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.
A few days later a truck pulled up in front of my rented hangar at Oceanside Airport and disgorged all the parts we had found in the basement that looked like they belonged on a Blériot. What was not found were assembly instructions. After comparing old photographs to the wires and parts at hand, it became generally apparent how the thing should go together.
Rigging information was also missing, so I tightened the flying wires to a tension that felt right to keep the wings attached. Building control-line model airplanes had educated me in the value of proper alignment.
An overhaul of the 85-horsepower Continental C85 engine was outside the budget, but cleaning and gapping the spark plugs and running it up sufficed. The engine sounded smooth enough despite the dismal compression readings.
The fabric appeared to have been compromised at the wing's leading edge. Rumor had it that the wings had once been stored against a hangar wall, with the leading edges down, and that the building had later been flooded. Water stains were clearly visible a foot back from the leading edge.
When the FAA inspector arrived, I picked a couple of areas well back from the stains to do the fabric punch tests. Twice the needle in the spring tension gauge eased up through the red and just entered the yellow before the fabric gave way and a little hole indicated the fabric’s failure point. Even the best of the linen was just barely strong enough to be certifiable.
The inspector asked me what the museum planned to do with a 12-month airworthiness certification. The airplane was technically—if marginally—airworthy, but one look at it made you wonder how wise it would be to fly it. I told him we planned three flights at the airshow and that I would be the only pilot. He told me to be careful and signed the certificate of airworthiness.
Once the Blériot had been disassembled, moved to Brown Field, and put back together, airshow preparations kept taking up the time I had hoped to use to get acquainted with the airplane. And so it was that the first time I clambered up to stand on the wooden seat with intent to fly was the first day of the airshow.
Fortunately, the Blériot controls matched the convention for stick and rudder; many early designs did not. The control stick was capped with a small wooden steering wheel The rudder was operated not by independent pedals but by a single bar that pivoted. The engine control was a knob on the left top longeron of the cockpit. The instrument panel held an oil pressure gauge and a tachometer. On the right was a pair of magneto switches.
I pushed the stick hard to the left to check that the controls were free and clear. I was also checking to see, for the umpteenth time, that they were hooked up correctly. What I could not get used to were the massive ripples in the fabric as the entire wing twisted in response to the control input.
Adjusting my goggles, I reviewed what I had been able to glean from the few living pilots who had Blériot time. Let it fly itself off: Don’t ask it to do anything it doesn’t tell you it is ready to do. Keep the power on during descent and fly it firmly back onto the ground rather than glide to a flare. Never let the bank get too steep, particularly down low—there’s not enough rudder to pull you out of a spiral.
I opened the throttle, pushed the stick full forward, leaned into the blast as if to help the airplane accelerate, and watched as the ground speed gently increased. It was like being in a dream where you run harder and harder to escape and yet cannot go any faster. Eventually, though, the tail lifted lazily from the ground.
With no idea what the airspeed was or what was needed, I held the nose on the ground well past when I thought we should be able to fly. Then, in response to slight back pressure, I got unstuck. I eased off a little back pressure to hold the airplane in level flight, just a few feet off the runway, to let it gather what remaining speed it could. Sitting half out of the fuselage, awash in prop blast, I was exhilarated.
Suddenly a gust of wind battered the airframe and the right wing went down abruptly. I countered with wing warp and a healthy dose of the tiny rudder. The Blériot rolled firmly to wings-level and I centered the controls. The airplane gently pressed on into the wind as if nothing had happened. In that moment I fell in love with the design. With that stub nose and tiny rudder, it looked like a caricature, but it flew like a real airplane.
It was decision time. The plan had been to do a hop, and commit to flight only if everything was well. The expanse of runway behind was now longer than the stretch ahead. Eventually I would be out of options and the decision would be made for me: Fly it around the pattern or hit the power lines at the far end of the field.
The pilot in me urged: Go fly. Show the crowd what a Blériot could really do. The airshow director in me advised caution. The museum was about preserving airplanes, not destroying them. The fabric on the wings was suspect. The engine was weak. And by now my total Blériot time amounted to a mere 20 seconds.
In the most second-guessed decision of my aeronautical career, I eased up on the back pressure. The airplane began a gradual descent. Soon the stability of the ground overcame the buoyancy of flight. The main landing gear was on the ground. Only then did I ease the power back. When the tail finally settled onto the ground and the drag from the dual skids auto-centered the airplane on the ground track, I thanked Louis Blériot for the way the details of his design benefited the novice.
Zeke Cormier’s criterion had been met (I didn’t crash), I’d kept my promise to the FAA, and the aftermath of the flight was all good—except the nagging conviction that N605WB could have made a couple of circuits of the field and I could have landed after 10 minutes of self-training. It seemed like an opportunity missed, a wuss-out in a discipline characterized by bravery. Every time I replayed my momentary recreation of history, I came to the same decision, but to this day, I wonder: What if?