Ottawa restorers breathe new life into a dismembered 1929 ‘Wichita Fokker’.
The Travel Air 2000 was the brain child of aviation giants Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman, founders of the Travel Air Manufacturing Company in January 1924 at Wichita, Kansas. Drawing on structural inspiration from the legendary Fokker D.VII fighter, the 2000 was a doped-cotton-covered biplane with room for three, typically powered by a Curtiss OX-5 water-cooled V8. In its heyday the 2000 was popularly known as the “Wichita Fokker,” a good all-around aircraft and a frequent stand-in for D.VIIs in interwar films. But its wooden components—save for a tubular steel fuselage frame—and fabric skin made it particularly susceptible to the ravages of time.
Today a Travel Air 2000, part of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum’s collection, is slowly being brought back to life in Ottawa. After years in storage, the biplane was stripped down to its most basic components before being painstakingly reassembled, with new wood and metal components incorporated only where absolutely necessary. “We are aiming to keep 70 percent of the original structure and parts, with any replacements clearly marked for the sake of historical accuracy,”explained Steve Payne, the museum’s recently retired curator. “We want to bring this plane back, not create a replica.”
The restoration hangar is outfitted with woodworking and metalworking equipment (including an English wheel), an industrial sewing machine for stitching aircraft skins, a ventilated booth for applying wing and fuselage dope, an engine shop and a painting booth. There are even vintage cutting machines here for making accurately pinked “tape”—the cotton strips that cover any points of possible chafing on fabric-covered airplanes. “We can match virtually any kind of original tape that was used,” said Payne.
The team working on the 2000 includes Corey Stephen, Lee Norris, Mike Irvin and Matthew Bruce. “You have to be able to do everything to do this work,” Norris pointed out.“You have to be a cabinetmaker, machinist, engineer, mechanic and sewer.”
The Ottawa museum’s Travel Air 2000 was built in 1929, registered as CF-AFG—the 720th one built. “They built them on assembly lines and cranked them out,” Payne explained.“They had to, in order to make the business profitable.” CF-AFG was originally purchased by Janney Aircraft & Boats, based in Kingston, Ontario. The company was owned by Captain Ernest Lloyd Janney, who had convinced government officials to found the Canadian Aviation Corps in 1914. (The corps only had one aircraft—a secondhand Burgess-Dunne hydroplane—which was damaged during the ocean voyage to England and never flown in combat. The corps was disbanded in 1915, and thereafter Canadian pilots flew for the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, which later combined to form the RAF.)
After Janney, CF-AFG went through four private owners before ending up with Keith Hopkinson, a pioneer in Canadian homebuilt aircraft. When the museum purchased the Travel Air 2000 from him in 1968, it was in pieces, stowed in the rafters of his barn. It had not been flown in years, but at least being stored indoors had slowed its decay. Restoration work on the Travel Air didn’t actually start for more than 30 years.
Once the fuselage had been stripped of decayed fabric, the team discovered several surprises. Perhaps the most important was that CF-AFG was apparently made up of two Travel Air 2000 tubular steel frames, which didn’t fit together very well. “We had to do a lot of work to make the two parts meet in a true and straight fashion,” Payne recalled.
The second surprise was the engine: At some point the original OX-5 had been replaced with a more powerful OX-6. “Having the OX-6 gave the aircraft a bit more speed and horsepower [100 hp vs. 90 hp],” Payne explained. “But this was still an engine that, for all intents and purposes, was obsolete by the end of World War I. The reason so many of them are found in postwar biplanes is because thousands were available as lowcost surplus.” The OX-5/OX-6 was most notably used in the Curtiss JN-4. The OX-6 had two magnetos, whereas the OX-5 had only one, which meant OX-6 pilots had a backup if a magneto failed.
The third discovery—and this really wasn’t much of a surprise—was the degree to which the biplane’s wood and glue had deteriorated over the years. Much of the plywood had delaminated due to moisture, especially on the floorboards, where water could pool, and a good deal of the glue had turned to dust. Since glue holds the aircraft together, all that damage had to be repaired if the plane was going to be as close to airworthy as possible. “We don’t intend to certify it to fly,” Payne said, “but we want it to be in good enough shape to pass the test.”
When I visited the museum this past March, the fuselage had been rebuilt and was being prepared to receive new fabric. The OX-6 had been reinstalled, but the wings and engine cowlings had not. The wings themselves, freshly covered with fabric, were then in the process of being coated with nine layers of dope. The engine cowlings and screws had been removed and repainted.
A look at the fuselage without its fabric covering was revealing. With the cloth off, you can see just how thin the various pieces of wood are that make up this aircraft. Even more surprising are the small wooden formers and standoffs that provide shape to the cotton, which are tied in place with little lengths of thin string. “This is why biplanes have ‘no-step’ areas, and why the one section of weight-bearing wood is so much thicker by the cockpit,” explained Payne.“You step on one of these fabric-covered wings and you risk going right through.”
Restoring the fuselage has not been easy. Any wooden parts that need replacing have to be cut and shaped by hand. Wherever possible, new wood is added only where the old wood has failed—meaning that many sections are made of old and new wood intercut and glued together. “We use Sitka spruce, which was standard for wooden aircraft,” Payne said. “It is extremely lightweight and strong due to its very straight grain.”
A lack of blueprints has added to the challenge. Although plenty of documentation exists on the Travel Air 2000, much of which came from the Travel Air Restorers Association, it is incomplete. This is why, for example, the team had to make by hand a series of mechanically controlled radiator louvers from scratch, using photographs as their only guide. “We looked at a lot of them, and came up with something made of authentic period material that made sense,” Norris said. “Sometimes that’s the best you can do.” Replacement engine cowlings have also been handcrafted, simply because the original parts were missing or too badly corroded to restore.
As for the fabric, all of it has to be sewn together from cotton strips. The fabric is next wrapped around the wings and fuselage, then hand-sewn into place using a combination of stitches and small knots. These are then covered with the strips of fabric, which are tacked down with dope. The illusion of solidity that fabric wings seem to have is merely due to the tautness caused by the dope (it makes the material shrink) and the number of layers of dope applied.
From a 21st-century vantage point, perhaps the most impressive part of the whole restoration process is just how fragile these early flying machines actually were. It is amazing that they proved to be so robust during their service life.
The museum’s Travel Air 2000 will likely be completed sometime later this year. The restored aircraft will wear the same blue-and-silver livery it had upon leaving the Wichita factory floor in 1929. Inside and out, CF-AFG will be as close to original as it can be.“Our goal is to bring the aircraft back to life, and then extend that life as long as we can in our climate-controlled facilities,” said Payne. “With any luck, this Travel Air 2000 will last for centuries.” For more about exhibits at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, visit aviation.technomuses.ca.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.