The Minnesota Air & Space Museum

in affiliation with the
Minnesota Aviation History & Education Center

OLDEST KNOWN AEROPLANE DISCOVERY IN THE U.S. 1911 Steco Aerohydroplane Recovered by The Minnesota Air & Space Museum
by Judy Peterson



Back in 1914, after being flown just a few times, a wood and fabric 1911 Steco Aerohydro-plane, built by James Stephens, was carefully packed away in six crates. Itlaid undisturbed and forgotten for 76 years in a garage near Chicago, Ill. The aeroplane and four cycle cars were donated last year to the Minnesota Air& Space Museum.

Denny Eggert, president andfounder of the museum, took a fiveman recovery team to Chicago to pick up the crates and boxes. These must remain closed for the most part until there is a place for the plane and cars to be assembled because of their fragile state. This is also to ensure no parts are lost so the plane can be restored to its original state. What they have unpacked has been in pristine condition.

"it's the oldest aircraft ever recovered in the U.S.,"said Eggert. "What's really surprising is the technology and the engineering that was put into it, on the heels of the Wright Brother's flight. "

The builder was James S. Stephens, a native of Nova Scotia, who lived in St. Paul, Minn., in the 1880s. He was mechanical superintendent of the Milwaukee Railroad and an engineer ing consultant for Hamm BrewingCompany before moving to Chicago as chief electrician at the Columbia Ex position in 1892.

Stephens and his son, Ralph, founded Steco Engineering Company to build prototypes of both the aeroplane and cycle cars. The 1911 aircraft wona U.S. patent for a radically new empennage flight control system which was a major advancement over the warp-able airfoils used by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C., eight years earlier. There were no ailerons, elevators, rudders, or wing warpage to control directional flight. For easy flying, the plane was made with only one movable surface the tail. It was connected to a straight handlebar, similar to one on a moun tain bike. The pilot could turn the plane by turning the handlebar left orright or could make it dive or climb by moving the handlebar backward or forward. Two vertical stabilizers mounted between the upper and lower wings kept the plane from slipping or skidding while it turned. Total weight empty was 1,320 Ibs.

The upper wing had a span of nearly 42 ft., the lower, 36 ft. Overall length was 31 ft. and the plane rode on custom built twin Burgess floats set 11 ft. apart. The integral flotation system was composed of "sections ofinflatedpiggut,"as quoted in the 1910 patent application. The plane's powerplant is a 1909 Gnome "Omega" rotary engine, made in France. It develops 50 hp, driving an 8 foot Chauviere propeller thatgives the amphibian a maximum speed of 50 mph. The cockpit showed that the pilot apparently controlled the gasoline-castor oil mixtures by a system of valves and gauges varying the fuel's formula according to the demands of the flight.

One crate revealed that the plane had an alternate tricycle landing gear complete with curved nose skag and pneumatic shock absorbers. Another remarkable innovation for so early anairplane. The plane was first built with landing gear, then later outfitted with floats which were tested on the water in 1914. It was shortly after James Stephens successfully soloed the amphibian plane that it was packed away and stored. Some say this was possible due to World War I. It looked likethe cycle cars and aeroplane were crated for shipment somewhere, rather than storage, but the details were never learned.

Ralph, Stephens' son, stored the plane in the garage of his home in Maywood, I11., which he shared with his cousin, Doris Webb. Ralph died in 1959 and the plane remained in the garage until Webb died two years ago. In her will she turned the plane and several cycle cars over to Joseph Shannon, James Stephens' nephew. Shannon, who lived in Minneapolis until his death in 1990, was instructed to donate the plane and cars to a museum.

The museum would like to uncrate all of the boxes, but cannot at this time. "We don't want to jeopardize losing some of the parts," says Eggert. "When we open the crates it will be torestore the plane. "A building with proper security and environmental controls for the highly fragile and priceless contents, will be necessary. So far they have opened four of the airplane crates and some of the boxes with the blueprints and parts for the cycle cars.

Cockpit/fuselage section of the 1911 Steco. Note engine mounting for the Gnome Omega 7 cylinder rotary engine. Fuel/oil tank just aft of engine mount, gravity fed. Aft of that is where the passenger and pilot sit. Note the bay wires and aluminum nose/side panels.


The mint condition Gnome Omega 7 cylinder rotary engine as it was unpacked, wrapped with oil paper. This rear view shows the solid crankshaft which a throttled carburetor was installed. Note spark plugs in cylinders, fixed gear for magneto and spark distributor ring. No exhaust or intake manifolds are needed.

P.O. BOX 75654 ST. PAUL, MN 55175