1929 Command-Aire
Command Aire Opener

The Biplane History Forgot
Text and photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, 1980's

Here I was again. The nose was just beginning to level out at 1000 feet AGL and I realized I had forgotten to ask what the cruise rpm was supposed to be. My log book doesn't show a heck of a lot of Command-Aire time ( read that as zero), and I couldn't shout loud enough for Carl Pascarell in the front cockpit to give me any advice. Left to my own devices, I figured I would just reduce power a little bit and hope I was close.

As I started to bring my throttle hand back, a hand came up out of the front cockpit. A finger was reaching over the front windscreen as if to fingerpaint in the specks of oil on the front side of it. I watched as the finger etched out a cryptic 1-6-0-0 in the oil and I realized that was to be our intercom system for the flight. I brought the throttle back a little farther and watched as the large alarm clock hand on the tachometer unwound to cruise power ("Ahoy engine room —give me 1600 turns!").
One of the really neat things about aviation is that no matter how long you've been in it, no matter how much time you've spent rubbing elbows with esoteric airplanes, you know that there's a long, long way to go before you even scratch the surface of our aviation heritage. Every time you kick over an aeronautical rock, you'll find something under it that surprises you to no end. A Command-Aire is one of those surprises. It's one of those machines that existed in my aviation knowledge only as a name. A name with no history and, until a balmy afternoon in north Florida, had escaped my logbook.

Commandaire panel
The definition of "basic instrumentation" starts here!

The reason so many aircraft flit around the edge of our aviation knowledge is because a whole herd of companies came and went in a flash in the era surrounding the crash of 1929. Some historians have re-ported that as many as a hundred aircraft companies were happily engaged in stitching fabric, welding tubing, and splicing wood during the first thirty years of man's endeavors to get off the ground. Many companies built no more than one or two airplanes before deciding they were better off refinishing spokes on Model Ts. Others banged out machines in significant numbers, yet are still virtually unknown outside the cloistered circles of the hard-core antiquer. The Command-Aire is one of those. Even as I was being instructed by shaky lines on an oil covered windshield, I was amazed that the Command-Aire had fallen into a crack in aviation's memory.

The Command-Aire Company was not one of your storefront or backyard operations. In the first place, the experts say the company built somewhere between 250 and 300 airplanes in the period between 1927 and 1930. But these weren't just any airplanes. The Command-Aire, for instance, was one of only three aircraft designs to pass the 1929 Guggenheim Safety Trial, in which all existing aircraft designs were test flown and judged for safety. However, one of the notes reportedly made by the committee was they thought the 46 mph stall speed of the Command-Aire was entirely too high for the average pilot.

In truth, I get a little frustrated in talking about the Command-Aire because I know so little about it and the company. What little I do know points to a fascinating story of frustration and limited success .. . leaving behind a very small number of airplanes with which to judge their designs. Command-Aire's chief designer, Albert Voellmecke, is probably a story in himself.

GRADUATED FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF BRAUN-schweigaud in 1933, Voellmecke was hired on by the famed German aircraft firm of Heinkel who eventually sent him to America in 1927. It says some-thing about Voellmecke that he had the guts to leave traditional Germany and travel to the craziness that the United States represented in those days. It says even more about him that he was willing to leave an established company like Heinkel to work for a new company like Command-Aire, so he must have indeed been a pioneer spirit. Today, after more than thirty years in the CAA/FAA. Voellmecke is still very much alive and very active.

The Little Rock, Arkansas, company of Command-Aire had many firsts. Besides being one of the few winners of the Guggenheim Trials, they designed and built something like half a dozen different models. They were issued fourteen approved type certificates for designs and. of the total produced, something like 160 used OX-5s while versions of the 3C3-AT, with the little 110 horse Warner. and the 5C3 with the 160 horse Challenger are the only survivors.
Two Command-Aires are known to be airworthy, with approximately eleven known to exist. In addition, a version of the 5C3 was built strictly as a duster with no provisions for carrying passengers, and is generally considered to be the first aircraft specifically designed for that use. Of the seven or eight 5C3s still in existence, all but one of them were originally dusters.
Command-Aire built one additional airplane that is certainly worth remembering and that is the little Rocket Racer. The Rocket was built to compete in the 1930 All American Derby. Equipped with a super-charged 90 horse Cirrus and Lee Gelbach at the controls (later to gain fame in the hollowed-out 'belly of a Gee Bee), the little Rocket showed the more powerful contestants the way it should be done. Running a race course that spanned most of Mid-America, the little Rocket repeatedly recorded ground speeds of 215 mph, its average point-to-point time being in the neighborhood of 160 mph. The Rocket no longer exists, but Joe Armaldi in Florida (our source for much of this information, by the way) is well along in building a replica of the racer.
With only two airworthy, you don't stumble across a Command-Aire every time you walk out to the local airport. In fact, my introduction to the 3C3-AT at St. Augustine was a result of ,Jim Moser's continual babbling into the phone about how much fun they were having with this barn-sized antique. This was from a guy who has his choice of dozens of sporty airplanes to fly, but every single conversation for a couple of months was punctuated with his ramblings about the Command-Aire. I finally decided the only way to shorten our phone conversations was for me to trundle ,on down to St. Augustine and see what the hell he was talking about.
To someone who spends most of his time in a two-place Pitts, a Command-Aire 3C3 is bigger than your average biplane. In fact, it's bigger than your average everything. Jim was dragging me around the airplane in a circle, pointing out better features, but every other sentence came out "Neat, isn't it?" Since the airplane was actually owned by a pilot who lives in England and keeps it at AeroSport, in St. Augustine, for relaxation when he comes to the colonies, we thought it best to have somebody on board who had some idea of what he was doing, since I certainly didn't. So Jim threw Carl Pascarell into the front seat, pointed at the back and said, "go flying."