Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Raid on Sète

Smoke and B-24s fill the skies over Southern France on June 24, 1944.
Sunday, June 25, 1944, dawned bright and sunny over southern France. The invasion of northern France was all of 19 days old, and the Allied planners were going full-steam ahead with their bombing campaign against Nazi petroleum-related targets. On this day, over 400 B-17s and B-24s, flying from bases in Italy, hit the rail yards in Sète, as well as the oil refineries at Frontignan la Peyrade and  Balaruc-les-Bains.

The B-24 Liberators over this target area were from the 464th and the 485th Bomb Groups, 55th Bombardment Wing, part of the 15th Air Force, operating from Pantanella  (464th) and Venoza (485th) Airfields. Escorting the heavy bombers were 41 P-38 Lightnings from the 82nd Fighter Group, and others. Opposing them in the skies over occupied France were 59 Bf-109s from Jagdgruppe 200. JGr. 200 records show claims of two B-24s shot down, as well as three additional aircraft damaged. The fighters clashed about 0935, and one P-38 was seen diving nearly vertically after a Bf-109, and did not pull out  (P-38s in dives at high Mach numbers had a nasty habit of that). One Bf-109 is known to have been shot down.

Chart showing photo locations with current condition by Eric Radecki
The 8x10 glossy shown above is one of the Archives most recent acquisitions. My brother, Eric, who is an expert in maps and aerial photograph interpretation, helped immensely by assembling the chart on the right, showing the target areas as the appear today, 68 years later. Surprisingly, there is still an oil refinery at Frontignan.

Both the 464th and 485th have active association groups, and if anyone from those groups has details on this mission, I'd love to hear from you!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Alexander Eaglerock

The short-lived Alexander Eaglerock A-7 in flight with the snow-covered
front range in the distance.
It was the Roaring 20s, a time of broad shoulders, get it done, do it yourself, American pride. Money flowed through a booming economy, and when you weren’t working, you were partying. Hollywood was exploding and the moviehouses were full of patrons. And before each show? It was a newsreel, brought to you by some on-screen advertisements. That kind of a captive audience was relatively new…a darkened room full of people who had no choice but to watch your pitch, splashed across the silver screen. While the flicks came from Tinsletown, the advertisements were essentially local in nature, and a new branch of the production industry was essentially born over night.

Leading that charge was the Alexander Film Company, led by brothers J. Don and S. Don Alexander (go figure: when two brothers have the same middle name, you’d think they’d use their first names…), centrally based in Englewood, Colorado. The production house had a burgeoning sales force out on the road, and needed a way to make them even more effective. How better than to teach them to fly and provide them with a plane…one of the first innovative uses of corporate aviation?

In the early 1920s, there were plenty of old surplus JN-4 Jennys and J-1 Standards around, but a salesman needed something better, faster than an old WWI crate. The Alexander Brothers went in search of a company that could build new aircraft for them – with a then-unbelievable order of 40 or 50 aircraft – but found no one who could build in quantities like that. While it took Henry Ford’s assembly line workers only 93 minutes to produce a Model T, airplanes were still essentially hand crafted, at relatively great expense, over a long period of time, and in small quantities. Thus, it seemed to the Dons that the only thing to do was to build the planes themselves. In 1924, they looked around, and in Topeka, Kansas, they found the Longren Aircraft Co. which had just declared bankruptcy. The bought the tooling, designs and inventory and moved it to Englewood, launching the Alexander Aircraft Co.

The first aircraft that bore the Alexander name was a Laird Swallow that J. Don had purchased and modified. Four additional early Alexander aircraft were built using the existing inventory of Longren parts. Then, one day after J. Don had landed at his airfield, a young, 19-year-old kid named Al walked up and asked to look at the plane. A recent high-school graduate, Al loved planes and had wanted to become an engineer, but was headed for a more practical education at the Colorado School of Mines for college; he had been helping his dad build a building nearby when he saw the Swallow fly over and land. Al's passion for how airplanes were built came in handy, because he noticed that the Swallow was mis-rigged, and offered to help fix it. J. Don was impressed at his knowledge, and offered him a job, an offer which launched the aircraft design career of Al Mooney.

Mooney had already come up with his own design for a better, safer aircraft, the M-1, which was then built by Alexander starting in 1926 as the Long Wing Eaglerock. With this design, as well as the similar Short Wing and Combo-Wing aircraft, success struck for Alexander, which produced over 200 of these planes in 1926 and 1927. Alexander touted themselves as “America’s Most Popular Light Commercial Airplane”, and in a newsletter to customers published in 1927, J. Don wrote, "Last year at this time, we were producing one ship a month. We have worked that up to one a day and still at this writing, are forty-one ships behind sales." Ultimately, they reached the capacity of eight planes a day. What's more, in 1927, Eaglerocks held both altitude and endurance records for light commercial aircraft.

Mooney left for a short stint at Montegue Aircraft, before coming coming back to Alexander, where he stayed through 1929. The design was improved upon in 1926 to become the "New Eaglerock", or Eaglerock A-1, which was also instantly successful and produced in large numbers. Alexander's production numbers topped 450 aircraft by the end of 1928, and almost 900 by 1932, making it the largest aircraft manufacturer in America at the time.

Al Mooney and the other Alexander engineers didn't rest, and continually tried different improvements in the design, as well as different engine types, as the A-2, -3 and -4 (while records are vague, about 100 aircraft in this series were produced). Two or three A-5s were built, and then, in 1928, the team took a pair of airframes and tried the installation of a Ryan-Siemens 125-hp engine. Siemens, a German engine builder, had established a partnership with T. Claude Ryan's Ryan Aeronatical Co. to import their series of radial aircraft engines into the U.S. and market them to builders such as Alexander. The two Ryan-Siemens equipped aircraft were given the model number A-7. The first one built, which is the subject of our photo today, was construction number 451, and registered NX-4570 (as the whole scheme of "N" numbers was still brand new in 1928, the plane simply carried it as "X-4570"). There is very faint hand-written text on the back of our print that includes the date May 10, 1928, so presumably that was when this photo was taken (it also includes a quip about having "stolen" the photo and is signed by Z. Edward Stone).

Siemens bought out their contract with Ryan in 1928, and whether this move was the cause or the effect, their market penetration in the U.S. was minimal. Certainly, the engineers at Alexander weren't impressed, as they didn't pursue the A-7 model, but rather moved on and tried other engines in subsequent models, before the bigger economic picture brought the whole operation to a sudden halt in 1932.

NX-4570 was destroyed in a hangar fire in 1929.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Third Corsair

The first YA-7A, BuNo 152580 in late 1965. The triangular area
under the refueling probe as well as on the vertical tail are painted flight
test orange.
This is a story about the third Corsair, the Corsair II. Yes, it should have been the Corsair III. Sometimes, though, the powers that be at the DoD just aren't all that true to history. First, there was the Vought O2U Corsair, which we featured back in December. Then there was the Vought F4U Corsair, which we'll see more of next month.

And then there's the story of the enormously successful LTV A-7 Corsair II,which was conceived of by the Navy as a ground-attack aircraft replacement for the A-4 Skyraider. Due to cost concerns, the Navy wanted a plane based on a previous design, rather than what was perceived as a more-expensive clean-sheet approach. Vought, Douglas (with an enlarged A-4), Grumman (a single-seat variant of the A-6) and North American (TF-1E Fury) all submitted proposals.

With the Ling-TEMCO-Vought conglomerate’s F-8 Crusader-based design as the selected winner, the Navy ordered a prototype, six more as flight test aircraft, and 35 production aircraft on March 19, 1964. Ultimately, the first three were also referred to as YA-7A.

The A-7 was similar to the F-8 Crusader in appearance, but ultimately was its own aircraft, shorter and stubbier, plus specifically designed to be subsonic, whereas the Crusader was supersonic. The logic was that by not wasting fuel on the afterburner or fuselage space on area ruling, both required to go Mach speeds, the A-7 could carry more payload farther, even if it was a bit slower - and boy, could it do that: three times the payload of the Crusader! The A-7 could be armed to the teeth with a wide-combination of ground attack munitions on six wing-mounted hard points, plus two additional side-fuselage hard points for Sidewinders. It also sported a pair of 20mm cannon, which were later replaced by a single 6-barrel 20mm Gatling gun.

The first aircraft was BuNo 152580 and is the subject of today's featured photo. It was rolled out on August 13, 1965, and the maiden flight took place on September 27th at the Dallas Naval Air Station with LTV test pilot John Konrad at the controls. Its career did not last long, however. On March 23, 1966, LTV test pilot John Omvig was doing touch-and-goes at NAS China Lake, and on final approach, inadvertently switched off the aircraft's hydraulics system. Without the hydraulically actuated flight control system, the aircraft began to roll inverted. As 152580 rolled through the 90 degree point, Omvig ejected, but at very low altitude - witnesses later said that he was only at telephone pole height when his chute opened, and he was badly hurt upon landing. The aircraft crashed and was destroyed on the base's golf course, about three miles from the end of the runway. (Omvig wasn't so lucky the next time...just over a year later, on May 10, 1967, he was killed in the crash of an XC-142A)

Given that it only flew for six months, and the non-desert environs depicted in our feature photo, it is like that the photo was taken very soon after its first flight, while it was still at Vought's Dallas facility. The "Corsair II" name was selected in November, 1965, and at some point lettering to that affect was added below the "A-7A" on the tail, so the photo was probably taken in October or November.

Despite the loss of the first aircraft, what resulted from the program was a robust aircraft that even the Air Force ended up buying, and a warfighter that served in Vietnam, Grenada, Libya and even Iraq during Desert Storm before the last American one was retired in 1993 (the Greek Air Force continued to use the A-7 in limited roles into the 21st Century).

Friday, February 17, 2012

The First Airline in America

Claude Ryan's first converted Standard J-1, the Oneota, over the San Diego waterfront
flown by Dick Bowman (note the lack of a registration number...this was two years
before they were required).
The title of "First Scheduled Airline in America" has been claimed by two different companies, and far be it for this blog to attempt to settle the dispute. One of the claimants is Chalk's, which traces its roots back to Chalk's Flying Service, which established scheduled airline service between Miami and Bimini in February, 1919.

The other is the Los Angeles-San Diego Air Line (not exactly the most imaginative airline name in history...and rather limiting of route expansion!), which is the subject of today's gorgeous glossy 8x10 press and publicity photo.

Long before he was known as an aircraft designer, T Claude set up shop as a flight school and charter operator at a little field known as Dutch Flats in the early 1920s.He used a variety of aircraft, including U.S. Army surplus Standard J-1 trainers. Some of Ryan’s most lucrative charters were flights up to Los Angeles, and one day, one of his flight students, Benjamin Franklin Mahoney (B.F. or Frank, to his friends), who suggested that there might be some money to be made in establishing scheduled airline service between San Diego and Los Angeles. Mahoney offered to help fund the venture, if Ryan would provide the planes.

Ryan looked around for a relatively inexpensive, passenger-capable plane, and found none. On the other hand, there were plenty of Standard J-1s lying about. The type was, by all accounts, a terrible airplane. In the midst of WWI, the Army had desperately needed training aircraft, and simply couldn’t get all the Curtiss JN-4 “Jennys” that they wanted, so they bought the J-1 from Standard Aero Corporation of Plainfield, New Jersey.

A major part of the shortcomings of the J-1 can be attributed to the highly unreliable Hall-Scott A7a engine, which was underpowered, vibrated terribly and had a nasty habit of catching fire while in the air. The J-1 had been developed by Standard from the Sloan H-series trainers, originally designed by Charles Day. To meet the production demands by the huge Army orders, three additional companies, Wright-Martin, Dayton-Wright and Fischer Body also began to build J-1s, with over 1,600 being produced. Because of the technical and safety issues (the J-1 had a much higher accident rate than the JN-4), and with sufficient quantities of Jennies now on hand, the Army grounded them in 1918, and many were never even unpacked. An additional 2,700 aircraft were on order when the Armistice was signed, and the Army promptly cancelled these and began dumping the ones they still had.

Thus, after the war, Standards could be picked up for a song, many still in their original shipping crates. When re-engined with an OX-5 or even a more powerful Hispano Suiza, the reliability of the J-1 increased dramatically, and they became popular on the barnstorming circuit and with the private flight schools that were springing up all over the country, like Ryan’s.

Ryan found three “new” J-1s in Texas, bought them for a few hundred dollars, and brought them out to California. When the crates were opened, however what he had was really nothing more than a collection of pieces. Undaunted, he had his mechanics build up the machines, and then began to modify them. In Army service, the J-1 was a two-seater, instructor and student. For the new airline, Ryan re-engineered the fuselage, eliminating the forward open cockpit, and building an enclosed four-place passenger cabin, with large windows for sightseeing, in the fuselage forward of the aft cockpit. He replaced the troublesome 90hp Hall-Scott engine with a 180hp Hispano-Suiza, and suddenly he had a dynamic performer on his hands.

Calling the new variant the “Ryan Standard”, he christened the first ship Oneota after a friend’s ranch. The second was the Miramar and the third, which was further modified with a wider, two-person cockpit, the Palomar. Our featured photo shows the Oneota in flight over San Diego’s waterfront area, and was likely taken very early in the operation - or possibly before it officially started. This photo was used in both news releases about the Line, as well as on the cover of its time table, as can be seen in this sample.

Daily round-trip service commenced on March 1, 1925. (And that is where the claims for the "first airline" differ - Chalk's offered scheduled service, but it wasn't daily. Thus, the Ryan/Mahoney operation could justly claim to be America's first daily-scheduled, year-round airline.) The one-way fare was $14.50, and a round trip cost the princely sum of $22.50, calculated on breakeven costs if only one passenger was on board. The fares also included to/from hotel transportation.

Understanding that a regular airline was going to need a lot of publicity to draw passengers, Ryan invited Hollywood celebrities out to the inaugural round-trip flights, which would start from Los Angeles, flying from a small airfield at 99th Street and Western Ave. All three of the Ryan Standards – one of which would be flown by Ryan himself – would together make the first flight. Other celebs, including Robert Vignola, Hedda Hopper and Vera Reynolds, came down to witness the flight, drawing crowds to see them as much as to see his planes. As a part of the first-flight festivities, three military aircraft, representing both the Army and Navy, were tapped to “escort” the three passenger planes to San Diego.

With the military aircraft orbiting the airfield overhead, the three Ryans climbed skyward at 10am, heading south at 1,500 feet (ideal for sightseeing) for the 90-minute journey. At the same time, two Navy carrier pigeons were also released, a stunt that backfired on the airline, as one of the feathered birds arrived “home” at San Diego’s North Island before the formation of six airplanes landed at their destination just across the narrow harbor.

Naturally, large crowds greeted the arriving stars, complete with the mayor and civic presentations. After lunch at the Grant Hotel and a tour of the city, the stars returned to Dutch Flat for the return trip to LA. The following day, March 2, the regular schedule of 9am L.A. departure and 4pm return flight from San Diego commenced.

A month and a half after service started, on April 19, Mahoney bought half of all of Ryan's business interests, and the two formally became partners, under the name Ryan Airlines. Besides offering travel, Ryan Airlines soon started building and selling airplanes to other carriers as well, the first being the Ryan M-1, six of which were bought by Pacific Air Transport, an early forerunner of United Airlines. Despite its glamorous start, traffic - and revenue - from the San Diego to Los Angeles service started to drop off. To compensate, fares were increased to $17.40 and $26.50, and to further garner publicity and passenger interest, Ryan Airlines bought a larger Douglas Cloudster, which was converted to carry 10 people in carpeted luxury.

It was to no avail, there just wasn’t the needed demand. Even when no pax showed up, they kept the schedule with empty airplanes. In September 1926, the airline service was cancelled. Ryan and Mahoney's partnership was terminated two months later, with Mahoney buying out Claude's interest, but keeping the Ryan Airlines name, and continuing to build airplanes. And five months after that, a young air mail pilot by the name of Charles Lindbergh, who had been impressed with Pacific Air Transport's M-1s, contacted Ryan Airlines to inquire whether they could build a version of the aircraft capable of flying across the Atlantic.

The Palomar was sold to Lewis Hawaiian Tours, who re-christened it the Malolo and flew inter-island and sightseeing tours with it. One of the Lewis pilots was Martin Jensen who later won 2nd place in the tragic 1927 Dole Mainland-to-Hawaii race. The Miramar was sold to the Byerly Brothers in Mexico. It is not known what ended up happening to the Oneota.

The San Diego Air & Space Museum's Flickr stream has a large collection of the airline's Ryan Standards, starting at this image.

(Tip o' the hat to my bro Eric for giving me the photo for Christmas. And credit were credit's due: part of this article was based on information from the article “First Regular Daily Airline Service Was From L.A. to S.D.” by Richard Crawford, San Diego Union-Tribune, March 10, 2011.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

America's First Rocketplane

Acme Telephoto wirephoto with an embedded caption. This is the only known
photo of the MX-324 during powered flight, although there are a number of images
extant that were taken during the initial glide testing. Back "in  the day", it was
fairly common for photos to be retouched (yes, even long before Photoshop became
a verb!), and this one is quite heavily retouched, so much so that the caption writer
had to note that "this is an actual photograph". The actual flight took place on July
5, 1944, so presumably this dateline is February 13, 1946.
In 1942, Jack Northrop began to pursue one of his most persistent dreams: to perfect the flying wing. This version, the XP-79, was to be a rocket-powered flying-wing fighter aircraft. To test some of the concepts, he first built three MX-324 test aircraft. One of these was later powered by a rocket motor built by Aerojet Corp. In order for the pilot of both the XP-79 and the MX-324 to withstand the anticipated high-G loads, he would fly lying prone.

The first flight of a MX-324 glider took place on October 2, 1943, at the remote Harper Dry Lake, not far from today's Edwards AFB and Mojave Air and Space Port, where modern rocket plane development is underway. The small aircraft were towed aloft behind a P-38 Lightning. There were several incidents that seriously jeopardized the program. During one of the glide test flights, the pilot pulled the wrong handle when it came time to jettison the tow rope...he had grabbed the escape hatch release by mistake! The aerodynamic changes that this caused led to severe buffeting, but he was able to land safely. On another test flight, one of the MX-324s was lost when the tiny glider got caught in the P-38's prop wash, and entered a spin. When the pilot recovered, he was inverted and lying on the ceiling, unable to reach the flight controls. Instead, he bailed out and parachuted to safety. The -324 continued its gliding descent inverted and was damaged beyond repair on hitting the lakebed.

The engine used on the MX-324 was a 200-pound-thrust Aerojet XCAL-200 liquid-fuel compound rotary rocket, which actually was comprised of several smaller rockets that rotated about an common axis. The fuel was monoethylaniline and red fuming nitric acid.

The first powered flight of the MX-324 took place on July 5, 1944 (some accounts state that it was on July 4, other say it was July 22; date confusion is not surprising, since even the photo of the then-top-secret aircraft wasn't release for two years!) with Northrop test pilot Harry Crosby at the controls. The plane was towed to 8,000 feet, and Crosby then release the tow rope and ignited the engine. The flight lasted only four minutes, 3:30 under rocket power, but was considered a success.

Just over a year later, on September 12, 1945, Harry Crosby was at the controls of the XP-79 prototype when it went out of control during its maiden flight. He was killed while trying to bail out.

Historian's note: there's a lot of confusion about this plane, as would be expected from a secret project conducted during this time period. Besides the variation of first flight dates, even the model designation is in dispute. Northrop historian Ira Chart states that the MX-324 was the unpowered glider and the MX-334 was the powered version. Author Andreas Parsch states the opposite. It is clear, though, that in the official news release accompanying our photo, two years after the flight the powered version was being referred to as the MX-324.

Update: After this posted this morning, I received the following note from one of my Mojave rocket plane friends: "Well... America's third rocketplane, but arguably America's first military rocket plane, as the caption claims. In 1931, William G. Swan flew a rocket glider at Bader Field in Atlantic City. In 1941, Lt. Homer Boushey took off in a JATO-equipped Army Air Corps Ercoupe from which the propeller had been removed. The MX-324 was probably the first airplane designed from the outset for rocket power." Thanks, Randall!

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Visit to Lincoln, Nebraska

A ubiquitous C-47, several of which could be found at every air base during
this time.
Last Friday, we saw some shots taken by a young aviation enthusiast at Scott Field, Illinois in the mid-to-late 1940s. Today, we have some drive-by snapshots that he took at Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska.

Clearly the airfield security back then wasn't what it is today!

AT-6D Texan 41-33648. 
8/19/2012 update: This AT-6C, 41-33648, was eventually transferred to the RAF as Harvard II number EX675. It later crashed during a forced landing on 18 April 1950.

(No cowboys here!)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Cowboy and the Texan Pilot

One kind of Texan meets another??
When my brother, the proprietor of the VonRad Trading Post (shameless plug: Lincoln California's premier antiques emporium), gave me today's glossy vintage 8x10, I was baffled. So was he. What's a cowboy on a horse doing chatting it up with the pilot of a AT-6 Texan? We both agreed: surely there's a story behind this photo...if only we knew what it was.

The plane is likely an early -A model, given the lack of a spinner and the radio antenna mast.

The photo has all the feel of a staged shot. Could it be North American's play on the "Texan" name? Or a movie still? I'm certainly no expert on old films and even older actors, so I'll leave it to any knowledgeable readers to suggest which one. But be sure to check out the pilot's hair: there's no way that he just climbed out of that cockpit and pulled off his helmet and goggles!
The perfect aviator: no helmet hair!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Scott's Superforts

Handwritten on back:
"B-29 Engine"
Today’s series of photos is the first from a collection taken by a young aviation enthusiast (we’ll see more in the coming weeks). While these photos won’t win any awards for photographic excellence, they are nevertheless wonderful snapshots of a very brief moment in time when majestic Boeing B-29s graced Scott Air Force Base in Illinois with their presence.

Anyone with info on the specific aircraft shown is invited to comment!

B-29-86-BW tail number 44-87719.

B-29A-55-BN tail number 44-61956 is on the left; the tail number of the
aircraft on the right is too out-of-focus to read. Handwritten on back
is "B-29s on Runway at Scott Field."

Update, 8/3/12 - While I've yet to be able to find any detailed information on the B-29s shown, I have found some history of the C-54 at the bottom of this post. As the post originally was written, I surmised that these photos were taken in the early 1950s. However, it is clear by the aircraft data that these were taken sometime in 1945 or '46.

C-54B-1 serial 42-72362 (Douglas c/n 10467), was originally delivered on December 8, 1944, and damaged in a landing accident in Kungming, China, in February 1945. After it was repaired, it was bought back by Douglas and converted to civilian DC-4 specifications. From August 9, 1946 to 1950, it flew with Pan Am, carrying civilian registration N60115; unlike other DC-4/C-54s operated by PAA, it doesn't appear to have been given a "Clipper" name, however. They then leased it to Transocean, before it went on to subsidiary Pan American Grace Airlines (PANAGRA). It was then sold to AeroMéxico and flew as XA-KOK.

Douglas C-54 Skymaster tail number 42-72362.
The plane was then leased to LAMSA (Lineas Aereas Mexicanas, S.A.), and later flew with Fuerza Aérea Mexicana as ETP-7004. It is reported to have been destroyed in an accident at Cozumel, January 11, 1979.