Syracuse Native Constructs Homemade “Bi-Plane” in 1911

In 1911, a Syracuse native, Herman Ecker, took off from Onondaga Lake in his homemade flying boat. Ecker, who was our city’s first aviator, built his “bi-plane” in the automobile shop run by former Mayor Charles Hanna. The engine was a modified boat motor and had a top speed of 65 mph, which was very fast for that era.

Ecker constructed his wood and metal plane with common materials, including Irish linen covered wings that in some places was spliced together with wallpaper paste, carpet tacks and varnish. The varnish became necessary because the wallpaper paste dissolved when it rained. The plane was controlled through the use of wires connected to the wings. These wires were then attached to the pilot’s shoulder yoke. The gas tank was located well opposite of the fire-spitting 6-cylinder engine. The tank held enough gas to keep the plane aloft 20 to 30 minutes. His ‘seatbelt’ was a piece of clothesline secured around his shoulders. A passenger seat, without a seatbelt, was reserved for brave customers who paid a fee for the privilege of a ride.

Since there were no “how-to” manuals in existence at the time, Ecker had to improvise the design and construction. The fact that it never crashed was an impressive feat for such an early flying machine, since of the 29 original pilots flying in 1910, only 9 lived in 1912 to tell their tales.

Herman flew the plane for three years and then placed it in storage, where it was forgotten. It was eventually found in 1958 in the attic of an Erie Blvd. TV sales and repair shop. The plane was donated to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in 1961 where it can be seen today, fully restored, in the Early Flight Gallery. Sadly, Herman died in 1969 before the restoration was completed.

–Karen Y. Cooney, OHA’s Support Services Administrator