Frank Hawks and the Gwinn Aircar
Near East Aurora, New York
August 23, 1938
Taking Flight to
In the later days of
the “Golden Age of Aviation,” the interbellum period between World War I and
World War II, many aircraft manufacturers were developing, designing, and
building low-cost "everyman's airplanes." The idea was to bridge the gap between
automobile driving and flying an airplane.
It was the opinion of
designer Joseph M. Gwinn, Jr. that the major problem keeping the driving public
from becoming the flying public was the need for the pilot to coordinate the
operation of both the wing control surfaces and the tail control surfaces. He
created a design while at Consolidated Aircraft in Buffalo, New York, but when
the company decide not to sponsor it, he left his job there and formed this own
company. Subsidized by the U.S. government in 1937, Gwinn's resulting design was
“Model-T of the Air”...
With its wooden-frame,
24-foot wide wingspan, and a metal semi-monocoque fuselage, the Aircar was among
the first designs to have a tricycle landing gear. It also had side-by-side
seating for two, a steering wheel on the top of a control stick in front of the
left-seat pilot that worked the wing-length ailerons, and had two throttles -
one a pedal on the floor for driving and takeoff, and a traditional one intended
for cruise flight. The design also had no rudder, and had limited function of
The design called for
going full-speed down the runway with flaps up, then push the left pedal to the
floor to put the flaps in takeoff position, forcing thhe Aircar to “jump” into
the air, and letting the pilot slowly retract the flaps. Landing was achieved by
a full-flap configuration, and the pilot slowly reducing the engine's power, all
the way down the runway, and as the runway runs out, the pilot drives it off. It
was affordable too, projected to costs $5000.
Gwinn was able to
built two prototypes of his Aircar. His first one, registered as NX1271, had a
90 horsepower British Pobjoy Niagara, a geared air-cooled radial engine, which
he later had upgraded to 130 horsepower.
The second prototype,
registered as NC16921, was built with the same 130 horsepower Niagara V-7
engine, and featured several other upgrades over the prior prototype.
But with a new idea,
and an unrecognizable design, how do you sell the concept?
A Famous Face...
Born in 1897 in Iowa,
and raised in California,
Frank Monroe Hawks was one of the most recognized and talented air race pilots
in the United States in the 1930s. As a boy
in Long Beach, he used a ruse to reach the
airways. He posed as a newspaper reporter, offering publicity to get a ride with
a barnstorming flier. He confessed after he came down, and the pilot permitted
him to be a ground assistant. He would
go on to serve in World War I as a flyer.
In many circles though, Hawks was best known for, in
December of 1920, taking a
23-year-old Amelia Earhart on her first airplane ride, lasting ten minutes, at
the airfield in Long Beach. In 1933,
he set the west to east transcontinental airspeed record in his Northrop Gamma,
flying from Los Angeles to Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York in 13 hours,
26 minutes, and 15 seconds. It is said that he held as many as 214
point-to-point speed records in the United States and Europe.
In 1937, Hawks
retired from speed competition to his home in Redding, Connecticut, saying "I've
had my day. I passed the 40-year mark the other day and I've decided
to take it easy now."
At the same time,
Gwinn offered the vice-presidency, in charge of sales, of his company to Hawks,
in order to lend credence to the design, which received Civil Aeronautics
Authority Approval with Type Certificate 682. In trade, Hawks got to fly the
Aircar to airports throughout the Eastern Seaboard to pitch the plane to the
consumers that would buy and fly it.
"Fool-proof," is how Frank Hawks described the Gwinn Aircar. "It will not spin and it will not
stall. . . . With only an hour or two of instruction any average person (even
the intelligentsia) can fly our ship. . . . A development that should go down in
history as the greatest aviation contribution since the advent of the Wright
Fate Catching Up...
On the afternoon of August 23rd,
1938, Hawks and his friend, M.R. Carlin, landed on the polo field of Edmund P.
Rogers. Hawks offered to take Rogers or any of his guests for a ride. J. Hazard
Campbell, 37, a New York stockbroker and a director in the Gwinn
corporation, had returned from a trip to France the previous April, and was the first to climb aboard.
"(Hawks) said he'd rather fly one of these than any other plane,"
Carlin said. "He had given up all other pilot ratings but the one he used on
A few minutes before the takeoff, a friend gave Hawks a four
leaf clover, for "good luck".
With Hawks flying against a crosswind, Rogers recounted what
happened next to news reporters: "The plane lifted in the air and Hawks tilted
it 50 feet above the ground to enable it to pass between two tall trees. As he
passed out of sight it looked as though he had not been able to gain sufficient
altitude and was trying to bring the plane down.”
The plane's wheels dangled into telephone
lines, caught fire, and was hurtled, nose-over-tail, to the ground on the
polo field of Seymour Knox, an internationally known polo player,
and Campbell's brother-in-law, where it exploded. Onlookers pulled Hawks from the controls of the
blazing ship and dragged Campbell from beneath a crumpled and burning wing, but
the broken telephone wires forced the delay of hospital aid.
Three hours later, at the hospital in Buffalo, Frank
Hawks died. Campbell also died of the injuries he sustained in the crash.
Hawks' remains were cremated, in accordance with his
final wishes, and the bronze urn carrying his ashes were carried by his private
plane, piloted by Richard Benson, to his home in Redding, Connecticut, where it
The resulting publicity effectively spelled the end
for the Aircar. Joseph Gwinn closed his factory and went back to work at
Consolidated and was able to persuade the company to build another easy-to-fly
personal airplane, the Convair Model III, in 1946, but it was never put into
Gwinn passed away in October of 1956 in Los Angeles,