Friday, July 19, 2019

College Park Aviation Museum flies you back in time

Man in aviation gear with toddler walking away behind him.
My grandchild is on the loose as I try on a helmet and goggles.
College Park Aviation Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is holy ground for aviation.

Start with the fact that it is on the grounds of the world's oldest continuously operating airport, located outside Washington, D.C.,  in Maryland. Wilbur Wright chose this location for the airport in 1909, initially as a place to train America's first military aviators.

True to say, that was only the beginning for College Park Airport.

The first woman to fly as a passenger in the U.S. went up here, in 1909. She was Sarah Van Deman. There was no seat belt, but a string was tied around her skirt to keep it in place. Wilbur Wright was her pilot.

Manikin dressed as pilot in front of recreated Wright biplane.
A figure representing Hap Arnold with a recreated Wright Model B Flyer.
The Model B flew from College Park Airfield from 1911-1913.
Powdered aluminum coating makes its wooden structure appear to be metal.
Future General of the Air Force Henry "Hap" Arnold set aviation records at College Park, becoming the first pilot to fly a mile high, in 1912.

He was the first to fly over the U.S. Capitol, took up the first Congressman to fly and also moonlighted as a stunt pilot in silent films, earning his nickname (it stood for "Happy") in the process. Hap trained new military pilots here, and went on to command the Army Air Corps, leading it in World War II.

The first Postal Airmail Service operations would begin here, in 1918. The airmail's hangar and its large compass rose ground marker remain. The airport's code "CGS" originally stood for the airmail's "ColleGe Station" of the 1930s.

Stylized image of woman pilot leaning out window of B-26 cockpit.
WASP Elizabeth L. Gardner's iconic image in a B-26 Marauder during World War II.
Women including WASP Elaine D. Harmon learned to fly at College Park.
Her flight log, uniform and Congressional Gold Medal are on display at the museum.
The first controlled helicopter flight took place at College Park, in 1924. Father and son Emile and Henry Berliner created a complicated looking machine, nothing like what we consider a helicopter today — they didn't even call it a "helicopter."

Historic photo circa 1924 of Berliner helicopter at College Park.
The 1924 Berliner Helicoplane.
Terrifyingly, it not only maneuvered, but could go 40 mph in any direction except up.

Incredibly, one of the Berliner machines survives and is at the College Park Aviation Museum on loan from the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

Built from a World War I surplus Nieuport 23 fighter plane, the "Helicoplane" uses two massive counter-rotating propellers above the wings for lift. A small propeller atop the rear fuselage tilts the machine slightly up or down, causing the downward force of the main props to move it forward or backwards.

Side view of Berliner helicopter.
Main rotor atop each wing provided lift. Louvers allowed it to bank for tuns.
A system of louvers on the wings reacts with the downward prop wash to tilt the machine for turns.

The triplane wings allowed gliding in case of engine failure, but with them in place the Berliner could not auto-rotate to land, a safety feature of helicopters and autogiros. More striking, the Berliner's motor wasn't powerful enough to lift the thing out of its own ground-effect down wash — about 15 feet!

Side of fuselage is open so tail rotor mechanism is seen.
Fuselage is cut away to show drive mechanism of small control rotor.
Note the tail skid, sprung with wrapped bungee cord.
This is ironic, as Emile Berliner's 1908 development of the rotary engine (the round motors used in the Nieuport 17s, Fokker Triplanes and Sopwith Camels of World War I) demonstrated the rotary's value to aviation. His historic first rotary engine was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1913!

My favorite part of College Park's aviation history, though, is its link to the ERCO Ercoupe. Henry Berliner founded the Engineering and Research Corp. (ERCO) in 1937 and tested its airplanes at College Park Airport.

Chief among these was the Ercoupe, a lovely little two-seater with twin tails, intended to be a safe and easy airplane anybody could fly. Indeed, there are stories of children flying them.

Airplane is hanging in front of a mural of the sky.
Meant to be the plane for everybody, the Ercoupe was clean, cute, and unwanted.
No rudder pedals! A steering wheel provided all the control the Ercoupe needed. It was the first airplane certified by the Civil Aeronautics Administration as "characteristically incapable of spinning" out of control.

ERCO naturally expected flyers returning from World War II to want to go on flying, and began full-scale manufacturing in 1945. It began full-scale marketing, too — you could buy one at Macy's.

It was a bust. Veterans wanted families, homes and automobiles, not airplanes. Production of the type continued fitfully by other manufacturers, up to 1970, but the Ercoupe never became everyone's airplane.

There are other great planes on display at the College Park Aviation Museum, including the barnstorming JN-4 Jenny that taught America to love aviation. But the Ercoupe continues to spark my imagination.

Like so much else, it all started at College Park.

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