Posted by on Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Filed in: Aircraft Restoration, Benoist 2014
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Taking Notice

People are starting to take notice of our project to recreate the world’s first schedule airline service on January 1, 2014.  Local Tampa Fox News affiliate WTVT recently aired a segment on the Benoist project featuring our fearless leader, Kermit Weeks.

Are you making plans to be there when we fly?

Recently, Kermit and the crew visited Duluth, MN to check up on the progress of the “Lark of Duluth” project being built by the Duluth Aviation Institute.



This Benoist is a replica of the forerunner of the Benoist we’re building for the 100th Anniversary flight of the first scheduled airplane airline service on January 1st, 2014 flown by Tony Jannus from St. Pete to Tampa.  While we are approaching our construction efforts and purposes from two different design perspectives, our project gets to benefit somewhat by theirs, as we’re not “on stage” until six months after they are.

The Engine

The 140hp 4-cylinder 4-cycle GM marine engine.

The 140hp 4-cylinder 4-cycle GM marine engine.

Since there are no original 75hp six-cylinder 2-cycle Roberts engine available for our Benoist, we’re building one from scratch. They have opted to use an off-the-shelf 140hp 4-cylinder 4-cycle GM marine engine. Both are liquid cooled.

Since their engine turns at a higher rpm, they will have to change their sprocket ratio from the engine to the propeller to get the propeller to turn at the proper rpm. Our sprocket ratio will be the original 1:1, meaning the propeller will be turning the same rpm as the engine.

While it will certainly be less costly than our engine, it will NOT sound like ours. Think Honda vs. Harley!

The Cockpit

The finished cockpit

The finished cockpit

Here’s their cockpit. Kermit loved the way they did their seat construction. Currently, ours is plywood.

We’re sure the original did NOT have seat belts but both projects use them for safety.

The main control stick is the tall one and the rudder control is the handle on the left… forward for right and backward for left. Their workmanship is awesome!

The Wings

The finished wings

The finished wings

Here are their finished wings!

They hope to fly their airplane for many summer seasons so opted to paint all the fabric surfaces.

Most of the original pictures show unpainted fabric surfaces, which we will reproduce with just clear dope.

Showing off the Prop


Showing off the prop

Here, project head Mark Marino and Kermit show the position of the propeller, which is driven by two sprockets and a large chain.

This picture below was taken from the original airplane over Duluth from a camera mounted out on the wing. You can see the pilot squeezing the bulb with his left hand to take the picture!


Our visit pointed out just how far we have to go but at the same time served as a source of inspiration for all involved!

I recently had the opportunity to fly a beautiful Albatros reproduction in the Shuttleworth and Duxford Airshows just outside of London. My good friend Gene DeMarco from TVAL (The Vintage Aviator Limited) invited me to fly it while he flew an Re-8.  His boss Peter Jackson had them both built for an undisclosed trade with the RAF Museum at Hendon.

Flying a TVAL built Albatros destined for the RAF Museum  (Photo by Keith Wilson)

By the time I got to England, Gene and the mechanics had assembled both aircraft and we soon were test-flying them over the English countryside.

Gene in the Re-8 and me in the Albatros over the English Countryside!  (Photo by Keith Wilson)

We got to stay in a wing of the Shuttleworth Mansion, which was owned by Richard Shuttleworth, who began collecting and flying vintage airplanes prior to WWII.  Unfortunately, he was killed during the War but his collection continues to be displayed and they fly shows during the summer months.

The Shuttleworth Mansion!

I had visited the Shuttleworth Collection many times in the past but had never been to one of their shows!  This was to be a first of memorable proportions!

We flew a Sunday Show at Shuttleworth and then the following weekend at Duxford about 20 miles away; home of the Imperial War Museum.  The airplanes were still technically owned by The Vintage Aviator Limited but, much to the delight of the local aviation enthusiasts, Peter had offered to let them fly for the public before they actually changed hands.

Gene and I in front of the Re-8 about to go on a sortie!

Gene had the capability of taking up “tail gunners” and gave a number of rides to the mechanics and volunteers at Shuttleworth and the RAF Museum, which is something they rarely get to do.  Of course, I took every opportunity to fly the Albatros to give them the exerience of what it must have been like in WWI with an enemy aircraft bearing down on them. 

Gene and I give Re-8 riders the experience of a lifetime!

Gene and I both brought several GoPro cameras each and used them on every flight, changing locations many times to get different perspectives.  There were plenty of other cameras in the air and on the ground and we all got a chance to share photos as well as video footage.

A gunners view from the Re-8!  Fortunately for me, he was out of ammunition at the time!

The original Mercedes engine used in this Albatros was supplied by the RAF Museum.  Since the airplane was not meant to continue flying, they kept as many original parts in the engine that might have been replaced.  Consequently, it tended to leak a bit of oil and I always took several rags with me flying, continually having to wipe the windshield down soon after takeoff.

An oily windscreen is not helpful when engaging the enemy!

It was a great experience and a lot of fun doing photo missions and dogfighting with Gene.  During the actual shows, we would alternate following each other for the crowd in a figure-eight pattern.  Unfortunately for Gene, he could not take a passenger (tail gunner) with him during the actual show flights so, he was pretty much a sitting Duck for the Albatros!  :-)

An easy kill!

One gorgeous evening I spotted a giant hot air balloon overhead at about 2000 feet.  We were about to fly anyway, so I took off early and started climbing with two cameras rolling; one on my tail and one on my right strut, both looking forward.  It turned out to be a ride balloon owned by Richard Branson with about 15-20 people in the basket!  I had never seen such a big balloon and made several passes around it, sometimes with it in my sights.

I purposely didn’t venture as close as I would have liked but found out later the waving guests enjoyed every minute of it.  Without a parachute, I was a lot happier when I got back down to a lower altitude!  Later, Gene and I found out we had both made the Virgin Balloon website!  I sent them several shots from my “gun cameras,” including this one, which they later posted.

Bagging my first balloon . . . and a Virgin one at that!

One of my more memorable flights was a photo mission over the original WWI Airship Sheds at Cardington.  This was a Restricted Area and we had to get special permission to fly over them.  I can only imagine this had to be the first and only time this ever happened!

Not only did I get the opportunity to shoot down the Re-8 many (actually many, many times) but I also got to shoot down a balloon and bomb enemy Airship Sheds!  The Kaiser would have been proud!

Over enemy Airship Sheds at Cardington (Photo by Darren Harbar)

One fun thing that happened was that, at some point, one of the Shuttleworth pilots showed up with a ponytail hat; obviously as a subtle joke poking fun at mine.  Several tried it on for pictures and by the time we got to Duxford it was not so subtle, as most of the pilots were now wearing them.  Here’s a shot after one of the pilot briefings!

Ponytail Row!

While I’ve heard that “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,” I think there was some plain fun going on here as well.  One thing is for sure . . . they’ll be talking about those two crazy Americans that showed up adding some spice to their airshow season for quite some time!

I did a lot of Facebook posting while I was there and was surprised to discover during my visit that my “Most Popular City” was London, England!  Too cool!

Did I have a good time?  I think this picture says it all!


One happy Albatros Pilot!


Our master craftsman, Ken Kellett, recently completed the assembly of the Benoist upper wing. This marks a major milestone for the project and gives you a sense of the scale on the Type XIV aircraft we are building for the Benoist 2014 project. Here’s a picture of the completed wing with our fearless leader, Kermit Weeks, who will pilot the Benoist on the anniversary flight on January 1, 2014.


The next major assembly for Ken to tackle will be the fuselage. It’s really starting to come together!

Is the assembled wing bigger or smaller than you thought it would be? Let us know in the comments below.

I am very fortunate to have recently acquired an airplane I’ve had my eyes on for a number of years . . . a Sikorsky S-38!

Sikorsky S-38 currently sitting in Amsterdam!

This particular airplane was built up by Buzz Kaplan and Born Again Restorations in Owatonna, Minnesota with an original upper wing and original tail booms.  They had previously built one for the late Sam Johnson who re-enacted his famous father’s trip in it through South America looking for the Carnuba plant, which was used to make Johnson’s Wax.  Since they had all the jigs, and had come up with original parts, they built this second one and painted it in the colors of Osa Johnson’s famous zebra-painted S-38.

The airplane was owned by Tom Schrade, who had actually flown it across the Atlantic several years ago using the tailwinds as his reserve fuel.  He enjoyed flying the last three airshow season’s all around Europe.  I just happened to be in England at the time while he was buttoning up the airplane  for the winter.  He told me he was thinking of putting the plane up for sale and I jumped on a plane the next day to Amsterdam and we cut a deal!  The whole thing seemed to unfold like destiny!

Interior of the S-38

Martin and Osa Johnson were famous explorers in the early part of the last century and captured the imagination of the general public.  They were probably the first-ever documentary film makers.

The Johnson’s Sikorsky’s in Africa circa 1934-1935

Since I was fortunate to have already acquired Dick Jackson’s beautiful Sikorsky S-39 painted in the giraffe colors of Martin Johnson’s S-39, it was another confirmation that seemed like destiny!

My S-39 restored by Dick Jackson over 40 years and 40,000 man hours!

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia describing the Johnson’s exploits –

In 1932 the Johnsons learned to fly at the airfield in Osa’s hometown of Chanute, Kansas. Once they had their pilot’s licenses, they purchased two Sikorsky amphibious planes, a S-39 “Spirit of Africa” and S-38 “Osa’s Ark”.  On their fifth African trip, from 1933 to 1934, the Johnsons flew the length of Africa getting now classic aerial scenes of large herds of elephants, giraffes, and other animals moving across the plains of Africa. They were the first pilots to fly over Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya in Africa and film them from the air. The 1935 feature film “Baboona” was made from this footage.  

Their route in 1934-1935!

When everyone else was killing animals for sport and trophies, the Johnson’s were educating the general public about their plight and trying to save them.  Someday . . . their story needs to be told in a major feature film!

The plan is to disassemble the plane using one of the original builders, ship it back to Owatonna, and reassemble it.  I’m not sure when I might bring it to Fantasy of Flight but it will be late Spring or early Summer as I’ve got to figure out where I’m going to put it!  It might make sense to take it to the Oshkosh Fly-In next summer on the way to down to Florida.

The S-38 is an amazing addition to the collection and, now joining the S-39, represents two great historic airplanes together on display.  Now all we need is a great script, a director, some funding, and I’m off to Africa!



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