Whenever I get a chance to wander through the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, as I did last week, I like to stop and pay tribute to the older, early planes that represent the roots of homebuilding. Sure, there are all sorts of neat high performance and record setting airplanes – but these simple planes that harken back to an earlier era are what got this whole “experimental aviation” thing going for us. I sometimes wonder if Bernie Pietenpol wasn’t longing for the earliest days of aviation, when the Wrights were simply building a machine that they planned to fly, just as other tinkerers were building automobiles and farm machinery to make their lives better. There were no government regulations defining how airplanes should be built or licensed – they were just playing around in their shop. By the time Bernie came along, aviation was becoming regimented – so maybe this was the first turn-back of the clock to recreate the tinkering age of flight, when you could build something and fly it from your farm.
The Pietenpol Air Camper also reminds me that what we consider an “alternative engine” today (auto conversions) were simply what builders used, since actual, real airplane engines for light planes really weren’t in the cards for the average tinkerer. The Ford Model A engine served many purposes (I remember old fishing boats from my youth that were powered by these rudimentary power plants) and it was only natural for an American farm boy to try one in an airplane. Today we make a big deal about people using auto engines in airplanes – some very successful, some not so much – but this was where our movement got its start!
Mostly though, I think about how, when I was a youngster getting to work on airplanes and run around the airport, there were these ramshackle hangars off in the tall grass where (we were told) guys were building simple airplanes that they could fly for not a lot of money. Simple meant slow, but it meant they could be built with ordinary materials and ordinary tools, by anyone with a little craftsmanship in their veins. I think its important to remember that, in these days of complete kits, advanced avionics, and engines with electronic controls and all the bells and whistles. You can still buy plans for many of these simple machines, and the regulations haven’t changed that much – with care and craftsmanship, you can build something that can lift you from this dirty ball of rock and lets your spirit soar.
Not bad fo an old Model A, huh?