Collection Item Summary:
Herman A. Ecker learned to fly probably in 1911, making the first flight in his hometown of Syracuse, New York, that same year. After honing his skills as a pilot and an airplane builder with several other aircraft (possibly as many as four), he built the flying boat in the NASM collection probably in 1912 or early 1913. Ecker patterned his airplane closely after the highly successful Curtiss Model E and F flying boats. By 1912, Ecker was taking passengers aloft and doing exhibitions at fairs and other public gatherings. Some of this exhibition flying was certainly done with the aircraft in the NASM collection, but exactly when and where is unknown. Despite the similarity in general appearance with the commercially produced Curtiss flying boat, the Ecker airplane bears the hallmarks of a lone builder, long on enthusiasm and ingenuity, but short on resources and access to the latest technology.
Collection Item Long Description:
Most of the aircraft in the National Air and Space Museum collection achieved fame in their own right or represent an important aircraft type of technical or historical significance. The Ecker Flying Boat adequately meets these criteria, but it deserves a place in the national collection for another equally noteworthy reason. The Ecker represents that vast, largely unknown, wholly uncelebrated population of pioneer aviators who built flying machines in their backyards out of bits and scraps from the local hardware store. Their efforts helped to carry the burgeoning technology of heavier-than-air flight out of infancy.
Herman A. Ecker, a native of Syracuse, New York, was gripped and inspired by the excitement of the daring displays put on by the acclaimed aviators of his day such as the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss. He soon joined the growing ranks of early pilots himself, learning to fly at Belmont Park, New York, most likely in 1911. After honing his skills as a pilot and an airplane builder with several other aircraft (possibly as many as four), Ecker built the flying boat now in the NASM collection probably in 1912 or early 1913. The exact date of construction is uncertain, as are many of the details regarding his flying activities and his aircraft.
Ecker patterned his airplane closely after the highly successful and popular Curtiss Model E and F flying boats. Indeed, the Ecker is essentially a copy of the famous Curtiss design. Despite the similarity in general appearance with the commercially produced Curtiss flying boat, the Ecker machine bears the hallmarks of a lone builder, long on enthusiasm and ingenuity, but short on resources and access to the latest technology.
For example, Ecker attached the airplane's muslin covering with ordinary carpet tacks and tightened and sealed the fabric with wallpaper sizing glue. This sufficed on clear days, but when it rained the water-soluble glue dissolved. Ecker dealt with this problem by applying a coat of varnish over the glue. The spruce wing structure was simple, with little internal bracing, even by 1912 standards. Basic aircraft hardware was largely improvised. Strut fittings were hand-made from sheet steel, and the turnbuckles used to put tension in the bracing and control wires were refashioned motorcycle spokes.
As with the rest of the airplane, the engine was somewhat makeshift. Ecker converted a Roberts six-cylinder marine engine for aeronautical use. He removed several unnecessary components to save weight and added an automobile radiator for cooling. Later a second radiator was fitted to cure continual overheating problems. Two carburetors fed fuel into a unique rotary-valve intake that in turn redistributed the fuel to the individual cylinders. It generated between 50 and 65 horsepower. The six-gallon fuel capacity provided for twenty to thirty minutes of flying time. The engine had no exhaust pipe. Hot exhaust simply spewed out of each cylinder under the wing, requiring a protective aluminum sheath on the upper center-section fabric. There were no engine instruments; all adjustments were made by judgement according to the sound of the engine.
Like many of the one-off aircraft built and flown by lesser-known pioneers, the configuration of the Ecker Flying Boat changed several times during its operational life. Initially it was fitted with a wheeled landing gear. Later, pontoons replaced the wheels to allow flying off water. In its final and present form, the Ecker features an actual boat hull made of spruce, oak, and ash, sealed internally with oil and externally with a hand-rubbed gray enamel finish. The hull reportedly had wheeled beaching gear to move the aircraft from water to land and vice versa, but no information on the size and style of the wheels exists.
The flying record of the Ecker is as hazy as the history of its construction. By the time the aircraft in the NASM collection took to the air, Ecker had built a modest local reputation as a pilot and an exhibition flyer in his home territory of western New York State. In a pontoon-fitted hydro-aeroplane (possibly an earlier configuration of the NASM aircraft), Ecker was the first to fly in his home town of Syracuse, New York, making a successful takeoff from nearby Onondaga Lake in 1911. By 1912, he was taking passengers aloft and doing exhibitions at fairs and other public gatherings. Some of this exhibition flying was certainly done with the aircraft in the NASM collection, but exactly when and where or in which of its many configurations the airplane appeared is unknown. The only direct reference to the flight history of this airplane is a vague statement made by Ecker in a 1930s newspaper interview in which he said he flew it extensively for a period of three years and then placed it in storage. The Ecker Flying Boat emerged one more time before it came to NASM when it was displayed at the 1930 New York State Fair.
The story becomes murky again until the somewhat tattered airframe of the Ecker was discovered in the upper loft of a downtown Syracuse TV sales and repair shop in 1958. The components of the now ancient flying boat were gingerly hoisted out of a fourth floor window and transported to the home of the proud new owner, Owen Billman, to await restoration. Before long, news of the find reached the airplane's original builder and pilot, Herman Ecker, who was by then living out a happy retirement in Florida. Ecker prevailed upon the discoverer of his long-lost flying boat to donate the airplane to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1961 the Ecker arrived at NASM and was stored until its restoration in 1981-1982.