Restored with care after a crash landing, the Fleet Model 2 that carried Maryland pilot Stan Sweikar to Lakeland, Fla., completed on April 8 a journey 24 years in the making. The bright yellow wings that gleamed in the Florida sun had been replaced, after the original set was destroyed in 1988 after Sweikar lost engine power over Virginia on his way home from Oshkosh, Wis.
“I had to put it into a tree line on the edge of a swamp,” Sweikar recalled, pausing from the task of meticulously wiping down the bright red undercarriage, preparing his 1929 barnstormer for the judges at the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo, the first such visit since he got the old airplane back in the air on July 1, 2012, flew it to EAA AirVenture and earned the Silver Age Champion—Bronze Lindy trophy. Other accolades have followed, though Sweikar said the Fleet’s run as a show airplane may be limited: bugs, dirt, and oil take their toll on pristine finishes, and the opportunity to compete and win might be over in a year. “You’ve got to do it when it’s fresh.”
While in years past, the vintage Fleets, Stearmans, and Wacos rolling onto the fields surrounding Lakeland Linder Regional Airport might have picked up soot from burnt grass, Sun ’n Fun President and CEO John Leenhouts has instituted a mowing program, specifically with owners like Sweikar in mind. (Leenhouts mentioned Sweikar’s Fleet specifically during an April 8 interview, noting the change has helped draw owners who might have shied away in years past.)
Sweikar’s Fleet rolled out of the Consolidated Aircraft Co. factory in Buffalo, N.Y., in August 1929, and went to work as a trainer in Cleveland. Several owners later, bestselling author Richard Bach barnstormed across the country with it, and gave the airplane a starring role in his 1977 book Illusions. Sweikar has meticulously restored the red and yellow paint scheme, Fleet logo on the tail, and “Great American Flying Circus” logo that adorned the fuselage during Bach’s ownership, a fuselage that escaped nearly undamaged in the 1988 crash landing.
“I didn’t get a scratch,” Sweikar said, though “the wings were wiped out.”
The Kinner B-54 radial engine is not the original K-5, but painstakingly overhauled and restored with the same kind of care as the rest of the airplane, and its lacquer-black cylinders, heads protruding from a round nose, shine like mirrors. The Fleet is one of four planes Sweikar has restored. A retired U.S. Navy flight test engineer, Sweikar, 73, said he is now working on a Culver Cadet at his home in Dameron, Md., which features a grass strip in the back yard. “This is my avocation,” he said with a smile.
Sweikar said the Fleet is a joy to fly, like a “Cub with two [sets of] wings,” cruising at 85 mph or 90 mph, cockpit open to the wind, sipping 7 gallons of fuel per hour.
“You get to see the countryside go by.”