It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This becomes apparent as you prowl the rows of aircraft on display at air shows and notice which airplanes have the “Judge Me” placards on their propellers. If you spend any time with judges at these events you begin to spot the little details that take points off – as well as those that add points.
Some owners just seem to know how to win awards. One of those is Frank P. Sperandeo III, from Fayetteville, Ark. His pearl and maroon 1953 Piper PA-22/20 attracts admiring looks from passersby and wins awards the way wildflowers draw bees.
“This airplane has won over 50 national championships and other minor categories,” Sperandeo noted as his sat in the shade of the wing during a visit to Sun ‘n Fun. The aircraft was parked in the front row of the vintage display area — a coveted spot reserved for past award winners. Sperandeo’s aircraft gleams like a jewel. The exterior and interior are a riot of red and pearl with gold trim. The aircraft’s N number is done in shiny characters down the side of the fuselage. The vertical stabilizer and the engine manifold are monogrammed. The propeller bears a stripe of pearl, red and gold.
Even the engine compartment is detailed. Each screw and fastener is perfectly aligned. The propeller sports matching cloth covers made from red velvet with Sperandeo’s initials embroidered in iridescent pearl thread. Faux pearls trim the edges. A string of faux pearls is used inside the aircraft as a gust lock. It sits draped across the copilot’s yoke, as if a debutante had placed them there.
At the aircraft attach points ribbons festoon the tie-down ropes. The stakes of the tiedowns are chromed. The wheelpants look more like sculpture than fairings. Even the chairs and campstools beneath the wings match the airplane.
A placard on the copilot’s window reads “PLEASE TOUCH ME but be gentle!” — which is a great relief to pilots who cannot control themselves and feel the need to stroke the smooth surface of the gleaming airplane.
Sperandeo is well aware of the work of art he has created.
“I like detail and detail sells,” he noted with a shrug. A retired physics teacher, he’s made a study of what impresses aircraft judges and what makes an aircraft attractive. “No matter what kind of airplane you have, you have to pay attention to the details, to each little screw, each little rivet,” he said. “On this airplane, for instance, all the heads of the screws are lined up. That is the kind of detail that will win you championships. A good judge will look at that.”
CREATING ANAWARD WINNER
Sperandeo notes it took two tries at restoration before he got to the level he’s at today. He’s owned the plane since 1989. The first restoration took place between 1989 and 1993.
“I spent roughly four and a half years on that,” he recalled. “Four and a half years and 4,500 hours! Then I had an accident in 2000 and had to restore the whole thing again. The second restoration took 15 months and I did a lot of things that I wanted to do the first time, but didn’t do.”
One of the first things that strikes you about this plane is the richness of the paint scheme.
“The color scheme really kind of happened by accident,” Sperandeo said. “I knew I wanted something cream and red and that I wanted something that would be special. It couldn’t be just any cream and red. As it turned out the pearl came off of a Nissan. I was driving down the road in Fayetteville and drove past a Nissan Maxima that was up on a display stand. I screeched to a halt and almost got rear-ended, but I found the color I wanted. Its called White Sandstone Pearl. Cadillac has a color like it called White Diamond, but it is not as tan.”
No only did he get the shade he wanted he also found the name for the airplane.
“It is named after the color, which is Pearl,” he said. “It’s not named after a relative or a girlfriend, it’s the paint. It just so happens that Pearl is a woman’s name.”
The red came off a 1994 GMC pickup truck.
“It is Crimson Red and it is metallic,” he continued. “This airplane has no tapes on it. There are no seams, so it is slick! I took some 2,000 round head rivets out of it.”
A more obvious change to the PA-22 airframe is the removal of the nosewheel and its replacement with a tail wheel.
“I did that because the nosewheel is a major source of drag on these airplanes,” he said. “Univair has a kit that permits you, with a Supplemental Type Certificate, to convert it to a taildragger. That changes the aircraft’s designation from a PA-22 to a PA-22/20.”
More modifications followed, he noted, via STC. “Mainly to the fairings to reduce drag,” he said. “I now sell the mods of the fairings to people who own PA-22s. If they wish they can change the fairings out. They also get the 337 forms as documentation so that the changes can be approved by the FAA, which makes things nice and neat.”
The detail permeates the interior too. Sperandeo designed the seats, which are made out of three stage foam, then set out to finding the perfect fabric and thread combination. Cushy red velvet with cream thread did the trick.
“I had a thread that happened to be pearl iridescent, so it matches the paint,” he said. “It was used for the embroidery on the seats, so everything — I mean everything — is coordinated on this airplane. The red velvet is off a 1984 Chrysler Imperial. It is called Kimberly Crimson and it matches the paint. The upholstery is pearl-colored Naugahyde out of a Ranger fishing boat. I had to go to Dallas to get that.”
Sperandeo cut out the patterns, but someone else did the sewing.
Although the many changes made for a sexier, smoother looking, slightly faster aircraft than the stock model, the changes did come with a price, Sperandeo said.
“I have won two Lindys at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, but unfortunately I can never win the ultimate Grand Champion because they do not recognize the custom category at the grand championship level,” he explained. ”They are strictly orientated to original planes. If you change something you are practically disqualified from Ultimate Grand Champion. I have won ‘best of’ category four times and I have lobbied them to change, but I have not heard back from them yet. I would like to win Grand Champion and I could do it.”
Sperandeo enjoys the reaction he gets at air shows and fly-ins. He created an informational placard for the aircraft, which he places beneath the nose. It denotes that “Miss Pearl” is perhaps the most elegant single-engine aircraft in the sky, and no, she is not for sale.
Sperandeo is very much a showman. He sits beneath “Miss Pearl’s” iridescent wings and patiently answers questions and politely accepts compliments with a smile. Many visitors do not go away empty handed, as Sperandeo has specially made chocolate candies with the name of his beautiful airplane embossed on them like high-end M&Ms.
“Details,” Sperandeo said with a smile as he pressed a handful of the mints in their clear plastic wrap into the palm of a visitor. “Details.”