Texan Jim O’Hara learned to fly when he was 62, an age that most student pilots would assume was on short final to geezer-dom. Yet just four years later, O’Hara, a retired Tulane University aeronautical engineering professor, began to design and construct his own airplane—from scratch. At 81 he has completed his project, done the FAA-mandated flight testing and begun flying his fabulous airplane on trips with his wife, Mitzi.
Understand that this is not just another glued-up plastic fantastic but a twin-engine, all-aluminum, two-thirds-scale accurate replica of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Yes, Lockheed originally designed the P-38, but to scale it down and build it without the help of a factory full of engineers and metalworkers is a remarkable achievement. O’Hara used CAD software to replicate what he could learn about the original blueprints and to create a lot of new structure under the familiar skin, particularly for the engines and cowlings, and for the pilot’s central “cab.”
Real P-38s were powered by two enormous 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 engines of 1,150 hp each, later increased to 1,475 hp, but O’Hara wasn’t trying to build a Reno racer—just a fun cross-country airplane. So he used two 220-hp Continental flat sixes from a wrecked Piper Seneca light twin, which gives him a comfortable cruise speed of 200 mph. The special Seneca TIO-360s are turbo charged and contrarotating, one spinning its prop clockwise and the other counterclockwise, in both cases the prop blade at the top of its cycle turning toward the airplane’s centerline. (If the left engine on a conventional twin fails, a clockwise-turning right engine, as viewed from behind, makes control increasingly difficult as the airplane slows. For reasons that had to do with vibrations affecting the P-38’s stability as a gun platform, real Lightnings had contrarotating props that both turned away from the fuselage, giving the airplane dangerous engine-out characteristics.)
The O’Haras are both small-statured, fortunately; Jim once told columnist Perry Flippin of the San Angelo, Texas, Standard Times, “We’re both about two-thirds size too.” Mitzi sits in her own dark pit inside the cockpit’s tapering tail.
Lyon Air Museum Opens
Despite the tough economic climate, a warbird collector has opened a new museum in Santa Ana, Calif., to house his World War II–era treasures. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. William Lyon, whose 35-year career included air transport duties in World War II and 75 combat missions in Korea, opened his 30,000-square-foot Lyon Air Museum on December 10, 2009, at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. On display are five flightworthy airplanes, including the Boeing B-17G Fuddy Duddy, once a VIP transport for Generals Dwight D. Eisen hower and Douglas MacArthur, and the Douglas DC-3 Flagship Orange County, which began its career as a C-47A Skytrain dropping 101st Airborne Division paratroopers ahead of the D-Day invasion. A North American B-25J Mitchell, Douglas A-26B Invader and C-47B Dakota round out the roster of airplanes.
Lyon, the CEO of William Lyon Homes, Inc., has also amassed a $200 million collection of classic cars. Several military vehicles, including Adolf Hitler’s 1939 Mercedes Benz Model G4 Offener Touring Wagon, captured by the French army at Berchtesgaden, are also on display at the museum. Mark Foster, Lyon Air Museum president, spoke at the ribbon cutting ceremony, saying: “The opportunities to capture and share the experiences of World War II’s aviation veterans are fading. I feel it is imperative that we do all we can to somehow ‘bottle’ the stories of these men and women so that someday…future generations can benefit.” To learn more, visit lyonair museum.org.
Alberta’s Anson Circle
The ultimate fate of most derelict World War II aircraft is either the scrap heap or, in rare instances, a costly restoration. But a large art installation in a farmer’s field in southern Alberta, Canada, suggests there’s a third option, one that invites visitors to contemplate the rusting hulks of old warplanes and, through them, the enduring contributions of a generation of young fliers.
Last summer artist Keith Harder, chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Alberta, constructed a giant compass rose containing 12 points—each fitted with the remains of an Avro Anson Mk. II—in a field north of Nanton, 50 miles south of Calgary. Resembling a New Age crop circle in an aerial view, Harder’s compass is 300 feet in diameter and composed mostly of gravel, with a central grass circle and 12 grass airplane outlines, within which are the wingless Ansons. These trainers served the British Commonwealth Air Training Program, a massive, Canadawide effort that graduated 132,000 airmen from 12 nations. The BCATP employed 4,413 Ansons, teaching bomber crewmen the basics of twin-engine flight before they graduated to heavier Bristol Blenheims, Vickers Wellingtons and Avro Lancasters.
Harder acquired the old fuselages from the Nanton Lancaster Air Museum, where they had been in storage since 1990 when the museum—hoping to restore a single Anson—gathered as many as possible from area farmers (who had purchased them after the war for $50-$100 apiece). “Regardless of [the Ansons’] condition,” says Harder, “and maybe even because of that condition, they are powerfully attached to stories that have broad implications for reflecting on the human condition.”
The circle rests on a small knoll with a view of the Rocky Mountains, visible from Highway 2A. Though the site is not yet open to the public, plans are underway to construct a viewing area and parking lot off the highway.
Bona Fide Ninety-Nine Flies
Doris Lockness, a 99-year-old member of the Ninety Nines— the organization of female pilots—may be the oldest woman to get behind the controls of an aircraft. On December 4, 2009, she piloted a Robinson R-44 Raven II helicopter during a flight over Northern California, topping out at 4,000 feet.
Lockness began flying in 1939 as a mother of four, and served with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and as an early member of the Whirly Girls. Though she grounded herself at age 89 after 10,000 flight hours, she told the Sacramento Bee in November, “I don’t think they’ll let me fly [a helicopter], but I want to go up again.” John Crawford of Sierra Air Helicopters saw that article and offered the flight as an early birthday present.
“She did really well,” Crawford told the Bee. “I always love flying with someone with more experience and more stories than I have, and she certainly has that.”
Rare Hamilton Metalplane Sold
Just as the Hamilton Metalplane sold poorly compared to the Ford Tri-Motor when first released in 1929, this year’s $610,000 auction by Barrett-Jackson of a Metalplane H-47 on January 23 fell far short of last year’s $1.1 million sale of a 4-AT-E Tri-Motor. Owner Gary Lysdale expected the H-47 to match or surpass its all-metal monoplane cousin, especially since it is one of only 29 built and the last airworthy example. But it also lacks the Tin Goose’s name recognition and pedigree.
The Hamilton Division of Boeing Aircraft sold the Metalplane H-47, serial no. 65, in May 1930 to the Ontario Provincial Air Service. Operating from Sault Ste. Marie, it carried cargo and passengers, patrolled for forest fires and marked timber limits. It later served Northwest Air Services, flying cargo between Seattle and points in Alaska.
The airplane was decommissioned in 1947 and abandoned on the shore of Lake Hood, near Anchorage, Alaska. Northwest Airlines Captain Harry McKee acquired it and brought it to Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport in 1954, where retired Northwest mechanics began restoration work. High costs halted the project until 1972, when Gary’s father, Jack Lysdale, bought it and undertook a four-year restoration effort. He fabricated the nose cowling, fuel and oil tanks, electrical systems and leather seats; reskinned the fuselage, wings and control surfaces; and overhauled the Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet engine. The Metalplane won several restoration awards, including the Grand Champion trophy at the Antique Airplane Association National Convention in 1975.
The H-47 has logged a total of 5,224 hours, but only 50 since the restoration and none since June 1978. Gary Lysdale, who has never flown the airplane, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “It’d vibrate a lot, but it’d be easy to fly.” It was purchased by Seattle businessman Howard Wright III at the Barrett-Jackson auction, the only plane in a show that also featured John Dillinger’s 1930 Ford Model A getaway car.
L-1011 Arrives in Kansas
A Lockheed L-1011 TriStar—one of very few still airworthy in the U.S.—landed at the Air – line History Museum in Kansas City on January 30 after a yearlong struggle to gain FAA approval. The sleek jumbo jet, which began service with TWA in 1972, is at Wheeler Downtown Airport, within view of I-70 motorists, and is scheduled to begin serving local school groups as a hands-on classroom. Museum volunteers purchased the scrap heap–bound TriStar in Roswell, N.M., for $100,000 in early 2009, but FAA officials, citing an unmodified rear spar where the wings attach to the fuselage, blocked its flight to the museum. After an additional $60,000 worth of maintenance, a specially trained Delta Airlines crew flew the TriStar to its permanent home, where it’s surrounded by airliner brethren such as the Lockheed Constellation, Douglas DC-3 and Martin 404. More info at ahmhangar.com.
The First Bird Dog
One of the least appreciated airplanes in the U.S. Air Force inventory during the Korea and Vietnam wars, the Cessna L-19 (later O-1) Bird Dog was an uprated and modified version of the civilian Cessna 170 taildragger. The Bird Dog was used largely for forward air control— directing both artillery and fast attack aircraft to ground targets. Since the targets were identified by flying very low and very slow, and occasionally by intentionally drawing fire, piloting a Dog was seriously hazardous duty. The loss rate among Air Force, Army and Vietnamese FAC pilots was far higher than for any other group of combat aviators.
The Army Air Forces had made good use of Piper, Aeronca and Stinson lightplanes for observation and liaison duties during WWII, but in 1949 the USAF needed something tougher than fabric flivvers. So Cessna came up with the Model 305, a strengthened, stripped, two-tandem-seat version of the all-aluminum 170 with a big rear window, out-slanted side windows, huge Fowler flaps and a 213-hp, 6-cylinder Continental engine that was substantially larger than the civilian 170’s 145-hp 4. Cessna only built one prototype, but it quickly sold the Air Force on the concept.
That prototype, the über–Bird Dog, is now at the Spirit of Flight Center in Denver, Colo., being restored after years of sitting un – loved at an outdoor tiedown. Plus, last year, it suffered from an unintentional flight during a windstorm that launched it over a hangar and into a ravine, doing enough damage that scrappage was seriously considered. Instead, volunteers have spent tens of thousands of dollars in materials and donated labor to bring the world’s first Bird Dog to within $5,000 of complete restoration, and they’re looking for funds to finish the job. When it’s done, it will be hung from the museum’s ceiling, painted in the shark’s-mouth scheme of a Vietnam War FAC bird. Go to spiritof flight.com and click on “Cessna Bird Dog.”
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.