As the world is set to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon, a husband-and-wife team has been silently paying tribute to another aviation first from an earlier era: the first non-stop solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
In Arlington, John and Heather Norman of Burlington are putting the final touches to an exact replica of The Spirit of St. Louis. It was the single-engine canvass plane that propelled the 25-year-old mail carrier, Charles Lindbergh, to legend status.
Lindbergh flew from Long Island, New York, on May 20, 1927. With little in the way of creature comforts—no heat, no bathroom except for a funnel, and no hot meal (he packed five sandwiches and a liter of water), the man known as The Lone Eagle flew without sleep and landed at Le Bourget airfield in Paris, 33.5 hours later.
The original plane is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The replica, however, will be on static display at the Arlington Fly-In, Aug. 16-18.
The replica is arguably the most loyal reproduction of the original: The dimensions are all the same, with a 46-foot wingspan, 27-foot length, 9-foot height, 2,800-pound empty weight, and five fuel tanks. It even has a similar engine, a Wright J-5 Whirlwind. Not only that, but the instrumentation panel is identical: fuel pressure, oil pressure, temperature gauges, clock, altimeter, tachometer, airspeed indicator, bank and turn indicator, and a liquid magnetic compass. Missing is a radio, which was also missing from Lindbergh’s plane to save weight.
The level of detail is amazing. For example, when Lindbergh landed in Paris, souvenir hounds tore some of the fabric off the fuselage. Those holes were patched up for Lindbergh’s later promotional flights around North and South America. The Norman’s plane likewise has similar patches on the fuselage.
Another example is the skin of the plane: The texture of the canvass is the same as the original, down to the tape covering the fabric. And the control yoke’s paint has worn off, as if it had been used for hundreds of hours.
John and Heather visited the Smithsonian several times and worked with the staff of the museum to get exact dimensions. Heather said, “There were no original plans for the airplane, so there were certain things that pictures couldn’t tell us.” John even used a video borescope — a flexible tube with a camera — to record holes and cavities within the structure. “I found a pair of pliers that they’d lost when they built the airplane,” John said.
The Normans have had dreams of building this plane since 1989. John said, “That’s when I started researching it and found that there were drawings in 1957 to make the movie (‘The Spirit of St. Louis,’ with Jimmy Stewart), but they were done by memory, they weren’t accurate. And that’s what all the replicas were built to. Even the braces and fuselage were backwards.”
But a growing family and busy lives, which included a career at Boeing for John, put their plans on hold until 2012. The plane would be built at the Normans’ property in Burlington, but eventually it had to move. “I didn’t have room; there’s no airport at my house,” John said. “I was gonna use the field behind my house, but they planted potatoes this year, so I couldn’t use it.”
Enter Sean Edwards of Edmonds, who owns a mechanic’s shop near Arlington Municipal Airport. He offered to rent half of his floor space to the Normans, and he will be doing promotional work to publicize the plane. He also has helped work on Paul Allen’s Messerschmitt Me-109 last year. So having the Normans at his shop was like a meeting of kindred spirits. “John and Heather are a huge inspiration to have under our roof,” Edwards said. “Their project is larger than life and we hope it’s the first of many.”
At this point, the plane still needs to pass Federal Aviation Administration certification. “Until it flies the first time, we don’t know what we need to do,” Heather said. “It has to fly anywhere between 25 and 40 hours,” John said.
Thus far, work on the plane has used up close to 9,000 man hours. And the estimated cost of materials and labor: Over $1 million. “This is my 32nd airplane,” John said.
Did I tell you he’s an aircraft restorer? No wonder he wasn’t daunted by this project.
Heather said that they sold a Hawker Hurricane restoration, and with the profits from that, they were able to pay off bills and invest into this plane. Plus, they used John’s wages from Boeing.
“So, this is a labor of love,” I remarked. At that moment, I could have sworn I saw John’s eyes getting misty.
The Lone Eagle passed away in 1974, but you can’t help but think that somewhere in a far-off horizon, he’s smiling down at this couple and saluting them.
For more information, go to: https://www.jneaircraft.com/the-spirit
For information on the Arlington Fly-In, go to: http://www.arlingtonflyin.org/
— Story and photos by David Carlos