Friday, March 29, 2013

The Incredible Saga of Igor's Gotha

Sometimes, the process of researching these photos takes me on an amazing journey. When I was offered the snapshot below, it was described as an "unknown" aircraft. As soon as I received it though, I realized that this was an early view of a remarkable plane that was represented, later in its life, in our Glendale negative collection. I had already started researching the latter photo, and now to have two images acting as bookends made the story even more compelling to me. As the research uncovered the details, though, the tale seemed more like an improbable Hollywood saga rather than a real part of aviation history...but then again, it's these fantastic stories that make aviation history so much fun to be a part of! 

Within 24 hours of hearing about the accomplishments of the Wright Brothers, young Igor Sikorsky was convinced that aviation was the future and he wanted to be a part of it, and thus changed his entire life's plans to become an aeronautical engineer. However, in post-WWI Europe, with its cities decimated by war, and especially in his native Russia, the prospects for such engineers looked grim. So, he emigrated to America and began looking for opportunities, and raising funds from fellow Russian emigres to start building planes.

Was there something in the grass that day? Kids on both the extreme left
and right of the photo are lifting their legs in odd ways...
Igor's first design under the auspices of the Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corporation was a twin-engined sixteen-passenger airliner, which he designated S-29-A (the "A" to celebrate that this was his first design in America). Construction was started with meager resources.

According to an article from the November 2002 issue of Air & Spacearchived at the Sikorsky corporate web site, Igor set up shop on a "chicken farm owned by his friend Victor Utgoff, a former lieutenant in the Russian navy. The work had to be done by hand, since the farm did not have appropriate machinery. Sikorsky and his workers, mostly Russian immigrants, were raiding junkyards for parts for the airplane, which had to be constantly redesigned depending on the equipment and materials they found. The main structure of the fuselage was built with angle irons from discarded bedsteads. Turnbuckles, which were used to adjust wire tension, were found in a Woolworth’s five-and-dime. The landing gear was installed with the help of Sikorsky’s nephew, Dmitry (Jimmy) Viner, who was a ditch digger. 'Since there was no jack to raise the fuselage,' Frank Delear wrote in Igor Sikorsky: His Three Careers in Aviation, 'Jimmy dug under it to make space for the wheels and landing struts. With the gear installed, the plane was then pulled out of the ditch.'"

The Air & Space article also describes what saved the project: "One Sunday, a chauffeur-driven limousine drove up to the chicken house. A tall, slender figure in a long black coat stepped out of the car and walked up to the airplane. In total silence, he inspected the aircraft. 'Everyone on the farm got greatly excited,' says Sergei Sikorsky, Igor’s son and the retired vice president of Sikorsky Aircraft, who remembers well how his father described the event. 'They all immediately recognized Sergei Rachmaninoff as their guest. My father went up to him and they began to talk. After about a half-hour visit, Rachmaninoff said, "I believe in you and your plane and I want to help you.”' The composer sat down and wrote a check for $5,000. With a smile, he gave the check to the stunned Sikorsky and said, 'Pay me back whenever you can.'" As a return favor, Sikorsky offered Rachmaninoff a VP position in the fledgling company, and the two remained close there after.

The S-29-A had two first flights. The first first took place on May 4, 1924, with the plane equipped with two 220hp Hisso engines, which left it underpowered. Igor himself was at the controls, and after lifting from Roosevelt field, he coaxed the floundering plane to Mitchel Field, where it crash landed. The plane was was not too badly damaged, and was rebuilt, with the engines being replaced by a pair of 400hp Liberty 12s. The second "real" first flight (as recognized today by the Sikorsky company) took place on September 25, 1924. With the larger engines, the S-29-A was the first twin engined aircraft in history that could safely continue flying on only one engine. It was too soon, though...the airline industry was still in its infancy, and America wasn't ready for an airliner of that size yet. While the airplane drew many an onlooker wherever it landed (as can be seen in our first photo of it, above), no customers stepped up and ordered the type.

Instead, it found a number of short-term uses. Sikorsky's first profit with the plane came, ironically, on April 23, 1925 when it was chartered to carry two grand pianos, one of which was delivered to the wife of the President. (Here, by the way, is an interesting conflict in the historical narrative: The official history of Sikorsky Aircraft says that the piano was delivered to President Herbert Hoover's wife, whereas contemporary newspaper accounts at the time said that it was delivered to Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. I'm inclinded to believe the accounts of the day!).  The Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register web site has an extensive article on the details of the plane's life, which includes some photos from the Library of Congress showing the pianos being unloaded.

A few weeks later, on May 8th, 1925, the airplane received a name, Yorktown, and a christening (with a bottle of water, since it was the era of Prohibition), and then the next day it started airline service between New York and Yorktown, VA, as reported by the Washington Post. What isn't clear, though, is who operated the service, how long it lasted, and how it was received.

The plane is next seen being used as a flying billboard for Curlee Clothing in a business arrangement orchestrated by the flamboyant barnstormer Roscoe Turner. Eventually, when the Department of Commerce began registering aircraft in 1927, the S-29-A was assigned registration number NC-2756. Also in 1927, Turner bought the aircraft and contracted with United Cigar Stores to turn the large plane into, as was emplazoned on the side, the "First Flying United Cigar Store". The plane would fly from town to town, attracting large crowds, who then (everyone involved hoped) would buy cigars from the salesmen onboard.

Anyone recognize the gent standing in front of the plane?
Finally, Roscoe Turner sold the S-29-A on April 3, 1928 to the Caddo Company, of which Howard Hughes was president. He added it to the private air force he was assemblying to be used in filming the epic Hell's Angels. In preparation, the aircraft was heavily modified in order to play the part of a German Gotha bomber. Our second photo is one that comes from the unique collection of Glendale-related negatives which the Archive owns, and shows the modified aircraft on the production set at Glendale.

In the plane's intended final scene, shot above Pacoima, CA on March 22, 1929, it was supposed to appear to have been shot up, giving off fake smoke, and then spin and crash - Hughes himself insisted on the spin, for visual effect. Most of the stunt pilots working the production refused to fly the plane, as they believed that the modifications compromised its safety. Famed stunt pilot Al Wilson volunteered to do the flight - for the handsome sum of $10,000 - but he also recognized the dangers involved, and insisted on flying alone. The scene called for "lamp black" to be released during flight to simulate the smoke, and mechanic Phil Jones convinced the director to overrule Wilson and permit him to fly along to release the smoke.

The fears about the aircraft's safety proved to be true, and as soon as Wilson entered the spin, the plane began to come apart. Wilson yelled to Jones twice to bail out, and then he himself "hit the silk". However, for some unknown reason, Jones failed to exit the plane, and was found dead in the wreckage, still at his station. The impact of the tragedy hit Wilson hard. Although he was eventually exonerated of any culpability, many blamed him for Jones' death, and he gave up movie flying, instead taking a position as an airline pilot with Maddux Airlines.

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