Affordable Warbirds — Liaison Bargain Flyers

This piece originally ran in the April 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

Keeping History Alive

There are a lot of avenues to warbird ownership. Just pick up any one
of the trade papers and magazines or look online at the dozens of websites and
you are instantly bombarded by hundreds of airplanes or projects of every
shape, size, and color that are for sale. If money were no object, then
obtaining that rare fighter would be no big deal. The most difficult decision
you would have to make is whether the airplane matchesyour significant other’s
eye color.

However, for most of us, that dream is far from reality. Money, or
lack thereof, is the No. 1 thing holding us back from our dream of flying a
warbird. But is it? Although it’s just about impossible to learn how to fly or
purchase an airplane with good looks alone, owning a warbird can still be
accomplished with some hard work, a little sweat, some creative ingenuity, and
a willingness to learn new things. Many of these are hidden talents are buried
deep inside all of us. Sound too good to be true? Surprisingly, no, because as
Darrell Kuhn, EAA 326842, said, he experienced all of the above during his
journey to the sky.

“As a kid growing up on a farm in northern Wisconsin, our family didn’t have a lot of money,” he said. “I always dreamed of flying and would look up in envy at the airplanes overhead. I was always under the impression that learning to fly was not only a hard thing to do, but it was very expensive as well. I always figured I would never be able to attain my dream. But that all changed when I answered a simple ad.”

Restoration Addiction — No Known Cure!

In 1999, Darrell answered an ad in Nebraska for an Aeronca L-16A
project. Although Darrell was unfamiliar with this model, he knew it had tandem
seating, sported an 85-hp engine, and was a military version of the Champ.
Darrell wasn’t even deterred by the seller telling him on the phone that the
wings had been stored in a farm shed alongside some cattle, the fuselage had
numerous pits in it, and the sheet metal looked like it had been driven over by
a truck — now that’s honesty!

“Some of the parts were missing, and some that were there were only
good for patterns,” he said. “But previous experience helped me plan farther

This helped Darrell keep his costs down, and it also enabled him to
enjoy the project more.

“Except for the nose bowl, I ended up making every piece of sheet
metal on the airplane, along with new interior panels, fairings, window trim,
cowlings, engine baffling, and air box,” he said. “The nose bowl was in sad
shape, so I decided to throw it out —that
was until I found out how much a new one cost. I put it back on the shelf, and
it stared at me for the next five to six years before I got up enough courage
to tackle it. After a couple of days with a welder, a hammer, and a little
lightweight filler, it looked pretty good, but not good enough. I summoned the
help of a good friend who works at a body shop, and he made it look better than
new. Remember, sometimes all you need is a little help — so don’t be shy, go
ask for it!”

Darrell attacked the fuselage of the L-16A next and found it had “greenhouse” windows at one time during its military career. Although Darrell had no idea how to fasten all those windows around the fuselage, he stumbled into a fellow L-16 owner at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, and the rest of the pieces fell into place.

“I was lucky to meet this guy at AirVenture because he not only
explained the process, but he loaned me the original plans and let me make
copies of them,” Darrell said. “Remember, there is a lot of networking and help
offered out there by perfect strangers who all share the common airplane bond
and want to see your project take flight. I can see why people removed the
glass years ago and covered it with fabric, though. I can install a headliner
in an afternoon, but it took me a lot longer to build a greenhouse. I spent
considerable time trying to duplicate the bend lines in the aft edge of the top
glass. They have sharp bends at the edge to match the fuselage stringer lines,
then seem to fade to nothing as they blend into the natural arch of the glass.
Needless to say, I spent hours with hardwood blocks and scraps of glass before
I achieved the desired look.”

As one set of problems was solved, Darrell proceeded with the next one
— the wings. Although they were intact, both sides were in bad shape after
spending an eternity with a herd of cattle. Darrell made new spars, leading
edges, and wingtip bows and repaired or replaced most of the ribs along with
adding a wing tank. With everything covered, Darrell took a different approach
to the paint scheme.

“I covered the entire airplane with Poly Fiber and finished the fabric
with Poly-Tone,” he said. “I chose to use Aero-Thane on the metal because it
gives it a softer tone. I had been told by fellow L-16 restorers that the
original metal color did not match the fabric at the factory, and so I tried
very hard to get the right ‘unmatched’ look. I also wanted to duplicate the
factory colors and markings, and I recall it took four full days and a ‘mile’
of free line tape to make the insignias on the fuselage alone. I must have got
it right because when someone asks me where I got the decals from, I consider
it a compliment.”

Darrell’s L-16 finally took to the Wisconsin sky in 2007, eight years after it was rescued from a Nebraska barn. To most people, it might seem like a long time to spend on one project, but you have to understand that Darrell is not like most people. And if you think Darrell was done, well, I guess you don’t know him very well because as a restorer he was not satisfied to remain idle for long. Darrell bought an Aeronca L-3 Defender project.

Grasshopper Guru

Darrell had watched this
particular L-3 for many years. He knew the family that owned it. They flew it
for a while until the fabric got really bad on it. The fellow had always
intended to restore it himself. But, you know the old saying about the best-laid
plans — sometimes life just gets in the way.

“When it came up for
sale, two things prompted me to buy it,” Darrell said. “It was close by, and I
was looking for another project.”

When Darrell bought the
L-3, it was in pieces. The owner couldn’t afford to have it rebuilt and put all
the pieces in his garage. Eventually, the Aeronca was sold to a neighbor who
intended to rebuild it. But his health went bad before he could do it.

“I knew it was there all
the time,” Darrell said. “I had just finished the L-16, when this fellow’s son
called me and asked, ‘Are you still interested in that Aeronca?’ It kind of
fell into my lap at that time. The major airframe pieces were mostly all there — but no engine.”

For some reason, Darrell
was smitten with Aeroncas, especially the warbird ones. When he first bought
the L-16, he really didn’t know anything about it and had no particular
intention to restore it to original.

“I was just going to make
a Champ out of it,” Darrell said. “Then I learned more about the military
versions and decided to put it back original, as original as I could. That’s when
I started to lean toward the military variants.”

When he bought the L-3,
he became even more involved with the history and learning more about the
Aeronca factory.

“I got started with
Aeroncas purely by accident,” Darrell said. “I grew up poor. As a farm kid, I
didn’t have any money, but I wanted to fly. The cheapest thing that I could
find to put together, to get in the air, was a ’38 Aeronca Chief. I hauled that
home in pieces and put that together, and I flew that. I flew that airplane for
25 years. But through that, I met some Aeronca people, got information about
Aeroncas. You tend to gravitate toward what you know, because I don’t really
know much about Taylorcrafts or Cubs. I’ve been around Aeronca people, but it
all started strictly by chance, and some of the great people I’ve met along the

Darrell also discovered
that the military versions were worth a little more money when you got it done
than the civilian model. Darrell began his next 10-year journey restoring the
L-3 back to original.

Defender Renewed

Built by Aeronca in May
1942, this particular L-3B was given Army Air Forces serial No. 42-36229 and stationed
in Pittsburg, Kansas, where it was used to train new cadets. Sometime in late
1943 or early 1944, it was mothballed and put into storage. On March 27, 1945, Verlie
W. Hedden of Mankato, Kansas, became the first civilian owner. By the time
Darrell acquired the L-3, it had more than 2,675 hours on the airframe.

“The airplane had been
civilianized at some point,” Darrell said. “Someone took all the greenhouse
glass out and covered the back with fabric. I had to replace all the framework
for the glass and build all-new glass. The early ones on the back looked kind
of sucked in as it wraps around the fuselage, and they kind of flared that out.
So, I kind of pieced together the information that I had, and what I thought
looked good.”

Although Darrell
installed new longerons, he found the rest of the airframe to be in decent
shape. Moving to the wings, Darrell started with the right wing because he
wanted to put an auxiliary 8.5-gallon gas tank in.

“I thought that was going
to be an FAA challenge,” he said. “I actually started with the right wing, and
I wanted that hurdle overcome to make sure that I could get that gas tank in
along with an 85-hp engine upgrade. It turned out to be a nonissue.”

Darrell made all the
pieces for both wings at one time. But he only assembled the right wing first,
just because it’s easier to store ribs than a whole wing. He even went so far as
to leave all the pieces unassembled for the left wing until he was ready to
cover the wings.

“I like to be able to bolt
the wings on right after I cover them,” Darrell said. “It’s hard to store wings
without dinging them up, so I like to have the rest of the airplane done. Kind
of my way of thinking.”

For covering, Darrell
chose the Stits PolyFiber process mainly because it’s all he’s ever used.

“I’m happy with it,” he
said. “I know the numbers, I know the products, I know how they work and how
they react, and I think I’m just going to stay that way. I think there’s a lot
of good covering processes out there now, but it’s kind of like Aeroncas — you
learn something, and you tend to lean toward that.”

For a paint scheme, Darrell
stayed true to the original looks and went with the standard olive drab and
gray underside. However, he had to deviate just a little to get it period

“Actually, PolyFiber
doesn’t make an olive drab that I liked,”he said. “I went through a lot of
trouble trying to figure out what color to make it. You can drive yourself nuts
with that. I liked Randolph’s olive drab, so the finished look is Randolph
color in Poly-Tone. Because my airplane was built in May of 1942, it actually
came out of the factory with the old insignia — the round circle with the star,
with the red ball in the middle. It stayed that way for about one month, as I
understand it. Sometime in June of ’42, the directive from Washington came down
to eliminate all those red balls because of the conflict with Japan and the confusion
with the rising sun.”

With the wings and
fuselage complete, Darrell began his search for an 85-hp engine to power the

“Well, I bought another
project mainly for the engine,”he said. “It was a C-85-12. I had no intentions
of putting a starter on it initially, but I found an STC to put the Sky-Tec
starter on it. I had to get a field approval for the 12-volt system for an
Odyssey battery and the 12-volt wiring, but that was it. I’ve hand-propped
everything I’ve ever owned basically my whole life, so it never really bothered
me, but I kind of like pushing the button to start it. That’s kind of nice.”

Darrell selected a McCauley
propeller with a 42-inch pitch. He thinks it’s still a little bit flat, but it
runs well. Original Shinn brakes hold the Defender in place during run-up, and
Darrell replaced the shoes and linings.

“Somebody had glued the
linings in, which was pretty common years ago,” he said. “They were originally
riveted in. The first replacement, it’s really easy to glue them with epoxy and
clamp them in. It’s a real easy fix the first time around, but to get the
linings out again someday is not that easy. You basically have to put them in a
lathe and get it perfect, and cut the lining out down to the glue and rivet new
linings in. The shoes were in bad shape. Fortunately, I could buy everything
that I needed yet for the brakes.”

When it came to the
interior, Darrell wasn’t happy with the panel. He knew it wasn’t original and didn’t
like the fact that you had to put the three main instruments in from the face,
which left the blocked frame part of it showing.

“That isn’t so bad,
except for the tachometer,” he said. “If you put the instruments in from the
backside, the only way to ever remove them is to take the header tank out,
which means draining all the gas and removing the header tank because they won’t
physically come out the backside of the panel. There’s not room. So, I designed
a bezel, an overlay, to hang the big three instruments on the top. You can
remove those out the front, and you still don’t have the ugly part of them out.
It’s not original. I like it better, and it serves a purpose.”

When it came to the
cowling, Darrell referred to it as a mess. He really wanted to make a new one.

“Unfortunately, I’m still
not that talented with the wheel,” he said. “I spent seven weeks welding,
grinding, and pounding on the cowling and making part of it. I was able to make
the flat pieces and so on, between the cowling and the eyebrows. But the
eyebrows were a mess, too. I really was going to throw them away, and I was
going to make Cub eyebrows.”

Though Cub eyebrows are
relatively simple, Darrell is stubborn.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll
see what I can do with these,’” he said. “I started patching and pounding — and I think they turned out pretty good.”

For the exhaust, Darrell
settled on a Cub-style exhaust. He found that it fits, works well, and sounds
good, so it satisfied his needs.

Darrell said people asked him two main questions: How many hours did
it take, and how much did it cost?

“I don’t know the answer to either one,” he said. “I have all the
receipts in a box but never took the time to add them up — maybe someday. As
for the time spent, it’s like asking someone how many hours they spent on
vacation. I never kept track and just enjoyed the process while I was doing it.
Another thing I cannot stress enough to people who are interested in getting
their pilot’s license is to take a long, hard look at the abundance of antique/classic/warbird
airplanes that are out there in both flying condition or waiting for someone to
restore them. Most of them are very affordable, easy to restore or maintain,
and many of them meet the LSA [light-sport aircraft] requirements. That fact alone
may help you realize that your dream is not only inexpensive but easily
obtainable as well. If you want to get into warbirds, it’s probably the
cheapest way you can. It’s for somebody on a budget, which I don’t know anybody
that isn’t on a budget in my world, so if you want to get into the warbird
circles, it’s probably one of the easiest ways to do it.”

Darrell noted that most of
the previous owners of these airplanes have passed away.

“It just kind of makes me think that we don’t really own them,” he said. “We just take care of them for the next generation, and hopefully they’ll appreciate them someday.”

Darrell’s Top 11 Tips Restoration Advice for Beginners

  • Don’t be afraid to try something new. The only time you will fail is when you give up before even trying.
  • You can count on making mistakes and do-overs in the beginning, but these will soon be a distant memory when everything starts to click as your project takes the shape of an airplane.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help. Almost everyone in aviation is willing to lend a helping hand to see your project succeed.
  • You could stare at your project all day long in frustration trying to figure out your next move when all you really need is another set of eyes to get you moving again.
  • Make and fit all sheet metal before you cover your airplane to avoid damage to fabric and finish.
  • Don’t buy cheap masking tape, unless you like the looks of a cheap paint job.
  • Don’t rush yourself or try to hurry your project along. Enjoy the process because the people you will meet and the friends you will make along the way are worth more than the completed airplane itself.
  • Remember that your money is worth more in your engine than it is sitting in your savings account — especially when you are flying over large forests or bodies of water.
  • Fabric work is not difficult. In fact, it is fun if you take your time and enjoy the fruits of your labor. The manuals are easy to read for the beginner, and there are videos and seminars available to help you as well.
  • The thing I have learned the most through my restoration processes is that if you have a desire to rebuild or fix something and get stuck, there are a lot of people who will come to your rescue. They will lend you tools, give you advice, and extend helping hands as long as they can see you want to learn. The airplane world is second to none, and it is a wonderful community full of people who share the same spirit of flight.
  • The biggest piece of advice I can offer to anyone thinking about building or restoring is to make sure that you have a supportive spouse. Otherwise, you are destined to fail.

Jim Busha, EAA Lifetime
119684, is an avid pilot and longtime contributor to EAA publications. He is
EAA director of publications and editor of Warbirds
and Vintage Airplane magazines, and
the owner of a 1943 Stinson L-5.

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