Fairchild K-20 – Versatile large format film aerial camera

I have always been interested in aerial cameras and photographing places from a perspective that most people will never see. Finding work from photographers like Bradford Washburn and Vittorio Sella served only to pour gas on an already raging fire. Their portfolios of remote mountain ranges, glaciers and snow covered peaks from around the world are amazing. Photographer Terry Toedtemeier used his Linhof Tech IV with 2 mounted gyroscopes to take aerials perched in the door of a small plane. A feet that I would very much like to repeat. So when I had the opportunity to buy a Fairchild Aerial camera, I jumped on it.

History

Fairchild Camera and Instrument was founded in 1920 by Sherman Fairchild. Funded in part by the government, Fairchild set out to make a better aerial camera for the military. He both failed and succeed in his efforts. The military did not accept shipment of any aerial cameras from Fairchild until after the war, so he was not able to directly help the war effort as he had hoped.

Fairchild Camera and Instrument cameras would become the official camera of the United States Army and Navy Air Services. After incorporating into Fairchild Aviation, the company became the second-largest manufacturer of commercial airplanes and the fourth-largest aviation organization in the United States. Fairchild created dozens of aerial camera models ranging in size, film size and type. They built cameras that used glass plates, sheet film and even roll film up 9″ wide – to create 9 x 9 inch images. The K-20 aerial camera, mass produced during World War II, resulted in about 15,000 cameras.

I stumbled onto a Fairchild K-20 on eBay while looking at large format cameras. The K-20 was manufactured by Fairchild Camera and Instrument from 1941 to 1945 under contract through Folmer Graflex. The K-20 creates a 4 x 5 image on 5 1/4 inch wide roll film. In fact, it was a Fairchild K-20 that was mounted in the tail gunner position of the Enola Gay. And responsible for many of the pictures of the mushroom cloud after the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima.

Features and operation

It’s massive, heavy and very over-built. Even though the body is made of cast aluminum it weighs 10 pounds fully loaded. It’s not something you’re going to be lugging around with as you traipse around the countryside. It could be fitted with a 20 or 200 foot roll of film and had to be loaded in complete darkness since there wasn’t a cartridge to hold the film.

Operating the camera is very much like cocking and firing a large machine gun. The firing and film advance handle is essentially a handle with a trigger that fires the shutter. Then by cocking it, you advance the film and cock the shutter. The diaphragm in the camera creates a vacuum to hold the film flat against the film plane. The shutter is a large, interchangeable leaf shutter, and designed as a sealed mechanism for easy replacement.

The design is complex but not overly complicated in a way that would make it cumbersome to use, but there are several caveats to operating this monster. The slot on the bottom, that looks like a dark slide port, is for the film loading guide. The guide is inserted in order to fire the camera with no film. Otherwise, the mechanism gets out of sync with the vacuum back. The K-20 should not be fired “dry” and stored with the shutter tripped, not cocked. The gun-sight on the top of the camera makes it easy(ish) to aim while mounted on a gimbal or T and E mechanism.

Optics

The K-20 aerial camera came fitted with a 161mm Kodak Anastigmatic lens with only 3 shutter speeds of 1/125, 1/250, and 1/500 but a full range of aperture settings from f/4.5 to f/22. There are also a couple of filters for black and white photography; a #25 red filter, and #8 yellow filter that just twist and lock onto the front of the lens. The lens itself seems small for how big the camera is, but like other Kodak lenses it’s a workhorse; reliable and sharp. The blades on the iris are quite large considering the size of the lens, and the mechanism seems rather fragile considering how the rest of the camera is built – or over-built as the case may be.

When I got my Fairchild Aerial Camera the shutter was really messed up with or two three of the aperture leaves totally off their hinge points. I opted to take the iris apart and fix it at a later date.

Observations

The manual for the K-20 is pretty dry and extremely verbose – it is definitely a technical guide meant for the military. It is thorough and explains in detail how to operate, maintain and fix potential problems. For a bit more detail on what came in the box, there’s an example at the Science Museum Groups site of a K-20 with all the fixins.

Given how well this camera is built it seems to have one major flaw; not being able to fire the camera dry, or without the film guide in place. I can attest personally that the K-20 doesn’t like it and will stop firing after 4 or 5 shutter fires. It’s easy to fix, but this is an odd aspect to it.

This is one camera I bought just because I wanted one. I wasn’t too concerned to get one that had all the filters, film guide, manual and case. There’s no way to get the film for it anymore and definitely no way to easily process a massive roll of large format film. It’s just a cool aerial camera to be able to have. It’s dripping with WWII era style and a great example of a purpose built device that worked extremely well for decades and under some pretty harsh conditions.


K-20 Aerial CameraK-20 cocking handleK-20 Kodak LensK-20 Shutter Speed dial
K-20 Film CounterK-20 Aperture dialK-20 BackK-20 sight
K-20 film guide slot
Fairchild K-20 Aerial Camera

Specifications

General

Fairchild K-20 (Folmer Graflex)
Production: 1941 -1945
Film: 5 1/4 roll film (20 – 200 feet)
Image size: 4″ x 5″
Shutter: Leaf (removeable/replaceable)
Weight: 9lbs 12oz

Lens

161mm Kodak Anastigmatic lens
Shutter speeds: 1/125, 1/250, 1/500
Apertures: f/4.5 – f/22
Filters: bayonet mount

Two filters were available with the K-20, a #25 ed and #8 Yellow.

The aperture and shutter assemblies were designed to be somewhat self contained to make them easy to replace. Any shutter or aperture assembly could be swapped from one K-20 to another.

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