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Paul Coleman, Clint Gillette, DeVere Palmer, Wally Henderson, Norm Williams(pilot)

1931 AIRPLANE SETS RECORD FOR ALMOND

At the heart of the Great Depression, a trio of local young men with a dream, who scraped together an amazing amount of money and applied lots of hard work and creativity, made a name for themselves and set an amazing record in Almond.

In May 1931, Clint Gillette, age 23, Paul Coleman, 28, and DeVere Palmer, 24, experienced the culmination of their two-year project of building "something that would fly" and achieved for Almond the distinction of being the home of the smallest flying plane.

The little craft attracted nationwide attention when it was taken on its maiden voyage and proved to be the "smallest, practical airplane in the world," according to published reports at the time. Today, Paul’s son, Tim, proudly displays a large frame containing photos of the plane and newspaper clippings from the Elmira Sunday Telegram, May 24, 1931, with huge headlines reading:

"Five Hundred Pound Plane Not Much More Than A Toy"

"Miniature Airplane Built In Spare Time Gives Pilot Thrill."

Ron Coleman and Martin "Bud" Gillette remember their dads, Paul and Clint, as long-time friends and partners in many other unique "projects," including inventing an idea for a more efficient bomb during World War II (which they even sent to the US War Department). Ron describes his dad as "very clever, able to design anything," as well as a fine carpenter. Clint, his close friend, was a master mechanic and welder, able to "fix" just about anything.

Ron still has a copy of the article entitled "How To Build Your Own Airplane" from the July 1926 issue of Science and Invention magazine which sparked the men’s interest in the project.

"How my mother, who was very close with money, ever allowed those guys, in 1928-29, in the heat of the Depression, to send for plans to build an airplane, blows my mind!" he exclaimed.

Described in the magazine article as a "little sport plane of very beautiful lines," it goes on to explain that the "engine will cost several hundred dollars." “That was a fortune then,” Ron declares. “You could buy a house

for that!”

But somehow they were able to come up with the funds, and the young men worked on the project in a spare room over Bell’s Meat Market on Main Street, which, before it was torn down, stood on the lot beside Percy McIntosh’s Garage (now John Flint’s).  Lee Mosher of Andover, a young boy living in Almond at the time, remembers watching them put the fabric on the framework. “They did a beautiful job. Youngsters were very interested in aircraft and mechanical things in those days, and we would go over there and watch them. They didn’t mind as long as we were quiet,” he said. “I was at Percy McIntosh’s garage with my brother, Richard, when they tested the engine. It was anchored down, and the tail went right straight out – it wanted to take off. But people in town said the plane was too small – that it would nosedive.”

The archives files at Hagadorn House reveal a full-page feature article, written more than 30 years after the flight, from the November 3, 1962 issue of the Evening Tribune. Entitled “Trio of Almond Youths Brought Fame to Village by Constructing Airplane,” it recounts the fascinating story as told by the surviving partners, Paul and Clint. The story reads thus: “The men traveled to York, PA. to purchase the engine for the plane. Of World War I surplus, the engine was a three-cylinder, 35-horsepower Anzani engine imported from France. More than half of the total cost of the construction, estimated by the men at $800, was spent on the purchase of the engine. “The wings and fuselage of the craft were made of fabric-covered spruce.  Millions of small pieces of wood (purchased from Bath Ladder company), which were sawed and chiseled by hand to fit the intended purpose, were glued together, and gradually the airplane was assembled. A linen-like fabric similar to light canvas or sheeting (obtained at the Tuttle and Rockwell Company), was placed over the wood frame of the fuselage and wings. Then the various parts were ‘doped’ with nitro-cellulose dope, which caused the fabric to shrink tight around the frame and gave it a hardened finish,” according to the article.

Quoting Clint as calling it a “long and tedious job,” the townspeople were extremely pessimistic about the project, and the young men were considered slightly foolish for trying to build an airplane. “I suppose that it would be the same way if someone were to build a rocket today,” Clint said.  “People in those days just didn’t build airplanes!”

The account goes on: “The fellows were not to be discouraged, however, and when the craft became too large for the spare room over the Village meat market, they took it to Hornell to the garage operated by Gillette and Palmer, where the construction was completed.

“The airplane, minus the wings, was towed behind a car to the Hornell airport, where her maiden flight was to be made. The men assembled the wings and finished last-minute details just prior to the flight at the airport.

“The ship measured approximately 12 feet from the propeller to the tail,and the cockpit was about four feet from the ground. The cockpit itself was ‘about half as large as a baby carriage,’ according to newspaper accounts at the time of the flight.

“The wingspread of the biplane was 22 feet, with the wings only about one-fifth the size of a small ordinary plane. The ship had a cruising radius of 300 miles and the gas tank had a five-gallon capacity. “The little airplane, gas, oil. and pilot, weighed approximately 550 pounds. Norman L. Williams, who piloted the little ship on her maiden voyage, said at the time that it was lightest and smallest plan of which he had know. Upon searching records, he found that the smallest plan on record weighed between 900 and 940 pounds, or nearly twice that of the craft built in Almond,” the article continued.

“We had wonderful success with that airplane. The first time it was ever flown, it flew perfectly,” the men recalled in 1962. Piloted by Williams, the yellow and black airplane with its black cat insignia (designed by Paul’s brother, Alton, a professional artist) made its first trip of 55 air miles from Hornell to Leroy in 40 minutes, returning in 50 minutes.

After the trip, Williams was quoted as saying: “I have never seen its equal for speed and ease in handling.” The pilot told the proud builders that the ship was “astounding” in that it was unlike other small planes, which “are tricky and have to be watched every minute.”

According to the Coleman/Gillette interview in the 1962 article, the ship was capable of speeds up to 90 miles an hour. They told how Williams demonstrated the fine climbing ability of the plane by skimming along the rough landing field for a short distance, and then shooting the plane almost directly up into the air. On hand to see the plane fly was City Chamberlain Howard Babcock of Hornell, president of the Hornell Airways, Inc., who stated: “It is one of the sturdiest planes I have ever seen. I can see it is a natural.”

Today, seventy years later, Robert Rose, who later served as a flight instructor at the Hornell airport, still remembers his father taking him to the airport to watch the plane when he was a young boy. “I never saw it fly, but I watched them take off down the runway, testing the engine and controls, easing off on the power just before it became airborne. Then they would bring it back and talk about how it was gong to lift. I thought it was great. . . a nice looking little aircraft. It was quite an attraction.”

The ship’s maiden flight attracted nationwide attention, with wire services picking up the story, resulting in clippings sent to the Almond men from as far away as California. As a result of the interest aroused by the building and flying of the airplane, Paul learned to fly and became a member of the Maple City Flying Club. His one regret, expressed in the the Tribune article was, “I just wish I could have flown our plane.”

Paul and Clint, young men at the time they built the plane, lived the remainder of their lives in Almond, where they collaborated on various adventures and projects, and served the community in many ways. In his spare time, Paul used his exceptional carpenter skills to build and remodel countless homes in the area. When he retired, he held the position of maintenance supervisor at Alfred Tech. Clint operated Gillette’s garage on North Main Street for more than fifty years, where his excellent mechanical ability and welding skills were in great demand. He also served as Village of Almond trustee. DeVere, whose brother, Al Palmer operated Palmer’s Sporting Goods, tragically died at a young age. The fate of the little airplane is somewhat of a mystery today. But Ron recalls his dad telling that someone wanted to buy the plane, came to the airport to take it on a test flight, and took off, never paying the men for the craft.

Today, the only fragments of evidence that remain of the once famous airplane and its visionary creators are the prized black and white photographs and fragile yellowed newspaper clippings that provide the captivating accounts of this remarkable project, and the carved replica of the craft found on Palmer’s gravestone in the Village cemetery.

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