by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the early days of commercial aviation, greater Los Angeles quickly became a hotbed of activity because of its excellent climate, available space for air fields, an adequate labor face and other elements. Naturally, as is the case with the formative years of any major industry, there were plenty of new companies forming, creating prototype projects, being bought out, and some of those projects succeeding while others failed.
Tonight’s featured historical object from the museum’s holdings is emblematic of all of this, being a great Associated Press photograph of the monoplane “Guatemala” as, according to the caption on the reverse, it was “being groomed at Santa Ana, Cal., for a record passenger flight, from Los Angeles to Guatemala, 2300 mile, with ten passengers.” Though it turned out that the excursion never took place, it did represent the hopes and aspirations of providing commercial air service with what was, at the time, the largest craft, called a monoplane simply because it had one wing instead of the more common two (biplane) yet made.
The plane was known as the Albatross (equating the machine with birds, of course) and it was built by the Zenith Corporation, which began making farm implements at a small factory in Midway City. Wait, have you never heard of Midway City?! Undoubtedly, one of the least recognizable communities in Orange County, if not all of greater Los Angeles, it got its initial momentum and took flight (!) with the oil boom in Huntington Beach, which was just to the south and where Walter P. Temple was among a multitude of prospectors in the early 1920s. The Midway City tract made its debut in December 1923, months after Temple’s own similarly-sized Town of Temple when that year marked the peak of the region’s building boom.
With the stunning success of Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic solo flight in the Spirit of St. Louis, Zenith took the opportunity to seek its own route to the apex of aviation by transitioning to aircraft construction with the Zenith Aircraft Corporation. It tried to go big by building the Z-12, so named for the maximum number of occupants, and which was also called the Albatross. It was averred to be the largest plane of its time with a 90-foot wing span and three motors (one centered on the nose of the fuselage and the others mounted on the wing frames on either side.
In the first months of 1928, there were a half-dozen attempts to fly the massive Albatross and establish endurance records, with the first three flights tried in Imperial County east of San Diego because there was not a runway long enough in this area for takeoff. After Orange County’s Board of Supervisors agreed to pay for a 1 1/2 mile long runway at the county airport, where John Wayne International is today, another trio of attempts were made.
In some cases, the plane did achieve liftoff and spent some time in the sky, the longest being ten hours, but there were always problems, such as with the engine on the nose having issues or the side engines breaking loose from supports and large quantities of fuel discharged from the plane to lighten the load and allow it to return to land. Still, the Zenith firm kept issuing statements that new engines and other improvements were to be made to the Albatross so that elusive record could be had, while it also claimed that it would build an even larger craft, which it never did accomplish.
In mid-1928, a contract was signed with Warner Brothers to have the craft appear in a major motion picture and at least that was a success as the Albatross had a featured role in Conquest, released at the end of the year and starring Monte Blue and H.B. Warner (best known for his role as Christ in 1927’s King of Kings and as Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life two decades later) as pilots of a plane that crashes in the Antarctic and Lois Wilson as the girl they both love. Another attention-getter was a short half-hour inspection of the Albatross at the Midway City plant by Lindbergh who stopped by on his way from San Diego to Los Angeles thought the famously taciturn hero did not share his impressions with the media.
With the plane costing about $75,000 to build and a spotty track record at best, rumors of the sale of the Albatross were publicized in late 1928 and early 1929, with the first asserting that the behemoth was acquired by a Chicago capitalist, while the second averred that Los Angeles interests were to buy the craft. Finally, the 12 May 1929 edition of the Los Angeles Times reported that “establishment of a regular air transportation service between Los Angeles, Mexico City and Guatemala City is seen at an early date as a result of a trip to this city by Victor Gordon, president of the Guatemala Air Service . . . Eight planes have been purchased here by the two men [Gordon and associate S.W. Neighbors for the Guatemala service . . . Five of the ships have been shipped to Guatemala and the others will be flown to that country, leaving here probably this week”
Gordon told the paper that the plan was to have service from that nation’s capital to El Paso, Los Angeles and New Orleans via Mexico City and the government provided $200,000 in seed money to his firm, which was granted exclusive rights to flight within Guatemala. Ten pilots from greater Los Angeles were hired to fly craft to the Central American country.
One of these craft was the Albatross and the Times noted a week later
that Los Angeles again will hold the limelight as a progressive air center is indicated in the announcement that within the next week a huge Southern California-made plane carrying ten passengers, including pilots, and a total load of 9,000 pounds will head southward from this city in a proposed nonstop cruise to Guatemala City.
While the route was to follow the line of the Pacific coast through Mexico, there was to be a turn inland so that greetings could be dropped from the air to government officials in Mexico City. The captain of the crew was to be the appropriately-named Jimmie Angel, president of the Albatross Aircraft Company, apparently a spinoff of Zenith.
The Times added that “the plane, the Albatross that last year gained considerable fame in an endurance flight over the Imperial Valley, has a gasoline capacity of 1500 gallons, although it is expected that less than 800 gallons will be consumed on the trip.” The distance was about 2,225 miles and the plan was for the flight to be completed in under twenty-four hours.
The article continued that “the Albatross has been completely rebuilt since its endurance flight last year, three new Los Angeles made Axelson motors of 150 horsepower each having been installed at the Midway City plant of the Albatross Zenith Aircraft Company. The Guatemala Air Service, recently merged with the Albatross Aircraft Company, has purchased the ship and plans to press it into regular air transportation lines to connect up with American airways at New Orleans, El Paso and Los Angeles.”
Neighbors (an accompanying photo showing him, Angel and the other three crew members, felt it vital to note that the official topped 300 pounds!) told the paper that messages of goodwill from the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as from chambers of commerce and others would be taken onboard and the flight was “to show the practicability of long nonstop flights with passengers. One of those flying on the Albatross was Maralyn Cobb, who was “scheduled to make the flight in the interests of a motion-picture travelogue.” Moreover, the craft was slated to be utilized for a month in developing new air routes in Central America “after which it probably will attempt another nonstop flight back to Los Angeles.”
Subsequent press reports noted that the rights to the manufacture of planes using the designs developed by Charles F. Rocheville, creator of the Albatross, were not transferred with the sale of the craft. Instead, Rocheville told the Long Beach Press Telegram of 14 May, the Emsco Aircraft Corporation, of which he was vice-president and which was building a large plant at Downey.
Confusingly, Rocheville and four others previously formed an Albatross Aircraft Corporation, which was based in Long Beach and built two eight-person Albatross-type planes (these designated as the Z-6) before it was sold to Emsco in March 1929. A new Albatross Aircraft Company, referred to above, was incorporated in Arizona, and announced plans within the last few days to build a pair of duplicates of the Z-12. While some of the Z-6 craft were produced, there were no further Z-12 planes built.
The highlighted press photo did appear in some articles, including the Boston Globe edition of 27 May shown here, but an announcement soon followed in the 1 June issue of the Times that “as a means of counteracting any chance of a fatal side-slip in the take-off of the heavily loaded Albatross that will start a nonstop flight to Guatemala sometime next week,” Angel was having alterations made so that there would be faster action on controls. He told the paper that “the lives of the six passengers and the crew of four depend on a perfect take-off” and the long-distance flight would take place as soon as the work was completed and test flights undergone.
Yet, in subsequent weeks, nothing further was said about the Albatross/Guatemala or the planned long-distance flight to Central America. Instead, the 22 August edition of the Los Angeles Express reported that Schofield, Inc., in preparation for the National Air Show in Cleveland (the 1928 inaugural edition of the event was held at Mines Field, now Los Angeles International Airport,) were taking “the Albatross plane, having the largest wing spread of any trimotored plane in this county, [and which] is powered with three Axelson motors.”
The plan, once the craft arrived in Ohio, was to have it “entered in the tri-motored efficiency contest from Cleveland to Buffalo,” a much more reasonable distance than from Los Angeles to Guatemala! It was added that Scofield announced that “plans are now under way by the company for the production of large Albatross planes of from 10 to 20 passenger capacity.”
On the 24th, a send-off was held at the Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale and, in its coverage, the Times reported that “christening ceremonies for the Schofield Albatross, called the world’s largest, most luxurious land monoplane, will be conducted today” and that Representative Florence P. Kahn was on hand to break a bottle of orange juice (it was, after all, still Prohibition for a few more years!) on the nose. The pioneering female member of Congress told the assembled that
Transportation by air will be the preferred method of travel within a few years. It is my desire to have as much of this air transport building in California as possible.
The piece ended by noting that “Schofield, Inc., built the Albatross at a cost of $125,000,” though it may be that it built a new edition of the Zenith-built craft given the above statement from August. In any event, it was added that the plane had the 90-foot wing spread and could do 125 miles per hour, while containing “every known safety and navigation appliance.”
In early October, Schofield merged with Harry A. Miller, Inc., which manufactured engines for automobiles, race cars, boats and aircraft, and the Times of 10 October observed that “experiments on aviation engines are now being conducted with the Schofield Albatross, which is said to have the greatest wing-spread of any American-built monoplane,” while development of a new motor “which will revolutionize the aviation industry” was to be announced soon.
A few weeks later, the stock market crashed in New York and ushered in the Great Depression, but Miller-Schofield announced early in January 1930 that “a Los Angeles airplane, the Schofield Albatross . . . may be selected to make the longest of four major trans-Pacific flights scheduled for the coming summer.” Four aviation company executives visited and determined that the Albatross was the only craft capable of making the jaunt.
In August, the Santa Ana Register reported that “the Albatross, giant monoplane built at Midway City by the Zenith Aircraft corporation two years ago, is to make an assault on the world’s refueling endurance record in the near future.” A pair of pilots were slated to fly the craft from Mines Field in Los Angeles and seek to shatter the existing time of 27 days and it was added that “new engines are being installed . . . and it is being carefully groomed for its attack on the world record.”
A month later, the Times reported on the six months expended by pilot Loren W. Mendell to prepare the extensively refashioned craft, including a special lubrication system for radial engines with the new one being a Wright 300-horsepower edition, and that he expected to leave from the Grand Central terminal in the coming week. Notably, the article stated that the wingspan was now 57 feet, indicating that the original 90-foot wing was replaced, though the 4,000 pound load capacity remained in place. Another change was that there were said to be six gas tanks for a total capacity of 275 gallons.
The craft, renamed the Pride of Hollywood, did take off on 21 September, after the requisite christening, with the intention of staying aloft for 1,000 hours, with refueling and food delivered from a Javelin monoplane. Their attempt, however, faltered, so, in December, launched its Albatross, with Angel as the lead crew member, from the same airport “in its attempt to shatter the world’s refueling endurance record.” This version of the plane had catwalks so that emergency repairs could be conducted on any of the trio of 170-horsepower Western Enterprise motors while in flight. There were three attempts with this craft, the longest journey being just 30 hours before the quest was given up.
This photograph and what is represents is very interesting and informative concerning early efforts in aviation with large craft seeking to establish endurance records at a time when the basic problem was having the horsepower needed to adequately carry these bigger and heavier planes the distances intended. The results were not generally very successful, though the attempts were necessary as part of the cumulative work needed to propel such projects further so that later ones could build off their predecessors.