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Paul Sieber, left, and Ernie Moreno demonstrate how stretched fabric will form the wing surfaces of their DH-2 replicas.
February 21, 2012
INDEPENDENCE -- When designed in 1915, Airco's de Havilland 2 (DH-2) biplane appeared as though it would give the British Royal Flying Corps the air combat edge it needed during World War I.
The DH-2 was a "pusher" -- its engine sat behind the cockpit. The configuration eliminated the need for pilots to fire a machine gun through the propeller and risk shooting themselves down.
With aviation still in its infancy, the then DH-2 was the F-16 of its time -- at least until Germany introduced the more capable Albatrosfighter in the latter half of 1916.
World War I Airco de Havilland 2 (DH-2)
"They relegated this plane to the scrap heap in as little as three months," said Ernie Moreno, a pilot and resident of the Independence airpark.
From a modern standpoint, the DH-2 is primitive, to say the least. There was no throttle; you flew at top speed or killed the motor to slow down or land. The craft's rotary engine -- the cylinders spun around the crankshaft -- spit castor oil out with the exhaust and was prone to catching fire.
"The nickname was the 'spinning incinerator,'" said Mike Pongracz, another airpark resident.
Still, Moreno said there's a degree of romanticism and curiosity when it comes to the DH-2. After first seeing a replica of the aircraft in flight on YouTube, he wanted to build one.
"It sparked my imagination," Moreno said.
He, Pongracz, Paul Sieber, Bruce Rose and Gary McCormick, all members of Independence Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 292, have embarked on a quest to re-create the past.
The quintet has been painstakingly constructing since 2010 full-size replicas of the DH-2, with some modern concessions for materials and engineering.
The project would put them in rare company when completed. There are believed to be only two working copies of the aircraft in the world -- one in New Zealand, the other in England.
The major components for the plane are close to being finished. Five sets of tail "feathers" and wings are sitting in the EAA 292's hangar at the Independence State Airport. So are the tail boom and fuselage for Moreno's plane; his will come online first and serve as the prototype for the others.
Work on the engine and other "plumbing" will follow.
"After that, it's a little sheet metal and a fuel tank, the fabric ... it will start to look like a real airplane," Moreno said on a recent build day.
"Then we'll have to hire a tour director," Sieber added.
Nearly a decade ago, 13 members of the local EAA chapter set out to build 7/8-scale replicas of the Nieuport 11 French fighters.
Three sets of wing sections are built and waiting in the EAA hangar at Independence State Airport for their time to be assembled.
As such, there's been much interest in the progress on the DH-2s, Sieber said. And not just local. A pilot visiting from Australia last summer offered to plunk down a deposit on two of the aircraft once they were finished, he said.
"But who wants to give their's up?" Pongracz said.
A major challenge to building was finding plans. None of the original 400 DH-2s built a century ago are believed to have survived. Neither have the blueprints.
The group members have utilized the Internet and their own aviation connections to acquire drawings and diagrams from England. Because they aren't to scale, they've calculated dimensions on their own.
Nobody who flew the originals is still alive, Rose said.
"It's not probable that somebody with true knowledge can challenge us or test our rendition," Rose said.
The original plane was primarily wood; the builders have replaced those parts with aluminum tubing, which will shave more than 300 pounds from the total weight.
Ernie Moreno checks the fasteners on a seat rail Thursday while working on the cockpit of his DH-2. Behind him is part of the fuselage, and hanging on the wall are aluminum tail sections.
The shapes of the wings have been altered to improve lift-to-drag ratios. Landing gear has been angled and connected differently so as to not break apart when touching down on the ground.
Instead of canvas separating man from engine, the group has installed stainless steel with fireproof material.
Another obstacle to resolve was how to cool the engine, as the DH-2 fuselage blocks airflow to cylinders. This version will use a water-cooled Volkswagen Vanagon engine, with modifications.
"It's coming in at about $6,000 or $7,000," Pongracz said. "In the world of aviation, that's unbelievable."
If things progress, a first flight could happen this fall, Moreno said, adding it will be a discreet affair to work out the project's kinks.
"If it flies well, that will take the onus off the others," he said. "The next challenge will be to get all five of them flying at the same time."
The builders are technically retired, though the time spent on a project like this indicates otherwise. Sieber recalled his wife accusing him of living in the hangar during the Nieuport construction.
Moreno said an average day for him is 8 hours. Fortunately, he lives "only 150 feet away from here."
Moreno said antique plane building is an art form and "an adventure in history."
"A lot of the appeal for me is trying to figure out why pilots and engineers did things and the way they did them."
Interested in following the progress on the EAA 292's DH-2 project? Visit the organization's website at www.eaa292.org for updates.