History of the Spartan C2
By Kevin Gray
The Spartan C2
From the first airplane produced by Spartan until the Executive 7W, an aircraft identification system consisting of three components was used. The first element was the letter C representing the fact the airplane in question was a commercial and not a military or some other type of airplane. The second element was a number indicating the total number of seats in the airplane. This ranged from 2 through 5. The third element was a number representing the horsepower of the airplane. While seemingly clear and simple when trying to visualize what the airplane looked like, absent the third element, as well as an in-depth understanding of various Spartan types, an airplane could be misidentified. Using the first airplane produce by Spartan as an example, it was designated as the C3-1 with 125 HP. The second version was the C3-2 with 135 HP. The third model was the C3-165, with 165 HP. These airplanes were essentially the same airplane with different engines, and were generally regarded to be the first “series” of airplanes produced. Next came the C3-225. Although it was still a 3 seat biplane, it was substantially different than the first series of C3’s. As such, it is generally regarded to be the “second” series of airplane produced. Spartan next produced the C-4 and C-5, both high wing cabin monoplanes with a variety of engines. They represented the third and fourth series.
The final airplanes produced before the Executive 7W were the C2s. Like the earlier C3s there were two substantially different models produced. The first were the C2-45 and C2-65, both low wing airplanes with low horsepower engines and unusual for the time, side-by-side seating. These would have been the fifth series of airplanes produced by Spartan, with one C2-45 and 16 C2-65s being produced. Spartan also produced two C2-165 airplanes that had tandem seating and features substantially different than the two low horsepower C2s. They represented the sixth and final series of airplanes produced before the Executive 7W. By 1930, the Spartan Aircraft Company was making significant efforts to demonstrate to customers that it was more than just a company with a single biplane model. The development and production of the C-4/C-5 series of high-wing monoplanes, aimed at a more sophisticated passenger market, established that Spartan was willing to invest the necessary capital and effort to expand beyond the successful C-3 family of biplanes. The timing of the C-4/C-5 series could not have been worse for Spartan; launched at the beginning of the Great Depression, Spartan’s new passenger airplanes were a financial bust. Spartan’s last effort at building a money-making airplane before effectively shutting the factory down was a light, two-seat airplane designed for the casual sport market.
The Low Horsepower C2s
Spartan’s financial situation was not unique. In 1930, a number of aircraft manufacturers across the country were working to design and sell low-cost airplanes that would be easy to operate, cheap to maintain, and simple to fly. Aeronca, Buhl, Rearwin, and Curtiss-Wright all made efforts to introduce small, low-powered aircraft targeted at “sport” fliers. Spartan, like the other companies, saw an opportunity to meet a need in the marketplace. It was in this environment that Spartan introduced its C2.
The airplane was conceived and designed by Spartan President Lawrence Kerber and Engineering Vice President Rex Beisel. Beisel, a noted aeronautical engineer at the time, would ultimately be most famous for leading the design team that produced the F4U Corsair. Though he only worked for Spartan for a short time (ultimately leaving in 1931 as C-2 production was peaking) Beisel made a lasting impact on the tiny company. The earliest available renderings of the C2, dated September 4, 1930, depict a small, low-wing airplane powered by a two cylinder engine. That early rendering also depicted wheel pants installed on the forward landing gear. Later in the fall of 1930, Spartan started putting together testing data that would ultimately be assembled into a Stress Analysis report prepared for the Department of Commerce in an effort to secure a type certificate for the airplane. Throughout the fall of 1930 and into the early spring of 1931, Spartan’s engineers worked to determine what engine should be used. In January of 1931, a report signed by Spartan engineers George Darracott, Harold Harrison, F.C. Albright, and Rex Beisel noted, “No definite make of engine has been specified in this analysis, however, we have analyzed for a maximum of 65 horsepower at 2000 r.p.m.”
Within a month, Spartan’s engineers had settled on an engine they believed worth trying on the C2. The first finished, flyable C2 was Spartan serial number I-1, which was completed on February 10, 1931. Spartan’s application for an “Identification Mark,” or N-number, shows that this initial C2 was powered by a Szekely SR-3 Model “0” engine that had a rated horsepower of 45. Following Spartan’s typical model naming scheme, the application identified the model as a C2-45. Interestingly, I-1 had a Flottorp Propeller Company non-adjustable wooden propeller installed. No other Spartan airplane had a wooden propeller installed by the manufacturer. The combination of a Szekely SR-3 engine and a Flottorp propeller was also used on the Rearwin 3000, Buhl Bull Pup, and American Eaglet among others. On February 11, 1931, Spartan was assigned identification mark NC992N for I-1. From that point forward, I-1 all but disappears from the Department of Commerce (later the FAA) records.
Beisel and Kerber envisioned an initial production run of 25 aircraft, though only sixteen plus a prototype were ultimately built. By the time ATC 427 was granted on July 1, 1931, most of the sixteen aircraft were on the production line and nearing completion. By that time the Spartan engineers had decided against the Szekely engine in favor of the Jacobs LA-3, which was rated for 55 horsepower. Though the type certificate authorized serial numbers J-2 and up, J-1 was also built with the Jacobs engine. Spartan’s type certificate for the C2-60 actually beat Jacobs’ type certificate for the LA-3 engine, which was not awarded until August 12, 1931. Spartan thus built and received a type certificate for an airplane that used an engine which itself had not yet been approved. Despite that quirk of timing, Spartan’s C2 project was ready for sales to the public about a year after the airplane was first conceived.
The C2 was a low-wing monoplane with room for two people in a side-by-side seating arrangement that could only be characterized as “cramped.” The cockpit was extremely basic. The instrument panel had only four instruments – an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, an oil temperature gauge, and a tachometer. Only a throttle, switch, and a data plate joined the instruments on the panel. The two occupants sat on a small bench seat, with the stick in the middle of the floor and a rudder bar available to both pilot and passenger.
Design wise, the C2 was relatively pedestrian. The fuselage was constructed of steel tubing, which was ultimately formed to a rounded shape. The entire airplane was fabric covered. Jay Miller provided an excellent description of the airplane’s wings: “The immense orange wings were 40 feet long and were constructed of two solid spruce spar beams to which were attached in conventional fashion spruce and plywood truss-type wing ribs and a drag truss system consisting of double parallel tension members. The wing framework was actually built-up from two halves, giving a total chord dimension of 54 inches. The leading edge of the wing was covered with sheet metal formed to the required Clark-Y airfoil curvature. The wing had two degrees of incidence and four degrees of dihedral built in. Wing loading was a very light 6.96 pounds per square foot. The wing was not a legitimate cantilever structure and was therefore externally braced with parallel streamlined steel flying wires. These were attached both above and below the wings at strategic points and also served to reinforce the landing gear bracing trusses. The wires were externally attached to the lower fuselage longerons.”
The C2 had Friese type ailerons which were outfitted with metal leading and trailing edges. No flaps were installed, as they were considered unnecessary. The airplane’s landing gear was as basic as it gets: N structures attached to the wings with no shock absorbers. Low pressure Goodyear tires were installed, designed to absorb the impact of landing on grass strips or rough runways.
Though the standard configuration for the C2 was as an open cockpit aircraft, a “coupe” model was available. This model required a complete reworking of the windshield and top of the rear fuselage. The windshield was more vertical than on the open cockpit model. The cockpit enclosure had a sliding window on the pilot’s side. Aft of the bench seat, the upper part of the rear fuselage was reworked with a turtleback that fared the rear part of the enclosure back down to the top of the fuselage. The coupe model added significant weight to the C2, and the more vertical windshield certainly would have changed the C2’s aerodynamics. The modification slowed down an already slow airplane, and would not have improved the airplane’s functionality much. At least one example was built as a coupe model, though it is not known which serial number received the modification.
Spartan was not alone in its efforts to build a small, lightweight airplane. One of the market leaders for this small niche of aircraft production was the Aeronca C-2, a type that first flew in 1929. The Aeronca was smaller than the Spartan C2, with a wingspan of 36 feet. The Aeronca airplane also had just four instruments, and could only hit a maximum speed of approximately 80 mph. Aeronca was far more successful with their little C-2, ultimately selling 164 of them between 1930 and 1931. With a base price of $1,495, the Aeronca was significantly cheaper than the Spartan. Buhl also introduced its LA-1 Bull Pup at about the same time. Like the Spartan, it was an open cockpit, wire-braced monoplane. The Buhl airplane utilized the Szekely SR-3 engine that was Spartan’s first choice for the C-2, before Spartan settled on the Jacobs power plant. Buhl managed to manufacture about 100 examples of the Bull Pup, but with the Depression’s impact taking hold of the national economy, Buhl reduced the price of the last Pups manufactured by half. Curtiss-Wright offered its CW-1 “Junior” in 1930 as well. The “Junior” was also powered by a Szekely SR-3 engine. Curtiss-Wright managed to sell about 270 of its model at a cost of $1,490 each. About 270 were built before the Depression brought an end to production in 1932. Rearwin’s entrant into the marketplace was the Rearwin “Junior,” introduced in 1931. Like the Aeronca and Spartan, the Rearwin had just four instruments. With a wingspan of 36 feet, it was smaller than the Spartan. It, too, was powered by the Szekely SR-3. Only 20 were built before the economy killed Rearwin’s “Junior.
Unfortunately for Spartan, the C2 was not a financial success. With a number of cheaper competitors in the market, Spartan’s C2 did not sell well. By late 1931, when the sixteen production examples were available for delivery, the Great Depression was taking a firmer grip on the American economy and aircraft manufacturers across the United States were shutting down production. In a crowded market, the C2 was expensive and uncomfortable. An expensive price point along with the deepening Depression sealed the little C2’s fate.
Despite not being a financial success for Spartan, the C-2 did serve its purpose both at the Spartan School and at local flying clubs. The Spartan School operated a small handful of examples, most likely because they couldn’t be sold to private buyers. s/n J-15, registered as NC11908, was the next to last C2-60 built. It was kept at the school, and was flown regularly by Spartan students. J-1, the first C2-60, was also used at the Spartan School. It carried registration number NC11000.
In keeping with Spartan’s paint scheme at the time, the school’s C2-60 aircraft were painted black with orange wings, and carried the “Spartan School” name along both sides in orange. J-15 had a large “8” in the middle of the fuselage while J-1 had a “5.”. By 1937, Spartan was offering a private pilot’s license program designed to allow casual fliers to obtain their license, while also keeping instructors and school staff employed. For just $60, the trainee would receive 10 hours of instruction in basic aircraft, including the Spartan C2. The little C2 soldiered on for Spartan through the mid-1930’s, with the last examples out of service by WWII. Both a C2-60 and a C2-165 were still in use with the school as late as spring of 1936. Advertisements run by the school in trade magazines in 1937, and postcards used by the school as late as 1939, still showed C2s on the flight line.
The C2 was not without its faults. Though simple to maintain and fly, the C2 was not particularly suited for acrobatics. In fact, the TC for the C2-60 specifically required a placard be placed on the instrument panel that said, “INTENTIONAL ACROBATIC MANEUVERS WITH THIS AIRPLANE ARE PROHIBITED.” It is clear that even though the C2-60 was awarded a type certificate, Spartan and the Department of Commerce were aware that the airplane was not particularly strong. Spartan students at the time were keenly aware that the C2 could not aggressively pull out of a steep dive without running the risk of the wings separating from the fuselage due to the stress of the maneuver. One unlucky student from Venezuela took a C2 on a flight on that resulted in his death and the loss of the airplane.
As of 2021, three Spartan C2-60 aircraft have survived. NC11016 (J-3), NC11004 (J-11), and NC11908 (J-15). J-3 resides at the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum, J-11 is in the collection of Greg Harrick, and J-15 is on display at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. Both J-3 and J-15 are intact, with J-3 maintained in flying condition. J-11 is a project aircraft undergoing long-term restoration.
J-15 is probably the most well-known Spartan C2-60. First in use at the Spartan School, the airplane only existed in pieces and parts for two decades before former Spartan student George Goodhead resurrected the airplane. As a boy growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Goodhead lived near enough to the Spartan factory that he was able to walk over to visit the shops and to talk with the factory workers. In late 1930, Goodhead noticed the first few C2 aircraft working their way down the assembly line. In the late 1930’s, Goodhead took a 10 hour beginner’s flight course at Spartan, and received two hours of flight time in a C2. By the late 1950’s, Goodhead hoped to obtain or rebuild a C2. Through advertisements in EAA publications, Goodhead eventually obtained pieces and parts of three different C2-60 aircraft. Using the best parts and pieces of J-9, J-13, and J-15, Goodhead was able to piece together an intact C2-60. With the help of the Spartan School, who used the old wings as patterns and constructed new wings, Goodhead had a flyable C2-60 by 1965. That airplane assumed the identity of J-15. Goodhead’s C2-60 was maintained in Tulsa for a few years, before being flown to Wisconsin to the EAA museum for display. It then later passed through other owners’ hands before being purchased by the Spartan School and presented to the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.
The C2-165 (The high horsepower C2)
As the Great Depression started to take hold across the United States, aircraft manufacturers tried to convince a struggling public they should spend their increasingly scarce resources on flying airplanes for personal enjoyment. Businesses began to cut back, and with the abundance of rail traffic, overall expenditures on aircraft took a nose dive. During the 1930s, a number of aircraft manufacturers consolidated through mergers or buy outs, and some simply went out of business. The best potential customer for new aircraft during the 1930s was likely to be the United States government, specifically the military. It was in this environment that Spartan developed and attempted to sell its last certificated model of the “tube and fabric” variety.
The C2-165 was a low-wing, tandem cockpit trainer that received a “Group 2” approval on May 3, 1932. At this point the Spartan factory was essentially idle, with the C2-60 aircraft all having been constructed and sold. The last C4 and C5 off of the lines came in 1930-1931, and so the C2-165 was a last-gasp effort by Spartan to produce a revenue-generating airplane.
The C3-265 clearly took most of its engineering inspiration from the C3-165 and C3-225 models. The fuselage was essentially a C3-165 fuselage, complete with a 5 cylinder Wright R-540 165 HP engine. As opposed to the biplane C3, the C2-165 was a low-wing monoplane. The single low wing was braced with two struts on either side with no supporting wires. The tail was a slightly enlarged version of the shark-fin style stabilizer sported by the C3-165. The landing gear was a slightly modified version of that used on late model C3-165 aircraft and all of the C3-225 aircraft. The primary difference was the upper brace attached below the wing instead of along the forward fuselage as on the C3 models.
Empty the C2-165 weighed 1,524 pounds. It had a 31 gallon fuel tank and a 2.5 gallon oil tank. With two crew members and fully fueled, the C2-165 weighed in at 2,126 pounds. In level flight at sea level, the C2-165 was capable of a maximum speed of 115 mph. That speed reduced to 110 at 5,000 feet and 104 at 10,000 feet. The airplane’s service ceiling was 13,900 feet, at which point the airplane was only capable of 94.5 mph.
The airplane had an overall wing span of 36 feet, 5 ¼ inches, making its wings approximately 4.5 feet longer than the C3-225. The chord was 5 feet 9 inches. The overall length of the C2-165 was 28 feet, making it approximately 5 feet longer than the C3-165 and C3-225. The airplane was equipped with two ailerons that measured 7 feet 8 inches in length. An 8 foot 4 inch ground adjustable propeller was mated to the Wright R-540 engine, which generated 165 HP at 2000 RPM. Scintilla magnetos and Stromberg NAR-7 carburetor were also equipped.
The C2-165 was marketed to the United States Army Air Corps, though unsuccessfully. Spartan provided its first completed C2-165 to the USAAC for evaluation. On the morning of June 17, 1931, Captain R.C. Moffat and Lt. H.J. Corkille conducted test flights of the C2-165. As a military aircraft, the C2-165 was given the designation XPT-913, a designation it wore on its vertical stabilizer. The airplane evaluated by the USAAC was not painted in military colors, but instead sported a simple paint job with a Spartan logo and its military designation on the tail.
Overall the evaluation of the airplane was relatively positive. Cpt. Moffat noted that the comfort, accessibility and protection from wind for the pilot were good. He recommended that the airplane have brakes installed. During airborne maneuvers Cpt. Moffat commented that the airplane could be looped but “carefully flown or it burbles at the top.” He complimented the aircraft on its ability to spin fast and recover promptly, but noted that recovering from the spin required “considerable diving speed.” Perhaps his nicest comment about the C2-165 was, “The excellent range of vision is one of the best points about this airplane.” Though his comment may seem fairly obvious, it is important to remember that at the time almost all of the Army’s airplanes were biplane models, including most all of its trainers. The idea of a low-wing, monoplane trainer (like would ultimately be widely used in WWII with the PT-19) was new in 1931.
Following the evaluation of the airplane, the pilots provided a list of desired changes for Spartan to make if the Army were to order the airplane. That punch list was 72 items long, and ranged from a request to tape the ignition cable at points where it was supported by metal clamps to providing a standard size axle on the landing gear. With their report completed six days after the flight tests, the Army’s evaluation of the C2-165 was over. Spartan received no orders for the airplane, and the evaluated airplane returned to Tulsa.
Spartan was approved for and actually constructed two C2-165 aircraft, which carried serial numbers D-1 and D-2. Those two aircraft bore the CAA registration numbers NC993N and NC11003 respectively. Spartan never successfully marketed the airplane to any other buyers. The two C2-165 aircraft produced were transferred to the Spartan School, where they quickly became workhorses. The aircraft soldiered on until at least 1935, when one was pictured on a postcard used as a marketing tool by the Spartan School. Spartan used the aircraft as flight and navigational trainers. Both were used as “blind flying” trainers, where students were taught how to use instruments to navigate during low-visibility situations. To do so, a cover was placed over the student’s cockpit while the instructor remained in the other cockpit able to take over the controls if needed. At some point both C2-165 aircraft received a small bit of paint detailing this use, with NC993N bearing the words “Radio-Blind Flying” just aft of the rear cockpit
All images from the Kevin Gray Collection.