Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ready...Set...Go, Ladies, Go!

Ok, so I got carried away in writing this entry...it's the longest so far, but the story was so compelling!

The scene at Santa Monica's Clover Field for the start of the first Women's
National Air Derby on August 18, 1929. The aircraft in the center surrounded
by onlookers, with NC714N on its right wing, is Margaret Perry's Spartan C-3.
(Trivial sidenote...the truck at far right shows that the spelling "Naborhood"
was evidently acceptable in 1929.)
It all started with Lou Greve. This inventor, engineer and industrialist, who inherited the Cleveland Air Tool Company, was a major advocate of aviation. He invented the oleo-pneumatic landing gear shock absorber (under the name Aerol) that is used by virtually every aircraft flying today. To promote his company and his invention, Greve was a major sponsor of air racing in the late 1920s and 1930s, and was appointed as President of the company that organized the big races of that era, The National Air Races, Inc.

Greve was also a vocal advocate of allowing women (who at the time were largely viewed as inferior and even downright incompetent) to participate in air racing. For the 1929 National Air Races, to be held in Cleveland for the first time, Greve donated the trophy and purse for the first Cleveland Pneumatic Aerol Trophy Race, a two-class cross-country event to be held derby-style. It was to start in Santa Monica, California, at Clover Field, and end in Cleveland, Ohio. Over the years, the race has also become known as the 1929 Women’s Air Derby and the First Women’s National Air Derby.

With Phoebe Omlie's Monocoupe ready to go in the background, humorist 
and aviation promoter Will Rogers (third from right) talks things over with 
Ruth Elder. Could this have been that moment when he uttered his "powder-
puff" comment?
The Derby began on August 18, with a large crowd and a level of hoopla appropriate to such a major event. Our series of unique photos of the start of the race comes from the collection of Mojave Transportation Museum Board member and member of the Ninety-Nines, Cathy Hansen. The event would take place over eight days of stage racing, covering 2,200 miles, and include a lot of accidents and high drama, which was covered breathlessly by the contemporary media.

On the day of the race's start, many Southern California celebrities came out to see the competitors off, and one celebrity in particular was chosen to be the event's Grand Marshal, aviation promoter and nationally-known humorist Will Rogers. As the pilots made their final preparations to climb into their aircraft, he commented that their female “genes” compelled them to take one final look at the mirror in their compacts, and apply one final dab of powder to their noses (some of the racers later would comment that it was Ruth Elder who was especially prone to this habit). With reporters standing around, he quipped, “Looks like a powder puff derby, to me.” The phrase was grabbed and repeated across the continent by the media, to the point that after the Women’s National Air Derbies were resumed in 1947 (they ran through 1977), they were officially known as “The Powder Puff Derby”.

Close-up from the above image, showing Will Rogers
conversing with Ruth Elder.
The race was divided into two classes, based on engine size (women were being allowed to race airplanes with power “appropriate” to their gender, according to the male race organizers; as such, for instance, Opal Kunz was disallowed to fly her own 300hp Travel Air, because it was thought to be too much airplane for a woman, so she had to borrow one with less power) – Class C, which had six competitors, was for aircraft with engines between 275 and 509 cubic inches, and Class D, with 14 entrants, was for 510 to 800 cubic inches.

Twenty women in all started the race, 18 from the U.S. and one each from Australia (Jessie Keith-Miller) and Germany (Thea Rasche); to put it in contrast, there were only 100 women (some sources say 70) who held pilots licenses in America at that time, so nearly a fifth of them participated in this race (at that time, there was no FAA to issue licenses, instead they were issued by the French-based Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, or FAI, the organization that still to this day sactions and authenticates all world aviation records). Among the entrants was Amelia Earhart in her first competitive race, and the flamboyant Pancho Barnes. The rules stated that each entrant had to have at least 100 hours of flying time, including at least 25 hours of cross-country experience. The racers, and their aircraft, were:

Class C

Class D

Edith Foltz (#109)
Jessie Keith-Miller (#43)
Clair Fahey (#54)
Phoebe Omlie (#8)
Thea Rasche (#61)

Bobbi Trout (#100)

Alexander Eaglerock
Travel Air (OX-5)
deHavilland Gypsy Moth
Golden Eagle Chief

Pancho Barnes (#2)
Marvel Crosson (#1)
Amelia Earhart (#6)
Ruth Elder (#66)
Mary Haizlip (#76)
Ruth Nichols (#16)
Blanche Noyes (#3)
Gladys O'Donnell (#105)
Margaret Perry (#11)
Louise Thaden (#4)
Mary von Mach (#5)
Vera Dawn Walker (#113)
Neva Paris (#23)
Opal Kunz (#18)

Travel Air
Travel Air
Lockheed Vega
Laird Swallow
American Eagle
Rearwin Ken-Royce
Travel Air
Spartan C-3
Travel Air
Travel Air
Curtiss Robin C-1

Curtiss Robin
Travel Air

Vera Dawn Walker, a native of Los Angeles, named her Curtiss Robin C-1 Miss 
Los Angeles. Here she gets the start flag.
Of the twenty entrants, only 19 started together on August 18. Nineteen-year-old Mary Haizlip's plane had been damaged on the trip to Santa Monica, and so she had to quickly find a replacement, delaying her departure. And she wasn’t the only one that had trouble just getting to the starting line. Louise Thaden, flying a Wright-powered Travel Air, fought the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning from her engine's exhaust, leading Travel Air president Walter Beech, who was sponsoring her and following her out to California, to order some immediate modifications to her plane in order to provide fresh air in the cockpit.

On her way to Santa Monica, Phoebe Omlie had to make an off-airport landing, and was arrested and jailed by the local cops as a suspected dope smuggler. It was only when Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden and Marvel Crosson showed up at the sheriff's office to vouch for her that the law decided that they had the wrong person.

The race was started according to class, with the airplanes lined up abreast and individually flagged to take off when the timers were ready. The initial gun-shot starting the race was fired in Cleveland, and transmitted by radio to Santa Monica.

With a wave of the flag, Thea Rasche taxis her deHaviland Gypsy Moth
across the start line. She would finish fourth and last in the light division.
Day 1, August 18, Santa Monica to San Bernardino: A series of minor incidents gave a glimpse of what was to come. Before the start, mechanics had mistakenly filled Ruth Elder’s fuel tanks with oil, which then had to be drained and purged. Earhart had to return to Clover after takeoff for a stuck starter, and at San Bernardino, there was so much dust on the field from the aircraft before her that she landed long and almost ran into the large crowd of spectators. Opal Kunz, also with dust visibility problems, landed hard and damaged her plane’s landing gear. The flyers were treated to a lavish banquet and partied into the night, a habit that was continued throughout the race, leading to sleep deprivation problems.

Day 2, August 19, San Bernardino to Yuma to Phoenix: Claire Fahy, flying a Travel Air, had to make an emergency landing in Calexico because of broken flying wires, the bracings that held the bi-planes wings in shape. Rumors of sabotage had run rife before the race started (Edler’s fuel tank problems didn’t help this, either), and Fahy cried foul, alleging that her wires had been eaten away by acid in a deliberate attempt to cause her to crash. Thea Rasche had to make an off-airport landing when her engine quit, and found contamination throughout her fuel lines. Amelia’s Vega nosed over at Yuma, damaging the prop, and she was stuck there until a new one could be flown out later in the day. Mary Haizlip, Pancho Barnes and Bobbi Trout got lost and ended up in Mexico, but Trout’s problem was more serious than the others: she was out of gas and had landed in a soft dirt field, badly damaging her Golden Eagle. Some friendly locals helped her move the airplane across the border to Yuma’s airport, where it took three days to rebuild, putting her far behind. Sixteen aircraft arrived at Phoenix, and three of the other four were accounted for. Pancho was in first place in the heavy division, with Phoebe in first in the light.

Marvel Crosson, however, was missing. The next morning, her Travel Air was found destroyed in the rough territory of the Gila River Valley, four miles from Wellton, Az. She had crashed only twenty minutes from Yuma. Some of the media reports at the time claimed that she had bailed out and her chute failed to open, while others said that she was thrown from the plane on impact. Her body was found a couple hundred yards from the plane, with her partially deployed chute. There was evidence that she had vomited over the side of the cockpit, a typical symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning. For her to do that, she would have had to unbuckle and raise herself up off her seat in order to lean out over the cockpit rim. It would have been difficult for her to keep her hands on the controls at this point. Whether it was at this moment or whether she lost consciousness a short time later, she clearly lost control of the aircraft. Four witnesses (ranchers, who had no first-hand knowledge of piloting an aircraft) recounted that they had seen the plane spinning and diving at high speed. Virtually every bone in Marvel's body was broken, and she appeared to have died instantly. Her loss stunned the racers and the public who were following in the media. The media frenzy, of course, went into overdrive, with calls for the race to be cancelled, and allegations that this was “proof” that women had no business trying to fly. The racers, though, decided to carry on with the competition, knowing that Marvel would not have wanted her loss to result in the cancellation of the competition. Mary von Mach, in rallying her companions, declared, "Our pain shall become her tribute."

Day 3, August 20, Phoenix to Douglas: The women had to navigate the vast emptiness of the Arizona desert with nothing but a crude map and a bouncy, unreliable compass. Walker attempted to follow the railroad tracks out of Tucson, but picked the wrong set, and ended up far north of course, costing valuable time as she had to backtrack. In doing so, she also got caught up in a potentially fatal thunder storm. Her Monocoupe's enclosed cabin shielded her from the direct effects of the storm, and the altitude which she was at save her from hitting the ground when she became disoriented and lost control in the midst of the storm's violence. She landed in a cow pasture, only to meet up with some local men who were accompanying Jessie Keith-Miller, who had also made a forced landing. Others had to land as well: Opal Kunz ran out of gas, and Blanche Noyes landed near a farm house to try to find out where she was, only to discover that everyone there spoke only Spanish...because she was in Mexico. Pancho did the same thing.

By the time that the racers were in Douglas, Crosson's death was confirmed. Thaden strongly suspected the carbon monoxide poisoning that she herself had experienced in the Travel Air on the way to Santa Monica, and became concerned for the other racers flying that type.

Day 4, August 21, Douglas to El Paso to Midland: Pancho’s south-of-the-border detour the day before resulted in a big “MEXICO OR BUST” painted on the side of her Travel Air.  The racers ended up stopping for the day in El Paso, which had been intended as a fuel stop only, as a dust storm between there and Midland precluded any further flying. The high winds naturally were directly across the runway, exceeding the crosswind limits of some of the planes, and making for very challenging landings. Louise Thaden and Phoebe Omlie were in the lead of their respective divisions. Since this was an unplanned overnight stop, there were no banquets to consume precious sleep time.

Day 5, August 22, El Paso to Pecos, Midland, Abilene and finally to Fort Worth: Blanche Noyes’ troubles continued, with a fire in her small baggage hold. She landed in the desert, pulled the smoldering, wooden floor out and put the fire out with sand. In the process, her landing gear was damaged and she had to stop and have it temporarily welded. Airports weren’t the same back then, and there was so much publicity about the event, that in Pecos, like other places, the crowds just drove out onto the designated landing field to get a closer look. Pancho Barnes’ Travel Air, like most big-engined tail-draggers then and now, had just about zero forward visibility in the landing attitude. As such, she hit a car as she was touching down, destroying her plane. Although Pancho herself was not hurt, there would be no more racing this year for her. Margaret Perry, flying a Spartan C-3, landed at Abilene, unable to go on, and was taken to the hospital with Typhoid fever. Continuing fears of carbon monoxide poisoning plagued the Travel Air pilots, and Walter Beech instructed mechanics from Travel Air to hurry to Fort Worth and modify all the remaining Travel Airs to prevent any further problems. Thaden was in first place in the heavies (by 21 minutes), and Omlie in first in the light division. Though some of the racers were hopelessly behind, the pressed on, if only to prove that they could complete the race.

Claire Fahy in her Travel Air gets the start flag. Because her Travel Air was powered by
a 90-hp in-line OX-5 engine, rather than the larger Wright J-5 radial, she raced in the
light class. She would only make it as far as Calexico before failed flying wires caused
an emergency landing, putting her out of the running. Of note is the fourth airplane in
the lineup, Edith Folitz' Alexander Eaglerock Bullet, the only low wing monoplane in
the field, and the only one with retractable landing gear. Folitz came in second in the
light division.
Day 6, August 23, Fort Worth to Wichita: Mary Haizlip had to land twice due to oil line contamination, and Vera Dawn Walker (who was only 4’11”, and had to use pillows to be able to reach the rudder pedals) had to land her Curtiss Robin for engine overheating. Ruth Elder lost her precious map over the side of the cockpit, and had to guess at her course. Although they were now over a region where property lines and roads followed regular section lines, making navigation a bit easier, smoke from wildfires made visibility difficult, and Elder realized she'd drifted off-course (all towns looked pretty much the same, without a map to provide detail clues). She landed to find out where she was (Muskogee, OK, east of her course) but to make the ensuing takeoff, she first had to single-handedly chase away an uncaring herd of cows. Since Wichita was the home of the Travel Air company, the airplane chosen by a third of the participants, a crowd of at least 10,000 gathered to see the racers land.

Day 7, August 24, Wichita to Kansas City to East St. Louis: Thaden's race-leading performance had garnered much positive publicity for Travel Air, so Walter Beech approached her and offered to let her race their newest aircraft, the Model R - otherwise known as the Mystery Ship - in the Cleveland races. With that to look forward to, Thaden pressed on. Gladys O'Donnell's right main gear sunk into the soft sod on takeoff, causing her to nose over. A quick field repair to the dinged prop got her back in the air in short order, however. The media had a difficult time knowing how to handle the event. Some "news" stories were downright critical of the women and said that the stunt did nothing to further promote aviation in a legitimate way. Other reporters chose to focus on the fashion statements and general appearances of the women, something that they'd never do if it had been a male-only race. The women themselves, though, were unfazed, and started making plans to meet under the bleachers in Cleveland, to cement the relations they had built into a lasting organization to promote women in aviation. The destination, the airfield of Parks Air College in St. Louis, had a difficult approach with wires and trees at both ends, necessitating a sideslip approach on final. Both Blanche Noyes and Neva Paris ended up having to deliberately ground-loop in order to avoid running off the end of the runway, damaging the landing gear on their planes, but once again, field repairs had things in order before the next morning's takeoff.

Day 8, August 25, East St. Louis to Terre Haute, Cincinnati and Columbus: The Cleveland Aeronautical Exposition was opening this Sunday, and the excitement was growing about the arrival of the women, due in on Monday. The thick fog of early morning did nothing to dampen the spirits as the racers prepared for departure. Mary Haizlip's fuel contamination problems had continued, and so far in the race, she had made six emergency landings. Now, she had all the fuel lines completely drained and flushed, revealing quite a bit of foreign debris. To make matters worse, a mechanic working for Travel Air who was assigned to care for that company's planes in the race, reported that someone had tampered with Louise Thaden's magneto points. To forestall any further acts of sabotage to the race leader, he decided to sleep with the aircraft that night in Columbus. Bobbi Trout was catching up, and arrived at Parks just after the other racers had departed. Though she was no longer being officially timed, she quickly refueled and took off again, on her hunt to make up time. As the racers arrived at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, they were greeted by a crowd twice as large as that which had turned out for Charles Lindbergh only two years before. Edith Foltz couldn't find the field, so pressed on to Columbus untimed. Meanwhile, Trout's problems continued, with engine failure. She barely was able to glide into an almost-too-small field, sideslipping between a line of poplar trees. She ground looped in an attempt to avoid a fence, but ripped open her aileron anyway. A tin can provided handy repair material, while an electrician from a nearby town managed to get her engine running again, and she was quickly back in the air. As an example of the excitement that the general public felt about the race, a local farmer between Cincinnati and Columbus plowed a giant arrow in to his field to help the racers along.

Day 9, August 26, Columbus to Cleveland: The final leg of the race was a mere 120 miles. Columbus had a new concrete runway that was still partially under construction, and the night before, the racers whose airplanes had metal tail skids (useful on sod runways) instead of tail wheels had caused a bit of a stir when the skids kicked up showers of sparks. The edges of the runway hadn't been finished, yet, leading to problems during the takeoff. Ruth Nichols, who sat comfortably in third place, had some work done on her Rearwin overnight, and so got up early to fly a brief test hop. On returning, she did not heed the warning to stay in the center of the new runway, and her plane clipped a tractor parked next to it, crashing. While she "miraculously" survived the wreck, she was out of the race. All the previous race takeoffs had taken place in reverse order of the standings, but from Columbus, the women left at one-minute intervals in the order that they held from the night before. Louise Thaden took off first, and after a 54-minute flight, spotted the Cleveland airfield, diving for the finish line, and crossing it at 170 mph. Her average speed for the race was 135.97 mph, and her total time was 20 hours, 2 minutes. As the winner of the heavy division, she also thus garnered the majority of the media attention. Addressing the crowd, Thaden said, "The sunburn derby is over, and I happen to come in first place. I'm sorry we all couldn't come in first, because they all deserve it as much as I. They're all great flyers." She dedicated her win to Crosson, and told the media that she was going to send the trophy to Marvel's family.

Second place went to Gladys O’Donnell (WACO 10, #105; 127.52mph, 20h:43m), third to Amelia Earhart (122.64mph, 22h:12m), with Blanche Noyes (Travel Air, #3; 110.88mph) in fourth and fifth went to Ruth Elder (Laird Swallow #66; 96.41mph)

In the light aircraft, or C Class, Phoebe Omlie took first place (Monocoupe #8; 108.19mph), Edith Foltz (Alexander Eaglerock Bullet #109; 65.44mph) came in second, followed by Jessie Keith-Miller (Fleet Model 2, #43; 51.98mph) with Thea Rasche (deHavilland Gypsy Moth, #61; 42.17mph) in fourth. Bobbi Trout finished the race technically in fifth place, although her time was not recorded.

Soon after the race, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart and Ruth Nichols met under the grandstand and together founded the Ninety-Nines, a women's aviation organization that is still active today.

There’s a tremendous amount of information that has been written about the 1929 race over the years, and this blog entry has really just barely scratched the surface. If you’d like to read more, here are a few sources to check out:
-A very detailed article by Gene Nora Jessen on the Ninety-Nines’ website. Jessen also has written an excellent book about the event, The Powder Puff Derby of 1929, which can be ordered here. This book is a wonderful read, and a big shout-out goes to Gene for taking the time to correspond with me, and for all her help in putting this piece together.
-Coverage on the Pancho Barnes history website, including a lot of contemporary media coverage
-Cleveland State University's web page on the history of Cleveland Airport
-A movie has been made about the race, and is available on DVD, and the movie's website has a wealth of information as well.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Girl and the GXE

This very small print was buried in a box of "junk" photos at a swap meet, and both the presence of the girl posing on the tire, and the location at the beach intrigued me. I have no idea if this is one of the early aviatrixes, or just some gal who wanted her photo taken with the plane (maybe she'd gone for a joy ride in it?).

The registration, NC747E indicates that it was WACO GXE (aka WACO 10) serial number 1986,  the most popular type of WACO built, with 1,623 produced between 1927 and 1933.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Foggy Parade of Lightnings

On a cold, foggy, rainy English morning, a parade of Lockheed Lightnings move slowly down the cobblestone streets. They have just been unloaded from a ship, after crossing the Atlantic from America, and are being towed to the airfield where they will be reassembled and flown into the fray. This official Lockheed Aircraft photo is hand-date 5-27-43 on the back.

The only hint at the location that I can see in the photo is the sign that says "S" on the opposite street corner, behind the left boom. In small letters (discernible in the hi-res scan, but not this low-res web version) that sign also says "Shelton" with an arrow pointing to the left. If this is referring to Shelton, Staffordshire, that puts this scene quite aways inland, and I'm not sure why the planes would have been towed so far. If anyone wants to figure out a more precise location for the shot, I'd love to hear from you!

Wikimedia Commons has a photo of Lightnings, which can be seen at this link, with similar wrapping sitting on a baby aircraft carrier in New York, just before leaving for their trans-Atlantic voyage to England.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Herd of Mustangs

Since last Friday's post showed derelict German aircraft after WWII, it's only fair that I also post one showing a whole bunch of American scrap aluminum after the war. This aerial shot pictures row upon row of parked P-51 Mustangs. While a flyable Mustang today commands well over a million dollars, after the war the AAF could hardly give them away (reportedly they were going for a mere $3,500).

The photo has no markings on the back, but the person I acquired it from said it was with a group of other images that were all marked Otis Air Force Base (which is on Cape Cod in Massachusetts). I'm not convinced that this image really shows Otis (compare the topography, for instance, with this image from Wikimedia Commons), so if anyone recognizes the locale, please let me know.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cougar Portraits

Usually, when a manufacturer spends the time and money to do air-to-air photography, it's for a good reason...meaning that there's something significant about the subject aircraft. So far in my research, though, I've not been able to identify why either aircraft shown in today's two photos is significant. The first one, F9F-8 Cougar BuNo 141140, lies in the middle of the production run of 200 aircraft (BuNos 141030 to 141229), out of a total of 601 -8s built from 1954 to 1957. From what I can determine, somewhere in the middle of the production run, the design was modified so that the Cougar could carry four AIM-9 Sidewinders under the wing, which this aircraft clearly has. Might this be the flight test aircraft for that configuration? That would be photo-worthy, but it's also purely speculation on my part at this point. The lack of squadron markings, plus the fact that the AIM-9s are red in a color image that was taken a few seconds before this one (and available here on the web), indeed suggest a test role.

This looks like possibly the same aircraft (the BuNo isn't visible due to the angle)
on a day when it was been flown clean-winged.
The F9F Cougar was an update to the earlier F9F Panther, which had been out-classed by the MiG-15 in Korea, in which the Panther's straight wing and tail were replaced with swept wing and horizontal, giving the aircraft a higher critical Mach number, and thus a higher top speed (although it was still a sub-sonic aircraft). Initial production of the Cougar started with the F9F-6 in 1952. The -8 was the final mass-produced version, and incorporated an 8-inch fuselage stretch and wings with a larger chord and a cambered leading edge for better low-speed capabilities.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Junked Junkers

In the first of the two photos, an Iron Annie sits forlornly
Ok, so today's photos aren't the highest quality, as photos go. These are two very quick snapshots from the end of WWII, of what's described on the back of one as a "Plane grave yard just outside of Berlchisgarden". Yes, that's how it was spelled. I suspect that the photographer meant Berchtesgaden, but this scene is a lot flatter than most of the photos I've seen of the Berchtesgaden region.

Among other planes, there appears to be at least a couple of Junkers Ju-52 Iron Annies in the pile of wreckage. One has to wonder what happened to the wrecks...did they get salvaged, or did they just get buried? A tantalizing question for those interested in aviation archaeology! If anyone has information on a more accurate location for this site, or recognizes any of the other airframes in the pile, please comment below!

The second of the two, showing a pile of German aircraft wrecks from a distance. The images below are closeups of various parts of this image.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stearman's Odd-Man Out

In the late 1930s, the Army Air Corps solicited designs (to be built at the manufacturer's own expense) for a new light attack aircraft from five manufacturers. Stearman, which was a subsidiary of Boeing but operated independently, proposed a design which they called the X-100. The Army bought the prototype for testing, re-designating it the XA-21.

In its original form, as seen on the right, the pilot sat behind and above the bombardier under a common green-house style canopy. First flight took place in 1938, but initial testing showed that the pilot's forward visibility was less than ideal, and so the aircraft was returned to Boeing (who by then had re-absorbed Stearman) where it was modified with a more traditional nose, giving the pilot a regular windshield (you can see the difference in this photo from the Museum of the US Air Force). While the pilot gained better vision, the aircraft suffered a slight loss in airspeed from the added drag.

The Army still didn't bite, and only this one aircraft was built. The NA and the Douglas prototypes both crashed during testing, and Bell's proposal was withdrawn early on, before any hardware was built. Eventually, the Army cancelled the competition, but then revived it again, and all the originally competing designs were resubmitted, without hardware being required to be built. The winner of this paper competition was Douglas' Model 7B, which became the A-20 Havoc. The North American NA-20 design eventually was upgraded and entered into a medium bomber competition, to became the B-25 Mitchell. Martin went on to sell their Model 167F to the British to become their Maryland. Boeing chose, instead, to focus on the really big bombers.

Our image, an 8x10 glossy, apparently was a press publicity photo, and it ran in the June 1939 edition of Popular Mechanics Magazine (scroll down to pg 827).

A much more detailed history of the XA-21 can be found here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Kinner and his Sportster

When Bert Kinner was growing up, he was known as "the kid who could fix anything". As a young adult, he owned a Cadillac dealership, until he caught the aviation bug.

First setting up shop at "Kinner Airport" in Los Angeles County, he later moved to the bustling Glendale airport, designing both aircraft and the engines that powered them.

Today's photo shows a man who I presume to be Kinner (reference photos are very hard to come by) standing next to his first monoplane, the Sportster Model K. The photo is hand-inscribed on the back "Aug 21-'32 The first Kinner aeroplane going up to stunt."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Voodoo of Operation Firewall

Operation Firewall was an attempt to set a world record with the McDonnell F-101 Voodoo. The aircraft used was the unique JF-101A, which had been modified to use the more powerful engines being tested for the proposed two-seat F-101B (visually distinguished by the longer afterburners), so it had a better thrust-to-weight ratio than standard single-seat F-101As. On December 12, 1957, 426 was flown by Major Adrian Drew and set a world speed record of 1,207.6 mph over a ten-mile course at Edwards AFB, beating the previous record held by the British (the Voodoo's record was later beat by a Lockheed F-104). Drew was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for the effort. A video documenting the flight can be seen here (clearly shot in those primitive days before ground crew wore ear protection!).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Los Angeles to Tokyo, the Hard Way

Zensaku Azuma in his Travel Air 4000, presumably in Japan. The hand-written
text translates roughly "Mr. Zensaku Higasihi 'Tokyo OT' likes this small
airplane very much," with "Tokyo OT" referring to text painted on the
airplane itself. The last line, on the far left, seems to indicate the name of the
airport, but it isn't clear.
Back in December, in my blog post commemorating the Voyager's round-the-world flight, I noted that Dick Rutan's clearance request on takeoff asked for "Edwards to Edwards, the hard way." He wasn't the only one to think in traveling from one place to another "the hard way."

Japanese-American aviator Zensaku Azuma (1893-1967) had that idea as well. In the words of the Indiana Evening Gazette for Wednesday, June 25, 1930, "Evidently the Oriental mind reasons that 'the longest way around is the shortest way home,' so Zensaku Azuma, a Pasadena, Calif, chop suey restauranteur (a Japanese, nevertheless) plans to fly from California to Tokio via New York, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Siberia, China and Korea. The trip across the Atlantic would be made by steamship, the rest by air."

Azuma was born in Minami-Omi, Hakui County, Ishikawa (what is now known as either Nakanuma or Takamatsu - depending on the Japanese source - in Kahoku), and as a young newspaper reporter in Japan, had reported on some of the earliest aircraft, and found himself attracted to aviation. Wanting to learn to fly, he traveled to the US in 1916, at the age of 23, and earned his pilots license by 1922. He also earned a reputation for being somewhat flamboyant. In 1923, after the Great Kanto earthquake in Japan, Azuma painted "Help Japan" in large letters on a biplane and barnstormed in an effort to raise relief funds.

To earn a living, Azuma opened a Chinese restaurant (a "chop suey house" in the parlance of the age) in Pasadena. When Lindbergh made his historic flight in 1927, it inspired Azuma, who considered a similar "stunt" as a means of visiting his homeland. The feat earned him the nickname "the Japanese Lindbergh" in contemporary media.

Meanwhile, Travel Air 4000 NC4835, serial 419, first shows up in the records, as an entry dated April 30, 1928 in the register from the old Davis-Monthan Airfield, when it was flown by Santa Barbara orthodontist Dr. J. Bert Saxby, on a trip from El Paso, TX to Santa Barbara. Before Dr. Saxby acquired the plane, it apparently had been owned by cowboy actor, rodeo star and stunt pilot Ken Maynard. (As an aside, after owning the Travel Air, Maynard bought a Steaman, and at the 1933 National Air Races, he flew it in a grudge race against actor Hoot Gibson. Rounding one of the pylons, Maynard crashed, and while he survived, his airplane was destroyed).

Azuma purchased the Travel Air in April 1930, and had it modified from a typical two-seat configuration to a single seater, with the rest of the space being used for additional fuel tankage for the flight to Japan. As such, it was re-registered in the restricted category as NR4835. Then, from June through August 1930, he fulfulled his dream and flew the Travel Air across three continents enroute to Japan. He first across the U.S. from Los Angeles to New York, before having the plane disassembled and loaded onto a steamship for the voyage to England. There, he had the aircraft reassembled in Hanworth by National Flying Services, Ltd. He repositioned from Hanworth to Croydon and then left for the trip east on July 22.

After spending the night of August 30th in Seole, Azuma finally landed at about 5:22 pm (local) on Saturday, August 31, 1930, at Tokyo's Tachikawa Aviation Grounds, where he and the City of Tokyo were greeted by a large crowd. All tolled, Azuma logged 70 flying days and over 11,200 miles during his journey. He was celebrated as both a local and a national aviation hero, and was even presented with a "trophy" by the Japanese Emperor.

Buoyed by success, Azuma began planning and attempting to raise funds for a one-stop California to Japan trans-Pacific flight, but it does not appear that he never actually attempted the flight. Years later, in 1955, Azuma once again entered the spotlight of history as the first person to discover the mineral uranium in Japan, and became a vocal proponent of the "health benefits" of uranium - going so far as to plant a "uranium garden" from which he harvested and ate vegetables.

With the growing militaristic nature of Japanese society in the 1930s, the City of Tokyo wound up in the hands of the Japanese Army, but since it was clear that the Travel Air 4000 was by no means a combat-worthy aircraft, they disposed of it. It was subsequently re-registered as J-BAOJ; old registration records show the ownership as being Nippon Demppo Tsunshin, while other records identify the owner as Nippon Denjo Communications Company, which today is known as Dentsu.

This organization apparently acquired the aircraft in November 1931 as a result of the Manchurian incident, in which a Japanese-instigated act of sabotage was used as a pretext for the wholesale invasion of the Chinese region of Manchuria. The Travel Air was used in China to transport news reports and photographs of the fighting. When the Japanese established the puppet state of Manchukuo in March 1932 in the territory which they occupied, they mounted a showy Declaration of Independence ceremony. News photos of the ceremony were being flown out in the Travel Air when the aircraft was severely damaged at Ulsan air base near Pusan. There is no record of it being repaired.

There is one really good photo of the Tokyo on the internet, at the Japanese Aeronautic Association website (the page is in Japanese, but if you open it with Google Chrome, you'll get a machine translation of it).

In Zensaku's hometown, there is a monument to him, and the town annually hosts a paper airplane contest in his honor. With that in mind, as a small footnote to the story, the City of Tokyo shows up on a paper model airplane hobbyist website as a downloadable plan...and apparently it was painted red.

(Huge nod to Ann A., Jayne and her mom for the translation of the handwriting on the photo!)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Blessed are the Peacemakers..."

"...For they shall find peace." For the B-36 Peacemaker, which had be conceived in the midst of fear of war, this biblical prophecy came true. In early 1941, with the real possibility of a Nazi invasion of the United Kingdom, and the potential loss of friendly landing fields for American aircraft, U.S Army planners decided that what was needed was an extremely long-range, intercontinental bomber that could reach enemy territory from bases in America. What this represented was an almost incomprehensible leap in technology - keep in mind, this was only ten years after the Keystone and Condor bombers that we've seen in other posts recently. And despite being developed during one war and in service during another, the B-36 never dropped or fired a weapon in anger. Our official Consolidated Vultee photo (the print is stamped on the back) shows the very first Peacemaker, the one and only XB-36 built, presumably on its first flight.

And as large of a leap in bomber state-of-the-art that B-36 represented, it still wound up pretty much obsolete by the time it came on line. There were some glaring design issues. The plane had the longest wingspan of any military aircraft ever built (even to this day), and the wing flexing resulting in persistent metal fatigue and cracking issues. The plane was powered by six P&W R-4360 radial piston engines (the largest production piston engines built), but they had issues, including chronic overheating, and if you weren't careful about starting them exactly correctly, all 56 (!) spark plugs (yes, that's in just one of the engines) would foul and have to be removed and cleaned. Later production aircraft supplemented the radials with four turbojet engines, paired in pods under the outer wings.

The XB-36 was an astoundingly huge aircraft, and there were some aspects of it that make you wonder what the engineers were thinking. For instance, the plane was designed with a single huge tire on each main landing gear. At that time, these were the larges tires ever manufactured, each was nine feat in diameter, three feet wide and weighed 1,300 pounds (you could manufacture 60 automobile tires with the rubber in just one of these bad boys). With the majority of the weight of the aircraft concentrated on just those two tires, the runway loading was so high that there were only three airports in the world which could handle the XB-36. Needless to say, this was re-designed for the production aircraft, and these were later retrofitted onto the XB-36 as well.

The XB-36 was used for flight testing and later a limited amount of flight training. It was judged too expensive to convert it to production standards, and so it ended up as a derelict at Carswell AFB as a fire fighting trainer.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Eyes of the Idaho

An O2U-1 is craned onto the Idaho. And,
yes, both these photos are tall and skinny.
This isn't how I've cropped them, it's how
Kodak marketed photography as it moved
from being a specialty to a consumer-based
industry...they figured the most popular
subject to shoot would be your friends and
relatives - and people are tall and skinny,
so the pictures should be, too.
Before the advent of sea-going radar during and after World War II, battleship commanders relied on Naval Aviators and their fragile seaplanes to be their eyes, patrolling over the horizon for the lurking enemy. The USS Idaho serves as an example of the small but vital contribution that non-aircraft carrier based naval aviation made to America's fleet. Through coincidence, the Archive has obtained three different images from three widely separated sources, all three showing elements of the Idaho's air eyes.

A mechanic works on the engine of
one of Idaho's Corsairs, while mounted
on the fantail catapult.
When she was launched in July 1917, the Idaho (BB-42, the fourth ship to bear the name) was referred to as a "superdreadnaught" rather than a battleship, and was, in the words of the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, the "heaviest fighting craft afloat". Between late 1931 and 1934, she was extensively modernized, a process that included the removal of the removal of her original masts. She, like other battleships of her class, were typically assigned three scout aircraft, with two of them stationed on the catapult of the No. 3 turret, and the third one on the fantail catapult.

Up until about 1936 (I can't find a definitive date for the transition, input is invited), the planes used by Observation Squadron 3 (VO-3) were Vought O2U-1 Corsairs; after this, they transitioned into SOC-3 Seagulls. This suggests that the photos here were all taken between October 1934 and sometime in about 1936.

The O2U-1, built from 1930 to 1936, was a pontoon-equipped variant to the wheel-equipped O2U Corsair. It could fly at over 160 knots and had a range of 680 miles, so it was ideal platform for finding enemy ships and directing over-the-horizon fire from the Idaho's twelve 14-inch guns.

If you look carefully, in the center of the water, the old 8x10 has been stamped
- once upon a time in gold lettering - with "USS Idaho". 
A detailed photo history of the Idaho can be found here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Gremlin Hotel

I'm continually amazed at how, in my hunt for vintage photos to feature here, I can find related prints in very different locations. Today's pair of photos is a case in point: one came from an antiques store in Long Beach, one from a store in Cambria. No connection, yet they are of the same plane, from what appears to be the same photo chase flight.

The plane shown is XB-29 serial 41-18335, the third of three prototype Superfortresses, which also carried Boeing Model No. 345. The first two aircraft had been ordered by the Army Air Corps in August, 1940, with the order for the third prototype being placed that December.

There is a tradition at Boeing, which continues to this day,  of shooting portraits
of all their new models with Mount Rainier in the background. Note the three-
bladed props - production aircraft were equipped with four-bladed propellers.
The first flight of an XB-29 (41-002) took place on September 21, 1942. Early in the test program, there were numerous problems with the R-3350 engines, and some of these resulted in small fires. Then disaster befell the program on February 18, 1943 when the second prototype (41-003) developed a fuel leak just eight minutes into the flight and caught fire, crashing into a meat packing plant while trying to get back to the airfield. At that time, the existence of the B-29 was still a secret, so press accounts of the crash and fire only referred to the plane as a "bomber".

Killed in the crash were all eleven on board, including Boeing Chief Test Pilot Edmund "Eddie" Allen (who also served as chief of Boeing's research division), test pilot Bob Dansfield, and a number of other senior Boeing flight test engineers and senior staff. Another 21 people on the ground, including a firefighter, were killed as well.

After the crash, a congressional investigation led by Senator Harry S. Truman resulted in a scathing report which revealed that Curtiss-Wright, the manufacturer of the engines, was using substandard parts. As a result of the report, the Army took over the flight test program from Boeing, with the two XB-29s and fourteen YB-29s soldiering on.

Also as a result, 41-18335 received upgraded engines and a number of other improvements to help prevent future fires. When originally ordered, the plane was given the name The Flying Guinea Pig, but at some point, she was affectionately named Gremlin Hotel by her crews (in the photo at this link, from the Museum of the U.S. Air Force, you can just barely make out that name painted in small letters on the nose of the plane).

The gremlins had their time with this plane as well. On May 23, 1943, during a high speed taxi test in which Col. Leonard "Jake" Harmon intended to take the plane to flying speed, but not leave the runway , it was found that plane tipped to the right when he moved the control wheel to the left, with the right wingtip scraping the runway. He managed to use engine power to recover, and the plane became airborne for a short time before Harmon set it down on a parallel taxiway. After an investigation, it was found that the aileron cables had been connected backwards, causing the ailerons to move in the opposite direction as intended. The "official" first flight didn't come until late June, after the first of the YB-29s had taken to the air.

After the initial phases of flight testing were complete, Gremlin Hotel was also used to set up the production line at Boeing, and later crashed during further flight testing.

The Museum of the U.S. Air Force also has another photo of the plane with Mount Rainier, at this link.

A fascinating article about the crash - and the art museum that came to be as a result - can be found at this Seattle Times link.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Enola Gay on Tinian

The Enola Gay, with Necessary Evil (No. 91) on the far right. Because the aircraft
received its Circle R disguise on August 1 and the aircraft name on August 5th, it
can be concluded that this photo was taken after the mission, when the tail had
been painted back to its 509th identification.
There is probably no more well-known, iconic and controversial aircraft from WWII than the B-29 Enola Gay. So to find an original, non-official 1945 photograph of her on Tinian Island in a tiny, dark antique store, buried in a pile of other mundane photos, was a surprise indeed. In fact, when I picked up the photo, my brain registered simply "B-29", and I handed it to the owner to ring up. He took a closer look and recognized it for what it was (and raised the price, too).

Enola Gay (B-29-45-MO 45-86292) was one of 15 B-29s that were modified during construction under a program code-named Silverplate, and which included special provision for carrying nuclear weapons.

Enola Gay was assigned to the 509th Composite Group (which consisted of a single squadron, the 393rd), assigned at the time to the 313th Bombardment Wing, 20th Air Force. The group's aircraft identification symbol was a large arrowhead within a circle painted on the tail, but when flying active missions, the tails of its aircraft were repainted with the symbols of other B-29 combat units, for security purposes (it was suspected that there were Japanese spies on Tinian who were reporting activities of the 509th's aircraft back to Tokyo). Thus, for the Hiroshima mission, Enola Gay carried the circle-R of the 6th Bomb Group, as did B-29 Victor No. 91, Necessary Evil, which can be seen in the far right of the photo with its 6th BG disguise still on the tail. Enola Gay was originally assigned Victor number 12, but this was later changed to 82 so that it would not conflict with one of the 6BG aircraft.

The aircraft arrived in theater on July 6, 1945, and carried out a series of conventional bomb missions, including raids on Kobe and Koriyama, and practice atomic sorties. On these missions, the aircraft was commanded by Capt. Robert A. Lewis, and the plane hadn't been given a nickname. On August 5, 1945, Victor 82 was selected to be the weapons aircraft for OPERATION CENTERBOARD I, and as part of that assignment, 509th Group Commander Paul W. Tibbets Jr. elected to command the aircraft, bumping Lewis into the co-pilot's position. Tibbets then named the plane after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets, over the objections of Lewis. The crew and the newly christened Enola Gay took off for their fateful mission at 0245 the next morning.

Enola Gay's last combat mission was as a weather scout plane three days later for the Nagasaki bombing mission. The 509th returned to the US on November 6, 1945, and was stationed at Roswell Army Airfield, New Mexico, where the unit eventually became the core of the new Strategic Air Command. Enola Gay was donated to the Smithsonian on July 4, 1949, and her last flight was on December 2, 1949, when she landed at Andrews AFB.

A color photo of Enola Gay in almost the same spot from the Joseph Papalia collection can be seen here.

In 2008, while writing a newspaper article on the number of aircraft from the Mojave area that are preserved at NASM, I had the privilege of spending a lot of time at the Hazy Center shooting just about everything that was there, including Enola Gay as she looks today.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Savage Feeding a Crusader

AJ-2 BuNo 1340xx refuels an F8U-1 Crusader BuNo 14378x while an F9F Cougar
flies cover.
One of the "forgotten" carrier birds of the post WWII era is one part of today's photo, the North American AJ Savage.

In the days after the end of the War, the Navy felt a bit left out, as they had no aircraft capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. The ability to lift heavy objects - such as atom bombs - was something that the in-development jet-powered aircraft had a lot of promise of, but the finer points of jet power were still several years away.

They Navy tried using JATO-equipped Lockheed P2V Neptunes, but while they could take off from an aircraft carrier, they couldn't land on one, leaving the crews to figure out where to go after they dropped the Bomb. So, in 1946, the Navy contracted with North American to develop the AJ, a composite-powered stop-gap solution. The main power came from two Pratt R2800 radial engines which were boosted by large turbochargers, so that they could maintain power to 42,000 feet. To assist in take-offs and to give a bit of dash speed, a single Allison J33 turbojet engine was embedded in the lower tail. At altitude, the aircraft was quite fast, capable of almost jet-like speeds of 460 mph.

With the advent of the Douglas A3D in 1952, the Savages were relegated to other duties, with some being converted to tankers, their bomb bays being fitted out with the refueling gear. Our photo shows a -2 model, which had a 100-hp power upgrade on the radials and a larger tail, which was operated by VAH-7. This squadron transitioned out of their Savages in November 1958. They had two deployments during this time period, on the USS Randolph (Det. 36) and on the USS Essex (Det. 45), plus their home port at NAS Sandford, Florida.

Meanwhile, the first Atlantic fleet deployments of F8U-1 Crusaders was aboard the USS Saratoga in late 1957 as a part of Carrier Air Wing 3 (tail code AC). On June 6, 1957, while President Dwight Eisenhower was on board the Saratoga for an inspection, two F8Us departed the USS Bon Homme Richard in the Pacific and flew across the country non-stop in 3 hours, 28 minutes, landing on the Saratoga; these would have been refueled in flight by Savages...so there exists the possibility that this photo might show one of those refuelings.

A fascinating series of photos of a Savage with an unretractable hose landing on a carrier can be seen here.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Korean Dragonfly

In Tuesday's post, we featured an official Navy photo of a Sikorsky HO3S-1, so it seemed natural for today to follow-up with an unofficial snapshot of the Army's version of the same helo, the R-5/H-5 Dragonfly. The small print has no indication of where or when this was taken, but it appears to be at in Korea, likely a field hospital. (Yes, the song Suicide is Painless is indeed running through my head as I write this post.)

I have confess that I'm a bit intrigued by what's going on...the tail rotor is spinning, so chances are that this ship just landed, rather than is getting ready to take off (not to mention the fact that there's a soldier kneeling down near the tailrotor, apparently taking a photo - anyone in that are would be a huge safety violation in today's world). The large crowd is being drawn by something, but what?

The Dragonfly shown is serial 47-484, one of 11 R-5Fs built. The R-5 (known as the H-5 after 1948) was based on Igor Sikorsky's earlier R-4. The prototype first flew in 1943, but development was too slow for practical use during WWII. But in Korea, the idea of a machine that could be used to rescue injured soldiers and downed aviators behind enemy lines blossomed. It became the first helo widely used by the military, and the first to be used as a rescue ship in Korea. By the middle of 1953, Army helicopters rescued 1,273 injured in a single month, according to an article in Aviation History magazine.

For all its successes, though, the H-5 was still a very early helo, and naturally had a lot of limitations. Though powered by a 450-horse Pratt R-985 radial engine buried inside behind the cabin, it was still quite under-powered. It had CG issues as well, and each came equipped from the factory with two iron bars wrapped in canvas that the pilot could move around to balance the ship out, depending the load. Such accessories were frequently lost, of course, so pilots would resort to bags of sand, bottles of water, or even rocks. If nothing was available, the top speed was limited to a pokey 25 knots.

Maj. Richard Kirkland (ret) was an H-5 pilot in Korea, and told The Army Times in 2011, “By today’s standards, it had limited lifting capacity and short range. For its time, though, the H-5 marked a revolution. It enabled us to fly behind enemy lines, land almost anywhere, and pick up a ‘friendly’ who needed rescuing.”

The intense work that the H-5 was subjected to in Korea led to rapid improvements in helicopter design, which were reflected in the H-19 Chickasaw, the next major SAR design used by the military, and the ultimate replacement for the Dragonfly. Production ended in 1951, and by 1957, all the the H-5s had been retired.

Note the external medivac stretcher pod

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Albany's Horse

The Sikorsky HO3S-1, affectionately known as the “Horse” (the S-51 to Sikorsky, and the R-5/H-5 to the Army and Air Force; the Brits license-built it as the Westland Dragonfly), was the first widely successful helicopter used after WWII.

The Navy first tried the HO3S-1 in 1946, and on December 25, 1946, a Horse from Navy squadron VX-3 became the first helicopter to fly in Antarctica. Pleased with its capabilities, the Navy began ordering the type in larger numbers in 1948.
The tail code UR indicates that this was a member of Helicopter Utility Squadron 2, Detachment 3. The Horse saw extensive use as a rescue helo in Korea until being replaced by the larger and more powerful Sikosky H-19/HO4S Chickasaw. By 1957, all the HO3S aircraft had been retired from the fleet.

The USS Albany started life as CA-123, an Oregon City-class heavy cruiser, being launched on June 30, 1945. From 1958-62, she was overhauled and converted to the Navy’s first guided missile cruiser, taking on a very different look. When new, the Albany and the other ships in her class were equipped with four seaplanes, but these and their launch catapults were replaced by four Sikorskys and a helipad (I have not seen a date for Albany’s switchover, but her sister ship, the USS Rochester, had the catapults replaced with a helipad in late 1948, so presumably this work was done to the Albany at about the same time). I have only been able to locate one other photo of an Albany-based HO3S, which can be seen at this link (but you have to manually go to page 31), showing a Horse landing on the Albany's aft gun turret.

Friday, July 20, 2012

British Hudsons

Today's post features two unrelated snapshots of British Lockheed Hudsons. The first one shows a Hudson parked in front of one of the hangars at Burbank's United Airport. The airplane is roped off and a number of well-dressed people are milling around. Stacked off to the right in the image are a bunch of folding chairs. This has all the appearances of an event or a ceremony, such as a rollout or unveiling. The first flight of a British Hudson I took place on December 10, 1938 at Burbank...could this view be of the post-flight hoopla? Or, could this be the first Hudson delivery? Unfortunately there are no markings on the back of the image, so there's no way to tell.

The second images shows a Hudson approaching for landing, flaps down.  Note the lack of tail markings. 

The Hudson was a light bomber and coastal patrol aircraft based on the Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra, a design that was made famous by Howard Hughes' record-setting round-the-world flight from July 10-14, 1938. The design also led to the later Lockheed Ventura. 

When the U.S. started delivering Hudsons to the RAF, American neutrality in the European conflict complicated the process. The aircraft were flown from Burbank to the U.S.-Canada border, where they were towed across by tractor or even horse-team, and then disassembled and loaded onto a ship for the trans-Atlantic voyage. On October 8, 1939, a Hudson became the first RAF aircraft (though not the first British plane) to shoot down a German opponent.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Lucky Hellcat and the Tragedy that Followed

Call it the “Law of Unintended Consequences”. Today’s Navy/Associated Press news photo of a damaged Grumman F6F Hellcat making an emergency landing on a carrier was originally presented to the American public with a caption couched in terms of light-hearted bravado:

“PLANE NO. 13 LUCKY - Number 13 proved to be this Navy Hellcat pilot’s lucky number as he makes a safe landing on a carrier, trailing smoke. His plane was damaged in aerial combat with the Japs over Wake during the attack on that Jap base, Oct. 5-6. More than 30 Jap planes, the Navy claimed, were shot down in aerial combat and 31 more destroyed on the ground. (Associated Press Photo from U.S. Navy. 10/15/43)”

My original title for this post, “Hellcat Oops” was intended to answer the post several weeks ago entitled “Helldiver Oops”…I figured that, to be fair, I had to give the fighter jocks the same ribbing as I gave the bomber drivers. After all, the pilot shown here just pulled off a pretty impressive feat of airmanship: bringing home a wounded bird, and then executing a carrier landing – itself an admirable accomplishment even in the best of circumstances when everything's working great – all while his windscreen was completely obscured by a thick coating of black engine oil.

Note the nice thick coating of engine oil on the Hellcat's windscreen.
All that light-heartedness came to an abrupt end, though, as I dug into researching the story behind this photo, and the immense (and largely unremembered) tragedy that occurred as a result of the actions on the day and mission that this photo was shot, consequences that did not become known to the American public for another three years.

Although it isn’t identified in the cutline, the carrier in this scene is the USS Yorktown (CV-10), which was a part of Carrier Air Group Five (CVG-5). On board the "Fighting Lady", as the ship was nicknamed, were two Hellcat squadrons, VF-5 and night fighter squadron VF(N)-76; the lack of a radar pod on the outer starboard wing suggests that Lucky 13 is from Fighter Squadron Five.

Wake Island had been attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the same day that Pearl Harbor was struck, an assault which culminated on the capture of the island by the Japanese forces on December 23, 1941. On the island at the time were a large number of U.S. civilian construction workers employed by contractor Morrison-Knudsen. During the battle for the island, 52 U.S. sailors and Marines were killed, along with 70 of the civilians, but the toll that the Japanese paid for the island was much higher, with 700 to 1,000 lives lost. When the fighting was over, 1,603 Americans were captured, of whom 1,150 were civilians. All of the military personnel were shipped off to POW camps in Asia, but some of the American civilians were kept on Wake by the Japanese as slave laborers to build up the island's defenses.

The caption pasted to the back of the photo
In the October 5-6 raid by CVG-5, the Japanese forces on the island were caught napping, and 31 aircraft, all of the Nell and Betty bombers based there, as well as some of the fighters, were destroyed on the ground. (The Naval Aviation News dated December 1, 1943, has a one-page piece on the Wake raid - jump to page 19 of this 36-page pdf file - and one of the photos there of the attack can also be seen here.)

Unbeknownst to the attacking U.S. forces, at the time of the raid, there were still 98 American civilians alive and enslaved on the island. The two-day air raid was so intense that the Japanese commander of the island, Rear Admiral Shigimatsu Sakaibara, became convinced that an Allied invasion was imminent. He had the American prisoners marched from their compound to the north end of the island, where they were lined up along an anti-tank ditch, bound and blindfolded, and then mowed down with gunfire from three platoons of Japanese soldiers. The bodies were unceremoniously buried in the ditch where they fell. The following day, reports surfaced that one of the prisoners had actually escaped the execution, and had been seen on the island. To confirm this reported sighting, Sakaibara had the bodies dug up and counted: sure enough, there were only 97 dead. The lone survivor, who has never been identified, managed to hide out for three weeks, before being discovered and recaptured. At some point during this time, he was able to carve an inscription into a large rock near the site of the killings which read, "98 US PW 5-10-43". Sakaibara personally beheaded the man.

Over the next two years, inquiries from the Red Cross regarding the condition of the prisoners were completely ignored. In August 1945, when word reached Wake of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Harbor, the bones of the murdered Americans were exhumed from the ditch and hastily re-buried in a single small grave in an American graveyard that had been established during the initial battle for the island. When Sakaibara finally surrendered Wake to the American forces on September 4, 1945, his staff members explained away the missing contractors by saying that they had been placed in two bomb shelters during the October 1943 raid, and that one shelter had received a direct hit from an American bomb, while the Americans in the other had overpowered a guard and escaped to the north end of the island, where they all died fighting. During interrogation, all of the Japanese officers stuck to this story.

Sakaibara and fifteen of his staff officers were nonetheless arrested by the Americans and sent to Kwajalein to stand trial for the deaths of the POWs. During the process, three of the Japanese officers committed suicide and left behind notes that contradicted the cover story, indicating that the POWs had in fact been directly murdered. Presented with this evidence, Sakaibara confessed to ordering the murders, and took responsibility for his actions. He and Headquarters Company commander Lt. Cmdr Tachibana were sentenced to death, although Tachibana's sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison. On Guam on June 19, 1947, Sakaibara and five other Japanese war criminals paid the ultimate price for their crimes by hanging. Sakaibara's last statement was "I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure."

Most of the families of the 98 did not learn of their fate until January 1946, some even later than that. Today, on Wake Island, the inscription carved by the lone escapee is a memorial known as POW Rock.

A listing of the 98 men who were murdered on Wake can be found at this link.

A detailed account of the Massacre on Wake Island can be found at this link.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012

Derelict on Tinian

"RBC beside old Jap plane on Tinian - 1944"
In the waning days of World War II, as the Allies overran enemy bases, it wasn't at all unusual for GIs to pose next to destroyed aircraft (or other hardware, for that matter) for photos that were sent home. This resulted in a lasting photographic record of the battle damage. Today's photo is an unusually small print - not sure if this was a means of saving money, or a war-rationing method. On the reverse was hand-written, "RBC beside old Jap plane on Tinian - 1944".

Identifying the plane, however, has been a bit of a challenge. My first thought was that it had the general lines of a Nakajima  B6N Jill torpedo bomber. Only one Jill has survived, and is awaiting restoration at NASM, which can be seen here, on the website "Preserved Axis Aircraft". However, on closer examination, the cockpit canopies seem to better match the Nakajima C6N Saiun, or Painted Cloud (Allied codename "Myrt"). One of these has also been preserved at NASM, and can be seen here. The problem with the latter is that the Myrt didn't enter service until September 1944, and Tinian was overrun by the US Marines in July 1944. Thus, the only way that this could be a C6N was if this was one of the 19 pre-production prototypes.

This is one small snapshot!
Reader input on the identification of this plane is invited!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Osborn-esque Cartoons from the Tarawa

In our third and last installment of Navy materials from the estate of Helldiver pilot Herman Olds, this week we feature a series of training cartoons. As we said last week, during World War II, renown satirical cartoonist and illustrator Robert C. Osborn drew thousands of cartoon for the U.S. Navy's training command, dealing with both technical issues, as well a personnel ones, as embodied in his cast of infamous characters led by the bumbling pilot "Dilbert". Osborn's style became a Navy institution, one that was copied on a local level by other Navy artists.

The Olds collection includes a group of 8x10 glossy photo prints of training illustrations done in the Osborn style by a Navy artist that signed his work only with the initials "R.E.H". All of these are back stamped from the USS Tarawa and dated November 3, 1946.