Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Mitchell's Sting

As production of the North American B-25 Mitchell progressed throughout the early years of WWII, the arrangement of its weaponry changed dramatically with ensuing models, and the aircraft were further modified out in the field by crews wanting yet more firepower. Quite often the plane was used as a ground attack weapon rather than a medium-altitude bomber, and this strongly motivated the addition of more and more machine guns, especially those which faced forward. The MojaveWest archive recently acquired three 8x10 images that originally were taken by official North American Aircraft photographers of various machine gun installations on B-25s.

The image of the left shows a standard B-25C/D installation of two .50 caliber machine guns, one movable that was fired by the bombardier, and one fixed which was fired by the pilot.

The image on the right is a bit more unusual, as it shows an installation of two guns in a configuration that appears to have been experimental at NAA, but which didn't make it to production. While later models, including the B-25H, included twin-.50 caliber guns, they were set much farther apart and were fixed in place. These appear to be movable, and designed to both be fired by the bombardier. I have yet to come across any other images showing this configuration, so if any of you has further information on this particular installation, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below.

The image of the left shows the two .50 caliber waist guns installed on a B-25J. While earlier models included waist guns, the -J model introduced a more functional installation, allowing a greater field of fire from the movable guns. Also note the N-8 gun sights which were also introduced with the -J model.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Alaska wrecks, Part 2: Mitchells

Today's post is the second from a collection shot by a WWII soldier who was stationed in Alaska, and who appears to have been part of a unit whose job it was (in part) to recover aircraft wrecks. The collection included two B-25 Mitchell bomber photographs, one of an in-service aircraft, and one a wreck.

Unfortunately, I don't have much information on either photo, so from a story-telling perspective, there's not a lot for this post. That will make this more of a geek's post, but sometimes history is in the details!

The photo above (and detail left) show a B-25C/D probably assigned to the 77th Bombardment Squadron, that has been equipped with an early form of radar, as evidenced by the antenna sticking forward from the bottom of the nose (an official photo from the 77th BS of a similarly radar-equipped B-25 can be seen here). Also note the additional nose guns installed - the C/D model only had 2 nose guns when it left the factory. And how about all those bombs casually stacked on the far side of the right main gear?

(Some really interesting color film footage of Alaska bomber activities can be seen here)

The second image shows a B-25 wreck laying on the tundra. It appears to have been there a while, as all the nose and cockpit glass and interior has been stripped out. The raised ground behind the wreck would indicate that this plane crashed just off of the airfield. Two PBY Catalina are parked nearby, and behind one of them, another B-25 taxis past. The forward-bent blades of the Mitchell's Number 2 engine shows that the crash occurred with the engine at power, likely on takeoff (note that the nose gear was still down at the time of the incident).
Do you have information on these specific planes, or B-25 operation in Alaska in general? I'd love to hear from you, please leave a comment below!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Bantam X-Plane

For the next few weeks, the Tuesday mid-week updates will feature old-style PR photos that were released to newspapers. In the years before the digital revolution, newspapers primarily received their black and white photos via wireservices. Wirephotos long pre-dated fax machines, but used the same concept, line-by-line scans transmitted over telephone lines (a fascinating 1937 article in Popular Mechanics on how wirephotos work can be found here). Newspapers typically then filed away 8x10 prints for possible future use. With the arrival of the digital age, some of these have been filtering out into the collector's world, and the MojaveWest archive has been able acquire some.

One of the "forgotten" X-planes from the late 1940s was the Northrop X-4 Bantam, of which two airframes were built. Our photo shows the second aircraft, 46-677, on its maiden flight at Edwards. The photo still has the "ditto" caption taped to the back (for the younger generations who read this, "dittos" were a pre-photo copy means of reproduction...and the smell of ditto fluid is one of those staples from when I attended elementary school). The caption read:

"First Flight of the Northrop X-4, star performer in one of the Air Force's secret projects at Edwards Air Force Base, shows the small Flying Wing-type research airplane streaking over the California desert on a test flight. Northrop pilot Charles Tucker has flown the X-4 repeatedly during the past several months in a test program intended to explore flight characteristics of the high sub-sonic zone. The fourth in a series of 'X' ships ordered by the Air Force, the X-4 will continue research pioneered by the Bell X-1, the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound. One of the smallest airplanes ever built for the Air Force, the X-4 measures approximately 25 feet from wing tip to wing tip. The X-4 is patterned after the big Northrop Flying Wing bombers. A single pod houses the pilot and elaborate instrumentation. The unusual tail consists only of a vertical stabilizer and rudder. There is no horizontal stabilizer or elevator assembly. 'Elevons', developed by Northrop for use on the Flying Wings, serve as both elevators and ailerons."

The first X-4, 46-676, took its maiden flight on December 15, 1948, but had a really troubled flight test program, being plagued by seemingly unending technical problems. The second aircraft, 46-677 took to the air in mid-1949 (the photo and caption are undated). When Northrop had completed the initial handling qualities testing and turned the aircraft over to the Air Force in February 1950, the first aircraft was permanently grounded, and was cannibalized for parts to support the second one.

The goal of the program was to evaluate the characteristics of a flying wing's reaction to transonic speeds, and above all else, the X-4 program proved that a flying wing with analog flight controls did not have ideal handling qualities. The Bantam experienced continual pitch oscillations (porpoising) as it approached the speed of sound, and there was nothing the pilot could do to dampen it. In fact, engineers would not be able to overcome these issues until the advent of digital fly-by-wire control, which would allow a computer to fly the plane, leading to the current rash of flying wing designs, including the B-2 Spirit and the X-47B N-UCAS.

Both X-4s survived their era, however. 677 resides at the Air Force museum in Dayton Ohio, and 676 is currently being restored at the Air Force Flight Test museum at Edwards AFB.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Alaska wrecks, Part 1: Lightning 88

Judging by the toolbox on the wing and the cables being rigged
to apparently hoist the aircraft and the work that's going on, it
appears that these two photos show a salvage/recovery
team stripping the wrecked Lightning.
Over the next month or two, we'll on-and-off be taking a look at a series of photos of WWII-era aircraft wrecks in Alaska. The photos in this series came from a larger collection taken by an Army soldier who served in Alaska. Although most of the photos that he left behind are of non-aviation subjects - he seems to have been in a unit that operated heavy equipment - one of his group's duties appears to have been wreck salvage.

First up in our series are these two photos of a P-38 crash scene. The only unit in the Aleutian Theater during WWII that flew the Lightning was the 54th Fighter Squadron. The unit has the distinction of being the first one to down an enemy aircraft with the P-38, the first kill going to a Lt. Stanley Long, against a Japanese four-engine flying boat. Flying in that part of the world had its challenges. The weather for most of the year was horrible, and far more aircraft were lost to accidents and weather than to combat.

Presumably this was one of those. I know nothing about the scene shown here, no idea of the location nor the date, so there's not much of a story to tell. The only discernible markings are the nose numbers, barely visible in the image on the left, which appears to be "88".
By enhancing the contrast and rotating
the photo 90deg to the left, it appears
that the nose number of this aircraft
is "88".

Of course, I'd love to know more. If anyone has any info as to the location, the identity of the pilot or the date when this happened, please let me know!

(The National Park Service has a nice tribute web page to the 54th here.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wood and Wires

Another image generously provided by Mojave Transportation Museum Director Cathy Hansen.


The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a was one of the most successful fighters of World War I, with over 5,200 built. It was considered an extremely stable aircraft, easily flown by novice pilots, and yet quite rugged and durable, able to withstand high dive speeds. While the Sopwith Camel was more agile and able to turn tighter in a dog fight, the S.E.5a was considered a safer airplane by its pilots.

When I first wrote this post, I said that there was no detailed information about this particular airframe (in fact, the back of the photo was even incorrectly labeled "S.E.5e", the American-built version). How wrong I was! Thanks to reader Bry, whose comments you can see below, the plane has been identified as one of the mounts of British multi-ace 2nd Lieutenant James "Mac" McCudden. McCudden's amazing skills as a fighter pilot led him to count 57 enemy kills, along with with three more unconfirmed. Seven of the kills, plus two of the unconfirmed, were achieved in this aircraft, B4863, between 19 September and 21 October 1917, during which time he served with 56 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. For his gallantry and success in battle, McCudden was awarded the Military Cross, the Victoria Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. By the age of 22, McCudden was the most decorated pilot in the RFC. His career came to an abrupt end, however, in July, 1918, when his aircraft stalled and crashed during takeoff. The Washington Post's coverage of the incident read:

"The whole air service feels great grief over the loss of Maj. James McCudden. His death due to an inexplicable accident. He was on his way from Scotland to take a new command, flew over from England in his favorite single seater landed successfully at an aerodrome in northern France where he had business and after a short stay set off again to join his squadron.

"While he was still only a few hundred feet from the ground his machine sideslipped and crashed among trees in the neighborhood of the aerodrome and was killed instantly. The official record of his victories is 45 enemy planes brought down and 13 driven down. The quality of his flying was cool judgment. He would maneuver patiently for position and keep it with astonishing skill and pertinacity until the enemy was shot down. No man worked harder to make maintain the espirit de corps of his squadron. It was the squadron record, not his own that he chiefly cared for."

A detailed biography of McCudden and a listing of his achievements can be found on the website The Aerodrome.

Only five original S.E.5a's have survived, one of which is flyable. An American-assembled S.E.5e has been preserved, and there have been a number of reproduction aircraft built over the years. Additional info on the S.E.5a can also be found on this page at The Aerodrome.

Special shout-out to reader Bry for connecting the dots!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Flyboys (and Girls)

In honor of Veteran's Day 2011, we're taking a break from looking at airplanes, and featuring a few of the people who flew them. To all those who ever have flown an aircraft in the service of our great nation, along with those who have maintained the aircraft and supported the mission, Thank You!

J. N. Southard

Posing in the togs of the trade at some unknown desert base.

WASP Flora Belle Reece then and now, reliving memories in the front seat
of Dave Van Hoyt's AT-6 Texan (photo courtesy of Rebecca Amber/Aerotech
News, inset courtesy of Flora Belle Reece)

Three pilots pose in the desert (possibly Muroc Field) in the 1930s.

A 1930s-era family portrait. Note the lad in the leather jacket and pilot's helmet,
which illustrates the inspiration that pilots had then - and still have today - on
young people. Given that this was probably shot in the 1930s, it's entirely
possible, and even likely, that this young man went on to serve his Country
during WWII in the cockpit of an airplane.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Human Fly

The Human Fly riding on Clay Lacy's DC-8. Collection of
Cathy Hansen, Mojave Transportation Museum
When the barnstorming era started after World War I, one of the more popular acts was the "wing walker", a daredevil who'd climb out onto the wing of a rickety old biplane. As time went one, the stunts became more and more sophisticated, with wing walkers who would compete to out-perform each other, incorporating elements of trapeze artists and other tricks. Planes became faster, too, which made the acts more "daring". Wing walking still is a favorite act at air shows, but it can be argued that the art peaked in the early 1970s with the Human Fly.

The Human Fly was none other than daredevil performer Rick Rojatt who lived out the Marvel comic book character  also known as the Human Fly. While technically a "fuselage walker", Rojatt teamed with famed pilot Clay Lacy and stood on top of Lacy's Douglas DC-8 as he flew unbelievably low and at 250 knots, before stunned airshow crowds. The plane was an ex-Japan Air Lines DC-8-32 (there it was registered JA8002), and was that carrier's second jet when it was delivered in 1960.

Our photo today was shot during one of several appearances that the Human Fly made at the Mojave Air Races between 1970 and 1976, and was inscribed personally by Lacy to Mojave's General Manager, Dan Sabovich.

Rojatt reportedly "retired" from the DC-8 scene after an appearance in Dallas, TX, when he and Lacy flew through a rainstorm, which at the speeds that the -8 flies, left him badly bruised. He did go on, however, to break Evil Knevil's record of jumping over buses on a motorcycle (he cleared 26, but not without a landing injury; details of that stunt can be found here).

1/13/13 addendum: A 23-minute long video of the Human Fly at the '75 Mojave races can be found here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Wrigley, Boeing and Douglas' Dolphin

The first production Douglas Dolphin sits at Clover Field in Santa
Monica during its flight test tenure.
It must have been a couple of very good days for Donald Douglas, the days that William Wrigley Jr.'s son and Bill Boeing came to buy airplanes. The latter was something of a coup, I should expect. It helped, to be sure, that the plane had been a pet project of Douglas, who designed it personally. Having experienced a string of successes in building military observation aircraft - especially planes built for the Navy - Donald set about to design something decidedly different, a luxurious commercial flying yacht. He called it the "Sinbad". What resulted was a twin-engined, aluminum-hulled flying boat that seated six to eight passengers, and even had a lavatory in the back.

Problem was, it was a flying boat - stuck in the water. Douglas realized that the utility of the aircraft, and hopefully the sales, would be so much enhanced if it were an amphibian, with retractable land-lubber gear. So Douglas tweaked the design a bit, and the plane entered production as an amphibian called the Dolphin. If you look carefully under the wing of our image of the week above, you'll note the registration number: X-967Y, which indicates that this was the first production Dolphin (Douglas tended to use registration numbers that ended in "Y" for their developmental aircraft), while it was still considered an experimental aircraft.

The aircraft was amazingly quiet and a great performer, everything that Donald had dreamed of. (In 1931, Flight Magazine wrote a glowing pilot report about the Dolphin, which you can read here.) It's just that his timing was wrong. By the time that the Sinbad was under construction, the 1929 stock market crash bankrupted many of the members of the market that Douglas had hoped to sell the planes too. By the time that the first Dolphin flew in 1930, America was deep into the Great Depression.

This is a detail cropping of one of the
photos featured with the Douglas DC-1
article three weeks ago, and shows one of
the Army's Dolphins at Clover Field.
But although Douglas had designed the plane as a commercial venture, it was the military that bought the majority of the Dolphins produced. With the success of X-967Y, the Sinbad was retrofitted with retractable wheels, and was picked up, along with 13 Dolphins, by the U.S. Coast Guard, which designated them variously RD-1, RD-2 and RD-4, during 1931-1934. The U.S. Navy bought nine (three of which were later turned over to the USMC), three RD-2s and six RD-3s. One of the Navy Dolphins was converted into a Presidential aircraft for Franklin Roosevelt, although there is no record of him actually using it (in 1933, Popular Science raved about the new Presidential "Mayflower of the Air").

It was natural to think of these planes serving the in the Navy and Coast Guard, but what's surprising is that the Army Air Corps picked up 24 aircraft - that's one more than the USN and USCG combined! With the USAAC, the Dolphins were designated variously as C-21, C-26A, C-26B and C-29. The Argentinian Navy also bought one.

However, there were still a few civilian folks out there who could afford such a plane, and in the case of the Dolphin, it was chewing gum to the rescue. Or at least the money from chewing gum. William Wrigley Jr. had made millions selling chewing gum to America, sort of by accident. The company he founded actually started out selling things like soap and baking powder, and as a sales incentive, packaged chewing gum in each container. Thing is, the chewing gum turned out to be more popular than the soap and baking power, and a fortune was thus made. Wrigley tended to spend his fortune on things he loved, namely his Chicago Cubs baseball team and his favorite get-away-spot, Santa Catalina Island. In 1919 Wrigley bought the Santa Catalina Island Company, and got the actual island thrown in for free.

NC-967Y is a cover girl, gracing the front of
Arcadia Publishing's Catalina by Air, a
must-have book for anyone who loves flying
boats. Because of the narrowness of the cove
in which the first Catalina Airport was built,
the designers created a wooden turntable,
which our aircraft sits on in this view. The
ocean is just out of the scene to the right.
Wrigley Junior's only son, Philip K. Wrigley, was also heavily involved with is Dad in the development of the island, and he just so happened to have served in the Navy as the head of training for aviation mechanics. Now, Pacific Marine Airways and Western Air Express had already been serving Catalina, but in 1931 he decided he could do it better himself, terminated the contracts with the other carriers, and set up the Wilmington-Catalina Airlines, Ltd.

To serve the island Philip Wrigley selected Douglas' new Dolphin, buying the first two production aircraft, NC-967Y and NC-14204, making the Dolphin the very first Douglas airliner. The website Catalina Goose has a wonderful selection of images of the two Wilmington-Catalina Dolphins in service. With the Dolphin, the 27 mile channel was transited in only 15 minutes. The two aircraft faithfully served until September 1942, when the Coast Guard shut down all civilian transportation between the island and the mainland.

Pan Am was the only other airline to buy Dolphins, purchasing a pair for use by their China National Aviation Corp. subsidiary.

And then there was Bill Boeing. In 1934, while he was still at his namesake Boeing Company, he bought a Dolphin, which he named Rover, from his rival for his own personal use. Later, when he decided he needed something bigger, he traded up to a Douglas DC-5. Rover went through several other owners, including serving with Catalina Channel Air Service in the 1960s. It would become the only surviving Dolphin, now on display at the US National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Super Snoopy!

From the vaults of the Mojave Transportation Museum...

DC-7BF Super Snoopy on the ramp at the 1970 California 1000 race in Mojave.
Cathy Hansen photo via the Mojave Transportation Museum
"Curses, Red Baron," said Snoopy...

While it's unclear whether the famed Beagle's appearance at the 1970 California 1000 Unlimited Air Race at Mojave was officially sanctioned by Charles Schultz, it was one certainly worth Snoopy's reputation. Unlike the much shorter Unlimited-class races held at the Reno National Air Races, Mojave's California 1000 was just that: 1,000 miles of closed-course, low-altitude flying around a set of pylons in the Mojave desert, the longest such race ever held. It caused the teams to have to rethink their strategies, as the race length would far exceed the typical Unlimited's fuel range. Thus, pit stops would be part of the mix.

Famed pilot Clay Lacy was no stranger to Unlimited racing, his bright purple P-51 Mustang was a regular at Reno. But for the California 1000, held on November 15, 1970, he came up with a different strategy: find a plane with long legs. He came up with the idea of using an ex-American Airlines DC-7BF freighter, N759Z, which was owned by California Airmotive's Allen Paulson. In raw speed, it was no match for the highly-tuned Mustangs, Sea Furies and Bear Cats that normally raced, but what it lacked in flat-out, it made up for in stamina, able to fly the entire race non-stop, with no visits to the pits.

The plane wore Lacy's traditional race number 64, and was flown by him along with Paulson (they shared the title of "co-captain", along with Snoopy himself) and FE Joe Matos. The race was started differently than the ones at Reno, with all the aircraft lined up on the runway at the same time, with position based on qualifying times...except the DC-7, which had to start last because of its size. But Snoopy came through, and finished a respectable sixth out of twenty, in a race won by a Sea Fury that averaged 344 mph. Clay said at the time, "We used METO power (Maximum Except Take-Off) and flew at an indicated airspeed of 355 mph. Speed averaged about 325 mph because of time lost on the pylons. The G load was limited to 2.2 and we used an average 60-70 degree bank. The aircraft consumed 4,100 gallons of 145 octane fuel and 80 gallons of 70 SAE Pennzoil!"

The presence of Super Snoopy certainly got the racing community's attention, and when Paulson decided to race a Lockheed Super Constellation (named the Red Baron) against Snoopy in a 1000-mile Unlimited race in San Diego, the rest of the racing community cried foul and refused to participate. In the end, the two four-engine propliners sat out the event, never to race again. The DC-7 was eventually scrapped in Beruit, Lebanon, in 1985.

Want to see the Red Baron? Check out this web site, which tells much the same story.

A wonderful old film of the race can be seen here.