Prime movers for airplanes

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There comes a time in the life of every airplane when it cannot feasibly move under its own power.

Ways of towing aircraft have been varied and ingenious since the early days of aviation.

When tailskids ruled the day, hand-operated, two-wheel dollies could cradle the skid, permitting manual movement of the airplane over typical airfield turf.

A two-wheel dolly with a long handle for leverage made it feasible to move aircraft with tailskids around the airfield. Pictured is a deHavilland DH-4 bomber. (Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest Aviation Historical Foundation)

Real Horsepower

When a Curtiss JN-6H Jenny belonging to the 116th Observation Squadron of the Washington National Guard ran out of gas on a cross-country flight from its base at Felts Field in Spokane in the mid-1920s, the resulting off-airport landing was made easier by the gently rolling wheat fields of eastern Washington.

But the Jenny needed removal to an area where it could refuel and take off safely, and the less-than-level terrain presented a challenge. In an anachronistic scene probably played out more times than we’ll ever know, a sturdy farm horse was hitched to the Curtiss, towing it through the wheat fields, tended by farmer and flier.

It took real horsepower to get the Jenny out of the wheat field. (John E. Dean collection)

Sail Power

In post World War I Germany, Adolf Rohrbach was an early adopter of aluminum construction, including load-bearing skin panels of varying thickness. Rohrbach also had a penchant for seaplanes, and he coupled his comprehension of the benefits of light, strong, aluminum with his need for an emergency system to move his Rohrbach Robbe twin-engine flying boat on the surface of the water in the event of a power failure.

German Rohrbach Robbe seaplane of the 1920s was fitted with two telescoping aluminum masts from which emergency sails could be hoisted to move the flying boat on the water’s surface in the absence of other power. (NACA/NASA)

Inventively, Rohrbach equipped the Robbe with twin telescoping aluminum masts fore and aft from which sails could be unfurled to make a wandering windjammer of his seaplane.

Cletrac Power

The Cleveland Tractor Company began design work on its M2 Cletrac tracked tug for the Army Air Forces in peacetime 1941. With a 7,000-pound drawbar pull, the Cletrac became a wartime fixture at air bases.

The utilitarian Cletrac tracked vehicle was perfect for less-than-ideal airfield conditions. On Jan. 24, 1945, this heavy Ninth Air Force P-47 Thunderbolt made it through the snow at a forward airfield in France, towed by a Cletrac. (Photo courtesy Air Force)

Able to negotiate unpaved and possibly boggy terrain, the Cletrac also served on paved taxiways. Bombers, fighters, transports — they all relied on this prime mover during the war.

Jeep Power

But when a Cletrac was unavailable, sometimes the ubiquitous jeep saved the day, towing single-engine fighters as needed.

No Cletrac? A Jeep towed this F4F Wildcat to takeoff at Segi Pt, New Georgia, on July 18, 1943. (Photo courtesy Air Force)

Tractor Power

Flying boats, not fitted with retractable wheels like amphibians, faced a more complex task when they were to leave the water for dry land. Beaching gear had to be floated out to the seaplane and bolted to attach points on the hull. At that point, cables and chains connected to the right size prime mover — often a caterpillar type tractor — could facilitate tugging the waterborne aircraft up the seaplane ramp.

A red International farm tractor provided the motive power for brand new B-25 Mitchell bombers on the wartime flightline at the North American Aviation plant. (Library of Congress)

Livestock Power

As the Allies closed in on Germany in mid-1944, unrelenting bombing pressure on German petroleum sources and transport created a severe fuel shortage for the German air force. Stories have long circulated about the use of livestock to move the most modern fighter aircraft of the war, the jet-powered Me-262, to conserve motor fuel.

Horse carts abandoned at German airfield on the Cherbourg Peninsula. (AAF)

When the AAF closed in on a recently abandoned German airfield in July 1944, the grounds were littered with wooden wagons and horse carts of many sizes and configurations, giving a first-cousin sort of veracity to those stories.

Kenworth Power

When the Air Force Flight Test Museum received one of only two Douglas (Boeing) YC-15 experimental jet transports for display at historic Edwards Air Force base in 2008, the job of moving the wide-body cargo plane overland from Palmdale, California, was hefted by Ben Nattrass and his crew from Worldwide Aircraft Recovery.

When the Air Force Flight Test Museum received its YC-15 in 2008, the decision was made to position the mammoth transport outside the Edwards AFB main gate in anticipation of relocating the entire museum for better public access. A capital campaign for that move is underway by the museum’s supporting foundation. (Photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)

Even with its wing removed for separate transport over city streets and desert roads, the 124-foot-long fuselage of the YC-14 needed more than a ramp tug to tow it over 20 miles to its new display site. The hulking YC-15 seemed to dwarf a Kenworth tractor truck that methodically pulled the huge jet to Edwards.


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