As his wife, Heather, looks on, John Norman gets a hug from his daughter Amber Nelson and granddaughter Ashlee Nelson (right) after his replica of the Spirit of St. Louis flew for the first time from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

As his wife, Heather, looks on, John Norman gets a hug from his daughter Amber Nelson and granddaughter Ashlee Nelson (right) after his replica of the Spirit of St. Louis flew for the first time from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

This might be the best Spirit of St. Louis replica ever made

A plane like the one Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic logged its first flight in Arlington.

ARLINGTON — The details would make any dressmaker proud: French seams, a snug fit and an abundance of lift.

In high school, John Norman sewed his own clothes — purple bell bottoms, razzle-dazzle shirts.

Now he builds and sews his own airplanes. His latest is a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, the single-engine plane that Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927 in the first solo trans-Atlantic flight.

Norman, a retired Boeing mechanic, has built and restored 32 planes in the past 40 years as a hobby and through his business JNE Aircraft.

His Spirit of St. Louis replica, which has been called the most accurate ever made, will be on display at the Arlington Fly-In Aug. 16-18. A public flight is planned for later this month.

Norman, who lives in Burlington, has spent an estimated $1 million to build the replica, and devoted more than 10,000 hours to its construction.

“You build something like this and you hope it will fly,” Norman said.

John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis sits in the hangar at Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis sits in the hangar at Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Around the time Norman was designing those flare-leg jeans, a high school teacher, who was also a pilot, began offering an aeronautics class.

It was the vortex that drew all of Norman’s talent — welding, sewing, flying, dreaming. He first soloed in an airplane at 16.

Like other planes of its era, Lindbergh’s Spirit was covered in lightweight cotton fabric, “like your bed sheets,” Norman said.

For the replica, Norman took that same tack, sewing the wings, fuselage and rudder with an old Singer sewing machine.

“It took about 100 yards of cotton,” enough for 10 wedding dresses.

Whipping up a 46-foot wing that’s 7 feet wide, employing double-stitched French seams, isn’t much different than sewing a sleeve.

The pieces were loosely glued onto the frame, spritzed with water and left to dry — to achieve that Hollywood form fit.

Eight coats of butyrate dope stiffened and sealed the fabric. “It’s like model airplane glue,” he said, offering a sniff.

Mixed with aluminum paste, “dope” protects against ultraviolet light and gives the plane a metallic sheen.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people think it’s aluminum,” said Norman, who went through 40 gallons of the lacquer.

John Norman cranks the propeller of his Spirit of St. Louis replica July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman cranks the propeller of his Spirit of St. Louis replica July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

From 787s to a Ryan replica

Seven years ago, Norman sold a 1942 Hawker Hurricane, which he’d restored from the wreckage of three planes, to a buyer in Belgium.

The proceeds paid off the mortgage and then some.

Since 1990, he had wanted to build a working replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. This was his chance, said his wife, Heather.

Heather Norman is part of this story, too. She keeps the books, tracks his work hours and orders parts — “whatever needs to be done,” she said. They met more than 50 years ago while in high school on Lopez Island.

The Spirit, like the Hurricane, is for sale, too, and the Normans hope to clear $1 million before taxes.

Norman was still at Boeing, prepping 787s for delivery, when he received the first crate of aircraft tubing for his Spirit replica.

“I figured it would take me two or three years to build in my spare time,” said Norman, 66, who retired two years ago.

Ryan Airlines, a San Diego plane maker, built the original Spirit of St. Louis in 60 days, basing it on their model M-2 air-mail plane.

Rushing to meet Lindbergh’s deadline, they didn’t have time to draw a set of plans, said Norman, who spent as many hours researching the plane as building it.

John Norman’s hand-made wicker chair serves as the pilot’s seat in his replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman’s hand-made wicker chair serves as the pilot’s seat in his replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Thirty years after the original plane was built, the lead mechanic drew a set from memory. They’re useful, said Norman, but they couldn’t fulfill the goal of creating a precise replica.

That would require more data and years more. In all, it took seven years to complete the replica, including three trips to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to study the original.

He also worked closely with Ty Sundstrom, a California aviator who had built three Spirit replicas.

“I’d build a part and send photos to him,” said Norman.

They’d sit down with original photos and try to figure out dimensions of the different parts to exact scale.

They disagreed over the wingtip’s construction. Sundstrom was sure it was wood; Norman was betting it was metal.

With the Smithsonian’s consent, Norman solved the puzzle by touching a magnet to the original.

“It was metal,” he said.

John Norman congratulates pilot Ron Fowler’s hand after he successfully flew Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis on July 28 in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman congratulates pilot Ron Fowler’s hand after he successfully flew Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis on July 28 in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Examining the original

There is no front window, no fuel gauge or brakes, and no glass in the plane’s two side windows, but that’s in keeping with the original.

“Lindbergh had to stay awake for 33½ hours,” Norman said. “We figure any glass would have made it too gassy in there.”

There are more than a half-dozen Spirit of St. Louis reproductions. Some use modern components or are based on another Ryan model, the Ryan Brougham — dubbed the Spirit’s sister ship.

In some circles, Norman’s version is being touted as the most accurate replica yet built.

The radial engine, a Wright J-5 Whirlwind, and all the instruments match the original plane, the Antique Aircraft Association reported.

“John has even tracked down a flashlight of the same type that Lindbergh carried with him in May 1927,” the association said.

“I paid a guy in Guthrie, Oklahoma, big bucks — $30,000 for that engine — and then had to rebuild it!” Norman said.

He even bought a 1927 drill motor to recreate the whorls on the engine cowling.

A car backup camera is mounted to the engine of a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, since there is no canopy to see out of, on July 28, 2019 in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

A car backup camera is mounted to the engine of a replica of the Spirit of St. Louis, since there is no canopy to see out of, on July 28, 2019 in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Creating the curved cowling was like a tough gym workout.

“You take a hammer and beat the aluminum to make it bend,” he said. “I know, I’ve been working with sheet metal all my life.”

In 2015, the Smithsonian lowered the original Spirit of St. Louis to the floor for the first time in more than 20 years. Norman got permission to use a high-tech scope to probe the fuselage.

He found a patch on the main gasoline tank. He pinpointed the spot where “Peggy sat on the wing” and broke one of the wooden ribs.

According to the story, factory workers had a party after the plane was finished and someone, the alleged Peggy, was hoisted onto the wing, Norman said.

The scope also uncovered a problem that still plagues aircraft assemblers today — FOD, short for foreign object debris.

Concerned, U.S. Air Force officials halted deliveries of Boeing KC-46 tankers this spring after finding FOD in some of the aircraft’s closed compartments.

FOD can be wire, tools or candy wrappers inadvertently left behind during the assembly process. It’s akin to leaving a pair of snips inside the patient.

Getting into the cockpit is no easy feat as pilot Ron Fowler stretches a leg into John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis before taking the plane out on its first flight July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Getting into the cockpit is no easy feat as pilot Ron Fowler stretches a leg into John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis before taking the plane out on its first flight July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Norman’s scope of Lindbergh’s plane revealed a pair of pliers near the engine compartment.

The museum later determined it had been there since the plane’s assembly.

Even a four-ounce pair of pliers would have rankled Lindbergh, who nixed a fuel gauge, parachute and radio to reduce the plane’s weight.

Besides staying awake, Lindbergh’s challenge was toting enough gasoline for the 3,600 mile journey.

The Spirit’s five gas tanks carried nearly 450 gallons of fuel, weighing 2,745 pounds.

In the “The Flight,” a 2017 book detailing Lindbergh’s transatlantic crossing, Dan Hampton wrote that every ounce saved in the structure of the plane was an extra ounce of fuel that could be carried, and “a few more precious moments in the air could mean the difference between success and failure.”

“It cost Lindbergh $80 to fill up,” Norman said. “It would cost me $2,200.”

An amateur-built plane like the Spirit usually requires 40 hours of test flying before it can fly outside a restricted zone. Norman caught a break when the Federal Aviation Administration inspectors came to certify the plane as airworthy. They cut the 40 hours to a symbolic 33½ — the duration of Lindbergh’s flight.

Pilot Ron Fowler looks out the small window of the Spirit of St. Louis replica plane before taking it on its first flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Pilot Ron Fowler looks out the small window of the Spirit of St. Louis replica plane before taking it on its first flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Nice details, but would it fly?

On a recent Sunday morning, the Spirit of St. Louis replica rolled out of a hangar near the Arlington Municipal airport.

The engine’s exposed cylinders formed a black garland around a pointy nose. Its silvery-bronze cowling caught the light.

A knot of family and friends, which would grow to a crowd of 50, began to gather.

Norman fidgeted as he waited for his friend, Ron Fowler, an experienced pilot, to arrive from Lopez Island in his own plane.

Fowler had taxied the Spirit for nearly two hours the week before, testing the engine and controls.

On this day, he would climb into the small, cramped cockpit and take the yoke.

“There are other replicas out there,” Fowler would say later. “I think this is the most accurate one out there and by a substantial margin.”

Pilot Ron Fowler takes John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis on its first flight and circles around Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. Norman’s replica is considered the most accurate replica made so far. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Pilot Ron Fowler takes John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis on its first flight and circles around Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. Norman’s replica is considered the most accurate replica made so far. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

When Fowler arrived, Norman turned serious.

“Why did I do it?” Norman said to his friend, realizing the gravity of the moment. “I want you to be safe. I can cancel it, I can cancel it now.”

“I’ve been around the airplane and John long enough to know — I trust him,” Fowler said later.

Fowler strapped himself into the pilot’s wicker seat, which, of course, Norman had woven himself.

The two worked in sync to get the engine to turn over. Like a Ford Model T that’s needs to be cranked, the Spirit’s propeller is also the starter.

“Hot. Crank. Hot. Crank.” They called to one another as Norman stepped forward to spin the 8-foot, 7-inch propeller.

The engine popped, sputtered and burst to life. Fowler turned the plane toward the runway.

The crowd followed.

At 7:20 a.m., the Spirit clawed and clattered its way into the sky for the first time.

“She’s up!” an onlooker shouted.

And then for 40 minutes everyone held their breath while it circled the Arlington airport, reaching an altitude of 2,300 feet and a top airspeed of 120 mph.

Norman, grinning like a sixth-grader after the successful flight, was happy and relieved. His replica of the Spirit had flown, his friend was safe.

“It was the most difficult plane I’ve ever flown,” Fowler said afterward.

How so?

Isn’t it obvious? There’s no front window. “You can’t see where you’re going,” he laughed.

In the weeks after the test flight, Norman was back at it with his wrench, tweaking the engine, adjusting the carburetor.

Fowler hopes to take it up for a second time later this month.

“I’m ready to go again,” he said. “It’s a piece of history I’m happy to be part of.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

John Norman (center) explains which way pilot Ron Fowler, holding his dog, will take Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis out for its first flight at Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. Heather Norman (left) explains the same to a friend. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman (center) explains which way pilot Ron Fowler, holding his dog, will take Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis out for its first flight at Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. Heather Norman (left) explains the same to a friend. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Antony Giacomini looks around the cockpit of John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis on July 28. Giacomini is also building a replica but remarked that Norman’s was an exact replica, compared to his plane. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Antony Giacomini looks around the cockpit of John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis on July 28. Giacomini is also building a replica but remarked that Norman’s was an exact replica, compared to his plane. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The cockpit of John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The cockpit of John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Pilot Ron Fowler helps pull John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis out from its hangar at Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Pilot Ron Fowler helps pull John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis out from its hangar at Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman listens as pilot Ron Fowler explains what happened during the first flight of Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman listens as pilot Ron Fowler explains what happened during the first flight of Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman’s grabs hold of a cold exhaust pipe after the first flight of his replica airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. A couple cylinders on the engine misfired and were cold at the end of the flight, meaning he’ll have figure out why they did not work. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman’s grabs hold of a cold exhaust pipe after the first flight of his replica airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. A couple cylinders on the engine misfired and were cold at the end of the flight, meaning he’ll have figure out why they did not work. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Ron Fowler pilots John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis in for a touch-and-go landing at Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Ron Fowler pilots John Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis in for a touch-and-go landing at Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman, his wife, Heather (right), and daughter Amber Nelson watch as his replica of the Spirit of St. Louis takes off on its first flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman, his wife, Heather (right), and daughter Amber Nelson watch as his replica of the Spirit of St. Louis takes off on its first flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman stands next to the nose of his exact replica of the Spirit of St. Louis before its maiden flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman stands next to the nose of his exact replica of the Spirit of St. Louis before its maiden flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman is overcome with emotion as his replica of the Spirit of St. Louis takes off on its first flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. His daughter Amber Nelson takes video as his wife, Heather, watches the plane fly ovals around the airfield. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman is overcome with emotion as his replica of the Spirit of St. Louis takes off on its first flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. His daughter Amber Nelson takes video as his wife, Heather, watches the plane fly ovals around the airfield. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman hugs Jeff Sandstorm after Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis finished its first flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. Sandstorm’s brother Ty was instrumental in getting the exacting details of the plane, but passed away before the flight happened. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

John Norman hugs Jeff Sandstorm after Norman’s replica of the Spirit of St. Louis finished its first flight from Arlington Municipal Airport on July 28. Sandstorm’s brother Ty was instrumental in getting the exacting details of the plane, but passed away before the flight happened. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

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