June 2014 Mystery Airplane: The Alliance Argo A-1
By Wesley R. Smith
“To fly it is to buy it!” So intoned a page one advertisement for the Alliance Aircraft Corp. “Argo,” which appeared in the July 27, 1929 issue of Aviation (V27 N4). But the story begins much earlier with birth of Aubrey W. Hess, and His brother, Adrian T. Hess, the sons of the Rev. Dr. Aubrey H. Hess; born in Adrian, Michigan, late in the Nineteenth Century (Aubrey W. Hess, was born in 1899. Adrian, unknown).
The good Reverend Dr. Hess served as President of Adrain College in 1915-1916, while his sons grew into adulthood. Aubrey, served during the Great War, allegedly serving as an Aeronautical Engineer, before returning to Michigan to take part in the booming automotive industry (1). Erstwhile, Adrian, earned a degree in Engineering from the University of Michigan. Following the war, Aubrey sought employment in the burgeoning automotive industry.
Combining their talents, the Hess brothers formed the Hess Aircraft Co. at Wyandotte, Michigan in 1925. By the middle of the year, the prototype of their first aircraft, the “Blue Bird” emerged from the fledgling company. Painted dark blue, the “Blue Bird” would be sold as a kit, and in assembled form for at least 2 years. It is difficult to know how many “Blue Birds” were constructed; estimates range from 6 to 20 aircraft. One, participated in the 1926 Ford Reliability Tour. They were sold with 90 hp Curtiss OX-5 engines, or 180 hp Wright Martin Model E (a single special aircraft was built with a Wright J-5).
The Hess “Blue Bird,” was a conventional three-place single-bay biplane; the front cockpit seating two passengers in side-by-side seats. The fuselage was made of steel tubing, covered with fabric. Chrome molybdenum alloy was used for “critical” components, with reinforcement gussets being welded in place for added strength. The split-axle construction of the main landing gear was evident, the struts being covered in shaped balsa wood for drag reduction, and the engine bearers were made of seamless steel tubing of square cross section.
The wings spars were made of routed spruce, the ribs being three-ply mahogany Haskelite webbing covered by spruce cap strips. The drag brace wires were No. 9 hardened steel. Compression struts were box-shaped and made of heavy ply. The spacing of the ribs varied from 8″ to 12″ on the outer portion of the semi-span panels. All wing bolts were made of a special heat-treated steel alloy. The wings were spaced apart by steel “N” struts and 3/16″ stranded wire bracing. Ailerons were fitted to both upper and lower wings, connected by “I” struts. The aileron control cables were contained within the lower wing panels. Metal components in the wings were protected against corrosion by Berry Brothers “Lionoil.” A gravity fuel tank of 30 gal. capacity was incorporated in the center section of the upper wing. The structure of the aircraft exceeded those required by the Dept. of Commerce requirements established in 1926. The wing loading (at “high incidence”) was 8.5, exceeding the requirements by a factor of two. The “low incidence” load factor was 6.5, again, exceeding the requirement by a factor of two. The negative load factor was -3.5, besting the required -2.5. In fact, the fuselage loading was 7.0 g, a half “g” more than required. The overall horizontal surface loading was 35 lbs./sq. ft., 5 lbs./sq. ft. over that required. Normal in-flight loading was 6.8 lbs./sq. ft. The total wing area was 300 sq. ft., and a Clark “Y” airfoil. The aspect ratio was 12:1.
The empennage was constructed of Haskelite three-ply mahogany over a spruce framework, with the exception of the elevators and vertical rudder, which were made of steel (2). The elevators used shaped steel ribs, welded to steel tubes at the forward end; the assembly being supported by steel hinges. The tail skid of the Hess “Blue Bird” was made of heavy chrome molybdenum steel, sprung with rubber bungee cords. The upper span of the “Blue Bird” was 33′ 4″, and the lower span was 30′ 6.” The chord of both wings was 5′ 4,” and the gap was 6′. The overall length was 23′ 6,” and the maximum height was 9′ 2,” all figures presumably applying to the OX-5 version, although the Wright-Martin-powered aircraft would probably be nearly identical. No dihedral was used on the upper wing, but the lower wings were fixed at 3 degrees. The stagger was set at a positive 12.” The empty weight was 1,275 lbs., and the loaded weight was 2,050 lbs., giving a useful load of 775 lbs. The Vmax. was 95 mph, and the Vmin was 42 mph. Initial climb was 400 ft./min., with a ceiling of 13,000.’ The stated range was 430 mi. Advertised as; “The Aristocrat of the Air,” the “Blue Bird” was sold for the “Flyaway” price of $2,675.00 in 1927.
During a 1927 Transpacific voyage, the ex-RAF Capt. Frederick A. Giles, encountered William Rosewaren, an Australian businessman, then living in Detroit. Giles, had been flying air mail routes in Australia, but was looking for something else, when Rosewaren offered to fund the purchase of a Hess “Blue Bird” for the 1927 Dole Transpacific Race. Fitted with a Wright J-5 “Whirlwind” of 220 hp, the aircraft, named; “Miss Wanda” (Named after Aubrey Hess’ sister, and subtitled: “Detroit’s Goodwill Messenger.” Registered as NX 1445), left on a planned non-stop flight from Michigan to California on 19 August 1927, three days after the race had already begun. Unfortunately, Giles encountered several setbacks enroute, and did not arrive until October. Giles had originally planned to fly to Hawaii in the race, then on to Australia; however, Giles encountered heavy fog after his 10 November departure, and was forced to return. Twelve days later, Giles tried again, but was once again, forced to return. He crashed this time, near San Simeon, wrecking the airplane, which was later rebuilt. As it was constructed, “Miss Wanda” differed considerably from that of the standard “Blue Birds.” The cockpit and fuselage was altered, the ventral section being increased in depth and radically altered in profile. Likewise, there were obviously other changes to the airframe, not the least of which, was to accommodate the J-5C. The total fuel carried was a staggering 500 gal., and the wing loading was stated to be 16.23 lbs./sq.ft. (this gives a maximum take-off weight of 4,869 lbs.!) Exactly how the airframe was modified will probably forever be lost to time, but the machine was significant in the development of the next Hess, design, the Alliance “Argo.”
For whatever reasons, the Hess brothers decided to close their shop at Wyandotte, and in the spring of 1928, the Alliance Aircraft Corp. was formed at Alliance, Ohio. A factory was under construction by April, on grounds that had originally been owned by Mount Union College. William E. Trump was president, Robert A. Purcell, second vice-president, L. Paul Kulka, treasurer and Lyman H. Reed (then aged 75) as company secretary. W. Edgar Leedy and Fred R. Donaldson were on the Board of Directors, and of the aformentioned person being local businessmen. Aubrey Hess, was general manager, vice-president and chief of design, while Adrian was in charge of production. with Gordon T. Waite in charge of aircraft design.
It is somewhat unclear at what point the Hess brothers decided to develop an engine, but from the outset, the “Argo” was powered by the new Hess “Warrior,” radial. John E. Everett was Chief Engineer in charge of engine development, while Frederick A. Giles and Edward Leedy served as test pilots. According to one source, William Leonard, joined the company at a later date, serving as test pilot and demonstration pilot.
The Hess “Warrior” was a compact seven-cylinder air-cooled radial engine of 115 hp (@ 1,950 rpm). It displaced 447 cubic inches and weighed 295 lbs. Carburetion was supplied by a Holley carburetor, and dual ignition was delivered through two Scintilla magnetos via two B.G. spark plugs per cylinder. The diameter was 37″ and the compression ratio was 5.2:1; the stroke being 4.5″ and the bore, 4.25.” Oil was circulated throughout the engine by pressure and scavenging pumps. The fuel consumption was 0.58 lbs./hp.-hr. and the oil consumption was 0.025 lbs./hp-hr. Construction of the “Warrior” comprised of aluminum heads screwed and shrunk on steel barrels, the bronze valve guides, seats and plug bushings being shrunk into place. The two-piece crankshaft incorporated an integral crank pin, the crankshaft being supported in two roller bearings and a deep-groove ball thrust bearing. A conventional radial engine master rod and attendant articulated rods were utilized, the articulated rods being of “H” cross section and machined to shape. The valve gear was enclosed, and conventional push rods and rockers arms mounted on opposite sides of the cylinder head. The accessories were mounted on the rear of the engine, and externally, the engine had a clean overall appearance. Priced at $2,250.00, the engine was only built in small numbers, almost all production being used by the “Argo” (3).
Originally known as the Alliance “Bluebird Sport,” the prototype aircraft carried the registration X-6876, and was given the serial number “A-1.” Displayed at the 1929 Detroit Air Show, the “Argo” soon became a popular aircraft. Assigned the ATC number 178 (2-29), the “Argo” was one of the few aircraft that could perform an outside loop without overstressing the airframe. Unfortunately, by the time the design came to fruition, the Great Depression was upon the world, and Aubrey Hess was killed while test-flying an “Argo,” equipped with a new carburetor which caught fire in flight. By then, Aubrey Hess was married to Alane Hess (administrix of his estate), and photos located on the internet show that they had a daughter.
Broadly, the “Argo” was quite similar to the “Blue Bird.” The fuselage was constructed of chrome molybdenum alloy, and the wing spars were routed to “I” cross section. The airframe was fabric covered, and there were four ailerons connected by “I” struts. The first two prototypes used “oleo” struts, but subsequent aircraft used two-spool shock-cords, and split axles, similar to the “Blue Bird.” The tires were 28″ by 4″, and the main landing gear tread was 72.” The vertical stabilizer was round-adjustable, and the horizontal stabilizer could be adjusted in-flight. The empennage was of mixed-construction, as was the earlier Hess design.
The Alliance “Argo” had a smaller span than the “Blue Bird,” the upper span being 28′ 8″, and the lower being 26′ 0.” The chord of both wings was 4′, and the wing area was 203 sq. ft (110.5 sq. ft., upper, 92.5 sq. ft., lower). Once again, a Clark “Y” airfoil was used. The overall length was also shorter, being only 20′ 4,” and the height was reduced to 7′ 9.” The empty weight was 1,085 lbs., and the gross weight was 1,671 lbs. The useful load was 586 lbs., 221 lbs., being the payload. All “Argos” after serial number 102 (the first production aircraft, or second built, was serial number 101, NC 3601), had an 8 lb. fuel reserve. Like the “Blue Bird,” the “Argo” had a fuel tank in the upper wing center section, the capacity being 26 gal., and the oil tank in the fuselage holding 4 gal. The Vmax was improved to 120 mph, the Vc being 102 mph, and the landing velocity being 44 mph. The range of the “Argo” was considerably less than the “Blue Bird,” being 350 mi. The price; $4,500.00. Jospeh Juptner’s U.S. Civil Aircraft, Vol. 2, shows serial numbers and registrations for 17 “Argos,” but the total appears to be incomplete and as many as 21 are thought to have been built. Eventually, the “Warrior” was apparently uprated to 125 hp @ 1,850 rpm.
With the collapse of Alliance, the factory sat vacant. What happens next isn’t entirely clear. A photograph found on www.alliancememory.org, shows a high-wing monoplane, registered as 950W. There are also photos of Giles’ “Blue Bird,” Aubrey Hess with his wife and daughter, etc. Aerofiles, States that there was a company known as the Warrior Aeronautical Co. However, J.E. Foster of Detroit took over the company’s factory and formed the Foster Aircraft Co. in 1929, which collapsed around 1930 after building only 2 airplanes and employing 15 people. But, Foster is listed in the 1931 Alliance telephone directory, and the engine on 950W, does appear to be a Hess “Warrior.” Whatever the case, in 1935 local Alliance businessmen and the Chamber of Commerce came up with $50,000.00 to move the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corp. to Alliance. The story of the Taylor brothers, and what later became Taylorcraft, are well-known, and are beyond the scope of this article. When Taylorcraft left Alliance, Armour took over the old factory, which is now home to a company known as SIA. An original stock certificate for the Alliance Aircraft Corp. is apparently for sale for the sum of $475.00. Three extant “Argos,” located in museums, were discovered during the course of researching this article (4). Further artifacts, include the EAA Museum, which has a Hess “Warrior” engine. A final note: the Alliance Aircraft Corp. should not be confused with the Alliance Aeroplane Co., Ltd.; Acton, United Kingdom of Great Britain. There is no connection (5).
Correct answers were received from: Terry Bowden, Andy Heins and John Eney.
1. While at least one source states that Aubrey Hess was an engineer during the Great War, this is certainly apocryphal. He would have been only 19 in 1918. He apparently did see military service, although details are unknown to this author.
2. The text in Aviation is somewhat contradictory. In the next paragraph it states: “…The fin is constructed of steel tubing in one unit, involving a thick section…” Thus, it would seem that the actual construction of the presumably vertical stabilizer was of mixed construction. Whether this applied to the horizontal stabilizers, or not, is open to conjecture. However, this does seem likely.
3. According to www.aerofiles.com, only two other aircraft used the Hess (Alliance) engine. Specifically, the 1937 BD-2, built by Michael M. Blatnik of Clinton, Ohio; and, the 1929 Mutual Aircraft Service (Aircraft) Co., “Blackbird.” The Mutual (X 87) was apparently a Hess “Blue Bird” rebuilt with a “Warrior” engine. This aircraft is apparently still in existence. The company was reported to be at Kansas City, Missouri, and Norwalk, Connecticut; respectively, and was owned by A.H. Feffle.
4. Juptner, states that two or three may have still existed circa 1964. One is located in the Golden Wings Museum, and another is (596K) is owned by the Ohio Historical Center. A third, once owned by Roy Keely, is in the hands of a couple in Massachusettes.
5. During the Great War, the Ruffy-Baumann R.A.B. 15 trainer became the Alliance Aeroplane Co. P.1 when Alliance bought Ruffy-Baumann. In 1919, the “Seabird,” or P.2, was built to fly across the Atlantic. With that feat accomplished by a Vickers Vimy, flown by Alcock and Brown, the Curtiss NC-4, and the British rigid airship R.34; the “Seabird” was flown from Acton (a suburb of London) to Madrid on 31 July 1919. A second P.2 was built with the intention of flying from England to Australia, but it crashed, killing the pilot and navigator.
Jackson, A.J. BRITISH CIVIL AIRCRAFT 1919-1972, VOL. 1. London, Conway Maritime Press Ltd., 1987, p 283.
Juptner, Joseph P. U.S. CIVIL AIRCRAFT, VOL. 2: ATC NUMBER 101 TO 200. Fallbrook, California: Aero Publishers, 1964, pp 223-225.
Pauley, Robert F. IMAGES OF AVIATION: MICHIGAN AIRCRAFT MANUFACTURERS. Chicago: Arcadia Publications, 2009, pp 37, 49.
Rice, Michael S. GUIDE TO PRE – 1930 AIRCRAFT ENGINES. Appleton, Wisconsin: Aviation Publications, 1972, p 9.
Smith, Herschel. A HISTORY OF AIRCRAFT PISTON ENGINES. Manhattan, Kansas: Sunflower University Press, 1986, pp 104-106, 111.
Aviation. The Hess Blue Bird: A Small Three-Place Commercial Sport Plane. January 31, 1927, pp 228-229.
ibid. Hess Aircraft Company Advertisement. June 27, 1927, p 1389.
ibid. Alliance Aircraft Corporation Advertisement. V27 N4. July 27, 1929, p 1.
ibid. Alliance Aircraft Corporation Advertisement. V27 N8. August 24, 1929, p 1.
Author’s general knowledge of the Transatlantic flights of 1919.