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Volume 35, Number 5September/October 1984

In This Issue

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The Fairchild Flies Again

Written by Mary Norton
Photographed by S. M. Amin

From a lifelong interest in aviation and in modeling historical aircraft, John Goodrich was familiar with Aramco's famous Fairchild 71 long before he went to work for Aramco. But it was only after he joined Aramco and read Wallace Stegner's Discovery!, the tale of Aramco's search for oil in Saudi Arabia, that Goodrich learned of the vital role played by the Fairchild in mapping the kingdom: some 35,000 miles (56,327 kilometers) of aerial reconnaissance photography. And it was not until Aramco began to celebrate its 50th anniversary that Goodrich decided that the Fairchild should fly again.

In model aircraft competitions, two schools of scale model building co-exist: the "standoff" scale which requires that the model look like the original from a judging distance of 30 feet (nine meters), but need not be authentic in detail; and the far more rigorous standards applied by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which demands that both scale and authentic detail be exacting. Goodrich, though lacking blueprints and details of the Fairchild 71's structure and properties, elected to adhere to AMA standards, a challenging task.

In the 1930's, the "Golden Age of Aviation" attracted an enormous following in the United States - the daring exploits of aviators and aircraft firing the imagination of thousands of schoolboys who linked themselves to this magical world by building model planes. "In those wonderful days of my early modeling, 10 cents-would buy a rubber-powered model kit, including plans and all materials - balsa wood, tissue to cover it, glue, and paint to paint it with," said Goodrich.

During World War II, Goodrich himself was a U.S. Air Force pilot - flying B-25 bombers over Italy. And after the war, when he returned to the University of Vermont to work toward a degree in mechanical engineering, he kept right on tinkering with models - some of them innovative, radio-controlled gas-powered models.

Recalled to service in 1950, Goodrich flew B-26 bombers in Korea, finally landing at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, home of the Air Force Museum and of the Air Force Institute of Technology - an idyllic assignment that stimulated his interest in historical aircraft and also allowed him to acquire a master's degree in aeronautical engineering.

By 1960, with eight children to educate, Goodrich had left the air force for the construction industry, but still spent most of his spare time producing replicas that, when entered in competitions, usually took top honors. One, a model of the Handley Page 400, a World War I twin-engine biplane, is on display in a museum in Taipei.

"For me, the most interesting part of model building," says Goodrich, "is the research involved." To build his model of Aramco's Fairchild, for example, he started by acquiring photos of the Fairchild 71 from the Fairchild Hiller Corporation - especially interior and exterior detail - plus drawings of the original design, since the blueprints had been destroyed years earlier when workmen mistakenly cleared out the wrong hangar. In the photo collection of Joe Mountain, the pilot-photographer who conducted much of the reconnaissance work with the Fairchild 71 in Saudi Arabia, he also found detailed views of the plane's instrument panel and other interior and exterior shots. These included the serial number - which enabled Goodrich to locate photographs taken when the plane left the factory at Farmingdale, New York.

The photos, unfortunately, offered no specific clues as to the plane's coloration, a crucial consideration for authentic reproduction. But Theron K. Rinehart, research editor at Fairchild, suggested that the color might be orange and dark blue - which were common to that era - so Goodrich, on leave in 1981, tracked down several oldtimers to see if they could confirm these colors. None could, however, until Russ Gerow, mechanic and photographer, set the record straight: orange for the wings and tail, dark blue for the fuselage.

From conversations with other pioneers - "Soak" Hoover, Felix Dreyfus, Art Brown, Floyd Ohliger, Tom Barger and Phyllis Kerr, widow of the redoubtable Dick Kerr, who was in command when the Fairchild 71 first set down at Jubail - Goodrich was able to assemble enough data to begin his model. It was a job that would take a solid year of nights, weekends, holidays and even some 2:00 a.m. sessions when the answer to a knotty question would suddenly pop into his head.

Some of the answers were amazing. Using plastic kit cylinders and a steel mixing bowl, for example, Goodrich exactly duplicated the curvature and scale of the original nine-cylinder Wasp engine built by Pratt and Whitney, and provided a rudder, an elevator, ailerons, control stick and rudder pedals that answer correctly to radio-control instructions.

In keeping with the original, the landing gear has shock absorbers, the wing , fold, locust-fashion - permitting Goodrich to transport it easily - and operational navigational lights, a red light on the left wing, a green on the right and a white light on the tail, all operate on command. Wing lights, made from two tiny flashlights, come extremely close to actual size in scale.

To duplicate metal-covered parts, aluminum was used, and for parts covered by fabric in the original aircraft there is silk - hand-painted, of course. Inside the cabin, wicker seats duplicate the wicker seats of yore, and where leather was, leather is. Even the upholstery nails securing the leather in the cabin are spaced apart according to scale. Finally, a duplicate model of the original Fairchild K-3 camera was also built to scale and is placed in the rear cabin door window as photos showed it to be.

Building a model, of course, is easier than getting it to fly, but Goodrich achieved this too. It flies a scale-speed compatible with the slow, stable speed of the original Fairchild. It is so authentic, in fact, that film producer John Feeney was able to simulate scenes of the original exploration effort by using the Goodrich model in his Aramco at Fifty, the story of Aramco's 50 years of growth. Built to scale - 50-foot wings now 100 inches (15 - 2.5 meters) three-foot wheels now six inches (0.9 meters -15 centimeters) and the nine-foot propeller 18 inches (2.7 meters - 45 centimeters) - the 14 pound model (6.4 kilograms), powered by a four-cycle .60 cubic-inch engine, soared and roared above the sand of Saudi Arabia for Feeney's cameras just as the original did for Aramco's pilots 50 years ago.

Mary Norton who has lived in Saudi Arabia since 1958 is a veteran contributor to Aramco World Magazine.

To Soak Hoover and the other geologists exploring the vastness of Saudi Arabia in the 1930's, the first airplane assigned to the search was a "magic carpet " (See Aramco World, May-June 1984). It permitted them to examine the terrain rapidly, map it accurately and photograph it thoroughly. It made it possible to deliver food and mail to the field parties. It enabled the field parties to relay information to headquarters more rapidly and to get back themselves more often for needed breaks in their lonely schedules.

In negotiations with King 'Abd al-'Aziz, Socal - Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) - had pressed for permission to use a plane. Knowing the size of the concession area - the area that Socal was permitted to explore - Socal's spokesmen pointed out that a plane would be vital. And as soon as the king okayed the idea, Socal assigned a man named Dick Kerr to find a plane, equip it with an aerial camera and get it to Arabia.

To Kerr, a geologist, a mechanic, a photographer and a pilot, it was a made-to-order challenge and he met it; in March, 1934, he and co-pilot Charlie Rocheville, after braving desert sandstorms, Egyptian officialdom and Royal Air Force warnings, brought just the plane they needed to Arabia. It was a Fairchild 71 with special sand tires, an extra tank for gasoline, removable panels and windows to permit geological photography, a 50-foot wing-span (15 meters), a nine-foot propeller (2.7 meters) and folding wings.

An aircraft with that sort of background is, of course, a natural for model airplane buffs, so it was no surprise when John Goodrich of Aramco set to work building a model to mark the 50th anniversary of the search that catapulted Saudi Arabia into the oil business and, eventually, into the forefront of the world's oil producing countries. — The Editors


This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the September/October 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1984 images.