The Lark of Duluth

Built from pictures and rumors

The talk of town carries an elevated tone of excitement, and rightfully so — a festival celebrating innovation, sport, and the future of man’s dreams has come to town.

Families gather along the shoreline of Lake Superior, near the industrial Duluth Harbor, for the gala. Men spiffed in their finest trousers, pressed shirts, and high hats and ladies adorned in flowing dresses and elegant Victorian umbrellas can hardly contain their glee.

A hush falls on the crowd as a small fife and drum corps begins a patriotic hymn. Children run to the action in hopes of a glimpse of the centerpiece of the festival — The Lark of Duluth, a Benoist XIV flying boat being paraded to the shoreline behind a majestic and proud Belgian stallion.

The year was 1913. Well actually, it wasn’t, but that’s sure what it felt like thanks to the artistic fanfare of Mark Marino and friends. Mark’s whole purpose in hosting this festival, and building an airworthy Benoist flying boat for its centerpiece, was to rewind the clock 100 years and create a living celebration of aviation’s early years.

Mark and his wife, Sandra Ettestad, live in Duluth, Minnesota, on the southwest corner of Lake Superior. Both are trustees of the Duluth Aviation Institute. Their home airport, Duluth’s Sky Harbor (KDYT), is one of the state’s most picturesque. The single-runway airport is located on a peninsula jetting into the great lake, and landing there feels like shooting an approach to an aircraft carrier.

Tucked inside Mark’s hangar are many treasures. Among them sits a dusty shelf of trophies where two Lindys are proudly displayed. Mark has completed seven homebuilt aircraft, and the Benoist replica is his latest and most unique.


ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO

In an era before Internet and television, the city of Duluth hosted a six-week festival named in the aircraft’s honor, the “Lark of the Lake.” The flying boat gave numerous exhibition rides and even raced against power boats.

“Who won?” I asked Mark. “I think they let the airplane win,” he answered honestly. The lakeside event afforded many townspeople their first look at aviation and what was possible with a “hydro-aeroplane,” as news reporters called it in their near-daily reports on the aircraft.

“It seems to me the popularity of this sport is sure to increase rapidly,” pilot Tony Jannus is quoted saying by the Duluth Herald, July 30, 1913.

When winter arrived in 1913, Tony and Roger Jannus approached The Lark of Duluth’s owner Julius Barnes with a proposal to take the flying boat south, specifically to St. Petersburg, Florida, to start an air service. On the morning of January 1, 1914, The Lark of Duluth became the world’s first heavier-than-air airliner, transporting passengers across the Tampa Bay, one at a time for $5 each way. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line offered 23-minute flights across the bay, saving travelers a half-day’s journey by horse and buggy.

The airline eventually flew more than 1,200 passengers in the Lark. That makes 2014 the centennial of heavier-than-air commercial aviation travel, a world-changing development.

The Duluth Aviation Institute and Mark and Sandra wanted to commemorate this anniversary by giving the world, aviation community, and city of Duluth a tangible, living, and airworthy Benoist flying boat to serve as a reminder of our past and an example of what can be accomplished when someone dares to be the first. And that is Mark’s message when he talks to students: “Somebody has to be the first to do something. You can be that person,” he says.


THE CHALLENGE

Even as an experienced builder, Mark had a monumental challenge before him. No original Benoist flying boats exist today, in part or whole.

They all crashed within a few years of being built. And no factory plans exist either.

So for two years, Mark and Sandra traveled the country collecting every photograph, news report, interview, and article ever published about the Benoist flying boat.

“We built this aircraft completely from pictures and rumors,” he said. And the pictures he found were as varied as the rumors. “We know they were constantly changing the airplane back then. In every single picture there’s something different,” Mark said. “In one picture the radiator was up front, in another picture it was in the back. The exhaust pipes kept changing position. There’s almost nothing consistent from picture to picture.”

One hundred years ago, they tried, experimented, and learned — the same formula Mark used to build his replica: sometimes on purpose, other times by accident. But that’s the living story of the Benoist, aviation, and innovation.


FROM PICTURES AND RUMORS

“What I enjoyed most was the discovery,” Mark said. In his research, Mark purchased high-definition photos from the Smithsonian, the details of which revealed countless intricacies he and the team referenced hundreds of times throughout the construction.

“As a builder of a replica, our goal was to build it as close to what they did back then. We do that, even if we don’t like what they did — to a point. We’re not out to hurt ourselves or anybody else,” Mark said.

Mark submitted the design to Steve Dorsey, an engineer at Cirrus Aircraft, for analysis and learned the design yielded just more than a 1g aircraft. By doubling a few critical cables they were able to increase the strength to a 2.9g aircraft.

“They didn’t have the aviation information we have today, yet it’s phenomenal how well they did with what they had,” Mark said.

No pulleys existed on the original and none exist on Mark’s replica. Anywhere a control cable changes direction is done with copper guide tubes, which creates substantial drag on the controls.

Tom Betts, one of the main volunteer builders helping Mark, said he learned a lot about 1913 aviation and how they did things, seeing many similarities used by shipbuilders of the day.

“Real craftsman built these, but not like we build airplanes today,” he said. “They were still learning about aviation. The sides on this were 1/2-inch-thick wood. It feels like the USS Constitution, then it’s lifted aloft by these spindly wings and spider web of cables.”

The aircraft has a 35-foot wingspan and a length just less than 26 feet. “Anything over 26 feet required a captain’s license, so that was part of their planning in building this dimension,” Tom said.

The wings, ribs, struts, hull, and fuselage were constructed of Sitka spruce, a wood known for its straight grain and subsequent strength. The pilot and passenger sat side by side in front of the engine compartment and pusher propeller.

The control configuration was unconventional, at least by today’s standards. A lever in the left hand controlled the rudder.

Mark couldn’t determine through photographs which direction did what, so he polled everyone at the airport. Without exception, everyone said the forward position should be right rudder, aft for left rudder, so Mark built it that way. On the floor was a single pedal, an accelerator, similar to automobiles, in lieu of a hand-operated throttle like modern aircraft. While historically accurate, Mark would soon find this configuration challenging for a modern pilot to fly.

TAXI TESTS

Construction of the Lark was completed in the early summer months of 2013, and the flying boat earned its airworthiness certificate on the 100th anniversary of when the Lark first arrived to Duluth. And like the original, the learning curve was just beginning.

Tom rode along on most of the tests serving as Mark’s HUD, holding up his fingers showing Mark the engine’s rpm. The aircraft had a tendency to want to porpoise, so they only conducted tests on calm water.

“We know very little about the actual flying of the original aircraft,” Mark said.

“Pictures reveal it was flown low. They talk about 50–100 feet. They didn’t want to fly it any higher than they were willing to crash, and we don’t either.”

Mark remembered those words at a critical moment his next time at the controls.


DISASTER

On July 16, 2013, during his ninth taxi test and his first time alone in the aircraft, Mark glanced down at the tachometer (his HUD was no longer with him) and noticed he was reaching 4000 rpm. By the time he looked up, the Benoist was airborne — about 5 feet of the water. The flight was unexpected but smooth and controlled, so Mark continued the ascent with an airspeed around 40 mph.

The Lark was flying over the Duluth Harbor for the first time in 100 years, but Mark’s attention was on handling the aircraft. Like many of the first passengers said a century before, Mark said it wasn’t scary, but “it was on the twitchy side.”

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m getting a little too high. If this doesn’t work, it’s going to hurt.’ So I pointed the nose down toward the water,” Mark said.

Those watching estimated he was about 50–60 feet high at this point. Shortly after he started down, the engine lost power.

“When something goes wrong, everything goes into automatic mode,” Mark said. “I probably instinctively added throttle, which was actually the rudder” in the unconventional configuration.

Mark assumes he stalled the aircraft about 10 feet above the water. When it hit the water, the nose of the aircraft broke into pieces, and fortunately, Mark was not injured.

In the aftermath, the team discovered the fuel pump had become clogged with some epoxy residue, which likely caused the engine to stop shortly after Mark’s intentional descent. The unconventional control configuration only made matters worse.

“We knew going in, we were building an airplane that wasn’t the safest in the world,” Mark said. “We were ready; we were safe; it just didn’t work out.”

Though there was substantial damage, only two out of 76 ribs were broken. During the rebuild, Mark made some design changes to improve safety. The aircraft now has a conventional control system, with a foot- controlled T-bar for rudder control and a hand-operated throttle.

“We still intend to fly it,” Mark said. “We didn’t go through all these years of work to let it sit on the water.”

Four months and 400 man-hours later, the flying boat was fully repaired.


REPEATING HISTORY

During the summer of 1913, the original Lark of Duluth was involved in an accident that broke the aircraft to pieces mere days before its debut at the Lark of the Lake festival. Mark’s replica was wrecked in a similar fashion 100 years and one week after that accident, before its debut at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

“The problems are a part of its story. It has a new history — a history that’s repeating itself 100 years later,” Mark said.

Though Mark and his team are continuing with their goal of having a flying replica, he is holding off any more flight tests until after AirVenture because he doesn’t want to jeopardize the opportunity to let the world see this aircraft on the 100th anniversary of its historic flight.

“It’s such a significant airplane and there are only two airworthy examples in the world now,” Mark said. EAA board member Kermit Weeks also recently finished building an airworthy replica last year, but it has yet to make its first flight.

EAA is the inspiration behind all this building. It has been the catalyst to sustain the freedom to do whatever we want,” Mark said. “The community is what makes building airplanes not only successful, but also a lot of fun.”

For those fortunate enough to travel to picturesque Duluth, Minnesota, I hope you take time to visit Sky Harbor Airport. You will likely find Mark inside his hangar (or out flying). Take the opportunity to shake his hand because currently he’s the only living Benoist pilot in the world.


Brady Lane is a private pilot and multimedia journalist for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Article originally published in Sport Aviation magazine.

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