Great Lakes Sport Trainer History

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Pleasing Pilots Since 1929

Great Lakes Aircraft Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio produced a design for a small two-seat sports/trainer in early 1929, with the first prototype flying in March 1929. The company and aircraft was named for the bodies of water nearby “The Great Lakes.” It had the model number of “2” (for two seats) and designation “T” for Trainer. The resulting aircraft, the 2T-1 was a single bay biplane of mixed, fabric-covered construction. Power was by a single 90 hp Cirrus III inline engine.

Every effort was made to minimize weight and create an airplane designed to a G load factor of positive 9 and a negative 6. The wing spars were routed to save 16 lbs. All nuts and bolts were made to the exact size needed.  This also saved 16 lbs. Except for the wing spars, very little wood was used. The wing ribs were made of 17 ST .016 aluminum.  Everything was designed to weigh the least yet still meet the +9 and -6 G strength requirement.

The size of the airplane was made to carry people who were 5’3″ to 5’5″ tall and weighed 135 to 145 pounds, close to the average height and weight of men in 1929! They made their own nuts and bolts until the Army and Navy required all government contractors to use AN nuts and bolts. There certainly was a market for this kind of airplane at the time, and once introduced proved to be a sales and performance winner.

The Great Lakes orders filled up and deposits were made for over 650 airplanes. October 1929 changed everything. As stockbrokers were falling from skyscrapers like apples from a tree, prices on the Great Lakes were slashed in attempt to keep the company viable. Roughly 250 airplanes were completed before the company closed for good in 1936. But, the venerable little biplane lived on and remained a favorite among pilots.

The Aerobats

Over the years, the original cantankerous Cirrus engine installation was replaced by Warner radials, inline Menascos or Rangers, and horizontally-opposed Lycomings, Franklins, or Continentals.  Aerobatic pilot Tex Rankin helped make  the Great Lakes Sport Trainer famous. His modified Sport Trainer had installed a 150 hp supercharged Menasco engine. It was painted red, white and blue with his name upright on one side, and upside down on the other.

Until the late 1960s, the Great Lakes Sport Trainer was the number one American made aerobatic mount. Famous pilots who used the Great Lakes in airshows and competitions were Harold Krier, Hank Kennedy, Bob “Tiger” Nance, Lindsay Parsons, Dorothy Hester, Betty Skelton, Charley Hillard, Frank Price and Mel Barron.

In 1960 Frank Price and Great Lakes NC11339 were the sole American entry at the World Aerobatic Championships held in Bratislava in what is now Slovakia. NC11339 is now part of the Airpower Museum of the Antique Airplane Association in Blakesburg, Iowa.

Harvey Swack

During the 1960s Harvey Swack of Cleveland, Ohio, obtained the rights to the Sport Trainer design and all the factory drawings for it. Harvey sold plans to homebuilders until 1990, when he sold the plans business to Steen Aero Lab of Palm Bay, Florida. There have been a great number homebuilt Great Lakes Sport Trainers built over the years, which kept interest in this old biplane alive.

That 70s Show

The Great Lakes Sport Trainer entered production again in 1973 under the guise of Doug Champlin. Production was in Oklahoma. Modifications to the design were made to accommodate the Lycoming flat-four engines of 150 hp or 180 hp. The 150 hp model featured a fixed pitch propeller and two ailerons. The 180 hp version had four ailerons and a constant speed propeller. The latter version proved to be the most popular. 137 aircraft were produced.

Dean Franklin bought the company in 1978 and move production to Eastman, Georgia. A few planes were completed and ten were built in Eastman before selling out to a New England group and finally going out of business in 1983.

Back to the Future

John Duncan of Palmer Lake, Colorado acquired the Great Lakes Sport Trainer type certificate and tooling in 2000. In 2011 WACO Aircraft of Battle Creek, Michigan, looking to expand their offerings, reached a deal to put the Sport Training back into production.

Changes include upgraded avionics, a better heater, toe brakes, a more comfortable seating position to accommodate a larger pilot and changes to the horizontal stabilizer. This 90+ year old design just keeps on getting better.