- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

RHINEBECK, N.Y. Charles Lindbergh's old plane is being copied to the last strut and gauge a brand new craft in the spirit of the Spirit of St. Louis.
The aircraft is being readied to lift off from a grassy strip at the Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a haven for vintage planes in the Hudson Valley hills. But for now, the fuselage's steel-tube skeleton remains shoehorned into the aerodrome's workshop as chief builder Ken Cassens tries to get the new Spirit flying this year.
It would mark the 75th anniversary of Lindbergh's famous New York-to-Paris solo flight.
The aerodrome's plane will join a small squadron of Spirit of St. Louis look-alikes created around the world over the years. But the level of detail in this project was unique enough to draw attention from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and Reeve Lindbergh. The daughter of the famous flier posed for a picture in the pilot's seat.
"In my view, it will probably be the best flying Spirit of St. Louis reproduction that has ever been done," said Peter Jakab, a curator with the National Air and Space Museum.
It's a unique challenge putting together a plane with wood and fabric wings in the age of jump jets. Mr. Cassens has had to work from old pictures and hunt for old treasures. He has searched, deduced, glued, welded and soldered.
He just needs more time.
"I want it to be as accurate as possible," Mr. Cassens said. "I'm kind of a nit-picker."
Mr. Cassens is 58, with a graying beard and hands hardened by working on Fokkers, Sopwith Camels and other old planes kept at this museum/flying circus about 80 miles north of New York City. He barnstorms in shows here every weekend in warm weather.
The aerodrome was the creation of Cole Palen, a mechanically inclined aviation enthusiast who in 1951 spent his life savings on several World War I-era planes. Mr. Palen began building a copy of Lindbergh's plane in the 1980s after getting his hands on a crop-duster with a Wright J-5 engine, the type that carried Lindbergh over the Atlantic. But Mr. Palen died early in the project, in 1993.
Enter Mr. Cassens, who took over in memory of his old friend. It was a good fit. Flying and tinkering since he was a boy, Mr. Cassens has worked as a flight engineer and a crop-duster. And he has felt a link to Lindbergh since boyhood, when he discovered they shared a birthday, Feb. 4.
Mr. Cassens has concentrated on building the plane in winter months since 1996 the flying shows take up his time in the summer. The intricate work of piecing together a 27-foot plane falls mostly on his shoulders, though he does get occasional help.
The job is complicated by the fact that Mr. Cassens barely has a road map. The original Spirit was created specifically for trans-Atlantic flight over two frenetic months as Lindbergh raced to claim a $25,000 prize and make history. The pilot's seat was made of lightweight wicker. The front windshield was nixed so a gas tank could go in front of the cockpit. A periscope was added.
Keeping records of the plans was not a priority.
"There's a lot of information that you just can't get," Mr. Cassens said. "There were a lot of things done to the airplane that were not recorded."
To fill the gaps, Mr. Cassens scrutinized pictures of the plane being built. The Smithsonian provided them. He even peered through a jeweler's loupe to count the wicker weaves in the pilot seat. And the Smithsonian allowed him to climb on a cherry picker at the museum to glean details of the original plane, suspended by cables.
Then came the detail work, which included gluing dozens of wooden ribs for a wing. It has left Mr. Cassens appreciative of how well the original plane performed despite the rush.
"He didn't like to be called 'Lucky,'" Mr. Cassens said. "But he was lucky."
Mr. Cassens wants to make a plane that Lindbergh would recognize down to the fuel valves. But some things people can't see will be different. Gas tanks were shrunk because this plane will never fly across the Atlantic. Other changes are technical, such as the fuselage being covered by Dacron, stronger than the original cotton skin.


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