Aviator Nat Browne had a plan he figured would enable his single-engine Fokker Universal to fly from Seattle to Tokyo before anyone else could do it.
Browne’s Universal was modified to remove steel tube wing struts and part of the landing gear, using flying wires and simplified gear struts instead. It was the end of May 1932 when Browne made his flight attempt.
At Seattle’s Boeing Field, resident pilot Elliott Merrill, an avid photo collector, was interested in the proceedings. Merrill went on to become a Boeing test pilot, later setting a transcontinental speed record in the Stratocruiser and testing a variety of big aircraft. Thanks to Elliott Merrill’s photo collection, we have valuable illustrations of Nat Browne’s efforts.Browne’s Fokker Universal could tank enough gasoline for the flight to Tokyo from Seattle, but calculations said the airplane could not get airborne from Boeing Field with such a load.
A heavyweight timber ramp was erected at the north end of Boeing Field, with wooden alignment runners intended to keep the wheels rolling parallel to the ramp to avoid disastrous consequences if it skewed off the side.
A cable and pulley at the top of the ramp would haul the Fokker up into launch position, tail first.
Browne’s plan called for placing assistant Frank Brooks in the Universal for takeoff. Brooks’ job was to top off the Universal’s gas tank in flight by manipulating a gas hose lowered by another aircraft.
When this was complete, Brooks was to bail out; the body weight of a second person on board was considered too much for the trip to Japan.
Fortunately, both Brown and Brooks wore parachutes on the day of the flight, May 30, 1932.
Pete Bowers chronicled the attempt for an article in the Journal of the Pacific Northwest Aviation Historical Foundation in 1970. Evidently the roundout of the Fokker when it came to the bottom of its inclined launch ramp damaged the wing structure. But lift kept the Fokker’s wing intact as Browne and Brooks flew over Elliott Bay for the refueling.
A tail strike on the Fokker by the heavy gas hose prompted loads on the Universal that ripped the wing off. Brooks and Browne took to their parachutes, with aircraft parts raining down around them. Plucked from the cold waters, both men lived to tell their tale.
According to a contemporary account, Browne was hanging onto floating wreckage of his airplane when he was rescued.
Nat Browne went on to have a long career as a bush pilot in Alaska. He came back to the Lower 48 in the 1950s and died in New Mexico in 1979.