Before the Space Shuttle carried us to Mach 25, before the X-15 tore through the High Desert sky, before the X-1 punched through the sound barrier, there was this airplane. A small, fabric covered Fairchild whose top speed was just over 100 mph was the NACA’s (NASA’s predecessor) first airplane. As I photographed this airplane, I wished I could travel back to 1928 and tell the builders that they were fabricating the matriarch of the fleet that would touch the lives of billions.
Before 1928, the NACA was performing flight tests using borrowed military aircraft. Fairchild FC-2W2 serial number 531 became the first ship they would actually own. “NACA 26″ was responsible for everything from validating wind tunnel data to researching icing effects by flying with water sprayers forward of the leading edge of a vestigial airfoil segment attached to the wing strut.
In 1936, the NACA had logged 593 hours and 20 minutes of flight time when they transferred her to an even younger government agency. The National Park Service would take ownership of the bird and she would become their first aircraft. After the transfer, she was given a new engine, propeller and the civilian designation, N-13934. In this new role, she flew over 700 hours along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, bringing groceries to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and supporting remote camps of workers fighting beach erosion.
Through the decades, the aircraft moved from hand to hand, flying for the Office of Indian Affairs Navajo Agency in 1942, then being sold into private ownership for only $300. From 1945 to 1970, the aircraft changed hands six times, being used for crop dusting, cloud seeding, skydiving, and even being crashed and restored. In 1996, she was purchased by Greg Herrick’s Yellowstone Aviation of Jackson, Wyoming, where she was lovingly restored. While most of her NACA/NASA successors rest on museum duty, this bird still flies today, based out of the Golden Wings Flying Museum in Blaine, MN.