AAHS Logo  American Aviation Historical Society

1956 - 2023, Celebrating over 65+ Years of Service

Excerpts from
AAHS Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4 - Winter 2006
Table of Contents 

The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker at 50

     Fifty years ago, on August 31, 1956, the first KC-135A Stratotanker took off from Renton Airport near Seattle, Washington. This was the first aircraft specifically designed to fulfill the aerial refueling role. Few military aircraft production programs undertaken since the end of WWII can compare with the KC-135 in size, speed of execution, cost effectiveness, and operational success.

     Aerial refueling has become a major national asset over the past 60 years. Yes, there were fledgling attempts at transferring fuel in flight during the 1930s. General Curtis E. LeMay was a major proponent of air refueling and assigned some of his most dedicated generals to be advocates for the program. While Tactical Air Command (TAC) and the Navy and Marines preferred a probe and drogue method of refueling, LeMay wanted the boom to provide the high off-load capability that was so necessary for the successful operation of his large aircraft.
     The most successful early program was the hose system that was real Rube Goldberg. Designed by the British company Flight Refueling, Limited, the system called for the receiver to fly high and the tanker to fly low in formation. This system was retrofitted on 92 Superfortresses that were redesignated KB-29Ms, while the receivers became B-29MRs. Both aircraft would reel out a cable, one with a steel ball at the end, and the other with a grapnel hook. Then the tanker would slide-slip beneath the receiver and the two cables would cross. The grapnel moved along the other cable until it engaged the ball. Now the fun began. The receiver would begin reeling in the cables, and the tanker would climb above the receiver. The cable from the tanker had a refueling fitting attached to a hose that was drawn out of the tanker and hauled into the receiver. Now one of the scanners aboard the receiver would attach the hose fitting to a boss in the aircraft’s air refueling system plumbing. Fuel was transferred, the hose was released, and reeled back into the tanker. During the early days, the landscape in the western United States was strewn with various pieces of aerial plumbing. In addition, many a scanner had his brogans filled with 135/150 aviation gasoline as the hose sprayed the waist of the receiver. A better method was needed.
     Next came the Boeing-designed flying boom system that was retrofitted on 116 Superfortress that were redesignated KB-29Ps. The telescoping boom was attached to a hinge fitting on the aft portion of the fuselage and the boom was plumbed into the KB-29Ps refueling system. The boom had a pair
. . . . 

First KC-135A during flight tests
with Boeing 367-80 prototype

The Sikorsky S-40 Amphibion; A new giant for the Pan American fleet

     Following almost immediately on the close of the World War, certain European nations, foreseeing the possibilities which aerial transport offered in binding more closely together the far-flung units of their colonial empires, encouraged the establishment of experimental airlines between certain strategic points, lending their assistance to private enterprise in the form of substantial subsidies. Today, England, France, Germany, and Holland have either surveyed, or put into actual operation, direct air connections to practically all of their outlying possessions. During the early 1920s progress in the United States lagged behind that abroad due largely to the unwillingness of the government to support operations by granting direct subsidies. Since 1927, however, development has been rapid, and in 1931 the American controlled airways, both in the United States and in Central and South America, are second to none.
     By processes of merger and consolidation a number of independent airway systems are now in existence in various parts of the world, each having been shaped to meet the several needs of the nation controlling it. Here and there, where geographical conditions permit, these lines make contact, permitting passengers and goods to be transferred from one system to another, but, more often than not, they are widely separated by natural barriers of ocean or mountain range over which regular flying operations have hitherto been considered impractical. It is only natural, therefore, that the various networks, having worked out their individual problems, should turn to the greater one of interconnection, and the establishment of world-wide trade routes of the air.
     One of the most important, and at the same time, one of the most difficult interconnecting routes is that between Europe and North America. With a view toward the establishment of mail and passenger schedules over the Atlantic, Pan American  . . . . . .

Pan American Sikorsky S-40

Aircraft Photos by Emil Strasser

     Here is another trip into the past of American aviation that we hope will bring back some pleasant memories. 
     Emil’s home town was Akron, Ohio. Many of the photos in this part of the series were taken there. A few were taken in California and the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. We sincerely appreciate Gerald Liang’s darkroom work and generosity making these priceless photos available to the Society.

Art Chester and "The Goon"

The Bell P-39 Airacobra

     It was one of the most maligned fighters during WWII. But when I first saw the Bell P-39 Airacobra, I thought it the most beautiful aircraft I’d ever seen. It looked like it was going 400 mph just sitting there on the ramp at Howard Field in the Panama Canal Zone.
     After graduation from a USAAF single-engine advanced flying school in Texas, we all prayed that we’d be sent to the European Theatre where the action was in 1943. And when we were issued cold weather flying gear we were positive we were on our way east. These prayers were not answered. In typical military fashion, we were told to ship the heavy gear home. We were then loaded into a C-47 that headed south to Panama via San Jose, Costa Rica. 
     We cooled our heels at Albrook Field, 6th Air Force headquarters, for about ten days while we lost all our money in the officer’s club slots. Then we were trucked further south to Agua Dulce, an operational training base where we were supposedly prepared for fighter combat. The training we got consisted of trying to keep the war weary Curtiss P-40s in the air. If it wasn’t run-away electric props during takeoff, it was failure of the over-time Allison engines, or hydraulic problems that caused a number of gear-up landings on our dirt strip.
     After 30 days and about 50 hours in the relics, those of us who weren’t down with malaria, dysentery or broken bones were shipped to various fighter squadrons throughout the peninsula. I was ecstatic when I found out that my first fighter squadron assignment was to the 31st Fighter Squadron at Howard Field flying P-39s. From old wooden barracks and GI cots and C rations we were now based at one of the most beautiful bases in the USAAF. Quarters were in concrete buildings surrounded by lush tropical greenery and manicured lawns (clipped by POWs) with a separate room for each officer. A few steps away was the officer’s club and mess and next door was a huge PX that seemed to have all pre-war stuff.
     We arrived at Howard at night after an all-day ride in the back of a truck. The following morning we checked in with the CO and then were introduced to the P-39. I squatted on the right wing of one P-39 while my instructor, a first lieutenant, explained a few things. He told me to take the cockpit so I donned my seat-pack chute and headed for the right-hand door. He grinned as I realized that I wasn’t about to enter that tiny opening wearing a chute. He told me to first put the chute in the seat before entering. I asked him how a guy could bail out but he said that after "˜the door was jettisoned and with adrenaline flowing, you would pop right out. I also saw that the left-hand door was almost blocked by the throttle quadrant, So, I just shut my mouth and followed orders as a good second john should.
     My instructor then let me start the engine which cranked up as it should. The engine noise from the 1150-hp Allison V1710 sounded strange coming from behind and I could feel a slight vibration emanating from the long shaft between the engine and propeller. We ran the engine for only a couple of minutes because the coolant temp was on its way toward maximum. I soon learned  . . . . .

31st FS Bell P-39

History of the Douglas A3D Skywarrior, Part 2: A3D-1 Early Production Testing

     In February 1951 the Douglas Aircraft Company received a Letter of Intent from the Navy advising that consideration was being given to the purchase of production A3D-1s. Contract NOa(s) 55-632 followed with authorization to manufacture twelve A3D-1 airplanes at a total cost of $53,200,000 or $4,430,000 each. These 12 Dash 1s were assigned Bureau Numbers 130352 through 130363.Although externally similar to the XA3D-1, the production A3D-1s had some major differences. One of the most visible changes was the replacement of the Westinghouse J-40 engine by the Pratt & Whitney J-57-P6A non-afterburning multi-stage, axial-flow turbojet engine rated at 8,250 pounds thrust for normal operations, 9,500 pounds military thrust and 10,000 pounds for takeoff or maximum thrust.
     By early 1952 information that the J-40 engine that had been touted by Westinghouse as the optimum engine and the answer to every airframe manufacturer’s prayers for a high-speed jet engine, wasn’t hacking it. Additional delays were reported in January 1952. Development difficulties were being experienced by the contractor and it was announced that a J-40 engine which would meet the specification performance would not be available prior to the last quarter of 1954. This directly affected production of not only the A3D but also the newly developed Douglas XF4D Skyray, the Grumman XF10F one of a kind prototype and the McDonnell F3H. The Navy "bit the bullet" and made a decision, and a wise one, to cease development of the trouble plagued J-40 and install the Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine in the A3D-1 and the F4D. The F3H was eventually re-engined with the Allison J-71.
     By mid-April 1952, although the J-57 engine was not yet in production, Navy contracts with Douglas had been revised to specify that all production A3D aircraft were to be delivered with the J-57 engine. At this point, production of the airplane had not progressed to such an extent that this change delayed the program. The wing-mounted pylon and pod type engine installation on the A3D simplified the conversion from the J-40 to the J-57. The major rework to the airplane to accept the J-57 engine consisted of a revised pylon and a redeveloped air conditioning system, none of which affected the basic fuselage or wing design. Only relatively minor external nacelle structural changes were involved, which included the elimination of the bifurcated inlet duct and the blocker doors that were part of the original Westinghouse concept.

     The XA3D-1 made its first flight on October 28, 1952, powered by the Westinghouse J-40 engine with its inherent problems, including low thrust output, inability to produce sufficient pneumatic power below 90% to drive the auxiliary drive units (ADU) that drove the hydraulic pumps and generators and to supply air for the air conditioning and cockpit pressurization systems in the airplane. To overcome the lack of pneumatics, an auxiliary power unit was installed in the bomb bay for use while taxiing to the runway. Once in position for takeoff and takeoff power was set, the flight test engineer who occupied the right-hand seat in flight crawled down into the bomb bay to switch the generators off and shut down the power unit. He then crawled back up to the cockpit and strapped himself into his seat before the pilot could start the takeoff roll. The second flight began the serious flight-test program with. . . . .

Douglas A3D-1 during carrier qualifications

 Turbo-Supercharger Development; Evolution to First Operational Use

     The turbo-supercharger is a small relatively simple and unimposing device used in conjunction with piston-type aircraft engines to boost their power output and/or maintain their power output to high altitudes. Weighing only a couple of hundred pounds, it is essentially nothing more than a pump supplying air under pressure to the engine induction system.
     During the war years almost everyone was familiar with the B-17, B-24, B-29, P-47, P-38 and P-51. These were the mainstay of the USAAF war effort, yet all except one were completely dependent upon the turbo-supercharger for their superior high altitude performance and would almost certainly have been dismal failures without this equipment. Alone of this elite group, the P-51 had no turbo, depending on the superb internally supercharged Rolls Royce/Packard Merlin for its outstanding speed and high altitude abilities.
     This article proposes to tell the early development history of the turbine-driven supercharger; it is not meant to be a technical discussion of the turbo. However, for the benefit of those with only a vague idea of the subject and as a background for the history to follow, it is desirable to briefly discuss the types and operation of aircraft engine superchargers.
     A piston engine, much like the human body, requires large amounts of air to operate. An unsupercharged engine, such as the familiar auto engine, draws air into its cylinders by the low pressure area created by the downward movement of the piston on its intake stroke. If the mass airflow into the engine can be increased, an increase in power is achieved. By installing an air pump to raise the pressure at the engine inlet, and increase the mass airflow, the engine develops more power.
     The piston engine, again like the human body, loses efficiency (power) as altitude increases and air density decreases. If sea level air density can be maintained at the engine inlet as the airplane climbs, then power output will remain essentially the same as it was at sea level. This again is done by an air pump, that magical thing called a supercharger.
     Throughout aviation history, only one type of supercharger has seen wide usage, and this is the one with the centrifugal impeller, or compressor. (In Europe, superchargers are often called "compressors." Another common semi-slang term for them in the United States is "blower.") An excellent example of a centrifugal impeller, although on a small scale, is the water pump used on many automobile engines.
     Branching out from this basic type, there are two major ways of driving the compressor. One method is a gear driven compressor where the unit is driven by power from the engine crankshaft and is usually an internal part of the engine. The other, the turbo-supercharger, utilizes. . . . .

Engineering Division TP-1 with turbo-supercharger

The 2006 Reno National Championship Air Race

     The sound of air racing returned to the Stead Field for the 43rd edition of the Reno National Championship Air Races and Air Show. Air Race fans from every point of the compass came to watch and enjoy the six classes of racing aircraft: Biplane, Formula One, Sport, T-6, Jet and Unlimited.
     Entertainment between the races was provided by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and several air show performers including Kent Pietch, Mike Goulin and David Martin.
     A new name was added to the list of Unlimited Gold winners. Michael Brown raced his modified Hawker Sea Fury around the 8.5 mile Unlimited course at 481.6 mph. Matt Jackson in a Hawker Sea Fury named "Dreadnought" with a P&W R-4360 engine finished second with a speed of 453.6 mph. This years Unlimited Gold race was dominated by Hawker Sea Furies with a lone Yak-11 splitting the field with a third place finish. No American-made aircraft qualified for the Unlimited Gold race, but were still well represented in this class. Bob Odegaard brought his beautiful Goodyear F2G Corsair to Reno. It is the only flyable F2G in the world and added to the fine show. And a beautifully restored P-51A Mustang flown by Dave Morss turned in a respectable performance of 344.2 mph to win the Unlimited Bronze race.
     The Sport Class is coming on strong. This class, created in 1998, highlights new and innovative developments of high performance kit-built aircraft. Entries must be of production model kit-built aircraft of which five or more kits have been delivered to customers. These aircraft must be powered by a reciprocating engine of less than 650 cu. in. displacement. All entrants must have a current FAA airworthiness certificate. As competition heats up in this class, innovations are pushing the speeds up to that approaching the Unlimited. Since its. . . .

2006 Unlimited Gold race winner Hawker Sea Fury

Operation SUNSHADE, The Air Force Reserve Plays a Key Role in the Cuban Missile Crisis

     Almost one-half century ago a series of events occurred, which came as close to causing a nuclear war between the United States of America and the Soviet Union than at any other time since the end of WWII and probably right up to the present. A great deal has been written about this confrontation which led up to a climax in mid-autumn of 1962, but not, in my view, very much about the role that the Air Force Reserve played in that event known as "the Cuban Missile Crisis." Our president at the time was John F. Kennedy and the Soviet leader was Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy had taken office in 1961 and was immediately faced with a crucial decision concerning what was to become an abortive attempt to invade Cuba, and which ultimately led to debacle on the beaches of Cuba. The relations between the U.S. and Cuba, never to clubby since Fidel Castro had taken over, worsened. As the warm summer days of 1962 segued into the cool early fall, the situation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. began heating up. What occurred between early September and November will forever be remembered as the moment in time when the two powers came close to a nuclear war. In early September 1962, Mr. Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would be providing arms and personnel to Cuba for defensive purposes. However, in October, a USAF reconnaissance aircraft flying over Cuba took photos that revealed that the Soviets were installing offensive ballistic missile sites in Cuba which would have the capability of reaching major cities of the U.S. Additionally, other United States military aircraft, flying over the Atlantic to the east of Cuba, had sighted Soviet vessels loaded with military hardware steaming towards Cuba. The missiles already in place plus the cargo ships heading toward Cuba constituted an unacceptable threat to the U.S. and required immediate action by the administration. President Kennedy and his advisers discussed a number of options, all of which contained elements of dire consequences, no matter the outcome. Finally, the group apparently settled. . . . .

Fairchild C-119G Flying Boxcar, 53-3205

 Remember When - the Ercoupe

     For those of us who recall the period, a boom in general aviation was to take place following World War II. It was anticipated that returning airmen would trade their wartime aircraft, flown in hostile skies, for light planes flown over peaceful American terrain. The return of many veteran pilots, aviators and airmen was to be the catalyst behind the figurative statement "an airplane in every garage," and it gave impetus to artists’ conceptions of smiling families flying to vacation destinations in futuristic light planes. Aviation magazines of the day reinforced this vision by depicting modern-day housing developments with a runway and individual taxiways leading up to each new home.
     Aircraft companies and subcontractors shared this optimism as they converted their wartime facilities into the manufacturing of general-aviation aircraft. Soon their drawing boards were busy as they transitioned from the manufacturing of bomber and pursuit aircraft of war to the postwar pursuit of building light planes. In some cases, and for expediency, their aircraft were prewar or updated designs. Other companies, however, capitalized on wartime knowledge and transferred newly developed technology into modern and innovative aircraft designs.
     New light-plane designs and prototypes from major aircraft manufacturers, including Douglas, Grumman, Lockheed, North American and Republic, entered into development. Additionally, new light planes from many other aircraft companies entered the developmental stage at the end of the war (see listing of aircraft). Concurrently, production was resumed on prewar aircraft, including the ERCo Ercoupe, Globe Swift, and the Luscombe Silvaire.
     However, the aviation boom was not to be. Many war-weary pilots turned their vision from the sky to earthbound goals, including home, automobile, family and peacetime employment. Also, the exigencies and economic conditions at the time helped to fuel the death knell of the aviation boom.

ERC Ercoupe brochure