plans used metric measurements and were
in German, including some archaic technical terms difficult to translate. And like many
aircraft plans, the parts were detailed but
without hints as to how to make them.
Master mechanic Gary Buettner was
selected to lead the project. He helped the
volunteers set some basic project ground
rules. The airplane was to have an appropriate look, suitable for display in the museum,
but it wasn’t expected to be totally authentic. Original materials would be used where
possible, but some changes could be made,
especially if they increased flight safety.
While intended primarily for static display,
the replica would be built for an attempt to
fly, even if only a straight-line hop into the
air. No one anticipated how long or challenging the project would become.
A critical element of any homebuilt
project is the engine. While some other
Blériot XI replicas used modern engines,
the team wanted an engine appropriate to
the period. But 100-year-old engines are
scarce—and expensive! So the team used
a basic homebuilding strategy: bartering.
A French museum was willing to trade an
authentic three-cylinder Anzani engine
and some Blériot castings we needed in
exchange for a French homebuilt aircraft
they wanted from the EAA collection. The
project was underway!
Construction of the Blériot fuselage and
wings started with a basic element of almost
all homebuilt efforts: a strong, level table.
EAA’s carpentry shop built a sturdy, 24-by- 4
foot table, and it was carefully leveled in
a corner of the Weeks Hangar. The plans
specified ash wood for many of the fuselage
and wing parts. Large pieces of ash were
obtained and cut to size in the EAA carpentry shop, using special jigs to taper the
longerons. The team quickly learned that
building a Blériot called more for cabinetry
skills than modern aircraft knowledge. Some
of the needed skills were researched, like
waxing nails to prevent splitting wood, and
other skills were rediscovered.
An early challenge was forming the
required curves in the wood parts. Longerons
The occasion was an international aviation meet
in September 1911 near Garden City on Long
Island, New York. Thirty-six pilots had brought
their planes to make demonstration flights for
an estimated crowd of 10,000 spectators. U.S.
Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock convinced the
organizers to include an experimental air trial, so
special mail collection boxes were located around
the grounds. Volunteer pilots were solicited for
the trial and Earle Ovington was selected.
Ovington was already a well-known pilot in
the Northeast and a prolific aviation author. After
leaving his job as an engineering assistant for
Thomas Edison, Ovington trained in Louis Blériot’s
flying school in Pau, France. He returned to the
United States, bringing along a Blériot XI he nicknamed Dragonfly, a French mechanic, and a
souvenir mascot doll named Treize (the French
word for 13, a number Ovington felt was particularly lucky). Difficulty getting parts for Dragonfly
forced Ovington to switch to an American-made
copy of the Blériot XI, built under license by the
Queen Company in New Jersey. Ovington disliked the Queen Company’s simplified construction
and complained that “when they copy foreign
machines … American manufacturers … ‘improve’
the planes that they try to imitate until they won’t
leave the ground, and if they do they are poor fliers.” Nevertheless he had already gained fame as
the first pilot to fly over Boston and as a prize winner in a Chicago tournament. He was preparing for
a transcontinental flight, which never occurred.
Hitchcock had hoped to personally accompany
the mail but realized that Ovington’s Blériot XI was
only a single-place airplane, barely able to carry
anything besides its pilot. Ovington was duly sworn
in to “guard and protect” a sack with more than
2,000 letters and postcards, which he balanced on
his knees. He took off at 5:25 p.m. on September 23,
1911, for the 5-1/2-mile flight to Mineola, New York,
and six minutes later he circled the post office and
tossed the sack into a clearing. The bag broke open,
and the letters scattered but were quickly retrieved
and delivered by conventional means. Further
demonstration flights were made almost every day
of the meet. The U.S. airmail service was launched!
In the decades to follow, Ovington made a few
more ceremonial airmail flights in other airplanes
he owned. He kept his lifelong interest in aviation,
and his last plane, a homebuilt, was his 13th.