Bill Ortmann is pictured in front of a display case at the Niles District Library featuring a collection of his handmade replica airplanes. The airplanes are on display as part of a special exhibition highlighting the islands of Michigan's Great Lakes. (Daily Star photos/Provided)
Bill Ortmann’s collection of handmade replica airplanes is on display at the Niles District Library. The airplanes are on display as part of a special exhibition highlighting the islands of Michigan's Great Lakes. (Daily Star photo/JESSICA SIEFF)

Archived Story

Airplane models displayed at library

Published 8:40am Sunday, August 23, 2009

By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star

Aug. 13 through 19 marked National Aviation Week, and to celebrate, the Niles District Library is featuring a month long tribute to airplanes, aviation and the thrill of flight within the state of Michigan itself, with an exhibition entitled Travel to US Great Lake Islands.
The exhibition highlights the 35,000 islands that dot Michigan’s Great Lakes.

In a preview by the library, Lake Huron is said to have “the largest collection of fresh water islands, 17,500, and the largest fresh water island, Manitoulin, in the world.”

Only a limited number of the islands actually have airports and commercial air service, most travel is done via watercraft or sea plane.

Adding to the library’s special exhibition is a display of handmade replica airplanes by Niles resident William (Bill) Ortmann.

Ortmann, a resident of Niles for over 60 years, Ortmann said he has found a fascination in airplanes since he was a young child.

“I’ve always liked airplanes,” Ortmann said.

When he was young, he built small balsa model planes, which he said, haven’t lasted.
Then, in 1996, Ortmann went back to building his model planes. He searched the library, he said, through the aviation section for books containing the plans of actual planes.

Using “three view” plans, “front, side, top,” Ortmann said, he next will “blow (the) plans up on a copier and get it to the size that I want it … and start cutting out parts.”

Each of Ortmann’s planes, placed in glass cases at the Niles District Library with informative cards explaining the type of plane and its uses, are built using those original plans and hand painted in detail.

Ortmann’s experience with aviation is not limited to his replications.

The young boy fascinated by airplanes went on to serve in the United States military as an armorer with the 418th Night Fighter Squadron ground crew in Okinawa during World War II.

Later in life, he said, he had also enjoyed working on Model A Ford automobiles and came into possession of a Model A race car. After much time spent on trying to get the car to its peak, Ortmann said it was simply “beyond” him and he later sold it.

“I always wanted to fly,” he said.

He took the money made off the car, headed over to Dowagiac and bought himself some flying lessons.

Ortmann bought his own plane in 1970 and had kept ownership of it until just three years ago.

At his home, in his basement, Ortmann puts 80 to 90 hours into each of his replicas. Some, with added detail have taken him up to 110 hours.
Asked what kind of machinery Ortmann needs to build his pieces, he holds up his hands, “right here,” he said.
He cuts each of the parts out by hand, using a welding torch to braze them together and a metal brake to help form bends in the body of the pieces.

Ortmann also uses items such as measuring cups, model airplane wheels, even miniature syrup pitchers to form housing for propellers, engines and fuselages.

His first plane ever, he said, was a model of the same plane flown by Charles Lindbergh. “It didn’t work out so well,” he said with a laugh.

One did, his replica of a plane flown to one of the islands located in Lake Erie, just outside of Port Clinton, Ohio. The 1928 Tri Motor airplane features working landing lights.

“I try to improve every plane I do,” Ortmann said. “I try to do different things to it.”
Retired since 1982, Ortmann said he found that when browsing through antique model planes, they appeared rather expensive. “So I started making my own,” he said.

The exhibition will continue through the end of August and can be found on the Niles District Library’s main floor in the main corridor.

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