A Fitting Tale

By Jim Roberts

Tom Haueter answers a question about his project.

In the constellation of single-engine aircraft built by the Lockheed Corporation between 1927 and 1934 (Vega, AirExpress, Sirius, Orion, and Altair), most were wood. But Lockheed built thirteen metal airframes: Ten Vega and three Altair. Today, seven of the original metal birds remain.

If Tom Haueter has his way, in a few years an eighth will join the fleet. Tom, of Savannah Georgia, began building a 1934 Lockheed Altair in 2006. Based on copies of original Lockheed drawings and engineering studies, the project is well on the road to completion.

Tom’s DNA makes him well suited to the task. His grandfather flew a Curtiss Jenny after WWI, and his father was a B-17 pilot in WWII. Tom, an aeronautical engineer, spent thirty years at the NTSB, retiring as director of their Office of Aviation Safety. The Altair is not his first restoration rodeo. In 1990 he completed a Navy N2S-3 Stearman that he still flies today. A self-described “aviation nut,” Tom says “I play with airplanes, I fly airplanes, I dream airplanes.”

After extensive homework on the Altair, in 2005 Tom showed a picture of a small wing-to-fuselage fitting to machinist friend Steve Berkman and asked if he could make it. At first skeptical, Steve came back two weeks later with the finished part and the project was underway. Tom and Steve created the fuselage skeleton in Steve’s workshop and Tom made wood pieces for the horizontal and vertical stabilizers at home in his basement.

When they began making the aluminum fuselage skins, Tom recalls, “We made a lot of scrap until I came across D&D Classic in Covington, Ohio.” Tom moved the project and jigs there, where a team of artisans proved adept at crafting the eight, twenty-two-foot-long panels that wrap the fuselage. Tom notes, “They have the equipment and skills to pull this off,” including an eight-thousand pound Yoder power hammer used to form the skins.

Mark Kennison demonstrates metal shaping.

Because each panel run continuously from firewall to tail cone, team leader Mark Kennison says shaping them is, “…just like a flight. You have to make adjustments alog the way.” Tom adds, “If you get a really good fit on the front of the airplane and you have a little pucker towards the back, when you get rid of that pucker, it changes the fit at the front.”

A co-owner of D&D, Mark comments that to date the Altair is the largest metal project they’ve undertaken. Spoken like a true metal craftsman, he says, “It literally stretched us in all kinds of different ways.”

Eventually all the components will come together in Tom Haueter’s Savannah workshop. When flight testing begins, Tom will have an ace up his sleeve. He’s acquired an original flight test report on the last Altair produced. “It’s signed by Kelly Johnson when he went up in the airplane and was taking notes.” Today Johnson is revered as an early leader of the Lockheed “Skunk Works.”

At AirVenture 2022, the massive fuselage is on display in the Aeroplane Workshop across from Homebuilder’s Headquarters. And fledgling metal crafters can learn from Mark Kennison’s forum across the aisle from the Altair. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to scratch-build an airplane, heed Tom’s advice: “Start with a little piece. That’s where the Altair started from…that wing-to-fuselage fitting.”

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