By Tom Vogt / The Columbian
A legacy of America’s first licensed airplane pilot is slowly taking shape inside a Vancouver warehouse.
The project is a full-sized replica of a 1912 Curtiss Pusher biplane — an aircraft that made Northwest aviation history 105 years ago when Silas Christofferson flew from the roof of the Multnomah Hotel in Portland to Vancouver Barracks.
When finished, the replica under construction at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is scheduled to go on display in June 2018 at Pearson Air Museum.
It’s a fitting destination, since the area around the museum grounds is pretty much where Christofferson ended his 12-minute flight on June 11, 1912.
“There are no original Pushers” they could duplicate, team leader Mike Daly said. So when team members started in the spring of 2016, they relied on plans that had been part of an earlier project, a scale model of the Pusher several team members helped build for the museum.
The aircraft was designed by Glenn Curtiss.
“We started with the original Curtiss Pusher design that we had scaled down for our model,” Daly, a Vancouver resident, said. “We found archive images of the Christofferson flight and found some differences in the tail surfaces. And it had 14 wing sections instead of 12.”
“I think Silas added 10 feet of wing to get more lift off the hotel,” Dennis Darby said. Darby, a Portland resident, is a manufacturing engineer.
While archive photographs of Christofferson’s 1912 flight are on display at Pearson Air Museum, they don’t really illustrate the size of the Curtiss Pusher. The wings measure about 44 feet from tip to tip.
That’s a lot of handcrafted parts, but the seven core members of the team represent a combo platter of skills and interests that are meeting the challenge.
“It’s fun,” Don Erickson said. “We all have a little different way of approaching it.”
The Washougal resident is a retired emergency room physician who built his own gyrocopter when he was a youngster.
Darby, a Portland resident, is a manufacturing engineer. John Sutter of Portland is a master woodworker. Alan Mitchell of Vancouver is the project researcher and documentarian and does finish work. Dan Logan of Vancouver is a manufacturing engineer who does the metal-fab work. Mike Stansby of Vancouver is a Boeing toolmaker who fabricated and assembled parts for the replica Curtiss OX-5 engine.
It’ll never fly
Because the engine is a replica, this Pusher — unlike Christofferson’s aircraft — will never fly. While the wings will produce sufficient lift, the engine is “mostly wood and plastic,” Mitchell said.
There are a pair of engine components true to the era — two 1912 aviation-grade Champion spark plugs.
Even as a mock-up, that engine represents some notable aspects of aviation technology.
While the Wright brothers owned a bicycle shop, Curtiss was a motorcycle racer — an engine guy, Erickson said. Curtiss set a motorcycle speed record of 136 mph in 1907 and took his engine-building skills into aviation.
Curtiss checked several boxes as an aviation pioneer. In addition to building iconic aircraft, Curtiss was issued aviator license No. 1 by the Aero Club of America in 1911.
Since they were issued in alphabetical order, Orville Wright was No. 4 and brother Wilbur was No. 5. The current licensing system started when FAA issued its first federal pilot’s licenses in 1927.
Another aspect of engine technology is why the rear-facing propeller pushed the earliest aircraft, by the way. The engines leaked oil; they were mounted behind the seat so oil wouldn’t hit the pilot in the face.
But progress isn’t always an aircraft builder’s friend, as Mitchell noted while shellacking the fabric on a wing section. For decades, builders brushed “dope” onto the skins of aircraft to shrink the fabric as well as protect it.
But this is a whole different breed of cotton — literally. Over the years, the shrink has been bred out of cotton, Daly said.
“Nobody wants cotton that shrinks unless they’re building their own airplane.”