The Blue Max Project

© 2016 Thomas Emme Some Rights Reserved

Sikorsky and Me

Can you identify this aircraft?

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That’s was the question that started the journey for me. 

A number of years ago my brother ran into this image in an old family photo album and he knew right away that it would peak my interest.  I am drawn to family history and have a passion for early aviation as well, so this photo was intriguing on both fronts .  I assumed the man standing next to what looks like a German Bomber is one of my relatives or a family friend.  I first posted this picture on SimHQ and asked if anyone could identify the aircraft type.  The aircraft defied categorization for a few weeks, but I have to give credit to WomenFly2 who finally posted saying that plane was not a German bomber and sent me a link to the trailer for the Howard Hughes film “Hell’s Angels”.  The ominous black bomber looked awfully familiar.  Further inspection of the photo proved her right because penciled on the back is “Bomber Hell’s Angels Summer 1928” (a smarter man would have looked there first!).  

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To be honest I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that it was not a real German bomber, but was intrigued on how my family crossed paths with the aircraft. I started researching what I could find online about the plane and the movie. Gradually it became clear how rare the photo was. In the movie the hero cooks up a scheme to sneak behind the lines to bomb enemy positions in a plane disguised as a German bomber.  Although the bombing run was successful the hero and his gunner meet their fate at the hands of the famous German ace, Manfred Von Richthofen.  The “bomber” was destroyed while filming the final scene and tragically two crew members were killed when they failed to bail out.

 Some of the filming was done in Oakland and the ground looks like a sandy beach so at first that’s where I thought the picture was taken.  My grandfather and his three brothers lived in Los Angeles in the early 1900’s so it didn’t exactly make sense that they would have travelled to Oakland to pose with the plane. The breakthrough came when I read that “Hells Angels” was filmed at several locations, but most of the aerial work was done in southern California in a cow pasture purchased by Howard Hughes just west of the Van Nuys airport.  Hughes named the site “Caddo Field”.  This image shows the approximate location of Caddo Field at the intersection of Balboa and Roscoe Blvd (see the black arrow). The photo also has the east /west runway of the Van Nuys Airport in the foreground. 

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Here is a second image with the Van Nuys Airport more developed.  Notice the San Gabriel Mountains in the background.

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My Grandfather's family home in that era was located at 6500 Moore Drive in Los Angeles.  My grandfather once told me that he sold ice cream at airshows so it would make sense that there was enough interest in aviation to make the short half hour drive to get a look at Mr. Hughes’s grand adventure since it was going on right in their neighborhood. 

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And regarding it “looking like the beach”, here is another photo from the film set at Caddo field with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background and the same sandy field. It was clear that the mystery had been solved.

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So mission accomplished right?  Well not exactly.  Some people obsess with pursuing their family’s genealogy, but aircraft have genealogy too and this hulking black beast has quite a history.

It starts with Igor Sikorsky.  Sikorsky was a Russian aviation engineer who designed the Ilya Muromets S-22 in 1914.  This was one of the first passenger aircraft designed shortly after the Wright Brothers era.  At the start of World War I it was converted to a bomber.  It was hugely successful at the start of the war but a lack of materials for further development led to it being outclassed by more modern bombers in the later stages of the war.  After the war Sikorsky immigrated to New York in 1919.  A talented engineer, unknown in the United States he struggled to continue his aviation career.  A family friend and former lieutenant in the Russian Navy, Victor Utgoff owned a chicken farm and gave Sikorsky a place to design and assemble his next plane.  He hired Russian immigrants and they built the plane from found materials and raided junkyards.  The frame was built up with angle iron from discarded bed frames, and turnbuckles purchased at Woolworths Drug Store.  They had no jacks to raise the plane so his brother Dmitry, who was ditch digger, dug a deep trench so they could install the landing gear below ground and then pull the plane out from the ditch.

On the brink of financial ruin, selling stock in the company to buy food for his dwindling staff, his business was saved in the end by the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff visited the chicken farm in a limousine and inspected the aircraft.  He wrote a check for $5,000 on the spot (the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s dollars) and saved Sikorsky’s project and career.  Sikorsky went on to make many aviation breakthroughs most notably in the design of the helicopter. 

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Only one plane was built and it failed to attract the customers Sikorsky sought out.  It was eventually sold to private owners and had a varied history including a stint as a “flying cigar store” when owned by Roscoe Turner.  The image below comes from the Roscoe Turner papers at the University of Wyoming.

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In the late 1920’s it was bought by Howard Hughes and modified to get as close as Hollywood could to a German Gotha.  In the end it was destroyed during filming, with its last moments documented for all time in the “Hells Angels” film.

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So that completes my story of my very indirect connection to Igor Sikorsky.

Now that I understand the history, I can imagine my grandfather grabbing a few friends and driving up Sunset Blvd to get to Van Nuys (all surface streets, there were no freeways in the Valley in 1928).  Parking his car on the sandy field, they would have tromped out to take a look at the planes.  Amid the mayhem of cast and crew, roaring engines and the stink of aviation fuel, he encourages a friend to stand in front of the big black bomber and takes a quick snapshot.  

I wonder if he knew about the history of the plane.  His father was born in Hagen, Westphalia and immigrated to San Francisco in the late 1890’s before the Great War began.  In 1928 they were only ten years removed from the war itself, so I am sure the evil looking black plane with its skull and German markings still gave chills to some who saw it in person.

I doubt he would ever have guessed that almost 90 years later his grandson would still be talking about that snapshot.