Friday, June 28, 2013

The Pride of Hollywood

Note the catwalk mounted just behind the engine, so that the crew could service
the engine while in flight. Behind the Pride is TAT's Ford 4-AT-C Trimotor NC8411.
As historian, I find nothing more intriguing than a good mystery, and today's aircraft certainly presents it. These two photos come from a small collection that the Archive recently acquired which were shot by William H. Alman in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A student at Pasadena City College, Alman was both an aviation and a photography enthusiast. Later, Alman went on to a career with AiResearch, retiring in 1976. The photos which the Archive acquired were all taken at local Southern California airports, and these two were shot at Glendale, California in late 1930.

I was initially led down a rabbit trail by several sources that list the Pride of Hollywood as one of the names carried by the Mason Greater Meteor, a plane built by students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and a plane which has a very convoluted and confusing history. The Meteor had been modified at one point and was intended to be used in a flight endurance record attempt. I could find only one photo of the Meteor (here), taken after it had crashed. The over-wing aerial refueling manifold and the cockpit position make the two aircraft look similar, but the Pride  had a much longer fuselage and a completely different tail (not to mention the different registration number), so clearly these are not the same aircraft.

The guy on the left appears to be Reinhart. Note the open hatch
in which a crewman is standing...during the flight, one of the
crew would stand in the hatch and catch the hose lowered from
the refueling aircraft above. Also note that they man on the
ground has "American Eagle" written on the back of his cover-
Old registration records list NR-331E as an "Albatross B", with serial number 101, and other references note it as a "Albatross B-1" and "Zenith Z-5 Albatross". In researching the Pride, it didn't help that the history of Zenith Aircraft, which started in 1927 in Santa Ana, was fairly convoluted. After operating for a couple of years (resulting in the single Z-12 trimotor and several production Z-6 airliners) they experienced a bit of a management shakeup in 1928, changed their name to American Albatross and moved to Long Beach. Their lead designer, the colorful Charlie Rocheville (who was passionate, maybe even obsessed, about designing aircraft capable of very long endurance flights) left to start his own company with brother Henry, but seems to have not severed ties completely (again, records from that era are murky), because we see him again involved with Albatross building a plane, the B or B-1, that is very similar to the old Z-12, but a single-engine aircraft rather than a trimotor. Albatross built two of these, the first was NX-6227 (serial 100) and the second was the Pride.

Building on what he'd learned with the Z-12 project, Rocheville was hoping that the B-1 design would be capable of up to a 90-hour endurance. Serial 100 was sold to Al Ebrite Aero, a charter operator, who sponsored an endurance record attempt with it in 1929, flown by Johnny Guggliemetti and Lee Schoenhair. On the first try, the plane was damaged during takeoff, but after some quick repairs, the record attempt got underway. They made it to the 43 hour mark, but then had to land due to lack of fuel: some mis-calculations had led to much higher-than-expected fuel consumption, and Rocheville's 90-hour goal was just too lofty, of course, the fact that Al Ebrite had re-engined it with a larger motor might have had something to do with it. The plane went on to fly cargo in Mexico, and quietly disappears from history.

The Pride of Hollywood team had a bit of a different approach to their endurance flight. Rather than try to set the record for unrefueled flight, they intended to go for an absolute endurance record, and utilize in-flight refueling. Pilots Loren W. Mendell and Roland B. "Pete" Reinhart had together set an endurance record of 246 hours, 43 minutes and 22 seconds in July 1929 flying a Buhl named Angeleno. Their record was quickly eclipsed, and so they set out to recapture it, starting in September 1930, using the Pride. They were joined by R. V. "Doc" Howard onboard. The few references I found on the record attempt neglect to mention where it was flown, but these photos show that at least some of the project was based at Glendale's Grand Central Air Terminal.

Four times the crew took off to attempt to set the record. The first was on September 21, but the attempt was abandoned after only ten hours in the air. The next try came on September 25, but on the following day,  a section of fabric tore from the wing after 29 hours and the flight was again scrubbed. The third flight started on October 1, and lasted for 66 hours until the 300 hp Wright J6-9 engine started acting up and forced the crew to land. The final try came on October 5, but was again cut short by engine problems after only 20 hours and 53 minutes. On each of the flights, the refueling crew was made up of James C. "Jimmy" Angel and C. L. "Bud" Hussey, and during the first flight, they used a Pasadena Javelin (NR-469E), but switched to a Buhl for the rest of the attempts.

After October 1930, the Pride of Hollywood disappears from the record. Mendell, though, had an interesting history: he served in the Army's 31st Balloon Co. during WWI, and later served with the US Treasury Department as a liquor smuggling patrol pilot. Smuggling got into his blood, though, and he was later arrested for smuggling illegal aliens into the US from Mexico and served a year in a Los Angeles jail. He was killed on January 17, 1935 when he crashed into a mountainside 25 miles north of LA while flying in fog, returning from Barstow. His girlfriend was also killed in the accident. (More on Mendell can be found here.)

Reinhart flew on a number of movie productions, including Hell's Angels. When Howard Hughes decided to switch the movie from silent to talkie mid-way through production, rather than re-shoot aerial scenes, he recorded audio of Reinhart's plane (along with audio from Pancho Barnes' Travel Air) and then dubbed it into the film. Reinhart went on to fly for a number of airlines before ending up at Delta, where he flew for years, retiring as a Convair 880 captain in 1962. He then hired on at Convair as a B-58 Hustler test pilot, and also flew the F-111. (More on Reinhart can be found here.)

In 1929, American Albatross was bought out by EMSCO of Downey CA, and Rocheville came back full-time, as one of their chief designers. Rocheville's tendency was to use older designs as the basis for newer ones, and the EMSCO B-3 (Aerofiles shows this photo of a B-3) clearly shows the design lineage.

(Big tip o' the hat to Joyce Franzman for allowing me to preserve her father's photos!)

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