By Sparky Barnes Sargent, EAA 499838
This story first ran in the April 2019 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.
When you hear the name Aeronca, chances are it brings to mind the iconic high-wing Champ or Chief. But Aeronca also manufactured a low-wing airplane, which by now has nearly faded into obscurity. Of 65 low-wings produced in 1936 and 1937, fewer than 10 are believed to have survived. With kudos to several key players through time, the only Aeronca LB known to be currently flying was at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018.
Manufactured by the
Aeronautical Corporation of America at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, the
Aeronca low-wing was a startling departure from the company’s high-wing
airplanes such as the C-3 and prewar Chiefs. The Aeronca L model had cantilever,
tapered wings consisting of an 18-foot center section with box-type spars and
truss-type ribs, and 9-foot wingtip sections with solid spar beams and
truss-type ribs. Wing root fairings enhanced the L model’s sporty appearance,
along with wheel spats that adorned the cantilever landing gear. The gear had
double Aeronca-style oleos, enabling smooth landings. The fuselage had
Aeronca’s typical three-longeron frame, shaped to a graceful form with wood
stringers. The tail surfaces were built of steel tubing, and the horizontal
stabilizers were interchangeable. An air brake (or drag flap) was optional
equipment and located on the belly between the gear legs. The ailerons were
attached to the wings by three piano hinges and had counterbalance weights.
The Model L
struggled to climb aloft with a 40-hp Aeronca E-113, so the Model LA was
powered by a 70-hp LeBlond radial and the LB by an 85-hp LeBlond. The Model LC
had a customer-provided 90-hp Warner. Aeronca’s design was ahead of its time,
and the potential success of the racy-looking low-wing went awry when the Ohio
River flooded Cincinnati and the Lunken Airport in 1937. The Aeronca factory
was submerged under 30 feet of water, and the company incurred a tremendous
loss of machinery, tooling, inventory, and detailed blueprints for the L model.
Aeronca moved to Middletown, Ohio, and the L model faded into history as the
company focused on the production of its more lucrative high-wing models.
Henry E. Cunning,
known as Mansfield, Ohio’s “Flying Postman,” bought NC16262 (serial No. 2016) on October 17, 1936. He made
airmail history and drew favorable attention to the LB’s performance during the
first National Air Mail Week in May 1938. As part of the celebration of the
20th anniversary of the service, Henry loaded his cargo in his speedy low-wing
on May 19 and flew 55 miles to Cleveland in 39 minutes. As Henry unloaded the
postal bags containing 9,000 pieces of mail, he became an instant celebrity.
According to the May 20 edition of the Mansfield
News-Journal, “He was the idol of the postal employes, camera fans and
autograph seekers after he set his trim low-wing monoplane down in a dive
landing on the 70-acre asphalt apron. … A perfect three-point landing. …
Cunning, attired in his postal uniform grinned from ear to ear as he waved to
cameras that clicked on all sides. … Cunning was the only known mail carrier in
the service, who owns his own ship, and was making the flight as a ‘regular
employe of the service.’”
All told, NC16262
has had only 11 owners in 82 years. Bob Frost, EAA 71636, of Greenfield,
Indiana, bought the low-wing in 1961. He owned another low-wing, NC16271, as
well, but the wood wings in each of the Aeroncas developed spar issues. Bob
hung the two Aeroncas up in his barn during the 1960s, keeping them intact and
thinking he’d like to restore them some day. As the decades passed by, these
low-wings became shrouded in mystery. People suspected that the airplanes
existed somewhere in Indiana, but very few knew precisely where — and that was
fine with Bob because he didn’t want to part with them.
Leading Edge Aircraft
The mystery started
clearing up when Jack Tiffany of Spring Valley, Ohio, found out about Bob’s
low-wings. Jack’s passionate enthusiasm for antique airplanes was contagious.
He was often known to exhibit childlike abandon when admiring unique aircraft
that caught his fancy. The 1936 Aeronca LB was one of those. And so it was that
Jack, his wife, Kate, EAA 106731, and a handful of friends who had informally formed
Leading Edge Aircraft in 1995 were the primary instigators of the LB
Jack, in his
gregarious and doggedly persistent way, got to know Bob and worked out a
typical Jack Tiffany deal. The deal was, Jack would restore both of the Aeroncas,
and then he’d get to keep one and Bob would keep the other one. Bob asked
antique airplane owner/restorer Jim Hammond, EAA 192104, of Yellow Springs,
Ohio, whether he’d vouch for this Jack Tiffany character. Jim assured him that
Jack would do a good job.
That sealed the
deal. The Leading Edge Aircraft crew, with five AirVenture Lindy Award winners
already under their collective belts (including the 1932 Pitcairn PA-18
Autogiro NC1267B), started the restoration on the low-wings. They began building
wing spars, stripping the fuselages and priming them, and covering tail
surfaces. Then, their beloved ringleader, Jack, became sick. The project
languished, and Jack passed away in October 2012.
Jim quietly stepped
in to offer Kate a helping hand to re-energize the low-wing project. Before
long, the two partially finished LBs were in the capable and caring hands of
Paul Workman, EAA 82602, at Bedrock Aero in Zanesville, Ohio.
Paul grew up around aviation and followed a natural evolution from his family’s auto trim business into doing aircraft interiors and restorations. He’s also a pilot and an A&P/IA mechanic who accompanies the EAA’s B-17 tours. Paul dove headlong into researching and gleaning details about the LB from every available source, including factory photos and promotional brochures. Tom Murphy also shared some helpful information about the Aeronca low-wing at the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum (WAAAM).
“This was one of the
ultimate cool projects because it’s so rare, and I like the challenge of
figuring things out,” Paul said. “We were fortunate enough to have a decent
number of Aeronca drawings, and that was a huge help in some of the control
systems and the exhaust system, and I know they were a big help when Jack built
the new wings.”
Paul doubled up
during some phases of the two LB projects. For instance, about midway through
the restoration of Bob’s NC16271, Paul fabricated the interiors for both LBs.
He used Ultraleather fabric for the seats and the sidewalls, which are mounted
on Airtex corrugated polyethylene board.
panel was done in the original offset printing technique — you rub the wood
grain on the roller and transfer it to the metal,” Paul said. “The instruments
are the original style and are all reprinted with the Aeromarine name, which is
shown in factory photographs. We added shoulder harnesses for safety, and for
ease of maintenance, we replaced NC16262’s Goodyear 3-inch wheels and
cable-type brakes with Hayes/Goodrich 4-inch wheels and the Grove Aircraft
disc brake conversion.”
Some of the original
airframe parts were salvageable — such as the wheel spats, ring cowl, window
frames, and wing fairings — and others served as patterns for new sheet metal
components. All of the wood wing structure was coated with epoxy varnish, and
new aluminum leading edges were fabricated. The cowling latches, flap, and trim
controls are Ford Model A parts — the same type that Aeronca used. Paul made a
form so the Plexiglas windshield could be heated and formed; most of the
windows are flat sheets of Plexiglas.
“When I needed some machining done, I’d send Jim a drawing or call him, and in a few days, he’d bring it to me, and it was just perfect,” Paul said. “He’s very good at restoring and doing things himself. And I enjoyed Leigh Mantel’s able assistance in the shop, but completed the restorations on my own after Leigh passed away.”
The airframe is
covered with Ceconite and finished with dope in the factory color scheme —
except Paul did tweak the Loening Yellow just a bit to lessen its greenish
tinge and make it more attractive.
“I rubbed the dope
just enough to get some of the deadness out of it, and painted the sheet metal
with Sherwin Williams farm implement enamel because it actually loses some of
its gloss as it dries and matches the dope,” Paul said. “I was able to find
Loening Yellow color chips in some old aircraft parts catalogs, and was
fortunate enough to have a piece of fabric from an Aeronca C-3 with the tail
number on it, so that gave me another swatch of the yellow and showed me
exactly what the font looked like. We had detailed factory drawings for the
registration number on the wings. I masked and sprayed the Aeronca logo and
sprayed a clear coat over it, so it resembles an original slide-off decal. I
sprayed the tail number and then went back over it with enamel and a brush to
make it look hand painted.”
One of the most arduous
challenges during the restoration was assembling the airframe.
“Unlike most other
airplanes that I’ve worked with, the final physical assembly of the low-wing
was difficult because you have to slide the wing into ‘pockets’ underneath the
fuselage, so picking the fuselage up and lowering it to connect with the wing
was physically difficult,” Paul said. “The wing center section is huge and very
heavy, and it takes three or four people to move it around. We would jack the
fuselage up with an engine hoist, and I had a fixture that kept the wing down
kind of low so we could bring the fuselage over it. We did have it together and
apart several times, checking the fit and making sure the controls worked.
After a while, when I called folks and said, ‘We’re going to put the fuselage
and wing together again,’ nobody came running in a hurry to help.”
Paul spent six years working on the restoration of the two Aeroncas. When
NC16271 was completed to the point of engine installation, the LB was returned
to Bob, upholding Jack’s promise. Bob had his own LeBlond engine on hand.
The Aeronca LB is powered by an 85-hp LeBlond radial that was built in
Cincinnati. This particular engine was overhauled about 10 years ago by Dick
Weeden of Brodhead, Wisconsin. It was installed on a 1937 Rearwin Sportster
that wound up in a museum in Minneapolis. When the museum sold its collection
of airplanes, friends who knew that Jim was looking for a LeBlond told him that
the Sportster’s engine had only about one hour on it. The price was right, so
Jim bought the airplane.
“Ted Davis and his
son, Trent, brought the Sportster to Brodhead, put the wings back on it, and
got it flying,” Jim said. “We flew it about 10 hours. The case was being
pressurized, and oil was going all over the windshield — so last winter we
pulled the cylinders off and found some rust in them. Trent helped with the top
overhaul, and we had the cylinders chromed and flew it about 10 more hours. It
ran perfectly. So, we took it off the Sportster and took it to Paul for the
low-wing, which meant we didn’t have to test the engine and the airplane at the
The LeBlond burns
about 5 gph, and the pilot needs to be mindful that the Holley 426 carburetor
is prone to icing. The low-wing’s fuel system is a bit unusual in that it
relies on a Jones Motrola fuel pump that runs from the tachometer drive. Fuel
is pumped from the 19-gallon wing tank up into the 9-gallon nose tank, keeping
it as full as possible, and then the fuel gravity feeds to the engine. An
overflow tube carries any excess fuel from the nose tank back to the wing tank.
A manual wobble pump can also be used, but care must be taken not to overfill
the nose tank since the shutoff valve from the main tank to the nose tank is
concealed by a disc-shaped cover on the interior cabin wall and isn’t easily
Paul and Jim didn’t
know how the airplane was going to handle, so they did the logical thing and
asked their friend, Andrew King, EAA 275985, of Culpeper, Virginia, to be the
test pilot. Andrew has flown 140 different types of aircraft, including the
aforementioned Pitcairn PA-18, and engages in test flying as a serious and
enjoyable privilege and endeavor.
“Andrew knows how to
handle things if something goes wrong or if it just doesn’t handle well,” Paul
said. “He’s very methodical and meticulous, and I was impressed with how he
went about the test flights.”
NC16262 made its
first flight on June 30, 2018, after a 57-year hiatus.
“I test flew it at
Parr Airport (42I), which is 26 feet wide and down in a hollow,” Andrew said.
“If you can see the runway, you’re off it. The LB is a little blind with the
radial engine, so we decided to fly around a little bit over Parr, and then fly
over to Zanesville Municipal (KZZV) for the first landing. During the first
takeoff, everything was fairly normal except the left window popped open after
about 30 seconds, so I was trying to fly the airplane and close the window —
but it flies pretty much hands-off. It’s pretty docile and the controls are
In addition to
general handling characteristics, Andrew was paying particular attention to
discover whether there was any truth to a couple of things he’d heard about the
airplane. One concerned loss of aileron control at low speed. The other
concerned disruption of airflow over the tail surfaces when the air brake is
deflected. Fortunately, those concerns were only myths.
However, there was
an element of surprise during the initial test flight. Andrew had previously
talked with Ben Davidson, who had flown the WAAAM’s Aeronca low-wing in Hood
River, Oregon, to see whether he had any advice.
“Ben asked if we had
sealed the aileron gaps, and we had not,” Andrew said. “I wanted to fly it once
without them and then gap seal them and see what effect that had. After
circling around and flying over to Zanesville, I decided to stall the airplane
before I made the first landing. So, I pulled the throttle back, pulled the
stick back, got the nose up, and waited for it to stall. All of a sudden, it
did a quarter turn to a snap roll and the nose went straight down! I thought, ‘Wow!’ I kept the nose down, pushed the
power in, and pulled out of that.”
For the second
flight, they gap sealed the ailerons temporarily with clear tape.
“That improved the
aileron authority by about 20 percent, and the stall was way more docile, which
we didn’t expect,” Andrew said. “It was amazing and made me wish I’d stalled it
a couple more times without the gap seals just to make sure it was really that
After half a dozen
flights that day, Paul, Jim, and Kate eagerly asked Andrew how it flew, on a
scale of 1 to 10.
“I told them it’s
probably a 6, and they were all disappointed,” Andrew said. “But that’s better
than a 5, and it’s kind of typical for that era airplane. But it’s a 10 at the
gas pumps because it’s the neatest airplane on the airport!”
The LB is not a ball
of fire on performance — it climbs at 70 mph, glides at 70, stalls at 45, and
cruises around 92.
“I generally wheel
land it on pavement and three-point on grass,” Andrew said. “The Grove brakes
work very well. And, years ago, the vertically mounted tail wheel was changed
to a tail-spring-mounted tail wheel. It seems to handle a crosswind okay.
Directional control is good, and it lands really nicely. I’m about 6 foot, 2
and a half inches and weigh 230 pounds, and I’ve found the 85-hp LeBlond is
adequate. I’ve had passengers up in it, and it climbs okay.”
Andrew said it’s
like you’re flying in a Smilin’ Jack cartoon.
“It really has that
art deco kind of look to it,” he said. “It’s a cool airplane; it has an aura
about it that’s just kind of neat.”
Tribute to ‘Smilin’ Jack’
Kate’s son, Nick
Hurm, EAA 1273217, grew up with Jack and naturally acquired a love of aviation.
Nick spent many intriguing hours researching NC16262’s early history and shared
fond memories of Jack during AirVenture.
“Jack was kind of a
kid at heart, and I think his enthusiasm was just infectious,” he said. “He saw
that red low-wing in the EAA museum and ran up to it, exclaiming about how neat
it was. Jack loved Paul’s work, so I know Jack is smiling right now. It’s kind
of an emotional experience having the low-wing here at AirVenture. I know Jack
would be tickled that the Aeronca is finished and flying.”
To better appreciate
who Jack was, the following are passages from previous interviews with him. At
Oshkosh in 2008, Jack’s sense of humor shone through when he was unabashedly
discussing his age and Leading Edge Aircraft’s restorations.
“I’m 69. Mentally,
12 — maybe 13 at the outside! Our group has been very lucky getting accolades
for what we’ve done,” Jack said. “We just have our little shop in the woods,
and that’s where we work. Every project that we get into, I really want to do
it. I won’t restore anything I don’t like! Some folks don’t understand how we
get people to help for nothing. I just say, ‘Here’s a job, do it!’ They have
just been willing to work on an aircraft because of what it is. I’m sure if I
was doing a Cessna 150, nobody would show up!”
But there was more
to Jack than met the eye. He was a skilled machinist and private pilot, and his
first memory of life was sitting on his dad’s lap while flying. Later, Jack
joined the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and got into parachuting.
When he left the military, he continued jumping.
“Then I got into
wind tunnel work,” Jack said. “I was a model maker for the government, and we
were testing re-entry parachutes for the Gemini program at Wright-Patterson in
the vertical wind tunnel — and at 3 o’clock one morning in 1964, I said, ‘Gear
this puppy up; I’m going to fly!’ So, I am the very first person to fly in a
vertical wind tunnel. I continued jumping for 15 to 20 years and owned two
skydiving centers. Somebody had to fly the airplane, so I got my license. I
always had a hankering for antique airplanes, and the first antique I did was a
Kate, who did fabric
covering on the weekends for Leading Edge Aircraft, recently acquired her
mechanic certificate with an airframe rating and is working on her Cub project.
Aeronca was Jack’s dream,” Kate said. “And after he passed, I was happy that
Jim said he wanted to be co-owners and get it done. I went up for a flight with
Andrew, and what I love about these antiques is when you get in them, it feels
like you’re going back in time a little bit.”
Having NC16262 finished and flying yields a sentimental fulfillment to those involved in the restoration. It epitomizes Leading Edge Aircraft’s motto: “Don’t give up.” Kate spoke humorously for her late husband when she said, “Jack had to wait a lifetime to get this project done, maybe a little longer! Our goal was to finish what Jack started.” And a fine finish it was, indeed. NC16262 was the 2018 Antique Reserve Grand Champion Silver Lindy winner.
Sparky Barnes Sargent, EAA 499838, holds a commercial glider certificate with private single-engine land and sea ratings, and she personally restored her 1948 Piper Vagabond.