Homebuilding Roots in Canada

The original powered airplanes were “one off” homebuilts, the “Silver Dart” (built and first flown at Glenn Curtiss’ farm in Hammondsport, NY in 1908) being first to succeed in Canada. J.A.D. McCurdy flew it in Cape Breton in February 1909. Since then, homebuilding has been part of Canada’s aeronautical fabric.

WWI brought advances in aeronautics that boosted postwar homebuilding. For a few hundred dollars in the 1920s-30s, anyone could build a tiny Corben, Heath, Pietenpol, etc., and many did. However, with recreational flying on hold through WWII, all such planes were grounded.

Homebuilding was slow to re-emerge, but it did – one project at a time, modified Taylor Cub CF-ANT-X possibly being the first. Then, in the 1950s several homebuilders started a movement. Led by pioneers Keith Hopkinson and Gus Chisholm of Goderich, the first Canadian branch of the US-founded Experimental Aircraft Association arose. Soon there were EAA chapters across Canada.

Some really enjoyable events in my early days as an aviation fan were flying club and EAA breakfast fly-ins. A few of us kids usually attended, armed with our twin-lens cameras. On a typical sunny weekend, among the 250 planes showing up at the Oshawa Flying Club on June 18, 1961 were eight little homebuilts each with an “R” registration — “R” for restricted: Corben Baby Aces CF-RAO and CF-RCB, Jodel Bébés CF-RAM and CF-RBE, White Parasol CF-RCT and modified Taylorcraft, Piper J-2 and J-3 CF-RAG, CF-RAS and CF-RCX.

Above is a shot I took on July 9, 1961 at the Waterloo-Wellington fly-in showing Keith Hopkinson taxiing his famous Stitts Playboy “Little Hokey” CF-RAD. This was Canada’s first officially registered (1954) post-WWII homebuilt. Years later I learned from Gus Chisholm that CF-RAD had cost about $1000 and took 1200 hours over 11 months to build. It weighed 685 lb empty, 960 all-up, and was 17’4” long with a 22’ wingspan. With its 100-hp Lycoming, it cruised at 125 mph, burning about five gallons of fuel per hour. To illustrate the meaning of “homebuilt”, CF-RAD had a Piper engine cowling, Cessna 170 spinner, Tiger Moth struts, Cessna 140 undercarriage and Stinson wheel pants. Today you can see this wonderful little aviation treasure at Canada’s national aeronautical collection in Ottawa.

Corben Baby Ace CF-RAC

At the same time that “Hoppy” Hopkinson was building his Playboy, his pal Gus Chisholm was building a Corben Baby Ace. Through their enthusiasm, many others in Canada were getting involved in the homebuilding movement.

The Baby Ace was designed about 1932 by West Virginian, O.G. “Ace” Corben. Having learned about it in a 1955 issue of “Mechanix Illustrated”, Gus ordered plans for $125. Just scrounging for the bits ‘n pieces was a chore – wood, steel, wheels, struts, fabric, instruments, an engine, etc. Luckily, one day Gus found an old 65-hp Continental, for which he paid $100. He slowly built his Baby Ace wings at home in his basement, while the fuselage took shape in Keith’s “Sky Harbour” hangar on the edge of Goderich. Finally, after 2 years, 8 months and 15 days of meticulous effort, the Baby Ace was done. Registered CF-RAC (Gus’ initials) and christened “Bits and Pieces”, it had cost $620. Keith did the taxi tests on August 1, 1958, made the first flight on the 3rd, then Gus took up CF-RAC the same day.

“Little Hokey” and “Bits and Pieces” became the talk of the homebuilding movement throughout Canada and south of the border. Many an enjoyable day’s flying followed. Each summer meant a few breakfast fly-ins and Gus once even ventured as far as Oshkosh. Finally, having logged about 200 hours in it, in July 1965 he sold CF-RAC to Tony Brown in nearby Stratford. Tony flew it to the 381:45-hour mark by the time he sold CF-RAC in 1977. Other owners followed until 2017 when, more than 50 years since first flight, “Bits ‘n Pieces” is still on the go, owned in Guelph in 2017 by Canada’s famous aircraft restorers – “The Tiger Boys”.

Over the decades, many pilots added “Bits ‘n Pieces” to their logbooks. Keith Hopkinson’s son, John, made his first flight in it on May 16, 1962. From Guelph, pilots have included pioneer post-WWII homebuilder, Andy McKimmon (May 1, 1993) to Fern Villeneuve, none other than leader the RCAF Golden Hawks in 1959-60 (September 18, 2005). To July 2017 the famous little Canadian beauty had logged 783.5 flying hours. Meanwhile, the Tiger Boys, always eagle-eyed about preserving aviation heritage, have acquired another of Canada’s 1950s homebuilts – Jodel D.9 Bébé CF-RAM. Above is a photo I took of Steve Gray landing CF-RAC at Guelph on November 25, 2007. Below, Gus Chisholm beside his pride and joy on the same day (Gus has since passed on).

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One response to “Homebuilding Roots in Canada

  1. Very interesting post about a subject that is usually not very well covered. Thanks Larry !

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