There’s something about a vintage airplane that just draws people to it at air shows and fly-ins. But if you want your winged beauty to take home awards, you have to make sure the airplane is more than clean – you have to make a good impression.
For Les Whittlesey, a pilot and real estate developer from Chino, Calif., making a good impression at this year’s Sun ‘n Fun included staging a diorama outside his Lockheed 12A complete with period correct suitcases. The period is the late 1930s, when the Lockheed 12A was an airliner.
Whittlesey, who owns other vintage aircraft, bought the Lockheed with the twin-fin tail in 2002. Although all the parts were there, the aircraft was a long way from the showpiece it is today, he said.
“It was purchased from someone in New Hampshire and I live in Chino, Calif., so we could not have picked a place farther away to bring it from,” Whittlesey laughed as he watched people gather around his airplane during the annual Sun ‘n Fun fly-in in Lakeland, Fla.
Winter is not a good time of year to buy an airplane from someone in New England, he added.
“Getting it out of New Hampshire was a trial in itself because it was stuck in the hangar for awhile because of snow,” he said. “Finally we got it out and flew it to California in April of 2002. All the basic parts were there and it was a flying airplane, but both for aesthetics and for safety, we went through the aircraft. We decided to doll her up and it seemed like every time we opened up one part of the airplane, we ended up opening up another.”
LOOK, BUT DON’T TOUCH
The exterior is kept highly polished and so inviting to touch that Whittlesey sets up a low-perimeter fence made of stakes and rope to keep people from getting too close to the airplane.
Whittlesey and his crew stand by with rags in hand just in case someone leaves a mark on the highly polished aircraft. Whittlesey noted that although it is quite the eye catcher, most of the Lockheeds of the era were painted, not polished.
“You could pick a color at the factory,” he said. “A lot of them had the red, but it was more of an orange red, almost like a Waco vermilion,” he said. “We took a little bit of liberty with the color of the stripe and made it more of a red red.
“The N-numbers are the right size and style as they were in the 1930s,” he continued. “And the stripe is in the right place. If you look at old photos and advertisements from magazines and count the original rivets, you will notice that the stripe is in the exact spot. We have kept it as original as possible on the outside, even to minimizing the number of radio antennae. Our VOR antenna, for example, is disguised as a low frequency antenna.”
For display Whittlesey has the slender nose of the aircraft open.
“It’s another baggage compartment,” he said. This statement generated discussion among visitors who wondered what kind of luggage besides umbrellas could fit in such a tiny hole.
To get the interior of the aircraft period correct involved a lot of research that including looking at old photographs and magazine advertisements of the day.
“We have some photos from 1936 that show the original airplanes have bulkheads in them behind the pilot and copilot position,” Whittlesey said. “This one we copied after the 1936 original airplane, which did not have the bulkhead. That was my option because I fly with my wife and kids and I wanted the airplane to be more interactive for them, so we left that out.”
All of the seats are new. “Those we built from plans,” he said. “All the cords are in exactly the right spot. They are built from leather and mohair just like they were originally, except that we had them fireproofed.”
For display purposes Whittlesey adds a package of period correct cigarettes to go with the perfectly reproduced ashtrays. Adding to the effect are magazines from the day, as well as a map, on a fold-down table. On a nearby seat is a newspaper screaming a headline about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
Whittlesey went so far as to recreate the lavatory in the back of the airplane.
“For display only! It is not to be used unless it is an extreme emergency,” Whittlesey warned, sounding like a stern father. “Which is what I tell my kids. If it is an emergency, then you waited too long!”
On the subject of waiting, Whittlesey says the time it took to get the Lockheed back into the air wore on him.
“When people ask how long it took to restore, I tell them that it was in the twos, as in ‘it took too long’! We averaged six guys working full time for three-and-a-half years,” he said, acknowledging that in the world of aircraft restoration that is actually a pretty good speed.
“You get these projects and the guys love them, but it takes 10 to 15 years to get them done,” he said, shaking his head. “But I wanted to use it as a family airplane and I am an instant gratification type of guy, so I wanted it done NOW!”
Whittlesey is aware that his showmanship impresses the crowd. For example, beneath the nose of the aircraft, Whittlesey places pieces of authentic Amelia Earhart luggage. Like today’s sports heroes, pilots of the day were asked to endorse products. Earhart said yes to luggage and travel clothing, but no to cigarettes. The luggage itself generated some discussion from visitors who knew about her product endorsements or had a familial connection to it.
“My aunt had one of the suitcases back when people really knew how to travel,” one visitor remarked.
Whittlesey notes that it truly does take a team effort to support this airplane. For the appearance at Sun ‘n Fun he was accompanied by pilot Kirk McQuown and A&P and project team manager Jim Heinemann.
“I never take this airplane out without a mechanic!” Whittlesey noted.