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The 22-year jigsaw puzzle

Rebuilding a Golden Age gem takes skill, perseverance, timing

John Machamer was flying for American Airlines on that day in July 1994. He recalls walking into the operations room at John F. Kennedy International Airport and spotting an “Aircraft for Sale” sign on the bulletin board. Nothing unusual about that—except for the aircraft that was for sale. 
Photography by Mike Collins.
Zoomed image
Photography by Mike Collins.

“For Sale”

“Damaged 1930 Davis D1K N158Y”

“Ser No 508”

“I looked over my shoulder and wondered, ‘Does anybody else see this?’”

Machamer knew that, damaged or not, a rarity like a Davis monoplane wouldn’t wait long for a buyer. A Golden Age racer and sport plane built by the Davis Aircraft Corporation in Richmond, Indiana, the Davis is a parasol-winged, fabric-covered airplane with steel tube fuselage. Just 45 were produced in 1929 and 1930 before a fire burned down the factory and put the company out of business. Perhaps five or six are still flying, with a few more in museums.

He and his wife, Karen Mann-Machamer, drove to Connecticut from Pennsylvania to check it out. They found an airplane that had been recently recovered—“I wouldn’t say rebuilt”—whose owner had lost his medical certificate. Other pilots had been flying the airplane, and one of them had put it onto its back. The couple left without making an offer and then drove to Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Red Hook, New York—the home of many fine, still-flying examples of Golden Age airplanes, not to mention Pioneer and World War I-era makes and models.

“[John] showed me a completed, built Davis,” Mann-Machamer said, recalling that Rhinebeck’s Davis D1W was being flown in its airshows. (It is currently being restored.) They could see the potential in what sat in the hangar in Connecticut. They drove back and bought the D1K for $7,500. This was the beginning of what would become a 22-year project.

“I knew what the final result would be,” Machamer said. “I was always working toward that.”

No parts, no catalog, no problem

A builder’s determination to bring an airplane back to life is not a new story; the same challenges face nearly every aviation enthusiast who ever spied a dusty heap of metal or wood and fabric in somebody’s barn and thought, “I can fix that.”

But a builder who takes on a project like the Davis faces challenges not presented to those who are restoring, say, a Boeing Stearman or a later-year Piper Super Cub.

“The Stearman was a military airplane. They made a million of them,” said Machamer. (Boeing built 8,584 of the Model 75 Stearman Kaydet, but point taken.) “There are lots of parts and pieces and drawings….The Super Cub [he rebuilt] was a pile of parts, but you can get a Univair catalog, and you can buy every part you would ever need and have it delivered to your doorstep. There’s no Univair for the Davis. You have to find the parts and pieces that are out there.” Or build them yourself, by hand.

Back to the beginning

Machamer knew he wanted to the bring N158Y back to the condition it was in when it left the factory in 1930. To do that, he needed to trace its ownership history.

N158Y’s first owner was Kinner Motors from Glendale, California. Back then, companies like Kinner bought airplanes to use as flying billboards, and they often splashed the corporate name or logo across the fuselage. “You wanted to put your engine on an airplane and win a race so that you could sell engines,” Machamer said.

Photos of N158Y from that time show the airplane parked on the grass outside the factory in Indiana. The wing is set low to the fuselage. Fairings were installed behind each cylinder to streamline the look of the airplane and make it even sportier. Kinner’s test pilot, Lee Brusse, did indeed race the airplane in the 1930 Atlantic Derby, where it came in fourth place. But the company kept the airplane just five months before selling it to a flight school in Stockton, California, in 1931. From there it changed hands a few times until Jack Gretta acquired it in 1958. He sold it and then bought it back in 1987, keeping it until it went home with Machamer in 1994.

With few references, Machamer turned to the Golden Age restoration community. In Arlington, Texas, he found Marion “Curly” Havilaar, a pilot who had been a B–17 bombardier in World War II. A fellow restorer who was also known for his expertise with Wacos, Havilaar owned a “very original” Davis with the original fabric falling off. “It had never really been touched, which made it perfect for figuring out details, how things were done,” Machamer said. Using Havilaar’s airplane, Machamer took dozens of photos and made sketches. He bought parts he knew he would need and also parts he wasn’t sure he would need as an insurance policy against the day he might need them.

“It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Mann-Machamer said of the restoration project.

From Continental to Kinner

N158Y came out of the factory with a Kinner K-5 five-cylinder engine. When Machamer bought it, the previous owner had installed a Continental C-125 engine, a modern flat six-cylinder engine. Machamer wanted to return to the Kinner installation. The engine is simple, he said, but the process of restoring it wasn’t. It involved buying parts where he could find them and basically assembling an engine from those.

Even when the engine was functional, there were kinks to be worked out. N158Y blew through piston rings approximately every 10 hours. Machamer would disassemble the engine approximately eight to 10 times before realizing that the fairings were the culprit. This resulted in many ring jobs—twice in one week on one occasion, when John and Karen flew out to EAA AirVenture. To their credit, Karen said, they got pretty quick at the process, once completing a ring job in 12 hours.

In between working as a check airman at American, raising three daughters with his wife, and caring for other airplanes—including a Navion and a Piper Super Cub—Machamer labored on the Davis. The airplane was finally ready to fly in May 2016. Machamer was the test pilot; he said he wasn’t about to let someone else fly the airplane he had put together.

“It was absolutely a nonevent,” he said of the flight. “It just took off and flew like it does today.”

How does it fly today? According to Machamer, it does and it doesn’t handle like a Super Cub. It’s light on the controls, but because of its wing shape it has more distinctive stall characteristics.

“Every rib in the wing is different,” Machamer said. “It probably spins really well.” He hasn’t tested that theory, and he doesn’t plan to.

The 125-horsepower Kinner engine burns about 8 gallons per hour, cruising at about 95 miles per hour. The airplane has a 20-gallon main tank that is gravity fed from the center section, and an auxiliary tank that holds 5 gallons.

Since completing the project, Machamer has put 300 to 400 hours on the Davis. “I didn’t build it to be a hangar queen,” he said. He treats visitors to Sunday afternoon open-cockpit flights when the weather is nice. Machamer flies from the rear. “You get beat up more in the front than in the back,” he said. “It’s not real comfortable up there. You have to wear goggles and the helmet and you do have to play the part. You just kind of get hit from both sides around the wind shields.”

A modern touch in the cockpit is ADS-B, which Machamer loves. He also added a racing number—68—to the tail in appreciation of the airplane’s racing history.

He and Mann-Machamer have flown the airplane to fly-ins at Brodhead Airport in Wisconsin, and some year they plan to bring it to the annual Mid-Eastern Regional Fly-In at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio.

Machamer, who retired from airline flying in 2021, already has additional projects lined up. One is a 1929 Pitcairn PA-7 Mailwing, a three-seat biplane, which he says is “90 percent finished with 90 percent to go.” The factory made just 12 PA–7s, he said. Another is a New Standard D–29, originally built as a training airplane for the U.S. Navy. Machamer said he knows of just one other D–29—and it is hanging in a museum in Pensacola, Florida.

If you’re sensing a pattern, you’re right.

“I’m interested in unique airplanes,” Machamer said.

[email protected]

Photography by Mike Collins. John Machamer likes unique airplanes, and he found one in the Davis monoplane he restored. After these photos were taken, Machamer added a racing number to the fuselage to reflect the airplane’s racing history. Kinner Motors was the first owner of N158Y and likely displayed its corporate logo somewhere on the airplane. Machamer chose to use the Davis logo. The 125-horsepower Kinner K-5 engine is a radial with five cylinders. The panel was a find at an automotive parts swap meet.  The engine is fed by a main tank, with a five-gallon auxiliary tank. A fresh-from-the-factory Davis K-1 sold for about $2,995.
Jill W. Tallman
Jill W. Tallman
AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who is part-owner of a Cessna 182Q.

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