Monthly Archives: March 2017

24 March 1939: Jacqueline Cochran

Jackie Cochran with her Beechcraft D17W, NR18562. (FAI)
Jackie Cochran with her Beechcraft D17W, NR18562. (FAI)

24 March 1939: During a 2 hour, 26 minute flight over southern California, Jacqueline Cochran established a U.S. National Altitude Record for Women of 9,160 meters (30,052 feet), flying a Beechcraft D17W “Staggerwing,” serial number 164, registered NR18562. A National Aeronautic Association official, Larry Therkelson, took the recording barograph from the airplane and sent it to the N.A.A. headquarters in Washington, D.C. for certification. The record had previously been held by Ruth Rowland Nichols.¹

“Were I to make the simple statement that I climbed to an altitude of thirty-three thousand feet, that statement in and of itself would mean nothing because I have often gone higher than that. But when I add that I did this in 1937 in a fabric-covered biplane without heating, without pressurization and without an oxygen mask, the elements of an accomplishment are added. I nearly froze; the pipestem between my teeth through which I tried to get an oxygen supply from a tank and connecting tube was inadequate for the purpose, and I became so disoriented through lack of oxygen that it took over an hour to get my bearings and make a landing. The difference between the pressure my body was accustomed to on the ground and the atmospheric pressure at 33,000 feet was such that a blood vessel in my sinus ruptured. All this was a part of the cumulative evidence that led up to cabin pressurization and and mandatory use of the oxygen mask above certain altitudes.”

— The Stars at Noon, by Jacqueline Cochran, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1954, Chapter IV at Pages 61–62.

According to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, Jackie Cochran “. . . set more speed and altitude records than any other pilot.”

Beechcraft D17W Staggerwing NR18562, c/n 164, which Jackie Cochran used to set an altitude record, 24 March 1939. (Unattributed)
Beechcraft D17W Staggerwing NR18562, c/n 164, which Jackie Cochran used to set an altitude record, 24 March 1939, at the Beechcraft factory, Wichita, Kansas, 1937. (Beech Aircraft Corporation)

The Beechcraft D17W was a special version of the D17 production model. Only two were built. Jackie Cochran purchased it from Beech for $20,145, and it had been delivered to her by famed aviator Frank Hawks.

The “Staggerwing” was a single-engine, four-place biplane with an enclosed cabin and retractable landing gear, flown by a single pilot. The basic structure was a tubular steel framework, with wood formers and stringers. The wings and tail surfaces were built of wood spars and ribs. The airplane was covered with doped fabric, except the cabin and engine, which were covered in sheet metal.

The airplane was 26 feet, 10 inches (8.179 meters) long with a wingspan of 32 feet, 0 inches (9.754 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 0 inches (2.438 meters). It had an empty weight of 2,540 pounds (1,152.1 kilograms) and loaded weight of 4,250 pounds (1,927.8 kilograms).

The standard Beechcraft D17S was equipped with an air-cooled, supercharged, 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liters) Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. A, a nine-cylinder radial engine producing 300 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m at Sea Level. It had a maximum speed of 212 miles per hour (341 kilometers per hour), 670 mile (1,078 kilometer) range and service ceiling of 25,000 feet (7,620 meters).

Beechcraft D17W NR18562, c/n 164, carrying race number “13.” (Beech Aircraft Corporation)

The 1,343.804-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp SC-G engine installed in Jackie Cochran’s D17W was an experimental version of the Wasp C with 5:4 propeller reduction gearing. It produced 600 horsepower at 2,850 r.p.m. for takeoff, and 525 horsepower at 2,700 r.p.m., up to 9,500 feet (2,896 meters). The SC-G never entered production.

During World War II, Beechcraft D17W, c/n 164, was impressed into military service at Tarrant Field, Texas, 12 March 1943. Assigned to the United States Army Air Corps, it was given the designation UC-43K Traveler and Air Corps serial number 42-107277. It was turned over to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 22 November 1944. The airplane was now powered by a 971.930-cubic-inch displacement (15.927 liter) Wright R-975-5 Whirlwind nine-cylinder radial and was redesignated Beechcraft D17R. It was sold to the Carver Pump Company, Muscatine, Iowa, and registered NC50958. The record-setting Beechcraft Staggerwing crashed at Avenger Field, Sweetwater, Texas, 15 December 1945.

Jackie Cochran's Beechcraft D17W NX18562, c/n 164, carrying the race number "33", circa 1937. (Unattributed)
Jackie Cochran’s Beechcraft D17W NX18562, c/n 164, carrying the race number “33”, circa 1937. (Unattributed)

¹ FAI Record File Number 12228: 8,761 meters (28,743 feet), 6 March 1931.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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21 March 1943: Cornelia Clark Fort

Cornelia Clark Fort, with a PT-19A. (U.S. Air Force)
Cornelia Clark Fort with a Fairchild PT-19A Cornell trainer. (U.S. Air Force)

21 March 1943: Cornelia Clark Fort, a pilot in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (the WAFS), was ferrying a new Vultee BT-13A Valiant basic trainer, serial number 42-42432, from the airplane factory at Downey, California, to an airfield in Texas. She was leading a flight of five BT-13s with the others being flown by inexperienced military pilots.

The left wing of Fort’s airplane was struck from behind by another airplane, BT-13A 42-42450, flown by Flight Officer Frank E. Stamme, Jr., U.S. Army Air Corps. Frank Stamme had approximately 250 flight hours. Apparently trying to impress Miss Fort, Stamme attempted to perform a barrel roll around her airplane, but struck her wing.

Fort’s BT-13 crashed approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Merkel, Texas, and Cornelia Fort was killed. Her body was found in the wreckage of the airplane. The canopy latches were still fastened.

Cornelia Clark Fort was the first female pilot killed while on active military duty. She was 24 years old. Miss Fort was buried at the Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nashville, Tennesee.

Frank Edward Stamme, Jr., was born in Illinois, 3 January 1920. He was the first of four children of Frank Edward Stamme, a machinist, and Bertha Catherine Peters Stamme. He enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Corps at San Francisco, California, 5 November 1941. Stamme was released from military service 16 January 1947. He died 19 February 1987.

Cornelia Clark Fort. (Tennessee State Library and Archives)
Cornelia Clark Fort. (Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Cornelia Clark Fort was born into an affluent family in Nashville, Tennessee, 5 February 1919, the fourth of five children of Dr. Rufus Elijah Fort and Louis Clark Fort. Her father was a prominent surgeon who co-founded the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. The family lived at Fortland, an estate east of Nashville. Cornelia attended the Ward-Belmont School in Nashville, and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, New York, in 1939.

After taking a flight with a friend, Jack Caldwell, in January 1940, she pursued an interest in aviation, starting flight lessons the following day.  She had earned her pilot certificate and flight instructor certificate by June 1940, which made her the first woman to become an instructor at Nashville. With the Civilian Pilot Training Program, she first went to Fort Collins, Colorado, where she taught for about three months, then went on to Honolulu.

Pilots of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron at Long Beach Army Airfield, 7 March 1943. Left to right, Barbara Towne, Cornelia Clark Fort, Evelyn Sharp, Barbara Erickson and Bernice Batten. The airplane is a Vultee BT-13 Valiant. (Texas Women’s University)
Pilots of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron at Long Beach Army Airfield, 7 March 1943. Left to right, Barbara Towne, Cornelia Clark Fort, Evelyn Sharp, Barbara Erickson and Bernice Batten. The airplane is a Vultee BT-13 Valiant. (Texas Women’s University)

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, all civilian aircraft were grounded. Cornelia Fort was able to return to the mainland United States in early 1942. In September she was one of the first 25 women accepted into the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. She was assigned to the 6th Ferrying Group based at Long Beach, California.

Air & Space/Smithsonian quoted from a letter written by Fort in a January 2012 article:

“I dearly loved the airports, little and big. I loved the sky and the airplanes, and yet, best of all I loved the flying. . . I was happiest in the sky at dawn when the quietness of the air was like a caress, when the noon sun beat down, and at dusk when the sky was drenched with the fading light.”

—Cornelia Clark Fort, 1942.

Cornelia Clark Fort’s military identification card. (Nashville Public Library)

The Vultee BT-13A Valiant was an all-metal, two-place, single engine, low-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear. The airplane was 28 feet, 10 inches (8.788 meters) long with a wingspan of 42 feet (12.802 meters) and height of 11 feet, 6 inches (3.505 meters). It had an empty weight of 3,375 pounds (1,531 kilograms) and gross weight of 4,496 pounds (2,039 kilograms).

The BT-13A was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged, 986.749-cubic-inch-displacement (16.170 liter) Pratt & Whitney R-985-21, R-985-25, or R-985-27, nine-cylinder radial engine. These engines had a compression ratio of 6:1, with Normal Power ratings from 420 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m. at Sea Level to 450 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., and 440 horsepower to 450 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. for Takeoff. They were direct-drive engines which turned a two-bladed variable-pitch propeller. The –21, –25 and –27 engines were 3 feet, 6.38 inches (1.076 meters) long, 3 feet, 9.75 inches (1.162 meters) in diameter and weighed from 648 to 685 pounds (294–311 kilograms).

The BT-13A had a maximum speed of 180 miles per hour (290 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 21,650 feet (6,599 meters) and range was 725 miles (1,167 kilometers).

Vultee built 9,525 BT-13 and BT-15 Valiant basic trainers between 1940 and 1945. Of these, 7,037 were the BT-13A and SNV-1 variant. By the end of World War II, the Vultee Valiant was considered obsolete and was replaced in U.S. service by the North American AT-6 Texan.

Vultee BT-13A Valiant 42-43130, the same type aircraft flown by Cornelia Fort and Frank Stamme, 21 March 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 March 1937: Ameilia Mary Earhart

Amelia Earhart's damaged Lockheed Electra 10E, at Luke Field, Ford Island, 20 March 1937. Earhart is standing in the open cockpit hatch. (AP/Wichita Eagle)
Amelia Earhart’s damaged Lockheed Electra 10E, at Luke Field, Ford Island, 20 March 1937. Earhart is standing in the open cockpit hatch. (AP/Wichita Eagle)

20 March 1937: After completing repairs and preparation for the second leg of her around-the-world flight—Hawaii to Howland Island—Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E, NR16020, was moved from Wheeler Field to Luke Field on Ford Island on 19 March to take advantage of the longer, fully paved runway.

Paul Mantz had warmed the engines at 5:00 a.m., 20 March, then shut them down. He would not be aboard for this flight. Amelia Earhart, Captain Manning and Captain Noonan boarded the Electra at 5:30 a.m. and Earhart restarted the engines. At 5:40 a.m., she began to taxi to the northeast corner of the runway. Weather was good, with a ceiling of 3,000 feet, visibility 3,500 feet in pre-dawn darkness, and wind from the south at 2 miles per hour.

At 5:53 a.m., Amelia Earhart accelerated for takeoff. A United States Army Board of Investigation report describes what happened next:

THE CRASH:

On reaching the end Miss Earhart turned and after a brief delay opened both throttles. As the airplane gathered speed it swung slightly to the right. Miss Earhart corrected this tendency by throttling the left hand motor. The airplane then began to swing to the left with increasing speed, characteristic of a ground loop. It tilted outward, right wing low and for 50 or 60 feet was supported by the right wheel only. The right-hand landing-gear suddenly collapsed under this excessive load followed by the left. The airplane spun sharply to the left on its belly amid a shower of sparks from the mat and came to rest headed about 200 degrees from its initial course. There was no fire. Miss Earhart and her crew emerged unhurt. The visible damage to the airplane was as follows:- Right wing and engine nacelle severely damaged, left engine nacelle damaged on under side, right hand rudder and end of stabilizer bent. The engines were undamaged. The oil tanks were ruptured. . . .

FINDINGS:  . . .after a run of 1200 feet the airplane crashed on the landing mat due to collapse of the landing gear as a result of an uncontrolled ground loop; the lack of factual evidence makes it impossible to establish the reason for the ground loop; that as a result of the crash the airplane was damaged to an extent requiring major overhaul. . . .

—excerpts from PROCEEDINGS OF A BOARD OF OFFICERS CONVENED TO INVESTIGATE THE CRASH OF MISS AMELIA EARHART AT LUKE FIELD, 20 MARCH 1937

The Electra was extensively damaged. There were no injuries, but the Electra was sent back to Lockheed at Burbank, California, aboard the passenger liner, SS Lurline, for repair.

At the time of the accident, NR16020 had flown 181 hours, 17 minutes, total time since new (TTSN).

Paul Mantz, who was not aboard during the crash, stands in the Electra’s cockpit. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan are standing on the wing, 20 March 1937. (AP/Wichita Eagle)
Paul Mantz, who was not aboard during the crash, stands in the Electra’s cockpit. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan are standing on the wing, 20 March 1937. (AP/Wichita Eagle)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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19 March 1937: Amelia Mary Earhart

Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special, NR16020, in a hangar at Wheeler Field, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, 19 March 1937. (Hawaii’s Aviation History, http://hawaii.gov/hawaiiaviation )
Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special, NR16020, in a hangar at Wheeler Field, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, 19 March 1937. (Hawaii’s Aviation History )

19 March 1937: After her record-setting 15 hour, 47 minute overnight flight from Oakland, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special NR16020 was placed in a hangar at Wheeler Army Airfield, Honolulu, for maintenance and repair. During the flight, a propeller pitch change mechanism failed. Inspection revealed that both propeller hubs were badly galled “due to improper or insufficient lubrication.” They were overhauled by the Army Air Corps’ Hawaiian Air Depot at Luke Field, then re-installed on the Electra.

At 11:15 a.m. on the 19th, Paul Mantz and two friends took the Electra for a test flight, then repositioned to Luke Field on Ford Island, with its longer, hard-surfaced runway, for an early morning takeoff on the second leg of the around-the-world flight.

Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special, NR16020, with engines running at Wheeler Field, prior to repositioning to Luke Field, 19 March 1937
Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special, NR16020, with engines running at Wheeler Field, prior to repositioning to Luke Field, 19 March 1937. (Hawaii’s Aviation History)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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18 March 1937: Amelia Mary Earhart

Amelia Earhart arrives at Wheeler Field, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, 18 March 1937. The airplane is Lockheed Electra 10E Special NR16020. (Hawaii’s Aviation History http://hawaii.gov/hawaiiaviation)
Amelia Earhart arrives at Wheeler Field, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, 18 March 1937. The airplane is Lockheed Electra 10E Special NR16020. (Hawaii’s Aviation History http://hawaii.gov/hawaiiaviation)

18 March 1937, 5:40 a.m.: Amelia Earhart and her crew sighted Diamond Head on the island of Oahu, Hawaiian Islands. The Electra landed at Wheeler Army Airfield, Honolulu, after an overnight flight from Oakland, California, completing the first leg of a planned around-the-world flight in 15 hours, 47 minutes.

Also aboard were Paul Mantz, Amelia’s friend and adviser, as co-pilot, navigator Captain Frederick Joseph Noonan, formerly of Pan American Airways, and Captain Harry Manning of United States Lines, acting as radio operator and navigator. The airplane was Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special, registration NR16020.

About an hour after takeoff from Oakland, California, the Electra overtook the Pan American Airways Hawaii Clipper, which had departed San Francisco Bay an hour-and-a-half before Earhart. She took photographs of the Martin M-130 flying boat.

In her log, Amelia Earhart described the sunset over the Pacific Ocean:

“. . . golden edged clouds ahead, then the golden nothingness of sunset beyond. . . The aft cabin is lighted with a weird green blue light, Our instruments show pink. The sky rose yellow. . . Night has come. The sea is lovely. Venus is setting ahead to the right. The moon is a life-saver. It gives us a horizon to fly by. . . .”

— Amelia: The Centennial Biography of an Aviation Pioneer, by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, Brassey’s, Wahington and London, 1997, Chapter 18 at Page 171.

On arrival at Hawaii, Earhart, saying that she was very tired, asked Paul Mantz to make the landing at Wheeler Field.

Amelia Earhart, with flower leis, on her arrival at Wheeler Field, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, 18 March 1937. (Hawaii’s Aviation History http://hawaii.gov/hawaiiaviation)
Amelia Earhart, with flower leis, on her arrival at Wheeler Field, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, 18 March 1937. (Hawaii’s Aviation History http://hawaii.gov/hawaiiaviation)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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