Category Archives: Aircraft

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)

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)

arsenal vg 33 rear

Arsenal VG 30-Series (VG 33) Fighter Aircraft

By William Pearce

In the early 1930s, some in France felt that French aviation was falling behind the rest of the world. French aircraft manufacturers were not experimenting much on their own, and government-funded conventional aircraft projects were not pushing the technical boundaries of aeronautics. On 2 July 1934, Pierre Renaudel proposed creating a state research institution to study and develop modern aircraft for the French military. The Arsenal du matériel aérien (Arsenal aerial equipment) was formed later that year with engineer Michel Vernisse as its director. When the French aviation industry was nationalized in 1936, the organization was renamed Arsenal de l’aéronautique (Arsenal aeronautics) and took over the Bréguet works at Villacoublay, near Paris, France.

arsenal vg 30

The mockup of the Arsenal VG 30 as displayed at the 1936 Salon d’Aviation in Paris. Note the location of the radiator housing. Otherwise, the aircraft was very similar to subsequent VG 30-series fighters.

One of Arsenal’s first designs was the tandem-engine VG 10 fighter. Designed by Michel Vernisse and Jean Galtier, the initials of their last names formed the ‘VG’ of the aircraft’s designation. The VG 10 was never built and was redesigned and redesignated as the VG 20, which was also never built. However, the design was reworked again and eventually emerged as the Arsenal VB 10, first flown in 1945.

In 1936, the Ministère de l’Air (French Air Ministry) was interested in the concept of a light-fighter built from non-strategic materials. As a result, Arsenal designed the VG 30, a single-seat fighter constructed mostly of wood. The aircraft had a conventional taildragger layout with a low wing and featured retractable main undercarriage. At the rear of the aircraft was a non-retractable tailskid. Originally, the VG 30 was to be powered by the Potez 12 Dc: a 610 hp (455 kW), air-cooled, horizontal, 12-cylinder engine. However, delays with the 12 Dc resulted in a switch to the Hispano-Suiza 12Xcrs: a 690hp (515 kW), liquid-cooled, V-12 engine.

The wood used in the VG 30’s construction was primarily spruce, and the aircraft’s wooden frame was covered with molded sprue plywood to form the aircraft’s stressed-skin. The skin was then covered with canvas and varnished. The wings consisted of two spars and incorporated hydraulically operated flaps. The fuselage was mounted atop the wings, which were made as a single structure. The cockpit was positioned above the wing’s trailing edge and featured a rearward-sliding canopy. The engine’s cowling was made of aluminum, and to cool the engine, a radiator was housed in a duct positioned under the fuselage between the wings. Proposed armament consisted of a 20 mm cannon firing through the hub of the three-blade propeller and four 7.5 mm machine guns, with two housed in each wing. The cannon had 60 rounds of ammunition, and the wing guns each had 500 rounds.

arsenal vg 33 two

The VG 33 prototype sits complete with main gear doors on a muddy airfield. Many of the completed VG 33s, like the second aircraft in the image, were finished without gear doors.

A mockup of the VG 30 was displayed in November 1936 at the Salon d’Aviation in Paris. The Air Ministry found the mockup sufficiently impressive to issue specification A.23, requesting proposals for a light-fighter. A prototype of the Arsenal VG 30 was ordered in early 1937, and construction of the aircraft commenced in June. Some delays were encountered, and the VG 30 was first flown on 6 October (some sources state 1 October) 1938. The pilot for the flight was Modeste Vonner, and the aircraft took off from Villacoublay. Official tests were carried out from 24 March to 17 July 1939, during which the VG 30 reportedly reached 500 mph (805 km/h) in a dive. Overall, the tests revealed that the VG 30 had very good performance and was faster than the more-powerful Morane-Saulnier MS 406, France’s premier fighter just entering service.

The VG 30 had a wingspan of 35 ft 5 in (10.80 m), a length of 27 ft 7 in (8.40 m), and a height of 10 ft 10 in (3.31 m). The aircraft’s wing area was 150.69 sq ft (14.00 sq m). It had a top speed of 301 mph (485 km/h) at 16,240 (4,950 m) and climbed to 16,404 ft (5,000 m) in 7 minutes and 15 seconds. Despite the aircraft’s performance, VG 30 production was passed up in favor of more advanced models, and only the prototype was built.

The Arsenal VG 31 was a development of the VG 30 intended to enhance the aircraft’s speed. An 860 hp (641 kW) Hispano-Suiza 12Y-31 replaced the 690 hp (515 kW) engine; the radiator was relocated further back; two of the wing guns were removed; and a smaller wing was designed, resulting in 19.9–21.2 sq ft (1.85–2.0 sq m) less wing area. Wind tunnel tests indicated the aircraft would have reduced stability, reduced maneuverability, and an increased landing speed. The small gain in top speed was not worth all of the drawbacks. The VG 31 was never completed. The wings were used for static testing, and the fuselage was used on the third VG 33 aircraft, which became the VG 34.

arsenal vg 33 rear

A completed VG 33 without gear doors seen at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in June 1940. Note the radiator housing under the fuselage.

The Arsenal VG 32 was an attempt to secure a second source of power for the VG 30 aircraft. A 1,040 hp (776 kW) Allison V-1710-C15 (-33) replaced the Hispano-Suiza engine, requiring the fuselage to be lengthened by 16.5 in (.42 m) to 28 ft 11 in (8.82 m). The wings were modified to accommodate one 20 mm cannon and one 7.5 mm machine gun. Because of delays with acquiring the V-1710 engine, the VG 32 project followed after the VG 33. The fifth VG 33 airframe formed the basis for the VG 32, and a desperate France ordered 400 copies of the aircraft in 1940. However, the Germans arrived before the V-1710 engine, and the VG 32 was never completed. The aircraft was captured at Villacoublay in June 1940.

The Arsenal VG 33 was an enhancement to the basic VG 30 aircraft. The VG 33 used the 860 hp (641 kW) Hispano-Suiza 12Y-31 from the VG 31 but retained the larger wing of the VG 30. The engine turned a 12 ft 4 in (3.75 m) diameter three-blade, adjustable-pitch, metal propeller. An oil cooler was incorporated into the engine cowling just below the spinner, and a scoop for engine induction was located on the bottom of the cowling. The aircraft’s fuselage was lengthened slightly to 28 ft .5 in (8.55 m), and its height was 11 ft (3.35 m). The VG 33 prototype made its first flight on 25 April 1939 from Villacoublay. Official trials spanned from August 1939 to March 1940. The VG 33 was stable, maneuverable, easy to fly, and possessed good control harmony. The aircraft’s maneuverability and speed were superior to that of the more-powerful, all-metal Dewoitine D.520, France’s newest fighter.

arsenal vg 33 front captured

A VG 33 aircraft captured by the Germans and being tested at Rechlin, Germany. The captured aircraft carried the designation 3+5. The inlets for the oil cooler can bee seen just under the spinner. Under the cowling is the engine’s intake. Note the machine guns mounted in the wings.

The VG 33 had a maximum speed of 347 mph (558 km/h) at 17,060 ft (5,200 m) and a ceiling of 36,089 ft (11,000 m). The aircraft weighed 4,519 lb (2,050 kg) empty and 6,063 lb (2,750 kg) fully loaded. Its range was 746 miles (1,200 km) with 106 gallons (400 L) of internal fuel. Two fixed 26-gallon (100 L) external tanks could be attached under the wings to extend the aircraft’s range to 1,118 miles (1,800 km).

Before the flight trials were over, the Air Ministry ordered at least 200 VG 33s in September 1939. Another purchase request was submitted a short time later placing a total of approximately 720 VG 33 aircraft on order. The first deliveries were scheduled for January 1940, and the first fighter group equipped with VG 33 aircraft was to be operational in April 1940. The bulk of the orders went to SNCAN (Société nationale des constructions aéronautiques du Nord or National Society of Aeronautical Constructions North) at Sartrouville, with Michelin at Clermont-Ferrand expected to start production later.

Ironically, delays with acquiring enough non-strategic spruce resulted in the first production VG 33 aircraft not making its first flight until 21 April 1940. Production numbers for the VG 33 vary by source. By the time France surrendered to Germany on 22 June 1940, only about seven aircraft had been delivered to the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) out of a total of 19 VG 33s that had been flown. Approximately 160 airframes were in various stages of completion at SNCAN, and at least 20, which were basically complete, were destroyed by the French before German forces could capture them. The French managed to fly out 12 VG 33 aircraft to Châteauroux, where they were placed into storage. By November 1942, the Germans had managed to seize around 5 VG 33 aircraft, and at least one underwent testing at Rechlin, Germany. All VG 33s were eventually scrapped.

arsenal vg 34

The engineless VG 34 prototype sits derelict at what is most likely Toulouse-Blagnac airport. Note the additional supports on the canopy.

The Arsenal VG 34 was the second VG 33 re-engined with the more powerful Hispano-Suiza 12Y-45 that used a Szdlowski-Planiol supercharger and produced 910 hp (679 kW). First flown on 20 January 1940, the VG 34 achieved 357 mph (575 km/h) at 20,341 ft (6,200 m). Only one example was built. The VG 34 was flown to Toulouse-Blagnac airport on 18 June 1940 and was presumably captured there by the Germans.

The Arsenal VG 35 was the fourth (some sources say third) VG 33 airframe but with a 1,100 hp (820 kW) Hispano-Suiza 12Y-51 engine installed. The aircraft was first flown on 25 February 1940 and eventually reached 367 mph (590 km/h). However, flight testing was never completed, and the sole prototype was seized by the Germans.

The Arsenal VG 36 was a more developed and refined VG 35. The aircraft had a modified rear fuselage and used a shallower and more streamlined radiator duct. The VG 36 was first flown on 14 May 1940 and was later destroyed at La Roche-sur-Yon in eastern France.

arsenal vg 36 front

On first glance, the VG 36 was very similar to the VG 33. The most notable difference was the redesigned radiator housing, which was shallower than the housing used on earlier VG 30-series aircraft and required a redesign of the rear fuselage.

The VG 37 was a proposal for a long-range VG 36, and the VG 38 was a VG 35 with a more powerful Hispano-Suiza 12Y engine that incorporated two Brown-Boveri turbosuperchargers. Neither of these aircraft projects were built.

The Arsenal VG 39 was based on the VG 33. The wing had a new internal structure that accommodated three 7.5 mm machine guns in each wing. The fuselage was slightly modified and lengthened to 28 ft 8 in (8.75 m) to accommodate a 1,200 hp (895 kW) Hispano-Suiza 12Zter engine. The inlets and position of the oil cooler at the front of the engine cowling were revised, and the radiator housing under the aircraft was also slightly smaller. The 20 mm engine cannon was omitted. First flown on 3 May 1940, the VG 39 achieved 388 mph (625 km/h) at 18,865 ft (5,750 m) during initial tests. Only one VG 39 was built. It made its last flight on 15 June 1940 and was destroyed by the French at Toulouse-Blagnac airport before the Germans captured the field. The planned production version was designated VG 39bis, used the fuselage of the VG 36 with its shallow radiator, was powered by a 1,300 hp (969 kW) Hispano-Suiza 12Z-17 engine, and included a 20 mm engine cannon. No VG 39bis aircraft were built.

The VG 40 was a study to power the VG 33 with a Rolls Royce Merlin III engine. Compared to the VG 33, the VG 40 had a larger wing. The aircraft did not progress beyond the design stage.

The VG 50 design incorporated the fuselage of the VG 36 with the six-gun wings of the VG 39. This package would be powered by a 1,200 hp (895 kW) Allison V-1710 engine. The VG 50 was never built.

Of the series, only the Arsenal VG 33 entered production. On paper, it was one of the best French fighters of World War II and on par with the frontline fighters of other nations. However, the aircraft never had the opportunity to be tested in combat. The VG 33’s slightly protracted development and production delays resulted in none of the type being available at the start of hostilities and too few being delivered during the Battle of France to have any impact on the conflict.

arsenal vg 39

The VG 39 prototype probably at the Toulouse-Blagnac airport. Note the exhaust stains on the engine cowling. The cowling was revised to accommodate the new oil cooler and the evenly-spaced exhaust stacks of the 12Z engine.

French Fighters of World War II in Action by Alan Pelletier (2002)
French Aircraft 1939–1942 Volume I: From Amoit to Curtiss by Dominique Breffort and André Jouineau (2004)
The Complete Book of Fighters by William Green and Gordon Swanborough (1994)
War Planes of the Second World War: Fighters – Volume I by William Green (1960)
Hispano Suiza in Aeronautics by Manuel Lage (2004)

Hughes XF-11 no1 taxi

Hughes XF-11 Photo-Reconnaissance Aircraft

By William Pearce

In the early World War II years, the Hughes Aircraft Company (HAC) worked to design and build its D-2 aircraft intended for a variety of roles. However, the United States Army Air Force (AAF) was not truly interested in the twin-engine wooded aircraft. To cure design deficiencies and make the aircraft more appealing to the AAF, HAC proposed a redesign of the D-2, designated D-5.

Hughes XF-11 no1 front

The Hughes XF-11 was an impressive and powerful aircraft intended for the photo-reconnaissance role. The eight-blade, contra-rotating propellers were over 15 ft (4.6 m) in diameter. Note the deployed flaps between the tail booms. (UNLV Libraries image)

The initial D-5 design was an enlarged D-2 and employed Duramold construction using resin-impregnated layers of wood, molded to shape under pressure and heat. The proposed aircraft had a 92 ft (28.0 m) wingspan, was 58 ft (17.7 m) in length, and weighed 36,400 lb (16,511 kg). The D-5 was powered by Pratt & Whitney (P&W) R-2800 engines and had a forecasted top speed of 488 mph (785 km/h) at 30,000 ft (9,144 m) and 451 mph (726 km/h) at 36,000 ft (10,973 m). A 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) bomb load could be carried in an internal bay. The AAF was still not interested in the aircraft and felt that HAC did not have the capability to manufacture such an aircraft in large numbers.

In early August 1943, Col. Elliot Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s son, was in the Los Angeles inquiring with various aircraft manufacturers to find a photo-reconnaissance aircraft. Col. Roosevelt, who had previously commanded a reconnaissance unit, was hosted by Hughes and taken on a personal tour of the D-2. At the time, the aircraft was undergoing modification to become the D-5 and was not available for flight, but Col. Roosevelt was sufficiently impressed.

Hughes XF-11 no1 taxi

Howard Hughes taxies the first XF-11 out for its first and last flight. The nose of the aircraft accommodated a variety of camera equipment. Note the cowl flaps and the large scoops under the engine nacelles. (UNLV Libraries image)

General Henry “Hap” Arnold of the AAF was put under pressure from the White House to order the D-5 reconnaissance aircraft into production. To ease the AAF’s concerns about the D-5’s Duramold construction, the design was changed to metal wings and tail booms and only the fuselage built from Durmold. Arnold made the decision to order the D-5 aircraft “much against [his] better judgment and the advice of [his] staff.” The AAF issued a letter of intent on 6 October 1943 for the purchase of 100 examples of the D-5 reconnaissance aircraft. An official contract for the aircraft, designated F-11, was issued on 5 May 1944. Two aircraft would serve as prototypes with the remaining 98 aircraft as production versions.

As contracted, the Hughes XF-11 prototypes were of an all-metal construction and powered by two P&W R-4360 engines. The aircraft had the same layout as the Lockheed P-38 Lightning but was much larger. The fuselage consisted of a streamlined nacelle mounted to the center of the wing. At the front of the fuselage were provisions for photographic equipment. The cockpit was positioned just before the wing’s leading edge, and the cockpit was covered by a large, fixed bubble canopy. The pressurized cockpit could maintain an altitude of 10,500 ft (3,200 m) up an aircraft altitude of 33,500 ft (10,211 m). Entry to the cockpit was via a hatch and extendable ladder just behind the nose wheel landing gear well. The pilot’s seat was offset slightly to the left. Behind and to the right of the pilot sat a second crew member, who would fulfill the role of a navigator/photographer. The second crew member could crawl past the pilot and into the aircraft’s nose to service the cameras while in flight. The nose landing gear retracted to the rear and was stowed under the cockpit.

Hughes XF-11 no1 first flight

One of the very few images of the first XF-11 in flight as it takes off from Hughes Airport in Culver City, California on 7 July 1946. Note the rural background that is now completely developed. (UNLV Libraries image)

The XF-11’s wings had a straight leading and trailing edges, with the leading edge swept back approximately 6 degrees and the trailing edge swept forward around 3.5 degrees. Mounted to each wing about a third of the distance from the fuselage to the wing tip was the engine. The engine nacelle was slung under the wing and extended back to the aircraft’s tail. A large flap was located on the wing’s trailing edge between the tail booms. Each wing had an addition flap that extended from outside of the tail boom to near the wing tip. Relatively small ailerons spanned the approximate 66 in (1.68 m) distance from the flap to the wing tip. The aircraft’s main source of roll control were spoilers positioned on the upper surface of the outer wing and in front of the flap. Each wing incorporated a hardpoint outside of the tail boom for a 700 gallon (2,650 L) drop tank, and 600 gallon (2,271 L) jettisonable tip tanks were proposed but not included on the prototype aircraft.

Each 3,000 hp (2,237 kW), 28-cylinder R-4360 engine was installed in the front of the wing and was housed in a streamlined cowling. Cowl flaps for engine cooling circled the sides and top of the cowling. Under the engine nacelle was a scoop that housed the oil cooler and provided air to the intercooler and the two General Electric BH-1 turbosuperchargers installed in each tail boom. Air that flowed through the oil cooler exited at the back of the scoop. Air that flowed through the intercooler was routed to an exit door on top of the engine nacelle, just above the wing’s leading edge. Exhaust from the superchargers was expelled from the sides of the engine nacelle, just under the wing. The turbosupercharger on the inner side of each tail boom could be shut down during cruise flight to take full advantage of the remaining turbosupercharger operating at its maximum performance. The main landing gear was positioned behind the engine and retracted to the rear into the tail boom. Attached to the end of each tail boom was a large, 11 ft 8 in (3.56 m) tall vertical stabilizer. Mounted in the 25 ft 8 in (7.82 m) space between the vertical stabilizers was the horizontal stabilizer. The left tail boom housed additional camera equipment behind the main landing gear well.

Hughes XF-11 no1 cockpit crash

The cockpit of the crashed XF-11 illustrates how lucky Hughes was to have survived. Hughes crawled out through the melted Plexiglas and was aided by residents who had witnessed the crash. Note the armored seat. The XF-11 had 350 lb (159 kg) of cockpit armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. (UNLV Libraries image)

The XF-11 had a wingspan of 101 ft 4 in (30.9 m), a length of 65 ft 5 in (19.9 m), and a height of 23 ft 3 (7.09 m). The aircraft had a top speed of 450 mph (725 km/h) at 33,000 ft (10,058 m) and 295 mph (475 km/h) at sea level. The XF-11 had a service ceiling of 42,000 ft (12,802 m), an initial climb rate of 2,025 fpm (10.3 m/s) and could climb to 33,000 ft (10,058 m) in 17.4 minutes. The aircraft had an empty weight of 39,278 lb (17,816 kg) and a maximum weight of 58,315 lb (26,451 kg). With its 2,105 gallon (7,968 L) internal fuel load, the XF-11 had a 5,000 mile (8,047 km) maximum range.

Delivery of the first XF-11 (44-70155) was originally scheduled for November 1944 with peak production of 10 aircraft per month being reached in March 1945—an ambitions timeline for any aircraft manufacturer. Delays were encountered almost immediately and gave credence to the AAF’s belief that HAC was not up to the task of designing and manufacturing aircraft for series production. By mid-1945, the XF-11 had still not flown, and the war was winding down. It was clear that the XF-11 would not be involved in World War II, and there was much doubt as to the usefulness of the aircraft post-war. As a result, the order for 98 production examples was cancelled on 26 May 1945, but the construction of the two prototypes was to proceed.

Hughes XF-11 no2 front

With the exception of its propellers, the second XF-11 was essentially the same as the first aircraft. The bulges on the nacelles under the wings were the exhaust outlets for the inner turbosuperchargers. (UNLV Libraries image)

The first XF-11 prototype was fitted with Hamilton-Standard Superhydromatic contra-rotating propellers. The front four-blade propeller was 15 ft 1 in (4.60 m) in diameter, and the rear four-blade propeller was 2 in (51 mm) longer at 15 ft and 3 in (4.65 m) in diameter. The impressive aircraft was finally finished by April 1946 and began taxi test. With Howard Hughes at the controls, an aborted high-speed taxi test on 15 April resulted in some minor damage and the need to rework some of the aircraft’s systems.

Once repaired, Hughes decided to make the XF-11’s first flight on 7 July 1946. The AAF had stipulated that the XF-11’s first flight should be no more that 45 minutes, the landing gear should not be retracted, the aircraft should stay near the airport and away from populated areas, communication should be established with the chase plane, and the flight should follow the plan discussed beforehand. While the flight was discussed with some, many involved with the aircraft were unaware of Hughes’ plans. Had his intentions been better known, someone may have reminded him about the propeller seal leak on the right engine. Hughes request 1,200 gallons (4,542 L) of fuel to be on board, which was twice as much as should be needed for the scheduled 45-minute flight. HAC’s Douglas A-20 Havoc would serve as a chase plane for the flight, but radio issues prevented communication between the two aircraft.

Hughes XF-11 no2 top

Top view of the second XF-11 illustrates the aircraft’s layout, which was similar to that of a Lockheed P-38. However, the XF-11 was a massive aircraft. Note that the rear of the fixed canopy has been removed. (UNLV Libraries image)

At around 5:20 PM, Hughes took the XF-11 off from Hughes Airport in Culver City, California on its maiden flight. Shortly after takeoff, Hughes retracted the gar, and the right main light remined illuminated, indicating a possible issue with the retraction. Hughes and the XF-11 flew out over the Pacific Ocean and turned back toward land. The landing gear was cycled several times during the flight in an attempt to resolve the perceived issue on account of the illuminated light.

After about an hour and 15 minutes, the oil supply in the right propeller was exhausted and the rear set of blades moved into a flat or reversed pitch. Had Hughes stuck to the 45-minute flight as the AAF ordered, the oil supply would not have been depleted. The reversed pitch propeller created a massive amount of drag on the right side of the aircraft. To the A-20 chase plane, it appeared that Hughes was maneuvering to land back at Culver City, some distance away. The chase plane broke formation to return to the airfield on its own. Had the two aircraft been in communication, the situation could have been discussed.

Hughes XF-11 no2 top rear

The trailing edge of the XF-11’s wing had a flap between the tail booms. Long flaps extended from the outer side of the tail booms almost to the wing tips. Note the relatively small ailerons at the wing tips. The wing spoilers are visible just in front of the outer flaps. (UNLV Libraries image)

Hughes, now alone, believed that the right main gear had deployed on its own and was causing the drag. Had Hughes left the gear down, he would have known the drag was a result of some other issue with the aircraft. Trying to keep the XF-11 straight resulted in the deployment of the left-wing spoilers, which further slowed the aircraft. Low, slow, and over a populated area, Hughes tried to make it to the open space of the Los Angles Country Club golf course in Beverly Hills. Landing short, the XF-11 crashed into four houses, broke apart, and caught fire. Hughes managed to pull himself from the wreckage, where he was helped further by neighborhood residents and arriving paramedics. Hughes suffers major injuries, including severe burns, at least 11 broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a displaced heart. Remarkably, he made a near-full recovery, but the incident started an addiction to codine, which would cause Hughes problems throughout the rest of his life.

Construction of the second XF-11 prototype (44-70156) continued after the accident. The second prototype used single rotation, four-blade propellers that were 14 ft 8 in (4.47 m) in diameter and made by Curtis Electric. Despite all of the new rules implemented because of his crash, Hughes was adamant that he pilot the first flight of the second XF-11 prototype. The AAF initially refused, but Hughes pressed the issue and made personal appeals to Lt.Gen. Ira Eaker and Gen. Carl Spaatz. Hughes also offered to put up a $5 million bond payable to the AAF if he crashed. With the posting of the bond, the AAF gave in. On 4 April 1947, Hughes flew the second XF-11 on its first flight, taking off from Hughes Airport. The flight was a personal victory for Hughes.

Hughes XF-11 no2 flight

The second XF-11 on an early test flight. The aircraft was later fitted with spinners. Note the turbosupercharger’s exhaust just under the wing and the oil cooler’s air exit at the end of the scoop. (UNLV Libraries image)

The second XF-11 was later delivered to the AAF at Wright Field, Ohio in November 1947. After further flight tests, the aircraft went to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The XF-11 was noted for having good flight characteristics, but in-flight access of the camera equipment was extremely difficult and some of the aircraft’s systems were unreliable. In 1948, the aircraft was redesignated XR-11 in accordance to the new Air Force designation system. The XF-11 was tested at Eglin from December 1947 through July 1949.

Other, existing aircraft, mainly Boeing RB-29s and RB-50s, were serving in the reconnaissance role intended for the XF-11. These aircraft proved much less expensive than the XF-11, making the impressive and powerful XF-11 irrelevant. While the XF-11 probably could have done the reconnaissance job better, money was tight in the post-war years and there were other, more-promising projects to fund. The XF-11 was transferred to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas on 26 July 1949 and subsequently served as a ground training aid, never flying again. The aircraft was struck from the Air Force’s inventory in November 1949 and was eventually scrapped.

Hughes XF-11 no2 1948

The second XF-11 sometime in 1948 with the revised (red stripe) Air Force insignia. The aircraft has recently taken off and the very large nose gear doors are just closing. Note the underwing pylons. (UNLV Libraries image)

World’s Fastest Four-Engined Piston-Powered Aircraft by Mike Machat (2011)
R-4360: Pratt & Whitney’s Major Miracle by Graham White (2006)
Howard Hughes: An Airman, His Aircraft, and His Great Flights by Thomas Wildenberg and R.E.G. Davies (2006)
McDonnell Douglas Aircraft since 1920: Volume II by René J. Francillon (1990)
“A Visionary Ahead of His Time: Howard Hughes and the U.S. Air Force—Part II” by Thomas Wildenberg, Air Power History (Spring 2008)

Williams Mercury Racer

Williams Mercury Seaplane Racer (1929)

By William Pearce

In 1927, Lt. Alford Joseph Williams and the Mercury Flying Corporation (MFC) built the Kirkham-Williams Racer to compete in the Schneider Trophy contest. Although demonstrating competitive high-speed capabilities, the aircraft had handling issues that could not be resolved in time to make the 1927 race. Williams, backed by the MFC, decided to build on the experience with the Kirkham-Williams Racer and make a new aircraft for an attempt on the 3 km (1.9 mi) world speed record.

Williams Mercury Racer model

R. Smith, chief draftsman of the wind tunnel at the Washington Navy Yard, holds a model of the original landplane version of the Williams Mercury Racer. Lt. Al Williams was originally not focused on the Schneider Trophy contest but was later convinced to enter the event.

Although there was no official support from the US government, the US Navy indirectly supported Williams and the MFC’s continued efforts to build a new racer. Williams’ previous racer was designed and built by the Kirkham Products Corporation. However, Williams felt that Kirkham lacked organization, and he was not interested in having the company build another aircraft. Williams had already shipped the previous racer to the Naval Aircraft Factory (NAF) to undergo an analysis on how to improve its speed. With the Navy’s support, the NAF was a natural place to design and build the new racer, which was called the Williams Mercury Racer. The aircraft was also referred to as the NAF Mercury and Mercury-Packard.

In mid-1928, a model of the Williams Mercury Racer landplane was tested in the wind tunnel at the Washington (DC) Navy Yard. However, the decision was made to design a pair of experimental floats and test them on the aircraft, since there was a pressing need to explore high-speed seaplane float designs. It appears all subsequent work on the aircraft was focused on the seaplane version. Williams did not originally intend the Williams Mercury Racer to be used in the 1929 Schneider race. But the US had won the Schneider Trophy two out of the last four races, and another win would mean permanent retention of the trophy. With the Williams Mercury Racer now a seaplane, Williams relented to pressure and agreed to work toward competing in the 1929 Schneider Trophy contest and to attempt a new speed record.

Packard X-2775 NASM

The Packard X-2775 engine installed in the Williams Mercury Racer was actually the same engine originally installed in the Kirkham-Williams Racer. It has been updated with a propeller gear reduction, new induction system, and other improved components. This engine is in storage at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (NASM image)

Under the supervision of John S. Kean, work on the racer began in September 1928 at the NAF’s facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On first glance, the Williams Mercury Racer appeared to be a monoplane version of the previous Kirkham-Williams Racer. While some parts such as the engine mount and other hardware were reused, the rest of the aircraft was entirely new. The Williams Mercury Racer was powered by the same Packard X-2775 engine (Packard model 1A-2775) as the Kirkham-Williams Racer, but the engine had been fitted with a .667 propeller gear reduction, and its induction system had been improved. The 24-cylinder X-2775 was rated at 1,300 hp (969 kW), and it was the most powerful engine then available in the US. The X-2775 was water-cooled and had its cylinders arranged in an “X” configuration. The engine turned a ground adjustable Hamilton Standard propeller that was approximately 10 ft 3 in (3.12 m) in diameter. A Hucks-style starter driven by four electric motors engaged the propeller hub to start the engine. Carburetor air intakes were positioned just behind the propeller and in the upper and lower Vees of the engine. The intakes faced forward to take advantage of the ram air effect as the aircraft flew.

The Williams Mercury Racer consisted of a monocoque wooden fuselage built specifically to house the Packard engine. The racer’s braced mid-wing was positioned just before to cockpit. The wing’s upper and lower surfaces were covered in flush surface radiators. A prominent headrest fairing tapered back from the cockpit to the vertical stabilizer, which extended below the aircraft to form a semi-cruciform tail. A nine-gallon (34 L) oil tank was positioned behind the cockpit. The wings and tail were made of wood, while the cowling, control surfaces, and floats were made of aluminum.

Streamlined aluminum fairings covered the metal struts that attached the two floats to the racer. The underside of the floats had additional surface radiators, which provided most of the engine cooling while the aircraft was in the water at low speed. However, the radiators were somewhat fragile and required gentle landings. The floats housed a total of 90 gallons (341 L) of fuel. Some sources state the fuel load was 147 gallons (556 L). The Mercury Williams Racer had an overall length of approximately 27 ft 6 in (8.41 m). The fuselage was 23 ft 7 in (7.19 m) long, and the floats were 19 ft 8 in (5.99 m) long. The wingspan was 28 ft (8.53 m), and the aircraft was 11 ft 9 in (3.58 m) tall. The racer’s forecasted weight was 4,200 lb (1,905 kg) fully loaded. The Williams Mercury Racer had an estimated top speed of around 340 mph (547 km/h). The then-current world speed record stood at 318.620 mph (512.776 km/h), set by Mario de Bernardi on 30 March 1928.

Williams Mercury Racer Packard X-2775

Lt. Al Williams sits in the cockpit of the Williams Mercury Racer during an engine test. The Hucks-style starter is engaged to the propeller hub of the geared Packard X-2775 engine. Note the ducts above and below the spinner that deliver ram air into the intake manifolds situated in the engine Vees.

The completed Williams Mercury Racer debuted on 27 July 1929. On 6 August, the aircraft was shipped by tug to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland for testing on Chesapeake Bay. Initial taxi tests were conducted on 9 August, and a top speed of 106 mph (171 km/h) was reached. The first flight was to follow the next day, and Williams had boldly planned to make an attempt on the 3 km (1.9 mi) world speed record on either 11 or 12 August. To that end, a course had been set up, and timing equipment was put in place. However, it was soon discovered that spray had damaged the propeller. The propeller was removed for repair, and the flight plans were put on hold.

Although not disclosed at the time, the aircraft was believed to be 460 lb (209 kg) overweight. Williams found that the floats did not have sufficient reserve buoyancy to accommodate the extra weight. The spray that damaged the propeller was a result of the floats plowing into the water. Williams found that efforts to counteract engine torque and keep the aircraft straight as it was initially picking up speed made the left float dig into the water and create more spray. Williams consulted with retired Navy Capt. Holden Chester Richardson, a friend and an expert on floats and hulls. Richardson recommended leaving all controls in a neutral position until a fair amount of speed had been achieved. As the aircraft increased its speed, the water’s planing action on the floats would offset the torque reaction of engine and right the aircraft.

Williams Mercury Racer rear

The racer being offloaded from the tug and onto beaching gear at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The rudder extended below the aircraft and blended with the ventral fin. Note how the fairings for the lower cylinder banks blended into the float supports.

Weather and mechanical issues delayed further testing until 18 August. Williams lifted the Williams Mercury Racer off the water for about 300 ft (91 m) while experiencing a bad vibration and fuel pressure issues. After the engine was shut down, the prop was found damaged again by spray. Like with Williams’ 1927 Schneider attempt, time was quickly running out, and the racer had yet to prove itself a worthy competitor to the other Schneider entrants. Three takeoff attempts on 21 August were aborted for different reasons, the last being a buildup of carbon monoxide in the cockpit that caused Williams to pass out right after he shut off the engine. Attempts to fly on 25 August saw another three aborted takeoffs for different reasons.

The general consensus was that the aircraft’s excessive weight and insufficient reserve buoyancy prevented the racer from flying. With time running out, one final proposal was offered. The Williams Mercury Racer could be immediately shipped to Calshot, England for the Schneider contest, set to begin on 6 September. While en route, a more powerful engine and new floats would be fitted. It is unlikely that the more powerful engine incorporated a supercharger, as supercharger development had given way to the gear reduction used on the X-2775 installed in the Williams Mercury Racer. The gear reduction was interchangeable between engines, but it is not clear what modification had been done to the second X-2775 engine at this stage of development. Regardless, the improved Mercury Williams Racer would then be tested before the race, and, assuming all went well, participate in the event. However, given all the failed attempts at flight and the very uncertain capabilities of the aircraft, the Navy rescinded its offer to transport the racer to England.

Williams Mercury Racer

The completed racer was a fantastic looking aircraft. A top speed of 340 mph (547 km/h) was anticipated, which would have given the British some competition for the Schneider race. However, the speed was probably not enough to win the event.

The Williams Mercury Racer was shipped back to the NAF at Pennsylvania. Williams wanted to install the more powerful engine, which had already been shipped to the NAF, and make an attempt on the 3 km record. The Williams Mercury Racer arrived at the NAF on 1 September 1929, but no work was immediately done on the aircraft. The Navy had not decided what to do with Williams or the aircraft. At the end of October, the Navy gave Williams four months to rework the racer, after which he would be required to focus on his Naval duties and go to sea starting in March 1930.

Studies were made to decrease the Williams Mercury Racer’s weight and improve the aircraft’s cooling system. It was estimated that the suggested changes would lighten the aircraft by 400 lb (181 kg). When the four months were up on 1 March 1930, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics David S. Ingalls felt that enough time, effort, and energy had been spent on the racer and ordered all work to stop. Ingalls also ordered Williams to sea duty. This prompted Williams to resign from the Navy on 7 March 1930. Williams had spent nearly all of his savings on his two attempts at the Schneider contest and knew that the MFC and the Navy had also made a substantial investment in the racer. He wanted to see the project through to some sort of completion, even if it did not result in setting any records.

No more work was done on the Williams Mercury Racer. In April 1930, Williams testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee regarding the racer, his resignation, and other Navy matters. During his testimony, he stated that he wanted another year to finish the aircraft. This time frame would have made the racer ready for the 1931 Schneider Trophy contest, but even in perfect working order it probably would not have been competitive. Williams said the aircraft was 880 lb (399 kg) overweight and that this 21% of extra weight was the reason it could not takeoff. The racer actually weighed 5,080 lb (2,304 kg), rather than the 4,200 lb (1,905 kg) forecasted. Williams said he was initially told that it weighed 4,660 lb (2,114 kg), which was 460 lb (209 kg) more than expected. But Williams thought they could get away with the extra weight. It was only when Williams requested the aircraft to be weighed upon its return to the NAF that its true 5,080-lb (2,304-kg) weight was known.

Williams Mercury Racer Al Williams

The Williams Mercury Racer being towed in after another disappointing test on Chesapeake Bay. Williams stands in the cockpit, knowing his chances of making the 1929 Schneider contest are quickly fading. Note the low position of the floats in the water.

Williams stated that he wanted to take the Williams Mercury Racer to England even if it was not going to be competitive or even fly. Williams said, “I felt we should see it through no matter what the outcome was. If she would not fly over there—take this, to be specific—I was just going to destroy the ship. It could have been done very easily on the water. I intended to smash it up; but I did intend and [was] determined to get to Europe with it. It made no difference to me what the ship did.”

Ingalls also testified before the committee. He had been involved with the Williams Mercury Racer, was a contributor to the MFC, and had friends who were also contributors. Ingalls said that Williams had informed him about the possibility of crashing the Williams Mercury Racer in England if it was unable to fly. Ingalls said that it was ridiculous to send an aircraft to England that may not be able to fly just so that it could be crashed. It was this consideration that led him to withdraw Navy support for sending the aircraft to England. Ingalls also said that of the aircraft’s extra 880 lb (399 kg), around 250 lb (113 kg) was from the NAF’s construction of the aircraft, and around 600 lb (272 kg) was from outside sources, such as Packard for the engine and Hamilton Standard for the propeller. Ingalls reported that Williams supplied the engine’s and propeller’s weight to the NAF, but those values have not been found. Perhaps the original engine weight supplied to the NAF was for the lighter, direct-drive engine and smaller propeller—the combination installed in the Kirkham-Williams Racer.

On 24 June 1930, the Navy purchased the Williams Mercury Racer from the MFC for $1.00. Reportedly, $30,000 was invested by the MFC with another $174,000 of money and resources from the Navy to create the aircraft. It is not clear if the Navy’s investment was just for the Williams Mercury Racer, as the Packard X-2775 engine was also used in the earlier Kirkham-Williams Racer. The Navy stated they acquired the racer for experimental purposes, but nothing more was heard about the aircraft, and the Mercury Williams Racer faded quietly into history.

Williams Mercury Racer taxi

Williams taxis the racer in a wash of spray, most likely damaging the propeller again. Note how the floats are almost entirely submerged, especially the left float. The aircraft being very overweight severely hampered its water handling.

Schneider Trophy Seaplanes and Flying Boats by Ralph Pegram (2012)
Wings for the Navy by William F. Trimble (1990)
Master Motor Builders by Robert J. Neal (2000)
Racing Planes and Air Races Volume II 1924–1931 by Reed Kinert (1967)
“Lieut. Alford J. Williams, Jr.—Fast Pursuit and Bombing Planes” Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs, United States Senate, Seventy-first Congress, second session, on S. Res. 235 (8, 9, and 10 April 1930)
“Making Aircraft Airworthy” by K. M. Painter, Popular Mechanics (October 1928)