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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Boeing retiree dreams of flying his 'bathtub' plane

Boeing retiree dreams of flying his 'bathtub' plane
Ed Kusmirek, 84, has spent decades building a replica of a 1924 super-light Dormoy Bathtub. Now he's ready to take flight.

Ed Kusmirek, an 84-year-old Boeing retiree, shows off his homemade replica of a 1924 Dormoy Bathtub. He says she's ready to fly. (Mike Siegel, Seattle Times/MCT / September 27, 2012)

By Dominic Gates

September 27, 2012

SEATTLE — Ed Kusmirek has built something special. Starting in his family room, then continuing in a garage near his house in Renton, Wash., 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 Co. retiree Kusmirek hatched the dream of re-creating this particular piece of aviation history — and flying it.

Now with his airplane built, the 84-year-old needs only approval from the Federal Aviation Administration 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.

In the last seven years, he made the airframe himself, using many repurposed 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 in Enumclaw, Wash., Kusmirek pointed to other unusual parts.

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 that came from a hospital fitness center's rowing machine. 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."

If this litany of recycling sounds like the work of a dilettante, that would be mistaking Kusmirek. Yes, he has a quick laugh, a Tintin-like tuft of fine silver hair sticking up from his freckled pate and an air of boyish enthusiasm. But he's a serious overachiever, a veteran of 39 years at Boeing who worked at high-end research.

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. Kusmirek hopes soon 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 this year.

Kusmirek will soon ask the FAA to certify his 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," Kusmirek said. "I have very little airtime."

He plans to take some lessons in a small airplane. "I have to get checked out so I will feel sufficiently proficient," he said.

Kusmirek 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 lent a hand with the airplane project, said the many machines his father has built, fixed or restored over the years "seem to last indefinitely."

Is he worried about his 84-year-old dad flying an airplane with 1924 technology?

"I'd like to say I'm terrified," Dan Kusmirek said. "I'm really not. I have no doubts about his ability."

Gates writes for the Seattle Times/McClatchy.

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