To say that a hangar fire in February 1943 was devastating to my father Tony is an understatement. His business, the Gardenville Aeronautical Corp., suffered a total loss of revenue. He was fortunate enough to be employed by the Republic Aviation Corporation as a test pilot for their P47 simultaneously, which gave him the time to strategize for the airport’s future.
Tony recalls that in the early heyday of government flight programs, he missed the boat when a fire “virtually wiped me out” in February 1943. Tony had qualified for a CPT Instructor school in 1942 and graduated his first 12 students when the fire destroyed hanger, airplanes, shop, classroom and records.
Tony kept the air-park open “as a landing strip” during the lush training years and stayed with Republic as a test pilot while he planned the fate of his airport. He returned to Gardenville in 1943 and “from scratch” started to build.
NYS Aviation Bureau Flyer, Volume 1, Number 4, October 1952
Tony returned to his airport in the fall of 1943 and finished constructing a new Quonset hangar by August 1944.
I’ve posted a copy of the fire insurance quote on page 2 if you’re interested in reading it.
I’m not going to lie. There are many pictures in this series, 68 total, and please give yourself some time to go through these. Most are aerial shots of the airpark throughout the years, but some are from different Western New York areas. I have broken it up into seven subpages to make it easier to navigate.
I’ve organized the subpages in chronological order to the best of my ability, and please contact me if you see something out of place or have something to share. I’ve also numbered all of the photos after their descriptions for easy referencing.
I hope you enjoy viewing these pictures as much as I did, and together we are discovering Gardenville Airport/Buffalo Airpark’s history.
My father Tony first purchased a 20-acre lot located in Gardenville, New York, including two buildings, a farmhouse, and a small horse barn in 1938 at the age of 27. He converted the farmhouse into the beginning of the first operations office for his Gardenville Airport.
Tony completely redesigns the interior to include a custom front counter, new bead board, and rear office space on the left side. A central dividing wall separates the two sides and eventually supports the staircase to the future second-floor addition.
The right side has a lounge area, a showcase for sectional charts, access to the rear restrooms, and a small café. It also features a large floor heater along the central dividing wall.
Tony salvaged the usable lumber from the dilapidated horse barn from the initial purchase and built a more extended building on the office’s east side, where he painted “Gardenville Airport” on the roof. This building was often referred to as the “Horse Stable” because his first wife Maxine kept her horse in the end stall even though he used it as a storage garage and workspace.
Tony later changed the name from Gardenville Airport to Buffalo Air-park and continued to upgrade the office building. Then came the second-floor expansion in the late 1940s.
If you have any pictures of Buffalo Air-Park that you would like to share, please contact me, and I would be more than happy to add them to this website.
While researching some upcoming articles that I’m working on, I came across a fascinating WWII aircraft, the Fokker G.I. I am familiar with Anthony Fokker, “The Flying Dutchman,” and many of his designs, but the G.I caught me by surprise. Maybe it’s my love for his initial designs during WWI, such as the Eindecker, or to get my heart pounding, the Dr.I triplane that I associate the Fokker name to and clouds my vision of the many aircraft that he produced.
The Palais de l’Air (Paris Air Show) of 1936 is the fifteenth exhibition since its inception in 1908 and showcased the modern aircraft construction techniques where the newly prototyped but never flown Fokker G.I is proudly displayed. Perched high upon welded steel wing stands positioned between Russian and Polish airplanes, the Fokker G.I gained the most attention because of its heavy armament.
Two rapid-fire 23 mm Madsen cannons along with two 7.9 mm machine guns reside in the nose, and one moveable 7.9 mm machine gun protects the rear section of the transparent cone-shaped fuselage.
This twin-engine aircraft with its streamlined fuselage nestled between two tail booms supporting a single rear horizontal stabilizer with twin rudders is a sight to see and leaves a lasting impression! The plane earned several nicknames during the show where the British referred to it as the “Reaper,” and the French called it the “Le Faucheur” or “Mower.” Though some suggest, Mr. Fokker nicknamed it the “Mower” himself, and I can see why. I would hate to see that coming at me in my 6!
Mr. Fokker and his team of designers anticipated a large turnout that year and hoped to spark the spectator’s interest with their new aircraft, and in true Fokker fashion, his G.I is the prodigy of the show! Written by the flight correspondent on the eve of the show;
“Never in the history of flying has the technique of aircraft construction stood so high; the days of stick-and-string contraptions are over, and real engineering has taken their place. The art of designing aero engines has also improved very materially, with the result that power has gone up and weight down. Reliability, once a doubtful quantity, is now taken for granted.”
The G.I prototype painted green with a medium blue belly, designated X-2, first flew on March 16, 1937, from Welschap airfield, near Eindhoven, Netherlands, piloted by a Czechoslovakia pilot. It was a successful flight lasting for about 20 minutes until landing safely without any problems. Testing continued, and after four flights, some issues did arise on the fifth flight with one of the supercharged Hispano Suiza engines overheating due to a design flaw in the oiling system. Engine damage resulted from insufficient lubrication to the extent of broken parts exiting the exhaust and damaging one of the tail booms. Frustrated with the Hispano Suiza engines’ known issues, Mr. Fokker attempted to add extra oil coolers underneath each powerplant. Still, it had little effect on lowering the temperature, and he decides to replace the engines entirely with the more reliable Pratt & Whitney R-1535 Twin Wasp Junior known as the Fokker G.I “Wasp” version. He also produced the Fokker G.I “Mercury” version for the Dutch, where larger Bristol Mercury VIII engines rated at 850 hp replaces the less powerful and smaller 750 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1535.
*My brother Doug brought to my attention that he noticed in the video the Fokker G.I. X-2 prototype has counter-rotating propellers. I was unaware of that, and I thank him for pointing it out. He also said that he could see the propellers’ rotational direction in the photos of the X-2. The news piqued my curiosity, so let’s have a look into why Mr. Fokker designed it this way, and I’ll discuss it at the bottom of this post.
Mr. Fokker received the first production orders for the G.I “Wasp” from the Spanish Republicans just before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War that started on July 17, 1936, and lasted until April 1, 1939. The Republicans contacted him looking for a good fighter plane for the looming civil war. He told them about a new fighter plane that his design team started working on in 1935 for the French Airforce but later rejected when other French designs seemed more practical. Mr. Fokker saw potential in this new design and continued developing the prototype, referred to as “project 129.” The Republicans, in dire need of a fighter airplane, ordered 26 planes, even before Mr. Fokker could complete a test flight. Because of the signing of the Non-Intervention Agreement in August 1936 that places an embargo against the fighting parties, Fokker suspends the order and focuses his attentions on the upcoming Paris Air Show in November that same year. He did continue to build those 26 aircraft and later told the press that Finland is interested.
Soon after the test flight, the Dutch Army Aviation Group (Luchtvaartafdeeling or LVA) ordered 36 Fokker G.I “Mercury” airplanes and received delivery in 1938 with aircraft registration numbers 300 through 335. This airplane differed slightly from the prototype with the installation of the Bristol Mercury VIII engines. Most importantly, as requested by the LVA, eight fixed 7.9 mm Browning machine guns to be installed in the nose and one moveable 7.9 mm Browning machine gun mounted in the rear. Also, provisions to be able to carry a bomb load of 400 kg if desired.
The Fokker G.I “Mercury” has a wingspan of 17.16 m(56 ft), a length of 10.89 m(36 ft), and an overall height of 3.35 m(11 ft). The unladen weight is 3360 kg(7408 lbs) with a gross weight of 4800 kg(10,582 lbs). It can reach a maximum speed of 475 km/h(295 mph) and a cruising speed of 356 km/h(221 mph) with a service ceiling of 9300 m(30,511 ft). A flight range of 1410 km(876 miles) is possible with full fuel tanks carrying 550 liters(145 gallons) plus 150 liters(40 gallons) in reserve at cruising speed.
The aircraft completed missions in their 3rd and 4th JaVA (Fighter Flight Department) used as a hunting/cruiser airplane. Initially, the Dutch intended to use them as a dive bomber aircraft but decided not to because it performed better configured as a fighter plane. Some testing included fitting dive brakes on aircraft number 302, similar to those found on the Junkers Ju 87 or Stuka, but showed poor results on the Fokker G.I “Mercury.” Other variants included setting up aircraft number 304 as a scout by installing an observation dome or “Bathtub” under the hull, but proved unsuccessful. I can imagine the extra drag and weight created significantly reduced flight performance.
The Fokker G.I “Wasp” version is similar to the “Mercury” version but with the smaller, lighter, and less powerful 750 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1535 Twin Wasp Junior engines. The nose armament is reduced to four fixed 7.9 mm Browning machine guns but still retains the single movable 7.9 mm Browning machine gun in the rear. This airframe is slightly shorter than the “Mercury,” with an overall length reduced to 10.30 m(34 ft) needed to adjust for the center of gravity. The unladen weight diminishes to 3150 kg(6945 pounds) with a decreased gross weight of 4400 kg(9700 pounds). While maintaining a cruising speed of 322 km/h(200 mph), the pilot can expect a flight range of 1580 km(982 miles), and at full-throttle will result in a maximum speed of 434 km/h(269 mph). Both Fokker G.I versions operated with a flight crew of two but had an optional “middle seat” for a third crew member, but rarely used. Through testing, the aircraft performed better with a flight crew of two. Fokker produces 26 G.I “Wasp” aircraft and assigned registration numbers 341 through 365.
Fokker used his proven mixed construction technique in building the G.I with a combination of welded steel tubing covered with removable aluminum panels for the nose armament, front cockpit, and engine nacelles. The fuselage’s rear consisted of a wooden frame covered with thin plywood and Perspex windows, a clear acrylic, hung in aluminum frames. The rear conical turret is capable of turning 360 degrees for the gunner.
Aluminum framing and removable panels form the wing roots and contain the oil tanks along the leading edges and the middle section’s fuel tanks. Fokker also constructs the twin tail booms, horizontal stabilizer, and twin rudders from aluminum. Past the engine nacelles, the outer wing development consists of wooden framing and plywood covering. The wing spars run through the cockpit behind the pilot and fore of the rear gunner turret providing maximum support. Steel frames covered with linen make up all of the controlling surfaces. This mixed construction technique is a standard Fokker process and became characteristic of their cantilever high-winged monoplanes such as the Fokker F.VIII in the late 1920s.
In April 1940, the Dutch Ministry of Defense purchased the remaining 26 Fokker G.I “Wasp” aircraft leftover from the Non-Intervention Agreement signed in 1936 involving the Spanish Republicans. They were supposedly going to Finland after that cancellation but never left the Netherlands. Most were incomplete and stored in multiple hangers in various locations, but the JaVA were able to complete some ready for service in a short time.
In the early morning on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands with the Luftwaffe attacking the Dutch airfields. The battle was fierce and devastating to both JaVa divisions, and on May 14, the Dutch surrender. The Germans seized the remaining Fokker G.I airplanes and were taken into service by the Luftwaffe as testing and training aircraft.
None of the original Fokker G.I survived the war with only a few pieces found not worth saving, but a replica is proudly on display at the Dutch Nationaal Militair Museum (National Military Museum) in Soesterberg, Netherlands. I hope to visit this place someday and enjoy first hand the true beauty of this Fokker design!
*The term “counter-rotating propellers,” is used when a twin or multi-engine aircraft has propeller(s) on one wing that spins in the opposite direction of the propeller(s) on the other side. The primary purpose is to remove any potential issues related to a “Critical Engine” situation by balancing the torque output between the engines along the vertical axis.
The definition of a “Critical Engine” on a multi-engine airplane would be the engine that would cause the most significant impact upon the aircraft’s performance and handling if it were not in operation. A “Critical Engine” does not exist on multi-engine aircraft with counter-rotating propellers that spin towards the fuselage looking at the propeller’s top while seated in the cockpit, like on the X-2. A good reason why Mr. Fokker set up the G.I this way, and I understand his reasoning.
When counter-rotating propellers spin away from the fuselage, the opposite is accurate, and both engines are critical. A prime example is the Lockheed P-38, but I’ll save that for a future post.
The Boeing 247 revolutionized civilian air travel through high speed, passenger comfort, and futuristic designs not seen by the previous airliners, virtually rendering them obsolete in a single day. Some examples of earlier airlines consisted of the Ford Tri-motor “Tin Goose,” the Fokker F-10 Super Trimotor, and the Curtiss Condor biplane. These airliners were usually underpowered for their size with open engines and large fixed landing gear resulting in a large drag coefficient and overall poor performance with long flight times between destinations.
The first flight of the Boeing 247 happened on February 8, 1933, and enters into service with United Air Lines on March 30, 1933, launching United well above the competition. The Eastern division of United received the first delivery in April. By the end of September, the entire fleet is in service operating in all of the United Air Lines territories. The 247 sets the trend for future airlines with United on top and momentarily deems all other current airliners out-of-date for about a year until the Douglas DC-2 entered the market on May 11, 1934, for TWA.
United ordered sixty planes in 1932 after seeing a final version model with the first batch of fifteen airplanes entering production by mid-1932. Boeing built much of the 247’s components in secrecy because United Air Lines didn’t want the other airlines knowing of their intent on the future of airline travel.
Prototyping of the 247 began in 1930 and evolved from a combination of Boeing’s previous single-engine high-performance mail plane, the Model 200 “Monomail,” and it’s twin-engine military bomber, the Model 246/Y1b-9A.
On May 6, 1930, the Boeing “Monomail” completes a successful test flight powered by a fully cowled Pratt & Whitney “Hornet” B radial engine rated at 575 hp with a maximum cruising speed of 140 mph at sea level. This new all-metal airplane has a cantilever low-wing design with retractable landing gear and three mail compartments totaling 220 cubic feet.
The United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) ordered five Boeing YB-9 bombers for assessment and tested it against other competitors’ aircraft, all competing for a new military contract. Boeing produces the YB-9 as an upgraded model based on their earlier experimental designs, the 214 and 215 models. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney 600 hp “Hornet” engines, this cantilever low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear can carry five crew members, two machine guns and has an external explosive payload limit of 2200 pounds.
As impressive as the Boeing YB-9 is, it has its limitations, especially without any internal bomb bay. The Martin B-10 bomber is a better fit, and the Glenn L. Martin Company of Baltimore, Maryland, wins the contract.
Boeing retains the cantilever low-wing twin-engine monoplane construction of the YB-9 in designing the 247 but completely redesigns the fuselage for passenger transport. Designers add seating for ten passengers and a flight crew of three, including the pilot, a co-pilot, and a flight attendant. The wing spars of the internally braced cantilever wings became a tripping hazard where passengers had to step over them to traverse the cabin forward and aft.
The Boeing 247 is the first airline with twin direct-drive supercharged Pratt & Whitney S1D1 “Wasp” engines rated at 550 hp at 5000 ft spinning three-bladed fixed pitch propellers and has a top speed of 180 mph. The retractable landing gear attaches under each engine mount and folds into each wing’s leading edge engine nacelles. The all-metal construction of the 247 proves durability, safety, and efficiency, which reduces the previous transcontinental flight between New York and San Francisco by seven hours, with only seven stops in less than twenty hours. United Air Lines revenue increases dramatically because of their fast and dependable schedules, passenger comfort, and aggressive advertising campaign, earning the title “Three-Mile-A-Minute-Transport.”
Boeing soon discovered that replacing the fixed-pitch propellers with variable-pitch props improved performance and added 10mph to the already impressive cruising speeds. The demand is high for the Seattle Washington Boeing Airplane Company, a division of the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation, to produce sixty aircraft on time. Boeing soon increases its workforce to thirteen hundred workers and sublets work to Stearman Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, another division of United, to assemble the landing gears, tail wheel assembly, and various small packs for the 247.
The 247’s semi-monocoque fuselage’s main cabin has five seats on each side and seating for the flight attendant located towards the aisle’s end at the plane’s rear. The 20′ x 6′ high cabin features separate heating and air vents for each passenger, reclining seats, dome and reading lights, and convenient ashtrays. Gray-green fabric adorns the interior walls, covering insulation layers and soundproofing, making for a pleasant flight with complimenting green whipcord patterned fabric upholstered seats.
A right-side main entry door, aft of the right wing’s trailing edge, allows access to the welcoming cabin by traversing a few steps on a short rolling ladder. Once inside, one must carefully step over the interior wing spars that intersected the floor while proceeding towards the passenger cabin’s front. The wing spar is an inconvenience, but the passengers soon accept it as visual reassurance of the strength and engineering behind the new 247 design. On the left side, a small lavatory and stewardess pantry that can serve light meals during the flight sits across from the rear main entry door. A tail section cargo bay is easily accessible through a door to the left of the main entrance with a maximum capacity of 65 cu ft. A second 60 cu ft cargo area is located behind the aircraft’s nose but can only be accessed externally.
The forward-slanting windscreen quickly identifies the cockpit of the early 247’s as opposed to the later models with backward slanting windshields, but I’ll cover those other models later. All cockpits have dual controls, sliding side windows, two-way radios, state of the art navigational instruments, night-flying equipment, and a radiophone in the nose compartment’s upper area.
The stub wing is an integral part of the fuselage that firmly supports the massive landing gear, engine mounts, and nacelles. Fuel tanks also reside in the wing stub, one on each side with an additional 70-gallon reserve in the right tank. The smooth metal skin consists of anodized aluminum sheeting riveted to internal framing, resulting in a grayish exterior color often left unpainted. The all-metal tail section uses a similar cantilever design where internal bracing strengthens the horizontal stabilizer, but later models switch to fabric-covered rudders and elevators to reduce weight.
Newly designed “trim tabs” added to the ailerons’ trailing edges, elevator, and rudder allow the pilot to trim the aircraft during flight. Offset hinges installed on both the rudder and elevator provide additional aid to the pilot by reducing the amount of force needed at the control wheel to steer such a large airplane with substantial control surfaces.
This impressive aircraft measures 51′ 4″ in length and has a height of 12′ 6″ with a 74′ wingspan. It has an empty weight of 8370 pounds with a useful load of 4280 pounds, bringing the maximum gross value to 12,650 lbs. The top speed is 182 mph at 5000 ft, but a comfortable cruising speed of 161 mph at the same altitude is ideal. Climbing to 8000 ft is achieved 10 minutes after takeoff, with the initial rate of climb decreasing from 1070 ft after the first minute to 830 ft at 5000 ft. The maximum fuel capacity is 265 gallons when the tanks are filled to the caps when needed but usually run below that level resulting in 203 gallons per flight. Cruising range is about 600 miles when the pilot can manage the fuel-hungry “Wasp” engines to sip just 30 gallons each per hour.
Boeing sees room for improvements in powering the 247 and is confident that the airframe is structurally sound to handle larger engines. After discussions with Pratt & Whitney, the two reach an agreement that Boeing will modify the 247 as a test plane for their new “Twin Wasp Junior” engines currently in development and used exclusively as an executive transport for the officers of the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation. The 247-A is born.
On September 14, 1933, Bernard “Benny” Whelan piloted the newly designed 247-A airliner’s first flight. “It’s a delight to fly with the increased power,” Benny remarked after landing and is impressed with the redesigned engine nacelles and broadened shrouds that now cover the more in-depth double row engines. He also enjoys seeing the new plush interior, now with spacious seating for six passengers, and still retains the rear lavatory and small kitchenette. Larger fuel tanks increase the capacity to 356 gallons extending the cruising range to about 1000 miles and reduce the number of stops on longer flights. The Pratt & Whitney SGR-1535 “Twin Wasp Junior” engine is rated at 625 hp at 2400 rpm at 7000 ft.
Engine testing continued with the installation of Pratt & Whitney’s newest development, the S1A1G engine rated at 660 hp at 2400 rpm at 7000 ft. This upgrade added 695 lbs to the total gross weight while retaining the same performance level as the previous SGR-1535 engine. Only one 247-A is produced for the sole purpose of testing and logged more than 3000 hours of flight time from 1933 to 1942 from its hanger based in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1947 the 247-A was scrapped but not before an accident-free career spanning 14 years, including two mercy flights saving both people’s lives and valuable data collected during those flight years.
The 247-A “Special” variant of the 247-A features higher torque engines, the Pratt & Whitney SA7G rated at 655 hp, increasing the gross weight to 13,650 lbs. That’s a 1000 pound increase from the original 247s gross weight of 12,650 lbs! This new 247-A “Special” also tests previous engines used in the 247-A, the 625 hp SRG-1535, and the 660 hp S1A1G with different passenger configurations leading up to the 247-D.
The 247-D is the last variation of the easily adaptable 247 in Boeing’s goal to stay competitive and easily identified by its backward sloping windshield. New supercharged Pratt & Whitney 550 hp S1H1-G “Wasp” engines fit in larger, more streamlined nacelles with close-fitting NACA cowls that reduce drag and increase speed. The 3:2 geared prop shaft spins the Hamilton-Standard “Controllable Pitch” propellers for better thrust, replacing the direct-drive fixed pitched props of the earlier 247s. The 247-D can carry ten passengers with up to 750 lbs of baggage and a flight crew of three, retaining the original configuration of the previous 247s but with an increased payload weight. Improvements to the cabin provide passenger comfort and convenience while the pilot enjoys an increase in performance and updated controls, making it easier to fly. Plus, the revised instrument panel, including an optional Sperry autopilot and Goodyear deicer boots on all leading edges. The aircraft can maintain the “Three-Miles-A-Minute” status at 3/4 throttle compared to the first 247s needing full throttle to achieve the same results due to the reduced drag and larger engines.
Pratt & Whitney S1H1-G “Wasp” engines are rated at 550 hp at 2200 rpm at 8000 ft, increasing the service ceiling from 4500 ft to 11,500 ft with one engine out under full payload compared to the earlier S1D1 engines. Gross weight remains consistent at 13,650 lbs, but the maximum speed increases to 202 mph at 8000 ft with a cruising speed at 3/4 throttle of 184 mph at the same altitude. The climb rate in the first minute is 1150 ft at sea level and can reach 11,000 ft in ten minutes with a service ceiling of 25,400 ft. Cruising range reduces to 800 miles due to the smaller fuel tanks needed to offset the extra weight of 10 passengers and their luggage, burning 66 gallons of fuel per hour at cruising speed. The redesigned all-metal tail group features additional internal strengthening under the aluminum skin and improved control surfaces. Fabric-covered rudder and elevator installed with offset hinges replace the metal cover units to reduce weight and lighten the force at the pilot’s control wheel.
On October 20, 1934, Roscoe Turner and Clyde Edward Pangborn entered a modified 247-D “Adaptable Annie” into the MacRobertson Centenary Air Race celebrating Melbourne, Australia’s 100th anniversary. This aircraft had additional fuel tanks installed into the fuselage and upgraded navigational equipment for the grueling 18,000-kilometer trip.
The flight path traversed over three continents, nineteen countries, and seven seas with five stops in Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin, and Charleville starting from Mildenhall, England, and finishing in Melbourne, Australia. The race has two divisions, speed, and handicap with no limitation on the aircraft, engines, or flight crew size. Turner and Pangborn finish the race in 92 hours and 55 minutes, coming in third behind a Douglas DC-2 entered by KLM piloted by the flight crew K.D. Parmentier, J.J. Moll, B. Prins, C. Van Brugge, and carrying three passengers. The DC-2 finished the race in 90 hours and 13 minutes and won the handicap division. This race showcased the strength and durability of stressed metal airplanes and that air travel over long distances is possible, making international air transport a safe alternative.
In Seattle, Washington, the Boeing factory builds thirteen new 247-Ds while the United Air Lines Overhaul Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, converts existing 247s in their service fleet. By 1937, the 247-D finds itself becoming obsolete through fierce competition and new advances in aviation development, especially in the Douglas DC series of airliners. United decides to lease or sell most of its service fleet of 247-Ds to smaller airline companies who are more than happy to acquire them. In 1942, 27 are called into duty by the USAAF and rebranded as the C-73 for military use. By 1944, undamaged deactivated planes return to their former owners or lent to foreign countries temporarily and eventually return to the U.S.
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A recent tragedy that resulted in two fatalities from a crash of an airplane that I’m not familiar with, a SOCATA TBM 700, impacted a wooded area near Pembroke, New York, October 2, 2020. A prominent attorney in the Buffalo, New York area, and his niece were the only people on board, and thankfully no other injuries are reported at the crash site. My heart is heavy with sorrow for the family, and I extend my thoughts during this most difficult time. My family and I personally experienced similar hardships, more than I would care to remember, but I find that time is a great healer, allowing us to cope better and understand our loss.
In 1990, the TBM 700 series entered the civilian aviation market as the first certified, both with the FAA and French DGAC (EASA), pressurized single-engine turboprop aircraft in the world, labeled as the TBM 700A model. A list of impressive features includes; a 1305 nautical mile range, a maximum cruising speed of 300 knots, a useful load of 1347 pounds, and a short take-off or landing field length of 2133 ft. The TBM 700 can easily land on a 2800 ft runways or less, making this airplane far more accessible to shorter strips than business jets. Couple this with the capacity to carry six passengers in a luxurious cabin, and the Canadian’s performance made Pratt & Whitney PT6A-64 turbine engine; the result is a legendary performer. The PT6A-64 has a thermodynamic power rating of 1570 ESHP with a flat rated power of 700 shaft horsepower. A 91″ diameter Hartzell four-bladed hydraulic propeller provides the thrust with constant speed, automatic full feathering, and reverse thrust control. The minimum landing distance is reduced to 1640 ft using reverse thrust. Net weight is 4100 pounds with a maximum take-off weight of 6579 pounds. The climb rate is 11 minutes 45 seconds to 20,000 ft and 20 minutes 30 seconds to the maximum certified ceiling of 30,000 ft.
Let’s take a moment to talk about turbines and the differences between a turboprop engine, like the one used on the TBM 700, and a turbofan engine used on most commercial airliners that we are most familiar with seeing. Think of your classic commercial jet airliner and the two turbofan engines, one mounted on each wing.
When ignited fuel exits the combustion chamber, the high-pressure explosion is forced through the rear turbine, causing it to spin, driving the shaft-mounted front compressor blades and duct fan, which in turn produces thrust, in very simplified terms. The rearward thrust propels the aircraft forward, creating lift generated by the wings and allowing the flight’s fundamental principle.
A turboprop engine is similar to a turbofan engine except that the shaft connected to the rear turbine spins a front reduction gearbox, in place of the duct fan, that turns the propeller. I know it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I think you get the idea. Why am I bringing this up, you ask? Because I feel it’s important to understand what a turboprop engine is and why the TBM 700 series aircraft uses it instead of using the more common piston engine found on smaller single-engine airplanes.
Turbine powered airplanes can fly at high altitudes. The desired operating height is between 20,000 and 30,000 ft to optimize the relatively low-efficiency rate compared to a piston engine plane, which is usually limited to under 15,000 ft. Turbine engines are smaller and lighter than comparable piston engines and are more reliable. They are also more expensive because of the high-quality parts used and rigor needed to produce this appreciable power plant. The TBO or time between overhauls is extended for a turboprop because it consists of fewer moving parts than a piston engine, meaning less downtime between flights. Turboprop engines use superior metals to withstand the high operating temperatures and extreme turbine revolutions requiring precision balancing, which factors into the higher costs over a piston engine. Fuel is another benefit of a turboprop where jet fuel is more readily available than typical avgas used in piston engines, making refueling easier during long flights.
The TBM 700 series’s airframe consists of incorporating various aluminum and steel alloys, including titanium. Advanced composite material strengthens the airframe’s structural integrity, allowing durability at the lowest possible weight while maintaining reduced manufacturing costs. Failsafe engineered techniques incorporated on all TBM airframes include using multiple load paths, a crack-stopper band, and minimizing the number of small access panels to maximize sub-system reliability and structural life.
In 1992, the French Air Force and French Army Aviation received the TBM 700A model aircraft delivery from SOCATA to replace the obsolete Morane MS 760 Paris Jet. The French military pilots reported that the TBM 700A is “simple to master, a dream to fly and superior performance characteristics across the entire flight envelope.” The French Armed forces have also operated the TBM 700A in varied environments, including combat zones, accumulating around 600 flight hours per plane annually, accomplishing a wide range of light cargo and VIP passenger missions. The French national flight test center (CEV) also received a TBM 700A along with an order of three delivered to the Indonesian government for their country’s airfield navigation aid calibration.
In 1999, the TBM 700B model’s introduction showcased a sizeable cargo door with an added pilot entry door as an option. The French Army Aviation adds three 700B models to their fleet, increasing the total service to 28 aircraft in 2002. The certified ceiling raised to 31,000 ft due to the addition of a gaseous backup oxygen system with EROS quick donning masks.
2003 is the last year of upgrades to the TBM 700 platform with the TBM 700c2 model. The maximum take-off weight increases to 7394 lbs with a payload increase of 865, including full fuel tanks and a rear external luggage compartment. The model 700C, which precedes the 700c2, is identical except for lacking the reinforced landing gear, which reduces the maximum take-off weight and the 20G cabin seats. The structural modifications of the 700c2 include a reinforced airframe, a strengthened landing gear, seats certified to withstand 20G’s in the event of a crash, upgraded avionics, and a new cabin environment that sets the standards in executive travel.
The TBM 700 platform is so successful that EADS SOCATA launches the TBM 850 Legacy in 2006 using an identical airframe. Still, featuring a turboprop engine, the new Pratt & Whitney PT6A-66D replaces the PT6A-64 and increases the ratings to 1825 ESHP with a flat rated shaft horsepower of 850.
I would end this article with the TBM 700c2, but SOCATA has such an exciting past that I couldn’t resist the urge to dive deep into their history. We will need to go back to the early 1900s, a time that I find so fascinating since I started investigating the news clippings in my father’s scrapbook, and I hope you’ll join along for another stroll down aviation history lane.
Morane-Saulnier formed the French manufacturing company on October 10, 1911, when Raymond Saulnier composed a partnership with the Morane brothers, Leon and Robert. Saulnier previously worked for Louis Bleriot as an engineer starting in May 1908 but decides to leave in October 1909 to form his short-lived airplane company, demised with a financial burden. While working for Louis, he helped design the Bleriot XI, where Louis successfully flew it 22 miles across the English Channel from Calais, France, to Dover, England, on July 25, 1909, in 36 minutes 30 seconds. Louis is instantly famous, becoming the first person to fly an airplane across the English Channel! Saulnier later meets Bleriot pilot Leon Morane towards the end of 1910 through his business associate, Gabriel Borel, representing the Bleriot plane. He soon meets Leon’s brother Robert, and the three agree to form the successful Morane-Saunier company.
Eager to beat Louis Bleriot’s English Channel flight, Saunier begins working on a new design, the Morane-Saulnier type H airplane and completes a test flight in early 1912. The aircraft is a great success, and on September 23, 1913, company pilot French aviator Roland Garros completes the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean from Frejus, France, to Bizerte, Tunisia.
Garros enlisted as a pilot with the approaching World War and soon began working on arming a plane. He was tired of trying to shot the enemy planes with his pistol while on reconnaissance missions. There he modified a Morane-Saulnier type L parasol monoplane by installing a Hotchkiss machine gun firing 8mm solid copper bullets through the propeller’s rotation. The only problem, and a major one, is the lacking of a mechanized timing system between the machine gun and the propeller’s rotation preventing the bullets from striking the prop. Garros realizes this is a problem, to say the least, and adds triangular steel plates to the propeller blades to deflect any bullets that may hit. This technique was not very efficient but still gives Garros the upper hand in piloting a more lethal aircraft than his enemies at the start of the war. Saulnier is impressed with Garros’s design that he files for a patent in April 1914.
In April 1915, Garros tested his new machine gun design during actual air combat and obtained three victories in fifteen days. Unfortunately, his luck didn’t last long, and he finds himself behind enemy lines when German anti-aircraft fire damage his plane while flying over Belgium. With no time to destroy his aircraft and keep his machine gun design secrete, German soldiers, capture him becoming a prisoner of war for three years. The Germans can now study his machine gun design on his damaged aircraft, which they ship off for Anthony Fokker to examine. Fokker is currently under contract to build airplanes for Germany, the Fokker Eindecker, and asked to add this machine gun design to their planes. At first, he notices the simplicity of the metal plates mounted onto the propeller blades, but then instantly realizes the solution is to have the propeller fire the gun. Since the propeller rotates at 1200 rpm and the gun fires at 600 times per minute, Fokker decides to add a cam off of the engine crankshaft to fire the gun every other turn. Brilliant! And in three days, he has developed a synchronized machine gun system capable of firing bullets cleanly through a spinning propeller.
Raymond Saulnier designed many airplanes for his company, and Morane-Saulnier produced more than 140 models with a significant number produced between the two wars. Perhaps the most recognized are the MS 130 from the 1920s and the MS 230 from the 1930s, but I am particularly fond of the 1914 type N Bullet.
In 1938, the MS 406 debuts as a famous French fighter and were France’s most numerous aircraft during WW II, capable of over 300 mph with a dive speed over 450 mph without any structural failure. The MS 406 also incorporates Saulnier’s patented sliding ejectable cockpit developed in 1937. I hope the pilot’s uniforms came with an extra set of pants!
After testing in 1954, Morane-Saulnier introduced the twin-turbine MS 760 Paris in February 1959 as the first four-passenger jet sold as a military trainer or civilian business plane. Variants include the MS 760B Paris II and the MS 760C Paris III.
Raymond Saulnier manages to operate his company for more than fifty years successfully but decides to fill for bankruptcy in 1962 due to decreased sales. Henry Potez took over the bankrupted Morane-Saulnier on January 8, 1963, and after a short period, becomes a subsidiary of Sud-Aviation on May 20, 1965. The name changed in 1966 to SOCATA, an acronym for Societe de Construction D’Avions de Tourisme et D’Affaires or “Company for The Construction of Aircraft for Tourism and Business.”
Multinational aerospace conglomerate EADS purchases SOCATA in 2000 as a solely owned subsidiary and rebrands the company name to EADS SOCATA. Daher, a French technology business, negotiates a deal with EADS to purchase 70% of its shares on November 3, 2008. In June 2014, Daher acquired the remaining shares from EADS and rebranded the company in March of 2015 from EADS SOCATA to Daher.
The name Henry Potez should be familiar to you because I touched briefly on him and his Potez 25 biplane that Jean Mermoz flew over the Andes Mountains in 1929. If not, read more about him in my post, Tony’s Scrapbook; Jean Mermoz.
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John Knudsen Northrop, aka “Jack” Northrop, doesn’t need an introduction, and I have fond memories of the first time seeing his XB-35 flying wing on the cover of an old magazine that my father had been reading the night before. I must have been five or six at the time, and that single image still has lasting impressions for me to this day. I’ve always know Northrop’s involvement with military aircraft, but never seemed interested or paid much attention to his past or previous designs. Because I found the XB-35 so fascinating, I never gave it much thought about the career path that this legendary man had taken in creating an array of distinguishing aircraft.
In the above news clipping dated January 1933 by my father, a Northrop Delta illustrates the future sixteen-hour coast-to-coast schedules for TWA’s passenger transport with a delivery date of March 1 of fifteen aircraft. The Delta can carry eight passengers and 1,000 pounds of freight at 187 mph, as stated above and powered by a 700 hp Wright engine. These details seem vague to me, and I thought a thorough investigation of the Northrop Delta is necessary.
The Northrop Delta came about from the partnership of Jack Northrop and his good friend Donald Douglas of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation. Douglas hired Northrop in 1923 to design the fuel tanks for the Douglas World Cruiser. Their relationship was complicated, and Northrop decided to part ways in 1926 to further expand his career. Northrop left on good terms when he accepted a position as chief engineer with Lockheed Aircraft Company. Shortly after being hired, Northrop began to work on a new project, the Lockheed Vega. On July 4, 1927, the Vega test flight was such a massive success that it created an instant backlog of orders. Every pilot wanted a Vega, and many set new records that Lockheed advertised the slogan “It Takes a Lockheed to Beat a Lockheed.”
Even though Northrop was ecstatic with the Vega’s performance and worldwide acceptance, he knows the future of aviation lies within all-metal construction, making the wooden airframes obsolete. Northrop decides to leave Lockheed on June 28, 1928, to form the Avion Corporation, where he can work on new commercial aircraft designs using his new all-metal stressed-skin construction. He developed and built his first flying wing, the Avion Experimental No. 1, unveiling it in 1929. Northrop’s new “multi-spar” wing construction is revolutionary to future aircraft construction where multiple full-length span-wise stiffeners, or shear webs, replaced the traditional wing spars attached directly to the fuselage for structural support. I’ll cover a bit more on his multi-cellular wing construction in a few paragraphs, but let’s continue with the timeline.
On January 1, 1930, Northrop sold his Avion Corporation to William Boeing’s company, the United Aircraft & Transport Corporation, establishing the Northrop Aircraft Corporation. Northrop then turned his attention to designing and building a new commercial aircraft, the low wing Alpha featuring his metal stressed skin technique. The highly polished aluminum skin gleamed in the sunlight, and Northrop was proud of his newly designed aircraft! He always felt that his most significant contribution to aviation technology was his new structural innovation, the stressed skin construction. Northrop often quoted, “As far as the structure is concerned, that which was developed into the Alpha was really the pioneer for every airplane in the sky today.“
The Northrop Alpha is an all-metal six-passenger cabin low wing monoplane powered by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine rated at 425 hp. The pilot is seated slightly above the passenger cabin in an open cockpit located towards the aircraft’s aft section. The Alpha is the first commercial aircraft to use deicer boots on the leading edges, allowing day or night operations in all weather conditions combined with the state of the art radio navigation equipment. On April 20, 1931, TWA started their coast to coast service with the Alpha on a flight from San Francisco, California, to New York, New York, in just over 23 hours with 13 stops. The Alpha was a great success, and a total of 17 were built, with TWA operating 14 planes.
In September 1931, the Northrop Aircraft Corporation merged with Stearman Aircraft in Wichita, Kansas, due to the Great Depression’s collapsed economy to economize the company. Northrop isn’t happy with the merger and decides to form a new company, vowing not to leave California. He has three people agreeing to stay with him, Walter J. Cerny, Kenneth Jay, and Don Berlin, but he still requires the financial support of his good friend Donald Douglas.
Douglas thought very highly of Northrop’s designs, especially his new “stressed skin construction,” which he thought would be perfect for the D.C. airliners. As a result of their conversations, the two men formed the Northrop Corporation based in Inglewood, California, as a Douglas subsidiary on January 1, 1932.
To help me better understand Northrop’s multi-cellular wing construction, I found a quote in the document 3-22(a-b) 3-22-b: Engineering Department, Douglas Aircraft Co. “Development of the Douglas Transport,” Technical Data Report SW-157A, ca. 1933-34, Folder AD-761184-05, Aircraft Technical Files, National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C., as stated;
“In determining the wing construction of the early Douglas machines single, two, three and multi spar designs were considered as well as shell type and multi-cellular designs. After a thorough investigation of all types the Northrop multi-cellular wing construction was finally decided upon. This type of structure consists of a flat skin reinforced by numerous longitudinals and ribs. The bending is taken by the combination of flat skin and full length [longitudinal] stringers. Three main flat [vertical] sheets or ‘webs’ carry the shear loads. Torsion and indirect stress are carried by the skin with frequent ribs preserving the contour and dividing the structure up into a number of small rigid boxes or cells. Since the major loads are carried in the outer surface of the wing as well as in the in the internal structure, an inspection of the exterior gives a ready indication of the structural condition. The unit stresses in the material are low and therefore the deflections are at a minimum giving a maximum in rigidity. This construction has proven to be a happy medium of those considered since it combines practically all of the advantages of each; namely, very small unsupported areas, extreme lightness for its strength and rigidity; also ease of construction, inspection, maintenance and repair.“
Initially, the Northrop Corporation’s main focus was to serve as an experimental and research department for Douglas but soon began to produce aircraft when output capacities exceeded Douglas’s production limitations. Looking to fill the request of a fast cargo mail plane over long distances for the airlines and an aircraft capable of experimental over-weather or high altitude flights with deicing technology, Northrop designed and built the Gamma, an upgraded version of his successful Alpha aircraft. A 710 hp nine-cylinder Wright “Cyclone” radial engine, SR-1820-F3, provides the power for a cruising speed of 215 mph at 7000 ft with a service ceiling 20,000 ft. The pilot’s cockpit retains the original location, aft of the wing’s trailing edge, but features an enclosed sliding canopy that offers an unobstructed view of the 47′ 10″ cantilever wingspan. The front of the large round fuselage has two cargo bays with a total capacity of 1300 lbs, placing the entire payload weight over the center section of the wing. Gross weight is 7350 lbs with a range up to 1700 miles at 40 gallons per hour supplied by the 334-gallon fuel system. The fuselage has an overall length of 31′ 2″ and is 9′ in height.
Production started in 1932, and the first Gamma off the assemble line, the Northrop Gamma 2B Polar Star, went to Lincoln Ellsworth on November 29, 1932, to be shipped to the Ross Sea for the start of his 1934 Antarctica expedition. Northrop produces a total of 61 Gammas through 1937, with 49 sold to the Chinese.
Frank Hawks of the Texas Oil Company purchased the second Gamma, a Northrop Gamma 2A Texaco Sky Chief, and set a record flight on June 2, 1933, from Los Angeles, California to New York, New York in 13 hours, 26 minutes, and 15 seconds.
TWA received their Gamma 2-D for the transport of mail and cargo, and on May 13, 1934, Jack Frye set a new cross-country record for transport planes leaving Los Angeles, California, and arriving in Newark, New Jersey in 11 hours and 31 minutes.
While in the middle of the Gammas production, Northrop added the newly designed Delta passenger transport to the assembly line to start production in 1933 at the new plant in El Segundo, California. The prototype, Type 1A, successfully flew in May of the same year, and Northrop received an order from TWA for 15 planes. Taken from the proven and popular Gamma design, the Delta retains the same airframe and powerplant but relocates the cockpit to the airplane’s front. The widened semi-monocoque fuselage can accommodate up to eight passengers, plus the pilot seated slightly above the passenger level in an enclosed cockpit. An optional configuration of two pilots with six passengers and cargo arrangements are also available. The Delta Type 1A receives certification to carry six passengers after a few months of testing. On a lease, TWA receives delivery on August 4, 1933, for preliminary trails to transport mail between Los Angeles, California, and Kansas City, Missouri. Unfortunately, on November 10, 1933, the plane develops an engine fire in flight near Albuquerque, New Mexico causing the pilot Harlan Hull to eject from the aircraft. He survives by parachuting safely to the ground, but the airplane is a total loss. TWA decides to cancel its order due to the recent flight problems and a rumored amendment to the Air Commerce Act of 1926 taking effect in October 1934, banning the Delta from being operated by U.S. airlines. More on that later.
The second Delta, Type 1B, is purchased by the Mexican subsidiary Aerovias of Pan American Airways in August 1933 for the Los Angeles-Mexico City flight route. In May 1934, another engine fire destroyed this second Delta, but fortunately, no one is injured. I looked into the possibility of a common issue with the engine, but the Type 1B used a different powerplant, a 660 hp Pratt & Whitney Hornet T2D-1 engine, so that doesn’t seem to be a common cause. Unless there was some defect in the fuel delivery system, I’m not an A&P mechanic, and your guess is as good as mine. Some articles state that the aircraft crashed due to an engine fire while in service on a flight to Mexico City, but I cannot confirm this statement. Most accident reports say there was an engine fire without any injuries, but it’s unclear if it was on the ground or in flight.
The last Delta to be sold to an airline is the Type 1C and was purchased by AB Aerotransport in Sweden in April 1934, and given the name “Halland.” Only one of the Type 1C model is built and featured the optional Pratt & Whitney T1D-1 engine rated at 700 hp. This aircraft had a long service life without mechanical issues, as the previous models, operating on the Gothenburg-Copenhagen-Malmo and Malmo-Copenhagen-Hanover flight routes. “Halland” ceased its airline service in May 1937 and was later purchased by a private citizen.
These first three Delta models had a single-seat cockpit with a sliding canopy and operated with a two-bladed propeller. Later, the new Delta models switched to a three-bladed propeller and reconfigured the cockpit to allow room for a pilot and co-pilot. Northrop produces 32 Deltas, but the majority are sold outside the U.S. or to the private market.
“The new provisions included the requirement for airline pilots to use multi-engine aircraft capable of operating with one engine not functioning when flying at night or over terrain not readily permitting emergency landings. Instrument or blind flying was permitted only for multi-engine airliners equipped with two-way radio.“
Northrop, discouraged with the new amendment, turns his attention to the mounting military aircraft contracts and finds the short-lived Delta project a much-needed break from the nuisance that the Delta was creating. He did continue to produce the Delta 1-D, already in the assembly line before the new amendment, but reconfigured the cabin for the limited private sector sales and selling the remaining inventory to other countries unaffected by the amendment. In August 1936, Canadian Vickers Ltd purchased the last Delta produced by Northrop as part of assembled patterns and built 19 additional aircraft under license in their factory until October 1940. Canada initially selected the Delta as a photographic survey aircraft. Still, in August 1939, with the approaching Second World War, the Deltas are converted to coastal patrol planes fitted with floats to carry out long anti-submarine missions. After only two months of use, the ocean environment proved to be too damaging to the Deltas from the large ocean swells and corrosion caused by the salty water, the military quickly returned them to land use.
Now on to the private market. Northrop offered the optional “Executive Model” for the Delta 1-D, which included custom seating for 5 to 7 people and focused the advertising towards professional sports athletes and businessmen. A Wright “Cyclone” radial engine, SR-1820-F2, produced 735 hp at 2100 rpm at 4000 ft giving the Delta 1-D similar performance as the Gamma perfect for long country flights. The maximum speed is 219 mph at 6300 ft with a cruising speed of 200 mph at 8000 ft at 3/4 throttle. Six fuel tanks located in the center section of the wing carry a total fuel capacity of 328 gallons providing a range between 1100 and 1500 nautical miles at 3/4 throttle depending on the headwind or tailwind. The climb rate is 1200 ft/min at sea level with a service ceiling of 20,000 ft. Northrop offered a Wright SR-1820-F52 engine as an option rated at 775 hp at 2100 rpm at 5800 ft for those interested in a little more performance. Now that should get your blood pumping!
A spacious cabin measuring 58 inches wide is heavily sound-proof with a left side entry door and customizable in either the “Club” or “Executive” packages. Both versions are incredibly lavish, featuring overstuffed chairs, a divan with storage underneath, a bathroom, and a 25 cubic foot baggage compartment behind the tail section’s cabin. The “Club” upgrade reduced the seating for 4 or 5 people. It included a refined interior, some upholstered in red and tan leather, a complete lavatory, a Sperry autopilot, and extra instruments. Standard equipment for either package includes; a Hamilton-Standard controllable propeller, an electric starter, a generator, an Exide battery, an oil-cooling radiator, navigational lights, landing lights, parachute flares, a fire extinguisher, a Western Electric radio, window curtains, and a full set of airline-type instruments. The base price started at USD 37,500 with standard equipment in 1934, which roughly equates to USD 727,500 in this writing, 2020.
Some of the “Delta Executive” owners include; Powell Crosley Jr., Hal Roach, Richfield Oil, Stewart Pulitzer, Earl P. Haliburton, and Wilbur May, to name a few. I recognize Powell Crosley Jr. for his invention and manufacturing of the 1921 Crosley Harko tubless crystal radio and Hal Roach, Laurel and Hardy’s comedy producer. These are extraordinary men, including Jack Northrop, and these talented individuals’ success always inspires me.
I’m finding that with each new clipping that I discover in my father’s scrapbook opens a historical path that I never knew existed. It’s not as simple as I first thought when I was looking through his book for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I did appreciate the wealth of historical facts, but was too naïve to understand the importance of the information contained within these pages. My mindset has changed since I wrote the first blog on Vincent Burnelli and continues to evolve with each passing article. The story of Jean Mermoz is no different, and please join me while I interpret the facts and create a timeline of this alluring pioneer! And I thank my father for introducing me to these people, the historical aviators of the past for which aviation today wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for their significant contributions.
A Couzinet 70 Arc-en-Ciel III, aka “Rainbow,” shown taking off in the above news clipping dated by my father, January 1933, provided by Times Wide World Photos, Paris Bureau. I didn’t recognize the French word “Arc-en-Ciel” in the description and found the title a little confusing regarding a rainbow. I thought, how strange to mention a “Rainbow” in a black and white photo. But soon enough, and with a little research, I realized the English translation for “Arc-en-Ciel” is “Rainbow” and was then able to identify the aircraft correctly. And to think, the clue was in the title all along. Now, let us return to the article, shall we?
Mermoz pilots the trimotor Couzinet 70 landplane from Istres, France to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a return flight back setting a new world record in the flying time of 54 hours and 33 minutes. This monoplane’s sleek design was ahead of its time, giving France an edge over other rivals. Plus, it demonstrated the reliability needed in making regular transatlantic airmail service possible and is Mermoz’s favorite for long overwater flights.
This simple news clipping that my father saved contains a bountiful wealth of aviation history that I find troublesome as to where to continue. I thought about focusing on the aircraft, the Couzinet 70, and the designer Rene Couzinet behind this beautiful machine, but I strongly feel that I need to explore the life of Jean Mermoz. He is an extraordinary individual, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned about this fascinating man! So, find a comfortable chair, get settled in, and join me on this marvelous journey.
Recognized as a national hero and often referred to as the “French Lindbergh,” Jean Mermoz was born on December 9, 1901, in Aubenton, Northern France. He was very reserved as a child and was mostly interested in literature or writing poems. No one would ever assume that he would be interested in becoming a pilot, but that all changed when he enlisted into the French Army in 1920 at age 18. His fascination with the pilots and aircraft of World War I led to his desire to become one himself, and in 1921 he received his pilot’s license. After training in France, he is posted overseas to Syria later that year. By the end of 1922, he has flown over 600 hours in 18 months and noted for surviving a plane crash in the North African Desert. He spent four days in the desert before rescuing, where his keen survival skills kept him alive. The next two years are hard for him, and with each passing month, military life finally becomes intolerable. In March 1924, the military demobilized him from the Army as a decorated pilot. He sets his sights on becoming a pilot for a private aviation company, but things didn’t as smoothly as he planned.
Finding himself out of work in Paris with little money to his name without any responses from his resume, he has no choice but to take odd jobs and rely upon soup kitchens for food. But through his perseverance and strong will, and maybe a bit of luck if you believe in such, he finally receives a letter of interest. It is from Didier Daurat, the Director of Operations at Lignes Aeriennes Latecoere (Latecoere Airlines), requesting an interview. The interview went well, but the first flight test didn’t go as well as he hoped to impress his potential new boss. Mermoz is 23 at this time, is a decorated military pilot, and has enough self-esteem for a room full of pilots, which led to quite the aerial display of his aerobatic skills. Daurat is not impressed and quoted, saying, ” I don’t need circus artists, just bus drivers.” But his passion for aviation did impress Daurat and is offered the job. A turning point in Mermez’s life that he desperately needed where he once referred to in his own words, “his life as an outcast ends.”
In 1925, Mermoz pilots World War I surplus Breguet 14 biplanes on the first Latecoere Airmail routes connecting Toulouse, France to Barcelona, Spain, Casablanca, Morocco, and Dakar, Senegal. These World War I surplus biplanes are purchased by Latecoere and fitted with podded containers mounted under each side’s lower wing to carry the mail bags. The Breguet 14 is mostly reliable, and Mermoz is honored for flying 120,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) and 800 hours of flight time logged in a single year. But in 1926, Mermoz develops engine trouble while en route with mail delivery from Casablanca to Dakar and makes an emergency landing in the Mauritanian Desert. A group of Nomadic Moors capture him and hold him prisoner until a paid ransom is received. Again, luck seems to be on Mr. Mermoz’s side or is incredibly skillful at taking control of the current situation. Most airmen forced down by mechanical failure are executed, but he survives captivity after a few days and is released when the ransom money is received. During this time, it is a common hazard of the job and a hazard that I wouldn’t like ever to experience, nor would I want anyone else to.
In 1927, Latecoere Airlines started replacing the Breguet 14 biplane with its design, the more reliable Latecoere 25 monoplane (Late 25), and changed its name to Compagnie Generale Aeropostale, aka Aeropostale. Mermoz switched to the South America route and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There he would set up airmail service for Aeropostale between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. After accumulating flight time in the new Late 25, Mermoz pilots the first successful air crossing with a seaplane of 3,000 kilometers from Dakar, Senegal, to Natal, Brazil, in 1928. He completes the first South America night flight from Natal to Buenos Aires in the same year. The land route was challenging terrain and unmarked by any lighted beacon, but a few bonfires did help with navigation along the flight path. This successful night flight alleviated the limiting daylight only operations and had proven that airmail service could continue safely at night.
On September 18, 1928, he made his first attempt to shorten the Argentina-Chile route by establishing a flight path over the Andes Cordillera that would eliminate the 1600 kilometer detour typically flown to avoid the mountain range. Mermoz and his mechanic Alexandre Collenot set out to explore the terrain from Buenos Aires and establish a flight path over the Andes suitable for future postal lines within the operational ceiling limitations of their Late 25 of 4500m. On this first crossing, he decides to follow the Trans-Andean railway route to interpret the landscape and completes the flight over the Andes without any problems. He returned three days later, following the same course, and landed victorious in Buenos Aires on September 21. Once again, Mermoz proves his capabilities through his relentless determination and is ambitious for future challenges!
In a matter of no time, a new mission presented itself on February 28, 1929. Mermoz is assigned to fly his Late 25, accompanied by Collenot from Buenos Aires to San Antonio Oeste to charter the International Aeronautical Federation’s cofounder, Henry de La Vaulx, to Santiago. From there, Mermoz pilots the plane to Plaza Huincul, Neuquen, for a short layover, and then to cross the Andes on a new flight path farther South near the city of Concepcion. While en route, he develops engine failure due to a carburetor issue and has no choice but to make a forced landing on a narrow platform with a sheer drop off at 2800m. Not an easy task for the most skilled pilots and unattainable for most, Mermoz proves his exceptional ingenuity to stop the plane before falling into the ravine. He and Collenot make the needed repairs, probably a carburetor icing issue, and in an hour later, land safely in Santiago.
Not satisfied with the route he had just taken, Mermoz decides to explore for new flight paths further North for a return trip back to Buenos Aires. On March 6, 1929, he and Collenot flew several hundred kilometers, scouting the terrain and plotting potential passages over the Andes. After a few hours in the air and their field book full of notes, both men land safely in Copiapo. Unsatisfied with the previous day’s expedition, Mermoz and Collenot set out on March 9 to continue to locate a direct air route between the passes of Come Caballos and San Francisco, Argentina. They take off from the Chamonate aerodrome in Copiapo and start searching for unrestricted access through the Andes. The flying is difficult and seems almost impossible at times, but through his unmitigated determination, Mermoz spots a free passage rising to 4500m located on the side of Cerro Copiapo. He realizes the ceiling limitation of his Late 25, and the plane struggles to exceed 4200m. Still, in true Mermoz fashion and quick thinking, he takes advantage of the updrafts near the mountain walls and manages to climb to the necessary altitude. He thought he made it for an instant, but the turbulent winds pushed his exasperated plane towards the other side of the slope in a matter of seconds. With the engine at full throttle, but powerless against the wind’s velocity, Mermoz knows he is out of choices and immediately needs to land if they are to survive. He throttles back on the engine and chooses the best location for a hard landing on an unfavorable snow-covered area with an altitude of 4000m. The airplane is severely damaged, and Mermoz knows they need to make the necessary repairs for any chance of getting off this plateau alive. A quote from a letter Jean Mermoz wrote to Vova de Martinoff dated April 1929 describes this disastrous event.
“Three days and two nights at 4000 m altitude, 16 to 26 degrees below zero, starving (my mechanic having forgotten the reserve food), repairing our landing gear very slightly sagged on one side and our tail unit a little torn off on a ledge of rocks. Water pipes burst from the cold. Repairs made with chatterton, canvas tape and enamel. Take off after 3 km of jumps over three ravines. Ceiling of the device maximum 4500 m. Full engine speed 1580 turns or 330 HP. I had spotted in advance the places where I had to touch the wheels to make the planned leaps. Everything went well and 1 hour 40 minutes later I landed at Copiapó, my starting point. Three days later, I left for Santiago then, crossing the Cordillera, I brought the aircraft back to its starting point …”
He and Collenot landed at Copiapo on March 12, around noon in his Late 25 in deplorable condition. Both men were almost unrecognizable, weakened by both the cold and hunger, but still managed to stay conscious for the hour-plus flight back to the Chamonate aerodrome. “It’s a miracle,” one airman shouts out when he can’t believe what he sees. Do my eyes deceive me, he thought? The other airmen rush over to see for themselves. It’s true, they’re alive, and to survive for three days without a trace is a real miracle because they all know it’s almost impossible for anyone to return from the Cordillera after missing for so long. The Chilean Army sent a team to investigate the crash site and to confirm this unbelievable feat. They returned with some of the aircraft’s debris at the location Mermoz told them about, and the myth of the “Archangel” is born!
Aeropostale receives news that Mermoz and Collenot have returned safely to Copiapo, but in a badly damaged Late 25 that proves to be incapable of flights over the Andes Cordillera. The company immediately acquires five Potez 25s for the newly plotted Buenos Aires-Santiago Line to replace the inadequate Late 25. The Potez 25 is a biplane built initially for observation and bombing purposes but quickly found useful in civil aviation due to its high ceiling altitude of 7200m. It has a range of 1260m with a payload of 500kg perfect for the new air routes.
After recovering from his accident, Mermoz accumulates flight time in the Potez 25 with multiple crossing for Aeropostal. He invites Henri Guillaumet, a friend he met previously in the military, to accompany him on July 14 and 18 to take over the Cordillera’s new flight path establishing the Buenos Aires-Santiago Line. Mermoz sets his sights on future quests across the South Atlantic. At the same time, Guillaumet continues to fly this dangerous route for 393 flights, including a similar accident as Mermoz on June 13, 1930, on his 22nd crossing.
On May 12, 1930, a Late 28-3, F-AJNQ, named “Comte de la Vaulx” in honor of French aeronaut Henry de la Vaulx and fitted with pontoons established the first postal link across the South Atlantic piloted by no other than Jean Mermoz. A fully loaded seaplane with 122 kilograms (269 pounds) of mail and enough fuel for a 30-hour flight leaves Saint-Louis, Senegal, en route to Natal, Brazil. Guiding Mermoz on this historic flight is his co-pilot and navigator Jean Dabry, and radio navigator Leopold Martial Emile Gimie. They fly southwest across the South Atlantic ocean with a planned flight path of about 3100 kilometers. The flight crew completes this mission in 19 hours, 35 minutes, as reported by the US Centennial of Flight Commission, and becomes the first non-stop flight to cross the South Atlantic! Previously, boats were the only option for mail delivery between France and South America, taking an average of 5 to 6 days, but this commemorated flight significantly shortened that delivery time.
After the much-deserved celebrations and waiting for enough new mail to fully load the seaplane, the three crewmembers depart Natal on June 8 for a return flight to Senegal. After 14 hours into the flight, the engine develops an oil leak, and Mermoz decides to make a forced landing in the ocean near a dispatch boat named “Phocee” about 900 kilometers from their destination. With the mail safely transferred to the ship, they try to tow the seaplane behind the ship. The aircraft is eventually lost at sea when it becomes too difficult for the boat to pull.
In 1933, the formation of Air France began from the nationalizing of Aeropostale and four other airlines due to economic and political troubles along with the continuing worldwide depression. During this transition and distancing himself from any controversy, Mermoz starts a series of long-distance flight known as “Raids” by the French.
We have come full circle to my inspiration for this post’s title and a time when my father first saw that news clipping of Jean Mermoz in his Couzinet 70 Arc-en-Ciel during one of his “Raids.” I won’t trouble you by recapping the details of this event that I’ve already covered at the beginning of this post, and I thank you for your commitment so far. I find Jean Mermoz awe-inspiring and understand why he made it into my father’s scrapbook, so let’s continue.
After completing his short series of “Raids,” in 1933, Mermoz moves to Buenos Aires with his close friend Saint-Exupery to help set up new flight lines for the newly developing Aeroposta Argentina, later to become Aerolineas Argentina. The two men go on to be considered the essential people in the foundation of Argentine Commercial Aviation history. Mermoz is also appointed as General Inspector by Air France in the same year. During 1934 and through 1936, Mermoz pilots private expeditions using Latecoere 300 seaplanes and completes over 20 voyages.
The Late 300 seaplane’s sole design was to transport mail on the South Atlantic line between Dakar, Senegal, and Natal, Brazil, for Aeropostale in 1931. The first flight went well, but it sank shortly after in the Etang de Berre in December due to a centering issue. At the beginning of 1932, Latecoere rebuilds the aircraft and names it “Croix-du-Sud” or Southern Cross and is operational in October. The seaplane, or more commonly known as the “flying-boat,” is a monoplane design featuring a parasol-wing with four 650 hp Hispano-Suiza 12NBr water-cooled engines mounted in tandem pairs. The sheer size is impressive with a 44.20m wingspan, a length of 25.86m, a height of 6.50m, and a gross weight of 23,000 kilograms. The ceiling altitude is 4,600m, with a cruising speed of 210km/h at 4,450 kilometers. On December 31, 1933, pilot Jean Bonnot sets an international record in the “Croix-du-Sud” for covering a 3679km non-stop flight in just over 23 hours in Senegal.
On the early morning of December 7, 1936, Jean Mermoz takes off from Dakar piloting the Late 300 “Croix-du-Sud” soon to be his 24th crossing of the South Atlantic. The aircraft proudly displays the new Air France colors, and Mermoz feels comfortable knowing that his friend Henri Guillaumet is overseeing the operation as base chief. Five flight crewmembers onboard this flight include the pilot Mermoz, the co-pilot Alexandre Pichodou, the flight engineer Jean Lavidalie, the navigator Henri Ezan, and the radio operator Edgar Cruveilher.
Things didn’t go as smoothly as Mermoz hoped, and he immediately returned to the hydro base with engine trouble around 6 am. Mermoz radioed in “one of the variable-pitch propellers is not going fast,” and would like to switch to a different plane after having the mail transferred to land. Guillaumet informs him that no other aircraft is available, and his only option is to make the necessary repairs to the “Croix-du-Sud.” Knowing the importance of the mail delivery schedule, Mermoz decides on a quick repair to get back into the air as quickly as possible. The repairs don’t take long, and as he boards the plane, he says, “quick, let’s not waste time anymore.” The aircraft departs just before 7 am and things seem to be ok for the moment. Around 10 am later that morning; the Dakar base receives a radio message that everything is fine.
In an unforeseeable event, the base receives a brief radio transmission from Mermoz at 10:47 am, “Right rear engine cut,” then cuts out abruptly. A search and rescue mission leaves immediately, but are unsuccessful in locating the aircraft or crewmembers. The most logical assumption is that the right rear engine’s reducer ruptured, causing the propeller’s release from its axis. The result would have badly damaged the fuselage rendering the flight controls unresponsive or completely severing the tail section. Either situation is an inevitable catastrophic failure.
A worn thick cardboard cover lies loosely on top of an aged book filled with new house designs of the 1930s now covered with newspaper clippings and articles. The binding and back cover are missing, with the pages discolored and worn over time from a young man’s fascination with aviation and repeated viewing of his precious collection. As I carefully turn each page, I often find myself thinking of a time when he was adding to his scrapbook and how these events shaped a man to become a pioneer himself, bringing aviation to the Niagara Frontier in the 1940s and a test pilot of the P-47 Thunderbolt. I find his collection so fascinating that I never know where to start, and I wish I possess a prolific writer’s skills. But until then, I’ll start at the beginning and take it page by page without any chronographic order. I hope you enjoy this series, Tony’s Scrapbook, and please sign up for email notifications for future blog posts if you find them interesting.
A newspaper clipping from the Herald-Tribune that my father dated March 1933 of a Pitcairn PA-19 autogyro craft hovering over midtown New York. This new design features the first passenger cabin that could comfortably carry four people, including the pilot. The PA-19 is the largest cabin autogiro ever constructed in the US at the time with a sizeable stabilizing rotor or “Windmill” mounted on top of the cabin over 50 feet in diameter. The wingspan is 38’8″, and the fuselage has a length of 25’9″ with dual rudders. A nine-cylinder air-cooled Wright R-975E-2 Whirlwind radial engine provides power to the propeller rated at 420 hp. This engine is the largest of the Whirlwind models with a displacement of around 975 cubic inches or just under 16 liters.
What is an autogyro or often spelled autogiro, you ask? Well, you’re not alone, and I too needed to research this unique design that emphasizes safer flights at slow speeds and short take-off and landing (STOL) capabilities. An autogyro is a rotary-wing aircraft equipped with fully articulating, or hinged, airfoil-shaped rotor blades suspended above the fuselage attached to a central hub mounted on a freely spinning vertical axle shaft. The key here is freely spinning rotor, and please don’t confuse an autogyro with a helicopter, because a helicopter uses a powered rotor.
During forward motion, each blade’s independent movement reduces the uneven lift created between the advancing blade and the retreating blade, known as “Dissymmetry of Lift.” Without getting too deep on this subject, for my sanity and yours, let’s remember that the vital fact here is the invention of fully articulating rotor blades by Juan de la Cierva with two others’ help in 1922. Emilio Herrera, a military engineer, and Rey Pastor, a mathematician, provided the technical knowledge he desperately needed to solve this problem on earlier prototypes. The C.4, De la Cierva’s fourth prototype, carried out the world’s first successful flight of a stable rotary-wing craft or, as he called it, an Auto-Spin at the end of January in 1923.
A propeller is needed for the forward motion to generate lift by the unpowered, freely rotating rotor blades that will continue to spin during flight. Mechanical assistance is required to start the rotor blades’ rotation before take-off and usually provided by a PTO off of the engine or by hand with a rope wrapped around the axle shaft in earlier designs. So forget about taking off or landing anywhere there wasn’t anyone to help “pull start” your rotor in those first models.
I can only hear it now. “Hey, Bob!” What he exclaimed! “Can you start my rotor on my new autogiro that I just built by pulling on this long rope? Oh, and watch your head.” You want me to do WHAT he yelled back. I’m sure they went through a lot of leather gloves back then.
Harold Frederick Pitcairn, son of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG) founder John Pitcairn Jr., started an aviation business, Pitcairn Air Service, at a small flying field in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in 1924. There he offered flight lessons, scenic rides and housed a fleet of eight aircraft, including his first aircraft purchased in 1923, a Farman Sport biplane. He later went on to create Pitcairn Air Field (#2) in 1926 when he bought 190 acres in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to expand his business. Since graduating from flight school in 1918, Harold Pitcairn and his close friend from school Agnew E. Larsen developed many ideas for vertical lift and rotary-wing aircraft, and the two are issued 270 patents. Seeing an opportunity to acquire a contract with the US government for quick, reliable airmail delivery for the New York to Atlanta route, Mr. Pitcairn designs and builds the Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing biplane in 1927 with the help of Mr. Larsen. The PA-5 Mailwing can carry 600 pounds of mail with a cruising speed of 120 mph, making it the ideal aircraft for this contract. After winning the New York-Atlanta contract, Mr. Pitcairn bids on and wins the Atlanta-Miami contract and now services most of the East Coast for daily airmail delivery. The PA-5 was so popular that he sold custom versions to celebrities like Howard Hughes with a chrome-plated engine and one to Felix du Pont with gold-plated rocker covers.
Even with the success of the PA-5 and his Flight Service business, Mr. Pitcairn believes that the future of aviation lies within the autogyro, and he purchases a Cierva C.8 Autogiro in 1928 after a test flight in England. He is so determined to design and build his versions of autogyros using Juan De La Cierva’s designs, that he decides a significant change in his business structure is necessary. His plan is simple, but not for the weak-hearted. Sell his current business, form a new one to sell autogiros in the US, and start working on improving the technology to make them the country’s safest aircraft. Since he has committed himself to follow through with his dream of the rotary-wing vertical lift aircraft, he forms a partnership with Juan de la Cierva. Mr. Pitcairn creates the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogyro Company of America in 1929, where he is licensed to build and sell autogyros in the US under the De la Cierva patents. With the sale of his enormously successful airmail line and Pitcairn Air Lines to Curtiss Wright and General Motors’ syndicate for 2.5 million in July, he and his design team can focus all of their attention on building autogyros to be sold under this new licensing agreement. The transition from fixed-winged aircraft to autogyros came quickly for Mr. Pitcairn, and he started working on new designs immediately after he reassembled the Cierva C-8 that he purchased in England in 1928 after being shipped to Pitcairn Field, Pennsylvania. There, Mr. Pitcairn received flight training in his newly reassembled C-8 from Cierva pilot Arthur “Dizzy” Rawson in December of that same year. Harold Pitcairn becomes the first rotary-wing pilot on the North American Continent with the autogiro’s introduction in the winter of 1928.
Harold Pitcairn successfully piloted his autogiro, nicknamed the “Windmill” from Pennsylvania to Washington DC on May 14, 1929. His first long trip proves that his radically new design is airworthy for such an extended flight in aviation history. In 1930 Mr. Pitcairn created a subsidiary, the Autogiro Company of America as a patent licensee to Buhl, Sikorsky, Kellett, and other interested manufactures. In the same year, Harold F. Pitcairn and associates receive the prestigious Collier Trophy “for development and application of the autogyro and its demonstration as safe aerial transport.” 1930 is a busy year for Mr. Pitcairn, and he introduces the Cierva PCA-1 as the first commercial autogyro in the US. It is a redesigned version of the C-8, but with the fuselage of the PA-5 Sport Mailwing. Shortly after, the Cierva CPA-2 is released the following year with significant improvements and is quite substantial in setting world altitude records and a cross-country flight by Amelia Earhart. It also earns government approval for the first non-conventional aircraft. The CPA-2 is today’s modern helicopter’s ancestor and initialized the groundwork for the powered rotor blade.
On April 8, 1931, Amelia Earhart set a world altitude record of 18,415 feet in a Pitcairn PCA-2 autogyro at Pitcairn Field. She held that record for over a year until Lewis Yancy piloted a PCA-2 on September 25, 1932, setting a new world altitude record of 21,500 feet.
James G. Ray, the chief pilot for Pitcairn, lands a PCA-2 autogiro on the south lawn of the White House on April 22, 1931, before President Hoover and leading aviation authorities in Harold Pitcairn’s acceptance of the Collier Trophy for the development of the autogiro.
Even though Harold Pitcairn built the PA-19, Robert B.C. Noorduyn is responsible for designing the first enclosed four-seater autogiro while working as a designer at the Pitcairn-Cierva Autogyro Company in 1932. If his name sounds familiar, he is best known for the legendary Canadian Noorduyn Norseman bush plane built in the 1930s.
Harold Pitcairn and his team built many more autogyros variations up to 1943, with the PA-44 being the last model, but never delivered due to cooling issues. His company changed names two more times, to Pitcairn-Larsen Autogiro Company Incorporated in February 1941 and finally to AGA Aviation Corporation in December of the same year. The US Navy purchased Pitcairn Field in 1942, expanded it, and renamed the site United States Naval Air Station Willow Grove. The G&A Division of the Firestone Rubber Company acquired AGA Aviation Corporation in 1946 and, renamed to the Firestone Aircraft Company in 1947. As momentum gained on the new helicopter’s popularity, the autogyro lost interest, and by 1946, most manufacturers are producing helicopters under contracts for the US government. With the beloved autogyro’s enthusiasm fading, Harold Pitcairn decided to dissolve the Pitcairn Autogiro Company in 1948. Dealing with the loss of his company and seeing his patents used by other manufacturers and the government without compensation, Mr. Pitcairn hires legal counsel to pursue litigation for the illegal use of his registered patents starting in 1951. I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for him. A man, an inventor who designed the Pitcairn Mailwing for reliable airmail service on the East Coast, flown through Pitcairn Aviation, later becoming Eastern Airlines after the sale. A pioneer who developed the autogiro and patents that resulted in the modern helicopter, and to see his designs used illegally without compensation must have been infuriating and agonizing. Harold Pitcairn would never know the victory he so rightfully deserved, and on April 23, 1960, he took his own life at the age of 62. Litigation continued after his death. In 1977 the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Pitcairn of the infringement that the Autogiro Company’s rotor-wing patents legally owned and awarded his estate $32 million for lost compensation.