Aviation Historian 20
M.Wickstead - A sky full of frontiers
Formalised in December 1945, American Export Airlines had merged with American Airlines the previous month, the newly-minted American Overseas Airlines becoming the transatlantic division of the American Airlines System, as per the legend on the fuselage of Douglas C-54 NC90905 (c/n 27344), named Flagship Boston, seen here at Heathrow in May 1946.
Excalibur III was no stranger to long-distance flying, Mantz having established American coast-to-coast speed records in both directions with the scarlet-painted aircraft in 1947, then named Blaze of Noon. Pan Am bought the aircraft from Blair in 1953 and donated it to the Smithsonian Institution.
Charles Blair gives a cheery wave from the cockpit of North American P-51C N1202 Excalibur III before setting off for Alaska from Bardufoss in Norway to complete the first solo transpolar flight in May 1951. Blair’s attachment to the name Excalibur endured, the aviator applying the moniker to a total of eight aircraft.
Dallas-built P-51C N1202, named Excalibur III, is refuelled at Bardufoss in northern Norway before its transpolar flight in May 1951. The Mustang’s previous owner, Paul Mantz, had removed the 90gal self-sealing wing tanks and converted the entire wing into one big fuel tank (“wet wing”), thereby significantly extending the aircraft’s range.
Blair and his groundcrew chief huddle beside a Boeing B-47 at Lake Charles AFB, Louisiana, before a star-tracking test flight.
Blair (centre) and his two wingmen, Capt Cesar Martinez (left) and Maj Robert Tomlinson, beside F-84F 51-1741 Excalibur IV before taking off on Operation Shark Bait in April 1956.
Grumman G-21A Goose N79901 was one of more than 30 amphibians ultimately operated by Antilles Air Boats, the company established by Blair in the US Virgin Islands in 1964. It is seen here at Long Beach, California, in July 1969, around the time it joined the company. By 1974 AAB was operating more than 100 daily scheduled inter-island services.
Only three Sikorsky VS-44s were built, plus one military XPBS-1, on which the commercial variant was based. The first to fly, NX41880 (later NC41880), seen here, made its maiden flight on January 18, 1942, with Blair at the controls. The original Excalibur crashed taking off at Botwood on October 3, 1942, killing 11 of the 37 aboard.
After having been left derelict in Peru after a stint in South America in the 1950s, N41881 was acquired by Avalon Air Transport of California, which used it for the tourist trade to and from Catalina Island during 1957-67. It then passed to AAB, in whose colours it is seen here while in outside storage after being damaged in early 1969.
The third VS-44, NC41882 Exeter, in AEA’s wartime colour scheme of sky-blue upper surfaces and fuselage and light grey undersides, probably at the Marine Air Terminal, La Guardia, circa June 1942. This too was lost, in Uruguay on August 15, 1947, some time after the aircraft had passed through several ownerships after AEA.
A touch of glamour - Charles Blair and Maureen O’Hara in the cockpit of VS-44 Excalibur VII (the former Excambian), which AAB acquired from Avalon Air Transport in 1968. O’Hara starred in numerous films with John Wayne, who became a regular visitor to the Blairs’ home on St Croix, and who said of his frequent co-star, "She’s my kind of woman... a great guy".
Short Sandringham c/n 2018, formerly ZK-AMH (1947-49) with TEAL and VH-BRC with Ansett Flying Boat Services (1952-74), was acquired by Blair's Antilles Air Boats in September 1974. It is seen here at Rose Bay, Sydney, with temporary American registration N156C, before its departure for the Virgin Islands that November.
Another former Ansett machine, Excalibur VIII operated only one service with Antilles Air Boats, on January 15, 1975, and was little used otherwise owing to certification problems. Seen here at Rose Bay in 1974 with temporary registration N156J, the flying-boat now resides at Kermit Weeks’s Fantasy of Flight Museum.