Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ready...Set...Go, Ladies, Go!

Ok, so I got carried away in writing this entry...it's the longest so far, but the story was so compelling!

The scene at Santa Monica's Clover Field for the start of the first Women's
National Air Derby on August 18, 1929. The aircraft in the center surrounded
by onlookers, with NC714N on its right wing, is Margaret Perry's Spartan C-3.
(Trivial sidenote...the truck at far right shows that the spelling "Naborhood"
was evidently acceptable in 1929.)
It all started with Lou Greve. This inventor, engineer and industrialist, who inherited the Cleveland Air Tool Company, was a major advocate of aviation. He invented the oleo-pneumatic landing gear shock absorber (under the name Aerol) that is used by virtually every aircraft flying today. To promote his company and his invention, Greve was a major sponsor of air racing in the late 1920s and 1930s, and was appointed as President of the company that organized the big races of that era, The National Air Races, Inc.

Greve was also a vocal advocate of allowing women (who at the time were largely viewed as inferior and even downright incompetent) to participate in air racing. For the 1929 National Air Races, to be held in Cleveland for the first time, Greve donated the trophy and purse for the first Cleveland Pneumatic Aerol Trophy Race, a two-class cross-country event to be held derby-style. It was to start in Santa Monica, California, at Clover Field, and end in Cleveland, Ohio. Over the years, the race has also become known as the 1929 Women’s Air Derby and the First Women’s National Air Derby.

With Phoebe Omlie's Monocoupe ready to go in the background, humorist 
and aviation promoter Will Rogers (third from right) talks things over with 
Ruth Elder. Could this have been that moment when he uttered his "powder-
puff" comment?
The Derby began on August 18, with a large crowd and a level of hoopla appropriate to such a major event. Our series of unique photos of the start of the race comes from the collection of Mojave Transportation Museum Board member and member of the Ninety-Nines, Cathy Hansen. The event would take place over eight days of stage racing, covering 2,200 miles, and include a lot of accidents and high drama, which was covered breathlessly by the contemporary media.

On the day of the race's start, many Southern California celebrities came out to see the competitors off, and one celebrity in particular was chosen to be the event's Grand Marshal, aviation promoter and nationally-known humorist Will Rogers. As the pilots made their final preparations to climb into their aircraft, he commented that their female “genes” compelled them to take one final look at the mirror in their compacts, and apply one final dab of powder to their noses (some of the racers later would comment that it was Ruth Elder who was especially prone to this habit). With reporters standing around, he quipped, “Looks like a powder puff derby, to me.” The phrase was grabbed and repeated across the continent by the media, to the point that after the Women’s National Air Derbies were resumed in 1947 (they ran through 1977), they were officially known as “The Powder Puff Derby”.

Close-up from the above image, showing Will Rogers
conversing with Ruth Elder.
The race was divided into two classes, based on engine size (women were being allowed to race airplanes with power “appropriate” to their gender, according to the male race organizers; as such, for instance, Opal Kunz was disallowed to fly her own 300hp Travel Air, because it was thought to be too much airplane for a woman, so she had to borrow one with less power) – Class C, which had six competitors, was for aircraft with engines between 275 and 509 cubic inches, and Class D, with 14 entrants, was for 510 to 800 cubic inches.

Twenty women in all started the race, 18 from the U.S. and one each from Australia (Jessie Keith-Miller) and Germany (Thea Rasche); to put it in contrast, there were only 100 women (some sources say 70) who held pilots licenses in America at that time, so nearly a fifth of them participated in this race (at that time, there was no FAA to issue licenses, instead they were issued by the French-based Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, or FAI, the organization that still to this day sactions and authenticates all world aviation records). Among the entrants was Amelia Earhart in her first competitive race, and the flamboyant Pancho Barnes. The rules stated that each entrant had to have at least 100 hours of flying time, including at least 25 hours of cross-country experience. The racers, and their aircraft, were:

Class C

Class D

Edith Foltz (#109)
Jessie Keith-Miller (#43)
Clair Fahey (#54)
Phoebe Omlie (#8)
Thea Rasche (#61)

Bobbi Trout (#100)

Alexander Eaglerock
Travel Air (OX-5)
deHavilland Gypsy Moth
Golden Eagle Chief

Pancho Barnes (#2)
Marvel Crosson (#1)
Amelia Earhart (#6)
Ruth Elder (#66)
Mary Haizlip (#76)
Ruth Nichols (#16)
Blanche Noyes (#3)
Gladys O'Donnell (#105)
Margaret Perry (#11)
Louise Thaden (#4)
Mary von Mach (#5)
Vera Dawn Walker (#113)
Neva Paris (#23)
Opal Kunz (#18)

Travel Air
Travel Air
Lockheed Vega
Laird Swallow
American Eagle
Rearwin Ken-Royce
Travel Air
Spartan C-3
Travel Air
Travel Air
Curtiss Robin C-1

Curtiss Robin
Travel Air

Vera Dawn Walker, a native of Los Angeles, named her Curtiss Robin C-1 Miss 
Los Angeles. Here she gets the start flag.
Of the twenty entrants, only 19 started together on August 18. Nineteen-year-old Mary Haizlip's plane had been damaged on the trip to Santa Monica, and so she had to quickly find a replacement, delaying her departure. And she wasn’t the only one that had trouble just getting to the starting line. Louise Thaden, flying a Wright-powered Travel Air, fought the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning from her engine's exhaust, leading Travel Air president Walter Beech, who was sponsoring her and following her out to California, to order some immediate modifications to her plane in order to provide fresh air in the cockpit.

On her way to Santa Monica, Phoebe Omlie had to make an off-airport landing, and was arrested and jailed by the local cops as a suspected dope smuggler. It was only when Amelia Earhart, Louise Thaden and Marvel Crosson showed up at the sheriff's office to vouch for her that the law decided that they had the wrong person.

The race was started according to class, with the airplanes lined up abreast and individually flagged to take off when the timers were ready. The initial gun-shot starting the race was fired in Cleveland, and transmitted by radio to Santa Monica.

With a wave of the flag, Thea Rasche taxis her deHaviland Gypsy Moth
across the start line. She would finish fourth and last in the light division.
Day 1, August 18, Santa Monica to San Bernardino: A series of minor incidents gave a glimpse of what was to come. Before the start, mechanics had mistakenly filled Ruth Elder’s fuel tanks with oil, which then had to be drained and purged. Earhart had to return to Clover after takeoff for a stuck starter, and at San Bernardino, there was so much dust on the field from the aircraft before her that she landed long and almost ran into the large crowd of spectators. Opal Kunz, also with dust visibility problems, landed hard and damaged her plane’s landing gear. The flyers were treated to a lavish banquet and partied into the night, a habit that was continued throughout the race, leading to sleep deprivation problems.

Day 2, August 19, San Bernardino to Yuma to Phoenix: Claire Fahy, flying a Travel Air, had to make an emergency landing in Calexico because of broken flying wires, the bracings that held the bi-planes wings in shape. Rumors of sabotage had run rife before the race started (Edler’s fuel tank problems didn’t help this, either), and Fahy cried foul, alleging that her wires had been eaten away by acid in a deliberate attempt to cause her to crash. Thea Rasche had to make an off-airport landing when her engine quit, and found contamination throughout her fuel lines. Amelia’s Vega nosed over at Yuma, damaging the prop, and she was stuck there until a new one could be flown out later in the day. Mary Haizlip, Pancho Barnes and Bobbi Trout got lost and ended up in Mexico, but Trout’s problem was more serious than the others: she was out of gas and had landed in a soft dirt field, badly damaging her Golden Eagle. Some friendly locals helped her move the airplane across the border to Yuma’s airport, where it took three days to rebuild, putting her far behind. Sixteen aircraft arrived at Phoenix, and three of the other four were accounted for. Pancho was in first place in the heavy division, with Phoebe in first in the light.

Marvel Crosson, however, was missing. The next morning, her Travel Air was found destroyed in the rough territory of the Gila River Valley, four miles from Wellton, Az. She had crashed only twenty minutes from Yuma. Some of the media reports at the time claimed that she had bailed out and her chute failed to open, while others said that she was thrown from the plane on impact. Her body was found a couple hundred yards from the plane, with her partially deployed chute. There was evidence that she had vomited over the side of the cockpit, a typical symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning. For her to do that, she would have had to unbuckle and raise herself up off her seat in order to lean out over the cockpit rim. It would have been difficult for her to keep her hands on the controls at this point. Whether it was at this moment or whether she lost consciousness a short time later, she clearly lost control of the aircraft. Four witnesses (ranchers, who had no first-hand knowledge of piloting an aircraft) recounted that they had seen the plane spinning and diving at high speed. Virtually every bone in Marvel's body was broken, and she appeared to have died instantly. Her loss stunned the racers and the public who were following in the media. The media frenzy, of course, went into overdrive, with calls for the race to be cancelled, and allegations that this was “proof” that women had no business trying to fly. The racers, though, decided to carry on with the competition, knowing that Marvel would not have wanted her loss to result in the cancellation of the competition. Mary von Mach, in rallying her companions, declared, "Our pain shall become her tribute."

Day 3, August 20, Phoenix to Douglas: The women had to navigate the vast emptiness of the Arizona desert with nothing but a crude map and a bouncy, unreliable compass. Walker attempted to follow the railroad tracks out of Tucson, but picked the wrong set, and ended up far north of course, costing valuable time as she had to backtrack. In doing so, she also got caught up in a potentially fatal thunder storm. Her Monocoupe's enclosed cabin shielded her from the direct effects of the storm, and the altitude which she was at save her from hitting the ground when she became disoriented and lost control in the midst of the storm's violence. She landed in a cow pasture, only to meet up with some local men who were accompanying Jessie Keith-Miller, who had also made a forced landing. Others had to land as well: Opal Kunz ran out of gas, and Blanche Noyes landed near a farm house to try to find out where she was, only to discover that everyone there spoke only Spanish...because she was in Mexico. Pancho did the same thing.

By the time that the racers were in Douglas, Crosson's death was confirmed. Thaden strongly suspected the carbon monoxide poisoning that she herself had experienced in the Travel Air on the way to Santa Monica, and became concerned for the other racers flying that type.

Day 4, August 21, Douglas to El Paso to Midland: Pancho’s south-of-the-border detour the day before resulted in a big “MEXICO OR BUST” painted on the side of her Travel Air.  The racers ended up stopping for the day in El Paso, which had been intended as a fuel stop only, as a dust storm between there and Midland precluded any further flying. The high winds naturally were directly across the runway, exceeding the crosswind limits of some of the planes, and making for very challenging landings. Louise Thaden and Phoebe Omlie were in the lead of their respective divisions. Since this was an unplanned overnight stop, there were no banquets to consume precious sleep time.

Day 5, August 22, El Paso to Pecos, Midland, Abilene and finally to Fort Worth: Blanche Noyes’ troubles continued, with a fire in her small baggage hold. She landed in the desert, pulled the smoldering, wooden floor out and put the fire out with sand. In the process, her landing gear was damaged and she had to stop and have it temporarily welded. Airports weren’t the same back then, and there was so much publicity about the event, that in Pecos, like other places, the crowds just drove out onto the designated landing field to get a closer look. Pancho Barnes’ Travel Air, like most big-engined tail-draggers then and now, had just about zero forward visibility in the landing attitude. As such, she hit a car as she was touching down, destroying her plane. Although Pancho herself was not hurt, there would be no more racing this year for her. Margaret Perry, flying a Spartan C-3, landed at Abilene, unable to go on, and was taken to the hospital with Typhoid fever. Continuing fears of carbon monoxide poisoning plagued the Travel Air pilots, and Walter Beech instructed mechanics from Travel Air to hurry to Fort Worth and modify all the remaining Travel Airs to prevent any further problems. Thaden was in first place in the heavies (by 21 minutes), and Omlie in first in the light division. Though some of the racers were hopelessly behind, the pressed on, if only to prove that they could complete the race.

Claire Fahy in her Travel Air gets the start flag. Because her Travel Air was powered by
a 90-hp in-line OX-5 engine, rather than the larger Wright J-5 radial, she raced in the
light class. She would only make it as far as Calexico before failed flying wires caused
an emergency landing, putting her out of the running. Of note is the fourth airplane in
the lineup, Edith Folitz' Alexander Eaglerock Bullet, the only low wing monoplane in
the field, and the only one with retractable landing gear. Folitz came in second in the
light division.
Day 6, August 23, Fort Worth to Wichita: Mary Haizlip had to land twice due to oil line contamination, and Vera Dawn Walker (who was only 4’11”, and had to use pillows to be able to reach the rudder pedals) had to land her Curtiss Robin for engine overheating. Ruth Elder lost her precious map over the side of the cockpit, and had to guess at her course. Although they were now over a region where property lines and roads followed regular section lines, making navigation a bit easier, smoke from wildfires made visibility difficult, and Elder realized she'd drifted off-course (all towns looked pretty much the same, without a map to provide detail clues). She landed to find out where she was (Muskogee, OK, east of her course) but to make the ensuing takeoff, she first had to single-handedly chase away an uncaring herd of cows. Since Wichita was the home of the Travel Air company, the airplane chosen by a third of the participants, a crowd of at least 10,000 gathered to see the racers land.

Day 7, August 24, Wichita to Kansas City to East St. Louis: Thaden's race-leading performance had garnered much positive publicity for Travel Air, so Walter Beech approached her and offered to let her race their newest aircraft, the Model R - otherwise known as the Mystery Ship - in the Cleveland races. With that to look forward to, Thaden pressed on. Gladys O'Donnell's right main gear sunk into the soft sod on takeoff, causing her to nose over. A quick field repair to the dinged prop got her back in the air in short order, however. The media had a difficult time knowing how to handle the event. Some "news" stories were downright critical of the women and said that the stunt did nothing to further promote aviation in a legitimate way. Other reporters chose to focus on the fashion statements and general appearances of the women, something that they'd never do if it had been a male-only race. The women themselves, though, were unfazed, and started making plans to meet under the bleachers in Cleveland, to cement the relations they had built into a lasting organization to promote women in aviation. The destination, the airfield of Parks Air College in St. Louis, had a difficult approach with wires and trees at both ends, necessitating a sideslip approach on final. Both Blanche Noyes and Neva Paris ended up having to deliberately ground-loop in order to avoid running off the end of the runway, damaging the landing gear on their planes, but once again, field repairs had things in order before the next morning's takeoff.

Day 8, August 25, East St. Louis to Terre Haute, Cincinnati and Columbus: The Cleveland Aeronautical Exposition was opening this Sunday, and the excitement was growing about the arrival of the women, due in on Monday. The thick fog of early morning did nothing to dampen the spirits as the racers prepared for departure. Mary Haizlip's fuel contamination problems had continued, and so far in the race, she had made six emergency landings. Now, she had all the fuel lines completely drained and flushed, revealing quite a bit of foreign debris. To make matters worse, a mechanic working for Travel Air who was assigned to care for that company's planes in the race, reported that someone had tampered with Louise Thaden's magneto points. To forestall any further acts of sabotage to the race leader, he decided to sleep with the aircraft that night in Columbus. Bobbi Trout was catching up, and arrived at Parks just after the other racers had departed. Though she was no longer being officially timed, she quickly refueled and took off again, on her hunt to make up time. As the racers arrived at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, they were greeted by a crowd twice as large as that which had turned out for Charles Lindbergh only two years before. Edith Foltz couldn't find the field, so pressed on to Columbus untimed. Meanwhile, Trout's problems continued, with engine failure. She barely was able to glide into an almost-too-small field, sideslipping between a line of poplar trees. She ground looped in an attempt to avoid a fence, but ripped open her aileron anyway. A tin can provided handy repair material, while an electrician from a nearby town managed to get her engine running again, and she was quickly back in the air. As an example of the excitement that the general public felt about the race, a local farmer between Cincinnati and Columbus plowed a giant arrow in to his field to help the racers along.

Day 9, August 26, Columbus to Cleveland: The final leg of the race was a mere 120 miles. Columbus had a new concrete runway that was still partially under construction, and the night before, the racers whose airplanes had metal tail skids (useful on sod runways) instead of tail wheels had caused a bit of a stir when the skids kicked up showers of sparks. The edges of the runway hadn't been finished, yet, leading to problems during the takeoff. Ruth Nichols, who sat comfortably in third place, had some work done on her Rearwin overnight, and so got up early to fly a brief test hop. On returning, she did not heed the warning to stay in the center of the new runway, and her plane clipped a tractor parked next to it, crashing. While she "miraculously" survived the wreck, she was out of the race. All the previous race takeoffs had taken place in reverse order of the standings, but from Columbus, the women left at one-minute intervals in the order that they held from the night before. Louise Thaden took off first, and after a 54-minute flight, spotted the Cleveland airfield, diving for the finish line, and crossing it at 170 mph. Her average speed for the race was 135.97 mph, and her total time was 20 hours, 2 minutes. As the winner of the heavy division, she also thus garnered the majority of the media attention. Addressing the crowd, Thaden said, "The sunburn derby is over, and I happen to come in first place. I'm sorry we all couldn't come in first, because they all deserve it as much as I. They're all great flyers." She dedicated her win to Crosson, and told the media that she was going to send the trophy to Marvel's family.

Second place went to Gladys O’Donnell (WACO 10, #105; 127.52mph, 20h:43m), third to Amelia Earhart (122.64mph, 22h:12m), with Blanche Noyes (Travel Air, #3; 110.88mph) in fourth and fifth went to Ruth Elder (Laird Swallow #66; 96.41mph)

In the light aircraft, or C Class, Phoebe Omlie took first place (Monocoupe #8; 108.19mph), Edith Foltz (Alexander Eaglerock Bullet #109; 65.44mph) came in second, followed by Jessie Keith-Miller (Fleet Model 2, #43; 51.98mph) with Thea Rasche (deHavilland Gypsy Moth, #61; 42.17mph) in fourth. Bobbi Trout finished the race technically in fifth place, although her time was not recorded.

Soon after the race, Louise Thaden, Amelia Earhart and Ruth Nichols met under the grandstand and together founded the Ninety-Nines, a women's aviation organization that is still active today.

There’s a tremendous amount of information that has been written about the 1929 race over the years, and this blog entry has really just barely scratched the surface. If you’d like to read more, here are a few sources to check out:
-A very detailed article by Gene Nora Jessen on the Ninety-Nines’ website. Jessen also has written an excellent book about the event, The Powder Puff Derby of 1929, which can be ordered here. This book is a wonderful read, and a big shout-out goes to Gene for taking the time to correspond with me, and for all her help in putting this piece together.
-Coverage on the Pancho Barnes history website, including a lot of contemporary media coverage
-Cleveland State University's web page on the history of Cleveland Airport
-A movie has been made about the race, and is available on DVD, and the movie's website has a wealth of information as well.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Girl and the GXE

This very small print was buried in a box of "junk" photos at a swap meet, and both the presence of the girl posing on the tire, and the location at the beach intrigued me. I have no idea if this is one of the early aviatrixes, or just some gal who wanted her photo taken with the plane (maybe she'd gone for a joy ride in it?).

The registration, NC747E indicates that it was WACO GXE (aka WACO 10) serial number 1986,  the most popular type of WACO built, with 1,623 produced between 1927 and 1933.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Foggy Parade of Lightnings

On a cold, foggy, rainy English morning, a parade of Lockheed Lightnings move slowly down the cobblestone streets. They have just been unloaded from a ship, after crossing the Atlantic from America, and are being towed to the airfield where they will be reassembled and flown into the fray. This official Lockheed Aircraft photo is hand-date 5-27-43 on the back.

The only hint at the location that I can see in the photo is the sign that says "S" on the opposite street corner, behind the left boom. In small letters (discernible in the hi-res scan, but not this low-res web version) that sign also says "Shelton" with an arrow pointing to the left. If this is referring to Shelton, Staffordshire, that puts this scene quite aways inland, and I'm not sure why the planes would have been towed so far. If anyone wants to figure out a more precise location for the shot, I'd love to hear from you!

Wikimedia Commons has a photo of Lightnings, which can be seen at this link, with similar wrapping sitting on a baby aircraft carrier in New York, just before leaving for their trans-Atlantic voyage to England.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Herd of Mustangs

Since last Friday's post showed derelict German aircraft after WWII, it's only fair that I also post one showing a whole bunch of American scrap aluminum after the war. This aerial shot pictures row upon row of parked P-51 Mustangs. While a flyable Mustang today commands well over a million dollars, after the war the AAF could hardly give them away (reportedly they were going for a mere $3,500).

The photo has no markings on the back, but the person I acquired it from said it was with a group of other images that were all marked Otis Air Force Base (which is on Cape Cod in Massachusetts). I'm not convinced that this image really shows Otis (compare the topography, for instance, with this image from Wikimedia Commons), so if anyone recognizes the locale, please let me know.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Cougar Portraits

Usually, when a manufacturer spends the time and money to do air-to-air photography, it's for a good reason...meaning that there's something significant about the subject aircraft. So far in my research, though, I've not been able to identify why either aircraft shown in today's two photos is significant. The first one, F9F-8 Cougar BuNo 141140, lies in the middle of the production run of 200 aircraft (BuNos 141030 to 141229), out of a total of 601 -8s built from 1954 to 1957. From what I can determine, somewhere in the middle of the production run, the design was modified so that the Cougar could carry four AIM-9 Sidewinders under the wing, which this aircraft clearly has. Might this be the flight test aircraft for that configuration? That would be photo-worthy, but it's also purely speculation on my part at this point. The lack of squadron markings, plus the fact that the AIM-9s are red in a color image that was taken a few seconds before this one (and available here on the web), indeed suggest a test role.

This looks like possibly the same aircraft (the BuNo isn't visible due to the angle)
on a day when it was been flown clean-winged.
The F9F Cougar was an update to the earlier F9F Panther, which had been out-classed by the MiG-15 in Korea, in which the Panther's straight wing and tail were replaced with swept wing and horizontal, giving the aircraft a higher critical Mach number, and thus a higher top speed (although it was still a sub-sonic aircraft). Initial production of the Cougar started with the F9F-6 in 1952. The -8 was the final mass-produced version, and incorporated an 8-inch fuselage stretch and wings with a larger chord and a cambered leading edge for better low-speed capabilities.