Friday, September 27, 2013

An American Messerschmitt

The location for this photo appears to be Hughes Aircraft at Culver City. The
Archive's copy is a recent reprint on modern photo paper, unfortunately, but
when I found it at a Burbank antique store, I couldn't pass it up.
The Messerschmitt ME-262 was a legendary aircraft, the world's first operational fighter jet, and over 1,400 were built during WWII. One of the most "storied" of the eight surviving aircraft is the subject of the two unrelated photos being featured today. Before the end of the war, the Army Air Forces had put together a small organization called the Air Technical Intelligence (ATI) division, which was tasked with finding and securing examples of Nazi advanced technology which could then be studied, tested and exploited. After the war, one of the key targets of ATI was the ME-262 jet fighter, which had so out-classed its Allied adversaries.

Eleven ME-262s were returned to flight status at Lechfeld, Germany and ten were ferried back (one had crashed during a test flight) to the US onboard the British carrier HMS Reaper. This group of ten were split between the US Navy and Army Air Forces, and became (unoffically, of course), America's first jet fighter squadron. A very detailed article about the unit and the men that brought these captured planes home, who collectively became known as "Watson's Whizzers", can be found here.

While stored at Chino in the early 1960s.
Of the five AAF ME-262s, one was lost in a landing accident, but the other four have survived to this day, including the one shown in our two photos. It started out as a ME-262A-1a/U3 (WkNr. 500453) unarmed reconnaissance variant. When first recovered by the Americans, it was named Connie...the Sharp Article and then a bit later Pick II. After arriving at Newark on the Reaper on 1 August 1945, the squadron was ferried to a small, little-known airport call Freeman Field in Indiana on 19 August, where the planes were put through their paces and their capabilities were explored. The testing was coordiated by T-2 at Wright Field. Our plane received the designation FE-4012 when it arrived in the US (FE=Foreign Equipment), and once the testing got underway, this was changed to T-2-4012.

One set of flight tests was aimed at evaluating the ME-262's capabilities against America's top operational fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. Messerschmitt had designed and assembled the ME-262 as a modular aircraft, so it was easy to change a plane's confirguration. For this series of evaluation flights, the American crew removed 4012's reconnaissance nose and replaced it with an aerodynamically cleaner fighter nose, sealed the gun ports, and gave the plane a new gloss paint job. On 17 May 1946, the plane was ferried to Patterson Field (at the time, the field's management had not yet been merged with nearby Wilbur Wright Field) where the testing was to be based. A total of eight flights were flown, two of which resulted in emergency landings. The engines were proving to be extremely unreliable, and after only 4 hours and 40 minutes of testing - and four engine changes! - the testing was called off in August of that year.

Despite the fact that (at least by modern flight test data acquisition standards) this was hardly enough flight time to gather an abundance of reliable flight test data, the Army concluded that the ME-262 had better accelleration and top speed, while showing about the same climb performance as compared to the P-80. The ME-262 also appeared to have a much higher critical Mach number, meaning that it had much less high-speed drag and better performance in the transonic realm.

After the AAF completed the flight testing, the aircraft was disassembled and shipped to Hughes Aircraft in Culver City for storage. There the plane was reassembled and the engines were ground-run, but the plane wasn't flown. Rumors have persisted over the years (and have been amplified on the internet) that there was a desire on the part of Howard Hughes to fine tune 4012 and enter it in a Thompson Trophy race against the AAF's P-80. The conspiracy-theory type rumors state that this effort was squashed by General Hap Arnold as part of a "cover-up" because he didn't want an old Nazi war machine showing up America's newest weapon.

However, despite the persistence of this story, there appears to be no factual basis for it, and when one looks at the details, the improbability of it all really stands out, even given the well-known animosity between Arnold and Hughes. First and foremost, if anyone could make the ME-262 fly reliably, it was Watson's Whizzers, who had access to plenty of spare parts as well as German expertise; Hughes might have had money, but he had none of this. Even with all those resources, the aspect that stands out most from the plane's testing was the terrible reliability of the Jumo 004 engines, which would have been wholly unsuited for air racing. On top of the practicality issues, the timing of it all just doesn't fit. The stories never really indicate which Thompson Trophy race the plane was to be entered in, but there were only three that were possibilities, the 1946, '47 and '48 races.

In the time leading up to the 1946 race (held from 29 August through 3 September), the plane was still in the hands of the AAF at Patterson, Hughes was in the hospital recovering from the near-fatal crash of the XF-11, and most importantly, Hap Arnold had just retired, and so was out of the picture in regards to any official coverup. By the 1948 races, the new North American F-86, which could fly circles around the P-80 (by then, F-80), had been in development flight test for a year, and so had made any grudge match a moot point; the races that year were dominated by the Navy's FJ Fury, and the P-80 didn't even appear.

That leaves the 1947 races, but Hap Arnold was still out if the picture in retirement, Hughes was neck-deep in preparations for both the H-4 (aka Spruce Goose) first fact he was so focused on this project that once made the statement that if the H-4 Hercules didn't fly, he'd up and leave the country for good. In addition, Hughes had the task of preparing for and testifying at the contentious hearings of the Senate War Investigating Committee. While 4012 was stored at Hughes' Culver City facility, it was still government property, and thus couldn't just be used for any personal racing whims that an otherwise swamped Hughes might have. So, barring some heretofore unknown hard evidence that Hughes proposed such a project, the story should be regarded as just one more Hughes-related rumor.

After a short time in storage at Hughes, it became clear to the leadership of the new USAF that our own technology was already far ahead of where the Nazis had been a few years earlier, and there was nothing to be gained in further testing of the ME-262. Thus, the aircraft was given to Cal Aero Technical Institute at the Glendale airport, where it was used as a hands-on teaching tool for student aircraft mechanics.

In about 1955, the plane was acquired by Edward Maloney for his Planes of Fame collection, and was partially restored, and statically displayed incorrectly as WkNr 111617 at the Chino museum. In about 2000, ex-Microsoft executive Paul G. Allen purchased the plane for his Flying Heritage Collection, located at Paine Field in Washington. According to some reports, it was shipped to the UK for restoration, but has since returned to the US, where it is reportedly being completed to flying condition, to be powered a pair of original Jumo engines. The aircraft has been registered with the FAA as N94503, with ownership being listed as Vulcan Warbirds, Inc., one of Allen's companies.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Mary's Junior Sportster

The same photographer who shot both of last week's Gee Bee Model Y Senior Sportster took this photo of the Gee Bee Model D. The Granville Brothers had started building a series of aircraft which they called the "Junior Sportsters", powered with in-line engines to compete in race classes defined by smaller engine displacements. They started with their Model X, designed around a 110-hp supercharged Cirrus engine, and it competed respectfully and took second place in the 1930 All-American Derby, a grueling 5,541-mile endurance race from Detroit to Los Angeles and back.

The success of the Model X opened up the commercial potential for small racing planes, which then led the Brothers Granville to develop a series of production aircraft, the Model B and Model C, both of which flew in the restricted category. Building on the design, the Granvilles then built their Model D under a CAA type certificate (ATC404), which meant that it could be licensed as a standard-category aircraft, which promised a big boost to sales. Unlike the other Junior Sportsters, the Model D had fully-faired landing gear, and to help improve directional stability, the vertical stabilizer was enlarged. The plane, nicknamed "the Cat" and powered by a 125-hp Menasco C-4 Pirate engine, was flown to various airshows and events throughout 1931 by Zantford "Granny" Granville. The tour was punctuated by an appearance at the 1931 Cleveland Nationals flown by Bob Hall, who took first place in the 25-mile Williams Trophy race, which was limited to aircraft with an engine displacement of 400 cu. in. or less.

At the same event, it was also flown by the well-known aviatrix Mary Haizlip in two races, one a free-for-all for aircraft of 510 cu. in. or less, and the other limited to ATC certified aircraft under 625 cu. in. In both races, Mary finished second to Phoebe Omlie, with Maude Taite coming in third in her Scarab-powered Gee Bee Model E. Depsite these successes, NC11043 was the only Model D built.

Besides racing the plane, the Granvilles tried to use it for another commercial mission that was all the rage at the time: skywriting. A smoke generating system was installed, controlled by a trigger mounted on the stick. Granny even demonstrated the system by skywriting "Gee Bee" over New York City, but this failed to generate any sales.

In July 1936 (some sources say 1935), Channing Seabury was practicing aerobatics in NC11043 when he lost control of the aircraft. He tried to bail out, but was struck by the plane's tail and killed.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The First Successful Sikorsky Boat

When I first acquired this 8x10 print, I was a bit puzzled...the configuration was similar to the Sikorsky S-34, but the engines were positioned differently. Most of the information I found on the subsequent S-36-B referred to it as an amphibian with an enclosed cabin, and the plane in our photo clearly has an open cockpit and doesn't have the landing gear that most S-36 photos show. Maybe something in between?

The S-34 was Igor Sikorsky's first attempt at a flying boat, and in early 1927, during a test flight, it suffered an engine failure, crashed and sank. Instead of building another, Igor advanced the design and a few months later unveiled the S-36-B. The breakthrough in the research came with this article in the October 20, 1927 issue of Flight magazine, which reveals that Sikorsky actually offered the S-36-B in open and closed cockpit configurations, and with or without landing gear. The article also includes a photo of our aircraft that appears to have been taken only moments before or after our photo was taken...the propellers are positioned exactly the same, only the pilot has moved slightly.

The S-36-B was offered in three configurations, all cargo, open cockpit and closed cabin, both of the latter which would carry six passengers and two crew. I couldn't find any information stating how many of the open cockpit version were built, but the fact that most photos show the closed-cabin configuration suggests that only one was built; the Flight article indicates that one open-cockpit version, likely that shown in our photo, was sold to Andean National, a Canadian company doing pipeline construction work along the Magdelena River in Columbia, South America, where there were no landing strips available (hence no need for wheels). One of the five production aircraft built was sold to the then-new Pan American Airways, starting a long tradition of Pan Am flying Sikorsky aircraft. A sixth aircraft was sold to the US Navy as the XPS-1 and even had a gunner's position in the nose.

The most famous of the S-36s was one named Dawn, which sold to Frances Grayson, the neice of President Woodrow Wilson, for her attempt to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (albeit as a passenger). She and her crew departed on December 23, 1927 and were never seen again.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Maude's Senior Sportster

The aircaft initially carried the experimental registration seen here,but 
that was changed to a restricted-category registration by the time of 
the 1931 Nationals, so these photos werelikely taken late in 1930 or 
early in 1931.
When most people hear "Gee Bee" or "Granville Brothers", there's are certain iconic aircraft that instantly comes to mind...the model Z and later R-1 and R-2 racers (also known as the barrel racers, because of the shape of the fuselage). The notoriety that these aricraft have, unfortunately, overshadowed the fact that the Granville Brothers (Edward, Mark, Robert, Thomas, Zantford) built a number of other sport and racing aircraft under the Gee Bee brand, starting in 1929 and lasting until they filed for bankruptcy in January, 1934.

The two photos featured today depict the first of two Gee Bee Model Y aircraft, also known as the Senior Sportster, which was Granville's first two seat model. NX11049 (YW-1) was designed by Gee Bee engineer Robert Hall for aviatrix Maude Taite, whose father owned the Springfield MA airport, and thus was the Granvilles' landlord; it first flew in late 1930.

The cartoon bird painted on the side was the mascot of the Granvilles, and
was patterned after the filaloola bird, which was noted by its call,
The plane made its debut at the 1931 National Air Races in Cleveland as Race #54, but while it did well, it was overshadowed by the other Gee Bee that came to the races, the model Z. Taite first flew it in the Shell Trophy 3km speed dash, and then on September 6, 1931, she won the 50-mile Aerol Trophy race with a speed of 187.574 mph, setting a new women's closed-course speed record for that distance, beating Amelia Earhart's old record by a full 10 mph (she fell short of beating the men's record for the 50 mile by only 1 mph). The plane was also flown in the much shorter Thompson Trophy race by Robert Hall, who took fourth place at 201.25 mph...the Z won, flown by Lowell Bayles, at 236.239 mph.

YW-1 didn't appear at the 1932 Nationals, but was entered in the 1933 races, where Marty Bowman took second in the Aerol (161.7 mph) and Zantford Granville flew it to fifth place in the Thompson (173.0 mph; it would have been 6th and last, if Roscoe Turner hadn't been disqualified for cutting a pylon). With the top race speeds increasing each year, it was clear that the Model Y just was not competitive any longer.

The plane continued to be owned by Gee Bee until their 1934 bankruptcy, when it was sold off along with many of the company's other assets. It finally met its fate later in 1934 while flying over the Atlantic off of New York City and shed a propeller blade. The pilot managed to bail out, but the vibration caused the engine to come off its mounts, and the aircraft entered a flat spin and was lost at sea.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pickwick's Bach Crash

While the Ford was the most well-known trimotor produced, a number of other companies also tried to break into the airliner business with three-engined designs, including L. Morton Bach's Bach Aircraft Corp, which started business at Santa Monica's Clover Field, before moving to the LA Metropolitan Airport at Van Nuys.

Bach built a number of different trimotor models, but one thing tended to differentiate them from other brands: they used smaller nacelle-mounted engines than what was used on the nose. Five ten-passenger model 3-CT-6 Air Yachts were built for Pickwick Airlines, and these used a Pratt 525-hp Hornet on the nose and two 130-hp Comet engines in the outboard nacelles.

The original negative for this image is very badly deteriorated, and a lot of work
was required to restore even this amount of detail.
Pickwick had started as a bus line serving cities up and down the California coast and their "Nitecoach" was one of the most innovative bus designs on the road. On March 29, 1929, they entered the airline business with twice-daily service between Los Angeles (Glendale Grand Central Air Terminal) and San Diego. Soon after, San Francisco was added to the routing, as was Mexico City and Guatemala City (sample timetables can be seen here). In order to publicize the upcoming LA to Central America service, Pickwick hired Pancho Barnes to fly the route, and she then claimed to be the first woman pilot to fly between LA and Mexico City (a claim contested at the time by aviatrix Mildred Morgan, who had been hired to fly the same route by Los Angeles radio station KTM, which ironically was also owned by Pickwick).

The Archive owns several original photos of Pickwick Air Yachts. The one seen above comes from the William Alman collection, and the rest come from the Archive's R.C. Talbot negative collection. On August 7, 1929 Air Yacht NC539E (c/n 7, the third of Pickwick's five Bachs) was being flown by Pickwick pilots John Woods and Elmer McLeod and carrying eight passengers when it lost power only five minutes after takeoff from Grand Central bound for San Diego, and made an emergency landing three miles away, in nearby Los Angeles River bed, overturning in the soft sand. Miraculously, no one was killed, and only moderate injuries were suffered. The official cause off the crash is listed as "engine failure due to gas-line stoppage" (more info and a copy of McLeod's log entry for the crash can be found at the DM Airfield webpage).

Pickwick had grand visions of combined bus/plane service from LA to Chicago, but with the Great Depression settling over the country and the company's inability to win an air mail contract, it was a terrible time to be operating a fledgling airline, and Pickwick's air service only lasted a year, folding in the Spring of 1930. The bus company, though, went on to merge with Northland Transportation Company of Minnesota to become Pacific Greyhound, the forerunner of today's Greyhound Lines (a detailed history can be found here).

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Waldo Waterman's Whatsit

This has got to be one of the most creative names of an aircraft: people showing up to see Waldo Waterman's novel flying wing design, they'd invariably ask "What is it?" Whether he was intrigued or annoyed with the constant question isn't clear, but what is know is that Waterman named the plane the Whatsit.

Original Caption: "A New-Type Plane Makes Debut": Because everyone who has
seen it fly has gasped, "What is it?", Waldo D. Waterman, ex-Air Mail pilot and
aeronatuical veteran of Santa Monica, California, named his unique new flying
wing plane just that, "Whatsit". The novel two passenger tailess craft, which
travels more than one hundred miles an hour, powered with a small radial air
cooled engine, appears to be one answer to America's need for a low priced,
simply and economically constructed everyman's flivver plane. Photo shows
Waldo D. Waterman in cockpit of his new plane at the Grand Central Air
Terminal, Glendale. 2/17/34
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, two men, Jack Northrop and Waldo Waterman, were independently working on the concept of a flying wing aircraft design within but a few miles of each other. While Northrop was doing his work at Burbank, Waterman set up shop nearby at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport, what is today known as the Van Nuys Airport.

The two designers had very different motives for pursuing such a radical design: Waterman thought that the configuration held promise for a "flivver", a small every-man's airplane, like a car for the sky, and just as easy to operate. Jack was driven by the desire to refine aircraft design to achieve the lowest possible drag, and he saw a tailless wing as the ultimate solution to that problem. Northrop's design first flew in 1928 (we'll be covering that in a future post), and he went on to fame. Waterman's wing flew in 1932, and though his designs evolved over the next few years, he was never able to come up with the breakthrough design that would provide him with fame and the common man with an airplane that would be as ubiquitous as the automobile.

Waterman had worked in various locations around Southern California for years. In 1910, while based at North Island, San Diego, he designed a variation on a Curtiss pusher that included an innovation where a pull of a lever folded the planes wheels out of the way so that it could land on its skids, making it quite possibly the first retractible landing gear in aviation history.

After WWI, Waterman found work in Glendale custom-building first a JN-4 Jenny and then a Packard-LaPere for millionare L. C. Brand. While there was a huge war surplus of hastily-assembled Jennys available on the market, Waterman found a small niche for customized and precision-built - and thus quite a bit more expensive - aircraft. From these, he acquired a reputation for producing aircraft that were highly reliable.

Construction on the Whatsit, NX12272, started in 1929 and included a number of notable design innovations, including the first documented use of "elevons" for both roll and pitch control. A trim plane, which was adjustable on the ground, protruded on short booms in front of the nose. The wings featured a 15 degree sweep, and the tips supported small rudders. Unlike most planes of the era (but just like Northrop's AE-1 wing), the Whatsit used tricycle landing gear complete with a steerable nose wheel.

Work on the aircraft was completed in May, 1932, and Waterman commenced taxi tests at LA Metropolitan. After several abortive flight attempts which ended in several minor incidents with the aircraft, Waterman finally got the plane airborne in July, although he quickly found that it was somewhat unstable in pitch. This was due to the close-coupled vertical relationship between the pusher engine's thrust line and the wing's center of pressure (this relationship affects an aircraft's longitudinal static stability, and while it is less noticable in traditional fuselage/tail aircraft designs, it is especially critical in tailless swept flying wing designs; even modern designs struggle with such problems, and the complex relationships of center of pressure and thrust line, as well as pitch control moment led to the crash of the Lockheed RQ-3 Dark Star, as well as pitch instability issues with Boeing's Phantom Ray, which only flew twice before being relegated to storage).

In October 1932, the aircraft was almost destroyed in an landing accident (Waterman wasn't flying at the time). Discouraged, Waterman shelved the project and took a job as an airmail pilot for Transcontinental & Western Airlines. Then, in late 1933, when the US Bureau of Air Commerce's director Eugene Vidal initiated a competition to encourage designers to come up with safe, reliable and inexpensive aircraft that the average person could fly, essentially Model-Ts of the air. Vidal stated, "that if some manufacturer could produce a foolproof airplane in large quantities and market it at a low figure, a new phase of the aircraft industry could be developed"

Waterman realized that a number of aspects of the Whatsit design fit the requirements of the Bureau's challenge, and so flight testing resumed in Feburary 1934, with only minor modifications. At some point, he landed at Grand Central where this photo was shot (the Whatsit was powered by a Kinner radial engine, and Kinner was based at Glendale). He even received mention in the May 1934 issue of Popular Science. 

However, the pitch instability remained, and it quickly became apparent that such a sensitive aircraft was not consistent with what was needed for a novice pilot. Thus, Waterman completely redesigned the plane, adapting a high-wing design (a change that solved the pitch stability problem by putting the wing's center of pressure more in line with the engine's line of thrust), which became the Arrowplane, produced under a the auspices of the newly incorprated Waterman Arrowplane Corp.

Ultimately, out of the 30 entrants in the Bureau's contest in 1935, the Arrowplane was one of only two that took prizes (depending on the source of information, either a Pitcairn AC-35 autogyro or a Hammond Y was the other prize winner). Later, the Arrowplane was refined into the Arrowbile, and then the Aerobile. However, despite the Bureau's romantic visions of the future direction of the aviation industry, neither of these...or any other "flivver", for that matter...made it into large-scale production. WWII and other modern realities pretty much killed the idea of a flying car in every garage. Waterman himself passed away in 1976, in relative obscurity.

The Whatsit, surprisingly, has survived in the collection of the Smithonian's Air and Space Museum, and what's left of it can be seen here.