Civilian version of 1930s fighter; orange with black and white trim. Pratt & Whitney Wasp R-1340, 600 hp engine.
The one-of-a-kind Gulfhawk was flown from 1930 to 1936 by Al Williams, former chief test pilot for the U.S. Navy and famous aerobatic pilot. Originally built by Curtiss as a Hawk I export demonstrator with a Curtiss D-12 liquid-cooled engine, it was converted to a Hawk 1A with a Wright Cyclone air-cooled radial engine, then further modified by Williams several times. He flew the Gulfhawk in military and public air shows to promote military aviation during the inter-war years, when aviation budgets were low.
By 1933, Williams managed and flew for the aviation department of Gulf Oil Company, which painted the Gulfhawk in its familiar color scheme of orange with white and blue trim. After Williams' death, movie stunt pilot Frank Tallman restored and flew the airplane and displayed it between shows at the Tallmantz Movieland of the Air Museum.
The Curtiss Hawk 1A Gulfhawk is a one-of-a-kind airplane built by the Curtiss Airplane & Motor Company, Garden City, Long Island and flown by Al Williams, a Pulitzer Trophy and Schneider Cup record setting pilot and former chief test pilot for the U.S. Navy, and famous aerobatic pilot. Williams called the Gulfhawk the finest aerobatic military ship ever built.
Department of Commerce records indicate that the original aircraft began life as Curtiss Hawk demonstrator NR636E, serial number 1, specially outfitted for long distance flight. It was Curtiss Navy F6C-4 with the split undercarrriage of the Army P-1 Hawk, a Conqueror engine and extra fuel tanks fitted to the side of the forward fuselage as in Curtiss Hellidvers. Initially the airplane had a tailskid rather than a tail wheel. In the interest of increasing control capability, the larger stabilizers and elevators from the P-1/F6C-1 Hawks were used, along with a substantial increase of the vertical fin and rudder chord.
After a crash, the aircraft was rebuilt with a Wright Cyclone engine and designated a Hawk 1-A with serial number NR982V. Williams took delivery of the airplane at Garden City in August 1930, soon after his retirement from the Navy. He had the aircraft painted with a Chinese red fuselage and struts and the wings and tail were finished in silver. At one point the main wheels also had a star on them. He replaced the engine with the Bliss (American built) English Bristol Jupiter 9 cylinder radial that developed 550 hp, an engine similar to the Pratt 7 Whitney Wasp used by the F6C-4. The engine was uncowled and the entire airplane was fabric covered.
Al Williams had a law degree, but he preferred flying. He started his civilian aviation career as a free-lance airshow pilot flying aerobatic routines that skirted the edges of the airplane's performance envelope. As a conclusion to his show, he would dive on a small shack and drop military practice bombs to detonate black powder charges. Williams later acknowledged his hidden agenda was to promote military aviation to the public during the inter-war years when aviation budgets were quite low. He performed to overflow crowds at the 1930 National Air Races in Chicago and in the Nationals in Cleveland in 1931 where his sponsor was SOHIO Oil.
In early 1931, Williams experienced engine failure at an airshow in Charlotte, North Carolina, during an inverted falling leaf maneuver and miraculously was able to recover sufficiently to pancake the airplane onto an empty embankment in the parking area. The airplane sustained so much damage that it required a complete rebuild that transformed it into its most famous configuration and scheme. The Bristol Jupiter engine was replaced with a nine-cylinder 700 hp Wright Cyclone radial engine and a smooth short-chord Townend ring cowl. The fuselage was rebuilt using the existing truss structure that was then covered over with the faired aluminum skin that is still on the present airplane. In 1933 he negotiated a deal with the Gulf Oil Company to start an aviation department with himself as manager. The aircraft was repainted with the now famous Gulfhawk orange, white and blue sunburst paint scheme. He flew the airplane on the show circuit under Gulf sponsorship through 1936 when he replaced it with the Grumman Gulfhawk II, also in NASM's collection. Williams also wrote a syndicated column for Scripps Howard newspapers, continually advocating the future of air power and the need for strong military air forces. He and his Curtiss airplane became the idol of youngsters and he co-founded an organization known as Junior Aviators to promote interest in aviation.
The aircraft disappeared from view until Frank Tallman received a tip from his brother, a stockbroker in New York City, that it was at the Aviation Trade School in Manhattan. Tallman approached Williams about purchasing the aircraft and Williams agreed to let Tallman move it to temporary storage in his brother's barn in New Jersey before trucking it to Riverside, California. A four-year restoration project began to replace the engine, rudder, rudder pedals, elevators, instruments, and throttle quadrant. Most of the fabric covering was gone and the fuselage was so heavily dented that almost all of the skin panels had to be replaced. A surplus SNJ/AT-6 trainer was used to provide many of the missing items including its 600 hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine and the controllable pitch Hamilton Standard propeller. The present day long-chord bump cowling was also installed at that time.
Frank Tallman test flew the restored Gulfhawk in 1962 and used it in airshows for many years. Interestingly, the FAA inspector who signed off on a repair in July 1962 was another famous movie pilot, Art Scholl. When not flying, the plane was exhibited in the Tallmantz Movieland of the Air Museum in Anaheim, California. After Paul Mantz died while filming a flying sequence for the movie Flight of the Phoenix, the Gulfhawk was sold to the Rosen-Novak Auto Company of Omaha, Nebraska in 1966.
Meanwhile, as early as 1964, the Smithsonian began trying to establish the truth to a rumor that Al Williams had ultimately wanted the aircraft to become part of its collection. The rumor also indicated that Tallman's 1958 purchase agreement had included the understanding that he would eventually donate the Gulfhawk to the National Air Museum. These rumors were confirmed in 1968 when the Aviation Trade School of Manhattan located letters of intent written in 1958 by Williams (shortly before his death) to Tallman and to the Aviation Trade School.
Admist legal action, Rosen-Novak put the aircraft up for auction in 1968 and it finally sold in May 1969 to Dolph Overton (with a momentary paper transaction to and from Jack Adams Aircraft Sales) who donated it to the National Air and Space Museum in August 1969. The Museum lent the Gulfhawk to Overton's Wings and Wheels Museum in Mullens, South Carolina, until it was delivered to the Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, in August 1982. It is currently on display at the Museum's Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia.