Many early aircraft manufacturers didn’t survive the Great Depression, leaving behind a flock of few-of-a-kind airplanes and memories. It is a treat to find one of these orphaned beauties at a fly-in. Finding two of them is a died-and-gone-to-heaven moment.
Such was the case during Sun ‘n Fun 2007 when we encountered two Arrow Sports. The bench-seat biplane was originally built by the Arrow Aircraft and Motors Corp. in the late 1920s. Dusty and Todd Rhode of Dade City, Fla., own one, while the other is owned by Dean Tilton of Lakeland, Fla.
The airplanes were parked side by side in the front row in the vintage aircraft display area. With their families in tow, both men held court in front of their unusual machines. According to Dusty Rhode and Tilton, the first question people ask when they see the aircraft is, “What is that?” Some people are under the impression that the planes are homebuilt experimental designs.
“They’re not,” Todd Rhode, Dusty’s son, chimed in. “The Arrow Sport was, at the time, considered a revolutionary design. It is an open side-by-side cockpit, not tandem seating, which is what you normally see of aircraft of this vintage. It was also a big airplane for the time with a radial engine.”
Another thing that sets this aircraft apart from its contemporaries is the wing design. Originally they did not have struts.
“They are fully cantilevered,” the younger Rhode continued. “You will notice that there are no wires on it. The prototype did not have any struts on it, but the factory went ahead and added the end struts because a lot of pilots felt a little insecure without the struts on it. The wings also have a very nice tapered design.”
The elder Rhode bought the aircraft as a project in 1960 for $675.
“It didn’t have an engine,” he recalled.
Restoration took several decades because there were other projects that took precedence, he added.
The airplane made its first post-restoration flight this March and its first public appearance at Sun ‘n Fun the following month.
“The test flight was the first time that the airplane had been flown in 70 years,” added Todd Rhode.
A leather cover on the wooden propeller also caught many a visitor’s eye.
“That gets removed before flight. That is to keep the water out,” Todd Rhode explained, adding, “we are also careful to keep the propeller horizontal to keep the water from running down to one end and making one side of the blade heavier than the other.”
Cockpit instrumentation is very basic, he noted. “There is a tachometer, an airspeed indicator, an oil temperature gauge, an oil pressure gauge and that’s about it.”
The Tilton Arrow Sport also drew a fair share of admiring looks.
Dean and Christine Tilton stood by proudly, answering questions about the aircraft that they both described as a labor of love, although it was far from a showpiece when it first came into their lives, according to Christine.
“It was a box of wood and pieces of rusted old junk when he got it,” she recalled. “It looked ready for the scrap heap.”
It was in sorry shape, Dean Tilton agreed. “I had to completely rebuild the wings, and all the rest of the metal was sand blasted and powder coated, and I had to rebuild the engine,” he said. “To cover it I used the Stits process. Originally when it came from the factory they used Grade A cotton and dope.”
Tilton, who has restored six award-winning antique aircraft, thought about using cotton, but said, in his experience, that the Stits process was a better way to go.
“My first old airplane was a 1928 TravelAir with an OX-5,” he said. “I restored that one in 1978 and I did it with cotton and dope. The problem with cotton is that it does not last as long as the polyester material, so you have to recover it soon.”
The Tiltons enjoy answering questions about the aircraft that looks so fragile.
“It originally flew with a 35 horsepower engine,” Dean Tilton explained.
“When people ask me how it flies I tell them that it flaps its wings,” Christine joked.
The Tiltons shared most of the work on the project, says Christine, “but I told him ‘hands off the seat, the seat is mine!’ When I tore it open, it was old horsehair and leather. I found that in 1929 some guy had engraved his name on it. It was the previous owner from Nebraska. So I went ahead and scratched Dean’s name on it and his date of birth. I thought it would be neat if it ever gets restored again for the person doing the job to see those names on it when they remove the upholstery.”
Dean notes with pride that he is 87 years old and still flying.
“Age is just a figure,” he said.