Spartan 8W Zeus, A WW2 Military Advanced Trainer and Light Attack Aircraft

History of the Spartan 8W

By Kevin Gray

The Spartan 8W “Zeus”

As early as 1930, Spartan had sought a military contract for constructing airplanes.  During that era, a military contract could be the difference between a company’s financial survival and bankruptcy.  Spartan’s first known effort to secure such a contract was in the form of a two-seat primary trainer that was marketed to the Army as the XPT-913.  This low-wing monoplane had a fuselage that looked similar to Spartan’s C3 biplane, but with a highly modified landing gear configuration and without the top wing. Evaluated in June of 1931, the airplane was generally well received but Spartan received no order.

Spartan’s next effort was dubbed the “Model 8W,” in line with Spartan’s naming system used on the 7W “Executive.”  Designed as a two-place, low-wing trainer, the 8W drew heavily from the design of the 7W. The wing, undercarriage, and lower half of the fuselage are essentially a modified 7W structure.  The upper half of the fuselage was redesigned from a 4-5 place enclosed cabin into a tandem-seat glazed cockpit with sliding canopies.  The tail was also identical to that of the 7W.

The official date of manufacture for the 8W was August 10, 1937, and the airplane was assigned serial number 8W-1.  The 8W was built on the same assembly line as the 7W, and was wedged between 7W s/n 12 and s/n 13, which carried registration numbers NC17613 and NC17614, respectively. On the line, the family resemblance to the 7W is clear.  The Zeus was equipped with a Pratt and Whitney R-1340 S3H-1 “Wasp,” which was a 9 cylinder, radial engine.  The engine’s rated horsepower was 550 HP at 2200 RPM, with a takeoff rating of 600 HP at 2250 RPM.  This represented an increase in power from the Pratt and Whitney R-985 “Wasp Junior” that was used in the 7W, which produced approximately 450 HP.  The 8W also sported a Hamilton-Standard model 12D40 controllable pitch metal propeller.

On September 2, 1937, an application was made and approved for an “Unlicensed Aircraft Identification Mark Assignment.”  Significant to note is that this approval did not license the 8W to fly.  The new document had an expiration date of August 15, 1938.  The Mark Assignment was renewed in August 1938 with a new expiration date of September 1, 1939.

Throughout 1937 and 1938, the 8W was not licensed for flight by the CAA.  Despite that, during that period the 8W was involved in one known mishap. CAA records note that on August 20, 1938, Dale Myers was at the controls (and apparently had been flying the airplane) when “the left wing tip and leading edge close to the tip were crushed. The propeller blades, and tip of fin and rudder were bent.  The entire canopy was demolished.”  The fact that Spartan was apparently flying the 8W as an unlicensed airplane is curious as Spartan was no stranger to CAA regulations (especially given the fact that the 8W program was taking place in the middle of Spartan’s manufacturing program for the 7W.)

The airplane was unquestionably repaired, because the license for the 8W’s flight testing was granted on April 24, 1939, with an expiration date of April 30, 1940.  At that time, the 8W was reported to have 65 flight hours (despite not having been licensed prior to April 1939.)  This flight test license allowed for one flight from Tulsa to Los Angeles and return, in addition to local flights near Tulsa.  Test flights were also authorized under the authority of the CAA regional supervisor in Santa Monica.  The 8W was at this time flown to California and remained there until April 1940. During one of the flights in California, the 8W was spotted by noted aviation historian Bill Larkins, who photographed it there.  

The experimental license was renewed while in California, giving Spartan permission to return the airplane to Tulsa and to operate it within a 100 mile radius of Tulsa, Oklahoma through the period ending May 1, 1941. The inspection report associated with that renewal indicates the 8W did not fly much during the California trip. Total aircraft time prior to departing Tulsa in April 1939 was 65 hours and total time prior to leaving Glendale, CA for the return trip to Tulsa in April 1940 was less than 80 hours. 

A postcard dated April 27, 1940 and mailed from Yuma, Arizona on April 28, 1940 was sent by a person named “Roph” who was apparently flying the 8W back to Tulsa from California. He wrote,

“En route back to Tulsa in experimental low wing combat Spartan “Zeus.” She cruises at better than 200 miles an hour and tops up around 235.  Has 600 H.P. Wasp in it.  Love Roph.”

The postcard was mailed to a “Mrs. Estelle B. Kenyon” in Newtonville, Massachussets, who according to census records at the time was then 66 years old.  The postcard is the closest thing to a pilot’s report presently known.  “Roph” may have been flying the 8W on its final flight, as the 8W’s last registration certificate expired May 1, 1941 and was not renewed.

The FBW-1 Concept

Spartan’s marketing department made at least some efforts to market the 8W and one proposed variant. The airplane’s trip to California was designed to attract either a military customer. That marketing trip failed, as no orders were secured.  

A brochure was created for the proposed combat version of the 8W, called the FBW-1 (for Fighter-Bomber.) This model was essentially the 8W with armament.  Spartan claimed that the FBW-1 would carry two fixed guns and one flexible gun, and that provisions would be made for carrying up to ten small bombs.  The fixed guns were slated to be “two Colt Model MG-40 .30 caliber machine guns in the fuselage synchronized to fire through the propeller disc.”  Space was allocated for up to 500 rounds of ammunition for each gun.  Charging handles were to be located in the cockpit for the pilot’s use, and the guns would be triggered via a switch on the control stick.  A rear gun, also the Colt MG-40, would have been mounted on a track in the rear cockpit. The rear gun could be stowed when not in use.  600 total rounds of ammunition would have been available for the rear gun.

Two A-3 bomb racks were optional equipment on the FBW-1, and could be attached to the underside of each wing along with controls and release mechanisms.  According to Spartan, those bomb racks would have carried one 116 pound bomb, five 17 pound bombs, five 25 pound bombs, and five 30 pound bombs.  A Fairchild Model F-8 camera could also be mounted in the aft fuselage behind the gunner’s seat if desired.  Spartan was quick to note in its materials that “Spartan Aircraft does not supply ammunition, bombs, parachute flares, Very’s pistol, cartridges, nor any material of an explosive nature.”

Along with the combat-oriented gear, Spartan proposed to include other helpful items such as a fire extinguisher, an engine tool kit, a first aid kit, an airplane tool kit, an airplane and engine log book, and two safety belts.  Additional optional equipment besides armament included a two man life raft, oxygen equipment, and custom radios.

Though some basic marketing materials were developed, no sales were completed.  Even the design of the brochure seems to indicate the speculative nature of Spartan’s promotion of the FBW-1.  The brochure itself is basic rag paper with typewritten specifications and a single artist’s rendering of the FBW-1 in flight.  The brochure lacks the extensive use of detail photography that was a hallmark of Spartan’s “spare no expense” approach to marketing its products. Though Spartan’s hopes for a military contract may have been pinned in the late 1930’s on this (presumably) expensive prototype, it was apparently an economic failure.

Final disposition of airplane

The 8W met its end, as a number of Spartan airplanes did, in the Spartan School hangars as a training tool for students.  The October, 1941 issue of the “Spartan News,” the in-house newsletter for the Spartan School of Aeronautics, featured a photo of the 8W on the front page above a story about new “Bomber Plant Courses” being offered at Spartan.  The article itself discussed the 8W briefly:

“At the inception, Spartan will offer two courses of 480 hours each.  To the elaborate and modern equipment already available, Spartan has recently added a $40,000 Spartan Zeus military fighter. This airplane is an all-metal, low-wing monoplane powered with a 650 H.P. Hornet engine.  The engine, instrument, propeller, lubrication and fuel installations are complete.  As far as is known, Spartan is the only school in the country to make available this high type of training.”

The article is a bit misleading, however, as there is absolutely no documentation that the 8W ever had a Pratt and Whitney R-1690 “Hornet” engine installed.

Photos taken by Spartan staff photographer Walter Madson in 1944 show a largely intact 8W with its outer wing panels removed being worked on by Spartan students.  In one set of photographs, students were working on making what appears to be a replacement nose ring (cowl) for the airplane.  In another, two students can be seen performing a gear swing on the 8W, which is sitting on a set of jacks.  A student in the cockpit is clearly operating the gear, which indicates that the airplane had at least some power to it that late in its existence.  In those photos, the engine and accessories are still in place, though the multi-panel cowling has been removed, along with a few sections of fuselage skin aft of the engine just below the forward cockpit.  Even at that point, the 8W’s fabric covered rudder is still in place, with its registration number clearly visible.  A period photograph of the interior of the cockpit reveals that by that point most of the cockpit instruments had been removed, but the throttle and mixture controls were still in place, along with the landing gear switches and indicator lights.

After 1944, the 8W disappears from the extant documentary record.  Like a number of other training airframes used by Spartan, it was likely scrapped onsite in Tulsa.  Though an attractive airplane, the emergence of North American’s AT-6 and Vultee’s BT-13 likely eliminated any chance for Spartan to elbow its way into a significant military contract with the 8W.

All photos for this article from the Kevin Gray collection.