Feb. 8, 2004 - Texas pilot Mark Zeller woke up Sunday morning thinking it would be a normal Sunday. Little did he know that he was in for the surprise of his life - or that, as the winner of the grand prize in AOPA's Centennial of Flight Sweepstakes, he would become the envy of some 400,000 other AOPA members.
Zeller, 42, arrived at West Houston Airport just west of Houston thinking he was being interviewed for a video about new pilots. As the interview wrapped up AOPA President Phil Boyer stepped around the corner to introduce himself. To thank Zeller for his help, Boyer offered him a Waco Sweepstakes leather flight jacket. "Now that you have the Waco jacket don't you think you should have the airplane to go with it?" Boyer asked as the hangar doors opened to reveal the pristinely restored 1940 Waco UPF-7 biplane. The grand prize is valued at $250,000.
A stunned Zeller replied, "Fantastic! This is unbelievable." As he got his wits about him, Zeller shouted, "I won an airplane today. That doesn't happen every day!" A crowd of friends and well-wishers cheered as the airplane was rolled out of the hangar for Zeller's inspection. Zeller, a third-generation pilot, was joined at the event by his 19-year-old son Clint, his friend Joyce Keyser, and his father Peter Zeller, himself a pilot. Peter's father was also a pilot.
Zeller started flight training four years ago, partly inspired by his father and grandfather. He joined AOPA two years ago. Shortly after earning his pilot certificate he purchased a 1968 Cessna 172 for traveling around Texas and to visit his younger son, Bobby, who lives nine hours away by car. The 172 makes quick work of such trips, Zeller said. The Wisconsin native is a Houston-area general manager for Palm Harbor Homes, one of the largest manufactured home builders in the country.
"You have disappointed a whole lot of other AOPA members," Boyer told Zeller. "I've had an opportunity to fly this aircraft, and I'm almost envious of the fun you're going to have with it."
While high winds Sunday prevented Zeller from getting his first flight in his new airplane, he did start the big radial engine, the throaty roar thrilling the crowd. Woody Lesikar, owner of West Houston Airport, a thriving privately owned, public-use airport, played host to the event.
Zeller's bright red Waco UPF-7, fully restored by Rare Aircraft in Owatonna, Minnesota, was the sixty-third out of nearly 600 built. It began life as a trainer in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a program sponsored by the government to build a pool of trained pilots when World War II loomed. It spent the war years and most of its civilian afterlife operating from Long Island, New York, including stints at storied Floyd Bennett and Roosevelt fields. Roosevelt launched such famous flights as Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic and Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan's infamous "accidental" Atlantic crossing. Although the airplane's logbooks only date back to the 1950s, they show a succession of owners who clearly loved the airplane for its fun factor. Flights are listed as aerobatic or flights with friends - flights with little practical value beyond the sheer enjoyment of flying.
The Waco UPF-7 was always intended to be a training aircraft, so it was built tough - tough enough to train pilots in the aerobatic maneuvers they might need in the event of a war.
Zeller's Waco spent nearly half a century in private hands after World War II. It eventually ended up at Rare Aircraft in Minnesota, just waiting for someone to come along and fix it up.
When AOPA decided to commemorate the centennial of powered flight with a nod to the Golden Era, Boyer contacted Rare Aircraft owner Roy Redman to see if he had any restoration projects that would fit the bill. Redman said he did and told Boyer about N29352.
Over the next several months the aircraft was stripped to its metal-tube frame and completely restored. The wings were painstakingly rebuilt. Many of the original instruments were refurbished and installed in a new panel. To bring the panel into the twenty-first century, Rare Aircraft added a Garmin 250XL VFR GPS unit and a PM1200 intercom, designed specifically for high-noise environments like an open cockpit, from PS Engineering.
The original 220-hp Continental radial engine was replaced with a 275-hp Jacobs engine from Radial Engines, Ltd., of Guthrie, Okla. Airovation, Inc., of Eden Prairie, Minn., redid the interior. AOPA members voted online for the Waco's paint scheme and chose a vivid red with black and gold trim accents.
In all, the restoration work makes the Centennial of Flight Sweepstakes Waco worth approximately $250,000.
A complete list of the nearly two dozen companies that contributed to the Centennial of Flight Sweepstakes project, including contact information, is available online.
For its 2004 sweepstakes, AOPA is tackling more than one engine for the first time. The grand prize in the Win-A-Twin Sweepstakes will be a better-than-new 1965 Piper Twin Comanche. Work on the engines and airframe is nearing completion and includes tip tanks and every speed modification LoPresti makes for the Twin Comanche. Plans for the panel are still being finalized but currently include a full Garmin avionics stack, S-Tec autopilot, Sandel EHSI, and J.P. Instruments engine analyzer/fuel totalizer.
It will be on display during AOPA Day at Sun 'n Fun and throughout the weeklong fly-in and airshow, which will be held April 13-19 in Lakeland, Fla. Would-be winners can also see it at the AOPA Fly-In and Open House at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Md., on June 5 and at AOPA Expo in Long Beach, Calif., October 21-23.
Anyone who joins or renews membership in AOPA during 2004 is automatically entered in the Win-A-Twin Sweepstakes. Alternate methods of entry, complete rules, and eligibility requirements are available online.
With more than 400,000 members, representing nearly two thirds of all pilots in the United States, AOPA is the largest, most influential aviation association in the world. AOPA has achieved its prominent position through effective advocacy, enlightened leadership, technical competence, and hard work. Providing member services that range from representation at the federal, state, and local levels to legal services, advice, and other assistance, AOPA has built a service organization that far exceeds any other in the aviation community.