About Robert Smith

Robert Smith Pittsburg, Kansas, USA – @BritHistorian I’m a part-time lecturer in History at Pittsburg State University. I am also a researcher, domestic supervisor and presiding Chef De Cuisine at the Maison Smith. At various times I have called myself a Librarian, Broadcaster, Historian, and Geek. At a ripe old age I went back to college and as a result I am a proud MA History Graduate from Pittsburg State University, Kansas. (Go Gorillas!). Looking for new challenges all the time – see driver for details. I’m an aviation enthusiast of long standing (I’d better be, if I’m doing this), going back to the time when my parents asked me if I’d like a model Spitfire “like the one Daddy used to fly.” I enjoy watching old movies, looking at YouTube, yelling at Wikipedia, tweeting about Public Radio (shout out to KRPS 89.9FM, Pittsburg’s NPR station and a terrific bunch of people), aviation, and random topics. I’m also learning how to play the Didgeridoo, the Ukulele, and Garageband on IOS – not all at the same time. I am happily married to Susan and we live with our Border Collie cross and a houseful of books in semi rural Pittsburg, Kansas.

Geek Heaven in Dorset

My wife Susan is a highly engaged Twitter user and finds all kinds of interesting articles being tweeted, some of which she forwards to me in email.  I am not a highly engaged Twitter user, so email is always a good way to find me.  We spent a couple of very pleasant vacations in Dorset before I moved to the USA. We did the Hardy sites and tours, visited the Dorchester Museum and Maiden Castle, all those things.  When Susan found a picture of a Hurricane being exhibited at the Borough Gardens in Dorchester in 1943 I took a quick glance and more or less filed it away, thinking “Second line Hurricane, 1943, armament removed, I wonder what the serial number is, I’ll have a look sometime.”

Yes, It’s a Hurricane. But which one? From Dorset Museum’s Twitter Feed: @DorsetMuseum Dorchester’s Borough Gardens is celebrating its 125th Anniversary this year! From our archive is this image of a Hawker Hurricane Fighter in the gardens taken by a Mr. Collins during the “Wings For Victory Week” which was a national fund raising event in 1943

That time came fairly quickly.  I discovered the photo is a little more puzzling than at first sight.  I can’t make out the rest of the serial number from the scanned photo the museum tweeted, so looked for features to give some clue as to what production mark it was.  And that’s where the fun started.  

Keen eyed readers and viewers may assume like me, that given the C and C1 style roundels that this is a Hurricane IIc with the wing cannons removed and faired over.  That’s what I thought.  But there is precious little evidence of that removal.  It’s a bit too neat.  Then I looked at the nose.  What struck me was that there is no oil-deflector ring on the cowling behind the propeller spinner.  I have just read a huge article on the Web about the various propellers and spinners fitted to Hurricanes. Thus bewildered I can say I have no idea which kind of propeller and spinner is fitted (although my personal guess is Rotol), but there is no oil deflector ring.

This detail alone suggests that this may be an older Hurricane which has been out to grass for a longer time than previously imagined.  The real kicker for me is the wireless antenna post behind the cockpit canopy.  It’s not one of the angular blade type antennae you see on most of the later Hurricanes and Spitfires. It’s stocky and squared off. That rang a bell somewhere in the subconscious, so I went and looked at Francis K. Mason’s authoritative book on the Hurricane and lo, he said in a comment on another picture, that the stubby squared-off wireless antenna post was a common feature of the first production “L” serialled Mark I Hurricanes.  Really?  Could it be this is a very early Hurricane taking part in a Wings for Victory exhibition in 1943?   This was exciting, so I set to work on trying to match the visible digits of the serial number with the list in his book and one of my highly arcane and beloved reference works, Bruce Robertson’s British Military Aircraft Serials 1911-1971.  And that’s where my research came unstuck.

The only visible portion of the serial number are two digits, and their position within the serial number is open to question.  If this is an early Hurricane, its 5-character Air Ministry serial number will be formatted “A0000” rather than the later format “AA000”  

As in all the best puzzles, someone is standing in front of the tail of the aircraft concealing another digit, perhaps two.  All we therefore see are the digits “25” and what may be the front edge of a 7 or a 3.   The first production batch of 600 Hurricanes were in the serial range L1547-2146,  so even allowing that the missing digit is a 7 there is no possibility that the combination “257” appears anywhere in that production batch. The Dorchester example can’t be one of those.  

Not to lose heart, the next production batch of 300 Hurricanes were in the serial range N2318-2729 so it’s possible that the serial is N257x.

The next production batch of 500 Mark 1 Hurricanes were built by Gloster Aircraft used serials in the range P2535-3264.  Robertson notes that aircraft up to P2681 had a wooden, fixed pitch, two-bladed Watts propeller – after 2681 they were fitted with Rotol propellers.    If the Dorchester Hurricane was P257x it may have been originally endowed with a Watts propeller and converted later in life.

There are no contenders in the rest of the P, R,  T (Canadian), V and W serial combinations so the remaining possibility for the single letter / four digit combination is Z2308-4018 – a massive order for 1000 Hurricanes Mark IIA . IIB and IIC from Hawker.  Z257x is therefore a feasible identity, occurring as it does in the range Z2560-2594. I need to cross check what marks these 30 aircraft were, simply because the oil deflector ring was seen as early as the summer of 1940 on operational Hurricanes and clearly this aircraft doesn’t have one.  It’s quite possible that this could be a later Hurricane with a serial in the BN, BP or later ranges, but by this time I’m certain none of them would have omitted the oil deflector ring and certainly none would have had that short stumpy wireless antenna post.

Hawker Hurricane Mk IIc PZ865 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight seen in July 2005 in the markings of the Czechoslovak night fighter ace Karel Kuttelwascher. Note that where the (red) propeller spinner meets the nose there is a flared ring of metal to defect any leaking oil from the propeller hub away from the windscreen of the aircraft. Notice the size and shape of the radio antenna mast behind the cockpiy, which is slightly longer and pointed in comparison to the Dorchester Hurricane. Photo by Kogo GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

This little exercise in delving around reference books and pictures on the Web always amuses me.  I am quite aware I could be barking up the wrong tree completely.   I think what I must do is email someone at the Dorset Museum and ask them nicely if they can have a look at the original print and see if any more of the serial number is visible. Especially whatever lies aft of the Sky band on the tail.  

Merlin Anniversary

Packard built V-1650 “Merlin” Engine at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

It always happens – you read a couple of sentences and three hours later you knew a lot more than you ever wanted to. In today’s example it was the following:

“The first two Packard-built Merlins to be completed were demonstrated on test stands at a special ceremony at the Packard plant in Detroit on Aug. 2, 1941”


Oooh. August 2, 1941? Eighty years ago today. A tad before Pearl Harbor. A couple of weeks before FDR and Winston Churchill met in Newfoundland and on board HMS Prince of Wales and declared the Atlantic Charter. A month before the USS Greer incident and the fireside chat which I refer to in my history class as the “Rattlesnakes of the Atlantic” broadcast. Of course the Lend Lease Act was introduced in March 1941

Naturally the whole story is more complex. Because of its significance the UK wanted to have Merlins produced outside the UK. Henry Ford had rescinded his offer to produce the Merlin and so Rolls-Royce and the Packard Motor Car Company came to an agreement in September 1940 to manufacture the Merlin under license. The contract was worth $130 million dollars in 1940, which according to Wikipedia is worth about 2.4 (American) billion dollars today. The NMUSAF article says that over 55,000 Packard Merlins were built.

Naturally I wondered what proportion of total Merlin production that might represent. Back to Wikipedia for a convenient answer. 149,659 total including Packard versions.

One hundred and fifty thousand engines is a pretty mind boggling total. In addition to the Packard plant in Detroit, engines were built by Rolls-Royce at their Derby and Crewe factories in England, at a massive specially built factory in Glasgow, and ironically by Ford of Britain at another specially built factory in Trafford Park, Stretford, Manchester.

I won’t go on too much about the specifics of the Merlin engine since the Wikipedia article makes a pretty thorough job. I will add a personal note that it was one of those sounds that would guarantee my father’s rapt attention, no mater what else he was doing when he heard one. I remember an episode of the original BBC TV series Survivors in which one of the characters said: “How can anyone get excited about an engine?” This is a thought which tickles me still, since one of the stranger pleasures is playing any YouTube clip of a Merlin in an unoccupied classroom at the History ‘end’ of my building and seeing who comes to investigate, much as my late father would have done.

But today, August 2, 2021, we raise our metaphorical glasses in the direction of Detroit and salute the Packard Merlin. Long may it roar.

Another 90th Anniversary – Knute Rockne and the Crash of NC999E, March 31st 1931

In 2015, and again in 2020, I wrote about an air crash which influenced the investigation of civilian air crashes in the United Kingdom. July 21, 2020 was the 90th anniversary of the Meopham Air Crash / Meopham Air Disaster.

March 31st 2021 sees the 90th anniversary of another famous air crash. The death of a notable personality in this crash, along with seven other souls, may have caused a shift in the culture of air crash investigation and reporting in the United States in much the same way that the Meopham Air Disaster did in the UK. The crash had a subtle but distinct influence on aircraft design and development, and represented a watershed in civil aviation. The story was so fascinating that I started to write a blog article, and then shelved it. As today is the 90th Anniversary of this crash, I can’t let the event pass without a mention.

The individual who died on March 31, 1931 was Knute Rockne, the Norwegian-American Coach of the University of Notre Dame football team. The aircraft involved was a Fokker F.10A belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air, and the crash location was close to the township of Bazaar, in Chase County, Kansas, not a huge distance from where I live.

Knute Rockne (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Knute Rockne was born in Voss, Norway in March 1888. He emigrated to Chicago with his parents when he was five years old. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1914 with a degree in Pharmacy, but soon passed on a career in science when he was asked to help coach the football team. After a short career in professional football, he returned to coach Notre Dame in 1918, and the rest is history. Rockne is held up as one of the greatest coaches in college football history and brought the “Fighting Irish” to preeminence.

Rockne was a hero of the early depression, embodying the All American spirit, despite (or because of) his Norwegian roots. Always an astute publicist and an early advocate of commercial air travel, he was on his way to Los Angeles to take part on the production of a movie The Spirit of Notre Dame.

He was flying on a Fokker F.10A, registration NC999E belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), which was making the line’s Flight 5 from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles with intermediate stops at Wichita, Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Winslow.

Fokker F.10A NC999E which crashed on March 31st 1931, seen here at Glendale, California in the earlier livery of Western Air Express, March 1930. (Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library)

NC999E departed Kansas City at approximately 0915 on the first leg to Wichita. Weather conditions were poor with snow falls, clouds, mist, drizzle and icing. At 1022, the copilot reported they were south of Emporia, Kansas and were turning back to Kansas City. However on hearing that Wichita’s weather was clearer they may have attempted to turn round again in order to complete their first leg. Their position near Bazaar, slightly west their usual course, indicates the crew were following the aviator’s friend the “iron compass” – in this case the tracks of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

It’s entirely possible that the crew needed to open the throttles and gain altitude to execute another 180 degree turn. A couple of witnesses saw NC999E emerge from cloud diving almost vertically, its engines backfiring – perhaps as the pilots throttled back and fought to lessen the impact they knew was inevitable.

Crash site of NC999E in Chase County, Kansas. The tail is the only identifiable part of the wreckage – the port wing was found half a mile away (https://www.baaa-acro.com)

Five of the eight occupants were thrown clear of the wreckage. The aircraft’s port wing was found half a mile away. Small pieces of ice were to be found around the wreck, indicating that key instruments may have iced. Subsequent investigations found clear signs of wood adhesive failure in the main spars and plywood covering following prolonged exposure to moisture. An article in the British journal Aeroplane theorized that if the pilots became disoriented in cloud, and with key instruments inoperable through icing, it is highly possible the aircraft entered a spiral dive, during which the weakened wing separated.

Embed from Getty Images
Original Caption – This is a view of the wreckage of the Transcontinental Western Air Transport Liner in which Knute Rockne and seven others died, when it crashed near Bazaar, Kansas. Sections of the plane and some of the victims were scattered over an area of over a hundred yards. The plane plowed deeply into the soft soil by the force of the crash. (Getty Images)

President Herbert Hoover called the crash a ‘national disaster’. The King of Norway sent a delegation to the funeral and knighted Rockne posthumously. United States Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur sent condolences, as did several state legislatures.

Embed from Getty Images
Another view of the wreckage of NC999E (Getty Images)

The public outcry and the demand for answers which followed the crash had a profound effect. The Aeronautics Branch of the US Department of Commerce followed its accustomed policy and made no public announcement about the crash. This would not satisfy the press, and so a number of implausible theories about pilot error, stress and propeller fracture were advanced, none of which stood up to investigation. Wood-framed aircraft were suspect. Every Fokker Trimotor in U.S. airline service was temporarily grounded. The expense of new more rigorous safety checks, and the bad publicity associated with Rockne’s death caused the reputations of TWA and Fokker to sink considerably. Fokker’s would never recover.

For TWA, the only way out of the morass, occurring at the outset of the worst depression in American history, was to look for new aircraft. The Ford Trimotor was an early beneficiary but it looked too much like the “Plane that killed Knute Rockne” even if its metal construction was entirely different. Boeing produced the semi-legendary Model 247 which was widely regarded as the forerunner of modern commercial aircraft, featuring de-icing, a metal construction, and supercharged engines. TWA wanted Model 247s, but Boeing were fully committed to manufacturing 60 for its United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UAT) subsidiary company United Airlines – TWA’s arch rival. Boeing couldn’t supply TWA for some time, if at all.

In the summer of 1932, a TWA Vice-President contacted Donald Douglas and four other manufacturers to bid for construction of an all-metal three-engined, 12-seat aircraft capable of landing and taking off with one engine out from any of its operating airports. TWA asked who would be interested in a manufacturing job and how long would it be before a prototype could be evaluated.

Donald Douglas was at first hesitant, but after hammering out a few details with TWA such as persuading them to drop their trimotor specification, Douglas’ corporate response was the Douglas Commercial 1 (aka DC-1), which flew a year after the initial letter of interest from TWA.

Douglas DC-1 on its handover to TWA in December 1933 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

TWA accepted the aircraft and subsequently ordered 20 examples of the production model, the DC-2.

You can see where this is going. From the DC-2, Douglas produced the improved DC-3, and a legend was born. The Boeing 247 was outperformed by the DC-2 and relegated to a sideline in commercial aviation history, albeit a sideline that arguably gave birth (via the four-engined, pressurized Model 307) to the B-17.

Air crash investigation was brought into the public arena. The aviation industry in the United States took a leap forward with the development of the DC-2/3 series and made the USA the predominant force in airliner construction for four decades. Even Boeing would re-enter the lists with considerable effect.

Would things have been different had Knute Rockne landed safely in Los Angeles in 1931? I think it’s true to say, as the Aeroplane article suggests, that without the market created by the Rockne crash, airline development might have progressed at a slightly different pace. The Junkers 52 and the venerable Ford Trimotor demonstrated the safe developmental route. Without the timely impetus to develop the DC series, the DC-2 and later DC-3 / C-47, the speculation starts to go off the scale. Had the DC-3 emerged a couple of years later, what would the legions of paratroopers have jumped from in the Second World War?

And we haven’t even begun to think about college football. 🙂

Among other sources, see the following:

Maybe 16 – Maybe More, Maybe Less

I have developed an interest in other nations’ efforts in space recently, and I was pleased to read that China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, with its lander and rover payload (see previous blog entries) started its next mission phase by entering Mars orbit on February 10, 2021 – only two days ago as I write.

I’m glad I’m not a professional space pundit, as I had failed to notice (or blog) that another Mars mission was underway. The Al-Amal (Hope) orbiter belonging to the Emirates Mars Mission from the UAE entered Mars orbit on February 9th – the day before Tianwen-1. Al-Amal was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center (Japan) on a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries rocket in July 2020, so maybe that’s why I didn’t notice. The Emirates Mars Mission will study the Martian climate its extreme climate changes. It will also try to find out why Mars leaks hydrogen and oxygen into space. (I didn’t know that it was, so there’s something new).

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover onboard launches from Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, July 30, 2020, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Perseverance rover is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. Public Domain – Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Not to be forgotten (as if we want to), is the United States’ Mars 2020 mission, which also took advantage of the launch window which opened in July 2020. Mars 2020 will land the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter/drone on the Martian surface. The idea of a small drone helicopter being flown over the surface of Mars is mind-boggling to say the least. This will be the first attempt at controlled flight on another planet, so we may see a little history made some time in the Spring.

An artist’s impression of Ingenuity standing on the surface of Mars as the Perseverance rover rolls away. This will be the first attempt at controlled flight on another planet. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built and will manage operations of Perseverance and Ingenuity for the agency. Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Ingenuity, go to https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter. For more information about the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission, go to https://mars.nasa.gov/perseverance. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Public Domain)

At the moment there are perhaps 16 artificial satellites in orbit around Mars. Mars 2020 will make it 17 assuming everything goes well. Eight orbiters are no longer functional and a few may see their orbits decay resulting in their destruction between 2022 and 2046. One, the unfortunate NASA Mars Climate Orbiter of 1999, never made it to the planet’s surface, either burning up in Mars’ atmosphere, or skipping off into its own orbit around the Sun following a programming error in its software.

Of the functional probes, one, NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey, (launched, as you may guess in 2001) has the distinction of being the longest active orbiting satellite anywhere except Earth. The status of the Soviet probes Mars 2, 3, 5 and Phobos 2, is unknown. Mars 2 and 3 were launched in the Summer of 1971 at the same time as NASA’s Mariner 9, 4 years before the two NASA Viking missions.

India’s ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) has had a satellite in orbit around Mars since 2014. The Mars Orbiter Mission is described as a technology demonstrator, and was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh in November 2013. It is a remarkable feat. India undertook the first Asian mission to Mars, and furthermore became the first nation in the world to achieve success on its maiden attempt. This feat has only recently been matched by Al-Amal from the UAE.

So the skies above Mars may be looking a little more busy in the weeks and months ahead. I look forward to seeing images of the Ingenuity taking its first hops from the surface of another planet some time in the Spring of 2021.

Another little awareness raising touch which I couldn’t resist is connected with the NASA Mars 2020 Mission. The “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign resulted in 10.9 Million people registering their names with NASA. Those names are recorded on the three silicon chips you can see on the top left of the placard. NASA also announced that the probe would be named by votes received in a student naming contest. Perseverance was announced to be the winning name in March 2020.

Considering all the bad things that came to us in March 2020, it’s heartwarming to see that something nice did happen too.

A placard commemorating NASA’s “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign was installed on the Perseverance Mars rover. Three silicon chips (upper left corner) were stenciled with 10,932,295 names and the essays from 155 finalists in NASA’s “Name the Rover” contest. (NASA – Public Domain)

Miracle on the Hudson

It seems like it was only yesterday, but it was on January 15th, 2009 that US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320-214 with the US civil registration N106US, ditched in the Hudson River, having lost power to both engines following a collision with a flock of Canada Geese.

US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, New York, USA on 15 January 2009 Photo by Greg L, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have anything unusual to say about the events because like everyone else I am simply in awe of the skill of the pilots – Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles – not to mention the three flight attendants on the flight who conducted a successful evacuation.

‘Cactus’ 1549 was on a scheduled flight from New York – LaGuardia (LGA) to Charlotte Douglas (CLT), North Carolina with 150 passengers. We’ve seen a variety of video clips and still images, and some people (not me, for whatever reason) will have seen the 2016 movie Sully directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks.

Apparently after being salvaged, N106US was offered for sale for two years without any takers, until in 2011 it was obtained by the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, NC where it remains on display sans engines. It’s fitting that it should be displayed at the intended (initial) destination for that flight.

N106US on display at Carolinas Aviation Museum Photo by RadioFan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Crowded Space

Happy new year to the readers of Rambles in the Air!

Having been amazed at the efforts of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) with its Chang’e and Tianwen programs, and having read a little too much Arthur C. Clarke and William Gibson, I started wondering which other governments around the world had ambitions in space. I didn’t think the resulting list would be quite as big as it turned out. I thought I would look first at Wikipedia, whose article “List of government space agencies” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_government_space_agencies) has a few surprises even if it hasn’t been fully updated recently.

JAXA – Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. H-IIA Launch Vehicle Flight 13, launching lunar orbiter “KAGUYA” (SELENE:SELenological and ENgineering Explorer)  from the Tanegashima Space Center. on 14 September 2007 Photo by Naritama (NARITA Masahiro). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

There is much more detail in the article itself, but the top-line numbers are fascinating. As of 2018, there were 72 (seventy-two !!) government space agencies extant; 14 (fourteen) of those 72 have launch capability, and 6 (six) of the 14 have full launch and recovery capabilities, including the ability to land a vehicle/probe/device on an extraterrestrial surface.

The countries with a launch capability are:

  • Australia – ASA (Australian Space Agency)
  • China – CNSA (China National Space Administration)
  • Europe – ESA (European Space Agency)
  • France – CNES (Centre National d’Études Spatiales)
  • Iran – ISA (Iranian Space Agency)
  • Israel – ISA (Israeli Space Agency)
  • Italy – ASI (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana)
  • North Korea – KCST (National Aerospace Development Administration)
  • South Korea – KARI (Korea Aerospace Research Institute)
  • India – ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation)
  • Japan – JAXA – (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency)
  • Russia – ROSCOSMOS (Russian Federal Space agency)
  • Ukraine – SSAU (State Space Agency of Ukraine)
  • USA – NASA and USSF (United States Space Force)

I’m interested that the French CNES is listed separately from the European Space Agency but most of the European countries have their own space research projects. With the execution of Brexit I have no idea what the relationship of the British UKSA (United Kingdom Space Agency) and the ESA will be, given that the UK government has pulled out of Educational programs like ERASMUS.

The Italian ASI (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana) is a partner in the ESA’s Ariane and Vega launchers and has been a major contributor to satellite technology. I was surprised to discover that Italy the third nation to have its own artificial satellite in Earth orbit when it launched San Marco 1 from the USA in December 1964.

The Cassini–Huygens mission was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to send a space probe to study the planet Saturn and its system, including its rings and natural satellites. This is an artists impression of Cassini during the Saturn Orbit Insertion (SOI) maneuver. (NASA Image – Public Domain)

Countries with a Human Spaceflight Capability:

  • China – CNSA
  • Russia – ROSCOSMOS
  • USA – NASA

Countries with an Extraterrestrial Landing Capability:

  • China – CNSA
  • Europe – ESA
  • India – ISRO
  • Italy – ASI
  • Japan – JAXA
  • Russia – ROSCOSMOS
  • USA – NASA
Indian Space Research Organisation in action. PSLV-C11 carrying the Chandrayaan-1 Lunar probe (orbiter and impactor) lifting off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh on 22 October 2008. The mission was a major boost to India’s space program. In 2016, NASA identified the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter still circling the moon, seven years after its mission officially ended when the satellite had ceased communicating with ISRO. Picture Attribution: Indian Space Research Organisation (GODL-India)

Let us also not forget the privateers who are active in the cargo launch market in the United States, these are: SpaceX (how could we forget?), Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation who are planning to be in the market sometime in 2022 More of them in another blog article, perhaps.

Chang’e 5 Wrap

It occurred to me, as I was looking at a draft of this article, that the efforts of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in terms of space exploration were foretold almost forty years ago by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel 2010: Odyssey Two (not so much in Peter Hyams’ 1984/5 movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact although let me say here and now I do like that movie and have a copy on DVD). I distinctly remember devouring Clarke’s 1982 novel and boggling at the chutzpah of the Chinese space agency (if a Chinese Agency can be said to have chutzpah) as they assembled their spacecraft Tsien in the full incognizant view of the western world’s eyes, vying to be the first to board the ill-fated American spacecraft Discovery following its mysteriously incomplete mission described in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So, as the western world takes not very much notice, China’s Chang’e 5 mission seems to have been pretty successful. Lunar surface samples brought back on December 16th made China the third nation to have collected some moondust after the USA and the Soviet Union.

Photo by the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) of the Chang’e 5 lander on the surface of the Moon on December 2nd, 2020. The lander is the bright spot in the center of the outline box. The dust around the lander has been brightened by the descent engine during the landing stage.
NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University – http://lroc.sese.asu.edu/posts/1172 (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

The scientific dividend from Chang’e 5’s mission will be the continued study of the samples for evidence of vulcanism and the formation of the Moon. Official sources at a news conference indicated that the China National Space Administration (CNSA) would be prepared to share samples with scientists from other countries. Whether the USA will participate is open to question, since Congress passed a bill in 2012 forbidding NASA to cooperate with China. See https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-17/Chang-e-5-achieves-breakthroughs-in-China-s-deep-space-exploration–WikE7l9XSo/index.html

And for the non-scientists, the same article says that some portion of the 2 Kilograms of Lunar soil that was collected will be displayed at the National Museum of China.

Where do we go from here? Well, at least there isn’t an derelict American Spacecraft somewhere off Jupiter, otherwise I think that might be on the agenda. Chang’e 6, scheduled for launch in 2024 will have its own mission profile following the successful completion of Chang’e 5’s. It has not yet been revealed officially yet, but the smart money seems to be saying that Chang’e 6 will be landing somewhere near the lunar south pole. Further ahead, I’m looking forward to seeing how the 3D printing experiments (to build a shelter? really?) scheduled for Chang’e 8 in 2027 turn out. Who knows where any of us will be at that time.

While we’re thinking of surprise longshots, don’t forget also that the first Chinese mission to Mars, Tianwen-1, is something like 80-90% of the way there. If you’re like me, you had no idea that the PRC had considered sending a mission to Mars, much less launched a probe already. Tianwen-1 was launched in July 2020 and is scheduled to enter Mars orbit in February 2021. So that’s not long to wait.

Some idea of the scale of the business end of Tianwen-1. An image of the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover undergoing tests during 2019. Image by China Aerospace Technology Corporation for world-wide publication by China Global Television Network (Fair use rationale)
A very recognizable nose cone (for want of a better word) This presumably is the selfie that CGTN and CNSA referred to. Tianwen-1 on its way to Mars, 1 October 2020. (CNSA/CGTN, Fair Use rationale)

A Tale of Two (or Three) Kitties

On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor I was searching for a picture of the Pearl Harbor survivor Curtiss P-40B 41-13297.   I was riffling through Wikipedia looking at all the surviving Warhawks / Tomahawks / Kittyhawks when my geeky eye lit upon an entry for a Kittyhawk 1A

What it said was:
ET573 – based at Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Here it is – Jerry Yagen’s Military Air Museum is the owner of this Curtiss P-40E (Kittyhawk1 1A) painted as Tex Hill’s P-40E 41-5658 ‘108’ of the 3rd Fighter Squadron, American Volunteer Group. The MAM Kittyhawk never flew with the Flying Tigers, being an RAF example that was re-exported to the Soviet Union in 1942. Seen here on November 28, 2008. Photo by Michael Rehbaum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Wikipedia page for the MAM says:

Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk – This particular aircraft, serial number 41-35918, was built in 1941 and sent to the UK as a Lend-Lease item; it was passed along to the Russians in April, 1942, and lost in action while protecting Murmansk. It stayed on the tundra where it had landed for almost 50 years, and was recovered in 1992; acquired by the Museum’s founder in 1996, it finally flew again in 2003

Those of you who know me, know what a sucker I am for registration and serial numbers.  It is a talent I have acquired over the last fifty-something years.  Bear with me when I say I suddenly got interested, because I knew there had been another ET-serialled Kittyhawk in the news recently.

Oh yes dear reader, it is ET574, the 260 squadron P-40E (Kittyhawk 1A)  which was discovered in the Egyptian desert in 2012 by a group of Polish oil company workers.   As a Wikipedia author quite succinctly puts it: “As of 2018, displayed at a museum in El Alamein in a faux paint scheme.”  See another blog entry.

It’s a romantic or sentimental thought that two neighbors on the Curtiss production line could be survivors, in very different forms. Emboldened, I went to consult Joe Baugher’s database, and found the following:

41-35927 (MSN 18448) to RAF as ET573 but delivered to USSR.  Lost in action near Arctic Circle where it lay on frozen tundra for 50 years.  Recovered from crash site near Murmansk c.1992.  Brought to USA at Griffin, GA and underwent restoration.  There is an RAF record card which has this plane as going to the RAF as ET573 and later becoming an instructional airframe Oct 1943 as 4181M.

41-35928 (MSN 18449) to RAF as Kittyhawk IA ET574.  Missing during ferry flight Jun 28, 1942 from LG.85 (Amriya South, Egypt) to an RSU near Wadi Naturun which was used as a maintenance group facility (53RFU).  The aircraft flew with its undercarriage locked down due to damage.   An incorrect course was set and the aircraft was thought to have crashed in the Egyptian desert due to fuel exhaustion. Pilot listed as missing.  The aircraft wreckage that was located in March 2012 by oil company workers in nearly intact form may be this plane.   Pilot still missing,

Something is wrong here.   This is very much a geek point,  but the former USAAF identity for ET573 is unlikely to be 41-35927 (Joe Baugher) and 41-35918 (MAM / Wikipedia).  I think the first (and easiest) theory is that someone at Wikipedia has got their wires crossed.  It would not be the first time that erroneous or misleading information had been posted on Wikipedia, after all. Alternatively the confusion may lie somewhere else.

So what about 41-35918? Back to Joe Baugher, who clarifies the question of RAF identity.

41-35887/35925 (MSN 18408/18446, ET533/ET571) were to have gone to RAF as Kittyhawk IA but diverted to USSR Apr 1942

41-35918 (MSN 19751, production no. 1025 on data plate) to RAF as ET564.  To USSR Apr 4, 1942.  Shot down Jun 1, 1942 in area of Pyal-Yavr Lake.  Recovered in 1992 and brought to USA and restored by the Fighter Factory. Now on display at the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, VA

Whoa – hold on. So Joe Baugher seemed to be saying the MAM example is actually ET564 whereas someone else in Wikipedia thinks it’s ET573. Joe Baugher’s record says ET573 did return to the States and was being restored in Georgia.

A little further riffling around the Web retrieved an article and a photo from Airliners.net which seems to answer my question: [my additional notes in square brackets]

Military Aviation Museum – Ex USAAF 41-35927, RAF ET573. Gerald Yagen acquired two P-40E Warhawks, both recovered from Russia in 1992. Both aircraft had gone to the Soviets in 1942 on lend-lease. They were c/n 18439 (ex USAAF 41-35918, RAF ET564 and Soviet AF 1025) and this one [c/n 18448 ex-USAAF 41-35927].   [Yagen’s flyer was assumed to be 41-35918, but] research, confirmed by the company in New Zealand that did the actual restoration in 2001-2003, showed that it is in fact the other one, 41-35927.

So it’s not a matter of one recovered P-40, It’s two. No doubt this is where the confusion arises. The question which remains in my mind is this. If the flyer really is the former ET573, (as the restorer in New Zealand seems to confirm) are there any substantial remains of ET564 or were they consumed in the restoration of the other one?  How did the identities get swapped? In the words of an old TV series: “Confused? – You will be!”

If you look up Jerry Yagen’s P-40E on the Web you’ll see histories of both of his machines with photographs of the same aircraft.   They’ve both been to the USA, and possibly both to a restoration facility in Griffin, GA. They’ve both been to New Zealand (or have they?) but seemingly only one has emerged from restoration to flying condition. I suppose I could always email someone out there and ask them. No doubt some of you are saying “why didn’t you do that in the first place?”

In conclusion.  I first had a romantic thought about the survival of two neighbors on the Curtiss production line in Buffalo sent to very different destinations. Then my little internet paper trail made me wonder if the identity of the Soviet P-40 was correct, but now it seems possible that, after all, the P-40s in Virginia Beach, USA and El Alamein, Egypt really are construction numbers 18848 and 18849, 41-35927 and 41-35928, ET 573 and ET 574.   One is considerably better preserved than the other – neither look very much the way they did when flying in the Second World war, but each have a story to tell. 

A footnote about Lend-lease P-40s in the air forces of the USSR

An assembly plant for American fighter warplanes destined for Russia, somewhere in Iran. March 1943 – Public Domain via Wikimedia – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID fsa.8d29407.

There is a fascinating article written in 2019 by Valery Romanenko entitled The P-40 in Soviet Aviation https://lend-lease.net/articles-en/the-p-40-in-soviet-aviation/.

I was curious as to how the two Soviet P-40s probably went to the USSR. Romanenko says that the southern lend-lease route began (through Abadan, Iran and/or Basra, Iraq) began to operate in June 1942, but Kittyhawks were received from this source starting in November.  This means Yagen’s  P-40s probably arrived in the USSR on one of the (in)famous Arctic Convoys to Murmansk, possibly either PQ13 (arrived Murmansk 3/31/1942)  or PQ14 (arrived Murmansk 4/19/42).  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_convoys_of_World_War_II

On a related literary meander, if you haven’t read Alistair MacLean’s 1955 debut novel HMS Ulysses or Paul Lund and Harry Ludlum’s PQ17 – Convoy to Hell you might consider a visit to your local library or bookstore.

Mark Sheppard’s article on P-40 recoveries from Russia on the same site https://lend-lease.net/articles-en/p-40-recovery-in-russia/ Mentions that 47 Tomahawk IIBs arrived in the USSR  in September 1941. They probably arrived in the test Convoy “Dervish” which arrived at Archangel on 8/31/1941. The P-40s were assembled by an RAF detachment at Yagodnik and flight- tested by a couple of American USAAC officers by the names of Lts. Allison and Zemke – the latter better known later as as Colonel  ‘Hub’ Zemke, 56th  Fighter Group. The timing is a little interesting since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still three months away. It’s interesting to know that ‘Hub’ Zemke was getting involved even before the USA was officially at war.

Pearl Harbor Veteran Aircraft

I was planning to post this article on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, but as you can see I got a little sidetracked. I wondered if any aircraft surviving in museums or elsewhere were present at or around Pearl Harbor on the “date that will live in infamy” to use FDR’s words. I had the feeling that a P-40 in England was a Pearl veteran (I must have read about it in FlyPast when I used to subscribe), but I was unsure of any others.

My brief research indicates there are three (perhaps four) such aircraft extant.  While reading up for this article I noticed that a museum specialist from the NASM was quoted as saying there were about seven, so I’d be happy to hear about any others.  Here’s what I know.

Grumman J2F-4 Duck, BuNo 1649 – Mid-America Flight Museum, Mount Pleasant, Texas.

Grumman J2F-4 “Duck” Bu No 1649 – seen at Kenosha, WI in 2010, in the markings it would have worn on December 7th 1941. Photo by Glenn E. Chatfield – used with permission.

Most of the Grumman Ducks seen on the warbird preservation circuit are the later J2F-6 model, However BuNo 1649 is an earlier J2F-4. She was taken on charge by U.S. Navy in December, 1939 and served throughout the Second World war. Having been sold by the War Assets Administration in 1947, she acquired the civil registration N63850. In 1955 the aircraft crash landed and sank in the Bahamas, remaining underwater until salvaged in 1991. The restoration project went through two or three owners and consumed parts from another J2F before her first flight in 2005. She was restored in her original markings, and was grand champion at the EAA show at Oshkosh in 2007.  In the last few years, she has been sold to the Mid-America Flight Museum in Mount Pleasant, Texas. 

Ducks at Ford Island. “A view taken from a building at Ford Island Naval Air Station, looking over Hanger No. 37 toward the Navy Yard, during the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941. In the left distance are the mast tops of USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), in Navy Yard Drydock No. 1. The mast tops in center are those of USS Nevada (BB-36). The smoke is from Nevada and the burning destroyers USS Cassin (DD-372), USS Downes (DD-375) and USS Shaw (DD-373). The planes in the foreground include two Grumman J2F Duck and one Douglas RD-3 Dolphin. Two Douglas SBD Dauntless are inside Hangar No. 37.” (US Navy – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Coincidentally, the MAFM in Texas is also the home of a 1929 Ford 4-AT Trimotor N9612 / NC 9612 which is also alleged to have been in Hawaii at the time of the attack – having bullet holes to show for it – although no documentary evidence exists to demonstrate conclusively that it was there. Not only that, there are no photographs with suitable usage rights that I can track down on the web so this brief paragraph will have to serve.

Sikorsky JRS-1 BuNo 1063 at the National Air and Space Museum, Chantilly, Virginia

The Sikorsky JRS-1 was the military version of the civilian S-43, known colloquially as the Baby Clipper.  The US Navy received 17 of the 50-odd that were built. According to the NASM, ten of them were based at Pearl flying with VJ-1, a utility squadron doing everything from delivering parts and people to photographic duties, at the time of the attack.   BuNo 1063 is the only surviving JRS-1.

Sikorsky JRS-1 BuNo 1063 at the Uvar Hadzy center of the National Air and Space Museum – Photo by Aaron Headly, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a fairly utilitarian design and was doing a pretty mundane job. What may surprise the reader (as it surprised me) is that 1603 and four of its companions took off on December 7th and went looking for the Japanese fleet as this fascinating clip relates:

Wesley H. Ruth, CDR USN Ret., was an Ensign Duty Officer on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii. He was ordered to make a reconnaissance flight in a JRS-1 unarmed, twin engine, amphibious plane (BuNo 1063!) after the two attacks and did so with a copilot, radioman, and three sailors armed with WWI Springfield rifles. For his valor he was awarded the Navy Cross. This is his story of that day.

The NASM site says that 1063 was taken off operations in the fall of 1942, and shipped to California for maintenance. It spent about a year assigned to the Commander Fleet Airship Wing 31 at NAS Moffett Field in California (now the NASA Ames Research Center) before being put into storage in the fall of 1944. For some obscure reason it was taken out of storage and flew for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley Field in 1946.  Someone must have noticed the significant date in its logbook when it was returned to storage and talked to the Smithsonian Institute. 1063 was added to the Smithsonian’s collection in 1960 and moved to the Udvar-Hazy Center in March of 2011

Three U.S. Navy Sikorsky JRS-1 of utility squadron VJ-1 in flight, circa late 1930s. VJ-1 operated eight aircraft from San Diego, California (USA). USN – Official U.S. Navy photo UA 2015.05.01 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command – Public Domain via Wikimedia

Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, Serial Number 41-13297

Until I read a little more about Wes Ruth’s amazing mission in the JRS-1 I would have assumed that this was the aircraft which might have flown operationally against the Japanese attackers on December 7th. Sadly by a twist of fate, it was not the case.

P-40B Warhawk 41-13297 G-CDWH (as it was then) at the Duxford (UK) Autumn Airshow, 2013. At around this time, the aircraft was purchased for the Collings Foundation by an anonymous benefactor and has subsequently relocated to the USA. Photo by John5199, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like so many P-40s, 41-13297 was built in Buffalo, New York and following acceptance by the USAAF was allocated to the Seventh Air Force’s 18th Pursuit Group, 19th Fighter Squadron, based at Wheeler Field, O’ahu, Hawaii. In October 1941, 41-13297 made a wheels-up landing at Wheeler and thus was under repair on the base on December 7th when the attack happened.

Photo is said to show P-40B Warhawk Serial Number 41-13297 on a dolly after its wheels-up landing in October 1941 (Public Domain)
41-13297, we assume, is inside one of the hangars. Several P-40s can be seen burning on the ramps. “Planes and hangars burning at Wheeler Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941.” U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 1996.488.029.041 also Ibiblio.org; Naval History and Heritage Command photo NH 50473 (Public Domain)

In January 1942, 41-13297 crashed while on a training mission, killing the pilot, 1st Lt Kenneth W. Sprankle. The wreckage remained untouched until 1985. Full recovery of all components was completed in 1989.

The venerable P-40 had only flown a little over 50 hours at the time of its crash. Some assessment must have been made as to the condition of the wreck, and restoration commenced, using parts from two other machines.  Once the fuselage was restored, 41-13297 was purchased by the UK-based Fighter Collection in Duxford, England.  Additional restoration was completed and in July 2007 the P-40 arrived in the UK, with the civil registration G-CDWH where it took part in the airshow circuit.

However, an anonymous benefactor in the US may have recognized the machine’s significance and in 2013, purchased 13297 for a sum described coyly as  “several million dollars” on behalf of the Collings Foundation.  13297 is now on display at the American Heritage Museum in Massachusetts.

I couldn’t resist this picture! 41-13297 and friends at Duxford (UK) in 2011. “The development of the Curtiss Hawk monoplane fighter, all in one line! From far to near:- Radial engined Hawk 75 (G-CCVH), Allison engined P-40B Tomahawk (G-CDWH), Merlin engined P-40F Kittyhawk (VH-PIV), Allison engined P-40N Warhawk (F-AZKU). All parked together on the grass flightline. Flying Legends 2011.” Photo by
Alan Wilson , CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I would like to convey my special thanks to Glenn E. Chatfield for proving me with pictures of the J2F-4 BuNo 1649.

Chang’e is Coming

Most of the time this blog gets written when I completely stumble upon things about which I had no idea, and feel the urge to share. This is one of those moments.

Earlier today the China National Space Administration (CNSA) broadcast the launch of its latest lunar exploration mission – Chang’e 5 – from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan. I have to say I hadn’t heard about any of the five Chang’e missions, and so was fascinated to find that the last two have actually landed robotic probes on the moon. This latest mission is scheduled to bring back some samples of the lunar surface for the first time since 1976.

Launch of Chang’e 5 – 23rd November 2020 on a Long March 5 heavy lifter rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan, Image by China News Service, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Chang’e (or 嫦娥 or Chang-o, although she was originally known as Heng’e) is the Chinese goddess of the Moon and so is a logical choice of name for the China Lunar Exploration Project.

“There are many tales about Chang’e, including a well-known story about her that is given as the origin of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. In a very distant past, ten suns had risen together into the skies and scorched the Earth, thus causing hardship for the people. The archer Yi shot down nine of them, leaving just one Sun, and was given the elixir of immortality as a reward. He did not consume it straight away, but let Chang’e keep it with her, as he did not want to gain immortality without his beloved wife Chang’e. However, while Yi went out hunting, his apprentice Fengmeng broke into his house and tried to force Chang’e to give him the elixir; she refused and to prevent him from getting it, drank it. Chang’e then flew upward toward the heavens, choosing the Moon as residence, as she loved her husband and hoped to live nearby him. Yi discovered what had transpired and felt sad, so he displayed the fruits and cakes that Chang’e had liked, and gave sacrifices to her.”


Chang’e 1 and 2 were orbiters launched in 2007 and 2010 respectively. They mostly carried out reconnaissance and mapping missions for future robotic and other landings. Chang’e 3 was launched on 1st December, 2013 and landed in (or on) the Mare Imbrium on December 14th, deploying a small lunar rover called Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”). Chang’e 4 was a backup for Chang’e 3 but acquired its own mission following the success of Chang’e 3. Chang’e 4 landed in January 2019 at the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken basin (far side of the moon, the first lander to touch down on the far side) and deployed a rover called (yes, you guessed) Yutu-2.

Video grab of the launch of Chang’e 5 on 23rd November 2020 on a Long March 5 heavy lifter rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan, Image by China News Service, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Chang’e 5 is the next step in the program, and will attempt to place a lander at or near Mons Rümker sometime after November 27 and return to Earth around December 16–17. The mission will collect up to 2 kilograms of lunar samples. If returned successfully, these samples will be the first to be brought back since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976.

Part of the rationale for the mission is reminiscent of Harrison Schmitt’s book Return to the Moon. Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) is described as a geologist and chemical cosmologist, and has been advocating the exploitation of metals such as titanium from the moon, but also the extraction of Helium-3 for future nuclear fusion power plants.

Three future Chang’e missions are slated. Chang’e 6 may have its mission profile changed depending on how well Chang’e 5 performs. Chang’e 7, scheduled for 2024 may deploy a small flying probe, while Chang’e 8, scheduled for 2027, may include a lander, a rover, and a flying detector, as well as a 3D-printing experiment using in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) to test-build a structure, which will test the technology necessary for the construction of a lunar science base. If that isn’t enough, it may also transport a small sealed ecosystem experiment.

Recently there has been a certain amount of speculation that the Russian space program may consider re-aligning itself with China rather than the United States, especially if the Chang’e project is successful. In 2017 the two countries signed an agreement on deep space and lunar cooperation It appears that the Chinese program is seriously considering establishing a crewed base on the moon in the foreseeable future.

In 1969 the following conversation took place between the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Apollo 11 crew just before the first Moon landing:

Ronald Evans (CAPCOM): Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, is one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-O has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.

Michael Collins (Command Module Pilot): Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”


The Moon Goddess Chang’E – Ming dynasty (1368–1644) Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Unknown artist, after Tang Yin (1470–1524), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons