Aviation Movie: Devil Dogs of the Air

Monday, December 13th, ©2010 Marcus Brooks

Recently I caught the film Devil Dogs of the Air (1935) on TCM. As a movie, it’s just OK. The bad-boy hero learns some lessons and somebody gets the girl. (I won’t say who.) What I found blogworthy in the film was its portrayal of 1930’s U.S. Marine aviation (in San Diego), including some golden-age airplanes that I hadn’t come across before.

In particular, I was intrigued by a high-wing twin-engine transport that Pat O’Brien boards near the movie’s end. With a little digging, I learned it was the one-and-only Curtiss RC-1 Kingbird, a variant of the Kingbird D-2 modified for the Marines to use as a troop transport and air ambulance.

Curtis Kingbird D-2 (Cargo version with fewer side windows than usual.)

Curtis Kingbird D-2 (Cargo version; note fewer side windows than usual)

The Kingbird is unusual for a twin because its forward-mounted engines allow the propeller arcs to clear the fuselage nose, bringing engine thrust closer to the center line. In theory, this minimizes the amount of correction needed to keep the plane in line if one engine fails. In practice, the Kingbird is said to have flown well on one engine, but perhaps not comfortably; especially for the lower-powered D-1 model. (No D-1 was registered as such; apparently all were up-engined to D-2 status.)

The civilian Kingbird D-2 was certified in 1930, and only 18 were registered. Most of these were operated by Eastern Air Transport. The Kingbird interior could seat up to eight (a pilot and seven passengers with baggage), but one seat was usually omitted in favor of a metal-lined compartment for up to 200 lbs. of mail. At least one Kingbird was modified as a “cargo type” with four seats for pilot, co-pilot, and two passengers. Walter Beech flew the cargo-configured Kingbird D-2 to a 6th place finish in the 1930 National Air Tour; this plane is shown in the above sketch (from a photo in Juptner, Joseph P., U.S. Civil Aircraft, Vol. 4., p. 159).

Kingbirds were economical to operate and held their own against the larger Ford Tri-Motor and Curtiss Condor transports of the day. Eastern Air Transport stopped flying Kingbirds in 1935. It is said some were then exported and used by air lines in Turkey.

In addition to the Kingbird, the movie shows several other aircraft types that I can identify with some confidence:

We also get a fleeting glimpse of a twin-engine amphibian, something like a Douglas Dolphin.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed a few types. Also, the film crew didn’t always achieve logical continuity as they cut between wide shots, close ups, and model effects. So, for example, a character might climb into one type and taxi out in another. These goofs usually aren’t distracting unless you pay really close attention. The worst gaffe I noticed was a mock strafing run based on stock footage of a lightweight 5-cylinder radial powered biplane (Fleet 1 or similar). The footage was brief and visually exciting, but five cylinders just look wrong when you expect nine.

For what it’s worth, I can thank Devil Dogs of the Air for showing me something new in the way of old airplanes.

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4 Responses to “Aviation Movie: Devil Dogs of the Air”

  1. Good work ID on the USMC planes says:

    Great post. You really helpmed in ID Some of the planes for my book. Please write back. You might be able to help ID a few others from the Golden Age.

  2. marcus says:

    No big secret, really. Tail numbers are a big help, combined with Google, Wikipedia, and persistence. Also I’m lucky enough to have bought a set of Juptner’s U.S. Civil Aircraft series when I had the chance. (Previously I’d driven over 100 miles to view the closest library copy.) Juptner provides lots of good information about most any plane that got a U. S. commercial aircraft type certificate in the ‘1920s and ’30s. Of course, it’s not so good for military types, unless there was a related civil type.

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