, one day, delivery pineapples, and so should be encouraged. Thus, he posted a purse of $35,000 ($25,000 for first place, $10,000 for second place) for the first two planes which successfully flew from Oakland to Honolulu, a distance of about 2,400 miles, and which met a number of very specific criteria.

The irony is that the Army had already been planning such a flight, and utilized a large Fokker C-2 Trimotor known as the Bird of Paradise, flown by Lt. Albert F. Hegenberger and Lt. Lester J. Maitland. The pair successfully completed the flight in a time of 25 hours, 50 minutes, flying from Oakland to Wheeler Army Air Field. Because they didn’t land at Honolulu, they were disqualified from winning the Dole prize, but did secure the 1927 Macay Trophy, an annual award presented by the Air Corps (now Air Force) for the most meritorious flight of the year, as well as each receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross (Hegenberger would also go on to win the Collier Trophy for his work in developing blind flying techniques).

The first civilian flight to make it to the Islands also failed to secure one of the Dole prizes. Ernie Smith and Emory Bronte flew a Travel Air 5000 named The City of Oakland, departing on July 14, 1927. After a flight of 25 hours, 36 minutes they found themselves over the island of Molokai and out of gas, and with no airfields to land at, they had to settle for putting the plane down in some trees. And, of course, since they didn’t land at Honolulu, they, too, were disqualified from the Dole prize.

The City of Oakland departs its namesake in a bid to become the first civilian aircraft to fly across the Pacific to Hawaii. The goal was Honolulu, and they almost made it (see below).

"July 23 - Resting place of Smith's plane, City of Oakland, in a tree on the island of Molokai". Photo also includes an editorial note: "These four pictures [the archive only has one] of the Smith flight to the Hawaiian Islands were rushed by steamer back to the mainland, and thence by fast mail to all points."

For the rest of the teams planning on competing for the prize, a derby-style takeoff was planned for August 16th. In an expression of city pride, Oakland built a 7,020 foot runway, the longest in the world at the time, just for the event. To determine the order of departure, a drawing was held by the NAA at the Matson Building in San Francisco, an odd twist given Dole’s motivation for offering the prize.

Before the race even started, three planes, The Spirit of John Rogers, The Angel of Los Angeles and The Pride of Los Angeles (a unique twin-engined 22-passenger CF-10 triplane) crashed, resulting in three deaths and two injuries. Another, The Air King (City of Peoria) was disqualified by the race committee because they believed it couldn’t carry enough fuel for the trip. At least one other crewman was disqualified for not meeting skills requirements.

"Aug 11 - Disaster overtakes the 'Hoot' Gibson Triplane, Pride of Los Angeles as it attempts a landing at Oakland Airport after flying north from Los Angeles to enter the Dole fllight to Honolulu. Pilot James L. Giffin and companions prepare to abandon ship after crashing in the water a few yards from Oakland airport. Picture shows flyers, plane, shore, and runway of field in background, with swimer from shore bringing line to flyers. (Acme)"

On August 16th, a huge crowd - a large as 100,000 by some press reports - had gathered at the Oakland airport to see the racers take off. Oklahoma, one of two Travel Air 5000s competing, was flown by Bennett Griffin and navigated by Al Henley, was first, taking off just after 11am. They didn’t get far, though: the engine started overheating over San Francisco, and Griffin turned back.

The Travel Air 5000 Oklahoma waiting on the starting line. One of two Travel Airs sponsored by the Phillips Oil Company, Oklahoma turned back with a misbehaving engine.

Second in the lineup was El Encanto, a custom-built Goddard Special flown by Norman Goddard and navigated by Kenneth Hawkins. The odds-makers, before the race, had heavily favored this unique monoplane, but it didn’t even get off the ground, swerving and crashing on its takeoff roll.

Virtually the same thing happened to the Pabco Pacific Flyer, one of a pair of Breese-Wilde Model 5s entered. The plane was being flown solo by Livingston G. Irving, son of the mayor of Berkeley. Since Livingston was a decorated WWI pilot, he was able to qualify to fill both the pilot and navigator positions, so flew solo in order to be able to carry more fuel. But, fuel was his undoing. The plane was very heavily loaded, and on its first attempt he was not able to lift off, instead running off the end of the runway.

Fourth was the Hearst Papers’ Golden Eagle, the prototype Lockheed Vega, with Jack Frost and Gordon Scott. Unique and far advanced in both design and construction, Golden Eagle was filled with safety features and was another favorite to win, since it was clearly the fastest plane in the field of competitors.

The prototype Lockheed Vega, Golden Eagle, is delivered factory-new to the Oakland airfield, still wearing its original X-2788 registration. From left to right are race pilot Jack Frost, Lockheed test pilot Eddie Bellande, principal designer Jack Northrop, Allan Loughead (aka Lockheed) and Ken Jay.

Miss Doran, a Buhl, was fifth, and it too experienced engine problems right after takeoff. Flown by Auggy Pedlar with Vilas R. Knope as navigator, the plane was named for Mildred Doran, a Michigan schoolteacher who was to be the only woman, and the only passenger in the race.

Next was Dallas Spirit, a monoplane custom-built by the Swallow Airplane Company to fly in two prize flights: the Dole, and a $25,000 offering by William Easterwood for the first plane to fly from Dallas to Hong Kong. Flown by William P. Erwin and navigated by Alvin Eichwaldt, the Dallas Spirit fell victim to a mis-installed panel on the fuselage, which led to a large portion of the skin fabric ripping off shortly after takeoff. They were able to return to Oakland safely, but repairs would then take too long.

The Aloha takes off from Oakland.

Aloha, the second Breese-Wilde Model 5 then took off with Martin Jensen and Paul Schluter. Schluter wasn’t an aviator, but rather was a marine navigator who had seen an advertisement in the newspaper placed by Jensen. They were followed by the other Travel Air 5000, the Woolaroc, named after the Oklahoma ranch of sponsor and oilman Frank Phillips, and crewed by Arthur C. Goebel and William V. Davis, Jr. Phillips, of Phillips Petroleum, had sponsored both Wollaroc and Oklahoma as way of promoting the company’s Nu-Aviation brand of gasoline.

This Acme press photo is dated August 9, 1927, but doesn't give an location of where it was shot.

Miss Doran, her engine now fixed and running smoothly, departed a second time, followed by the Pabco Pacific Flyer. Since the plane wasn’t damaged when it ran off the end of the runway earlier, it was towed back to the starting line for another try. This time, Irving tried to lift off without sufficient airspeed, immediately stalled and landed hard, collapsing the gear.

So after all the hoopla, drama and carnage at Oakland, four planes were in the air and heading west, Golden Eagle, Aloha, Woolaroc and Miss Doran.

In Honolulu, there was great expectation the next day, and scores of people went to the field to await the arrival of the four contestants. Only two showed up. The first was Woolaroc, which had flown a great circle route in 26 hours, 17 minutes. Almost exactly two hours later, Aloha also arrived, having flown a more “direct” route (Schluter should have know better, and as a result, out of the $10,000 second place prize, Jensen only paid his navigator the advertised fee of $25!).

The Aloha arrives in Honolulu.

Photo donated by Vonrad Trading Post
Photo donated by Vonrad Trading Post
To the distress of everyone, both the Golden Eagle and Miss Doran were no-shows, and officially listed as missing. Another $50,000 in reward money was posted by various parties to help spur the search for the missing planes and fliers. In Michigan, the loss of school teacher Mildred Doran was taken hard, an eerie foreshadowing of the reaction decades later at the loss of Christa McAuliffe in the Challenger accident. The Navy Secretary E. W. Everle authorized the largest ever search effort, and tasked three submarines, and several destroyers already on patrol in the Pacific with searching. All 28 patrol planes from the carrier USS Langley were launched, but despite all the effort, no sign was found.

The repairs to the Dallas Spirit took two days, and even though the prize money was all claimed, Erwin and Eichwaldt decided to make the flight anyways, and on the way try and search for the missing planes. After Hawaii, they planned to press on to their other goal of Hong Kong. Livingston Irving donated the short-wave radio from the Pabco Pacific Flyer, so that they could make calls in case they found signs of the lost planes. When they were about 650 miles west of Oakland, Eichwaldt sent out a call that the plane had gone into a spin, but that Erwin had managed to recover. This was followed shortly afterwards by another call, that they were in a spin once more. This message was interrupted midway through, presumably because the plane either broke apart or crashed into the water. No sign of wreckage was ever found. In the aftermath, the Dallas Spirit had been built by Swallow on the condition that the company receive some of the prize money from both the Dole and the Hong Kong flights. The loss of the plane - and thus the promised cash - was enough that Swallow had to declare bankruptcy.

No sign of Miss Doran was ever found, either. However, there is an enduring mystery surrounding the Golden Eagle. There were some indications that Frost had actually reached Hawaii...the big island, that is, and had crashed on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano. In the days after the race, reports started filtering in that people had heard an airplane engine over the island, that there had been sightings, one of which even said that the tail number, NX-913, had been seen (this was dismissed, because the number was so similar to the Aloha’s, NX-914). However, at least seventeen different witnesses, at different locations around the Big Island, reported seeing Very flares (named for Edward Very, the US Navy officer who had invented the flare gun) on the night of August 18th, and again on the night of the 21st.

Army Captain E. R. Block, who was stationed on the island, saw the flares, and was convinced that a plane was down, and he and a sergeant started out on foot up the mountain. Their mission, however, was interrupted when the sergeant suffered an appendicitis and they had to return to post. Relatives of the crew, and even Martin Jensen himself, became more and more convinced that the Golden Eagle had indeed gone down on Mauna Loa. Unfortunately, the 13,680 volcano was active at that time, and besides the steam and lava coming from its crater, the flanks were typically shrouded in fog, making an air search impossible during the rest of August. Careful interviews of the witnesses, which included testing their recognition of lights and flares fired in test from the mountain, all pointed to actual flares having been fired in a fairly defined area at the 8,000 foot level, in an area that was still a very hot lava flow.

No physical evidence of the Golden Eagle was ever found, but then again, a wooden airplane landing in that volcanic hell would have likely been quickly obliterated. Two years later, search efforts were still being undertaken, the final one including a large flight of Army mapping planes which photographed a 10-square mile area of the mountain with large-format cameras. Detailed scrutiny of the photos failed to provide even a single clue.

The Aloha was subsequently converted to a passenger plane and was used by the Hawaiian Air Tours company, before being returned to the US, where it served as an aerial photography platform for the New York Daily News. It was destroyed in a hangar fire in 1933.

Woolaroc is the only surviving plane of the race, and is on display at the Woolaroc Ranch Museum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Flight of the Pterodactyl

Photographs are fragile things, and some of the ones I come across have almost succumbed to age and elements. It's always a joy to find a unique one and digitize before it completely crumbles to dust, and such is the case with this photo, of the very unique 1932 Westland-Hill Pterodactyl Mark V.

A lot of people died in stall-spin-crash accidents in the early decades of aviation, making the idea of a safe, stall-proof airplane something many inventors strove for. (It still is a goal today - for instance, that's the primary reason Burt Rutan pursued his early canard designs). British inventor Captain Geoffery T. R. Hill believed that the answer lay in the concept of a flying wing, as opposed to the more traditional aircraft configuration. Hill was, no doubt, influenced by the earlier development of the Dunne flying wings, which sought the same safety goals, and which ultimately led to a Curtiss attempt at developing a safe "everyman's" airplane in 1930 (See our April blog post The Birth of the American Flying Wing).

Hill began small, and called his series of aircraft the Pterodactyl. The first one was initially tested as a glider in 1926, and then modified to incorporate a 30 hp engine. The British Air Ministry was suitably impressed, and offered to fund the development, as long as Hill worked through Westland Aircraft, where he then hired on. Subsequent versions, beginning with the Westland-Hill Pterodactyl Mark I, refined the concept through the beginning of the 1930s, but all were relatively small, low-powered aircraft. 

This all changed with the Mark V. The Air Ministry specified a fighter plane based on the concept, to be powered by a huge (given the size and weight of the plane) 600 hp Rolls Royce V-12 Goshawk engine. The tailless design allowed for a defensive machine gun turret to be mounted behind the pilot (missing from this photo), and there were plans to build a complementary version with a pusher prop and a turret in the nose.

Unlike the previous models in the Pterodactyl series, the Mark V included a stubby, straight sesquiplane lower wing. Roll and pitch control was through elevons and yaw control was through wingtip fins, each of which could only move outward. Initially, the fins were almost all rudder, but this design evolved to include a lower fixed fin.

The contract was awarded by the Air Ministry in 1931 with serial number K2770 being assigned to the project, and work started in 1932. By fall of that year, the plane was put through its paces in taxi tests and during one of these, the Pterodactyl hit a bump in the turf which caused the left wing to crumple due to a miscalculation in the structural stress analysis. By the time the wing structure was redesigned, another sixteen months had gone by, and the plane finally took its maiden flight in May, 1934.

The Mark V failed to impress the Air Ministry, however. It suffered from excessive pitch sensitivity inherent in flying wing designs, and was not nearly as fast as had been expected, turning in a top speed of only 165 mph. The RAF's Hawker Hart light bomber was a good 20 mph faster than this supposed fighter. The nose and engine were then extended forward in order to try to solve the pitching issues, and additional vertical fences were added to the bottom of the wings. The problems continued, however, and work on the Mark V was finally cancelled, after which plans for larger versions, including a twin-engine sea plane and a four-engined airliner capable of transatlantic flights, were abandoned.

YouTube has some footage of the earlier Mark 1A, which is the only plane of the Pterodactyl to survive, now preserved in London's Science Museum.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Remembering the Marshall Mars

I have to confess, I’m a sucker for flying boats, and especially really big ones. So when my brother showed up with these three original US Navy 8x10 prints of the Marshall Mars from 1948, I was ecstatic. As the Navy’s largest flying boats, with two that have survived into the 21st Century, the Mars story is one that’s been well-told, but even so, I figured these three photos were worthy of a post, especially since none of them show up in a Google image search.

This official US Navy photo is dated May 26, 1948 and per the handwritten notation on the back, shows "Refloating the Mars after engine change".

At the time they were built, the Martin Mars were the world’s largest production aircraft, and they continued to hold that title until the first flight of the Boeing 747. The Navy had originally ordered the type as an armed patrol bomber three years before America was drawn into WWII, but when war materialized, the Admirals realized that their needs in the Pacific were different - there just wasn’t the demand for a big, slow bomber, but there was a lot of logistics supplies to move over a lot of wide ocean. In addition, with the constant threat of U-Boats in the Atlantic, planners were intrigued by the idea of a large cargo plane that would be immune to German torpedoes.

Another US Navy photo, with the same date and caption as the one above.

The prototype XPB2Y-1R Mars, dubbed The Old Lady, had been delivered about a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but little was done quickly for the follow-on production order. When it finally came, it was for twenty aircraft configured to haul large amounts of cargo and troops across the Pacific, and the first production JRM-1 Mars wasn’t delivered until July 27, 1945, a month and a half before VJ Day (this was the first Hawaii Mars; she sank in the Chesapeake Bay during a landing accident only two weeks after delivery).

This official US Navy photo is dated May 25, 1948 and depicts "Beaching the Marshall Mars".

The Archive also has a couple small snapshots showing a Mars
at Pearl Harbor, but unfortunately these small prints are not
clear enough to tell which Mars is seen.

With the war over, the Navy cancelled most of the order. Six planes had been built, with several more in various stages of production. Unlike other Navy aircraft, the Mars were treated more like ships, and were given individual names, after various Pacific islands. The Marshall Mars (BuNo 76822) was the fourth production bird by serial number, but the second one delivered when it arrived in early February 1946, but would only serve for just over four years. Assigned to squadron VR-2 and based at Naval Air Station Alameda in California, the Marshall Mars set a new world record for payload lifted on her second flight, carrying 27,427 pounds from California to Hawaii (the previous record was held by the prototype, The Old Lady; it would later be broken by the last aircraft delivered, the Caroline Mars).

Another snapshot from Pearl Harbor, again not clear enough
to tell which Mars is shown.
While building the JRM Mars, Martin also considered the idea of offering a derivative model as a civilian airliner, which would have been powered by the larger R-4360 Wasp Major engines, the most powerful production piston engines built. Martin went so far as to order the long-lead-time components for the first airliner, including the engines. But the demand for large airliners simply didn't materialize after the war, and when Martin delivered the Caroline in 1948, they used the R-4360s, and the plane was designated a JRM-2. The bigger engines allowed for heavier loads to be carried farther, which pleased the Navy, and so shortly thereafter, the other JRM-1s were upgraded with the Wasp Majors as JRM-3s. I have not found a specific date for when this was accomplished on the Marshall Mars, but since our three photos are dated May 25 and 26, 1948, and the occasion for the operation shown was an "engine change", it's entirely possible that this is when the more powerful engines were installed.

On April 5, 1950 the Marshall was flying near Oahu when a fire broke out in one of the engines. On-board fire suppression systems did little to stem it, and the crew set down in Ke’ehi Lagoon, just off of Oahu, and then abandoned ship. The fire continued to spread until it reached one of the fuel tanks, which then exploded in rather dramatic fashion, and the airframe broke apart and sank.

The nose of the Marshall Mars as it looked in December 2004.
Courtesy NOAA/HURL
The Marshall Mars was rediscovered in 2004 by a joint survey team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), University of Hawaii and the National Park Service who set out to document various ocean-floor wreck sites off of Oahu, near the final resting spot of a Japanese midget sub which had been rediscovered in 2002.

Pieces of the Marshall Mars were first spotted in August, 2004, and then early the following December, over a two-day period, archeologists from the joint team explored various wreck sites using two submersibles from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL; operated jointly by UofH and NOAA), the Pices IV and Pices V, documenting the sites’ location and condition and creating an inventory of surviving artifacts.

Courtesy NOAA/HURL
The Marshall Mars was found at a depth of about 1,400 feet, and although five and a half decades has led to a lot of marine creatures claiming the old plane as home, the name Marshall could still clearly be read on the nose section, which rests inverted on the ocean floor. The site, along with other similar flying boat wreck sites, are considered protected cultural resources under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

No post about the Mars would be complete, of course, without at least mentioning the current state of affairs with the two surviving Mars airframes, Hawaii Mars II and Philippine Mars, and a couple of fabulous photos of the former.

While not vintage photos, these two images, courtesy of my friend and fellow Antelope Valley aviation photographer Jim Mumaw, are destined to become classics. Jim traveled to Southern California’s Lake Elsinore in 2007 where the Hawaii was being used to fight a series of severe wildfires burning in the San Diego area, and he found that the Coulson crew had to use just about every foot of the lake for their operations, necessitating this rather dramatic approach over a hill to the edge of the water.

Copyright 2007 by Jim Mumaw, used with kind permission

Now, after a career as firefighting air tankers in Canada, a career which lasted much longer than their original one, time and technology have caught up with the two boats, and owner The Coulson Group has retired them from active service. One, the Philippine Mars, was destined for the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola and has been beautifully repainted in her original US Navy blue livery.

Copyright 2007 by Jim Mumaw, used with kind permission
The fate of the other, the Hawaii was a bit more uncertain (at the time of this writing, a spate of wildfires has made it possible to bring the Hawaii out of retirement, and Coulson has secured a contract for its operation from the Provincial government), but since their contribution to Canada has been so long and so significant, there is a lot of interest in making sure she ends up in a Canadian museum. This past May, politics reared its ugly head when Canadian Heritage Minister Shelley Glover put the brakes on the transfer of the Philippine to the Florida museum, in order to ensure that the Hawaii would be staying in Canada. As of this writing, it doesn’t appear that the impasse has been stay tuned.

More information and resources

  • A well-filmed recent documentary:
  • A Coulson-produced promo video:
  • A video of a water-drop demo and flyby:

Friday, June 19, 2015

From Air to Wax: Remembering Logan Fleming

Ed Note: Readers of Vintage Air may have, from time to time, noted that the Archive enlists the assistance of my brother and fellow historian Eric Radecki to dig up and procure aviation related antiques and photographs – it helps that he and his wife own the Vonrad Trading Post, an antiques and collectables business, with locations both online and traditional a “brick and mortar” affair at the Hanford Antique Emporium located in Hanford California. Today's story is not only resourced by Eric, but for the first time written by him as well.

Every collector, dealer, historian, or archivist’s dream is to stumble across a treasure trove or horde of items belonging to one single person, and even better when that person can be identified or recognized by the public. While obscure stories and people are always interesting to dig up and research, it is truly fascinating to find something previously unknown which belonged to a public or notable figure. Such is the case with today’s post.

Fleming's original “Stateside” dog tags, private purchase 
sterling silver ID bracelet, and ID fob from Long Beach AAF.  
This trove was found in a typical Army-issue WWII footlocker purchased at the Long Beach antiques show, in the shadow of the old McDonnell Douglas hangar, which is rather ironic, as you'll see in a minute. Contained inside was the discarded bits and pieces of a US Army Air Force Sergeant who served in WWII. At first, the name Logan Mills Fleming didn't mean anything to me, and was merely another long forgotten name from a different time. Many pieces of uniforms, insignia and paperwork were stuffed into the footlocker, and of course, photographs. While not all too interesting or historic in nature, these were filed away as the rest of the contents were inventoried.

What really caught my attention and triggered this story, however, were a few rather high-quality hand drawn cartoons, the kind that you don't see anymore, the kind that graced the wartime pages of such magazines as Yank, Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as many other publications of the time. These cartoons were pen and ink on paper and looked to be mostly unfinished. There was even a rejection letter from Yank Magazine for what I can only assume to be a cartoon submitted to the editors for consideration. The quality of the cartoons in the trove and the rejection letter led to a cursory internet search of Logan Fleming, to see if his cartoons had ever actually been published.
An original, unpublished Fleming cartoon
Short and sweet rejection letter!
As it turned out, Fleming was not to be a cartoonist, and that part of his brilliant artistic career may have faded, but following the war years with (presumably) the use of the GI Bill, Logan attended the short lived Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles, which was open from 1945 to 1953. A commercial artist's living was made by Logan as he found employment with Pacific Outdoor Advertising, one of the Los Angeles area's largest billboard advertising firms at the time. In 1962 Fleming sought out a new career as art director and sculptor/designer for the now-defunct (but nevertheless famous) Movieland Wax Museum, located just north of Knotts Berry Farm on Beach Avenue in Buena Park California. The Wax museum closed on October 31, 2005 after 43 years and over 10 million visitors. Logan had worked the wax for over twenty years sculpting countless celebrity likenesses, and many of his works live on today at other Wax museums and private collections, since most of the inventory was sold at auction in 2006.

Members of the 556th AAF Base Unit, 6th Ferrying Group Air Transport Command pose for a group photo with C-47B 43-16371 (c/n 20837), presumably at Long Beach AAF. Logan standing to the right of the propeller blade wearing an A-2 flight jacket and brimmed visor cap. Of interest is the woman, presumably a squadron civilian secretary as she is not wearing a Woman's Service Corps uniform.

US Army Air Force C-47 B s/n 43-16371, presumably taken at 
Long Beach Army Air Field circa 1945. This aircraft shows the 
Military Air Transport insignia on its nose and an unknown 
crewman posing for a “Kilroy” impersonation.  The C-47 was 
involved in a couple of postwar indications of incidents, one on 
October 18, 1952 and another on Jun 22, 1953 at White River 
Junction , VT flown by Nathaniel H. Lebish, while based at 
Mitchell AFB, NY   
Logan was born at Seaside Hospital in Long Beach, CA on September 25 1923 to Albert and Ethel Fleming, and on January 18, 1943 he joined the US Army Air Force and served until February, 8 1946, when he was separated at Camp Beale, CA. Fleming served as a Flight Traffic Clerk with the Military Air Transport Command. He was assigned to the 556th AAF Base Unit, 6th Ferrying Group Air Transport Command, Long Beach Army Air Field.

According to his Army separation Qualification Record, his duty description was: “Made up manifests for passengers, worked stop stick to arrive at proper weight and balance of plane, filled out weight and balance form, kept track of priority of cargo, acted as steward to passengers in flight, also acted as alert crew to airplane at times, filled out log of airplane, and ties down cargo." In addition, he also spent time working at Douglas Aircraft's Long Beach plant where he produced blue prints, and as well worked on the B-17 final assembly line, installing oxygen equipment. It seems that while Fleming was destined to never leave the US during the war, his service, along with many other veterans who never deployed to foreign shores, was vital to the war effort.

Flemming passed away in December, 2011 in Long Beach at the well-lived age of 88. He was survived by his wife, three children and two grandchildren. If any family members happen upon this blog post, drop us a line via the comments below...we'd love to hear more about the life of Logan. It seems quite fitting that this man was born and died in Long Beach, served at Long Beach AAF and worked in the Douglas Factory. And his trunk full of memories was rescued in Long Beach as well. It certainly is a small world, sometimes!

More info and reading about Logan Fleming:

  • A biography written by Suzan Sumner Ferry entitled The Day the Stars Stood Still on Logan Flemings life and accomplishments as a wax artist is available on Amazon.
  • A good video outlining Logan's work at the Museum can be found here on YouTube.
  • A general documentary on the Museum is here.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Teenie Weenies and their Silver Trimotor Adventure

It's not everyday that the world of vintage children's books, Sunday comics and aviation history collide, but today, the 101st anniversary of the debut of the Teenie Weenies, is one such day.

The Teenie Weenies are all-but-forgotten in busy 21st century America, where Facebook memes have replaced Sunday morning newspaper comics as childhood entertainment fare. But 75 years ago, they were household names, everyone knew the characters, and children all over America looked forward to the next Sunday morning comic adventure of these miniature people who lived in a town built out of old food containers safely hidden under a rose bush in the garden.

Created in 1914 (they made their publishing debut on June 14th of that year in the Chicago Tribune) by children's writer and illustrator William Donahey, the adventures of the Teenie Weenies populated kids' books, school readers and of course the Sunday comics until Donahey's passing in 1970. In 1924, though, the Tribune discontinued the comic series for a time, and with Donahey still needing to make a living, and with their popularity and the nature of their architecture, it was a natural progression for him to license the characters for commercial promotions and advertising.
One of the companies to quickly take advantage of the opportunity was Reid, Murdoch and Company, owners of the Monarch Foods brand. Many of the "buildings" in the Teenie Weenies' town were recycled food containers, so it was a perfect branding opportunity for Monarch Foods - if a bunch of delightful, family-friendly miniature people are going to make a soup can their new home, why shouldn't it be a Monarch soup can?

Meanwhile, Monarch's ad men, ever in the quest of building brand recognition and popularity, realized that the best way to build brand recognition was to find a way to bring the people to you, and in the process expose them to the wonders of your product line. The trick, then, was to attract the people in droves. And what better way than with an airplane? A year earlier, Lindbergh had electrified America with his trans-Atlantic flight, and his subsequent national tour had drawn throngs of people out to the local airfield (or merely farmer's field) to see his plane. Likewise, shows like the Inman Brothers' Flying Circus attracted huge crowds of people. The airplane was the perfect magnet to draw the people in to hear how wonderful Monarch's food line was.

So Reid, Murdoch & Co. picked up the 48th Ford 4-AT Tri-Motor (NC-7863) off of the assembly line, and named it the Independence, in a nod to all the independent grocery stores in the midwest that Monarch distributed to. Instead of the normal plush passenger interior, they built a custom "showroom" where their canned and packaged foods were neatly lined up for display (presumably they were secured in place for flight ops!). When the plane would arrive in a town, a wooden platform would be set up next to the fuselage so that the curious could peer in through the cabin windows at the food.

With the popularity of the comic and the success of Monarch's magazine advertisement campaign, it was a natural extension to make sure that a couple of live Teenie Weenie characters went along on some of the flights as ambassadors. Two characters, the General (who was the leader of the tiny village, and thus the natural spokesman to sell the public on the wonders of Monarch's foods) and the Police Officer (the symbol of trust and protection), were played by two children in costume, and were also featured in a number of Monarch publicity photos with the Ford, including our old 8x10 press print. The children sometimes actually traveled with the Ford as it visited towns large and small. Given the dates when this took place, it's possible that these two little boys are still around, although they'd likely be in their 80s. If anyone knows anything about who they were and their story, please share via the comments section below!

The advertising gimmick didn't survive the Great Depression, though, and in 1931 Reid, Murdoch & Co. sold the Ford to a gentleman named Vernon Jones, who based it in San Diego. On April 28, 1935, the plane was wrecked in Gadsden, Alabama, and parts were salvaged and used on other Tri-motors.