Aviation History Briefing- January 2012 | HistoryNet MENU

Aviation History Briefing- January 2012

8/25/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

Cook Cleland’s Race 74 Returns

Cook Cleland was a well-known Navy pilot, an ace who flew in both World War II and Korea. But he was better known as an air racer, winning both the 1947 and ’49 Thompson Trophy races back when the Thompson was nearly as news worthy as the Indy 500.

Cleland had finished sixth in 1946, when surplus Army P-39s and P-51s dominated the course. Legend has it that when Admiral William “Bull” Halsey asked him what it would take for a Navy airplane to win, Cleland said “an F2G.” The F2G Corsair, built by Goodyear, was powered by the 28-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-4360 corncob engine. Several days later, five of the Navy’s F2Gs were mysteriously declared surplus and put up for sale for $1,250 apiece, and Cleland quickly bought four of them. They were often wrongly referred to as “Super Corsairs,” though neither Goodyear nor the Navy ever labeled them as such. The so-called Super Corsair was actually a single clipped wing standard F4U privately modified for Reno racing with an R-4360 in 1982.

Cleland flew the F2G shown here, known as “Race 74” for the number it was assigned, to victory in the 1947 Thompson Trophy race. In 1950 (some sources say 1953) it was bought by the late Walter Soplata for storage—preservation would be too kind a and in 1997 the Western Reserve Historical Society purchased it for display in their Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, in Cleveland. The airplane was then trucked to Odegaard Aviation, in Kindred, N.D., for a full restoration.

Supposedly, the deal between Soplata and the Crawford Museum included the proviso that the airplane would never fly again (Soplata was opposed to the endangerment of rare warbirds). But the museum ran out of funds for the expensive project and sold it to a collector in Ohio who continued to fund the Odegaard restoration and apparently is hindered by no such requirements.

Though the Corsair was eagerly awaited at the EAA’s Oshkosh AirVenture this summer as a potential Grand Champion Warbird, the engine began “making metal” during its first test flight—chips visible in the oil screens—necessitating a teardown instead. The big Corsair appeared with a revitalized engine at this past September’s ill-fated Reno Air Races and flew in two Silver bracket heats before Jimmy Leeward’s tragic Gold Class accident. “Watching him pick off planes one by one in Thursday’s heat was a thing of beauty and was the moment that erased any doubt that Bob [Odegaard] was there to race, not just fly,” one knowledgeable spectator commented. The rest of the weekend’s racing was canceled.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Stringbag Back in the Air

The Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber was one of the most unusual yet effective World War II aircraft. The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm deployed it as late as May 1945, which would have been akin to the U.S. Army Air Forces ending WWII with Boeing P-26 Peashooters battling Me-109s. Fortunately, the Swordfish faced few aerial opponents. The Germans had no aircraft carriers, so as long as Swordfish operated far enough from fighter bases—typically from carriers—they were free to do major damage. In a November 1940 night attack during the Battle of Taranto, Swordfish mauled one Italian battleship so badly that it never sailed again and seriously damaged two more and a cruiser. In May 1941, a Swordfish torpedo disabled the German battleship Bismarck’s steering gear and set up the ship for sinking the next day.

Two Swordfish are currently flying, one in the hands of Britain’s Royal Navy Historic Flight (which has a second plane that is flyable but parked) and the second put back into the air last July by Vintage Wings of Canada (vintagewings.ca). That airplane was originally restored in the 1980s but eventually needed engine work. Vintage Wings sent the rare Bristol Pegasus 9- cylinder radial to England for overhaul, a job that took 4½ years. The engine was damaged during shipment back to Canada, though Vintage Wings, loath to return the engine to its rebuilders—“It’d probably be another four years before we saw it again,” writes Vintage Wings’ Dave O’Malley— managed to repair the damage at its new facilities at Ottawa/ Gatineau Airport. Vintage Wings has no plans to take the Swordfish on airshow tours (though it did appear at Oshkosh); it will operate only from the organization’s home base.

Swordfish trivia: The sobriquet “Stringbag” is assumed by many to refer to the airplane’s many struts and wire braces, but it in fact meant to imply that, like a 1940s housewife’s grocery-lugging stringbag, the airplane could carry anything you could fit into it. And not all Swordfish were manufactured by Fairey; some were built by Blackburn Aircraft under contract, and are informally known as Blackfish.

-Stephan Wilkinson

95-Year-OldAce Flies Again

On December 7, 1941, P-40E pilot James B. Morehead was en route to the Philippines when the ship he was aboard detoured to Brisbane, Australia, where he joined other Warhawk pilots in defending the Philippines. In the course of that struggle Morehead led a memorable mission in which 31 Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers were stopped by eight P-40s. Morehead himself downed two bombers and a Zero that day. After his tour in the Pacific, he volunteered for duty in Europe, where he downed a Messerschmitt Me-109 while piloting a P-38 Lightning. Morehead would end the war with eight aerial victories to his credit.

Some 60 years after his first action, on August 16, 2011, two of Morehead’s old friends, Captain Harold “Doc” Ross and Mike Morgan, arranged a surprise for his 95th birthday. Both men— longstanding members of the Northern California chapter of Friends of the Aces—had contacted Chris Prevos, president of the Vintage Aircraft Company and owner of Sonoma Valley Airport, who owns and flies a restored 1943 dual-control RP-40N. Doc and Mike asked Jim if he wanted to go sightseeing on his birthday. When they drove up to the hangar, a group of his friends were waiting next to the plane. After recording a video interview, Doc, Mike and Chris asked Jim if he wanted to sit in the P-40. He of course said yes. Then they asked,“Are you ready for a ride?” Off went the P-40, with Jim strapped into the back seat.

After a few fly-bys, they made a pass over Hamilton Field, where Morehead had flown P-40s in 1940-41. Once again he was at the controls of the aircraft in which he had become an ace. Words cannot convey what it was like to see his smiling face after they landed. All of us who were there believe Jim Morehead to be the oldest man to pilot a plane that he flew during WWII. It was an honor to see it happen.

-Leon J. Delisle

Air Force Museum to Spread Its Wings

The world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, plans to add a fourth building to the main museum complex near Dayton, Ohio. The 224,000 square feet of new exhibit space is expected to house three principal galleries: a Presidential Aircraft Gallery with nine airplanes, including four that may be toured, which served U.S. presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton; a Space Gallery showcasing the development of the U.S. manned space program, highlighted by the recently retired Crew Compartment Trainer for the space shuttle; and a Global Reach Gallery, featuring transport aircraft such as the C-141 Starlifter Hanoi Taxi and a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy. The project will be supported by funds raised by the newly reorganized Air Force Museum Foundation. For more on the museum, or to take a virtual tour, visit nationalmuseum.af.mil.

Aviation Heritage Invitational Held at Reno

Due the tragic crash of the P-51 Galloping Ghost and the death of longtime Reno fixture Jimmy Leeward at the Reno Air Races on September 16, the 2011 National Aviation Heritage Invitational, held on the 18th, was a somber affair attended only by participants, judges, volunteers and presenters. Awards based on the quality of the restoration work were presented in five categories, with the Rolls-Royce Aviation Heritage Trophy going to the overall winner.

More than 30 vintage airplanes competed, including a trio of Grumman amphibians—a 1945 G-44 Widgeon, 1951 HU-16B Albatross and 1947 G-73 Mallard—and several from the Vietnam era, including a 1952 Douglas Skyraider AD-5 and a 1965 Bell UH-1H Huey. The Huey, restored in the markings of the 25th Infantry Division, with which it served at Cu Chi, won the National Aviation Hall of Fame People’s Choice Award. A 25th ID veterans’ organization from Bend, Ore., owns and operates the chopper.

The winner of the Henry “Hap” Arnold Trophy in the Warbird Category was Texan Rod Lewis’ 1941 Curtiss P-40C Warhawk. Recovered in northern Russia, the warbird was restored by New Zealand–based Avspecs, right down to the functioning fuselage drop tank—the C’s primary identifier (see “Briefing” in the September 2011 issue). Other winners included Alaskan Bob Juranich’s 1929 Command Aire 5C-3 in the Antique Category; a 1954 Cessna 170B, owned by Bruce Rhymes of California, in the Classic Category; and Nevadan Steve Hamilton’s 1947 Mallard in the Large Aircraft Category.

The cream of the crop, taking home the Rolls-Royce of awards, was a 1911 Blériot XI, owned by the CC Air Corporation and restored by Antique Aero of New Port Richey, Fla. Completely original besides a few wooden frame pieces, the Blériot was the handiwork of two teenage brothers from Denver, who, at the dawn of aviation, purchased plans from the Blériot Company and built the entire airplane from scratch. The Blériot has been stored in climate-controlled museums for decades.

As for the future of the NAHI at Reno, Executive Director Ken Perich remains optimistic. “We hope that the Reno Air Races will continue well into the future and we sincerely hope to be back on the ramp in Reno in 2012,” he said. For more information, visit heritagetrophy.org.

-Stephen Mauro


Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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