Trailblazer Frank Hawks set more than 200 intercontinental, transcontinental and intercity speed records.
While flying the 8,000 miles from Argentina to California in May 1935, Frank Hawks was over the Pacific Ocean in a tropical storm at 18,000 feet when the engine of the prototype Northrop Gamma 2-E dive bomber he was piloting coughed and suddenly stopped running. Laden with fuel, the Gamma quickly began to lose altitude. Hawks stretched out the glide as much as possible to slow his descent while applying all his considerable expertise to bringing the dead engine back to life.
By the time the Gamma had dropped more than 12,000 feet, the average pilot would have abandoned the doomed plane and taken to his parachute — but not Hawks. He was not only concerned with his own and his passenger’s safety, but also the plane’s — he had to return the Gamma to the Northrop factory in good condition. He patiently continued to tinker with the engine until it backfired and roared to life at just above 5,000 feet. Despite that harrowing episode, he established 10 intercity speed records and an intercontinental speed record during that flight.
Born in Marshalltown, Iowa, on March 28, 1897, Frank M. Hawks joined the U.S. Army during World War I and became a flying instructor. By the time the armistice was signed, he had been promoted to lieutenant and a short time later was made the assistant officer in charge of flying at U.S. Army Air Service’s Brooks Field at San Antonio, Texas. Hawks did a stint of aerial barnstorming in the United States and Mexico during the postwar years and then flew special charter service routes for Compania Mexicana de Aviacion, piloting a Standard J-1 two-place World War I trainer modified for five-place passenger service by the Ryan Aeronautical Company of San Diego, Calif.
By 1927, U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) Reserve Captain Frank Hawks had found a place in the public eye, having won various competitions. By the end of that year, he had also become the Aviation Division superintendent of the Texas Company, which produced Texaco petroleum products.
Piloting Texaco’s plane No. 1, a Ford TriMotor, Hawks flew a Texas delegation to Mexico and back in January 1928 to promote trade between the two countries. Later that same year he flew the TriMotor on a 51,000-mile nationwide goodwill and promotional tour. That plane was destroyed in a crash, with another aviator at the controls, in August 1928.
In January 1929, Hawks needed transportation to New York. Coincidentally, Lockheed had just completed a new design, the Air Express, fitted with the first NACA engine cowl, and the firm was anxious to display the prototype at a New York exhibition. The company decided to have an experienced aviator fly the Air Express to New York. Conferences between Lockheed, Texaco and Frank Hawks continued into February, when Lockheed and Texaco agreed that the flight could be made coast-to-coast nonstop in an effort to better the Art Goebel record set in August 1928. There was one big problem: The two Air Express wing fuel tanks held a total of only 100 gallons, hardly enough to reach Salt Lake City. That problem was solved by carrying 75 five-gallon cans of Texaco aviation gasoline and 10 one-gallon cans of Texaco Aircraft Oil No. 4 in the Air Express cabin. Oscar Grubb, superintendent of final assembly at Lockheed, volunteered to assist Hawks by supervising the loading of all necessities for the flight, including parachutes, parachute flares, canteens of water, sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. Grubb also volunteered to fly with Hawks and pump fuel from the five-gallon Texaco cans into the main wing tanks during the flight.
The Air Express left the ground at Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport at 5:30 p.m. on February 4, 1929, after a 4,000-foot run. All went well until about midnight, when the engine gasped and sputtered, then stopped; it was out of gas. Oscar Grubb had fallen asleep.
Quickly roused by a shout from Hawks, Grubb frantically pumped gasoline into the wing tanks, and the engine roared back to life. After that scare, Grubb made certain that there was ample fuel in the wing tanks at all times. No more sleeping at the switch.
The pair landed at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, N.Y., 18 hours and 22 minutes after takeoff, thereby setting a new nonstop transcontinental speed record. It was an amazing feat considering their hasty planning, but it was only the first of hundreds of long-distance records set by Frank Hawks.
The resulting favorable publicity persuaded Texaco to follow Hawks’ suggestion to buy the Air Express. A large fuel tank was installed in the cabin, and the entire plane was finished in dark red with white trim and lettering plus a large Texaco star insignia on the wing and fin. Texaco 5, as the refurbished plane was dubbed, was not done breaking records.
The next came on June 27-28, 1929, when Hawks made two unprecedented solo flights in the modified Air Express. Taking off from Roosevelt Field on June 27, 1929, he flew nonstop to Los Angeles in the record time of 18 hours and 10 minutes. After refueling the plane — and with only 7 1/2 hours to rest up between flights — the intrepid aviator headed back to New York, arriving 17 hours and 36 minutes later and establishing three more records. In addition to the east-west and west-east solo records, Hawks’ flights established a round-trip transcontinental speed record of 36 hours, 46 minutes flying time and 42 hours, 46 minutes elapsed time. Landing at Roosevelt Field in the dark without field boundary lights, Texaco 5 rolled into a heavy wire fence but sustained only minor damage.
As a reserve officer in the USAAC, Hawks foresaw the military usefulness of gliders, and he managed to convince Texaco executives that there would be good publicity value in sponsoring a glider that could be towed across the continent. The idea was initially dismissed as ridiculous by government officials, and even experienced German glider pilots declared that Hawks could never hope to cross the Rocky Mountains without an engine. But Hawks would not be discouraged.
The 50-foot wingspan Texaco Eaglet glider was built by R.E. and Wallace Franklin to achieve a maximum speed of 125 miles per hour. It was fitted with two-way radio and a telephone connection with the tow plane. The 500-foot towline could be detached by Hawks from the glider cockpit. The tow plane was Texaco 7, a Waco ASO biplane flown by J.D. ‘Duke’ Jernigan Jr. from Texaco’s domestic sales division.
The flight left San Diego on March 30, 1930, and arrived in New York on April 6, 1930, taking eight days elapsed time and 44 hours, 10 minutes of actual flying time — 35 hours of which Eaglet was in tow, and the remaining 10 hours spent in soaring exhibitions at scores of towns and cities. The only problem during the flight was occasional turbulence, which at one time increased the speed of the glider until it was abreast of the tow plane. Hawks’ demonstration effectively proved the feasibility of long-distance glider-towing.
Hawks then returned to long-distance speed flying. In August 1930, he was assigned a Travel Air Mystery Ship by Texaco to recapture the transcontinental speed record then held by Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Of the five Mystery Ships built, the most renowned was NR-1813, Frank Hawks’ Texaco 13. The plane was created when aircraft pioneers Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, Lloyd Stearman and William Snook started the Travel Air Company in 1924, producing biplanes as well as monoplanes. Their model ‘R’ was a monoplane purpose-built for speed and maneuverability. Even USAAC officials were amazed when they witnessed the model R’s performance at the 1929 National Air Races. Prior to that demonstration, the plane had been kept hidden in a guarded hangar, and no photos of it were released until the races — hence the ‘Mystery’ label.
Capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph, Texaco 13 enabled Hawks to perform wonders. The single cockpit was fitted with numerous testing instruments for the long high-speed flights that were planned.
Hawks’ initial long-distance Texaco 13 flight came on August 6, 1930, when he sped 2,500 miles from New York to Los Angeles via Columbus, St. Louis, Wichita, Albuquerque and Kingman in 14 hours, 50 minutes and 3 seconds. After a brief layover to refuel, rest and make adjustments to the 300-hp Wright air-cooled radial engine, Hawks took off from Los Angeles and headed for New York via Albuquerque, Wichita and Indianapolis in 12 hours, 25 minutes and 3 seconds. This beat the Lindberghs’ transcontinental speed record by more than two hours.
Hawks continued on to establish 35 intercity speed records, including a world record for speed and distance as well as a round-trip nonstop flight to the Arctic Circle. After speeding along for almost 10,000 miles at an average speed of 197 miles per hour, Hawks sailed for Europe on SS Europa with Texaco 13 in the hold on April 1, 1931.
During his 20,000-mile tour of Europe, Hawks established 55 intercity records in 12 countries. He was by now generally regarded as a goodwill ambassador. As a columnist in the British magazine Air and Airways wrote: ‘It seems to be a matter of general agreement in aviation circles that Frank Hawks is about the best that America has sent us. Few pilots in the world have greater claims to fame than he, yet never, I think, have I met one who was less assuming or so genuinely a “good fellow.” Hawks and Texaco 13 returned to the United States in late 1931 and resumed their intercity speed runs, setting 109 more records by April 6, 1932.
Later in 1932 the record-setting Texaco 13 suffered engine trouble during takeoff, resulting in a controlled crash. The plane flipped onto its back, and Hawks suffered facial injuries that required plastic surgery. The plane was a total wreck, but it was subsequently salvaged. (Today Texaco 13 is on display in the Museum of Science and Industry at Jackson Park in Chicago, Ill.)
In June 1932, U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve Captain Frank Hawks exchanged his commission for that of a U.S. Navy Reserve lieutenant commander. He was now Commander Hawks — but he was still flying for Texaco.
With the record-smashing Texaco 13 gone, the company purchased the first Northrop Gamma high-speed mail and special cargo plane for Hawks. This sleek, classic beauty was all metal and powered by a 785-hp, 14-cylinder Wright Whirlwind twin-row, air-cooled radial engine. The plane’s maximum speed was 248 mph at 7,000 feet. Although the company initially called it Texaco 11, it later decided to use the name Sky Chief — a reference to the fact that Hawks had recently been honored by the Sioux Indian nation as a chief. Texaco Sky Chief became the synonym for all Northrop Gammas. In fact, Texaco later adopted the name for its premium gasoline.
Hawks never overworked his plane during his speed dashes, instead attempting to demonstrate the practical, safe speed for commercial air transportation, according optimum consideration to both man and machine in the process. One revolutionary modification that Hawks made to Sky Chief was the addition of the then-new Sperry automatic pilot. He tested the system during his transcontinental dash in the new Gamma beginning on June 2, 1933, when he took off from Los Angeles at 5:51 a.m., headed for New York City. This flight was to be a severe test for the automatic pilot. Hawks controlled the Gamma until he began to cross the Rocky Mountains, then turned the controls over to the robot, which he referred to as his ‘brainless assistant.’ While the robot was in control, Hawks occupied himself with navigation. When the plane reached the Allegheny Mountains, the pilot took control again, landing at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.
The 2,500-mile nonstop flight was completed in 13 hours, 27 minutes, a new transcontinental record. The automatic pilot had controlled the plane for about 60 percent of the flight, thereby proving the invention’s dependability. Two months later Hawks flew using the automatic pilot from Vancouver, Canada, to Quebec City in 17 hours, 10 minutes, despite passing through storms for 600 miles of the course.
Sky Chief was sold to speedboat racer, aviation enthusiast and industrialist Gar Wood in August 1934, and Hawks retired from Texaco the following year. Sky Chief was entered in the 1936 Bendix transcontinental race piloted by Joseph P. Jacobson but did not survive the competition, exploding in flames near Stafford, Kan. (Jacobson bailed out and escaped unhurt).
Hawks remained active as an aviation consultant and a test and demonstration pilot. He also continued with his record smashing, flying another Gamma to explore the plane’s military potential. Northrop moved the cockpit forward, added a gunner’s seat, three machine guns and provision for a dozen bombs under the wing center section. When the Gamma 2-E attack plane was ready to be demonstrated to foreign governments, Northrop naturally turned to Frank Hawks.
The first task was to demonstrate the plane to the Argentine navy. Gage H. Irving, Northrop’s chief test pilot, accompanied Hawks to Argentina. While Hawks was demonstrating the Gamma 2-E, he received a message on May 2, 1935, that he needed to return to the Northrop factory by May 5. Under normal circumstances in 1935 it would have been impossible to cover the 8,090 miles from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles in three days, but with Hawks at the controls it became a distinct possibility. He worked all night planning the trip and calculated that it could be done in 40 hours of flying time while making eight fueling and rest stops on the way.
Taking off on May 3, with Irving in the gunner’s seat, Hawks broke 10 intercity speed records on the way to Los Angeles. This included the 3,430 miles from Cristobal, Panama, to Los Angeles — which he covered in 17 hours, 50 minutes. The entire 8,090-mile flight took 39 hours, 52 minutes, a full eight minutes less than his estimate. That feat resulted in orders for 51 Gamma attack planes. The Gamma design became the progenitor of the Northrop A-17 and BT-1, as well as the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber of World War II.
Although at that juncture he had no plane he could call his own, Hawks hoped for one more go at the record books. He had already made rough sketches of the plane he wanted, and he approached Howell W. ‘Pete’ Miller to design his new dream machine. Miller, who had worked on the design of the famous 1932 Thompson Trophy Race, winning and world speed record-smashing Gee Bee R-1 and R-2 Senior Sportsters, was now chief engineer for the Granville Brothers. Gruen Watch Company sponsored the project — hence the name Time Flies for the new plane.
As the design progressed, it featured sleek, unobstructed lines. The curved windshield was contoured to fit the fuselage top so that, in flight, the seat was lowered and the windshield hinged back to cover the cockpit and fair with the fuselage. The retractable landing gear was the basic fixed Gee Bee design, retracted by rotating worm gears powered by a Crosley automobile starter motor. Entry was via a small door on the right side of the fuselage.
Although the aircraft was not as slender as Sky Chief, the fuselage and generally sleek design belied its structure, which followed the 1932 Gee Bee R-1 and R-2 construction, comprising a chrome-molybdenum steel tubing fuselage frame with plywood formers and wood stringers. The Gee Bee fabric covering was replaced with a plywood skin. The wing structure consisted of three spruce box spars, plywood ribs and a plywood skin — unusual choices since many designers had by then already turned to creating only all-metal aircraft such as the Northrop Gamma. It had been proved in 1924 that metal aircraft structures were lighter and stronger than wooden structures.
Time Flies‘ first flight was made on October 18, 1936, four months after construction had begun at Springfield, Mass. Hawks took off from Hartford, Conn., after breakfast on April 13, 1937, and flew 1,100 miles to Miami, Fla., where he had lunch 4 hours and 55 minutes later. He then flew to Newark Airport, N.J., in 4 hours and 21 minutes to have dinner. Time Flies bounced high in the air upon landing at Newark, and as the wheels hit the runway for the third time a loud splintering crack came from the right wing. One wooden spar had broken, and others were also damaged.
Hawks decided not to rebuild the plane. He also announced his retirement from speed-flying and joined the Gwinn Aircar Company, taking on the title of vice president in charge of sales.
He continued to fly on a regular basis, demonstrating Gwinn’s ‘roadable airplane’ — and that is how he met an untimely death. On August 23, 1938, Frank Hawks and a prospective client were both killed in an accident that occurred shortly after he took off from East Aurora, N.Y., piloting the Aircar. Hawks was 41 years old at the time of his death.
Walter A. Musciano is working on his 22nd book, on the Vought F4-U Corsair. For additional reading: The Air Racer, by Charles A. Mendenhall; Once to Every Pilot, by Captain Frank Hawks; and The Northrop Story, by Richard Sanders Allen.
This article was originally published in the November 2005 issue of Aviation History. For more great articles subscribe to magazine today!