Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 2015

Blue Bird LSR Car Part 1: 350HP Sunbeam (1923-1925)

By William Pearce

Louis Coatalen was the chief engineer of the Sunbeam Motor Car Company in Wolverhampton, England. In 1913, Coatalen was developing a new aircraft engine called the Mohawk. The engine’s V-12 layout was a first for Coatalen and Sunbeam, and both were eager to test the design. With the combination of a new engine design, unreliable aircraft, and poor weather, a better way to test the Mohawk was devised by installing it in a Sunbeam race car. After some teething trouble, the resulting car, named Toodles V, set eight world speed-over-distance records at the Brooklands track in England on 11 October 1913. The car was driven by Jean Chassagne, and it had a top speed of over 120 mph (193 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP shop

The Sunbeam 350HP shortly after its completion. The engine cowling is bare of the “SUNBEAM” name later applied, and the car is supported on wooden wheels. Note the small windscreen on the scuttle panel. It does not appear that the car was ever run with this screen. The handbrake can be seen extending between the body and exhaust.

In 1919, Coatalen and Sunbeam sought to create a special race car and remembered the successful combination of a light chassis and a powerful aircraft engine. To power the special car, Coatalen took the basic 325 hp (242 kW) Manitou V-12 aircraft engine and combined it with cylinder blocks (with integral cylinder heads) that followed the design used on the 200 hp (149 kW) Arab V-8 aircraft engine. The output of the engine was 355 hp (265 kW), and the car became known as the Sunbeam 350HP.

The 350HP’s engine had the same layout as the Manitou, with two banks of six-cylinders separated by 60 degrees. Each cylinder bank consisted of two three-cylinder blocks made of aluminum and attached to the aluminum crankcase. The two spark plugs in each cylinder were fired by magnetos. Two carburetors were positioned between the cylinder banks, with one carburetor supplying the air/fuel mixture for the front six cylinders and the other supplying the rear six cylinders.

The engine differed from a standard Manitou engine in that the crankcase did not have any provisions for a gear reduction. The bore was increased .39 in (10 mm) to 4.72 in (120 mm), which is the same bore as the Arab. The Manitou’s four-valve per cylinder, dual-overhead camshaft arrangement was discarded in favor of a three valve (one intake and two exhaust) per cylinder, single-overhead design, similar to that used on the Arab. The camshaft acted on a follower that opened the intake valve. Two separate lobes controlled the exhaust valves via rocker arms. The camshafts were driven at the front of the engine (as it was installed in the car) by a train of 16 gears total.

Sunbeam 350HP Thomas

René Thomas in the 350HP at the Gaillon Hill Climb. Note that wire wheels have been fitted. The hill climb required the car to carry a passenger. The exhaust pipe was moved so that an additional seat with a fairing could be attached to the left side of the car. However, it appears that lead ballast took the place of a passenger for the actual run up the hill. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica image)

The engine had a 5.31 in (135 mm) stroke, but it is occasionally cited as 5.45 in (138.5 mm) or 5.59 in (142 mm). The discrepancy is on account of the master and articulated connecting rod arrangement. The master rod provided a stroke of 5.31 in (135 mm), but the articulated rods increased the stroke by .28 in (7 mm), to 142 mm. The 5.45 in (138.5 mm) figure is an average of the two strokes. To accommodate the slightly longer stroke, the cylinder blocks of the left bank were slightly taller than the right bank. The engine displacement if often cited as 1,118 cu in (18.32 L), which is calculated from the 5.31 in (135 mm) stroke. But the stroke difference resulted in the left bank displacing an additional 29 cu in (.48 L), giving the engine a calculated displacement of 1,147 cu in (18.80 L). A hand crank was used to start the engine. Tuned by Bill Perkins at Brooklands, the 350HP’s engine produced 355 hp (265 kW) at 2,200 rpm.

The engine was positioned in the car so that what would have been the propeller shaft faced the rear, and it was mounted to the car’s C-channel frame that was 4.75 in (121 mm) tall and 29.5 in (749 mm) wide. A radiator was positioned in front of the engine, and the four-speed transmission was mounted behind a 22 in (559 mm) flywheel attached to the back of the engine. An open driveshaft connected the transmission to the bevel-drive rear axle. The cockpit was positioned toward the rear of the car. A lever on the outer right side of the car controlled the cable-operated drum brakes on the rear wheels, and a foot pedal actuated a transmission brake. The front wheels had no brakes. Behind the cockpit were tanks for engine oil and fuel, and the car’s body was made of aluminum sheet. The front of the car’s body tapered down but was left open to supply cooling air to the radiator. Exhaust was collected in pipes that ran along both sides of the car and expelled behind the cockpit. A metal underpan attached to the bottom of the frame and helped improve the car’s aerodynamics.

Sunbeam 350HP Thomas front rear

Front and rear views of the 350HP with Thomas in the driver’s seat. The starting shaft can be seen below the radiator. Note the lack of a windscreen, the tapered front ends of the exhaust pipes, and the car’s narrow tail. The handbrake is now on the outside of the exhaust. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica image)

The Sunbeam 350HP had a wheelbase of 10 ft 7 in (3.23 m) and a track of 4 ft 6 in (1.37 m). The car was 3 ft 10 in (1.17 m) tall to the top of the engine cowling and was around 13 ft long (3.96 m). The tires were 34.6 in (880 mm) tall and 4.72 in (120 mm) wide and initially mounted on wooden wheels, but wire wheels were used later. The 350HP weighed approximately 3,417 lb (1,550 kg). The car’s body was finished with a dark green paint covering the nose and tail, and the bare aluminum cowling and cockpit area was polished.

The 350HP made its debut at Brooklands on 19 June 1920 and was driven by Harry Hawker, Sopwith Aviation test pilot and future co-founder of Hawker Aircraft. During a practice session, a front tire blew out, and Hawker lost control of the car. It smashed through some fencing and was not able to compete in the race. The car was repaired and back at Brooklands in August. Again, the 350HP’s potential was not realized when the car stalled, and Hawker was unable to start the race.

The Sunbeam racer was shipped to France where Frenchman René Thomas drove the 350HP in the Gaillon Hill Climb on 10 October 1920. Despite the car being geared for Brooklands, Thomas had better luck in the car than Hawker and set a record by averaging 108.3 mph (174.3 km/h) over the course. This speed broke the old record set in 1912 by German Fritz Erle in the 200 hp (149 kW) Blitzen Benz at 101.7 mph (163.6 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP Guinness

Kenelm Lee Guinness sits in the 350HP at Brooklands in 1921 or 1922. A flat windscreen has now been added in front of the cockpit. Fillers for the oil and fuel tanks in the tail can easily be seen.

Hawker made an unsuccessful attempt on the Land Speed Record (LSR) in bad weather at Brooklands on 11 December 1920. He recorded a speed of 124 mph (200 km/h) covering a half mile (.8 km) and 121 mph 195 km/h) covering a mile (1.6 km). Over the next 1.5 years, the 350HP was driven by a number of different drivers and achieved some success at Brooklands, with Kenelm Lee Guinness setting a lap record of 120.4 mph (193.8 km/h) on 28 March 1921. Guinness also covered the Railway Straight half mile stretch at 135 mph (217 km/h) on 24 September 1921.

On 17 May 1922, Guinness and the 350HP set a world LSR at Brooklands, averaging 133.75 mph (215.25 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi) and 129.17 mph (207.88 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km). This was the first LSR for Sunbeam and the last absolute LSR established at Brooklands. The curved track was not able to provide the acceleration distance needed as LSR speeds increased. Guinness also set flying half mile (136.05 mph / 218.96 km/h) and flying two mile (122.11 mph / 196.51 km/h) records. With a substantial amount of wheelspin, Guinness set standing start records covering a half mile in 23.460 seconds (76.73 mph 123.48 km/h), one km in 26.785 seconds (83.51 mph / 134.40 km/h), and one mile in 37.255 seconds (96.63 mph / 155.51 km/h). Guinness continued to campaign the 350 HP throughout 1922 and placed well in various handicapped events.

Like Guinness, Malcolm Campbell was a Brooklands racer and had become interested in setting world LSRs. Campbell was present when the Sunbeam 350HP made its public debut and had seen the car many times at Brooklands. Campbell became infatuated with the 350HP and pushing the record over 150 mph (241 km/h). After some persuasion, Coatalen let Campbell run the car during the speed trials at Saltburn Beach. On 17 June 1922, Campbell recorded six runs along the beach with the fastest timed at 138.08 mph (222.22 km/h), and he averaged 134.07 mph (215.76 km/h) for the flying km (.6 mi). While faster than Guinness, unofficial timing equipment was used, and the speed was not recognized by the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) as a world record. Still, Campbell had proven that the 350HP had more speed available and that he could handle the car. Campbell negotiated with Coatalen and Sunbeam and eventually purchased the 350HP in April 1923.

Sunbeam 350HP Campbell

Malcolm Campbell in the 350HP on Saltburn Beach in June 1922. The car appears to be in the same configuration as when it was run by Guinness at Brooklands.

Once in Campbell’s possession, the 350HP was painted blue, but it retained the polished aluminum cowling. The car was also named Blue Bird, a name applied to all but the earliest of Campbell’s cars. The 350HP was probably the fourth “Blue Bird,” but it was the first LSR car to carry the name—although, it was most often referred to as the 350HP. A few other modifications and repairs to put the car in running order were made by Campbell’s mechanics Leo Villa and Harry Leech.

Campbell’s first run in the 350HP Blue Bird was along the beach on Fanoe (Fanø) Island in Denmark. On 23 June 1923, Campbell recorded a record speed of 136.32 mph (219.39 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi). On 24 June, Campbell focused on the flying mile (1.6 km) and averaged a record pace of 137.72 mph (221.64 km/h), with 146.40 mph (235.61 km/h) being recorded on the outbound run with the wind. Campbell and the 350HP then participated in a few races at Fanoe and won them all. However, the timing equipment used for the record runs was again not certified by the AIACR, and the records were not accepted.

Sunbeam 350HP frame

The 350HP became Campbell’s first “Blue Bird” LSR car. Most likely, the image is from 1924, when the 350HP was heavily modified. Note the separate cylinder blocks making up each bank and the fairing on the handbrake. The car’s body is leaning up against the wall on the left, and the cockpit section is leaning on the windows.

Campbell knew the 350HP Blue Bird had the speed to set a world record, but he also knew that others were trying to break the existing record. To improve the 350HP’s speed, Campbell turned to Boulton & Paul to improve the car’s aerodynamics through wind tunnel tests. In the first part of 1924, the 350HP’s body was modified with an elongated tail that fit over the existing fuel tank, fairings covering the rear suspension, a streamlined headrest behind the cockpit, a fairing added to the handbrake, and a redesigned scuttle panel just before the cockpit to direct air over the cockpit. The tail added about 3 ft (.91 m), making the car 16 ft (4.88 m) long. The modifications were performed by Jarvis & Sons in South Wimbledon. In addition, new pistons were installed that raised the engine’s compression.

To test the improved 350HP, Campbell ran the car at speed trials along Skegness Beach on 19 June 1924 and at Saltburn Beach on 24 June 1924, where Campbell was unofficially timed at 145.26 mph (233.77 km/h). Everything was ready for the 350HP to make another LSR attempt, but the record was pushed higher before Campbell could try again. On 6 July 1924, René Thomas raised the speed record to 143.312 mph (230.638 km/h) driving a Delage in the speed trials at Arpajon, France. The record was further increased by Ernest Eldridge in the aero-engined FIAT Mephistopheles. Eldridge reached 146.01 mph (234.98 km/h) during an extension of the Arpajon speed trials on 12 July 1924.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 1924

The 350HP Blue Bird on Pendine Sands in September 1924. Note the elongated tail, large fairing by the rear wheel, absence of the exhaust pipe, and new paint job. The rear hood strap is unfastened. The new windscreen was later removed.

Campbell made his next attempt on 24 August 1924 at Fanoe. The state of the beach was far from ideal, and Campbell had complained about a lack of crowd control. Near the completion of the first run, the 350HP’s back tires separated from the rims, but Campbell managed to maintain control. Shaken, Campbell had new tires fitted to the back wheels for the return run. During the run, tragedy struck when the front right tire separated from the rim and stuck a young boy spectator, who subsequently died of his injuries. Campbell was cleared of any wrongdoing, but speed trials were never held again at Fanoe.

Back in Great Britain and at Pendine Sands on 25 September 1924, Campbell and the 350HP Blue Bird made another attempt on the LSR. For this run, the side pipes had been removed, and the engine’s exhaust stacks protruding from the cowling were left bare. In addition, a new wind deflector has been added to the scuttle. On a soggy beach, Campbell averaged a record speed of 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) over the two runs covering the flying km (.6 mi). This was the fourth time Campbell had recorded a speed in excess of the existing LSR, but it was the first time his speed was recognized by the AIACR. Malcolm Campbell was now officially the world’s fastest man on land.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird 1925

Back on Pendine Sands in July 1925, the 350HP Blue Bird has a longer, more tapered nose, no windscreen, refitted exhaust pipes, and discs installed on the rear wheels. The engine’s two vertical intake pipes can be seen under the cowling. Campbell looks on as work is being performed by Harry Leech. A happy looking Leo Villa is standing behind the car.

However, others, like Tommy Milton in the twin-engine Duesenberg, had gone faster during attempts that were not recognized by the AIACR, and Campbell knew his international record would soon be broken. Campbell put the 350HP Blue Bird up for sale and planned to focus on creating a faster car. But he quickly changed his mind after hearing of other LSR contenders, notably John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in Babs. Campbell felt the 350HP Blue Bird had a little more speed left. The 150 mph (241 km/h) mark was tantalizingly close, and he wanted to get there before anyone else.

The 350HP was again modified—the side pipes were reinstalled; the new wind deflector was removed along with the spring fairings; a longer nose was installed with an increased taper that decreased the size of the opening to the radiator; and the cowling was painted blue. The car was tested on 8 June 1925 at Skegness Beach with favorable results. On 21 July 1925 at Pendine Sands, Campbell improved his own record by averaging 150.869 mph (242.800 km/h) over the flying km and 150.766 mph (242.634 km/h) over the flying mile. The km runs were 151.482 mph (243.787 km/h) and 150.261 mph (241.821 km/h), and the mile runs were 152.834 mph (245.962 km/h) and 148.754 mph (239.397 km/h).

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 1925

With no leather head covering, Campbell was most likely driving for the press and not making an actual run. Even so, intense concentration can be seen on his face. The shape of the new nose is shown to advantage. Note the small fairing by the rear wheel and that the engine cowling has been painted blue.

Campbell was the first to be internationally recognized for achieving over 150 mph (241 km/h) on land, but he had already set his sights on surpassing 180 mph (290 km/h). Campbell knew the 350HP had reached its limit and had already planned his next LSR car—the Lion-powered Napier-Campbell Blue Bird. In 1925, the 350HP was sold to Ralph Aspden, who sold it to Jack Field in July 1934. The car may have been sold to Bill Cotton in 1936, but it was acquired by G. A. Tuchet-Jesson in June 1941. By this time, a fin had been added to the long tail. In 1944, Harold Pratley purchased the 350HP, which was in a sorry state. The car was cosmetically restored to the Brooklands trim (short tail with green paint) in 1946 by Roots Limited, the company that purchased Sunbeam in 1935.

In 1957, Lord Montagu purchased the Sunbeam 350HP, and it went through an extensive rebuild during 1958–1959. The car was in bad shape, but it was brought back to working order. The original gearbox was gone, but another (although inadequate) transmission had been substituted. The 350HP was put on display in the Montagu / National Motor Museum at Beaulieu and also run under its own power at a few outings. Donald Campbell, Malcolm’s son, drove the 350HP on 14 July 1962 at the Goodwood Circuit.

In 1987, 350HP was rebuilt to Campbell’s 1924 Blue Bird standards. On 2 April 1993, the engine was started for the first time since 1962. A blocked oil passage caused a master rod bearing to overheat, breaking the rod and piston and damaging the crankcase. Starting around 2007, the National Motor Museum worked to restore the engine and car to operating condition. The restoration was completed in January 2014, although the transmission still needs to be replaced, and the museum continues to work toward that goal. The Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird is on display at the British National Motor Museum and is occasionally run for special events.

Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird Pendine 2015

On 21 July 2015, the restored Sunbeam 350HP Blue Bird returned to Pendine Sands to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Campbell breaking the 150 mph (241 km/h) mark. The car was driven by Don Wales, Malcolm Campbell’s grandson, and is very close to its 1924 appearance. The 350HP is displayed at the British National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. (National Motor Museum image)

This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.

Brooklands Giants by Bill Boddy (2006)
Sunbeam Aero-Engines by Alec Brew (1998)
The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
The Record Breakers by Leo Villa (1969)
The Unobtainable: A Story of Blue by David de Lara (2014)
My Thirty Years of Speed by Malcolm Campbell (1935)
Land Speed Record by Cyril Posthumus and David Tremayne (1971/1985)

IAM M-44 sectional view

IAM M-44 V-12 Aircraft Engine

By William Pearce

In 1925, the Soviet Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily or VVS) approached the TsAGI (Tsentral’nyy Aerogidrodinamicheskiy Institut, the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute) and requested proposals for a large, heavy bomber. Under the direction of Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev, the Tupolev OKB (Opytno-Konstruktorskoye Byuro, the Experimental Design Bureau) started design work on the aircraft in 1926, and the government finalized the aircraft’s operational requirements in 1929. The aircraft created from this program was the Tupolev ANT-6, which was given the military designation TB-3.

Tupolev TB-6 6M-44 top

Model of the Tupolev TB-6 6M-44 with its six M-44 engines. Gunner stations are seen outside of the outer engines and in the wing’s trailing edge.

The large, four-engine TB-3 lifted its 137 ft 2 in (41.80 m) wingspan from earth for the first time on 22 December 1930, but plans for even larger and more ambitious aircraft were underway. In October 1929, the Scientific and Technical Committee of the Air Force (Nauchno-tekhnicheskiy komitet upravleniya Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily or NTK UVVS) instructed Tupolev to design bombers capable of carrying a 10-tonne (22,046 lb) and a 25-tonne (55,116 lb) payload. With a 177 ft 2 in (54 m) wingspan, the 10-tonne bomber became the ANT-16, which was given the military designation TB-4. The 25-tonne bomber had a 311 ft 8 in (95 m) wingspan and became the ANT-26, which was given the military designation TB-6. However, this line of developing very large aircraft, the TB-6 in particular, quickly illustrated that there was a lack of powerful engines and that numerous smaller engines were required for the aircraft. The TB-4 required six 800 hp (597 kW) engines, and the TB-6 required twelve 830 hp (619 kW) engines. If an engine with a 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) output could be built, not only could it power these large aircraft, but it would also simplify their construction, maintenance, and control.

Back in 1928, the TsAGI had realized the need for more powerful engines and initiated work on a single-cylinder test engine to precede the design of a large, high-power bomber engine. This test engine was designated M-170; “170” was the anticipated horsepower (127 kW) output of the cylinder. The results were encouraging, and in 1930, the Institute of Aviation Motors (Institut aviatsionnogo motorostroyeniya or IAM) was tasked with the construction of a V-12 engine based on the M-170 cylinder. The 12-cylinder engine was designated M-44, and the single-cylinder test engine was renamed M-170/44.

The design of the M-44 was initiated in February 1931 under the supervision of N. P. Serdyukov. The design progressed rapidly and was completed in May. The M-44 was a four-stroke, water-cooled, 60-degree V-12. Based on a sectional drawing, the crankcase was split horizontally with main bearing caps for the crankshaft machined integral into the lower half of the case. The main bearings were secured by long bolts that passed through the lower crankcase half and screwed into the upper half. The crankshaft accommodated side-by-side connecting rods with flat-top aluminum pistons.

IAM M-44 sectional view

Sectional drawing of the IAM M-44 reveals some of the engine’s inner workings. The design was fairly conventional, just extremely large. Unfortunately, no images or other drawings of the engine have been found.

The individual steel cylinders were secured to the crankcase via hold down studs. A steel water jacket surrounded the cylinder barrel. The cylinder had a flat-roof combustion chamber, and four spark plugs were positioned horizontally at its top, just below the valves. Two spark plugs were on the outer side of the cylinder and the other two on the Vee side. Each cylinder bank was capped by a monobloc cylinder head with dual overhead camshafts. One camshaft operated the two intake valves for each cylinder, and the other camshaft operated the two exhaust valves for each cylinder. An intake manifold was attached to the Vee side of the cylinder head, and individual exhaust stacks were attached to the outer side of the cylinder head.

The normally aspirated M-44 had a compression ratio of 6 to 1 (some sources state 5 to 1). A propeller gear reduction (most likely using spur gears) was incorporated onto the front of the engine. The IAM M-44 had an 8.74 in (222 mm) bore and a 11.26 in (286 mm) stroke. Each cylinder displaced 675.6 cu in (11.07 L), and the engine’s total displacement was 8,107 cu in (132.9 L). The M-44 was the largest V-12 aircraft engine ever built. The engine produced 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) for takeoff and 1,700 hp (1,268 kW) for continuous operation. Some sources indicate that 2,400 hp (1,790 kW) was expected out of the engine after it was fully developed. The M-44 was approximately 118 in (3.00 m) long, 46 in (1.16 m) wide, and 65 in (1.66 m) tall. The engine weighed around 3,858 lb (1,750 kg).

With development of the 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) M-44 engine underway, studies were started to incorporate the engine into the ANT-16 (TB-4) and ANT-26 (TB-6) aircraft designs. Proposals to re-engine the ANT-16 with four M-44s were quickly abandoned so that work could focus on using six M-44 engines to power the ANT-26. This version of the aircraft is often cited as TB-6 6M-44. The ANT-26 design was ordered in July 1932, with construction starting soon after. Delivery of the ANT-26 prototype was expected in December 1935. Some sources state that an even larger, 30-tonne (66,139 lb) bomber with a 656 ft (200 m) wingspan and powered by eight M-44 engines was conceived, but it appears this aircraft never progressed beyond the rough design phase.

The Tupolev TB-6 6M-44 had two engines installed in each wing and two engines positioned back-to-back and mounted above the aircraft’s fuselage. The aircraft had a 311 ft 8 in (95 m) wingspan and was 127 ft 11 in (39 m) long. The TB-6 6M-44’s top speed was 155 mph (250 km/h), and it had a ceiling of 22,966 ft (7,000 m). The aircraft had a maximum bomb load of 48,502 lb (22,000 kg) and could carry a 33,069 lb (15,000 kg) bomb load 2,051 miles (3,300 km). Its maximum range was 2,983 miles (4,800 km).

Tupolev TB-6 6M-44 side

This rear view of the TB-6 6M-44 illustrates the tandem engines mounted above the fuselage.

The construction of three M-44 prototypes was planned, but the first engine was delayed by continued trials of the M-170/44 test engine, which was given a higher priority. The manufacture of the first M-44 engine began in early 1933, and the engine was first run later that year. The second engine was built and run in 1934. Plans to build the third M-44 engine were suspended on account of issues with the first two engines. The M-44 test engines had trouble producing the desired power and suffered from reliability issues. It became clear that the engine was not going to be successful, and the program was cancelled in 1934.

A supercharged version of the engine, known as the M-44H, had undergone preliminary design work in 1932. However, performance specifications for this engine have not been found, and it is doubtful that detailed design work was completed. In 1935, a decision was made to build the third M-44 engine, modified for marine use. This engine was designated GM-44 and incorporated a reversing gearbox. The GM-44 produced 1,870 hp (1,394 kW), but it was no more reliable than the M-44 aircraft engine. The GM-44 engine was cancelled in 1936.

With the M-44 engine program dead, the ANT-26 design reverted back to using 12 engines (1,200 hp / 895 kW Mikulin M-34FRN). However, studies concluded that the multitude of engines created additional drag that impacted the aircraft’s performance, and the engines added so much complexity that the ANT-26 would be difficult to fly and very difficult to maintain. Simply put, the giant aircraft was impractical, and it was subsequently cancelled in July 1934. A transport/commercial version of the aircraft, designated ANT-28, was also cancelled. The ANT-26’s airframe was 75 percent complete at the time of cancellation.

Tupolev TB-6 12M-34FRN

With the M-44 cancelled, the 12-engine TB-6 12M-34FRN was designed to preserve the aircraft’s capabilities with reliable engines. However, one would question the practicality of such an aircraft. Note the set of tandem engines that was placed above each wing.

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Caproni Ca90 side

Caproni Ca.90 Heavy Bomber

By William Pearce

Giovanni (Gianni) Caproni founded his first aircraft company in 1908. From the start, Caproni and his company leaned toward the production of large aircraft, typically bombers. By 1929, Caproni and engineer Dino Giuliani had designed the world’s largest landplane, the Caproni Ca.90.

Caproni Ca90 side

The Caproni Ca.90 was a huge aircraft. The aircraft’s tires are taller than the bystanders. Note the servo tab trailing behind the aileron used to balance the aircraft’s controls. Note the radiators for the front engines immediately behind the propellers.

The Ca.90 was conceived as a heavy bomber and was often referred to as the Ca.90 PB or 90 PB. The “PB” stood for Pesante Bombardiere (Heavy Bomber). The aircraft was a large biplane taildragger powered by three pairs of tandem engines. The Ca.90 was built upon lessons learned from the smaller (but still large) Ca.79. The wings, fuselage, and tail were constructed with steel tubes connected by joints machined from billets of chrome-nickel steel. The steel frame was then covered with fabric and doped, except for the fuselage by the cockpit and the aircraft’s extreme nose, which were covered with sheets of corrugated aluminum.

The biplane arrangement of the Ca.90 was an inverted sesquiplane with the span of the upper wing 38 ft 4 in (11.68 m) shorter than the lower wing. The lower wing was mounted to the top of the fuselage so that its center section was integral with the airframe. The upper wing was supported by struts and braced by wires about 18 ft 8 in (5.7 m) above the lower wing. The ailerons were on the lower wing only. All control surfaces were balanced, and the ailerons and rudder featured servo tabs to assist their movement. The design of the control surfaces and the cockpit layout enabled the aircraft be flown by just one pilot. The open, side-by-side cockpit was located just before the leading edge of the lower wing. Access to the fuselage interior was gained by a large door on either side of the aircraft below the cockpit.

Caproni Ca90 frame

The partially finished airframe of the Ca.90. The cylindrical tanks are for fuel, with 11 in the nose, one visible in wing center section, and four vertically mounted between the rear engines. The open space in the middle of the fuselage is the bomb bay. An oil tank can be seen between the engines. The radiator for the rear engine is in place. Note the radiator under the struts for the center engines.

The Ca.90 was powered by six Isotta Fraschini Asso 1000 direct-drive engines. The Asso 1000 was a water-cooled W-18 engine that produced 1,000 hp (746 kW). The six engines were mounted in three push-pull pairs. A pair of engines was mounted on each wing just above the main landing gear. Another pair of engines was mounted on struts midway between the upper and lower wings. The front engines all had radiators mounted behind their propellers. The rear, wing-mounted engines had radiators attached to wing-support struts. The rear-facing center engine had its radiator positioned under the suspended engine gondola. All radiators had controllable shutters to regulate engine temperature. Engine oil tanks were positioned between each engine pair. The front engines turned two-blade propellers, and the rear engines turned four-blade propellers. All propellers had a fixed pitch and were made of wood.

The bomber was protected by seven gunner stations: one in the nose, one atop the upper wing, two in the upper fuselage, one on each side of the fuselage, and one in a ventral gondola that was lowered from the fuselage. However, it appears only the nose, upper wing, and upper fuselage stations were initially completed, with the side stations completed later. It is doubtful that machine guns were ever installed. The Ca.90 was designed to carry up to 17,637 lb (8,000 kg) of bombs in an internal bomb bay that was located behind the cockpit.

Caproni Ca90 close

Close-up view of the Ca.90’s nose illustrates the corrugated aluminum sheets covering the nose, fuselage under the cockpit, and top of the fuselage between the nose and cockpit. Note the large access door. The three holes under each engine are carburetor intakes.

The aircraft’s fuel was carried in 23 cylindrical tanks—11 tanks were positioned between the nose gunner station and the cockpit; eight tanks were located in the lower wing center-section just behind the cockpit; and four tanks were immediately aft of the bomb bay. The aircraft was supported by two sets of fixed double main wheels. The strut-mounted main gear was positioned below the wing-mounted engines. The main landing gear was given a wide track of about 16 ft 3 in (8 m) to enable operating from rough ground. The main wheels were 6 ft 7 in (2.0 m) in diameter and 16 in (.4 m) wide. The tailwheel was positioned below the rudder.

The Caproni Ca.90 had a lower wingspan of 152 ft 10 in (46.58 m) and an upper wingspan of 114 ft 6 in (34.90 m). The aircraft was 88 ft 5 in (26.94 m) long and stood 35 ft 5 in (10.80 m) tall. The Ca.90 had a top speed of 127 mph (205 km/h) and a landing speed of 56 mph (90 km/h). The aircraft had a ceiling of 14,764 ft (4,500 m) and a maximum range of 1,243 miles (2,000 km), or a range of approximately 870 miles (1,400 km) with a 17,637 lb (8,000 kg) bomb load. Empty, the Ca.90 weighed 33,069 lb (15,000 kg). Its useful load was 33,069–44,092 lb (15,000–20,000 kg) depending on which safety factor was used, giving the aircraft a maximum weight of 66,137–77,162 lb (30,000–35,000 kg).

Caproni Ca90 side paint

The Ca.90 in its final form with a (blue) painted nose, side gunner positions, and aerodynamic fairings for the main wheels. Note the dorsal gunner positions in the upper fuselage, and the new servo tab on the rudder. Another Caproni aircraft (Ca.79?) can be seen flying in the background.

The Ca.90 was first flown on 13 October 1929. Domenico Antonini was the pilot for that flight, and he conducted all test flying, which demonstrated that the massive aircraft had light controls and did not have any major issues. On 22 February 1930, Antonini took off in the Ca.90 with a 22,046 lb (10,000 kg) payload and set six world records:
1) 2) Altitude with 7,500 and 10,000 kg (16,535 and 22,046 lb) of unusable load at 3,231 m (10,600 ft);
3) 4) 5) Duration with 5,000; 7,500; and 10,000 kg (11,023; 16,535; and 22,046 lb) of unusable load at 1 hour and 31 minutes;
6) Maximum unusable load at 2,000 m (6,562 ft) of altitude at 10,000 kg (22,046 lb).

The aircraft was passed to the 62ª Squadriglia Sperimentale Bombardamento Pesante (62nd Heavy Bombardment Experimental Squadron) for further testing. Around this time, the aircraft was repainted, side (waist) gunner positions were completed, and aerodynamic fairings were added to the main wheels.

Italo Balbo, head of the Ministero dell’Aeronautica (Italian Air Ministry), was not a supporter of large-scale bombing using heavy bombers and did not pursue the Ca.90. Caproni had proposed that the aircraft could be reconfigured to cover long-distance international routes as a transport with up to 100 seats or as a mail plane, but no conversion took place. An attempt to market the Ca.90 in the United States was made under a joint venture with the Curtiss Airplane and Motor Company, but the Great Depression had curtailed military spending, and there was little interest in the aircraft. A flying boat version was designed and designated Ca.91, but this aircraft was never built. Only one Ca.90 prototype was built, and it remains the largest biplane ever flown.

Caproni Ca90 takeoff

A rare image of the Ca.90 airborne shortly after takeoff. A slight trail of dark smoke is visible from the engines, perhaps from a rich mixture.

The Caproni “90 P.B.” Military Airplane, NACA Aircraft Circular No. 121 (July 1930)
Gli Aeroplani Caproni by Gianni Caproni (1937)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1931 by C. G. Grey (1931)
Italian Civil and Military Aircraft 1930-1945 by Jonathan W. Thompson (1963)
Aeroplani Caproni by Rosario Abate, Gregory Alegi, and Giorgio Apostolo (1992)
“The Caproni 90 PB” Flight (9 January 1931)

Isotta Fraschini Asso 750 front

Isotta Fraschini W-18 Aircraft and Marine Engines

By William Pearce

In late 1924, the Italian firm Isotta Fraschini responded to a Ministero dell’Aeronautica (Italian Air Ministry) request for a 500 hp (373 kW) aircraft engine by designing the liquid-cooled, V-12 Asso 500. Designed by Giustino Cattaneo, the Asso 500 proved successful and was used by Cattaneo as the basis for a line of Asso (Ace) engines developed in 1927. Ranging from a 250 hp (186 kW) inline-six to a 750 hp (559 kW) W-18, the initial Asso engines shared common designs and common parts wherever possible.

Isotta Fraschini Asso 750 front

The direct drive Isotta Fraschini Asso 750 was the first in a series of 18-cylinder engines that would ultimately be switched to marine use and stay in some form of production for over 90 years.

The Isotta Fraschini Asso 750 W-18 engine consisted of three six-cylinder banks mounted to a two-piece crankcase. The center cylinder bank was in the vertical position, and the two other cylinder banks were spaced at 40 degrees from the center bank. The cylinder bank spacing reduced the 18-cylinder engine’s frontal area to just slightly more than a V-12.

The Asso 750’s crankcase was split horizontally at the crankshaft and was cast from Elektron, a magnesium alloy. A shallow pan covered the bottom of the crankcase. The six-throw crankshaft was supported by eight main bearings. On each crankshaft throw was a master rod that serviced the center cylinder bank. Articulating rods for the other two cylinder banks were mounted on each side of the master rod. A double row ball bearing acted as a thrust bearing on the propeller shaft and enabled the engine to be installed as either a pusher or tractor.

The individual cylinders were forged from carbon steel and had a steel water jacket that was welded on. The cylinders had a closed top with openings for the valves. The monobloc cylinder head was mounted to the top of the cylinders, with one cylinder head serving each bank of cylinders. The cylinder compression ratio was 5.7 to 1. The cylinder head was made from cast aluminum and held the two intake and two exhaust valves for each cylinder. The valves were actuated by dual overhead camshafts, with one camshaft controlling the intake valves and the other camshaft controlling the exhaust valves (except for the center bank). A single lobe on the camshaft acted on a rocker and opened the two corresponding valves for that cylinder. The camshafts for each cylinder bank were driven at the rear of the cylinder head. One camshaft of the cylinder bank was driven via beveled gears by a vertical drive shaft, and the second camshaft was geared to the other driven camshaft. The valve cover casting was made from Elektron.

Isotta Fraschini Asso 750 RC35 crankcase

The cylinder row, upper crankcase, and cylinder head (inverted) of an Asso 750 RC35 with gear reduction. The direct drive Asso 750 was similar except for the shape of the front (right side) of the crankcase. Note the closed top cylinders. The small holes between the studs in the cylinder top were water passageways that communicated with ports on the cylinder head.

Three carburetors were mounted to the outer side of each outer cylinder bank. The intake and exhaust ports of the outer cylinder banks were on the same side. The intake and exhaust ports of the center cylinder bank were rather unusual. When viewed from the rear, the exhaust ports for the rear three cylinders of the center bank were on the right, and the intake ports were on the left. The front three cylinders were the opposite, with their exhaust ports on the left and their intake ports on the right. This configuration gave the cylinders for the center bank crossflow heads, but it also meant that each camshaft controlled half of the intake valves and half of the exhaust valves. A manifold attached to the inner side of the left cylinder bank collected the air/fuel mixture that had flowed through passageways in the left cylinder head and delivered the charge to the rear three cylinders of the center bank. The right cylinder bank had the same provisions but delivered the mixture to the front three cylinders of the center bank. Presumably, the 40-degree cylinder bank angle did not allow enough room to accommodate carburetors for the middle cylinder bank.

The two spark plugs in each cylinder were fired by two magnetos positioned at the rear of the engine and driven by the camshaft drive. From the rear of the engine, the firing order was 1 Left, 6 Center, 1 Right, 5L, 2C, 5R, 3L, 4C, 3R, 6L, 1C, 6R, 2L, 5C, 2R, 4L, 3C, and 4R. A water pump positioned below the magnetos circulated water into a manifold along the base of each cylinder bank. The manifold distributed water into the water jacket for each individual cylinder. The water flowed up through the water jacket and into the cylinder head. Another manifold took the water from each cylinder head to the radiator for cooling. Starting the Asso 750 was achieved with an air starter.

Motore Isotta Fraschini Asso 750

Two views of the direct drive Asso 750 displayed at the Museo nazionale della scienza e della tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. Note the three exhaust stacks visible on the center cylinder bank. The front image of the engine illustrates the lack of space between the cylinder banks, which were set at 40 degrees. (Alessandro Nassiri images via Wikimedia Commons)

The Isotta Fraschini Asso 750 had a bore of 5.51 in (140 mm), a stroke of 6.69 in (170 mm), and a total displacement of 2,875 cu in (47.1 L). The original, direct drive Asso 750 produced 750 hp (599 kW) at 1,600 rpm, and weighed 1,279 lb (580 kg). An improved version of the Asso 750 was soon built that produced 830 hp (619 kW) at 1,700 rpm and 900 hp (671 kW) at 1,900 rpm. This engine weighed 1,389 lb (630 kg). The direct drive Asso 750 was 81 in (2.06 m) long, 40 in (1.02 m) wide, and 42 in (1.07 m) tall.

A version of the Asso 750 with a spur gear reduction for the propeller was developed and was sometimes referred to as the Asso 850 R. Available gear reductions were .667 and .581, and the gear reduction resulted in the crankshaft having only seven main bearings. The Asso 850 R produced 850 hp (634 kW) at 1,950 rpm, and weighed 1,455 lb (660 kg). This engine was also further refined and given the more permanent designation of Asso 750 R. The 750 R had a .658 gear reduction. The engine produced 850 hp (634 kW) at 1,800 rpm and 930 hp (694 kW) at 1,900 rpm. The Asso 750 R was 83 in (2.12 m) long and weighed 1,603 lb (727 kg).

Isotta Fraschini Asso 750 rc35 front

Front view of the Asso 750 RC35. The gear reduction required new upper and lower crankcase halves and a new crankshaft, but the other components were interchangeable with the direct drive engine.

Around 1933 the Asso 750 R engine was updated to incorporate a supercharger. The new engine was designated Asso 750 RC35. The “R” in the engine’s designation meant that it had gear reduction (Riduttore de giri); the “C” meant that it was supercharged (Compressore); and the “35” stood for the engine’s critical altitude in hectometers (as in 3,500 meters). The engine’s water pump was moved to a new mount that extended below the oil pan. The supercharger was mounted between the water pump and the magnetos, which were moved to a slightly higher location. The supercharger was meant to maintain sea level power up to a higher altitude, and it provided .29 psi (.02 bar) of boost up to 11,483 ft (3,500 m). The Asso 750 RC35 produced 870 hp (649 kW) at 1,850 rpm at 11,483 ft (3,500 m). The engine was 87 in (2.20 m) long, 41 in (1.03 m) wide, 48 in (1.21 m) tall, and weighed 1,724 lb (782 kg).

In 1928, Isotta Fraschini designed a larger, more powerful engine that had both its bore and stroke increased by .39 in (10 mm) over that of the Asso 750. The larger engine was developed especially for the Macchi M.67 Schneider Trophy racer. The M.67’s engine was initially designated Asso 750 M (for Macchi) but was also commonly referred to as the Asso 2-800. The “2” designation was most likely applied because the engine was a “second generation” and differed greatly from the original Asso 750 design.

Isotta Fraschini Asso 750 rc35 rear

The single-speed supercharger on the Asso 750 RC35 is illustrated in this rear view. Note the relocated and new mounting point for the water pump. The supercharger forced-fed air to the engine’s six carburetors.

The Asso 2-800 had a bore of 5.91 in (150 mm), a stroke of 7.09 in (180 mm), and a total displacement of 3,434 cu in (57.3 L). The engine used new crossflow cylinder heads and a new crankcase. The cylinder heads had intake ports on one side and exhaust ports on the other. Air intakes for the engine were positioned behind the M.67’s spinner, with one intake on the left side for the left cylinder bank and two intakes on the right side for the center and right cylinder banks. Ducts delivered the air to special carburetors positioned between the cylinder banks. The modified engine also had a higher compression ratio and used special fuels. Under perfect conditions, the special Asso 2-800 engine produced up to 1,800 hp (1,342 kW), but it was rarely able to achieve that output. An output of 1,400 hp (1,044 kW) was more typical and still impressive. At speed, the Asso 2-800 in the M.67 reportedly made a roar like no other engine.

Isotta Fraschini made a commercial version of the larger engine, designated Asso 1000. With the same bore, stroke, and displacement as the Asso 2-800, the Asso 1000 is often cited as the engine powering the M.67. However, the Asso 1000 retained the same configuration and architecture as the Asso 750, except the Asso 1000 had a compression ratio of 5.3 to 1. Development of the Asso 1000 trailed slightly behind that of the Asso 750.

The direct drive Isotta Fraschini Asso 1000 produced 1,000 hp (746 kW) at 1,600 rpm and 1,100 hp (820 kW) at 1,800 rpm. The engine was 86 in (2.19 m) long, 42 in (1.06 m) wide, and 44 in (1.12 m) tall. The Asso 1000 weighed 1,764 lb (800 kg). Like with the original Asso 750, a gear reduction version was designed. This engine was sometimes designated as the Asso 1200 R. The gear reduction speeds available were .667 and .581. The Asso 1200 R produced 1,200 hp (895 kW) at 1,950 rpm and weighed 2,116 lb (960 kg).

Isotta Fraschini Asso 1000

The Isotta Fraschini Asso 1000 was very similar to the Asso 750. Note the intake manifolds between the cylinder banks, each taking the air/fuel mixture from one of the outer banks and feeding half of the center bank.

The Asso 750 and Asso 1000 engines were used in a variety of aircraft, but most of the aircraft were either prototypes or had a low production count. For the Asso 750, its most famous applications were the single engine Caproni Ca.111 reconnaissance aircraft (over 150 built) and the twin engine Savoia-Marchetti S.55 double-hulled flying boat. Over 200 S.55s were built, but only the S.55X variant was powered by the Asso 750. Twenty-five S.55X aircraft were built, and in 1933, 24 S.55X aircraft made a historic formation flight from Orbetello, Italy to Chicago, Illinois. The Asso 750 powered many aircraft to numerous payload and distance records. Six direct-drive Asso 1000 engines were used to power the Caproni Ca.90 bomber, which was the world’s largest landplane when it first flew in October 1929. The Ca.90 set six payload records on 22 February 1930.

Although not a complete success in aircraft, the Asso 1000 found its way into marine use as the Isotta Fraschini ASM 180, 181, 183 and 184 engines. ASM was originally written as “As M” and stood for Asso Marini (Ace Marine). The marine engines had water-cooled exhaust pipes and a reversing gearbox coupled to the propeller shaft. The Isotta Fraschini marine engines were used in torpedo boats before, during, and after World War II by Italy, Sweden, and Britain.

Isotta Fraschini ASM 184

The Isotta Fraschini ASM 184 engine with its large, water-cooled exhaust manifolds and drive gearbox. Note that the center bank only has its rear (left) cylinders feeding into the visible exhaust manifold. One of the two centrifugal superchargers can be seen at the rear of the engine. The engine is on display at the Museo Nicolis in Villafranca di Verona. (Stefano Pasini image)

The ASM 180 and 181 were developed around 1933, and produced 900 hp (671 kW) at 1,800 rpm. Refinement of the ASM 181 led to the ASM 183, which produced 1,150 hp (858 kW) at 2,000 rpm. Development of the ASM 184 started around 1940; it was a version of the ASM 183 that featured twin centrifugal superchargers mounted to the rear of the engine. The ASM 184 engine produced 1,500 hp (1,119 kW) at 2,000 rpm. Around 1950, production of the ASM 184 was continued by Costruzione Revisione Motori (CRM) as the CRM 184. In the mid-1950s, the engine was modified with fuel injection into the supercharger compressors and became the CRM 185. The CRM 185 produced 1,800 hp (1,342 kW) at 2,200 rpm.

CRM continued development of the W-18 platform and created a diesel version of the engine. Designated 18 D, the engine retained the same bore, stroke, and basic configuration as the Asso 1000 and earlier ASM engines. However, the 18 D was made of cast iron, had revised cylinder heads, and had a compression ratio of 14 to 1. The revised cylinder head was much taller and incorporated extra space between the valve springs and the valve heads. The valve stems were elongated, and a pre-combustion chamber was positioned between the valve stems and occupied the extra space in the head. Some versions of the engine have a fuel injection pump consisting of three six-cylinder distributors driven from the rear of the engine, while other versions have a common rail fuel system.

CRM 18 D engines

Four CRM 18 D engines, which can trace their heritage back to the Asso 1000. The three engines on the left use mechanical fuel injection with three distribution pumps. The engine on the right has a common fuel rail. Note the three turbochargers at the front of each engine. (CRM Motori image)

The exhaust gases for each bank were collected and fed through a turbocharger at the front of the engine (some models had just two turbochargers). Pressurized air from the turbochargers passed through an aftercooler and was then fed into two induction manifolds. Each of the manifolds had three outlets. The front and rear outlets were connected to the outer cylinder bank, and the middle outlet was connected to the center bank. For the center bank, induction air for the rear three cylinders was provided by the left manifold, and the front three cylinder received their air from the right manifold.

Various versions of the 18 D were designed, the most powerful being the 18 D BR3-B. The BR3-B had a maximum output of 2,367 hp (1,765 kW) at 2,300 rpm and a continuous output of 2,052 hp (1,530 kW) at 2,180 rpm. The engine had a specific fuel consumption of .365 lb/hp/hr (222 g/kW/h). The BR3-B was 96 in (2.45 m) long, 54 in (1.37 m) wide, 57 in (1.44 m) tall, and weighed 4,740 lb (2,150 kg) without the drive gearbox. CRM, now known as CRM Motori Marini, continues to market 18 D engines.

Isotta Fraschini Asso L180

Other than having a W-18 layout, the Isotta Fraschini L.180 did not share much in common with the Asso 750 or 1000. However, the two-outlet supercharger suggests a similar induction system to the earlier engines. Note the gear reduction’s hollow propeller shaft and the mounts for a cannon atop the engine.

In the late 1930s, Isotta Fraschini revived the W-18 layout with an entirely new aircraft engine known as the Asso L.180 (or military designation L.180 IRCC45). The Asso L.180 was an inverted W-18 (sometimes referred to as an M-18) that featured supercharging and a propeller gear reduction. The engine’s layout and construction were similar to that of the earlier W-18 engines. One source states the cylinder banks were spaced at 45 degrees. With nine power pulses for each crankshaft revolution, this is off from the ideal of having cylinders fire at 40-degree intervals (like the earlier W-18 engines) and may be a misprint. The crankshaft was supported by seven main bearings in a one-piece aluminum crankcase. The spur gear reduction turned at .66 crankshaft speed and had a hollow propeller shaft to allow an engine-mounted cannon to fire through the propeller hub. The single-speed supercharger turned at 10 times crankshaft speed.

The Isotta Fraschini L.180 had a 5.75 in (146 mm) bore and a 6.30 in (160 mm) stroke. The engine displaced 2,942 cu in (48.2 L) and had a compression ratio of 6.4 to 1. The L.180 had a takeoff rating of 1,500 hp (1,119 kW) at 2,360 rpm, a maximum output of 1,690 hp (1,260 kW) at 2,475 rpm at 14,764 ft (4,500 m), and a cruising output of 1,000 hp (746 kW) at 1,900 rpm at 14,764 ft (4,500 m). It is doubtful that the L.180 proceeded much beyond the mockup phase.

A number of Isotta Fraschini aircraft and marine engines are preserved in various museums and private collections. Some marine engines are still in operation, and the German tractor pulling group Team Twister uses a modified Isotta Fraschini W-18 engine in its Dabelju tractor.

Dabelju IF W-18 57L

The modified Isotta Fraschini W-18 in Team Twister’s Dabelju. The engine’s heads have been modified to have individual intake and exhaust ports. These crossflow heads are similar in concept to the heads used on the Macchi M.67’s engine. (screenshot of Johannes Meuleners Youtube video)

Isotta Fraschini Aviation (undated catalog, circa 1930)
Isotta Fraschini Aviation (1929)
Isotta Fraschini Aviazione (undated catalog, circa 1931)
Istruzioni per l’uso del motore Isotta-Fraschini Tipo Asso 750 (1931)
Istruzioni per l’uso del motore Isotta-Fraschini Tipo Asso 750 R (1934)
Istruzioni per l’uso del motore Isotta-Fraschini Tipo Asso 750 RC 35 (1936)
Istruzioni per l’uso del motore Isotta-Fraschini Tipo Asso 1000 (1929)
Aeronuatica Militare Museo Storico Catalogo Motori by Oscar Marchi (1980)
Aircraft Engines of the World 1941 by Paul H. Wilkinson (1941)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1931 by C. G. Grey (1931)

LWF H Owl nose 1923

LWF Model H Owl Mail Plane / Bomber

By William Pearce

In 1915, the Lowe, Willard & Fowler Engineering Company was formed in College Point, Long Island, New Work. Of the founders, Edward Lowe, provided the financing; Charles Willard was the engineer and designer; and Robert Fowler served as the shop foreman, head pilot, and salesman. Willard was previously employed by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company and had developed a technique for molding laminated wood to form a monocoque fuselage. Willard was eventually granted U.S. patent 1,394,459 for his fuselage construction process. Previously in 1912, Fowler became the first person to fly west-to-east across the United States.

LWF H Owl nose

The LWF Model H Owl in its original configuration with six main wheels. The engine on the central nacelle has a spinner, a single service platform, and a separate radiator. Note the numerous drag inducing struts and braces for the wings, nacelle, and booms.

The business partnership was short-lived. In 1916, Fowler and Willard left the company, and Lowe assumed control, renaming the company LWF Engineering. By this time, LWF had become well-known for its molded wood construction process. However, management changed again as other financiers forced Lowe out. In 1917, the firm was reorganized as the LWF Engineering Company, with “Laminated Wood Fuselage” taking over the LWF initials.

By 1919, LWF began design work on a large trimotor aircraft intended for overnight mail service between New York City and Chicago, Illinois. Other uses for the aircraft were as a transport or bomber. Designated the Model H (some sources say H-1), construction began before an interested party came forward to finance the project. Because of its intended use for overnight mail service, the aircraft was given the nickname “Owl.” As construction continued, the United States Post Office Department declined to support the Model H. However, LWF was able to interest the United States Army Air Service, which purchased the aircraft on 16 April 1920. The Model H was assigned the serial number A.S.64012.

LWF H Owl rear

In the original configuration, the Owl’s cockpit was just behind the trailing edge of the wing, and visibility was rather poor. Note the aircraft’s two horizontal stabilizers and three rudders. The smooth surface finish of the booms is well illustrated.

The LWF Model H Owl was designed by Raoul Hoffman and Joseph Cato. Although the Owl’s design bore some resemblance to contemporary large aircraft from Caproni, there is nothing that suggests the similarities were anything more than superficial. The Model H had a central nacelle pod that was 27 ft (8.23 m) long and contained a 400 hp (298 kW) Liberty V-12 positioned in the nose of the pod. The cockpit was positioned in the rear half of the pod, just behind the wing’s trailing edge. The cockpit’s location did not result in very good forward visibility. Accommodations were provided for two pilots, a radio operator, and a mechanic. Mounted 10 ft (3.05 m) to the left and right of the central pod were booms measuring approximately 51 ft (15.54 m) long. The booms were staggered 24 in (.61 m) behind and 16 in (.41 m) below the central pod and extended back to support the tail of the aircraft. At the front of each boom was a 400 hp (298 kW) Liberty V-12 engine. Each boom housed fuel tanks and small compartments for cargo. The main load was carried in the central nacelle.

The monocoque central nacelle and booms were made using LWF’s laminated wood process. The construction method consisted of a mold covered with muslin cloth. Strips of thin spruce were then laid down and spiral wrapped with tape. Another layer of spruce was laid in the opposite direction and spiral wrapped with tape. The final, outer layer of spruce was laid straight. The assembly was then soaked in hot glue and covered with fabric and doped. The resulting structure was about .25 in (6.4 mm) thick, was very strong, and had a smooth exterior. Where reinforcement was needed, formers were attached to the inside of the structure.

LWF H Owl in flight

The Owl was a somewhat sluggish flier and reportedly underpowered. However, its flight characteristics were manageable. It was the largest aircraft in the United States at the time.

The nacelle and booms were mounted on struts and suspended in the 11 ft (3.35 m) gap between the Model H’s biplane wings. The wings were made of a birch and spruce frame that was then covered in fabric, except for the leading edge, which was covered with plywood. The upper and lower wing were the same length and were installed with no stagger. The wings were braced by numerous struts and wires. Large ailerons were positioned at the trailing edge of each wing. The wings were 100 ft 8 in (30.68 m) long with an additional 26 in (.66 m) of the 17 ft 8 in (5.38 m) ailerons extending out on each side. The incidence of the upper and lower wings was 4.5 and 3.5 degrees respectively. A bomb of up to 2,000 lb (907 kg) could be carried under the center of the lower wing.

A horizontal stabilizer spanned the gap between the rear of the booms. A large, 24 ft (7.32 m) long elevator was mounted to the trailing edge of the stabilizer. Mounted at the rear of each boom was a vertical stabilizer with a large 6 ft 9.75 in (2.08 m) tall rudder. A second horizontal stabilizer 28 ft (8.53 m) long was mounted atop the two vertical stabilizers. A third (middle) rudder was positioned at the midpoint of the upper horizontal stabilizer. Attached to the upper horizontal stabilizer and mounted between the rudders were two elevators directly connected to the single, lower elevator. The lower stabilizer had an incidence of 1.5 degrees, while the upper stabilizer had an incidence of 4 degrees.

LWF H Owl crash 1920

The Model H was heavily damaged following the loss of aileron control and subsequent hard landing on 30 May 1920. However, the booms, central nacelle, and tail suffered little damage.

The Owl’s ailerons and rudders were interchangeable. Each engine was installed in an interchangeable power egg and turned a 9 ft 6 in (2.90 m) propeller. Engine service platforms were located on the inner sides of the booms and the left side of the central nacelle. The Owl was equipped with a pyrene fire suppression system. The aircraft was supported by a pair of main wheels under each boom and two main wheels under the central nacelle. At the rear of each boom were tailskids.

The LWF Owl had a wingspan of 105 ft (32 m), a length of 53 ft 9 in (16.38 m), and a height of 17 ft 6 in (5.33 m). The aircraft had a top speed of 110 mph (117 km/h) and a landing speed of 55 mph (89 km/h). The Model H had an empty weight of 13,386 lb (6,072 kg) and a maximum weight of 21,186 lb (9,610 kg). The aircraft had a 750 fpm (3.81 m/s) initial rate of climb and a ceiling of 17,500 ft (5,334 m). The Owl had a range of approximately 1,100 miles (1,770 km).

LWF H Owl crash 1921

The Owl on its nose in the marshlands just short of the runway at Langley Field on 3 June 1921. The nose-over kept the tail out of the water and probably prevented more damage than if the tail had been submerged.

Although not complete, the Model H was displayed at the New York Aero Show in December 1919. On 15 May 1920, the completed Owl was trucked from the LWF factory to Mitchel Field. Second Lt Ernest Harmon made the aircraft’s first flight on 22 May. The aircraft controls were found to be a bit sluggish, but everything was manageable. An altitude of 1,300 ft (396 m) was attained, but one engine began to overheat, and the aircraft returned for landing. The second and third flights occurred on 24 May, with a maximum altitude of 2,600 ft (792 m) reached. The fourth flight was conducted on 25 May. Water in the fuel system caused the center engine to lose power, and an uneventful, unplanned landing was made at Roosevelt Field. Modifications were made, and flight testing continued.

On the aircraft’s sixth flight, it had a gross weight of 16,400 lb (7,439 kg). The Owl took off and climbed to 6,000 ft (1,829 m) in 15 minutes. The engines were allowed to cool before another climb was initiated, and 11,000 ft (3,353 m) was reached in seven minutes. No issues were encountered, and the aircraft returned to base after the successful flight.

LWF H Owl nose 1923

The Owl in its final configuration with four main wheels. On the central nacelle, note the new radiator, lack of a spinner, service platforms on both sides of the engine, and the opening for the bombsight under the nacelle. A bomb shackle is installed under the wing on the aircraft’s centerline.

On 30 May, a turnbuckle failed and resulted in loss of aileron control while the Owl was on a short flight. A good semblance of control was maintained until touchdown, when the right wing caught the ground and caused the aircraft to pivot sideways. The right wheels soon collapsed, followed by the left. The owl then smashed down on the right engine, rotated, and then settled down on the left engine, tearing it free from its mounts. The cockpit located near the center of the isolated central nacelle kept the crew safe, allowing them to escape unharmed.

The Model H was repaired, and flight testing resumed on 11 October 1920. Tests continued until 3 June 1921, when Lt Charles Cummings encountered engine cooling issues followed by engine failure. The Owl crashed into marshland just short of the runway at Langley Field, Virginia. The aircraft ended up on its nose, but the crew was uninjured. The Owl was recovered and returned to the LWF factory for repairs.

LWF H Owl rear 1923

The new cockpit position just behind the engine can be seen in this rear view of the updated Owl. In addition, the gunner’s position is visible at the rear of the central nacelle.

While being repaired, various modifications were undertaken to better suit the aircraft’s use in a bomber role. The cockpit was revised and moved forward to directly behind the center Liberty engine. The middle engine had a new radiator incorporated into the nose of the central pod. An engine service platform was added to the right side of the central pod so that both sides had platforms. A gunner’s position, including a Scraff ring for twin machine guns, was added to the rear of the nacelle pod. A bombing sight opening was added in the central nacelle. The ailerons were each extended 10 in (.25 m), increasing their total length to 18 ft 6 in and increasing the wingspan to 106 ft 8 in (32.51 m). The landing gear was modified, and a single wheel replaced the double wheels for the outer main gear. A bomb shackle was added between the center main wheels.

The Owl flew in this configuration in 1922. To improve the aircraft’s performance, some consideration was given to installing 500 hp (373 kW) Packard 1A-1500 engines in place of the Libertys, but this proposal was not implemented. In September 1923, the Owl was displayed at Bolling Air Field in Washington, DC. The aircraft had been expensive, and it was not exactly a success. Quietly, in 1924, the LWF Model H Owl was burned as scrap along with other discarded Air Service aircraft.

LWF H Owl Bolling 1923

The Owl on display at Bolling Field in September 1923. Note the windscreen protruding in front of the cockpit. The large aircraft dwarfed all others at the display.

“The Great Owl” by Walt Boyne, Airpower (November 1997)
“The 1,200 H.P. L.W.F. Owl” Flight (14 April 1921)
“The L.W.F. Owl Freight Plane” Aviation (1 March 1920)
Aircraft Year Book 1920 by Manufacturers Aircraft Association (1920)
Aircraft Year Book 1921 by Manufacturers Aircraft Association (1921)
American Combat Planes of the 20th Century by Ray Wagner (2004)