It was the American flag rippling in the light east wind
that caught my eye. I’ve looked at the flag countless times as I turn into the
last driveway before I get to my hangar. On most days I glance at it and use it
to gauge wind direction and speed, anticipating what runway I will probably be
given by the controllers at Wittman Field. But today was different. Today the
flag meant so much more. Today was the 75th Anniversary of the invasion of
Normandy — D-Day.
The thought of that flag and the men who gave the ultimate
sacrifice for it during the invasion and throughout World War II stayed with me
as my hangar door opened, revealing the 1943 Stinson L-5 Sentinel resting
I’m the 24th caretaker and have been flying the L-5 named
the Horsefly — but I just call it
“the Horse” — for more than three years now since my good friend and warbird
restorer extraordinaire, Sam Taber, EAA 96340, rebuilt it in 2016. Sam runs his
own restoration shop in East Troy, Wisconsin, called TAB-Air and specializes in
WWII-era aircraft. Sam’s a great friend, more like a favorite brother to me and
there is not much I wouldn’t do for him. So, when he called me almost a month
ago asking if I would be interested in flying the L-5 down on June 6, I gave
him an immediate “yes.”
“Don’t you even want to know why I asked,” said Sam.
I’ve known Sam going on 20 years, so I assumed it was for
some foolish reason, but I didn’t care because it involved L-5 flying with my
friend on the anniversary of one of history’s most important battles.
“Sure,” I said, “what do have planned?” Sam was different this time, no humor in his
voice which was odd.
“I have a 97-year-old gentleman, name’s George, who worked
on our airplanes at Stinson back in the 1940s,” he said. “I’m trying to get
other Stinson airplanes down here so George can touch them and see them, maybe
even take a flight if he’s up for it. Might be his last time.”
There was no hesitation when I heard that final sentence.
“See you then,” I said.
The weather that morning was near perfect; light winds and
blue sky. The preflight was slow and methodical, even though I had done one the
night before when I cleaned all the windows, polished the wooden propeller and
made sure the Horse was spotless before it was reunited with an old, old
Cruising over the Wisconsin countryside, full of green
fields and lakes of all sizes bordered by farms and small towns always puts a
smile on my face. But today, I whispered a “thank you” to the veterans, both
past and present who have protected my freedoms and helped provide this
opportunity. Some trained in this very airplane. Some rested their feet on the
same rudder pedals mine were currently occupying. Some went off to war. Some
never returned. Being the caretaker of this airplane is a role I don’t take
lightly. I also wondered what George would be like, what he would think of this
76-year-old airplane and what, if anything, he would remember about it.
Five miles out of East Troy, I heard a familiar voice on the
frequency — Phil Hein was in the pattern in his L-5 ambulance model shooting
touch and goes. Phil, a former F/A-18 Hornet pilot for the Marine Corps became
the 22nd owner of my L-5 and flew it from 1990 into the early 2000s. He kicked
himself when he sold it, but with a young family and a budding job flying
freight for a major hauler, it was the right decision. He knew he’d have another
L-5 one day — he waited for the right time. That came two years ago.
“Phil I’m on your six, a quarter mile behind you,” I called.
Phil told me to fly along on his left side as we made a couple of passes over
Sam below and his “movie star” white-tail L-5 parked smartly on the grass.
Sam’s L-5 was flown in the movie Catch-22
and he’s been the custodian of it for more than 20 years. Phil and I
decided it was time to stop teasing Sam as we set up to land on the long
north/south grass runway.
As we taxied in, Sam’s wife Shari had her Piper L-4 sitting
on the line as well as the impromptu liaison line up quickly doubled to four
olive drab airplanes. Handshakes and hugs were followed by the machine gun
banter of good-natured harassment and playful needling. There was no other
place I would have wanted to be. Sam had another L-5 ambulance model in his
hangar that Mark Clark of Courtesy Aircraft was trying to sell, so out it came
to join the liaison flock parked wingtip to wingtip on freshly mowed grass.
As if on cue the guest of honor rolled in escorted by his
daughter Kathryn. At just under five and a half feet, George Doig was the titan
in the hangar. At 97 and a half, he was full of energy and humor. When we shook
hands, I couldn’t help but remember that these were the same hands that may
have left his fingerprints on our airplanes so many years ago. When George
spoke, we were glued to his every word.
“It was 1939, and jobs were scarce,” said George. “This was the tail end of the depression. And I had won a one-year scholarship to night school for engineering when I graduated from high school in the fall of 1938. In May of 1939 with no job and no income, there were three airplane manufacturers in the Detroit area. Stinson in Wayne, General Motors at City Airport, and a company called Barkley-Grow. I sent letters to each of the three asking for a junior engineer’s job or something. I remember it was July 11, and I remember turning down our street and seeing my dad George and mother Bessie sitting on the front porch. My mother held a piece of yellow paper in her hand. She jumped up to her feet and waved her arm with the yellow paper in it and motioned me to hurry. I ran the last 200 yards and she said, ‘You’ve got a job, George, you’ve got a job!’ It was a telegram offering me a job at Stinson Aircraft, Wayne Plant. And I will never forget the smell of nitrate dope and Douglas fir as I eventually just grew up with the L-5.”
As we followed George down the line inspecting and
reminiscing about his old friends, I asked him what his thoughts were now seeing these L-5s in 2019 and if he ever
envisioned that they would still be flying 70 some years later.
George looked at up at me and smiled.
“It’s the sort of thing I would expect from a Stinson,” he
said. “In those days, Stinson not only built airplanes,
but they sold perfection. And everyone in the entire plant was dedicated to
perfection.” We all shook our heads in collective agreement,
letting George’s words sink in. The stories flowed well into the evening as we
were presented with one heck of a series of history lessons!