Let me back up a bit: You remember our Skyranger? Commonwealth NC33395, built in Kansas City in the early days of 1946. The plane Devon and I bought back in 1993 when we were still students, and decided that hey – as long as we owned an airplane together, we were practically married? And how, ten years ago, we decided it was time to put it in the shop to get the covering redone? And how that “9 month” project ended up taking almost nine years? [Note: except for 9 years being a bit on the low side, that reminds me of some kids I know. Regardless, Devon was calling the Skyranger “our first child” way before the restoration project]
But yeah, the pull the covers off, put new ones on and paint it project took on a life of its own. The first guy we hired quit the business and moved away. The second guy we had to fire. The third guy died. You might start thinking of putting a little albatross logo on the side of the plane at this point, right?
Sorry – a little more detail. Bud Field was the third fellow we’d hired to do the work. He was a gentleman and a true lover of airplanes, owning a gorgeous collection of vintage aircraft, and retaining a small staff of craftsmen up at Calaveras County Airport to restore them. He said that his guys were between projects at the moment, and he’d be happy to take on the Skyranger. So we hauled the pieces of our baby up to the Sierra foothills and let Andrew and Steve get to work on her.
It was about four months later, I think, that Bud’s cancer re-appeared, and it took him pretty quickly. His lawyers looked at the books and decided that – astonishingly – keeping a stable of antique airplanes was not one of the more profitable parts of the estate, and shut down the Calaveras operation.
Andrew and Steve agonized about it, and decided that they wanted to go at it anyway. They were craftsmen, and they loved the work they did. And they felt awful about the thought of leaving us and the pieces of our baby at the side of the road. So they got permission from the estate to split off and go into business for themselves – I don’t know how they afforded it, but I think they leased/bought Bud’s hangar and the tools, and set themselves up as the Calaveras Airplane Company.
Well, at this point we were already four years into the nine month project, and it was clear that things needed a little more work than anyone thought. There was a problem with the spar on one of the wings, and repairing it would take as much time and money as building a whole new wing -the inside of a Skyranger wing is a thing of beauty, designed in the 1930’s when skilled labor was cheap and everything was done by hand. The engine – perfectly serviceable when we brought it into the first guy – had been left, unoiled and untended in the moist salt air of a Salinas Valley hangar for four years, and the crankshaft and pistons had rusted into an unusable block (that was the tipping point of firing guy number two). There was a lot of work to be done.
Anyhow – Andrew and Steve plugged away, repairing antique engine instruments and digging up the proper vintage paints (turns out that the “Boston Maroon” made by Stits is brownish, while the original Randolph Boston Maroon is much closer to red). At some point, we decided that this wasn’t just a restoration – this was going to be an award-winning restoration, and when we (I say “we”, but remember: it was Andrew and Steve doing the work) were done we were going to take ‘395 to the big West Coast antique airplane show and try to bring home a trophy. Worth looking at the restoration album online, for you hardcore airplane nuts.
We got it flying one week before last year’s Watsonville show (it’s worth looking at that blog post); two test hops, then across the state to taxi into the lineup. Whew!
Folks at Watsonville were very impressed. Especially at the little touches. Like the original “grandfather clock” Stewart Warner tachometer cluster. Like Steve’s hand-sewn upholstery and the turned metal kick plates by the rudder pedals. And Andrew’s attention to doing things up front the way the craftsmen of the 1930’s and 40’s knew how to do – not just holding cables down with zipties (which can abrade the insulation and paint, leading to structural corrosion), but using rubber stand-offs laced with wax cord. Very impressed – as the judges walked around the plane, comparing notes and saying “Hey Bob – come look at this!” I learned just how much attention to detail the boys at Calaveras had put in.
I’ll admit I was starting to feel kind of cocky. Then, about 2:00 p.m., as the judging was wrapping up, Scott and Annie Woods taxi up in their 1932 Waco UBF biplane. One of something like eight made as a luxury item for 1930’s playboy aviators. It’s spectacular, with deep gloss cream paint and lacquered wood stays. This isn’t just a regional champion – this Waco was a contender for the national prize. Of course, Scott and Annie are such sweethearts – anyone who puts so much time into a labor of love like that has got to be, I guess – that it was a joy to lose to them. But still a little heartbreaking. And they were gracious winners, telling their own tales of sweat and agony trying to get the plane ready in time for Watsonville, and their own anxiety when they arrived, confident and hopeful, and saw the Skyranger on the line. A couple of the judges cornered me and said they’d agonized over which plane to award the grand prize to, but I knew they were just being kind – Scott and Annie’s plane really was in a class by itself.
The Waco would be featured on the next year’s poster and t-shirts, and get bragging rights for its owners and restorers. ‘395 got a sort of consolation prize – the committee created a new category – “Best Neoclassic Monoplane” – just so we’d not walk away emptyhanded. Yeah, the right plane won, but but yeah, I was pretty crestfallen.
I was feeling bad for myself, but honestly, I was feeling worse for Andrew and Steve. It’s hard as hell making a living restoring antique airplanes, and even harder where you’re way up in the boonies of Calaveras County. Lovely country up there in the foothills of the Sierra; great people, good food, and the scenery can’t be beat. But there’s not a lot of spare money floating around for this kind of craftsmanship. Being able to say that they’d restored a Watsonville Grand Champion would get them the attention they deserved to draw in the business they needed.
But as everyone said, there was always next year. If I didn’t scratch up the paint too badly flying it around. Or stain the leather, or… She’s never going to look as good as she does right out of the shop.
So I flew her all this year, keeping an eye on the 2013 Labor Day weekend. Trying to keep her clean, trying not to think of what other surprises would show up. On Monday, brought her back up to Calaveras for the annual inspection and all the attention and touch-up paint, wax and polish Andrew, Steve (and now Milo) could devote. Thursday morning, set out Westbound, puttering our primped and polished baby across the central valley to KWVI. Show didn’t start until Friday, but the organizers said some showplanes arrived early to get the best parking. And I wanted every advantage I could get.
They’d already started setting up for the expected airshow crowds when I landed: haybales for spectators to sit on, those ubiquitous deep-fried-whatnot booths, and the outline of crowd control lines marked by rows of metal stanchions. I called on the local frequency for parking guidance as I turned off on Taxiway C, and one of the linemen hailed me – “You see the guy in the orange vest, waving?” Yup. “Come towards me.”
I was coming around the north side and turning to face him, puttering along with the engine idling and
Why do my days keep getting punctuated by unexpected loud noises? I’d clearly hit something. Crap crap crap crap. I shut the engine down and climbed out.
Thirty feet beyond where it looked like the row ended, there was one more metal stanchion, now lying on its side in the wake of the collision. It was pale gray, blending in perfectly with the asphalt. They’d just placed it there a few minutes during setup, and were running high visibility line with yellow flags through the row, but hadn’t gotten this far yet. Crap crap crap.
I turned my attention to the plane: the metal tip of the pole had caught the the prop, tearing a deep gouge in the blade before getting thrown into the cowling, where it bent in the nose bowl and torn a second gouge in the belly. My stomach dropped to the floor.
By now the lineman was there and he was feeling heartsick too. We talked, very politely, about what had just happened. Miscommunication. I made it clear that my priority was not pointing fingers, that I could see how we both had different expectations from what happened. Not going to focus on that. But my plane, our baby, our potential trophy winner, had just had a prop strike. Not only were we gouged – we were grounded. Damn.
Devon drove down to give me a ride home. On the way back, on the phone with Andrew (“I’m sorry – I’ve bent your baby!”), we hatched a plan: I would hop in the Debonair the next morning and fly to Calaveras, where I’d pick up Andrew. We’d take his tools and a replacement prop, fly to Watsonville and see what we could do to at least pretty things up before the judging the next day.
Well, we did all of that. Andrew and Steve got up dug out and polished up the old pre-restoration prop until it shone like a mirror. I crossed the state four times, ferrying him to and from the airport. We pulled off the bottom cowl and I held things while he hammered out the dents as best he could while sitting out under the wing at airshow center. We put it all back together and wiped off the fingerprints. And hoped for the best.
Actually, things could have been a lot worse. Most prop strikes require a complete engine teardown to verify that you’ve not bent any of the inner workings of the engine. Andrew was pretty quickly able to determine that the nature of this impact wouldn’t have endangered the engine. With the new prop and a signoff, we were airworthy again.
Okay – this is getting very long, so I need to wrap it up. There were plenty of other gorgeous planes at Watsonville this year. There was a Luscombe 8A from Schellville that was a perfect restoration – the original velour and logo on the dash, and factory original radio (a 1946 Ranger with immaculate plastic dial). Looked like someone had taken a factory special when it rolled of the line 60 years ago and put it in deep freeze. Polished aluminum skin that hurt your eyes to look at, it was so shiny. Truly, a perfect restoration, one that made me think of all the little things on ‘395 we’d done that weren’t quite authentic.
But somehow, this was our year. Maybe it was the pity points that made their way by word of mouth through the judges? Maybe it was the “A for effort” of seeing us do the on-the-spot repair? Maybe it was that this year, we were the rare bird? Who knows. But when they called out Grand Champion, it was NC33395, owned by Devon and David Pablo Cohn.
The trophy, of course, is going up to Calaveras County, to sit on Andrew and Steve’s desk. Sure I’m the proud papa, but like any (honest) proud papa, I know exactly who did all the real work.