Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A PBJ and the Curse of Palmyra Island

When I first saw this photo, an official 8x10 glossy, something struck me as just slightly odd about it. The plane carries an AAF serial number (42-87197, visible on the side of the fuselage at the far left of the photo) and yet one of the mechs working on the #1 engine has Marine Corps insignia on his cap. The men are doing what appears to be routine maintenance on the Wright R-2600-13, with new spark plugs lined up on the stand to the left.

A check of the serial number showed that this was a Kansas City-built B-25D, and that this was one of a block of 24 Mitchells that, after being ordered for the AAF, was diverted to the Navy and designated as PBJ-1D. Thus, 42-87197 became Navy BuNo 35114, though the AAF number apparently wasn't painted over. This photo was acquired with a group of other USMC images that were centered on MCAS El Toro, so I'm presuming that this is where the photo was taken.

Like so many bombers of the war, tragedy struck 35114, and it crashed at sea on 4 August 1945, with the loss of all eight Marines on board. [Note from 18 Jan 2015: Or was it 1943? The sources I referred to when I originally wrote this post all said 1943. However, the two comment from relatives of crewmembers that can be seen in the comments section below make a good point that the squadron didn't get activates until Sept 1943. If any reader has a copy of the official incident report, I'd be very interested in hearing from you!] The PBJ had taken off from Palmyra Island and disappeared, and that's where this story really took a twist. I have to confess that when I started researching this photo, I didn't even know where Palmyra Island was, but I quickly found that the place has a long tradition of being a Pacific version of the Bermuda Triangle - there's even a book that's been published by the name of The Curse of Palmyra Island. While I don't put a whole lot of stock in tales of the paranormal, I'm always up for a good sea story, and this one turns out to be a doozie.

If you were to think of the Pacific as a giant circle bounded by the Americas, Asia, Australia and Antarctica, then Palmyra Island would pretty much mark the circle's very center. Lying about a thousand miles south-southwest of Hawai'i, the "island" is really an atoll comprising of about 50 small islets surrounding a couple of blue lagoons; the entire complex is only 1 1/2 miles long by a half mile wide, and is one of the most remote locations, and thus hosts one of the most pristine coral reefs left on earth. It also has a very long history of very strange happenings.

The stories begin with the island's discovery in June 1798 by Capt. Edmond Fanning of the Betsy. Fanning's story has been passed down through the years, but it's difficult to know how much is real and how much is embellished legend (not that that should stop a good sea story!) While under sail one night in normal seas, Fanning hit the sack, but awoke to find himself standing at the top of the companionway. Normally not a sleepwalker, this startled him, and he returned to his quarters. This happened twice more, which really shook the man up. He became convinced that this was, as he reportedly described it, a form of "supernatural intervention", and thus ordered the ship hove to until morning. Returning to his bunk, he slept soundly for the rest of the night. In the morning, Fanning ordered the ship to resume its course, but almost immediately the crew saw breakers - indicating the presence of a reef - dead ahead. This surprised everyone on board...had they continued the night before for another half hour at the most, they would have run aground, probably with the loss of all hands. While Fanning recorded the incident in his log, he didn't bother to report the atoll as its discoverer.

Four years later, in 1802, Captain Sawle and his ship Palmyra was blown ashore on the island, and later reported its discovery, naming the atoll after his ship. Perhaps it is for the best that Fanning failed to report the discovery, else we'd be telling the tale of the "Curse of Betsy Island"...which just doesn't have the same ring.

There is a legend of buried treasure on the island, as well. Supposedly, in 1816, the Spanish Galleon Esperanza flush from plundering Inca temples of their gold was blown way off course (some versions of the legend say that this happened after a particularly nasty fight with another ship) and ran aground on the atoll. The crew made it to shore with the loot, and reportedly buried it there before setting off on three makeshift rafts. Two of those never were seen again, and only one sailor was still alive on the third one when it was found by an American whaler. After telling his tale, along with mentioning the burial of the treasure, that sailor, too, died.

There were others, too. By the late 1930s, with war clouds looming over the Pacific horizon, the Navy eyed Palmyra. Its location smack in the middle of the Pacific made it a natural refueling stop for the Allied aircraft. The Navy's Seabees bulldozed a landing strip into the longest of the islands, and dredged a channel into the largest of the lagoons. The "curse" seems to have lived on. Hal Horton, a Navy officer who spent time on the island, is quoted in the book And the Sea Will Tell (more on this book in a bit) as saying:
Once one of our patrol planes went down near the island. We searched and searched but didn't find so much as a bolt or piece of metal. It was weird. Like they'd dropped off the edge of the earth. Another time, a plane took off from the runway, climbed to a couple hundred feet, and turned in the wrong direction. They were supposed to go north and they went south instead. It was broad daylight. We never could figure it out. There were two men aboard that plane. We never saw them again. We had some very bad luck on that island. Old salts in the Pacific called it the Palmyra Curse. [The island]...is very small. You [could] fly over it at ten thousand feet and not see it if there [were] a few clouds in the sky. Once we heard a plane over head trying to find us, be he crashed in the drink before he could find the runway. We didn't get to the poor guy fast enough. Sharks found him first.
Horton isn't specific, but it's entirely possible that the first plane he refers to is our PBJ. What is clear, though is that 35114 disappeared and her crew was listed as MIA. On 6 August 1945, the status of the entire crew was changed from Missing in Action to Killed in Action. Lost on board PBJ-D1 35114 were:
1st Lt. Charles W. Sieben, Pilot
2nd Lt. John James Zelmer, Co-pilot
SSgt Arthur C. Thielen, crew
Cpl Bernard F. Banker, crew
Sgt Frederick J. Seitz, crew
TSgt Paul Junior Rogers, crew
TSgt Clarence H. Post, crew
TSgt James Henry Mons, crew
But the strangities didn't stop after the war...more craft were wrecked, and more people stranded. The notoriety magnified in 1974 when a couple who were living on the island, Buck Walker and his girlfriend Stephanie Stearns, attacked and murdered a visiting couple, Mac and Muff Graham, in order to steal their sailboat. Because no bodies could be found, the offenders were initially just charged with theft, but then another yacht crew, who were visiting the island six years later, just happened to be walking down one of the most remote beaches on earth, on the only day when the skeletal remains of Muff Graham were visible on shore...one more day and the tide would have washed them away. This provided the evidence to convict the Walker of murdering the couple (Stearns was acquitted) and send him back to prison. The sordid tale made national news, and was later documented in the 1991 book And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi (author of Helter Skelter), and the TV movie of the same name. And there have been more incidents since then, so the curse lives on.

Some details about the island, along with some gorgeous photos of it today can be found at this post on the TravelVivi blog. Today, it is owned primarily by the Nature Conservancy, which has a number of excellent online articles about the island.

A tip o' my sailor's hat to my brother Eric for giving me the photo...and to Lisa: this is why he's always looking for photos for me!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Wings, Wind and Sail: A Confluence of the Ages

Today's post is a very special edition of the Jenny Project. When I first saw this photo, it spoke volumes, and I felt compelled to acquire it for the Archive. It is at the same time poignant and poetic, so instead of filling this space with my ramblings, I'll let the image speak for itself.

As the Age of Sail heads for the horizon, the Age of the Air takes wing.

The planes shown are both Curtiss Model N-9s, which were the float-plane variant of the JN-4 Jenny, and which first flew in late 1916. The paper on which this photo is printed was manufactured between 1904 and the first part of 1918, so the window of when this photo was taken is pretty narrow.

Of the 560 or so N-9s built by Curtiss and licensee Burgess Company, only one has survived, and is preserved at NASM.

Note the extreme aileron deflection!

While it's impossible to know what ship this is, windjammers were still used
into the 1920s. Combining modern steel hulls with three to five square-rigged
masts, these ships could still outperform steam on ultra-long-haul routes.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Spanking New Thunderbolt

Today's post doesn't have much of a story to it, instead it's just eye candy for Thunderbolt fans. The plane shown is 42-25315, a Block 20RE P-47D, and it appears (by its cleanliness) to be factory-new. The back of the 8x10 glossy has no markings, and no information to indicate the significance of the plane or why it was shot.

The D model was the most-produced version of the Thunderbolt, with over 12,600 built. During production, the model evolved fairly significantly, with each step being designated by a production block. The "RE" indicates that this plane was built at Republic's Farmingdale, LI plant, as opposed to their Evansville, IN plant (which had "RA" suffixes).

Most of the aircraft in this block went to the 79th Fighter Group (which had seven of her sisters lost between May and August 1944), but I have no information as to whether 225315 went there, or what the plane's ultimate fate was.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Billy Mitchell's Barling

This is what some called "Mitchell's Folly". Officially known as the Witteman-Lewis XNBL-1 (Experimental Night Bomber - Long Range) and more commonly called the Barling Bomber after its designer, this behemoth was the product of idealistic passions that exceeded the technological realities of the day and ran head-on into a political storm that surrounded the future of America's military might during the 1920s.

If there was one thing above all else that Lt. Gen. Billy Mitchell took away from his experiences in World War I was the fact that the true future of warfare, both over land and at sea, lay in the development of air power, and more specifically, in strategic bombing. While the US Navy pressed for more and more dreadnaught battleships at great expense, Mitchell argued that bomber aircraft could secure a coastline much more efficiently than could the battleships, and for the price of one dreadnaught, a thousand bombers could be built, which could easily sink a battleship.Navy leadership was outraged at these claims - and the threat to their empire of surface ships - and thus the early 1920s was marked by rancorous disputes.

Mitchell, for his part, aimed to prove his perspective by turning the idea of a strategic, long-range bomber into reality, with the goal of a plane large enough to carry a bomb load capable of sinking a battleship. Earlier, he had met a gifted aircraft designer then working for the UK's Royal Aircraft Factory by the name of Walter Barling. He had designed the Tarrant Tabor, a British triplane bomber that was, when built, the world's largest airplane (the ungainly aircraft had suffered a fatal crash on its maiden flight; that fact, though, does not seem to have deterred Mitchell).

The two agreed that a large bomber was certainly feasible and Barling went to work for the Army Engineering Division and began sketching out his ideas. In 1920, specifications were issued and manufacturers were asked to bid on building two of the bombers.The plane was to be capable of carrying a 5,000 pound bomb load, fly to 10,000 feet and have a cruising speed of at least 100 mph. Witteman-Lewis, of Teterboro, New Jersey, won the bidding process.

As a product of political warfare, the design was subject to the pitfalls of political reality. The Army had a huge surplus of 420-hp V-12 Liberty engines at the end of WWI (over 20,000 had been built by the combined efforts of Buick, Ford, Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard and Marmon), and Congress had mandated that these be used up by any new aircraft projects before new engines could be procurred. To get enough power, Barling used six Liberty 12A engines, four as tractors, with two more as pushers mounted behind the two inboard tractors.

A number of innovative features were included in the design. The landing gear consisted of two main gear "bogies" featuring four wheels each plus a nose gear to prevent the kind of nose-over that the Tarrant Tabor had suffered. The pilot and copilot each had his own cockpit, and behind them there was a station for one or two flight engineers who would monitor the engines, a first for aviation. A navigator, a radio operator also had their own spaces, and a bombardier sat in the nose. Unlike earlier bombers, the XNBL-1 carried its bomb load internally, and utilized another first: bomb bay doors. For defense, seven machine guns were operated from five positions.

Components were built in New Jersey and the were shipped by rail to Wilbur Wright Field for final assembly. The plane's maiden flight took place on August 22, 1923, and was less than stellar (Barling hinself flew as a passenger on that flight). The result of the power compromises was that, while the plane could get off the ground easily enough - a little less than a thousand feet was needed - it couldn't really get much higher. The plane's service ceiling didn't go high enough to even allow the XNBL-1 to fly from Dayton to Washington: the Appalachians were too imposing of a mountain range (this was discovered as the plane was attempting to fly to an airshow in DC and had to turn around). The plane could only manage a top speed of 96 mph, and only had a 170-mile range, far less than would be expected from a long-range strategic bomber.

Almost immediately, the order for the second aircraft was cancelled. Despite the disappointing performance, the plane did manage to actually set a world record (not that it had much competition), carrying a 4,400 pound bomb load to 6,722 feet. When ordered, the two aircraft were projected to cost $375,000, but due to excessive cost overruns, the single aircraft built cost $525,000, and Witteman-Lewis had to absorb the difference, causing them to go out of buisness a few months after delivering the plane to the Army

The plane was eventually disassembled and stored in a large warehouse at Wilbur Wright Field. Major "Hap" Arnold discovered it there during a 1928 inspection tour, and determined to get rid of it. So much money had been invested in it, though, that some in Congress resisted Arnold's requests for permission to dispose of the Barling. Undeterred, Arnold subsequently submitted a request to Congress to "liquidate a warehouse containing excess materiel" with out disclosing what that materiel was or that the plane was part of it. This time Congress agreed, and the Barling quietly disappeared from history. The only remnants to survive are two of the ten original wheels, which are currently displayed at the Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Dayton.

All was not a total loss, however. The effort to build such a huge aircraft forced the design team to have to overcome a number of engineering hurdles, and the lessons learned were able to be applied directly to the next generation of large bombers, the B-15, B-17, B-19 and ultimately the B-29.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Young Skyhawk

This photo is stamped on the back with "Douglas Aircraft Company, Inc Santa
Monica", "Douglas-Navy A4D-1" and "Photo Library May 21, 1956"
Those who have ever flown or worked on the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk (A4D under the pre-1962 designation system) have a very special affinity for that plane, and it's not surprising: the Skyhawk remained in production for 25 years, and though it's long-gone from the US military, the Skyhawk still serves in several other nations' services more than 50 years after the type's maiden flight.

The Skyhawk was a product of the era when a company's principal engineer designed the majority of the aircraft, and was a product of the mind of Douglas' brilliant and self-taught Ed Heinemann. Starting as a draftsman for Douglas in 1926, his career spanned almost five decades, and he retired in 1973 from General Dynamics, after having overseen the development of the F-16. Heinemann's philosophy as he himself described it (and as evident in both the A-4 and F-16) was to take the most powerful engine available and design the simplest and lightest aircraft possible around it.

When the Navy requested proposals for a jet-powered replacement for their AD Skyraider, Heinemann came up with an incredibly simple-yet-functional design that weighed half of what the Navy's specifications called for. The plane's delta wing carried plenty of fuel and yet was small enough that it didn't need to fold for spacing on a carrier, thus saving a lot of weight and complexity. A typical A-4 cost only a fourth the amount of an F-4 Phantom, and yet carried more weight in stores. While principally a close strike aircraft, it could also carry nuclear weapons and has been used in air-to-air combat as well.

Douglas built two XA4D-1 Skyhawks (the first XA4D-1 took to the skies on 22 June 1954) and then 18 YA4D-1 flight test and pre-production aircraft (after the 1962 US armed services model designation commonization change, these were redesignated A-4A), and the one shown in our photo, BuNo. 137819, was the sixth of the Y series. Our photo shows it in flight over Southern California (probably either from Douglas' Santa Monica plant or NAS China Lake), then on 21 September 1959, it was assigned to NAS Quonset Point RI, and then on 29 Feburary 1960 819 was sent to the Naval Aviation Test Facility at NAS Lakehurst, NJ (a photo of 819 at Lakehurst can be seen here). On 14 January 1963, it was damaged in an unspecified incident and written off. Its sister, 137818, is currently preserved at China Lake.

As of this writing, A-4s still fly in the service of Singapore, Brazil (carrier-based), Argentina and Israel. In addition, the American company Draken International operates a privately-owned squadron of former New Zealand A-4s in adversary-for-hire service.