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Plane mechanic recalls endurance modifications
This story originally appeared in the Yuma Sun in October 2009. Jim Gillaspie has since died, in March 2011.
- Click here to see how the 'City of Yuma' made history and its long road back to Yuma
Before Yuma pilots Bob Woodhouse and Woody Jongeward ever left the ground for their world record endurance flight in 1949, they had to make sure they had a plane that could pull off the incredible feat.
The duo flew a plane, named the City of Yuma, continuously for 1,124 hours from Aug. 24 to Oct. 10.
The airplane Woodhouse and Jongeward chose to use, according Yuma author James Gillaspie, was a 1948 Aeronca Sedan AC-15, a four-seater powered by a 145-horsepower Continental engine.
“You always have to take an airplane's specifications into consideration,” Gillaspie said. “Once they figured out what they wanted to do, and had the airplane to do it, someone just had to figure out how to do it.”
The “someone” — or “someones” — Gillaspie said, turned out to be Marsh Aviation head mechanic Paul Birch, who was considered the maestro of aeronautics in Yuma, along with Bill Wilcox, Dallas Hovatter and Eddie Mendivil.
Gillaspie said Birch, Wilcox, Hovatter and Mendivil made all the modifications to the plane that were needed for the record-setting flight.
With only a 36-gallon gas tank in the plane's wings, the first obstacle that needed to be overcome was how to increase its fuel capacity, Gillaspie said.
This was done, Gillaspie said, by adding two auxiliary fuel tanks, which effectively increased the plane's overall fuel capacity to more than 80 gallons.
However, before you can add anything, you have to take something out, Gillaspie said. To make room for the two auxiliary tanks, all the seats except the pilots' had to be taken out.
Gillaspie said the two auxiliary tanks, with the associated hoses and pumps, were installed inside the fuselage: one vertical and the other horizontal in the baggage area.
“The tanks took up the entire baggage area and a part of the rear seat area. One of the reasons they decided to use the Aeronca is because it had one of the largest cabin spaces of any plane of the time.”
Gillaspie co-wrote a book about the feat with fellow Yuman Shirley Woodhouse Murdock, which was titled “The Longest Flight, Yuma's Quest for the Future.”
He noted a hand-operated rotary pump was also installed that allowed the off-duty pilot to transfer the fuel from the auxiliary tanks inside the fuselage into the wing tanks.
“You cranked the pump one way to get the fuel from the cans into the auxiliary tanks, and cranked it the other way to transfer it into the wing tank,” Gillaspie said.
Gillaspie explained that whenever the plane needed fuel, it conducted a refueling run with a speeding convertible where fuel was handed up to the plane in 2-1/2-gallon cans. That fuel was then pumped into the auxiliary tanks.
“Fuel gauges weren't accurate back then,” Gillaspie said. “They had to pump fuel into the wing tank until it couldn't take anymore. They knew it was full when they saw fuel in the air behind them.”
Since it wasn't possible to hold the cabin door open at the speed the plane was flying during one of it refueling runs, Gillaspie said, the door also needed to be modified.
That job, Gillaspie said, fell to Hovatter, who designed and built a bifold door that folded upward inside the plane, instead of outward like the original door.
Because the door folded upward, the off-duty pilot, who leaned out of the plane during a refueling run, was able to use both hands to grab hold of the fuel cans. The feat of refueling was carried out more than 1,500 times without a single mishap.
With the engine always running, Gillaspie said, another challenge was coming up with a way to change the oil.
That problem was solved by designing and installing a makeshift oil entry and exit system that allowed them to monitor the oil quantity in the engine crankcase, as well as adding and extracting oil when needed.
“It made oil changes viable. It allowed them to change their oil every 100 hours,” Gillaspie said. “They had to cut holes in the firewall to bring the oil lines into the cockpit and back into the engine.”
Since the fly-by-sight plane didn't have any instrumentation, some had to be added.
The plane was equipped with a horizontal gyrocompass, cylinder head temperature gauges and radios, one of which to communicate with the refueling car. A new engine crankshaft was also purchased.
After the record was beaten, the plane touched down after 47 days aloft. The feat probably never would have happened without the ingenuity of those involved, Gillaspie said.