History of flight: New plane celebrates the early days of air travel


In 1912, aviation pioneer Silas Christofferson settled into his Curtiss-type Pusher airplane and, in an audacious move, took off from the roof of downtown Portland’s Multnomah Hotel, cruising across the Columbia River to the Vancouver Barracks.

These days, at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, volunteers are putting the finishing touches on a “new” aircraft that celebrates the early days of air travel and Christofferson’s historic flight.

The biplane under construction is a replica of Curtiss’ aircraft. According to those involved in the project, plans call for publicly unveiling the replica in June, to coincide with the Rose Festival, and the month of Christofferson’s journey.

A work in progress

Volunteers working on the National Park Service-funded project have used many of the same materials that Christofferson used — spruce, bamboo and ash. They’ve been guided by plans of a Curtiss Model D Pusher acquired from the Smithsonian, as well as old photographs of Christofferson’s plane.

Research has helped them figure out missing details about that aircraft, which was similar to a Model D but had an extra 10 feet of wingspan.

“We’ve tried to be as accurate and ‘period’ as we could with materials and tools,” says volunteer Dennis Darby, whose career included a stint as a design engineering manager. “It’s been a fun project.”

He joins a core of about a half-dozen volunteers, as well as others who pitch in periodically, and who all bring to the project a range of skills, from woodworking to metalwork. They’ve cut lumber; and cut, shaped and welded metal parts from sheets and tubing. In some cases, they’ve needed to create tools to build the parts. The plane is held together with wire.

The main group of volunteers who meet about twice a week in an old hangar to work on the replica includes Mike Daly, John Sutter, Don Erickson, Dan Logan, Mike Stensby, Alan Mitchell and Darby.

Erickson, a retired physician, says he started building airplanes in high school and has been involved in home-built aviation all his life. During a tour of the nearby Pearson Air Museum’s collection about a year ago, he inquired about projects with which he could get involved.

“And I ended up down here,” Erickson says. “It’s been very enjoyable. It’s been interesting from the aspect of the challenge, learning more about the history of aviation, and the camaraderie.”

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges was coming up with a viable material to cover the wing surfaces.

Aviation-grade cotton simply no longer exists, Erickson says, so volunteers spent about six months testing various cotton weaves. Eventually, they acquired material at a fabric store, applied two coats of shellac and used a heat gun to seal and shrink the cotton so that it would be taut.

The Curtiss OX-5 V-8 engine features a real block, cylinders and cam shaft, but many parts were purchased or have been fabricated.

The carburetor, for example, was created using a 3-D printer. In late February, the project was at the stage where volunteers were preparing to mount the engine and install the control lines for both the engine and the plane’s movable surfaces.

Logan, whose career included a stint as a schoolteacher, work at a research and development laboratory, and co-founding a Portland metal fabrication shop, has made many of the plane’s metal parts at a shop at his Vancouver home, where he also restores old motorcycles as a hobby. Among the parts he’s made for the plane are 170 turnbuckles.

Logan says he’s liked watching the aircraft take shape with the parts he fabricated. The volunteer work harkens back to his childhood in north-central Wisconsin, where “if you needed something you made it,” he says.

“It’s fun to see every part you made and remember what you had to do to make it,” Logan says. “A lot of it was making the tooling to make the parts. I enjoy it.”

Volunteer John Sutter, who worked as a wood patternmaker and manufacturing engineer during his career, says he found it interesting while working on the replica to think about the way things were built a century ago, and that those same techniques are in many cases the best ways to build today and produce the best results.

He says volunteers used the same tools — a table saw and bandsaw, for example — that were used in Christofferson’s day. They also used a spokeshave, a hand tool not commonly used today, to shape the curved wood pieces, such as the aircraft’s spars, the beams that provide strength in the wings.

Bob Cromwell, the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site chief of interpretation, noted on the fort’s website that the Curtiss Pusher was the first mass-produced airplane. From 1910 to 1913, he notes, the aircraft was the “predominant airplane design around the world.”

“We are rediscovering century-old techniques used by the earliest aviation pioneers in an effort to re-create as accurate a replica as possible,” he says.

The replica’s controls are even modeled after original Curtiss controls. Rather than employing rudder pedals, the plane has a seat that sways, allowing a pilot to control the ailerons.

Glenn Curtiss is renowned as an aviation pioneer, but he got his start in bicycle repair and design, the Smithsonian notes. He also manufactured motorcycles. The Curtiss Pusher’s design placed the pilot sitting just forward of the wings, with the engine behind and the propeller facing the tail.

At 24, Christofferson piloted his aircraft off a ramp built on the Portland hotel’s roof and made the 12-minute journey to Fort Vancouver.

In the words of the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, his flight brought Portland “into the age of the airplane,” though Oregon at the time had its share of flight aficionados.

When completed, the replica will be partially dismantled and moved from the building where it’s being constructed and reassembled as a permanent exhibit at the Pearson museum.

“It’s like building a boat in your basement,” Erickson quips.

Sutter says it’s gratifying to work on a project that allows people to see, because of its exposed design, not only what went into designing and building it, but also how far aircraft technology has come.

“To see how much change has occurred in a little more than 100 years, I think that is absolutely amazing,” he says.

Cutlines/credits

Courtesy photo

A group of volunteers have been working dutifully on an aircraft that celebrates the early days of air travel. The plane will be unveiled during the Portland Rose Festival.

Photo by Barry Finnemore

Dennis Darby and Don Erickson stand with the replica of the Curtiss-type Pusher aircraft, while holding a picture of the original aircraft, first flown in 1912. They’ve tried to be as authentic as possible, even making their own parts.

B/W of original aircraft – no cutline/credit

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