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Zerbe Air Sedan

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 1921 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 1920, 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.

Zerbe died in New York on February 8, 1921, before his plane even flew. The only known flight of the airplane took place at the Washington County Fairgrounds, when pilot Tom Flaherty, who finished construction of the vehicle, 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.

The fate of the Zerbe Air Sedan remains a mystery. In a coda to the story, pilot Flaherty was fined ten dollars on September 14, 1921, for assault and battery on two men who were part owners of the Zerbe Air Sedan, reportedly over the failure of one to pay him money due for his role in the plane’s try-outs.

For additional information:
“Arkansas Plane Being Built May Revolutionize Flying Arts.” Arkansas Democrat, October 26, 1920, p. 2.

“Aviator Fined for Assault.” Arkansas Democrat, September 15, 1921, p. 2.

Carl, Floyd, Jr. “A Fayetteville-Built Plane.” Flashback 21 (March 1971): 5–7.

Eckels, Mike. FYV, The Story of Aviation in Fayetteville, Arkansas. N.p.: 2000.

Hatfield, D. D. Dominguez Air Meet. Inglewood, CA: Northrop University Press, 1976.

“Multiplane Inventor Is Dead in New York.” Arkansas Democrat, February 11, 1921, p. 2.

“New Model Plane Slightly Damaged.” Arkansas Gazette, April 24, 1921, p. 11.

“Zerbe Air Sedan Unique in Design.” Arkansas Gazette, April 20, 1921, p. 8.

Nathania Sawyer
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 3/19/2018

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