A legend is poised to fly

Robert Garcia is nearly ready to fly the legendary biplane that he has been restoring for six years.

It’s an airplane that is doubly legendary.

First, it is an elegant 1944 Beech D-17S, the legendary Staggerwing.

It also fulfills the fantasies of all who love historic airplanes: Garcia found it in a St. Petersburg, Fla., warehouse where it had been stored for 32 years. It had just 902 hours on its airframe, making it the lowest-time Staggerwing known. For most of us that would be a dream. For Bob Garcia, it’s a dream come true.

Sometime next month, gleaming in a fresh coat of red dope, it will roll out of Garcia’s garage-hangar-shop and onto the runway at Pilot Country Estates (X05) near Springhill, Fla., ready for a new entry in its log, the first in nearly 40 years.

Garcia is something of a legend, himself. Born in Cuba, he was among the flood of children, more than 14,000 of them, who came to the United States after the Castro revolution. He began taking flying lessons in high school, although he didn’t complete his training until after college in 1974. His flight instructor was the renowned Mary Gaffney, twice World Aerobatic Champion in the late 1960s. He has been involved in aviation ever since, particularly with classic airplanes. He says he is moved to restore vintage aircraft for personal reasons, but also to preserve them for future generations to enjoy. His well-told flying stories include several about ferrying a Stearman to California, bringing to mind the adventuresome barnstorming tales told by author Richard Bach.

Garcia was the very first resident at Pilot Country Estates, after it was founded in 1976. He built a house in 1977, moved in a year later, and has lived there ever since. His love for aviation, and especially the classics, is exhibited in the decor of his home. His affection for aviation’s Golden Era is captured in many interesting, personal appointments such as a large painting of a red Staggerwing, which adorns the wall alongside the kitchen table. It is the product of his own artistic capability which, like a lot of the things he does so well, is largely self-taught.

“My problem is that my imagination is greater than my ability,” Garcia explained. “I say, ‘I can do this,’ and what happens is that it takes me two or three times longer than anyone else — but I do it. I teach myself a lot.” He acknowledges that he has learned a lot, indeed, from the Staggerwing project.

Pilot Country is an ideal place for a genuine enthusiast. The hangars are nearly as large as, and some larger than, the houses attached to them. All kinds of airplanes can be found there, with the exception of jets. There is a small FBO on the field, selling fuel at a good price. It’s often the preferred fuel stop of neighbors and non-residents for that very reason. The FBO is a place where the coffee is always on and the hangar talk is always flowing. A single 3,700-ft. north-south runway stretches east of the houses, but its taxiways are the residential streets — or is it the other way around? There are signs instructing drivers to give way to airplanes.

Garcia’s hangar is special, though. Once inside, a visitor is, quite literally, surrounded by airplanes. The Beech shares its digs with Garcia’s “daily driver,” a Cessna 182. The 182 is a good looking, well appointed airplane today. When Garcia bought it, however, it was “mechanically sound” but little else. Since then, he has rejuvenated every piece of avionics, the interior and the paint, making it the sparkling ramp pleaser it is today. Alongside the Cessna sits a Stearman that is perfection itself — an earlier restoration project of perfectionist Garcia.

Then there is the Staggerwing. Draped with sheets, it only fuels a visitor’s curiosity. Teasingly, little bits are revealed. Smooth, gracefully shaped wooden pieces enclose the airplane’s beautifully restored innards. The covers come off and there it stands on its landing gear. It looked eager for wings and fabric and its new life when seen earlier this year.

Suitably for a legend, Garcia heard about the airplane at a dinner party and had to learn more. Its then-owner turned out to be a judge, making him an especially difficult person to locate. After checking all the usual sources, Garcia finally located the judge by doing an FAA registration search. The airplane was the only Beech 17 registered in the area. Garcia wrote to the judge, and then waited 15 months for a reply. Finally, they met and visited the judge’s private warehouse, which was filled with an astonishing collection of antique cars, rare motorcycles and other unusual items taken in trade for legal services when the judge was a defense attorney. The Staggerwing sat forlornly in the midst of it all.

That wasn’t the end of it. Garcia negotiated with the judge for another five years before finally closing the deal.

“There was nothing missing on the airplane — nothing,” Garcia said. It was, however, a victim of neglect and dry rot, but the artist and visionary within Garcia saw it as it appears in the painting hanging in his kitchen. It took five friends and two trailers to get it to the hangar-workshop at Pilot Country.

One of the most important things to do when starting an aircraft restoration project is to ensure that the hangar, and particularly its floor, is clean, Garcia said. “Clean floors mean clean work.” Restoration then proceeds one part at a time, but eventually the parts start to come together. According to Garcia, such projects cannot be looked at as a whole. The process has to be seen as a series of little things, otherwise it becomes absolutely overwhelming, he said.

Above his workbench hangs a scale model Staggerwing. The model is his muse, providing inspiration when he grows weary of the project or becomes frustrated. Currently, it is kind of a silvery color, but Garcia plans to paint it the same red intended for its full-size sibling. It is obvious that an airplane is not just a machine to this man. It is artwork that flies.

The hangar is chock full of parts. Garcia buys assorted parts as they are available, not just for the Staggerwing but for his Stearman as well. Everywhere you look there are “airplane guts.” Starters, carburetors, tires, wheels — including a set of circa 1940 wheels that never have had a tire on them, shiny and perfect, as though 65 years were an illusion. On a recent trip to Argentina, for example, Garcia picked up two Staggerwing radial engines, one prop and two more project airplanes: a pair of Piper PA12 Super Cruisers.

Garcia has a knack for finding rare parts. Two large cabinets, standing in a corner of the hangar, attest to that. They came from a farm auction where they had sat in a barn for what must have been decades. Garcia bid $300 and got them. They were filled with Staggerwing parts, some so rare that no other originals may exist.

Staggerwing tires are a problem. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re the same as those on a Cessna 310, which resemble them. More than one destructive ground loop has resulted from that error, Garcia says. Goodyear actually has molds for correct Staggerwing tires and runs off a few every now and then. “They’re expensive, but they’re the right tires,” Garcia says. Glass is another problem. Staggerwings were built with glass windshields, not plastic. “One guy in Ohio makes them from Beech patterns.”

Garcia also found that he had to be inventive in order to restore large airplanes alone in the limited space of his hangar. He built unique jigs for handling large parts such as wings, which he can turn over to reach both surfaces or move easily from place to place. Machine and woodworking tools line the walls, on which shelves upon shelves are hung. Other parts are slung beneath overhead beams. Just about everything required to take on a major restoration project is at hand, but it has taken a lot of dedicated research, time, careful planning, effort and cash to make it so. “Every time you touch that airplane to do something, it’s $1,000,” Garcia acknowledges. “The little motors to retract the landing gear are $1,800, for example.”

The airplane is relatively together and the goal for completion is “before Christmas.” It began six years ago with stitching the covering on ailerons and flaps, which then were primed and stored. Next came the fuselage fabric and paint, followed by installation of the control surfaces and instruments. The radial engine was sent out for an overhaul and, on its return, hung on the airframe. The wings need to be reattached and the interior upholstery redone.

In addition to 21st century avionics, a few other modern improvements appear, such as disc brakes. They cost $4,000, but that is a small price to bear as insurance for stopping such a rare machine safely, Garcia believes firmly.

Today, progress goes on in the hangar. Some things go quickly. Some do not. Garcia works in Tampa, where he has a thousand things going on all at once. His company is among the region’s largest in the heating and air conditioning business, made busier than usual by several destructive hurricane seasons. Sometimes he has to walk away from the restoration for a while. Nevertheless it is going well, for the magic of this airplane nearly trembles and he can’t stay away for long.

Soon the completed Staggerwing will be a beautiful, gleaming red victory and surely will inspire others to search out and rescue ailing airplanes in forgotten barns and hangars.

Soon, too, Bob Garcia’s Staggerwing will invigorate early risers with the melodic rumble of its radial engine, stirring the calm of a still morning.

You’ll probably find Garcia and the Beech together at a Tullahoma, Tenn., Beech Party in the near future.

Unless, that is, a new project airplane has him too absorbed to attend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *