Friday, September 30, 2011

Just Another Goodyear Blimp

K-88 dwarfs several PBY Catalina flying boats on the ramp. 
The photo gives no indication of location, although Lakehurst
New Jersey is a strong possibility.
"Hey, it's the Goodyear Blimp!" is a common refrain as folks drive down the 405 in the LA area. Emphasis here on "the", as if a Goodyear blimp is a uniqueness. Once upon a time, it wasn't. In fact, during World War II, the Goodyear Aircraft Company built several hundred blimps for the Navy, which operated numerous squadrons of the non-rigid airships.

The blimps were built in several "classes", with the "K" class being the most numerous. The full Navy designation for these airships was "ZPK" (Z=lighter-than-air, P=patrol and K=class; followed by the individual ship's number). The K-class ships were based on Goodyear's L-class, which was their standard passenger and advertising model, and a total of 134 K-class blimps were built between 1938 and 1943.

The blimp shown in this week's featured photograph is K-88, which was part of the last batch of the class, ordered in mid-1943. Like its sisters, it was equipped for both day and night patrol flying, and had an ASG-type radar with a 90 nm range, as well as magnetic anomaly detection equipment. Their primary mission was anti-submarine warfare, a role in which the ship's 24-hour endurance helped greatly; the blimps were used in both the Pacific and the Atlantic, as well as the Mediterranean, for protection of shipping convoys against German U-boats. They were also often used in search-and-rescue missions, as well.

K-88 was assigned to Blimp Squadron ZP-41 in South America. Originally established as ZP-52 on June 15, 1943 at NAS Lakehurst, its designation was changed to ZP-41 a month later, and in September, its first airship, K-84, ferried to Fortaleza, Brazil, becoming the first non-rigid airship to cross the equator. In October, 1943, K-88 and K-90 both were sent to join ZP-41. In January 1944, ZP-41 moved its headquarters to San Luiz, Brazil, and that year, four more blimps joined the squadron.

After the war, plans were originally to transfer the airships to Brazilian ownership, but Brazil's cancellation of the LTA agreement precluded that. By November, 1945, the squadron had only one airship, K-52, so it is not clear when K-88 left. During the squadron's time in Brazil, they escorted a total of 5,608 ships, and did not have a single contact with an enemy submarine, and none of the ships escorted were attacked or sunk. The squadron was very active, however, in searches and rescues, both at sea and in the South American jungles.

K-88's gondola, upsided down and without most of its skin,
while stored outside of the RAF Millom Museum, awaiting
restoration. (Photo by Peter Clarke, used with his kind
What happened to K-88 after it left Brazil is unclear at this point. Somehow, it ended up in the UK, either before or after its decommissioning from the Navy. The control car (aka gondola) as well as the engine pods have survived, loaned by the Navy to the Airship Heritage Trust and in turn on loan to the RAF Millom Aviation and Military Museum in Haverigg, UK (right; more photos of it are here, just scroll about 3/4 of the way down the page). Unfortunately, that museum closed in 2010 due to financial issues. Initially, K-88 was due to be sold at auction, but was withdrawn because of ownership issues, since the U.S. Navy typically asserts ownership forever; as of March 2011, K-88 was still at the Millom site. There is some talk that the gondola has or will be moved somewhere else in Europe for restoration and display, but further disposition of K-88 is unknown, and anyone with knowledge is invited to comment below.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Fokker in the Field

As of this posting, this photo is somewhat of a mystery to me. The photograph itself is small, and the image of the plane on it is thus smaller still, and unlike many vintage prints, the clarity just isn't there on this one. What's clear is that it is a Fokker F.VII taking off from an open field.

What isn't clear is whose trimotor this is. There appears to be an "N" on the tail, and the lettering on the fuselage appears to read "Coteal...", or something similar to that..

Click on the image to see it larger...lettering on the fuselage
seems to read "Coteal..." Could it be "Colonial"?
The paint scheme is a slight clue, as online research shows only one example of a Fokker painted with the angular design, that of early Pan American operations to Cuba, as seen in this 1927 photo from the University of Miami archives. (More information on this same image is on this Florida-related website.) Could my photo be the same plane, maybe with a later operator?

Anyone with a guess as to the answer to this little mystery is invited to comment below, or email me at airphotoservices at gmail dot com.

Sept 25th update! My friend Glen Tagami, one of the moderators over at Aviation Photographers of Southern California ( has pointed out an interesting angle related to my mention of Pan Am above.

A young banker-turned-airline entrepreneur named Juan Trippe had taken his inheritance money after his banker-father's untimely death, and tried to start an airline called Long Island Airways, using some surplus Jenneys. It had failed. With the passage of the Kelly Act of 1925 which made airmail contracts available to private companies, suddenly it appeared that there would be enough revenue to sustain a small airline operation, and with the help of a couple of well-to-do partners, Tripped formed Colonial Air Transport, and got the first airmail contract for the New York-Boston city pair, with the inaugural flight taking place on July 26, 1926. To service the route, Trippe picked up a pair of Fokker F.VII Trimotors. The mail guaranteed a regular cash flow, which then could be augmented with passengers. In 1927, Colonial inaugurated the first night passenger service in the U.S., again between New York and Boston.

As will often happen, though, disagreement arose between the venture's stockholders and Trippe's management team, a fight which led the stockholders to sell Colonial off, and it operated as a part of American Airlines until it was merged into Eastern Airlines in 1956; Trippe and crew were frozen out of the process. Now with cash from their portion of the sale, but no airline to operate, Trippe's group bought Aviation Corporation of the Americas and decided to bid on the airmail route from Havana to Key West, Florida. In 1928, they took this company and merged it with two other small carriers, Atlantic, Gulf and Caribbean Airways and Pan American Airways, keeping the name of the latter company for the new organization.

So what does this story have to do with our photo? Well, the fuzzy lettering can easily be made out to spell "Colonial", meaning that this image was taken in New England sometime in the 1926-27 timeframe, and this or the other F.VII Colonial operated went on to fly with Pan Am, retaining the paint scheme on the nose.

I'm still looking for confirmation, or an alternate theory. If you have information, let me know!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tex Johnston and the Trimotor

"I found you a couple of airplane pictures", said Keith, a generously helpful gentleman who works at one of the local antique malls. He knows I'm building an archive of vintage aircraft photographs, and has been great keeping his eyes open for me. He hands me these two rather battered and abused little snapshots. Trimotors! This put them clearly in the Great Depression years of the mid-1930s. Total bill: $4.

Little did I know the amazing adventures through the threads of history that these two 70-something-year-old photos were about to take me, a trip which culminated in the first article in a new column that I've signed on to doing for AirshowStuff Magazine. (To read the piece, you can download the September issue for free as a PDF file here, but be patient, it's a large file!). This post is all about chasing the light that came through some long-forgotten photographer's lens; and for me, the history detective game was afoot!

Inman Brothers' Fort 4-AT-B Trimotor NC5577
There were a number of things that intrigued me about the photos...clearly they were taken at the same place, the same day. It looked a lot like a dry, dusty summer day somewhere in the midwest. A lot of people were around in the background, so it was an event of some sort, probably a barnstorming airshow, which would account for why these photos were even taken. The popularity of the snapshot camera paralleled the growing popularity of these futuristic machines of the sky. There are no identifying marks on the Stinson, but after scanning at high resolution the Ford 4-AT-B's photo, it was clear that the aircraft had the registration number NC5577 (c/n 4-AT-23), and flew for an outfit called the ____man Bros. (the name being partly obscured by someone standing in front of it).

This one is a Stinson Model T, aka an SM-6000 Airliner, and wears 
old American Airlines colors. American operated them only a short 
time, then sold them to Delta, who also later sold them off. Only 
about 50 were built, and only two have survived the years.

Google to the rescue. Typed in the registration number and right away got some really great hits. First stop on the virtual journey was in Tucson, Arizona, and the website for the Davis-Monthan Municipal Airport Register. This was reportedly the very "first municipal airfield in the U.S.", and between 1925 and 1936 all the visiting pilots signed into a large leather-bound register, and it reads like a who's-who of the golden age of aviation. And NC5577 has it's own web page on the site, because it once stopped over in fact it stopped in on June 25, 1928, only three days after being delivered brand new by Ford to Maddux Airlines. The son of the last civilian owner of the plane had provided a lot of detailed information, including a copy of the National Air & Space Museum's data card that listed every owner the Ford ever had. And that held the key for me: two of the owners were Arthur Inman (who bought the plane on June 26, 1934) and his brother Rodger [sic] Inman (who took ownership on December 2, 1935). It was the Inman Bros. name that was painted on the side of the Tin Goose. At the time, though, the D-M website didn't have any information on the Inman brothers' operation of the plane.

So I Googled the Inman Bros., and again struck gold (after wading through all the links to the modern band by that same name). The full name was "Inman Brother Flying Circus". Based out of Coffeyville, Kansas, the Inman Brothers operated a unique barn-storming act that traveled from city to city giving airplane rides and putting on airshows, complete with skydivers.

Warman's Antiques & Collectibles 2011 Price Guide lists a poster for the Inman Bros. Flying Circus. And then, there was the website, which was offering a vintage Inman Bros. poster for sale, complete with a ticket for an airplane ride that someone had pasted in the center of it. When I contacted EarlyAeronautic about the poster, owner Thomas E. Kullgren very graciously allowed me to use his image of it in the AirshowStuff  article.

The Flying Circus operated a number of different aircraft, from a Curtiss Jenny to the Ford Trimotor to a Boeing Clipper Trimotor. Art and Roger "Rolley" Inman had fallen in love with aviation in 1921. Art had taken a ride from Charles Pedelty in Mason City, Iowa, paying a pricey $7 for the privilege. He and his brother then started taking flying lessons from Charles "Speed" Holman, who later would be Northwest's first pilot. The act included Rolley's wife, Margie, who was a wing walker. Rolley himself died in a plane crash in 1944.

Following the leads on the Flying Circus, I came across one of those "aha" nuggets that history sometimes reveals. A certain young pilot and aircraft mechanic graduate of the Spartan School of Aeronautics went looking for his first aviation job from his home-town friends, Art and Rolley. This young lad was Alvin "Tex" Johnston. He was hired on to sell tickets for the airplane rides, and worked on the Trimotors' engines when needed. He needed to build flight time, so traded some of his labor for instruction and time in the Ford Trimotor. Later, during WWII, he served as a ferry pilot for the Army Air Corps, won the Thompson Trophy in 1946, and then went to work for Bell Aircraft as a test pilot. There, he helped design and test flew the revolutionary Bell X-1, which then went on to break the sound barrier for the first time while being flown by Chuck Yeager.

After Bell, Johnston went to work for Boeing as their chief test pilot, and gained public notoriety as the pilot who rolled the prototype of the Boeing 707 airliners over the National Hydroplane races in Seattle. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) was also holding their annual convention in Seattle at that time, which meant that the executives of the world's airlines which Boeing wanted to pitch their new jet to were sitting there right on their doorstep, on August 6, 1955. According to Johnston, when you wanted to sell airplanes, you demonstrated them. He said in a television interview once, "I knew the prototype [the 367-80], and there's one maneuver that you can do with no hazard whatsoever. I decided that I would do a roll to impress the people." He practiced the maneuver a couple of times out of sight, and then headed for where the crowds were. "So I came across [Lake Washington] and did a chandelle," which he then continued into a 1-G barrel roll.

The crowd was impressed, to say the least. Boeing President William M. Allen reportedly turned to a friend he was sitting with and asked if he could take some of his friend's heart attack medication. Johnston continued: "I was called into Mr. Allen's office on Monday morning, Mr. Allen asked me what I thought I was doing. I said, 'Well, I was selling airplanes,' and explained it was a 1-G maneuver, it's absolutely non-hazardous, and it's very impressive. He said, 'You know that, now we know that, but let's not do that any more.'"

Tex may have become famous by barnstorming Boeing's prototype jet airliner, but that was nothing out of the ordinary for him, after all, his first job was flying and maintaining a humble Ford Trimotor flown by the Inman Brothers Flying Circus.

(Tex wasn't the only future aviator inspired by the Inman Brothers. Mildred "Mickey" Axton took a ride in the Inman's Jenny at age nine and fell in love with flying. She went on to serve as a WASP in WWII, and then went to work for Boeing and became the first woman to fly the B-29. Her story is here.)

But while Tex was going on the fame and glory, what about NC5577? In July, 1938, the Ford was victim of a freak accident, when an Aeronca that was taxiing past suffered from a broken crankshaft. The prop flew off the small plane and went whirling through the air, and though the tail of the Ford. On February 27, 1939, the Inmans sold it to Oscar Nichols, who was one of the principals in the Phenick Flying Service in Newark, Ohio. They operated the Ford until late in 1942, when it was sold to the U.S. Government. It, along with another Ford, was taken to South America to be used by the Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of the Pan American Highway. The planes were based in San Jose, Costa Rica. After the project was discontinued in 1943, the planes were auctioned off locally, and at this point, NC5577 disappears from history. Was it operated by a Costa Rican company? Did it crash? Did it just disappear into the jungle? We'll probably never know...

Friday, September 9, 2011

Plane vs. Balloon

This post has been updated, and can be found here.

Welcome to Vintage Air!

In the 1920s and ‘30s, aviation didn’t have the long, rich history to look back upon, to become nostalgic over, that we have today. Rather, the aeroplane represented a look forward. A fascination with the shiny new future of sky travel gripped much of popular America, and just about any time one of these fancy and remarkable new machines alighted in a field outside of a small town, people rushed out to see it. 

Coincidently, it was a new era in photography, as well. Thanks to Kodak, cameras were no longer the realm of the professional studio or itinerant photographer, they were becoming a popular way that ordinary people could record what they found exciting around them, and the snapshot was born. And of course, the new aeroplanes often fit that bill. 

Often without realizing the full aspect of it, the photographers taking such casually-shot images recorded moments in history that were often missed by others. As a result, now 70 to 80 years later, we have a hidden treasure in vintage non-professional snapshots, a window back through which we can clearly see the excitement that flying machines brought. Vintage Air will be taking just such a look back – and discover some surprising threads of history – mostly utilizing never-before-published photos from the MojaveWest Vintage Photograph Archive as well as other collections.