The Dawn Patrol

Fun with the Hun in the sun.


I was out on an early morning patrol in my faithful little Nieuport 11, Le Faucon Gris (The Gray Falcon). The high command had ordered us to make an unusually early dawn patrol to try and surprise the German observation balloons called Drachens. We were going to try to catch them as they were being readied for their usual morning spying. They wanted to observe what overnight changes had been made to the complex of trenches along the front, close to our field in Luxeuil. Drachens are filled with hydrogen, so shooting them down is usually a very satisfactory experience as they explode and burst into flames. Of course, there is a downside…Drachens are always surrounded by several concentric layers of antiaircraft guns. So getting close enough to shoot them down is not an easy endeavor. But I, the Junkyard Dog, am not the kind of guy to back away from a challenge. Nosirrebob…Any Drachen I found that day was going to be meat on the table. They had no idea who was coming to ruin their day.

The fuselage gets its first close inspection looking for places to fix, replace and/or get ideas. Mark, Sharon and Dick make plans.

I was armed and dangerous and heading in harm’s way. My 30-caliber Lewis machine gun mounted on the top wing was loaded with incendiary bullets. All it would take would be one lucky shot, and that balloon would toast. (In more ways than one, too!) Flaming death rode the air over the trenches!

The only other concern I had was there was always the possibility that one of the deadly German Fokker E-III Eindeckers with their synchronized twin Spandau machine guns, would be lurking along the way, just waiting for someone like me to try and make a run on the Drachen emplacement.

My mighty Le Rhone 80-horsepower rotary engine was singing its normal throaty growl. It was also spewing out a fine mist of atomized castor oil. This rotary engine byproduct mist was coating me and the plane with a glistening, odoriferous shine. I had to keep wiping my goggles off with the white (well… it was white before I took off) silk scarf wrapped around my neck. The main reason the scarf was there was to keep my neck from getting chaffed by the constant turning of my head to see if anyone was lurking back at my “six,” getting ready to shoot me down.

Dick Lemons, Dick Starks, Dave Laur, and Mark Pierce make plans on how to clean the tubes on the stabilator.

Sharon, Dick, and Dave clean the stabilator with Scotch-Brite pads.

All in all, things weren’t too bad. I’d had a good breakfast with wine, and the metal flask in my flying jacket was full of medicinal blackberry brandy. Brandy is the WW-I pilot’s antidote for the consequences of breathing in the mist of concentrated castor oil spewing out of the whirling two-cycle rotary engine. Yep, it’s a fact of life that concentrated doses of castor oil make for an excellent laxative. A few hours breathing in a fine mist of burned and unburned castor oil results in some pretty alarming cases of the “screaming go-squats.” Blackberry brandy is the only actual medicinal stop-leak answer that really works and is easily available to pilots. It makes for good personal antifreeze, too.

As I crossed over the German lines, I started my search for the elusive Drachens. They should have been easy to see, silhouetted against the rising sun. But they were snuggled up tight against the ground, hidden in the thick morning fog.

Then I saw it on the horizon about two miles away. It was just starting its ascent out of the dense fog covering the shell-cratered ground.

I started my stealthy stalk. I wanted to be shooting with the sun behind me, so I circled around and got into position for my attack.

Mark Pierce and Dave Laur work on the wingtip of a covered wing.

It was time to open a big drum of industrial-sized Whup-Ass! I pulled back on the stick for some altitude to get out of small arms effective range for my final attack. Reaching the height I wanted, I pushed the stick forward and started my dive onto the target. The observer in the Drachen’s basket had already bailed out and was drifting to earth under his parachute. Smart guy! I bored in to the target. Just as I got ready to squeeze the trigger on the Lewis, a shadow fell over me.

Stunned, I looked up in my rear-view mirror mounted in front of me on the rear cabanes. What I saw froze the blood in my veins.

It was the polished cowl and spinning prop of the feared Fokker E-III. Twin Spandaus were already flashing fire as the death-dealing lead stitched jagged holes in the fabric on my right wing.

I was toast.

Well, rats! Foiled again by the cursed Lone Eagle of Verdun, Baron Von Dickielee Lemons, terror of the Western Front.

Time quickly reset itself to the present. Dick Lemons had sneaked into the airport and taken off after I’d started my sortie of the fields to the south of Liberty Landing International Airport.

While the wings were being worked on in the workshop, the fuselage was being worked on in the living room. Doesn’t everyone have a Fokker in their living room?

Dick was in his brand-new Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker E-III. Dick pulled up beside me and grinned across at me. He was so proud. He’d sneaked up behind and below me in my six o’clock low position where I couldn’t see him. Then he’d popped up behind me and got in position so his shadow fell right over my cockpit.

Pretty sneaky, I thought. I liked it! I’d have to try that on him next time we went up against each other.

I took one last look at the Drachen receding in the distance behind me as Dick and I headed back to Liberty Landing to talk over the flight. The Drachen was actually a big tall cottonwood tree in the middle of a field, but it sure did stand out in the early morning fog, just like a real balloon would have.

The fuselage half covered with 1.6-ounce Dacron. The Stewart Systems EkoBond cement is the cat’s meow for covering in situations where you don’t want to work with volatile components. You can use it next to an open flame with no problem.

How It Came About

Back in 2007, Dick had flown Sharon’s Airdrome Aeroplanes Morane-Saulnier “L” Parasol replica and had really liked the way it handled, and the way the Valley Engineering Big Bad Twin 4-stroke engine had hauled it around.

On one of our periodic trips over to Bullwhip Baslee’s House of Pain (aka Robert Baslee’s Airdrome Aeroplanes plant, located in Holden, Missouri), we’d stumbled over Robert’s 1996 prototype Fokker E-III. It was now sitting alone, tattered and forlorn in the back of his hangar. I’d seen it fly when he showed up with it at the 1996 Gathering Of Eagles at the Gardner, Kansas Municipal Airport. It had shown outstanding performance, and it was a legal ultralight (with added chute).

Now, dejected, forgotten, and lonely, it was mixed in with a plethora of completed planes, pieces of planes, wings, motorcycles, tail feathers, wheels, engines, hot-rods, and strange unknown projects under way. The fabric was so rotten, a hard look would poke a hole in it.

The large-flange aluminum rib rivets are riveted in place through rib reinforcing tape.


After a little negotiation and threats, the plane was Dick’s. We took it apart, ripped some fabric off, and checked it over. With the exception of several split tubes from water freezing in them, there was not a lot of work needed before this bird was going to fly again. Certainly it was going to be easier than building the plane from scratch (or so we thought!). It just needed a really good cleanup, a good, hard look-over, and a lot of tender loving care to get it back in the air.

Finished tail feathers ready to go. The small crosses are vinyl from an automotive sign shop.

We went back home, loaded up the Stealth Van with tools, and hooked up our utility trailer. Then, back to the House of Pain we went to pick up the bird.

It was hauled over to Dick’s house for the badly needed extensive clean, exam, and rebuild. This was going to be a perfect wintertime project—just what the doctor ordered to help The Dawn Patrol get through the winter months.

You know, when the weather is too bad to fly or even sit in the hangar and sling the bull, working on a plane with three or four other airport bums is just about the best quality time you can have. Over the passing of many winter nights, we’d all gathered over at Dick’s house with cases of beer (hard cider for Sharon, who, heathen that she is, hates beer) and bowls of popcorn. Armed with Scotch-Brite scrubbing pads, MEK, and other cleaning agents, we cleaned that plane’s framework until it looked like it was brand new. Split tubes were replaced. Crisscross drag wires were replaced on the wings, and several new ribs on the ailerons, stabilator, and rudder were fabricated. Finally, it was ready to cover.

Dick’s MG-TD (his other toy) and the Eindecker pose in front of a plane-eating stand of soybeans. We know all about soybeans and planes.

The Fabric of Life

Mark Pierce and Dick Lemons are our real covering gurus. Tom Glaeser, Dave Laur, Sharon, and I just do what we’re told to do.

Dick got a hussar’s helmet off eBay and tried flying with it once. That was enough— it hurt his head.

With six different people doing different things at the same time, we had that plane covered in record time. By using Stewart Systems EkoBond Cement (which we all love), we didn’t blow up the house or start speaking in tongues as work progressed.

Dick painted the whole plane using fine-finish rollers with Glidden premium semi-gloss exterior latex house paint, on sale for $20 a gallon. With the UV protection built in, he didn’t need an undercoat of UV protection. That saved a lot of weight. Also, the paint used right out of the can is thick enough that it seals the fabric. This meant we didn’t need a filler coat either. This also saved more weight.

Dick did all the big Iron Crosses and other trim with the roller, too.

It came out beautiful and was very light!

Taxiing in from the first flight.

The Valley Engineering Big Bad Twin engine with its Series 3 PSRU lets the engine swing a really big 80×46-inch slow-turning prop. This is a lot different from my direct-drive VW “buzz saw” on the front of my Nieuport. The 48-hp Big Bad Twin pulls just as much as my 80-hp VW. The big prop makes the difference.

The finished bird will take your breath away.

Fit for Flight

It flies as good as it looks, too. Dick likes to fly the E-III a lot more than his Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker Triplane. Or in his words, “This E-III is the perfect little plane for a wannabe WW-I warbird pilot.” All the controls are very light, and the incredible roll rate will tumble your personal gyros. It’s an-easy-to-handle-on-the-ground taildragger, too. My Nieuport will roll from 45 degrees to 45 degrees in about four seconds. Dick’s Airdromes Aeroplanes Fokker E-III will do it in less than a second. It will really snap your neck! As a matter of fact, so will Sharon’s Morane Parasol. They both have the exact same wing with full-span ailerons.

The KISS instrument panel (Keep It Simple Stupid). Everything you need for safe VFR flight.

When spring arrived, Dick’s E-III was ready to rock and roll. It flew great right out of the box. Dick and I have had many happy flights together since then—plus some pretty exciting combats. Since his E-III is 15 mph faster than my Nieuport, 150 pounds lighter, has a roll rate three times faster, and climbs like a scared monkey going up a vine, I’m just pretty much a target for him to toy with. I can never get on his tail. It’s kinda funny…two of the deadliest enemies from that war are now flying together for fun. Kinda nostalgic if you’re a maudlin sort.

Yep, the adventure continues.

Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; “You Want To Build And Fly A What?” and “Fokkers At Six O’clock!!” He was the recipient of Flying’s 2001 Bax Seat Award “for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight.” Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.

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Dick Starks
Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; “You Want To Build And Fly A What?” and “Fokkers At Six O’clock!!” He was the recipient of Flying’s 2001 Bax Seat Award “for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight.” Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.


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