July 2015 Issue
Building Before Kits
Ray Allen reminisces about building a Midget Mustang from scratch.
One sunny day I was flying down the coast of Southern California when I first saw a Midget Mustang climbing steeply out of Oceanside airport. After it landed I asked the pilot what it was and where I could get one. He told me that it was made from plans, which was disappointing. He gave me the name of Bob Bushby who I contacted the next day. He gave me some information and the cost of the plans, which I received as a Christmas present. Fortunately, the plans had some full-size drawings that could be transferred directly. Kits were not available back then—it was 1965.
Building an airplane from plans takes several skills. I examined the skills I already had that would be required to actually build the Mustang. Did I have the following?
Woodworking—no. Aluminum forming—no. Riveting—no. Welding—no. Fiberglassing—no. Jig building—no. How to read blueprints—yes! OK, then I was ready to tackle the project.
I needed 2024-T3 aluminum, so I looked in the yellow pages, made a call to a company, and asked if I could buy aluminum. They asked me how many tons. OK, that didn't work. I also didn't know where to buy other aircraft supplies.
I managed to meet two builders that already had projects underway. I told them what I was planning to build. Bud Sitz was building a Stolp Starduster Too and Phil Kline was building a Youngster-II, and they were willing to help me get started. This was a lifesaver. They not only knew where to get supplies and parts, but were also experienced builders. Over the next five years we helped each other. A few months after their projects were finished, the Mustang was finished as well.
The first thing I needed was a place to build. My two-car garage would now be a "hangar." The list of tools to get started strained my budget, but I managed to get what I would need to start. I didn't realize how many tools I would need before I could finish it. Fortunately, some of the less frequently used tools were shared by the three of us.
Even though the plane would be built from plans, some parts had to be purchased. Parts like the main wingspar, pre-formed tail cone, and landing gear were things I couldn't make, so they were purchased.
I now had a shop, tools, and some materials. The first thing I needed to do was learn so many of the required skills I didn't have. I bought scrap steel to practice welding, and scrap aluminum to practice riveting and forming. More skills would be required, but this was enough to get started.
The fuselage jig was a long and difficult project because it had to be perfect and strong, so it took several weeks of tweaks to get it right. Within the first year the fuselage from the tail to the firewall was complete, the main wingspar carry through and the main wingspars were received, and most of the 4130 parts were made.
This year was also about bonding with other homebuilders and learning so much from their experience as builders. They are still my friends.
Within the second year the wingspar jig and wing ribs were made. Since the wings are tapered, there are lots of different ribs. The vertical and horizontal tail were completed, and most of the 4130 parts were made and installed.
Confidence was building as I got more experience. I now knew that the project would be finished.
The third year the wings, elevator, rudder, ailerons, flaps, engine mount, and 16-gallon gas tank were completed. The fuel tank gauge was from a Ford Model A car mounted low enough so it could be seen from the cockpit. All surface rivets were countersunk. It was a lot of work, but worth it in the end.
Building is not all work. With two or three of us working together some funny things happened. One day while drilling holes through aluminum with a #30 drill, my friend Phil Cline was holding a block behind to support the aluminum. About the time I had drilled several holes, his support was out of place, causing me to drill a hole in his finger. He yelled and looked at the blood. We both looked at it, but neither of us said a word. Without saying anything, I pretended to put a Cleco in it. We both had a good laugh. He put on a Band-Aid and we kept working.
The fourth year the engine, carburetor, starter, and running lights were purchased and installed. A custom engine cowling was made. The custom tilt-up canopy was completed and installed, and the wings were ready to be closed. We didn't know at the time that the carburetor and starter would turn out to be problems. More on that later.
I planned to purchase a cowling, but it would need lots of mods because of the crossover exhaust system. Also, I didn't really like the looks of it, so I decided to make my own. This was a longer project than I expected, but I was happy with the way it turned out.
A.P. Hoover, an FAA manufacturing inspector came to the house to inspect the project before we could close the wings. I said to him, "This must be a letdown after inspecting Boeing aircraft." He said no, it was interesting to inspect a whole airplane. He had spent several days inspecting a Boeing door. There was nothing to change or repair, so he signed off and we closed the wings.
Bud Sitz, the Starduster builder, made beautiful upholstery for the inside and a great headrest. The black upholstery looked good against the aluminum cockpit.
First Engine Start
The fifth year the instruments, all wiring, and engine controls were installed. The crossover exhaust system was made and installed, and the airplane was now ready for an engine start. We moved it from its "hangar" to my backyard. We checked the oil, put in some gas, tied it down, and tried to start it.
The starter barely turned the engine over, so we gave up and decided to prop it. After a few tries it started. That would have been an exciting accomplishment except gas had collected in the bottom of the cowling and caught fire. We scrambled for the water hose but it went out before we could get water on it. The problem was solved by drilling a hole in the bottom to prevent any gas from collecting there.
Finally, the airplane was ready to be painted. The colors would be yellow with black racing stripes on the wings.
The night before we were to paint it, I received a magazine with a picture of Clay Lacy's P-51 Mustang with an unusual pink or grape color. The next day I took the picture to the paint store and had them match it. It would now be pink, or whatever that color was. It would later get a more interesting name.
The Mustang was now finished and painted. We took it to Chino, California, Airport where it would be test flown. Phil and Bud already had their airplanes there. It was a good airport for test flying because it had a long runway and very few structures nearby.
The airplane had to be taken apart in order to move it. The fuselage was put back on its jig. The wings and tail parts were wrapped in blankets. The cowling was tied down in the back of a pickup. It all got to the airport without damage, and the re-assembly and rigging took two days.
After a few taxi tests Philip Smith, an FAA inspector, did the final inspection and sign-off before we could fly it. This went fairly well since there wasn't anything to be changed.
I learned to fly in military aircraft, but that was many years ago. I wanted to get some experience in something with like performance, so I flew Phil's plane several times, then flew a friend's Thorp T-18 a few times.
Several Mustang taxi tests were done to test the tracking, brakes, and ground handling. We decided to do some high-speed taxi tests down the runway. It was late and getting dark, but we were anxious to get this complete. I lined up with the long runway and started gradually picking up speed when it unexpectedly popped off the runway. Since I had used up much of the runway, I wasn't sure I could now land and stop in time. I applied more power and flew the pattern. The date was February 13th, 1971.
My friends on the ground were taking pictures when they noticed smoke coming out from under the cowling. I wasn't aware of it, and since we didn't have radios, there wasn't a way of letting me know. I landed on the last half of the runway. The landing was OK, but I heard a loud noise coming from the tail. By this time the smoke was gone. It must have been from an oil spill onto the exhaust. The loud noise from the tail was because the tailwheel tire had come off and the metal rim was running on the concrete. It was now dark and without a tailwheel tire, we towed it back to the hangar. What an exciting day this was!
The starter was still a problem. It would barely turn the engine over. We took the cowling off and removed the starter to inspect it; I then noticed it was a 24-volt starter, not the 12-volt I needed. I took it back to the Piper dealer I had purchased it from and exchanged it for a 12-volt one. This cured the problem.
Phil, Bud, and I landed at a small airport near Fresno on the way back from a fly-in in Watsonville, California, to get fuel. They filled up first, took off for our next fuel stop, and expected me to catch up with them before they arrived. I fueled up and took off, made a left turn to downwind when the engine stopped running. I was able to make it back to the airport. When my wheels touched down, the engine came alive. I checked the fuel for water but couldn't find anything wrong. I took off again without any further problems.
A few months later I was climbing out of Chino Airport and, shortly before I was ready to turn left, the engine stopped again. The procedure all pilots are trained for in an engine out is to get to glide speed and find a place in front of you. This totally escaped me at that moment. I pulled the nose straight up until the speed bled off, then full left rudder, nose down, rotate to line up with the runway I just took off from. When the wheels touched the runway, the engine started again.
This time I taxied it to the repair shop. The mechanic told me that the used carburetor I had purchased had an AD note that had not been performed. A bracket was installed between the needle valve and the float. This would pull the needle valve down when the float went down. That was the last time I had an engine failure.
Life at Chino Airport
Chino was full of surplus military aircraft, lots of homebuilts, training facilities, and basically an active airport. The airport had, and still has, the well-known Flo's Cafe. Most every day we flew, we would end up there, either at lunch or the end of the day. There would usually be a big group of pilots and builders around the tables. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, some about flying or building. Lots of kidding and heckling made for a fun time. Some of the things they talked about were actually true!
The people at our table were discussing and kidding me about the color of my airplane. No one agreed on the color, then someone at the table said he thought the color was "statutory grape." Everyone laughed, but the name stuck.
Over the next 12 years I flew the Mustang almost 1000 hours. My first long flight was to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I told my friends that it would be a long flight. They said it would be lots of short flights.
I always remember this when I take long flights.
The last flight in the Mustang was when I sold it and delivered it to an airline pilot in Phoenix. Years later I would build a fiberglass Lancair ES and a carbon fiber Lancair Legacy with my son-in-law. They were both good and fun airplanes as well, but I will always remember the joy of the Midget Mustang.
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