Fairchild Aviation’s visionary founder valued innovation above all else.
Sherman Fairchild seemed born to tinker with mechanical devices. When his parents gave him a camera for his 9th birthday, he didn’t take pictures with it; he took it apart to see how it worked. His father, George, ran a business that made time clocks, the machines that workers punched in and out on, and from an early age Sherman was constantly in the shop, messing around with the equipment.
That time clock company was a consolidation of several smaller businesses that his father had renamed the International Time Recording Company. In 1911 he put together another consolidation, buying up a company that made butcher scales and a third that produced punch-card tabulating machines to form C-T-R, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. In 1924 they changed the name to International Business Machines. When his father died on the last day of that year, Sherman Fairchild became IBM’s largest individual shareholder, and remained so until his death in 1971.
Fairchild was an extraordinary man, creative, unconventional and what you might call multidexterous. He hired me fresh out of grad school in 1962 to compile an archive of his career and the history of his various companies, and to write a book that would nail down the complicated story of his life. “Complicated” may understate the case. He was an aviation pioneer, the “father of aerial photography,” a one-time playboy and among Howard Hughes’ few close friends. He was also an inventor, a bit of an architect and someone who could sit across a table from eight or nine engineers specializing in eight or nine different fields and talk to each one of them as an equal. He lived, in short, on the cutting edge, and he always had.
When I joined the dozen people who worked for him personally, he had recently been on the cover of Time and before that the cover of Fortune. He didn’t go to college long enough to acquire an engineering or any other kind of degree, but he subscribed to some 200 technical journals in fields ranging from aircraft design to the technology of sound reproduction, in a variety of languages. He couldn’t read the foreign languages, but he could decipher charts, formulas and design plans.
In the 1960s he was hot news because it was his drive, and his sense of the potential involved, that was getting one of his two major companies, Fairchild Camera and Instrument, into the exciting new industry of semiconductors and integrated circuitry. He had recently put his money behind Robert Noyce to found the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation as a division of Fairchild Camera. Noyce would leave Fairchild a decade later to found Intel.
Fairchild’s father had married into the Mills family, whose most notable member was Darius Ogden Mills, at one time among the richest men in the country. His wife’s money made it possible for George Fairchild to invest in the time recorder company, and it no doubt helped him win a seat in Congress, where he served from 1907 to 1919.
It was his father’s influence in Washington that got Sherman his first break. After contracting tuberculosis, Sherman had dropped out of Harvard to live in Arizona, where it was hoped the dry air would cure him. He came back from Arizona healthy, and wanted nothing more than to get into World War I when the United States joined the fight in 1917. But his history with tuberculosis made that impossible, so he asked his father to recommend him to the Signal Corps, which had an Aeronautical Division.
The Signal Corps officers laughed at him when he first showed up (as an engineer, Fairchild was completely self-trained), but he was a congressman’s son, so they had to give him the time of day. An officer showed him through the Signal Corps labs and explained to him the problems they were having with their aerial cameras. One was a spacing problem with the camera’s take-up reel. Sherman went home, made a few sketches and solved the problem overnight. Fairchild’s first patent was on the device he invented that night to make the spacing on the take-up reel even as the reel’s diameter increased with each photograph taken. Suddenly the Signal Corps was interested.
The bigger problem, however, was the aerial camera shutter. Aerial cameras are sizable; to be of any use they have to take large pictures, and the only way to do so at the time was to use a focal plane shutter, which works by moving a lightproof curtain with a slit in it across the focal plane to expose the film. Because the whole film is not exposed at a single instant, any movement of the subject or camera will distort the image. And in aerial photography, of course, the camera moves constantly—in WWI, at maybe 80 mph over enemy territory, often dodging enemy fire while trying to get a fix on trench fortifications, artillery batteries or field headquarters.
What was needed was a between-the-lens shutter that exposed the image all at once. Fairchild was familiar with this type of shutter, having taken plenty of them apart in small cameras, but nobody had ever made a between-the-lens shutter for a large aerial camera. The lenses were 3 inches in diameter. The metal leaves the shutter consisted of had to move back and forth across those 3 inches in a hundredth of a second, which was considered the longest permissible exposure for an aerial camera. At that speed, with the sudden stops and starts, the metal would routinely bend, jam and tear itself apart.
Young and overconfident, Fairchild told the Signal Corps he could make one that didn’t jam. But this was not to be an overnight sketch. It took him two years, working with a Swedish master mechanic from his father’s firm, to develop the first between-the-lens shutter for a large camera that did the job reliably. By then the war was over, and the military market for aerial cameras had almost disappeared.
But aerial photography had many applications beyond reconnaissance. It would also revolutionize the mapping industry, and it had subsidiary uses in things like archaeology. Seen from the air, for example, farm fields in England revealed ancient patterns of cultivation, still visible in the colors of the soil.
By 1921 Fairchild had built a camera around his shutter. The first aerial camera to take pictures that were not distorted, it included the spacing device he had invented—and the Army Air Corps was willing to pay $2,000 for it. Two years later that first model, the K-3, became the standard aerial camera for both the Army and Navy air services. The Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation was now solidly in business, and it would go on to sell thousands of K-3s and subsequent models. Fairchild aerial cameras were found in Japanese aircraft shot down over Pearl Harbor. They mapped most of South America from the air, and all of North America. Through World War II and beyond they dominated the market for aerial surveillance equipment. Fairchild cameras were used on the first U.S. space flight. They mapped the far side of the moon.
It’s a great business story, but Sherman Fairchild was not, in fact, a great businessman. He didn’t have the patience to handle orders, deal with customers and do all the necessary grunt work that is involved in managing a company. A new product, a new idea always took priority; his willingness to finance Robert Noyce and jump headfirst into semiconductors was typical of his style.
Before George Fairchild died, he wisely hired someone out of IBM to run his son’s company. Sherman was young, and he was beginning to have a good time. Going through his papers, I came across a scrapbook he had kept of theater tickets, invitations to debutante parties and all the rest that goes with being young, rich and unattached, and it was crammed full. He would become a perpetual item in the gossip columns, showing up at nightclubs with this model or that actress, or double dating with Howard Hughes. He taught himself how to play piano by watching the keys move on a player piano, and became a habitué of the jazz clubs, making friends with the legends of the genre. He lived for years in a triplex on New York’s Park Avenue, and held parties there with jazz greats as guests.
But he was an entrepreneur first, a playboy second. He and Hughes would hunch over the table at the Stork Club or Copacabana, talking with each other about aileron design or the strength per pound of spruce versus steel (pound for pound, spruce is stronger), while their bored dates sat there wondering why they were being ignored. The camera business led naturally to the aerial mapping business. Fairchild was the first to create an aerial map of New York City. I’ve seen it: It’s about 10 feet tall and it shows every building, every alleyway in, yes, photographic detail.
When his pilots started to complain about the inadequacies of the planes they were flying, he threw himself into the business of making a better airplane. The first, the 1925 FC-1, was a high-wing monoplane with a heated, enclosed cabin. His pilots loved it. At last they could fly warm. Mapping flights were pretty dull; you flew in parallel rows, back and forth over the landscape. It was the safest of all flying. You couldn’t take pictures in bad weather, so you never flew in a storm, or even ordinary rainy weather; you had to maintain a constant altitude; and since you weren’t really going anywhere, it was difficult to get lost.
Although designed especially for aerial photography, the FC-1 had virtues that appealed to others, too. Its high-wing design dramatically improved visibility, and also made the plane more stable. The wings folded, making it easy to store. In 1927 Fairchild modified the design a bit: The razorback fuselage became square, which added both space and strength, and the airplane could now be mounted on skis or pontoons. So good were Fairchild pontoon designs, in fact, that for a little while the company made racing boats based on them.
Fairchild was now expanding on all fronts. He bought the rights to a radial engine designed by Harold Caminez at McCook Field, the Air Corps’ experimental station outside Dayton, Ohio, and hired Caminez himself to start building and testing engines. These peculiar power plants did away with the crankshaft and connecting rods by feeding power directly from the four pistons to a large figureeight-shaped cam. Each piston fired twice on every revolution of the cam, doubling the power per revolution. The engine had fewer moving parts and was much lighter than a regular radial or in-line engine. But it never went into production. No matter how hard Caminez tried to iron out the problems, the engine vibrated so badly that it threatened to tear the airplane apart.
Fairchild was like that. If it was new and revolutionary, he wanted to be involved. He had an unquenchable appetite for innovation. In the 1930s he became fascinated by the Duramold process, which had been invented by Colonel Virginius E. Clark, another of those geniuses Fairchild was so attracted to. Clark was already known for the Clark Y airfoil, which is still used in model airplane design. Duramold was a process for electronically cooking plywood sheets under pressure in a mold and bonding them together with plastic glues. It was well suited to making fuselages and wings in one piece. Fairchild bought the process, hired Clark and once again launched into the new and revolutionary. In the late 1930s the result was the F-46, a handsome, lightweight and very fast low-wing monoplane for the private plane market, with a skin free of rivets and as smooth as glass.
The trouble was, nobody wanted wooden airplanes. Fairchild understood technology—he loved the experimental and the new, and he harbored a deep passion for solving problems—but he had little feel for markets, for what people wanted. What they wanted was metal airplanes. Planes were getting larger, carrying capacity was increasing, and aluminum gave the public the appearance of safety. At the same time Fairchild was committing himself to wood, Donald Douglas was designing the DC-1.
The only person Fairchild was able to interest in the Duramold process was Howard Hughes, who in 1939 bought the rights to use it in the construction of his infamous “Spruce Goose” giant flying boat. Fairchild himself used the process for the tail surfaces of his PT-19 trainer. It was mostly suited to smaller aircraft.
The late 1920s was Fairchild’s golden age, when he had the most fun with his enterprises. He was building air- planes, his aerial cameras were doing a brisk business, he had begun manufacturing aircraft engines (the Caminez project morphed into Fairchild Ranger engines, which were much more successful) and the aviation industry as a whole was popping.
Fairchild’s FC-2 series pioneered passenger travel in South America, and demand in Canada was so strong that he established a Canadian subsidiary to build them. On skis, they became the bush aircraft of choice in Alaska and subarctic Canada. Fairchild hired flamboyant publicist Harry Bruno to promote the plane. Bruno’s first idea was to spread the rumor that the hollow steel tubes used as the FC-2’s frame were being filled with contraband liquor by smugglers in Canada and flown into the U.S. It was brilliant, but it wasn’t true. Those tubes were lined with oil, not whiskey, to keep them from rusting from the inside out. Fairchild wanted to fly the plane into and out of a tennis court, to demonstrate its short takeoff and landing capabilities, but he could never find anyone willing to let him try.
It was an expansive time, and in early 1929 Fairchild let himself be seduced into becoming part of an unwieldy Wall Street holding company called the Aviation Corporation, one of those conglomerations that look good on paper but don’t come together on the ground. Some 50 separate companies took part in the Aviation Corporation. After the balloon burst in October 1929, and the economy went into free fall, the only survivors were a maker of miscellaneous aircraft products named Avco and American Airlines. Fairchild found himself in the position of having to buy back his own companies. By this time he had moved his aircraft operation from Long Island to Hagerstown, Md., where he had acquired a small biplane manufacturer known as Kreider-Reisner in 1928.
Fairchild struggled like everyone else in the 1930s. The camera company was relatively secure and stayed profitable, but not many people were buying airplanes. He managed to keep the Fairchild Aircraft Corporation alive, just barely, by designing and building a fourseat private plane, the F-24. Fairchild built more than 1,500 of them in the 1930s and into the ’40s. They were sturdy and comfortable, with roll-down automobile-style windows (Plymouth windows in this case), and came with a choice of engines: a 200-hp Ranger in-line or a 164-hp Warner Scarab radial. Raymond Loewy designed the interior, which one pilot described as “sort of like flying your living room.”
Mike Kelly, president of the Fairchild Club, who restores antique airplanes and used to own an F-24, said it’s “not at all a hard airplane to fly.” That may be why so many Hollywood stars bought them. Jimmy Stewart, Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power and Mary Pickford all owned F-24s. During WWII the military used them as auxiliary aircraft, but some of those flown by the Coast Guard were fitted with two 100-pound bombs and were credited with German U-boats kills off the East Coast.
As with the rest of the aviation industry, the war rescued Sherman Fairchild. In 1939 he won a military competition against 17 other manufacturers for a new primary trainer. The PT-19 was an opencockpit, low-wing monoplane that trained more military pilots, it’s believed, than any other aircraft ever built. During the war Fairchild and its subcontractors made some 8,000 of them. Mike Kelly, who flies a restored PT-26 (a Canadian-built version with a canopy), had nothing but praise for its flying qualities: “It handles nicely, it’s smooth in the air, the controls are easy to manage and it has an oleo type of landing gear so you don’t even notice you’ve touched down. It’s a good, husky, well-built airplane.”
As the trainer market wound down, Fairchild turned to cargo planes. Toward the end of the war the company won a contract to build the C-82 Packet, better known as the Flying Boxcar or, to those who flew in it, the “shuddering shithouse.” The C-82 was originally designed to ferry airborne troops to Japan, but the war ended before that became necessary. It did prove useful during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. The Packet had serious problems, however. Its twin booms were weak and occasionally fell off, dooming everyone aboard, and it was underpowered. Fairchild strengthened the booms with dorsal fins, rebuilt the empennage and installed more-powerful engines. The changes were significant enough that the designation was changed to C-119—the Dollar Nineteen. This clumsy-looking beast could carry just about anything. It flew in the Korean War, and was brought out of mothballs during the Vietnam War to become a gunship. Many C-119s eventually wound up in Air Force Reserve squadrons or in air rescue service groups. More than 1,100 of them were built, making it one of Fairchild’s most successful airplanes.
By this time Fairchild himself was no longer much involved in the management or operations of the air- craft company. When I worked for him he had not one but two companies bearing his name on the Fortune 500 list, and between them they employed something like 30,000 people. But he had not changed. His passion was for the new, the untried.
Fairchild lived in a townhouse on East 65th Street in Manhattan designed, with his help, by the great George Nelson. On his Long Island estate he had an indoor tennis facility he had designed in Quonset hut style, with innovative cooling and heating systems. At the Manhattan townhouse his twin baby grand pianos stood on a living room floor mounted on springs, to absorb vibration. Overlooking the pianos was a recording studio where he could tape the jazz greats who still came to play. When he first looked into the recording process, he saw right away that it could be improved upon, so he founded the Fairchild Recording Equipment Company to make sound equipment according to his own theories. His products were extremely expensive; they were also the best in the business.
His passion when I came aboard was for a studio camera that used a front-projection system for snapping subjects against a projected background. The problem here was that all other front-projection systems created a black outline around the subject where the subject’s shadow fell on the screen. He thought he should solve that problem. So he formed a company. He hired employees. He may have known that it would never make any money, but he didn’t care.
It was never about money for him. I once calculated how much money he would have had if he had not sold so much of his IBM stock in the early days to finance his own enterprises. The figure came to $500 million. In 1971 dollars, that was huge. When he died he was worth a mere $200 million, chump change to current hedge fund managers. But no hedge fund manager was ever so creative; none ever held 30 U.S. patents, as Sherman Fairchild did; and I doubt any of them was ever curious enough to take a camera apart to see how it worked, and how to make it better.
Anthony Brandt is a freelance writer and historian whose articles have appeared in American Heritage, The Atlantic, Esquire, GQ, Military History and other magazines. His most recent book is The Man Who Ate His Boots, an account of 19th-century British attempts to discover the Northwest Passage. Further reading: Fairchild Aircraft, by Frank and Suanne Woodring; and Fairchild Aircraft 1926-1987, by Kent A. Mitchell.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.