Flying Bathtubs Sell Like Hotcakes

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

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

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.

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