A Fledgling gets its wings
During the first week of March, visitors that came to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum had the rare opportunity to see an aircraft being built right before their eyes. The subject of this unusual activity was the Museum’s newest restoration project, the 1929 Curtiss Fledgling, which was donated last summer by Gladys Burrill and her family.
The Fledgling was originally designed by Curtiss in 1927 to meet a U.S. Navy requirement for a new trainer to teach “fledgling” aviators the basics of flight; an acute need since many were still training on the Curtiss N-9, which was a naval version of the World War I Curtiss Jenny. Beating out 14 other competing designs, the N2C as the Fledgling was known to the Navy, was put into mass production with more than 50 being built. Its construction was of a steel-tube frame, an aluminum frame tail with wood frame wings, which was not much different from the Jenny it replaced.
Curtiss expected that the design would also have commercial potential, so they developed the Model 51 Fledgling in 1929, utilizing the unique Challenger radial engine of their own design. Consisting of two banks of three cylinders each, the Challenger’s cylinders are angled slightly fore or aft, making it appear to be a 6-cylinder radial (radials always have an odd number of cylinders aligned in a “bank”). Unfortunately, the Great Depression caught up with Curtiss and only 109 of the civilian Model 51s were built. Most served with Curtiss’ own air taxi service, resplendent in the company’s signature orange and yellow paint scheme, although a dozen or so went overseas to serve in Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey and Iran. The Museum’s Fledgling was the 51st one built and served most of its early years in St. Louis, Missouri. After a stint in Alaska, the aircraft was acquired by Gene Burrill of Medford in the 1960s who restored it and flew it for many years. It was donated by his widow Gladys in July 2009, and trucked to the Museum by his son Mike, who also serves as the emcee for the annual Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor program.
Over the last eight months, the Fledgling was cleaned up, given a “light” restoration and painted by the crew of volunteers in the McMinnville restoration shop, under the leadership of long-time volunteer, Bob Peterman. By the end of February, one big challenge remained… to get the wings on. With its rather long wingspan of over 39’ feet, the Fledgling was too wide to move out of the restoration bay with its wings in place. So, the restoration crew towed the aircraft across the street to the Aviation Museum, minus its wings, and placed in its display position for final assembly. Utilizing a crew of 13 people, including Mike Burrill and his son John, the crew began the task of attaching the wings which had been off the aircraft for more than a decade. With a forklift to raise and hold them in place, the team got the wings bolted on, the controls cables attached and the flying wires rigged over the course of a two day period, all within view of the public. For those there to witness it, the project was a fascinating demonstration of the teamwork and effort required to assemble a vintage aircraft.
Now completed, the Fledgling is a unique addition to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum’s collection and gives a glimpse into the “Golden Age” of aviation, when open cockpit biplanes served as taxis to take passengers or packages from place to place, in what was the beginning of air commerce.
A special thank you goes out to the Fledgling volunteer assembly crew who did such a great job of getting the big orange bird back together on the floor. They included team leader Bob Peterman and restoration team members, Dick Anderson, Lynn Bowen, Carroll Cannefax, Terry Dickenson, Al Dozler, Ben Erb, Jef Finch, Jim Lape, and Ray Mader. Evergreen’s jack-of-all-trades Terry Naig helped out with expert forklift operation, and Mike and John Burrill helped out with muscle power, knowledge of the airplane and video documentation of the process.