Prize from ‘God’ keeps spirit aloft for 73 years

A teen’s effort to build a model plane was rewarded by Lindbergh

18 February 2002
Maui News

Kihei --To get the attention of God, 13-year-old Leo Nikora carefully assembled the remains of some Cupie dolls, Japanese rice paper, a bamboo fishing pole and his mother’s eggbeaters.

It was 1928, and aviation was the latest rage. Barely a year earlier, Charles Lindbergh had made history by becoming the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, and young Leo wanted to stretch his wings, as well.

“I was an absolute nut about airplanes,” says Nikora, 87, from his son’s home in Maui Meadows, where he was preparing to participate in the Great Hawaii Air Race that was held Saturday. “I told my 6th-grade teacher that I’d been making model airplanes, and she asked me what I made them out of and I said ‘Well, that’s hard to say.’ ”

Indeed, it was. Nikora was blessed with a mind of invention and stars in his eyes. That was never so obvious as when he began creating his entry for a statewide model airplane contest in his hometown of Milwaukee. The plane that stayed aloft the longest would win.

Nikora, like all his friends, knew about the prize: a shiny medal that would be pinned to the champion’s chest with all the city watching. No one was told, however, who would do the pinning — Lindbergh himself.

“He was the most famous man in the world,” remembers Nikora. “Nobody today is as famous as he was then. Everyone worshipped him. People walked around talking about him. He was everybody’s hero.”

Nikora still recalls when Lindbergh made his legendary flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis in May of 1927, without any way to communicate and without even a windshield to see what was ahead, only a periscope-like gadget stuck to the side of the pilot’s seat. No one would know of his progress — or fate — until it was all over.

“Radio hadn’t been around that long, and not many people had one of their own,” says Nikora. “We relied on newspapers and telegraph in those days. We knew he had taken his plane to Long Island and was waiting and waiting for the right weather. At 7:30 in the morning, I think it was, they announced he was taking off.”

For the next 33¢ hours, the entire world held its breath.

“I don’t think people slept very well that night,” says Nikora. “Everyone was waiting. Everyone was waiting for him to land.”

When he finally did, mass pandemonium erupted on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific, too. Overnight, Lindbergh became the most recognized figure on the planet — and one of the most beloved.

Leo Nikora, who had already made at least 50 model airplanes by the time of Lindbergh’s flight, grew even more obsessed with his hobby. When the state exhibition for model airplanes was announced in the summer of 1928, he went to work to build the most magnificent flying machine he could.

Of course, back then, young inventors couldn’t order parts off the Internet or poke around an industrial park in search of the ideal motor. They actually had to invent.

Even though Leo already had turned out a fleet of toy planes, he was frustrated that they would fly only briefly. Experimenting with different designs that might keep them up longer, he accidentally came across a picture of the plane the Wright Brothers managed to get aloft at Kitty Hawk in 1903. He noticed something unusual.

“Their wings weren’t flat like the ones my friends and I always made,” says Nikora. “They were cambered (slightly curved). The Wright Brothers had figured out that the wings should be warped.”

So Leo warped his wings, too. He cut off parts of a bamboo fishing pole, fashioned them into a big V and covered the frame with the lightest, strongest paper he knew of: Japanese rice paper, not an easy find in Milwaukee during the Roaring ‘20s. To shrink the wings just enough to give them that Wright Brothers warp, he coated the paper with liquid celluloid he obtained from melting Cupie dolls in a chemical substance. For the launching, he borrowed his mother’s eggbeaters to twist rubber bands attached to two hooks that served as propellers.

When completed, the plane looked like nothing Wisconsin had ever seen before.

“It was massive compared to the rest of the models,” says Nikora. “It had a wingspan of nearly 3 feet. Everyone looked at it wondering if it would fly.”

The youngsters all lined up to let their planes go, then the starting gun sounded.

“I pushed my plane up, it went around two or three times and someone hollered ‘It’s climbing! It’s climbing!’ ” says Nikora. “It kept going farther and farther and, pretty soon, it disappeared.”

Young Leo’s plane didn’t return to Earth for four astonishing minutes, an eternity in those days for a homemade model from the hands of a boy.

The awards ceremony wasn’t held until two months later as part of another event: Lindbergh was visiting Milwaukee in the midst of a national tour. Young Leo was startled to be pulled up to the dais to sit among the dignitaries and was left speechless when the hero of the universe emerged from backstage.

“I was watching God walk in front of me,” says Nikora. “My heart was beating so fast I could hardly breathe. The crowd went wild.”

Lindbergh delivered his speech and, by that time, Leo had completely forgotten about his medal until the great man turned around and looked right at him.

“He motioned for me to come forward and said, ‘I want to present this medal to this young man who was the first-prize winner of the airplane contest,’ ” says Nikora. “He asked me what my name was and he pinned the medal on me. After that, I have no idea how I got home. I was walking on air.”

For weeks after that, Leo Nikora was the most famous boy in his neighborhood as his friends made pilgrimages to his home to see the medal that Lindbergh had touched and to hear the story again and again.

Nikora went on to become an aeronautics engineer, and his brush with greatness did not end with Lindbergh. While studying at Purdue University, he enrolled in a class taught by Amelia Earhart. Scarcely a year later, her plane would disappear.

“We were devastated,” he says. “She was smarter than you can imagine, absolutely stunning and just such a damn good pilot, well, I guess I fell in love with her a little bit.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Nikora took a different route in his line of work. He purchased a pump company (“no one knows anything about pumps, but you always need them”) that he expanded into an international firm. In fact, since Sept. 12, his workers have been putting in overtime to supply recovery and cleanup teams at the World Trade Center with pumps for their machines. Still chief executive of the business, he has turned over the day-to-day reins to his son, Leo, who moved to Kihei about 10 years ago.

Although United Airlines gave him a plaque in the 1960s for accumulating 100,000 miles with the carrier, Nikora didn’t learn to fly himself until he was nearly 50. Typical Leo, he did not settle for mediocrity. Two weeks after he obtained his license, he was flying cross-country.

He still flies as a co-pilot today, but no matter who’s sitting next to him in the plane, he always takes off with Lindbergh at his side.