7X – Initial Prototype

by Kevin Gray

The Spartan 7 Series- “The Executive”

First developed in 1935, Spartan’s new all-metal, low-wing monoplane was designed to serve as a high-quality personal and business transport for well-heeled customers.  Conceived in concept by Spartan Vice President Ed Hudlow, the new aircraft’s construction was ultimately approved and funded by W.G. Skelly.  James Ford was selected to design the new airplane, and he was able to provide the engineers with enough information that assembly of the prototype started in May of 1935.  The 7 Series Prototype, often referred to as the “Standard Seven” or the “7X” was a radical departure from its contemporaries.  The Prototype was initially powered by the 260 horsepower Jacobs L-5 engine and had a unique streamlined cowl installed that largely obscured the view of the engine.  The fuselage tapered dramatically behind the 4-seat passenger cabin, with a “fin” running down the length of the aft portion of the fuselage.  The tail and rudder assembly appeared to largely be an extension of the fuselage fin.  

Though some anecdotal information asserts that some flight testing was done in January of 1936, it was not until Feb 1, 1936 that Hudlow submitted an application to the Department of Commerce for an Experimental Aircraft License.  The date of manufacture was initially blank, but ultimately the date March 5, 1936 was hand written into the application.  On March 7, 1936, the application was approved and the registration number X13984 was assigned.  The airplane was designated a Spartan, model 7X, and carried serial number 0.  That same day, an operations inspection report was prepared and approved for X13984.  The block for “total aircraft flight time” contains a hand written “dash,” indicating zero flight time as of that date.  The report also identified the engine as an experimental L-5-X Jacobs, serial number 1000 with 260 horsepower.  The propeller installed was a Hamilton Standard ground adjustable unit with a 5404 hub and two 21-A-1-3 blades.  

Photos dated 3-7-36 show the 7X at the Spartan hangars with its engine running.  Engine run-ups would have been a normal part of the inspection process and they could have occurred several days or even weeks before the ultimate inspection report was completed.

Legendary test pilot Eddie Allen was asked to provide his opinion of the new design.  Flown in from New York for the occasion, Allen piloted the Prototype on its first flights, which are generally accepted to have happened on March 8, 1936.  Though other sources have provided a number of different possible dates, contemporary news accounts published in the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune, along with the documentary and photographic record, all support a March 8 first flight. Allen passed along his suggestions to the Spartan engineers, noting that the landing gear retraction mechanism was complicated and difficult to use, that the aircraft was underpowered, and that the handling characteristics were awful due in large part to the unique tail arrangement found on the Prototype.

Shortly after Allen provided his critique, designer Ford left Spartan for good.  Having convinced Skelly to start the project, and with several thousand dollars already sunk into the airplane, Hudlow had to figure out a way to salvage the design.  To address the fundamental problems identified by Allen, Hudlow hired Herb Rawdon to complete a full redesign of the airplane.  Rawdon’s experience as one of the lead designers of the Travel Air Mystery Ship and the Dole Race winning aircraft “Woolaroc” lent a credibility to Spartan’s production team that it was severely lacking.

Rawdon and his team went to work immediately.  The reworked Prototype entered its second phase, with the first major change being a new cowl installation that eliminated the mask across the front of the engine, opening up the front of the aircraft.  The new cowl was simple in structure and wrapped tightly around the Jacobs engine.  It greatly simplified the appearance of the front of the aircraft.  It also appears that the engine was moved farther forward from the firewall, changing the look of the front of the aircraft from a snub-nose to a long-nose.  The new cowl was in place by May 15 and a photograph taken on that date indicates the airplane still had the Hamilton Standard ground adjustable propeller.

The new cowl would remain with the Prototype throughout the rest of its flight career, but the shark-fin tail would not.  The subsequent flight tests must have reinforced the need for a massive redesign of the tail of the Prototype. An August 10, 1936 inspection report indicated the prototype had flown a total of 55 hours.  Prior to that date, the 260 HP Jacobs had been replaced with a 285 HP version of the L5, serial number 1022.  In addition, he propeller had been changed from the original Hamilton-Standard ground adjustable unit to a Curtiss-Reed fixed pitch propeller, model 55501.  Finally, an entirely new tail assembly had been fitted onto the 7X, one that would ultimately make it into production.  The cover of the September 1936 Aero Digest shows off this new tail design on the 7X. 

This third phase of the Prototype’s development produced an airplane that was much closer to the final production model, however; the Jacobs engine, modified cowl and fixed pitch propeller Curtiss-Reed fixed pitch propeller would not be incorporated into the production 7W.  The Prototype also gained a set of markings during this last phase of its testing career, markings that closely mirrored some of the production markings used on the 7W. The cowl had a tapered swoop, and the fuselage had a tapered dart that ran from the cowl back to the tail.  The tail received a Spartan logo that was used on most Spartan-produced aircraft dating back to the C-3 biplane series.

A new six month experimental license was issued on September 15, 1936 that documented the changes to the 285 horsepower Jacobs and the Curtiss-Reed propeller. During this next 6 month time frame, and with the prototype’s final engine, propeller, cowling and tail configuration, the 7X would be flown an additional 105 hours. 

In March 1937, the 7X received its last periodic inspection and was issued its final six month experimental license.  Total hours flown at that time was 160 and the aircraft configuration appears to have been unchanged since the August 1936 inspection report. The final experimental license expired September 15, 1937, thereby ending the Prototype’s flying career. Spartan did, however, obtain the rights to number 13984 as an unlicensed aircraft registration mark in the fall of 1937. That license was renewed in November 1938 and ultimately expired November 15, 1939.

In addition to being used as a test-bed for the production 7W, the 7X appears to have  been used to promote the Spartan School.  By October 6, 1936, the Prototype had additional markings applied.  Throughout most of the 1930’s, almost all of the Spartan School’s training aircraft carried a fairly standard paint scheme composed of a black fuselage and orange wings, with the words “Spartan School” down the side of the fuselage.  Each airplane would also obtain an individual airplane number that was painted in yellow on both sides of the fuselage near the middle.  In October of 1936 a similar scheme was applied to the natural metal finish of the Prototype.  The same “Spartan School” verbiage was placed on the fuselage, though near the rear.  A large “22” was painted over the two words. Below the “22” was a hand-painted inscription that said, “Home of the Dawn Patrol.”  This scheme was carried on both sides of the airplane.  The aircraft also was painted with the Skelly Oil logo, located just below the point of the barb aft of the cowl.

In these markings, the aircraft shows up in a November 1936 magazine ad used by the school, along with a series of black-and-white postcards that apparently were used by the school to initiate correspondence with young men (and occasionally women) who were interested in coming to the Spartan School.  Though the markings were actually applied to the Prototype, the version in the ad and on the postcard looks to have been heavily doctored with the markings added to an actual photo. 

 A 1939 “Dawn Patrol News” newsletter carried on its cover an in-flight photo of the Prototype with the “Spartan School markings.  In this depiction, the verbiage is moved forward, the Spartan logo on the tail is crudely painted on, and “The Executive” is misplaced on the cowl.  The striped markings are also not reflective of what is evident in un-doctored photos.

Since the Prototype’s flying career ended on or before September 15, 1937, it is difficult to understand why Spartan would have promoted the idea of a flying Prototype as a part of their advanced flight training program.  A late 1936 Spartan School advertisement highlighted the success of the Spartan Dawn Patrol team at the Oklahoma Air Meet, where the team won numerous trophies including the “Olson Award.”  Laura Tucker is shown in that ad posed with the Olson trophy and another award, standing in front of the Prototype.  The “Spartan School” paint on the Prototype is clearly visible.  (As a side note, the Olson trophy shown with Tucker was found in storage at Spartan decades later, and is now on display at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.)  

The Prototype’s final use in Tulsa was as a static airframe trainer at the Spartan School.  Located at various times in different buildings on the school’s Tulsa Municipal Airport campus, the airplane spent most of its time with the fuselage and wings separated and the engine removed from the fuselage.  The Spartan School markings disappeared, but the other markings remained.  Various pieces and parts of the 7X show up in photos taken at Spartan School through the end of the WWII. 

The last known appearance of the prototype is actually in a minor role as a movie star.  Appearing in the 1947 movie Tarzan and the Huntress, the prototype appears intact with a painted scheme and a faux N-number.  The distinctive split window on the pilot’s door is visible in several scenes, and a brief glimpse of the interior is captured as well.  

Though the airplane taxis a bit with a spinning propeller, the dark screen that covers the front of the cowling where the engine should be visible implies that the propeller has been rigged to rotate and is not an active airplane.

An internal company memo dated November 10, 1957 written by F.J. Tolley discussed the possible sale of the Spartan Model 12, but noted that “Some years ago we sold a Model 7J to a motion picture company to get rid of it maybe we can do that with the Model 12.” As only one 7-series aircraft was outfitted with the Jacobs engine, this memo most likely references the sale of the prototype that resulted in its appearance in a Tarzan movie.  After that starring role, the 7X disappears from known records, most likely meeting its end in a movie studio backlot in California.

Although the ultimate disposition of the airframe is unclear, the original data plate for the 7X, along with the cockpit panel it was mounted to, has survived.