WISCASSET, Maine — For a military combatant, the airplane is surprisingly small and light. Two men easily wheel the reproduction, Sopwith Camel, out of the hangar and onto the ramp at the Wiscasset Municipal Airport.
The one-seat aircraft weighs less than 900 pounds, engine and all.
And for Nick Knobil, building the plane from a kit has fulfilled a longtime dream.
“As a kid, I was always interested in airplanes. I built a lot of model airplanes,” Knobil says, standing beside the real-life plane that also came in a box.
He adds that he has long been interested in planes from what he calls the “golden age” of aviation, back when airplanes were new and developing, just in time for World War One.
Enter the British designed and built Sopwith Camel, perhaps the best known Allied airplane of WWI.
“The Sopwith Camel, I think, shot down more enemy aircraft than any other design in World War One.”
Aficionados of the Peanuts comic strip will also recall that Snoopy, as the WWI flying ace, daydreamed on his doghouse of piloting the Camel against the notorious Red Baron.
All of that led Knobil to order the kit three years ago and have it delivered to his hangar at the airport.
“It came in one big box, but required a great deal of fabrication, a bunch of raw aluminum, and the steel fuselage, welded up," he said.
Knobil says it took three years for him and a few airport friends to transform the pile of raw material into a working airplane.
That process included bending and shaping the aluminum into the framework for the fabric-covered wings and parts of the fuselage, then installing a control cable, the engine, and finally the fabric covering.
The airplane then had to pass a five-hour FAA inspection to be approved for flight.
The big moment came last weekend.
Knobil had taxied the plane around the airport grass several times before, but was finally ready to take to the air.
He says he was confident of the construction, in part because of some very skilled friends who worked with him. But, as a pilot, Knobil says his training took control.
“Nervous isn’t the right word. I was very focused on what I was going to do if there was any misadventure on the aircraft, where I was going to go if something broke or the engine quit.”
None of those things happened. A video by Jeff Hunter, who helped build the plane, shows the Sopwith Camel replica taking off and climbing smoothly into the air.
“I loved it,” Hunter said, explaining how he was standing on the edge of the runway with his phone camera, a radio, and a fire extinguisher — just in case.
Then, choking up a bit even days later, says it was a moving experience.
“It was truly overwhelming to see it fly the first time… I didn’t expect that.”
Knobil says that once takeoff was over and the plane was stable and flying, he could enjoy it, too.
“[It was] awesome. Like Snoopy on the doghouse, that’s how I felt. Here’s the World War One ace,” he laughs.
There’s work still to be done. The airplane’s engine has an overheating problem, which may require a few modifications to correct. He is confident that it will be taken care of soon, and flying will resume.
When it's fixed, Knobil intends to fly the plane to the Owls Head Transportation Museum, near Rockland. Some of the old-plane experts from the museum helped him rig the wire cables that hold the biplane’s wings in alignment.
He wants them to see the final product, in flight.
But there is another piece of that trip.
The museum owns a reproduction of a WWI Fokker triplane, the kind used by the famous Red Baron. That airplane was also built in Maine some years ago, and rebuilt at the museum over the past three years.
The Fokker and Sopwith Camel dueled for real in the skies over Europe, 125 years ago. The Red Baron was also Snoopy’s cartoon nemesis.
Knobil, sitting in the Camel’s cockpit with a leather helmet and goggles, says he is ready to meet the bigger plane.
“At first it will be me and Brad [the Fokker pilot]. He’s been talking trash for several years," he said. "Hurry up and get that plane finished, I have some business with you.”
Nick made it clear that he and his homebuilt biplane, fake machine guns and all, are ready for the challenge.