The Dawn Patrol makes another smoke pass. Dick Starks, Mark Pierce and Dick Lemons do what they love to do.
Rick Bennett, Hal Singray and Al Cvelbar stand by Bennetts incredible enclosed Nieuport trailer. He raised the bar with that effort.
You know, my wife, Sharon, chirped cheerfully. I think the rain hitting the fabric sounds just like the soothing rain on the hangar roof at the airport. She babbled happily as we toiled in the torrential downpour. I snarled a surly reply. The water streamed off the brim of my hat as I labored away. We were taking planes apart in the grass at the end of the 2009 Gathering of Eagles at the Gardner, Kansas, Municipal Airport. The temperature on the field was hovering at about 95. The humidity was 500%. Rain was falling in buckets.
My misery level had recorded new highs. This was proving to be another fine miserable adventure that would provide endless fodder for lazy-winter-day conversations, sipping hot buttered rum around the glowing pot-bellied stove. But this had been a very special day. Sweetie had made her airshow debut, flying for the crowd in her Airdrome Aeroplanes Morane Saulnier L Parasol. Sharon had done good and was still higher than a kite with excitement. Anyone who would stand still long enough to listen to her was subjected to a lengthy, excruciatingly detailed, second-by-second description of her engine start, taxi out, takeoff, flights around the field, passes down the flight line and the final greaser landing. Wed even made our first ever husband-wife formation pass down the flight line. It was swell!
She was so pumped that we all just smiled and enjoyed her savoring of the moment. After more than 20 years of flying Nieuports, the members of The Dawn Patrol still vividly remember their first airshow flights. In Sharon’s case, there was another factor to be considered. Shes one of those irritating, supremely annoying Pollyannas who always looks on the bright side of things. In the middle of the most horrible conditions, shes there with a smile on her face and a song in her heart. If she were locked in a room neck-deep in horse manure, shed be splashing away, singing Do Re Mi while trying to find the hidden pony. Sometimes people with this kind of attitude are a curse…like now. Its hard to be a grump when the one next to you is having a great time.
Harvey Cleveland put the D-7 through its paces.
This year the weather at the Gathering of Eagles had not been kind to us. The event has always run on Friday and Saturday of Fathers Day weekend. Some years we actually get in two good days of flying, but this would not be one of those years. Friday the winds were gusting to over 30 mph, so only those stalwart members of the few, the shameless, the trailer weenies, had made it to the gathering. Waiting to greet us as we drove in were Marvin and Nancy Story, the driving forces behind this special annual event. While the fly-in is sponsored by EAA Chapter 200, Marvin and Nancy put in hours getting everything arranged, and these fly-ins would not happen without their efforts. Several
other builders of WW-I aircraft, who had planned on flying down, had called and emailed their regrets already. Thunderstorms and high winds in the days preceding the weekend had made it impossible for them to make the flights. So the cry you could hear all over the field as a new plane rolled up on its trailer was, Trailer weenies rule!
History on the History
Over the years, the Gardner Gathering of Eagles has become the gathering place for builders of low-and-slow warbirds. It has evolved into their mini Oshkosh. Yep, if you’re a builder on a budget, and I mean a real budget, a replica WW-I aircraft is probably the only way you can get into a warbird for less than the national debt. If you shop around, you can even get into one for less than five figures!
With the weather being so bad, we had expected a low turnout, but once again the trailer weenies came through, and an impressive assemblage it was: seven Graham Lee Nieuports, SPAD XIII, Morane Saulnier L Parasol, Sharon’s new DH-2, Boredom Fighter, Graham Lee Siemens-Schukert, full-scale Morane MSAI fuselage with a big Russian radial engine in front; the star of the show was Butch Witlocks brand new, totally awesome, over-the-top Airdrome Aeroplanes 80% scale Fokker D-7 replica. He has raised the bar to new heights.
Witlocks work took our breath away. Copies of original Fokker wingnuts are used to hold on the cowling sheet metal. Instead of modern pinked-edge tape, he feathered the edges of the surface tape used to cover the leading and trailing edges and corners of the wings, ailerons and tail feathers just like they did in WW-I. He used printed lozenge camouflage cloth to cover the wings. Its unbelievable! His paint scheme is authentic, too. The plane is painted in the colors of Lieutenant Georg Von Hantelmann, a 25-victory ace and member of Jasta 15 Bertholds Bluebirds. The war ended before Von Hantelmann got the Blue Max. Witlocks ground crew for Gardner included Marikay Witlock, Jesse Wittman, Rick Skinner and Dan Witlock, all faithful minions of the dark side.
And his machine guns work! They are propane powered. The first time he fired them I was standing in front of the plane and I darn near dropped my camera. My ears rang for 10 minutes. The plane is just too much to describe in the space Im allotted. Trust me on this one. Its a masterpiece, and it flies great. It is dragged around the sky by a 2276cc, 115-horsepower VW package with a monstrous 84×50 Culver prop. I might add that Witlock and a dedicated band of brothers had spent a week at Bullwhip Baslees House of Pain building the D-7 (the band included Karl Henning, Steve Neander, Tom Rogan, Rick Bennett, Robert Baslee and Jim Hickman). The D-7s firewall-forward engine package is by Gene and Larry Smith at Valley Engineering, and the prop was carved by Alaina Lewis (Larrys daughter) of Culver Props. Also helping in the creation of this gem were Ryder Olsen, Marvin Story and Jim Leon. The plane is truly a labor of love, and it shows in the many fine details.
On the Flight Line
Taxiing the DH-2 to the flight line was a real adventure. To set the scene, Robert Baslee and Dave Carl were going to walk the wingtips. I was at the rudder to help steer in the soft turf, and Sharon was in the cockpit on the throttle and rudder bar. The stage was set for a memorable Dawn Patrol adventure.
Baslee, Carl and I wanted Sharon to taxi out to the asphalt runway and follow it down to the flight line at a walking pace. (It was hot and humid, and the gusty winds were blowing hard.) So we started out. Sharon thought the soft ground was holding her back, so she punched up the throttle a bit on the Big Twin engine. The engine roared and the plane lunged forward. We were holding on as hard as we could to keep it from going faster than we could walk. Sharon still thought she was stuck in the mud, so she goosed the engine again. We three were leaving furrows in the turf from our dug-in heels as we vainly tried to hold the plane back.
The pilots-eye view from the office of the D-7.
I might add that while this was going on, we were all screaming at Sharon to Back her down! Of course, she couldn’t hear us over the mighty roar of the engine and kept adding power as we struggled across the boggy turf. Just when it got to the point where we were going to be dragged along like profanity-spouting kite tails, Sharon happened to glance at our bugged-out eyes and open mouths and backed the throttle down. It was a good thing, too, because we were about ready to give up and let her go on her merry out-of-control way. The rest of the trip down the runway to the flight line was anticlimactic save for the applause from the appreciative crowd that had watched the whole fiasco unfold.
Rick Bennett and the author fight it out in the air with model airplanes.
Remains of the Day
The rest of the first day was spent helping new arrivals put their planes together, telling lies about our piloting skills and passing thinly veiled insults. During all this time aspiring builders were going to school on all of the different planes and trailers with their cameras and notepads. All in all, it was a most satisfying day.
We did finish the day with a Gathering of Eagles tradition. Friday evening has always been polished off with the annual Circle of Honor, Last Man Standing, Combat Plank Challenge.
Fifty-some-odd years ago when Tom Glaeser and I were in junior high school together, we flew U-Control combat with our model planes. We still do. This is when two or more pilots with more planes than brains try to fly their planes in the same circle at the same time while trying to cut a streamer towed by each plane. These combats rarely last more than 15 or 20 seconds and usually end with extremely satisfying crashes. The planes sometimes collide in midair with an impressive display of splinters, or they auger into the ground and explode in a cloud of balsa. In some really memorable instances, planks come apart in midair as glue joints from previous encounters with the ground come loose. Either way, its a real hoot, and the Circle of Honor combats Friday night were no exception. Rick Bennett and I won the prize for the longest combat when both of our planks ran out of gas after about 3 minutes of exciting close calls but no real victor.
Saturday morning was a different story. The winds were light. The sky was overcast. Radar showed a long line of serious thunderboomers marching our way from the southwest. But for a few wonderful hours, the air over Gardner Municipal Airport was filled with WW-I aircraft. Mark Pierce and Dick Lemons of The Dawn Patrol flew in with their Nieuports from Liberty Landing International Airport. Jerry Guyer arrived in his brand new Boredom Fighter from Louisburg, Kansas, Air Park, where he lives.
We all got some great flying in during the morning. Then the rains came. Pierce and Lemons had blasted off about 10 minutes before the storm hit and made it to Liberty Landing with no problems. The rest of us retired to Marvin Storys hangar, where the flying tales were tall. There was one brief break in the weather. Story, Rick Bennett and I all went up to see what it was like. As soon as we broke ground, the bottom fell out of the clouds. Rain on rapidly spinning wood props is a very bad thing, so we all quickly landed.
We could tell it was over, and so we all started putting our planes in their trailers. We had three planes to take apart and put on trailers, so Sweetie and I started sooner than the rest, but we had some great help. The Morane came apart (as it was designed to do by Bullwhip Baslee) in about 15 minutes. The DH came apart easily, too. It goes down the road nose-first on its trailer, so the tail feathers stay on the plane and all we have to remove are the four stub wings. With all the help we had, it was apart in 30 minutes. Were determined to get it down to less than an hour with just the two of us doing it. The Nieuport takes a little over an hour to break down and have road ready. By the time we got to it, the sun had come out. In less than 15 minutes, we went from cool soothing rain to hells own sauna room.
We finished up the event with a pizza party in Storys hangar. Then we said our good-byes and got ready to head home. Loaded with tales of derring-do, we were ready for many hours of primo hangar talk. But for me, the highlight of the entire weekend was getting to make a formation pass with my Sweetie in her own WW-I airplane down the flight line. Ive been waiting years for that to happen. Life is full and beautiful!
The D-7 Debut
Right before we blasted off for Liberty Landing International, we got to see Harvey Cleveland fly the D-7. Ive talked about our test pilot of choice in previous articles. He has almost every rating known to man and more than 23,000 hours in the air. More than 20,000 of those hours are in single-engine aircraft. He test-flies all of Baslees creations.
The performance of the D-7 is, in a word, fantastic! It jumps off the ground and heads upstairs at a 30 angle. We were treated to an incredible display for about 15 minutes as Cleveland felt out the impressive airplane. I asked him to email me a PIREP after hed had time to think about the planes handling, and I received the following (slightly condensed) email two days later. The first thing is that the Valley Engineering 2276cc motor and drive system totally makes this plane what it is and would make it even more so with the 96-inch prop. When you open the throttle you hear a sound totally unique but very promising. I cant quite describe it. Its not loud, just very serious, like it means business. Acceleration and directional control are very positive, as I think it took 6 seconds to hit 40 and rotate. Someone with a camcorder could go back and time it. It would climb out at 35, but Im sure 40 or better would be smarter so as to not be hanging on the prop. The second thing that comes to mind as a pilot is that it has very light, very responsive ailerons. I don’t like flying trucks, and this for sure is no truck. This is pure sports car. I truly think its my favorite replica fighter.
From what I saw, it flies just like the originals did. The Fokker D-7 was so advanced for its time that the Treaty of Versailles that ended WW-I specifically ordered Germany to turn over all remaining D-7s to the Allies. The Fokker D-7 was used across Europe after the war in various countries air forces. They were still being produced in 1929.
Now its time to get Sharon’s DH-2 ready for its FAA inspection so that we can start to learn how to fly it. The Morane has been given back to Bullwhip for some modifications he wants to try. Sharon is already in love with the plane and wants it back-fast.