I was looking at Barnstormers website and came across a 1931 Fleet Model 7 open cockpit biplane. The interesting thing about this particular Fleet was the fact that it had been converted from the original 125 or 145 horsepower Kinner radial engine to a 220 Continental radial engine. Since I live in Colorado the extra horsepower would be a great benefit. In addition to that the airplane was licensed as a Standard/Normal category airplane. The bigger engine was done by the use of a 337 form. At the time I owned a 1945 Stampe open cockpit biplane. The Stampe was licensed as an Experimental Exhibition category airplane. It was indeed a manufactured airplane, not a homebuilt, however it was built in France and never certified in the USA. There are many restrictions with an Experimental Exhibition category airplane such as it can not be used to "sell" rides. Whereas a Standard/Normal category does not have as many restrictions on how it can be used. The fact that the Fleet was a 1931 vintage also appealed to me. The 1930's was considered the by many people to be:
"The Golden Age" of aviation.
The advertisement in Barnstormers indicated that the seller (Aubie Pearman) would be willing to trade so I sent him an email, the rest is history. Aubie, and the Fleet were located in Mississippi. One of us were going to have to fly a long ways in an open cockpit. As it turned out Aubie had a friend in Wichita and I did too. We made an agreement to meet at my friends (Chuck Asbury) home/airstrip just north of Wichita on the evening of July 26th, 2010. We would make our trade and each fly our respective airplanes home. It turned out to be a great plan! The following pictures were those that I received prior to our meeting in Wichita:
Late on the evening of June 30th of 2010:
A good friend of mine (Tom Hoeppner) from here in Colorado agreed to fly with me to Wichita. We left on the morning of July 26th. My wife Anne accompanied us on the trip by driving my pickup truck. We all stayed in touch via cell phone when Tom and I were on the ground. Weather is always an issue when flying, particularly when flying a "low n slo" old biplane. We wound up skirting the weather for most of the trip. My friend Tom used his cell phone to get live weather radar images during the flight, thus I decided to nick name him "Radar!" I wonder how many vintage biplanes had the advantage of live weather radar? Our first stop was Lamar, Colorado for fuel then to Dodge City, Kansas for more fuel. Finally on to Wichita. The Stampe performed exactly as she was ask during the entire flight. When we arrived in Wichita, my friend Chuck was waiting for us. (Chuck; Thanks for all your help with this whole thing!) It was good seeing him again. It was also good to be able to stop worrying about the weather, or so I thought. Not long we arrived, Aubie arrived in the Fleet. The only problem was that he had left the Fleets tailwheel at his last fuel stop. Did someone forget a cotter pin? Hummm.... He needed no brakes to get her stopped. The remains of the tailwheel worked just fine on the grass as a brake. Finally Anne arrived in my pickup. Shortly after her arrival a huge Midwestern thunderstorm passed through. Probably had followed us from Colorado. We rushed around getting everything inside a hangar. We were also able to borrow a tailwheel for the Fleet.
An interesting side note to this story is that it turned out that Aubies friend in Wichita was also a very old friend of mine, Ron Huckins. Anne and I both grew up in El Dorado, Kansas which is only 30 miles from Wichita. Back in the early 1970's I had learned to fly in Wichita. During that time I made a lot of friends among Wichita's Antique Airplane folks, including my friends Chuck and Ron.
With the airplanes tucked safely into hangars the evening of the 26th turned into a really great time. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant at the north end of Wichita, called Savutes. They are known for their great Italian food, but they are also know for their Old Aviation theme. The walls are covered with early aviation pictures. What a great evening, Ron and his wife, Chuck and his wife, Aubie, Tom, Anne and me all enjoyed great food and great company. I assure you that all of the stories were true! "There I was, flat on my back......." Old friends, old airplanes, good food, and a great atmosphere. Life is good and truly there is a bond among those of us who fly, and from among that group there is a very special bond among those of us who fly antiques!
On the morning of the 27th we repaired the Fleets tailwheel then flew from Chuck's place (Highpoint Airpark) to Eck Field. Ron was there to assist both of us. We spent the day swapping rides and making our trade. We also made a few minor repairs on the airplanes and had a great lunch. I would have to say that Aubie and I had become pretty good friends by the time we parted. The picture at the end of this page was obviously taken at the end of the day. Two friends and an old airplane. Aubie had to leave to get back to Mississippi very early on the morning of the 28th. Anne left Eck Field for home mid morning. She wanted to get a headstart on us. Tom and I made a few minor changes and repairs on the Fleet then got into the air just after noon.
At the end of the day
two old guys and an old airplane!
THE TRIP HOME
was an interesting one. We flew west along the section lines. We spotted an old church and took some pictures. The stop at Dodge City was only my second landing in the Fleet. West of Dodge City we flew over the Santa Fe trail for a ways and took some pictures of it from the air. We made our second fuel stop in Lamar Colorado. After leaving Lamar we caught up with Anne in my pickup truck. Of course we had to buzz her and wiggle our wings to say hello.
I suppose that as we go through life things sometimes just go wrong! We must simply accept that and go on doing the best we can. As we flew south there were so many thoughts going through my head. I checked the GPS for nearby airports, unfortunately they were ALL north, west, or northwest from our position. I knew that Highway 50 was south of us and the weather was not bad that direction. The problem was that the storms along the mountains were obscuring the sun and it was getting prematurely dark. I thought about Pueblo since it was not too far away, but it required a radio and the Fleet did not have a radio. I tried to use my handheld radio, but the static caused by the unshielded ignition made it useless. We were on our own and time was getting short. I found a field on the edge of the small town of Manzanola, Colorado which the GPS indicated was an airport. It was not! It had been an airport at one time, but was now a melon field. I did a low pass and saw power lines at the approach end of the field. I made a mental note to be sure and clear them. Legal dark was still 45 minutes away, but I could no longer see my instruments. It really was simply to make the best of it and land. We cleared the power lines and touched down in the field. The Fleet has balloon tires and seemed to be doing fine, until the very end of the landing roll. The light was dim enough I could not see the end of the field, but for a time I really thought we had made it. In the last few feet of the landing roll we hit something soft. The tail rose and I actually still thought it was going to come back down. Alas, it did not come back down, it continued to rise and I realized we were going over. I killed the magnetos and YELLED at Tom, “GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT! There really wasn't much that could have started a fire, but we both got clear quickly. A minute or two later I went back and shut off the fuel, but with the airplane upside down it was not going matter.
I very relieved a few weeks later after the FAA investigated and determined that I had done nothing wrong! They ruled it as an “incident” and not an accident which was a very good thing.
The pictures of the airplane upside down in a field are still very disturbing to me! This was my fourth landing in the airplane. The old joke about "if you walk away it is a good one," isn't very funny when this happens......
The really good news is that neither Tom nor I were hurt! The almost as good news was that the airplane had fairly minor damage. Initially all I could see was a bend in the prop and the tail was smashed on top. We later discovered some minor damage to one rib in the top wing. I suppose if we had to flip it was as delicate as could be imagined.
The first pictures in the gallery below were taken about an hour after we landed, just before we headed home for the night. The Fire Department helped me get the airplane back upright. There was nothing to do but leave it for the rest of the night.
IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT!!!!
July 28th was a better day. My friend Tom, his wife Barb, and Toms friend Mike got to Manzanola before we did. They got the airplane out of the field and into a shady place where we could take it apart. Anne and I were delayed getting there since we were procuring a trailer to move it all with.
The first day we got the wings off and loaded onto a trailer. If I had it to do over again I would have loaded the wings vertical rather than horizontal. The top wing is 29 feet long and when the braces are removed it tends to flop quite a bit. We took back roads and drove 20 mph or slower for 70 miles back north to Springs East Airport. This day finished about 12:30 at night when we finished unloading the wings.
At this point I must sincerely thank my friends for their help. Tom, Barb, and Mike simply came down and did what ever was needed. They brought a lot of food, tie downs, and tools. Anne's son Steve was working that day, but we used his trailer and his truck. Since all this happened Tom has told many people that he is looking forward to flying with me again.
My wife is a treasure! She never faltered for a minute. I noticed that she was starting to cry after we had unloaded the wings and were getting ready to head home. I ask her why she was crying and was told; "I just don't want you to quit flying!" I had been afraid the entire time that she would want me to sell the Fleet and quit.
I am truly blessed with real friends and a great family! Thank you all!
July 29th Tom and I drove back down and loaded the fuselage. It was much easier to load and move than the wings had been. We got back to Springs East in the early afternoon.