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CURTISS-WRIGHT CONDOR—AIRLINER, BOMBER, POLAR EXPLORER

I ADMIRE the pugnacious lines of the Curtiss-Wright Condor T-32, a biplane transport designed in 1932 that continued in service well into the 1950s. It carried Admiral Richard Byrd on an Antarctic Expedition, flew passengers in six airlines around the world and had military duty in seven countries, including two fighting each other. Not bad for an aircraft that some judged already obsolete when it was designed.

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Curtiss-Wright Condor in its 1934 AT-32-A American Airways livery. Image from Airliners Between the Wars, 1919-39 (Colour), by Kenneth Munson, Blandford Press, 1972.

The Condor was hardly state-of-the-art in 1932. Its tail assembly and two-bay biplane wings were still wire-braced. In an era of increasingly more all-metal designs, the Condor had a mixed construction of part metal, part fabric. Whereas completely retractable landing gears were not uncommon at the time, the Condor’s wheels only partly nestled into its twin engine nacelles.

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Something old, something new. Image from yosikava.livejournal.

On the other hand, its nine-cylinder Wright Cyclone air-cooled radials each produced 710 hp, sufficient to give the Condor a cruising speed of 190 mph at 8000 ft. With a range of more than 800 miles, the 12-passenger Condor had luxury status at American Airways and Eastern Air Transport, each prior to its familiar name change.

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Dozing off to the comforting rumble of twin Wright Cyclones. It’s only recently that sleeping accommodations on commercial airlines returned to the full berths of yore.

Twenty-one of the original T-32 configuration were produced as “The World’s First Complete Sleeper-Planes.” A typical itinerary between Dallas and Los Angeles was anything but non-stop. It touched down in Abilene, Big Spring and El Paso, still in Texas, then Douglas, Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, before finally reaching Los Angeles.

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Passengers sat two-and-one across, with large windows. Image from shorpy.com.

The Condor was renowned for having one of the less noisy of its era. Hostesses, as they were called back then, offered coffee, tea and cigarettes. They also arranged bridge games and sleeping berths.

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The Condor flight deck. Image from Eastern Air Transport.

The pilot’s principal instruments up top were artificial horizon, compass, directional gyro, altimeter, air speed, bank-and-turn and rate-of-climb. Plenty of glass gave an excellent view forward.

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This Condor is shown in its 1933 Byrd Antarctic Expedition II configuration. Technical illustrations from Scale Airplane Drawings, Vol. 1, by Paul R. Matt, Aviation Heritage, 1991.

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In 1933, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Jr., chose a Condor for the second of his five Antarctic Expeditions. The aircraft received larger fuel tanks that gave a range of 1200 miles, albeit at a slower cruising speed of 146 mph. His Condor could be fitted with wheels, floats or skis. The aircraft, along with other expedition equipment, traveled to and from Antarctica by ship.

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The Condor in Byrd Antarctic Expedition II livery. Skis were exchangeable for wheels or floats. Image from Conquerors of the Air: The Evolution of Aircraft 1903-1945, text by Heiner Emde, illustrated by Carlo Demand, Edita S.A. Lausanne, 1968.

Byrd’s Condor had smaller propellers, additional instrumentation and engine cowling designed for Antarctic operation. The airplane wintered in 1933 at Byrd’s Little America basecamp in Antarctica and made its first flight in 1934. By the time the expedition was completed in 1935, Byrd’s Condor had helped explore 450,000 sq. mi. of the Antarctic continent.

Over the years the Condor had continued development, with a total of 45 aircraft in several civilian and military variants. Commercial uses, in addition to American and Eastern Airlines in the U.S., included Britain’s International Air Freight, LAN-Chile, China National Aviation and Swissair. In addition to the U.S. Army Air Corps, military operators included the Argentines, British, Chinese, Hondurans, Colombians and Peruvians, these last two flying Condors against each other in the Columbia-Peru War of 1933. The Peruvian Air Force kept its Condor in service until autumn of 1956.

Obsolete in 1933? Not hardly. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

2 comments on “CURTISS-WRIGHT CONDOR—AIRLINER, BOMBER, POLAR EXPLORER

  1. Grey McGown
    October 14, 2015

    Condor has a lot of DC-3 in her…have been reading a bio of W. Starling Burgess. He was a fine marine architect, early aircraft engineer and licensee of the Wright
    brothers…he did a bi-plane seaplane flying wing in 1917. Wonder if Jack Northrop
    and others were influenced by him? Northrop lost his company after an unsucessful fight with GD over a long range bomber. GD’s design of the B-36 was the competion. Northrop lived to see the mock up of the B-2 before he died vindicating his idea for a long range heavy bomber. The story might be worth
    a column…PBS did a documentary on Northrop and his fight with Lyndon Johnson and GD. I continue to enjoy your columns and blog…Grey McGown Fort Worth

    • simanaitissays
      October 14, 2015

      Hi, Grey,
      An interesting tale. I have a couple Northrup sources, though not devoted to this. Thanks for your kind words.

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This entry was posted on October 9, 2015 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , .
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