Rosie the Riveters Take Flight
Yes, there actually was a Rosie the Riveter, one of the famous World War II women war workers. Rose Monroe, a young Kentuckian, went to work at Ford’s famous Willow Run bomber factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she battered rivets into the B-24 Liberators that Ford was manufacturing under contract. Monroe became “Rosie” when she was featured in a wartime promo film made at the factory, shot by Hollywood actor Walter Pidgeon, who discovered her working on the line.
Unfortunately, Monroe died just 10 years ago, but she’d have loved what happened at Farmingdale Republic Airport, on New York’s Long Island, this past August. Monroe had wanted to become a Women’s Air Service Pilot (WASP), but they wouldn’t let her because she was a single mother. In the early 1970s, however, she earned her private pilot’s license nonetheless.
On the Friday of Labor Day weekend 2007 (appropriately), five former Rosies, all in their 80s and 90s—the oldest one 93—went for a ride in the Collings Foundation’s well-known and much-traveled Boeing B-17. And I’ll bet Rose Monroe would have been in the Fort’s cockpit demanding some serious seat time, maybe a landing or two.
Josephine Rachiele, 82, would have preferred to take a ride in Collings’ B-24. She had a friend whose father had been a Liberator waist gunner, and she would have liked to be able to describe the experience to her friend. Unfortunately, the Liberator is more difficult to board than the B-17, particularly for elderly ladies. (Yes, the Twelve o’Clock High technique was the flip-and-roll through the head-high nose hatch in the belly, but a Fort can also be entered in leisurely fashion through a side door just forward of the tail.)
Rachiele had worked at Farmingdale, so she knew the field well. She’d been a riveter for Republic Aviation, helping to make P-47 Thunderbolts. “Last time I was in this hangar,” she reminisced as she waited for the flight,“Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra played here. They did two shows that day.
“I didn’t know a rivet from a nail,” Rachiele said, laughing, “and it was so noisy that I was really frightened. The rivet guns shooting rivets and the die presses stomping on metal, it was pandemonium.”
Rachiele’s friend Georgette Feller, 86, had a slight advantage when she joined Republic.“I could tell aluminum from steel,” she boasted.“My father was an excellent mechanic, and I already knew how to use a rivet gun.”
Anne King, who turned 85 the day after the flight, started working at Republic in 1942 and stayed long enough that she ended her riveting career working on the earliest XF-84 Thunderjets. Since King was substantially smaller than the men with whom she worked, her foreman asked her to shinny into the jet’s narrow air intake and set some rivets deep inside. “That guy makes $1.40 an hour and I make $1.10,” she told him. “For $1.40, I’ll do it.” And she did— an early example of feminism at work.
When Wimpy Meant Tough
There are only two restored Vickers Wellington bombers in the world, one at the RAF Museum in Hendon, England, and the other at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey. Only the Brooklands plane saw combat—14 bombing missions over Europe—and it alone has a past that links it forever to the Loch Ness Monster.
It was discovered in 1976 at the bottom of Loch Ness, under 230 feet of water, by a team using sidescan sonar to search for the mythical marine dinosaur. Royal Navy divers confirmed that the shadowy wreckage was indeed a Wimpy—the Wellington’s nickname, thanks to Popeye’s hamburger-loving pal J. Wellington Wimpy—and in 1985 the surprisingly well-preserved remains of Wellington R for Robert were brought to the surface. The loch’s chilly fresh water had been kind to the aluminum.
The bomber had been on a practice flight with six navigator trainees aboard when it ran into heavy snow over Scotland that apparently blocked the right engine’s air intake. Perhaps there was icing as well, for the pilot couldn’t maintain altitude on one engine and ordered the trainees and the rear gunner to bail out. (The gunner was killed when his chute malfunctioned, but the young navigators all survived the jump.)
Very smartly, the pilot and co-pilot ditched the plane in the long, narrow loch when they came out of the cloud cover rather than trying to put it down on land, and they floated to a stop close to the road that borders the lake. They then rowed ashore in their inflatable raft, flagged down a truck and got a ride into Inverness, where they went straight to a pub. It happened to be New Year’s Eve.
Now restoration of R for Robert is complete, or at least as complete as it will ever be: The airframe is intact, but the prop blades are still bent from impact, and some of the fabric fuselage covering has been left off to reveal the Wellington’s unusual geodetic framework— not the conventional rectilinear longerons/stringers/formers/ spars/ribs array, but an open-basketwork crisscrossing of thousands of diagonal aluminum strips that were enormously strong. The web of lightweight metal created a self-supporting structure with numerous load paths. Wellingtons were often photographed after missions that left them hugely holed and stripped of skin, returning to base looking like aerial cheese-graters.
The Wimpy’s geodetic frame was remarkable but ultimately pointless—an elegant but expensive and fiddly way to build an airframe, almost immediately superseded by stressed-skin aluminum monocoque technology. Worse than its complexity was that a geodetic frame needed to be fabric-covered, and fabric ripped, tore, burned, ballooned and otherwise destroyed the aerodynamics of a high-performance airplane. The Wellington? A fascinating dead end.
The Avro Vulcan only went to war once, during the Falklands conflict with Argentina in 1982, and both it and its V-bomber stablemates the Vickers Valiant and Handley Page Victor had comparatively short operational careers, unlike the roughly equivalent U.S. Boeing B-52. The Vulcans went into service in 1956 and were retired 28 years later, in 1984. (The RAF’s own Avro Lancaster, it could be argued, soldiered on in various Lincoln and Shackleton versions for 48 years, from 1942 until 1990.) Now there is one Vulcan flying again, in England, after a professional restoration aided by a civilian organization of volunteers called the Vulcan to the Sky Trust. Vulcan XH558 made just a single half-hour, low-altitude, low-speed hop in October, but two more were planned in order to get the airplane signed off by the CAA (the British equivalent of the FAA) for airshow display flights during the 2008 season. The RAF had operated XH558 as a display aircraft until 1993.
The Vulcans’ Falklands flights came after an epochal trip from their UK base via endless midair refuelings and the remote British base at Ascension Island, where the Avros were loaded with 1,000-pound runway-cratering bombs and sent off to put the Port Stanley airfield, on the main Falklands island, out of business.
On each of the bombing missions, two Vulcans were launched (one for the mission and one in reserve) plus 11 Victor tankers. The tankers refueled not only the Vulcans but each other until there was just one tanker and one Vulcan for the final gassing. In three missions, each of which used 1.1 million gallons of jet fuel, only a single bomb hit the runway, but it was enough to deny its use to the Argentines.
Some claim that the relatively short runway wasn’t of much importance anyway, and that the Vulcan flights were more a shock-and-awe affair, to demonstrate to the Argies that John Bull’s arm had a long reach.
Others say that the RAF missions were undertaken largely to prevent the Royal Navy from hogging all the aerial glory with their flashy Sea Harriers.
Whether rare and irreplaceable artifacts like a Vulcan should be flown, and all too often crashed, in front of airshow crowds is a question for another day, but the bomberless Brits do love the old Vulcan. See the Vulcan to the Sky Web site: www.tvoc.co.uk.
Enola Gay Flight Log Sold
It’s a tiny, nondescript entry in a flight log, but its significance has reverberated now for more than six decades. When Enola Gay navigator Theodore “Dutch”Van Kirk wrote the words “Bomb Away” in his log at 0915 on August 6, 1945, it seems unlikely that he realized the document would one day command more than a third of a million dollars at auction.
Yet that’s exactly what Van Kirk’s flight log fetched— $358,500—at the Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, on October 25, 2007. An anonymous collector of historic Americana purchased the two large folios documenting the Hiroshima atomic bomb mission—a moment when world history changed irrevocably. No word on what the buyer intends to do with the documents, though presumably they won’t be hung over the mantel.
American Air Museum Poster
For the past ten years, aviation photographer Philip Makanna has been donating his time and talent to create a yearly limited edition collector’s print for the American Air Museum in Britain (located at famed Duxford Airfield). The 2008 print features the Lockheed P-38F Glacier Girl and is available for a donation of $35 or more to the museum. Send checks to: American Air Museum in Britain, Attn: Phillippa Wray/Collector’s Print, Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridge, CB22 4QR, Great Britain. Info at http://duxford.iwm.org.uk/
P-51 Poster Benefits Hall of Fame
A commemorative poster created exclusively for the National Aviation Hall of Fame, featuring P-51 Mustang profiles by artist Tom Tullis and sold at the September 2007 Gathering of Mustangs & Legends, is now available directly from the NAHF. The poster was funded by Rolls-Royce (maker of the Mustang’s Merlin engine), and all proceeds from its sale will benefit the NAHF’s Learning and Research Center in Dayton, Ohio.
Thirteen profiles of Mustangs associated with well-known P-51 pilots who have been enshrined in or nominated for the Hall of Fame are showcased, including aircraft of William Anders, Bob Hoover, Robert White, Bud Anderson, Don Gentile, Scott Crossfield and Robin Olds. The red-tailed P-51D of famed Tuskegee Airmen leader Benjamin O. Davis Jr. is highlighted in the print’s center.
The 18-by-24-inch, heavyweight stock poster is available for $25 plus $5 shipping or is free to new NAHF members for a $50 donation ($45 general membership plus $5 shipping). Visit www.nationalaviation.org or call (937) 256- 0944, ext. 11.
Gathering of Mustangs & Legends
There have been plenty of airshows featuring vintage aircraft, and there have been many reunions of World War II veterans, but seldom, if ever, have so many of both categories convened in the same location as they did at the Gathering of Mustangs & Legends at Rickenbacker International Airport, southeast of Columbus, Ohio, from September 28 through 30, 2007. Overshadowing a variety of ceremonies and exhibition flights by the USAF Thunderbirds and such modern air superiority fighters as the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Viper and F-22 Raptor was the sight of some 85 North American P-51 Mustangs of virtually every model and color scheme, from the early P-51A to postwar P-51D racing planes.
Equally remarkable were the scores of former Mustang pilots who turned up to describe their experiences to the estimated 150,000 spectators. The veterans included aces Bud Anderson, Ken Dahlberg, Donald Strait, Jim Brooks, Art Jeffrey, Clyde East, John Kirla, Ernest Bankey, Art Fiedler, Barrie Davis, Kelly Gross, Don Lopez and Alden Rigby, as well as a number of Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group, WASP female ferry pilots and airmen who flew Mustangs in aerial combat, ground attack and photorecon missions in WWII and Korea.
“It was the greatest plane I ever flew—the Cadillac of the skies,” said Roscoe Brown, the first Tuskegee Airman of the 332nd Fighter Group credited with shooting down a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet. As for the Messerschmitt Me-109G and Focke Wulf Fw-190A, Bud Anderson, who was credited with downing 16 of them, said, “I felt the Mustang could outperform both of ‘em; the Focke Wulf had a higher rate of roll, but big deal.”
It is doubtful that a comparable collection of fliers from the “Greatest Generation” will be reunited with their planes again.
‘America by Air’ Exhibit Debuts at NASM
“It tells the story of air travel and its impact on U.S. history, culture and everyday life—from the U.S. Mail to baseball and much more.” With these words, Cristián Samper, acting secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, introduced “America by Air,” a newly opened permanent gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
America by Air presents a detailed history of commercial air travel, beginning with the early carriage of airmail, through the development of airlines in the early 20th century into the jet age and the 21st century. The gallery is divided into four eras: Early Years of Air Transportation (1914-1927), Airline Expansion and Innovation (1927-1941), the Heyday of Propeller Airliners (1941- 1958) and the Jet Age (1958- present).
The new gallery is the first extensive upgrade to a major section of the museum since it opened on July 4, 1976, bringing in new exhibits and, as noted by NASM director General John R.“Jack” Dailey (USMC, ret.), providing “many opportunities for visitors to get involved.”
Visitors walk through each chronological section among floor displays and interactive exhibits, all the while “overflown” by an umbrella of historic commercial airplanes hanging overhead. Displayed from the ceiling in this section of the museum since it opened, and dovetailing perfectly with the themes presented below, these include a Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing, Northrop Alpha, Fairchild FC-2, Ford TriMotor, Boeing 247D and the grand old lady of the skies, the Douglas DC-3, which played a pivotal part in the development of modern commercial air travel in the late 1930s. Closer to eye level, in a takeoff stance, a Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny” represents the surplus World War I aircraft used by barnstormers as well as by early mail and passenger carriers.
Among the new see-touch-feel exhibits, now called “interactives,” are opportunities to walk into the front sections of a Douglas DC-7 airliner and a Boeing 747, a life-size interactive cockpit simulation of an Airbus A320 taking off and landing at nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and a fascinating animated map that presents a compressed day-in-the-life of today’s complex nationwide airline routes—and also shows how Air Traffic Control cleared the skies over the United States in just a few hours after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
One of the “must-do” interactive experiences is a step-on platform that allows the visitor to feel and hear the noisy vibrations early airline passengers were exposed to when flying in a Ford TriMotor—complete with a cup and saucer that rattle along with the visitor’s teeth. Another interesting interactive experience is the chance for a visitor to try on for size and compare the comfort of a 1950s airliner seat with one from today’s “high-density” configuration. A purchase-your-own-ticket exercise demonstrates the economics of different classes of seating. For those who can’t pay a visit to the gallery, many of the interactive displays will be available on the museum’s Web site, www. nasm.si.edu.
-Arthur H. Sanfelici
The Flying Farmer’s Last Flight
October 28, 2007, Bealeton, Va.— shows themselves, but for the past 35-plus years nobody has done it better than Charlie Kulp. At the Flying Circus Aerodrome, Kulp, aka Silas the “Flying Farmer,” bums a ride in a Piper J-3 Cub from an airshow pilot. Under the pretext that he has to fix the tailwheel, the pilot gets out, and the Flying Farmer quickly careens down the strip and takes off. What follows is an astounding demonstration of Silas’ “inability to fly”—or rather Kulp’s amazing piloting skills—as he It’s a routine almost as old as airside-slips over the airfield, comes perilously close to stalling, performs a touch-and-go on one wheel and finishes off with a full loop.
This past fall, on a beautiful blue-sky Sunday, the 82-year-old Kulp performed his last Flying Farmer routine for an appreciative audience—the largest crowd in more than a decade at Bealeton’s Flying Circus. As always the mood was comical, though perhaps this time with a touch of nostalgia. At the preshow briefing, Flying Circus president John D. King quipped to the assembled performers,“If the rest of us were half the pilot Charlie is, we’d all be a lot shorter.” Kulp himself was typically understated before his act, allowing, “It’s the same old show, different day.”
Kulp received his pilot’s wings in July 1943 after taking lessons at Roanoke, Va., and served as a Navy mechanic in the Pacific during World War II. He is widely known for his aircraft restoration work, and in 2000 received the FAA’s Charles Taylor Award as a 50-year A&P mechanic. A founding member in 1969 of the Flying Circus Airshow, where he performed most Sundays May to October, Kulp also took his act on the road, doing his Flying Farmer routine at airshows across the U.S. and in Canada and Great Britain. On November 8, 1997, he was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame.
After Kulp’s final performance, an FAA representative was on hand to present him with a “good friend” award certificate. Evidently the FAA was relieved that the aged Flying Farmer was hanging up his overalls and straw hat, never to steal a Cub again. But as a wise man once said,“Never say never.” More info at www.flyingcircusairshow.com.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.