BURLINGTON — Inside a nondescript outbuilding in Burlington sits a labor of love for John Norman.
He has spent seven years and 6,500 man hours building an exact replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane Charles Lindbergh used in 1927 to complete the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris.
“You’d have to be laying down for me to tell you how much money I have into this,” Norman quipped.
The plane is historically accurate, from the “trombone” shock absorbers to a wicker seat like the one Lindbergh sat in for the 33 1/2 hours it took him to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Norman even cut a hole in and patched one of the fuel tanks on his plane, replicating the exact patch on a tank of the original Spirit of St. Louis that hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Norman’s wife, Heather Norman, has been by his side throughout the process of building the plane.
“He has a saying, ‘If somebody did it once, you can do it again.’ John is just really resourceful,” she said.
All of the pieces of the plane, both big and small, had to be researched, then tracked down or meticulously fabricated from scratch.
That includes the Wright J-5C Whirlwind engine and the 46-foot-long hand-built wing that is so long Norman must remove it from the fuselage to get the plane out of the building in which it is stored.
“Some of the parts, I had to build three times before I got it right,” Norman said. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking about how to make a tool to make a tool to make a part.”
About the only thing missing from the mirror image of the Ryan Aeronautical Company’s single-engine, single-seat, high-wing monoplane built for Lindbergh is the dirt and grime that can still be seen on the original.
“I wish it looked older,” Norman said. “It needs some old oil, smoke on the cowling. It needs that look. Maybe a couple runs through the field will help.”
In conducting their research, the Normans have taken three trips to the Smithsonian to examine the original.
They were granted permission to get up close and personal with the original, saying it was a case where they knew someone who knew someone.
The Normans’ last two trips were confined to a man lift where John Norman was lifted up to the plane in order to inspect it.
But on the first trip, the Spirit of St. Louis was on the ground, having been lowered because of construction.
“That was really nice,” Norman said. “I was able to get all through that airplane ... We had a long list of what we needed to find out.”
And it was also when he wrote himself into a bit of history.
Using a borescope, which consists of an eyepiece and lens connected by a rigid or flexible cable, Norman made quite a find.
From the plane’s cockpit, he snaked the borescope below the right rudder pedal and beneath the main fuel tank, searching for Lindbergh’s lost log book.
While Norman didn’t find the missing book, he did find something else.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “Pliers. There was a pair of pliers. It wasn’t the log book, but it was kind of cool. I didn’t find anything else.”
The pliers, found on the belly fabric below the main tank, were eventually retrieved.
The paint on the handles, when compared to that on the fuel manifold and the oil and fuel tanks, made it likely they came from the Ryan aircraft factory and were on the historic flight across the Atlantic.
“I would have never found the pliers if I hadn’t been able to get all through the plane,” Norman explained. “That was quite the discovery.”
The pliers are now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent display.
Norman was also curious about how a length of rubber hose, used by Lindbergh’s crew to check the fuel level, had been retrieved after it was accidentally dropped into the plane’s main fuel tank.
While slipping the borescope between the fabric and the main fuel tank, from just below the leading edge of the wing, Norman discovered a large patch where the tank had been cut open, and then repaired.
That was the answer to how the rubber hose had been retrieved.
For the sake of accuracy, Norman put a duplicate of the patch on the main tank of his plane.
“It’s just the way he is,” Heather Norman said. “It’s what he does.”
Norman said he isn’t the biggest fan of doing research. But when it came to the Spirit of St. Louis, he was willing to bend a little bit.
“I was excited to do it because I had to do it,” he said. “There were a lot of blanks that had to be filled in. There aren’t any drawings for this plane.”
The entire process of building his Spirit of St. Louis has been documented. Every step has been chronicled via strategically placed GoPro cameras.
Restoring and building planes is nothing new for Norman.
His Spirit of St. Louis is the 32nd plane he has restored or built. He has even started No. 33.
Doing that kind of work is something Norman has been doing his entire adult life.
He started in the Navy as an aircraft mechanic working primarily on the Lockheed Orion P-3 “sub-chasers.” Among his other professional stops was a 12-year stint with Boeing.
The day is coming when Norman’s Spirit of St. Louis takes to the skies.
“We’ve had her cranked up outside,” he said. “She sounded good. You definitely experienced some exhilaration.”
Norman, however, won’t be the first to fly his Spirit of St. Louis. He will leave that to a pilot with more experience.
“I have a professional pilot who specializes in these types of planes,” he said. “That pilot will get the honor. I will be up in a chase plane watching very closely.”
So, what are the long-term plans for Norman’s Spirit of St. Louis?
Only time will tell.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Norman said. “If we don’t fly it, we’ll sell it. But I didn’t build it to make money. It’s cool to look at, especially out here at night, with that one spotlight on.”