DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — The husband-and wife team of Mark Marino and Sandra Ettestad doesn't shy away from a lofty challenge.
The Duluth couple is spearheading an effort to build from scratch a nearly authentic working replica of a 100-year-old airplane without the benefit of any surviving components or written plans.
Their only guideposts? A handful of photographs, some basic measurements, some written descriptions and what they could glean from studying other vaguely similar aircraft now on display in museums across the country, the Duluth News Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/Y2bFR6).
The couple has assembled a small but able team of local craftsmen and aviation buffs committed to bringing back a piece of history by replicating one of the first marine aircraft in the nation — the Lark of Duluth.
The original "flying boat" arrived in Duluth by train in June 1913, accompanied by a mechanic from its St. Louis-based builder, the Benoist Aircraft Co.
Greatly intrigued by flight, Julius Barnes, a wealthy grain trader, entrepreneur and philanthropist, paid $5,000 for the plane and named it in honor of his hometown. Barnes took part in the two-seat Lark's maiden voyage from Duluth on June 25, 1913, along with pilot Tony Jannus. Together, they became the first humans to soar under the Aerial Lift Bridge and out over the open waters of Lake Superior in motorized flight.
The airplane's arrival in Duluth caused such a stir that it gave rise to a celebration: the Lark O' The Lake Festival, which stretched over six summer weekends in 1913 and featured flight demonstrations, races, fireworks and games.
The Lark of Duluth was built less than a decade after the first successful motorized flight by the Wright Brothers in December 1903.
Mike Gardonio, a Minnesota Power pilot who has volunteered his time to help work on the replica, said he can imagine the intense interest the flying machine with its 35-foot wingspan would have generated at the time.
"When you think about it, in 1913 that thing was about as exotic as the space shuttle is today," he said. "Very few people had even seen someone fly, and to all a sudden witness people moving through the sky was truly remarkable."
As summer faded and winter neared, the Lark's chief pilot, Tony Jannus, approached Barnes with a proposition. He and his brother, Roger, had a plan that would allow the airplane to remain active long after Duluth's harbor iced over. With Barnes' blessing, the Jannus brothers made arrangements to crate the Lark, ship it to Florida by rail and launch the nation's first regularly scheduled air passenger service there: the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line in January 1914.
The brothers aimed to use the profits from their venture to buy off the plane, but Barnes said he never received a dime. The Florida air service operated for less than half a year, offering its final flight in May, having transported a total of 1,205 passengers, one by one.
The Lark returned to Duluth, serving another tour as the star of what appeared to be the final Lark O' The Lake Festival in summer 1914. As winter neared, the Jannus brothers relocated to Ohio and again proposed to buy the Lark. But in the midst of transfers and demonstrations across the nation, the flying boat went missing, along with its paperwork.
The Lark resurfaced on the West Coast later that same year, but was destroyed in a non-fatal crash-landing near San Diego.
Benoist, the most prolific airplane maker of its day, produced only one other aircraft of the same design as the Lark. Thomas Benoist, the founder and namesake of Benoist Aircraft, died in 1917 at age 42, when his head struck a passing telephone pole while he was leaning out of a moving streetcar. The airplane company he left behind closed its doors the following year.
Fast-forward 90 years to 2008, when a small group of aviation enthusiasts launched the Duluth Aviation Institute, intent on re-introducing the community to its role in the advancement of human flight. The founders of that upstart nonprofit soon settled on a plan to build a replica of the Lark of Duluth and have it ready to fly in time for the centennial of the original airplane's arrival in Duluth.
They also laid plans to revive the Lark O' The Lake Festival in 2013, featuring a working replica of the "flying boat." Details of the event are still taking shape, but the dates will be July 12 through 14, and the venue will be the Sky Harbor Airport at the end of Park Point.
"We're proud of our city and its aviators. And this seemed like the perfect chance to pay tribute to them," said Ettestad, one of the institute's founding members.
After months of research and design, Marino and his team of builders set to work. They have been toiling in a Sky Harbor hangar for more than a year to re-create the Lark.
The frame of the airplane is made of dense, clear Sitka spruce, just like the original, with holes bored through the larger wooden members to lighten the craft. The skin of the original plane was made of linen, but Marino decided to go with a more-durable polyester fabric, to which he has applied six coats of paint containing metal flakes to protect the plane from damaging ultra-violet light.
Jim Nelson, a volunteer who owned and operated a local welding company until his recent retirement, said the endeavor of rebuilding the plane from scratch has given him an even greater appreciation of the people who built the original aircraft.
"I'm just in awe of those fellas. All they had was word of mouth and concepts to go by. Yet they laid the groundwork for all the rest of us," he said.
Mike Shannon, a retired DM&IR Railway maintenance supervisor, described working on the replica as a learning experience. "It's exciting to get to help on a project like this," he said. "It's a privilege."
Shannon said that without Marino's leadership and dedication, however, the new Lark would have little chance of ever getting off the ground.
Marino and Ettestad operate Hangar 10 Aero, a business that specializes in custom and home-built aircraft plans, supplies and kits, including Mark's specialty: biplanes. The couple also owns and operates several local businesses, including the Portland Malt Shoppe and the Chocolate Ship next to Fitger's.
"Because of Mark's background and his experience, he's the perfect candidate for a project like this," Shannon said. "When you look at the workmanship that's gone into this airplane, you'd be hard-pressed to match it without Mark's experience."
He said Marino's determination has inspired the whole team.
"I've been around mechanics and builders my whole life, but he really impresses me. If he doesn't know how to do something, he's one of those guys who will figure it out one way or another," Shannon said.
But Marino's the first to admit that completing the airplane in time for the festival will require a big push. He hopes to have the new Lark in the air by May, but a lot of work remains before the plane is ready to test its wings.
Almost none of the antique airplane's components are available off the shelf. Even many of the smallest parts must be fabricated by hand. Take, for instance, the cable adjusters that will be used to fasten critical supporting brace lines to the airplane's wings and fuselage.
Marino spent about three weeks hand-twisting motorcycle spokes into different configurations, which were then stress-tested at a Cirrus Aircraft lab to determine the best design.
Now that Marino has settled on the best way to make the cable adjusters, he and his team must fashion 104 of them by hand. He considers three per day a decent output for one person.
"Fabricating some of these parts feels kind of ghostly or spiritual sometimes. It's neat to think that 100 years ago, other guys were doing the same thing with no CNC (computer numerical control) machines or water jets or lasers," he said.
But Marino has made use of modern-day technology where possible. He said HydroSolutions of Duluth has generously custom-milled several parts for the airplane at no charge.
Steve Dorsey, an engineer at Cirrus, analyzed the Lark's original design through photographs and suggested that Marino substantially increase the number of cables bracing and securing the airplane's wings.
"This plane was marvelous for its time, but it was built less than 10 years after the Wright Brothers' first flight, and they didn't have nearly the same kind of safety standards we have today," Dorsey observed.
Marino agreed that safety was more important than maintaining complete authenticity and followed Dorsey's lead, installing more cables.
Marino said he also made a few other tweaks in the name of safety, installing seatbelts and a basic instrument panel to keep tabs on the plane's engine.
Although much work still lies ahead, Nelson remains optimistic Marino will shepherd the project to completion in time.
"Given Mark and Sandra's commitment and the quality of the team we have put together. I have every expectation we will pull this off. But it's going to be tough. It's no slam dunk," he said.
Information from: Duluth News Tribune, http://www.duluthsuperior.com