Original Spirit of St. Louis at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).
John Norman’s definitive reproduction of the Spirit of St. Louis in progress at JNE Aircraft in Burlington, Washington. (Photo: Kristopher L. Hull)
Most of us know that the distance between an idea and the flightline can be formidable. That said, it isn’t too difficult to understand why it took over three decades for John Norman of JNE Aircraft in Burlington, Washington, to start collecting parts and ordering materials to build an exact replica of the Spirit of St. Louis…in an age when many young people have no idea what it was. The saga of John’s dream has finally resulted in an aircraft that should become airborne in less than a year now. And the story of how it all evolved is truly fascinating.
Where are the Plans?
It was 35 years ago that John, an I.A. and A&P, began thinking about his replica project. Seemed like a nice idea at the time. The original Spirit has been part of the Smithsonian’s collection since 1928, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that aircraft will ever fly again. There have been several attempts to create a replica, or look-alike, but they were not exact, having been based or adopted from the “reverse engineering” drawings that Ed Morrow drew up in the mid-1950s for the movie, The Spirit of St. Louis, starring Jimmy Stewart. Ed had worked on the original back in 1927. He also helped build the copy that was used in the film, but he started out by modifying a Ryan Brougham, which had been on the Ryan production line when the first Spirit was being built. It turns out Ed’s memory had reshaped a number of components on the original aircraft. Some of his measurements and shapes (like the rudder) were pretty far out of line, and his fuselage truss was “reversed.”
When John was experiencing the first cravings for building his own replica, he contacted the Smithsonian for plans. They didn’t have any. They did send him some documents on the Spirit, but no blueprints. John then turned to the San Diego Aerospace Museum and learned that they had copies of Ed Morrow’s drawings, which many people assumed were accurate, but they would not release a copy of the plans without a check for $1,000 and a signed legal document from the builder that his replica would never be flown. That was unacceptable. Ed Morrow agreed with John on that. Unfortunately, the Museum’s attitude was intransigent.
When he approached the EAA about the replica they had built, which had a shorter wingspan, a smaller elevator, and a number of other concessions in the interest of safety, remarkably, John was told in no uncertain terms that he shouldn’t attempt to build and fly a copy of the Spirit. EAA and the San Diego Museum dampened John’s mood, but didn’t kill the dream. John had a young family to support, so he back-burnered the project…for over 30 years. (Today, he does the preflight and inspection on 787s before releasing the aircraft to their owners.)
The JNE Spirit of St. Louis’ fuselage after its return from the sandblaster. The author has painted it and begun to install parts (seat, etc.).
The Rib Jig
In 2011 John visited the San Diego Aerospace Museum and learned that they had a jig for making up ribs that had been used for the movie’s replica. The ribs were accurate. The Museum was selling them to raise money for their programs. John purchased one and was so impressed with the quality and the purpose that a year later, he contacted them and ordered a complete set. They agreed, but cautioned it could take up to a year and a half to finish all 50 ribs. John was in no rush and turned to research on the Spirit. “I bet I invested between 1,000 and 2,000 hours in research,” he said. Most of that time was spent in front of a computer.
When John ordered his set of ribs, he learned that the Museum, as the result of an alleged lawsuit, had gone through a change of heart with respect to Ed Morrow’s plans. They sent him a set on a CD free of charge and had no restrictions about flying a replica. It was a welcomed example of “legal” enlightenment.
Funding the Project
John has restored a number of aircraft over the years. When he sold the Hawker Hurricane project that filled his shop in 2012, he used some of the proceeds to purchase parts and materials needed to build the Spirit of St. Louis. The ribs were ordered in January 2012 and came in batches of 8 until he had a complete set. In April, 2012, he sold a J-3 project to someone in China and used the funds from that to purchase tubing for the Spirit fuselage. With that, he was committed, and all of his spare time was logged in the shop or pursuing information or materials for his replica.
John wanted exact copies of everything in the panel. “The problem is, all the original instruments from that era are in the hands of collectors, and most of them don’t want to break up their collection.” Between eBay and networking, John and his wife Heather eventually tracked down and acquired the basic instruments. However, since most of them had been sitting idle on various shelves for over 80 years, they all needed to be rebuilt. The total cost for the panel is north of $8,000.
Once committed, John made good progress. He tack-welded the fuselage frame. He built up the I-beam spars working with 36-foot pieces of Sitka spruce and slid on the ribs. As a concession to safety, John reduced the number of splices in the wing from 28 to 10. He eventually was able to assemble all of the major components, tail feathers, wings, fuselage, instrument panel, and engine mount, before he took it all apart and sent out the steel parts for sandblasting. When it returned, he painted the steel truss himself.
Measuring the Original
In January of 2015, the Smithsonian lowered the Spirit to the floor of the National Air and Space Museum for the third time since they’d taken possession of it in 1928. John was granted a full day to photograph and measure everything he could reach on the Spirit. Mindful that the Spirit is a national treasure, the museum had several people on hand to keep an eye on John and Heather, and they worked through a typical day in the museum, with crowds gathering around the aircraft and wondering what was going on. RF Systems Lab of Traverse City, Michigan, donated the use of a VJ-Advance video borescope camera for John to use with the Spirit of St. Louis. When he was looking under the main fuel tank, he suddenly uttered something like “holy crap!”. The museum executives were watching the monitor as John focused on a pair of pliers lying on fabric beneath the tank. Given the dust on the tool, it had been there for a very long time. The question is: How long? The Smithsonian is still looking for answers. The assumption is that they have been there since at least May of 1928.
The pliers found with RF Systems Lab’s VJ-Advance video borescope camera were lying on the fabric beneath the main fuel tank in the original Spirit of St. Louis.
What John got out of his day with the Spirit was the realization that Ed Morrow’s memory wasn’t as exact as John’s measurements. There were at least nine components in John’s replica that needed change. This included the elevator, which was 2.5 inches shorter between the leading and trailing edges than the original. When John restructured his elevator, he added 190 square inches to his tail. It’s worth noting that the dimensions John had originally come up with were based on the tail feathers for a Ryan M1 and M2, which were the first two aircraft produced by the Ryan factory. There undoubtedly were a number of parts from the M1 and M2 that were picked off the shelf and put into the Spirit. But as far as the tail goes, the elevator and horizontal stabilizer probably came off a Brougham, Ryan’s third aircraft, the prototype of which was being built at the same time as the Spirit. The rudder profile differs considerably from Ed Morrow’s half circle, which came from an M1, and no one is quite sure where the unique shape of the Spirit’s rudder came from.
John also learned that his version of the instrument panel was an inch too tall and was mounted two inches higher than it should have been. Fortunately, John had not yet started covering the airframe with his rare and authentic Grade A cotton. When he mounts that cotton, by the way, the seams will be identical to those on the original, and all of the patches that were applied after souvenir-hunters cut pieces out of the fabric in Paris will be reproduced in the exact size and location.
The Greatest Challenge
When asked about the greatest challenge in building a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, John responded without any hesitation: “The engine.” Lindbergh flew with a Wright J5 engine. It was considered the cutting edge in 1926. Only 150 copies of the engine were manufactured in 1926-27, and spare parts were limited. Finding parts today is just about impossible. John could not locate a complete, assembled engine. The best he could do was a basket case that allegedly contained a complete set of disassembled parts in need of overhaul…with a price tag of $35,000. Turned out, it wasn’t complete. Being an A&P, John was capable of overhauling the engine himself, but the absence of a number of parts required that he develop some new skills in developing replacements. The list of new parts in John’s engine is fairly extensive. So far, he’s invested $15,000 on the overhaul process, to say nothing of the hours he’s put into it. There will probably never be another Spirit replica with a J5.
What was the second greatest challenge? Again, without hesitating, John cracked a wry smile and said: “The rest of the airplane.” After a bit of laughter, Heather pointed out that the fuel tanks had been quite an effort. The originals were made out of terneplate (steel with a lead/tin coating) that’s no longer available, so they had to use galvanized steel, which John had never worked with before. He learned that soldering galvanized steel cannot be done with modern soldering equipment. The only way to get the desired effect was to use heavy, old copper soldering irons from the 1920s. For some reason that’s the only way the desired effect can be achieved.
JNE Spirit of St. Louis in 2013. Starboard motor mount cowling in place with “Spirit of St. Louis” painted on the ‘jeweled’ cowling. Templates of the engine cowling and the interior baffle system of the main fuel tank can be seen on the floor in front of the airplane.
Today, a modern homebuilder can buy a set of plans and a quickbuild kit with all the required materials, most of the holes pre-drilled and a lot of the systems pre-fabricated. For John, being focused on authenticity and precise accuracy, the challenge has been researching virtually every component in the aircraft. His trip to the Smithsonian was an invaluable experience that gave him irrefutable information about placement, size, lengths, shapes and the way all the pieces went together. The only concession John has made, in the interest of safety, is to add a five-point harness. Lindbergh probably never had a seatbelt. Otherwise, John’s effort is likely to be as close to a mirror image of the original Spirit of St. Louis as anyone could ever hope to achieve.
When Will it Fly?
The plan is to have the replica flying by May of 2016. John and Heather hope to take it on tour in July, visiting most of the cities that Lindbergh stopped in back in 1927, as part of the Guggenheim Goodwill Tour, after he returned from Paris. They are planning to use the tour to raise funds for Veteran programs.
To be continued…