Friday, October 28, 2011

The Gull-Wing Douglas

Today's photo is another from a collection of vintage Douglas photos that we've been featuring for the last several weeks. Last week's photo showed a DC-2 being looked at by a couple of gentlemen...and if you look closely, you'll recognize the same two in today's photo, walking off into the background. These images were taken on the grounds of Santa Monica's Clover Field, probably sometime in early or mid July, 1934 (TWA took delivery of the DC-2 from last week on July 20, 1934, so these would likely have been taken just shortly before).

The Douglas O-2 biplane observation aircraft had been a relative success with the USAAC, and Douglas wanted to follow up with a more modern monoplane design, the O-31. The USAAC signed a contract with Douglas in January 1930 for two prototype aircraft, which were to be designated XO-31. Powered by a Curtiss V-1570 Conquerer V-12 water-cooled engine, the two-place design utilized a wire-reinforced, fabric-covered gull-wing with an all-aluminum fuselage, the aft portion of which was corrugated for strength.

After the first of the pair flew in December 1930, it was back to the drawing board, as the aircraft was found to have lateral stability issues. Several different vertical stabilizer designs were tried. Instead of delivering the second aircraft as an XO-31, it was redesignated the YO-31, and sported a larger tail and longer cowling. This second aircraft is the one seen in today's photo. Subsequently a number of additional YO-31A and O-31 aircraft were produced (13 in all), before Douglas switched to the O-43 design, which was ordered in 1934, the same year as this photo was taken. It uncertain how long the YO-31 survived, or what became of it, but it clearly was still at Clover field three years after being built.

(A special shout-out this week to Josh Nyhus of APSoCal for his invaluable help in identifying this plane...when I got the photo, I had a Dickens of a time figuring it out. Tip o' the hat to Ian Hall for trying to solve the mystery, as well. Thanks, guys!)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mojave Dakota

Yes, that really is snow in Mojave! This is probably the hangar now occupied
by XCOR Aerospace, one of the New Space rocket-development companies
that now call the Mojave Spaceport "home".
No, Mojave isn't in the Dakotas, the Dakota is in Mojave. Since we've featured posts about the DC-1 and a DC-2, it seemed natural for this mid-week update to feature the final version of the Gooney Bird, the "Super DC-3". Unfortunately for Douglas, this upgrade of the tried-and-true was not a good seller commercially, but the Navy did have 100 of its R4D Dakotas upgraded to the R4D-8, with the Super DC-3 tail.

This rare photo is from the Mojave Transportation Museum archives, and originally came from GySgt B.M. Rebenstorf via Cathy Hansen. Because MCAAS Mojave was a training base associated with MCAS El Toro, there was frequent need for shuttle flights between the two bases, and so Mojave had an R4D-8 permanently assigned to it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

From Santa Monica to South America

With the overwhelming success of the Douglas DC-1 (see last week's post), TWA immediately ordered 25 DC-2s. The subject of our post today is DC-2-112 NC13719 (c/n 1245), which was the nineth DC-2 built. Like the DC-1 photos featured last week, this image came in a stack of vintage Douglas photographs, presumably from the estate of a Douglas employee.

The DC-2 is seen here at Clover Field, in Santa Monica, the home of the Douglas Aircraft Corp. Because she was delivered to TWA on July 20, 1934, this photo of it at Santa Monica was probably taken sometime just before that.
TWA operated NC13719 for about three years, where it wore fin number 309, and then sold it along with several sister aircraft, to Braniff on July 29, 1937, where it was assigned fin number 409.

With WWII in full swing and the need for air transportation assets at an all-time high, NC13719 was one of 24 commercial DC-2s that were "drafted" by the Defense Supply Corp. in June 1942 and almost immediately transferred to the Army Air Corps; there it was designated a C-32A and assigned the serial number 42-61096. A year later, she was back at TWA, since the carrier had contracted with the Army Air Corps to provide pilot training using Army aircraft.

In September 1944, with newer aircraft now available, the DC-2 was considered surplus, and started hopping from one South American airline to another. First, it was sold to Transportes Aéreos Centroamericanos (TACA) in Mexico, and then in August 1945 to Aerovias Brasil S.A. Empresa de Transportes in Rio de Janeiro. In April, '46 it was transfered to its final owner, Aerovias S.A. Belo Horizonte. On February 5, 1947 the venerable DC-2 crashed at Lagoa Santa, Minas Gerais, Brazil, although without any fatalities.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How to Wreck a Perfectly Good Boeing 720

Another 707 on short final at Mojave over-flies the sad
remains of a perfectly good American 720. This photo
was taken by Bill Deaver, via Mojave Transportation
For the next few weeks, the mid-week update will feature photos from the archives of the Mojave Transportation Museum.

During the mid-1960s, there was little going on at the Mojave Airport, a hot and dusty place in the middle of nowhere. When the U.S. Marines left MCAAS Mojave for warmer digs in El Centro in 1959, they left behind acres of ramp (which central valley farmers used for drying grapes into raisins) and a really long runway, ideal for airline pilot training. Thus, four-engined Boeings were about all the frequented the place. American was one of the carriers to make use of the facilities.

Mojave's use as a training flight destination led to one of the more odd airliner incidents to happen at the desert airport. On June 29, 1966 at 8:10 in the morning, a 1960-model American Airlines Boeing 720-023B, registration N7534A, crashed on landing, just short of the runway at Mojave. The NTSB report simply says that the "pilot simulated 4 eng. flameout [on] approach with 4 engines in idle thrust position." What the dry NTSB report leaves out, though, local accounts more than make up for.

Evidently, on this day, there were two line pilots and two check pilots onboard, as well as a pair of flight engineers. Supposedly, the B720 and crew were in the vicinity of Oceanside, California, at cruise altitude, when a bit of a wager was made on whether they could make MHV from there with all four engines back at idle (as Google Earth crow flies, this is 137 miles). Evidently, about this same time in history, the FAA and American Airlines had done some similar flight testing to determine the glide range of the B707/720, and the results had been incorporated in the operating manuals. Whether this had any bearing on the Mojave incident is unknown, but the swagger factor certainly is a possibility. Assuming a 37,000 foot cruise altitude over Oceanside, a glide ratio of 19.57:1 would be required to reach Mojave, and the 707 family of aircraft are reported to have a 19.5:1 glide ratio with engines at flight idle, 15:1 with no power, so this seems to be a plausible explanation.

They almost made it.

In trying to stretch out the last bit of glide on final approach to the runway, the pilot stalled the aircraft a half mile short of Runway 30, and hit the ground hard, driving the right main gear up through the wing and tearing the number 3 engine off. According to the following day's Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, the only injury was to one of the flight engineers, who suffered a few cuts and bruises. The NTSB blamed the "dual student pilot", saying that he "misjudged distance, speed and altitude." The check pilot was blamed for "inadequate supervision of flight".

The American 720 sits outside the old Hangar 72.
Mojave Transportation Museum collection.
A professional house moving company from Santa Barbara was brought in, and the movers did additional structural damage in removing the plane from the field. The aircraft was taken to one of the old wooden hangars which was where Hangar 72, the National Test Pilot School now is, and rebuilding work commenced. Long-time Mojave resident, contractor and pilot Al Hansen loaned the AA crew some heavy equipment, and so got to know the project supervisor well. When asked why they would go to so much effort to rebuild the plane, the answer was that it would take $5 million and 6 months to rebuild it, versus $7 million and 18 months to get a replacement from Boeing, whose order books were backlogged. The right wing was replaced with a new unit from Boeing, and thus the bulk of the structural work was in the fuselage center section.

The aircraft reportedly left Mojave in December 1966 and re-entered service. But its troubles were not yet over. American retired N7534A in July of 1971, and the following March, it went to Middle East Airlines, of Beirut, Lebanon, who registered the aircraft as OD-AFT. On January 1, 1976 the aircraft as Flight 438 was in cruise flight at 37,000 feet and approximately 20nm northwest of Al Qaysumah, Saudi Arabia on a scheduled passenger flight from Beirut International to Dubai, when a terrorist’s bomb detonated in the forward cargo compartment. The aircraft crashed into the desert, killing all 66 passengers and 15 crewmembers on board. The terrorists were never identified.

(Special thanks to Bill Deaver and Al Hansen for research help. Today's piece is adapted from an article I co-wrote with Bill for the Mojave Desert News February 13, 2003 edition, and which also ran in 2008 in my old Mojave Skies blog.)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Our Lady of the Douglases

A crowd has gathered around TWA's new airliner, the
Douglas DC-1. Note the "X" replacing the normal "NC" on
the tail number, and the Douglas Dolphin in the background.
Stuck in the back of a cabinet in an antique store was a small stack of photos that caught my eye. On the top was what looked like a TWA DC-3. As I thumbed through them, I knew that this stack was something special. In it there were various different Douglas aircraft from the early 1930s, including four of the TWA plane, so I'm guessing these were left over from an estate of a former Douglas employee (the images of the other Douglas aircraft in the lot will be shared in upcoming posts).

But the more I looked at the TWA photographs, the more I realized that this wasn't a DC-3...the tail was all wrong...and then there was the registration number, which started with an "X" rather than an "NC". So I dug into the research, and found that indeed this wasn't a wasn't even the earlier DC-2. This was the one and only DC-1, the plane that started it all. And since Santa Monica's Clover Field was wide open to the public, a lot of local folks appear in the photos, there to watch this new, shiny bird take flight.

If you look closely, you can see small winglets spanning
the gap between the engine nacelles and the fuselage.
These were reportedly removed soon after the first flight,
and don't appear in the last photo, below, when the plane
was operational.
Like so many of the other stories that I'm finding behind these little photographs, this one is truly remarkable. Two weeks ago, this blog featured a Fokker Trimotor photo, and it was the crash of a TWA Fokker F.10 in 1931 that led directly to these DC-1 images even being possible. It certainly wasn't the first Trimotor to crash with loss of life, but the presence of famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne on the passenger and casualty list guaranteed a lot of media attention to this accident, and the investigation that followed, and ultimately, it was that high profile attention that led to major changes in the commercial aviation industry, and the governmental bodies that oversaw it.

Gone were the wooden airliners, the age of the shiny metal birds was here. It was still an age of monopolies, however, and with the corporate connections between Boeing and United Airlines, that manufacturer's total initial output of its new all-metal Model 247 was taken by United. Thus did TWA's Jack Frye approach Donald Douglas about a new type of plane, one that would compete - and even beat - Boeing's airliner. Douglas later called the letter he received from Frye requesting a Douglas proposal the “birth certificate of the DC ships". Price for the one prototype Douglas agreed to build: $125,000 (that would be about $2 million in 2011 dollars).

The DC-1 is readied for flight. Presumably, that is Douglas VP
of Sales and Chief Test Pilot Carl Cover who can be seen
through the open cockpit side window.
I'm pretty certain that these photos were taken on July 1, 1933, the day of the DC-1's first flight. The flight almost became a disaster. Carburetor floats that had been installed backwards at the factory in both of the Wright R-1820 engines caused them to quit whenever the pilots pitched the nose up. The first time they quite was just after takeoff, and the plane would have hit the ground except for the fact that the land dropped off just beyond the end of the runway. With the nose down, the engines sputtered back to life, only to quite again. Douglas Chief Test Pilot Carl Cover's expert airmanship saved the day, and he executed an emergency landing on a nearby golf course without further incident. (Note: Some online references note his name as "Carl Clover", but Bill Yenne's authoritative book McDonnell Douglas, as well as several other references, use "Cover".)

But once that was fixed, performance of the DC-1 was phenomenal. Cover is known to have commented "She was born to fly, and she belongs up there with the angels." On September 4, 1933, the final test flight to demonstrate compliance with TWA’s demanding specifications was flown: immediately after X223Y took off from hot and high Winslow, Arizona with TWA pilots Eddie Allen and Tommy Tomlinson at the controls, one engine was shut down and the crew turned the nose towards Albuquerque, the highest airfield that TWA then served. One of the requirements that Frye had listed in the original letter to Douglas demanded the ability for the aircraft to safely operate with an engine out at the airlines highest airport. The DC-1 handled the challenge easily. On September 15, TWA took initial delivery of the aircraft, which carried a restricted airworthiness certificate, and the registration NR223Y.

Two months later, on November 15, with Donald Douglas himself on board, they had to use this capability for real, when one engine failed over the continental divide, Cover turned back and landed at Albuquerque. Douglas is said to have later remarked, "Here was the TWA requirement, for real, but you could hardly tell back in the cabin. It was like nothing happened."

Ground crew personnel meet NC223Y as she taxis to a stop,
Glendale. This appears to have been the first in a series of
images taken that day, and another a few moments later
can be seen on this City of Glendale website. 
Shortly after TWA took initial possession of the aircraft, they returned it to Douglas, which used the DC-1 for a couple of months as a test bed, including replacing the original engines with higher horsepower Wright Hornets for a short time. After a flight test program that encompassed over 200 flights, the plane was finally delivered to TWA in December, 1933, as NC223Y and went into commercial service. It wore the nose number “300” (thus becoming known within the carrier as “Old 300”) and was christened the City of Los Angeles.

On February 18, 1934, two hours before the official end of all air mail contracts, Jack Frye and Eddie Rickenbacker delivered the last commercially-carried sacks of airmail on a flight from Burbank to Newark onboard NC223Y. In doing so, they set a transcontinental speed record for transport-class aircraft of 13 hours and 4 minutes. Just a bit more than a year later, on April 30, 1935, Old 300 set another record, of 11 hours, 5 minutes for a flight from Los Angeles to New York.

Beginning in April, 1934, the plane was operated regularly on TWA's New York-Pittsburgh route until it was withdrawn from service in 1936. Reregistered as NS223Y, it was loaned to the government for a short time for some high altitude research flights.

The records caught the attention of one of the major shareholders in TWA, Howard Hughes, who bought the DC-1 from the airline, with the intention of setting an even more ambitious speed record, a round-the-world one. He had the aircraft modified with extra fuel tanks and larger 875hp Wright Cyclone engines in preparation for the trip. But it was not to be. The maverick millionaire changed his mind, and instead decided to use a Lockheed Lodestar. Old 300 was used a few times by Hughes as a corporate plane, but mostly sat unused at Burbank until it was sold in May , 1938.

The buyer was the English Viscount Forbes, Earl of Granard, who intended to set a transatlantic speed record with it. Again, however, plans fell through. He did take the plane to England, and flew it to the Continent a few times, but didn’t really have a lot of use for the plane.

Some mystery surrounds what happened next, as the venerable DC-1 got involved in the Spanish Civil War. The Earl sold the plane to the French SFTA (the Société Française des Transports Aériens), but a month later, it was in the Spanish Republic wearing the titles of the Spanish carrier LAPE, with camo paint covering her once shiny skin. The plane was operated on the Paris-Toulouse-Barcelona route until March 1939 and the fall of Barcelona to Franco. The DC-1 was even used to carry Republican government officials into exile in France.

After the war ended in April, 1939, the DC-1 was turned over to the new government, and was named Manuel Negron, registered as EC-AAE and placed into commercial service with Iberia Airlines, flying the Seville-Malaga-Tetuan route. One day in December, 1940, the pilot had just rotated and started climbing away from Malaga’s runway, when both engines quit, hauntingly reminiscent of what happened on Old 300’s first flight. But this time, the old girl’s luck had run out, and she overran the runway. No one was hurt, but the plane was far beyond repair. (The Goleta Air and Space Museum's website has a photo of the wrecked aircraft here.)

At this point, legend takes over, as there is no confirmation of the rest of this story, although it is oft-repeated by aviation historians. While the DC-1 was indeed beyond repair, locals claim that part of her aluminum structure was salvaged to construct an andas, a ceremonial throne which is used to carry a statue of the Madonna from Our Lady of Hope in Malaga during the annual Holy Week festivals.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Magnesium Overcast

Today's midweek update, like last week's, comes from the collection of Cathy Hansen, and shows a trio of RB-36Ds from the 5th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing flying in formation, probably over Korea in 1953 (although the terrain looks very much like Southern California).

One giveaway that these are reconnaissance versions of the B-36 are the large camera ports on the side of the fuselage midway between the nose and the wing.

This photo appears to show the same formation as shown in an image on page 86 of Dennis Jenkins' book Magnesium Overcast; that photograph was taken from below and the right side of the formation. It does make sense, though, that multiple images would have been taken during an air-to-air photo shoot.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Golden Nugget Herc

Alaska Airlines operated six Lockheed L-100 Hercules freighters, the civilian variant of the venerable C-130, from 1965 through 1971. They were purchased by maverick CEO Charlie Willis in order to provide heavy equipment freighter service to the oil development industry on Alaska’s North Slope. They were also operated on charter to various locations in Southeast Asia, where this 1966 photo was probably taken, though little information on this work is available (if you have stories of the Herks in SE Asia, please comment below!)

To promote its passenger amenities, Alaska had developed the brand “Golden Nugget Service” with the advent of their Douglas DC-6s. Passengers were offered the first hot in-flight meals and could even visit an on-board honky-tonk styled lounge. With the success of the campaign, the branding goodwill was extended to the L-100 freighter operations.

Around two years after this photo was taken, on May 16, 1968, N9267R was being operated by Aerovias Ecuatorianas CA Ltd, better known as AREA Ecuador, and had landed at Macuma Airfield. The field was saturated, and the wheels of the Hercules sank 20 inches into the mud. In order to try to free the plane, timbers were wedged under the wheels, the engines fired up, and the pilot poured the coals to her. At that point, the No. 1 prop struck the ground and came apart, with pieces penetrating the No. 2 engine nacelle, resulting in a massive fire that destroyed the aircraft.

How N9267R and its sister Golden Nugget Freighter L-100s began operating for AREA Ecuador is a another interesting thread of history. Alaska’s oil pipeline customers loved the utility of the Herks, and when oil was discovered in the jungles of Ecuador, Texaco and Mobil approached Willis about using the aircraft in South America. Unfortunately, Willis didn't have an Ecuadorian air carrier certificate, so couldn't legally operate the aircraft there under the Alaska name. However, he did have a single Convair 990 airliner, one of the faster four-engine jet airliners in the business, and AREA Ecuador was trying to break into the Florida market, and needed a modern, fast aircraft. So a deal was struck to "lease" the 990 (with Alaska crews flying it), in exchange for AREA allowing Willis to use their certificate to operate the Herks on the oil contracts.

Due to financial woes and a debt that reached $22 million, Willis was fired by the board of directors, who also got rid of the carrier's cargo service, quickly disposing of the remaining L-100s in 1971.

[Big thanks to my brother Eric, who deals in military collectibles (his online shop is here) for giving me this photo, and being so encouraging of this project!]

Update 10/12: Josh Nyhus at pointed out that the UC-123K is still around at DM, and can be seen here:

Aircraft info: Lockheed L-100 c/n 4146, manufactured 1966.
Photo info: 8x10 print, stamped on back "U.S. Air Force Photo 27877 '66 Uncl."; handwritten on back: "Snellgrove, Turn Key 6/733" (Anyone with info on what this inscription might refer to is invited to comment below!)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thirsty Jennys

Note: Starting today, we will be occasionally be making mid-week updates featuring images from "guest" archive collections. Today's post is the first of several generously provided by Mojave Transportation Museum Director Cathy Hansen.

Two U.S. Army Jennys getting fueled. Clearly, both aircraft and fuel trucks
have come a long way in the intervening years!
Modern civil aviation is what it is in part thanks to the Curtiss JN-4, which was affectionately know as the Jenny. Glen Curtiss hired Sopwith designer Benjamin Thomas to develop the aircraft, taking the best features of their previous J model and N model trainers. First flown in 1915, the JN-4's docile handling qualities made it an ideal platform for beginner pilot training. Over 6,800 of the type were eventually built, with 95% of all American WWI pilots getting their initial training in the type.

With the end of the war, the Army sold off much of their surplus stock of Jennys to the civilian market, many still unassembled in their original crates. With so many cheap planes on the market, aviation thrived, and the era of the barnstormer was born. Numerous people fell in love with flying after their first airplane ride in a Jenny, and subsequently took flying lessons. Even Charles Lindbergh first soloed in a Jenny, and his plane is one of about 50 that have survived into the 21st Century (Lindbergh's Jenny is housed at the Cradle of Aviation Museum).