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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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.”

It climbs slowly, Haynes acknowledges, “but once you get it up there and are cruising above the trees, it is a delight to fly. If it is trimmed out, you can take your hands off the controls and steer with the rudder. That’s what makes it joyous to fly, just looking around at everything, seeing the deer run in the woods.”

The C-2’s wing and fuselage proportions are akin to those of a glider—Jean Roche’s first love—but Haynes says it really is “a power airplane. I had to carry 1,900 rpm [engine power] or else it was coming down.”

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