The LWF (which stood for "Laminated Wood Fuselage") Model H Owl was an ambitious project, but not a good airplane. (Photo from Lightroom Photos/AGE Photostock)
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In 1915 financier Edward Lowe, engineer Charles Willard and shop foreman, salesman and chief pilot Robert Fowler formed the Lowe, Willard and Fowler Engineering Company at College Point, in Queens, New York. Its chief innovation was the development of molding laminated wood into strong, smooth monocoque fuselages. In 1916 Willard and Fowler left the company and in 1917 it was renamed the LWF Engineering Company, Lowe explaining that its abbreviated name now stood for “Laminated Wood Fuselage.” The firm’s most successful design was a two-seater reconnaissance biplane called the Model V, 130 of which were built and served mainly as trainers for the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. Twenty-eight LWF Model Vs were shipped to the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia, some of which fell into Bolshevik hands. The sole survivor of the type is now on display at the Czech Republic’s Aviation Museum at Kbely near Prague.

In 1919 LWF launched its most ambitious project: a giant trimotor biplane designed by Raoul Hoffman and Joseph Cato to fly the night mail between New York City and Chicago, Ill., with the fallback options of serving as a bomber or transport. Bearing a superficial similarity in layout to the Italian Caproni bombers of World War I, the prototype carried its crew and payload in a streamlined pod between the wings. Twin booms extended to the tail surfaces, which included two horizontal stabilizers and elevators and three rudders. The pod and tail booms were all of LWF’s patented monocoque design and each bore a 400-hp Liberty V-12 engine. Wingspan was 105 feet, length was 53 feet 9 inches, empty weight was 13,386 lb. and maximum weight 21,186 lb. Maximum speed was projected at 110 mph, range at 1,100 miles and ceiling at 17,500 feet. The undercarriage held two wheels under each boom and two more under the central nacelle. Officially designated the Model H, in view of its intended role of providing overnight mail service it was nicknamed the Owl.

Prior to being completed for flight testing, it was exhibited at the New York Aero Show in December 1919. The U.S. Post Office Department declined further development of the Owl, but on April 6, 1920, the U.S. Army Air Service purchased it and gave it serial number A.S.64012. On May 15 it was moved to Long Island’s Mitchel Field for testing and on May 22 it made its first flight with Ernest Harmon at the controls. In the flights that followed it was reported sluggish but manageable, but on May 30 a turnbuckle failed and aileron control lost. Although the pilot brought it down successfully, a wingtip hit the field, causing a ground loop that collapsed the undercarriage and tore the left engine from its mounts. After repairs, testing resumed at Langley Field, Va., from October 11, 1920, to June 3, 1921, when Lieutenant Charles Cummings encountered cooling problems followed by engine failure and the Owl crash landed in nearby marshland.

In 1922 the Owl emerged from its second restoration with the double wheels under the outer booms reduced to one each, a car-type radiator added for the central nacelle engine and the ailerons extended by 10 inches each, increasing the overall wingspan to 106 feet, 8 inches. Reflecting the Army Air Service’s bellicose intentions for the Model H, a bomb shackle capable of carrying up to 2,000 lb. of ordnance was installed between the two nacelle wheels and a bomb sight added in the nacelle. The pilot’s cockpit was moved forward to improve his visibility and to accommodate a gunner’s pit with a Scarff ring mounting two .30-caliber machine guns in the after nacelle. The new, more predatory Owl was displayed at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. in September 1923 and LWF gave some thought to upgrading power with three 500-hp Packard 1A-1500 engines, but it is doubtful that they could have improved the bomber’s performance. Whatever streamlining its nacelle and booms offered was cancelled out by the drag produced by the forest of struts and bracing cables holding its wings and control surfaces together. Although the LWF Model H dwarfed all other aircraft at Bolling, the USAS was not as impressed with it as the general public and ultimately decided it was excessively expensive. In 1924 the Owl was quietly burned alongside other rejected types.   

this article first appeared in AVIATION HISTORY magazine

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