Vintage Valedictorian

By Jim Roberts

Walter Bowe of Sonoma, California is not your garden variety aircraft collector. Unless of course the garden includes a 1918 Curtiss Jenny, the prototype Beech 18, a Grumman Goose, and a Bearcat. To say Walt loves antique and vintage aircraft is an understatement.

He thanks his older brother, Drew, for teaching him to fly. After soloing a Cessna 140 on his 16th birthday, Walt recalls, “I just fell in love with vintage airplanes. I always had a dream of having my own collection.”

While in high school, Walt journeyed with friend Chris Price to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, where they learned basic aircraft building skills … welding, woodworking, and fabric covering. After returning to Sonoma, he proceeded to build a Pietenpol Air Camper, and Chris completed an award-winning Heath Parasol.

He was on the road to becoming an airline pilot “like everyone in my life,” until friend, mentor, and vintage aircraft collector Bud Field offered Walt a job with his company, Lilja Corp. Today, Walt and his wife, Carlene, own the company, which builds and maintains industrial glass manufacturing furnaces.

Describing his collection, Walt says he has 35 flying airplanes and 15 projects. One of his favorite flyers is a Waco SRE, an airplane that was at the top of its class when built in 1940. He and Bud purchased the Waco in 2009 and turned it over for restoration to Rick Atkins of Ragtime Aero in Placerville, California. Completed in 2017, the aircraft now has about 200 hours since restoration.

Walt says the most challenging aspect of the project was “getting the wings smooth. They’re plywood wings, and filled to get a nice profile, then covered with fabric.” Overall, the Waco is covered with the Stits Poly Fiber system and finished with Aerothane enamel.

The instrument panel is totally original except for the radio and transponder. Walt said, “I had the sales log for the airplane and matched the instruments to it. All the light sconces and ashtrays are original. My wife, Carlene, picked the interior to match the original, and she picked the color scheme. The airplane still has the flare panel and flare tubes in the side of the fuselage.” All of the work was done by Rick Atkins, who Walt describes as “a one-man band. I don’t know how he does it, but he does it.”

As for handling characteristics, Walt said, “It’s a delight to fly. It has beautiful balanced controls and great power. With the 450-hp Pratt & Whitney, it climbs at 1,000 feet per minute and cruises at 175 miles per hour on 22 gallons per hour. It’s very docile to land … a real sweetheart of an airplane.”

Walt, who still enjoys getting his hands greasy, gives this advice to someone who is enamored with antique or vintage airplanes, but is daunted at the thought of restoring or maintaining one: “Come to Oshkosh like I did and go to the forums. Learn how to do woodworking and metalwork and fabric work. Then start with something simple like a Pietenpol, Taylorcraft, or Fly Baby. You can build anything.”

Walt notes there’s full support available for Pratt & Whitney engines, and most vintage aircraft systems are very simple to work on. “I take care of 1918 engines; it’s no different than working on a Farmall tractor.”

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