Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Real Men Don't Fly Pink Airplanes

A slightly haggard-looking William "Pete" Knight walks away from X-15A-2
on October 3, 1967, after setting a world record speed of 4,534 mph. 
The visual image that most folks have of the pioneering and record-setting North American X-15 is of a black airplane, mainly for the reason that the skin was largely made of Inconel, which has a natural black color. There were three X-15s built, and were designated A-1 through A-3. The middle ship, A-2, made 53 powered flights, two of which (in addition to four captive-carry flights) were flown with a distinctive white coating, rather the regular bare black skin. Today's featured image is an Associated Press wirephoto dated October 3, 1967, which shows A-2 after one of those historic flights.

The official caption which accompanies the image reads: "EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., Oct. 3 -- END OF A RECORD FLIGHT -- Air Force Maj. William J. Knight, left, walks away from the X15 at Edwards Air Force Base in California today after flying the plane at a record speed of 4,534 miles per hour. The new mark for wingee [sic] craft, almost seven times the speed of sound, was 284 miles per hour faster than the 4,250 Knight reached in the X15 last Nov. 18. (AP Wirephoto) (see AP wire story)."

Even though the X-15's Inconel skin is, by nature, quite heat tolerant, the aerodynamic heating that was expected at the speeds that the record flights were to be flown far exceeded even this exotic metal. To deal with this, the engineers decided to cover the rocket plane's skin with an ablative, or heat-resistant coating.

This rubbery, pencil eraser-like material had the unfortunate property of also being bright pink.

An official photo of A-2 from the NASA Dryden website.
Officially, the NASA explanation for the white coating, which was applied over the pink, was that the actual ablative material was not fuel resistant, and thus needed additonal protection against damage that could be caused by fuel spills.

The urban legend, told in the hallways at Dryden, however, is that Pete Knight walked into the coatings hangar after the ablative had been applied, and said, "Like hell, I'm gonna fly a pink airplane!" And shortly thereafter, the white coating was added.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Pacific Photo Lightnings

The qualities that made the Lockheed P-38 Lightning such an excellent long-range fighter quickly were quickly recognized as the same ones needed as a successful photo reconnaissance aircraft. So throughout the long production run of the P-38, a number of aircraft were either purpose-built or converted into unarmed photo birds, and given the designation F-4 (for the very early ones) or F-5.

From left to right, the aircraft are: 44-26427 (nose number 7), unk, 44-26424 (nose number 20), 44-2644? (nose number 21)

Today's photo, from an island airfield "somewhere in the Pacific", shows a group of F-5G Photo Lightnings waiting for their next mission. These were converted from a group of regular production P-38L models, which had been the most numerous variant of Lightning produced.

The print that the Archive owns is quite small, with the actual image area shown in the main photo above being only about two inches across. Yet the prints's resolution is amazingly high, so that a good digital scan clearly shows details of the aircraft, including tail numbers.

The F-5G-6 aircraft were all post-production conversions of the P-38L-5 version, performed at Lockheed's Dallas modification center (the F-5B had been the last of the purpose-built recon aircraft; all subsequent F-5 models were post-production mods). The "G" models differed from ealier F-5s in that they had a larger, more bulbous nose designed to accommodate a wider variety of cameras. The nose included a forward-looking window, several downward looking ports, and a large trapezoidal window on each side. According to Aerofiles, no records remain of what serial numbers were converted.

8/19/2012 update: Two of the aircraft shown, 44-26424 and 427, were later destroyed during a typhoon on June 20, 1946, while in storage on Guam.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sparkling New Fortresses

Fifteen B-17Fs lined up (don't miss the one behind the hangar)
awaiting delivery.
When I found today's glossy 8x10 photo at a swap meet, it was the end of the day, I only had $5 in my pocket, and the vendor was packing up to go home. He'd wanted a lot more for it, but reluctantly gave it up for my five spot. It's a little bit wrinkled and battered, but a gorgeous image, nonetheless.

In the photo are no less than fifteen Block 27 Boeing B-17F Flying Fortresses, either just before or just after delivery in 1942 (because of the lack of an Army Air Corps stamp on the back, I'm guessing that this is a Boeing Company photo). Note the tight grouping of serial numbers, and the lack of guns installed in the waist positions. And then there's the guy on the bicycle...like couldn't the photographer have waited just a few more seconds for the dude to get out of the frame?

From what I could find, the Block 27 F-models were built in Seattle, but this photo was clearly not taken there (here, for instance, is a view of B-17s on the Seattle ramp). I'm thinking maybe Wichita? If anyone has better location information, please comment below.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Packets and WACOs

The first of today's three images is probably a staged Air
Force publicity shot.
At first glance, you might think that this was a photo of a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar. At first glance at this small image, that's what I thought. But a careful look reveals that it's not. Rather, this is a Fairchild C-82A Packet, one of only 223 that were built between 1945 and 1948, and for today's post, we have three unrelated images that all feature the C-82.

The Packet, unfortunately, was somewhat of a failure. It was underpowered, and the design of the fuselage made it less than ideal for the cargo it was intended to carry. The Air Force wasn't happy, and asked Fairchild to redesign the aircraft. Initially designated the XC-82B, the redesign utilized larger engines, and the cockpit was moved forward, freeing up cargo space. Now happy, the Air Force ordered this new version into production as the better-known C-119 Flying Boxcar, and over 1,100 were built.

This image is clearly a staged scene, rather 
than a personal, impromptu snap. The 
aircraft is way too shiny for an in-service 
cargo bird, the crewmen are a little too
cleanly dressed and positioned, and when 
unloading such cargo,  no one in their right 
might would park the plane diagonally on 
the taxiway.
Despite its shortcomings, the C-82 did achieve a level of immortality as a movie star in the original 1965 production of The Flight of the Phoenix. One flying and two wrecked airframes were used in the making of the film. The 2004 remake of the movie, however, featured a C-119.

But what is especially interesting about two of these  photos is what's in their backgrounds. One of the C-82's roles was that of glider tow. During the war, WACO built over 13,000 CG-4 troop gliders, which were towed into combat behind transports such as the C-46 and C-47.

Today's second image shows a much more candid scene. The
troops are doing their job without nice white uniforms and the
photo's composition indicates a quick, on-the-fly snap. Also
note that this is probably an older image, as there is no Air
Force lettering on the plane, and the insignia is the older version
The glider shown above was the follow-on version, the WACO CG-15, later redesignated the G-15 after the Army Air Corps became the USAF in 1947. Though smaller than the CG-4, the G-15 carried the same number of troops - 15 to 16 - but its smaller wingspan allowed a higher maximum airspeed of 180 knots, to accommodate being towed behind newer, faster transports like the C-82A.

But with the end of the war, it became clear that large troop-carrying gliders were no longer relevant, and the production contract was cancelled, with only 473 aircraft built. Only one complete G-15 fuselage has survived the years, and is awaiting restoration at the WACO Museum and Aviation Learning Center at the historic WACO Field, Troy, Ohio. (Images of the current condition of the airframe can be seen here - you'll have to scroll about 3/4 down the page.)

Lastly for this week is this image of three GIs. Handwritten inscription on the back of the photo says "Last day at Benning." No idea who these three are, but what I found interesting (and why I acquired the photo) are the three C-82s in the background which are in various stages of disassembly.

If anyone has stories of what the aircraft were utilized for at Fort Benning, please share!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Norwegian Northrop

A Northrop N-3PB, probably airframe 304, sits on the shore of Lake Elsinore
in Southern California, where the type was flight tested, in this official Northrop
photograph (the particular copy in our archive is a film positive). Even though the
design was quickly made obsolete by technological advances, its clean lines
and overpowered engine made it a favorite of crews and fans alike.
The Northrop N-3PB was a seaplane derivative of the Northrop A-17 Nomad (itself having roots in the Northrop Gamma line). With the threat of German expansionism on the horizon, Norway was scrambling in the late 1930s to moderize its military, and it was decided that a float-equipped coastal reconnaissance aircraft was one element that was needed.

Northrop built 24 of the aircraft for Norway, which carried internal airframe designations 301 to 324, but world events and Nazi troops overtook the delivery schedule, and there wasn't a Norway left. With the Norwegian government-in-exile established in England, a training base for Norwegian pilots who had escaped ahead of the Nazi invasion was set up in Canada, and became known as "Little Norway".

When the N-3PBs were ready for delivery, the aircraft were put under the control of the UK's Royal Air Force's Coastal Command and six were stationed at Little Norway in Canada, and 18 of the "Northrops", as they were called by the Norwegian crews, were shipped to Iceland, and based at Badueyri, Reykjarvik and Akueyri. The aircraft in Iceland were manned by Norwegian pilots as a part of RAF 330(N) squadron.

Ten of the aircraft were lost to accidents in Iceland, all but one while trying to land in rough seas. An additional four crashed in training accidents in Canada.

Only two aircraft, airframes 306 and 322, finally made it to Norway after the end of WWII, and one was scrapped in 1949 and the other in 1956, after being used as a training device for Norwegian aircraft mechanics.

The whereabouts of only two N-3PBs are known. One was a wreck that was salvaged from the Thjorsa River in Iceland. It crashed in 1943 and was recovered in 1979 and transported back "home" to Northrop's Hawthorne plant, where employee volunteers worked to meticulously restore the aircraft. After a rollout ceremony at Northrop on November 10, 1980, the aircraft was first displayed at the San Diego Air & Space Museum before being transported to Norway, where it is on permanent display at the Gardermoen Airport as a part of the Forsvarets Flysamlingen (Aircraft Collection of the Norwegian Armed Forces).

A second one, believed to be airframe 317, has been found in the water about a half mile off the end of one of Reykjavik's runways. Although it has not yet been salvaged, plans are being considered.

(An alternate view of the same aircraft in our featured photo, taken on the same day, can be seen here, as the 6th image down the list.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Snapshots from Mt Tom Airport

I know almost nothing about these three images...the first two shown both have hand-written on the back "Mt. Tom Airport, May, 1929". The third was from the same source, but has nothing written on it, so I'm not sure whether it actually was from the same place.

Where was Mt. Tom Airport? Not sure about that, either. There are a number of mountains named that, notably one in eastern California and one in Massachusetts. If you google Mt. Tom Airport, the closest thing that comes up is Oscoda County Airport on Mt. Tom Road in Mio, Michigan.

The first image (above) shows a WACO GXE, serial 1362, but there's little information contained in the old registration data bases. The aircraft type was originally known as a WACO 10, but was redesignated after 1928 as GXE, so this would tend to suggest that the plane in our photo was built after 1928.

I'm not entirely sure what type of aircraft is shown in the second image (left), so if any reader can identify it, please comment below!

Lastly is the plane below, which has a Curtiss-esque look to it. Again, I have no clue what it is, so if you can identify it, let me know.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lockheed's Sluggard XF-90

The first XF-90 sits on the ramp at Edwards AFB.
This is the story of one plane that just didn't have what it takes. In response to a 1945 Air Corps request for a high-performance, long-range bomber-escort fighter, Lockheed adapted some of the design elements of the P-80 Shooting Star into a new, swept-wing design. Initially designated the XP-90, and then XF-90 after the reordering of things as a part of the Air Force's independence, the aircraft competed against McDonnell's XF-88 Voodoo, the forerunner of the F-101. Two XF-90s were built, and the aircraft pictured today, tail number 46-687, was the first of them.

When famed Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier coaxed the XF-90 into the air for the first time on June 3, 1949, it became readily apparent that Lockheed had missed the mark. Though the plane was built rugged, it was also built heavy. Adding to that, the pair of Westinghouse J34 engines produced a total of only 6,200 pounds of thrust, hardly enough to push the large plane, which tipped the scales at 27,200 pounds when loaded. Underpowered was an understatement. Unless the plane carried only a minimal amount of fuel, it couldn't even take off without JATO rocket assist. For the second aircraft, Lockheed added afterburners, but that only boosted the power to 8,200 pounds of total thrust. The Voodoo easily won the production contract in September, 1950, before the program was cancelled. McDonnell resubmitted a slightly larger design for a subsequent fighter competition, which won to become the F-101.

Unneeded, 46-687 was sent to NACA's Cleveland labs in 1953 were it was subjected to structural testing, in the classic test-to-destruct mode. What was left was scrapped. The second airframe, -688, was used in nuclear weapons testing, and subjected to three different blasts. It survived, in a manner of speaking, and the battered remnants are planned to be displayed at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton to show the effects of a nuclear blast.

Another photo taken the same day as ours can be seen in the National Museum's on-line archive, here.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Alaskan Airacobras

The Bell P-39 Airacobra held several "firsts" for military aviation...first fighter to use tricycle landing gear, first to use a mid-fuselage engine installation. In the hands of Soviet pilots (over 4,700 P-39s were sent to the Soviet Union, almost half of all that were built), the P-39 is credited for more kills than any other U.S.-produced fighter aircraft.

Today's photo, last of our Alaskan collection, shows a lineup of three P-39F-1s (the closest aircraft is tail number 17334, the second one back is 17284) ready for the next fight. The Airacobras were a rugged aircraft, which made them ideal for Alaskan operations, and were operated from the Aleutian island of Adak by the 54th and 57th fighter squadrons against Japanese forces who had invaded the islands Attu and Kiska. Because the P-39 lacked a turbosupercharger, it did much better at low and medium altitudes.

Only one F-model, tail 17215 is known to have survived into the 21st Century, and it is in Australia.

8/19/2012 update: Tail number 41-7284 was destroyed in a crash on 5 April 1942, 20 miles west of New Orleans...a long way from Alaska.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Soaring Severskys

In the list of once-upon-a-time American aircraft manufacturers, the name of Seversky Aircraft Company rings few bells for people today. And yet, in the late 1930s, Seversky came up with some of the most modern fighter aircraft designs of its time, including the subject of today's image, the Seversky P-35, which was the Army Air Corps' first all-metal monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear.

Alexander de Seversky, who had flown as a fighter pilot in WWI, emigrated to America after the war. Seversky Aircraft Company was founded in 1931 and utilized the talents of a number of Russian engineers who Seversky "rescued" from the Stalinist purges of the time. Initially, the company concentrated on designing new all-metal monoplanes, and several variants were built as racers and flown in air races in the early 1930s.

For an Army fighter competition, Seversky modified the fixed-gear SEV-1P with rearward retracting main gear, and this became the Army's P-35, with contract award coming in 1936. There were 76 Army P-35s built (not including numerous civilian and foreign military versions), so the 13 shown in this photo represents a sizable percentage of America's P-35 fleet.

Things were different in those days, and Seversky built several civilian air racing versions of the P-35 (too bad that doesn't happen any more...would be interesting to see a civvie version of the F-35 race at Reno!), since air racing was one of the leading venues which manufacturers used to promote their products. In the 1938 Nationals, for instance, both Jackie Cockran and Frank Fuller flew race version of the P-35 (you can see photos of their planes here). But the state of the art was moving too quickly, and by the time that the last P-35 was delivered to the Army in 1938, they were already outclassed and essentially obsolete, no match for Japanese fighters on the eve of World War II.

After suffering some severe financial woes, Seversky was forced out, the company was reorganized, and re-emerged as Republic Aircraft. The P-35 design eventually led to the XP-41 and P-43, and ultimately to the enormously successful P-47 Thunderbolt.