Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Ace 300 That's Not a Biplane

2/28 update: aviation historian par excellence sent me an email with a whole bunch of information about this plane, which I'm adding to the bottom of the post.

2/24 update: in response to a comment, I've added a sharpened and contrast-enhanced image of the logo on the tail.

Another day, another mystery photo. Okay, not a mystery in that this plane’s identity is unknown, but a mystery in that all the internet resources, the few that there are, which have any information about it are, well, to put it bluntly, wrong. (Gasp, you say, the internet might be wrong?)

Anyone want to take a stab at who this gent is? I believe the location is Oakland CA.
First stop on the research journey was and their database of historic aircraft registration numbers. NX952Y isn’t listed, but NC952Y is, as “Aircraft Engineering Co. Ace 500”. So that’s a start. Next stop was the invaluable Aerofiles. Aircraft Engineering Co. is listed as having been established in 1919 in New York, and a year later the rights to the designs were acquired by Horace Keane and the plant moved to Long Island. The only plane listed there is the K-1 Biplane (along with two photos of this very sexy-looking biplane), and a note at the end of the listing that reads “Also produced in 1931 with Salmson AD-9 [952Y] c/n 1, and LeBlond 5D [953Y] c/n 2, registered as Ace 300 and 200 respectively.” The rest of the internet resources (such as Wikipedia) parrot Aerofiles.

In one sense, Aerofiles is correct: from our photo, it’s clear that the model number is 300, not 500. And while the listing suggests strongly that the ACE is a variant of the K-1 biplane, it’s very clear that this is not a biplane, nor does it look anything like the K-1.

In the February 1931 issue of Flying magazine, there was a news item about Aircraft Engineering Co. introducing a new plane, the ACE 200, a two-place, high-wing monoplane with a Salmson AD-9 engine, which makes me question whether Aerofiles got the engine application for the ACE 200 and 300 reversed.

And that’s pretty much it for the references I could find. So, my theory, is that there were actually two unrelated companies using the same name, the one on the east coast in the 1920s, and the other on the west coast in the 1930s, and because of the company name, and the lack of photos of the ACE 200 and 300 (other than our photo here, I’ve not seen any anywhere) contributed to the belief that the latter models were just an update of the K-1. Have a different opinion or other thought? Please start the conversation in the comments below.

Excerpted from an email received from John
Contrast enhanced, clarifying the model number as "300"
Your picture of X952Y shows Richard Hardin, the designer, one of Douglas' World Cruiser engineers', who had formed his own company to manufacture both the Ace 300 and 2-place Ace 500. The operation involved the acquisition of Ace Airport, which had formerly been Murphy's Airport. Before that it was Calif. Airways; afterwards Sprott's and lastly Telegraph & Atlantic.

The 2-seater, X953Y, was powered by a 60-hp Le Blond whereas the single-seater had a 40-hp Salmson. Hardin and an attorney named Harry Miller, who was also a director of the company, took off from Ace Airport for both the St. Louis and Detroit shows. They were planning to fly East in formation with Frank Barber in the Model 300. In the vicinity of San Gorgonio Pass they encountered terrific winds and what happened next was probably due to wind sheer.

The Model 500 flipped over on its back and Miller was thrown out, possibly because his safety belt was either unbucked or it broke. His chute fouled in the tail and he was killed. Hardin bailed out successfully. All of this was witnessed by Barber, who made copious notes about it in his log book.

I knew the test pilot, Frank Barber. He was a retired AF brig. gen. who'd been sacked by Pacific Air Transport in 1928 for flying one of their Boeing mailplanes into a mountain concealed by a snow storm. He was also one of the 13 Black Cats.

Re Horace Keane. He was in no way involved with the foregoing Ace monoplanes. 


  1. Perhaps it is just me, but when I look at the upper photo crop (particularly after some sharpening), it looks a lot more like "500" than "300".

    1. I spent a fair bit of time on this aspect, and in hindsight probably should have posted the version i enhanced rather than this natural, as-scanned version...will go ahead and post that one in the next day or two.

    2. Marc...sharpened and contrast-enhanced image added.