"I had been tracking the distant silhouette on the horizon for a few minutes. After a short while he turned, betrayed instantly by his distinctive, cruciform outline as he moved in a steep arcing turn back towards me. There was no doubt. Persistence had finally paid off. It was an encounter I had long anticipated, though never truly believed would come to pass, all previous attempts to make his acquaintance had always ended in failure and now, having expected no more than a brief introduction, I was heading for a very personal meeting, up-close, face to face with The Last Marksman."
"Born of a fighting man. Sleek, well built and immensely powerful, The Last Marksman had once been an exceptional combatant of supreme strength, performance and stamina, with outstanding performance from its two 18-cylinder Double Wasp radial engines, like steel hard biceps carried shoulder high above a pencil slim waist. This former life now long behind him, though the look and pedigree of a veteran warrior was still easy to recognise. Nowadays, The Last Marksman lived a more luxurious existence, a corporate executive with all the style and panache one would expect of the charismatic, elder statesman."
The On Mark Marksman is an awesome beast by any standards, writes Graham Robson. Once the ultimate in corporate transport, providing the discerning executive with absolute comfort and convenience combined with a performance unmatched by its contemporaries, in the heady days before jets became the preserve of corporations and celebrities.
The On Mark Engineering Company was formed at Hayvenhurst Avenue, Van Nuys Airport, California, in 1954 by partners R. O. Denney and L. A. Keighley, both former senior management of the Grand Central Aircraft Company, an aircraft maintenance and repair company based in nearby Glendale, California. The main business of On Mark was the modification, repair and overhaul of the Douglas A-26 Invader, a procedure with which Denney and Keighley were already acquainted from their time at Grand Central, who had been responsible for a number of minor upgrades and executive conversions to former military Invaders. As an FAA approved airframe repair agency, On Mark were responsible for a number of unusual modification programmes on behalf of other companies, notably the unique Guppy and Super Guppy conversions of Boeing Stratocruisers, on behalf of Aero Spacelines Inc. However, it was from their long and intimate association with the Douglas A-26 Invader that On Mark acquired its reputation.
Soon after its formation, On Mark were awarded an exclusive license from the Douglas Aircraft Company for the production of spare parts for the Invader, a move which generated much valuable work on behalf of military customers, supporting aircraft still in service with the USAF and US Navy as well as a number of foreign operators. Expertise gained in this field paved the way for On Mark's ultimate success, the specialist modification and production of civilian executive transports based upon the Invader airframe. Early civilian Invader work involved production of the On Mark Marketeer, a completely re-manufactured airframe with a luxurious, though un-pressurised, cabin with accommodation for up to eleven passengers, or useful load of 12,000 lbs. Maximum fuel load was augmented with the addition of wing tip tanks, each of 165 US gallon capacity, allowing a useful range of up to 2,700 miles.
The company's 'pièce de résistance' , however, was the Marksman, at the time the epitome of comfort for the executive air traveller. Based on the Invader airframe, the On Mark Marksman featured a significantly re-manufactured fuselage incorporating full pressurisation and a radical modification allowing a substantial increase in internal cabin space. In the original Invader design, the wing was constructed around two spars, which passed through the fuselage, thereby restricting room available for any passenger cabin conversion. On Mark designed and manufactured a new circumferential beam, or 'ring spar' unit, to replace the original rear spar, which allowed the cabin to be opened up through to the original forward carry-through spar. The bomb bay section was removed and the rear cabin extended as far back as possible and, with numerous new cabin windows installed, including panoramic panes in the main rear cabin, together with a series of small windows high on the cabin sides and low down below the wing root area to allow a clear and unobstructed downward view for the passengers when in flight, the aircraft made a very comfortable transport indeed. Cabin access was enhanced by a newly designed drop down passenger air-stair located either on the rear starboard fuselage side or as a drop down unit from below the centre fuselage. All original armament and armour plating was also removed and
Offered in three basic versions, the Marksman A, B and C models varied somewhat in internal configuration, engine choice and performance. All featured the addition of wing tip fuel tanks as well as increased tail surface dimensions to compensate for the higher power engines offered in the various models, which ranged from Pratt & Whitney R-2800-83 units on the 'A' model, rated at 2,100hp, to the mighty CB-16/17 units with a massive 2,500hp output and reversible pitch Hamilton Standard propellers on the later models. Though all variants underwent significant re-building of the original fuselage, the Marksman C was the most radical, featuring a fully re-designed fuselage and flight deck, with the original side opening cockpit glazing replaced by DC-7 type heated windshields and sliding side panels. The rear fuselage was also rebuilt to give a constant height throughout its cabin length, which completely altered the original slim-waist Invader look.
The number of Invader airframes modified by On Mark for civilian use is thought to have peaked at between fifty and sixty, of which only approximately a dozen were modified to full Marksman specification, the remainder being were completed as On Mark Marketeers, a basically similar, though un-pressurised, design. Even as the first aircraft were entering the On Mark facility for rework the writing was on the wall for the radical corporate transport, with new executive jet designs ready to be unveiled from the stables of Lear, Lockheed, DeHavilland and Rockwell. As a consequence, many of On Mark's beautiful designs were eventually passed down the corporate ladder, unable to keep up with the new jets, in either performance or perception.
Many survivors continue to be flown by private individuals, though all celebrate the virtues of the type's wartime career and military past. Whilst the Invader does posses a rich and varied military history, with the unique accolade for a piston powered bomber of having served the United States in three major conflicts, the type has never enjoyed praise for its significant contribution to the proliferation of corporate executive transport, for which it holds the highest honours amongst its contemporaries.
Just one aircraft maintains the type's link with corporate America, the sole survivor of the breed still maintained and flown as a corporate transport, without recourse to 'stars and bars' and fake invasion stripes. This particular airframe was never actually delivered to the USAAF, being completed too late for service before the end of hostilities. Built as an A-26B Invader 44-34766, part of a cancelled order contract (AC-21393) for 443 late production B models from Douglas's Long beach plant, of which no more than twenty-five were completed, it was transferred directly to the Reconstruction Finance Company, set up to administer the disposition of war surplus equipment. Together with at least twenty other examples from the same batch, it was flown from the plant to the huge desert parking lot at Kingman in Arizona, where it joined thousands of other surplus, mostly war-weary, redundant airframes.
Saved from the destruction suffered by most of its fellows, '776 was sold as N67807 in 1947 to Dianna Cyrus, gaining notoriety as 'Huntress', flown as air racer #91 and fitted with an auxiliary belly fuel tank. In the 1947 Bendix 'R' Trophy cross-country air race from Van Nuys to Cleveland, Ohio the aircraft failed to finish the race in which it was well placed, after Cyrus became lost and landed at the wrong airfield. The Invader raced for a couple of more seasons before being sold to Standard Oil & Gas, where it took up corporate duties for the company alongside a number of other similar types. A similar role at the Pan American Petroleum Corporation followed, where it took the markings N1243, before returning to Standard Oil's Indiana division. It was during this period that the airframe was cycled through On Mark's Van Nuys facility to undergo transformation, gaining the full Marksman treatment, with the extended nose favoured for additional luggage space. Further ownership changed followed in August 1965 when the Marksman was re-registered N910G with the Nine-Ten Corporation, with whom it flew for the next three years. Yet another registration and ownership change in 1968 saw the aircraft become N9150, initially operated by Paramount Trading Co., where it displayed the name Amazonas on the nose, before passing through the hands of Miami Aircraft Ventures and a private owner Vicky Miller in Burbank.
By now the aircraft was of little real value not having enjoyed the most cherished of lifestyles in its most recent past and was traded to the USAF Museum programme in 1983 for display at Castle AFB in central California, where it was painted to represent examples of both USAAF and US Navy variants, with different paint schemes on either side. Resurrected from inactivity soon afterwards, the sad Invader was moved to Stockton California, under the new ownership of Mark Johnston before eventually being acquired by the Donald Douglas Museum at Santa Monica. N9150 was flying again by 1987, though it once again moved on to pastures new in 1990, when it was sold in Florida. Remaining in the east, the aircraft was sold again in 1991, becoming an addition to the stable of warbirds owned and operated by David Brady of Cartersville, Georgia. Its tenure in Georgia was short lived, however, being involved in a rather unfortunate accident with another of Brady's collection, in which he was killed. The Invader returned to California later that year and was taken on charge by the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, before being offered for sale once again.
It was at this point that the fortunes of this well travelled aircraft took a major turn, when the current owner learned of its existence. In re-acquiring an example of the most charismatic corporate transport ever produced, the new owner would not only be able to save a Marksman in its true form, but would once again be reunited with an aircraft type that had so much history in his family. The current owner is actually a third generation On Mark Marksman owner and pilot, whose father and grandfather before him owned and operated a considerable fleet of the type and this aircraft relishes in the significant history and association of its corporate forbears. This is uppermost in the mind of the current owner, in maintaining his beautiful mount in its magnificent Marksman configuration. The aircraft was flown to its new base at Van Nuys, a homecoming of sorts having been converted to corporate configuration at Van Nuys almost thirty years earlier. Like many Marksman conversions, this aircraft was completed without the radical rear fuselage re-modelling carried out on the 'C' model, but with all the other accoutrements of the marque and nothing has been left out in its restoration back to a corporate aircraft. The R-2800-83 engines, rated at 2,100hp were replaced by CB16/17 variants complete with massive paddle blade, reversible pitch propellers. The flight deck is a far cry from its original 1940s form as a bomber, with a full array of the most modern avionics and instrumentation, including twin Flat Screen Displays in the centre of the console. Interestingly, even though all of On Mark's conversions were finished with dual controls, unlike the original design, which only had flight controls for the left seat - the right side providing a jump seat for the navigator, the Marksman was certified for single pilot operation making it rather unique for an aircraft of this size and performance. In reality, however, most Marksman were flown with a crew of two, as the work load for single pilot operation could be quite considerable. The interior has also been completely re-upholstered and includes an in-flight entertainment centre of TV and VCR and sumptuously appointed seating for seven passengers.
It could be argued that the clock has turned full circle in executive air transport as, with so many airport ramps now filled with homogenous 'biz-jets', the arrival of a gleaming On Mark Marksman turns heads like no jet ever can. It looks and sounds so different, yet maintains a mystical quality that sets it apart from any turbine rival and, with an enviable performance and range that allows transcontinental travel with ease, there really would be no reason to consider anything else. The Last Marksman is a unique and beautiful reminder of the way executive air travel once was and, for one man, very definitely still is.
Acknowledgements - The author is deeply indebted to the owner of The Last Marksman for his generosity and enthusiasm in flying it for this feature and to Matt Jackson for his encouragement and help in making it all happen. I am also very grateful to Chris Hansing for his generosity in flying his Beech Bonanza as photo plane, which offered such superb opportunities.