Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Grumman's Fifi

The story of Grumman's very first airplane is a convoluted one...the Navy hadn't really asked for the plane, and it had its genesis in the demise of another manufacturer and the need to move floatplanes around on land easier. What resulted, though was one of the enduring dynasties in Naval Aviation.

Before the days when aircraft carriers were the Navy's centerpieces, it was the battleships, heavy cruisers and destroyers that ruled the seas. In battle, the advantage was to whomever could see - and thus accurately shoot - the farthest. An eye in the sky gave our Admirals and Captains the vantage point they needed, and in the 1920s, it was scout aircraft like the Vought O2U Corsair that served in this role.

Equipped as a floatplane, several of these planes were carried aboard each ship (see Eyes of the Idaho), and launched off of catapults mounted on the aft gun turret and on the stern. At the end of the sortie, the plane would land in the water next to the ship and be hoisted back aboard. The system worked well at sea, but when the Corsairs had to come to land, handling of the floatplanes was cumbersome, at best. Special dollies with small wheels had to be fitted to the main float's hull before the plane could be pulled out of the water.

Meanwhile, Leroy Grumman and company had left Loening and set up shop on their own. Of the original investors, Leroy had mortgaged his house (for a whopping $16,950) and was the largest shareholder, so he got to name the new company after himself. Work was hard to come by at first, and Management kept their crews busy - if not happy - building truck and trailer bodies. Because of Grumman's former work for Loening on their OL amphibian, Navy planners approached Leroy to see if they could come up with a retractable landing gear system that could be mounted in the Corsair's float, similar to the system that the OL was equipped with. Grumman and his team improved on the Loening's simple swing-up design, which left the wheel sticking out into the airflow, with a folding design that left the wheel stowed flush in the side of the float. It worked well, the Navy loved it, and consequently ordered the Grumman Model A float into production. Corsairs equipped with the new float were designated O3U.

The concept of main landing gear that retracted flush into the structure was so compelling that the Navy the approached Grumman to see if his team could come up with a similar retrofit gear design for the Boeing F4B fighter plane. The forward-thinking Grumman saw Boeing as a potential rival for future aircraft contracts, and was rather disinclined to help the competition improve their design. So in reply, Grumman offered a cleansheet two-seat fighter design on 2 April 1931 that promised significantly improved performance over the Boeing. The Navy jumped at the offer, ordering a single prototype which the designated XFF-1.

Besides the revolution in gear design, the aircraft also featured a state-of-the-art all-metal stressed-skin fuselage design, and an enclosed cockpit. The performance improvements, including a top speed of 207 mph, were nothing less than astounding, and a new dynasty of Navy fighter aircraft was born. The production FF-1, which became affectionately known as the "Fifi", had a run of 64 aircraft. Technology continued to move forward at breakneck speed, though, and the FF-1 only remained in frontline service for two years before becoming eclipsed by the further improved, smaller single-seat Grumman F2F fighter. But a dynasty had been born, with continuing design improvements that led, model after model, to the famed F4F Wildcat of WWII.

The only air combat victory scored by an FF-1 came when a license-built Canadian Car & Foundary G-23 (CC&F built an additional 57 aircraft for export customers) variant flying for the Spanish Republicans shot down a Heinkel.

Only one FF-1 survives, and is on display at the Naval Aviation Museum.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ford's Stout

Though this post was originally published only a couple of weeks ago, I'm reposting it as the Archive just acquired a second photo of a Stout Pullman.

Unfortunately, the image isn't clear enough to determine which of FATS' five
Pullmans this one is.
In the early 1920s, with most of the contemporary airplanes being made of wood and fabric, the idea of a metal airplane enthralled a few engineers who could see the day when aircraft engines would be powerful enough to heft the heavier material. One of these was William Stout, who adapted some of the metal structure design aspects pioneered by the German designer Hugo Junkers. The most readily visible aspect of this technology was the use of corrugations in the metal skin to provide structural strength.

Unlike many engineers, Stout was also an astute salesman, and resorted to a gimmick to raise the capital needed to turn his ideas into reality. He sent letters to leading industrialists blatantly asking for a thousand dollars from each of them, stating, “For your one thousand dollars, you will get one definite promise: you will never get your money back.” Twenty people responded, and the Stout Metal Airplane Company started business in 1922. Two of the twenty people who responded were Henry and Edsel Ford. Henry’s success in the automotive industry led him to believe that there was a future in air transportation as well, if for no other reason than as a fast means of moving freight from one factory to another.

This photo comes from a different source than the one above, but the scene
is certainly similar.
The first Stout plane, the 2-AT Pullman (or “Air Pullman”), was a single-engine all-metal design powered by a 400-hp Liberty V-12. First flight took place on April 23, 1924, and the aircraft was christened Maiden Detroit. In all, eleven of the aircraft were built, and the Pullman lived up to the luxury hinted at by it's railroad passenger service-inspired name: passengers could expect a cabin with comfortable seats, pleasant decor including designer wall paper, and even a bathroom. In its cargo configuration, Stout advertised the 2-AT as the "Air Truck".

In 1924, Henry Ford did more than just invest a thousand dollars: he became a partner in Stout, and the company moved to a new factory facility at the Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan. In August 1925, while the Pullman was still under development, Henry bought out William Stout’s interest in the company, which then became the Stout Metal Airplane Division of the Ford Motor Company; Stout himself stayed on as chief consulting engineer. Henry also began sponsoring the Ford National Reliability Air Tour, an annual cross-country contest that was intended to promote aviation as a safe and reliable means of transportation. The 2-AT won the 1925 event with a perfect score.

Ford now had a capable airplane, but he still needed a commercial service to carry the freight he needed moved, so he took the first five aircraft (the Detroit plus Maiden Dearborn I, II, III and IV) and formed the Ford Air Transport Service, which flew the first scheduled commercial cargo flight in America between Ford factories in Detroit and Chicago on April 14, 1925. Besides those two cities, Cleveland was also served by FATS. While the media-derived nickname "Tin Goose" has come to be attached to the Ford Trimotor over the years, it actually was first given to the Pullman by a newspaper in December, 1925.

With the passage of the Kelly Act, which allowed commercial services to bid on U.S. Air Mail runs, Ford jumped into that game as well, and Maiden Detroit flew the America’s first commercial transport of mail from Detroit to Cleveland. On May 18, 1926, Maiden Dearborn I become the first US commercial aircraft to suffer a fatal accident, when the air mail flight crashed during poor weather. Despite the initial hype regarding the safety of the aircraft, in 1928 the Commerce Department declared that the Pullman’s wings were not safe, and so all remaining 2-ATs were scrapped.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Super Solution!

Is the guy on the right Mattie Laird?  Let me know if you
recognize either of these two!
Today's photo presents a bit of a mystery...who are these two gentlemen? I'm pretty confident that the one on the right is Mattie Laird, but I have no idea who the man on the left is.

There's no mistaking the plane behind them, though...it is Jimmy Doolittle's Laird Super Solution racer. With this plane, Doolittle won the 1931 Bendix Trophy.

In 1930, E. M. "Mattie" Laird designed a plane he called the Solution, which won that year's Thompson Trophy race. He had also designed two Speedwings which showed well at the '30 Cleveland Nationals.

By then, though, Walter Beech's Travel Air Model R Mystery Ships were smoking the competition, so the Cleveland Speed Foundation commissioned Mattie to come up with something that woud present serious competition to the Mystery Ships. Built over a six-week period in July and August 1931 (first flight was Aug. 22), the LC-DW500 Super Solution (which also became known as the "Sky Buzzard") was tested and then turned over to Doolittle. The plan was to fly the Bendix race from Los Angeles to Cleveland it would use a direct-drive Wasp Jr. engine, and then undergo a quick modification to installed a geared version for the closed-course Thompson race, which was more of a sprint affair.

On September 4, 1931, Doolittle bagged the Bendix race with a total elapsed time of 9:10:21 (average speed of 223 mph), but almost as soon as the race recordkeepers had recorded his time, he took off for Newark, hunting for Frank Hawks' Mystery Ship transcontinental speed record, which he beat by 1 hour, 8 minutes (total time from Burbank to Newark was 11:16:10, with an average speed of 217 mph). He almost immediately turned around and flew back to Cleveland to get ready for the 100-mile Thompson race.

With the geared engine now installed, Doolittle flew the first time trial at an astounding 260 mph (minimum to qualify was 175 mph), but at full throttle, the engine nearly tore the plane apart. In its stock condition, the Wasp Jr. was rated at 375 hp, but with the geared prop case, "doped" fuel and other modifications, this version was putting out well over 500 hp. Doolittle found his wings beginning to warp and he experienced the onset of aileron reversal at top speeds. It was decided to switch back to the "cruise" engine, with the hope that it was "tamer" and would cause less stress on the airframe. In that configuration, his second heat race turned in a speed of 272 mph. On race day, though Doolittle jumped into the lead, he couldn't say there. The engine began to falter, and with temps hitting redline, Doolittle made a precautionary landing during the seventh lap; the Granville Brother's Gee Bee Z racer went on to win.

After the race - and after an engine overhaul at Pratt - Doolittle set one more distance speed record, from Ottowa Canada to Washington DC to Mexico City. In 1932, Shell Oil began sponsoring Doolittle, and he commissioned a series of modifications to the plane, including installation of retractable landing gear (this mod pegs the date of our photo at sometime in 1931). The performance failed to live up to expectations, and on the first test flight, the gear failed to extended. Doolittle made a respectable belly-landing, but the plane was too badly damaged to be ready in time for the race, so he jumped ship to fly the Gee Bee R-1, winning the 1932 Thompson.

The Super Solution was then put into storage and canabalized until what remained was donated to the Smithsonian in 1948, where it was stored until 1974. The remains were then obtained by members of the EAA with the intent of restoring the aircraft. However, it quickly became aparent that the parts were too badly damaged, so the EAA volunteers decided instead to build a replica, which was unveiled at organization's Oshkosh museum in 1981. It can be seen at this link. A much more detailed writeup on the aircraft can be found here.

But again, who are the two men in our photo? I'm fairly sure that the one on the right is Mattie Laird. The only photo online that I could find of him (here, at find-a-grave.com) shows some resemblence (especially in the ears). Let me know if you have any ideas!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Packard Ford

The third in a series of three posts featuring some of the Archive's Ford images

With Trimotor production in full swing, the Ford Motor Company understood that the way to stay ahead of the competition was to be continually innovating, so a small group of producition aircraft were held back from sale and used as testbeds to try out new engine combinations. One of these was the sole model 11-AT.

Born as a standard 4-AT-E, (NC-8404; first flight July 10, 1929), serial 66 was used to test Packard's new DR-980 nine-cylinder radial Diesel engine, first designating it a 4-AT-G then 11-AT when the corporate decision was made to offer the configuration for sale. First flight in its experimental configuration took place on April 2, 1930. The engine, designed by Professor Herman Dohner and Captain Lionel Woolson, promised a drastic improvement in fuel efficiency and a power-to-weight ratio - at 550 pounds dry-weight, the 225 horsepower output resulted in a more efficient ratio than some of today's engines. Ford actviely advertised the type as more economical as well as safer, since Diesel fuel is less flammable.

Our photo is an official Ford shot, and the 8x10 glossy period print is so crisp that an enormous amount of detail can be seen by enlarging the scans.

When this engine was installed on a Bellanca CH-300, it set a world unrefueled endurance record of 84 hours, 33 minutes on May 28, 1931, a record which stood for 55 years until being broken by the Rutan Voyager.

However, there were some drawbacks. The engine was a monovalve design, and consequently was very rough running - in some applications, a flexible coupling needed to be installed between the crackshaft and the propeller. For an airliner, this was a show-stopper. Passengers demanded smoothness in their ride. In addition, many people found the smell of Diesel exhaust particularly annoying.

After NX8404's flight test program was over in, Ford dropped the idea of using Packard Diesels, and returned the aircraft to it's stock 4-AT-B configuration with three Wright J-5 R-790 Whirlwind engines (there is some indication that it later had J-6-9s). It was first sold on July 3, 1934 to Mulzer Flying Service of Columbus Ohio, then on January 25, 1936 to Oral K. Southwick of Springfield, Mo. On May 29, 1937 (some sources say it was in March, not May), the plane crashed at Belleville, Illinois, though without killing anyone. The wreckage was taken to Parks College where an attempt was made to rebuild it, but it was ultimately judged too expensive, and the remains were cut up and sold for scrapped.

(Some information for this post was derived from the invaluable book Ford Tri-Motor1926-1992 by William T. Larkins)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Four Fords at Ford

The second of three Ford Trimotor posts for this month

Today's small, innocuous snapshot is really the capture of a remarkable moment in Ford Trimotor history. Taken at Ford Airport in Dearborn, Michigan (now the site of Ford's Dearborn Development Center; for a look at how it appears today, check out this link), the photo was taken at or near the beginning of the 1927 Ford National Reliability Air Tour, which got underway on June 27, 1927 (there is another similar photo of the event, here on San Diego Air & Space Museum's Flikr site, which also appears in a book on the tour).

Lined up from left to right are:

NC3041: This was the third 4-AT-A built went to the Ford Air Transport Service; it was later was rebuilt into a 4-AT-B and then a -E configuration. After service with Ford, the plane bounced around several owners before being bought by Alton and Elizabeth Walker, who used it for barnstorming (Elizabeth was listed as the aircraft's owner). A contemporary newspaper account describes the couple as "barnstorming their way around the world in a tri-motor Ford on their second honeymoon...."

By 1935, it was being flown by Whitepass Airways from Skagway, Alaska, and in 1936 it was in B.C. Canada with the British Yukon Navigation Company (CF-AZB). It was damaged during a towing accident and after a failed rebuild attempt, it was "bulldozed into the ground as part of the construction of longer runways at Whitehorse" in 1942.

A detailed history of this aircraft, including the newspaper item quoted above, can be found at the Davis-Monthan Register site. Photos of its time at Whitepass can be seen here.

NC2492: This was the sixth 4-AT-A, first flew May 18, 1927 and was sold to Standard Oil of Indiana, who used it as a company transport and named it "Stanolind I". Two photos of NC2492 from July 1927 when it was in service with Standard can be seen at the Denver Public Library's Western History website.

At some point, the plane was sold to D. A. Seitz and operated privately. It was destroyed in a crash on February 8, 1930 in San Marcos, Texas, reportedly when the landing gear failed. There were seven on board, and it appears that there were no injuries, although the plane was written off. There is some rumors, though, that the airframe, or parts of it, were recovered and is now undergoing restoration (would love to hear comments from anyone with information!).

A-7526: The fourth 4-AT-A Trimotor was built as a demonstrator for the U.S. Navy, and assigned Navy model number XJR-1 and Bureau Number A-7526.After its initial flight test and demonstration program, it was used as an executive transport for the Navy, flying fairly regularly between San Diego and Washington DC. During the 1927 Reliability Tour, the plane was used to fly press reporters, and given the designation "Advance Pathfinder Airplane and Official Tour Airplane"...which, if this photo was taken during a Tour event, it is seen here.

By April 30, 1930, it had been stricken from the Navy's books, and presumably was scrapped.The Navy and Marines would go on to buy eight more Trimotors from Ford.

NC2435: This was the first, serial number 4-AT-1. Its first flight took place on May 11, 1926, and in October 1927, it was delivered to Ford's own airline, Ford Air Transport Service. At some point, probably at the time of delivery, the registration was changed on NC1492. On May 12, 1928, the aircraft was destroyed when it crashed on takeoff at 8:45am from Ford Airport, killing both pilots, William Munn and L.K. Parker (a newspaper account of the accident can be seen here). The cargo flight was the inaugural run of the Dearborn-Buffalo NY route, and the accident was the first fatal Trimotor crash. According to the contemporary news account, Munn, a former test pilot, lifted off with too little airspeed and the plane stalled.

While the photo on the right isn't related to the 1927 Tour photo, I thought I'd thow it in as a bonus...Henry Ford himself assisting a woman (his wife?) off of a Trimotor sometime in 1928. Our image appears to be a proof for a wire service photo.

Finally, I offer the snapshot below...a small little photo showing three Trimotors in formation flight...I have no idea if this was taken during the 1927 Air Tour, or at some other event, but this seems as good a post as any to include it.

There is a new Trimotor history website that I'm excited to see come our way...check it out and contribute if you can!

Photos of a remarkable Trimotor restoration can be seen here

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In Memory of Leo Nomis

Live hard, fly fast, die young. That was the fate a many of the early pilots of the Golden Age of aviation, when the industry attracted individuals that were drawn to the glamor that accompanied danger like moths to a flame. Ernest Simon was one of those. He was limber, had no fear and enjoyed taking risks...the one thing he didn't like was for newspapers, while reporting on his stunts, to nickname him "Simple" Simon. He reversed the spelling of the last name, and added Leo as his first, becoming Leo Ernest Nomis.

After making a name for himself as a daredevil on the county fair circuit parachuting from tethered balloons and the like, he served for a short time as an instructor teaching Army pilots to fly at the beginning of WWI, and then moved to Hollywood in 1914 in order to get into film stunts.Of course, the most glamorous stunts - and some of the best paying - were those performed with aircraft. He was a natural pilot, and flew in numerous films, including Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), Manslaughter (1922), Hell's Angels (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1930), and The Lost Squadron (1932).

I initially bought these three photos for the Jenny Project, before realizing who they depicted or where they were taken. Having recently read Barbara Schultz's Flying Carpet, Flying Wings (a bio of Northrop test pilot Moye Stephens, which I'll be writing about in a couple of weeks), I recognized Nomis from photos included in the book. The other thing that caught my eye were the faint oil derricks that can be seen in the background of the three photos, indicating that this is probably De Mille Airfield (later known as Rogers Airfield; compare with the photos on this Hollywood history website and this architecture blog) in Los Angeles. With the various WWI planes line up in the background of the second image, I'm suspecting that these three 8x10 photos are movie stills.

Always looking for a thrill, Nomis also tried air racing, tying for second place with Paul Richter at the 1927 Santa Ana Air Jubilee Carnival. He also taught others to fly. Among his students were Pancho Barnes and Moye Stephens. When  Pancho Barnes sought to form a stunt pilots' union, Associated Motion Picture Pilots, in order to promote better pay and safety, Nomis (along with Barnes, Dick Grace, Frank Clarke and Al Wilson) became a charter member, and was elected to its presidency.

However, only a month after assuming the position, Nomis was killed in a crash 81 years ago today while filming Sky Bride. The United Press article, published on February 5, 1932 (and revived by the Hollywood Heyday blog), stated, "Hollywood, Cal – Feb 5 (UP) Leo Nomis, one of Hollywood’s most prominent stunt fliers, was killed today during the filming of scenes in a picture called Sky Brides [sic]. The fatal crash took place while the movie company was working at the Metropolitan airport.Nomis and two other movie pilots were engaging in a 'dog fight' on a battle sequence at about 1500 feet. Nomis’ plane was supposed to 'shudder' [other sources indicate he was performing a spin] as part of the picture. It never came out of the shudder but plunged straight to the earth.The other members of the 'dog fight' told studio officials that they believed Nomis fainted at the stick."

Leo Nomis is interred at Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

The Davis-Monthan Register web site includes a page on Nomis.