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The postwar 11AC Chief (with a side of cheesecake) had 75 percent of parts in common with the Champion. (NASM (SI NEG. #HGC-121))

Flying Bathtubs Sell Like Hotcakes

The nation's first mass-produced lightplane started as a homely, humble homebuilt.

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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.

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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.

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