Thursday, April 9, 2015

Heavy Lifting Zenith Albatross at Glendale

Another day, another photo with a cool, forgotten story, and some mystery to it. This is an Acme Newspictures 8x10 press photo, taken at Glendale Grand Central Air Terminal. The plane is the one-off Zenith Z-12 Albatross.

The caption pasted on the back reads:
CALIFORNIA PLANE TO MAKE PACIFIC FLIGHT - The “Albatross”, a tri-motored plane built at Los Angeles, is being prepared for a flight over the Pacific Ocean this spring or early summer. Photo shows the size of the wings --90-foot spread--as compared with the people who came to look at the plane.
This photo is very similar to one - just at a slightly different angle - of the Z-12 which is available online as well as in John Underwood’s book on GCAT, Madcaps, Millionaires and “Mose”. The grandstands behind the plane were built specifically for GCAT’s dedication festivities in February, 1929, which suggests when this photo was taken.

In 1927, Zenith was a southern California manufacturer of farm equipment and machinery, but the sudden national obsession with aviation after Lindbergh’s flight sparked the owners of the Midway City, California company that there might be some money to be made building airplanes. As Lindbergh proved, making a record flight in spectacular fashion in front of the media was a surefire means of instant success. So, for their first project, started on October 1, 1927, Zenith decided to build a mammoth plane (“largest plane on the west coast”, as it was billed at the time) and try to set some records with it; both the mission and the plane’s giant wings seem to have suggested the name Albatross.

Zenith was founded by, John Willingham, Maurice Price, Sterling Price, Albin K. Peterson and Charles Rocheville (the latter being a rather interesting US Navy officer; this EAA webpage has a fascinating bio of him). Peterson, who had also served in the Navy, and Rocheville were the design engineers for the project. Their goal was a large parasol-wing monoplane capable of carrying at least 12 people (hence the Z-12 designation), and able to fly for an extended amount of time.

During the building, the naysayers expressed concern that the large airplane was woefully underpowered, and likely wouldn’t be able to get off the ground. Usefulness - the ability to carry a load and actually accomplish something useful - had been a major challenge for aviation design for the first three decades of the industry, for the same reason that flight itself was delayed longer than it should have been. Flight didn’t happen until the Wright Brothers’ success not because airplane builders didn’t have the basic concepts, it didn’t happen because there weren’t any engines that were powerful enough yet light enough to get a plane off the ground. And even when that threshold had been crossed, it was only barely so. For the first couple of decades of aviation, planes could fly and fight (a bit), but could do little more of practical value.

That’s one of the things the Zenith team set out to change with their Z-12 project, and they succeeded. The Albatross took merely 90 days to build, and flew for the first time on January 2, 1928 (another source lists the date as January 9), with Rocheville and Peterson at the controls, and carrying the registration NX-3622. Despite the naysayers, performance was actually surprisingly good. The plot of land that the initial testing took place on measured 2,000 feet by 1,200 feet, but that was plenty: in a no-wind condition, the takeoff roll was a mere 150 feet, and the climb to 2,000 feet altitude took only four minutes; landing speed was 25 knots...all a testimony to what such a large wing could do.

With flight achieved, the team immediately set out to garner the kind of media attention that only record flights can bring, and the team had their sights set on endurance. They moved their flight test operation to the barren wastes of the Imperial Valley and set up shop on the shore of a dry lake. The Z-12 was equipped with two 400-gallon wing fuel tanks, as well as a 900-gallon one in the fuselage. In early February, the Albatross was topped off with just over 200 gallons of Richfield Oil's donated gasoline for the first try at endurance flying. Peterson and Rocheville were joined by Jack Reid as radio operator and relief pilot (replacing W.L Shields, who served in that same position during earlier testing). After less than an hour in the air, though, one of the fuselage fuel tank seams split open, forcing the crew to land.

After repairs were accomplished, a second attempt was made, with much better results. After 27 hours, fourteen minutes, one of the engines (which had been operating at full-throttle) began to overheat, and the crew called it quites. The plane was powered by three Ryan-Siemens 125-horsepower 9-cylinder radials, but in reality they only put out around 90 horses, necessitating the full-throttle operations. One more attempt was made, and this time the plane carried even more fuel than before, for a total takeoff weight of 13,898 pounds. The third try was definitely not the charm, as after nine hours, 45 minutes, more engine problems - traced to a rocker arm failure - forced the flight down, and no further attempts were made.

However, in the process of making this last attempt at an endurance record, the team set two other records, which might not be so glamorous to the press and aren't tracked by the FAI, but had tremendous meaning to the aircraft design community. In order to fly for a really long time, one has to carry a lot of fuel and a lot of oil (engines of that era actually consumed large quantities of their lubricating oil), which means that the plane would have to lift a lot of weight, and therein lies the real "gold" of the team's record efforts - the two records that the team accomplished were ones that had some practical value.  The first was for lift. Up to this point in the history of aviation, the most any plane had lifted was only a small fraction of its own weight. The Albatross, however, was shown to be able to lift a stunning 2.47 times its own weight, with its immense wing area.

The second record was also one that would appeal especially to engineers: lift-to-horsepower. Up to that point, the most that had been achieved was about 25 pounds per horsepower, and aviation technology was only improving in very small percentage increments. The Albatross, however, smashed that with a record book figure of 38.3 pounds per horsepower (based on actual power output, not the rated power of the engines), a remarkable leap of over 50% improvement. That the Zenith team was able to achieve these kinds of numbers was nothing short of an engineering breakthrough. What this showed, too, was that the team's original goal, 60-70 hours of endurance, was achievable based on carrying the needed weight of fuel and oil. What they lacked was engine reliability.

A planned fourth flight was dropped, and Rocheville parted ways with Zenith to set up his own company (along with brother Henry), possibly because as an engineer, he wanted to focus on continuing to develop aircraft for endurance records, and the rest wanted to focus on commercial production. Peterson and the rest of the crew worked on and saw modest success with the smaller Z-6 airliner (one of these has been gorgeously restored to flying condition, as documented in this Air & Space article).

As the Z-12 and the endurance records had been Rocheville's passion more than Peterson's, NX-3622 and the rights to build production models (contemporary media had claimed that several orders had been placed, but how accurate this was is doubtful) were sold off to Schofield, Inc., headed by G. L. Schofield and Harry Miller, which accounts for the company’s name being blazoned across the bottom of the wing in our photo. Schofield and company clearly had the idea that the endurance potential of the design promised an opportunity for a go at making the first trans-Pacific flight, if only the engine reliability could be addressed. The Z-12, now known as the Schofield Albatross was re-engined first with Axelsons (probably the 150-hp Axelson B) and then with the 170-hp Western Enterprise Engines L-7. However, there is no record that I could find of any successful endurance test flights, and certainly no record (other than several publicity photos) of a serious attempt at the trans-Pacific flight.

Meanwhile, in 1928 the Zenith company was replaced by Albatross Aircraft Company (aka American Albatross), although the personnel remained the same (less Rocheville, for the moment), and the work was moved to Long Beach, California. This move suggests a change in financial backing as the company struggled to both make a name for themselves and to start selling production Z-6 aircraft. Rocheville still maintained some involvement with the new company, and worked on the design of the Albatross B, or B-1, which was very similar to the Z-12 but with a single engine, and the two airframes that were built were both used in endurance record attempts (we did a blog post back in 2013 on one of these, The Pride of Hollywood.)

About a year later, the whole operation was sold to E. M. Smith & Associates of Long Beach (a manufacturer of asbestos products), which then changed its name to EMSCO, and moved to Downey, California. EMSCO brought Rocheville back as a Vice President and designer, and he continued to build aircraft based on lessons learned with earlier attempts. The Z-12 was thus reborn, albeit somewhat scaled down, as the EMSCO B-2 Challenger, two of which were built.

NX-3622 appears to have made at least one motion picture appearance, when it played the part of a wrecked Fokker in the 1928 show Conquest, directed by Roy Del Ruth; according to IMDb, this film has been lost.

The fate of NX-3622 is also documented historically, as can be seen in this circa 1939 image from the California Historical Society that resides in the USC Digital Library, and in this image managed by Corvis. The Albatross, now with “Royal” appended to it, appears to have become part of a service station in Studio City, and shows a fair amount of alteration. Besides the obviously fake (and way too small) engines, the outboard wing struts have been shortened and are at a much steeper angle (probably done so that cars pulling up to the pumps wouldn’t hit them, and the forward fuselage seems to have been covered over with sheet metal.

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