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.

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).

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?!”

An aerial drag race

India 1944. New Zealand fighter pilot Vic ‘Ketchil’ Bargh is rested from the fight in Burma and sent on an air gunnery course for Allied pilots.

We went down to Amarda Road (south-west of Calcutta) where we were supposed to be taught air firing and that type of thing. When we were down at this place the Americans came along with a B-25. We were all sitting at a table and the two jokers from the B-25, they said “We’ve got the fastest aeroplane here”, in a loud voice. Nobody said anything. There was a Mosquito there; there was quite a few different varieties of aeroplanes. So the jokers with the Mosquito said they would tail the Americans.

A de Havilland Mosquito takes off at Wings Over Wairarapa 2013, New Zealand.

They went up and got alongside the American, eased him along until he was going flat tack, which was not very fast really. When they reckoned he was flat-out the Mosquito feathered one propeller altogether and poured the coal on the other one and went away on one engine. I don’t know what that Yank thought but they left him behind on one engine.

mosquito-pass

Text transcribed from an interview and printed in Ketchil. A New Zealand pilot’s war in Asia and the Pacific. Neil Francis. Wairarapa Archive, 2005.

Photographs taken at Wings Over Wairarapa airshow 2013.

The French Connection

In 1918 Britain was the strongest Power in the air. That position was not won easily or quickly. We had a rough road to travel. In August, 1914, our air strength was less than that of France or of Germany. The four squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps which took the field in August, 1914, were a patchwork body. Two of them were equipped with British machines – B.E.2’s. The others had to depend in whole or in part upon French machines – Bleriots and Henri Farmans. Moreover, not a single one of them all had a British engine. Every machine in our squadrons had a French engine installed in it, mainly the Gnome rotary of 80 horse power. The British aircraft industry was almost non-existent. It was wholly unable to meet even the modest needs of the tiny expeditionary force of the air which left these shores in the first month of the last war.

A reproduction WW1 B.E.2c biplane by the Vintage Aviator, New Zealand.

A reproduction B.E.2c

Steadily we built up a mighty structure of air strength. We owed much to France in the early days. Indeed, for a substantial part of the war we relied upon France for aero-engines and to a less extent for airframes also. Many thousands of French engines had to be obtained for installation in our machines during 1915 and 1916. Aircraft, too, were supplied in considerable quantities from the same source. The Nieuport fighters helped us out of a tight corner more than once. Our total purchases of foreign aircraft, however, amounted to only a little more than 3,000 machines in the four years of the war, as compared with 17,000 engines purchased abroad. It was only in the last year or so of the war that we became wholly independent of France for aeronautical equipment. Seeing how we started in 1914, one can only feel amazement that we should have ended the war with the magnificently equipped air force which we then possessed, predominant in quality as well as in quantity. It was a wonderful effort when all is said and done.

Nieuport 11

A replica Nieuport 11 in Italian livery

When the war began we had on charge in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service 218 land aeroplanes, 52 seaplanes and 7 airships, but less than 100 of the aeroplanes were in a condition to take the air. There were 276 officers and 1,797 other ranks in the two Services.
The Sky’s the Limit, J.M. Spaight, Hodder and Stoughton, 1940.

The aircraft illustrated above are owned and operated by the Vintage Aviator, New Zealand.