Oldies and Oddities: Body by Erco

Oldies & Oddities: Body by Erco

Nearly 50 years after the Engineering and Research Corporation (Erco) ceased production of the Ercoupe, the “airplane anyone can fly,” the Ercoupe Owners Club still holds an annual national fly-in. The most recent one was part homecoming, part farewell to the Ercoupe’s birthplace.

Last July, 220 people and 62 aircraft gathered at College Park Airport in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., and a mile from the former Erco factory. Part of the spacious old building now serves as a distribution center for aeronautical and nautical charts. But it was recently sold to a developer, which probably means there’s a wrecking ball in its future. The fly-in featured tours of the factory, led by Erco alumni who returned for a last look.

It was here that Henry Berliner founded Erco in 1931 as a haven for engineering innovation, and despite the Depression, the company had plenty of capital, thanks to royalties earned by Berliner’s father, Emile, inventor of the disc phonograph and a microphone for early telephones. Berliner outfitted his plant with features luxurious for the day, such as an early form of air conditioning. Elegant touches are still visible, like the richly grained wood in the lobby and conference room, and the walls of glass brick, now painted.

The machinery is long gone from the echoing halls. Returning Erco employees pointed to telltale outlines on the floor, showing where the 2,000-ton hydraulic press stood, the boring mills, the grinders. The 35,000-square-foot final assembly shop, which once produced up to 34 Ercoupes a day, is now empty save for a basketball net, used by workers from the parts of the building still occupied.

In addition to Ercoupes, the company built and sold machine tools for aircraft manufacturing and other industrial uses. Starting in World War II, Erco produced gun turrets for bombers, and the tour guides recalled the sound of machine gun fire in the surrounding woods as the units were tested. Other products made during and after the war included radio antennas, external fuel tanks, bomb racks, rocket launchers, and afterburners. Erco devised dispensers for chaff, aluminum strips dropped from bombers to thwart radar. Even bodies for bread trucks and school buses came off the Erco assembly line.

Despite having little experience in electrical engineering, Erco landed a postwar contract to build some of the first aircraft-specific simulators, such as those for the F9F Panther and the F-86D Sabre. “Compared to today, they were extremely primitive,” says Howard Benson, an engineer on the project. “I invented the lightning simulator, which was flashing lights around the translucent canopy. Rough air simulation was a cam-driven shaft under the ejection seat, which would jump the seat up and down. That was the extent of the visual and motion.”

The Ercoupe was the brainchild of Fred Weick, Erco’s chief engineer. The number of private pilots was expected to grow, and the Ercoupe was designed in 1937 to be “unusually simple and easy to fly,” he said. Innovations included tricycle landing gear with the nose wheel connected to the control wheel, so it could be steered like a car, and a conjoined aileron-rudder system also controlled through the wheel, which eliminated the need for rudder pedals. Because a pilot could not cross-control the airplane, the Ercoupe was impossible to spin. But pilots balked at single-axis control, so later models offered the option of rudder pedals.

Erco alumni and Ercoupe owners speak reverently of Weick. “He was a genius, a national treasure,” says Joe McCawley, board chairman of the owners club. Weick died in 1993, but his children, Donald, Betsey, and Dick, attended the 2000 fly-in. They described the W-1, experimental forerunner of the Ercoupe, taking shape in their garage. Donald’s tricycle was sometimes used to demonstrate the landing gear configuration. They recalled the lanky frame of their father, stretched out on the floor after an exhausting day at the plant. “No couch was big enough,” Betsey explained. “He’d take up the whole floor. We’d walk very quietly around him.”

Erco produced almost 5,100 Ercoupes, and companies such as Forney, Alon, and Mooney later built 500 of their own versions. At the fly-in, a “Coupe Showcase” displayed examples of all but one of the models. Weick and his team had been working on the prototype of a four-seat Ercoupe, but the project was cancelled when the market for private aircraft plummeted in the late 1940s. Ercoupe club members Marvin and Ruth Dunlap learned the whereabouts of the unfinished airframe and bought it in 1990.

They’ve been working on it ever since at their home in Michigan. Starting with just a fuselage section, they’ve had to add wings, a tail, an engine, and much more. They aim to fly their one-of-a-kind Ercoupe to this year’s fly-in in Terrell, Texas. Says Ruth Dunlap: “It’s going to be a new, old, 1947 four-place Ercoupe.”

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