Franklin "Texaco Eaglet"

Display Status:

This object is not on display at the National Air and Space Museum. It is either on loan or in storage.

Collection Item Summary:

As America endured the dark days of the Great Depression, the glamorous exploits of dashing aviators offered escape from the bleak prospects of economic disaster. One intrepid pilot, Frank Hawks, flew a glider called the Franklin "Eaglet" across the United States during an unprecedented stunt that enthralled the nation.

Collection Item Long Description:

As America endured the dark days of the Great Depression, the glamorous exploits of dashing aviators offered escape from the bleak prospects of economic disaster. One intrepid pilot, Frank Hawks, flew a Franklin PS-2 glider across the United States during an unprecedented stunt that enthralled the nation. The saga began in 1928, when R. E. Franklin, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Michigan, and his brother Wallace, discovered a student glider club building a German Zoegling (primary) training glider. The Franklin Brothers realized that an improved Zoegling had the potential to become a popular glider in the Unites States, and they quickly set about constructing their own version. At this time, no domestic glider manufacturers existed. American interests in motorless flight lagged far behind Germany, the nation that began the sport gliding movement during the early 1920s. The Zoegling design was sound. It could withstand the stress of taking off in tow behind automobiles or powered aircraft so the brothers concentrated on modest aerodynamic and structural refinements. With no previous glider experience, Wallace Franklin successfully flew the improved Zoegling in 1928. He was towed aloft behind a car but a short time later, a windstorm destroyed this aircraft.

The next Franklin glider, dubbed the "9491," incorporated several new modifications based on experience flying the first glider. The most significant change involved the landing gear. The Franklins mounted a single wheel and tire in the lower fuselage behind the pilot, in place of the wooden skid used on the original Zoegling. The brothers retained a smaller skid mounted on shock absorbers ahead of the wheel. This device prevented damage to the nose during landing and also functioned as a brake, and it became a standard feature on most American sport gliders during the next two decades. During the latter half of 1928, the Franklins flew "9491" at several air meets held in New York state. Wallace Franklin demonstrated some of the first successful glider tows behind powered aircraft in the United States. "9491" scored another 'first' when renowned German gliding enthusiast, Wolfgang Klemperer, flew this airplane on tow behind a Goodyear blimp. Most gliders before 1930 took to the air behind groups of young men pulling bungee cords hooked to the glider. Auto tows did not come into use in the United States until 1928. Aircraft tows took gliders much higher than other towing methods and eased the problem of transporting the bulky but fragile aircraft to new flying sites. Previously, a group of enthusiasts disassembled the glider, loaded it on a trailer, and hauled the machine by road to a new airfield.

Frank M. Hawks was just beginning to catch the gliding bug when he saw "9491" perform at the Detroit Glider Carnival in 1929. An Army pilot during World War I, Hawks earned a reputation after the war piloting high-performance, powered aircraft (the press occasionally dubbed him the "fastest human") and he held a number of speed and distance records. At the National Air Races in Cleveland, he flew the Franklin glider in the "Famous Motored Pilots' Glider Derby." Hawks won the contest and had completed arrangements to buy the glider when a student pilot ripped off the wings in a crash that destroyed "9491" but not before it had generated considerable interest in the sport of gliding. Before the Hawks flight, Ameila Earhart had flown the glider and narrowly escaped serious injury when she entered a spin and managed to recover from it just above the ground. Ironically, Earhart had met Hawks almost a decade earlier when he took her aloft for her first airplane flight.

When "9491" was still impressing crowds around the country, R. E. and Wallace had begun building another glider to continue the process of refining the basic Zoegling design. They offered this aircraft to Hawks who accepted immediately and oversaw its completion. Hawks' employer, the Texas Company (or Texaco), was also interested. The firm endorsed Hawks' participation in non-motorized flight because it saw the sport as a compelling means of attracting people to aviation. Company officials believed that glider pilots would eventually move to flying powered aircraft fueled and oiled by Texas Company products. Hawks was the superintendent of the Texas Company's aviation division, and he purchased the new aircraft using company funds.

Before the brothers completed the new Franklin glider, Hawks and the Texas Company had devised a spectacular stunt to stoke public interest in both motorless and powered flight. Hawks planned to fly the glider coast to coast, in tow behind a Waco Ten biplane. During the flight, the glider would land several times a day, and at every airfield, Hawks would meet with dozens of reporters.

Construction on the new glider moved rapidly. The brothers used three steel tubes, welded and riveted at both ends, to form the fuselage, and added a brake to the main wheel. They constructed the wings of wood, covered them with cotton fabric, and braced supported by external struts. Both wings could be removed in the field for road transport. The basic instrument panel consisted of an airspeed indicator, altimeter, and slip/skid indicator. In fitting out the cockpit, it is clear that Hawks planned to spend a great deal of time there. Mechanics installed a radio receiver strictly for its entertainment value, and a telephone so that Hawks could communicate with the tow plane pilot. The cockpit was completely enclosed to protect the pilot from the wind and cold.

To finish the airplane, Hawks devised a gaudy paint scheme depicting a stylized eagle and topped off with the Texas Company logos. The Franklin brothers assigned the manufacturer's serial number 202 to this aircraft and it received the registration code 502M. Hawks christened it the "Eaglet" but the airplane was renamed the "Eaglet” after the transcontinental flight. The glider's never-exceed speed was calculated at 201 km/h (125 mph), and flight tests pegged the stall speed at 24 km/h (15 mph) and the glide ratio at 22:1. Total cost to manufacture the "Eaglet” came to $2,500.

Hawks planned carefully for the flight. A special tow rope, 152 m (500 ft) long, was selected and carefully tested. In an emergency, the rope had to break before the wings of the "Eaglet” or the Waco Ten tow plane. Both aircraft were also fitted with release mechanisms to jettison the rope. Hawks had to request an exemption from Department of Commerce rules governing aerial glider tows. The government had banned airplane tows after recent attempts to tug primary gliders ended with fatal results.

Hawks departed Lindbergh Field at San Diego on March 30, 1930. Towing Hawks and the "Eaglet” was J. D. "Duke" Jernigin, Jr., flying a Waco Ten biplane (named "Texaco No. 7" and registered NC608N) powered by a 220 hp Wright J-5 engine. Jernigin carried one passenger, Wallace Franklin. The group soon established a routine for the daily fuel stops necessary to sustain the thirsty J-5 engine. At altitude over the airfield, Hawks released the tow rope and performed a short air show routine for the crowds waiting below. Jernigin and the Waco had already landed and refueled. They sat at the edge of the field, ready to hook-up to the "Eaglet” and takeoff on the next leg of the trip. This routine kept ground time to a minimum for both pilots. This was important because the Texas Company had already scheduled the appearance of the glider and tow plane, and Hawk's solo air show, and large crowds waited impatiently at the next stop.

The demonstrations at Yuma, Arizona, and Phoenix went well but at Tucson, the tow rope snapped in heavy turbulence, during the takeoff on the morning of the second day and this mishap grounded the flight until the group found a replacement. On the third day, Hawks and Jernigin had to cover 1,143 km (710 miles) to make up the time. The pair stopped in Texas at El Paso, Midland, and Wichita Falls, flew on to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and then landed in Missouri at Springfield and East St. Louis. Indiana came next and the flight stopped at Terre Haute and Indianapolis before continuing east to Columbus, Ohio, and Cleveland, then on to Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany, New York. The flight ended at Van Cortlandt Park in New York City on April 6. Hawks landed in Midland, with a flat tire, and over Indiana, another tow rope broke and forced an unscheduled landing at Terre Haute. Heavy winds at Albany nearly caused the Waco to crash on takeoff but despite these additional setbacks, the flight managed to finish on schedule. The two pilots logged 44 hours of time in the air towing and flying the Eaglet during the eight-day trip and they covered 4,603 km (2,860 mile) and Hawks and the "Eaglet” amassed an additional seven hours of free flight aerial demonstration time. Adding to the spectacle of the trip, Hawks carried 5.7 kg (12.5 lb) of "glider" mail and a palm tree seedling given by the city of San Diego to the citizens of New York, New York. The Texas Company did earn some public relations benefit from the trip. Crowds of between 5,000 and 10,000 people witnessed each of Hawk's scheduled demonstrations.

Hawks continued to fly the "Eaglet" throughout 1930 at various exhibitions and meets, including the National Air Races in Chicago, and the National Glider Meet in Elmira, New York. The "Eaglet” flew for the last time on December 8, 1930. "Duke" Jernigin towed the glider aloft from Bolling Field, south of Washington, D. C., during the official Smithsonian Institution donation ceremony. The "Eaglet” and "Texaco No. 7," the Waco tow plane, touched down simultaneously in front of Dr. C. G. Abbot, the Institution's Secretary, and he assumed official custody of the glider. Reporters inundated the ceremony and this event generated more publicity for the aircraft and the sport. The "Eaglet” was the first glider constructed after 1903 to enter the museum's collection. It had flown a grand total of 6,437 km (4,000 miles) and remained airborne for 570 hours during 50 flights. Frank Hawks continued to set point-to-point speed records and race aircraft such as the Travel Air Mystery Ship and the Northrop Gamma (see NASM collection). Hawks was killed in 1938 flying a Gwinn Aircar that many aviation experts considered a far safer aircraft than those that he normally flew.

Wallace and R. E. Franklin quickly sought to capitalize on the enthusiasm for gliding generated by Hawk's transcontinental flight. They immediately began producing the "Eaglet” design at their factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with some structural and manufacturing improvements, under the company designation PS-2. It sold for $675 and the trailer required to haul the aircraft by road cost an additional $78. They successfully marketed the PS-2 to schools and gliding clubs, using Hawk's flight in the "Eaglet” as a main selling point. The Franklin brothers were also instrumental in perfecting and promoting the towing of gliders by automobile. It became widespread in the United States during the 1930's and boosted the sale of the PS-2 because most other gliders of that day could not withstand the rigors of towing. The PS-2 also did well in competitions. At the first national gliding contest held at Elmira, New York, in the fall of 1930, Albert Hastings piloted a PS-2 and won the flight duration trophy after he stayed aloft for 7 hours and 43 minutes. Hastings won again the following year again flying a PS-2. This skilled pilot opened a gliding school at Elmira and his training fleet included the PS-2. The German gliding pioneer, Wolf Hirth, and American glider designer and flight instructor, Hawley Bowlus, also started a school using the PS-2 for flight training. The Franklin brothers built and sold well over one hundred PS-2 aircraft and for a time, it was the most popular training glider in the country. More advanced motorless aircraft soon appeared and replaced the PS-2 at American gliding clubs.