One small step for a man, one giant leap for homebuilding, Part 1

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Keith S. Hopkinson with his Stits SA-3 Playboy, an aircraft now owned by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Ray Blair, « New boom for home-builts. » Canadian Aviation, September 1957, 64.
Keith S. Hopkinson with his Stits SA-3 Playboy, an aircraft now owned by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Ray Blair, « New boom for home-builts. » Canadian Aviation, September 1957, 64.

At first glance, the Stits SA-3 playboy of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, is not particularly impressive. Its very ordinary appearance, however, conceals a most interesting story dating back more than 60 years, as suggested in the photograph above, published in the September 1957 issue of the monthly magazine Canadian Aviation.

Homebuilding, in other words the construction of aircraft by individuals working at home using plans or kits more or less ready to be assembled, is a particular aspect of the aviation craze that existed during the interwar period between November 1918 and September 1939. Although this type of activity existed in the early 1920, mainly in the United States, the fact is that the solo crossing of the Atlantic by the American Charles Augustus Lindbergh, in May 1927, thoroughly transformed the situation. The number of homebuilders skyrocketed, especially in the United States. In fact, virtually all aircraft available in North America, either as plans or as kits, came from that country.

An examination of the Canadian civil aircraft register reveals the presence of about 100 aircraft, mostly single or two seaters, constructed by homebuilders between November 1918 and September 1939. Research by the author of these lines also highlighted the existence of approximately 25 non-registered aircraft completed during this period. Several others probably remain to be discovered. Other research done by yours truly has also identified 30 or so partially completed aircraft. In fact, we will never know how many Canadian homebuilders undertook the construction of an aircraft during the interwar years.

The outbreak of the Second World War inflicted a hard blow on the fabrication of aircraft by homebuilders. Indeed, many of them decided to work in the war industry or enlist in the armed forces. The federal government also imposed strict limits on private flying. In April 1942, the Oil Controller, George Richardson Cottrelle, a banker and president of the Maple Leaf Gardens, in Toronto, one of hockey’s top locations in North America, introduced rationing coupons for gasoline that impacted all trips deemed non essential. Private pilots therefore had to choose between their automobile and their aircraft. Indeed, the 45 litres (10 Imperial gallons / 12 American gallons) that they could use each month allowed then to travel about 270 kilometres (165-170 miles) – a limited performance when compared to that achieved by automobiles available in 2017.

Around October 1942, Ralph Pickard Bell, Director General of Aircraft Production at the Department of Munitions and Supply, banned the fabrication of aircraft by anyone without a license. Worse still, that same department joined forces with Cottrelle to prohibit the use of petroleum products by non-essential aircraft. As a result, virtually all Canadian private aircraft were grounded until the end of the Second World War. In view of the circumstances, the number of homebuilt aircraft completed between September 1939 and August 1945 was small to say the least.

The postwar period did not begin very well either for Canadian owners of such aircraft. Their attempts to renew the certificate of registration of the aircraft that flew before the Second World War were politely rejected. An amendment to the 1938 Air Regulations adopted by the Department of Transport in June 1947 stipulated that all aircraft registered in Canada must have a certificate of airworthiness. As this document applied only to aircraft made in factories, homebuilt aircraft were prohibited from flying. The few homebuilders who completed aircraft in the late 1940s and early 1950s learned this the hard way. Indeed, the Department of Transport did not allow them to fly, whatever the quality of their machine. The only exception to the rule was to use an experimental registration.

This was the road followed by a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran. Léon Beliaeff completed a Payne Knight Twister, a small single seat biplane designed in the United States during the interwar years, toward the end of the summer of 1949. The difficulties faced by this (francophone?) mechanic from Verdun, Québec, to register his aircraft were such that he christened it Nobody Loves Me. Beliaeff achieved his goal in early September 1949. He took to the sky soon after. The certificate of registration of his aircraft expired in early 1954 at the latest. It was not renewed.

You seem puzzled, my reading friend. You may be wondering what the Stits SA-3 Playboy of the museum is doing in this story. This is a very good question. An answer can be found in the second part of this article.

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Rénald Fortier