The American Airplane and Engine Corporation Pilgrim 100
Written by Robert G. Waldvogel
Pilgrim Photographs from Wiki Commons
Few “airliners,” regardless of size, emerged from aircraft manufacturers located on Long Island. Even fewer were operated by the likes of American Airlines. However, the American Airplane and Engine Corporation Pilgrim 100 was one of them.
Conceptualized by Fairchild, but subsequently continued by the American Airplane and Engine Corporation, the new company planted its roots in the former Fairchild factory at Republic Airport in 1931. It represented, to a degree, the influence an aircraft manufacturer could exert on an airline.
William Littlewood, General Manager of the original Fairchild Engine factory, and Myron Gould Beard, a pilot and engineer there, ultimately took up employment at then-named American Airways. The former’s first significant assignment was to develop specifications for a cost-effective airliner. An “Airliner,” then, signified no more than a dozen passengers.
“Out of this assignment came the Pilgrim, the first commercial transport to be designed according to an airline’s specifications,” according to Robert J. Serling in Eagle: The Story of American Airlines (St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985, p. 19). “It was a single-engine plane carrying nine passengers and flown by a single pilot. The cockpit was inaccessible from the cabin; messages to the passengers were passed through a sliding panel in a bulkhead.”
Principally designed by Fairchild Chief Engineer Otto Kirchner and Project Engineer John Lee, the Pilgrim was the result of an Aviation Corporation’s (Avco) $35,000 study to replace existing single-engine types that proved too small for American’s needs, (AAL’s existing trimotors offered too much capacity). The initial, 15-aircraft order supplied the carrier’s Embry-Riddle, Southern, and Universal divisions.
The prototype aircraft was powered by a 575-hp Pratt and Whitney, nose-mounted R-1340 Wasp engine. The Pilgrim featured a high, straight, fabric-covered wing; three passenger windows and a fourth at the top of the exit door on either side of its fuselage; two single-wheel main undercarriage bogies truss-rigged from the wing; a tailwheel; and an enclosed, single-person cockpit and nine-passenger cabin. The production 100A version was equipped with a 575-hp Pratt and Whitney Hornet B-16 engine, which was replaced by the equally rated Wright Cyclone R-1820 radial on the later 100B which also introduced a larger vertical tail. American operated both variants.
Featuring a 39.2-foot overall length and a 57.5-foot wingspan, the Pilgrim carried a 2,150-pound payload and had a 7,100-pound gross weight. Range was 510 miles. Cruising speed was 118 mph and its service ceiling was 13,600 feet.
Of the 26 Pilgrims produced, American operated 22 100As and 100Bs, and the US Army Air Corps flew four designated “Y1C-24,” employing them on light cargo and supply missions. In their later aeromedical evacuation role, they accommodated four liter patients.
“Pilgrim aircraft were a favorite among Alaskan bush pilots during the time when air transportation was establishing superiority over dog teams, steamboats, and railroads in transporting passengers and freight in the territory of Alaska,” according to the National Register of Historic Places’ Inventory Nomination Form.
Because of their rugged reliability, they helped establish an intra-state aerial infrastructure. More than half of the civil and military Pilgrims provided passenger, cargo, supply, and mail lifelines to remote outposts and isolated communities surrounded by terrain inaccessible by ground transport. They operated in harsh climates, often alighting on ill-equipped fields with wheels and aquatic surfaces with floats. Bush pilots flew them well into the 1960s.
Pacific Alaska Airlines introduced the type on November 1, 1935 after American replaced its fleet with larger equipment. The carrier supplemented its existing Lockheed L-10 Electras with the type and used the Pilgrim to inaugurate a scheduled Juneau-Fairbanks service.
Aircraft N709Y, the only one remaining from those days, was acquired by the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.
“The Pilgrim N709Y is significant for its historic role in the development of aviation in Alaska,” according to the Inventory Nomination Form. “This aircraft was the first Pilgrim flown to Alaska and was one of approximately 13 Pilgrims (out of the 26 that were built) that served as the workforce of Alaska aviation in the late 1930s and early 1940s.”
The museum’s example was constructed on September 4, 1931. N709Y, serial number 6605, had a 3,247-pound payload and a 7.750-pound maximum takeoff weight, receiving its commercial aircraft license (the former equivalent of today’s airworthiness certificate) before being delivered to American Airways on November 21. With a full passenger complement and baggage load, it had an 86-gallon fuel capacity. Converted to Pilgrim 100B standard in 1934, it introduced the aforementioned larger vertical tail and 1820-F Cyclone engine.
Acquired by Alaska Air Express, it was operated until 1940, after which it wore Star Air Services’ colors, and served Anchorage and Juneau, as well as the Kuskokwim and Iditarod regions. Purchased by Alaska Airlines, it was deployed on scheduled routes from Anchorage, Cordova, and Valdez, and it provided feeder links from Juneau, Petersburg, and Sitka. Alaska Airlines reacquired it on November 11, 1970 for public relations purposes, since it represented part of its historic fleet.
Bell Brothers Seafood was this example’s last operator and one of more than a dozen others owned by the company. More than a million pounds of fish were transported by this single airplane from Bristol Bay and Southeast Alaska, usually directly from the beach, before Anchorage’s Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum took possession of it on November 5, 2001.
Subjected to a ten-year, $1 million refurbishment program in Montana, San Francisco, and Anchorage, aircraft N709Y, the last known Pilgrim in existence, saw the replacement of most of its fuselage wood supports; the recovering of its wings, ailerons, horizontal, and vertical stabilizers, and elevators and rudder. Also included was the installation of a newly-constructed fuel tank and tailwheel, clearing it for sightseeing flights.
“Flying people, cargo, cows, and fish, the Pilgrim was key to the development of commerce in Alaska,” the nomination form concludes. “It is powered by a Pratt and Whitney R-1340 engine that gave it the thrust needed to lift and haul equipment, boilers, and fish from gravel strips and beaches. Due to its unique specifications and accessories, this aircraft is registered on the National Registry as the first to have a wash basin and toilet for inflight bathroom use.”
Because of the Great Depression, the American Airplane and Engine Corporation ceased operating in mid-1932 and once again reverted to its Fairchild foundation.
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