More on Rocheville: The Designer as Artist

Charles Rocheville

Charles Rocheville

Describing Charles Rocheville as the Burt Rutan of his day is not really an accurate comparison, but it does give a hint of how Rocheville stood out from his contemporaries. Rutan has excelled in using new materials and unorthodox designs, while Rocheville used traditional materials in fairly orthodox designs. Rocheville is more like Rutan in three areas. The first two of these are the finish of their products and the dazzling variety of their types. But the third and greatest similarity is that both men bridged the gap between aviation in the atmosphere and space flight.

A multi-talented man, Charles Rocheville began his flying career with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps, then transferred to the U.S. Naval Air Service where he eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. As part of his Navy career, he participated in exploration efforts with both Richard Byrd and Donald B. Macmillan.

To briefly recap his design career, Rocheville began with a SPAD XIII that he adapted with a variable camber wing. He went on to design the huge Zenith Albatross tri-motor before embarking on what looked like a sure-fire combination with E. M. Smith, a successful manufacturer in the petroleum industry. Smith bankrolled a new EMSCO factory at Downey (subsequently taken over by North American), and financed a long series of designs. These ranged from strut braced high wing transports that could be flown in single, twin and tri-motor configurations; a mid-wing two-place trainer, and a twin-boom monoplane with a blown wing intended for a non-stop trans-Pacific flight. Later in his career, after E.M. Smith’s tax problems caused the EMSCO firm to founder, he experimented with the Deeble Double Action engine and designed an unusual single-engine twin-hulled amphibian, the Arctic Tern, intended to do an aerial mapping of Alaska.

During the brief interval when the EMSCO line was flourishing, a number of aircraft were sold to prominent pilots of the time, including the ubiquitous Roger Q. Williams, Cecil Allen and Mexico’s Pablo Sidar. Fame and permanent success often seemed but a flight away, but the EMSCO line had more than its share of bad luck, financially and with crashes.

Rocheville’s designer artistry was expressed in the harmony of line that all his aircraft possessed, and which gave them an unusual elegance for the time. Although most of the designs were amply fitted with the struts and other drag-inducing features of the time, Rocheville’s attention to detail and insistence on quality workmanship endowed them with an unusual beauty. The beauty was not skin deep, for Rocheville applied his talents to the internal structure of the aircraft with the same fierce insistence on perfection. As a result, his aircraft were both strong and light-weight.

In interviews with Rocheville later in his life, he speculated that had the EMSCO firm survived for a few more years, it might have prospered with the production boom brought about by World War II. But, after all his many achievements, he was most satisfied with a by-product of his exploring years.

While doing photo mapping in the Middle East, Rocheville became fascinated with the techniques the Egyptians had used in the practice of mummification. He gathered samples of the material used in the process and spent years analyzing them. Eventually, he developed from his experiments a carbon based dry-lubricant material that was used in many space applications, including the lunar excursion modules of the Apollo program. He thus stands alone among the artist-designers of his time as a man who, like that genius of a later era, Burt Rutan, was able to participate in the design of vehicles who fly both in our Earth’s environment and in outer space

2 responses to “More on Rocheville: The Designer as Artist

  1. Hi, Walt.
    I’m still around at age 89 and writing our EAA Chapter 678 newsletter for the 33rd year. I sure miss the old Guess What, but continue to work in aviation history. Ciao, Ed

    • Great to hear from you Ed, and delighted that you are still busy at 89! I hope I can do as well. There have been quite a few imitators of “Guess What” but none with the loyal clientele! All best wishes


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