Time Capsule

Fokker F.32 living large, fast



I had to look at this photo twice to make sure it was an aircraft cabin—it looks more like a busy coffeehouse. This is a Western Air Express inaugural F.32 flight from New York to Los Angeles on April 7 and 8, 1930. It flew a maximum speed of 225 km/h.

The Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America Fokker F.32 was the first four-engined aircraft designed and built in the US. It had a seating capacity of 32 sitting passengers and 16 sleeping passengers. Its length was 69 ft. 10 in., wingspan 99 ft. and height 16 ft. 6 in. Its high cost, right at the beginning of the Great Depression, and engine problems made it a non-starter. The cost of the F.32 in 1929 was $110,000.

The first F.32 crashed Nov. 27, 1929 during a demonstration of a three-engine takeoff. One of the two port engines was stopped, but the other failed shortly after takeoff. No one was killed, but the aircraft was destroyed. 

This pointed out the biggest problem with the F.32: It was underpowered, which was made worse by a back-to-back engine configuration. The front engine had two-bladed props; the rear had three. The airflow was inefficient so the rear engines suffered cooling problems. The problem was partially fixed by replacing the F.32’s four Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines with P&W Hornets.

In the end, only Western Air Express purchased the F.32, but pared down its order from five to two, mostly due to economic uncertainty from the Great Depression.  At that time, Western flew out of Alhambra Airport, Calif. and later Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, Calif. flying to Oakland, Calif. and other West Coast cities.

Universal Air Lines had originally ordered five, and had an F.32 prototype painted in its livery. KLM had shown some interest, but neither ordered any of the type.

The lovely women in furs in the photo sporting the Fox-Fanchon & Marco sashes were special guests of the inaugural flight as they were California Sunshine Girls, from the Fanchon & Marco theater group. They would later be known as the Fanchonettes, a group of 48 dancing women who performed stage acts such as walking on large balls, riding unicycles, roller skating and doing amazing acrobatic feats, all with a live orchestra. It was an over-the-top, lavish production.

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