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by James Benjaminson
Like the automobile industry, the U.S. airline industry found itself struggling to survive during the Great Depression. To stimulate private flying, the Government initiated several programs--the first of these programs called for building a network of 2,000 landing fields on municipally owned lands across the country. Improvements to existing airports and construction of new airports would fall under the authority of the Civil Works Administration; announced during the winter of 1933, work began in earnest on the project the next spring in localities where winter prevented immediate commencement of the program.
One thing the airline industry had never had was "mass production" at least in the sense that had been applied to the automobile industry. What the industry needed, in the minds of some government thinkers, was a "Henry Ford type", capable of building the "Model T of airplanes"--affordable, economical to run and easy to repair and maintain. The idea of a "$700 airplane" led the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce to announce a "contest" of sorts, seeking entries to make bids on building just such an airplane.
According to researcher Curt McConnell, fourteen companies submitted bids by the August 27th deadline. A government contract to build 15 planes (or 25, depending on the source) from the winning entry was announced but later rescinded so the government could buy single copies of other "everyman" airplanes that showed promise.
Government specifications of these "everyman" airplanes specified a two passenger plane with a top speed of 110 miles per hour, minimum control speed of 35 mph and a 300 mile cruising range against a 10 mph headwind. Planes also had to perform a variety of maneuvers to test their handling--including clearing a 35 foot obstacle within 800 feet of takeoff. And the price had to be in the range of $700--a requirement that was shelved when it soon became apparent no one could build a plane for that price.
Among the planes winning a build contract from the Government was one built by Ole Fahlin and Sven Swanson. The early history of Swanson-Fahlin's airplane building is surrounded by much confusion--some claim the plane was built by the Nicholas-Beazley Airplane Company of Marshall, Missouri, while others give credit for the plane solely to Fahlin who was operating as Fahlin Aircraft Company, sharing space at Marshall with Nicolas-Beazley, Swanson only getting credit for the high winged design (a Swanson trademark).
Swanson and Fahlin's "everyman's airplane" entry came in registered as the "SF-2", S naturally standing for Swanson, F for Fahlin and the numeral 2 for the second plane of this design they had built. What was most interesting about the SF-2 was its power plant. Like several other manufactures, Swanson & Fahlin decided on using an automobile engine to power their latest creation. According to Ole Fahlin, he owned a 1935 Plymouth automobile; for whatever reason the car's engine had been removed (one story had it that the engine had been replaced, the old engine set up against the wall of the hangar where it caught the attention of either Swanson or Fahlin); Fahlin later claimed to have used the Plymouth to "run in" the engine prior to placing it in the SF-2's airframe. Swanson & Fahlin's first airplane, the SF-1 was powered by a Pobjoy airplane engine--soon after the Plymouth engined plane made its aeronautical debut the SF-2 was dubbed the "Plymocoupe".
The power plant remained basically a standard Plymouth six cylinder engine, only mounted backwards in the airframe. The automotive battery type ignition was discarded in favor of a Scintilla magneto normally used in marine applications. Stock cast iron intake and exhaust manifolds were discarded in favor of light weight sheet metal items fabricated in the Swanson-Fahlin shop while the Carter down draft carburetor was replaced by an updraft aircraft type. Fahlin also designed and built a reduction gear unit to replace the clutch and flywheel, the reduction gear lowering propeller speeds to one half that of engine revolutions. Various sources give the planes horsepower rating as either 80 or 84 at 3,600 rpm (factory rating of a '35 engine was 82 horsepower at 3,600 rpm).
Throughout the years Fahlin always maintained the engine of the SF-2 was from a '35 Plymouth--when the plane was built it was designed with several '35 Plymouth styling cues to "cash in" on its power train, including mounting the Plymouth sailing ship radiator ornament on top of the cowl and fitting the side panels with '35 Plymouth hood ornamentation. Unlike the car, which had three horizontal stainless strips over five circular portholes, the SF-2 had six portholes. Photographs of the engine, however, clearly show it to be an earlier version Plymouth six as the cylinder bores are exposed. A major change to Plymouth's power plant took place with the '35 models, in which a full length water jacket and water distribution tube were added to the engine. Plymouth engine blocks from 1935 through 1959 did not expose the cylinder bores which clearly show in the photos of the SF-2's engine.
Regardless of the year of its origin, the Plymouth engine had to be certified for use in an airplane; in addition, Walter P. Chrysler was more than a little interested in the Plymocoupe's potential. Early in July of 1935 the plane was flown to Detroit where Chrysler engineers under assistant chief engineer James Zeder subjected the plane and engine to government tests, ultimately certifying the engine for aircraft use. Actual copies of the tests have proven to be elusive but final approval for use of the engine came on July 17th. W. S. Cochrane, of Chrysler's experimental engineering department and Melvin J. Perrin, airplane inspector for the Bureau of Air Commerce filed report 4406.115 with Zeder certifying the engine under government regulation 7-G. According to the American Aviation Historical Society, Plymouth was to make engines available to "Nicholas-Beazley" for "around $130 each in lots of 100". The SF-2's instrument panel, which was built using '35 Plymouth passenger gauges converted to aircraft use would also be provided by Chrysler for "about $8.40 each in lots of 100".
With a wing span of 32 feet, length of 20.5 feet and a weight of 1,630 pounds the SF-2 could attain a top speed of 105 miles per hour, with a normal cruise speed of 90. Rate of climb was given as 500 feet per minute with a 350 mile range. Landing speeds could be made at 40--all close to, but not exactly matching the governments requirements for the "everyman's" plane. (Other published reports on the plane claimed a 120 mile top speed, 104 mile per hour cruise speed and 1,000 feet per minute rate of climb with only the pilot on board to a 16,000 foot ceiling).
Swanson's high winged, cantilever monoplane design was extremely attractive but failed to win the government contest (awarded to a much higher priced Stearman-Hammond "Y" powered by an equally expensive Menasco engine). From here the fate of the SF-2 began taking a series of unusual twists, the first occurring when Sven Swanson fell ill with pneumonia and died. Various reports claimed Ole Fahlin was forced to put the plane up for sale following Swanson's passing but these reports have proven to be erroneous.
During the summer of 1936 a group of Seattle, Washington civic boosters calling themselves the "Seattle Washingtonians" gave their blessing--and financial backing--to a wildcat pilot named Russell Owen in his attempt to fly non-stop from Anchorage, Alaska to Seattle. Owen hoped to prove to the Post Office Department the need for an airmail route between Alaska Territory and Seattle. Somewhere along the line, Owen hit up Ole Fahlin and "borrowed" the SF-2 for the flight.
Lloyd Jarman, author of the 1969 book "Alaska Bush Pilots" wrote of Russell Owen "Russ was an old-time airline pilot who flew many years for (Walter) Varney (Airlines), which later merged with United Airlines. He free-lanced for several years before the flight from Anchorage." Jarman continued in a 1986 article about the subsequent trials of Owen and the Plymocoupe. Owen's plan to fly nonstop from Anchorage to Seattle "is to be more than a heroic stunt" wrote the editor of the Anchorage Daily Times on June 17, 1936, "it is a concerted attempt to draw the attention of the nation to the fact that Alaska has no air mail service and that there is no insurmountable physical barrier to prevent such service." Drawing equal amounts of publicity was Owen's renaming of the plane, referring to it first as "The Flying Automobile" and later as the "Se-As-Ka".
The by now many named airplane arrived in Anchorage on a railroad flat car, where upon its arrival the plane would be moved to the Anchorage Community Hall where it was to be re-assembled. Despite the bally hoo about the plane being powered by an automobile engine, Russ Owen never once revealed was type of engine the plane was powered with. "It's a six cylinder motor taken from a medium price car, taken after the automobile had been driven 7,000 miles to break it in," is all Owen would reveal, concurring with information provided by Ole Fahlin to this writer in 1983, stating he had broken in the airplane engine in his car before placing it in the airplane.
The "Se-As-Ka" was to be the center of attention at the "Non-Stop Hop" to be held at the community hall, a combination dance, christening ceremony and farewell party all rolled into one. Local dignitaries from the mayor to local beauty queens were enlisted to send the Plymocoupe off. Local boosters promoted the flight by selling $1 souvenir post cards which had been signed by Owen and carried a likeness of the plane on the front. The postcards, to be postmarked first at Anchorage and then at Seattle were to have been the first quantity of mail to go by air from Alaska to the United States. Government regulations prevented Owen from carrying any "real" mail--the souvenir post cards would have to actually be "mailed" from Seattle. "In case of a crackup en route, Pilot Owen says he will get the cards to the nearest post office if possible" wrote the Anchorage Daily Times. The statement proved to be more than a little prophetic....
Owen's plans called for him to leave July 4th--he left one day late and spent only five hours in the air before fog forced him to return to Anchorage. By the time he had set the plane down, Owen had to contend with more than just the weather. For nearly three months Russ Owen would be grounded by the United States Government--the plane impounded under seal at the Anchorage airport. The Bureau of Air Commerce had grounded the flight because neither Owen--nor the airplane--were licensed! Owen's pilots license had been revoked two years earlier, the government claimed, and a treaty with Canada prevented the U.S. from allowing a non-licensed pilot to fly over that country. Owen countered by claiming to have a letter from the Canadian government granting permission for his flight contending "this is a non-commercial flight and the air commerce act recognizes identified planes and unlicensed pilots when flown for non-commercial reasons".
Owen's interpretation of the rules held and he flew out of Anchorage at 9:15 a.m. September 28, following a five hour delay waiting once again for the fog to lift. The "Se-As-Ka" had been modified to make the long, non-stop flight by the addition of extra fuel tanks, including one occupying the left pilot's seat shaped in the form of a seated person. On one of its test flights, carrying 92 gallons of fuel, the plane had been unable to get off the runway but the plane would lift with 82 gallons on board. "100% overloaded" Jarman wrote of the takeoff--soaring off into the sky,
Owen's plane was accompanied by a group of spectators in a Ford Tri-Motor airplane. Settling in for the long flight, Russ Owen headed the Plymocoupe towards Seattle. He was just south of Cape Spencer, Alaska when he noticed the oil gauge fluttering. Owen had plenty of oil on board and had rigged a copper pipe through the windshield so he could add oil to the engine from the cockpit, but the continually fluttering gauge made him nervous. Opting to scuttle the mission rather than chance crashing somewhere in the wilderness. He began looking for a place to set the aircraft down. According to Jarman it was getting late, probably around 10 or 11 p.m. when Owen somehow found the airport at Juneau, Alaska. "I don't know how he found the Juneau airport, even, because it isn't very easy to find--it's between the hills" Jarman said, "what's more, the airport at that time had no lights for a night landing and Owen had never landed there before, day or night!".
The Juneau airport had just recently been built but Owen missed the runway by a car length, plunging the "Se-As-Ka" nose first into a ditch created when dirt had been removed to build the runway. Miraculously the fuel laden ship didn't catch fire and Owen was able to shut off the fuel tanks. Back at Anchorage the Daily Times headline screamed "Crash Wrecks Se-As-Ka, Owen Unhurt". To the Washingtonians awaiting his arrival in Seattle, Owen sent a telegram reading simply "Se-As-Ka on her 'aska' in Alaska".
For Russell Owen his days as an aviator had come to an end. The Anchorage Daily Times editorialized "he had been stripped of his pilot's license in the states and was no longer in a position to engage in the work he loved. His only hope for a come-back...was to blaze the trail for the light craft of a new design over the hazardous coastal route from Alaska to the States..." If nothing else Russell Owen was credited with being the first pilot to fly non-stop from Anchorage to Juneau.
Following the crash the plane was moved to a waterfront hangar where it sat, with wings removed, unrepaired for the next three years. Workmen repairing another plane accidentally started a fire with a welding torch which soon consumed the hangar--and the Plymocoupe. Ole Fahlin, so it is claimed by Lloyd Jarman, never really knew what had happened to the plane until 1979 when Jarman showed him photos of the wreck. Russell Owen died August 17, 1962, never flying again after the crash of the "Se-As-Ka". Ole Fahlin, a Swedish immigrant who learned to fly in Germany and was one of 18 Swedish Royal Air Service pilots, went on to fame and fortune building airplane propellers, a business he "stumbled" into after buying a $300 Curtiss "Jenny". Not satisfied with the plane's performance, he designed and built his own propeller--during World War Two, his propeller plant at Marshall turned out one prop every twenty minutes. Like his business partner, Ole Fahlin died of pneumonia January 26, 1992.
The American Aviation Historical Society reported three Swanson-Fahlin monocoupes had been built, two powered by Plymouth engines; while there may have been three S-F planes, only the "Se-As-Ka" had a Plymouth engine. The day of automobile powered airplanes never really dawned; several other designs involved the use of Studebaker and four cylinder Ford Model A engines--one Oklahoma manufacturer built a series of planes powered by Ford V8s but none ever made a lasting impact on the aviation industry. Chrysler Corporation's involvement in providing automobile engines for airplanes never progressed any further than the tests conducted for the Air Commerce Board of Fahlin's SF-2.
(Copyright © 1994 by James Benjaminson, reprinted by permission from 1935plymouth.com)
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