27 April 2015

The Mitsubishi J8M Shusui: The Tragic History of the Japanese Komet Fighter

In the fall of 1943, the Japanese military liaisons in Germany were given a demonstration of the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket fighter. They sent back enthusiastic reports on the potential of the Me 163 in defending against the predicted USAAF strategic bombing offensive that would start the following year. Despite their reports and the enthusiasm of some in the Japanese military of what the Komet might offer in the defense of the Home Islands, most of the Japanese military command had reservations about putting the Komet into service as the Japanese industry would have to master the production of large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine. Synthesizing the two rocket fuels used by the Komet would require a significant amount of electrical power. Others in the military command questioned whether the Komet's short endurance was a liability, particularly as a point-defense fighter it would have reach up to higher altitudes to attack the B-29 Superfortress than the altitudes over Europe where the Komet's main prey were unpressurized B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. Despite legitimate questions about the practicality of the Komet, negotiations for license production in Japan of the Me 163 proceeded which included not just the Komet airframe but also the Walter HWK 509A bi-fuel rocket motor. By 1 March 1944, the approval was reached and the Germans would supply Japan with complete blueprints and manufacturing data for the Me 163B variant as well as one complete airframe, two sets of sub-assemblies, and three complete rocket motors. A Japanese joint-service mission with Army and Navy representatives would also be sent to Germany to observe not just the manufacture of the Komet but also learn the procedures for operational use. As it was, events in Europe would keep the joint-service mission from arriving, but two Imperial Japanese Navy submarines were used to bring the cargo back home to Japan as a measure of redundancy in case one submarine was lost on the return voyage. The first submarine to depart was the former U-1224 which was handed over to the Japanese in February 1944 and named "Satsuki". The second submarine was I-29 "Matsu". 

The Mitsubishi J8M1 Shusui. This one was brought to the US after the war.
The Satsuki was sunk in the Atlantic by the destroyer escort USS Francis Robinson which was operating as part of the escort carrier USS Bogue's hunter-killer group. The Matsu, however, was able to reach Singapore on 14 July 1944 and its cargo was quickly flown to Tokyo for analysis. The staff of the 1st Naval Air Technical Arsenal met regularly at the naval base of Yokosuka to discuss whether to launch production of a Japanese Komet. The Battle of the Philippine Sea (the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot") had just taken place which had all but eliminated Japan's carrier fleet. With the imminent capture of the Marianas, it was only a matter of time before B-29 bases within easy reach of the Home Islands became operational. Despite the decline in Japan's war fortunes that summer, many in the daily discussions were wary of committing Japan's industrial resources to so radical a weapon. The balance was tipped in favor of production when the commander of the Yokosuka arsenal decided in favor of the aircraft, stating something to the effect that desperate times would call for desperate measures. 

Mitsubishi had been assigned the task of building the Komet as the J8M, but they refused to proceed with so much discord within the Japanese military command on the practicality of the aircraft. On 27 July 1944, a joint Army-Navy commission formally ordered the aircraft from Mitsubishi as the J8M Shusui ("Sword Stroke"). This is significant for Mitsubishi as the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Imperial Japanese Army took inter-service rivalry to new degrees that made the US armed services rivalry look like a minor disagreement. For both the IJN and IJA to jointly pursue a single design was nearly unprecedented and sent a message to Mitsubishi that they were serious about wanting a Japanese Komet. The Navy designation was J8M and the Army designation would be Ki-200 (though J8M is the more commonly referred to designation for the Shusui). From that point, the program took on a more serious effort and urgency. The cockpit mockup was reviewed on 8 September 1944 and the full scale mockup of the Shusui was reviewed 18 days later. A joint Army-Navy production schedule was drawn up with 155 aircraft to be delivered by March 1945, 1,300 by the following September and no fewer than 3,600 delivered by March 1946. Because of the loss of one of the submarine and the fact that joint-service commission never made it Germany to observe production, the Mitsubishi team had to make some educated guesses during the design process in preparing the Shusui for production. In addition, some of the basic equipment like batteries and radios were sized and weighed differently in Japan compared to German equipment, and this in turn affected not just airframe structure but also weight and balance of the aircraft. 

Pilot (possibly Cdr Inuzuka) in front of the Akikusa trainer.
In addition, the Shusui would have been the first tailless aircraft to be flown in Japan, so it was decided that the Yokosuka arsenal would build training gliders that were essentially unpowered Shusui aircraft. These gliders were designated MXY8 Akikusa ("Autumn Grass") and the first Akikusa glider was flown on 8 December 1944. The second Akikusa glider built was delivered to the Army for their own flight testing. On 1 December, the first structurally complete Shusui was reviewed and approved by both the Army and Navy. However, misfortune struck the program when an earthquake damaged Mitsubishi's plant in Nagoya and then a few days later the area was struck by B-29 Superfortresses. Despite the setbacks, Commander Toyohiko Inuzuka, who flew the first Akikusa gliders, made the first unpowered flight of the J8M Shusui on 8 January 1945. Other pre-production aircraft were test fitted with rocket motors while the unpowered Shusui flight test program continued. 

Mitsubishi was also responsible for getting the rocket motor which was designated Toku Ro.2 into production, but on the day of the first bench test of the motor, B-29s attacked the plant. Numerous technical problems mounted in the motor development as the Japanese had to substitute some materials for others in the design which would later turn out to be unsuitable for a production motor. By April 1945, the Shusui aircraft were ready but the rocket motor program was already 3 months behind schedule. It was decided if the Toku Ro.2 could run for just two minutes, they'd attempt the Shusui's first powered flight on 22 April, but the engine exploded during a ground test. B-29 attacks exerted their toll on the program with the engineering groups having to move to new facilities periodically. Eventually two groups were set up, each tasked with getting the Toko Ro.2 running. By June, one group had their motor on the bench running four minutes and the other group had their motor bench tested to three minutes. It was decided that these bench tested motors would be used for the Shusui's first flight. Ground runs continued to reveal problems with the motor and it wasn't until 5 July 1945 that they were ready for the first powered flight. 

Preparing for the J8M1's maiden flight or a ground test run.
On 7 July 1945, Toyohiko Inuzuka started up the motor for the first Shusui powered flight. After an 11-second takeoff run, the Shusui became airborne and jettisoned its takeoff dolly as planned. At 1,150 feet, Inuzuka began to have engine problems as the motor began to sputter and then quit. He was able to reach 1,640 feet, where he leveled off and turned for the glide back to Yokuku Airfield. Releasing his remaining fuel via emergency release valves, he realized he had made too many S-turns and was going to come short of the airfield. Aware he was about to hit a house on the airfield perimeter, Inuzuka deliberately stalled the Shusui by abruptly pulling the nose up. The aircraft cartwheeled and missed the house, but it was destroyed and Inuzuka would die a few days later from his injuries. Analysis showed that he suffered fuel starvation during his climb- the acceleration and his angle of climb caused the fuel to slosh back and recede from the tank outlet. A few days later, two other motors that were being bench tested for the flight test program exploded. This left only one complete rocket motor that had been tested and this one was in the possession of the Army for the installation in their Shusui prototype. As the Army and Navy struggled to get the program back on track, Hiroshima was bombed on 6 August and three days later on 9 August Nagasaki was bombed. Six days later, Japan unconditionally surrendered. 

The IJAAF's Ki-202 Shusui-Kai
On the day of surrender, there were four finished J8M Shusui airframes and six more nearing completion on the assembly line. Four production Toku Ro.2 motors had been finished and were ready for testing with two nearing completion with components for another 20 motors ready. On the day of the surrender, the Navy was looking at a powered version of the MXY8 Akikusa training glider to allow longer sorties as well as to incorporate water ballast to better simulate a fully fueled Shusui. While both services were committed to producing a common aircraft, the Navy was already working on the J8M2 Shusui-Kai which deleted one wing cannon for an extra fuel tank to give it more endurance. Even more ambitious, the Army was working on their own Shusui-Kai variant designated Ki-202 which was a substantial redesign of the Me 163B that was longer with more endurance. The Army had planned to use the Ki-200 (J8M) as an interim type until they could put the Ki-202 in service starting in 1946. 

From a model kit- the ones one the right are "what if" in service schemes
Three J8M Shusui aircraft survived the war. Two of them were captured by US occupation forces and shipped to the United States. One was on display at NAS Glenview in Illinois but was scrapped on site in 1946. The other one is on display today at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California. The third airframe was discovered in a cave in the 1960s in poor shape. It was on display for a while at Gifu AB where the JASDF's Air Development and Test Command is based. In 1999, Mitsubishi restored it and has it on display at their museum at their Komaki plant. While the story of the J8M is short and full of tragedy, when you consider that between the time the I-29 "Matsu" docked in Singapore with its precious cargo and the Japanese surrender, one year, one month, and one day elapsed. In that time despite the strain on Japanese industry by the B-29 attacks, they were able to get one aircraft to fly once, even though it did end badly. In his 1976 Air International article on the Shusui, author Yoshio Imagawa observed that "of Japanese national character that fanaticism and fatalism are innate ingredients." Given the growing desperation of the Japanese military in 1945, having their own version of the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet seems almost pre-ordained. 

Source: "Japan's Final Sword Stroke...The Story of Shusui" by Yoshio Imagawa. Air International, Volume 10, Number 6. June 1976, pp 283-288. Images: Wikipedia, Koku-Fan, Japanese aviation forums. 

22 April 2015

Texas International's Peanuts Fares and the Rise of Frank Lorenzo

Houston-based Texas International Airlines began in 1944 as Aviation Enterprises and in 1947 with a fleet of surplus Douglas DC-3s, renamed itself Trans-Texas Airways. As Trans-Texas grew as a local service carrier (what we would today call a regional airline only without the affiliation to a major airline like today), Trans-Texas expanded services beyond the state as it added Convair 240 piston twins. The Convairs were later re-engined with Rolls Royce Dart turboprops to become Convair 600s. By the start of the Sixties, the airline flew as far west as Albuquerque and El Paso and Memphis, Jackson, and New Orleans in the east. To maintain its competitive edge with the other Texas-based airline of the day, Braniff International, Trans-Texas added the Douglas DC-9 Series 10 to its fleet starting in 1967. Route expansion continued steadily and with the addition of a small handful of destinations in northern Mexico, the airline re-branded as Texas International in 1970, later unveiling a patriotic Lone Star livery in 1973 prior to the opening of the new DFW Airport. Unfortunately, Texas International's upgrades to jet equipment had saddled the airline with quite a bit of debt, not unlike what had happened to Mohawk Airlines just a few years earlier. Through the 1960s, Texas International and its larger rival Dallas-based Braniff International had more or less comfortably existed in a duopoly in the Texas airline market. That secure operating climate was upended in 1971 with the arrival of Southwest Airlines. Texas International had joined Braniff in the legal battle to quash the nascent upstart and lost, putting Texas International in the new position of having to compete to a degree it had not had to in its history. Combined with its mounting debts from the expansion in the 1960s and the upgrade to a jet fleet, the Houston-based operation was in need of help. 

N94205 TTA Trans-Texas Airways
Trans-Texas Airways (TTa) Convair 600 at Dallas Love Field

I had posted previously how in a similar financial situation, New York-based Mohawk Airlines had turned to the services of a small consulting firm called Jet Capital that was headed by a young and quite brash individual named Frank Lorenzo. Lorenzo and his primary business partner, Bob Carney, a fellow Harvard Business School classmate, had become a bit of an upstart darling on Wall Street for their financial wizardry in creating Jet Capital. In their stock offering, Lorenzo and Carney sold shares to the public at 10 cents each, but before the IPO for Jet Capital, they sold shares to friends at $3.50 each but more importantly, they sold shares to each other for 12 cents each. Investing only $44,000 of their money, the Jet Capital IPO netted them $1.5 million yet they controlled 75% of Jet Capital's shares. It was that seed money that Lorenzo used in his failed bid to takeover Mohawk Airlines. At the time of his Mohawk venture, Lorenzo had made friends with Don Burr, a mutual fund manager that had made a name for himself on Wall Street with some very astute aviation stock picks. With his clout as a mutual fund manager that held shares in Texas International, Burr convinced the airline to engage the consulting services of Jet Capital to effect a turnaround. Lorenzo arranged to have the airline's debt refinanced with Burr offering the injection of $5 million from his mutual fund. The result, of course, like their proposed Mohawk deal, was to take control of the airline, and like the Mohawk board several years earlier, the Texas International board was suspicious of Lorenzo and they might have scrapped the deal had it not been for two individuals that entered the ring to try to acquire Texas International themselves- Howard Hughes and Herb Kelleher. 

Ever since Hughes relinquished control of TWA in the late 1960s, he had been craving to get back into the airline business and got that chance with his acquisition of the local service carrier AirWest in 1970, immediately rebranding the airline has Hughes Airwest. But Hughes wanted something on the scope of TWA and his new airline only gave him the West Coast. Acquiring Texas International would get him 2/3 of the way across the country on his goal of recreating a transcontinental airline. For Herb Kelleher, getting Texas International would not only knock out a competitor who only recently tried to put Southwest out of business through legal action, it would also give Southwest the operating certificate of Texas International which permitted flights beyond the states of Texas, something Southwest wasn't able to do at the time. Faced with someone known to be eccentric and someone who they felt was bent on revenge for their failed bid to quash Southwest, the Texas International board sold the airline to Lorenzo in 1972. Like his structuring of Jet Capital, even though he controlled only 24% of the shares in Texas International, Lorenzo structured the deal to give him majority voting control of the airline. At only 32 years of age, Frank Lorenzo became the youngest airline chief since Juan Trippe at Pan Am. And he did it by defeating Herb Kelleher *and* Howard Hughes. Who wouldn't be on top of the world in those shoes?

Frank Lorenzo at the time he took control of Texas International
Don Burr left Wall Street in 1973 to work with Lorenzo in Houston running Texas International. At the time Southwest was adding its fifth and sixth Boeing 737-200 to its nascent fleet and even though Texas International had routes outside of the state of Texas, it was beginning to lose market share within Texas to Herb Kelleher's operation. It was at Texas International that Lorenzo began to earn his reputation as a union-buster- in order to better compete against Southwest, Lorenzo began making deep cuts in labor costs that sowed discord among the employees at Texas International. With labor contracts up for negotiation, the atmosphere became contentious at Texas International. In a pattern that set Lorenzo's pattern for negotiations with both unions and investors, he would often add or change at the last minute agreed-upon terms for the contract. This angered the unions at Texas International and they struck, the very first strike in the history of the small airline. The airline was grounded for four months, but back then in the days before deregulation, there was a mutual aid pact in place where other airlines gave financial support to airlines that were grounded by labor actions. As a result (and much to the other airline's chagrin who felt Lorenzo could have prevented the strike), Texas International got millions under the pact and the strike eventually ended. 

N3508T Texas International Airlines
Texas International Douglas DC-9 Series 30, the airline's largest aircraft

Having got his labor concessions the way he wanted, Lorenzo could now turn his attention to competing with Southwest. At the time, Southwest operated within the "Texas Triangle" of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, the state's three largest cities. Kelleher had engaged the services of a seasoned airline executive, Lamar Muse, to guide Southwest's growth. Muse picked the agricultural town of Harlingen in the Rio Grande Valley as Southwest's next destination. The city was ripe for the picking- being at least a seven hour drive from the nearest large city, Harlingen was dependent upon air services from Texas International and the four month strike at the airline had hurt the city economically. Muse had also astutely noted that Harlingen was a short drive from South Padre Island which was at the cusp of starting its tourist boom as a Gulf Coast beach destination. While Texas International would have charged a one way fare of $40 for Harlingen, Southwest charged only $25 and traffic soon boomed with thousands of passengers filling Southwest flights whereas the year prior, Texas International would have only had a few hundred a month. Before long, residents from northern Mexico were crossing the border to also take Southwest flights. Texas International tried various approaches, but it was painfully clear to Lorenzo that he wasn't able to compete head-to-head with Southwest. 

In the days before deregulation, airline fares were set by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in Washington. Any airline that operated beyond a single state was an interstate carrier and would fall under CAB regulation as was the case with Texas International. Southwest, however, only operated in Texas and therefore was free to set its fares whatever it wished as long as the state authorities in Austin had no objections, which was rarely the case. In November 1976, Lorenzo petitioned the CAB to be allowed to cut its fares- and not just to match Southwest, but to undercut Southwest with a 50% discount- what Lorenzo called "Peanuts Fares" since you could "fly for peanuts". For years airlines had been allowed to implement fare discounts by the CAB, but these were usually for charter flights, holiday flights and red-eye flights and were rarely ever long-term and only applied to a few flights. What Lorenzo was petitioning the CAB to be allowed to do was unprecedented in the airline industry- he was asking for individual authority to set his own ticket prices across the board based on market conditions. This had never been done in forty years, but there were already deregulation forces at work in Washington on the heels of Jimmy Carter's election to the White House. The CAB approved Lorenzo's petition and the Peanuts Fare" were introduced not just to Harlingen, but across Texas International's route system. By the end of the first week, passenger loads on the airline had shot up an astounding 600 percent. 

Peanuts Fares didn't just apply to routes where TI competed with Southwest
Peanuts Fares were a success for the airline and Frank Lorenzo was hailed as a hero by consumer advocate groups. But there was a catch that gnawed at him despite being flush with success at such a young age with such a small airline- the fare experiment suggested strongly that airlines were more than able to manage their own fares without the bureaucracy of the CAB. To the advocates of deregulation, it was ammunition in the battle to eliminate the CAB and deregulate the US airline industry. Just a few years earlier an airline executive could face criminal charges for setting fares without the approval of the CAB, now here was Texas International doing just that and making a huge pile of money in the process and stimulating a boom in passenger traffic. Lorenzo didn't want deregulation, though. Texas International at the time was only the 20th largest airline in the United States. He knew he could be crushed instantly by the Dallas-based giant Braniff International should deregulation happen. Even bigger American Airlines was growing its presence at the new DFW Airport as well, and American had resources and deep pockets that would make Texas International a quick snack in a fully free-market environment. During press interviews at the time, Lorenzo was quick to point out the experimental and temporary nature of the Peanuts Fares. For the time being, the CAB's bureaucracy did shelter him from being crushed by larger airlines for the time being, giving him time to plan his next move. 

But that'll be a blog post for a later date..........

Source: Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos by Thomas Petzinger. Times Business/Random House, 1996, pp 38-50. Grounded: Frank Lorenzo and the Destruction of Eastern Airlines by Aaron Bernstein. Beard Books, 1999, pp 11-15 Photos: Wikipedia, Flickr/Bob Garrard Collection

17 April 2015

The Last Savoia-Marchetti Airliner

Italian aeronautical engineer Alessandro Marchetti
The Italian aircraft manufacturer Savoia had a history dating back to its founding in 1915 by Umberto Savoia and after the end of World War I, it merged with SIAI (Società Idrovolanti Alta Italia), another firm known for its seaplanes. The company became Savoia-Marchetti (sometimes also referred to as SIAI-Marchetti) when the designer Alessandro Marchetti became its chief engineer in 1922 and quickly became famous for his work on the S.55 twin-hull flying boat. Many of Marchetti's designs during the interwar period would set speed and endurance records in flight. Most of what Alessandro Marchetti is best known for, though, was his line of three-engined aircraft that began with the SM.79 Sparviero that first flew in 1934 as a fast eight-passenger transport capable of air racing. With the storm clouds of war fast coming to Europe, the Sparviero became Italy's primary bomber aircraft and one of the few Italian designs produced in significant quantities during the Second World War. The trimotor layout of the Sparviero set the pattern for a whole seriesof aircraft from Savoia-Marchetti, In 1934 the Italian airline Ala Litorria asked Marchetti for a modern long range airliner to which the SM.75 Marsupiale transport resulted. The Marsupiale had its inaugural revenue flights with Ala Littoria in 1938 with the Italian air arm, the Regia Aeronautica, taking interest in the aircraft as a transport. 

With war embroiling Europe in 1941, Marchetti began work on a four-engined derivative of the SM.75 that accommodated 18 passengers on long-range flights. It was a departure from Marchetti's land plane designs which were nearly all trimotors save the obscure SM.74 of which only three were built of this pre-war shoulder-wing airliner. The new aircraft was designated the SM.95 and a prototype and two pre-production examples were built in 1942. In addition, work began on a long-range bomber version designated SM.95B. The original design called for either 14- or 18-cylinder Piaggio radial engines, but wartime availability meant that Marchetti had to settle for a 9-cylinder Alfa Romeo engine producing 780 horsepower. Typical for Marchetti's designs of the period, the SM.95 was of mixed construction with a welded steel tube fuselage with metal alloy skin for the nsoe section and underside and fabric covering for the rest of the fuselage. The wings were plywood-skinned with three wood wing spars. The mixed-material construction likely also made the aircraft much lighter given the fact that lower-powered engines were used instead of what was originally planned. 

The prototype first flew on 8 May 1943 and was immediately impressed into transport service by the Luftwaffe. The fate of the first pre-production aircraft is unknown but is believed to have also been impressed into Luftwaffe service. The second pre-production aircraft was stretched and designed SM.95GA for "Grande Autonomia", featuring increased fuel capacity and revised cockpit instrumentation. Work on the SM.95 was soon hampered by the Italian Armistice in September 1943, but work was completed on the SM.95B bomber prototype with had the wings, engines, and empennage of the transport variant married to a new fuselage that was deepened to allow a bomb bay below the wing spar carry-through structure. A glazed nose accommodated the bombardier with the flight deck moved forward with defensive armament consisting of 12.7mm Breda guns in a turret aft of the flight deck and lateral positions in the aft fuselage and a ventral position forward of the bomb bay. No known photographs of the SM.95B are known to exist though the bomber prototype did fly at least once in 1945. 

Alitalia's SM.95 I-DALL "Marco Polo"
The third SM.95, the SM.95GA, finally made its first flight on 28 July 1945. It and the next aircraft built were put into military service with the Aeronautica Militare. The stretched fuselage of the SM.95GA became the production standard, the nine-foot fuselage stretch allowing for the carriage of 30 passengers in three-abreast seating. The military transports entered operational service starting in May 1946. The new Italian flag airline Alitalia had just been established in September 1946 and orders for six SM.95s were placed. The first two were I-DALJ "Cristoforo Colombo" and I-DALK "Amerigo Vespucci", delivered at the end of 1947 to Alitalia and promptly put into airline service. The production SM.95s had upgraded 9-cylinder Alfa Romeo radials that had increased power output from 780 horsepower on the wartime prototypes to 930 horsepower to accommodate the increased weights of the increased fuel and stretched fuselage. The balance of Alitalia's order, though, was completed with British Bristol Pegasus engines that delivered 1,000 horsepower- these aircraft were I-DALL "Marco Polo", I-DALM, I-DALN "Sebastiano Caboto" and I-DALO "Ugolino Vivaldi". The first two Alitalia SM.95s were subsequently re-engined with the more powerful Bristol Pegasus. It was I-DALN "Sebastiano Caboto" that inaugurated Alitalia's first postwar services to Great Britain on 3 April 1948. 

One of LATI's three SM.95s, I-LATI "San Francesco"
Another Italian airline also ordered the SM.95- Linee Aeree Transcontinentali Italiane (LATI), which had operated air services between Italy and South America prior to the Second World War. LATI had ordered three SM.95s which were all delivered by 1949- I-LAIT "San Antonio", I-LATI "San Francesco" and I-LITA "San Cristoforo". When LATI ceased operations in 1950, their three SM.95s were assumed by Alitalia. Interestingly the only other airline operator of the SM.95 was SAIDE of Egypt, which operated three aircraft to connect Cairo with European capitals. While Alitalia configured its aircraft for 20 passengers, LATI flew shorter routes than Alitalia and configured its aircraft for 26 passengers but SAIDE operated even shorter routes and packed in 38 passengers on their aircraft. Both LATI and SAIDE's aircraft were powered not by the Pegasus radial engine but Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder engines producing 1,200 horsepower. 

Only a total of 12 production SM.95s operated commercial services out of a total of 20 airframes built including the prototypes. The mixed material construction wasn't terribly robust with the rigors of scheduled passenger services and lacking pressurization also limited their usefulness. Compared to the Douglas DC-4 and the Lockheed L-749 Constellation of the time, the SM.95 was an outdated design. The last passenger flights took place in 1950 less than a year after the last production aircraft was completed. 

Interestingly, there was a plan by the Regia Aeronautica called "Operation S" prior to the 1943 armistice that would have used a modified SM.95GA to fly at very long ranges to bomb New York City. Benito Mussolini, however, would only allow the mission to drop propaganda leaflets as he didn't want to alienate the large population of Italian-Americans in the city. The mission was under preparation when the 1943 armistice occurred. 

Source: Air International "Plane Facts" Volume 10 Number 2, February 1976. Photos: Wikipedia, Alitalia, Air International

12 April 2015

The Barrier Patrols: Extending the US Radar Net Out to Sea

The three main continental radar picket lines of  the Cold War
As early as 1946, the US Navy was already examining the possibility of large aircraft equipped with airborne radar as a means of extending the early warning detection times of fleets at sea. American defense planning in the early days of the Cold War assumed that whatever strike capabilities the United States had, the Soviets also had an equivalent. Since intercontinental ballistic missiles had yet to be fielded in significant numbers at the time, long range bombers like the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, its successor the B-50 Superfortress and the massive Convair B-36 Peacemaker formed the main strategic nuclear strike force of the United States. The assumptions of Soviet capabilities were validated with the unveiling of the Soviet reverse-engineered B-29, the Tupolev Tu-4 "Bull". With jet bombers on the drawing boards of US manufacturers, it was assumed that intercontinental jet bombers were also under development in the Soviet Union. Since the predominant Soviet bomber at the time was the Tu-4, its range meant that it would have to come over the North Pole to strike US targets. In November 1950, the United States and Canada agreed to build three lines of radar stations across the northern reaches of North America. The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line formed the northernmost chain of stations that stretched from Alaska across the Canadian Arctic coast. The second line was the Mid-Canada Line that stretched across the northern parts of the Canadian provinces. The third line of radar stations was the Pinetree Line that stretched across the US-Canadian border. Several major defense studies at the time expressed concern that air refueling by the Soviets or use of bases secured in Alaska or Greenland and Iceland would allow Soviet bombers to fly around the three radar lines across Canada since they ended at the coasts. There was no doubt that there would be a need for a sea-based radar picket line in the Pacific and Atlantic, the problem was who was going to fund it and who was going to run it and on this count, the US Navy and the USAF couldn't agree on anything useful. Each service tried to push off the seaborne radar picket on the other- the Navy felt air defense as the USAF's job, so it should fund and run the system, but the USAF felt since it was sea-based, it should be the Navy's responsibility. 

Both services did come around the need to contribute to some sort of sea-based radar picket to extend the three radar lines in Alaska and Canada to prevent Soviet bombers flying around the land-based radars and approaching towards the west and east coast. The Navy's recommendation was for a combination of radar picket ships and airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft maintaining a barrier line in the mid-ocean in both the Atlantic and Pacific called SEADEW (SEAward-extension of the DEW Line). The AEW aircraft would fly racetrack orbits over the line of radar picket ships. When needed, both the picket ships and AEW aircraft could be called upon to support fleet operations. The USAF recommendation was slightly different, with AEW aircraft orbiting preset locations off the coasts and tied in by data-links to the land-based radar net. While similar in principle, the issue came down to funding as well as control. The Navy favored semi-autonomous ships and AEW aircraft that could also be used for fleet operations, offering flexibility. The USAF's Air Defense Command wanted a system that was tied into the existing radar net. Quite obviously, the Navy didn't want to fund and operate a system that was controlled by the USAF and vice versa. 

US Navy WV-2 Warning Star flies over a DER radar picket ship
Feeling that the USAF was dragging its feet and wanting a system operational that was flexible enough to support the fleet when needed, the Navy went ahead and proceeded to get the SEADEW operational during the Korean War. The Navy converted a number of destroyer escorts to destroyer escort radar (DER) vessels along with putting back into service some wartime radar picket destroyers. The Navy also procured the Lockheed WV-2 Warning Star, an AEW aircraft based on the Lockheed Super Constellation. Airborne early warning squadrons were established for the Atlantic and Pacific. The first units were multi-tasked with not just SEADEW missions but also fleet support and weather reconnaissance. VW-1 and VW-3 were assigned to the Pacific Fleet while VW-2 and VW-4 were assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. It was VW-4 that would become well known as the original "Hurricane Hunters" before the mission was transferred to the USAF. In addition to these initial Warning Star squadrons, additional units were stood up devoted primarily to flying the radar barrier patrols- VW-11, VW-13, VW-15 and a training unit were assigned the Atlantic barrier and the VW-12, VW-16, VW-16 and a maintenance unit were assigned to the Pacific barrier. The Pacific Barrier was headquartered at NAS Barbers Point in Hawaii with the barrier line running between Midway Island to the Aleutians in Alaska. The Atlantic Barrier was based at NAS Argentia in Newfoundland and ran from Newfoundland to the Azores. The DER picket ships patrolled those lines as well. Because the Navy's barrier lines were further out, they offered anywhere from 2-4 hours advance warning time of a Soviet bomber attack. 

A USAF RC-121D Warning Star with two F-104 Starfighters
Despite competing with the Navy, the USAF's AEW line complemented the Navy barrier patrols as it was closer to shore and formed a second radar line behind the SEADEW. The USAF also procured the AEW version of the Lockheed Constellation with the designation RC-121C which was based on the L-749 Constellation and the RC-121D which was based on the longer L-1049 Super Constellation. Called the Contiguous Extension, the RC-121 fleet was the USAF's first organized airborne early warning endeavor. On the West Coast, the USAF Contiguous Extension was based out of McClellan AFB near Sacramento and the East Coast operation was headquartered out of Otis AFB on Cape Cod. Since the Navy was first out of the starting blocks and was further ahead in its AEW operation, until sufficient RC-121s arrived, the USAF had to send its personnel to train with the Navy. At Otis AFB, the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing had three squadrons and the 552d AEW&C Wing at McClellan AFB also had three squadrons. In less than two years, the USAF had six squadrons of fifty AEW aircraft and over 5,000 personnel operational! 

The Lockheed WV-2/RC-121s had a combat radius of over 1,000 miles which allowed them to patrol for 16 hours before returning to base. Five officers and thirteen enlisted made up the crews, but the aircraft had the room for up to 31 personnel on longer missions needing an augmented crew. Behind the flight deck were five radar stations. There was no automation or filtering of the radar information- what was seen on the scope was the raw feed and it was up to the skill of the operator to sort through the mess to determine what was significant. Each radar station was manned in just one hour stretches to prevent fatigue and inattention. The radar system and its associated electronics had over 3,000 vacuum tubes and two enlisted in the crew were devoted just to inflight maintenance of the electronics. Most of the electronics were in the aft cabin and generated a tremendous amount of heat- it wasn't unusual for the temperature inside the cabin to hit 100F! Weather rarely scrubbed a mission- the joke was that "If you can taxi, you can fly!" Often times USAF or US Navy crews departed in such atrocious weather that they had to divert to an alternate field on return from patrol. 

The Navy's aircraft did a lot of their data interpretation aloft as they operated on the barrier lines autonomously and would radio any findings by HF. The USAF's aircraft were tied in by datalinks to the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) system used by NORAD and operators ashore would sort through the radar data. Despite this level of automation, USAF RC-121s were staffed with full crews in the event the data links went down as well as have onsite personnel who could interpret radar data without waiting for the SAGE operators ashore. The USAF's RC-121s were later re-designated EC-121s and they flew their patrols around 15,000 feet. The Navy's WV-2s flew their patrols at lower altitudes between 5,000 to 8,000 feet. The strategic imperative of these radar missions was such that spare aircraft and crew were often prepared to be able to depart at a moment's notice should an aircraft en route to its patrol area had technical issues- and those were common given the cantankerous nature of the Constellation's Wright R-3350 engines. While the US Navy did its best to keep its barrier lines fully covered, the USAF settled on randomly patrolling parts of its Contiguous Extension, and more so as the main threat to the United States shifted from bombers to ICBMs. Each coast had nine patrol stations, odd numbered 1 through 9 in the Pacific with 1 near the Aleutians and 9 off the coast of Baja California. In the Atlantic, even numbered patrol stations 2 through 8 in the Atlantic were used. Each patrol station was a 100 mile racetrack orbit. In low tension periods, USAF EC-121s would only operated on one station and the station was randomly decided, the crew finding out which station once they had taken off. During periods of higher tension, more stations would be active. During such periods, all of the USAF stations were operated on both coasts and this meant every four hours an EC-121 departed from McClellan AFB and Otis AFB. 

Despite the maximum effort expended by the US Navy and the USAF, several air defense exercises in the late 1950s showed the barrier patrols weren't as effective as hoped. Electronic failures were the most common cause of a degraded mission with engine problems a distant second. At one point in 1959 the USAF's Air Defense Command had gotten so frustrated with electronic and engine issues with the EC-121 fleet a proposal was floated to transfer the Contiguous Extension operation to the US Navy! Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the USAF wasn't allowed to give its AEW experience. But the strain on men, aircraft, and budgets began to take its toll on both services. In 1960 the US Navy disestablished some Pacific Fleet squadrons, merging them into other units. During the FY1961 budget debate, questions arose as to the wisdom of continued funding of the barrier patrols in light of the shift in Soviet threat from bombers to ICBMs. The USAF and the Navy had other funding priorities and gradually, both the Navy and USAF barrier patrols were wound down. The Atlantic barrier line was pushed further east centered on a Greenland-Iceland-UK axis with the base of patrols at NAS Keflavik in Iceland. On 8 September 1965, the last AEW barrier mission was flown by a Navy EC-121P (in 1962 the Navy and USAF went to a unified designation system) out of Argentia, ending 10 years of barrier patrols over the Atlantic and Pacific by both the USAF and US Navy. 

So was it worth it? That's a tough question. In the 1950s the bomber threat was still the main nuclear threat and certainly there was deterrent value in the barrier patrols as potential adversaries were put on notice the great lengths the US military was taking to insure vigilance. Perhaps more importantly, it gave both the US Navy and USAF practical airborne early warning experience that laid the foundations for modern aircraft like the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye and the Boeing E-3 Sentry. 

Source: AWACS and Hawkeyes: The Complete History of Airborne Early Warning Aircraft by Edwin Leigh Armistead. Motorbooks International, 2002, pp 21-40. Photos: Wikipedia

Flying High This Past Week: 5 April-12 April

A continued thank you to all my readers and visitors with a special shout out to those who have added comments. When I first started this blog in 2009, the articles were really just short paragraphs on some part of aviation history I had come across in my reading that I wanted to share. Those posts were daily- a trip through the archives shows that to be the case- but as my family grew, there was less time to do daily posts, so I shifted over to more detailed articles that were posted every several days which is the current format. I have been considering adding shorter articles that would be on a more frequent basis or as a filler in between the five day interval of my longer articles. I certainly don't think it will be daily, but I'd like to have more frequent additions to the blog that at least dovetail with my current work and family obligations. We'll see, stay tuned for what I come up with. In the meantime, my more in-depth articles will continue to be posted here every five days. Without further ado, here's what's been getting a lot of hits in the past week here at TAILS THROUGH TIME:
  • The Development of the Boeing Flying Boom: Quite obviously the most recent article usually tops our weekly round up and my most recent posting on how Boeing came up with the flying boom for aerial refueling certainly continues that trend. What I found most fascinating out of my reading for that posting was not just Boeing's process for determining the best positioning for aerial refueling, but that at one point Boeing considered for commercial jetliners as well.  
  •  The Early History of the Air Line Pilots Association, ALPA: The previous article to the one on the Boeing flying boom still continues to get plenty of hits! The early history of Northwest Airlines is weaved into the early history of ALPA as the founder of the union, Dave Behncke, was Northwest's first pilot and flew its first passengers in 1927. The early history of ALPA gives us a good look at the state of the airline industry in the 1920s which was just on the cusp of making the leap into greater technologies led off by the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-3. Despite the landmark in aviation history those aircraft were, flying for many professional pilots was still a hazardous profession in the years prior and many airline heads of the day tried to do what they could to stamp out ALPA in its early days. Fortunately a strike at a small airline that ran between St. Louis and Chicago thrust ALPA into the national spotlight and won it friends in high places.
  • Vought's Not-So-Fearsome F6U Pirate: The Pirate was the first of setbacks that put Vought on the ropes as a fighter manufacturer for the US Navy. A series of misfortunes, the significant of which was its weak Westinghouse J34 engine, hit the program and by the time the F6U was ready for service, it was quickly overshadowed by superior aircraft like the McDonnell F2H Banshee and the Grumman F9F Panther. Some believe Vought over-compensated for the failures of the F6U Pirate with its next fighter, the F7U Cutlass. But they most certainly hit it out of the park with their third try that resulted in the F8U Crusader. 
  • The A-6E TRAM: Making the Grumman Intruder More Lethal: The A-6E was the first major design upgrade of the Intruder over the A-6A that was introduced into combat in Vietnam. Many of the advances of the A-6E were in the miniaturization of its electronics and that created an opportunity to utilize the space created to add full all-weather/night attack capability in the form of TRAM- Target Recognition Attack Multi-Sensor.
  • Lockheed's Own L-1000 Jet Engine: Believe it or not in the waning days of the Second World War, Lockheed was developing its own jet engine that, when compared with the current state of the art in jet turbines of the day, was quite advanced. The L-1000 would have had the service designation J37 had it been launched into production in 1947. 
The next article goes up later tonight, it will cover the origins and history of the barrier airborne early warning patrols over the Pacific and Atlantic that extended out the US radar fence from the continental United States to try and provide as much lead time as possible for a Russian bomber attack. Stay tuned! 

07 April 2015

The Development of the Boeing Flying Boom

World War II USAAF tests with B-24 tankers and B-17 receivers
Though the United States had explored using air refueling to extend the reach of strategic bombing missions during the Second World War, nothing operational had come of the work by the time the war ended in 1945. In the immediate post war years, the newly independent United States Air Force and its nuclear deterrent arm, the Strategic Air Command, had both the weapons and the aircraft to carry out nuclear strikes, but what was lacking given the technology and geopolitical climate of the day was overseas bases that would allow SAC's bombers to reach the Soviet Union. As it was, the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses that were the main strike force of SAC lacked the range to hit Soviet targets nonstop from bases in the United States. While the US government placed priority on securing overseas bases for SAC, the USAF made inquiries to the leading experts of air refueling of the day, Flight Refueling Limited in Great Britain. It was Flight Refueling that consulted with the US Army Air Forces during the Second World War and assisted with several trials using B-24 Liberators as tankers and B-17 Flying Fortresses as receivers. Several sets of air refueling equipment were procured from Flight Limited and installed on a very limited basis on several B-29 Superfortresses to get crews trained on the procedure. However, the USAF was dissatisfied with the system as it took time to rendezvous and get into the proper position, change positions, and then transfer fuel. Using Flight Refueling's method, the receiver trailed a hauling line with a weight and hook at the end. The tanker approached from the side and below and deployed a contact line that crossed over the hauling line of the receiver and engaged the hook. The tanker then moved above the receiver, pulling in the hauling line with the contact line. The refueling hose was then attached to the hauling line and it was then pulled down to the receiver which had a refueling receptacle in the tail gunner's position and refueling commenced. The lines and refueling hoses used created tremendous drag that imposed air speed restrictions that may have been acceptable for a piston-engined bomber but wholly impractical for a future jet-powered bomber. 

The USAF contacted Boeing in November 1947 if they would be willing to look at the air-refueling problem within the purview of the company's ongoing research programs. In the following month, the Preliminary Design Group and the Experimental Manufacturing Division at Boeing formally signed a contract with the Air Force to work on improving air refueling. Boeing's first step was to determine what formation can two Superfortresses operate most closely for an extended period of time safely to conduct air refueling. Boeing's engineers figured the refueling solution would be easier the closer the aircraft could fly to each other and not have to do the position changes that the Flight Refueling method entailed. To this end, in May 1948, the USAF ran a series of tests out of Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, using B-29s flown in every possible formation and relationship to each other. Escorting aircraft photographed the formations from every angle and Boeing's team would then analyze the photographs to determine their three-dimensional relationship to each other. For every possible formation, the flight crews involved were also queried on things like workload and visibility in maintaining the formation. As a result of these test flights, it was determined the optimum position that provided a relatively low workload with good visibility was to put the aircraft in trail formation with the trailing aircraft vertically displaced 25 feet and longitudinally displaced 10 feet. This gave the flight crew in the trailing aircraft the best view of the lead aircraft with the closest possible distance. Pilots in the trailing aircraft found that if they flew less than 25 feet vertically displaced below the lead aircraft, they got buffeting from the wake of the lead aircraft which gave the formation an inherent safety feature. 

After determining the most optimal close formation, the next step for the Boeing team was to figure out the best fuel transfer method. Five different refueling systems were explored. The first three systems were probe-and-drogue applications with the tanker trailing a hose with a drogue at the end with the receiver flying a probe into the drogue to make the connection. Though this method is used today by the US Navy and US Marine Corps as well as a large number of air arms like the RAF, the Boeing team felt that the hose movement could be unpredictable in rough air and required too much maneuvering by the trailing aircraft to make hose contact. Such maneuvering might be fine for a smaller tactical aircraft, but Boeing was less than thrilled about the prospect of a large receiver aircraft having to maneuver frequently before contact so close to the tanker. 

The imaginative fourth proposed system involved a gun-turret like assembly on the tanker's forward dorsal fuselage. The tanker would take the trailing position and the turret would deploy a rigid boom up and forward to engage a receptacle on the underside of the tail of the receiver. The boom would be maneuvered like a gun turret by an operator aboard the tanker and when not in use, the boom would slew 180 degrees and stow atop the dorsal fuselage of the tanker. While imaginative, it was soon realized the aerodynamic loads on the boom would be significant. But what if their positions were reversed? What if the tanker lowered the boom aft and down to the receiver who had a receptacle on the top of the fuselage? This way the operator did all the work from the tanker and the receiver flight crew could focus on holding the prescribed position in trail behind the tanker. Flight test personnel with experience with the flight refueling systems of the day were consulted and all agreed that a boom lowered from the lower aft fuselage of the tanker to the top of the fuselage of the receiver would be the most ideal. A rigid boom would allow fuel transfer rates much higher than a hose system and small aerodynamic surfaces would be used on the end of the boom to maneuver it to the receptacle of the receiver- which is how Boeing came to call it the "flying boom". 

B-50 "Lucky Lady II" taking on fuel from a KB-29 hose tanker
While Boeing's engineers in Seattle worked on the flying boom concept, the Air Force's first secretary after its creation, Stuart Symington, had testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 1948 that the latest air refueling systems would allow the new Boeing B-50 Superfortress to reach any part of the Soviet Union, but the reality of it was that all the USAF had were the first Flight Refueling hose units on a handful of B-29s and that the flying boom was still a paper project. Quite literally on the following day, the USAF instructed Boeing's Wichita division to get as many hose units onto KB-29 tankers as possible and get the new B-50s up to speed as receivers with an interim system until the flying boom was operational. The first operational installation was ready in less than 30 days and by the end of 1948. On 26 February 1949, the B-50 Superfortress "Lucky Lady II" took off from Carswell AFB in Fort Worth, Texas, and flew around the world nonstop in 94 hours, taking fuel from hose-equipped KB-29s four times during the record-breaking flight. 

The flying boom equipped KB-29P Superfortress tanker
Despite this very public success, Boeing continued to develop the flying boom and interestingly, had funded the development internally without outside USAF funds. Two dry booms were built for KB-29s as proof of concept. Though not able to transfer fuel (hence the term "dry booms"), the dry booms were actually installed on KB-29s in June 1948, a full seven months before the circumnavigation flight of "Lucky Lady II". Dry receptacles for the purposes of flight test were installed on a B-47 Stratojet and an F-86 Sabre. Flight tests using the dry boom were conducted through the summer of 1948 out of Seattle, Wichita, and Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. The tests were successful and the USAF requested Boeing transfer the flying boom work to Curtiss Aircraft. As the company had an absence of work postwar, the USAF wanted to keep Curtiss in business, but quite obviously, Boeing wasn't happy with that request, particularly since development had so far involved company funds without any USAF funding. By April 1949, Boeing was already constructing wet booms (flying booms able to transfer fuel) and was resisting USAF pressure to transfer the program to Curtiss Aircraft. Boeing won the dispute with the USAF by insisting its flying boom work was proprietary and would have commercial applications in refueling jet airliners. Since no USAF funds had been used in development so far, the USAF found it didn't exactly have financial clout to compel Boeing to transfer the program to Curtiss. Up to this point, the flying boom program was classified and the USAF had insinuated that the program's classified status meant that it couldn't be used for commercial applications. But the flight test program had already been publicly revealed by the USAF itself in an October 1949 press release! Boeing did finally get its contract for the flying boom. From 1950 to 1951, the Boeing Renton plant converted over 100 B-29 Superfortresses into KB-29P flying boom tankers with the first tanker delivered to SAC in March 1950. A fixed cradle structure supported the flying boom when it was raised. A hemispheric plexiglass dome replaced the tail turret and laying in a prone position, the boom operated "flew" the boom to the receiver. Boeing had always considered the KB-29P an interim tanker and soon enough was working on a tanker version of the C-97 Stratofreighter- not only did a tanker version of the C-97 offer more fuel carrying capability, it could also carry cargo when not being used for air refueling, offering mission flexibility for the USAF. The first flying boom-equipped C-97 was flight tested by Boeing in September 1950 and so impressed the USAF that all remaining orders for the C-97 were to be completed as KC-97s. In fact, the first KC-97 was delivered to the USAF only eight months after the KC-97 contract was signed with the first units operational in July 1951. Boeing then suggested a turboprop-powered KC-97 to the USAF, but the military was ambivalent to the idea, but by that point, Boeing was already working on a new breed of transport that would eclipse even the turboprop powered KC-97. But I'm pretty sure you know how that story ends! 

Source: Passing Gas: The History of Inflight Refueling by Vernon B. Byrd. Byrd Publishing, 1994, pp 123-136. Photos: National Museum of the United States Air Force.

06 April 2015

Flying High This Past Week: 30 March-5 April

A day late on posting the latest edition of Flying High This Past Week, but no worries, here's what's been getting a lot of hits lately here at TAILS THROUGH TIME:
  • The Early History of the Air Line Pilots Association, ALPA: Quite obviously the latest article on TAILS THROUGH TIME is going to be getting the most hits in the past week! The early history of Northwest Airlines is weaved into the early history of ALPA as the founder of the union, Dave Behncke, was Northwest's first pilot and flew its first passengers in 1927. The early history of ALPA gives us a good look at the state of the airline industry in the 1920s which was just on the cusp of making the leap into greater technologies led off by the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-3. Despite the landmark in aviation history those aircraft were, flying for many professional pilots was still a hazardous profession in the years prior and many airline heads of the day tried to do what they could to stamp out ALPA in its early days. Fortunately a strike at a small airline that ran between St. Louis and Chicago thrust ALPA into the national spotlight and won it friends in high places. 
  • Francis Gary Powers: After the Return: Best known as the Lockheed U-2 pilot that was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960 that ended US overflights of the USSR, his return to the United States was less than hospitable as the Director of Central Intelligence sought to blame Powers for any number of error that resulted in his shoot down despite being cleared by a CIA damage assessment team, the USAF, and a formal board of inquiry. Recognition of Powers' integrity and bravery were finally acknowledged posthumously in 2000 on the 40th anniversary of his shoot down. Note the comment at the bottom of my article by Powers' son, Francis Gary Powers Jr, who is the founder of the Cold War Museum
  • The First Steps to a Turboprop Transport, Part Two: The Boeing YC-97J was a Stratofreighter that was modified with Pratt & Whitney T34 turboprops so the USAF could gain operating experience with the new class of engines before the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Douglas C-133 Cargomaster become operational. Two KC-97Gs were converted to use the same engines and propellers as what would be used on the upcoming C-133. 
  • Soviet Wild Weasels, Part One: Doctrine/Tactics: This was the first part of a three article series I did back in 2010 on the differences between American and Soviet SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) doctrines. The second part looked at the aircraft that functioned as the Soviet equivalent of the Wild Weasels and the third part looked at the missiles used by those aircraft. 
  • Frontier Airlines and the Boeing 737-200: In the 1970s, Denver-based Frontier Airlines (the first incarnation, not the current one flying) became one of the most significant operators of the Boeing 737-200. Originally investing in the Boeing 727-100/200, the switch to the 737-200 and its better operating economics for Frontier's route system undoubtedly helped the airline weather the economic roller coaster that buffeted the US economy in the 1970s.
The next article will be posted tomorrow night and it will cover the development of the Boeing flying boom used in air refueling. Remember, every five days a new article is posted here at TAILS THROUGH TIME and you'll never be quite sure until then where in aviation history we'll be flying!

02 April 2015

The Early History of the Air Line Pilots Association, ALPA

David L. Behncke, founder of ALPA
The early history of the Air Line Pilots Association union is singularly identified with David Behncke. Born on a farm in Wisconsin to immigrant German parents in 1897, Behncke joined the Army in 1916 and would get his pilot wings and a commission as a second lieutenant in 1917. Following his Army service, he flew around the Midwest and Great Lakes region in the 1920s with his own barnstorming outfit as well as participating in air races. To supplement his income, he made a bit of a local name for himself in Illinois flying custom tailored suits from Chicago to various cities. It was in this capacity he came to the attention of a Minneapolis businessman, Charles Dickenson, who had just been awarded a lucrative air mail contract between Minneapolis and Chicago. Behncke became Dickenson Airlines' first pilot in 1926. Designated Air Mail Route 9, Dickenson had trouble with his nascent operation and was threatened with the loss of his air mail contract. A syndicate of Detroit and Minneapolis businessmen led by Lewis H. Brittin bought Dickenson out and reformed his airline as Northwest Airways, Northwest Airlines' predecessor. Northwest moved into passenger transport like many of the air mail carriers of the day and it was David Behncke who flew Northwest's first passengers on 1 February 1927. 

An airline pilot's fortunes in those days waxed and waned often at the whim of the airline owners and before long, Behncke changed jobs and by 1928 was flying for Boeing Air Transport out of Chicago, which later become United Airlines. It was during this transition period that Behncke starting contemplating organizing airline pilots into a union which wouldn't be limited to one airline, but encompass pilots from other airlines as well. Flying professionally in the 1920s was still a hazardous job and for many airlines, the attitude of the owners was typical for the 1920s that espoused an accumulation of wealth with little regard for the workers. For the airlines of the day, this meant the pilots were often low paid on top of what was already considered a hazardous job. There were two main factors that led to Behncke to move forward with his plans for a pilots' union. The first one was off course the "robber baron" attitudes of the day. Even though passengers were increasing in numbers, it was the air mail contracts that made money and the US Post Office paid airlines by the pound. It wasn't unusual in those days for airlines to mail heavy useless items to pad their bill and get more from the Post Office. Many individuals who ran airlines became quite wealthy as a consequence and for a average low paid pilot who routinely saw the sorts of things done to boost air mail profits, it was unsettling. Many of the pilots of the day served in the First World War and rightly proud of their services and felt that what was going on in those days was contrary to how they ended up with their pilots' wings. The industrialist E.L. Cord who was an early owner of what become American Airlines, for instance, wasn't shy about stating his low regard for the pilots of the airlines he owned. "Any normal person can handle an airplane" he declared in 1930. 

The practice of pilot pushing was the second factor. Even with the carriage of passengers, there was tremendous pressure on pilots to fly with poorly repaired aircraft or in unsafe weather conditions. Many airlines offered financial incentives to pilots who would take a flight that had been turned down by a fellow pilot. With the Depression underway, there were plenty of out of work pilots to replace pilots who refused for fly for safety or weather reasons. In the 1920s there was a social organization of pilots called the National Air Pilots Association, NAPA. In 1928 while still working for what become United Airlines, Behncke was elected to a high position in NAPA and he urged the organization to take a vocal stand against pilot pushing by adopting the slogan "Don't overfly a brother pilot!". Unfortunately only a small fraction of NAPA's members were professional pilots and Behncke's proposals fell on deaf ears. Behncke felt the financial incentives to fly in unsafe conditions were the worst evil of the profession. In fact, in 1928 most air mail pilots only had about a 25% chance of surviving several years flying the line. For many airline owners, the loss of an aircraft and pilot were easy costs to absorb given the lucrative air mail rates of the day. 

Behncke decided he had to form a union on his own and by early 1931 word was out what Behncke was up to. Many of the airline heads that would later have formative roles in the US airline and commercial aircraft industry were quite intense in their anti-union opinions. The iconic head of United Airlines, for example, Pat Patterson, quite openly declared that "Nobody can belong to a union and fly for United!". Gathering up twenty four trusted fellow pilots from other airlines, Behncke and the so-called "Key Men" met at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago on 27 July 1931 to form the Air Line Pilots Association, ALPA. Because of the intense dislike of their activities by their respective employers, the "Key Men" were referred to by letter codes in an attempt to hide their roles from their employers. Bryon Warner of United, for example, was known as "Mr. A". While that date is considered the birth of ALPA, a year prior Behncke did meet with a closed inner circle from three different airlines to set the wheels in motion for the 1931 meeting. They were Walter Hallgren and Lawrence Harris from American, R. Lee Smith of Northwest, J.L. Brandon of United, and another United pilot whose name is lost to history as he had switched over to management not long after the 1930 meeting- the so called "Lost Founder" of ALPA. 

As membership of ALPA grew in that first year, Behncke had to move the operation out of his home and into a two-room suite at a Chicago hotel. Many pilots were tired of how they were treated at their respective airlines but many airline managers were quite open in their threats to fire anyone joining ALPA. Many of the "Key Men" from the 1931 meeting did end up losing their jobs. And if the airline didn't fire you for joining ALPA, they certainly did what they could to make you miserable. TWA, for example, often shuttled pilots among different crew bases at short notice in an effort to make their families' lives difficult as well. Schedules were often used punitively against anyone even suspected of ALPA membership. Many pilots who weren't fired found themselves demoted from airliners to open cockpit biplanes flying mail at night. Many airline managers felt they needed to stamp out ALPA quickly before it gained momentum. Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern Air Lines in particular became a lifelong foe of the union. 
E.L. Cord from the 18 January 1932 cover of Time

In 1932, Behncke was working on getting ALPA affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) when a strike at a small airline thrust him and ALPA into the national spotlight. E.L. Cord was an aggressive businessman that in a few short years via acquisition headed an impressive industrial and transportation conglomerate that started out with automakers of the day given his background as an auto salesman for Auburn Auto. In fact, Auburn Auto was one of his first acquisitions in 1924, turning the company around to the point it was introducing several new models a year, but this was accomplished by a ruthless attack on labor costs that would set the pattern of his business dealings in future corporate acquisitions. In short order, he acquired Dusenburg Automobiles as well as both Yellow Cab and Checker Cab. He then moved into aviation, acquiring Stinson Aircraft (he was a private pilot who owned a Stinson Detroiter) and Lycoming Engines. Cord owned Stinson Aircraft when the company produced the Stinson Trimotor. It competed for airline orders with the Ford Trimotor, which cost $40,000. Cord's eye towards draconian cuts in labor costs meant he could offer the Stinson Trimotor for only $25,000. In 1930 he decided to get into the airline business seeing the profit potential with air mail subsidies. He started Century Airlines which began flying in March 1931 with three daily round trips between Chicago and St. Louis via Springfield and three daily round trips between Chicago and Cleveland via Toledo. And quite naturally, Century Airlines flew Stinson Trimotors. He then set up other similar airlines around the nation, all with "Century" as part of their name. In addition, he acquired other smaller carriers like a small Texas-based outfit called American Airways. Lacking a lucrative air mail contract, Cord cut costs as far down as he could, reasoning that if he could operate his airlines at half the cost of the established airlines, air mail contracts those airlines had would be canceled and given to him. With lower costs already, he stood to make a significant profit as a result. He had figured out he could pay pilots as little as $150/month at his Century Pacific operation between San Francisco and Los Angeles and still find pilots willing to work for him. Century Airlines based in Chicago had higher paid pilots at $350/month which was still quite a bit lower than the industry standard of the day. Since he was getting away with only $150/month with Century Pacific, Cord cut the salaries of the 25 pilots working at Century Airlines to $150. The chief pilot at Century, Duke Skonning, called the rates "starvation wages" and wanted to bargain with Cord. Cord agreed to a 10-day period before instituting the new wage cut, but he had no intention of bargaining with the pilots who already held in disregard. At the end of the 10-day period, as each Century flight arrived at Chicago Midway (it was called Chicago Municipal back then), each pilot was escorted off the plane by Cord's guards and made to sign a new agreement to $150/month. Every single pilot refused, setting off the first strike in the airline industry. Those pilots now locked out, showed up at Behncke's door led by their chief pilot, Duke Skonning, who told Behncke "Well, here we are. We have been locked out. What is the Association going to do about it?"

Behncke's work to get affiliated with the AFL paid off quickly. Immediately the AFL had its Chicago chapter work with ALPA and the striking pilots. Behncke asked each ALPA member at other airlines to chip in $25 to help pay the bills of the striking Century pilots. Soon radio spots were airing throughout Chicago to bring attention to the Century strike. Cord quickly hired strikebreakers but before they could show up for work, ALPA members would meet with them to explain what was stake. Most still went to work with Cord, but some stayed with ALPA with the promise of help finding a non-strikebreaking flying job. This infuriated Cord who then sequestered his new hires under armed guard at the airport. This in turn angered the City Council of Chicago who didn't like Cord treating city property as a prison. He was subpoenaed to appear before the council but Cord snubbed them, which further hurt his cause. The AFL made sure Congress knew of Cord's actions and this was how ALPA gained its first political ally- Representative Fiorello La Guardia from New York emerged to champion ALPA's cause in Congress. It spawned a friendship between David Behncke and La Guardia that lasted long after La Guardia become mayor of New York City. With congressional pressure on him, Cord sent a letter to each member of Congress referring to ALPA and the Century pilots on strike as communists- since most pilots had military backgrounds, this backfired on Cord and set many Congressional officials against him to side with ALPA. Cord's luck was running out fast and in 1932 he gave up control (but not ownership) of his airline ventures. They were all folded into holding company and in short order a few years later rebranded as American Air Lines. Cord dispatched one of his young executives to Texas to run the airline for him- an accountant named C. R. Smith, who would come to lead American Airlines until 1968. Putting Smith in charge was his concession to Congress to avoid getting American's air mail contracts canceled as a penalty. 

By 1936, Behncke found pilot jobs for all of the striking pilots from Century Airlines. He also made sure all the strikebreakers at Century were exposed. It was in an editorial that Behncke first used the term "scab" in reference to airline labor practices. Many of those strikebreaking pilots found it difficult to find jobs in the industry and Behncke did agree to take them into ALPA for assistance finding work provided each striking pilot from Century Airlines found work first. The Century Airlines strike gave ALPA national recognition which wouldn't have been possible without the help of the AFL and the friendship of Fiorello La Guardia. But with a newfound stature and friends in all the right places, many of the airlines that only a few years earlier tried to stamp out ALPA now quietly acquiesced its presence among its pilot ranks. 

Source: Flying the Line: The First Half Century of the Air Line Pilots Association by George E. Hopkins. The Air Line Pilots Association Press, 1982, pp 10-53. The Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame http://www.wisconsinaviationhalloffame.org/. Photos: The Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame, Time magazine.