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.