One small step for a man, one giant leap for homebuilding, Part 2

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The Stits SA-3 Playboy of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. CASM, negative number 22219.
The Stits SA-3 Playboy of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. CASM, negative number 22219.

To find the father of Canada’s postwar homebuilt movement, one must look in Ontario. Born 17 September 1915, Keith S. “Hoppy” Hopkinson was a curious and handy young man. During the Second World War, he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. This young pilot was the chief ground-school instructor at No 12 Elementary Flying Training School, located at Sky Harbour, near Goderich, Ontario, one of the many elements of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. This plan was one of Canada’s most important contributions to the Allied victory in the Second World War.

Aware that their school would close sooner or later, fifteen or so service people or civilian employees headed by Hopkinson decided to go into business. They bought, almost for a song, the shop of a small shipyard, National Shipbuilding Company, which had become the armoury of a Militia regiment in 1937. During the days that followed the closing of No 12 Elementary Flying Training School, in July 1944, the group founded Huron Engineering & Research Company (Herco). As founding president, Hopkinson supervised the production of very different items, from baseball bats to folding chairs, not to mention electric brooders and wooden toys. He designed a coal-fired hot water furnace that was not produced in large numbers. Located on the site of the flying school, leased by the town council of Goderich, Sky Harbour Air Services Limited was Herco’s largest subsidiary. It offered flying lessons as well as aircraft repair and maintenance services. Hopkinson was also its founding president.

Helped by a few friends, Hopkinson began the construction of an American-designed single seat aircraft, a modified SA-3 Playboy, in 1954 at the workshop of Sky Harbour Air Services. Like many homebuilders of the period, the small team used various elements from other aircraft. The Playboy, christened “Little Hokey,” flew in September or October 1955 and proved very successful.

Even before the end of the year, Hopkinson and a few other Canadian homebuilders founded the Ultra Light Aircraft Association of Canada (ULAAC) in the hope of convincing the Department of Transport to allow the registration of homebuilt aircraft. The founding president of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), the largest North American organisation working in this field, Paul Howard Poberezny, supported them as best he could.

Recognising the seriousness of Hopkinson and his associates, the Department of Transport proved open-minded. In January 1956, Hopkinson received the first-ever flight permit, a new type of official document, to assess the usefulness of creating a new category of aircraft, known as ultra light. Slightly earlier or later, the department sent the draft of a directive to the Air Industries and Transport Association of Canada. This lobby group for the Canadian aviation industry contacted its members to gather their opinion. By and large, this draft directive according to which Canadian single- or two-seat ultra light aircraft could fly without a certificate of airworthiness was favourably received. The Department of Transport directive was therefore issued in July 1956. Hopkinson’s Playboy was the first aircraft registered under the new regulations. In December, it received a new registration that reflected its status as an ultralight aircraft – an expression that did not necessarily correspond to the definition of this type of flying machine used in 2017.

The new regulations were a true declaration of independence for Canada’s homebuilders. Construction projects began to multiply. The number of homebuilt aircraft registered in Canada went from about 20 to 155 or so between 1959 and 1965. By the end of 1964, there were approximately 60 aircraft under construction in British Columbia and more than 150 in the sole region of Toronto, Ontario.

Many Canadian homebuilders joined the EAA. Established in January 1953 as the Experimental Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, it gradually became the largest homebuilder organisation in the world. The first Canadian chapter of the EAA was created in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1958. It was in fact the first foreign chapter of the organisation. Others soon began to appear elsewhere in Canada. There were about 20 in the spring of 1965, for example. While the Department of Transport provided some information to Canadian homebuilders, it was mainly toward the EAA and the ULAAC that they turned to in order to get answers to their questions. It should be noted that the ULAAC seemingly disappeared before the mid-1960s.

Sadly enough, Hopkinson did not contribute very long to the development of homebuilding in Canada. He died on 26 March 1964 in the crash of a Sky Harbour Air Services aircraft. He was only 48 years old. Another Ontarian, Donald A. “Don” Kernohan, bought the Playboy in August 1977. He sold the aircraft to the National Aeronautical Collection, today’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in July 1978. This institution is fortunate to have two other historically significant aircraft that belonged to Hopkinson:

- the monoplane designed and built between 1912 and 1915 by Robert McDowall, the oldest Canadian aircraft still in existence, and

- a Travel Air Model 2000 single engine biplane owned by a company founded by Ernest Lloyd Janney, the head of Canada’s first air force, in 1914.

Aware that some of you would be happy to know a little more about the history of the Stits SA-3 Playboy and of its designer, the author of these lines invites you to return to this website to read the third and final part of this article.

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Rénald Fortier