Retired U.S. Navy Commander Bob Coolbaugh looked ahead—and also to the past—when he started building a replica Curtiss pusher more than two years ago. His foresight paid off this past November, when he took part in the Navy’s Centennial Ceremony at Norfolk Naval Station. The event marked the 100th anniversary of the first takeoff from a ship, by Eugene Ely from an improvised runway on the cruiser Birmingham at Hampton Roads, Va., on November 14, 1910.
Though Coolbaugh incorporated some of the same materials used by Glenn Curtiss (bamboo, for example), he installed a 60-year-old engine from a Cessna in his bird, whose wings are covered with Dacron. Once his plane was complete, the 61-yearold Coolbaugh and aircraft restorer Andrew King opted to fly it the 150 miles from his home in New Market, Va., to Norfolk—no easy feat. In an interview with the Virginian-Pilot, Coolbaugh described the pusher as “squirrely,” adding,“You never stop fighting it.”
Coolbaugh had hoped to take off from a carrier during the celebration, but that was nixed by the Navy brass. In the end he performed two fly-bys. His biplane was later lifted aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush, where he was photographed at its controls—after which the replica was shipped to San Diego for the Naval Aviation Kickoff & Aerial Review, scheduled for mid-February. Coolbaugh’s biplane will also be featured at EAA AirVenture in July. See video clips or read Coolbaugh’s account of how he modified his replica by visiting eaa.org/news/2010 and clicking on the October 14 link.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.