Flying Bathtubs Sell Like Hotcakes
The nation's first mass-produced lightplane started as a homely, humble homebuilt.
- By Giles Lambertson
- Air & Space magazine, November 2010
NASM (SI NEG. #HGC-121)
Even during the early years of flight, when aircraft design was influenced as much by whimsy as by aerodynamics, Jean Alfred Roche’s serious little airplane was considered comic-looking.
Its bluntly tapered front end and button nose cleaved the air just forward of a low-side open cockpit in which the pilot essentially sat on the floor, leading some wag to christen it the Flying Bathtub. One can easily imagine a cartoon character sailing along in it, merrily scrubbing his back, soapsuds spilling out.
Appearances notwithstanding, the squat little aircraft launched a company and spawned a market for simple, lightweight airplanes for Everyman.
Jean Roche surely was the least surprised of anyone by the airplane’s success. The Aeronca C-2 was the culmination of his vision for a cheap and easy-to-fly airplane. As the Great Depression settled in, sales of the C-2 took off, buoyed by the craft’s affordability—under $1,500—and its quirky spirit.
Of 164 C-2s sold in 1930 and ’31, just 15 or so are still around—the “or so” covering the ones in pieces. Several fully restored C-2s are in museums. Only a handful are flying, and at least one is about to.
IN 1956, chance led Bill Smela, an 18-year-old airport apprentice, to a damaged C-2 for sale. He bought the airplane for $600, but didn’t get around to repairing it until two years later. When he was nearly done, a friend’s wife backed a car into it. The mishap would ground the Aeronca for another 50 years.
Smela and his wife, Mary Jo, operated a succession of small airports, and he restored several aircraft, but the C-2 remained untouched. Finally, in 1997, Smela let it go. Dean Kramer, a United Airlines pilot from Bernville, Pennsylvania, called, and Smela first tried to sell him another aircraft. Unsuccessful, he reluctantly said, “I have one other plane you might be interested in: a Flying Bathtub.”
Smela now works intermittently at restoring the aircraft for Kramer. “The deal we cut is that he does the restoration, and he gets to take the first flight,” Kramer says. For now, the airplane sits inside an 18th century stone building behind Smela’s New Jersey home.
Ten years after Smela bought the Aeronca, when he was working at an airport in Pennington, New Jersey, in exchange for flying lessons, he had an unexpected visit from the designer himself, Jean Roche. “I understand you have an Aeronca,” Smela recalls Roche saying, by way of introduction. He then reminisced at length about the airplane, which he had created more than 40 years earlier.
“He pointed at the gas tank and said, ‘See that? That’s a mailbox,’ ” Smela recalls. Roche explained that when he and his partner needed a gas tank, they soldered shut a mailbox, cut a hole in the top, capped the opening, and hung the box in place.
JEAN ROCHE WAS 12 when he and his family arrived in New York from France in 1906. At age 17, after tinkering with model aircraft and gliders, Roche applied for the first of what would be 20 patents. Four years later, he earned an engineering degree from Columbia University and began designing aircraft for a living. In 1917, the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Aviation Section settled at McCook Field in southwest Ohio, and Roche with it.
McCook housed the first center for research on military aviation. Nearby Dayton was home to the Wright brothers. All this inventiveness fueled company start-ups and home-based airplane projects alike. In a garage at 28 Watts Street, Roche and McCook colleague John Q. Dohse pieced together what they called the Roche-Dohse Flying Flivver.
This was to be a personal aircraft: It weighed about 400 pounds and measured 20 feet nose to tail, with a single, high wing spanning 36 feet. Behind the cockpit, the sides of the cotton-fabric-covered fuselage converged in a narrow spine, which ran from the trailing edge of the wing to the base of the vertical stabilizer. The triangle-shaped fabric enclosing the area behind the pilot’s seat was reminiscent of a pup tent. This distinctive “razorback” body was modified to a more rounded appearance in later Aeronca models.
A tubular bipod jutted above the cockpit with hanging wires running to each wing, supporting the wings when at rest. Two sets of streamlined flying wires connected the underside of each wing to the fuselage, anchoring the wings in flight.