January 1, 2010
By Dave Hirschman
Don Glasser (left) and Mike Merritt worked on the world’s most advanced military fighters before collaborating on a low-tech Piper Cub.
The airport in the shadow of Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain was nearly vacant on a late February afternoon as the two friends considered their next move. Mike Merritt and Don Glasser had worked together on some of the world’s most technologically advanced military fighters for much of the past two decades: first as pilot and crew chief in an Air Force F-117 Nighthawk squadron, and more recently as engineer and technician on Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor fighters.
They had been integral parts of many first flights and experimental test flights, but the one they were about to perform was different. Merritt and Glasser had spent much of the last year restoring a low-tech Piper J-3 Cub, and during that time their normal roles were reversed. Instead of calling the shots, Merritt, the former squadron commander, had been a parts washer, rib stitcher, and tool fetcher. Glasser, 52, an airframe and powerplant mechanic and veteran technician, was the demanding taskmaster who decided whether Merritt’s handiwork met his high standards.
They had just finished another series of engine runs and rigging checks. And what had once been a long punch list of unfinished items was now, somewhat surprisingly, complete.
“Well, what do you think?” Merritt, 58, asked his temperamentally more cautious friend.
Glasser shrugged. “I’d like to do one more engine run,” he said. “But if everything looks good, let’s go for it.”
Merritt and Glasser met in 1992 when they were both assigned to a stealth fighter squadron in New Mexico.
Merritt, the squadron commander, had flown a series of mostly single-seat fighters during nearly 20 years in the Air Force, and the F-117 was the one he identified with most closely. The airplanes had proved an untouchable technological marvel when they flew over Baghdad with impunity during the first Gulf War. His approach to running the frontline squadron was thoughtful, reflective, and low key.
“Mike’s a quiet, personable guy and the well-being of his people always comes first,” Glasser said. “He never yells, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose his temper. He listens, and he spends a lot of time in the maintenance area learning the technical side of the airplanes. As his crew chief, I always looked forward to having him fly the airplanes I worked on, and that wasn’t always the case with other commanders.”
Glasser had learned to fly and work on airplanes during his youth in rural Pennsylvania, then Southern California. His dad was a private pilot and owned a series of single-engine aircraft, including a Piper Tri-Pacer that Glasser had soloed as a teen. He joined the Air Force right after high school, married, and started a family.
After 20 years in the military, he joined Lockheed as a technician at the company’s developmental “Skunk Works” in Palmdale, California. He also kept involved in GA by restoring a Piper Colt, adding instrument and multiengine ratings, and logging more than 1,700 flight hours as pilot in command. Glasser and his family moved to Georgia when he joined the company’s F-22 program.
Merritt also followed his dad’s lead in learning to fly. His father had used the GI Bill to get his private pilot certificate after World War II and he mostly flew Cubs and Champs for pure enjoyment. He took his young son to O’Hare International Airport in their native Illinois to witness aviation milestones such as the first Boeing 707 passenger jets.
“One of my favorite childhood memories was being with my dad on the observation deck at O’Hare and watching the first 707s,” he said. “I was probably 7 or 8 at the time. He also took me to some of the first EAA fly-ins in Rockford [Illinois].”
Merritt had a private pilot certificate before joining the Air Force in 1973 and stayed involved in GA throughout his Air Force career, even towing gliders in rural Virginia during a tour at the Pentagon. After joining Lockheed, Merritt bought a Bellanca Decathlon and used it to teach tailwheel and aerobatic flying in the Atlanta area.
Merritt and Glasser had long since lost touch by the time their paths happened to converge in a Lockheed parking lot in 2006. Inevitably, their conversation turned to airplanes. Merritt mentioned his Decathlon and Glasser brought up his Colt. Before long, Glasser was getting his tailwheel endorsement flying Merritt’s airplane.
Merritt and Glasser found the neglected 68-year-old Cub that would form the basis of their partnership at the rear of a maintenance hangar at Cobb County/McCollum Airport. The rumpled and dusty former trainer had been damaged in a storm nearly a decade earlier, and it had sat awaiting repairs ever since. The yellow fabric was faded and worn, the right wing tip was badly scuffed, and the elevator and struts were bent.
“The damage was fairly minor,” Glasser said. “But no one had repaired it, and at the rate they were going, no one was going to repair it.”
The pair talked about buying and restoring the Cub, and they quickly agreed to split the costs and the work equally. They bought the airplane, and Merritt took the wings to his garage while the fuselage went home with Glasser.
“Mike was my squadron commander, and he’s my boss at work,” Glasser said. “So it was an adjustment when we’d work on the Cub. I’d tell him, ‘No, no, no. You’ve got to do it this way.’ But Mike’s very mechanically inclined, and he likes to get his hands dirty. Lots of jobs on the Cub required two people, and Mike was always right there.”
Merritt said he found the fabric covering process fascinating. “It’s definitely an art,” he said. “There’s so much technique involved in doing it right. I’m an amateur and Don’s a master. He’s developed a real feel for the process.”
The two took the fuselage down to bare metal, and they completely re-covered the wings and replaced all the pulleys and cables. Their Cub was reputed to have had particularly good flying qualities, so they made sure to cut new cables to the exact same lengths so as not to alter the rigging.
The airplane came with a spare 65-horsepower Franklin engine, and they sent it out for an overhaul. Meanwhile, Glasser took the original engine apart, inspected every gear and accessory, and put it back on the airplane.
“Don’s one of the few people I know who’s more meticulous than I am,” Merritt said. “His standards are very high, and they always were. He was the same way as a crew chief.”
As the Cub took shape, family and friends frequently asked the pair when they intended to make their first flight. No one wanted to miss the big event.
But they were circumspect.
“We’ve both been involved in many high-profile first flights of planes like the F-22 and other large military programs,” Merritt said. “With the Cub, we didn’t want to put any extra pressure on ourselves, and we didn’t want to disappoint anyone. We decided to work through all the issues one by one. When they were all resolved, we’d go fly.”
That day came on February 3, 2008, exactly a year from the date they bought their Cub.
Merritt taxied the Cub to McCollum’s west-facing runway and, after a long run-up, took off for an uneventful 35-minute flight. Glasser was the only spectator. The handling qualities were as good as described, and the rigging was perfect.
Since then, they’ve flown the Cub many times and moved it to a permanent home at another Georgia airport. Merritt provided a few hours of dual instruction for Glasser, and they’ve both flown the plane solo. They’re about to start taking their first passengers for rides, and they plan to display their creation at airshows around the Southeast.
They haven’t yet decided whether to team up for another aircraft restoration—but Glasser says he’d like to keep building. “I’ve always thought it would be really neat to restore a Stearman,” he said. “I hope there’s one of those in our future.”
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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