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The Zerbe Air Sedan is a curiosity in the history of aviation in Arkansas. It was an early attempt to construct a passenger plane, and the only known account of it flying was in 1919 in Fayetteville (Washington County).
Aircraft builder Professor Jerome S. Zerbe had not had much success at building flying machines. In 1910, he participated in the Dominguez Air Meet in California. An account from the meet stated that “Professor J. S. Zerbe brought out his curious appearing multiplane and attempted to take off. As it clattered down the field amid the cheers of the crowd, a front wheel hit a hole and collapsed throwing the machine to one side and damaging a wing….” After the meet, the multiplane was removed from the field by balloon.
Zerbe continued to try to develop his design. In 1918, he arrived in Fayetteville and began building an airplane for a group of Missouri businessmen. The plane was an ambitious project with a fully enclosed cockpit and passenger area. Zerbe’s forward-thinking design was flawed by several logistical problems. The plane had multiple louvered wings, and Zerbe used a wing warping system, in which the airplane wings were literally bent in order to control the flow of air over them, rather than the more common elevator system. The rotary engine—a war-surplus engine imported from France—spewed castor oil on the windshield, which impeded the pilot’s vision.
The only known flight of the airplane took place at the Washington County Fairgrounds, when pilot Tom Flannerty flew it for approximately 1,000 feet. Little documentation exists for this event. Some reports say the plane flew forty to fifty feet off the ground, but others say the height was forty or fifty inches.
Zerbe subsequently disappeared from the historical record, and the fate of the Zerbe Air Sedan remains a mystery.
For additional information:Carl, Floyd, Jr. “A Fayetteville-Built Plane.” Flashback 21 (March 1971): 5–7.
Hatfield, D. D. Dominguez Air Meet. Inglewood, CA: Northrop University Press, 1976.
Nathania SawyerEncyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 4/16/2012
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