The Case of the Mysterious Biplane

My husband has a new hobby– uncovering the family history. A few weeks ago a distant cousin came up with a photo of two relatives standing in front of a biplane. We knew their names and that they were from the Atlanta area. The young gentleman held a stylish straw hat with the ribbon band popular in the late twenties and early thirties.

The Mysterious Biplane Family Photo

The Mysterious Biplane Family Photo

Being a family full of pilots, we had to discover something about the plane behind them. So I posted it on Facebook, friends started passing it around (thanks to you all), and the guesses started coming in. Each time someone proposed a possible plane (Sopwith Camel (supposedly offered in jest), Travel Air, Waco, Stearman), I spent time on-line looking it up. However, biplanes are a true weakness in our household repertoire and I failed to get any kind of match.

This weekend I attended a 99s meeting (women pilot’s organization). While there I mentioned to Bobbi Lasher about the biplane mystery. Without a second thought, she said send it her way. So I did, expecting another wait and round of guessing. Never underestimate a 99. She sent the photo out to over 170 aviation friends and information started coming in almost immediately. Would these new guesses to the plane’s identity match up with the facts concerning the young couple?

Dick Peiffer, from the Melbourne Area Pilots Association, in particular mentioned taking a close-up look at the aircraft and seeing lettering on it beside the couple. He was pretty sure it said “MAIL.” I took the photo and did my best to enhance that area. Below is the photo showing my efforts where the writing and symbol on the side can now be seen more clearly. But still, I wasn’t sure of the plane’s identity.

Photo enhanced picture after Dick Peiffer suggested he could read something on the aircraft.

Photo enhanced picture after Dick Peiffer suggested he could read MAIL on the aircraft.

AldermanSymblCrop2

Close-up of symbol and writing on side of aircraft.

Wayne Eleazer, an Air Force Lt. Col who retired after 25 years of active duty, came in with the first identification. Here’s what he had to say:

“My first thought was that it was a Pitcairn, since they have characteristic sleek and small rear fuselages and hefty fronts. And looking in the Juptner book (Reference: U.S. Civil Aircraft Series, by Joseph Juptner, Vol 1, P.228) at Pitcairns, I found that there is an “airfoil” symbol visible below the cockpit of one of the pictures of a Mailwing. The Juptner book has a couple of pieces on the Mailwing, one for each of ATC number assigned each version. That seemed to confirm it.”

This upclose look at the Pitcairn Mailwing symbol from Wikipedeia and attributed to Photographer FlugKerl2, 25 July 2011, is from a PA-7s Mailwing. This one appears to be sport configuration with Mail paint scheme.

This up close look at the Pitcairn Mailwing symbol from Wikipedeia and attributed to Photographer FlugKerl2, 25 July 2011, is from a PA-7 Mailwing. This one appears to be sport configuration with Mail paint scheme.

“The aircraft appears to be a Pitcairn Super Sport Mailwing, PA-6, which was the Mailwing mail carrying aircraft modified for passenger use. Normally that big hole in front of the cockpit would be for carrying mail or in the case of the Super Sport, a covered compartment for up to two passengers. The type certificate ATC #92 for the PA-6 was issued in December of 1928 and the revised type certificate for the Super Sport was issued in April of 1929.”

Wayne also mentioned he thought the aircraft may have been modified for airshow use. I’m guessing his reasoning came from the tall pole-like object seen sticking up behind the cockpit. [Update: Wayne later checked with his radio expert friends, who believe the tall object/pole is an antenna.] To help see the Pitcairn symbol being discussed, I added the detailing in yellow to highlight the areas from two photos above.

Overlay indicating the writing and Pitcairn symbol on aircraft.

Overlay indicating the writing and Pitcairn symbol on aircraft.

Aviation friend and pilot Bill Weiler also sent a long list of resources to check out which I’ll post at the end of the blog and he had this to say about the family photo:

“Absolutely a Pitcairn, but not totally sure of the exact model. A few confirming details are the logo markings, though faded on the subject aircraft, the elevator control wire location coming up from below, the shape of the pilot’s cockpit cut out, the windscreen, the longeron locations coming from the tail to the turtle deck behind the pilot, the bell crank location on the full span aileron, and the length and shape of the forward cockpit appears it’s a modified mail plane rather than a sport version. My guess is it’s an early PA-6 or very late PA-5 because of the lack of an engine cowling and the apparent extended fuselage.”

“Here’s a good PA-5 picture.”

“They claimed the PA-7 was the first 3 passenger, but it looks like when they created the cut out from the mail plane version there was enough room for 2 – and I’m sure no one worried about seat belts and gross weight. It does not appear to have a front windscreen like this PA-7 does.”

***So with all this good information about it being a Pitcairn, does it fit the family scenario?***

Remember back at the beginning I mentioned we believe the photo was taken in the Atlanta area? Would there have been any Pitcairn Mailwing aircraft in the region? My answer comes from Wikipedia so take it as you will. It all starts with FLORIDA AIRWAYS that Eddie Rickenbacker helped start in Florida in 1923. The airline flew to Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami. Florida Airways was the first to carry Commercial Air Mail (CAM) and eventually expanded the mail route to Atalanta in 1926. There could even be the initials C.A.M. under the word MAIL in the family photo, but it is impossible to see it.

Yea! Now we have an Atlanta connection. However, the planes they were flying were Stout 2AT’s like those pictured below.

This photo is of Ford's Stout 2AT's now in the Florida Photographic Collection

This photo is of Ford’s Stout 2AT’s (from the Florida Photographic Collection). Taken June 1926.

To expand the routes and stay in business, the airline needed to fly to Cuba. Pan American Airways beat them to exclusive rights. This was the demise of Florida Airways which was bought out by Harold Pitcairn (later to become Eastern Airlines). Pitcairn had the mail contract between New York City and Atlanta, Georgia flying the Pitcairn Mailwing biplane. Again this fits with the family being in Atlanta. Pitcairn was bought out in 1929 by the company that eventually became Eastern Airlines. That would place our photo likely before 1929 (before the logo would have picked up Eastern Air Transport and be painted on the Mailwing). This photo of a Pitcairn PA-5 in the Air and Space Museum shows that newer logo.

Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing in Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. Photo by Parks 2015

Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing in Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. Photo by Parks 2015

Close-up of PA-5 in Air and Space Museum.

Close-up of PA-5 in Air and Space Museum.

I certainly learned something about Florida’s involvement in the early air mail service along with tying in part of my hubby’s extended family history. Thanks to everyone who pitched in with information and links. If you’re interested in seeing more photos of Mailwings or further extending your knowledge, here’s a list of additional links.

Thanks for stopping by.

Some more good links from Bill Weiler:

Wikipedia Pitcairn_Aircraft

Aerofiles

Pitcairn-PA-6-Super-Mailwing-pictures

Elizabeth Pitcairn USplane PA-7

Airminded Photos and Specs

Wikipedia Pitcairn Mailwing

Interesting that Steve McQueen owned a PA-8.

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