|The Curtiss Pusher parked near ConocoPhillips Plaza at AirVenture 2011.
|Bob Coolbaugh in his Curtiss Model D.
PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER MILLER
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In 1911 Eugene Ely had to know the technical performance details about his Curtiss Model D airplane before making the first ever arrested landing on a U.S. Navy ship. And his survival indicates a good understanding of parameters like stall speed, approach speeds, and descent performance.
In Ely’s case the knowledge likely came from experience in the airplane, and not from an organized test program.
Ultimately that will not be the case for Bob Coolbaugh’s homebuilt Curtiss Pusher replica on display here at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2011.
A dinner conversation with the commander of the Navy’s Patuxent River Flight Test Center, during the November 14, 2010, celebration of the first aircraft takeoff from a ship in Norfolk, Virginia, turned into a complete, modern test program for the historic airframe.
“When he got back they were talking about this airplane because he was fascinated by it,” Coolbaugh said. “He put a bug in the flight test engineer’s ear.”
Ultimately the airplane was inducted into the Navy’s program. Coolbaugh and Andrew King, the Pusher’s other qualified flier, were certified as its test pilots.
“We flew an entire test profile on the airplane, as much as you can flight test a 100-year-old airplane,” Coolbaugh said. “They put modern digital strain gauges, sensors, data recorders, and video cameras on it.
“Now they are crunching the numbers and aligning the video, and on September 3 we will go back to Patuxent River for a presentation on the data.”
Recorded data will also drive a simulator of the pusher now under construction at the base’s Naval Test Center Museum. Simulation of the exact flight characteristics Coolbaugh’s replica exhibits will give museum visitors a taste of early 20th century aircraft control.
And those are not necessarily good characteristics. According to Coolbaugh, “The airplane has proven to be very difficult to fly, just because it is a 100-year-old airplane. It’s not because there are any design flaws or mechanical flaws, it’s just hard to fly because that’s the way it was 100 years ago.
“It was different and difficult.”
Inspired by the past
Inspiration for building the replica came from an active role Coolbaugh took in planning the entire Centennial of Naval Aviation (CONA) celebration. A 21-year veteran of naval aviation, he was quick to offer his thoughts to the CONA commission and start organizing historic aircraft owners.
But one important artifact was missing.
“Other than a couple of projects in the works at [the Glenn Curtiss museum], nobody had Eugene Ely’s plane that had made the first shipboard, arrested landing,” Coolbaugh said.
Others agreed that an example of such an important artifact was critical to the celebration. So, after contacting a friend who shared a set of Curtiss Pusher drawings, a replica project got underway.
“It took about six months to do the research,” Coolbaugh said. “Since the drawings were copies, of copies, of copies, of copies, and which we were not even sure were originals, we went to the Curtiss museum and the National Air and Space Museum and anywhere anybody had something from a real Curtiss Pusher.
“We would take measurements and realize, this is nothing like the drawings. Glenn Curtiss never built two Pushers that were alike. He was changing them every day.
“I went to [the Curtiss museum] and talked to Art Williams. He said he had five 1910 and 1911 wing panels that are certified Curtiss panels. I’m thinking on my way up there that this is great. There are five wing panels with less than a year between the construction of all of them. Not a one of those panels were the same.
“So we chose the best one, the one that seemed to be the most structurally sound, and I set up the fixture to make the wings based on that one.”
Reliving history a century later
Three years from its inception, the replica Model D first took to the air on October 8, 2010.
Coolbaugh and King then went into an intensive program flying off the 40-hour mandatory local flight restrictions required of any homebuilt so the airplane could attend the Norfolk celebration.
It was a laborious process.
Being a bit of a handful to fly, and limited to very light wind conditions, flight legs typically last no more than 30 minutes.
When traveling between events the pilots alternate for each leg, with the non-flying crew chasing the craft on the ground.
The airplane is on display here in ConocoPhillips Plaza.
Thanks to a SPOT tracker provided by Wick Aircraft Supply, the Pusher’s travels can be followed on the project’s website.