Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Bowling Green, Kentucky: Airplane restoration to be part of PBS special

— The Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport holds the hope of a dream.

It started with Harry Balcer of Bainbridge, Ohio, who has loved airplanes since he was a child, and is continuing with Peridot Pictures owner Dorian Walker.

Walker plans to make Balcer's dream a reality by getting the Curtiss Jenny airplane Balcer was building ready for its first test flight. The plane will be part of his upcoming PBS television special "Jenny." The one-hour film is scheduled to be released in the fall.

"It was one of the most popular airplanes of its kind," Walker said last week as he walked around the plane and its various parts. "We're taking an icon of aviation that is rarer than a rare steak."

The Curtiss Jenny is a biplane created in the early 20th century by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. Glenn Curtiss recruited B. Douglas Thomas, who had worked for Sopwith Aviation Co. in England, to help develop ideas for fighter planes. These became the JN series of planes, which came in six model variations, JN-1 through JN-6. They were called the Jenny and flew in World War I. They were used for aerial stunts in later years.

"Charles Lindbergh learned to fly on a Jenny. Amelia Earhart learned to fly on a Jenny," Walker said.
Walker decided he wanted to tackle the story of Glenn Curtiss, considered the father of the American aircraft industry, and the aircraft he helped design.

"I've been an aviator most of my life. I fly mainly vintage airplanes," he said. "The story of Glenn Curtiss and the Jenny is not told very often. As I researched it, I fell in love with the story."

Balcer remembers when he and his friends would play with toy airplanes.

"I've been interested in airplanes ever since I was a kid. I built a lot of model airplanes. I was always interested in French Flyers," he told the Daily News in a phone interview.

In 1979, Balcer bought construction plans for a Jenny from the Smithsonian Institution. Then he did what any other man who was busy with a wife, kids, home and job would do.

"I put them in a drawer," he said, laughing.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that Balcer brought the plans out again. The retired engineer found himself with time to work on the plane.

"I researched for six or seven months, located materials and went through the whole process," he said. "I started working on it in the basement. I have a large basement."

For about 15 years, Balcer and his wife worked on the plane, starting with the fuselage. They put the airplane skin on together.

"The airplane I put together was experimental. I built it from scratch," he said.

Even experimental aircraft need certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, and that's what eluded Balcer.

"It got expensive. I couldn't afford it anymore," he said.

At the same time, Walker was looking for the number of Jennys still in the world.

"I found 26 in museums or exhibits worldwide. I found six that are flying worldwide," he said.

Walker found two active rebuilding projects in the U.S. One was an airplane pilot in Atlanta who has been working on his Jenny for seven years. The other was Balcer's project.

"In the fall, I went up there with my cameras. Harry looked at me and said, 'I don't have it in me. I want to pass the torch,' " he said. "I agreed to try."

Balcer thought it would be a good educational tool.

"I was selective in letting someone get it," he said.

Walker isn't an airplane builder, so he has been gathering people in the southcentral Kentucky area to help. He has volunteers but needs more so the film can be ready by fall. His goal with the production is not only to make an interesting film, but to also make it educational.

"It shows people who set examples of what you can aspire to be," he said. "Glenn Curtiss showed American ingenuity and entrepreneurship."

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