The Kitty Hawk biplane was conceived in 1928 on the wave of airmindedness that emanated from Charles Lindbergh’s electrifying transatlantic flight the year before.
By 1934, the company building this diminutive biplane went bust, a victim of the Depression and its impact on a market flooded with like-minded three-place open-cockpit sport aircraft.
Today only one Kitty Hawk of 34 built flies. Bob Coolbaugh of Newmarket, Virginia, brought his restored B-8 Kitty Hawk to EAA AirVenture 2021 and engaged in the time-honored fly-in pastime of polishing the airplane while casually chatting with passersby who were intrigued to see this one-of-a-kind machine.
Allen Bourdon and Lloyd Stearman both worked at Galludet Aircraft Corporation, a company purchased by Reuben Fleet in the 1920s. Bourdon then led the effort to create the Kitty Hawk with engineer John E. Summers.
Bob points out the distinctive prewar Stearman profile of the Kitty Hawk’s rudder as evidence of Stearman’s influence on Bourdon’s design.
The Bourdon Aircraft Corporation of Hillsgrove, Rhode Island, set about building the biplanes.
According to Bob, the pilot on the first flight of the Kitty Hawk in 1928 announced that the biplane “flies like a hawk and lands like a kitten.”
We may never know how spontaneous that quote was, but it set the tone for Kitty Hawk marketing, with the company logo featuring a demure kitten’s face.
The Kitty Hawk at Oshkosh was built in 1931 for the College of William and Mary’s flight training program, said to be the first such program to be fully accredited.
The biplane is 23 feet long, and stands eight and a half feet tall. Span of the upper and lower wings is 28 feet.
Bourdon wanted a 90-100 horsepower radial engine for the Kitty Hawk, and the original B-2 model biplanes were built with variations of a German Siemens radial.
With delivery uncertainties for the German engines vexing at times, the next model of the Kitty Hawk, the B-4, relied on a Kinner five-cylinder engine of domestic production, ranging between 90-100 horsepower.
With the Kinner, the B-4 has a published top speed of 110 and a cruising speed of 92 miles an hour. The B-8 version, certificated in 1931, uses a Kinner radial of 125 horsepower to give a listed top speed of 112 with cruise at 95. Bob says he cruises closer to 80 mph. The B-4 and B-8 could be mounted on a pair of floats, with some speed penalty.
Robert E. Gross bought the Kitty Hawk design and company when Bourdon Aircraft went bankrupt during the Depression. The B-8 variant was then produced by the Viking Flying Boat Company in New Haven, Conn. Worsening sales in the economic woes of the era led the Viking company to diminish production, while servicing existing Kitty Hawks and offering flying instruction. The company closed its doors in 1934, according to Bob.
The demise of the Kitty Hawk biplane in the early 1930s is easy to ascribe to the Depression. It wasn’t the only good design to go under when money got tight.
But there was another factor looming on the aeronautical horizon worth mentioning. The Taylor Cub first flew in 1930, evolving over time into the classic Piper Cub.
The era of low-cost enclosed light monoplanes dawned as the classic three-place open cockpit biplanes struggled to stay alive. General aviation was moving away from designs like the Kitty Hawk, and the Depression hastened that move.
Bob’s restored Kitty Hawk needs more than a casual glance to appreciate its artistry as an aeronautical product of the rapidly evolving late 1920s.
The wing airfoil has a noticeable camber to the lower surface, giving high lift at slow speeds. The landing gear uses a combination of oil and springs to dampen bounce. The resulting gear stretches more than a foot with weight off the wheels, giving the airborne Kitty Hawk a long-legged look.
Bob says the Kitty Hawk “kinda flies truckish,” but it is stable and has honest handling characteristics. He quickly adds he will not disparage the handling qualities of his Kitty Hawk.
Historian Joseph P. Juptner called it “a compact and very delightful little airplane.”
Bob bought the remnants of his Kitty Hawk and started restoration in 2012. The aircraft had broken up on a forced landing as a floatplane in the early 1970s. Equipped with 95% of the drawings for the design, Bob set out to rebuild the Kitty Hawk. The wings, made of wooden I-beam spars and ribs with an aluminum leading edge for shaping, are new construction. Bob’s Kitty Hawk made its first flight in 2020.
Perhaps the example Bob set at AirVenture 2021 with his rare Kitty Hawk will serve as inspiration for others to get into vintage restorations. He is earnest when he says it is important for more, and younger, people to get involved with vintage aircraft efforts such as this.