Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NR482N The World's Fastest Travel Air Monoplane

Photo Credit Parks College of Saint Louis University, Archives

The Doolittle 400 Racer

Speaking of fast Travel Airs, here's another airplane that might not immediately come to mind. But this airplane may have actually held the title of "World's Fastest T.A. Monoplane", at least for a few hairy seconds.

Photo Credit, San Diego Air & Space Museum

This is the story of one mis-adventure (there were few) in the life of the famed aviator, James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle and the plane he called “the 400 racer”. The plane, formerly known as the “Shell Mystery Ship” started life as serial number 3 of the factory specially-built Travel Air model R (also known as the "Mystery S" model).

Amidst the Great Depression in the early 1930’s, most folks were lucky if they were able to hold down their jobs. Jimmy Doolittle, having already established himself as one of the country’s premier pilots was fortunate to have many different enterprises. But his mainstay employment was with the aviation department of Shell Oil Company. Doolittle, along with aviator Jim Haizlip, were the Shell company’s publicity faces of aviation. One of the many airplanes operated by these corporate pilots for Shell was a Travel Air model R, a.k.a. “Mystery Ship”, which they each flew in various races and public events.

By 1931, the airplane had been badly damaged and so the company decided to get out of racing altogether. So Mr. Doolittle acquired the remaining airplane and took it to the Parks Air College CAA approved repair depot for refurbishment and some major design changes dreamed up by Doolittle. The result was a one-of-a-kind Travel Air racing machine.

BEFORE (click on images to enlarge) and AFTER

Historians have attempted to tell the story of this airplane, but it seems the design details of this unique airplane have been intentionally erased from history. The best modern-day article I've found on the subject was the following one by the late Mr. Truman C. "Pappy" Weaver.

Click for Larger Image

Weaver’s article (EAA publication, "The Golden Age of Air Racing") provides some important facts about this airplane. But one of the details in his account has been disputed by air race historians. His article states, “Part of the modification was hiding the small struts that braced the wings – which gave the racer a gull configuration.” There is no doubt that this airplane had a very different wing-to-fuselage fillet appearance. But some have said that the original wing brace struts were eliminated altogether by beefing up the wing carry-through and attachment structure. Perhaps there is someone still around who can clear this up. Or possible some documentation may exist. Hopefully something will turn up to settle this claim. Whichever the case, the change was expected to provide improved speed and performance.

It must have been a most spectacular event on the day Doolittle took delivery of his prized machine. Spectacular to see this magnificent airplane take to the skies... but then in the most unexpected way... come crashing to a dismal end. Thankfully, Mr. Doolittle managed to parachute to a safe landing. But not so for his dreamy Travel Air.

Below are some news accounts published within days of the event. In reading these articles, I've concluded this to be one of those unfortunate endings in a test-pilot's work in pushing the design envelope. Doolittle managed to reach a speed reportedly over 250 miles per hour before tragedy struck. High-speed aileron flutter, he proved, is usually catastrophic. Sad, but true... Some designs were just not meant to become reality.

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