May 2013 Issue
Often unnoticed, the Rose Parrakeet is a homebuilt born of certified beginnings.
Despite its rich red plumage, the slight, single-seat biplane often goes unnoticed amidst a tied-down flock of homebuilt aircraft. In its three-point pose, its 20-foot wood wingspan and narrow, 16-foot-4 tube-and-fabric fuselage are hidden in the rakish and modern shadows cast by taller, flashier metal or composite creations. But when the other airplanes fly off, giving it some room, its lithe lines speak of aviation’s more romantic era. Passersby stop and guess its breed. Artwork on its purposeful vertical fin answers their question. With a pink blossom in its beak, a small green and yellow bird perches on a branch above its name—Rose Parrakeet.
Without an electrical system, the Parrakeet’s cockpit is VFR steam-gauge simple. The disconnected cable leads to the GPS antenna on the upper wing, and owner Steenstry has since replaced the aged and shrunken fuel line.
From Certified to Experimental/Amateur-Built
When Jennings “Jack” Rose designed the airplane in 1929, he preferred the double-r British spelling, according to the Parrakeet Pilot’s Club (www.roseparrakeet.org). An army flight cadet who saw the brothers Wright demonstrate their aerial abilities in 1910, he started the eponymous Rose Aeroplane & Motor Company of Chicago to build the CAA-certified design. In the FAA registry today, there are seven Parrakeets, built between 1931 and 1940, and there are eight Experimental/Amateur-Builts constructed since the mid-1950s. A “Parakeet” search reveals two more certifieds and seven more homebuilts, bringing the total to 24.
The Parrakeet’s migration from certified to Experimental started in the late 1940s. Rose licensed the Hannaford Aircraft Company to build five CAA-certified A-4 Parrakeets a year, but the licensee sold its inaugural airplane as an Experimental in 1950. Rose and Hannaford settled the resulting license disagreement out of court. Rhinehart Rose Manufacturing built certified Parrakeets between 1969 and 1978. Hannaford started selling Parrakeet plans as the Bee Model D-1 in 1955, and Merwyn “Mert” Taylor of Whitewater, Wisconsin, had a set, said Larry Steenstry, builder of the proud little biplane basking in the Oshkosh sunshine.
A Considered Collaboration
Because of their close friendship, Taylor, who’d already crafted five homebuilts, knew that Steenstry had a freshly rebuilt Continental C-65 looking for work, so one day he said, “Hey, Larry! Why don’t we build a pair of ’keets?’” Steenstry had never heard of the Parrakeet and had never “considered building an airplane, because I didn’t think I was skillful enough.” But the opportunity intrigued him. “I did it to learn about building an airplane from him,” he said.
They worked in Taylor’s well-equipped and insulated shop, situated 20 miles north of Steenstry’s unheated hangar at Weedhopper Meadow, where he lived and kept his Aeronca Champ. Steenstry’s greatest challenge wasn’t learning the necessary skills, it was “keeping up with Mert so he wouldn’t get too far ahead of me. He did a frame-up restoration of an old car and carved the propeller for his plane.”
He already had basic skills and could read plans, but Steenstry said the lessons he learned went beyond the craftsmanship needed to build the Parrakeet. Cutting out the nosepieces for the ribs, he took the time necessary to perfectly replicate their shapes. “Mert said, ‘Hey, Larry, you’re taking way too much time on that. We’re only building an airplane here. That isn’t that critical.’” To prove his point, Taylor turned to his ragwing Luscombe. Pointing to the taut fabric concavities between the wing ribs, he said that in these airplanes, it’s not that critical.
But this truth is not universal, as Steenstry discovered. “When we got around to rigging the airplanes, we had the wings in place and were adjusting them. Mert said, ‘Now this is critical. We want this to be as perfect as we can get it.’” Rigging any biplane is no easy task, but the Parrakeet is less complicated because struts—streamlined tubing that runs from the lower wing to the union of the upper wing and N-strut—take the place of the flying and landing wires.
Aerolite bonds all of the wood, with fine staples holding the pieces in place while it cures. “I like welding,” Steenstry said, but he hadn’t done much of it before the Parrakeet. Taylor offered to perform the task, but Steenstry wanted to do it if his skills were good enough. His practice welds on scrap passed muster, so he welded up his own fuselage. “I started at the tail and worked forward,” he said, his voice still ringing with a note of surprise as he described how his skill had improved by the time he reached the nose.
Taylor and Steenstry made a few changes to the Parrakeet plans. The mainspar was supposed to measure 2.75 inches, but the supplier delivered a full 3 inches. “Mert said we could modify the ribs so they would fit. It wouldn’t add that much weight…and it would make it that much stronger,” Steenstry recalled. Unable to get the streamlined interplane tubing the plans called for, they stepped up one size. When they finished work, the empty Parrakeet tipped the scales at 606 pounds, half of its maximum gross weight.
After making a repair, Steenstry asked himself how a Golden Age barnstormer would cover the area. The answer was a Marvel Mystery Oil can.
Taylor also redesigned and welded the aluminum fuel tank. The plans called for a flat-bottom tank with four outlets, Steenstry said. Its replacement has a funnel-shaped bottom and one outlet, and holds a bit more than 12 gallons. They also put two 2.5-gallon tanks in the upper wing. The system is gravity fed, and Steenstry says opening the transfer valve before there’s enough room in the main tank will make it overflow.
“It took me a year and half to build the Parrakeet,” Steenstry said. Sharing jigs and tooling and mass-producing pieces from raw stock saved time, but the pace and frequency of work was the primary accelerator. “Mert moves right along, and I was flying reserve at the airlines, [so] basically we worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.” Taylor returned to the shop after dinner and often worked until 10 p.m., Steenstry said. “If he hadn’t been slowing down for me, he would have had his done in a year.”
The Continental’s carb heat draws its warmth from the chamber welded between the starboard exhausts.
When the Parrakeet was ready for covering, Steenstry took it home, wrapped it in Dacron and red Airtech coatings with black trim (Taylor painted his yellow) and named it Jennifer, for his granddaughter, Jennifer Rose Girard. Steenstry and his wife, Carol, bought the 30-acre farm strip just outside Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in 1974 from another United Airlines pilot. They named it Weedhopper Meadow Airport (WI71) after the Aeronca Champ he bought the same year for $2,750, and he’s enjoyed it ever since. He would not have the Parrakeet now had it not been for the failure of the Champ’s original engine. “While it was being rebuilt, I bought another engine so I could fly,” he said.
Steenstry got hooked on flying as a radio station traffic reporter covering Kansas City with a pilot. He earned his wings as a Naval Aviation Cadet in Class 02-62. Flying the H-3 Sea King with HS-11, he was the first helicopter over Gemini IV when it splashed down in 1965, 43 miles short of its target. Ed White made America’s first space walk on this mission, but he and Jim McDivitt could not get out of the capsule until the squadron CO arrived, Steenstry said. He was fully equipped for the recovery, but the commander’s helo had cameras, so picking up the astronauts was his job. “I just hovered there, in case they had an emergency.”
Steenstry joined United Airlines in 1967. Starting as a DC-6 flight engineer, he retired as a Boeing 747-400 captain in 2002. In between, he set 31 records, most of them point-to-point speed records on scheduled flights. Much as building the Parrakeet was the result of a friendship, Steenstry got into record-setting after a good friend, Buck Hilbert, invited him to join the National Aeronautics Association’s contest and records board, which officiates and verifies aviation world records in the United States. Steenstry succeeded Hilbert as chairman of the NAA records board in 1998, serving until 2001; he’s now on the board’s advisory committee.
For the Record
During his tenure, Steenstry officiated a variety of record attempts, including all but a few of Bruce Bohannon’s altitude and time-to-climb efforts in the homebuilt Flyin’ Tiger. One Sunday he covered 31 records set by a Gulfstream IV. Then he started setting his own records. “I thought since I was on the board, I should try to set a record if I could, just to see what was involved.”
On April 4, 1991, he broke a longstanding 9-minute, 31-second climb record to 29,528 feet (9000 meters) set by a Soviet fighter in Class C-1L (77,161 to 99,207 pounds). He did it in a Boeing 737-300, on a scheduled flight carrying 19 passengers from San Francisco to Medford, Oregon. Planning took months. Over-water departures at SFO have few noise-abatement procedures, so he waited for the lightest passenger load. With an unrestricted clearance to 30,000 feet, he leveled off 6 minutes and 41 seconds after takeoff. A Russian MiG-25 broke Steenstry’s record in 1997, in 3 minutes, 18 seconds.
With the engine warming and the tail tethered to the fence post, Steenstry secures himself for flight.
Full left rudder pulls the ring that secures the hook’s hinged arm and frees the Parrakeet for flight.
Back to the Bird
Steenstry made the first flight in his Parrakeet in January 1996. “It was 10° below zero in my hangar” when the FAA inspected it, he said. “I didn’t fly it until a few days after that, when it warmed up some.” Indeed. Even with summer’s density altitude, Weedhopper Meadow’s 1350-foot turf strip gives the Parrakeet plenty of room. Lifting off at 60 mph and stalling at 52 mph, the single-seater needs 435 feet on takeoff and 585 feet to land. It cruises at 93.4 mph, Steenstry said, smiling. “If you can fly an Aeronca, you can fly the Parrakeet.” Unlike the Champ, the biplane has “virtually no adverse yaw,” and with ailerons on the lower wings only, the roll rate is sedate. “It is aerobatic, but I just fly simple stuff—loops and barrel rolls.”
Specific to his Parrakeet is a maximum altitude of 5000 feet. Steenstry has logged plenty of time in a Breezy, and has given rides in the open-air homebuilt at AirVenture. A pilot and skydiver wanted to leap from his Breezy, “so I took him up as high as I could,” Steenstry said. “I found out that at about 2500 feet I was scared. I didn’t need an altimeter…just climbing up to it, a chill came over me. I got that same feeling at 5000 feet in the Parrakeet.” Noting that he’s flown, without a problem, at 52,000 feet in a record-setting Gulfstream IV ST, Steenstry said when flying al fresco, “My mind just says, ‘Let’s not go any higher.’”
Lifting off at 60 mph, the Parrakeet needs 435 feet of runway, and only about half that when running into a fresh breeze.
Over the years, the Parrakeet has averaged 30 hours flown annually, usually in 30-minute local flights, and when Steenstry wants to pretend he’s flying a WW-I pursuit plane. But he’s flown it to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, three times; Blakesburg, Iowa, five times; and AirVenture six times. At Bartlesville, home of the retired annual National Biplane Association fly-in, the Parrakeet earned Reserve Grand Champion honors and two Grand Champion awards, in 1997 and 2008.
To secure the Parrakeet while he hand-props the Continental, Steenstry built his own version of the Schweizer tow hook, mounting it aft and above the tailwheel. A short piece of line runs from the left rudder horn to the ring that secures the hook’s hinged arm; full left rudder releases it. On cross-country flights he carries short pieces of rope, securing them to nearby fence posts, trees or tiedown padeyes in the ramp.
Steenstry flies the Champ when it’s cold or when he wants to share the joy of flight. For a time, both airplanes roosted at the Mauston-New Lisbon Airport (82C), north of the Wisconsin Dells, where he and his wife had a condo. But the family now stays at Weedhopper Meadow year round. When the spirit—and the weather—move him, Steenstry takes off for a new airport. Invariably, the Parrakeet's arrival draws the curious to learn more about the rare bird in their midst.
Scott Spangler A pilot since 1976, Spangler was the founding editor of Flight Training magazine. In 1999 he launched and edited NAFI Mentor for the National Association of Flight Instructors, and for seven years was editor in chief of EAA publications. As a freelancer he’s written for Air & Space Smithsonian, Overhaul & Maintenance, Aviation for Women, Twin & Turbine and a number of non-aviation titles.
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