Above & Beyond: Wings? Frail. Engine? Weak. Fly? Let's.
- By Larry Lowe
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
In 1978 the San Diego Aerospace Museum burned to the ground, and afterward. R. L. “Zeke” Cormier, a World War II Hellcat pilot and ace as well as a former leader of the Navy’s Blue Angels demonstration team, headed up a recovery fundraising effort, which I joined as a volunteer. In short order he rounded up $1 million—which the museum would get if we could match it with donations from the public. I took on the role of director of a benefit airshow, to be held at Brown Field, a former Navy base in Otay Mesa, just north of the Mexican border.
A year later, the museum was still not open, but a milestone had been reached with the completion of a reproduction Spirit of St. Louis. Museum director Owen Clarke told me that the new airframe would fly in the show.
This set the theme: If the public could not yet see aviation history in the museum, the San Diego National Air Festival would present aviation history to them. I discreetly inquired of Clarke if his conviction extended to the rest of the growing collection and mentioned that I had a lot of tailwheel time and an airshow demonstration letter. He raised an eyebrow and told me I might find aircraft to include in the show in the museum's basement.
I studied the Moraine Saulnier that George Peppard’s character had flown in the movie The Blue Max. Though hopelessly obscure, it was modestly aerobatic, so held promise. There was a Curtiss Robin, which could provide a Wrong-Way Corrigan act, but that would be tacky.
On the way back to the elevator, I noticed a distinctive wooden structure atop a pair of huge fine-spoke wheels. I made my way around the crates to find an ornate piece of Victorian woodwork, held together by filigreed metal fittings, with a wooden propeller nearby. A four-cylinder engine was suspended behind the box frame. There was no cowling and not much of a firewall. Trailing back from the woodwork that defined the nose, four wood longerons with square cross-sections held apart by cross braces and together by wire trusses flowed in to a vertical piece to which was attached a tiny rudder. Painted script on the fabric of the rudder read Blériot.
The artifact was the fuselage of the design that Frenchman Louis Blériot had flown across the English Channel in 1909. Behind a rack of parts I found two frail wings and what had likely been the horizontal tail. On either side of the spindly fuselage was a registration number, N605WB, which indicated that the replica had been airworthy.
N605WB had been built by Walter Bullock, a Northwest Airlines captain with a penchant for old airplanes. The logbooks for the airplane and the 1940s-era engine were in the documentation file. The museum had acquired the aircraft in trade for a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny.
I pitched Clarke the idea that I fly the replica at the benefit airshow. He agreed—if I could get the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a certificate.