John has long been interested in the story surrounding the iconic flight of the Ryan NYP commonly referred to as "The Spirit of St. Louis".
In the early 1990's John thought he'd like to build a replica NYP but had no idea where to find plans for the airplane. After a bit of research ... prior to the advent of the 'world wide web' and the internet as we know it today ... he contacted the San Diego Air and Space Museum in California to see if they might be able to steer him in the right direction.
Sure enough! They had copies of what were known as the "Ed Morrow drawings", and John could have a set of those drawings for $1,000.00 ... however, he would need to provide them with a written statement that he would NOT build an airworthy aircraft using those plans!
What good were those plans if he couldn't build the plane to fly? He passed on their offer and did more research.
Eventually he was given the phone number for Ed Morrow himself and gave him a call.
Ed was the 'metal-fitting' foreman (a.k.a. 'welder') and part of the more than 35-person crew who built the original Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.
Ed had drawn a set of plans from memory several years after the original aircraft flew and those plans were used to modify the 'replica' aircraft built for the movie "The Spirit of St. Louis" starring Jimmy Stewart in 1957.
When John told Ed what the folks at the museum had said, Ed told John he would send him a set of plans himself if the museum wouldn't send them without a waiver!
Unfortunately, "life" got in the way and with a young family to raise, John put his plans to build the replica 'on hold' and moved on. He failed to get those plans before Ed passed away in 1994.
Nevertheless, after the kids were grown and on their own John found himself once again thinking about that famous aircraft and wondering what it would take to build one. He knew he wasn't getting any younger and figured if he was going to build one in THIS lifetime, he had better get started.
In late 2011 John once again contacted the San Diego Air and Space Museum to see about ordering a set of those plans. This time he was pleasantly surprised when they asked for his address and told him they would send out a CD with the plans on them the next morning. No request for any amount of money and no request for any kind of a statement about NOT building an airworthy replica!
Thus began the next project on John's agenda. A replica "Ryan NYP". At this point John was not thinking about making his project an exact replica. He planned to use a Lycoming 680 engine on it since he doubted he'd be able to find a Wright J-5 Whirlwind like the original had. He was also unaware how many errors there are on the Ed Morrow drawings when compared to the original.
John had a lot to learn about his newest project and we will share some of those discoveries with you as we take you along on the journey we experienced during the construction of his Definitive Reproduction Ryan NYP!
Once the CD with the 'Morrow' drawings arrived in the mail, John got right to work building a plywood 'jig' into which he would put the tubing to keep it all in place as he welded the joints together.
John ordered the tubing he would need to build the fuselage for the Ryan NYP replica in April 2012. It arrived in a single, 20-foot long by 8-inch wide and 8-inch tall crate. Who would ever imagine that all the tubing one would need to build the fuselage of an airplane the size of the Spirit of St. Louis could fit in a crate that size?
Fuselage tubing in the crate on the floor.
Wing spar material on the sawhorses above.
During that same month John also ordered the four Sitka Spruce wing-spar 'blanks' he would need for the one-piece, 46-foot long wing he would need to build for his replica Ryan NYP. Each 'blank' was 24-ft. in length.
John immediately got to work measuring, cutting and fitting the tubing into the jigs he had built and by early June he had the fuselage tubing welded together and the single door on the starboard side of the fuselage in place.
With the fuselage tac welded together, it was time to add a few of the controls that belong in the cockpit. John built and installed the rudder pedals, the control stick, the throttle quadrant and trim control. Additionally he cut out a new plywood instrument panel into which he began to install some of the instruments he had already begun to collect for the project.
Throttle Quadrant and Trim Control
Then it was time to build the motor mount that would eventually hold the engine. John needed to find something he could use as a template around which he could bend the tubing to get a perfectly round 'ring' of a specific size.
As he looked around his shop he realized the chuck on the pre-World War I lathe that sat against the wall of his shop was exactly the right diameter he needed.
He filled the tubing with sand and welded the ends so the sand would not fall out. Then, using his torch to heat the tubing, he had his son Mike pull the tube around the lathe chuck until it was all the way around the chuck ... and then some.
After removing the sand, and welding the ends together, he had a perfectly round 'ring' to build the motor mount with.
By July 2012 John had completed the motor mount and installed it on the fuselage.
It was about this time that John discovered a photograph of a 'Lunkenheimer' fuel manifold while searching for parts online. This discovery allowed John to meet Ty Sundstrom, the owner of the manifold, and subsequently led him to make the decision to build his replica as authentic to the original as he possibly could.
Ty, as it turned out, had been researching the original build for nearly two decades by then. He had already built more than one replica and was fully aware that the "Morrow" drawings were not accurate. He informed John that the tubing called for in the drawings was too thick. He also told John that the drawings have the fuselage 2-inches too tall at the rudder post!
That meant that John had to cut his fuselage down ... from aft of the door ... all the way back to the rudder post ... on both sides!
What a dramatic difference that made in the angle of the slope from the cockpit to the tail. When compared to photographs of the original Ryan NYP, it was clear to see that Ty was correct!
Ty was kind enough to send John numerous photographs of the original aircraft as it was being built in 1927. Several of the photos he had marked with details he felt were important for John to take note of as he was building the Spirit of St. Louis by JNE so that it would be as accurate as possible.
The original had many modifications made to it throughout the one calendar year it flew. Each modification created a different "look" than it had before. Once John realized he was going to build his replica accurate to the original, he then had to decide which time frame he wanted his replica to represent. After much discussion, and reviewing multiple photographs of each modification, John decided he wanted his aircraft to exactly resemble the original aircraft as it appears to visitors today when they see it hanging in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Gallery at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
The original Ryan NYP known as the "Spirit of St. Louis'" as it hangs in the Smithsonian's NASM
The 'Morrow Drawings' were suitable enough to build the replica aircraft used in the Hollywood movie, "The Spirit of St. Louis" starring Jimmy Stewart in the 1950's, but they wouldn't hold up to close scrutiny when being compared to the original airplane.
So, we set about learning what we could do to find accurate information on the original Spirit of St. Louis, in order to build a replica that was authentic to the original in every conceivable way.
Visiting the Original:
One day in May 2014 while I was making sure the various links on our website were all still intact, I clicked on the one for the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC.
When the page opened I was greeted with an article entitled, "Where's the 'R'?" which explained what history has told us about what happened to the Ryan insignia on the right side of the rudder when Lindbergh landed in Paris on May 21, 1927.
Along with information about the missing "R", this article revealed that just one month prior ... "Boeing announced a most generous donation of $30 million to the museum to promote our educational programs and to reimagine and reinvent our signature main hall."
The article went on to say that they would consequently be lowering the Spirit of St. Louis to the floor for the thrid time since it was installed in the Nationa Air & Space Museum's new hall (its present location) in 1976.
My mind began to race with anticipation of what that meant to us ... and how we might be able to make a trip to the museum while it was on the floor ... and where do we even BEGIN to find out who to contact about such a request ... and so much more!
When I showed John the article, he was as excited as I was. We both understood what a wealth of accurate information we might be able to obtain with a visit 'up close and personal' to the aircraft.
John immediately sent an email to Ty ... who knew a guy ... who knew a guy ...
In a very short space of time I was communicating directly with Dr. Robert Van der Linden, the responsible curator for the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum "Milestones of Flight Gallery" ... and coincidentally, the author of the article "Where's the 'R'?".
After explaining the purpose of our request to have access to the aircraft, he graciously granted us permission.
Once Dr. Van der Linden provided us a time frame for when the Spirit would actually be ON the floor, I made all the reservations we needed for our research trip to Washington DC. John put in his vacation request at Boeing ... and we began making a list of all the information we hoped to gather during this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
On the 26th day of March 2015 we signed in at the security desk at the National Air & Space Museum where we received our "visitor" badges and were then allowed inside the cordoned off area surrounding the Spirit of St. Louis.
One of the most difficult questions we had been working on was the actual curvature of the rudder. We had dozens and dozens of photographs to study, but without having anything to determine the precise ANGLE the photographs were taken from, there was no way to definitively scale the photographs to obtain the exact curvature.
Therefore, one of the first things we asked to do as we began our research on the Spirit of St. Louis, was if we could make a paper 'tracing' of the actual rudder.
Malcolm Collum (the Chief Conservator at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum) held the butcher paper at the top of the rudder while Mike Gretz held it at the front of the rudder and Heather Norman held it against the back side of the rudder as John traced around it.
Another area of particular interest was the landing gear. In the photo below we have John measuring the amount of "travel" that is available for the shock as Heather records the measurement the tape reveals.
Ty and his friend Mike Gretz joined us for this research trip. Mike kept busy taking photographs of every nook and cranny he could find on the aircraft, as well as overall photographs as we and Ty were taking measurements of various, specific parts.
In the photo below Mike captures Ty measuring the length of one of the call numbers painted on the under-side of the wing.
Once we knew that we were going to be able to go back to Washington DC to do our research on The Spirit of St. Louis while she was on the floor, John made some inquiries to see if he could get his hands on an RVI (Remote Visual Inspection) camera. Being an inspector at Boeing, he knew the value those cameras could provide for looking into spaces that cannot be seen by a simple visual inspection.
John knew that we would not be able to remove any of the fabric off The Spirit of St. Louis to see what lay beneath it. Still, there were so many burning questions in his mind about what that fabric could be hiding, that he wanted to at least TRY to find a way to see behind ... around ... and under ... that fabric and other areas that were hiding what he wanted to see.
John contacted a representative at RF System Lab in Traverse City, Michigan. After explaining what he was looking for, and WHY he was looking for it, they offered him the use of their VJ-Advance Video Borescope ... free of charge! They even paid for shipping the unit to our house as well as the return shipping when we were finished with it. How could we pass up an offer like that?
Ty watched the camera screen over John's shoulder as John used a length of 1/2-inch PVC pipe to direct the end of the RVI camera into the area above the main fuel tank, inside the wing, where the original center, wing fuel tank had once been installed. That tank had been removed from The Spirit when Charles Lindbergh landed at Teterboro, New Jersey on the homeward leg of his USA Tour in 1927, and was never re-installed.
Most people are unaware that the Spirit of St. Louis has a vent that brings 'fresh air' into the cockpit through a metal channel installed in the wing. WE didn't even know such a thing existed until we were standing under the wing and became curious about what that 'hole' in the lower side of the wing was all about!
Using the RVI camera, John discovered a square tube that led into the cockpit of the airplane where a butterfly valve could be opened or closed to control the volume of air allowed into the cockpit.
In the photograph below, John is showing Malcolm Collum (the chief conservator from the National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center) what he is seeing about the vent tube on the RVI camera screen.
John had read about a time when the Ryan crew had been adding fuel to the Spirit of St. Louis, during the fuel load testing, using a rubber hose. Apparently the hose was slippery and the individual holding it lost their grip and the hose slipped into the main fuel tank. The crew discussed whether it would be acceptable to just leave the hose in the tank, or if they needed to remove it. The concern was whether the fuel itself might degrade the hose causing it to disintegrate and possibly block the fuel flow to the engine. It was determined they would remove the hose.
The information we could find no record on was HOW they removed the hose.
John discovered the answer to that question on 26 March 2015 as he slipped the RVI camera between the fabric and the fuel tank, directing it back toward the cockpit from his position near the engine.
John discovered a 'patch' in the side of the tank where it had been cut open and then repaired, clearing up all question about HOW they had removed the rubber hose!
Another piece of the puzzle that John was curious about was Charles Lindbergh's 'lost' log book. History has recorded the story that someone 'stole' the logbook shortly after the Spirit of St. Louis landed at Le Bourget field in Paris on May 21, 1927 and it has not been seen since.
John wondered though ... could it possibly have just slipped under the floorboards? ... out of sight and out of reach?
That was a question John HAD to answer for his own peace-of-mind. What better way to resolve that question than to have a look under the floorboards with the help of the RVI camera?
John carefully directed the RVI camera over the floorboards and under the main fuel tank from just below the right rudder pedal to take a look.
I think it's important to note here that John is not one to use profane language to communicate any emotion he might be experiencing. That is simply not in his nature.
That being said, you might imagine our surprise when after maneuvering the end of the camera around to see what he could see, suddenly we all heard him exclaim, "Holy Crap"!
I'm sure the museum visitors that morning much have wondered what happened to have all of us who were inside the cordoned off area surrounding the Spirit of St. Louis suddenly all converge around John with the RVI camera.
I knew that he was hoping to find the 'stolen' logbook that recorded Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris nearly 88-years earlier. I also knew that John did NOT normally use language such as what he had just uttered, so I was particularly excited to learn just what he HAD discovered!
As it turned out, it was not the logbook, but rather, a pair of pliers lying on the belly fabric below the main tank, surrounded by 'dust bunnies'. John could see evidence that the pliers had been there for quite some time as the center belly stringer showed discoloration and scrapes from where the pliers had slid back and forth against the stringer.
After we returned home to Washington state, Malcolm Collum retrieved the pliers from under the main fuel tank. Once he had them in hand, it was clear to see there was paint on the handle portion of the pliers.
When compared to the paint on the fuel manifold, the oil tank and the fuel tanks installed in the Spirit of St. Louis, it became obvious the paint on the pliers was likely the same paint used at the Ryan Aircraft factory when the Spirit of St. Louis was being built in San Diego in 1927.
This revelation indicated that the pliers had left San Diego inside the Ryan NYP with Charles Lindbergh when he headed to New York to begin his historic, solo, non-stop, transatlantic flight in May 1927.
What an amazing discovery!
These photographs of the pliers can now be viewed on the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum's page:
Heather Goss tells more about this discovery in an article she wrote for the Smithsonian's "Air & Space" magazine published in the August 2016 edition entitled: "Look What Lindbergh Left Inside the Spirit of St. Louis"
When John builds or restores an airplane, he does it in phases.
The first phase is what he calls the "Construction" phase. This is when he prepares the basic structure of the aircraft to ensure all the tubing is airworthy and placed in the proper position along the fuselage and in the correct angle to any other piece it attaches to, and so on. At this point the tubing is only 'tac-welded' together so that it is simple to change if any adjustments NEED to be made.
He considers the time he spends on collecting, inspecting, and preparing any accessories that may be included in the final product as more of the work he does during this "Construction" phase.
The next phase is the "Build" phase. This does not begin on any section of the project until John is satisfied that he has the correct, airworthy, materials and all of the technical information he needs to accurately complete the section of the project he is working on.
The "Finish" phase does not begin until after the "Build" has been completed.