Sometimes the end of the year brings a flurry of house cleaning and resolutions. It’s part of putting one year away and preparing for the next. While clearing out my studio / office / man cave to make room for my almost complete copy stand, I came across this old photo in my small collection of family artifacts.
Years ago my brother, knowing about my obsession with aviation, sent me a scan of this photo when he discovered it in an old family photo album. At that time I posted it on a flight sim forum (SimHQ) asking for help identifying the german bomber in the picture. I believe it was WomenFly2 who identified it as a movie prop and pointed me towards the Howard Hughe’s film “Hells Angels”. My brother eventually sent me the original photo and penciled on the back is “Bomber Hells Angels Summer 1928”.
In the closing scenes of the film, the hero cooks up a scheme to sneak behind enemy lines to bomb positions in a plane disquised as a german bomber. Although the bombing run was successful the hero and his gunner met their fate at the hands of the famous german ace Manfred Von Richthofen.
The photo looks a bit like it was taken on a sandy beach and when I read about the film they mentioned some of it was filmed in Oakland so I assumed that was where the photo was taken. The photo is quite rare when you consider the “bomber” was destroyed while filming the scene above and tragically two crew members where killed when they failed to bail out. The mystery was solved, but I was a little bit dissappointed that the plane was not a real german bomber, just some old mail plane they mounted a gun turret on and painted black. I thought it might make an interesting blog post so I dug a little deeper in my research and soon realized just how rare this plane really was.
First let’s solve geography and help explain why it makes sense that one of my family members were “onsite”. “Hells Angels” was filmed at several locations, but most of the aerial work was done in southern California staging in a cow pasture purchased by Howard Hughes just west of the Van Nuys airport. Hughes named the site “Caddo Field” and in the photo above you see the San Gabriel mountains in the backround. The arrow below marks the approximate location of the field at the intersection of Balboa and Roscoe Blvd. In the second photo you can see the east west runway as well as the familiar mountain ranges on the horizon.
( special thanks to GoDickson’s blog for the map views)
Regarding the family connection, my Granparent’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. Hughe’s grand adventure since it was going on right in their neighborhood.
And regarding it “looking like the beach” to me, here is another photo at Caddo field with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background and the same sandy field,
But this only scratches the surface of the history of the plane itself….
Igor 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 1 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 from angle iron from discarded bed frames, turnbuckles were purchased at Woolworth’d drug store. They had no jacks to raise the plane so his brother Dmitry, who was ditch digger, dug a trench so they could install the landing gear below ground and than pull the plane 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 house 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. You can read more about that history here.
The result of Sikorsky’s first effort in America was the protoype S-29A ( “A” for America) an all metal twin engine, closed cabin fourteen passenger transport. You can see it’s roots in the original World War 1 era S-22 bomber.
Only one plane was built and it failed to attract the customers Sikosky 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.
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 destoyed during filming, with its last moments documented for all time in the “Hells Angels” film.
That complete’s Sikorsky’s Hollywood connection and indirectly a connection to my family as well.
If I squint my eyes 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 gasoline fumes, 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. Only ten years removed from the war itself, I am sure the evil looking black plane with its skull and german markings still gave chills to some who saw it in person.
He would never have guessed that 86 years later his grandson would still be talking about the snapshot.