Aviation History

This sharp deviation from their core fan business can be traced to a family member who caught the aviation bug.

Noble Foss, one of the two Harvard attending sons of the owner, was forced to leave school due to illness in 1907. Lacking a career focus, he spent a year in the Southwest then another year traveling around the world. It was a journey through France in 1910 and exposure to the aviation excitement sweeping across Europe that piqued his interest in aeroengines and proved to be the catalyst for his first vocation upon returning to America.

Sturtevant Manufacturing Co.

That same year, in one section of the machine shop mezzanine at Sturtevant's Hyde Park factory, he established the Sturtevant Manufacturing Co. Massachusetts' first aeroengine company was thus born with Noble, at 22, its youthful president. Operations weren't restricted to just the mezzanine, testing and manufacturing also occurred on the main floor.

One of the principal engine developers was Harold N. Bliss. On board from the start, he worked for a year in a Pawtucket, RI cotton mill where he did development work on motors before becoming a partner with Sturtevant. He and George Abel, an M.I.T. grad, helped develop the Model 5 before joining the Thomas-Morse Aircraft Co. in 1915.

One of the most notable installations were in the famous Hickman Sea Sleds when they were introduced in 1914. This radical double hull design allowed for high speeds without resorting to high power by forcing air under it. The Navy was impressed enough by the performance to make it their exclusive high speed rescue boat in open waters. There was one confirmed Sea Sled, based in Pensacola, with a pair of 75hp E-4 engines in 1915. In the civilian sector, the philanthropist Vincent Astor's "Noma" Sea Sled could make 30mph with a single Sturtevant D-6. The exact number of sales is unknown.

The fact that Hickman's boat yard through WW1 was in Boston, Sturtevant's backyard, partially explains the sales. A much stronger explanation is that Hickman was married to Esther Foss, Noble's sister. As late as 1921, the Model E-4 was being marketed as a pleasure boat engine.

The Herring-Burgess #3 was the first aircraft installed with a Sturtevant engine, the 40hp D-4. This third iteration of the Augustus Herring/Starling Burgess collaboration, purchased by Joseph Shoemaker, took off from the Saugus, MA racetrack on July, 1911 for a brief flight over the adjacent marshes. Fred Chanhouse, the pilot, would later be employed by both Sturtevant Mfg. and Sturtevant Aeroplane Co. The plane was donated to the National Air & Space Museum in 1961 where it waits for reconstruction. It's unknown if the Sturtevant engine, which Shoemaker called the "Foss-Bliss Sturtevant engine", also survived.

What Noble's contributions to the manufacturing of these engines or his exact role is unknown. It's a safe bet, though, that Sturtevant's engine expertise (dating back to the 1870s) was a solid foundation supporting the subsidiary.

A promising new V-8 engine, the Model 5/5A (sometimes misprinted as A5 in some publications), begun in 1914 and introduced in 1915, may have jump-started the next phase of Sturtevant's aviation adventure. There was a lot of industry buzz around this model given the aspirated, unreliable engines that predominated at that time. With the leap to aircraft manufacturing pending, Sturtevant Mfg. was absorbed into B.F.Sturtevant sometime in 1915.

Sturtevant Aeroplane Co.

With a new engine under development and having years of contact with the state's small aviation fraternity, its easy to imagine Noble pushing for actual aircraft production. Eugene Foss might have viewed the prospect of winning war-inspired government contracts as reason enough to acquiesce.

While it sounds extraordinary that a fan company would get involved in aircraft construction, it has to be viewed in the context of the industry's state. In 1914, the United States aircraft industry ranked last among the major powers, employing less than 200 people. It was comprised of small companies each of which produced only a few airplanes a year. American military aviation spending, the main business catalyst, ranked 14th in the world before 1914 and did little to encourage development of the industry in this country. With such low barriers to entry and minimal competition, Sturtevant took the plunge. The old company slogan, "Sturtevant Puts Air to Work", would soon take on a whole different meaning.

Plane Production

The Sturtevant Aeroplane Co. was organized in the summer of 1915 at B.F.Sturtevant's original Jamaica Plain factory. Sturtevant Mfg. was absorbed by the parent company with all 5A engines wearing the B.F.Sturtevant label, previous models were stamped with both names. The business was staffed using existing Sturtevant employees with Noble (President) and his brother Benjamin (Vice-President/Treasurer) holding the executive spots. Benjamin's role was primarily to act as a sort of liaison officer between the company and Washington on airplane matters.

The search for a designer to complement their manufacturing abilities took Benjamin and Eugene to San Diego where they signed Grover Loening to a two year contract. Loening was one of the famous aeronautical engineers of this period, among his future achievements was development of the first retractable landing gear.

One enticement was the new V8 engine, it's a reasonable deduction made from a letter Tex Millman sent to Loening. In accepting employment with Sturtevant Aeroplane, Millman glowingly declared it would likely be an industry best. It's not a stretch to assume that Loening bought into some of that hype.

Over time, a surface tension developed between Loening and Noble, whose job was apparently too long on title and short on direct involvement in his real interest, aircraft development. Though Loening sensed that Noble coveted complete control and would shove him aside once the business had progressed beyond the start-up stage, there is no evidence that Sturtevant Aeroplane was adversely affected by any of this.

The actual work area was relatively small @ 20k sq.ft. in the fire damaged building consisting of wing assembly, covering and final assembly rooms. The wing spars were made of Alaskan spruce since an acceptable metal substitute couldn't be devised. The shaping of the metal frames was done at Hyde Park. After the wing frames had been assembled, they were taken to the covering room where they were double surfaced with strong gray Irish linen. This was sewed onto the ribs and then "doped" with a cellulose varnish which shrunk the cloth to drum tightness. Final assembly work included chassis assembly and finishing touches on the secondary guying, propeller mounting, etc.

Their planes shared the commonality of being convertible (land and sea usage), all-steel with wooden spars, utilizing the Model 5A engine as their exclusive powerplant and (with the exception of the Model A) having a signature triangular fuselage.

All part of a business strategy emphasizing, as they advertised, "simplicity" and "interchangeability". This philosophy, embraced to a degree greater than any other contemporary builder, was exemplified by the early use of standardized steel frames, copying the approach of the construction and automobile industries. The extensive use of spot welding in assembling the fuselage was another first, though, that may have been a marketing liability with competitors using scare tactics to feed existing biases against welded tubing. Altogether not a surprising approach for an organization known for their metal products.

Model A - Battleplane

During 1915 and 1916, several companies, including Sturtevant, Curtis and Thomas Bros., began the first concerted effort toward building an American fighter with the introduction of models publicized as "Battleplanes". More conceptual then practical due in large part to their designers inexperience, they all proved to be failures.

The Model A's notable feature was the two removable nacelles attached mid-wing. Measuring 8ft. long by 2.5ft. wide, the nacelles were designed to hold a gunner allowing for a horizontal firing arc in excess of 200 degrees beyond the propeller blades. Synchronization technology that enabled firing through the propeller existed only in Europe which explains this odd approach. The dummy guns seen in published photos, including the small wooden model above, were the only armament ever installed. For practical reasons, The A1 was also available as a simple tractor by leaving the nascelles off.

Their other two concept Battleplanes were, not surprisingly, even bolder in design. The A2 was like the A1 but employed two pusher propellers to allow the gunners to be placed in the bow of the fuselage. One can only guess at the dimensions of the A3 "Giant Battleplane" since only a vague marketing letter introduces us to it. The gunner layout was to have bow turrets and two gun positions aft.

Model A wood modelThe Model A had one recorded flight during December, 1915 at Readville Trotting Park. An important historical footnote to this flight is that the area encompassing this park and the adjacent land was formerly Camp Meigs, the Army training site of the Union's 1st all-black regiment during the Civil War.

The track and bleachers seen in the Model A photo gallery were constructed by the New England Trotting Horse Breeder's Association in 1895. When the track opened it was one of the premier venues for harness racing in the United States. By World War II, the site was largely abandoned, although U.S. Navy pilots from Squantum Naval Air Station flying their Stearman biplanes would practice "touch and go" landings on the remnants of the old oval track.

Being more of a fishing expedition then a response to an explicit request, The Model A was ignored by the Army.

Before introducing the next model, one misconception surrounding the battleplane needs to be addressed. Contrary to Aerofiles and other sources, there was only one Battleplane, the 1915 attempt. A close look at photos purporting to be this plane are actually the Model S2. This confusion extends back to the WW1 period with one aviation journal stating that Sturtevant Battleplanes were flying to San Diego while others correctly reported them as Model S surveillance planes.

Model B - Sesquiplane

Model B2

Mock attacks on Army fields that year revealed the need for armed high-speed planes to pursue and attack an enemy.

Sturtevant's late 1916 entry was the Model B Speed Scout, a single-seater even more unconventional looking than the preceding Model A. Its most visual attribute was the pyramid struts anchored to a very narrow lower chord member. A quick look at the images in the Aircraft gallery clearly show impaired forward visibility for the pilot. Loening drew on his previous Army experience with a prototype monoplane in designing this. A careful look at the few remaining photos of this sesquiplane reveal the existence of two variations, the Model B1 Speed Scout and the Model B2 Pursuit Plane. Given the number of changes made in the subsequent B2, its clear that the original design had numerous undesirable characteristics. Those changes included a closed cowl, twin rigid bracing tubes extending from mid-wing to the fuselage and a lower rudder.

Another unusual feature which was touted in advertisement literature was the "Sturtevant variable camber wing section". Design and performance data was generated through extensive experiments in the wind tunnel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their claim was that the speed range could be greatly extended by giving a flat reversed curve section for high speed at a low angle, and a very deep camber wing at a high angle of incidence for slow speed. This may have been a type of trailing edge wing flap but no further data is available to comfirm the design specifics or if it ever entered production.

A flying field was established at Squantum for testing their aircraft, later acquired by the Navy and turned into the Squantum Naval Air Station, on land leased by the B.F.Sturtevant Co. from the New York and New Haven Railroad.

The experimental features and insufficient flying time to work out all the bugs, in part due to poor New England weather, preordained the final result. At an official test before Army officials on March 1917, the pilot lost rudder control at an altitude of 100ft. While attempting to land, he clipped a tree and crashed. The Army subsequently canceled their modest order of four planes. The company got some solace from the post-crash Army report which stated in part: "The accident demonstrated a triumph of steel construction over wooden construction from the standpoint of safety to the personnel at least."

Model B Wreck
Model S

Sturtevant achieved modest success with their final model. The Model S in its two variations, S2(pronounced overhang on top wing) and S4, was a conventional looking tandem biplane built in 1916 and 1917. Total production amounted to (Navy) 12 S4 seaplanes, (Rhode Island Naval Militia) 1 S4 seaplane and (Army) (2)S2, (2)S4 tractors.

Model SThe four Army planes are a telling number as they were part of a large order of 26 whittled down by way of cancellations. There were workmanship complaints, signs of cracking on the steelwork around the engine mountings, a dislike for the cockpit which felt crowded compared to the traditional rectangular ones and a chronic overheating problem with the 5A engine that couldn't be corrected.

One additional seaplane sale, the most successful Sturtevant seaplane according to Loening, was made to the Rhode Island Naval Militia in 1916, their first plane purchase.

Forerunners to today's US Naval Reserve, state naval militias were formed in the late 1890's serving as National Guard level coastal defense organizations that worked closely with the US Navy. The Rhode Island militia, based in Quonset, eventually became a torpedo unit that frequently trained at the Navy's torpedo school at Coaster's Island near Newport. While the use, purpose and disposition of the Sturtevant seaplane await discovery, it is known that a popular Rhode Island heiress and aviatress, Lyra Brown Nickerson, contributed $7500 to its acquisition.

Subcontracting

America's entry into WW1 caused Sturtevant Aeroplane, like other small manufacturers, to morph into the role of sub-contractor by request of the government. With this change, Loening departed to form his own aircraft company, leaving Noble in complete control. Since Sturtevant's forte was manufacturing, not aircraft engineering, they now had a chance to snatch success from what was a profitless venture.

A rapid ramping up of production capacity soon followed which resulted in an expanded factory complex of 150k sq.ft. and an employee count that swelled from 40 to over 1000. Complete sets of parts for nearly 2000 JN-4 and DH-4 training aircraft were produced by war's end. The Armistice brought a swift end to Sturtevant Aeroplane. With the world awash in surplus aircraft and government contracts being canceled, its time was over. Operations were stopped in November,1918 and the subsidiary was liquidated by February,1919.

Technically speaking, Sturtevant's newly established foundry, the Framingham Foundries of Framingham, MA, was the final home of the Sturtevant Aeroplane Co. When the Jamaica Plain factory was closed in 1919, a small office was relocated at Framingham to handle the paperwork involved with the phase out.

Noble apparently saw this flood of war surplus as an opportunity to take a final swing in aviation. As reported by the British Flight magazine that February, J. McElroy, the last chief engineer of Sturtevant Aeroplane and Foss were planning an airship service between Chicago and New York with four Zeppelin dirigibles (helium gas) costing 100,000 . It was estimated that the trip, with 25 passengers, would be made within 12 hours. There is no evidence that these plans went much beyond the press release stage.

Epilogue

Though this aviation footnote ended up in the historical dustbin with so many of the "alphabet soup" start-ups of that era, it's memory would linger in the minds of those involved.

On the negative side of the ledger, the B.F.Sturtevant Co. became embroiled in a 13 year legal fight with the State of Massachusetts, largely over the treatment of earnings from the defunct airplane subsidiary. Known internally as the "Great Sturtevant Tax Case", it was eventually settled in the company's favor.

Loening's 1932 autobiography allocated only a brief chapter to his Sturtevant experience. Though mostly bemoaning the many difficulties encountered in building the business from scratch, he did tout the fact that they were technologically ahead with metal designs that wouldn't be industrywide accepted until the 1930s.

During WW2, the Sturtevant Director of Research, Mr. Hagan, was quoted at a company meeting, upon hearing of a Loening visit to Roosevelt Field, reminiscing about their own wartime aeronautical contributions in the last great war. A legitimate bit of patriotic pride at a time of serious conflict.

Finally, for the catalyst of this entire story, Noble Foss, his passing in 1969 generated a two column obituary in his local newspaper with an appropriate reference to the work of a young man a half century earlier. It plainly stated he was: "a pioneer in the manufacture and design of airplanes and engines for the Army and Navy."

A fact every bit as obscure as the company's existence is that Sturtevant never severed its ties to aviation. After WW1, the foundry was moved to Framingham and became known as the Framingham Foundries. It was the primary supplier of castings to aeroengine builders Pratt & Whitney in the 20s and 30s. During WW2, Sturtevant coils were used in aircraft engines while ventilation fans and heaters found their way into planes like the B-17.