Fast Talk With Jeff Smith: The Story of Aircraft Cylinder

The Xceleration Media folks asked me to do a short bi-monthly column for them and they mistakenly told me it could be about anything. Hmmm… anything? That leaves the door so wide open as to make it actually a little tougher. I was considering all kinds of fun things when I noticed this huge intake valve sitting in a pile of stuff that I’m still trying to find a place of permanence in my new shop-office. As with nearly everything in my shop, there’s a story behind it. My buddy Tim Moore’s shop is in Sun Valley, California, in a really out-of-the-way place that I have discovered housed at one time many very cool automotive and race shops. It’s kind of a San Fernando Valley version of Bill Simpson’s Gasoline Alley West in Torrance, California, 30 years ago.

Jeff Smith

The author in his shop.

The most interesting place was the building in front on Tuxford Street called Aircraft Cylinder that rebuilt radial aircraft engines. Sometimes when I was stopping by Tim’s shop, Aircraft Cylinder would have a single-row radial engine secured on a flatbed trailer. Later, we would be working in Tim’s shop when we’d hear the engine crank over, cough a few times, and eventually start.

There is nothing in this world like the sound of a radial aircraft engine starting. I always wondered why in old films there were crew members walking the props backward several times before starting. I learned that with radial engines, several cylinders always point straight down. With the engine at rest, oil naturally seeps into these lower cylinders. To avoid hydraulic lock, ground crew members of WWII bombers would have to spin these massive engines backward to push the oil out of the cylinders. Of course, this oil then ends up in the exhaust. That’s why a massive cloud of oil smoke belches from the exhaust when these engines start.

You may have heard the story of the B-29 called Kee Bird that crashed in Greenland in 1947. The B-29 pilots performed a textbook wheels-up landing on the ice. The entire crew was eventually rescued but the Air Force elected to leave the plane on the ice. Some 50 years later, air racer Darryl Greenamyer and salvage expert Gary Larkin decided to recover the plane. But instead of dismantling it, they elected to do the unthinkable and make the aircraft air worthy and fly it out!

Aircraft Cylinder rebuilt all four of the Wright Duplex Cyclone R-3350 engines and the salvage crew spent a couple of years bolting in the new engines and readying the plane for its first flight in decades. It took so long because they could only work for a few months every year when the weather was decent. After they had all four engines and the hydraulics working, they taxied out of the spot where the plane had rested for all those years. Unfortunately, a gas can that had been jury-rigged to feed fuel to the auxiliary power unit (APU) in the tail fell over and immediately caught fire. The subsequent blaze overcame the crew’s limited firefighting resources and the entire plane burned to the ground.

The airplane engine parts that inspired this column.

The airplane engine parts that inspired this column.

Carl Hoffman has written a book entitled Hunting Warbirds that chronicles the sad story of the Kee Bird’s near escape and eventual demise.  It is fascinating reading. If you are ever discouraged by a car project, reading this book will lead you to the inevitable conclusion that your problems are child’s play compared to what these guys endured.

My connection to this story is tenuous at best. When Aircraft Cylinder moved a few years ago, they were cleaning out dozens of barrels of old engine parts and for a few days their parking lot was littered with very cool engine parts. I found/liberated a few choice pieces including the 3.100-inch intake valve and a couple cool ’30s vintage roller-tipped rocker arms.

My father was an attack pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps from the late ’50s into the early ’70s and learned to fly in a Navy SNJ tail dragger powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340. For his birthday one year, my wife Valerye and I made up a small wooden stand for an intake valve and gave it to him with the inscription: “The Order of the Spinning Prop.”

I am a geek for all things mechanical and love looking at old engines and appreciating their simple elegance. Sure, all of these old engines are horribly inefficient yet it is for just that reason that they hold such an attraction. So here’s to all internal combustion engines – but especially to the sound of a radial engine on startup. It’s a sound that will make any gearhead smile.

– Jeff Smith

About Power & Performance News

Power & Performance News is the source for news, tech and products that help you get more performance from your vehicle. If powertrain performance projects and hardcore technical content are your interest, Power & Performance News is the publication designed for you. Our acclaimed editorial staff covers all aspects of engine and driveline upgrades with a mission of presenting information that is both interesting and achievable for the “average car guy”.