The air museum’s Spad has wings

We stopped by the VAFM on Saturday and saw they have the wings on their Spad now.  It made me think of a violin.  Both violins and vintage aircraft are made with wood carefully carved into a specific shape, and wire that has to be balanced in a certain range of tautness.  Both need to have resonance in certain areas to fulfill their functions.  But most of all, it’s the craftsmanship, and the passion of those craftsmen, that’s striking.  They care about history and they care deeply about flying.  There are violin makers all over the world, but not very many places where you can go to see how aircraft were built a hundred years ago.

There are some good pictures on the VAFM’s Facebook site.

The VAFM is having a fly-in in late May; maybe what they’ve got done on the Spad will be on display then.  I know they’ll have some pilots there who are nationally known for flying vintage aircraft; any one of them would be fascinating to talk to.

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To shoot a balloon

Here is another Rickenbacker quote, which answers well a question of mine: why did observation balloons count in aces’ scores?  You would think for an airplane to shoot down a balloon would be about as easy and about as daring as for a tank to run over a sapling.  But not so.  Rickenbacker expains some details of air war in general and WWI air warfare in particular that change the whole picture.

People unfamiliar with air combat in World War I may understandably tend to minimize the hazards involved in shooting down observation balloons.  Hit one with an incendiary, and poof! It’s all over.  But give me an airplane as an adversary any day.

Balloons were important in World War I.  From an altitude of two thousand feet on a clear day an observer with a telescope, comfortable in his wicker basket slung from the balloon, could see many miles into the enemy’s rear.  He was connected with the ground by telephone, and within seconds after he had made an observation the news was on the way to headquarters.  The airplane observer, on the other hand, had to fly back to his field and land in order to report.

Balloons came complete with crews and trucks.  They were anchored by steel cables played out on winches.  They were usually let up in the morning and hauled down at night.  The observers rode with them.

Balloons were ringed with antiaircraft batteries.  It is true that pilots played down the effectiveness of antiaircraft.  I knew of only one man brought down by Archie [anti-aircraft fire], and that was a freak and tragic accident….we had little respect for antiaircraft – unless it was protecting a balloon.

For in that case, there was no guesswork about the proper altitude for which to time the fuses.  If the balloon was two thousand feet up, then any aircraft attacking it must also be at or near the same altitude.  When we came in to attack a balloon, therefore, we flew through a curtain of shells exploding at our precise altitude.  We had to fly at that altitude for several seconds, for it took a long burst to ignite the gas – often it would not ignite at all.  After the attack it was necessary to fly out through the wall of Archie on the other side.

Finally, balloons were of such military importance that, frequently, flights of Fokkers would be hovering above them, hiding up there in the sun.  Again, the fixed altitude of the attack added to the hazard.  They always had the advantage over us.

- Edward V. Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), 152-154

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Stratofortress! B-52 t-shirt design for Wings Over the Rockies

Okay, it’s official; Denver’s Wings Over the Rockies museum is ordering t-shirts in Ewan’s B-52 design for their Gateway to Flight Grand Opening.
Here’s the design for the back of the t-shirt.

B-52 in banked turn on t-shirt

A B-52 banks deeply across the back of this t-shirt

If you haven’t seen the museum – recently – its new entrance looks like an observation tower overlooking the B-52 static display that welcomes visitors to the museum.  (“It is flying right over us!” – in the words of a 3-year-old we know.)

The front of the t-shirt has the museum logo with the new observation tower overlooking it.

I’m still planning on getting a new page up on the website to show this and several other similar designs he’s come up with.  I think I will be able to put that page up within the next week.

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Eddie Rickenbacker and the Ivy Leagues

I used to think the Air Force would be very excited about Detachment 520 at Cornell University, it being the only AFROTC unit directly attached to an Ivy League school.  I figured officers were college graduates, the Ivy League means top US colleges, so Ivy League-educated officers would be the top officers.  But somehow this didn’t seem to be what the Air Force thought.

Here’s my theory why they’re, on average, not the ideal officers.  (Obviously the Air Force can’t say this in so many words, even if it’s true.  There would be even more jokes about “military intelligence”.)

There are some jobs (besides the military, police and firemen come to mind) where decisiveness is actually more important than intelligence, because even the right decision will be wrong if it comes too late.  So you actually don’t want an intellectual taking the time to consider all sides of the question – unless he can do that instantaneously.  Decisiveness is vital; intelligence is just a bonus.  And decisiveness you can find at other colleges that cost a lot less in cadet scholarships.

Eddie Rickenbacker wasn’t so hard on the Ivy League pilots he knew (presumably many if not most of these were Cornellians since 2% of US officers in WWI were from Cornell).  Even in today’s Air Force, preventing FOD (foreign object damage) is everybody’s job.  Rickenbacker was just making sure they realized that….

The new group had reason to object to me personally.  Its members were all young men of good family, recruited from Ivy League universities.  Faultlessly attired in shiny Sam Browne belts, handmade boots and tailor-made uniforms, they came in expecting to find a flying school in full operation.  Instead they found a mudhole and a tough Swiss-German engineer with a grammar-school education and the grubbiest of chores for them to perform.  They made sarcastic remarks both behind my back and to my face, and I admit that I had some desire to get even.

The muddy field was strewn with rocks, which would fly up and break the wooden propellers.  I was running out of props.  One day I requisitioned a hundred buckets, put them in the hands of a hundred Ivy Leaguers and sent them out in the mud to pick up rocks.  The groaning and moaning that day were music to my ears.  But, though there was some antagonism between us, I must say that they were a fine bunch of kids, and many of them became excellent flyers.

- Edward V. Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), 112

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Update on the new line of aircraft t-shirt designs

We’ve been dealing with flu this week, but when he’s managed to crawl out of bed, Ewan has been talking to a local museum about t-shirts with a B-52 design (details on the t-shirts to come when everyone is well enough to finalize things).  The current design is a line drawing of a B-52 in a banked turn.  As Ewan points out, when you get an aircraft that big and long-armed, anything beyond the shallowest of turns is impressive.  I really like the design (not that I’m biased…) but I think my favorite is what he’s doing with the F-22.  Or maybe the Enola Gay; it’s a very impressive mushroom cloud.  (As the museum shop in Los Alamos put it, when people visit Los Alamos, they just want to buy things with mushroom clouds on them.)

I hope to add a new page to the website within the next couple weeks with some of Ewan’s new line of t-shirt designs.  To begin with, we can probably only offer them in quantity, but if you really like one of the designs and really want a t-shirt but not 36 of them, contact Ewan and he may be able to do something for you.

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World War One history lesson in a Nieuport airplane

Cockpit of replica Nieuport

Checking out the Nieuport instruments

The VAFM also has acquired a Nieuport replica. This one they aren’t planning to fly; they’re modifying it for kids to play in.  Mainly by removing breakable things and turning the rear seat around to make a tail gunner position.  As you can see, even unmodified, the hard part is convincing a small boy to get out of it.

The Nieuport cockpit

Pulling back on the throttle

Smiling face in the Nieuport

The fun of WWI history lessons

Here is another Rickenbacker quote, about the Nieuport’s place in WWI:

At first planes were unarmed, but it was not long before airmen began trying to knock one another out of the skies.

Planes on both sides developed rapidly.  No matter what innovation one side might develop, the other was quick to find out about it, copy it and incorporate it in a new design.  In most cases these secrets were learned from planes that had been shot or forced down behind the lines.

A Frenchman named Roland Garros introduced aerial combat as we knew it.  He mounted a machine gun directly in front of him, so that aiming the plane aimed the gun.  To prevent the bullets from shooting away the wooden propeller, he screwed metal plates on the blades.  He was a terror on his first forays over the lines.  It must have been like shooting fish in a barrel.  He became the world’s first ace.  But his engine conked out over German territory, and the secret was out.  The great Dutch plane designer, Anthony Fokker, improved on Garros’s principle by synchronizing the gun with the propeller, so that the bullets would fire through it.  The Germans made several easy kills until the Allies caught up.  The first equalizer was the 15-meter Nieuport, which had a machine gun mounted on the top wing so that it would fire over the propeller.

The Germans countered with the Albatros, in which Von Richthofen scored the majority of his victories.  Fokker’s DR-1, a triplane, was next.  Hermann Goering flew a triplane, and Von Richthofen was shot down in one while trying for his 81st victim.  The D-7, maneuverable, speedy, and tough, came out in mid-1918.

- Edward V. Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), 138

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Replica aircraft that fly: the Spad XIII

Ewan visited the VAFM today, and discovered their aircraft building and maintenance team hard at work replicating a Spad XII.  They started in 2006 with a welded steel-tube frame (the original was made of wood).  They have to make some minor concessions to modern technology – like brakes – to be able to fly their replicas from modern airports.  But it’ll look pretty much like the real thing when they’re done.

So what were Spads?  From somebody who ought to know – Eddie Rickenbacker:

I hurried to the field.  There they were, three beauties.  [The Spads.]  They were more impressive by far than any other airplane, any other automobile, any other piece of equipment I had ever seen.  This new Spad would mean the difference between life and death.  With it, a little luck and continuing aid from above, perhaps I could attain fame in the skies and join the great aces of the war – Lufbery, Rene Fonck; Billy Bishop, the Canadian, even the great Red Baron himself, Manfred von Richthofen.  Well, at least I could dream.

The Spad was the ultimate aircraft of the war in which aviation was developed….

The British produced several excellent planes, among them the SE-5 and the Sopwith Camel, but I had no personal experience with them.  The best ship I flew in was the Spad, built by the Societe pour Aviation et ses Derives, whence it took its name.  The final Spad could do 130 miles an hour, climb to 22,000 feet and stay together no matter what maneuvers you put it through.

- Edward V. Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), 137, 138

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P-51 Mustang according to Eddie Rickenbacker

I think today is a good day for Eddie Rickenbacker’s statement about the P-51.  Ewan did a t-shirt of the P-51 some time ago, and on the back he had the kill record of a P-51 pilot, Major Foy.  He could have done Chuck Yeager, or many other famous P-51 pilots, but wanted to honor someone who was not a celebrity either before or after the war.  Major Foy was a “citizen soldier” who did his job, very well, then went home to live a quiet life, knowing he had answered the call of duty.

Another plane I saw impressed me even more.  It was an English plane, but it was no Spitfire or Hurricane.  It had been made in the United States.  Through my friendship with E. H. “Dutch” Kindelberger of North American Aviation, with which I had been connected when it was known as the Fokker Aircraft Company, I had heard the story of this mystery plane some time before.  North American had been making training planes for the British who were well pleased with their performance.  In 1940 the RAF asked Kindelberger to build them a pursuit ship similar to the P-40, and he proceeded to do just that.  He told me that it was the best plane in the sky.

In England I saw it and talked with pilots who had flown it.  They agreed with its maker.  I had never heard such enthusiasm for an airplane.  I looked at it, and it was beautiful.  Its clean lines promised the performance that men who had flown it told me it was capable of.  Even equipped with an Allison 1,450-horsepower engine, compared to the Focke-Wulf’s 1,700 horsepower, it outperformed the German plane.

It was the P-51, the Mustang.  Had it gone through the regular channels and been subjected to the standard tests at our experimental station at Wright Field, it never would have gotten through the red tape.  After it was in production, thanks to the English orders, the Air Corps bought a few.  But we did not know what we had.

But after seeing it and discussing it with men who had flown it, I was positive that it was the best fighter plane in the sky.

And it could be even better.  The Rolls-Royce people in England had produced the Merlin engine capable of 1,600 horsepower.  What a combination!  At that time the ship was being sent over with the 1,450-horsepower engine.  I recommended that only the frame be shipped and that the Merlin be installed in England, which was done.

I do not believe that any plane in history has had a more loyal and enthusiastic group of rooters than the Mustang had.  On my return to the United States, incidentally, I visited the Allison factory to persuade them to step up their 1,450-horsepower engine.  The Allison engineers did step it up to 1,750 horsepower, with no increase in weight, which was a remarkable achievement.  It was that combination – P-51 plus the Allison 1,750-horsepower engine – that made the Mustang the ruler of the skies until the jet fighters took over.

- Edward V. Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), 332-333

See, I told you Rickenbacker either witnessed, or made, a large part of aviation history.

Also see this post for an interesting detail about the P-51.

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Art for aircraft’s sake

Ewan’s art is not about aces.  This blog does talk about aces a lot, because if you are an ace, you have name recognition, and if you have name recognition, people want to hear your stories, so there are a lot more pilot stories out there than mechanic stories.  In print anyway.  If you want to hear maintenance stories, you can always go to a ready room and ask what was the stupidest aircraft write-up they’ve ever seen.

Ewan likes knowing about the men who flew the aircraft he draws, and occasionally he puts the pilot’s face in the cockpit (as with his prints that show Manfred von Richthofen and Jimmy Doolittle).  But it is the character of the airplane itself that he is portraying.  It’s art not only for the pilot but also for the maintenance man, the engineer, and the 10-year-old who just loves airplanes.  Beyond all that, he hopes to have some of the character of the aircraft designer show through.  Maybe I should write about Anthony Fokker, Dick Frost, and Bob Stanley soon.

Speaking of airplanes, we were talking about whether “aircraft” or “airplane” is a better keyword.  It seems to be an insider/outsider thing, though not as pronounced as the Navy reaction to calling it a “boat” instead of a “ship”.  To normal people, they are airplanes.  To those people whom normal people call airplane nuts, they are aircraft.  To someone like me, it depends who I’m talking to (much like when I’m in Colorado I say “llama” as “lama” but if I’m in New Mexico I say it as “yama”.)

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Germany’s open secret

The US must have really not wanted to get into WWII.  As I recall, Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, and Eddie Rickenbacker (as a guest of Ernst Udet) all got to tour the German air force build-up before WWII, and warned the US government what was going on.  And obviously all three were mostly ignored.  Of course, Doolittle hadn’t had his most famous mission yet, and Lindbergh and Rickenbacker, though on opposite ends of the political spectrum from what I read, were both on bad terms with FDR.  And Rickenbacker was rumored in WWI to be a German spy (he seems to have put the rumor to rest when he became the American top ace….)  Still, it seems when you get an enemy telling airmen of this stature exactly what’s happening, somebody should pay attention.

Even though little was done about it, I have often wondered why the Germans would be so open.  Rickenbacker’s autobiography has an interesting answer.

Knowing the German mentality, I did not find it at all strange that they were telling me, an American, their plans to lick the world.  First, they did not really consider the United States basically an enemy, as they did England and France.  Second, whether I was friend or foe, I had a reputation as a combat pilot, and they had a compulsion to awe me with their Teutonic might.

- Edward V. Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), 298

I am tempted to go on with the quote – for another 495 pages.  Rickenbacker’s book is extremely readable, and fascinating in how much history of aviation he was eyewitness to, besides his own stories as an ace and as a survivor of an aircraft crash and being at sea for 24 days.

There is the story of how commercial aviation prepared the way for and supported military aviation in WWII, the military transport command came to be, and how the boring-but-vital supply system for aircraft was developed.  Interesting essays on hard work, the difference in the spirit of the militaries in WWI and WWII, and the way Russians talk.  There are all kinds of openings for alternative-history novels; what if more race-car drivers had become pilots, what if commercial aviation had developed around different routes, what if different cities awoke first to the need to build an airport.  And what if Rickenbacker had died, any of the many times he came close to it.

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