Staggerwing. Caught you.
It only took one word. You started dreaming. It’s OK, we did too. In our mind’s eye we saw that sleek work of art smoke over us at 200 MPH, 450-HP Pratt rumbling as it dwindled away toward the horizon.
Unless one’s blood is the consistency of water, at some time every pilot has lusted after one of the grand antique airplanes seen at fly-ins, the classic hangared a few rows down or a nimble L-Bird—the warbirds that landed on roads to pick up generals and popped up over tree lines to spot enemy troops.
We’d been hearing questions about buying and owning the airplanes that have formed parts of our rich aviation history, so we started digging into what’s involved in buying, caring for and flying old airplanes. We also took a look at a few examples.
As we did our research we found that there was some disagreement as to how to label airplanes of differing ages. By and large, “antique” refers to airplane built prior to Aug. 31, 1945. After Aug. 31, 1945, there was no consensus as to what is a classic and what is “vintage.” We threw up our hands and made the arbitrary decision to use a 60-year cutoff for this article. We looked at airplanes built in 1960 or earlier. From that date back to the end of World War II, we call them “classics.” Prior to that, they’re antiques. If they were pressed into service by the military in any role, they’re warbirds.
Further, because we looked at the big warbirds (600-HP AT-6 and larger) in the August 2017 issue of Aviation Consumer, we limited our inquiries here to the smaller warbirds.
Our research made it clear to us that judging the airworthiness or safety of an airplane by its calendar age is a hopeless oversimplification.
At the same time, calendar age is hugely important for many components of an airplane whether it be an antique, classic or just out of the showroom door. For example, hoses, in particular, become brittle with the passage of time and landing gear bungees lose their elasticity and will break under even moderate loads. We were warned of the risk of corrosion on Lycoming engine camshafts and Continental engine cylinders in airplanes that have flown only a few hours a year. Airplanes that are not flown regularly “age” faster and less gracefully, and are more subject to corrosion and associated ills of neglect.
We were interested to learn that because restoration projects can take years, those airplanes need to be treated as having “sat” for the duration of the project. We were told of airplanes just out of restoration having numerous components fail almost immediately because they were installed early in the project.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Warbird and antique owner and instructor Stan Musick started out our conversation by recommending that a prospective owner give a thoughtful answer to the question, “What do you want? Do you want to use it for transportation? Display it at fly-ins and airshows? Are you willing to be limited to flying on beautiful days?”
He went on, “What facilities do you have to house and maintain an airplane that may demand a great deal of care? Do you have access to a CFI who knows the type well for your initial and regular recurrent training? Can you get insurance? Can you afford to insure the airplane for a total loss?”
Finally, is the airplane of your dreams something that was built in limited quantities or has an oddball engine? Brent Taylor, president of the Antique Airplane Association (AAA) (www.antiqueairfield.com), told us that there were reasons that some airplanes were built in small numbers—they had lousy handling, questionable systems or less than great engines so pilots didn’t like them when they were new.
Texan Bob Steenbock, who has owned and operated antiques from Cubs through DC-3s, cautioned us that the old airplane and warbird world is purely buyer beware. “The FAA takes a hands-off attitude toward aircraft sellers and sales. It’s a scary world out there. You’ll run into people who don’t have pure motives when selling and will pedal substandard airplanes and people who are selling junk and don’t know it.”
We were told again and again that a prospective buyer should do as much homework as possible and find a person who knows that kind of airplane and can serve as a guide to help find the right airplane.
Stan Musick was adamant, “Don’t take advice from someone who is trying to sell you something. You’re the tuna—the fish that feeds the other fish. What you don’t know can cost you a fortune.”
We were referred to the networking capability of the AAA by aviation author and decades-long Aeronca Champ owner Paul Berge. “Those folks either know the type of airplane you want or know who knows the type and can help you find an A&P and a CFI.”
Brent Taylor echoed the cautions we had received and pointed us at two free FAA publications that had been created by FAA personnel working in conjunction with the AAA, EAA and AOPA.
He called for reading “Best Practices Guide for Maintaining Aging General Aviation Airplanes” (https://tinyurl.com/sojt3hm) and AC 23-27 “Parts and Materials Substitution for Vintage Aircraft” (https://tinyurl.com/usjr2pb).
We recommend going to Blakesburgh, Iowa, in September for the AAA fly-in—it is an ideal place to get to know old airplanes and the people who fly them.
Taylor enthusiastically agreed with others we had spoken with about the value of type clubs as resources for detailed information on antiques and classics. He endorsed recommendations that a checkout should be by a CFI who knows the type and can teach you how to do wheel and three-point landings in crosswinds—it’s important to be able to do both. He also referenced the importance of being able to do a steep forward slip, as a number of the antiques don’t have flaps and won’t descend steeply even power off.
Antique aircraft owners told us that a careful inspection the airplane’s paperwork prior to buying cannot be taken too lightly. The older the airplane, the greater the chance that there is some cloud on the title that can be expensive or even impossible to remove. If an owner can’t convey clear title to the bird, walk away.
Order the full FAA file on the airplane at https://aircraft.faa.gov/e.gov/ND/ so that you get all of the 337s and STCs filed with the FAA. They may show major repairs not in the logbooks.
Go through the logbooks with a serious air of cynicism. Is the installed engine even legal for the airplane? It’s surprising how often the installed engine or prop isn’t on the FAA Type Certificate Data Sheet for that type airplane, making the airplane unairworthy until the correct one is installed.
Are all of the ADs complied with? How were they complied with? That’s where an expert comes in. For example, the wood spar inspection for the smallest Aeroncas is a one-time event. Someone who knows those birds can tell you whether it was done correctly or the logbook pencil whipped.
How old is the fabric? Recovering even something as small as a Cub can run $30,000.
Parts availability for the engine should be a factor in selecting which vintage airplane goes in your hangar. Before rushing out to something that has a Kinner radial up front because you love the sound it makes, make sure that you have someone who can work on it and a source for parts.
In addition to a compression check and a look at the oil analysis history on a prebuy, we consider a borescope exam of the engine mandatory. With the low cost of oil analyses, if they haven’t been done, take it as a caution flag that the owner wasn’t serious about maintaining the airplane.
We also consider an airplane being sold with a “fresh overhaul” to be suspect. After all, if you’re unloading the airplane, how much are you going to spend on an overhaul?
With that as background, we’ll take a look at a few of the more popular of the old airplane crowd.
STINSON 108 SERIES
Anticipating the post-war aviation boom, Stinson created the Model 108 and equipped it with a 150-HP Franklin engine. Widely regarded for good handling and decent performance, more than 5000 were built.
We spent time with a pilot who had owned a 108 for over 30 years, but was unwilling to be identified. The first recommendation we heard was to join the owner’s association (www.facebook.com/groups/20082572978/) and then find an A&P with experience with Franklin engines and Stinsons. That’s important because Franklin engines need some specific tools. As a test, an A&P should be able to pull the forward spark plugs without taking off the nosebowl.
We were advised that anyone looking for a 108 should make sure that the Franklin engine has an oil filter—it’s the best thing that can be done for the engine. Without an oil filter our owner told us that it’s a 600-hour engine. With an oil filter it should last as long as a Continental or Lycoming.
A prebuy exam should include looking to see that the airframe is true and looking under the floorboards for repairs due to a groundloop. The base of the aft door frame is a corrosion point; check it carefully. Check the rudder rib at the base of the counterbalance for cracking.
As for brakes, Goodyears are bad, Bodell brakes are OK and Clevelands are good, but be careful—they are so good that you can put the airplane onto its nose.
In response to U.S. Army interest, Taylorcraft turned its Cub into an observation platform by creating what amounted to a bubble canopy—and it became the L-2 Grasshopper. For those considering a purchase, areas of concern are the same as its tube-and-fabric competitors: fabric age and condition, corrosion and quality of repairs after a groundloop.
We did get comments indicating that availability of parts for the small Continental engines are beginning to become an issue.
L-2 owner Oscar Campbell knew the L-2 he intended to buy. It had served in the Army Air Force within the U.S. and was sold as surplus following the war. It spent some time as a display in a museum, before being sold because the museum needed the money.
The L-2 changed hands a few times before the owner worked with his local EAA chapter, where it underwent a 15-year-long restoration. It then flew only sporadically before Campbell’s careful prebuy exam and purchase.
Campbell and an A&P friend picked up the airplane in Northern California and began the ferry flight to its new home in North Idaho. It took three weeks. The first issue was a trim failure. Repairs were easy, but reflected the problem of an aircraft restoration by the committee system. The folks working on the L-2 had forgotten to install cotter keys on the castellated nuts on the trim system and they vibrated off.
At the next stop, one of the ancient Eisemann magnetos failed. It had eleven hours total time. Campbell made the decision to install the kit converting the engine to Slick magnetos. Getting parts and making the change consumed a few days.
Taxiing out after fueling at the next stop, the left wing began to drop as the left main gear slowly collapsed. The problem? The calendar age of the rubber landing gear bungees. One had simply come to the end of its life and broke.
Campbell told us that he knew what he was getting into and was aware that he was going to have some problems because the airplane had not been flying. He went into it with his eyes open, patience and a healthy proportion of his budget set aside for repairs.
BOEING 75 STEARMAN
Four years after Lloyd Stearman sold his company to Boeing and took a job as president of Lockheed, what became the Model 75 Kaydet was hatched for the U.S. Army and Navy as a primary trainer—and forever after, everyone called it the Stearman. Over 8500 of the incredibly strong (10 G plus and minus) biplanes were built and, after being sold as surplus after the war, proved to be amenable to anything from cropdusting to airshow work.
Because there are flights schools offering dual in Stearmans to this day, we consider it (or a new production Waco or Great Lakes) to be the stepping stone for anyone wishing to buy a biplane.
Because of the many mods available to the Stearman line, a careful check of the logbooks is vital. Was the airplane converted to be a cropduster and then back to a two-holer? How were the conversions done? Is the airframe true?
The airframe is tough, but not invulnerable. Look it over carefully. Putting the airplane onto a wingtip during an incipient groudloop is likely to break the rear spar.
Most of the stock airplanes had 220-HP Continentals or 225-HP Lycomings. There have been crankshaft issues, especially with radial engines that were built for tanks (the heavy things with treads and big guns) but later hung on Stear-mans instead.
The stock airplanes barely have enough power to get out of their own way. 300- and 450-HP mods proved popular; however, no two seem to be the same. Expertise on a prebuy of a big-engine Stearman can prevent an expensive purchase mistake.
Cessna’s five-place, tailwheel radial-powered singles had Continental or Jacobs engines ranging in power from 240 to 300 HP. More than 1000 were built (including the LC-126 military version).
The series has a high rate of loss of control accidents on landing. We believe that one reason is because of misalignment of the landing gear—something that takes some expertise to get right. Failure to properly maintain the tailwheel strut also leads to ground-handling issues.
We also consider the sight picture on landing to be a little unusual, causing new pilots to point the airplane at an angle to the runway when they think it’s straight. This, tied in with gear alignment issues and the runway loss of control history require, in our opinion, an extensive checkout in the airplane by a CFI who knows 195s. A pilot should be equally comfortable with three-point and wheel landings.
Owners tell us that the original Goodyear brakes are satisfactory if they are carefully maintained. A popular mod is to replace them with the brakes from a Cessna 310.
Some of the most enjoyable flying we’ve done has been in antiques, classics and the smaller warbirds. We also recognize that they are from a time when systems were often counterintuitive, brakes were questionable and the stability and control meant challenges to a modern pilot.
We think ownership should be pursued with patience, a willingness to learn as much as possible about a desired airplane and setting aside at least a third of the purchase budget for things that will break.