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Mike's AirplaneMike's Airplane

A masterpiece in three yearsA masterpiece in three years

After encouragement from Tom Harper and me, my friend Mike decided he wanted an airplane—a little, fun airplane with a tailwheel. Mike is Capt.

After encouragement from Tom Harper and me, my friend Mike decided he wanted an airplane—a little, fun airplane with a tailwheel.

Mike is Capt. Mike Pizzino of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources; he is the officer in charge of law enforcement in an eight-county region in eastern West Virginia, working out of the Elkins office. He is a private pilot, taking lessons occasionally for a tailwheel endorsement, in his 50s, married, and a grandfather. His hobby is woodworking. He had never worked on an airplane, had never even restored a car. In other words, he is a typical guy in small-town America.

After consultation with his aviation friends, who gave him oodles of free advice and a bucket-full of promises to help, in November 2004 he purchased a basket case, a project 1969 Citabria 7ECA with a Lycoming O-235 engine rated at 115 horsepower that hadn’t flown since 1985. He bought it from Bill Swineford, an A&P instructor at Fairmont State College in Fairmont, West Virginia. Swineford and his father had intended to rebuild the airplane and had done some work on the fuselage, but Swineford’s father’s passing in 1995 ended all work on the airplane.

Mike brought the pieces home and stored them in his garage and workshop. He began work in February 2005. For the first time, he realized just how big a project he had taken on. The wings had to be rebuilt rib by rib. The cockpit was trash, and had to be thrown away. All the fuel lines, the control wires, the electrical wires—everything was junk. He had a fuselage, wing spars, and an engine that needed an overhaul, and little else. The good news was that the prop was still serviceable. Everything else would have to be replaced.

As the months slipped past, I got to inspect Mike’s work. He had to learn every skill, as if he were building an airplane from scratch.

“I wouldn’t have made it without Don Judy,” Mike told me. “He was always here when I needed him.”

Don is a general aviation institution, an FAA designated examiner who began flying when he was 17 years old, 48 years ago. Sometime in the distant past he got his A&P IA certificates. He usually owns three or four airplanes at any one time, and currently has a twin, a Cessna 185, and a helicopter. Flying is Don’s passion, but it never paid his bills. He owned and operated Judy Fencecraft, a manufacturer of decorative fencing that is sold through stores all over the eastern seaboard. He sold his business a few years ago and “retired.” Regardless of his commitments, he always found the time to consult with Mike, teach him the critical skills, and inspect the results.

So the project went along as the Earth spun around the sun and the seasons came and went. The completion of the first wing was the first major milestone. A second wing followed, then Mike tackled the tail, rudder, elevators, and ailerons. The engine went to Hagerstown Aircraft Service in Maryland for overhaul; Mike hired Wayne Ash to do all the wiring and to install the electronics and avionics, and he continued to slog along, covering everything with Stits Polyfiber and noodling about paint schemes and interior finish. All new control wires, all new bolts and screws—basically all new everything—the airplane came together so slowly that when I visited, I had trouble seeing progress. The interior of the airplane was a shell. Just looking at it gave me a feeling of hopelessness.

Mike never lost his enthusiasm or desire. He got on a first-name basis with Jim and Dondi Miller at Polyfiber, as well as the folks at Wag Aero and American Champion Aircraft. The cockpit came together screw by screw. The instrument panel went in, and one night, a friend who came to dinner, Bill Pancake, looked at his engine sitting on a pallet and said, “Let’s put it on.” So they did.

“I always looked forward to my hours in the workshop,” Mike told me. “Never once did I feel that the airplane was just a job.”

Of course, he had seriously underestimated the size of the undertaking. He thought the airplane would be ready to fly last spring, but there was no way. Last winter the airplane went to a hangar at the airport and the wings were installed.

While everyone else worked on their tax returns this spring, watched the NCAA basketball tourney on television, and followed the antics of the politicians, Mike labored frantically getting his airplane inspected and signed off while he did the little things still on his list, which kept growing like Pinnochio’s nose. Then the gods smiled. Just when Mike thought he was ready in mid-April, four fantastic spring days descended on West Virginia and the East Coast.

I was there for the first flight, right in the middle of that glorious weather. Years ago, when the project was just a pile of junk parts, I volunteered to fly the airplane first. Mike is a good friend, and I thought that someone should tell him they believed he could build an airplane, and this was the only way I could help. No sane man would want me anywhere near an airplane with hand tools. He took me up on my offer and got me added to his insurance as an approved pilot.

Yet as the great day approached, he got another surprise. Hagerstown Aircraft Service had not run the engine on a test stand, so to prevent voiding the warranty, it needed to be pre-oiled, started, and inspected, then run hard for an hour to set the rings. They were sending an A&P, who was also a test pilot, named Joe Hartt, to start the engine and fly the airplane for an hour.

The day before the big event, I got to the airport about 10 a.m. Mike had been there for hours. His airplane was the only machine in the county hangar, which sits at the end of one of Elkins’ two runways, just below a graveyard on a hill that obstructs the approach to Runway 32. I thought that an ominous omen; however, I managed to keep my mouth shut.

Mike had already put a little fuel in the tanks to check for leaks, so now he had to install the flashing between the wings and fuselage. As he worked I handed him screws and inspected the hangar, a large cinder-block affair with a huge overhead door and wooden beams and rafters.

The Works Progress Administration built the Elkins airport in the mid-1930s. It used to have air service to Washington and points west, but that dwindled to once-a-day service to Newark by the 1990s, then the airlines gave up altogether. A couple of years ago the flight service facility closed when the FAA farmed out the function. Today the airport is a typical small-town field, with little hangars spotted around, a self-service fuel pump, one mechanic, and the airport manager, who was spending a week in Florida after Sun ’n Fun.

Birds were twittering, the sky was blue, and the grass was growing. The day warmed nicely. The breeze was just a zephyr. An occasional single or twin came or went, but mostly the airport was quiet, so our voices echoed in the big hangar, which was dominated by Mike’s little blue-and-white airplane with its sporty red accent stripes. The brand-new cockpit smelled and looked delicious. I reached in and stirred the stick, watched the control surfaces move. The prop had yet to turn for the first time. The airplane reminded me of a fledgling in its nest, almost ready to fly, but not quite.

Don stopped by for a few moments. He was building a house and had workmen to supervise. He is a quiet, unassuming man, and says little unless asked. I have often thought he should be in politics, but he isn’t.

At eight that evening we went over to Mike’s house for supper. He was ready, he thought. He had greased the tail wheel, which he had rebuilt, and inspected everything one more time.

The next morning Don helped Mike install the final pieces of flashing on the leading edges, then left again. Mike, his wife Carol, and I towed the airplane to the fuel pump and topped off the tanks, then towed it back to the hangar. Joe flew in from Hagerstown, shook hands all around, and then began reading logbooks and looking the airplane over. He gave the airplane a thorough, complete inspection. It is a real pleasure watching a competent professional.

Wayne Ash and Gary Carpenter showed up to watch. A few minutes later Don came back. Noon arrived, so I made a run for a tub of chicken, which everyone ate as Joe forced oil into the engine under pressure.

The airport remained quiet, but the tension was rising. If any one of a thousand things were wrong with the airplane, it wouldn’t fly today. Finally Joe climbed into the cockpit, turned on the master switch, and cranked the engine for the first time. He spun the prop for 15 or 20 seconds as everyone watched without breathing. I had my fingers crossed, in my pockets.

Then Joe climbed back out. Now he and Mike installed the lower spark plugs and hooked them up.

At last the airplane was pushed out of the hangar and arranged on the ramp. Joe got into the cockpit again and this time turned on the fuel and mags before he spun the prop. Chuffs of smoke came out of the new exhaust pipes, then she caught and the prop spun into a blur as the pleasant growl floated away on the breeze. Mike’s face relaxed.

After 30 seconds, Joe shut the engine down. Oil had squirted all over his pants and the new carpet from a loose nut on the back of the oil pressure gauge. The nut was tightened, the mess cleaned up, and the engine inspection began. Mirrors on probes were used to look at every nook and cranny. Not a trace of oil could be found under the cowling. The engine was tight, the hoses were tight, not a leak anywhere.

Joe pronounced himself ready. He climbed back aboard, put on the Hooker harness, and started the engine again. He did a complete runup, taking his time, checking everything, then taxied out onto Runway 32, added power and began his takeoff roll as the engine sang its song. The tailwheel came up, and a few seconds later came back down and the airplane lifted off. Away he went.

Mike walked around, nervous as a hungry cat. Don sat in a lawn chair watching it all. As Mike’s airplane circled the field and the singing engine serenaded us, I chatted with Don. “Nice airport,” I remarked. “A thousand towns in America would love to have an airport like this,” he said.

“How many airplanes have you restored?” I asked.

“Four or five,” he replied.

You have to pry facts out of Don. “What were they?”

“Oh, this and that.”

“Come on! I’m writing an article.”

He had to think about it. “Three J-3 Cubs, two Super Cubs, a PA-12, a Stearman, a Great Lakes, and a Citabria.”

“That’s nine.”


“Mike says you’re looking for a PA-11 to restore.”

“When I get the house done, it would be fun.”

After an hour aloft, Joe returned, and he was grinning. “It’s a nice airplane,” he said. He and Mike inspected the engine compartment again, and not a drop of oil could they find. No heat scorches, nothing. He recommended rerouting a few wires, and he had a list of minor gripes, nothing major.

Joe filled out the logbook for Mike’s airplane, then Don asked him to look at an engine of his twin, which was in a hangar across the runway. “Got a load of bad gas,” Don said, “and an engine is acting up.” Joe agreed.

As they walked away, Don said to Mike, “Why don’t you and Steve take it up for a bit? You and I’ll go fly when you get back.”

Mike looked at me. “Let’s go fly,” he said.

So away we went. The airplane handled like a dream. When we were safely airborne, I turned the stick and rudders over to Mike, who was in the rear seat. As he did gentle turns and banks, I asked, “So how does it feel, after three years of work?”

He was so pumped. “Good,” was the only thing he could think of to say. So he said it again. “Good.”

We came back after 20 minutes and I made the landing; fortunately I didn’t bounce it. The other onlookers had departed, so Don and Mike strapped in, this time with Mike in the front cockpit. He wasn’t grinning. He looked intense. After they took off, Carol and I were alone on the ramp, listening to the sound of the engine, gentle now and far away.

I told her what Mike said.

She smiled at me. “He isn’t good with words,” she said. “But he is so thrilled. So happy.”

I gave her a hug, spun the prop on my Cub and strapped in. As I climbed out to the south I saw Mike’s airplane high and to my right. He and Don were doing stalls and steep turns.

He called me that night. “What a great day,” he said. He wanted me to fly the airplane again the next day. “Don says the best thing for that engine is for someone to put some time on it.”

Never one to refuse an invitation to fly, I burned up some of the Earth’s precious oil assets the following day, another perfect flying day, and put 3.8 hours on Mike’s airplane. Then he and Don took it up for an hour that evening. Mike is still working on that tailwheel endorsement, and Don is the perfect man to teach him.

That evening Mike called again. “Carol and I talked it over,” he said. “I’m going to get an A&P rating.” Then he laughed.

A pilot for 40 years, novelist Stephen Coonts and his wife, Deborah, own three airplanes, an American Champion High Country Explorer, a Breezy, and a J-3 Cub. His latest novel is The Assassin, which will be published this month.

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