Where the Fun Is — The Harter Family’s Aeronca 11AC

By Sparky Barnes Sargent, EAA 499838

This story first ran in the May-June 2019 issue of Vintage Airplane.

The Harter family of Greenfield, Indiana, has developed and nurtured a
special affinity for one particular 1946 Aeronca 11AC Chief since 1996. It all
came about in a circuitous kind of way, starting with a Piper Cub.

“My dad wanted a Champ, and on the way home from Oshkosh when I was 9,
we stopped at the Racine airport to see if there were any Champs for sale on
the bulletin board,” Ryan Harter said. “A Cub landed there in front of a
thunderstorm, and the owner happened to walk inside when my dad was asking
about airplanes for sale. The guy said his 1940 Cub was for sale, and Dad
bought it right there on the spot for $6,000, and the guy delivered it to us.
Later on, the Cub needed an engine, and my dad found a Chief project in the local
trader paper and bought it for its low-time engine, which he put on the Cub.”

of Inspiration

Ryan’s childhood was spent around vintage airplanes at Pope Field, a
grass airport in Greenfield. Ryan’s father, Allan, and grandfather, Jester,
learned to fly in Champs, and then acquired their own Cessna 120s and 140s
before they progressed to larger airplanes — the most notable of which was a
Cessna T-50, which fit under the heading of “make no small plans.”

Allan was indomitable when it came to tackling most any project, and
he included a very young Ryan as much as possible in the restoration of a
Bamboo Bomber.

“We pretty much restored it in an open hangar over the course of about
four years — doing the wood repair, the fabric covering, the painting, and
everything else it needed,” Ryan said. “It was a Herculean task, and we
finished it in 1988. My dad and his close friend, Ed Freeland, were partners on
the Bamboo Bomber, and Ed was killed in 1989. Dad couldn’t maintain the
airplane by himself, so we decided to sell it to James Anderson in Minnesota.
N88878 is still flying today in that restoration configuration and is here at
Oshkosh. It has the Class of ’43
painted on the nose and is in the warbird area. It’s not a showpiece, but it’s
really stood the test of time.”

The lure of girls and cars was stronger for Ryan at that point than
airplanes, so he didn’t start flying on his own until his 30s.

“When Dad sold the Bamboo Bomber, we got a 1935 Custom Cabin Waco YOC,
and my wife, Brandy, had her first airplane ride in it,” Ryan said. “Dad and I
also worked on a Fleet 16B biplane and finished it 10 years or so ago. During
that time, Dad told me to get to work on the Chief if I wanted my own airplane
— even though it didn’t have an engine. The Chief was our first complete
project together.”


Ryan started on the
small parts, piece by piece, deciding (with his father’s help) what was
salvageable and what needed to be replaced or obtained. Ryan didn’t know it
then, but the Chief would become one of the greatest adventures of his life.
Along the way, Allan teased Ryan about the Chief’s dubious stature in the
lightplane world, telling his son it was “just a Chief.” But Ryan persevered
with tenacious determination, and slowly made progress on the Chief while
working full time and raising a family of his own. All told, the project took
the better part of a decade to complete.

“My dad’s
knowledge of anything mechanical was unbelievable,” Ryan said. “I learned a great deal from him, but always
wished I had started sooner. We ended up buying another Chief project that we
found for sale on eBay — it was mainly just a fuselage and tail feathers, but
the fuselage was in better shape than the one we had, so we combined two
projects into one good complete project. We bought new wood spars and redid all
the ribs, so the wings are basically new.”

Attention to

Sharing an anecdote
about his father’s devoted attention to detail, Ryan said, “For example, all of
the PK screw holes, top and bottom, were lined up with a straight edge and the
ribs were drilled to ensure that all screws were in a perfectly straight line.
It was a time-consuming step, but it’s definitely noticeable in the finished

The exterior door
panels were in bad shape, and replacements couldn’t be found, so they decided
to reskin the old door frames. Perhaps not surprisingly, fabricating that and
other sheet metal components required a bit more thought and time than first
anticipated. Since they didn’t have access to a spot welder, they flush riveted
and glued the skins to the frames. They also made new top and bottom engine
cowlings and a boot cowling by using the originals as patterns.

“Dad decided to make
a three-piece top cowl with a long hinge on either side for ease of maintenance
and checking the oil, and we bought new windshield fairing strips,” Ryan said.

The landing gear legs were badly rusted, so Allan rebuilt the landing
gear and the oleo struts by salvaging parts from three different sets of gear.
Then, instead of using fabric to cover the gear legs, they decided to use metal gear leg covers so the
landing gear could be easily inspected and maintained. They also
restored the original metal wheelpants. As a finishing touch for the gear, Ryan
bought a set of Aero Classic tires with diamond tread for the main gear, and
installed a Scott 2000 tail wheel.


There were a couple of items that Ryan wanted to have to authentically restore the Chief’s panel. One was the bezel that surrounds the instruments in the panel, and the other was the Chief emblem for the panel. For years, he reluctantly followed his father’s lead of rising at the crack of dawn and sitting in line for two hours on opening day for the Aeromart during AirVenture. Turns out, it was well worth the effort.

“I went in there one Tuesday morning and looked on the shelf, and
there was an original uncut Aeronca Chief dash bezel for $15! I had three guys
try to buy it from me before I got to the cash register. From that point on, I
never ever complained again about sitting in that two-hour line.”

Ryan also located an
original, uncut panel for the Chief, as well as a sensitive 6 o’clock
altimeter. Allan decided to try to replicate the original wood grain on the
panel, and after considerable trial and error, he accomplished the task with
great success.

“The wood grain was
done with a paint sponge from Home Depot and some black paint,” Ryan said. “The
finished product looks unbelievable and was done for about $20 total. Then we
installed the glove box doors, new fabricated glove boxes, ash trays, and
emblems. We cleaned the original yokes and polished the center emblems.”

Old School

NC3175E is covered with Ceconite and has a butyrate dope paint job
that has been wet sanded, buffed, and polished.

“Dad taught me the art of painting dope — we didn’t use modern
equipment, and we didn’t have a paint booth — it’s all old school,” Ryan said. “That’s
the beauty of using dope, because you can sand out the blemishes. But one of
the reasons it took so long [is] in Indiana, like anywhere else with high
humidity, you’ve got small windows in the spring and in the fall when you can
paint. That makes a restoration take longer, but that’s one of the prices you
pay. We finished it in 2015, and I just waxed it for the first time in 2017
because I was still trying to rub all those swirls out of it. We waxed it the
second time this year, and it turned out really good.”

Passing of
the Patriarch

Allan developed MDS
(myelodysplastic syndrome), which transitioned into leukemia in the spring of
2014, but he wanted to keep working on the Chief between his treatments.

“Dad and I
were working on it until the wee hours of the mornings, trying to get the Chief
finished so we could fly it to the
National Aeronca Association Fly-In at Middletown,” Ryan said. “We were able to get it done, but the
Thursday night before we were supposed to leave, we were putting the
factory-made tail brace wires on and two of them broke. So we pulled the
stainless tail brace wires off our Champ and put them on the Chief, and we were
able to get it flying. I was the first person to fly it, and Dad was the

But flying the Chief to Middletown just wasn’t meant to be; the
Continental A65-8 had an issue with low oil pressure. So the Harter family
drove to Middletown, and even though it was a disappointment not to have the
airplane there, Ryan was thankful that they went.

“That was my dad’s last fly-in; we stayed over there all day, and he
loved it,” Ryan said. “He seemed to be doing great with his continuing
treatments, but we were on our
way to Oshkosh on July 23, 2015, when I got the call from my mother that he had
passed away. He was my best friend.”

While grieving their
loss, it took Ryan and his family and friends another year to complete all the
small details on the Chief. They also placed a memorial stone for Allan on
the plaza by the EAA Brown Arch at Wittman Regional Airport. In 2015, the Harter family brought its
beloved Chief to AirVenture, where it was awarded a Classic Class I (0-80 hp) — Bronze Lindy. They also
flew it to the National Aeronca Association Fly-In in 2016 and received the
Grand Champion Post War award.

Family Effort

Through the years, the Chief project evolved into a fully encompassing
Harter family effort. Ryan’s wife, Brandy, along with their children, Michael
and Aubrey, and Ryan’s mom, Brenda, all helped throughout the restoration.
There were three generations of Harters — Allan, Ryan, and Michael — who
installed the wings.

“After Dad was gone, Mom would come out and help me when I was
working,” Ryan said. “She wanted to be part of it, even if it was just bringing
drinks or holding something — she helped in any way she could.”

 “I wanted to help in the
beginning, but I never could because I was too small and I wasn’t strong
enough,” said Aubrey, who is now 13. “But when I started getting older and
stronger, my dad said I could help, and I was like, ‘Yay!’ I did the PK screws
in the wings, and did rivets; I helped wherever I could.”

“Aubrey and a family friend, Bob Sauer, and I put every single PK
screw in the wings, and I’ve worked a lot on the Chief,” said 17-year-old
Michael. “Doing that has helped me learn about airplanes; that’s just what we
did growing up. I also do a lot of the detailing and cleaning when we take the
Chief somewhere.”

Silver Lindy

A couple of months prior to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018, Ryan bought a
McDowell starter and installed it on the Chief. That sounds easy enough, but it
presented its own challenges, starting with the quest to locate one at a reasonable price. Then
Ryan found some miscellaneous starter parts on eBay and contacted Colie Pitts
in Georgia.

“Colie was the
McDowell starter expert, and he said he would take the parts I had bought on
trade-in for a newly overhauled, 100 percent complete starter with new cables,
handle, and even the leather boot for $900. I couldn’t pass that deal up and
couldn’t have been happier when I received it,” Ryan said.

Then there was the
conundrum that followed the installation of the starter.

“I couldn’t believe
how easy it was to install; then I quickly realized the installation alone is
the easy part. Getting the cowling, baffling, and nose bowl to fit was a
decent-sized challenge. I had about given up, and then decided I should call
Colie to see if he could help. I’m so glad I did; he told me how to fix my
issue, and it worked perfect,” Ryan said. “Without Colie’s help, the McDowell
starter would be a forgotten piece of history. I would be willing to wager that
everyone who still uses one today has either bought parts from Colie or called
to get his advice at some point. Another invaluable resource for all things
Aeronca and someone else that has helped me throughout the restoration is Bill
Pancake. Bill’s knowledge of everything aircraft, but especially Aeroncas, is
second to none. There are so many parts on these older airplanes that you can’t
just call up and order, and when you get in that situation, Bill Pancake is the
man you call.”

And with the finishing touch of the McDowell starter installation, the
Harter family’s 1946 Aeronca 11AC Chief (NC3175E) won the Classic Reserve Grand
Champion — Silver Lindy at AirVenture 2018. “It’s not a perfect professional
restoration — when you finish something like this there are always things you’ve
learned, and the next project will be a little bit better than this one,” Ryan
said. “It turned out good, but like I said, it’s not perfect. It’s what we
could do together, and I’m proud of it.” Rightfully so, Ryan!

The Chief and the Cub will never leave their stable; they’ll remain in
the Harter family. Michael, a student pilot, is the third generation to fly the
Chief. “The Chief is fun to fly, and I like it because it’s side by side, so
you can talk to the person without a headset,” Michael said. “I just love to
fly it, especially with our family history of how we finished it all. My goal
is to become a mechanic and work on airplanes, and keep flying on my own time.”

Ryan is still flying that 1940 Cub, which by now, he said, is “in
desperate need of restoration.”

“Michael’s going to solo it before it comes down [and Michael did solo
the Cub on August 26, 2018],” Ryan said. “Michael will be the fourth generation
— my grandpa, my dad, me, and Michael — to fly it. And about a month ago, I had
the opportunity to buy the only 1932 Waco IBA; in my opinion it’s one of the
most beautiful biplanes ever made (see Vintage
September/October 2018). I’m a 300-plus hour sport pilot, and a
student pilot in the Waco IBA with a 90-day endorsement to fly solo. My
instructor wants me to go ahead and get my private now!”

“Just a Chief”

Allan started
the family’s running joke of “just a Chief” because he had observed that the
Chief doesn’t get as much notoriety as the Champ or Cub.

“My dad was a Champ man, and he just bought that Chief for the engine,” Ryan said. “So any time there was an issue or there was something that just wasn’t right, I was like, ‘Maybe we should redo that.’ Dad would always say, ‘Don’t worry about it, nobody’s going to notice; it’s just a Chief.’ In other words, it’s not a Champ, it’s not a Cub, it’s just a Chief, and nobody’s going to care! Dad was kidding, but every time I look at it now and see one of those little mistakes, I can see him with that little grin he would get, saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a Chief!’ So it was fitting when we got the Bronze Lindy in 2015 that the grand champion was a Cub!” If you see the Harters’ Chief on the flightline, you’ll likely notice a large carryall bag embroidered with Just a Chief displayed right beside it. Brandy had the bag custom made, and it’s filled to the brim with supplies for detailing the Chief upon arrival at fly-ins. There’s one more nostalgic touch that Ryan wants to apply to the Chief — he’s going to have a talented friend of his hand paint Just a Chief on the nose as a sentimental tribute to his father, who unknowingly instigated a great adventure for his entire family when he bought the old Chief for its engine alone.

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