Antique plane restored to airworthiness

September 03, 2002|by EDWARD MARSHALL

When David Cook and 19 others formed Affordable Aviation nearly two years ago to restore an antique 1940 J-4 Piper Cub airplane that had crashed, they were missing one important element.

In order to get the plane cleared for takeoff, they had to find an aircraft mechanic who was familiar with a plane that was more than 50 years old.

They found Dick Wenrich, who has been fixing planes and piloting them since the 1950s.

"They brought it to me after they received some information. There aren't that many people you can find who can fix a plane like this or who are willing to," said Wenrich.


The base of operations for the restoration, dubbed the "This Old Plane" project, was at the hangar at Wenrich's Aircraft Repair at Hagerstown Regional Airport. The plane was taken there more than seven months ago.

Most of the repair work was focused on the plane's wings, which were nearly torn off in the crash.

The wings are made out of dozens of metal ribs, which are covered with stretched fabric that is glued and sewn on the ribs.

"It's a very extensive process," said Wenrich.

The planes' roots can be traced to 1931, when William T. Piper purchased the Taylor Aviation Co. in Bradford, Pa. After a fire destroyed the original factory, Piper moved the company to Lancaster, Pa., and increased production of the early model Cubs.

The J-4 Cub that Wenrich helped restore rolled off the Lancaster plant's assembly line in August 1940.

"When I started flying 46 years ago I learned to fly in the J-3 Cubs. It's a fabulous type of airplane. You can't find too many people today who can fly this kind of plane," Wenrich said.

The J-3 Cub, the predecessor of the J-4, was so popular that in its day it accounted for nearly one-third of all civilian aircraft in the United States. Because of that, Piper is often referred to as the Henry Ford of aviation.

The J-4 was originally designed to replace the earlier J-3 models, but few were actually produced due to the outbreak of World War II, when Piper shifted the focus of the production to military aircraft.

Only about 20 J-4's are left today.

"When they were first built they cost about $1,000 ... if they sold them today, they would cost about $25,000," said Wenrich.

The J-4 is powered by a single engine and can reach a maximum speed of 85 mph with a cruising speed of 75 mph. It has a range of 190 miles and can carry up to 12 gallons of fuel.

The wingspan is approximately 32 feet, and the frame of the plane is metal with fabric stretched and glued to the skeleton.

"It's not going to break any speed records, but it's a fun plane to fly," said Wenrich.

The cockpit of the plane has two seats side by side. Inside, the plane's flight instruments are a far cry from the sophisticated computer-controlled and button-laden cockpits of today's planes.

With a glance you'll notice the plane's stick controls and just a few flight and navigational instruments. A radio is noticeably absent.

"It's just the bare necessities. When I learned to fly, you didn't have to have them. We've come a long way. Nevertheless, it was still an advancement for its day," Weinrich said.

Reclassified as the L-4 by the U.S. Army, the Piper Cubs also played an important role during WWII. Their main use was for flight training.

Nearly three-fourths of all U.S. Army airmen received their initial flight training in Piper Cubs. The Pipers were used in combat and first saw action during the Allied invasion of North Africa.

Their initial use was for artillery adjustment, pinpointing target locations for ground troops. Later they were used as utility transport vehicles, hospital transports, liaison transports and for photo reconnaissance missions.

They were given the nickname "grasshoppers" because of their low cruising altitudes and maneuverability.

Wenrich has completed repairs to the plane and will soon return the plane to Affordable Aviation. The members plan to keep the plane at a private airfield in Libertytown, Md.

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