Albert Menasco: Pirate of the Sky

For those who had been requested to outline a swashbuckling life, what would that embrace?  How about motorbike racing, wing-walking, automotive racing, working a world carnival circuit, piloting experimental planes, and manufacturing the winningest aero racing engines of the Nineteen Thirties?  There’s just one man with such a resumé: Albert Menasco.  And but, I’d by no means heard of him till Dr. Robin Tuluie (see our article ‘Really it IS Rocket Science’) launched me to the title through the 1928-ish aero-engine race automotive he’d constructed utilizing a Menasco engine, however extra on that anon. Curiosity about Menasco evealed he was a quintessentially adventurous American within the ‘Teenagers, a motor-showman when a cocktail of unbridled enthusiasm, innocence and technical know-how would sometimes finish with you well-known, lifeless, or famously lifeless.   Menasco one way or the other walked the center manner, and ended as neither, whereas his legacy and impression proceed to at the present time, practically unheralded.

Albert Menasco at age 15, on his 1912 experience from LA to San Francisco along with his 1911 American: a single-cylinder F-head with 550cc and direct belt drive – a really uncommon machine, because the model was solely in enterprise 1911-14. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

Menasco began life as a truant and a rascal. Born in Los Angeles on 17 March 1897, his youth was troubled: he suffered a gunshot wound to his abdomen whereas very younger, and his mom was lifeless by age 5. His father generously responded to this trauma by sending Albert to an orphanage, the place he was quickly famous for his resistance to authority and devoted truancy, doing his greatest to keep away from elementary college altogether.  His father reeled him in after six years, to which Albert responded by operating away, touchdown him a stint in Juvenile Corridor in 1908. The next 12 months his older brother Milton took him in, and in 1910 Albert entered Guide Arts Excessive College, as he was already exhibiting indicators of mechanical aptitude.

A photographic composite of the varied plane attending the primary air meet within the USA, the 1910 Los Angeles Worldwide Air Meet held at Dominguez Discipline in LA. [The Vintagent Archive]

Albert grew obsessive about aviation simply in time for first nice air present within the USA , held proper in LA: the 1910 Los Angeles Worldwide Air Meet. The L.A. meet was among the many earliest air exhibits on the earth, and included luminaries like Glenn H. Curtiss, Louis Paulhan, and Lincoln Beachy, who flew a dirigible however would shortly turn into probably the most well-known aviator within the USA. The Wright brothers didn’t attend, however their attorneys did, making an attempt to implement their wing-warping patent (a primitive type of aileron), and Paulhan specifically paid dearly for his attendance, in courtroom. Albert Menasco insinuated himself as a software boy for the flyers. In 1912 took a job as machinist at L.A. truck producer F.L.Moore, whereas ending his training with night time courses.

Lincoln Beachy and his one-man dirigible on the 1910 air meet. The airship is powered by a Curtiss V-twin motor, and the angle of the airship is altered by the ‘pilot’ shifting ahead and again on the railings slung beneath, whereas the rudder adjustments the path. Courageous man! The destiny of Albert Menasco can be tied to Beachy’s in 5 years… [The Vintagent Archive]

Menasco’s inclinations turned to bikes that 12 months. His first machine was the uncommon ‘American’ model, a sometimes Edwardian single-cylinder, single-speed machine with an inlet-over-exhaust motor and a belt drive. Menasco rode this straightforward machine from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 1912. Not having the good thing about Roman conquest, there have been no highways within the wilds of California on the time: what paths existed had been for horses. For a 15-year outdated to experience a single-speed, clutchless 4hp motorbike for 900 miles (assuming he made a spherical journey), over a trackless wilderness, and succeed, speaks volumes about each his grit and mechanical capability.

Menasco along with his American motorbike, transformed for racing with an OHV high finish (most likely from a Pope), retaining the body and forks however including dropped racing handlebars. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

Menasco opened a mechanic’s store by age 16, and leaped into motorbike racing.  He seems in 1913/14 on a home-made filth monitor racer with a Pope overhead-valve cylinder head and sprung entrance forks cannibalized from his American.  The fun of racing enticed him, however no point out of Menasco appeared within the winner’s lists. By 1914 he appears to have joined within the short-lived California craze of Child Automobile racing. These had been miniature racing automobiles powered by single- and twin-cylinder motorbike engines, introduced as shrunken replicas of well-known Grand Prix automobiles of the period. Their gentle building and highly effective engines made them able to terrific speeds for the period, at comparatively low price. The primary Child Automobile races had been held in Los Angeles on the Ascot Park and Culver Metropolis tracks, there was even a Junior Automobile Championship that 12 months.  And it was Child Automobile racing that related Albert Menasco with a spectacular younger pilot by the title of ‘Hen Boy’ Artwork Smith.

‘An embryo aviator’.  The younger Albert Menasco circa 1915, when Artwork Smith taught him easy methods to fly. Right here he sits the reproduction Curtiss pusher plane that Artwork Smith constructed utilizing a Curtiss V8 OHV motor, of the kind Curtiss famously rode at Ormond/Daytona seaside to a (reputed) 136mph in 1906. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

Artwork Smith was born in 1890 in Ft Wayne Indiana, and was a born daredevil and showman. He constructed a tall wood ramp in his yard that led to a big bounce over which Smith flew…on curler skates.  ‘Leaping the hole’ was an Evel Knievel stunt on very small wheels, and carnivals sought him out with gives of excellent pay, however his dad and mom didn’t approve the ‘carny’ life.  Smith was additionally fascinated with aviation, amassing a library of extant literature and constructing three practical scale mannequin airplanes. Amazingly, 19-year outdated Artwork satisfied his dad and mom to mortgage their residence (for $1800) so he might construct an airplane.  His sample was Glenn Curtiss’ ‘Gold Bug’ pusher biplane, and Smith purchased a Curtiss A4 air-cooled inline 4 to energy it.  Smith’s cabinetmaker father, regardless of failing eyesight, made the aircraft’s wood struts, whereas his mom sewed up the material pores and skin. When it was completed, Smith hopped in and flew the factor, however crashed on account of an imbalance within the structure.   He rebuilt his aircraft alongside the traces of Lincoln Beachy’s ‘headless’ Curtiss, the primary aircraft modified for aerobatics.  Lincoln Beachy was probably the most well-known pilot within the USA, incomes a big earnings from flying demonstrations and daredevilry, which was Smith’s objective.

The finale of Artwork Smith’s run of demonstration stunt flights on the Panama Pacific Worldwide Exhibition (PPIE) in 1915, with flares connected to his wingtips, making one heck of a sight within the night time sky above the momentary metropolis in San Francisco. [The Vintagent Archive]

In 1915, all roads led to the Panama Pacific Worldwide Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco. It was to be the grandest World’s Truthful but, with a glamorous Beaux Arts ‘jewel metropolis’ constructed atop 635 acres of former beachfront. The PPIE included night gentle exhibits, automotive races, airplane tips by Lincoln Beachy, a sprawling enjoyable honest referred to as the Zone, and large halls displaying the most recent in business and tradition.  Beachy demonstrated the dimensions of the Corridor of Equipment by taking off, flying and touchdown inside it, the primary indoor flight.  The auto racing included each a Vanderbilt Cup and a Grand Prize, with supporting races by Child Automobiles for the Junior Vanderbilt and GP.  Artwork Smith commissioned the San Francisco Harley-Davidson vendor Dudley Perkins to construct him a fleet of 5 automobiles, every with completely different bodywork that mimicked the Mercedes, Peugeot, Fiat, Stutz, and Marmon racers then dominating the GP circuit.  Every automotive price $400, and was powered by a Harley-Davidson J-series V-twin motor. The automobiles had been able to over 60mph, which given their diminutive scale, most likely felt like rocketry to drivers and audiences alike. Albert Menasco each raced and maintained Smith’s automobiles.

The Child Automobile craze on the PPIE: Artwork Smith drives, whereas Al Menasco wrenches. 5 automobiles had been constructed to particular order by San Francisco Harley-Davidson vendor Dudley Perkins, powered by J-series V-twins: every automotive physique mimicked probably the most well-known GP racers of the day, in miniature. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

Our heroes’ fortunes modified three weeks after the opening of the PPIE, when Lincoln Beachy surpassed the wing-load of his monoplane throughout a dive and plunged immediately into San Francisco Bay. He survived the crash however drowned anyway within the time it took to extract him from the water.  So, sans Beachey, the PPIE was left with out its star attraction, till somebody remembered that Artwork Smith, already well-known as a stunt pilot, was available along with his Child Automobiles.  Whether or not Smith already had his aircraft in San Francisco isn’t famous, however he was quickly wowing crowds day and night time along with his biplane, which had been upgraded with a 90hp Curtiss OX water-cooled V-8. Smith’s star rose dramatically on the PPIE, thrilling 18 million attendees with beautiful loops, spins, and low flyovers, plus night time flights with magnesium flares on his wingtips, accompanied by the coloured searchlights of the Rainbow Scintillator (see our article right here).

Artwork Smith’s Child Automobile équipe, with automotive our bodies mimicking well-known GP racers of the day. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

Information of Smith’s prowess circled the globe resulting in an invite from Emperor Yoshihito of Japan for an Imperial viewers in 1916.  This chance metastasized right into a months-long tour of Japan, Korea, and China. Their present had an unlimited impression, and their each day viewers was at instances 200,000 or extra. Tokyo writer Tayama Katai wrote in 1917: “When Smith got here, and looped the loop regardless of the awfully windy situations, the entire metropolis gasped in surprise. I used to be watching from the gate in the back of the backyard. I by no means believed he’d be capable to do something, due to the wind. However simply then the stormy sky was crammed with a frightful droning. The aeroplane appeared manner up excessive, wanting so very small and leaving a path of wispy blue smoke. ‘He’s good all proper!’ I assumed to myself, and simply at that second he all of the sudden put the aeroplane via two or three giant loops after which flew proper up excessive once more. I discovered myself applauding.” One such gaping youth was Soichiro Honda, who stole his father’s bicycle and rode 20 miles to catch Smith’s Tokyo exhibition. He couldn’t afford entry to the present, so watched from a tree, and in his autobiography credited Smith with igniting his ardour for engineering and mechanics.

Particulars of the Child Automobile building: a pair of wood body rails supporting a Harley-Davidson J motor with full-race Schebler carburetor, minimal steering gear, and no suspension, with a two-speed chain drive through twin chains, a sliding canine engagement, and a clutch. Easy and little doubt very fast. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

Albert Menasco had turn into, regardless of his dad and mom’ needs, a full-fledge ‘carny’ in probably the most spectacular touring motor present on earth. Menasco’s notes give little impression of the thrill and difficulties they encountered, however others on the identical circuit put pen handy: I extremely advocate Carl Leon Terrell’s 1946 epic ‘Seven Bare Ladies in a Tokyo Jail’, recounting his Nineteen Twenties Asian tour on a near-identical route. Terrell’s sport was a Wall of Demise motordrome, however his famously lovely ‘fats woman’ spouse proved the most well-liked attraction of all.

The top of the tour: Artwork Smith crashed his aircraft in Japan and broke a leg, with out additional damage aside from his destroyed aircraft.  Observe the Curtiss V8 watercooled motor. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

Regardless of Smith ending their 1916 tour with a flourish, crashing the aircraft and breaking a leg, the group did it yet again in 1917. Menasco had spent sufficient time beneath Smith’s wing to turn into a pilot himself, and even examined a beautiful Morane-Saulnier Mannequin H in Japan.  The catastrophe ending their tour this time was in Europe, and in April 1917 Menasco and Smith went residence to be army pilots, however had been roundly rejected by the US Navy, Military Sign Corps, and even Canadian Royal Flying Corps. Menasco had a perforated eardrum, and Smith, presumably the best residing aviator, was sub-height at solely 5’ 3”!  Smith ended up coaching pilots, whereas Menasco turned a civilian aeronautical engineer, testing engines and coaching younger mechanics.

The Morane-Saulnier Mannequin H monoplane that changed the Curtiss reproduction: the most recent factor with wings! [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

After WW1, Smith turned one of many authentic US Submit Workplace airmail pilots. He met his finish not performing a loop or a falling-leaf spin, however on a mail run in 1926. Menasco had returned to California after the struggle, taking quite a lot of jobs, however was pushed again into aviation after Smith’s dying when he was tasked with promoting the property.  That included 250 Salmson Z-9 watercooled 230hp radials, rendered immediately out of date by the top of the struggle.  Menasco felt he might improve the motors and promote them, so took on a monetary companion, and marketed the improved Menasco-Salmson B2. He bought fifty, however in 1928 the brand new Authorized Kind Certificates (ATC) for plane engines required 50 hours of steady operating, and after wrecking 5 B2 engines, Menasco pulled them from the market.

The Menasco Motors show stand at an aero present within the early Nineteen Thirties, with the all-conquering Menasco Pirate engine on show. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

The top of the B2 was the beginning of Menasco Motors, as Albert designed a brand new collection of engines with an uncommon inverted four-cylinder structure. The primary Menasco Pirate motor (the 90hp A4) was operating by 1929, and after his B2 testing fiasco, Albert wouldn’t submit his engines for ATC approval till they confirmed 125% of rated energy for 100 hours.  Adhering to this normal, Menasco Motors sailed via seven profitable ATC functions for his or her inverted motors, which was unprecedented.  The manufacturing unit additionally constructed supercharged engines for racing, which proved to be giant-killers, and among the many most profitable aero racing engines of the Nineteen Thirties. Nonetheless, Menasco Motors struggled via the Despair, dropping cash yearly till 1941, when army contracts started.  They didn’t need Menasco’s motors, solely their subtle machine store to construct hydraulic touchdown gear for P-38 Lightnings and different fighters. The manufacturing unit ultimately constructed 80,000 touchdown gear units in the course of the struggle, and carried on constructing them for business airliners afterwards. Albert Menasco retreated from administration of his enterprise in 1938, discovering the fixed battle for money too disturbing, however was nonetheless alive to observe the House Shuttle contact earth on Menasco touchdown gear.

Dr. Robin Tuluie, 3-time Daytona 200 winner on home-made bikes, 4-time World Grand Prix Championship chassis designer, right here competing in his ‘pastime’ automotive, the Menasco Pirate, named for its aero engine. [VSCC]

The preferred Menasco aero engine was the C4 Pirate with 5.9L and 125hp. That’s what Dr. Robin Tuluie present in San Diego when looking for an appropriate aero engine for his classic race automotive, constructed round a 1928 Riley chassis: as Menasco constructed prototypes of the C4 motor in 1928, it appeared an ideal match. The C4 has confirmed to be as efficient a racing motor on wheels as on wings, with Tuluie garnering race wins along with his home-built automotive, referred to as, naturally, the Menasco Pirate.  A becoming tribute to a exceptional fellow.

What Soichiro Honda noticed: the primary expertise of many Japanese seeing an plane in flight on residence soil. The present that launched a motoring profession! [The Vintagent Archive]
Taking a break after packing up their touring present: ‘Val, Vic, Al, & Artwork.’ [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
1915 may as properly have been 1815, or 1715. Native costume in Korea, in the course of the intensive Asia tour of Artwork Smith’s carnival. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Loading up a Child Automobile aboard one of many many ships used to flow into Asia earlier than WW1 broke out. Observe twin chains for 2-speed drive, and no differential for max sliding enjoyable. [San Diego Air & Space Museum]
Cruising the filth lanes of Tokyo in a trio of racing automobiles, which is how they traveled from city to city! [San Diego Air & Space Museum]

  [This article originally appeared in The Automobile magazine, the July 2021 edition.  Special thanks to the San Diego Air & Space Museum for permission to dig into the Albert Menasco archives, and reproduce many of the remarkable photos used here.]

Paul d’Orléans is the founding father of He’s an writer, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, occasion organizer, and public speaker. Try his Creator Web page, Instagram, and Fb.