OCTOBER 2018

 

Noisy Neighbors Upstairs

part two of three

As a child who first lived beneath the flight path to/from LaGuardia, I got used early to airliners’ flying overhead.  When my family moved to Hicksville in 1954, it seemed much more quiet, and most of the time it was.  Once in a while, though, something would loudly screech, roar, or rumble across the sky, and it almost never was an airliner.

This is the second of three articles about what those noisy flying “somethings” were.  In July’s Hixnews, Ancient Hixtory covered Mitchel Air Force Base’s contribution to 1950s air traffic over Hicksville .  This article does the same for Republic’s.  Grumman’s will be discussed in the future.

Republic Aviation

Republic’s story begins with a one-legged “ace” WW I pilot, Alexander de Seversky (shown above, with his prosthetic leg covered by a suit), who had flown for the Imperial Russian Navy in the war’s early years.  His engineering qualifications and combat success led to Russia ’s sending him to America to observe and learn from the then Army Air Corps.  De Seversky chose not to return home to post-revolution Russia .  He went on to distinguish himself in America , serving as a Major in the U.S. Army Reserve, and as an assistant to Gen. Billy Mitchell.  Later, his best-selling book Victory Through Air Power would bolster public support for America ’s strategic reliance on aircraft in World War II.

In 1931, he founded Seversky Aircraft, hiring at least two other expatriates from the Russian Empire.  One of them, Alexander Kartveli, would be head engineer.  In the 1930s, Seversky Aircraft built the P-43 Lancer fighter (shown below left, as illustrated in a 1940s publication).  It was purchased both by the U.S. Army and by the forces of friendly foreign nations.  At the time, the Lancer was faster and higher-climbing than its contemporaries, but as the decade ended, its performance was surpassed by that of new German and Japanese aircraft.

Despite the company’s track record, and the promising new aircraft it already was developing for the military, Seversky Aircraft was deeply in debt.  In 1939, de Seversky was ousted from the business he had founded, which then became Republic Aviation.  Kartveli became Republic’s Chief Engineer, continuing for decades to design impressive aircraft (models of which are shown with him, above) that earned him renown throughout the industry.

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Levering what it had learned from the P-43, Republic developed the P-47 Thunderbolt, first flown in 1941.  As a fighter, bomber escort, and ground-attack aircraft, it became a stalwart of wartime American airpower.  Nearly 16,000 Thunderbolts were built.  Army Air Force P-47s flew in and out of Mitchel and Republic throughout the 1940s.  When they were retired from the Air Force, they continued to fly overhead for the Air National Guard until 1955.

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As World War II wound down, many government aircraft orders were cut back or canceled.  With the future demands of Korea and the Cold War not yet in sight, Republic, like other manufacturers, furloughed many of its wartime workers – even as it hoped for a good future in peace time.  That hope is embodied in the two photographs shown below:

The newspaper photo on the right, taken only two weeks after the end of WW II, shows employees at the LIRR’s Republic stop.  These are the first of 5,000 workers called back from furlough, so that they can begin work related to new civilian aircraft.  The other photo shows a P-47 (foreground) and the two aircraft on which those employees were to work: the four-engined XF-12 Rainbow, and the little RC-3 Seabee amphibian.

The XF-12 (‘X’ designating ‘experimental’) had been developed at the request of the Army during the war, as the prototype for a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.  The Army never followed through on the project, leaving Republic with the Rainbow – the fastest four-engined non-jet aircraft ever built.  In 1945, the company hoped to redevelop it into a fast airliner, funding its redesign and construction with advances from the airlines which would buy it.

The airline industry, however, did not want to fund the creation of a 40-passenger airliner that would fly at 450+ mph.  It preferred to save its money until jet airliners became feasible.  Until then, it would spend only a little at a time, to have other manufacturers extend their existing airliner designs into Super Constellations and DC-6s, so that airlines could pack in more passengers per plane.  It took time, but Republic finally realized it would never get the money it needed for the project, and it finally abandoned the Rainbow.

 

Note: The idea of airlines’ waiting for jet airliners as early as the late 1940s was not far-fetched.  The De Havilland DH 106 Comet (above), the world’s first jet airliner, began flying commercially in 1952.

In contrast to the XF-12, the RC-3 amphibian was put into production, and hundreds were sold.  The push-prop SeaBee had been designed in expectation of a strong post-war economy, in which personal aircraft would be sold retail, much as automobiles were.

Alas, the boom economy proved less robust than Republic had hoped, and most Americans were not ready to buy their own airplanes.  Only about 1,000 Sea Bees were built in all.  Now and then, I would see one flying over Hicksville during 1950s summers.  The little planes developed loyal followers worldwide, and can still be found here and there.

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The Republic plane I noticed most frequently overhead (it was noisy, per its name) was the F-84 Thunderjet – used more by the USAF than any other attack aircraft during the Korean War.  It was fast; early in its testing it topped 607 mph, setting a new American air speed record.

Republic incrementally changed – and made experimental versions of – many of its aircraft, including the Thunderjet.  One version could even be launched from a truck trailer if no runway was available – not that it could ever land back on that trailer….

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In 1954, the Thunderjet morphed into the swept-wing F-84F Thunderstreak, which went on to serve in the regular USAF until (depending on a given unit’s role) 1958-1962, and in the Air National Guard into the 1970s.  Note the Republic sign on the hangar in the background below.

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Early jet fighters burned too much fuel to travel great distances – which meant that they could not protect American bombers on non-stop flights to, say, targets deep in the Soviet Union .  Hence, in 1949 the USAF began Project Tip-Tow, intended to determine if airborne fighters could be docked to bombers (wing-tip to wing-tip) and towed engines-off toward targets, and then launched into action with essentially full fuel tanks.

In preliminary tests, a single-engine propeller plane tried to dock to a C-47 transport.  In the early test flights, it failed to dock – as the tips of the two aircrafts’ wings approached each other, their respective air flows met, creating too much turbulence.  In later flights the aircraft did dock successfully: the connecting hardware had been lengthened, keeping the actual wing tips slightly apart, which diminished the wing-tip turbulence.

A more ambitious series of USAF test flights began in 1950, conducted jointly with Republic, and based in Farmingdale.  It used two of the new F-84 fighters and a B-29 bomber – aircraft faster, larger, heavier, and more demanding of piloting skills than those used in the preliminary tests.  In addition, the docking itself would be more difficult – the coupling devices on the wing-tips were such that the aircrafts’ wings had to meet (as seen below).

When the tests began, wing-tip turbulence proved even more treacherous than expected, and the pilots constantly struggled to maintain control.  The Thunderjets could dock to the Superfortress only briefly.  By October 1950, however, the well-practiced pilots were able to fly linked for as long as two hours and thirty minutes.

The flights were then paused for more than two years, so that Republic could develop an automated unit to take control of the docked fighters, relieving their pilots of the need to manually compensate for ever-changing turbulence.  Testing resumed in March 1953, but it was soon terminated.  On April 24th, with one fighter docked to the bomber, a sudden onset of turbulence ripped large pieces from the B-29’s wing, and from the fuselage of the Thunderjet.  Crippled and in flames, both broken airplanes plunged to earth.  The jet crashed into a wood and burned; the B-29 sank into Peconic Bay .  All those aboard – reported variously as six or eight in total – died.  Project Tip-Tow was discontinued.

Note the deliberate vagueness of the following AP news report:

 

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The F-105 Thunderchief was Republic’s last (and fastest) fighter/bomber of the 1950s.  It could achieve Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound.  I suspect that F-105s were responsible for some of the occasional sonic booms I heard in Hicksville during 1955-1957 (its testing period).  The Air Force went on to fly Thunderchiefs from 1958 through 1984.

In Vietnam , as the Thunderjet had done before it in Korea , the Thunderchief became a leading attack aircraft in the war.  Many Vietnam veterans will remember it.

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By 1960, Alexander de Seversky’s ideas about strategic air power – which indirectly had given birth to Republic Aviation – seemed passé, as the country looked beyond aircraft to rockets.  Very soon, America ’s defense would be based on the threat of ICBMs.  Moreover, the nation found itself on the brink of a new era, as both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. turned ballistic missiles into vehicles for launching satellites into space.

Hereafter, smaller portions of the defense budget would be allocated to developing new aircraft.  After all, hanging missiles from the wings of almost any airplane would transform it into an effective attack weapon.  Large bombers soon would be obsolete; smaller airplanes – fast, agile, and versatile – might replace them, and serve other purposes, too.  Someday, the same adaptable aircraft design might serve multiple branches of the service, rather than the respective branches’ each relying on aircraft designed only for them.

With missiles shouldering the burden of America ’s defense, fewer new aircraft designs would be developed, fewer contracts would be awarded, fewer new types of airplane would be built – and fewer companies would have enough revenue to pursue research and development.  Research funds they had already spent in anticipation of future contracts might never be recouped.  Inevitably, some companies would fail.  By 1967, even Douglas, still a giant in the industry, had to merge with competitor McDonnell.

In hindsight, it is no surprise that in 1965 Republic was purchased by Fairchild (builder of the utilitarian Flying Boxcars mentioned in the July article about Mitchel Field).  After completing the remainder of Republic’s contract work, Fairchild began to slowly spiral to its own demise.  It kept going for a while by sub-contracting, building subassemblies for other manufacturers (e.g., portions of wings for Boeing 747s).  Attempting to re-establish itself as a complete aircraft manufacturer, it unsuccessfully partnered with failing European makers of civilian aircraft.

Ultimately, Fairchild’s business ceased, and it was scavenged.  Its assets were purchased by a coalition of two financial companies, likely because they could serve as the basis for a tax loss.  They were resold to a third company, which sold them yet again, this time to an electronics corporation.  Like Republic itself, Fairchild was no more.

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Although Republic Aviation no longer exists, its site in Farmingdale survives.  It has become the home of the American Airpower Museum , which proudly exhibits (among many other things) tangible artifacts of Republic’s heritage.

 

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Post Script

Sheet music!  Clearly, the man loved the very idea of flight.

End of Part Two