Friday, August 5, 2011

Classic and Vintage Aircraft

Black Waco Biplane
As I thought about how best to organize my postings I had first thought I would do it chronologically but after giving it some thought I have decided to go with categories. One of the areas that I really enjoyed was the collection of vintage or classic aircraft from the 1920's through the 1930's, the golden age of flying just prior to WWII.

This was an age of rapid development of aircraft and the era of the old time barnstormers who flew from one small town to another in canvas covered wooden planes making a few dollars giving demonstrations, airshows and rides for the population who may have never seen an airplane up close. Flying was seen as an exotic activity only for the brave and foolhardy. This was the time when new companies were being formed to produce a long list of new developments and new names that have since become famous in the industry. The Wright Brothers may have discovered the secrets of controlled powered flight but people like Glen Curtis were making great strides and improvements in the field.

I had hoped we would see a few examples of the very early examples such as the the famous Curtiss "Jenny" JN-4 which was a favorite of the old time barnstormers. It was used as a trainer during WWI and after the war thousands were surplussed by the army and bought cheaply by the pilots who flew them during the war. These men then used them for the barnstorming and new airmail system being developed by the postal system. Unfortunately I saw few of this era. There were a few examples pictured below of very early designs.

French Morane Saulnier Type L                       

The Morane was a very early French monoplane and the first equipped with a machine gun that fired through the propeller using steal wedges to avoid damage to itself. It was the original fighter aircraft in 1914. This development set off a great arms race as everyone then worked out how best to make a fighting aircraft capable of inflicting damage on the enemy. The model on display was used in the movie "Amelia" depicting when she first began her flying career. The Type L seen here used wing warping for lateral control but a later model the LA was converted to use ailerons to control the lateral axis. This model saw action early in the war and was the first aircraft to actually shoot down an enemy plane as well as destroy a Zeppelin Airship. As others improved on the idea of a fighter aircraft such as the German Fokker and British Sopwith it was relegated to simple observation and scouting roles. As I looked on this very small aircraft my thoughts were drawn to the fact that this is the mother, "Eve," of the F-18 Tomcat and the F-35 being flown today at supersonic speeds able to destroy an enemy miles away and out of sight. To think this progress has taken place in just 100 years is mind blowing. It also begs the question of what will develop over the next 100 years? 

Bleriot 13
An even earlier aircraft the Bleriot 13 of 1909 was present in two examples. The Model 13 seen above is a replica of the aircraft Louis Bleriot designed, built and flew across the channel to claim the 1000 Pound prize offered by the London Daily Mail to the first person to fly across the channel. His airspeed on the venture was clocked at a sizzling 40 mph with the engine running at a wild 1200 RPM's.  I spoke with the pilot who built the plane from scratch and he told me the original used wing warping following the Wright brothers example and it was very difficult to control. His plans were of the later vintage that had converted to ailerons and he first built it with the aileron and it actually was a nice flying aircraft. He then decided he wanted it as originally designed by Bleriot and rebuilt it to use the wing warping approach. Big mistake, he said as all he accomplished was to turn a very nice airplane into a very difficult one to fly. The other model on display was of the same vintage but marked up a little differently with some cosmetic differences as seen in the photos below.

Above is a view of the second Bleriot from the rear showing the elevator and rudder section. To the right a view of the cockpit. Notice the Steel bracing at the top with cables going toward the wings. This was the apparatus used to warp the wings causing the aircraft to bank left or right. Wing warping worked as first demonstrated by the Wright Flyer but it was very difficult to control and maintain level flight as the plane had a tendency to continue to roll in the direction of the turn allowing wind to get under the wing causing an uncontrolled side slip.

1911 Curtiss Pusher

 At the left is one of the first aircraft obtained by the Navy for experimental purposes. This is what is called a pusher aircraft as the prop faces the rear and pushes the aircraft forward rather than the more familiar pull configuration seen in later aircraft design in which the engine and prop face forward. This is one of the early aircraft to use ailerons to control the turning of the craft. The Wright brothers first designs which were copied by almost everyone else used a technique called wing warping which actually used cables to change to angle of the wing in the direction you wanted to turn. Although this approach worked it took a very skilled pilot to maintain level flight in a turn causing many of the early craft to crash or suffer damage striking the ground. In the image below notice the flat section protruding between the top and lower wings.
Aileron detail

This is one of the earliest designs using this form of control and made the craft much easier to control. The Navy was far from impressed with aircraft in general and could see no real need to experiment with the new invention. The Navy was actually drug into the aircraft business very reluctantly and primarily to use them for scouting and observation devices. This stance was held through WWI until Gen. Billy Mitchell demonstrated the bombing of a great battleship. This feat was hard for the brass to accept and Billy was so dedicated to the idea that due to his constant badgering of the brass, he found himself court marshaled and reduced in rank over the affair. He was eventually driven fro the service due to his forcing of the issue. He was of course later proven right during WWII and since as the aircraft carrier and naval airpower came into it's own with the carrier becoming the linch pin of sea and military power. Today the U. S. Navy has no battleships at sea or in commission but relies on the carrier and it's aircraft to protect and defend.

A Line of Stinson Reliants

 Above is a picture of a line of excellent examples of the 1930's era of Stinson aircraft. These are some of the most beautiful aircraft of that classic era. You can see the streamline look so popular during those years. The lines are very similar to the Streamliner Railroad engines that were produced at the time. I think they are beautiful aircraft and the owners of these aircraft have lovingly restored these examples to perfection. These pilots fly their privately owned planes into the fly in and set up tents camping beside the planes. They are all very friendly and are all anxious to talk about their prized possessions. The interior of the planes are as beautiful as the outside. The Oshkosh EAA holds a judging and awards trophies in various categories culminating with a "Grand Champion" which is then invited back to be displayed along the flight line with signs designating them as "Past Grand Champion." It is amazing to see so many of these planes still flying and being lovingly maintained by their owners. The area cover several acres covered in classic aircraft with tents sprinkled among them. Some merely cover a wing with a tarp tied to the ground and camp under this.
Staggerwing Beech

Shown here is a Staggerwing Beech aircraft produced in the early 1930's. Walter Beech and a designer friend Ted Wells had the foolhardy idea of producing a fast "executive" type aircraft at the height of the Great Depression. The Staggerwing came out of their collaboration and the Beechcraft Aircraft Company was born. It was very slow going selling only 13 aircraft in 1933 the first year of production. Gradually sales picked up and the Staggerwing became the standard for passenger aircraft at the time. They were very luxurious and were seen as a true status symbol of the day as the Gulfstream is today for the top executives. Some of these aircraft were even pressed into service as bombers during the Spanish Civil War of the "30's. They were equipped with large radial engines and even entered into the popular air races of the time until protests from other entrants over safety concerns eliminated them form competition. The models we saw were cared for and restored to the same degree as the other classics of the day.

The picture at the top of this post is of a Waco 17 produced in the early 30's. At first glance it may seem to look like the Staggerwing Beech but notice the lower wing of this biplane is set to the rear of the top wing while the Stagger wing has the lower wing forward of the top wing. The Waco name is not taken from the Texas city but named for Waco Field in Ohio. It is pronounced Wah-co and is mispronounced by many to the irritation of the owners of these planes. They were a very rugged aircraft and were used for everything from polar exploration to airmail services in their day. I tried to get a good picture of the instrument panel of this plane but unfortunately did not get good results. the instruments were set into a hand rubbed wood panel that looked like a fine piece of the best furniture you could imagine.This is just an example of the care and attention to detail the owners lavish on these planes. There are still many of these planes flying today even though the company went out of business in the late 40's when the post war boom in aircraft sales did not materialize.

As I said earlier there were literally hundreds of these classic and vintage aircraft on display filling many acres of parking. This was a fascinating area for me and I returned a couple of times to just stroll among them in awe and admiration. I wonder what Wilbur and Orville Wright and all those other early pioneers would think if they could walk this field today with me. Did they ever imagine that man would conquer the sky and space based on the ideas and dreams they made come true. Man has dreamed of flying ever since he first saw birds moving through the air and now using their ideas we can fly around the world nonstop and fly faster than sound can travel. Put hundreds of people into a single aircraft and move them from any spot on earth to another in a matter of hours. Most of us take the idea of flying so casually today but I am still amazed by it. I hope by reading these posts you too will catch some of the excitement of flight.

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