When Air Mail Was Shot from Ships: The Glory Days

Article excerpt

In the early 1930s, even though Zeppelin service had reduced the time of passages to South America as well as to North America, there was still no plane capable of flying that stretch of the Atlantic that seemed to be most readily conquered: The 1800 miles of the South Atlantic between Africa and Brazil. In 1928 the French, turning their backs on the catapult capabilities they had pioneered on the ILE DE FRANCE, had established airmail service to South America, but used a converted Navy destroyer named AIR FRANCE III on the ocean portion of the route between Dakar and Natal.

To fill the obvious vacuum in this South Atlantic service the German airline Deutsche Luft Hansa or DLH conceived a bold plan of using ships with catapults as mid-ocean refueling stations. These depot ships would be stationed half-way between Bathurst in Gambia on the African coast and Natal in Brazil. Reversing the roles of the participants in the earlier North Atlantic ship-to-shore mail service, airplanes in this new setting became the primary mode of transportation, while the ships played a purely supportive role, even though the overall direction of the operation was in the hands of the steamship company, North German Lloyd or NGL.

The steamer WESTFALEN of that company, a freighter dating from 1926, was chartered initially for this duty, together with her crew of 40 men. She was reconfigured with a catapult forward and a large crane aft, along with a canvas Kiwull sled which was towed astern for aircraft recovery. The first experimental flights took place in mid-1933; early in 1934 regular service was inaugurated, initially on a biweekly schedule. On this occasion Baron von Studnitz, who had made the first catapult flight off the BREMEN in 1929, was the pilot of the first Dornier JO Wal seaplane to be used on the route.

Even though the original model had a range of only 1350 miles, this plane was a remarkably effective and versatile aircraft. Dating from a 1922 design and built largely in Italy and other European countries to avoid the restrictions on planebuilding imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty, about 300 of these planes served various European airlines as well as the rearming German air force. In keeping with her German name, wal or whale, the plane featured a sleek but rather straight-lined hull, from which stubby airfoils or sponsons protruded. Sturdy struts were anchored to these foils to support the wing which was mounted well above the hull. Above the wing was a double engine, mounted in-line with two propellers in a tandem tractor/pusher arrangement.

This plane had been widely utilized for a variety of purposes. The polar expeditions of Amundsen and Ellsworth in 1924 and 1925 had used Wals, as had the first islandhopping flights across the South Atlantic by the Spanish in 1926 and the Italians in 1927. Two east-towest North Atlantic attempts by the British in 1927 and 1928, and the first east-to-west seaplane crossing by the Germans in 1930 utilized Wals. Many variations and adaptations of the plane existed in both military and commercial use, with the last of the military modification surviving down into the opening days of World War Two.

An eight-ton version of the Dornier JO Wal with a capacity for ten passengers was used initially on the South Atlantic route. It was followed by an improved ten-ton model which featured an enclosed pilot's cabin in lieu of an open cockpit. Even though these early Wals, 57 feet long with a wingspan of 74 feet, were the smallest of all the planes that were to be catapulted by the Germans from depot ships, they were nevertheless substantially larger than any naval aircraft being catapulted from carriers or capital ships at that time. Consequently, the task of launching such a large plane was a challenge of enormous proportions for civilian seamen and airmen which the historians of aviation technology have tended to overlook. Curiously, the United States Navy which was working to improve its own catapults seems to have known nothing of the work of the Germans in this field. …