Saturday, December 31, 2011

Closing out the First Hundred Years

1911: A Triad on the beach, probably in Portland Or. Note the lack of the fuel
tank suspended from the upper wing, as seen on the replica, below.
This past year, with the nationwide Centennial of Naval Aviation (CoNA) celebration, and the first flights of the Navy's newest aircraft, the X-47B, has been remarkable. So, on this last day of 2011, let's take a look back, one last time, 100 years, to the birth of Naval Aviation, as embodied in one aircraft, the Curtiss Model "E" Triad.

Originally designated by Curtiss as the Model E, and more commonly known as the Triad, the first aircraft flew on February 25, 1911. The U.S. Navy took keen interest, and received their first order in June.  The first four aircraft to be delivered to the Navy were designated A-1 through A-4, but as the service took delivery of more, the designation was changed to AH-1 through AH-18. Theodore Ellyson became this country's first Naval Aviator when he took off in A-1 from New York's Keuka Lake on June 30, 1911. The U.S. Signal Corps also bought three aircraft (one of which was built from spare parts).

It's impossible to tell which of the aircraft is shown in our image, but this is the only image that I can find anywhere that shows a Triad beached on a track. It is likely that this photo was taken in Portland, Oregon. On the docks in the R/H background, the billboard proclaims "Eat Violet Oats", a cereal that was produced by the Albers Brothers Milling Company, which owned Albers Docks 1, 2 and 3 in Portland (an ad for the oats can be seen here).

2011: San Diego Air & Space Museum's Triad replica over San Diego Harbor
on February 12, during the NAS North Island CoNA celebration.
The San Diego Air & Space Museum built a replica Model E and flew it originally in 1984, before putting it on static display. For the CoNA kick-off festivities at NAS North Island, the Museum pulled their Triad out to take to the air one more time. The FAA declined to approve a flight for the replica, so (in the terms of one of the folks from the museum), they "did a Spruce Goose" in San Diego Harbor. I had the privilege of shooting the "alighting" for both Aviation Week & Space Technology as well as AirshowStuff Magazine. So there are  a hundred years between our two photos today...and what a hundred years it has been!

(Big thanks to Tony Oliveira of the First and Main Museum in Upper Lake, CA, for his efforts in helping the MW Archive acquire today's featured image, as well as Family VonRad for their patience while I secured it!)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Alaska wrecks, Part 5: Muddy Ventura

This Lockheed PV-1 Ventura certainly has seen better days, and is shown here being salvaged by an Army team, probably on one of the Aleutian islands. While I have no information on which PV-1 this is or where the incident took place, one thing to note is that when the plane was bellied in, both engines were shut down, both props were feathered and the flaps were down...indicating that the pilot put it down intentionally, and seems to have done a fairly decent job of it.

Built originally as the Lockheed Model 37 for the RAF, the Navy's version was built by Lockheed's Vega division (hence its designation under the Navy system as a PV-1 rather than PO-1, if it had been Lockheed-built). The presence of the nose windows, a left-over from the bombardier's station in the Army's B-34 version, indicates that this was a fairly early production model. Navy squadron VP-135 was the first of several squadrons in the Aleutians to get the PV-1, starting in April 1943  (VP-131, -136, and -139 also were stationed in Alaska with PV-1s; in addition, the training squadron VPB-199, based on Whitby Island also sometimes deployed to Alaska with their aircraft). As a patrol bomber, they aircraft were operated against enemy forces on several of the Kurile islands, and were sometimes used to lead sorties of B-24s, since the PV-1s were equipped with the ASD-1 search radar.

(A detailed history of the Lockheed Ventura can be read here.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lexington on Fire

During and after WWII, it was not unusual for many surplus, obsolete aircraft to find themselves useful only as training aids for air base firefighters. After all, if you're going to train to fight aircraft fires, what better way than with a real aircraft?

Our two photos, taken on January 26, 1945, show the sad end of a Lockheed B-34 Lexington. They are Army Air Corps images which are back-stamped "OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPH, Base Photography Section, Geiger Field, Wash."

Geiger Field, which has become the present-day Spokane International Airport, was a training base used by the Second Air Force, and many new B-17s were delivered there from the nearby Boeing plants, so it is reasonable to presume that the barrels mounted on the B-34's wing represented the four engines of the bigger bombers.

The B-34 Lexington was originally designed by Lockheed as their Model 37 for the RAF, which dubbed them the Ventura (a name which was carried over to the Navy's PV-1 version, which we will see in this coming Friday's post). Unfortunately, most of the tail number of this old Lexington, except for the last "58" or "88", is obscured.

One final note: if you know what the acronym "S.A.S.C" in the photo caption refers to, please comment below.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Alaska wrecks, Part 4: Wounded Banshee

Douglas A-24 Banshee 254293. The give-away distinguishing the A-24 from
the more famous SBD is the lack of a tail hook just forward of the tailwheel.
 Say "dive bomber" to many folks, and the first thought that pops into their head is "Dauntless". Say "A-24 Banshee", and you'll get a quizzical look (that name is more often associated with the McDonnell F2H jet fighter of the Korean era).

There were almost 6,000 aircraft built by Douglas in the SBD Dauntless family of aircraft, and almost a thousand of these weren't Navy dive bombers - they were delivered to the Army Air Corps as A-24 Banshees. Some A-24s remained in the inventory long enough to be redesignated after the U.S. Air Force was established, and became F-24s.

This was one of a group of A-24B-1DTs flown by the 635th BS in Alaska. The 635th was based at Amchitka Army Airfield, but it's unknown whether that is the location of our photo. Although it is difficult to be absolutely certain of the tail number in this photo, it appears to be the same aircraft as seen second from the camera in this 1943 photo on Wikimedia.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Celebrating Voyager's Voyage 25 Years Later

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Rutan Voyager's remarkable round-the-world flight piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager. This past Saturday, a big celebration of the event was held at the Mojave Air & Space Port as part of the Mojave Transportation Museum's series of open houses dubbed "Plane Crazy Saturday".

During the open house, Burt Rutan gave a 2-hour talk on the building of the Voyager, and that evening, Burt and Dick, together with Mike Melvill, talked for another 2 1/2 hours, telling stories of the remarkable flight. (The museum is hoping to eventually make available a DVD of the evening.) My favorite line, though, was Doug Shane's rendition of Dick's takeoff call: "Eddy Tower, Voyager 1 requests Edwards to Edwards the hard way."

To keep the celebration going, I went looking for a previously unpublished photo of Voyager, and MTM Director Cathy Hansen lent me this one that she took on December 23, 1986, as Voyager circled over Edwards with a photo chase Cessna just before landing. Cathy was one of 55,000 people on hand at Edwards for the historic landing.

It took five years to build the Voyager, since it was done mostly by volunteer labor. The non-stop, unrefueled flight took nine days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds, and covered a distance of 26,366 statute miles.

(Ok, technically this isn't a "vintage" photo, since purists define that as an image that's at least 30 years old, but it's my blog and I'm bending the rules...)

Friday, December 16, 2011

On the Wings of a Corsair: A CoNA Celebration

Proof strip from
a Corsair flight.
Our photographer's wingman waves in the one snapshot
view not included in  proofstrip on the right.
As 2011, and the Centennial of Naval Aviation (CoNA) both draw to a close, I've decided to honor the grand tradition of Naval Aviation with a look back at an almost forgotten Navy aircraft, and the Naval Aviators who flew them.

Mention the name "Vought Corsair", and the distinctive gull-wing design of the F4U comes to mind to almost anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Naval Aviation - it's an association that has become so iconic, that the original Vought Corsair, the O2U of the 1920s is all but forgotten. In fact, the F4U eclipsed the O2U so completely, that when the name "Corsair" was resurrected for the Vought A-7 in the 1960s, that version was dubbed the "Corsair II", instead of the "III" that it should have been.

Almost 600 of the original Corsairs were built, and they saw extensive service with the Navy as well as a number of friendly nations. Responding to specs issued by the Navy in 1925 (only 14 years after the birth of Naval Aviation!), Vought came up with the first aircraft to be specifically designed around the new Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine; the first aircraft was delivered in 1926. Though originally conceived of as an observation aircraft, the design quickly was recognized for its versatility, and the Corsair could be deployed as a land plane or fitted with amphibious floats. In short order, the Vought Corsair owned several world speed and altitude records, which helped bring public notice - and that of the military forces of a number of other countries, who lined up to buy the planes. For their age, the Corsairs saw a long service life, with one Coast Guard aircraft remaining in service until January 1940.

In real life, the proof strip pictured at the top is a mere
inch wide.
Given the small size of the proof print, the resulting image
would naturally be expected to lack a lot of detail.

Today's set of photos (a proof-strip and a one separate snapshot) give us a remarkably personal look, through the lens of one of the crewmen, at one particular multi-ship flight of Corsairs. Both wingmen and themselves are the subjects of interest in these photos.

The memories of this flight, preserved almost by chance for posterity, ended up in a dusty album for decades, forgotten like the Corsairs themselves. But history, in this case a century's worth of Naval Aviation history, is made of nothing more that countless small moments like this, all strung together, so it seems most fitting to honor the past 100 years, and the men and women who lived it, in this way. To those who served, I am deeply grateful. To those who will write the next 100 years of Navy history, my son included, I salute you, and wish you blue skies and blue seas. AR.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The First Liberator

Today's photo starts a new series of press-release wirephotos which originally came from the St. Petersburg Times and which were recently acquired by MojaveWest. For those unfamiliar with wirephotos, they were essentially faxes, with the technology having been developed in the 1920s and 1930s (a fascinating article from Popular Science in 1935 about the technology can be found here). The amazing thing about wirephotos is that they were able to produce high-quality photo prints transmitted across old-fashioned telephone lines, decades before fax machines became popular - and the typical fax quality doesn't even come close to the image clarity that wirephotos have, as you can see here.

This is a tale about what happens when someone has a better idea than what was proposed, and doesn’t give up when that idea fails to meet expectations the first time around; it’s a story which demonstrates that a superior idea will win out in the end, and really can exceed the original expectations. It's also a demonstration that you can't always trust media releases to be accurate. But, since we're telling the stories behind the photos, let's at least look at the photo first:

The official caption accompanying this wonderful old image reads, "ARMY'S NEW SUPER BOMBER TESTED
SAN DIEGO, CAL. - The Army Air Corps' new bombardment plane, technically known as the XB-24, pictured after completing initial test flights at Lindbergh Field, San Diego. The four-motored plane, of all-metal construction, is capable of a speed of 300 miles an hour and a range of approximately 3,000 miles and a bomb carrying capacity of approximately 4 tons. It has high wings with a span of 110 feet. The motors are 18 cylinder, twin row radials, air-cooled. The propellers are three-bladed and 12 feet in diameter. A crew of six to nine men will fly the ship, which was built by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. Credit line (ACME) 2/12/40."

Dittoed caption pasted to the back
Not so fast! The numbers touted to the public weren't even close. That's where the "fails the first time" aspect of our moral comes in, and to understand that, we need to look at the "better idea" part. In 1938, the Army Air Corps needed more B-17 Flying Fortresses, and they needed them faster, so they approached company officials at Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego, to inquire about the ability of that company to crank out B-17s under license. But the Consolidated folks decided that they could do the Army one better, and offer a bigger, faster and longer reach bomber for the same effort - a belief which resulted in the Model 32, designed around twin bomb bays, each one having the capacity of a B-17. Intrigued, the Air Corps issued a set of specifications in January 1939, designed so that the Model 32 - redesignated the XB-24 - would be an automatic winner, and then invited Consolidated to submit a design. It was from this specification that the numbers in the press release text quoted above were derived.

After its first flight on December 29, 1939, it became apparent that the XB-24 fell quite short of the goals. Rather than the specified 311mph, the plane could, full bore, eek out a mere 273mph top speed. There were other issues, as well. The aircraft was redesigned with different engines and a slightly changed tail, and re-christened the XB-24B, with a bit more success. Even so, the top speed never met the specs...being listed for production aircraft at 290mph. Instead of a 3,000 mile range, it could only go 2,100 miles, and that only when empty. When loaded with the four tons of bombs that the press release touted, its range was a measly 400 miles!

Even so, it was considered one of the most successful aircraft designs of the war, and 18,482 aircraft were produced (compared to only 12,731 B-17s). At peak production, B-24s were pumped out at a rate of one aircraft per hour!

In 1944, the now-XB-24B was modified to be used by Consolidated as a VIP transport, an assignment which didn't last long. On June 20, 1946, this historic aircraft was unceremoniously scrapped at Brookley Field, in Mobile, Alabama.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Alaska wrecks, Part 3: Liberator Down

For Part 3 of the Alaska series, we have this sad, tailless B-24 to consider. Other than the obvious "20" on the nose, I can detect no other markings, and so this plane's identity and location - other than it being in Alaska - is a mystery.

The salvage crew that the photographer was a member of has clearly been hard at work, note the chains laid out on the ground in front of the aircraft, and scaffolding of sorts has been erected alongside the aft fuselage. The #3 engine in missing completely, and the #4 appears to have sheared off the prop shaft.

As always, if you have information on the story behind this bird and its ignominious fate, please comment below!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Valkyrie Coming

After the last few posts on North American Aviation's B-25 Mitchells, it seemed appropriate to jump to this press release wirephoto of what was arguably North American's technological apex: the XB-70 Valkyrie. It was a mere 25 years from the inception of the B-25 program to the first flight of the XB-70, but the two aircraft represent an almost unfathomable leap in technology (for comparison, it's been 15 years from the inception of the JSF program to where we are in just flight test for the F-35 family).

For those who think that the political controversies over the F-22 and F-35 programs are something new, the XB-70 program is testament that they aren't. The Valkyrie efforts were an on-again-off-again see-saw. NAA got the go-ahead to build the plane in 1959, then it was scaled back, accelerated, and then cancelled, with the prototypes redesignated as research aircraft. Two XB-70s were completed and flown, with a third (a YB-70, actually) cancelled while under construction.

The caption for today's 1964 image reads: "PALMDALE, CALIF., May 10 -- CONTROVERSIAL BOMBER TO MAKE BOW -- The XB70A bomber, subject of many controversies during the past several years, is pictured in its hangar at Palmdale, Calif., where it will be rolled out into the open for the first time Monday. Only two or three of the 2000-mile-an-hour planes will be built as a result of a cutdown on the program ordered by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara."

The St. Petersburg Times, when they used an image, would typically glue a copy of the actual newspaper edition to the back of the file copy, to show that it ran. This photo has none, so presumably it wasn't published, at least by that paper.

Incidently, if you look closely at the roof structure in this recent Global Hawk rollout photo, you'll recognize that the hangar which saw the birth of the XB-70 continues to see new planes develop!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Vanishing Rainbow

For the September issue of AirshowStuff Magazine, I wrote a piece on Mike Machat's new book profiling the remarkable Republic XR-12 Rainbow (you can read it here, it's on page 14), an experimental reconnaissance aircraft from the mid-1940s, a design that was far ahead of its time; only two prototypes were built, and the program was cancelled before it could go into production. Mike, who is a well-known aviation painter, writer and speaker, was wonderfully generous with his time, allowing me a long and detailed interview over drinks and appetizers before he was to make a book-signing appearance. His passion for the history of both the Republic Aircraft Corp and the Rainbow is remarkable and very personal, as his uncle was one of the engineers that helped design the plane.

And then I went home and actually read the book he wrote (World's Fastest Four-Engine Piston-Powered Aircraft: Story of the Republic XR-12 Rainbow, available at a nice discount here), and fell in love with the plane myself. I was also intrigued to find out that the Rainbow actually made at least one airshow appearance, which made it an ideal subject to be featured both in my "Vintage Wings" column in the magazine (it just ran in the November/December issue, on page 6), as well as on this blog. Mike had just the photo, one that hadn't run in the book. The image was taken in October, 1948, at the open house at Wright Field, and shows the second of the two XR-12s that were built. While the first ship was essentially a handling qualities flight test vehicle, the second one had a full interior, including all the reconnaissance cameras and even a darkroom.

This photo, and one from a different angle that was used in the book, are unique. As Mike tells it, "It is very possibly one of the last photos ever taken of the airplane, because one week later it left for operational testing at Eglin AFB, FL, and crashed on only its second test flight there on November 7th." Of the seven-man crew,  only five survived the watery crash.

Mike Machat also generously provided this Republic family
portrait of the first XR-12, shortly after it's rollout together with
a P-47N Thunderbolt and an RC-1 Thunderbolt amphibian, the
forerunner of the RC-3 Seabee, a family-friendly amphibian that
Republic had pinned its hopes on to make big with an
anticipated post-war customer base of ex-military pilots. The
economics just didn't pan out, though.
The aircraft was faster than anything in its class, and Republic had dreams of a variant also being produced as a 40-passenger airliner, the RC-2 Rainbow. Both Pan Am and American Airlines had placed orders, as it was about 100 knots faster than its Boeing and Douglas competition. Unfortunately, it was an expensive project that came about at just the wrong time. With the end of WWII, its mission evaporated, and the Pentagon decided to pass. Without the military version to fund development of the civilian airliner, the price that the airlines would have to pay soared, and both carriers cancelled their orders. It was the end of the Rainbow, and there simply was no gold there.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Mitchell's Sting

As production of the North American B-25 Mitchell progressed throughout the early years of WWII, the arrangement of its weaponry changed dramatically with ensuing models, and the aircraft were further modified out in the field by crews wanting yet more firepower. Quite often the plane was used as a ground attack weapon rather than a medium-altitude bomber, and this strongly motivated the addition of more and more machine guns, especially those which faced forward. The MojaveWest archive recently acquired three 8x10 images that originally were taken by official North American Aircraft photographers of various machine gun installations on B-25s.

The image of the left shows a standard B-25C/D installation of two .50 caliber machine guns, one movable that was fired by the bombardier, and one fixed which was fired by the pilot.

The image on the right is a bit more unusual, as it shows an installation of two guns in a configuration that appears to have been experimental at NAA, but which didn't make it to production. While later models, including the B-25H, included twin-.50 caliber guns, they were set much farther apart and were fixed in place. These appear to be movable, and designed to both be fired by the bombardier. I have yet to come across any other images showing this configuration, so if any of you has further information on this particular installation, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below.

The image of the left shows the two .50 caliber waist guns installed on a B-25J. While earlier models included waist guns, the -J model introduced a more functional installation, allowing a greater field of fire from the movable guns. Also note the N-8 gun sights which were also introduced with the -J model.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Alaska wrecks, Part 2: Mitchells

Today's post is the second from a collection shot by a WWII soldier who was stationed in Alaska, and who appears to have been part of a unit whose job it was (in part) to recover aircraft wrecks. The collection included two B-25 Mitchell bomber photographs, one of an in-service aircraft, and one a wreck.

Unfortunately, I don't have much information on either photo, so from a story-telling perspective, there's not a lot for this post. That will make this more of a geek's post, but sometimes history is in the details!

The photo above (and detail left) show a B-25C/D probably assigned to the 77th Bombardment Squadron, that has been equipped with an early form of radar, as evidenced by the antenna sticking forward from the bottom of the nose (an official photo from the 77th BS of a similarly radar-equipped B-25 can be seen here). Also note the additional nose guns installed - the C/D model only had 2 nose guns when it left the factory. And how about all those bombs casually stacked on the far side of the right main gear?

(Some really interesting color film footage of Alaska bomber activities can be seen here)

The second image shows a B-25 wreck laying on the tundra. It appears to have been there a while, as all the nose and cockpit glass and interior has been stripped out. The raised ground behind the wreck would indicate that this plane crashed just off of the airfield. Two PBY Catalina are parked nearby, and behind one of them, another B-25 taxis past. The forward-bent blades of the Mitchell's Number 2 engine shows that the crash occurred with the engine at power, likely on takeoff (note that the nose gear was still down at the time of the incident).
Do you have information on these specific planes, or B-25 operation in Alaska in general? I'd love to hear from you, please leave a comment below!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Bantam X-Plane

For the next few weeks, the Tuesday mid-week updates will feature old-style PR photos that were released to newspapers. In the years before the digital revolution, newspapers primarily received their black and white photos via wireservices. Wirephotos long pre-dated fax machines, but used the same concept, line-by-line scans transmitted over telephone lines (a fascinating 1937 article in Popular Mechanics on how wirephotos work can be found here). Newspapers typically then filed away 8x10 prints for possible future use. With the arrival of the digital age, some of these have been filtering out into the collector's world, and the MojaveWest archive has been able acquire some.

One of the "forgotten" X-planes from the late 1940s was the Northrop X-4 Bantam, of which two airframes were built. Our photo shows the second aircraft, 46-677, on its maiden flight at Edwards. The photo still has the "ditto" caption taped to the back (for the younger generations who read this, "dittos" were a pre-photo copy means of reproduction...and the smell of ditto fluid is one of those staples from when I attended elementary school). The caption read:

"First Flight of the Northrop X-4, star performer in one of the Air Force's secret projects at Edwards Air Force Base, shows the small Flying Wing-type research airplane streaking over the California desert on a test flight. Northrop pilot Charles Tucker has flown the X-4 repeatedly during the past several months in a test program intended to explore flight characteristics of the high sub-sonic zone. The fourth in a series of 'X' ships ordered by the Air Force, the X-4 will continue research pioneered by the Bell X-1, the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound. One of the smallest airplanes ever built for the Air Force, the X-4 measures approximately 25 feet from wing tip to wing tip. The X-4 is patterned after the big Northrop Flying Wing bombers. A single pod houses the pilot and elaborate instrumentation. The unusual tail consists only of a vertical stabilizer and rudder. There is no horizontal stabilizer or elevator assembly. 'Elevons', developed by Northrop for use on the Flying Wings, serve as both elevators and ailerons."

The first X-4, 46-676, took its maiden flight on December 15, 1948, but had a really troubled flight test program, being plagued by seemingly unending technical problems. The second aircraft, 46-677 took to the air in mid-1949 (the photo and caption are undated). When Northrop had completed the initial handling qualities testing and turned the aircraft over to the Air Force in February 1950, the first aircraft was permanently grounded, and was cannibalized for parts to support the second one.

The goal of the program was to evaluate the characteristics of a flying wing's reaction to transonic speeds, and above all else, the X-4 program proved that a flying wing with analog flight controls did not have ideal handling qualities. The Bantam experienced continual pitch oscillations (porpoising) as it approached the speed of sound, and there was nothing the pilot could do to dampen it. In fact, engineers would not be able to overcome these issues until the advent of digital fly-by-wire control, which would allow a computer to fly the plane, leading to the current rash of flying wing designs, including the B-2 Spirit and the X-47B N-UCAS.

Both X-4s survived their era, however. 677 resides at the Air Force museum in Dayton Ohio, and 676 is currently being restored at the Air Force Flight Test museum at Edwards AFB.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Alaska wrecks, Part 1: Lightning 88

Judging by the toolbox on the wing and the cables being rigged
to apparently hoist the aircraft and the work that's going on, it
appears that these two photos show a salvage/recovery
team stripping the wrecked Lightning.
Over the next month or two, we'll on-and-off be taking a look at a series of photos of WWII-era aircraft wrecks in Alaska. The photos in this series came from a larger collection taken by an Army soldier who served in Alaska. Although most of the photos that he left behind are of non-aviation subjects - he seems to have been in a unit that operated heavy equipment - one of his group's duties appears to have been wreck salvage.

First up in our series are these two photos of a P-38 crash scene. The only unit in the Aleutian Theater during WWII that flew the Lightning was the 54th Fighter Squadron. The unit has the distinction of being the first one to down an enemy aircraft with the P-38, the first kill going to a Lt. Stanley Long, against a Japanese four-engine flying boat. Flying in that part of the world had its challenges. The weather for most of the year was horrible, and far more aircraft were lost to accidents and weather than to combat.

Presumably this was one of those. I know nothing about the scene shown here, no idea of the location nor the date, so there's not much of a story to tell. The only discernible markings are the nose numbers, barely visible in the image on the left, which appears to be "88".
By enhancing the contrast and rotating
the photo 90deg to the left, it appears
that the nose number of this aircraft
is "88".

Of course, I'd love to know more. If anyone has any info as to the location, the identity of the pilot or the date when this happened, please let me know!

(The National Park Service has a nice tribute web page to the 54th here.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wood and Wires

Another image generously provided by Mojave Transportation Museum Director Cathy Hansen.


The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a was one of the most successful fighters of World War I, with over 5,200 built. It was considered an extremely stable aircraft, easily flown by novice pilots, and yet quite rugged and durable, able to withstand high dive speeds. While the Sopwith Camel was more agile and able to turn tighter in a dog fight, the S.E.5a was considered a safer airplane by its pilots.

When I first wrote this post, I said that there was no detailed information about this particular airframe (in fact, the back of the photo was even incorrectly labeled "S.E.5e", the American-built version). How wrong I was! Thanks to reader Bry, whose comments you can see below, the plane has been identified as one of the mounts of British multi-ace 2nd Lieutenant James "Mac" McCudden. McCudden's amazing skills as a fighter pilot led him to count 57 enemy kills, along with with three more unconfirmed. Seven of the kills, plus two of the unconfirmed, were achieved in this aircraft, B4863, between 19 September and 21 October 1917, during which time he served with 56 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. For his gallantry and success in battle, McCudden was awarded the Military Cross, the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. By the age of 22, McCudden was the most decorated pilot in the RFC. His career came to an abrupt end, however, in July, 1918, when his aircraft stalled and crashed during takeoff. The Washington Post's coverage of the incident read:

"The whole air service feels great grief over the loss of Maj. James McCudden. His death due to an inexplicable accident. He was on his way from Scotland to take a new command, flew over from England in his favorite single seater landed successfully at an aerodrome in northern France where he had business and after a short stay set off again to join his squadron.

"While he was still only a few hundred feet from the ground his machine sideslipped and crashed among trees in the neighborhood of the aerodrome and was killed instantly. The official record of his victories is 45 enemy planes brought down and 13 driven down. The quality of his flying was cool judgment. He would maneuver patiently for position and keep it with astonishing skill and pertinacity until the enemy was shot down. No man worked harder to make maintain the espirit de corps of his squadron. It was the squadron record, not his own that he chiefly cared for."

A detailed biography of McCudden and a listing of his achievements can be found on the website The Aerodrome.

Only five original S.E.5a's have survived, one of which is flyable. An American-assembled S.E.5e has been preserved, and there have been a number of reproduction aircraft built over the years. Additional info on the S.E.5a can also be found on this page at The Aerodrome.

Special shout-out to reader Bry for connecting the dots!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Flyboys (and Girls)

In honor of Veteran's Day 2011, we're taking a break from looking at airplanes, and featuring a few of the people who flew them. To all those who ever have flown an aircraft in the service of our great nation, along with those who have maintained the aircraft and supported the mission, Thank You!

J. N. Southard

Posing in the togs of the trade at some unknown desert base.

WASP Flora Belle Reece then and now, reliving memories in the front seat
of Dave Van Hoyt's AT-6 Texan (photo courtesy of Rebecca Amber/Aerotech
News, inset courtesy of Flora Belle Reece)

Three pilots pose in the desert (possibly Muroc Field) in the 1930s.

A 1930s-era family portrait. Note the lad in the leather jacket and pilot's helmet,
which illustrates the inspiration that pilots had then - and still have today - on
young people. Given that this was probably shot in the 1930s, it's entirely
possible, and even likely, that this young man went on to serve his Country
during WWII in the cockpit of an airplane.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Human Fly

The Human Fly riding on Clay Lacy's DC-8. Collection of
Cathy Hansen, Mojave Transportation Museum
When the barnstorming era started after World War I, one of the more popular acts was the "wing walker", a daredevil who'd climb out onto the wing of a rickety old biplane. As time went one, the stunts became more and more sophisticated, with wing walkers who would compete to out-perform each other, incorporating elements of trapeze artists and other tricks. Planes became faster, too, which made the acts more "daring". Wing walking still is a favorite act at air shows, but it can be argued that the art peaked in the early 1970s with the Human Fly.

The Human Fly was none other than daredevil performer Rick Rojatt who lived out the Marvel comic book character  also known as the Human Fly. While technically a "fuselage walker", Rojatt teamed with famed pilot Clay Lacy and stood on top of Lacy's Douglas DC-8 as he flew unbelievably low and at 250 knots, before stunned airshow crowds. The plane was an ex-Japan Air Lines DC-8-32 (there it was registered JA8002), and was that carrier's second jet when it was delivered in 1960.

Our photo today was shot during one of several appearances that the Human Fly made at the Mojave Air Races between 1970 and 1976, and was inscribed personally by Lacy to Mojave's General Manager, Dan Sabovich.

Rojatt reportedly "retired" from the DC-8 scene after an appearance in Dallas, TX, when he and Lacy flew through a rainstorm, which at the speeds that the -8 flies, left him badly bruised. He did go on, however, to break Evil Knevil's record of jumping over buses on a motorcycle (he cleared 26, but not without a landing injury; details of that stunt can be found here).

1/13/13 addendum: A 23-minute long video of the Human Fly at the '75 Mojave races can be found here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Wrigley, Boeing and Douglas' Dolphin

The first production Douglas Dolphin sits at Clover Field in Santa
Monica during its flight test tenure.
It must have been a couple of very good days for Donald Douglas, the days that William Wrigley Jr.'s son and Bill Boeing came to buy airplanes. The latter was something of a coup, I should expect. It helped, to be sure, that the plane had been a pet project of Douglas, who designed it personally. Having experienced a string of successes in building military observation aircraft - especially planes built for the Navy - Donald set about to design something decidedly different, a luxurious commercial flying yacht. He called it the "Sinbad". What resulted was a twin-engined, aluminum-hulled flying boat that seated six to eight passengers, and even had a lavatory in the back.

Problem was, it was a flying boat - stuck in the water. Douglas realized that the utility of the aircraft, and hopefully the sales, would be so much enhanced if it were an amphibian, with retractable land-lubber gear. So Douglas tweaked the design a bit, and the plane entered production as an amphibian called the Dolphin. If you look carefully under the wing of our image of the week above, you'll note the registration number: X-967Y, which indicates that this was the first production Dolphin (Douglas tended to use registration numbers that ended in "Y" for their developmental aircraft), while it was still considered an experimental aircraft.

The aircraft was amazingly quiet and a great performer, everything that Donald had dreamed of. (In 1931, Flight Magazine wrote a glowing pilot report about the Dolphin, which you can read here.) It's just that his timing was wrong. By the time that the Sinbad was under construction, the 1929 stock market crash bankrupted many of the members of the market that Douglas had hoped to sell the planes too. By the time that the first Dolphin flew in 1930, America was deep into the Great Depression.

This is a detail cropping of one of the
photos featured with the Douglas DC-1
article three weeks ago, and shows one of
the Army's Dolphins at Clover Field.
But although Douglas had designed the plane as a commercial venture, it was the military that bought the majority of the Dolphins produced. With the success of X-967Y, the Sinbad was retrofitted with retractable wheels, and was picked up, along with 13 Dolphins, by the U.S. Coast Guard, which designated them variously RD-1, RD-2 and RD-4, during 1931-1934. The U.S. Navy bought nine (three of which were later turned over to the USMC), three RD-2s and six RD-3s. One of the Navy Dolphins was converted into a Presidential aircraft for Franklin Roosevelt, although there is no record of him actually using it (in 1933, Popular Science raved about the new Presidential "Mayflower of the Air").

It was natural to think of these planes serving the in the Navy and Coast Guard, but what's surprising is that the Army Air Corps picked up 24 aircraft - that's one more than the USN and USCG combined! With the USAAC, the Dolphins were designated variously as C-21, C-26A, C-26B and C-29. The Argentinian Navy also bought one.

However, there were still a few civilian folks out there who could afford such a plane, and in the case of the Dolphin, it was chewing gum to the rescue. Or at least the money from chewing gum. William Wrigley Jr. had made millions selling chewing gum to America, sort of by accident. The company he founded actually started out selling things like soap and baking powder, and as a sales incentive, packaged chewing gum in each container. Thing is, the chewing gum turned out to be more popular than the soap and baking power, and a fortune was thus made. Wrigley tended to spend his fortune on things he loved, namely his Chicago Cubs baseball team and his favorite get-away-spot, Santa Catalina Island. In 1919 Wrigley bought the Santa Catalina Island Company, and got the actual island thrown in for free.

NC-967Y is a cover girl, gracing the front of
Arcadia Publishing's Catalina by Air, a
must-have book for anyone who loves flying
boats. Because of the narrowness of the cove
in which the first Catalina Airport was built,
the designers created a wooden turntable,
which our aircraft sits on in this view. The
ocean is just out of the scene to the right.
Wrigley Junior's only son, Philip K. Wrigley, was also heavily involved with is Dad in the development of the island, and he just so happened to have served in the Navy as the head of training for aviation mechanics. Now, Pacific Marine Airways and Western Air Express had already been serving Catalina, but in 1931 he decided he could do it better himself, terminated the contracts with the other carriers, and set up the Wilmington-Catalina Airlines, Ltd.

To serve the island Philip Wrigley selected Douglas' new Dolphin, buying the first two production aircraft, NC-967Y and NC-14204, making the Dolphin the very first Douglas airliner. The website Catalina Goose has a wonderful selection of images of the two Wilmington-Catalina Dolphins in service. With the Dolphin, the 27 mile channel was transited in only 15 minutes. The two aircraft faithfully served until September 1942, when the Coast Guard shut down all civilian transportation between the island and the mainland.

Pan Am was the only other airline to buy Dolphins, purchasing a pair for use by their China National Aviation Corp. subsidiary.

And then there was Bill Boeing. In 1934, while he was still at his namesake Boeing Company, he bought a Dolphin, which he named Rover, from his rival for his own personal use. Later, when he decided he needed something bigger, he traded up to a Douglas DC-5. Rover went through several other owners, including serving with Catalina Channel Air Service in the 1960s. It would become the only surviving Dolphin, now on display at the US National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Super Snoopy!

From the vaults of the Mojave Transportation Museum...

DC-7BF Super Snoopy on the ramp at the 1970 California 1000 race in Mojave.
Cathy Hansen photo via the Mojave Transportation Museum
"Curses, Red Baron," said Snoopy...

While it's unclear whether the famed Beagle's appearance at the 1970 California 1000 Unlimited Air Race at Mojave was officially sanctioned by Charles Schultz, it was one certainly worth Snoopy's reputation. Unlike the much shorter Unlimited-class races held at the Reno National Air Races, Mojave's California 1000 was just that: 1,000 miles of closed-course, low-altitude flying around a set of pylons in the Mojave desert, the longest such race ever held. It caused the teams to have to rethink their strategies, as the race length would far exceed the typical Unlimited's fuel range. Thus, pit stops would be part of the mix.

Famed pilot Clay Lacy was no stranger to Unlimited racing, his bright purple P-51 Mustang was a regular at Reno. But for the California 1000, held on November 15, 1970, he came up with a different strategy: find a plane with long legs. He came up with the idea of using an ex-American Airlines DC-7BF freighter, N759Z, which was owned by California Airmotive's Allen Paulson. In raw speed, it was no match for the highly-tuned Mustangs, Sea Furies and Bear Cats that normally raced, but what it lacked in flat-out, it made up for in stamina, able to fly the entire race non-stop, with no visits to the pits.

The plane wore Lacy's traditional race number 64, and was flown by him along with Paulson (they shared the title of "co-captain", along with Snoopy himself) and FE Joe Matos. The race was started differently than the ones at Reno, with all the aircraft lined up on the runway at the same time, with position based on qualifying times...except the DC-7, which had to start last because of its size. But Snoopy came through, and finished a respectable sixth out of twenty, in a race won by a Sea Fury that averaged 344 mph. Clay said at the time, "We used METO power (Maximum Except Take-Off) and flew at an indicated airspeed of 355 mph. Speed averaged about 325 mph because of time lost on the pylons. The G load was limited to 2.2 and we used an average 60-70 degree bank. The aircraft consumed 4,100 gallons of 145 octane fuel and 80 gallons of 70 SAE Pennzoil!"

The presence of Super Snoopy certainly got the racing community's attention, and when Paulson decided to race a Lockheed Super Constellation (named the Red Baron) against Snoopy in a 1000-mile Unlimited race in San Diego, the rest of the racing community cried foul and refused to participate. In the end, the two four-engine propliners sat out the event, never to race again. The DC-7 was eventually scrapped in Beruit, Lebanon, in 1985.

Want to see the Red Baron? Check out this web site, which tells much the same story.

A wonderful old film of the race can be seen here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Gull-Wing Douglas

Today's photo is another from a collection of vintage Douglas photos that we've been featuring for the last several weeks. Last week's photo showed a DC-2 being looked at by a couple of gentlemen...and if you look closely, you'll recognize the same two in today's photo, walking off into the background. These images were taken on the grounds of Santa Monica's Clover Field, probably sometime in early or mid July, 1934 (TWA took delivery of the DC-2 from last week on July 20, 1934, so these would likely have been taken just shortly before).

The Douglas O-2 biplane observation aircraft had been a relative success with the USAAC, and Douglas wanted to follow up with a more modern monoplane design, the O-31. The USAAC signed a contract with Douglas in January 1930 for two prototype aircraft, which were to be designated XO-31. Powered by a Curtiss V-1570 Conquerer V-12 water-cooled engine, the two-place design utilized a wire-reinforced, fabric-covered gull-wing with an all-aluminum fuselage, the aft portion of which was corrugated for strength.

After the first of the pair flew in December 1930, it was back to the drawing board, as the aircraft was found to have lateral stability issues. Several different vertical stabilizer designs were tried. Instead of delivering the second aircraft as an XO-31, it was redesignated the YO-31, and sported a larger tail and longer cowling. This second aircraft is the one seen in today's photo. Subsequently a number of additional YO-31A and O-31 aircraft were produced (13 in all), before Douglas switched to the O-43 design, which was ordered in 1934, the same year as this photo was taken. It uncertain how long the YO-31 survived, or what became of it, but it clearly was still at Clover field three years after being built.

(A special shout-out this week to Josh Nyhus of APSoCal for his invaluable help in identifying this plane...when I got the photo, I had a Dickens of a time figuring it out. Tip o' the hat to Ian Hall for trying to solve the mystery, as well. Thanks, guys!)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mojave Dakota

Yes, that really is snow in Mojave! This is probably the hangar now occupied
by XCOR Aerospace, one of the New Space rocket-development companies
that now call the Mojave Spaceport "home".
No, Mojave isn't in the Dakotas, the Dakota is in Mojave. Since we've featured posts about the DC-1 and a DC-2, it seemed natural for this mid-week update to feature the final version of the Gooney Bird, the "Super DC-3". Unfortunately for Douglas, this upgrade of the tried-and-true was not a good seller commercially, but the Navy did have 100 of its R4D Dakotas upgraded to the R4D-8, with the Super DC-3 tail.

This rare photo is from the Mojave Transportation Museum archives, and originally came from GySgt B.M. Rebenstorf via Cathy Hansen. Because MCAAS Mojave was a training base associated with MCAS El Toro, there was frequent need for shuttle flights between the two bases, and so Mojave had an R4D-8 permanently assigned to it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

From Santa Monica to South America

With the overwhelming success of the Douglas DC-1 (see last week's post), TWA immediately ordered 25 DC-2s. The subject of our post today is DC-2-112 NC13719 (c/n 1245), which was the nineth DC-2 built. Like the DC-1 photos featured last week, this image came in a stack of vintage Douglas photographs, presumably from the estate of a Douglas employee.

The DC-2 is seen here at Clover Field, in Santa Monica, the home of the Douglas Aircraft Corp. Because she was delivered to TWA on July 20, 1934, this photo of it at Santa Monica was probably taken sometime just before that.
TWA operated NC13719 for about three years, where it wore fin number 309, and then sold it along with several sister aircraft, to Braniff on July 29, 1937, where it was assigned fin number 409.

With WWII in full swing and the need for air transportation assets at an all-time high, NC13719 was one of 24 commercial DC-2s that were "drafted" by the Defense Supply Corp. in June 1942 and almost immediately transferred to the Army Air Corps; there it was designated a C-32A and assigned the serial number 42-61096. A year later, she was back at TWA, since the carrier had contracted with the Army Air Corps to provide pilot training using Army aircraft.

In September 1944, with newer aircraft now available, the DC-2 was considered surplus, and started hopping from one South American airline to another. First, it was sold to Transportes Aéreos Centroamericanos (TACA) in Mexico, and then in August 1945 to Aerovias Brasil S.A. Empresa de Transportes in Rio de Janeiro. In April, '46 it was transfered to its final owner, Aerovias S.A. Belo Horizonte. On February 5, 1947 the venerable DC-2 crashed at Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais, Brazil, although without any fatalities.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How to Wreck a Perfectly Good Boeing 720

Another 707 on short final at Mojave over-flies the sad
remains of a perfectly good American 720. This photo
was taken by Bill Deaver, via Mojave Transportation
For the next few weeks, the mid-week update will feature photos from the archives of the Mojave Transportation Museum.

During the mid-1960s, there was little going on at the Mojave Airport, a hot and dusty place in the middle of nowhere. When the U.S. Marines left MCAAS Mojave for warmer digs in El Centro in 1959, they left behind acres of ramp (which central valley farmers used for drying grapes into raisins) and a really long runway, ideal for airline pilot training. Thus, four-engined Boeings were about all the frequented the place. American was one of the carriers to make use of the facilities.

Mojave's use as a training flight destination led to one of the more odd airliner incidents to happen at the desert airport. On June 29, 1966 at 8:10 in the morning, a 1960-model American Airlines Boeing 720-023B, registration N7534A, crashed on landing, just short of the runway at Mojave. The NTSB report simply says that the "pilot simulated 4 eng. flameout [on] approach with 4 engines in idle thrust position." What the dry NTSB report leaves out, though, local accounts more than make up for.

Evidently, on this day, there were two line pilots and two check pilots onboard, as well as a pair of flight engineers. Supposedly, the B720 and crew were in the vicinity of Oceanside, California, at cruise altitude, when a bit of a wager was made on whether they could make MHV from there with all four engines back at idle (as Google Earth crow flies, this is 137 miles). Evidently, about this same time in history, the FAA and American Airlines had done some similar flight testing to determine the glide range of the B707/720, and the results had been incorporated in the operating manuals. Whether this had any bearing on the Mojave incident is unknown, but the swagger factor certainly is a possibility. Assuming a 37,000 foot cruise altitude over Oceanside, a glide ratio of 19.57:1 would be required to reach Mojave, and the 707 family of aircraft are reported to have a 19.5:1 glide ratio with engines at flight idle, 15:1 with no power, so this seems to be a plausible explanation.

They almost made it.

In trying to stretch out the last bit of glide on final approach to the runway, the pilot stalled the aircraft a half mile short of Runway 30, and hit the ground hard, driving the right main gear up through the wing and tearing the number 3 engine off. According to the following day's Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the only injury was to one of the flight engineers, who suffered a few cuts and bruises. The NTSB blamed the "dual student pilot", saying that he "misjudged distance, speed and altitude." The check pilot was blamed for "inadequate supervision of flight".

The American 720 sits outside the old Hangar 72.
Mojave Transportation Museum collection.
A professional house moving company from Santa Barbara was brought in, and the movers did additional structural damage in removing the plane from the field. The aircraft was taken to one of the old wooden hangars which was where Hangar 72, the National Test Pilot School now is, and rebuilding work commenced. Long-time Mojave resident, contractor and pilot Al Hansen loaned the AA crew some heavy equipment, and so got to know the project supervisor well. When asked why they would go to so much effort to rebuild the plane, the answer was that it would take $5 million and 6 months to rebuild it, versus $7 million and 18 months to get a replacement from Boeing, whose order books were backlogged. The right wing was replaced with a new unit from Boeing, and thus the bulk of the structural work was in the fuselage center section.

The aircraft reportedly left Mojave in December 1966 and re-entered service. But its troubles were not yet over. American retired N7534A in July of 1971, and the following March, it went to Middle East Airlines, of Beirut, Lebanon, who registered the aircraft as OD-AFT. On January 1, 1976 the aircraft as Flight 438 was in cruise flight at 37,000 feet and approximately 20nm northwest of Al Qaysumah, Saudi Arabia on a scheduled passenger flight from Beirut International to Dubai, when a terrorist’s bomb detonated in the forward cargo compartment. The aircraft crashed into the desert, killing all 66 passengers and 15 crewmembers on board. The terrorists were never identified.

(Special thanks to Bill Deaver and Al Hansen for research help. Today's piece is adapted from an article I co-wrote with Bill for the Mojave Desert News February 13, 2003 edition, and which also ran in 2008 in my old Mojave Skies blog.)