Wednesday, September 2, 2015

From Glendale to London with Peace, Pingpong Balls, and the Ritz

Meet Lady Peace, a grand dame of a plane with some incredible stories that have all but been forgotten about. Seventy-nine years ago today, she left on a flight that was intended to set a new round-trip trans-Atlantic speed record.

GLENDALE, CALIF. - Heading for New [York] and their round-trip flight to London within a few days, Harry Richman, night-club singer and aviator, and Dick Merrill, transport pilot, this afternoon took off from Grand Central Air Terminal in their Vultee monoplane, "Lady Peace". The two flyers plan to fly to London over the Great Circle course by way of Newfoundland. They hope to complete the round trip in 32 hours. Just before taking off they accepted their course charts from Lieut. Commander Clarence Williams, mapmaker for Amelia Earhart and Clyde Pangborn. Their low-wing all-metal plane has a cruising speed of 235-miles per hour, and is powered by a 1000-horsepower motor. Fully loaded with 1002 gallons of gasoline the plane weighs 13,300 pounds, Richman said, and has a cruising radius of 4000 miles. Innovations include a buoyant wing and tail space lining of 30,000 table tennis balls to float the craft in the event they are forced down in mid-ocean. PHOTO SHOWS: Vultee transport plane bearing Harry Richman and Dick Merrill to New York, for the start of their projected round-trip flight to London. The plane is shown as it took off from Glendale, California today. 8-17-36 (photo from Wide World Photos, Los Angeles Bureau)

Back in January, 2013, we ran a post featuring a couple photos of American Airlines's Vultee V1-As, and told the story about how the plane came to be, and pretty much left off with American dumping the planes when the Bureau of Air Commerce banned single-engine airliners. The forced early retirement was only the beginning of the story for NC-13770, which was the eighth V1-A off of Vultee's Glendale assembly line. (And yes, it's properly "V1-A", not V-1A like may sources mis-write it).

American Airlines had been attracted to the Vultees because they were fast and, for their time, had long legs. Retirement didn't slow them down. Enter Col. (H) George. R. Hutchinson, who had a dream of establishing the first trans-Atlantic freight operation which he named the New York, London, Moscow Airlines (and yes, that was the proposed route). The new company "nominated", or sponsored Hutchinson and NR-13770 as an entry in the speed portion of one of the biggest air races of all time, the MacRobertson Race from Mildenhall, England, to Melbourne, Australia, which started on October 29, 1934. Hutchinson was to be the pilot, with Peter Redpath as navigator and co-pilot and Donald H. Vance as radio operator. Unfortunately, the Vultee is listed as "Failed to Start" - and that outcome pretty much also describes what happened to the proposed airline. (A second V1-A, Race 64, had also been entered in the MacRobertson, to be flown by H. W. G. Penny, but it too failed to start.)

Our Vultee next found a home as a corporate transport for Shell Oil, where she was piloted by Jimmy Doolittle. On January 15, 1935, Doolittle, along with his wife Josephine and Shell Oil executive Robert Adams, took off from Burbank and headed for Floyd Bennett Field in New York, with three California oranges on board. The flight set a transcontinental record of 11 hours, 59 minutes, and Doolittle flew most of the portion from Colorado to Virginia on instruments (they were also forced off course by 300 miles by the inclement weather). The oranges were delivered to Newark Mayor Meyer C. Ellenstein.

Not to be outdone, Doolittle's brother-in-law Leland Andrews took the controls of NR-13770 on February 21st and flew the same route, shaving 25 minutes off of the time, which included a stop in Washington D.C. where he delivered some orchids to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Andrews later set another record, Los Angeles to Mexico City in 8:08.

Meanwhile, singer and night-club owner Harry Richman had found that aviation was a great hobby to spend his excess cash on. Richman had hit the big time by singing the previously unknown Irving Berlin showtune "Putin' on the Ritz" in the 1930 movie of the same name (Clark Gable and Fred Astaire would also sing it in later movies). Richman had learned to fly and then began to seek a way to fulfill his dream of becoming the first person to fly the Atlantic round-trip. Along the way, he purchased a Sikorsky and set several records in it.

Henry T. "Dick" Merrill had the same dream, but as the chief pilot for Eastern Airways, he didn't have the financial resources to make it happen. The two met while Merrill was on an Eastern Airlines layover in New York, and visited Richman's club. Of course the conversation turned to flying, and the idea of not just an Atlantic crossing, but a trans-Atlantic round-trip, to be accomplished, ideally, within a total of 48 hours.It was later famously reported that Richman told Merrill, "take the plane to Europe...gas her up and fly her back. It’s never been done."

Richman agreed to purchase Shell's Vultee and sponsor the modifications needed, as well as other expenses of the flight, the total bill being in the neighborhood of $360,000. The 700-horse Pratt & Whitney was removed and replaced with a 1,000-horse Wright Cyclone giving a 215 mph cruising speed. Extra fuel tanks were fitted, and Richman had insisted that, as a safety measure, empty spaces throughout the plane be filled with the thousands of ping pong balls (the RAF had tested this little trick, with some success; the number of balls is uncertain - contemporary sources such as the caption for our photo list 30,000, while different modern websites have numbers approaching 41,000; following the flight, Richman for years sold autographed balls as a way of raising money for charity; if you watch, you can sometimes see signed balls show up on eBay).

The plane was ferried from Glendale, California to New York on August 17, 1936, and then after some final preparations and a lot of media coverage, the pair left for the Atlantic crossing on September 2nd.

The original caption pasted to the back of this Acme press photo reads: "BOUND FOR EUROPE: Dick Merrill, veteran air line pilot, and Harry Richman, nightclub entertainer, roared away from Floyd Bennett Field, New York City, September 2,  in a 1,000 hp monoplane on a projected round-trip flight to London. Their plane, the "Lady Peace", is pictured passion over Long Island a few minutes after takeoff."

Flying a Great Circle route, all went quite well until about 600 miles from their destination, when the Lady Peace encountered some rather nasty weather. After battling the elements for a good four hours, Merrill and Richman finally found themselves over the UK, but short on fuel. The decision was made to land at Llandila, in South Wales, about 175 miles shy of London. Even so, at 18 hours, 36 minutes, they'd set a record for the fastest Atlantic crossing to that date. The overnighted at Llandila and then flew on to London the following morning, September 4th.

Their goal of a 48 hour total round-trip was out the window, unfortunately, and with that pressure off, they took their time getting ready to head back west. Finally on September 14th, the left, taking off from the beach near Southport Pier, England. Again, all was going relatively well, until they encountered some very stiff headwinds. What happened next is a bit controversial, and the story varies depending on what source you read.

One story is that Richman was at the controls, and panicked in the face of the headwinds, and, dumped about 500 gallons of gas in order to lighten the plane. Another version is that Merrill was flying and had no idea why there was less gas onboard than there was supposed to be, and that it was only after Eddie Rickenbacker, a close friend of Merrill's, joined them at the scene that it was noticed that the emergency fuel dump valve was stuck partially open. So was this an intentional rookie-mistake dumping, or an accident of a stuck valve?

In any case, the bottom line was there wasn't enough gas to make it to New York. Merrill picked what looked like an open field near Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland, but when they touched down, it turned out to be a fairly soft bog, and the Vultee ended up on its nose and suffered some minor damage. The relationship between the pilots also suffered a fair bit of damage. [Editorial commentary: I find the reference below to the helpful local Newfoundlanders as "surrounded by natives" - as if they were some exotic tribesmen - to be quite amusing.]

The caption for this Acme press photo reads: "ROUND TRIP COMPLETED: Surrounded by natives, the "Lady Peace", which bore Harry Richman and Dick Merrill safely across the Atlantic twice, is shown where it cracked up in a bog at Musgrave Harbor, Newfoundland. While Captain Eddie Rickenbacker speeds to the spot, relations between Richman and Merrill are strained because of differences which arose while they were winging westward across the Atlantic. 9/16/36."

After several days of repairs, just enough fuel was loaded on to make the short hop to Harbor Grace, since the ground was so soft and they didn't want to risk making the plane any heavier. More waiting was needed to overcome strong winds, and finally Lady Peace, escorted by Eddie Rickenbacker in a DC-2, finally returned to New York City on September 21st. But their problems weren't over yet. Merrill happened to get the wheels off the edge of the runway at Floyd Bennett, where they sank in soft mud. The plane had to be then towed to the ramp.

A trip that had been originally envisioned to take only 48 hours ended up consuming 19 days. And there's a possible explanation for why, if like some pilots of that era, you're superstitious (Merrill, as a devout Christian, wasn't, it must be noted). Merrill and Eddie Rickenbacker were close family friends, and ten-year-old William Rickenbacker looked up to Merrill as to a bigger-than-life hero. But, the boy was ill and thus unable to see the Lady Peace off on her trans-Atlantic journey. So instead, William, in a bedside farewell, gave Merrill something that he thought would bring them luck: his favorite Ace of Spades playing card, completely unaware that most pilots of that era considered that to be a strong omen of bad luck. Eddie's wife Adelaide was terribly upset by what her son had done, however. When the fliers finally returned, Merrill greeted William with a jubilant bear hug, but Adelaide began making vocal and profuse apologies for the gift her son had given him, to the point that poor young William was mortally embarrassed and the event was reportedly ruined for him, creating a long-lasting emotional scar.

In a very odd twist of irony, the Lady Peace next went to war. With hostilities breaking out in Spain, American planes were bought up in record number and shipped to Europe to join in the fighting. Vultee V1-As, with their speed and durability, were thought to make idea light bombers and ground attack aircraft, and most of the ex-American Airlines planes saw combat. Lady Peace was included, being sold with the other Vultees by an aircraft broker to the Republicans, in what became known in the press as the "Vimalert Affair", which led to President Roosevelt demanding that Congress to impose an embargo against shipments to Spain.

However, the ship that the Vultee and the other planes were on, the Mar Cantabrinco, left before the embargo was imposed, and was instead intercepted by Franco's navy in the Bay of Biscay, and thus the planes were taken over by the Nationalists. Lady Peace was re-christened Capitan Haya, after Captain Carlos de Haya González de Ubieta, one of their hero pilots who had been killed in action. Unlike the Vultee's namesake, the plane survived the war, and continued in the service of the Spanish Air Force, until being unceremoniously scrapped in 1953.

In 1937, a Hollywood film about the flight of the Lady Peace was produced and released under the name Atlantic Flight...and it starred none other than Dick Merrill as himself. Merrill went on to set a number of aviation records, including logging one of the highest totals of flight hours of any pilot in history (a nice mini-bio can be found here).

Only one Vultee V1-A survives, a special custom version built for William Randolf Hearst. Eventually, it was acquired by the Virgina Aviation Museum, of which Dick Merrill was a co-curator. The plane was restored and rechristened Lady Peace II, and for a time was flown at airshows by Merrill.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article and images.
    By the way, it is not "Mar Cantabrinco", but Cantábrico, see this image on Ebay
    Best regards