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)
(Page 2 of 3)
There was no windshield or brakes (to slow the aircraft, the pilot had to reach out with gloved hand and grab a tire), and only meager instrumentation. The cockpit had a plywood seat, a stick to move the ailerons and elevators, and a foot-operated rudder bar that pivoted like the steering mechanism on a child’s sled. Spoked buggy tires carried the forward fuselage; the tail sat on a metal skid. An engine eventually would sit at the apex of the aircraft’s slanted front end. But first, Roche had to find an engine.
He tried one from a Henderson motorcycle, the fastest bikes of the era, but the four-cylinder engine could not get the airplane off the ground. Roche then asked another McCook colleague, Harold Morehouse, to build a suitable powerplant. In 1925, the airplane was fitted with Morehouse’s new 29-horsepower, two-cylinder gasoline engine and moved to nearby Wilbur Wright Field for testing.
During a September 1 taxiing test, Dohse inadvertently gave the Morehouse too much throttle and the airplane lifted off. Finding himself in the air, Dohse decided to stay there. He climbed and circled, then landed. After backslapping, the trio went back to work. Some 200 flight tests followed.
A crackup in 1926 destroyed the Morehouse engine. Morehouse had left McCook, so Roche turned to two other Army engineers, Robert Galloway and Roy Poole, who built a 107-cubic-inch, two-cylinder engine producing 26 horsepower. It became the aircraft’s standard powerplant.
In November 1928, several business and political luminaries—among them Dow Chemical and Drug Company executive I.C. Keller and eventual U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft—formed the Aeronautical Corporation of America in Cincinnati and scouted around for an airplane. Their search took them to Wright Field the following spring for a demonstration of what by then was more soberly called the Roche Original. While Dohse put the Original through its paces, Roche plied the watching VIPs with his aeronautical knowledge. Aeronca (the shortened corporate name became official in 1941) had its airplane.
Except for being fitted with a windshield and overhead windows and having its assembly modified for mass production, the prototype emerged from the adoption process virtually intact—except now it was called the Aeronca C-2.
BY THE LIGHT of a battery-powered lantern, Edward Wynkoop Stitt squinted at an unscrolled map in his lap. It was July 1937, and Stitt had taken off in his C-2 from Columbus, Ohio, with an extra 30-gallon fuel tank behind his seat.
He was trying for a light-airplane distance record, but for two days the C-2 had bucked strong westerly winds. Night had fallen and Stitt was having difficulty holding a fix on an airmail route beacon. Headwinds kept the little airplane more or less hovering. Furthermore, the C-2’s engine was sputtering. Stitt unknowingly was pumping too much oil into it from a reservoir next to his seat and fouling its sparkplugs.
As he leaned out into the night for another look ahead, his attention was drawn to an iridescent field amid dark timberland. An open area of prairie grass shimmered tantalizingly. The weary Stitt conceded defeat. He descended to the field, realizing too late that among the tall grass were scattered tree stumps. The rolling C-2 struck one and flipped. The damage to airplane and pilot was minimal.
At dawn, Stitt elected to stay with the downed machine. The next day, low on water, he ventured into the surrounding woods and came across a man riding a horse-drawn log. He hailed the startled woodcutter and rode the log toward civilization, which turned out to be Booneville, Iowa.
Stitt had set a new National Aeronautic Association-verified distance mark for light aircraft, having flown almost 584 miles, eclipsing the 449 miles he had logged in a flight two years before. Still, he was chagrined. He had landed with at least 10 gallons of fuel remaining. With better luck, he could have gone on, making it all the way to, say, Omaha.
Stitt told that story in 1956 to an 18-year-old Bill Smela, who had come to his auto upholstery shop near Trenton, New Jersey, to price a new top for his Model A Ford roadster pickup and was drawn to a photo of Stitt standing by an airplane. Shortly thereafter, Smela came back with $600 and bought the C-2.
EVEN DISASSEMBLED, the C-2 has tales, which Smela tells as he walks among the pieces in his shop. The lower portion of the airplane’s aluminum cowling, which Smela has replicated, was missing after being battered by, perhaps, an Iowa tree stump. Smela fingers a reinforced fuselage strut that had been fractured, possibly in that same adventurous landing. He was told that the two pistons in the E107-A engine were manufactured by the Indian Motorcycle Company. The engine’s cam lifters are stamped “Buick.” In 1930, airplane engines used both original engineering and gleaned parts.
Smela once actually flew a C-2—not his own. “It almost flew itself,” he recalls. Mike Haynes, an Alabama pilot, pretty much concurs. Haynes specializes in restoring aircraft and other antique machinery, and calls the C-2 “very easy to fly, very forgiving, very docile.”