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.

No comments:

Post a Comment