Retrotechtacular: Build Yourself An Airplane


Planes these days are super complicated – think about the recent flaming-lithium battery issues in the B787 that may or may not have been solved – but it wasn’t always this way. Here’s a great example. The manufacture of a Piper J-3 Cub shows simple and efficient mechanical design brought to life in a multitude of steps all performed without automation.

The build starts with the frame. Pipes are nibbled into specialized fish mouths for a tight fit before being strapped to a jig and tack welded. With the fuselage in one piece the frame is removed for each joint to be fully welded and subsequently inspected. Cables are run through the frame to connect control surfaces to the cockpit. Continuing through to wing assembly we were especially surprised to see hand hammering of nails to secure the wood ribs to metal spars. How many nails do you think that worker pounded in a career? The entire aircraft is covered in fabric, an engine is added, and it’s into the wild blue yonder.

The look back at manufacturing techniques is interesting — do you think the large model shown in the video would be built these days, or would they just use a CAD rendering?

[Thanks Ronald]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

18 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Build Yourself An Airplane

    1. Thats for ‘pro’ shops. here’s an 82% scale corsair that was heavily designed on paper, had some loft layers modeled in CNC, and an ‘engineering model’ made of wood and foam that also served as the master for some fiberglass molds. Insanity, is what that is.

      There are a number of homebuilts out there where the only CFD done during the design was, “strap in and see what this will do”.

      It’s not really that hard to design on paper, at least for smaller planes, and you could argue it’s actually easier.

  1. The good old Piper Cub, I learned to fly tail draggers in a J3, with the door open and a stiff headwind your ground speed could actually be a negative number so you’d look down at the ground and you’d be flying backwards. Slow but fun (real flying by the seat of your pants).

    1. Reminds me of a story I once heard where a pilot took off and flew for 2 hours before getting worried about remaining fuel. He turned around and made it back to the airfield he took off from in 10 minutes.
      Slight headwind at altitude…

    2. Similar thing happened to me once while flying a slow ultralight aircraft at the coast. I took of, climbed straight on, and five minutes later the controller came back from getting a coffee and asked me if I hadn’t planned to go cross-country? I was still over the grounds of the airport, albeit in about 1000m AGL by now. Didn’t go far that day…

    3. My dad learned to fly in a J-3 as did most of his generation and many since (I was fortunate to avoid the ground loop tutorial by flying a 172) – the instrument panel in the Cub was pretty hard to master ;-)

      These are still being built as bush planes with various modifications (STOL, Carbon Fiber etc.) to make them carry more and be tougher. One of the most interesting is this one with a bubble cockpit and twin Rotax engines which is barely recognizable:

  2. My first thought on watching the video was how many people were working on that factory line? In one shot there were dozens of people. No swinging and dipping Hazard-Yellow or -Orange arms to be seen.

  3. Maybe not for planes, but I work with passenger rail interiors and we build soft (sculpted foam core) and hard (wood body, real interior fittings) mockups for most projects. Being able to walk through and get a feel for things is pretty critical for our customers.

  4. My Grandad built his own Glider in the back garden (wings fitted after placing on runway) and flew it off Portsdown hill many many years ago when he worked for Airspeed in Portsmouth. Now he has a road named after him – Robinson way, near Airport service road in Portsmouth UK. Im so proud of him!

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