Bowerairlines — W-F-W Aircraft Corporation: Thunderbird Aircraft, Inc., General Aviation Corporation M-14 Thunderbird — dated June 24, 2014 3:13 pm.
AugustMysteryBY: WESLEY R. SMITH
As the 1920s grew to a close, a popular biplane type was a three-place open-cockpit type, usually powered by a used 90 hp Curtiss OX-5, or a Wright-Martin Hispano-Suiza, of either 150 hp, or 180 hp (Model A, or Model E). However, by the late ’20s, radial engines of various makes had supplemented the standard water-cooled war surplus types. In nearly every case, the accepted formulae was a pilot, who sat in the rear cockpit, with the passengers sitting in front, side-by-side.
The name; “Thunderbird,” is a bit unusual in the annals of American aviation, and thus, requires some brief discussion. The legend of the Thunderbird dates back many centuries in Native American mythology throughout the United States, including; the Pacific Northwest, the Desert Southwest, the Great Plains, and the Great Lakes. According to the legend, the beating of the bird’s wings causes thunder. Among the Lakota, it is known as “sacred winged,” or; “Kwakwaka’wakw.” Among the Ojibwa tribe, the name is more closely associated with thunder, and are known as; “animikii.” As fascinating etimologiy of the word is, it is clearly beyond the scope of this article. However, in more recent years (since the 1970s), there have been various attempts to claim sightings over very large birds, particularly on 25 July 1977, when a boy was allegedly snatched, and lifted off the ground by a large bird; later known to have been an escaped zoo animal from Chiicago. Certainly, the legend of two cowboys killing a large reptilian bird in Arizona during 1890 (1) is fascinating, if unproven. Actual fossil records appear to indicate that very large birds, possibly flesh-eaters, existed alongside protohumans. The reason for the selection of the name Thunderbird, from Native American folklore, is unknown, but is likely associated with the close connection to Arizona by the corporation’s founders.
Thunderbird W-14 drawing cropped

Model W-14 Thunderbird three-view drawing showing top wing mounted radiator for liquid cooled OX-5 90 hp engine.

The story of the W-14 actually begins with the genesis of the stunt and movie pilot group known as the; “!3 Black Cats” (2) in 1924. Burdett Fuller, the owner of Burdett Airport, located at Western Avenue and 102nd. St., was the focal point of activity for several individuals that would become famous in the world of aviation. In February of 1926, William John “Jack” Frye (1904-1959) bought out Burdett Fuller, to form the Aero Corporation of California, Inc. with Paul E. Richter Jr. (1898-1949) and Walter A. “Ham” Hamilton (1902-1946). While the company was still Fuller and Frye; Richter, approached them with $250.00 to learn to fly. Richter, had joined the army in 1918, becoming a lieutenant. He was nearly shipped overseas when the war ended. He had attempted to transfer to the USAS, but that was declined by the army. Richter took Bon McDougall on his solo flight. McDougall, astonished Richter by climbing out of the cockpit and walking on the wing. A stunt man and race car driver, McDougall formed the “13 Black Cats,” to supply the needs of Hollywood. For a price, the group would perform dangerous stunts, ranging from crashing an aircraft, to complicated multiple wing-walking stunts and assorted aerial feats of high risk. Richter, had planned to be an agriculturalist, attending the Colorado College of Agriculture before taking over his father’s ranch in Morgan County, Colorado. After learning to fly, his first job in aviation was working as a Flight Instructor for Fuller and Frye, for $35.00/week. Frye, was born at Sweetwater, Oklahoma on 18 March 1904. He enlisted in the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1921, and was discharged a year later in 1922. He began flying with Fuller in 1923, and held Arizona State Commercial Pilot’s license number one. He later earned Transport Certificate number 993. Together, Frye and Richter bought Burdett Fuller out and formed the Aero Corporation of California, Inc.

In 1926, Frye would have the dubious distinction of being ticketed for flying under 1,000′ over Los Angeles. Ironically, he and Richter, would become Deputy Sheriff’s (“Lieutenants”) in the Los Angeles “Aerial Squad,” charged with enforcing the 1926 Air Navigation Act for the Dept. of Commerce. This legislation would spell the end of the “13 Black Cats,” but several group members would nevertheless pilot many of the aircraft used in Howard Hughes’ epic; Hells Angels. Some of the aircraft used in the making of the movie would be supplied by the Aero Corporation of California, Inc. According to the Alexander Aircrafter for December 1926, the “Aerial Squad’s” official aircraft was an Alexander Eaglerock. Apparently, a “long-wing” (ATC # 8) variant. Extant photos show Lieutenants Frye, and Richter with the third famous member of the trio, Walter A. Hamilton. Hamilton, was the “mechanical genius” who made Frye’s and Richter’s success possible. He earned his Arizona State Commerical pilot’s license at the same time as Frye and Richter, holding Arizona commercial pilot’s certificate number two. He was also a member of the “Aerial Squad,” and he was responsible for the invention of the DELCO dual ignition system for the Curtiss OX-5 engine. As Paul Richter once said; “Walt Hamilton can make a washing machine fly.” Indeed, he became Chief Engineer of the Aero Corporation of California, Inc., and was to have a distinguished aviation career along with Frye and Richter, perfecting Dusenberg engines during the 1920s, and patenting mechanical improvements to aircraft which became standard throughout the aviation industry. In 1928, Richter would fly an OX-powered Eaglerock from Colorado to Denver, then on to Colorado Springs. He would also fly as part of a civilian relay team at the California Air Races, held at Mines Field.

The formation of the corporation which built the W-14, also coincides with the establishment of Standard Airlines, a subsidiary of the Aero Corporation of California, Inc., on 3 February 1926. Standard, was formed by Frye, Hamilton and Richter during 1927, with regularly scheduled services beginning on 28 November. The equipment used by Standard initially consisted of a solitary Fokker F-VIIa, which was was operated between Los Angeles and Tucson, via Phoenix, which had the virtue of having facilities for the ladies. There were three scheduled flights a week. Connections to Texas and Pacific Railways allowed a transcontinental trip time of 70 hours by 4 February 1929. The route was extended to El Paso, Texas during the fall of 1929, and an arrangement with Southwest Air Fast Express and the NY Central Railroad, reduced the transit time to 43 hrs. 40 min.

As the Aero Corporation of California, Inc., was getting underway, the W-F-W Aircraft Corporation was also founded in Los Angeles during 1926; W-F-W standing for: Woolsey, Frye and Whittier. Theodore Woolsey, was the designer of the Thunderbird,with “Jack” Frye and Paul Whittier serving as corporate officers. Monte Edwards, Walter Hamilton and Paul Richter rounded out the managerial staff of the corporation, originally located at 106th. and Western Avenue in Los Angeles. In January of 1928, the corporation relocated to a new 36,000 sq. ft. factory located at 900 N. Allen Ave. in Glendale, and changed its name to Thunderbird Aircraft, Inc. An article in the October 1927 Aero Digest, states that the factory was capable of building four aircraft per week. Paul Whittier, was a Lt. in the Cailfornia National Guard, and had learned to fly through the Aero Corporation of California, Inc. and Burdett Field.



150 hp Wright-Martin engine powered the W-14-H Thunderbirds.

The W-14 “Thunderbird,” alternatively known as the W-14-O (OX-5 engine), W-14-H (Wright-Martin 150 hp Hispano-Suiza) and W-14-F (or, WH-14-F: 140 hp Axelson Floco radial); was an attractive three-place open cockpit biplane vaguely resembling a cross between a Curtiss P-6 and a Douglas O-2B, the front seat holding two passengers in side-by-side seating. Woolsey, took special care to fair the lower wing to the fuselage, and additional attention was given to the fuselage shape. The fuselage was constructed of welded chrome molybdenum alloy steel tube, inclusive of the detachable engine mount and brace struts. The aircraft was 24′ 6″ (25′ 6,” according to statistics [ublished in Aviation) in length, and the plane stood 9′ high. Any engine from 100 hp to 250 hp could be fitted by changing the engine mount. The propeller was an aluminum Curtiss-Reed of unknown diameter and pitch.

The wings of the Thunderbird were of unequal span, the upper wing span being 33′ 0″ and the lower being 31′ 0.” The chord and gap were 5′ 0,” and the wing area was 300 sq. ft. The wings were said to have been stressed to an unbelievable positive load factor of 12g. Ailerons, were fitted to both wings, an “I” strut connecting the upper and lower pairs. “N” struts were fitted between the wings, and the forward angled cabane struts incorporated a diagonal strut running from the upper wing to the fuselage. A radiator was fitted to the center section of the upper wing. Empty weight of the W-14-O was 1,300 lbs., and the useful load was 800 lbs.; the gross weight totaling 2,100 lbs. (2,361 lbs., according to Juptner).



OX-5 powered Thunderbird. Note radiator mounted below fuselage.

First flight of the W-14-O took place on 21 November 1926 at the National Guard field in Los Angeles, with “Jack” Frye acting as pilot. A standard OX-5, previously used by a local flying school (undoubtedly Fuller and Frye), was fitted. On four speed runs, the average speed was 119.4 mph (the claimed figures state that the Vmax. was +100 mph;115 mph according to aerofiles. Aviation, states that it was 114 mph). The Vc was 95 mph. and the landing velocity was a low 32 mph (38 mph, according toaerofiles), and the max. ceiling was 15,000.’ Climb, for the first minute was 800 fpm, and the range was 400 mi. The prototype was said to have been sold to a Los Angeles to Tucson air taxi (3). Fuel capacity of the W-14 was 43 gal.

Approximately 40 W-14s were built between 1927 and 1929. The OX-5 variant was priced at $3,350.00 and the “Hisso” powered variant at $3,750.00. The prototype serial number was probably #28-1 (4), but the registration number is not known (5). On 21 October 1929, a Group 2 type certificate was issued for the W-14 (2-141), but by then, production had probably ended. The Thunderbird has been described as an; “excellent airplane;” however, the prototype crashed early in 1928 while performing stunts. Another was involved in an in-flight fire and another crashed when the ballast in the forward cockpit shifted while the aircraft was being spin-tested, the pilot escaping by parachute. A fourth W-14 crashed during violent aerobatics, the pilot being thrown from the aircraft. There was apparently an attempt to market the aircraft to the military, but this effort failed. Late in the corporation’s history, the name was changed to the General Aircraft Corporation, with Major C.C. Mosley and William Henry of the L.A. Times acting as the corporate officers. But, this was to no avail. And yet, that is far from the end of the story.

In 1928 a seven-place cabin monoplane was designed for Lt. C.A. Burrows. It was to have a Pratt and Whitney Wasp, and a Vmax of 145 mph (Vc 120 mph). It was to be used to scout new air mail and passenger routes, but the aircraft was never built. In addition to the engine types previously mentioned, one W-14 was fitted with a 140 hp Bailey C-7R radial (6), and another was fitted with a 130 hp Hallet radial (7). While a photo of any radial-powered W-14 has yet to be found, the W-14 was also offered with the 150 hp Axelson (Floco) radial, which is worth discussing.


Axelson Odenbriet Floco A, rear view ad

Originally developed by Frank L. Odenbreit the seven cylinder radial engine the first A-7 produced 150 hp at 1800 rpm. Ad, such as shown above, appeared in various aviation publications during that era.

The engine was originally developed by Frank L. Odenbreit, Inc. (138 Seventeenth St.; Los Angeles, Calif.), and there are two known types of Floco engines. The first, the A-7-R, was a 7-cylinder radial which produced 150 hp @ 1,800 rpm. The engine weighed 430 lbs., dry, and had a compression ratio of 2.87:1. The bore was 4.5″ and the stroke was 5.5.” It displaced 612 cubic inches and was 45.5″ in diameter with an overall length of 35.” Ignition was supplied by a single Scintilla magneto and carburetion was furnished by a Stromberg carburetor. the total shipping weight was 750 lbs. The name, “Floco,” is obviously and acronym standing for the: “Frank L.Odenbriet CO.”

The Axelson B, was a development of the original Odenbriet design, Alexson purchasing the “Floco” design from Frank Odenbriet. The Axelson Aircraft Engine Company was located at Los Angeles (Box 337), and was originally a West Coast machining firm, which specialized in the manufacture of large lathes. The construction of this engine was quite conventional. Cylinders were made of nickel-chromium steel with aluminum alloy heads, screwed and shrunk into place. Cooling fins were machined integral with the barrel, and hinged rocker boxes were installed to maintain tappet (lifter) clearance, regardless of the engine temperature. The engine was granted the Approved Type Certificate number 16 by the Dept. of Commerce, and the pistons were designed to lubricate the upper cylinder walls, and lubrication leaks were stated to be; “impossible.”

The Axelson B was marketed to the Alexander “Eaglerock,” and like the Hallet radial engine, was used in the Eaglerock A-5 (8). Specifications for the Axelson B were nearly identical to those of the Odenbriet A-7-R. In fact, the differences, if any, are unclear; other than some slight change in the length and weight. The engine was a 7-cylinder radial of 612.3 cu. in. displacement, producing 150 hp @ 1,800 rpm, and was designed for minimum vibration. The overall engine length was 37.75″, and the overall diameter, 45.” The bore and stroke were 4.5″ and 5.5,” respectively. The weight, without propeller hub or starter was 420 lbs. The fuel consumption was 0.55 lbs. per hp-hr, and the oil consumption was not more than 0.017 lbs. per hp-hr. A pressurized oil system was fed by a duplex gear pump, providing 60-70 lbs of pressure, and running at 1/2 the crankshaft speed. Ignition was supplied by two Scintilla MN-7 D Type magnetos, with one plug per cylinder. Carburetion was furnished by a Stromberg NAR 5-A. The price was $2,950.00, and accessories included a starter, fuel pump, ignition switch and temperature gauges. Standard equipment included an instruction manual, exhaust stacks a tool kit and propeller hub nuts.

The story of what happened to Frye, Hamilton and Richter, after their involvement with W-14, is an interesting one. Standard Airlines was sold to Harris M. Hanshue of Western Air Express, Inc. (WAE) in May of 1930. In June of 1928, WAE absorbed Pacific Marine Airways, which had been flying since 1923, operating Curtiss HS-2Ls between Wilmington (near Long Beach) and Avalon on Catalina Island. The following year, WAE had purchased West Coast Air Transport. WAE had been selected in 1927 to provide passenger service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, having already run a highly successful air mail route between LA and Salt Lake City. This had been the outgrowth of The Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, formed on 18 January 1926 with a 2.5 million dollar gift (9). WAE operated Fokker F-Xas, and had a 99% reliabilty rate, due to weather forecasting supported by the Guggenheim fund, and in cooperation with the US Weather Bureau.

On 1 October 1928, Hanshue and James Talbot formally incorporated WAE, with 5 million dollars in capital. A few months later, WAE obtained controlling interest in the Fokker Aircraft Corporation, ordering four new F-32 airliners. A new air route was soon opened between Alberquerque, N.M. via Kingman and Holbrook, Arizona. The routes were extened to Amarillo, Texas by 1 June. West Coast Air Transport (WCAT), operating 8 Bach Air Yacht trimotors had been running since 5 March 1928. WAE purchased the corp. in late 1929. After purchasing Standard Airlines in 1930, WAE would become an unwilling partner with Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) a few months later.

Clement Melville Keys had formed TAT on 16 May 1928. By then, Keys controlled the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, the Wright Aeronautical Corp., National Air Transport (NAT) and the Pennsylvania Railroad. From the very beginning, TAT has been dedicated to the operation of the Ford Trimotor as its primary equipment. A technical committee, headed by Col. Charles A. Lindbergh, oversaw all technical operations, and loaned his name to the corp., TAT becoming known as the;Lindbergh Line. In planning the transcontinental route, great pains had been taken to establish an infrastructure which allowed for proper navigation and weather information. In the erstwhile, Jack L. Maddux, a Los Angeles car dealer had become enamored with the Ford Trimotor, and had established a twice-daily scheduled airline service between Los Angeles and San Diego. Once again, TAT purchased another airline, Maddux, on 16 November 1929. But, the dream was about to undergo a shock.


Thunderbird W-14 advertisement cropped

Thunderbird advertisement that appeared in aviation magazines in the late 1920s.

Walter Folger Brown, the US Postmaster did not like the idea of two airlines competing on the same air mail route. When TAT purchased WCAT, it had no air mail route to supplement the loss of income, which had accelerated in early 1930, with the onset of The Great Depression. TAT had lost 2.75 million dollars in the first 18 months. Brown, now insisted that TAT merge with WAE along the central air mail route before any air mail contracts would be awarded. North American Aviation had substantial holdings in both corporations, was strongly distrusted by Hanshue. This resulted in a bitter and profane argument between Hanshue and Brown. Soon, the Pittsburg Aviation Industries Corp. (PIAC) entered the picture. Claiming priority over the central air mail route, PIAC, Pittsburg Airways and Ohio Air Transport merged to become United Avigation. Brown agreed, and acceded to their request with the backing of AVCO (The Aviation Corporation) which held stock in WAE. Hanshue was thus forced into a merger between TAT and WAE. With the formation of the Eton Corporation under the laws of Delaware on 19 July 1930, the first step in the merger had taken place. The careful parsing of corporate interests gave the PIAC group 4.732% of the new corporation’s holdings in exchange for half interest in the Pittsburg Buttler Airport, Inc. An amended certificate was issued 5 days later, assets of TAT being amalgamated with WAE. Thus, Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA) was created with the issuance of 623,000 shares of stock, of a possible one million.

The new TWA name was first used on a Ford Trimotor on 25 October 1930, making a 36 hr. coast-to-coast flight A complicated battle ensued with Brown splitting United Avigation, the corp. being unable to live up to the conditions Brown had set. He did so by awarding the St. Louis to Kansas City route to United States Airways, over American Airways. In turn, American sublet the route back to US Airways, but US Airways soon deserted the group. The postal rate was much too low for United Avigation, which bid at 64% of the allowable rate, and even TWA lost money, with a bid of 97.5% of the maximum. With TWA hemorraging a one million dollar loss in the first year, and TWA stock divided at 47.5% to TAT, 47.5% to WAE and 5% to PIAC, Hanshue resigned the presidency of TWA in July of 1931, R.W. Robbins of PIAC becoming the new president. It had not helped that the crash of a Fokker F-Xa (NC 999E) at Bazaar, Kansas, claiming the life of the beloved Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne.

Throughout the complex machinations of mergers and postal intrigue, Jack Frye had remained Director of Operations for what was now TWA, with Richter as Vice-president of Operations. Hamilton, also continued on in his capacity for maintenance operations. General Motors, then entered the picture after the forced merger of TAT and WAE. The newly formed company, known as General Aviation Corporation, acquired the WAE shares on 3 March 1931, at a relatively small cost of $90,000.00, and with it, control of the Fokker Aircraft Corp. While the subsequent history of TWA is much too lengthy for this article, it suffices to say that Frye, Richter and Hamilton continued working for TWA.

The Aero Corporation of California, Inc., had been the west coast distributors for Fokker and Alexander Eaglerock aircraft. In 1929, Frye and Richter had flown to Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey to take delivery of Standard Airlines first Fokker F-Xa. Named the; “Arizonian,” it was soon followed by the “Texan” and the“Californian;” all operated on the Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson and El Paso routes. On 9 September, Richter and Frye set a world’s altitude record for the Fokker F-Xa, reaching 22,680′, breaking the previous record set by Waldo Waterman by more than 2,000.’ Richter, who had apparently coined the phrase; “Give me enough power and I can fly a barn door,” had lived up to his words. Later, Richter would pilot a Fokker Super Universal at the opening of Hancock Field at Santa Maria, winning the cabin plane speed and efficiency events. However, it would be the crash of Rockne’s plane that spurred Frye to compose a letter to aircraft manufacturers for a new aircraft of better construction and reliabilty than the Fokker and Ford Trimotors then in use.

On 2 August of 1932, Frye, then Vice-President of Operations at TWA; would send out specifications for a twelve-place three-engined transport with a Vmax. of 185 mph, a Vc of 146 mph, a landing speed of 65 mph and a range of 1,080 mi. A crew of two was to be carried, and the aircraft was to be powered by two 500-550 hp engines. The most stringent requirement was; “This plane, fully loaded, must make satisfactory take-offs under good control at any TWA airport on any combination of two engines.” This requirement was sent to Consolidated, Curtiss, Martin, General Aviation and Douglas. Based on the structural design work of John K. Northrop; Arthur Raymond and Harry Wetzel left the Douglas Santa Monica plant 10 days later with Douglas’ proposal. After three weeks of negotiations, a major point of contention was the TWA insistence that the aircraft be able to take-off on one engine at any TWA airport with a full load. General Aviation, also competed for the contract, but their trimotored aircraft was only 80% complete when the Douglas DC-1 made its maiden flight on 1 July 1933.

Powered by two nine-cylinder Wright SGR-1820F radial engines, X223Y (s/n 1137), the aircraft’s first flight was marred when the engines quit after the aircraft leveled-off. The fault was traced to a problem with the fuel lines, and thanks to the highly skilled dead-stick landing of Carl Cover and Fred Herman, disaster was averted. The single engine requirment was successfully met on a flight from Winslow, Arizona to Alberquerque, N.M. on 4 September 1933; the aircraft climbing to 8,000′ and flying 280 mi. The following month, the DC-1A, powered by Pratt and Whitney SD-Gs, made its maiden flight. While the DC-2 was offered with the more powerful Hornet, a solitary DC-2A was built for Standard Oil of California, using the SD-G installation.

In order to prove the aircraft before the public and aviation industry, Jack Frye and the famous First World War ace, Capt. Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, flew the DC-1 from Los Angeles to Newark on 19 February 1934 in 13 hr. 4 min. With entensive modifications, the same aircraft bested its record on 30 April 1935 with D.W. Tomlinson at the controls, along with H.B. Snead and F.R. Redpath. In all, the aircraft set or broke 22 records, 8 of which, were world records. Eventually, however, the aircraft was sold to Howard Hughes for additional distance records. It ended its days in Spain when it was crash-landed at Malaga after an engine failure. It had been acquired from Hughes by Viscount Forbes, Earl of Granard, who planned to fly the Atlantic, but it was sold to a French company and then to Lineas Aereas Postales Espanolas (LAPE), where it was operated by the Republican Government until the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1938.

In 1934, Frye improved his transcontinental record in a Northrop Gamma; flying to Newark in 11 hr. 34 min. He joined the United States Naval Reserve that same year as a Lieutenant, becoming a Lt. Commander in 1940. There is some disagreement as to who approached whom for the sale of TWA to Howard Hughes in 1939. In any case, Frye and Hughes made a new transcontinental speed record on 17 April 1944, flying the prototype Lockheed C-69-LO (10), Constellation, from Burbank to National Airport in Washington, D.C. 6 hr. 57 min. 51 sec. In addition to Frye and Hughes, there were three other crew members and 12 VIPs aboard.

1946, was a fateful year for the original trio that had started the beginnings of the corporation that had merged into TWA. Frye, was awarded the Medal of Merit for his wartime service, but a dispute developed with Hughes’ aide de camp, Noah Detrich, in August. By then, Frye was President of TWA, but he resigned on 21 February 1947, and on 14 April was elected Chairman of General Analine and Film Corporation at four times his TWA salary. He flew from Sedona to NYC on 1 July 1947 to assume the new post. He would assume other corporate posts until the Eisenhower Administration phased out control of foreign companys that had been taken over during the Second World War. In January of 1941, Frye had married Helen Varner Vanderbilt, previously married to Cornelius Vanderbilt IV. They would divorce and he would marry New York showgirl Emily Nevada Smith. During the 1950s, Frye would attempt to get back into aviation with the manufacure of the Frye F-1 Safari. Grumman, had agreed to produce the F-1, and the later F-2, a fixed landing gear, four-engine STOL design of Ernst Zindel, designer of the Junkers JU-52. However, nothing came of this. Frye’s last aviation involvement was with Helio, demonstrating the Helio Courier H-391B (N 4104D) at Grand Central Air Terminal in the late 1950s. He was killed in a fatal car accident at Tucson, on 3 February 1959, exactly 33 years after co-founding Standard Airlines. He was originally interred at Tucson, but he was later reburied at Wheeler, Texas. Plans to build the Helio and the Northrop N-23 Pioneer trimotor.

Walt Hamilton would pass away in 1946, at the young age of 44. His work at TWA included mechanical improvements for the various Douglas “DC types” operated by TWA, along with Boeing Model 307s and Lockheed Constellations. During the Second World War, he served as a Captain with the Naval Air Transport Service before returning to TWA. Paul Richter, would die three years later in 1949 at the age of 53. He had made numerous improvements to aircraft operations at TWA, and belonged to equally numerous organizations. He was an early member of the Quiet Birdmen, Chairman of the American Legion Aviation Post # 350, a charter member ofAlpha Eta Rho, a fraternal college aviation organization, and was elected to the National Aeronautic Association and the Professional Pilot’s Association. In addition to co-founding the Aero Corporation of California, Inc., Standard Airlines, and being an original member of the; “13 Black Cats,” Richter would also co-found Hawiian Airways, Ltd.

The last hurrah for the W-14 came at the hands of the noted pilot, Roscoe Turner. Born in Corinth, Mississippi on 29 September 1895. The son of Robert Lee and Mary Aquilla Derryberry Turner, he was educated up to the tenth grade, which was the highest grade available at the Glover School in W. Corinth. Not wanting to become a farmer, he attended busniess college for six months, and worked in a hardware store, and briefly, in a bank. He was, however, fascinated by mechanical devices, and at the age of 16, ran away in the hopes of becoming a car mechanic. He next became a truck driver before gravitating towards work as an auto mechanic, chauffeur and salesman. He saw his first airplane in 1916, and directed his energy towards becoming a pilot. In 1917 he applied to become a pilot in the fledgling US Air Service, but was turned away because he lacked a college education. Finally, he enlisted as an ambulance driver before finally being accepted in the Balloon Corps in January of 1918. He received his commission as a Second Lt. in March, and in September 1918, was sent to serve in Europe. While there, he obtained some unofficial flight training in fixed-wing aircraft, and returned to the US in July of 1919, as a First Lt.

In October 1919, Turner went into partnership with Harry J. Runser, barnstorming in a Curtiss (Canada) JN-4(Can.), otherwise known as a; Canuck. Serving as Runser’s mechanic, Turner also acted as wing-walker and parachutist. In April of 1920 theCanuck was sold for an Avro 504, which could carry an extra passenger. In September of 1921 they falsely purchased a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” from a Marine Sergeant, but only a few months later, they were charged with conspiracy, and sent to federal prison after conviction. Turner, was not released until July of 1922. President Calvin Coolidge granted a full and unconditional pardon in August of 1924, and he returned to Corinth where he co-founded an auto repair service. He then restored a Curtiss JN-4, and branstormed the Corinth area until the fall of 1924, when he joined Arthur H. Starnes and formed the Roscoe Turner Flying Circus. A year earlier, he had formed the Muscle Shoals Aircraft Corporation at Sheffield, Alabama. He was married on his birthday in 1924 to Carline Hunter Stovall at the farm in Corinth where he kept his Jenny. Both he and his bride were seated in the aircraft when the minister officiated at the ceremony.

After Starnes left in 1925, Turner employed J.W. “Bugs” Fisher as his wing-walker, parachutist and stuntman. The Roscoe Turner Airways Corp. was formed in early 1925 with the assistance of the Curlee Clothing Co. Turner, purchased the sole Sikorsky S-29-A (“A” for “America”), and used it for joyriding publicity campaigns and proposed record flights which never materialized. Early in 1928, Turner flew the S-29-A to California for conversion to represent a “Gotha” (11) bomber, which was used in Howard Hughes’ film, Hells Angels. It had been leased through Caddo Productions, controlled by Hughes. During the final filming sequences, a failure occurred which caused the aircraft to crash. There was one fatality, but the pilot escaped by parachute. Tuner, and his soon became involved in the Hollywood social scene, his paramilitary uniform and prominent moustache serving as his trademarks for self-promotion. He made several futile attempts at record-breaking flights using the Timm:”Air Coach,” or “Golden Shell Special,” a large cabin biplane which was used to carry hunters to lodges in the Sierra-Madre Mountains. It was then, that Turner became involved with the W-14 Thunderbird, and his luck changed.

On 17 November 1909, one F. Brackett filed a patent application for lowering an entire aircraft by parachute. It had only been a year-and-a-quarter since Orville Wright had given the first public demonstrations of a heavier-than-air aircraft in the United States, at Ft. Myers, Virginia (12); and only a few months since the 1909 Wright “Military Flyer” (S.C. No. 1) had been demonstrated (13), also at Ft. Myer. Brackett’s US patent (No. 981,367; “Air Craft”), had been granted on 10 January 1911, and became the first of many such devices to be patented in the United States (Class 244, Subclass 139). In Brackett’s design, a series of conical faced the direction of flight, and were positioned in rows running span-wise. A wing, was placed across the top of the structure, with vertical rudders at the ends of the wing. A large centralized vertical rudder was supported by an outrigger structure in front of the aircraft, and a single pusher propeller, was used to drive the machine in flight. In the event of engine failure, the cones, attached to shafts, were designed to pivot to the vertical position and act as parachutes.

While Brackett’s individual parachute design consisted of conical parachutes, conceived centuries earlier (14), six other parachutes for aircraft were patented during 1911. The first, which we might consider to be conventional, was patented by J.W. Dolson on 19 September 1911 (No. 1,003,714; “Flying Machine Parachute”).. This consisted of a folding umbrella-like device, attached to the upper wing. of a biplane, strongly resembling a so-called Curtiss Pusher. This was followed by another similar device, patented by F.J. Coates (No. 1,004,749; “Safety Attachment for Aero Craft”) on 3 October 1911. Another six patents were issued in 1912. Notable among these utility patents was that of J. Kratofil (No. 1,039,295; “Safety Device for Air Craft”), and that of one F. Billeau (No. 1,046,023; “Airship Life Saver”). These two devices feature what could be considered (more-or-less) conventional parachute canopies; the Billeau drawings depicting attachment to what vaguely resembled a Wright 1907-09 Flyer.

As many such devices continued to be patented over the course of the next two decades, the first such practical test appears to have come in 1928, when Roscoe Turner successfully tested an aircraft parachute, made by the Russell Parachute Company. Attached to a W-14 (NX 9830), the parachute canopy was attached behind the cockpit and was 50′ in diameter. While I have yet to uncover the date (or photos) of this test, it appears to have been fully successful, and Turner is known to have fitted another to his Lockheed “Air Express” (15) at a later time. The W-14 test marks the end of the W-14, but also the beginning of Turner’s fame as a air race pilot. The modified Air Express featured a more powerful Pratt and Whitney R-1340Wasp, and a cream paint job with red and gold trim; the front being adorned with a Gilmore Oil “Lion Head” logo. Turner persuaded Louis Goebel to donate a lion cub in exchange for promoting his breeding farm. Gilmore Oil became the Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., and finally, Mobil. Naming the lion “Gilmore,” they would soldier on for a number of years (with a special parachute made for him); before Gilmore became unruly and too large. Gilmore, was returned to the Goebel farm where he died in 1952. He was then stuffed and remained in Turner’s home until his death in 1970, before finally ending up in the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in 1976.

Turner, would break the first of his transcontinental speed records on 27 May 1930, flying his Air Express to Grand Central Airport at Glendale in 18 hr. 42 min. 30 sec. On 14 November 1932, Turner would fly his Wedell-Williams Model 44 from Floyd Bennett Filed to Burbank in 12 hr. 33 min. Using corporate sponsorship, Turner would gradually upgrade a Wedell-Williams Model 44 he would win the 1933 Bendix, and 1934 Thompson Trophy. He would move on to a Boeing Model 247 for use in the 1934 MacRobertson Race, placing third. The last Wedell-Willimas Model 44 was destroyed in an accident after an engine failure in August of 1936. His next aircraft, the Turner-Laird RT-14 “Turner Special,” or, more correctly, Meteor; was flown from 1937-1939. Turner ended up winning the 1934, 1938 and 1939 Thompson Trophy races. He also won the 1933 and 1939 Harmon Race Trophies.

In 1939, Turner would purchase the Central Aeronautical Corp. at Indianapolis. In February of 1940, the corporation was renamed the Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation (RTAC). In 1941, he suffered a broken pelvis in a car accident. He put forth several proposals which were rejected by the government, including the use of light aircraft for military purposes and a fully independent air force, both of which, would later be adopted. Turner’s company participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), which was renamed the War Training Service (WTS). In 1944, he operated an unauthrized charter service between Detroit and Memphis with his brother, Robert. On 31 December 1946, Turner married his second wife, Madonna M. Miller. She is credited with saving the company, and in 1948 obtained permission from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to operated an airline hub from the Weir-Cook Municipal Airport at Indianapolis under the name of; Turner Airlines. In February of 1950, the company was renamed Lake Central Airlines. In 1952, Turner was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by special act of Congress, which he was presented on 14 August 1952, at the Pentagon.

Turner attended ceremonies on 2 April 1961, to establish the new Roscoe Turner Airport at Corinth. Miss. In 1967, Turner sold controlling interest in RATC to Charles Gates Jr.. Gates held a majority of stock in Learjet, and cancelled RTAC contracts with Beechcraft in order to improve his business. The final assets of Roscoe and Madonna Turner were sold in 1968. Turner passed away on 23 June 1970, and the Roscoe Turner Museum was opened in September, but its existence was short-lived, closing in 1972. Turner had been an offical at the annual Indianapolis 500 race. All museum artifcats, including his Packard auto and the Boeing 247D which he flew in the MacRobertson Race, were transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1976.

By the time of Turner’s death, the W-14 had long since passed into the polymorphic annals of aviation history. Despite its obscurity, it is noteworthy that it was the first aircraft to be recovered by parachute, and idea which would not be tried again until Ballistic Recovery Systems did so, many decades later. However, in the course of researching this article, the author discovered an extant General Aircraft Corp. W-14-O Thunderbird. (c/n 2812) Registered as; N5830, the aircraft is airworthy, and is based at St. David’s, Delaware. Photographs on the internet show that it does not have a Curtiss-Reed aluminum propeller.

1. Arizona Epitath newspaper account, circa 1890. Cryptozoology.com has an account of the story.
2. Some astonishing footage of the group’s only woman, Gladys Ingle, doing a mid-air transfer from one Curtiss JN-4D Jenny to another, can be found on Youtube. She installs a new wheel and tire on the second aircraft, which was rigged to come off on take-off. During her wing walking career, she accumulated over 300 air-to-air transfers. Jack Frye and Paul E. Richter Jr., were original members, limited to 13 because that was the number of participants at The Last Supper. The cat symbol was selected by the founding member Bon McDougall after the Egyptian cat god; “Bubastis.”
Ted Woolsey, designer of the W-14 was an honorary member of the group at a later date. Other members of the group included: Al Johnson, killed when he struck high tension wires on his way to the filming of “Hells Angels.” Col. Art Goebel, winner of the 1927 Dole Air Race, flying the; “Yankee Doodle.” Ken Nichols, Herd McClellan, Major Sanford “Sam” Greenwald, Ivan Unger; Reginald Denny, First Wolrd War pilot, noted actor and founder of Radioplane, builder of target drones. Burdett Fuller, owner of Fuller Field. Egbert “Babe” Stapp, “Wild” Billy Lind, “Spider” Matlock, Frank Lockhart, Joe Campi, Jerry Tabnac and Wayne Allies. McClelland, was killed testing his “bullet proof” vest, when the sixth shot fired by a woman proved fatal. “Spider” Matlock was killed at the Ascot Speedway, and Lockhart was killed while racing at Daytona. Greenwald, was one of the first persons ashore at Normandy, and later became the top cameraman for CBS. In his last interview, Nichols spoke of the “dog star,” “Peter the Great,” successor to; “Rin-tin-tin.” He recalled how the aircraft were mounted on a small dune, and were photographed from below, while the dog appeared to perform wing-walking stunts. It is a little-known fact that “Rin-Tin-Tin” was a pup that was discovered by Lee Duncan, part of an advanced party seeking a new airfield for the 135 Aero Squadron in mid-September 1918. A German Shepherd and her pups had been abandoned by retreating Germans, and were rescued. Duncan, smuggled “Rin-Tin-Tin” and his sister, Nanette, back to the U.S., and he was performing less than a year later in Hollywood. This story seems to be incorrect, and “Rin-Tin-Tin,” was actually a pup of a male named “Fritz,” and a female war dog that had been abandoned. Ivan Unger, was noted for dancing on the tops of balloons with his sister.Apparently, a unique act that has never been repeated.
3. Possibly the Aero Corporation of California. This is speculation on my part.
4. According to Juptner, the fourth aircraft was given the serial number: 28-4, and was registered as 4589 according to aerofiles. Juptner, lists this serial number with a hyphen, while aerofiles lists the number as a three digit number (284).
5. Known registration and serials numbers are: 1050 (W-14-H), 3450 (W-14 serial # 27-2, or 272) 4589 (W-14 serial # 28-4, or 284), 5243 (W-14, serial #28-5, or 285), 5404, 5457, 5770, 5830, 5969, 6502 (W-14 serial #28-15, or 2815), 6573, 6589, 7201 (fitted with a 130 hp Hallet radial) and NX 9830, registered to Roscoe Turner.
Bailey Bull's Eye cropped

The Bull’s Eye Bailey 140 hp air-cooled engine. On the left, a front view of the engine. The photo, right, shows the internal valve operating gear.6. Apparently correctly identified as the; “Bull’s Eye Bailey,” or Bailey “Bull’s Eye,” this obscure engine is described in the 3 January 1927 issue of The engine was a seven-cylinder radial of 140 hp @ 1,850 rpm. The bore was 4.375″ and the stroke was 5..5.” The engine weighed 325 lbs., displaced 578.77 cubic inches (author’s calc.), and was 31″ in overall diameter. The crankcase was made of three-piece aluminum. the cylinders were made of “semi-steel” with “L” valves in the cast aluminum head. Extra deep cooling fins were machined onto the barrel, and the entire engine had only 79 moving parts. The pistons were made of a special alloy, and had four ring, each weighing 2.25 lbs. The master rod and connecting rods are made of chrome vanadium drop-forged steel, and the crankshaft was two-piece, having 4″ long babbitted main bearings, the connectiing rod bearings being 3.5″ babbitted bushings. There were only 7 gears in the entire engine; four timing gears, a magneto drive gear, and two magneto gears, all simple spur gears. The Bosch magnetos were placed parallel to the crankshaft, instead of at right angles. The engine was first flight-tested on a Waterhouse on 17 October 1926. The engine performed quite well, burning 8 gals./hr. and one quart of oil/hr. The type of carburetor used, is not stated in the article. The engine was most likely a design of L.J. Bailey, President of the Courier Monoplane Co. of Long Beach. It is highly dubious that there was any connection to the Bailey Automobile Co. of Springfield, Mass. (1907-1910), or S.R. Bailey & Co., of Amesbury, Mass (1907-1915). However, it is interesting to note that the former built a four-cylinder rotary of 20/24 hp of 2.4L capacity, which was used to power their automobiles

6. Apparently correctly identified as the; “Bull’s Eye Bailey,” or Bailey “Bull’s Eye,” this obscure engine is described in the 3 January 1927 issue of Aviation. The engine was a seven-cylinder radial of 140 hp @ 1,850 rpm. The bore was 4.375″ and the stroke was 5..5.” The engine weighed 325 lbs., displaced 578.77 cubic inches (author’s calc.), and was 31″ in overall diameter. The crankcase was made of three-piece aluminum. the cylinders were made of “semi-steel” with “L” valves in the cast aluminum head. Extra deep cooling fins were machined onto the barrel, and the entire engine had only 79 moving parts. The pistons were made of a special alloy, and had four ring, each weighing 2.25 lbs. The master rod and connecting rods are made of chrome vanadium drop-forged steel, and the crankshaft was two-piece, having 4″ long babbitted main bearings, the connectiing rod bearings being 3.5″ babbitted bushings. There were only 7 gears in the entire engine; four timing gears, a magneto drive gear, and two magneto gears, all simple spur gears. The Bosch magnetos were placed parallel to the crankshaft, instead of at right angles. The engine was first flight-tested on a Waterhouse Romair on 17 October 1926. The engine performed quite well, burning 8 gals./hr. and one quart of oil/hr. The type of carburetor used, is not stated in the Aviation article. The engine was most likely a design of L.J. Bailey, President of the Courier Monoplane Co. of Long Beach. It is highly dubious that there was any connection to the Bailey Automobile Co. of Springfield, Mass. (1907-1910), or S.R. Bailey & Co., of Amesbury, Mass (1907-1915). However, it is interesting to note that the former built a four-cylinder rotary of 20/24 hp of 2.4L capacity, which was used to power their automobiles

7. Like the Bailey, little is known of this radial engine to the author. Hallett Aero Motors Co. was located at Inglewood, Calif. The Hallett H-526 was a seven-cylinder air-cooled radial engine of 526 cubic inches. It’s primary use was in the Federal CM-3. It produced 130 hp @ 1,800 rpm. The dry weight was 425 lbs., and the bore and stroke were 4.375″ by 5,” respectively. The compression ratio was 5.2:1, and the mounting ring had a diameter of 18.5,” the overall engine diameter being 46.” The overall length without starter was 37.” Ignition was supplied by daul Splitdorf magnetos and BG plugs. Fuel was metered by a single Zenith carburetor. The Federal CM-3 was a design developed by mechanics from the Ryan company. The Federal CM-3 is fully described in the January 12, 1929 issue of Aviation.
8. According to Juptner, both the Hallet and Axelson B engines were used in the Alexander Eaglerock A-5. U.S. Civil Aircraft, Vol 2, ATC # 139, Alexander “Eaglerock” A-12, p 116. Cf: Smith, Herschel, p 159.
9. Daniel Guggenheim, was a wealthy “copper magnate,” interested in aeronautics.
10. Registered as NX 25600. USAAF serial number; 43-10309. Lockheed Model 049-10-LO, s/n 059-1961.
11. Presumably, a G.III, G.IV or G.V.
12. After nearly 30 years of study, the author has determined that the so-called 1907-1909 Wright Flyer had no specific designation. However, some historians have incorrectly referred to American-built Wright machines as the: “Model A.” In fact, that aircraft would not be produced until early 1910, and was the first product of the Wright Co. It was similar to the 1907-1909 machines, but had a warping (hinged) tail fitted at the rear, supported by an outrigger structure. That said, license-built aircraft constructed by the Short Brothers in England, were called Model As. As were the license-built aircraft constructed in France by La Compagne General de Navigation Aerienne (CGNA), they were dimensionally quite different from the original 1907-1909 Wright machines, and the quality of construction was inferior, leading to the death of Charles Stewart Rolls at the 1910 Bournemouth Aviation Meet. The aircraft demonstrated at Ft. Myer in the summer of 1908 was nearly identical to the 1907-1909 Flyers, with the exception of larger diameter propellers (9′ instead of 8.5′). This caused the accident which killed Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge on 17 September 1908, when a propeller snagged a brace wire for the vertical rudders, causing them to twist sideways and act as an elevator in the “full down” position. There is correspondence in which the Wrights refer to their 1904 Flyer as the “Flyer II.” Some people have chosen to extrapolate this to mean that the 1903 Flyer, was thus the; “Flyer I,” and therefore, the 1905 Flyer, would be the “Flyer III,” and the 1907-1909 aircraft, the “Flyer IV.” However, I can state with confidence that there is no written evidence to support this as being a proper designation system. Orville, referred to the 1907-1909 Flyers as; “Our 1907 Model.” See: The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Vol 2, p 1193-1196.
13. Op. Cit. The “1909 Military Flyer,” or “1909 Signal Corps Flyer,” was a special design constructed to replace the machine which had crashed at Ft. Myer in 1908. It was dimensionally quite different from the 1907-1909 machines. It is still extant at the National Air and Space Museum in nearly original condition, having been reconditioned by the Wright Company in 1911. Adding to the confusion, the Baldwin airship, sold to the Signal Corps, was also given the same serial number; S.C. No. 1.
14. Leonardo Da Vinci would design a pyramind-shaped parachute which was never built. Sketches located in the British Museum, MS add. 34113, f:189 and f, 200; show two forms of what is probably the first European parachute. One illustration shows a figure holding two streamers, one in each hand, strapped to the waist. The figure has a sponge in its mouth to allegedly assist breathing. The other figure holds a conical parachute, also attached by ropes to a harness around the waist. The first illustration of a parachute published in Machinae Novae (1495) by Fausto Veranzio. It shows a rectangular parachute attached to a waist harness (3’8, Homo Volans). The word parachute is derived from French. “Para,” to shield, and “chute,” to fall. A parachute design by Sebastian Lenormand was tested in 1783, by jumping from the observatory at Montpelier. It was 6′ high and 14′ in diameter, the occupant riding in a basket-like harness.
The first parachute decent from a balloon was conducted by Andre-Jaques Garnerin (1770-1823) at Monceau Park on 22 October 1797. The parachute used on that occasion was 39.4′ in diameter. The drop occurred at an altitude of 2,300′, the balloon exploding shortly thereafter. Another spectacular descent was made at Grosvenor Square, London on 21 September 1802. The parachute was 28′ in diameter, and, riding in a basket, descended at a rate of 10 ft./sec. from an altitude of 9,850,’ He became “seasick” during the descent and was badly bruised on landing. An astronomer named Lolande advised Gatnerin to make a small hole at the top, to allow some of the air to escape. This solved the wild oscillations he had experienced. Garnerin’s wife, Jeanne Genevieve (Labrosse) became the first woman to make a parachute jump on 10 November 1798. His niece, Elisa Garnerin, became the first professional female parachutist. Gernerin’s display was in much demand throughout Europe. Primarily in France, Tsarist Russia, and what eventually became Italy and Germany. There is the story that one of Garnerin’s balloons crossed the Alps and landed on the tomb of Cesar Nero, but this is most likely, fable. Garnerin made another descent at the coronation of Napoleon at Notre Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804. Many of displays included descents astride a horse, or the use of fireworks. Nevertheless, Garnerin deserves to be remembered at the inventor of the first practical parachute.
15. NR 3057 (c/n 75), purchased from the General Tire and Rubber Co. Originally flown in the 1929 National Air Races by Henry Brown, who flew from Los Angeles to Cleveland in 13 hr. 15 min., with an average speed of 156 mph. After being purchased by Gilmore Oil, it was used by Turner to set a transcontinental speed record of 18 hr. 45 min., with a brief stop in Wichita, in May of 1930. Turner, also made a 9 hr. 14 min. flight from Vancouver, British Columbia to Agua Caliente, Mexico in NR 3057, named; Gilmore.
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