Introduction: Amelia Earhart's Airplane Costume

Our oldest daughter went through a phase a couple of years ago where she was obsessed with Amelia Earhart. She'd devour any book or video she could find about her. She even declared that she'd be the person to finally figure out the location of Earhart's final resting place.

So she was thrilled to learn that the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum had one of Earhart's planes on display. She told us that she wanted to be Earhart for Halloween. That sounded great to us but a simple pilot's outfit would never do so we decided that our young Amelia would need to be "flying" her plane.

For the purposes of this instructable I'll be concentrating on the plane portion of the costume. While she looked great wearing just the pilot's outfit and it was a complete costume in and of itself, its design and execution was a pretty straight forward combination of finding and altering the right pieces where we could and building using tradition sewing techniques those few pieces, like the pants, that we couldn't find.

Step 1: Coming Up With a Plane Plan

While Earhart owned and flew a number of planes in her lifetime, we chose to go with the Lockheed Vega housed at the Smithsonian because we already had taken a number of detailed photos from a variety of angles to use as research.

I knew I needed some sort of internal structure but didn't really know where to begin so I did some research online and discovered the world of RC modeling. I found plans for the exact plane, The Lockheed Vega that we were hoping to build at the site:

Of course I couldn't use these plans without significant modifications. First, I needed to enlarge them to fit our daughter. I opted to do this in the drafting application, Vectorworks, because it would allow me to build a complete 3D model of the plane's "bones" and then print out the individual components. The next thing I realized was that I was going to have to adapt the pattern rather than use it as is because when scaled up to the size we needed the plane had a wingspan of nearly 8 feet! This was simply impossible to deal with logistically so I distorted the plane's dimensions to narrow it. I also needed to create a void large enough to accommodate our daughter. The final design had a decidedly cartoonish vibe to it but that was perfectly fine to us.

Step 2: Putting the Pieces Together

With the patterns for all the structural components printed at full scale I set about assembling the plane's "bones." Both to keep the weight to a minimum and because its a very easy material to work with, I chose 1" rigid insulation foam for this step. It cuts very easily with just a box cutter and, because of the paper (or is it a foil?) covering both sides, The material resists bending and warping even when cut quite thin.

To attach the pieces together I used a simple craft glue. My go-to brand is Beacon 3-in-1, which I like because even when fully cured it maintains a little flexibility. Whichever glue you choose be sure to test it on a piece of scrap foam to ensure that it doesn't melt the foam. Hot glue definitely will not work in this instance for this very reason.

Wooden toothpicks worked very well to hold the pieces in place while the glue cured.

Two things to note at this time as you look at the last picture in this step: The nose cone is obviously not made from the same rigid foam as the rest of the plane. I'll go over it in detail in a later step of the process. And second, the main wing on our plane was made as a completely separate piece which was not permanently attached to the rest of the plane's fuselage. Instead is set on the two main internal ribs using a tab-and-slot attachment. This was done to facilitate transportation and storage of the plane because fully assembled it wouldn't fit through a standard doorway.

Step 3: The Nose and Propeller

Obviously, the engine and propeller are an important part for any airplane. Our version was no different. While I'm sure I could have built this piece using the same technique for the rest of the plane, I chose to go a different route because I knew I wanted the propeller to spin and was going to need a way to easily access the internal motor and battery compartment.

I found the perfect thing in the garden center of my local hardware store. The large, plastic flower pot pictured just happened to be the exact size I was looking for. All I had to do was cut the bottom water reservoir and the top ring off and I was good to go for the basic structure.

To hold it in place and to help it maintain its round shape, I built a set of internal supports visible in the third picture. These supports allowed the nose to slide on and off the main fuselage without the need for additional supports or attachments.

The front of the nose, where the engine is visible was created by attaching a styrofoam bowl and some halves of PVC pipe to another disk of the rigid foam insulation. To the back of this disk, I attached my propeller motor. I wish I could tell you what the motor was from but I found it in a bin at my local salvage and surplus place. I think it was listed as being from a dishwasher. In any case, what I wanted was something with a relatively slow RPM. I wasn't sure the foam could handle much torque plus this was going to be around a lot of kids so safety was a factor.

As you can see in the video, it's quite slow but it was just the right amount of movement for my needs. The propeller itself was again cut from rigid foam insulation (I just love that stuff!) and attached to the motor using another have slice of PVC pipe to form the axel.

Both the front and rear foam pieces were simply glued into place using the same craft glue I used to assemble the main fuselage.

Step 4: Applying the Skin

So far, so good. The next step was to apply a skin to the frame. Paper mâché to the rescue!

Of course I couldn't go straight to applying newspaper to the frame. There simply wasn't enough structure to properly support it. So first I applied strips of masking tape to the frame as you can see in the photo above. The tape was super easy to apply and perfectly fleshed out the shape of the plane. It also gave great support to the newspaper.

I ended up covering the entire plane including the main wing and the nose in two layers of paper mâché. This was enough to strengthen and maintain the plane's shape without adding unnecessary weight. Note that I did also apply the paper mâché to the nose even though it was a solid piece. I wanted it to have the same texture as the rest of the plane.

You can use whatever paper mâché technique or formula you'd like but know that I just went with basic water and flour and had no adhesion problems at all. Also note that this step is super messy so you'll probably want to do it outside if possible.

Step 5: How Am I Going to Wear This Thing?

One of the major considerations with any child's Halloween costume has to be the trick-or-treating and the grabbing of massive amounts of candy. This meant that the plane had to be hands-free when worn. but how?

We briefly considered using some sort of suspenders set up but had to rule it out because of the plane's size and weight. We needed something more substantial. The answer we landed on was a marching band snare drum harness. It had a lot going for it: It's comfortable, adjustable, came with ready-made attachment points, and could be hidden under a jacket.

The only issue we had was how to actually attach the plane to the harness. as designed, the harness uses a pair of bolts to hang the drum from. We used these same bolts to hang the plane. But two bolts is not a lot of surface area to hang so much weight from, especially when most of that weight is styrofoam. There was a very real possibility that the bolts would pull right through the foam. I needed to distribute the weight over a larger surface area. At first I thought a square of corrugated plastic would do the trick but ultimately there was still too much give for my liking so I ended up using a pair of 3"x6" steel mending plates. The little spikes on the underside of the plates them amazing grip into the foam without damaging its structure.

Step 6: Paint

The last step was paint and detail. First a couple coats of bright red spray paint over the whole thing. Then, for the gold striping, mask off the area with painters tape and apply with a brush. As you can see in the photo, the masking wasn't perfect because the surface isn't perfectly smooth. To fix it, I used a black sharpie to draw on the pin striping detail then touched up the red using a small brush.

The lettering on the wing and tail was done by printing a stencil onto cardstock, tracing its outline on the plane, then freehand painting it.

Halloween Contest 2019

Ninth Prize in the
Halloween Contest 2019