Boeing retiree dreams of flying his 'bathtub' plane
An 84-year-old Renton man used pot lids, dirt-bike wheels and other re-purposed parts to create a replica of a 1924 craft. At long last, he hopes to pilot it this year
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Ed Kusmirek has built something special. Starting in his family room, then continuing in a garage near his house in Renton, he's fashioned what looks like an elaborate go-cart with wings.
It's a precise replica of a vintage airplane, a 1924 super-light "Dormoy Bathtub." Almost six decades ago, Boeing retiree Kusmirek, 84, hatched the dream of recreating this particular piece of aviation history — and flying it.
Now with his airplane built, Kusmirek needs only approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a quick refresher of his flying skills to take it up.
The original airplane sported a converted motorcycle engine and an airframe made from parts either homemade or bought at a hardware store. Kusmirek has mimicked that provenance.
In the 1950s, he bought the authentic engine he needed for $40, caked in red Oklahoma dirt. Dismantling and restoring that was the beginning.
Over the past seven years, he's made the airframe himself, using many re-purposed bits and pieces.
The wheels came from a dirt bike. The tension wires inside the wings are spokes from a bicycle.
"The Wright brothers used a lot of bicycle parts," Kusmirek said. "I figured there's no reason I couldn't take advantage."
Showing off the finished airplane parked in an open hangar at Enumclaw Airport, Kusmirek pointed to various other unusual items.
The wheel hubs and a cover on the engine are made from saucepan lids. The tail skid at the rear of the fuselage uses a spring from an old recliner. The edging around the cockpit is pipe-insulation foam covered with chamois leather.
The axle suspension incorporates a bungee cord from a rowing machine at the Valley General Hospital fitness center. The hubcap on each wheel is the top of a plastic soda bottle.
"It isn't structural," he offered assuredly, regarding that last item. "It's just a cover."
While Kusmirek was coating the fabric of the wings with dope, he used the flexible hose from his sleep-apnea machine to protect the cables that control the movable surfaces.
If this litany of recycling sounds like the work of a dilettante, that would be to mistake Ed Kusmirek. Yes, he has a quick laugh and a Tintin-like tuft of fine silver hair sticks up from his freckled pate, enhancing an air of boyish enthusiasm.
Yet he's a serious overachiever, a veteran of 39 years at Boeing who worked at high-end research, not production.
Without a college degree, he ended his career as an instructor in Boeing's manufacturing engineering organization.
For this project, absent detailed plans for certain instruments, Kusmirek had to invent them himself.
He invented a mechanical airspeed indicator, and tested it in a wind tunnel at the University of Washington.
He invented a fuel gauge for the five-gallon gas tank above the pilot's head.
Now the airplane awaits only a few cosmetic tweaks at Enumclaw. This week, Kusmirek hopes to taxi it along the ground and perhaps take it on a few preliminary excursions down the runway.
He plans to fly his "Dormoy Bathtub," possibly later this year.
At the Enumclaw hangar, the cramped open cockpit would not accommodate the legs of a 6-foot-tall visitor. But Kusmirek's 5-foot-5 frame can squeeze in.
He concedes that "it's not a pleasurable aircraft to fly. It's very pilot unfriendly."
So why the long obsession?
Kusmirek was studying the line drawings in a 1954 book called "Airplanes of the World," when the simplicity of this plane took his fancy.
"I love this little airplane. I'd like to build it," he told a friend then.
"I have this innate desire to mess with things mechanical," he says now. "It looked so rudimentary, so birdlike. That's what started it all."
The 1960s-era family room at his house is the den of a man who loves to build things.
A cardboard beer package stores meticulous technical drawings on rolled sheets of Mylar and graph paper.
On the desk, notebooks penciled in neat block letters record in fine detail the history of his project. Tucked inside is a copy of the original 1924 blueprint of his plane, courtesy of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
By the pool table, next to his detailed plan of the fuselage, a carefully shaped piece of wood crisscrossed with pencil lines is the template for the ribs inside the wings.
A functioning scale model of his airplane hangs from the ceiling. With his finger, Kusmirek pulls some wires on the model to show that the wing and tail control surfaces all move as they should. Of course.
Kusmirek will soon ask the FAA to certify his full-scale plane as airworthy.
He also plans to practice flying small airplanes. He has a pilot's license, but admits he hasn't flown much in recent years.
"Owning my own airplane is a little above my income level. I have very little airtime," he said.
He plans to take some lessons in a small airplane. "I have to get checked out so I will feel sufficiently proficient," he said.
He doesn't intend to fly his baby very much. He'll probably take it up for a quick spin just once, a proving flight to put the crown on his accomplishment.
Then he plans to tow the plane to the Port Townsend Aero Museum, where he is donating it.
Still, what he's contemplating is not to be taken lightly. Various replicas of the Dormoy Bathtub have been flown over the years, and some have had a bad end.
In 2008, a Bathtub replica crashed and killed the new owner on its first flight near Brodhead, Wis.
In 1994, a similar crash in California killed a retired high-school shop teacher who had built the plane himself.
Yet Kusmirek's family has faith in him.
His eldest son Dan, who sometimes lent a hand with the airplane project, said that over the years his father has built, fixed or restored many machines and "the things he's put together seem to last indefinitely."
Is he worried about his 84-year-old dad flying an airplane with state-of-the-1924-art technology?
"I'd like to say I'm terrified," said Dan Kusmirek. "I'm really not. I have no doubts about his ability."
He recalled that when the family moved from Wichita, Kan., to Renton in 1968, the Heath-Henderson converted motorcycle engine was one of the first things loaded on the U-Haul.
"In good conscience, I couldn't say to him, 'You've taken it 99 yards, but someone else should take it to the end zone,' " Dan said, turning to his father. "You get to finish it up, Dad."
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org