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ISSUE 231 - July 2012
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Fly Jacuzzi!

By Roy Mize, Contributing Editor
Mountain View, CA

The name might be Jacuzzi, but the aviation story is not about a laid back soak at 30,000 feet. It’s about a company founded on a propeller, the Jacuzzi toothpick propeller.

Rachele Jacuzzi worked as a mechanic near the flying field at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal He watched the airplanes, especially the propellers. He thought he could design a better one – and he did. With his six brothers he founded a company to exploit his new propeller. During World War One, the U.S. government agreed it was good and awarded a contract for American DH-4 airplanes.

The Original Seven Jacuzzi Brothers Francesco (Frank), Valeriano, Rachele, Gelindo, Giocondo, Candido, Joseph

After the war, the Jacuzzi’s had bigger ideas; to build their own airplanes and start an airline. They built and tested a prototype molded-plywood, semi-monocoque single-seater to prove their technique would work. Then they designed and built the Jacuzzi J-7; J for Jacuzzi and seven for the number of seats. The family named it “The Rio.” A revolutionary airplane, the J-7 had a monocoque, laminated wood body and was the first airplane ever to fly with an enclosed cabin. It’s sleek fuselage, allowed by the monocoque design, also provided a way to allow load and wind forces to be evenly distributed across the entire aircraft structure.

J-7 RIO (left) and J-7 at Varney Aviation field in Redwood City (right).

J-7 at Durant Field in Oakland

The J-7 was one of the most beautiful airplanes of its time. Powered by a twelve cylinder, 200 horsepower engine from Oakland’s Hall-Scott Company, it met every test, including passenger flights over the Sierra and into Reno. On one journey, it flew through a heavy storm without damage on its return trip. That flight was a test to demonstrate that the Rio was maneuverable and reliable. The Jacuzzi’s had approached Col. John Jordan, the U.S. Army officer responsible for selecting airplanes to carry new airmail. He wanted a demonstration and he got it. To make sure things were o.k. an Army pilot in a DeHavilland DG-4 accompanied the J-7 all the way.

DeHavilland DH-4 – Standard U.S. Army Air Service
Plane in 1921

The Jacuzzi’s had their plane and began to start an airline. They learned that Stephen T. Mather, director of the National Park Service, would be visiting Yosemite National Park. Giocondo Jacuzzi arranged a demonstration. Pilot “Bud” Coffee from Modesto, a skilled aviator and a former Army flyer, flew the Rio. Passengers included Jacuzzi, A. Duncan McLeish, a former RAF pilot, and a Jacuzzi friend, Jack Kauke.

The flight into Yosemite was uneventful, even awe inspiring. Kauke wrote in his daily journal, “… at six p.m., and from about 10,000 feet high, Yosemite Valley was clearly in sight, “except for a blue veil of smoke that makes wonderful lavenders and purples in the evening sun.” They landed in a meadow just opposite El Capitan. In those days, the valley floor wasn’t as tree-studded as it is today.

Jacuzzi, Kauke, McLeish, Coffee in Yosemite Meadows before Takeoff

Mather, Bell, Jacuzzi, Coffee, Kauke, McLeish in Yosemite Meadows

The group spent two days in Yosemite and then took off just after 6 a.m. on July 13, 1921. Shortly after 8:40 a.m., everything came to an end. Bud Coffee eased the plane down to about 4,000 feet as they approached Modesto. Suddenly the left wing snapped off and then a few moments later, the right wing followed. All on board died in the crash.

The reason could never be fully explained. The official military report issued on August 9, 1921, stated the obvious: “wing failure caused the accident.” The inspection report said, “failure occurred near the fuselage” and summarized what happened next: “the left wing broke away at about 4,000 feet; the right wing followed at about 2,000 feet. Without anything to slow its descent, the fuselage and its passengers dropped straight down, and slammed into the earth.”

With the death of Giocondo Jacuzzi, the family abandoned their airline dream and struggled for years to rebuild their company. They were successful with several products and became a mega company when they began to build industrial pumps that in turn resulted in the famous spa now known around the world.

By Roy Mize, Contributing Editor

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