http://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.fr/2008/05/weekend-wings-18-struggle-to-conquer.htmlIn the USA a Captain in the Air Service Reserve, Homer Berry, had got together with a New Hampshire newspaper owner, Robert Jackson. Together they formed the company Argonauts Inc. They signed a contract with Russian émigré Igor Sikorsky to build an aircraft for a trans-Atlantic attempt.
Sikorsky's solution was the S-35 biplane. It was very large for its day, with a wingspan of 101 feet and weighing some 8 tons, fully fuelled (but without passengers or crew, and with no cargo). It was initially powered by two Liberty L-12 engines, but after Fonck had agreed to pilot it, he complained that it was underpowered. It was subsequently fitted with three Gnome-Rhone Jupiter engines. The composite photograph below shows its features very clearly. Note in particular the ornate fittings and furniture inside the cabin.
The cabin would be rearranged for the trans-Atlantic flight. The sketch below, from the New York Times of April 22nd, 1926, shows how it was set up for the journey.
In hindsight, one can only describe the enormous amount of equipment and luxurious preparations of the Argonaut team as extraordinarily foolish. For example, we read in the New York Times of August 16th, 1926:
A hot dinner, cooked in New York, will be eaten in Paris some two days later, it was announced last night, if the plans for the transatlantic non-stop flight of Captain Rene fonck, French war ace, and his associates go through as planned.
The dinner will be prepared by chefs of the Hotel McAlpin. It will be placed in vacuum containers to keep it as hot as when it came off the ranges, and is to be served at the Hotel Crillon to Robert Jackson, American sponsor of the flight, the aviators and others after the plane's arrival. The menu includes Manhattan clam chowder, Baltimore terrapin, roast Long Island duck and Vermont turkey.
There was also conflict about who would go on the flight. Captain Berry expected to go, but Fonck excluded him, leading to a very public wrangle in the newspapers. The final preparations were thus marred by controversy. Nevertheless, they continued. The video clip below shows the S-35 during testing.
The aircraft was grossly overloaded for its flight. Quite apart from a plethora of equipment, gifts for various dignitaries in France were loaded (and, of course, the aforementioned duck dinner!). By the time the aircraft was ready to depart it was estimated (by the co-pilot, as stated in evidence at the subsequent inquiry) to weigh some 28,000 pounds, of which about half was fuel. This was far in excess of its design limit of approximately 16,000 pounds, plus crew. To help it take off with so much extra weight, a temporary landing gear was fitted to support the tail. This proved to be a fatal error.
Early in the morning of September 21st, 1926, the aircraft set off. Fonck was at the controls, with Lieutenant Lawrence W. Curtin, USN, as his co-pilot. Also aboard were Jacob Islamoff, mechanic, and Charles Clavier, radio operator. The latter two crew were at the rear of the cabin, as shown in the diagram above. The aircraft failed to get fully airborne, the temporary landing gear collapsing under the weight, and it crashed into a shallow gully at the far end of the airfield. Fonck and Curtin were able to escape, but Islamoff and Clavier were probably trapped under the huge amount of baggage in the cabin. They were killed, either by the impact of the crash, or the enormous fire which consumed the plane, raging for over an hour until the fuel was burnt up.