Flying Both Sides

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When it comes to WWI aircraft, Airdrome Aeroplanes shows no favorites.

In rural Holden, Missouri, roughly 50 miles southeast of Kansas City, is a 10-acre island of recreational aviation in a vast ocean of corn and soybeans. The pole barns adjacent to its 1000-foot grass strip look like those on neighboring farms, until you look inside. The hulking gray lathe, milling machine, and drill press don't seem that out of place, but a CNC plasma cutting table? Then there are the airplanes, the Nieuports, Fokkers, and Sopwiths, which connect this home to Airdrome Aeroplanes to the forward bases the Allies and Central Powers trampled down in rural Europe during WWI.

That conflict, which started more than a century ago, turned flying machines into weapons. For the past quarter century, Robert Baslee, the company's founder and engineer, has been recreating one of them every year, showing no favor to either side. What matters more is the interest of the inclusive community of aviators who, like Baslee himself, are passionate about this era.

Aerodrome Schneider

Airdrome Aeroplanes is best known for building four full-scale Nieuport 17s in 52 days for the 2006 film Flyboys. (Baslee's Morane L appeared in 2009's Amelia, and he's now working two more movie projects that he can't discuss.) This reputation for quick and easy-to-build aeroplanes is a testament to the system and construction methods Baslee has refined and perfected. Modern structures recreate accurate three-view outlines of the originals, most in full scale. All Airdrome kits are affordable Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft that meet the speed and weight requirements for Light Sport Aircraft, and many of the three-quarter scale fighters meet the ultralight requirements of Part 103.

Airdrome Schneider on its test flight flown by the builder, Blake Thomas, with Robert Baslee.

In 2012, Airdrome introduced the Sopwith Tabloid, Schneider, and Baby. Side-by-side two-seaters, the original iteration first flew in 1914. Their re-creations began with a conversation with "the colonels" at the annual Freedom's Call airshow at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 2011. Col. Russ Turner, a retired Air Force flight surgeon, said he'd like to have a Baby to keep his Airdrome Sopwith Camel company. Col. Rob Warren and Lt. Col. Shelly Wells, airplane partners who are on active duty, knew the airplane, Baslee recalled, and said the Baby was derived from the Tabloid and preceded by the Schneider.

Not long before this conversation, at a fly market, Baslee found Windsock Mini Datafile No. 9, a British publication on the airplanes, which provided the information he needed to recreate them, and so the project began. When Blake Thomas, who'd built a Nieuport, heard about the project, he wanted to build the Schneider for his wife. Named for the race it won in 1914, Sopwith replaced the Tabloid's wheels with floats and gave it a bigger vertical fin. Thomas' Schneider would keep the fin and lose the floats. Both airplanes had a clamshell cowling that would neatly conceal a Valley Engineering VW engine and redrive, said Baslee. A Rotec R2800 radial with open cowl would take the place of the Baby's 110-hp Clerget rotary engine.

The Spirit of St. Louis at EAA AirVenture 2013.

Building the Aeroplanes

A constantly moving storm surge of aviation passion and interests, at age 14 Baslee said he mowed lawns and shoveled snow around Lee's Summit, Missouri, to build a fleet of remote control airplanes. "About a week before I was 16," he said, "I sold everything I had and used that to start my pilot lessons." Fast food jobs led to a private pilot certificate at 17, when he became an apprentice machinist, which is how he worked his way through a mechanical engineering degree after his 1983 high school graduation.

In his spare time, Baslee started building a KR-2 and helped friends with their projects that ranged from a Skybolt to a Glasair. "I ended up buying a VariEze, finishing it, selling it too, and turning that money into a Long-EZ and finishing that," he said, adding that he continues to sell one airplane to fund the next one.

Long fascinated by WWI aircraft, "I'd always wanted a Fokker Dr. 1 Triplane." There were a few homebuilt replicas available, said Baslee, but he wasn't eager to invest 10,000 hours in building one of them. So he sat down with the Triplane's three-view drawings and applied his experience as an engineer, machinist, and hands-on homebuilder to find a better, quicker way.

Before starting construction, he called a friend who'd graduated from Cal Poly, "the same school Burt Rutan went to, and told him what I wanted to do." The thin airfoils of the era would not provide the docile handling he wanted. Their discussion led them to the N15 variation of the Clark Y, which is similar to the USA-35B used on Piper's Cub, and "I've been using it on every airplane I've built."

Robert Baslee, left, and test pilot Harvey Cleveland, with the airplane that started Airdrome Aeroplanes, the Fokker Dr.1 Triplane.

Baslee replaced the original's wire-braced wood structures with appropriately sized aluminum tubes joined by blind-riveted gussets, which requires everyday tools. At every opportunity he refined the method to make it more elegant and to better distribute the loads imposed by flight. The resulting structure meets the standard category requirements of 4.4 positive and 1.75 negative G, so aerobatics are neither approved nor recommended.

Working in CAD, each design starts with a clean computer file and the original's three-view drawings, which provide the dimensions and location of the wing's leading edges, cockpit, and other components. "Then we back inside the structures and move the spars where they need to be for our airfoil," he said.

Unlike many of the originals, all Airdrome Aeroplanes have two wingspars, either one aluminum tube inside another or stacked vertically and joined by shear webs on both sides, "which increases the bending resistance 4.5 times." Hard mounting points for the spars, cabanes, and other structural attachments are other modern improvements. They also make it easy for builders to disassemble the airplanes for trailer transport.

Baslee machines extruded parts, and 85% of all parts are common to the Airdrome fleet.

Starting with the original wingspan and loading and overall weight distribution, Baslee tweaks the design to improve flying qualities and ground handling and properly locate the center of gravity. The originals were dangerously tail heavy, so he relocates the wing leading edges, cockpit, and landing gear as necessary. The proportional changes depend on the airplane, Baslee said, but overall, "my airplanes are dimensionally accurate to about 95 percent, with scaling effect."

Every airplane represents approximately 1000 hours of computer work, but not all in one sitting, said Baslee. Building the prototype reveals unexpected challenges, and their solutions require computer time. He photographs every step of the prototype's construction, which are part of a kit's plans and documentation that includes two videos, one on general practices and techniques, and other airplane-specific information. "The phone doesn't often ring with builder questions," he said, so his system must be working.

For those who want hands-on guidance, Baslee offers builder's assistance at his Missouri airdrome. "With 10 productive days, we can have the fuselage done; tail feathers take two days," he continued. The builder can then finish the airplane at home or continue with the builder assistance program. "We do a builder's assist once a month," and two marathon quickbuilds a year.

When the colonels built the prototype Sopwith Tabloid, they traveled to Missouri numerous times over six months for intense three-day working weekends, which gave Baslee the needed computer time to solve the unexpected challenges, prepare for the next step of construction, build the needed material and parts lists and labels, and make any needed changes to the files for the CNC-cut parts.

Building the Kits

Nieuport 11.

At the EAA AirVenture 1989 debut of Baslee's Fokker Triplane, hundreds of people asked where he'd gotten the kit. "When I told them that I just built it, they asked when I was going to offer a kit for it." An idea he'd not considered, "the light bulb kinda came on." After talking with his wife, he founded Airdrome Aeroplanes, turning his napkin sketches into a full set of plans and collating his notes and receipts into material and parts lists.

Selling one prototype to finance the next, kit sales increased with the fleet. Most companies, he said, have a few designs and sell a lot of kits. "I have two dozen airplanes, and I sell a few of them each year." In 1996 he made the move to his airdrome in Holden. There are approximately 500 Airdrome Aeroplanes flying around the world today, with most of them in the United States. Over the years he's refined his system of lists and labels that double-checks every part in every airplane and tracks revisions specific to each airplane serial number.

On average, Airdrome Aeroplanes ships one kit a week. With one employee, Baslee makes every part, every fitting, every bag, tag, and crate. What makes this possible is 85% parts commonality. "The compression struts, lift tangs, engine attach fittings, and control systems, except for a few bellcranks, are all the same," he said. The kit lead time is six to eight weeks, but he usually beats that, he said, "and I keep enough materials on hand to build 100 airplanes."

At EAA AirVenture 2013, Airdrome debuted its Ryan NYP. Visiting Missouri the week before EAA AirVenture, the Spirit of St. Louis was on its gear and ready for cover. Like the original, the airplane wore a turned aluminum blindfold, "because I want the full Lindbergh experience," said Baslee, who mentioned that he'd started building the 74.9%-scale airplane "19 days ago."

It has a welded 4130 steel tube fuselage, an option introduced with the Sopwith Camel. The Rotec radial plucked from the nose of a Flyboys Nieuport established the odd scale percentage: it is 74.9% the size of the Wright J-5 that carried the Ryan across the Atlantic. After Baslee lives his Lindbergh dreams, he'll add a second seat and replace the aluminum blindfold with Lexan. He's working with a company that produces see-through vinyl ads on the sides of city buses to preserve the look of the turned metal nose and the Spirit of St. Louis script.

Ask what WWI airplane will next join the Airdrome Aeroplane fleet and Baslee will only smile. As it was with the Spirit of St. Louis in 2013 and with the airplanes that have preceded it, one must wait until EAA AirVenture.

CNC plasma cutting table.

Flying the Aeroplanes

Harvey Cleveland, Airdrome Aeroplanes' test pilot, says a pilot current and competent in an Aeronca Champ or similar taildragger that requires effective rudder use to offset its pronounced adverse yaw (compared to more modern airplanes like the Cessna Skyhawk), can fly an Aeroplanes replica. Because they are single-seaters, Baslee recommends that pilots have at least 100 hours of tailwheel experience.

In the full-scale Aeroplanes, big pilots have room to stretch out in space originally filled by things like ammunition. "If you're fit enough to climb into the cockpit, you'll likely fit," said Baslee. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, with a 38-inch inseam and size 15 clodhoppers, I had unimpeded full control movement in every full-scale airplane I tried. For more comfort, there was room to move the old-school rudder bar forward a bit, and on the Camel, it would be easy to make the cockpit coaming 1.5 inches wider.

A pilot since 1976, Scott Spangler was the founding editor of Flight Training magazine. In 1999 he launched and edited NAFI Mentor for the National Association of Flight Instructors, and for seven years was editor in chief of EAA publications. As a freelancer he's written for Air & Space Smithsonian, Overhaul & Maintenance, Aviation for Women, Twin & Turbine and a number of non-aviation titles.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Kitplanes magazine.

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