Tiny ‘flying coffin’ a decades-long love affair for Kansas aviation enthusiast

Tiny airplane once had reputation as death trap, but that doesn’t deter local aviation enthusiast

Christy McCormick had been fascinated by the "Flying Flea," an airplane first built in France in the 1930s, since she was a kid. Now she's built her own and successfully flew it in October.
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Christy McCormick had been fascinated by the "Flying Flea," an airplane first built in France in the 1930s, since she was a kid. Now she's built her own and successfully flew it in October.

In 1933, French radio engineer Henri Mignet wanted to design and build an airplane that could be made by anyone with moderate wood and metalworking skills.

The result of Mignet’s ambitious goal was the Mignet HM-14, better known as the Flying Flea.

The small, staggered-wing aircraft was first flown successfully by Mignet on Sept. 10, 1933. Just over a year later, Mignet published the book “Le Sport de l’Air,” which provided the instruction for homebuilders to make their own Flying Flea. The aircraft had a 20-foot wingspan made of wood and fabric and weighed just a couple of hundred pounds. It had no ailerons or elevators, and no foot-operated pilot controls. Flight control was done with only a conventional control stick.

Within two years, seven pilots, including a member of the British Royal Air Force, had died after crashing HM-14s, and governments across Europe banned the building of the airplane.

Despite the tarnished, and fatal, history of the airplane, it was love at first sight for pilot and aircraft mechanic Christy McCormick of Udall.

“I grew up in aviation, “McCormick said. “I was born and raised in Wellington and my dad had an airplane and we flew a lot and I hung out at the airport a lot.”

McCormick recalls one day, when she was around 12 years old, she was flipping though aviation magazines while hanging out at the Wellington airport and came across an article about the HM-14 Flying Flea.

“I thought ‘This thing cannot fly.’ It’s a weird contraption, but for some reason it inspired me in later years,” McCormick said.

“One of these days,” McCormick thought, “I think I’m going to try to find some information on this airplane.”

McCormick learned that wind-tunnel tests done on the plane in England in 1936 revealed that the wings were too close together, meaning the aircraft could not recover from a dive. Increased distance between the wings solved the problem, but not before the safety reputation of the Flying Flea was too badly damaged.

McCormick’s dream of building and flying a Flying Flea was realized in 2001 when she constructed and successfully flew an HM-14. It was, at that time, the only air-worthy Flying Flea in the United States. McCormick sold the airplane to a Chicago aviation enthusiast in 2003.

Years later, McCormick says she missed the sensation she got from flying the HM-14 so she decided to try again.

She started building another HM-14 in August 2010. She estimates she’s spent between $4,000 to $5,000 since then. Eight years later, “Annette” is finished. McCormick successfully flew the 251-pound airplane three weeks ago at Strother Field near Winfield. She has no intention of ever parting with this airplane.

The next step for McCormick is to try and further authenticate “Annette” by outfitting it with a 1930s Scott Squirrel Aero Engine, an engine originally manufactured to be outfitted on the HM-14. McCormick says if she can acquire the motor, it would make it the only air-worthy HM-14 in the world with an original motor. She’s trying to raise $4,500 to purchase the engine.

McCormick says she relishes the challenge of making something fly that people say shouldn’t fly. She recalled a story about talking to aviation engineers she knew, and they were “truly amazed that a person would go to this extreme to build something like this.”

“They said ‘that looks like a flying coffin. It’ll never fly.’ When aviation engineers tell me it can’t be done, that just inspired me that much more,” she said.

“If there’s something out there which is odd and unique, I will accept that challenge,” McCormick said.