Friday, October 11, 2013

Great Lakes in the Lake

Great Lakes 4-A-1 NC850K in the midst of an engine power run. It appears that
this was being performed by company personnel rather than after-market maintenance
crews, based on the logo on the back of the coveralls facing the camera (see below)
When you mention "Great Lakes" as an aircraft manufacturer, most people think of the Model 2-T-1 Sport Trainer that was introduced in 1929, and which has remained one of the favorite sport biplanes of all time, going in and out of production ever since (even now, another iteration of the company is trying to get the plane back into production). But the company built other airplanes back in its heyday, and one of the most obscure of these was the 1929 twin-engine 4-A-1 amphibian. Only three were built, and there is very little information available on them (for instance, at the time of this writing, a Google search came of with a grand total of zero photos of the 4-A-1).

Compare with the logo on the left.
The company was established in an old Martin plant in Cleveland, Ohio by president Col. Benjamin Castle. According to Aerofiles, the prototype, NC851K was powered by a pair of 115-hp Cirrus Hermes inline engines, and was severely underpowered and crashed on takeoff, while be flown by Holden C. Richardson, who was the Navy's first engineering test pilot. His presence suggests that Great Lakes was developing the 4-A-1 with hopes of marketing it to the Navy.

To solve the problem, the next aircraft, NC850K (the subject of our two photos), was equipped with two Wright J-6 Whirlwinds; Aerofiles describes these as 300-hp engines, but that would make them the 7-cylinder R-760 or 9-cylinder R-975, and these are clearly only five-cylider engines, which would make them R-540s, in the 165-hp to 175-hp range. So either what is shown in our photos is an interim re-engining, or the 300-hp claim is overstated.

The original company was a victim of the Great Depression, like so many other small aircraft manufacturers. While the 4-A-1 amphibian, for what ever reason, was not built in quantity, Great Lakes built 264 Sport Trainers during the short time they were in business, and subsequent companies using the same name have continued to build more.

Readers with additional information on the 4-A-1 are invited to comment below!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Mamer's Famous Trimotor

I'm not sure which town this photo was taken in, but something special must
have been going on, based on all the cars lined up!
Airplanes can be a lot like celebrities...the more famous they are, the more photographs exist, floating around in collections and museums, not to mention the internet. The few of the Ford Trimotors that have survived the years and gone on to post-restoration careers tend to fit into this category, and photos of a few important airframes are very common - at least modern photos. Finding original shots of such aircraft from before they came famous is another matter entirely. Such is the case with the plane in today's featured photo, Ford 4-AT-E serial number 55, registration NC9612, which is shown flying with its original owner, Mamer Flying Service.

This Ford has one of the most colorful histories of any surviving Trimotor, and in January 2009 was sold at a highly publicized auction to auto collector Ron Pratte and his Collectible Aircraft LLC for $1.1 million, and it is now kept in Chandler AZ. (The auction company's website has a lot of recent photos of NC9612, and is well worth checking out. Incidently, at the same auction, Pratte bought Ford Thunderbird #1 for a cool $600K)

Nick Mamer had been a WWI pilot and served with distinction, downing three German Fokkers at Dun sut Meuse; during the battle of Argonne, he himself was shot down, surviving the inflight fire and crash due to his skillful airmanship. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre for his service. After the war, Lt Mamer continued flying and went on to barnstorm around the Pacific Northwest. He tried his hand at air racing, and took third in the 1927 New York-Spokane Air Derby. He then started the Mamer Flying Service, providing flight instruction and charter service as well as forest fire spotting for the Forest Service. Mamer gained a bit of fame during August 1929 by flying, along with Art Walker, non-stop for five days, covering more than 7,200 miles in a Buhl while periodically being aerially refueled. 

MAT logo from this website.
On March 30, 1929, Mamer Flying Service took delivery of the first of two brand new Ford Trimotors, NC9612 and named it West Wind (the second, 4-AT-65, NC8403, followed that July). A year earlier, Nick had started scheduled airline service between Spokane and Portland under the name Mamer Air Transport, flying Buhl Air Sedans. Flights from Spokane to the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, and when the two Trimotors came online, he added service to Seattle, now advertising MAT as a "transcontinental line". Mamer had determined to establish airline service in the Pacific Northwest despite the fact that the US Postal Service had declined to award any Contract Air Mail routes. Without those routes, though, it was tough to make enough revenue during the Great Depression to stay in business.

When Northwest received a CAM route from the Twin Cities to Billings, MAT ceased offering service east of Spokane, and soon after stopped serving Portland. When Northwest started serving Spokane in 1933, Nick gave up on MAT, sold its assets to Northwest, and hired on as a pilot with them. On January 10, 1938, Nick Mamer was flying a Northwest Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra when it crashed after structural failure of the tail due to flutter, killing all aboard.

Meanwhile, in 1936, after MAT went out of business, NC9612 was passed from owner to owner for several years until it was bought in August 1940 by Charles Knox and Robert Tyce, who together owned K-T Flying Service, based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Trimotor was at Pearl Harbor during the surprise Japanese attack, and though it was shot at, the venerable plane came through with only minor damage from a few bullet holes, which were quickly repaired. In 1945, it was shipped back to the mainland and put into storage until 1949. 

With the 20th anniversary of TWA, the carrier leased NC9612 and painted it in TWA and TAT markings and sent it on a cross-country promotional tour, resulting in thousands of people shooting snapshots of the famous Trimotor. The celebrations over, the plane was converted in 1952 into an agricultural sprayer, then in 1957, the famed Johnson Flying Service of Missoula MT turned the plane into a fire-fighting air tanker, and it spent the next decade traveling across the country from fire to fire. 

With newer and more capable air tankers available, the time of the Trimotor was over, and in 1969 it was purchased by Korean War ace Dolph Overton III, restored to pristine condition as part of Overton's Wings and Wheels collection, and was for a time put on display at the Virginia Air Museum.

The Barrett-Jackson auction listing for the aircraft includes this description of the restoration effort: "This was a no concession, no compromise restoration in which the airframe was reworked, a new interior installed and the exterior completely re-skinned, with most work being performed under the supervision of Master Restorer Bob Woods of Woods Aviation in Goldsboro, NC. The wings were reworked and re-skinned by expert craftsman Maurice Hovious of Hov-Aire in Vicksburg, Michigan. The landing gear, including the unique Johnson bar braking system, is complete and original. The original straight-laced wire wheels have tires that were re-sculpted to replicate the correct profile and tread pattern of the period. The wood paneling of the interior has been skillfully re-created. There are no modern avionics or communications gear - just what came with the plane when it was delivered from the Ford factory in January of 1929. Exhaustive efforts were made to ensure originality in every detail with assistance from Tim O'Callaghan of the Henry Ford Museum and American Aircraft Historian Bill Larkins, author of The Ford Tri-Motor book."

On the plane's last flight as part of the Overton collection, it was flown to the auction site by legendary pilot Jimmy Leeward, who was on the podium as the gavel fell and the auctioneer declared the plane "sold".

An extensive collection of photos of NC9612, both modern and vintage, can be found here.

As the plane was prepared for auction by the Overton Family Trust, this homepage for the plane was set up.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Top 10 from the 2013 Flabob Flying Circus

I'm going to break with tradition this week, and instead of featuring vintage photos in this special mid-week post, I'm sharing some photos of vintage aircraft that appeared at this past weekend's Flabob Flying Circus in Riverside, California. For those not familiar with it, the annual event at Flabob Airport is a magnet for antique and classic airplanes, and the relaxed atmosphere there allows fly-in spectators to mingle with planes and pilots the way airshows used to be. If you're a fan of classic planes, make sure to add this to your calendar next year. Since there was no judging or prizes for the best aircraft on display, I thought I'd offer up the official Vintage Air top-ten list (meaning my personal faves!).
In first place was this knock-your-socks-off, absolutely gorgeous art-deco paint scheme on a beautifully restored Travel Air D-4D owned by Richard Zeiler. Named Sky Siren, the 1929 beauty was restored by AeroCraftsman and painted by Flabob fabric and paint guru Nando Mendoza.

Second place goes to a plane that is well-known to Flabob visitors, the replica DeHavilland DH.88 Comet Grosvenor House. Built by the late Bill Turner for Tom Wathen (who owns several other Golden Age replicas, as well as the airport itself!). The original DH.88 was designed and built by DeHavilland specifically to be entered in the 11,000 mile UK-to-Australia MacRobertson Trophy race in 1934. Flying against a daunting field that included Douglas' new DC-2 and Boeing's 247.

When the race was over, the DH.88 had beaten its next closest rival, the KLM DC-2 by almost a full day, this despite having to finish the last legs with one engine throttled back due to oil pressure problems.

Third place goes to this highly modified Ryan owned by Gary Jackson. Originally an Army PT-22 (c/n 1391, AAF s/n 41-15361), it was modified by John Gokchoff's Component Air at Santa Paula with the installation of a Fairchild Ranger 6-410B engine which approximates the original Menasco engines used in the ST-A sport trainers that Ryan first built.

In fourth place is this super-clean 1930 model Travel Air 4000, owned by San Diego dentist Stuart "Cap'n Mac" MacPherson, who started his aviation career years ago flying in Richard Bach's Great American Flying Circus (hence N4321's current colors).

Fifth place (and a fair amount of curiosity) goes to this Curtiss "XF9-1" replica-of-sorts. Approximating the Curtiss XF9C/F9C Sparrowhawk, the detail that's gone into this beauty is astounding.

The aircraft's FAA registration records lists this as a John Pike-built Model 1929XF, with a year of manufacture of 2010.

In sixth place is this utterly gleaming 1946 Beech D18S, owned by Rick Loomis. As much as I'd love to own a Twin Beech, I'd hate to have to polish this one!

Seventh goes to this purple A75N1 Stearman (purple, unfortunately, doesn't "translate" well in digital photography) that flew down from Washington for the event.

In 8th place, with more gleaming aluminum is Lee Maxson's 1951 Cessna 195, which flew in from Chandler, AZ.

Ninth goes to the replica 1905 Wright Flyer which is still being built at Flabob, but which was far enough along to taxi down the crowd line. My neck hurts just thinking about trying to fly in that position.

And tenth, out of many, many more fabulous planes on the Flabob ramp, is this WACO UPF-7 from Gilbert, AZ.

Finally, we were saddened to see this beautiful 1937 Rose Parrakeet suffer a rather nasty groundloop on landing, but thankfully the pilot was able to walk away. It is seen here being righted, though one cringes at the thought of the stresses on that crankshaft! Hopefully, repairs will be forthcoming!

Friday, September 27, 2013

An American Messerschmitt

The location for this photo appears to be Hughes Aircraft at Culver City. The
Archive's copy is a recent reprint on modern photo paper, unfortunately, but
when I found it at a Burbank antique store, I couldn't pass it up.
The Messerschmitt ME-262 was a legendary aircraft, the world's first operational fighter jet, and over 1,400 were built during WWII. One of the most "storied" of the eight surviving aircraft is the subject of the two unrelated photos being featured today. Before the end of the war, the Army Air Forces had put together a small organization called the Air Technical Intelligence (ATI) division, which was tasked with finding and securing examples of Nazi advanced technology which could then be studied, tested and exploited. After the war, one of the key targets of ATI was the ME-262 jet fighter, which had so out-classed its Allied adversaries.

Eleven ME-262s were returned to flight status at Lechfeld, Germany and ten were ferried back (one had crashed during a test flight) to the US onboard the British carrier HMS Reaper. This group of ten were split between the US Navy and Army Air Forces, and became (unoffically, of course), America's first jet fighter squadron. A very detailed article about the unit and the men that brought these captured planes home, who collectively became known as "Watson's Whizzers", can be found here.

While stored at Chino in the early 1960s.
Of the five AAF ME-262s, one was lost in a landing accident, but the other four have survived to this day, including the one shown in our two photos. It started out as a ME-262A-1a/U3 (WkNr. 500453) unarmed reconnaissance variant. When first recovered by the Americans, it was named Connie...the Sharp Article and then a bit later Pick II. After arriving at Newark on the Reaper on 1 August 1945, the squadron was ferried to a small, little-known airport call Freeman Field in Indiana on 19 August, where the planes were put through their paces and their capabilities were explored. The testing was coordiated by T-2 at Wright Field. Our plane received the designation FE-4012 when it arrived in the US (FE=Foreign Equipment), and once the testing got underway, this was changed to T-2-4012.

One set of flight tests was aimed at evaluating the ME-262's capabilities against America's top operational fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. Messerschmitt had designed and assembled the ME-262 as a modular aircraft, so it was easy to change a plane's confirguration. For this series of evaluation flights, the American crew removed 4012's reconnaissance nose and replaced it with an aerodynamically cleaner fighter nose, sealed the gun ports, and gave the plane a new gloss paint job. On 17 May 1946, the plane was ferried to Patterson Field (at the time, the field's management had not yet been merged with nearby Wilbur Wright Field) where the testing was to be based. A total of eight flights were flown, two of which resulted in emergency landings. The engines were proving to be extremely unreliable, and after only 4 hours and 40 minutes of testing - and four engine changes! - the testing was called off in August of that year.

Despite the fact that (at least by modern flight test data acquisition standards) this was hardly enough flight time to gather an abundance of reliable flight test data, the Army concluded that the ME-262 had better accelleration and top speed, while showing about the same climb performance as compared to the P-80. The ME-262 also appeared to have a much higher critical Mach number, meaning that it had much less high-speed drag and better performance in the transonic realm.

After the AAF completed the flight testing, the aircraft was disassembled and shipped to Hughes Aircraft in Culver City for storage. There the plane was reassembled and the engines were ground-run, but the plane wasn't flown. Rumors have persisted over the years (and have been amplified on the internet) that there was a desire on the part of Howard Hughes to fine tune 4012 and enter it in a Thompson Trophy race against the AAF's P-80. The conspiracy-theory type rumors state that this effort was squashed by General Hap Arnold as part of a "cover-up" because he didn't want an old Nazi war machine showing up America's newest weapon.

However, despite the persistence of this story, there appears to be no factual basis for it, and when one looks at the details, the improbability of it all really stands out, even given the well-known animosity between Arnold and Hughes. First and foremost, if anyone could make the ME-262 fly reliably, it was Watson's Whizzers, who had access to plenty of spare parts as well as German expertise; Hughes might have had money, but he had none of this. Even with all those resources, the aspect that stands out most from the plane's testing was the terrible reliability of the Jumo 004 engines, which would have been wholly unsuited for air racing. On top of the practicality issues, the timing of it all just doesn't fit. The stories never really indicate which Thompson Trophy race the plane was to be entered in, but there were only three that were possibilities, the 1946, '47 and '48 races.

In the time leading up to the 1946 race (held from 29 August through 3 September), the plane was still in the hands of the AAF at Patterson, Hughes was in the hospital recovering from the near-fatal crash of the XF-11, and most importantly, Hap Arnold had just retired, and so was out of the picture in regards to any official coverup. By the 1948 races, the new North American F-86, which could fly circles around the P-80 (by then, F-80), had been in development flight test for a year, and so had made any grudge match a moot point; the races that year were dominated by the Navy's FJ Fury, and the P-80 didn't even appear.

That leaves the 1947 races, but Hap Arnold was still out if the picture in retirement, Hughes was neck-deep in preparations for both the H-4 (aka Spruce Goose) first fact he was so focused on this project that once made the statement that if the H-4 Hercules didn't fly, he'd up and leave the country for good. In addition, Hughes had the task of preparing for and testifying at the contentious hearings of the Senate War Investigating Committee. While 4012 was stored at Hughes' Culver City facility, it was still government property, and thus couldn't just be used for any personal racing whims that an otherwise swamped Hughes might have. So, barring some heretofore unknown hard evidence that Hughes proposed such a project, the story should be regarded as just one more Hughes-related rumor.

After a short time in storage at Hughes, it became clear to the leadership of the new USAF that our own technology was already far ahead of where the Nazis had been a few years earlier, and there was nothing to be gained in further testing of the ME-262. Thus, the aircraft was given to Cal Aero Technical Institute at the Glendale airport, where it was used as a hands-on teaching tool for student aircraft mechanics.

In about 1955, the plane was acquired by Edward Maloney for his Planes of Fame collection, and was partially restored, and statically displayed incorrectly as WkNr 111617 at the Chino museum. In about 2000, ex-Microsoft executive Paul G. Allen purchased the plane for his Flying Heritage Collection, located at Paine Field in Washington. According to some reports, it was shipped to the UK for restoration, but has since returned to the US, where it is reportedly being completed to flying condition, to be powered a pair of original Jumo engines. The aircraft has been registered with the FAA as N94503, with ownership being listed as Vulcan Warbirds, Inc., one of Allen's companies.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Mary's Junior Sportster

The same photographer who shot both of last week's Gee Bee Model Y Senior Sportster took this photo of the Gee Bee Model D. The Granville Brothers had started building a series of aircraft which they called the "Junior Sportsters", powered with in-line engines to compete in race classes defined by smaller engine displacements. They started with their Model X, designed around a 110-hp supercharged Cirrus engine, and it competed respectfully and took second place in the 1930 All-American Derby, a grueling 5,541-mile endurance race from Detroit to Los Angeles and back.

The success of the Model X opened up the commercial potential for small racing planes, which then led the Brothers Granville to develop a series of production aircraft, the Model B and Model C, both of which flew in the restricted category. Building on the design, the Granvilles then built their Model D under a CAA type certificate (ATC404), which meant that it could be licensed as a standard-category aircraft, which promised a big boost to sales. Unlike the other Junior Sportsters, the Model D had fully-faired landing gear, and to help improve directional stability, the vertical stabilizer was enlarged. The plane, nicknamed "the Cat" and powered by a 125-hp Menasco C-4 Pirate engine, was flown to various airshows and events throughout 1931 by Zantford "Granny" Granville. The tour was punctuated by an appearance at the 1931 Cleveland Nationals flown by Bob Hall, who took first place in the 25-mile Williams Trophy race, which was limited to aircraft with an engine displacement of 400 cu. in. or less.

At the same event, it was also flown by the well-known aviatrix Mary Haizlip in two races, one a free-for-all for aircraft of 510 cu. in. or less, and the other limited to ATC certified aircraft under 625 cu. in. In both races, Mary finished second to Phoebe Omlie, with Maude Taite coming in third in her Scarab-powered Gee Bee Model E. Depsite these successes, NC11043 was the only Model D built.

Besides racing the plane, the Granvilles tried to use it for another commercial mission that was all the rage at the time: skywriting. A smoke generating system was installed, controlled by a trigger mounted on the stick. Granny even demonstrated the system by skywriting "Gee Bee" over New York City, but this failed to generate any sales.

In July 1936 (some sources say 1935), Channing Seabury was practicing aerobatics in NC11043 when he lost control of the aircraft. He tried to bail out, but was struck by the plane's tail and killed.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The First Successful Sikorsky Boat

When I first acquired this 8x10 print, I was a bit puzzled...the configuration was similar to the Sikorsky S-34, but the engines were positioned differently. Most of the information I found on the subsequent S-36-B referred to it as an amphibian with an enclosed cabin, and the plane in our photo clearly has an open cockpit and doesn't have the landing gear that most S-36 photos show. Maybe something in between?

The S-34 was Igor Sikorsky's first attempt at a flying boat, and in early 1927, during a test flight, it suffered an engine failure, crashed and sank. Instead of building another, Igor advanced the design and a few months later unveiled the S-36-B. The breakthrough in the research came with this article in the October 20, 1927 issue of Flight magazine, which reveals that Sikorsky actually offered the S-36-B in open and closed cockpit configurations, and with or without landing gear. The article also includes a photo of our aircraft that appears to have been taken only moments before or after our photo was taken...the propellers are positioned exactly the same, only the pilot has moved slightly.

The S-36-B was offered in three configurations, all cargo, open cockpit and closed cabin, both of the latter which would carry six passengers and two crew. I couldn't find any information stating how many of the open cockpit version were built, but the fact that most photos show the closed-cabin configuration suggests that only one was built; the Flight article indicates that one open-cockpit version, likely that shown in our photo, was sold to Andean National, a Canadian company doing pipeline construction work along the Magdelena River in Columbia, South America, where there were no landing strips available (hence no need for wheels). One of the five production aircraft built was sold to the then-new Pan American Airways, starting a long tradition of Pan Am flying Sikorsky aircraft. A sixth aircraft was sold to the US Navy as the XPS-1 and even had a gunner's position in the nose.

The most famous of the S-36s was one named Dawn, which sold to Frances Grayson, the neice of President Woodrow Wilson, for her attempt to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (albeit as a passenger). She and her crew departed on December 23, 1927 and were never seen again.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Maude's Senior Sportster

The aircaft initially carried the experimental registration seen here,but 
that was changed to a restricted-category registration by the time of 
the 1931 Nationals, so these photos werelikely taken late in 1930 or 
early in 1931.
When most people hear "Gee Bee" or "Granville Brothers", there's are certain iconic aircraft that instantly comes to mind...the model Z and later R-1 and R-2 racers (also known as the barrel racers, because of the shape of the fuselage). The notoriety that these aricraft have, unfortunately, overshadowed the fact that the Granville Brothers (Edward, Mark, Robert, Thomas, Zantford) built a number of other sport and racing aircraft under the Gee Bee brand, starting in 1929 and lasting until they filed for bankruptcy in January, 1934.

The two photos featured today depict the first of two Gee Bee Model Y aircraft, also known as the Senior Sportster, which was Granville's first two seat model. NX11049 (YW-1) was designed by Gee Bee engineer Robert Hall for aviatrix Maude Taite, whose father owned the Springfield MA airport, and thus was the Granvilles' landlord; it first flew in late 1930.

The cartoon bird painted on the side was the mascot of the Granvilles, and
was patterned after the filaloola bird, which was noted by its call,
The plane made its debut at the 1931 National Air Races in Cleveland as Race #54, but while it did well, it was overshadowed by the other Gee Bee that came to the races, the model Z. Taite first flew it in the Shell Trophy 3km speed dash, and then on September 6, 1931, she won the 50-mile Aerol Trophy race with a speed of 187.574 mph, setting a new women's closed-course speed record for that distance, beating Amelia Earhart's old record by a full 10 mph (she fell short of beating the men's record for the 50 mile by only 1 mph). The plane was also flown in the much shorter Thompson Trophy race by Robert Hall, who took fourth place at 201.25 mph...the Z won, flown by Lowell Bayles, at 236.239 mph.

YW-1 didn't appear at the 1932 Nationals, but was entered in the 1933 races, where Marty Bowman took second in the Aerol (161.7 mph) and Zantford Granville flew it to fifth place in the Thompson (173.0 mph; it would have been 6th and last, if Roscoe Turner hadn't been disqualified for cutting a pylon). With the top race speeds increasing each year, it was clear that the Model Y just was not competitive any longer.

The plane continued to be owned by Gee Bee until their 1934 bankruptcy, when it was sold off along with many of the company's other assets. It finally met its fate later in 1934 while flying over the Atlantic off of New York City and shed a propeller blade. The pilot managed to bail out, but the vibration caused the engine to come off its mounts, and the aircraft entered a flat spin and was lost at sea.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pickwick's Bach Crash

While the Ford was the most well-known trimotor produced, a number of other companies also tried to break into the airliner business with three-engined designs, including L. Morton Bach's Bach Aircraft Corp, which started business at Santa Monica's Clover Field, before moving to the LA Metropolitan Airport at Van Nuys.

Bach built a number of different trimotor models, but one thing tended to differentiate them from other brands: they used smaller nacelle-mounted engines than what was used on the nose. Five ten-passenger model 3-CT-6 Air Yachts were built for Pickwick Airlines, and these used a Pratt 525-hp Hornet on the nose and two 130-hp Comet engines in the outboard nacelles.

The original negative for this image is very badly deteriorated, and a lot of work
was required to restore even this amount of detail.
Pickwick had started as a bus line serving cities up and down the California coast and their "Nitecoach" was one of the most innovative bus designs on the road. On March 29, 1929, they entered the airline business with twice-daily service between Los Angeles (Glendale Grand Central Air Terminal) and San Diego. Soon after, San Francisco was added to the routing, as was Mexico City and Guatemala City (sample timetables can be seen here). In order to publicize the upcoming LA to Central America service, Pickwick hired Pancho Barnes to fly the route, and she then claimed to be the first woman pilot to fly between LA and Mexico City (a claim contested at the time by aviatrix Mildred Morgan, who had been hired to fly the same route by Los Angeles radio station KTM, which ironically was also owned by Pickwick).

The Archive owns several original photos of Pickwick Air Yachts. The one seen above comes from the William Alman collection, and the rest come from the Archive's R.C. Talbot negative collection. On August 7, 1929 Air Yacht NC539E (c/n 7, the third of Pickwick's five Bachs) was being flown by Pickwick pilots John Woods and Elmer McLeod and carrying eight passengers when it lost power only five minutes after takeoff from Grand Central bound for San Diego, and made an emergency landing three miles away, in nearby Los Angeles River bed, overturning in the soft sand. Miraculously, no one was killed, and only moderate injuries were suffered. The official cause off the crash is listed as "engine failure due to gas-line stoppage" (more info and a copy of McLeod's log entry for the crash can be found at the DM Airfield webpage).

Pickwick had grand visions of combined bus/plane service from LA to Chicago, but with the Great Depression settling over the country and the company's inability to win an air mail contract, it was a terrible time to be operating a fledgling airline, and Pickwick's air service only lasted a year, folding in the Spring of 1930. The bus company, though, went on to merge with Northland Transportation Company of Minnesota to become Pacific Greyhound, the forerunner of today's Greyhound Lines (a detailed history can be found here).

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Waldo Waterman's Whatsit

This has got to be one of the most creative names of an aircraft: people showing up to see Waldo Waterman's novel flying wing design, they'd invariably ask "What is it?" Whether he was intrigued or annoyed with the constant question isn't clear, but what is know is that Waterman named the plane the Whatsit.

Original Caption: "A New-Type Plane Makes Debut": Because everyone who has
seen it fly has gasped, "What is it?", Waldo D. Waterman, ex-Air Mail pilot and
aeronatuical veteran of Santa Monica, California, named his unique new flying
wing plane just that, "Whatsit". The novel two passenger tailess craft, which
travels more than one hundred miles an hour, powered with a small radial air
cooled engine, appears to be one answer to America's need for a low priced,
simply and economically constructed everyman's flivver plane. Photo shows
Waldo D. Waterman in cockpit of his new plane at the Grand Central Air
Terminal, Glendale. 2/17/34
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, two men, Jack Northrop and Waldo Waterman, were independently working on the concept of a flying wing aircraft design within but a few miles of each other. While Northrop was doing his work at Burbank, Waterman set up shop nearby at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport, what is today known as the Van Nuys Airport.

The two designers had very different motives for pursuing such a radical design: Waterman thought that the configuration held promise for a "flivver", a small every-man's airplane, like a car for the sky, and just as easy to operate. Jack was driven by the desire to refine aircraft design to achieve the lowest possible drag, and he saw a tailless wing as the ultimate solution to that problem. Northrop's design first flew in 1928 (we'll be covering that in a future post), and he went on to fame. Waterman's wing flew in 1932, and though his designs evolved over the next few years, he was never able to come up with the breakthrough design that would provide him with fame and the common man with an airplane that would be as ubiquitous as the automobile.

Waterman had worked in various locations around Southern California for years. In 1910, while based at North Island, San Diego, he designed a variation on a Curtiss pusher that included an innovation where a pull of a lever folded the planes wheels out of the way so that it could land on its skids, making it quite possibly the first retractible landing gear in aviation history.

After WWI, Waterman found work in Glendale custom-building first a JN-4 Jenny and then a Packard-LaPere for millionare L. C. Brand. While there was a huge war surplus of hastily-assembled Jennys available on the market, Waterman found a small niche for customized and precision-built - and thus quite a bit more expensive - aircraft. From these, he acquired a reputation for producing aircraft that were highly reliable.

Construction on the Whatsit, NX12272, started in 1929 and included a number of notable design innovations, including the first documented use of "elevons" for both roll and pitch control. A trim plane, which was adjustable on the ground, protruded on short booms in front of the nose. The wings featured a 15 degree sweep, and the tips supported small rudders. Unlike most planes of the era (but just like Northrop's AE-1 wing), the Whatsit used tricycle landing gear complete with a steerable nose wheel.

Work on the aircraft was completed in May, 1932, and Waterman commenced taxi tests at LA Metropolitan. After several abortive flight attempts which ended in several minor incidents with the aircraft, Waterman finally got the plane airborne in July, although he quickly found that it was somewhat unstable in pitch. This was due to the close-coupled vertical relationship between the pusher engine's thrust line and the wing's center of pressure (this relationship affects an aircraft's longitudinal static stability, and while it is less noticable in traditional fuselage/tail aircraft designs, it is especially critical in tailless swept flying wing designs; even modern designs struggle with such problems, and the complex relationships of center of pressure and thrust line, as well as pitch control moment led to the crash of the Lockheed RQ-3 Dark Star, as well as pitch instability issues with Boeing's Phantom Ray, which only flew twice before being relegated to storage).

In October 1932, the aircraft was almost destroyed in an landing accident (Waterman wasn't flying at the time). Discouraged, Waterman shelved the project and took a job as an airmail pilot for Transcontinental & Western Airlines. Then, in late 1933, when the US Bureau of Air Commerce's director Eugene Vidal initiated a competition to encourage designers to come up with safe, reliable and inexpensive aircraft that the average person could fly, essentially Model-Ts of the air. Vidal stated, "that if some manufacturer could produce a foolproof airplane in large quantities and market it at a low figure, a new phase of the aircraft industry could be developed"

Waterman realized that a number of aspects of the Whatsit design fit the requirements of the Bureau's challenge, and so flight testing resumed in Feburary 1934, with only minor modifications. At some point, he landed at Grand Central where this photo was shot (the Whatsit was powered by a Kinner radial engine, and Kinner was based at Glendale). He even received mention in the May 1934 issue of Popular Science. 

However, the pitch instability remained, and it quickly became apparent that such a sensitive aircraft was not consistent with what was needed for a novice pilot. Thus, Waterman completely redesigned the plane, adapting a high-wing design (a change that solved the pitch stability problem by putting the wing's center of pressure more in line with the engine's line of thrust), which became the Arrowplane, produced under a the auspices of the newly incorprated Waterman Arrowplane Corp.

Ultimately, out of the 30 entrants in the Bureau's contest in 1935, the Arrowplane was one of only two that took prizes (depending on the source of information, either a Pitcairn AC-35 autogyro or a Hammond Y was the other prize winner). Later, the Arrowplane was refined into the Arrowbile, and then the Aerobile. However, despite the Bureau's romantic visions of the future direction of the aviation industry, neither of these...or any other "flivver", for that matter...made it into large-scale production. WWII and other modern realities pretty much killed the idea of a flying car in every garage. Waterman himself passed away in 1976, in relative obscurity.

The Whatsit, surprisingly, has survived in the collection of the Smithonian's Air and Space Museum, and what's left of it can be seen here.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Fokker Chorus Line

Eighteen of the Fanchon & Marco Fanchonettes dance on the wing of WAE's
first F-32.
In 1930, Western Air Express decided to go big...very big. They agreed to purchase and operate the largest airliner then built, and the first four-engined aircraft built in America, the Fokker F-32. (We gave a brief history of the plane in this post, back when the Archive obtained its R.C. Talbot negative collection.)

At the time, WAE's headquarters were still located at Alhambra, and the company held F-32 inaugural celebrations there as well as at Burbank and Glendale. During these gala events, which drew thousands of spectators, one of the highlights was a performance by a chorus line of young, beautiful women stepping and kicking on top of the airplane's wing in almost perfect unison...the glamorous Fanchonettes.

Today, we're featuring two Fokker F-32 photos from the Glendale inaugural event, which came to the Archive as part of the Alman collection, and one of these shows eighteen of Fanchonettes in mid-kick (typical theater performances featured 48 of the girls). The original Alman photo album page doesn't clarify the location, but what identified it to me as Glendale, rather than the other venues, is that this photo was taken at almost the exact same moment as one by R.C. Talbott which is featured in John Underwoods book on GCAT (if you have a copy of the book, it's on page 47; Alman appears to have been standing just to the right and a bit forward of Talbott).

During the 1920s and '30s, F&M was a huge deal in the Los Angeles area (think of them as that era's equivalent of Cirque du Soleil). They produced spectacular vaudeville performances at Paramount Theater Los Angeles as well as at other top are venues. At the Paramount, the live performances were part of a bigger entertainment event...for the price of admission, you would be treated to the live stage show, a news reel feature, a cartoon short and the latest top Hollywood blockbuster movie. When the movie changed, F&M came up with a whole new stage show to go along with it. So to have them help publicize WAE's new "big thing" was a publicity coup for that time. So to have the F-32 turn out to be such a colossal dud after such a spectacular beginning is especially poignant.

There's a great website that details the history of Fanchon and Marco, and I've made inquiries with them to find out if they have additional details on the WAE performances, but as of this writing, I have not heard back.

This article from Air Transport World has a photo of the girls onboard the F-32.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Slate's Strange Dirigible

The Archive recently had the opportunity to acquire seven original press photo prints of the Slate dirigible built at Glendale. In researching the history of this unusual airship, I found lots of tidbits in various places around the internet, but no one comprehensive history. I also became fascinated with Slate's mis-guided ideas of aerodynamics. All of that came together in this post...I hope its length doesn't produce too much tedious reading...

The Slate hangar under construction at Glendale, with a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, which
probably belonged to the Wilson Brothers, whose hangar is just out of view on the
right. This image is a part of the Archive's Glendale negative collection, was probably
taken in 1927 and is believed to have been shot by prolific Glendale-based
aviation photographer Ray C. Talbott.
To say that Thomas Benton Slate was an interesting character is a bit of an understatement. Many inventors have a flair for the flamboyant, as it helps them gather backers for their improbable schemes, but Slate was one of those rare ones who had actually managed to turn one of his ideas into a commercial success.

Styling himself as "Captain" Slate for the media (what he was captain of, other than the dirigible, I can't find any record of), the inventor made his fortune by developing a commercially viable method of producing frozen carbon dioxide, and his company came up with the name that we all know it by, "Dry Ice". He then turned around and essentially lost that fortune on Slate Aircraft Corp and his dirigible project, in which he combined a host of technologically radical "better ways" together in one doomed effort. Slate received four patents for various aspects of the airship's concepts.

This photo's original caption read: "The all-metal "City of Glendale", which will
take off in a few weeks on its first flight. Revolutionary ideas have been embodied
in the building of this dirigible by Capt. T.B. Slate. It will be driven by steam, and
will not use mooring masts - elevators instead will raise and lower the passengers,
of which there will be 40." The print is date Dec 19, 1929, but the small tail surfaces
and lack of the engine in the aft end of the car indicate that it was taken several
months earlier.
What Slate envisioned was a fleet of airships that were efficient, affordable, larger, smoother, safer and more convenient than contemporary dirigibles. Slate knew how to work the media, and pandered to the local well-to-do by offering to let them invest in his project, which was sure, he promised, to change the future of transcontinental air travel. To further make nice with local civic leaders, he declared that he would name the prototype ship City of Glendale. Thinking far beyond the Glendale, Slate conceived of fleets of even larger dirigibles plying transcontinental air routes, with coast-to-coast times of 36 hours. To develop his project, he looked at other airships of that era, idenfied the various shortcomings of their designs, and came up with what he thought of as innovative solutions. Interest in his project wasn't just confined to the Glendale aviation community...representatives from at least one European cruise line visited the project, interested in seeing whether the airship could be used to transfer passengers to and from ships at sea.

Slate started the aircraft company in 1924 along with his brothers Grover C. and Frank P. Slate. He
leased land at the southeastern corner of Glendale Airport (it wasn't yet known as the Grand Central Air Terminal), dug a big trench and started to build the airframe in 1925. Twice, Santa Ana winds destroyed the partially built frame-work. He then built a large hangar (our first image, above) to better protect the project.

In an era when non-flamable helium supplies were tightly controlled and flammable hydrogen was readily available, Slate supposed that he could make the dirigible "fireproof" - keep in mind, this was 6 1/2 years before the Hindenberg disaster - by constructing the shell, or "envelope" from duralumin (the contemporary trade name for the age-hardened copper-aluminum alloy most commonly used in early airship and aircraft construction). The metal was formed into long strips that were interlinked and then riveted together to produce a gas-tight structure, one of the features he patented. To save weight, Slate designed the envelope to be a monocoque structure, with no underlying framework to carry the loads.

An early advertisement for Slate's dirigible. If you were
a snazzily-dressed high society type, would you be willing
to get into this elevator?
The cabin, or "car", was 80 feet long and could accommodate a crew of five plus 30 (some sources said 40) passengers in relatively luxurious comfort. Plans included sleeping accommodations plus a dining salon.

Another of Slate's patented "innovations" was a passenger elevator system. With it, Slate claimed that the Glendale would not have to land to off-load and take on passengers. Slate envisioned a network of hotels and "stations" across the country where his transcontinental airships would make passenger stops, the first of which was built on the roof of the Glendale Hotel.

To get the passengers up and down, an "anchor", which doubled as a reserve fuel tank, would be lowered from the car on a cable. At the same time, the ship could be refueled while floating high overhead. Once the anchor and cable were secure on the roof of the station, a small, one-person "elevator" would then descend, attached to the anchor cable so that it wouldn't be blown in the wind. Slate's advertisements showed only a single elevator, while the actual patent featured a more complex dual elevator system, with both running up and down independently.

The original caption is missing from the Archive's copy of this press photo,
which is date stamped Jan 10, 1929.
Slate designed the airship's dimensions very specifically, building it in a teardrop shape (as opposed to ovoid) and making the diameter much larger in proportion to its length than standard, because of how he perceived the aerodynamics would perform in conjunction with his propulsion scheme. The length of his airship was 212 feet and the diameter was 58 feet. In comparison, the Hindenberg was 804 feet long and 135 feet in diameter, and for a more modern comparison, the current GZ-20 class of Goodyear blimp is 192 feet long and 50 feet wide. The structure weighed about 14,000 pounds (Slate claimed his design weighed up to half as much as that in other comparable airships), and when filled with hydrogen, it had a useful load of 7,000 pounds. The shape, Slate believed, would prevent a vacuum from forming behind the airship as it moved through the air.

The Glendale outside on a test float. The photo is date stamped Oct. 8, 1929.
The only a fragment of the original caption remains with the print. Presuming
that this photo was actually taken sometime during early October, note that the
airship, at this date, still retains the small tail surfaces.
But it was the "air displacement" propulsion system that Slate believed set his airship apart from the rest. The inventor came up with the idea of mounting a high-speed centrifugal blower at the nose of the dirigible which would pull air from in front of the airship and direct it out perpendicular to the axis of the ship. He believed that if the blower spun fast enough (Slate claimed that the 4 foot 10 inch blower fan would run at 4,000 to 6,000 rpm), it would produce a propulsive force through two effects: one, the air pulled into the blower would create a low pressure area in front of it and the ship would move forward to fill it, and second, the airflow exiting the blower would move along the surface of the airship at initial speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, with the velocity creating a lower pressure on the front skin than felt at the aft of the ship, so again it would move forward much in the same way that a wing experiences pressure differentials which create lift. Slate claimed that wind tunnel tests performed at New York University had proven that this would work, and that the airflow would somehow "stick" to the surface of the envelope all the way back to the tail, retaining enough velocity that the tail surfaces could be of minimal size and still have control authority. Slate believed that this system would give the Glendale an 80 mph cruise speed and a 100 mph top speed. (We'll look at the aerodynamic realities that this scheme faced a bit later in the article.)

Orginal caption: "The boiler, at left, which will furnish steam to  dirve the 5-bladed
"blower" propeller held by Chief Engineer L.R. Hawkins. The blower will be installed
in the nose of the ship, and is expected to push away the air in front of the liner,
causing a vacuum which will allow a speed of 100 miles an hours."
To power the blower, Slate first considered using a 400 hp steam turbine, claiming (ridiculously) that it would be so efficient that only six gallons of water would be needed for a transcontinental flight. Later, he switched to a petroleum-powered engine. Another of his patents dealt with how the fuel was stored...some of it in liquid state, some of it in lighter-than-air gaseous state, so that the net "weight" of the fuel could be adjusted positive or negative, depending on the flight needs at the moment (this, among other things, eliminated the requirement for ballast). Eventually, though, Slate abandoned the steam idea and settled on a 150 hp gasoline engine for the nose blower, plus a 90 hp engine driving a standard propeller in the back of the car. Slate's reasoning for the cabin-mounted engine was to overcome the asymetric drag created by the car.

This photo is dated 12/20/29, a day before the formal first flight. The caption
reads: "The new all-metal airship, designed by Captain Thomas W. [sic] Slate
at Glendale, Calif., being walked from its hangar at the Grand Central Air Terminal
preparatory to a series of test flights after a final adjustement of motors and
controls. The dirigible is propelled by a blower in the nose, which, according
[to] its designer, will create a vacuum into which the ship will be pulled. The
auxiliary motor seen at the rear of gondola is used to overcome the down-ward
drag of the cabin when the ship is in flight. An important feature of the tests
will be an effort to determine definitely whether the small tail members are of
sufficient area to control a dirigible of this size."

It's interesting to note the reference to the size of the tail surfaces, since by this
point in the ship's development, they have clearly been redesigned and enlarged.
Also note that the ground has been filled in, compared to the third photo above.
A number of times during 1929, the Glendale was pulled out of its hangar for "test floats", starting in January, and it never failed to draw a crowd. The media followed the progress breathlessly, and the reputable magazine Flight published an article on the Glendale  in February 1929. As such testing continued through the year, the final touches were put on the ship. One of the design elements that changed were the tail control surfaces, which were enlarged, but clearly still not large enough.

Finally, on December 19, 1929, the Glendale was pulled from the hangar for final checks, and on the 20th, a crowd of several thousand gathered to watch the pride of the city take flight for the first time. It was a rather warm first day of winter in Southern California, and the sun on the aluminum shell quickly began to heat the hydrogen, which naturally expanded. Slate had expected this, and designed pressure relief valves, but on this day, they stuck. As the giant airship finally began to rise, the pressure inside exceeded the structural strength of the envelope, and rivets began to pop, sounding to some like gunfire; the crowds scattered. As the hydrogen escaped, the Glendale ingloriously settled back to the ground. One aspect of Slate's goals was achieved, however: despite the rupture, the craft did not catch fire.

It's December 21, 1929, and the first day of winter in Southern California clearly
isn't very cold. Note the men ballasting the ship by hanging from the bottom of
the car. Also note the relative smallness of the blower in proportion to the size
of the airship.

The original caption reads: "Slate Dirigible Not Yet Off Ground --
The new all-metal type airship designed at Glendale, Calif., by Captain Thomas
Slate has been beset by minor mishaps, previous to actual flight tests under its
own power. The latest, the bursting of a seam in the gas bag, will require nearly
a month for repairs. Photo shows the dirigible just after it was pulled from its
hangar for what was to have been its maiden flight. Note small blower on nose
of ship, by which  Capt. Slate believes the ship successfully will be propelled by
creation of a vacuum ahead of it. The craft is equipped with no other means of
propulsion, except a small auxillary motor at the rar [sic] of the gondola, designed
chiefly to overcome the downward drag of the cabin and keep the ship on an even
Initially, Slate told the media that it would take at least a month to repair the problem. A few weeks later, Slate's team had looked over the damage and came to the conclusion that because of how the individual duralumin strips were interlinked with each other, there was no practical way to access the damaged area in order to make repairs. The hull was a total loss. Slate met with his investors to see if he could get them to pony up the cash needed to rebuild the shell. While I can find no mention on how much was initiall spent for the ruined airship, one tidbit that came from Slate's son was that an airship equivalent to the Glendale would cost $1 million in 1932 dollars. Unfortunately for the inventor, the incident occurred only two months after Black Tuesday, the worst of the 1929 stock market crashes. And while the market had actually rebounded a bit, investors of all stripes were becoming extra cautious with their portfolios, and the mood for bankrolling such a risky endeavor, no matter how 'glamourous', just wasn't there. Undetered, Slate continued to try to resurrect the project. An article in the July 4, 1930 edition of the Berkeley Gazette (buried on page eleven, and full of other errors, so I don't consider it terribly reliable) indicates that some rebuilding was attempted and that a subsequent test flight was to be tried. However, there are no records that this actually came to fruition.

A comparison of the tail surfaces from January 1929 (left) to December 1929.
Two years after the City of Glendale's disappointing debut, its scrap value, and that of the hangar, were all the assets left to Slate. The company filed for bankrupcy in 1931 and the assets sold off; the buyer (not mentioned in any references I could find) supposedly employd some of the Slate staff and family members to continue some of the engineering work and to promote the idea of a metal airship with air-displacement propulsion. It came to nothing, though. Finally, with members of the media watching, Slate stood on a catwalk above the airship, and ceremoniously dropped a 50-lb sandbag onto the airship's shell. Without the pressure of hydrogen inside, the shell crumpled and collapsed in upon itself. Later, the hangar was disassembled in sections and shipped to Arizona, to become hay barns. Several years later, Slate's son Claude was still trying to generate interest in the concept, as described in this proposal he wrote to Congress. Slate himself moved to Oregon where he continued to come up with new inventions (for instance, he received a patent for a peculiar flying boat in 1946), until he passed away in 1980 at the life-well-lived age of 99.

In an ironic twist, ten months after the failure of the Glendale to achieve her maiden flight, one of Slate's engineers, A. H. Watkins (who filed Slate's UK patents) was serving as a crew member on the British airship R101 when it crashed and burned; Watkins was one of 48 killed and his body was never identified.

But if the Glendale hadn't come apart at the seams, would it have actually worked? For the rest of this article, we'll dive a little deeper into the technical and engineering aspects of Slates designs, as described in the actual patents (so if you're not an engineer, you just might find the rest a bit've been warned!).

The patent for the propulsion system, which Slate filed in July, 1925, includes a couple of interesting drawings of how he envisioned the "Air Displacement" propulsion system to work. To introduce his idea, Slate wrote, "It object to provide in this type of propulsion a novel and efficient means of applying the power directly to the displacement of air completely over the forward end of the ship and replacing it from the point of largest diameter of the ship back to the tip or tail end of the ship without producing a vacuum at the rear of the ship. With this system of propulsion the fan does not function in the manner of the usual propeller and does not pull on the ship directly by its shaft, and [thus] power is not concentrated at one point on the ship but the propelling means or force is applied completely over the exterior surface of the ship's hull from one end to the other."

Slate said the blower would take "a great volume of air in at its forward open end and discharge it in a solid radial sheet at the periphery of the that the rear surface of the of the current of air...comes in contact with the surface of the nose of the ship. The fan is open at both ends, and a suction from the rear end of the fan pulls the radial flow of air tightly against the the point of contact and thus seals the passage, the current of air following the contour of the ship."

Slate went on to describe his aerodynamic propulsion concept by stating, "The tendency of a great volume of air discharged from the fan at high speed is to cause a less than atmospheric pressure between the surface of the ship and the air flow, causing the ship to move toward the radial air stream at a speed goverened by the velocity given to the radial air stream by the fan." Low pressure in front, normal pressure in back, the ship should move forward, as Slate saw it.

To aid in this effect, Slate believed his idea would reduce the ship's form drag, which he described as the "vacuum" behind the craft. He said that "The great volume of air thrown around the nose of the ship and past its largest diameter at high speed, then loses its velocity and begins to replace immediately behind the ship the space occupied by that portion of the ship, thus allowing the ship to travel on without producing a partial vacuum behind the ship. This result relieves the power plant of the burden of pulling a volume of air behind the ship for replacement."

Close-up view of the impeller as it was seen in January, 1929.

Slate believed that the "solid radial sheet of air" would bend back along the surface of the envelope, and besides the direct result of producing propulsion, would also have some additional benefits. The first of these was that the airflow would eliminate the problem of parasite drag (the drag imposed on an object as it encounters and pushes out of the way the static air ahead of it). "The remaining volume of air in front of the ship that does not flow through the fan will be entrained into the stream of air flowing from the fan at high velocity and will follow the contour of the ship without building up pressure on the nose of the ship, and will pass the volume of air for the ship's displacement past its largest diameter at high speed. Consequently, pressure on the ship's hull is relieved."

The impeller configuration in January 1929 is shown on the left, while the final
configuration in December is shown on the right. Slate had to abandon his idea
of a steam turbine, and settled on a gasoline engine, and from this photo, it
appears that he used a radial engine, which resulted in the impeller being mounted
much farther forward than what Slate's concept called for in his patent.
Another aspect of this method was large in Slate's mind, protecting the airship from turbulence, and in the patent narrative, was actually listed as the first benefit of this method: "It is the objective of my invention to provide a novel means of propulsion...adapted to relieve the frame of the ship of air pressures due to a high velocity through the air and due to storm conditions in bad weather." He went on to say, "It is also an increase the factor of safety in storm conditions through wrenching cross currents of air and which will also provide a heavy covering of air flowing completely around the ship and longitudinally with the ship to protect it from cross currents of air...which otherwise would tend to wrench the ship in storm conditions [but] would not be able to strike the ship until after they have first come in contact with the flowing air [which] has a cushioning effect on cross air currents."

He was obsessed with the ship's stability in "cross currents". "Complete replacement [ie, complete elimination of the turbulence created by form drag] of the air following the passage of the ship tends to hold the rear end of the ship steady and will not allow it to swing around from one side to the other of the area displaced by the ship. If a ship is forced through the air by the ordinary means and has to draw its displacement from the surrounding atmosphere it will bring it from the course of least resistance and if the atmosphere is at all disturbed by wind or storm conditions this course of least resistance is liable to be from any direction, causing cross currents over the rear of the ship where the rudders are located."

Granted, in the era when Slate was working, the sciences of aerodynamics and fluid dynamics were still very immature, so it's not surprising that concepts which seem obvious to engineers today were relatively unknown then. Slate had shown his knowlegebility over the years for engineering refridgeration concepts (besides the commercial dry ice manufacturing process, Slate held numerous patents for refridgeration-related inventions), and while these deal in manipulating fluid pressures, he certainly does not seem to have had any formal training or professional experience in aerodynamics.

Thus, it seems that Slate made some fundamental mistakes in his understanding of airflow, thinking that the blower would produce a "solid sheet" of air that would produce the pressure drops and the cushioning effects that he imagined. With the impeller completely unducted, all that would be produced in front of it would have been turbulent, circular airflow as the output swirled around and compensated for any low pressure that might be present from air being pulled into the fan. In addition, Slate never seemed to account for the turbulent interaction between his supposed sheet of air and the ambient air, an interaction that would all but eliminate any flow all the way to the widest part of the hull, much less all the way to the tail. Finally, while the concept of laminar flow hadn't been enumerated in Slate's time, the hull of the ship, with protruding-head rivets, would not have been conducive to the laminar flow needed to produce the kind of pressure differences that Slate imagined.

In a way, then, the structural failure due to the faulty valves was a really a blessing in disguise, as it saved Slate from the embarrassment of the ship making lots of noise but going nowhere, and publicly finding out that the propulsion concept was a complete dud.