Rick Brant’s Airplanes

David K. Vaughan

The Importance of Rick Brant’s Airplanes in the Harold Goodwin Science Adventure Series

In the twenty four Rick Brant books that Harold (“Hal”) Goodwin wrote under the pseudonym of John Blaine, Rick Brant’s airplanes play an important part in eleven, nearly half of the total.  Rick flies two different aircraft in the series.  The first is a Piper Cub, which is in his possession in the first nine books in the series, and the second is the “Sky Wagon,” which he flies in the remaining volumes.  Although Rick does not fly his airplane in every adventure, it is mentioned or referred to at some point in nearly every story.  The potential for movement represented by Rick’s airplane is an integral aspect of the Spindrift activities.  Spindrift Island is essentially isolated from the mainland of New Jersey, but access to the mainland is important to the movement of the story.  The primary means of access to the mainland are the speedboats tied up at the Spindrift dock and Rick’s airplane.  Rick uses his airplane for carrying the Spindrift scientists, including his father, Hartson Brant, to the Newark airport and to pick up groceries at the nearby town of Whiteside.

Rick’s airplanes are symbolically important for more than linking Spindrift activities to the mainland; each one (but especially his bright yellow Piper Cub) represents Rick’s commitment to acting independently, to supporting himself through his own efforts.  In the first book in the series, Rocket’s Shadow, we learn that Rick is paying for his Piper Cub by doing errands for the Sprindrift community.  He learned to fly under a government program “to teach kids to fly.”  There is a significant amount of flying activity in the story: he has to dodge a mysterious black biplane that tries to force him down in flight, and he makes a successful forced landing in a farmer’s small field (and a subsequent successful takeoff out of that field).  While flying the Piper Cub from Whiteside to Spindrift, he sees a mysterious message painted on the roof of a barn that gives him a clue to figuring out how information is being transmitted to an agent on the island.

After reading the first story, we might expect that Rick and his close friend, Don “Scotty” Scott, will use the airplane in every adventure in the series.  But such is not the case, for the next volume, Lost City, takes Rick and Scotty to India and Tibet.  Goodwin knew enough about airplanes to know that, for a variety of reasons, a Piper Cub cannot be easily supported in such a strange and challenging environment, so in this story, and for the next three stories in distant lands (100 Fathoms Under, Phantom Shark, Caves of Fear), Rick does not fly his aircraft.  But in those stories in which Spindrift serves as the focal point for the action (Sea Gold, Whispering Box, Smuggler’s Reef, Stairway to Danger), the Piper Cub is an essential element in the events of the story.

In Sea Gold, Rick and Scotty spot an unusual sea water mining plant from the air as they fly along the Connecticut coast.  After landing to investigate, they decide to assist the owners in the operation of the plant.  The Piper Cub plays an instrumental role in the story as Rick receives a telegraph message linked to his use of the plane, and he uses the Cub to follow one of the men who attempt to destroy the plant.  In this story we meet the man who taught Rick to fly, and we learn that Rick has added improvements to his airplane: an induction heating system and an electronic alarm.  In Whispering Box, Rick uses the Cub only once, early in the story, to do some sight-seeing around Whiteside and to give Scotty some practice in flying the plane.  We are told that Rick “flew almost every day, because he was the island messenger service, charged with most of the shopping, both for Mrs. Brant and the scientists.”  In Smuggler’s Reef, Rick and Scotty fly the Cub in challenging conditions, even for the most experienced of pilots, as they fly out to sea in the early morning darkness to identify the ship that is involved in the smuggling activity they are convinced is occurring in the coastal New Jersey town of Seaview.  To be able to fly legally at night, Rick adds lights to the Cub. Rick’s excellent airmanship is evident as he is able to maneuver the Cub at low altitude over the ship at night while Scotty takes pictures with an infra-red camera.

In Stairway to Danger, Rick faces his most challenging feat of airmanship in the Cub, as he successfully crash-lands his sabotaged Cub in the waters of the Atlantic off the Spindrift shoreline.  Before the Cub is destroyed, he and Scotty use it to conduct an unsuccessful aerial search for the maroon car which was involved in a hit-and-run accident involving his sister Barby and Whiteside newspaper reporter Jerry Webster.  They use it also to ferry Hartson Brant to Whiteside so that he can visit his injured daughter.  The fugitives hiding in an abandoned amusement park sabotage the Piper Cub by using a rat trap to lock the control cables, but Rick and Scotty work together to avoid a catastrophic crash.  Scotty climbs out of the aircraft to counterbalance the turning movement of the airplane, and Rick is able to steer it to a more-or-less successful crash-landing.  The crash into the waters of the Atlantic destroys the Cub and badly injures Rick’s leg, and Rick determines to buy a new, more powerful aircraft with the money they receive for finding the fugitives.

In general, Goodwin’s account of the performance and characteristics of the Piper Cub in the first nine stories is accurate and believable.  This is not surprising, as he has said, in his 1980 Mystery & Adventure Series Review article, “long ago I learned to fly a light plane, but didn’t keep it up.”  The plane he learned to fly was probably a Piper Cub; or, if he didn’t learn in a Cub, he undoubtedly saw enough of these aircraft flying around the local airport to learn about their operation, as they were one of the most popular aircraft built in the years immediately after World War II.

When Goodwin introduces Rick’s new airplane, the Sky Wagon, in the book following Stairway to Danger, he does so in an unusual fashion.  First of all, it is not introduced in a Spindrift-based story, but rather in a story with an international setting, The Golden Skull, set in the Philippines.  Second, Rick does not fly it to the Philippines, he has it loaded in parts on board a ship, and has it re-assembled at the Manila international airport.  Third, after it is reassembled, he immediately flies it into some of the most mountainous and difficult terrain in the Philippines.  This is a risky venture for any experienced pilot to attempt, much less for Rick, for we are told that the aircraft has less than ten hours of flying time on it (and so, we assume, does Rick, though this may not be absolutely true, as Rick may have learned to fly it by using a different plane.  But we are not given this information).

Rick demonstrates excellent airmanship in this story, finding his way through the narrow and steep valleys of northern Luzon, landing on very short runways and narrow, paved roads, and using a hook to pick up artifacts that have been discovered by their scientific leader, Dr. Anthony Briotti.  We are told that Rick practiced his airborne pick-up system at the Whiteside airport by snagging his mother’s groceries from a wire prepared by Gus, the Whiteside airport manager; but he was never able to avoid breaking the eggs!  No surprise there, given the sudden and sharp acceleration that would be felt by a package suddenly snatched into the air by an aircraft flying over at 80 to 90 miles an hour.  In this story, Rick demonstrates that he has certainly come a long way from his short flights from Spindrift to Whiteside in the Cub.  The exciting ending of the story involves airplanes as well, as Rick runs away from a pursuer at night, just missing an aircraft taking off from one of the runways of the Manila airport.

The Sky Wagon, we are told in Golden Skull, is a “powerful little four-place job.”  We are told also that it is painted white with a red stripe along the side.  Goodwin’s reasons for wanting to upgrade Rick’s airplane are obvious: the Piper Cub just didn’t have the power, range, or load-carrying capacity necessary to convincingly convey Rick and Scotty and one or two Spindrift scientists into the more remote and interesting regions of the world where the really exciting adventures might occur.  Rick flies the Piper Cub only along the east coast of the United States, but he flies the Sky Wagon over a much greater area, including the Caribbean, South America, and the Philippines.  It is likely that with the Sky Wagon Hal Goodwin wanted to provide Rick and “Scotty” with a greater scope of adventure and experience than was available through the limited range and performance of the Piper Cub.

This aspect is immediately evident in the next story in the series, Wailing Octopus, which opens with Rick, Scotty, Tony Briotti, and Hobart Zircon seated in the roomy cabin of the Sky Wagon, as Rick steers it from Puerto Rico to Charlotte Amalie, in the American Virgin Islands.  The Sky Wagon has now been fitted with pontoons so that it can land in the harbor at Charlotte Amalie and on the water near their cabin on Clipper Cay.  Because most of the story has to do with finding the reason behind the “wailing octopus” under the waters of Clipper Cay, the role of the Sky Wagon is minimal, although Rick demonstrates his aerial skills by flying to Charlotte Amalie and back in bad weather preceding the arrival of a tropical storm.

In the Electronic Mind Reader, the next story, the Sky Wagon has a minor but important role.  This is the story in which Rick develops the “Megabuck” electronic voice communication system, which originates from a Brant family discussion about how to cheat on a television quiz show.  Most of the action in this story is land-based.  However, some action is on the water, involving the Sky Wagon (still on floats): “Rick cut the engine and climbed out on the pontoon” (135).  The Sky Wagon plays an important role at the end of the story when Scotty flies it towards the houseboat off Spindrift Island where Barby and her friend Jan Miller are being held by members of the Mind Reader gang.  Rick (with the help of some of Steve Ames’ JANIG men, stationed on Spindrift) assists in completing their rescue.  This is the first book in which the Sky Wagon is depicted in the line drawings accompanying the text, including a dramatic vision of Scotty diving towards the houseboat.  (The Piper Cub never appeared in the cover art or even in the line drawings, as the internal line drawings began to appear in Wailing Octopus.)   There is also an interesting episode at the beginning of the story when Rick flies his father to the Anacostia Naval Air Station in Washington D.C., and experiences the crowded skies of aircraft trying to land at Anacostia, nearby Bolling Air Force Base, and Washington National Airport, across the Potomac River.  (Anacostia and Bolling, which were active military airports at the time, were closed as operational airports soon after.)

The Sky Wagon is essentially grounded in the next two volumes (Scarlet Lake and Pirates of Shan), though Rick’s ability to fly is essential to the plot of Scarlet Lake.  Rick and Scotty bring the Sky Wagon out of the hangar (without floats) to fly to nearby Virginia to join Barby and Jan as they track down the Blue Ghost phenomenon in the next book.  Other than providing transportation back to the Manassas airport, however, its use is limited in this story, and the subsequent story, Egyptian Cat, does not involve the Sky Wagon.  The next story, however, gives Rick and Scotty a chance to put the Sky Wagon through its paces—Flaming Mountain.

In Flaming Mountain, the Sky Wagon is essential to the plot of the story, as it provides transportation for Rick and Scotty, carrying a planeful of scientific equipment, to the island of San Luz, off the northern coast of South America.  There they undertake a seismic survey of the volcanic mountain to determine how much time remains before it erupts.  The aircraft also provides transportation to the Port-of-Spain, in Trinidad, to check on availability of dynamite.  Most importantly, Rick uses the Sky Wagon to carry an evacuation message to the citizens of San Luz by using loudspeakers fixed to the struts of the aircraft.  Then the Spindrifters fly over the island in the Sky Wagon after an atomic explosion has been set off, releasing the pressure of the mountains towards the sea, avoiding an eruption which could have destroyed the entire island.  This volume has the distinction also of featuring cover art showing the Sky Wagon circling the island, the only Rick Brant cover art to feature an aircraft.

The cover art and internal illustrations of Flaming Mountain show an airplane similar, in most respects, to that depicted in the internal illustrations in Electronic Mind Reader—a high-wing monoplane with fixed gear, leading readers to believe that is the kind of aircraft Rick flies.  In this high wing design, the doors to the cockpit are located beneath the wing, which rests on top of the fuselage.   But there are some troubling discrepancies in the description and depictions of the Sky Wagon in the stories in which it appears.  Some readers have observed that in Blue Ghost, the volume immediately following Electronic Mind Reader (with its visual depictions of an aircraft with a high-wing design), there is a strong suggestion that the Sky Wagon is indeed a low-wing aircraft: immediately after Rick and Scotty land the airplane at the Virgina farm where the Millers live, “Barby and Jan were up on the wing.”  Even though Barby and Jan are athletic young girls, there is no way they can leap up to the top of a high-wing aircraft.  Further, why would they want to?  They would not be able to talk to—or even see—the pilots in that position.  Clearly, Jan and Barby are sitting on the wing of a low-wing aircraft (the kind where the wing joins the fuselage at the bottom, not the top).  Here we have an unusual situation—two Rick Brant volumes showing high wing aircraft (Electronic Mind Reader, Flaming Mountain) bracketing a volume strongly suggesting that the Sky Wagon is a low-wing aircraft (Blue Ghost).  Is it possible to decide what kind of aircraft the Sky Wagon really is?

What Kind of Airplane is the Sky Wagon? 

In the Golden Skull, the first volume in which the Sky Wagon appears, we are told that, in addition being a “powerful little four-place job” and having an attractive paint scheme, it has adjustable flaps, retractable landing gear, and a variable-pitch propeller.  All of these features are quite advanced, especially for a plane existing in 1954, the year the book was published.  (Probably the first draft was written in 1952 or 1953, as Goodwin has said he had to re-write the story.)  Rick’s Piper Cub, in contrast, would have had fixed gear, a fixed-pitch propeller, and no flaps.  Adjustable flaps allow a pilot to land at slower speeds while carrying a higher power setting, a good situation to have in case the pilot needs to break off the landing and “go around” in a hurry (Navy pilots, for instance, always go to full power just at the moment their wheels touch the carrier deck in case their tail hook fails to engage and they have to take off again).  Retractable landing gear allow an aircraft to cruise at a much higher speed, since there is less drag to slow the aircraft.  And an adjustable pitch propeller allows the pilot to change the pitch angle of the propeller for more efficient power—a sharper angle on takeoff, a flatter angle during cruise.  These features significantly improve aircraft performance, allowing for better fuel economy and greater range.  The question is, what aircraft had these features?  It is not likely Goodwin was describing an imaginary aircraft.  As even a casual study of his books shows, he was careful to base his technical and scientific discussions on fact.

Let’s begin with the obvious candidate, according to the illustrations included in Electronic Mind Reader and Flaming Mountain.  These all show a high-wing aircraft, much like a Cessna 172.  (The United States Air Force used this aircraft, calling it a T-41.)  The forerunner of the Cessna 172 was the Cessna 170, which had been produced starting in 1949.  The Cessna 172 featured flaps and a variable pitch propeller.  However, neither the Cessna 170 nor the 172 had retractable landing gear.  In fact, it was not until the 1970s that Cessna produced a high wing aircraft with retractable landing gear, when it developed the Cessna 177 “Cardinal.”  But retractable landing gear are clearly a feature of the Sky Wagon, as they are mentioned in Golden Skull (1954) and again in Rocket Jumper (1966).  There was no other commercially successful American manufacturer of high-wing aircraft besides the Cessna company.  Therefore, it seems apparent that the aircraft must have been a low-wing aircraft.  (This is not absolutely clear, however, as there are a number of problems with this solution.  But I’ll discuss these later.)  For now, however, let’s assume that Goodwin intended a low-wing aircraft, and let’s see what make of airplane he might have had in mind.

Since Rick Brant began flying a Piper Cub, it might be logical to assume that Goodwin had in mind a more advanced Piper aircraft of some kind as the model for the Sky Wagon.  Although the Piper Cub was a high-wing aircraft, in the 1950s and 1960s the Piper Aircraft Company was making a variety of popular low-wing aircraft.  The first low-wing aircraft that Piper built was a Piper Comanche, a twin-engine aircraft first produced in 1954.  However, Piper did not make a single-engine low-wing aircraft at this time.  The first single-engine Piper aircraft was the Cherokee, which went into production seven years later, in 1961.  Then followed the more familiar Piper Warrior, Archer, Arrow, and Saratoga designs.  These Piper aircraft all had retractable landing gear, flaps, and adjustable pitch propellers.  But they were all built many years after Rick first flew the Sky Wagon.  So what aircraft was the basis for the Sky Wagon?

The most likely model for the Sky Wagon was the Ryan Navion, built by the same company that built Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis twenty years earlier.  The Navion was designed and built first by North American Aviation before the manufacturing license was sold to Ryan.  The Ryan Navion was a large, four-place, low-wing aircraft that featured flaps, retractable landing gear, and an adjustable propeller.  It was first built in 1947 and was used by the United States Army and Air Force (as the L-17) during the Korean War (1950-53).  The retractable gear was powered by hydraulic fluid; the pilot had to push a centrally mounted lever, which used hydraulic pressure to raise and lower the gear.  In addition to these advanced features, the visibility and room in the cockpit were exceptional.  It was an especially “high tech” aircraft for its day—just the kind of aircraft that would appeal to Spindrift sensibilities.  I am confident that this is the aircraft Goodwin had in mind when he first described the Sky Wagon.


A stylized version of the Ryan Navion

However, there are a number of problems that arise in the descriptions of the aircraft’s features as presented in the later Rick Brant stories, problems that Goodwin either overlooked or ignored.  In the first place, an aircraft with retractable landing gear is not an especially good candidate for being fitted with pontoons so that it can land on water (as the Sky Wagon does in Wailing Octopus and Electronic Mind Reader).  A high-wing fixed gear aircraft (Like the Cessna 170/172) is a much better candidate and is by far the most common type of plane used for flying with pontoons.  It is not particularly easy to climb out of the cockpit and onto a pontoon when you are in a low-wing aircraft, as Rick does in Electronic Mind Reader.  In addition, changing from fixed gear to pontoons is a complicated, time-consuming process that would require special equipment and facilities.  But Goodwin (as John Blaine) tells us nothing about this process, merely saying that the aircraft was (or was not) fitted with pontoons.  This is a little surprising in a series that is generally quite conscientious and thorough about providing necessary scientific and technical details for major activities occurring in the stories.

There is one other complicating aspect as well.  In Flaming Mountain, Rick flies the Sky Wagon over the island of San Luz fitted with loudspeakers attached to the struts, as one internal line drawing shows us.  In a high-wing aircraft (like a Cessna 172/170), it could be a possible to attach loudspeakers to the wing struts that run (on a Cessna 172) from the fuselage to the wing (as the line drawing shows).  But if Rick is in fact flying a low wing aircraft (like the Ryan Navion) there is one big problem—there are no struts running from the fuselage to the wing; the low-wing design eliminates the need for that structural feature.  On a low-wing aircraft with retractable gear, however, there are features called “struts”—these are the supporting arms of the landing gear mechanism itself (a “strut” being the generic term for structural supporting member).  This would present a small but not insurmountable problem.  If the loudspeakers are affixed to the landing gear struts, Rick would not be able to retract the gear while flying; if he did, the loudspeakers would be knocked off (or severely damaged) as the landing gear tried to retract into the wing or body of the aircraft.  If this were the case, it would be appropriate for Rick to at least comment on the necessity of flying with the gear down while the loudspeakers are attached.  But nothing is said about that and the line drawing suggests that the loudspeakers are not attached to the gear.

This problem raises another troublesome aspect: why did Goodwin not complain about what seems to be an obvious discrepancy between the kind of aircraft he had originally had in mind and the kind shown in the cover art and line drawings?   We know that he paid attention to the details in the art work.  As he tells us in his Mystery and Adventure Series Review article, he was especially upset about the artistic depiction of a small boat in Electronic Mind Reader, in which part of the plot hinges on Rick’s “identification of a pram, which is a rowboat with blunt ends.  The artist gave us a sharp pointed ordinary rowboat.”  I find this example especially interesting in that Goodwin chooses to complain about an inaccurate drawing of a boat in the book that contains two drawings of a high-wing aircraft about which he makes no comment!  Yet, in the next book in which the Sky Wagon appears, Jan and Barby jump up on the wing of a low wing aircraft!  And in the book that follows Blue Ghost, the cover art for Flaming Mountain shows a high wing aircraft flying over San Luz!  What do we make of this?

In fact, when Goodwin gives himself the opportunity to identify the aircraft specifically, he avoids it!  The instance I am referring to occurs in Scarlet Lake, when Rick must validate his ability to fly in order to assist with the project on which he is working.  When Rick tells Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Lipton, the Air Force test pilot for the drone system, that he flies his own plane, this is how Goodwin presents the discussion:

Rick gulped.  “Yes, sir.  I fly my own plane.  But it isn’t a jet, sir!”

“What is it?” Lipton asked.

Rick named it.

That’s all Goodwin tells us!  Rick might have told the colonel, but he doesn’t tell us.  It is as if Goodwin himself is unsure what kind of plane Rick flies; or, if he knows, he wants to keep it a secret.

I believe that although Goodwin initially visualized the Sky Wagon as a low wing aircraft, as the series progressed, he became less concerned about fidelity to a particular kind of aircraft and more interested in using the Sky Wagon as a symbolic means to enable Rick and Scotty to move easily from one point to the other and to accomplish a variety of activities.  And then, as the plots and locales of his stories grew more complex and realistic, he increasingly limits the role of the airplane, realizing that the exciting adventures associated with the kind of free-wheeling flying he has Rick do in Golden Skull and Flaming Mountain could no longer be easily or believably accomplished.  After Flaming Mountain, Rick seldom flies the Sky Wagon.  Of the remaining seven volumes in the series, only one involves the use of the Sky Wagon: in Rocket Jumper, Rick and Scotty fly the Sky Wagon from Spindrift to the Air Force installation at Indian Springs, Nevada, where they are involved in another top secret Air Force project (as they were in Scarlet Lake).  Once they land at Indian Springs, however, their airplane serves no further use, as Rick relies on an Air Force helicopter to place him in a position to use his rocket belt to rescue Barby and Jan from a raging forest fire.

Rick gets the Sky Wagon airborne in only three of the final twelve books, and in only one of those three (Flaming Mountain) is it essential to the critical action of the story.  While the last twelve books of the series are quite different from the first twelve in many ways, in no more obvious way are they different than in the reduced importance of Rick’s airplane.  In the final book in the series, Magic Talisman, which takes place entirely in the Spindrift vicinity, the Sky Wagon sits securely tied down, an immobile reminder of earlier days when Rick and Scotty needed little excuse to spin the prop and hop in the Cub for a quick flight around Spindrift Island.