Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Plight of the First Air Force One

4/11 update: The Archive just acquired a second photo of 8610, which has been added to the article below.
3/27 update: Looks like there's hope after all! Be sure to read the addendum at the end of the article.

Our story starts like so many others around here...a little snapshot in a booth at an antique mall for a buck. A closer look showing that this might be something a bit more special, and some preliminary research that reveals a very cool story that's very relevant to today!

This photo is dated November, 1953 by the processing lab.

In the store, I showed this to my brother, and he noted the honor guard and the platform. "Must be someone important," was his comment. It occurred to me that President Eisenhower had used Connies as his presidential aircraft. So I paid the buck. The photo isn't as clear as I'd wish, but it's clear enough to make out the tail number, 8610 (aka 48-610), the very first Air Force One, and clear enough to see a man in black standing at the top of the stairs waving his hat to the crowd...presumably this is Ike.

The plane has a remarkable story (and I find it ironic that it's probable that this snapshot was taken by someone capturing the moment of Ike's arrival, with little or no interest in imaging the airplane itself), with the Air Force One aspect just a part of the story...and this is a story that's continuing today.

The plane was born as a Plain-Jane Lockheed C-121A Constellation (model L-749-79-36, c/n 749-2602), one of a lot of nine ordered in 1948. After rolling off the assembly line in Burbank, Lockheed bailed it from the Air Force to be used as a company transport in Alaska for a while, before finally being delivered to the Air Force in 1950, when it was converted to VIP configuration (VC-121A-LO) for use by Eisenhower, who named it Columbine II  (replacing a sister VC-121A, the original Columbine).

Some readers may take umbrage at my title for this post, protesting that there were earlier Presidential aircraft, and indeed they would be right. But this was the first "Air Force One". As most will recall, that title is not given to a specific airplane, it's a radio call sign used for any plane which POTUS is flying aboard. But it wasn't always so. Before 1953, the flight would simply used the plane's tail number, so for Columbine II, the call sign would be Air Force 8610. And this is exactly what happened on one day in 1953 when the Connie, with Ike onboard, was flying over New York. Unfortunately, at that moment also flying over New York was Eastern Airlines Flight 8610, and due to confusion induced by the similar call signs, the two planes almost collided. Eisenhower's pilot, Col. Billy Draper, is credited with finding the solution to the problem, coining the phrase "Air Force One" for use when the President was on board, and the tradition stuck (here's a great bio on Draper). Besides Eisenhower, a whole litany of other VIPs, including Queen Elizabeth II and Richard Nixon, flew on board Columbine II.

Columbine II, which was based on the civilian Constellation airliner, was replaced in November 1954 with Columbine III (VC-121E, 53-7885), which was based on the larger Lockheed 1049 Super Constellation. Stripped of its name and fame, 48-610 was leased by the Air Force to Pan American Airways and given the civilian registration N9907F for a short time, and then transferred to the Government of Thailand. It was returned to the USAF in June 1955, and the service continued to operate it as a normal airlifter until retiring the old gal to Davis-Monthan AFB in April, 1968.

Sometime around 1970, Christler Flying Service purchased several old Air Force Connies out of the boneyard, with the intent of turning them into large pest spraying aircraft. Unfortunately, 48-610 was in pretty rough shape, and Christler decided to simply use it as a source of spares to support the rest of their fleet. Enter the historians of the Smithsonian, who were researching the early presidential aircraft: they contacted Christler, who had no idea of the unique story behind their derelict, which they were getting ready to scrap. That changed everything, and funds were raised and the old gal was refurbished and actually returned to the air in 1990. The plane was flown to Abilene, Kansas, home of the Dwight D. Eisnhower Presidential Library and Museum for Ike's centennial. With fame rediscovered, Christler put the plane up for sale at auction, expecting that it would be picked up by a museum. It wasn't, and in 2005, she was flown back to Marana, Arizona, where she sits to this day. Ten years have taken a drastic toll on the plane and she is quite literally rotting away.

A logical place for the plane to be preserved is in Eisenhower's home state of Kansas, but all the big museums, and even Ike's presidential library, simply down have any desire to do anything to save Columbine II. Recently, the plight of Columbine II has been publicized through social media, as efforts continue to find a way to preserve this unique piece of history; the effort even has a Facebook page. Every seems to think that it's a great idea, at least until the subject of money comes up, at which point the subject politely gets changed. So in a way, the plane itself is a bit like our found photo: simply discarded as forgotten and irrelevent.

There are two short documentaries about the plight of Columbine II, and I would recommend both, as they have a lot of great footage and interviews from key players:

There's an interesting aside to this story, as well. As I mentioned, Columbine II was one of a lot of nine Connies which the Air Force bought in 1948, and of the eight others, five of them have either survived or had a story of their own. Here's a quick overview:

48-609: After a two-decade Air Force career, 609 was retired to Davis-Monthan, and then was part of the group purchased by Christler. After almost a decade and a half doing spray work in both the US and Canada, the plane was purchased by none other than John Travolta, who re-registered it as N494TW, but ended up putting it in storage. It was then sold to aerospace entreprenieur Vern Raburn in 1991, who put the Connie through an extensive restoration before it was then sent to South Korea, where it is part of the permanent collection of the Korean Airlines Museum in 2005.

48-612: Following its Air Force service, 612 was also purchased by Christler in 1970, and then by Raburn in 1993, who oversaw its restoration. The plane then went to the Netherlands, where it is registered as PH-LDF.

48-613: This was General MacArthur's VIP transport, and he named it Bataan. Upon retirement in 1966, the aircraft was transferred to NASA, who used it as a transport for the Apollo program, flying between the west coast, Houston and Florida. When NASA no longer had need of it, 613 ended up at the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, before being picked up by Planes of Fame at Valle, Arizona.

48-614: This was the original Columbine, assigned to Eisenhower while he was still an active duty Army General. It is currently part of the collection of the Pima Air Museum.

48-615: Named Dewdrop, this was General Vandenberg's ride. After the Air Force, it was another one of Christler's spray birds. In 1976 she became a movie star, featured in the film MacArthur. Sadly, she then was turned into a freighter and came to an untimely end while flying for the Dominican carrier Aerolineas Argo. While on approach to Harry Truman Airport in St. Thomas, VI during a heavy rainstorm on October 26, 1981, she crashed into the sea; the three crewmembers were killed, but the two passengers onboard survived. The plane sank in 150 feet of water.

3/27/15 update!
After posting, it came to light from a user on Reddit that Karl Stoltzfus and his Dynamic Aviation, along with Scott Glover and the Mid America Flight Museum are currently evaluating Columbine II for purchase and restoration, with a final decision to be announced April 28th. There are three online articles covering this development, and as I learn more, I'll post more updates here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Maryland's Corsair

Since today is the 95th anniversary of the launching of the battleship USS Maryland (BB-46), it's appropriate that we celebrate with a photo of her. The small print in the Archive's collection isn't dated, but the ship appears to be at rest at Pearl Harbor. Of interest to us, of course, is the Vought O2U Corsair bobbing contentedly behind the mighty ship.
If you look carefully, you can see two men on Maryland's turret catapult, probably preparing it for the hoist-aboard of the Corsair.The ship in the background is the USS New Mexico.

The Maryland, a dreadnaught of the Colorado class, was at Pearl during the infamous December 7th attack, but was only lightly damaged, and went on to lend her eight 16-inch guns to the effort in the Battles of Midway, Tarawa, Kwajalien, Saipan (where she took a torpedo to her bow), Leyte Gulf (hit by a kamikaze) and Okinawa (hit by yet another kamikaze). And yet she survived, at least until 1947 when she succumbed to the scrapper's torch.

Before posting this photo here, I had supplied it to, who used it on the Maryland's web page. There, researcher Alan Moore provided some valuable information on the plane itself. He wrote:
Two aspects of the aircraft's markings are date-indicative. The first is the fuselage markings, 5 / 8, which signify VO-5's (Observation Squadron 5's) eighth aircraft. The symbol for Observation Squadron would later be changed from "/" to "O," making the marking 5-O-8. 
The second is the solid-color painted tail surfaces. Prior to the adoption of this practice, the rudders where painted with vertical Red-White-Blue stripes. The solid-colored tails were to identify the aircraft of a squadron, each squadron having it's own tail color. Each Battleship Division had its own squadron, with the planes distributed among the ships of the Division. Therefore, the planes on the ships of a Division had the same tail color. So this photo was taken after the adoption of painted tail surfaces but before the change of / to O. I can't find a specific date for either practice, only a vague "around 1930" or (in the case of the O) "in 1930." 
A third factor leading to the date is the existence of the squadron, VO-5B. William Larkins, in his Battleship and Cruiser Aircraft of the United States Navy 1910-1949, writes "VO-5B was only in commission for three years, 1927-1930, so planes with these markings are rare." (page 176) 
In the same work Larkins lists BatDiv5's ships as West Virginia (BB-48) (Flagship), Tennessee (BB-43), Maryland and Colorado (BB-45).
From this photo I can't distinguish an O2U-2 from a -3 (Larkins lists both.) but it's definitely not an O2U-1, which had a different rudder. Appended is his aircraft breakdown for Maryland.

Date Division Squadron Aircraft
7/1926 Five VO-1 2 UO-1
7/1927 Five VO-1B 2 UO-1, 1 OL-3, 1 FU-1
7/1928 Five VO-5B 3 O2U-1, 1 OL-6
7/1929 Five VO-5B 11 O2U-1, 1 O2U-2 [These are the aircraft for the entire Division, not just MD.]
6/1930 Five 6 O2U-1, 1 O2U-3 [ditto: aircraft for entire Division]
7/1931 One VO-1B 4 O2U-1, 1 O3U-2 [ditto; (Larkins lists only two ships, MD and ID)]

Friday, March 13, 2015

An Unlucky Vega

The story with this photo is pretty thin, if a bit unlucky, which is appropriate since today is Friday the 13th. Shown is Lockheed Vega 1 serial 12B, NC7425, and its pilot Ralph E. Morrison at Mills Field in San Francisco (which later became San Francisco International). The plane was delivered on August 21, 1928.

Hand-dated on back Feb. 1931

The one remarkable thing about this plane is its serial number. Yes, this was the 13th airplane built by Lockheed. In an era when superstitions were given semi-official status, instead of getting serial number (or construction number) 13, they used 12B (think about it from the Sales Dept's point of view: would you want to try to sell ship #13?).

After less than seven years after rolling out of Lockheed's Burbank factory, the Vega's luck ran out, and it suffered a forced landing near a place called “Fishtrap” on April 21, 1935 and was abandoned (not sure which state, as far as I can determine, there are four states that have a community called Fishtrap, Alabama, Kentucky, Montana and Washington...and it’s my guess that the crash took place either in Montana or Washington).

I've not been able to find any info on Morrison.

According to the French website Aeromovies, NC-7425 supposedly appears in the 1931 flick Air Eagles. Google translates the applicable paragraph from French to English as “At the end of the film, Eve and the agents of the mining company, embark on a Lockheed Vega 1 12B (NC7425) . This aircraft will be damaged during a forced landing in 1935 and abandoned. The Vega 1, released in 1927, was an ultra modern aircraft at the time and will be the source of a long line of famous aircraft.”

You can go see this utterly forgettable excuse for a movie for yourself at Free Classic Movies. The acting is terrible, the writing is boring, but if you want to see dog fights between a Travel Air (NC3621) and a Catron-Fisk CF-13 (NC3404, and the only CF-13 ever built, by the way) and later between two Travel Airs (the other being NC945Y) over the San Gabriel Mountains (flying was probably staged out of Glendale, and I’m pretty sure I recognized Big Tujunga Road at one point), then this is the blockbuster for you. And, where else can you still hear the smooth roar of a Lockheed Vega? The Vega makes its first appearance at 57:02, and its second at 1:05:56. I watched that first clip over and over again, and have come to the conclusion that Aeromovies is incorrect, the airplane featured isn’t NC7425, but rather sister ship it looks to me that there’s a “7” at the end of the number on the bottom of the wing, rather than a “5”. Almost a movie unlucky. And this makes sense, too, as NC7427 was registered to Wilson Aircraft, and Al Wilson was a well-known movie pilot of the late 20s and early 30s (he was killed in a crash at the 1932 National Air Races).

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Volunteer at Rest

Here are three more photos from our small collection that came from the San Francisco UPI office when it closed in the late 1960s. The date is probably 1931 or 1932, the location is a Goodyear plant, probably in Southern California. The airship is the Volunteer, the same blimp featured in last week's photo.

The Volunteer was Goodyear’s second Type TZ airship, and fourth overall (after Pilgrim I and II, and the Puritan). Goodyear’s president, Paul Litchfield, had a penchant for naming the airships after America’s Cup yachts, seeing the blimps as yachts of the sky.

These three photos also feature Goodyear's west coast portable mooring mast, a 1930 Ford Model AA, the truck version of the Model A passenger car. It was fitted with a collapsable mooring mast and outriggers to keep it from tipping. The mast included a pivot which allowed the airship to weathervane. A Buick bus performed similar duties for Goodyear's east-coast airship. Now that Goodyear is transitioning from blimps to Zeppelins, they have selected a massive Mack truck to serve the same purpose in 21st Century.

The Volunteer series airships were the west-coast Goodyear advertising representatives. The first one first flew on April 27, 1929, and sported a 128-foot long, 36-foot diameter envelope which held up to 86,000 cubic feet of helium.

The Volunteer I was retired in late 1929, when Goodyear decided to replace the envelope with a larger, 96,000 cu. ft. one (it was 133 feet long with a 39 foot diameter), and the original 82hp Siemens-Halska engines were replaced with 110-hp Warner Scarabs. The “new” Volunteer retained the original car, and the original NC-8A registration number.

The II only lasted for two years (so, if my math is right, the II is the airship shown in our three photos), because Goodyear decided once again to expand the size of the envelope, installing 112,000 cu-ft bags. Ultimatey, there were three iterations of the Volunteer with this configuration, III, IV and V. In each case, the car and the registration were reused.

Odd little trivia twist: the Volunteer (the airship) was named after the Volunteer (the yacht) which was built in 1887 and successfully defended the America's Cup against the Scottish challenger Thistle that same year. The Volunteer, along with the two previous America's Cup yachts Puritan (1885) and Mayflower (1886) (which also had blimps named after them), was designed by Boston maritime architect Edward Burgess, the father of W. Starling Burgess who started the Burgess Company, the largest manufacturer of license-built Wright Brothers aircraft, until he sold out to Glenn Curtiss in 1916.