Restoration: Unearthing a Diamond

The Diamond is the only one of its kind ever built.

For just under $40,000, an aspiring aircraft builder can order a Lancair ES kit from Lancair International in Redmond, Oregon. Or, he could just grab a pen and a notebook, head down to the local fly-in, draw a picture of a Lancair, and then go home and build one.

Kit builders today, who sink infinite hours into complex construction plans, would scoff at the idea. But around 1910, a dredge captain and a shipyard operator in Pittsburg, California, did exactly that—or so the legend goes. Lan Maupin and Bernard Lanteri were said to have copied the details of their aircraft, the Diamond, from a Curtiss biplane they saw at an exhibition.

But according to Newton Craven of the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California, which recently restored the craft, it’s more likely that the two men based their plans on magazine articles published in 1910 and 1911 that gave the specifications for a Curtiss-type biplane.

To fly their craft, Maupin and Lanteri hired Weldon Cooke, a racecar driver who wanted an entrée into the glamorous world of aviation. Over the next four months, Cooke learned enough aeronautics to get his charge airborne; during his early flights, he survived a dunk in Lake Merritt and circled Mount Tamalpias at 3,000 feet.

In January 1912, the trio entered the Diamond in the Dominguez Hills Air Meet. Cooke set two records: for duration, with a total time airborne of over 18 hours, 22 minutes, and for altitude—5,800 feet. The team won $7,400, but for some reason lost to history, the Diamond was never flown again.

In 1933, the Oakland Port Authority gained possession of the Diamond and put it on display at the Oakland airport. Fifteen years later, it was acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Air Museum, which put it in storage. In 1998, the Hiller museum, which focuses on Northern California’s aviation history, became interested in the Diamond and made some inquiries. The National Air and Space Museum agreed to send it to Hiller for restoration and display.

The years in limbo had taken their toll on the Diamond. When it arrived at Hiller, pieces were weathered and unlabeled, and others weren’t even there.

The missing-parts dilemma was unexpectedly solved when Craven, one of the Diamond’s restorerers, was flipping through one of the museum’s old periodicals. “I just happened to spot this picture of Paul Poberezny [the founder of the Experimental Aircraft Association] with the Diamond’s control column,” he says. Apparently, in 1964 Poberezny had acquired some of the Diamond’s parts from a friend, who in turn had inherited them as part of the inventory of the California Aeroplane Company (how that company got them is unknown).

Soon afterward, the parts—the undercarriage and wheels, aileron system, bamboo control rod, and wing compression ribs—were reunited with the rest of the Diamond. Referring to old drawings, photographs, and articles, the restoration team set to work.

The completed Diamond went on display at Hiller last February. It is really no more remarkable looking than an ordinary Curtiss of the same period, but its history gives it its distinction. Whether originally constructed from memory or assembled from diagrams, the Diamond is essentially the first homebuilt aircraft. And that is remarkable enough.

—Becki Bell

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.