Jersey Reflections: ‘Boat Bird’ in Bridgeton

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After a series of less than successful test runs during 1910 for the new engine he had invented and installed in a biplane, Bridgeton manufacturer Henry Hettinger spent five months altering his plane for another flight in spring 1911.

Bill Chestnut, in his South Jersey Magazine article “The Inventive Mind of Henry Hettinger: Bridgeton’s Pioneering Aeroplane Builder,” reports that “stories have come down over the years that he converted his airplane into a seaplane but there was never any real confirmation in the way of written records…” However, Chestnut discovered an article in the April 11, 1911 issue of the Bridgeton Evening News that reported on Hettinger’s new “boat bird,” confirming rumors that filled the decades since and giving credibility to the notion that the 1911 version of the aircraft sported pontoons.

The Evening News described how the new plane sailed a half-mile down the Cohansey River before turning back. Missing were the mishaps that had plagued most of the test flights of the previous year, but this appears not to have been a full flight since the plane was described by the newspaper as “sailing along gracefully on the water.”

Hettinger apparently did attempt a flight over the Cohansey River at a later date, according to an account by an eyewitness whose tale is relayed by Chestnut. “Hettinger was flying the biplane, presumably in its ‘boat-bird’ configuration, when he tried to make it climb sharply,” Chestnut writes. “It started to pull up but there was insufficient airspeed over the wings and the airplane stalled, causing it to fall into the river.”

Chestnut acknowledges that Glenn H. Curtiss is credited with inventing the first seaplane in January 1911. According to online sources, Curtiss developed pontoons that would allow for an airplane to take off and land on water and is credited with flying the first seaplane from a water base. The following month, another test had him taking off and landing on both water and land.

“One has to wonder if Hettinger developed the concept of the ‘boat-bird’ independently, or perhaps had read about the Curtiss idea and duplicated it,” Chestnut muses. The history books, unfortunately, don’t provide the answers. What is known is that the plane was retired, and left to hang in the loft of a building used for storage at Hettinger’s manufacturing plant on Grove Street.

One of Hettinger’s daughters told Chestnut that she believed the plane was eventually dismantled before the end of the decade, putting an end to Hettinger’s dream of a successful airplane engine. Since that time, speculation has taken precedence in the absence of facts. “Why would a man who set out to make and sell engines for aircraft give up his vision of the future?” Chestnut asks. One theory is that Hettinger, having experienced a series of mishaps during test flights, felt his engine wasn’t trustworthy enough to market.

“He may also have felt that his efforts could not keep up with remarkable strides in aviation that were taking place around the world,” Chestnut offers. “Even as he was working on his own engine, Curtiss was building eight-cylinder models. In addition, by 1913 there were airplanes powered by four engines.”

Hettinger continued his career as an engine manufacturer and a rather prominent Bridgeton citizen, serving on the city’s Board of Education and as a director and officer of the Farmers and Merchants National Bank. He was involved with the American Red Cross in Bridgeton during World War I and served on the City Council for two terms after he retired his aviation plans. He also was the owner of two oyster schooners.

Hettinger died in 1931 and, according to Chestnut, his factory was purchased by two former employees, Roscoe Tullis and John M. Davis. It was later purchased by W. Floyd Dill and then Hunt-Wesson Foods, who razed the facility in order to put up a warehouse. But even though the plant is now a ghost, some of what it once manufactured is still around.

Chestnut reports that, as of 1989, “Hettinger engines are among the most desired by collectors of antique gasoline engines. The greatest find, and surely the most elusive, would be the engine from Henry’s airplane.”

Recommended: Jersey Reflections: Attempts at Flight

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