Swords to Plowshares

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2018 by hillermuseum

Pictured here from right to left: the donor Paul Seipp, Museum CEO Jeff Bass, and the FAA ferry pilot Rob Davids and his son.

The Fighting Heritage of the Aero Commander

By Jon Welte

Not long after the deafening roar of the final Schneider Trophy race echoed away, the state of the art in aeronautics was once again being advanced faster and farther. This time, the catalyst was war, not peace – authoritarian governments gained power in Europe and Asia, and across the world nations began to rearm once more. The value of air power had been established indisputably in World War I, and in the ensuing decades advancements made in air racing and also with long range flights such as Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 demonstrated that control of the air would be an essential prerequisite for success in future conflicts.

Despite much isolationist sentiment, the United States sought better aircraft for defense in the late 1930s as well, and thanks in part to the racing era was in a far stronger position to innovate than two decades earlier. In 1937, as the Luftwaffe reinvented aerial warfare in the skies over Spain and the airmen of Japan did their emperor’s bidding high above China, three particularly talented American engineers combined their efforts to conceive an all-new design.

The project, internally named Model 7A, was led by the Douglas Aircraft Corporation. Conceived by legendary designers Jack Northrop, Ed Heinemann, and Donald Douglas himself, the goal was to build a high speed bomber able to fly in contested airspace. The initial design fixed several key features in place – twin engines, a shoulder-mounted wing, and wing planform with a distinct reverse sweep along the trailing edge. While projected performance was impressive compared to contemporary US bombers such as the Martin B-10, the engines available at the time could not make the aircraft competitive with newly emerging threats such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 then making a devastating debut in combat.

Before long, the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engine became available for the aircraft, more than doubling available horsepower. Now led by Ed Heinemann, the Douglas team created an improved Model 7B and submitted it as part of a US Army tender for a new attack plane. The Douglas team lost out to North American Aviation, which went on to build the B-25. However, the competition had been observed with great interest by French representatives. In short order the French Air Force placed an order for the new airplane redesignated DB-7, or Douglas Bomber 7. Production begun just as France entered World War II. Only threescore aircraft had been delivered when the German invasion of France began in earnest in 1940, and while they were among the most sophisticated bombers available to the French, they and the rest of the Armee de l’Air were overwhelmed as the French Army retreated before the German blitzkrieg.

Many DB-7s remained to be delivered when France surrendered to Germany in 1940. Those deliveries were diverted to Great Britain, where they saw service as the Boston I and Boston II. The Royal Air Force had a substantial stable of medium bombers available during the conflict, and employed its Bostons largely in night fighting and ground attack roles. One of the most unique variants was the Turbinlite modification, which essentially turned the aircraft into an enormous flying flashlight for use in illuminating German bombers at night.

Great Britain purchased many additional DB-7s during the war, as did other Allied nations. The United States ultimately adopted the type as well, designating it the A-20 Havoc. Used as a bomber, intruder and night fighter, the A-20 contributed to the war effort on behalf of many nations in theaters all around the globe.

Even as the A-20 went to war, a small group of Douglas engineers conceived of a role for the aircraft in the coming time of peace. Working after hours under the leadership of Douglas engineer Ted Smith, this scratch team designed a smaller airplane sharing many of the A-20’s distinctive design features. The Aero Design and Engineering Company was formed specifically to build the airplane and bring it to market. The prototype flew in 1948, and the first production model – the Aero Commander 520 – was built in 1951.

Originally conceived as a small, 7-passenger airliner for use serving secondary airports, the Aero Commander quickly found favor as a corporate transport. Able to carry up to seven passengers at 200 mph across distances of 1,000 miles per more, the Aero Commander was an ideal vehicle for executives and small business owners seeking to maximize their time while traversing the open spaces of 1950s-era America in pursuit of commerce. The Aero Commander’s military heritage also helped it achieve excellent performance when operating out of short airfields – a quality that led to one of its most remarkable “corporate” assignments. In 1955 the United States Air Force ordered a small force of Aero Commanders (designated U-4B in USAF service) for use as Presidential transports. Ideal for transporting President Eisenhower in and out of a small airstrip near his farm retreat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Aero Commander was the smallest airplane to serve as Air Force One – though the now-distinctive call sign was not introduced until 1959, shortly before the retirement of both President Eisenhower and the U-4B.

The Aero Commander also gained fame as the favored steed of one of the nation’s most celebrated pilots. From 1979 to 1999, test pilot Bob Hoover piloted an Aero Commander 500U through an airshow routine that would be remarkable for any aircraft, let alone a twin-engined executive transport. Originally conceived as a means of promoting the airplane’s performance capabilities to potential buyers, Hoover’s performances culminated in an exceptional display of airmanship and aircraft energy management. Hoover would shut down both engines in flight and complete a loop, roll, approach and dead stick (unpowered) landing, often rolling back along the runway or ramp to show centerline. The last Aero Commander was produced in 1986, but Hoover continued to fly his performances until 1999.

In October 2018 the Hiller Aviation Museum welcomed a 1968 Aero Commander 500U to its collection. Generously donated by Paul Seipp, this aircraft displays many of the same design features engineered into the original, larger Douglas A-20 in 1937. Opened to the public November 21, the Hiller Aviation Museum’s Aero Commander ably demonstrates the remarkable features of an airframe first conceived more than 80 years ago.

Resources, Downloaded 31 Oct 2018

Forever Flying, Bob Hoover, 1997

Wreaking Havoc: A Year in an A-20, Joseph Rutter, 2003

Air Force One: A History of Presidents and Their Planes, Kenneth Walsh, 2003


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