Monday, April 25, 2016

Combat Air Museum goes high-tech in latest project for World War I plane: De Havilland plane to be on display for pancake feed on Saturday

Huw Thomas, an associate professor at The University of Kansas, installs a replica engine that he made off of three 3-D printers onto the back of an 80 percent-scale World War I aircraft Wednesday at the Combat Air Museum, 7016 S.E. Forbes Ave.

As volunteers at Topeka’s Combat Air Museum can attest, necessity is the mother of invention, particularly when it comes to finding parts for its replica World War I aircraft.

In past years, museum volunteers like Gene Howerter would use pieces of wood, rope, metal, Elmer’s glue and spray paint to replicate engine parts that weren’t readily available for the vintage planes the museum acquired.

Some of the re-creations came close to replicating the actual parts — like an engine Howerter designed for a World War I plane hanging from the museum’s rafters that was so realistic, visitors were overheard commenting on its authenticity.

About a year ago, the museum acquired an 80 percent replica of a De Havilland 2 World War I fighter plane.

A rear-mounted engine was missing off the plane, however, and museum officials asked Howerter if he would be interested in putting together another replica engine.

Howerter, who is 75, declined, saying it was “too much work.”

But all was not lost.

Huw Thomas, a native of Wales and an associate professor of industrial design at the University of Kansas, took on the project.

Instead of designing the De Havilland’s engine with repurposed parts, the way Howerter and others had done in the past, Thomas turned to modern technology, using three separate 3-D printers to design the Gnome rotary engine for the vintage plane.

Dozens of parts — some large, some small — were made by the 3-D printers, which put layer upon layer of a fine material to make the finished product.

The 3-D printers made the engine parts from the same material as Lego bricks, and Thomas used a substance similar to super glue to bond the pieces together.

On Wednesday, the 3-D replica rotary engine was fitted with a resin propeller and placed onto the back of the De Havilland 2 aircraft. The replica engine was about 3 feet across and 14 inches wide, and weighed only a few pounds.

Starting this coming Wednesday, visitors will get to see the engine when the De Havilland is lifted to its place among other aircraft suspended from the rafters of the museum’s main hangar at the Topeka Regional Airport, 7016 S.E. Forbes Ave.

“We got the De Havilland in 2015,” said Dave Murray, a member of the museum’s board of directors who assisted Thomas in fastening the replica engine onto the airplane. “But we were waiting to hang it because we didn’t have an engine on it.”

Thomas did his work for the museum at no charge — though the museum will compensate him for materials.

He used two LulzBot TAZ 5 3-D printers at KU. Because it was taking so long to print off the pieces, he bought the same style of 3-D printer for himself, doing most of the printing from his home.

“It took about 400 hours to print the engine,” he said, noting each of the engine’s nine cylinders were made in two halves, each taking about 14 hours to print. “It probably took about 60 hours to design the computer model.”

Thomas was able to track down a copy of the engine’s service manual from 1915, which he used designing the various pieces to the same 80 percent scale of the plane itself.

A Lewis machine gun, which the pilot could fire from the cockpit, still needs to be added to the front of the De Havilland, and Thomas is now busy at work designing the gun for another 3-D print job.

Thomas said he first got connected with the museum when he approached officials about doing photography for virtual tours of its nearly 40 aircraft. The virtual tour then would be placed on the Combat Air Museum’s website,

While he was working on the virtual tour project, Thomas found out that the museum needed someone to make an engine for the De Havilland plane, which was donated by the Dawn Patrol, a group of military plane enthusiasts from Liberty, Mo.

In November 2015, Thomas started the project, completing it in mid-April.

And now, just three days before the Combat Air Museum hosts its biggest fundraiser — a Celebrity Pancake Feed from 7 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 30, at the museum’s main hangar — the plane will be suspended from the rafters for visitors to see.

With Thomas’ attention to detail, this engine likely will pass the eye test from the museum’s visitors, who come from across the United States and around the world.

Original article can be found here:

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