Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ambition vs. Storm: The Disappearance of Mrs. Grayson and The Dawn

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." (spoken by Zara in Act III, Scene VIII,  The Mourning Bride (1697) by William Congreve. The same could be said for a winter's Atlantic storm. So when the two meet, it's not likely much good will come of it.

The year 1927 was a difficult one for aviation, and especially for women in aviation. From the moment Lindbergh landed in Paris, the race was on to see who would become the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. Princess Anne of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg (who flew predominantly under her maiden name of Lady Anne Savile) and her pilot, WWI ace Leslie Hamilton disappeared in the middle of the Atlantic in their Fokker F.VIIa St. Raphael on August 31, 1927. Just a couple of weeks earlier, 22-year old Mildred Doran, a passenger on the Buhl Air Sedan Miss Doran, had disappeared while trying to cross the Pacific in the Dole Derby.

The Dawn on Old Orchard Beach, Maine, with a large crowd looking on. It has likely landed and just turned around to shut down (if it were about to take off, it is likely that there would be some members of the ground crew near the plane). The date is probably October 10, 1927. The pier had been a lot longer, but was heavily damaged in a storm in 1909. When it was rebuilt, the casino was moved in closer to the beach, to where it is shown here.

The tragedies continued. On September 7, a Fokker F.VIIa named Old Glory, sponsored by William Randolf Hearst, attempted the first flight from America to Rome, Italy; after departing from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, the crew was never seen again. The same day, a Stinson Detroiter named Sir John Carling in the first attempt at a London, Ontairo to London, England flight, took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, and also disappeared. The Royal Windsor, also a Stinson, was the plane to make the first attempt to fly from Windsor, Ontario to Windsor, England, and made it as far as Harbour Grace on September 7; enroute, it, too, stopped at Old Orchard Beach. The disappearance of Old Glory and Sir John Carling led pilots Phil Wood and Duke Schiller to wisely re-think things and give up the attempt.

It was thus against this backdrop that Mrs. Frances Grayson, a niece of President Woodrow Wilson, announced that she fully intended to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. A newspaper writer and real estate speculator in New York City, Grayson become somewhat obsessed with the idea after Lindbergh's feat. She convinced her friend Aage Ancker (whose father was Pittsburgh steel magnate Charles Sang) to put up the money so that she could buy a custom-modified S-36 amphibian, NX-1282, from Igor Sikorsky, the thought being that such a plane would give the team an extra measure of safety - if they had mechanical difficulties, they could always just land on the water. Grayson hoped to make the attempt early in October. The caveat to this flight was that, despite all the publicity she sought trumpeting this as being proof that women could do whatever men could, it would still by a man (Wilmer "Wild Bill" Stultz) flying the plane, and a man (Brice Goldsborough) navigating it; Grayson was only flying as a passenger (though she made it clear to the media that she was the flight's "commander").

Grayson had competition, though. Young actress-wannabe Ruth Elder, at 23, also announced an attempt to cross the Atlantic. An unlicensed student pilot, who promoted herself in the media as "Lady Lindy", she'd be making the attempt with pilot Capt. George Haldeman, and would be leaving in her Stinson Detroiter American Girl from Old Orchard Beach. She had even told one reporter, "I wish I were a man! No woman can cross the Atlantic alone! We are not strong enough!"

Both women were staging at Curtiss Field on Long Island. Both ladies repeatedly announced their imminent departures, followed by delays. On October 8, the US Weather Bureau announced that they were discontinuing Atlantic weather reporting for the season, and strongly suggested that the flying season was over for the year. Undeterred, Grayson and crew departed Long Island for Old Orchard Beach on a cold afternoon of Monday, October 10. The location was an ideal jumping-off spot for trans-Atlantic attempts, because when the tide was out, the beach sported a wide, five-mile long swath of hard-packed sand. Grayson told the newspapermen that she and crew would lay over in Maine for a few days getting things ready for the big flight, and waiting for the weather to clear.

Grayson was thus stunned to hear the news the next morning, October 11, that Elder and Haldeman had left Roosevelt Field for Paris, despite the bad weather! When the American Girl failed to show up in Paris, though, everyone feared the worst, though in the presumed tragedy, Grayson saw opportunity to still realize her goal. Word came on October 14, though, that Elder and Haldeman were safe. They had to ditch in the ocean due to a broken oil line, about 320 miles northeast of the Azores, but fortunately were able to do it right next to the Dutch ship Barendrecht, and came away unscathed.

On October 17, Grayson told the assembled reporters, "Nothing can stop me now. Destiny is with me!" She and the crew of The Dawn took off from Old Orchard Beach at 9:33am, and turned east. They only made it to the Cape Elizabeth Lightship, though, and were battling heavy headwinds and were barely able to remain aloft, when Stultz decided to turn back and ordered Goldsborough to dump most of their fuel; they made it back to the beach without further incident.

Grayson decided to try again on the 23rd, six days after her first failure. This time they made it 500 miles east before the weather started closing in and Stultz again turned back to Old Orchard Beach. Grayson was beside herself with fury over the decision, and pushed hard for a third attempt. Stultz would have none of it, though, and quit, flying The Dawn back to Roosevelt Field.

About this time, Hearst Newspapers columnist Arthur Brisban wrote that he hoped "hereafter American girls will stay on the ground or at least do their flying over land," an extremely disingenuous comment seeing as how Old Glory was owned by his boss, had editor Philip Payne on board as a passenger, and was crewed by men...and fared worse than Elder had!

Mrs. Grayson was undaunted by her experienced (and wise) pilot's decision, and decided to try again in December. No Atlantic storms would keep her land-bound! She hired Lt. Oskar Omdal, who'd served in the Norwegian Navy and had once flown with Roald Amundsen, to fly her. Goldsborough declined to follow Stultz out the door, and remained faithful to Grayson. They were joined by Wright engineer Frank Koehler, who would fly with them for the first leg of the journey. At 5:07 pm, December 23, the crew left Roosevelt Field behind and, hoping to make London on Christmas day, and then fly on to Copenhagen, where Aage Ancker waited for them. Their first stop would be Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. They never arrived.

The first leg of The Dawn's journey started at Roosevelt Field, lower left, and was supposed to end at Habour Grace, upper right.

The last time the plane was seen was at 7:10 pm by a French cable station at Orleans, Cape Cod. Off Nauset Beach, Cape Cod, the crew of the schooner Rose Anne Belliveau thought they heard the sound of airplane engines through the roar of a fierce gale, and also thought they heard the sound of a large splash, followed by the fading of the engine noise. The schooner crew spotted nothing, though.

Had Omdal, finding the storm too intense, spotted the schooner and attempted an open water landing? There are some clues that this is what had happened. First, a Canadian radio station on Sable Island picked up several fragmented transmissions which included The Dawn's prefix at about 9:45 pm. The first was a request for a navigational bearing. The second transmission was "Something wrong here." The last was, "Plane down." The radio operators on Sable Island estimated that, based on radio signal strength, the transmitter was about 80 nautical miles from the island (for reference, the closest point on Nova Scotia is about 90 miles from Sable Island). A radio operator north of Harbour Grace also received a broken transmission which included, "Where are we? Can you locate us?"

Despite a large search and rescue effort, no trace was found. (In a tragic twist, after their departure, Goldsborough's wife received an envelope from him inscribed "Do not open until Christmas". Inside was a bank draft for $500, which she donated to the search effort.)

Just over a year later, a boy found a bottle washed up on the beach at Salem Harbor, Mass. Inside was a yellowed note that read, "1928. We are freezing. Gas leaked and we are drifting off Grand Banks. Grayson." If genuine (and there's no reason to think it wasn't), it suggests that The Dawn landed intact and remained afloat for some time.

Mrs. Grayson's last public words, as she climbed into The Dawn for the fateful flight were, "All my life Christmas has been the same. The same friends, the same gifts that didn't mean anything. Telling people things you didn't mean. But this will be different." It certainly was, just not exactly how she expected it to be.

After returning to Old Orchard Beach after her second attempt in October, Grayson had penned a letter, sealed it in an envelope, and later handed it to a New York Times reporter with instructions that it only be opened someday if something "went wrong". In it she wrote, "Who am I? Sometimes I wonder. Am I a little nobody? Or am I a great dynamic force - powerful - in that I have a God-given birthright , and have all the power there is if only I will understand and us it? It is a great, living, breathing power of understanding my heritage ... Sometimes I am torn ... Can it be that I am wrong? Wrong after these many months of hard preparations, these many months of listening to that still small voice ... The sun is ever shining. ... It is now time for me to show my strength. I am who or what I really am, a little nobody or a living, forceful power to carry out part of His great plan: I will win. I must not quit too soon. Success is just ahead and the clouds between must disappear."

Grayson once wrote, "I will prove that woman can compete with man in his own undertakings" (this despite the fact that she was still relying on two men to get the job done). In a sense, she had succeeded: she had proven that a woman can do exactly what a man can do: they both die just as dead when they ignore the realities of Atlantic winter storms.

In an ironic footnote to the story, a woman finally did make it by air across the Atlantic, some six months later, landing on June 19, 1928 at Burry Point, Wales. She was a passenger - tasked with keeping the logbook current - in a plane flown by none other than Wild Bill Stultz, who chose to make his historic crossing in better weather. That passenger was Amelia Earhart.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Around the World in 8 Days with Winnie

Winnie Mae on display after the first round-the-world flight, but
before the second, sometime between June 1931 and July 1933. 
Note: After this article was posted on Nov. 8, the archive acquired the image on the left, which was taken earlier than the other two, so I'm reposting this update to include the new photo.

There are a few planes from Aviation's Golden Age that are undisputed all-stars, and Winnie Mae is certainly in that category. Because of the fame which its pilot, Wiley Post, brought the Lockheed Vega, much has been written about her, and so besides these previously unpublished photos, there isn't much new that I can contribute through my words here; besides the summary and bits of trivia below, if you want to know the detailed history, check the links at the bottom of this post.

Wiley Post set a number of records in Winnie Mae, a Lockheed Vega 5C (some sources refer to it as a 5B), registration NR105W. On August 27, 1930 he flew non-stop from Los Angeles to Chicago to win the National Air Race Derby. In June 1931, he and navigator Harold Gatty flew the plane around the world in eight days. After that, Post became interested in pioneering new aviation technologies, including the autopilot. He modified Winnie May with one and in July 1933, he again flew around the world, this time solo, and beating his previous time by 21 hours. Post next turned his attention to high-altitude flying, and Winnie Mae became a flight testbed, modified the plane with jettisonable landing gear and wearing a pressure suit that he also developed with BF Goodrich (which ultimately let to the suits worn decades later by the X-15 pilots) he explored flight in the stratosphere, discovering the jet stream and reaching between 50,000 and 55,000 feet (the onboard instrumentation failed, which prevented the flight from being registered as an official world record). This led to a jet stream-boosted high-altitude record-setting flight from LA to Cleveland on March 15, 1935. Shortly thereafter, Post, along with Will Rogers, was killed in the crash of his hybrid Lockheed Orion/Sirius in Alaska.

This photo (and detail below) was taken sometime between the
second world flight in 1933 and the high-altitude LA-Cleveland
flight in 1935, based on the records noted on the side of the plane.
Beyond the basics of Winnie Mae's history, there are a few seldom-mentioned tidbits of the story that I'd like to highlight. When people hear the name "Winnie Mae", they typically think of this plane, NC/NR105W, which has survived and is currently ensrined at the National Air & Space Museum (previously displayed at the Hazy center, she has recently been moved to the Mall facility). However, this is actually the second of three Lockheed Vegas to bear the name, all owned by Oklahoma oil tycoon Florence C. Hall; Hall had a penchant for naming his planes after his daughter, Winnie Mae Fain. Wiley Post had come up working the Oklahoma oil fields as a roughneck, and then took to flying, performing as a parachutist with the barnstorming act Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers. In 1928, after having lost one eye in an oilfield accident, he hired on with F. C. Hall as his personal pilot, flying the latest in aviation technology, the Jack Northrop-designed Lockheed Vega.

The first Winnie Mae, Vega Model 5 NC7954, fell victim to the Great Depression, and Hall had to sell it back to Lockheed in May 1929 (with no plane to fly for Hall, Post went to work flying for Lockheed as a test pilot for a short time). Hall's finances weren't troubled for long, though, and in June he picked up NC105W and sponsored Post's entry with it in the 1930 Derby. In a bit of irony, when Post and Winnie Mae #2 won the race, the plane they beat was the original Winnie Mae, flown by Art Goebel (there will be more on Art and WM #1 in an upcoming blog post).

The third WM was Vega 5B NC905Y, also painted white with blue trim, which Hall bought from Ben Wofford in late 1931, after Post and Gatty's around-the-world-in-eight-days record flight. Hall subsequently sold it to the Hal Roach Studios in Los Angeles in 1932. It eventually made its way to Mexico, was involved in a number of crashes, the last in 1945 rendered it beyond repair.

At some point (probably about the time Hall bought Winnie Mae #3 after the first world flight), Hall sold NR105W to Post, and in 1936, after Post's demise, the Smithsonian bought the plane from his widow. It has been restored to the configuration it was in during the high-altitude research period, including a small cabin window on the right side, which isn't present in the above photo.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lindbergh and Tingmissartoq

When Charles Lindbergh finished his national tour in the Spirit of St. Louis, following his famous trans-Atlantic solo flight, he donated the now-iconic Ryan N-Y-P to the Smithsonian in April, 1928. To replace it, Ryan provided him with a B-2 Brougham, and that year he flew a number of other aircraft as well, but none of those really met his needs.

At the 1929 National Air Races, Lindbergh met Jerry Vultee of Lockheed, which had just been acquired by Detroit Aircraft Corp (which also would acquire Mahoney-Ryan the following year). Lindbergh described his ideal high-performace aircraft, and Vultee came up with some quick sketches, and the two planned to continue the discussion after the airshow. As it turned out, what Lindbergh was looking for was quite similar to the Lockheed Explorer, which Vultee and crew were developing for Harold Bromley"s planned trans-Pacific record attempt, and based on an earlier experiment started by Jack Northrop.The plane which ultimately came from the project was the Lockheed Model 8 Sirius, a two-seat, low-wing design that utilized the same molded plywood fuselage as the wildly successful Vega line.

Lindbergh's black and orange Sirius was the first of fifteen the Lockheed would build.  Originally intended to be an open cockpit aircraft, Lindbergh himself came up with the sliding canopies which he called "Coupe Tops".

On April 20, 1930, Charles and Ann Lindbergh set a transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles (presumably Glendale) to New York in 14 hours and 45 minutes. It is quite possible that our photo was taken during the preparations for that record flight.

Our photo was taken at Glendale's Grand Central Air Terminal and is an original Ray Talbot print. It appears to be one of at least two that were taken within moments of each other, the other being featured in the November 1930 edition of Popular Mechanics Magazine (the position of Lindbergh and the man he's talking to is slightly different in the two images). The accompanying article describes some of the experimentation Lindbergh participated in with the Lockheed engineers in developing the NACA cowling for optimal engine cooling.

With all the hecticness of life after his record flight and the touring the ensued, Lindbergh was ready for a break, and he and Ann decided to take a vacation which, as he described it, had "no start or finish, no diplomatic or commercial significance, and no records to be sought." That led to the couple modifying the Sirius with floats and flying to Asia in 1931. A second trip, in 1933, explored potential airline routes for Pan Am across the north Atlantic. It was during this trip that an Inuit boy in Greenland called the plane "Tingmissartoq", meaning "one who flies like a big bird". At the end of the trip, Lindbergh donated the plane to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and it is now at NASM.

For further reading:

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ode to a Lost Nomad

This past week, it was announced that a long-lost Canadian Northrop A-17 Nomad was recovered from the bottom of a lake. The CNN story can be seen here.

In honor of that recovery, I offer this completely unrelated photo of an Army Air Corps A-17. Obviously, given all the people in the scene, something was going on, but the plane (tail number 26) seems otherwise unremarkable. I really like the hangar architecture, but have no idea where it is. Ideas anyone?