By Brandon Abel, EAA 700546
I was born into an aviation family. My great-uncle Orin Welch designed, built, flew, and barnstormed his way through the country from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. The other side of my family introduced me to Oshkosh as a 1-year-old, and I haven’t looked back. As a young lieutenant flying F-15Cs in the spring of 2005, I was convinced by my uncle, John Ross, EAA 69154, and my brother, Elliot Abel, EAA 795399, to finance a project allowing my uncle to try his hand at aircraft restoration as a possible future vocation. I had never flown an Aeronca Champ before, but since I was in the market for a cheap aircraft, I said what the heck.
I purchased the Champ as a basket case from a gentleman in South Dakota, and John began the restoration process via his flatbed trailer, gathering essentially a complete aircraft. Thus began a four-and-a-half-year restoration taking place in both his home garage and his workshop at Sky King Airport (3I3) in Terre Haute, Indiana, which is where I grew up and where the aircraft is currently based. John still worked full-time elsewhere, so restoration work was primarily done during nights and weekends in the Midwest weather of Indiana. While I was writing the checks from Florida, Nevada, and finally California during the restoration, John’s talent and perseverance pushed the project over the finish line in the fall of 2009. Not to say he didn’t have help along the way. EAA workshops — specifically, a fabric-covering workshop in Indianapolis — were invaluable for this project and others since. John also made numerous phone calls to Bill Pancake, EAA 118244, who was extremely generous with his time and offered insight throughout the project. In the end, Elliot conducted the Champ’s first flight after it had spent the last 20 years in pieces.
The aircraft is a 1946 Aeronca 7AC (N2307E), which we painted in its original yellow and orange livery. The project included a Continental 85-hp STC, battery, and starter when I purchased it. Although I initially planned on originality trumping comfort, the starter is a welcomed convenience when I fly solo and cross-country. Avionics are basic: compass, tachometer, airspeed indicator, altimeter, oil pressure and temperature, and ammeter. Sticking with originality, I refused to equip the aircraft with a radio or transponder and use a handheld when required. The aircraft has its original 13-gallon fuel tank, which gives me an approximate two-hour endurance with just enough for a VFR reserve, but I usually keep it to one-and-a-half hours or one hour and 45 minutes. The float gauge bouncing off zero raises the blood pressure!
I received my tailwheel endorsement in this aircraft in 2010, relearning to use my feet after nine years of flying military fighters, which land in a crab. However, as Champ pilots know, they are enormously forgiving tailwheels and a pure joy to fly. Almost half of my 300 hours in the Champ have been in the flatlands of the Midwest, including trips to Oshkosh in 2010, 2012, and 2021, frequenting EAA Chapter 83 and VAA Chapter 41 events in the local Terre Haute area, and flying formation with whatever aircraft can fly at 85 mph. I have also flown the Champ between Indiana and the West Coast four times, having been stationed in Southern California and Las Vegas twice each. During that time, the aircraft has called the Mountain Valley Airport (L94) in Tehachapi, California, and the Rosamond Skypark Airport (L00) in Rosamond, California, home. Out west, the 85-hp Champ will take off from a density altitude of 9,000 feet and climb to 10,500 feet with only a little hesitation.
We are currently going through another set of modifications to reduce the burden of flying through the national airspace system. The paneled radio, transponder with ADS-B, shoulder harnesses, and mixture control will make it safer and easier to fly around the southwest United States and within Class B, C, and D airspace. It has truly been a great first restoration project and given my uncle experience to tackle my other projects waiting in the hangar — including a 1940 Welch OW-5M currently finishing restoration and a 1936 Aeronca C-3 waiting its turn.
Although I’ve had a fulfilling career as an Air Force test pilot over the last 20 years and have had the opportunity to fly much of the Air Force inventory, the Champ has been a load of fun, has made me a better pilot, and is worth every penny I have put into it. My only regret is that I didn’t buy one sooner!