Charles Birkhan of Lake Luzerne set out to build himself an airplane. He constructed the parts out of spruce trees that were felled when a local diner was torn down.
Before he could assemble the meticulously crafted parts of the airplane’s frame, Birkhan became ill; he died in August, 2011, at age 85.
Birkhan’s work in progress, along with a journal of detailed notes and technical information, was donated to the Empire State Aerosciences Museum in Glenville, where the plane — a 7⁄8 replica of a Nieuport 17 — was completed and is now on display.
George Yager of Burnt Hills, ESAM’s exhibits chairman, led a team of about 20 volunteers on the three-year process of finishing construction and creating a historical backdrop for the Nieuport 17, one of the earliest combat aircraft.
Among a variety of other tasks, volunteers had to build a fuselage and nose cone, and cover the wooden frame with linen and paint it. They constructed a dummy engine and mounted a machine gun replica on the top wing.
Once assembled, they chose to make the plane an example of the aircraft flown by the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of the French Air Service staffed by American volunteers before the United States became involved in World War I. The Indian head emblem on the fuselage was the one the Americans had chosen for their squadron because of its uniquely American heritage.
The plane is the centerpiece of the refurbished gallery where it sits, across from a replica of an aircraft flown by Amelia Earhart that was used in the movie “Amelia.”
The historical context volunteers set up for the aircraft includes a detailed backdrop of a French aerodrome, designed and painted by Jim Atkins of Galway, who rediscovered his artistic talents during this project. He had started out as an art student in college but hadn’t painted since then. When Yager asked for a mural to go along with the exhibition, Atkins volunteered.
A great deal of research went into the mural, which includes an ambulance, a lion cub and a French flying ace. Yager visited a local auto collision shop that had a World War I ambulance to take reference photos for Atkins. The lion cub represents the squadron’s mascots, two cubs named “Whiskey” and “Soda.”
To bring the exhibit alive, Yager dressed mannequins and set them in the background. There is a bandaged pilot, who just crash landed (Atkins depicts the crash in the mural), being tended to by a nurse. There is a French officer consulting with a recently returned American pilot, who is giving intelligence information about German troop movements. This reflects one of the earliest roles of the Nieuport as a reconnaissance-gathering tool, before it was used in air-to-air combat. The pilot’s face is dirty with soot, a nod to the Nieuport’s carburetor-less engine that ran off castor oil and “burned dirty,” Atkins said. Yager ordered some of the uniforms for the mannequins custom made from India.
The aircraft is of great significance, both in aviation and in military history. “This plane is the beginning of modern aviation as we know it,” said ESAM president Ralph Rosenthal of Scotia. “They learned to do a lot of things they didn’t know how to do before,” he said.
Militarily, the Nieuport ended the “Fokker scourge,” a period between July 1915 and spring 1916 when Germany had aerial superiority because of a synchronized propeller and machine gun mechanism installed on its Fokker Eindekker aircraft.
The Nieuport’s instrumentation was very primitive. To give visitors an idea of just how simple it was, mounted on the wall next to the aircraft is the level that pilots used to keep the aircraft from pitching forward.
The Nieuport has a connection to Schenectady, too; Philip N. Bush of Schenectady was one of 225 Americans, including 60 New Yorkers, who served in the French Air Service. Bush served alongside five other New Yorkers who were part of the all-American Lafayette Escadrille. He later transferred to the U.S. Signal Corps after the U.S. joined the war.
The museum plans to add to the exhibition soon. By coincidence, Frank Nowak of Rhode Island decided to donate a replica of an early German aircraft, the Siemen’s Schukert, which German pilots flew in combat against the Nieuport pilots. The German aircraft will hang above the Nieuport, providing even greater historical context.