This weekend a little known piece of aviation history will be recreated in Duluth.
A group of aviation buffs there have built -- from scratch -- a replica of a historic plane dubbed "The Lark of Duluth." The air boat, as it was known, went on to become the nation's first commercial airliner.
The Lark of Duluth created quite a stir when it arrived in Duluth in 1913, less than a decade after the Wright Brothers had completed their pioneering flight. Julius Barnes, a wealthy grain trader, purchased the "flying boat," a two-seat biplane that took off from the water. Its wings were made of linen stretched over spruce spars. Barnes recruited a pilot to Duluth, Tony Jannus, to teach him to fly.
That summer, Barnes and Jannus soared underneath Duluth's famed Aerial Lift Bridge, said Mike Gardonio, a pilot for Minnesota Power.
"It had to be an amazing thing to watch in a day and age when a lot of people were still riding horses, to watch people flying through the air, especially over the bay," Gardonio said.
Barnes never flew again after that first flight. Bank directors he had borrowed money from told him it was too risky. But Jannus piloted the plane throughout the summer as part of a celebration called The Lark O' the Lake.
When the Duluth harbor iced over that year, the Lark was shipped to Florida, where an engineer concocted an idea to offer passengers a $5 flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, across the bay. On New Year's Day, 1914, the nation's first commercial airline, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat line, was born.
"When it first went down to Florida for the scheduled airline business, the day before it flew, it took two hours by ferry boat to go between Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg," said Tom Betts, a retired jet engine mechanic in Duluth who helped build the replica plane. "And the train was six hours. It didn't go directly there."
The Lark of Duluth, Betts said, cut that trip down to just over 20 minutes.
"There aren't many times in human history when your mode of transportation changes that much overnight," he said.
That winter just over 1,000 passengers made the flight, without a single accident. The Lark returned to Duluth the next summer, but then fell off the map. Details are scarce, but it eventually crashed in California.
Memories of the plane faded in Duluth. But while the original is long gone, 100 years later, the replica is just about ready to fly.
Earlier this week Mark Marino fired up the plane's engine for a taxi across the Duluth harbor, to test the rudder that turns the plane in the water.
Marino and his wife Sandra Ettestad, founders of a nonprofit called the Duluth Aviation Institute , have led a five-year effort to recreate the Lark. Marino estimates he and a team of seven volunteers have logged more than 4,000 hours building the plane.
The 1,000-pound bright green plane is built out of Sitka spruce, as was the original, and has an eight-foot mahogany and brass propeller turned by a giant chain. The wings are covered with a durable synthetic fabric rather than the original linen, which needed replacement every year. "Lark of Duluth" is printed in bold letters on the underside of the top wing.
Ettestad said building the plane was a huge challenge, because they had no plans to rely on -- only vague descriptions and, fortunately, historic photos.
"So we could zoom in very tight on a little piece of hardware, on the strut or on the wing, and examine it and then Mark would look at that and draw from it," Ettestad said.
“There aren't many times in human history when your mode of transportation changes that much overnight,”Tom Betts, retired jet engine mechanic
For example, to recreate the plane's two wings, connected by dozens of wires for strength and stability, Marino first studied the photos to determine exactly how the cables were fastened.
"We can count the number of times they wrapped them around each other, and so we duplicated them exactly," he said.
Then engineers at Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth tested the ingenious design for Marino.
"It doesn't break; it stretches," Marino said. "That's a good thing. As it opens up, you can see if there's a problem before you have a catastrophe. So it's not only a primitive design, but it's a really good design."
Marino said he stayed as true as possible to the original design, but made some safety modifications, including additional wires between the wings and seat belts.
"I think what we've learned is what they had was a very marginal airplane," he said. "Trying to keep it looking like a true replica would have meant the airplane would probably not be safe."
Still, Marino said he's amazed at what the original plane's builders accomplished 100 years ago, without the benefit of computers or a century of flying experience.
"You really have to respect what they did back then," he said. "They got it right. They made it work, and we're not sure we're even there yet."
Marino had hoped to fly the plane at a revival of the Lark O' the Lake festival this weekend, the same celebration the original plane headlined a century ago. During a test earlier this week, he inadvertently flew the plane a few inches over the water.
"What's significant about that little hop that happened is that it proved that it will leave the water," Marino said. "It's going to fly."
But instead Betts said they likely will just taxi it across the water during the festival.
"We're looking for several trouble free operations on the water before we ever want to fly it," he said.