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Busy week of aviation heritage takes wing

Unveiling of replica biplane Saturday at Pearson Air Museum will draft off Wednesday’s celebration of Chkalov flight anniversary

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published: June 19, 2018, 8:25pm
13 Photos
Plane builders and Fort Vancouver staff members ease the Curtiss Pusher into the Pearson Air Museum at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on Tuesday.
Plane builders and Fort Vancouver staff members ease the Curtiss Pusher into the Pearson Air Museum at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site on Tuesday. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A team of airplane builders has been trying to set aviation back 106 years.

They reached their goal Tuesday morning when they rolled a full-size replica of a 1912 Curtiss Pusher into the hangar at Pearson Air Museum.

It was a tribute to the biplane piloted by Silas Christofferson, who took off from the roof of Portland’s Multnomah Hotel on June 11, 1912. He landed about 10 minutes later at the Vancouver Barracks polo grounds.

There was no landing Tuesday for the replica Curtiss Pusher: It will never fly. But it could, team leader Mike Daly said.

With a working engine, “It would lift off,” Daly said.

“All of the elements of the airplane are constructed with the same materials and techniques that Silas Christofferson would have used in 1912,” said Bob Cromwell, manager of Pearson Air Museum.

Tuesday’s journey from a nearby workshop to the museum was part of a busy week of aviation heritage at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Wednesday marks the 81st anniversary of the first flight over the North Pole. On June 20, 1937, Valery Chkalov and two fellow Soviet airmen ended their 63-hour flight from Moscow to Vancouver.

The annual commemoration will include a wreath laying at 9:30 a.m. at the outdoor Chkalov monument at Pearson Air Museum. Those attending will be able to visit an exhibit on the 1937 flight — “A Red Bolt from the Blue” — in the museum.

The grand opening of the full-size Curtiss Pusher replica will be at 1 p.m. Saturday in the museum. (The name comes from the rear-facing propeller that pushed the earliest airplanes.)

The National Park Service volunteers who put more than two years into the project will explain how they were able to copy an aircraft that no longer exists.

Dan Logan, Don Erickson, Mike Stensby, Dennis Darby, John Sutter and Alan Mitchell also were members of the core team.

It started a few years ago when some of the men built a table-top model — one-sixth scale — of the Curtiss Pusher for the museum. They looked at huge photos on the museum wall showing that 1912 flight and considered the possibilities.

“You know, it looks doable,” is how Daly recalled the conversation.

They started with the same plans they’d used for the table-top model — and then changed a few things.

“This one,” Daly said, referring to the full-size aircraft, “departed in a number of ways” from the scale model.

13 Photos
The team of volunteers who built the full-size 1912 replica biplane and Fort Vancouver staff move the plane from their workshop just west of the Fort Vancouver stockade to Pearson Air Museum at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver on Tuesday, June 19, 2018.
1912 Replica Biplane Photo Gallery

That’s because Christofferson’s 1912 plane didn’t look exactly the way aircraft designer Glenn Curtiss drew it up.

Christofferson’s plane “had extra wing length,” Daly said. The tail and the front boom (called a canard) also were longer.

Designing an aircraft around 100-year-old photographs can leave some gaps, said Mitchell, the project researcher.

“Every wire has a purpose,” said Mitchell, who pored over photos of Christofferson and his aircraft at the Oregon Historical Society. In many of the photographs, the wires are barely visible.

For some of the hand-crafted parts, the volunteers relied on time-tested tools.

“I used a spoke-shave I bought 50 years ago,” said Sutter, a master woodworker.

For some aircraft elements that disappeared decades ago, the team members had to make a tool before they could make a part.

“It takes almost as long to make the tool as it does to make the part — sometimes longer,” said Logan, a manufacturing engineer who did the metal-fab work.

With one tool he made, Logan was able to put just the right bend in a piece of wire. If he had done that task with whatever tool was handy, the wire might broken. And breaking a wire in flight, Logan noted, could be “awkward.”

“The beauty of this project was that everyone did whatever was necessary to keep the project moving along,” said Mitchell, who also is the team’s documentarian.

If You Go

■ What: 81st anniversary of Chkalov transpolar flight.
■ When: 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
■ Where:  Pearson Air Museum, 1115 E. Fifth St.
• • •
■ What: Unveiling of 1912 Curtiss Pusher replica biplane.
■ When: 1 p.m. Saturday.
■ Where: Pearson Air Museum, 1115 E. Fifth St.

That included bringing tools from their own shops, making parts runs when necessary and donating supplies.

Park officials are anticipating that descendants of Christofferson will attend the Saturday event, as well as descendants of the Cox family. They were passengers on some of Christofferson’s stunts, including flights under Portland bridges and aerial duck-hunting outings.

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter