Weekend Biplanes

Biplane enthusiasts keep the flame burning in California

August 1, 1998

Dave Cleveland wheels his Waco UPF-7 out of the hangar and a crowd gathers. The brilliant red biplane would look at home on static display, yet Cleveland frets over a bit of oil on the belly, some dust on the cowling. His wife, Monica, assists the replenishing of several quarts of oil for the Continental radial. Cleveland takes care to pour the oil deliberately, appearing to be in no particular hurry. He clearly relishes the caretaking of this old airplane. Soon, the gathering, which to an outsider appears to be little more than casual friends of the Waco owner, disperses. The calm of the hangar row at the Torrance, California, airport is broken momentarily as a polished Cessna 180 taxies up and shuts down a few doors away from the Waco. The pilot, George Sedillo, hops out and walks around to the back of the airplane; for a few minutes he ponders the Cessna's tail post. Then there's the grinding of another hangar door opening. Dick Smith glances around incidentally and tugs his 1929 Travel Air from the shadows. The red and silver biplane wears — apparently proudly, by Smith's expression — the patina of frequent use; it's no museum piece that spends more time under the polisher's rag than in the air. Smith begins the preflight with the care of a (pre-HMO) doctor seeing a patient, which is not surprising, given Dr. Smith's profession.

As the persistent late-summer stratus begins to lift, a Beech Bonanza taxis up behind the taildragger Cessna. From the opposite direction, Ralph Baxter approaches Cleveland and comments that his green-and-silver Waco is fueled and ready to go. Jim Smith has readied his J-3 Cub. Gene Gast, whose Stearman is in a hangar on the next row, admits that a sinus infection has still got the better of him, so he's going to hang back.

Cleveland surveys the now-crowded ramp and says, "Looks like we're getting it together now."

Precisely what it is remains a mystery to the uninitiated. There is no apparent plan, no drawn-out preflight meeting. It's not even immediately apparent that these airplanes are going to be doing any flying today. The ministrations take place with all the intensity of a narcoleptics convention.

Eventually, the pilot of the Bonanza, Pete Donath, chimes in that Catalina Island is still socked in. "Chino?" Cleveland queries the pilots hanging around his open hangar; they are sipping sodas on a comfortable couch against the wall. They nod in agreement and, like reluctant teenagers who have to mow the lawn on a summer day, drift off with no particular alacrity.

A half-hour later, the three classic biplanes lead the way to Torrance's runways for the short flight to Chino Airport, home of Flo's Diner, a 1950s throwback with unapologetically hearty biscuits-and-gravy fare. A couple of hours after the main part of the group has arrived at the airport, the day's mission is finally under way. Somehow, despite the air of complete nonchalance, everyone is in an airplane and ready to go at the same time.

The cluster of antique airplanes heads in the general direction of Chino in loose but precise and carefully flown formation. Bystanders on the ground at Chino must think that an airshow has arrived unannounced as the two Wacos and the Travel Air take up a line in the transient area. Even for Chino, where it's possible — thanks to the many warbird restoration shops and the Planes of Fame Museum — to see anything from a P-51 to a Mitsubishi Zero taxi by at any given moment, the biplanes create a stir. Now it's nearly 2 p.m., time for lunch.

That there is no schedule, no rushing around to make a noontime fly-out is typical of this group of antique-aircraft enthusiasts. They are not a club, have no official name — although there are several unfit to print — yet this loose-knit band of airplane nuts has turned a passion of airplanes into an all-consuming social affair. The casual repartee is one of accustomed friends, easygoing and kind, even if the barbs are at least superficially sharp.

"It's fair to say that this group is the center of our social life," admits Cleveland, who works for Toyota in Torrance. Indeed, drop by on just about any evening during the week and it's likely that at least one of the group will be present, perhaps tending to an airplane project or maybe just loitering in the hangar, watching the day end. Even with high-end jobs — there are several doctors and aerospace engineers here — the pull of airport life is too strong. "I come here to relax," says Fred Bongard, owner of a Cessna Centurion and, apparently having grown tired of the ribbing he gets for having a modern airplane, a J-5 Cub. And while for most pilots the need for a biennial flight review or instrument competency check inevitably leads to the local FBO and the revolving-door instructor pool, it's different here. Many in the group are current instructors and give of their time with an uncommon generosity. You might hear, casually, "Need a tailwheel checkout? Great; let's borrow one of the Cubs and go do it."

And while it's true that every airport has its social circles, what's most amazing about this Torrance group is the eclectic range of airplanes. The Wacos, the Stearman, and the various Cubs form the backbone of this antique showcase, but there are other treasures lurking behind hangar doors. Kasey Lindsay recently sold his immaculate Ryan PT-22 for a Cessna 195; Ron Hackworth flies a stunning Fairchild F-24; and George and Anne Sedillo have just completed a Schweizer 1-26 sailplane restoration to go along with their PA-12 and the Cessna 180. Cleveland himself recently added an Aeronca Chief project to his platter, to share space with keeping the Waco flying and thinking about putting his old Corvair-powered Pietenpol back in the air. Oh, but he's got a J-3 he needs to finish first. Barry Jay just sold his Spezio — a plans-built, low-wing, open-cockpit homebuilt — and is looking for a Hatz. Jay's comment on the matter is typical: "You can rent a Spam can anywhere, but we are attracted to strange and unusual airplanes."

Moreover, these airplanes aren't treated as rarified objects, destined only for display. They fly — regularly. Several times a year, the group joins together to attend West Coast airshows, and the weekend fly-out is a regular summer endeavor. On any weekday afternoon, chances are good that you'll find at least one of the bunch boring holes in the sky — just for the sheer pleasure of it. It's refreshing to watch pilots and owners appreciate the historic quality of the airplanes and to take great care with them, but there's also the pervasive attitude that, hey, these are airplanes, they are meant to fly.

On the day of the Chino excursion, Dick Smith pauses to take an elderly gentleman for a ride. Smith has been working on various versions of what can only be called a cremains cannon. Strapped to the flying wires of the Travel Air, the device is intended to deposit remains without leaving most of them along the side of the airplane. This frail rider, who is interested in being scattered from the biplane, decides first to see what the actual flying is all about. He returns from a short flight beaming, looking a decade younger.

On the day after the Chino expedition, the Torrance biplane group (for lack of a better name) gathers for an immense barbecue. One hangar is cleared out and folding tables take over. People come out of the woodwork to share flying stories, to spread the word of some juicy restoration project that "can be yours for a song," and to bask in the camaraderie unique to flying.

Cleveland surveys the assembled pilots and spouses, then muses, "Can you imagine how much fun this is, to be around great pilots and great airplanes? We're all nuts about this, about these airplanes. Sometimes I think that everything else we do is just life support for flying." For this group, he's probably right.

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