Virginia plane

U S S West VirginiaI bought these two old snapshots from the same online trader although, oddly, they were offered for sale several months apart. They could have been taken on the same day by the same person but were not printed on the same photographic paper. They feature a seaplane, which I didn’t recognise, and the name ‘U.S.S. West Virginia’, which of course I did.

VirginiaPlane2sIn the period between World Wars, American battleships, and those of other navies, carried observation aircraft – ‘spotter planes’ – fitted with floats. Launched by catapult from the deck, they landed beside the ship when their mission was over and were retrieved by crane. This was skilled, dangerous work and easier said than done.

The original images were obviously personal snaps taken by one or more of the West Virginia’s crew, not the work of a Navy photographer, but after a quick rinse through software they scrubbed up looking like this

VirginiaPlane4

VirginiaPlane3

I’ll admit that U.S. Navy aircraft of the 1920s are not my strong point. In my defence, I can’t possibly know everything and that’s why we have search engines. I discovered two things
(1) there are more to sort through than you might imagine
(2) as all you aviation experts already know, this is a Vought OU-1 – standard equipment in the U.S. Navy for ten years from 1923 and an aircraft with a couple of notable firsts to its credit.

In 1924 it was the first plane to be catapulted off a battleship at night and, five years later, the first plane to dock with a dirigible (airship) in flight! “Why?”, I hear you ask. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The San Diego Air and Space Museum have several better quality images on their Flickr site and you can find a good photograph of USS Pennsylvania with two planes mounted aft on this well researched page about the short history of catapult aviation.

Two mysteries remain – the location of the photographs (if you can help with that, please leave a comment) and how did these personal souvenirs from an American battleship end up in New Zealand?

The West Virginia found fame later in life when she was sunk at Pearl Harbour, salvaged, rebuilt, and put back into the fight. She was in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Attack_on_Pearl_Harbor_1941_Virginia

A small boat rescues a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Two men can be seen on the superstructure, upper center. The mast of the USS Tennessee is beyond the burning West Virginia.
USN/AP via rarehistoricalphotos

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Fighter Ace

Closeup of red poppies on a war memorial wreath.Tomorrow will be the 11th day of the 11th month and, at the 11th hour, Armistice Day will be commemorated in many countries around the world. Begun as a way to mark the end of the Great War and remember all those who didn’t come home, it now includes all who have died in subsequent wars. It is sometimes referred to as Remembrance Day, possibly because of the lines repeated at every war memorial service “…at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.” So here is one story to remember on Armistice Day.

In June 1940, with the advancing German army just days away from Paris, R.A.F. pilot Paul Richey decided to take a last look at the city.

“Paris as a whole retained its irresponsible gaiety – though one felt it was even rather too irresponsible. The couples still sipped their champagne and sang the choruses of romantic songs in the boulevard cafes. Albert still bowed one in with a portly gesture and a welcoming smile at Maxim’s. The Ritz Bar was still in full swing before lunch and again before dinner. The only thing changed was the almost total abscence of soldiers.

It was as I walked down the Champs Elysees towards the Concorde one afternoon that I came upon Cobber, of 73 Squadron, sitting at a pavement table with the 73 Squadron Doctor and a well-known journalist. Over a drink Cobber told me that the rest of the original 73 had gone back to England, and that they had been re-formed, like us. He had stayed behind to help get things going, but was off in a couple of days’ time. He was on a few hours’ leave now. He said they’d had some losses – about five killed, I think – and in answer to my question told me his own personal score of Huns was 17. I noticed, but without surprise in the circumstances, that he seemed nervous and pre-occupied, and kept breaking matches savagely in one hand while he glowered into the middle distance. Like the rest of us, he’d had enough for a bit.

HurricaneThe following day [7th] a Hurricane roared down and beat up 73’s aerodrome south-west of Paris. To finish up with it did a couple of flick-rolls in succession at 200 feet, and foolishly attempted a third with insufficient speed. Naturally it spun off. It straightened out promptly enough, but of course had no height and went in. The rescue squad was shocked to find an identity disc marked with Cobber’s name on the body. So died Cobber.”
‘Fighter Pilot’, 1941.

Cobber KainB

© IWM (C 1148)

Flying Officer Edgar “Cobber” Kain, DFC, from Hastings, New Zealand, was recognised as the R.A.F.’s first fighter ace of World War Two. He was 21 years old when he died on 7th June. He had become engaged to the English actress Joyce Phillips in April. The wedding was planned for July.

Parachute training

parachuteParachutes are to the airman what lifeboats are to the sailor; the service pilot of to-day has one for use in emergency. More than 100 lives have been saved since they were introduced into the R.A.F. ten years ago. Training in their use is given to all pilots in the Service, and a mass descent demonstration has been a feature of the annual display at Hendon for several years past. We show a cheerful parachutist on the wing of an aeroplane, waiting to pull the ripcord which will release his parachute and draw him backwards into space.
Cigarette card, Ardath Tobacco Co., 1936.

If this caption is accurate, parachutes were first issued to R.A.F. pilots in 1926, so they took their own sweet time in handing out the “lifeboats”. You can read more about the Service’s shameful attitude to parachutes here.

Pulling the ripcord before jumping sounds like a good way to get the canopy wrapped around the aircraft’s tail, but we have to assume they knew what they were doing. Don’t we?

You can see a British Pathé newsreel of the 1937 Hendon air display on Youtube.

Boats and ‘Planes

This photograph came to me in an auction lot of miscellaneous images labelled “ships”.

Competing seaplanes in the 1929 Schneider Trophy air race.

Granted, there is a large motor yacht in the middle of the shot (flying an R.A.F. flag at the stern) but the real interest in the picture is the group of five streamlined seaplanes in the foreground. It didn’t take long to realize that these are the competitors in the Schneider Trophy air race held on the South coast of England in 1929. The two farthest from the camera are British Supermarine aircraft and the trio in the foreground make up the Italian team of Macchis. It’s a pity the photograph isn’t in colour, the Italian machines were painted bright red.

The Schneider Trophy.The trophy had been presented to the Aero Club of France by Jacques Schneider in 1912 for a competition open to all types of seaplane over a course determined in advance. This could be either in a straight line, a broken line, or over a circuit of not less than 150 nautical miles. A competitor winning three times out of five consecutive contests would keep the trophy permanently. The first race in 1913, won by France at just over 45 miles per hour, was a fairly low key affair but the contest soon attracted world wide attention and became the symbol of advanced technology and speed in the air. Soaring development costs eventually demanded government sponsorship and winning the trophy became a matter of national prestige. The Royal Air Force formed a special team, the High Speed Flight led by Squadron Leader Orlebar, to achieve that goal.

Britain had won in 1927 against an Italian team and, with the withdrawal of America, Germany and France in 1929, the stage was set for a rematch. The winner was aircraft number 2 in the picture, a Supermarine S.6 flown by Flight Lieutenant Richard Waghorn, followed by the Macchi M.52R of Warrant Officer Tommaso Dal Molin (number 4), and, in third place, the Supermarine S.5 (number 5) of Flight Lieutenant (later Air Commodore) D’Arcy Greig. David Masters described the scene in his book ‘On the Wing’ (1934).
“There must have been 1,000,000 people watching all round the course on September 7, 1929, which luckily turned out to be an ideal day. …..
One of the most thrilling moments was when Waghorn, seeing Dal Molin just ahead on a turn, sped after him and overtook him…… It was Waghorn’s race, with an average speed of 328.63 miles an hour, but he himself did not at first realize it. He was under the impression that he had another lap to go, so he went roaring on like a destroying demon”.

The ‘demon’ ran out of fuel and was forced to land short of his imagined finish line. When his support crew reached him – “He was cursing like anything over what he thought was his hard luck – “swearing like a trooper” is the way Orlebar described his language – and his relief can be guessed when he learned he had tried to do an extra lap”.

Tragically, 26 year old Waghorn and 28 year old Dal Molin would both die flight-testing aircraft before the next trophy race in 1931, which Britain won by default. France and Italy were unable to get their machines ready in time for the start so it was left to Flight Lieutenant John Boothman to fly the course on his own in a Supermarine S.6b, pushing the record to 340 m.p.h. and winning the trophy outright.

British Supermarine S6B racing floatplane. Winner of the 1931 Schneider Trophy.

Supermarine S.6b. “There really is very little sensation of speed even when flying low, because one cannot see vertically downwards even if one wanted to, owing to the bulge of the fuselage”. (Squadron Leader Augustus Orlebar).

Pilots of the R. F. C.

RFC

Officers and Men of the Royal Flying Corps with Their Machines

On the right is a sergeant of the R. F. C., wearing the new badge of a propeller on his arm. He is saluting two aviation officers, one dressed for flying, the other wearing the flying certificate badge. On the right is an army B. E. biplane, with its four-bladed propeller and two seats for pilot and observer. This type, it is stated, is becoming more and more the standard pattern of machine for use by the R. F. C. On the left is a Bleriot monoplane and in the air a Henri Farman biplane.
‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’, 1916.

One of the first honours of 1916, if not the very first, was the Military Cross awarded to Captain W. D. S. Sanday, who went out on January 1 in a very high wind to observe the fire of a battery near Hulluch, and owing to the clouds was forced to fly at a height of no more than between 800 and 900 feet. Nothing daunted by the heavy rifle-fire to which he was continually subjected, he did not return until he had enabled our battery to score several direct hits.

One of the youngest heroes of the Buffs, Second-Lieutenant Frank Hudson, attached to the Royal Flying Corps, was similarly decorated in the early months of this year for skill and gallantry on several occasions. “This young officer”, to quote from the Gazette, “is only eighteen years of age, but has many times driven off enemy machines and twice forced them to the ground.” Once he was severely wounded in the head, but successfully completed his aerial reconnaissance, although after recrossing our line and landing at an aerodrome he at once lost consciousness.

More dramatic still was the magnificent feat of Lieutenant M. Henderson, of the Seaforth Highlanders and Royal Flying Corps, who was struck by a shell from a German anti-aircraft gun [21 Feb 1916]. The shell passed through the nacelle of Lieutenant Henderson’s machine and took off his left leg just below the knee; but in spite of this he succeeded in descending from a height of 7000 feet and landing 3000 yards behind our line, thus saving his aeroplane and the life of his observer as well. For this he received the D.S.O.
‘The Great World War Vol. V.’ The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd, London. c. 1917

Spitfire memories

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX.

For a pilot, every plane has its own personality, which always reflects that of its designers and colours the mentality of those who take it into action.
The Spitfire, for instance, is typically British. Temperate, a perfect compromise of all the qualities required of a fighter, ideally suited to its task of defence. An essentially reasonable piece of machinery, conceived by cool, precise brains and built by conscientious hands. The Spitfire left such an imprint on those who flew it that when they changed to other types they found it very hard to get acclimatized.
Pierre Clostermann. ‘Flames in the Sky’. Chatto & Windus, 1952.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX.

The day I flew a Spitfire for the first time was one to remember. To begin with the instructor walked me round the lean fighter plane, drab in its war coat of grey and green camouflage paint, and explained the flight-control system. Afterwards I climbed into the cockpit while he stood on the wing root and explained the functions of the various controls. I was oppressed by the narrow cockpit, for I am reasonably wide across the shoulders and when I sat on the parachute each forearm rubbed uncomfortably on the metal sides.
“Bit tight across the shoulders for me?” I enquired.
“You’ll soon get used to it,” he replied. “Surprising how small you can get when one of those yellow-nosed brutes* is on your tail. You’ll keep your head down then! And get a stiff neck from looking behind. Otherwise you won’t last long!” – and with this boost to my morale we pressed on with the lesson…..

Four days later I made a mess of the approach, but this time with disastrous results. I had been instructed to land at Sealand and deliver a small parcel of maps which were stuffed into my flying-boot. The circuit at Sealand was crowded with [Miles] Masters and I weaved amongst them for a favourable into-wind position. There was a stiff wind across the short, grass airfield and I aimed to be down close to the boundary fence so that I had the maximum distance for the landing run. I came over the fence too high and too slow and the fully stalled Spitfire dropped like a bomb. We hit the ground with a mighty crash and I had a little too much slack in the harness straps, for I was thrown violently forward and pulled up with a nasty wrench across the shoulders. For a few yards we tore a deep groove in the ground, then she slithered to a standstill in a ground loop which tore off one undercarriage leg and forced the other through the top of the port mainplane. I switched off the petrol cocks and the ignition switches and stepped out.
Johnnie Johnson, ‘Wing Leader’, Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1956.
*Messerschmitt Bf 109s

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX.

I can remember doing aerobatics in the Spitfire right from the start, perfect vertical rolls, straight as a die. It was a terrific thing. The Spitfire and Hurricane were austere inside. There weren’t many bits and pieces……

Someone showed us all the things you should do and shouldn’t do, and off we went. I can remember going off the ground, got the wheels up, came round parallel to the strip. I can remember doing a roll one way and a roll the other and it was just straight in. We’d never seen anything like them…..

[When a fuel supply problem called for an emergency landing] I was turning to go up the strip to land, and I could see I wasn’t going to make it. They’ve got the flying angle of a brick when you cut the motor back. I couldn’t land on the road. There were trucks and motorbikes, troops, all sorts of people were coming down the road. So I had to go to the side. There was a big row of trees and these bunkers for the rice. In the finish I just pushed it into the ground. I was doing about 140 mph, a wheels up landing and it went bump, bump, bump, then it stopped. Ruined the aeroplane, a bloody shame.
Vic Bargh quoted in ‘Ketchil’ by Neil Frances. Wairarapa Archive 2005.

The Spitfire Mk.IX was photographed at Wings Over Wairarapa airshow, New Zealand.

Back to the future

flying-wing

Northrop’s Flying Wing

In 1949 the aircraft designer and engineer, John Northrop, gave a lecture on aviation history at the Library of Congress and finished by looking forward to developments in the next decade. After predicting that guided missiles would come into military use within two years and “form the backbone of the Air Force’s offence and defence by 1960”, he went on to say this –

If our development of atomic power plants for aircraft is vigorously pursued, we can probably have large aircraft driven by nuclear energy in service well before 1960. They will have unlimited range and very high speeds, but will be enormously expensive and therefore comparitively few in number. Except for specialised service they will be inferior to the guided missile in their ability to deliver a warhead to enemy territory at the lowest cost to our country’s economy.

Source: ‘New Zealand Flying’ magazine May 14, 1949.

doc-brownIt could have worked, with the right development team, but Doc Brown wasn’t available.

“You want to put a nuclear reactor in a flying wing? Great Scott, Jack! Do you realize what this means?!”