You’ve probably heard that the aviation gene runs in families. Very often it manifests as a preference for a particular aircraft. For the Morris family of Poplar Grove, Ill., the Culver Cadet is the “family” airplane.
The two-place, low-wing aircraft, designed by Culver Aircraft employee Al Mooney circa 1939, has a semi-monocoque fuselage instead of welded-steel-tube. It features tapered wooden wings and manually actuated retractable landing gear.
Cadets were just starting to roll off the assembly line when World War II broke out. The planes were turned into radio-controlled target drones known as PQ-8s. When the war ended, the market was flooded with surplus military aircraft and Culver Aircraft folded. In the years that followed there were a few attempts by other companies at turning out more Cadets, but the efforts to sustain the design failed. As a result, Culver Cadets are rare today. To see a fully restored Culver Cadet is a joy. But two side by side, especially when they have similar paint jobs, is a rare treat.
And that’s what visitors to AirVenture’s vintage area last summer were treated to when the Cadet owned by Ken and Lorraine Morris of Poplar Grove, Ill., was parked next to the one owned by Ken’s father, Gene, who hails from Houston.
The Cadets are not the Morris family’s first venture into the world of vintage aircraft. Ken and Lorraine live at Bel Air Estates, an airpark at Poplar Grove Airport (C77), which Ken describes as “a haven for vintage airplanes.” Both are pilots and they have owned and restored several classic aircraft, including a Cessna 140A that was used for a hand-propping demonstration at AirVenture.
“I got my A&P ticket way back in 1974 and Lorraine is skilled at wood working,” Ken explained. “I am an airline pilot by trade, but restoring and flying aircraft is something that we can do together and we enjoy.”
It was his father’s interest in Cadets that led to couple getting their own.
“My father had one back in the mid-1980s,” he said. “He restored it and I got to fly it around a few times. He convinced me that we needed to get a Cadet.”
The couple bought their Cadet as a project from an estate in September 2007.
“We were actually looking for a Curtiss Wright Junior project, but my father-in-law always told us how great the Culver Cadets were,” Lorraine said. “We tried to get him to get the Culver so we could get the Curtiss, but he couldn’t afford it, so we got the Cadet with the intent of working on it with him. But as we were working on ours, he determined that he needed a project of his own. He found a project Culver Cadet close to where he lives in Texas. We got them flying within about two weeks of each other.”
One of the challenges of purchasing a plane from an estate is that you don’t know how much of a project it is going to be, said Ken. “That’s especially true if it hasn’t been flown in a while,” he added. “Our airplane hadn’t been flown since 1960. We weren’t sure what we were going to find.”
According to the couple’s research, the Cadets were marketed to people who wanted to go fast — “mostly businessmen and sportsmen,” said Lorraine. “Our airplane was a corporate airplane. The first owner put about 400 hours on it in three years, then 50 hours in two months, and then sold it. It had quite a succession of owners until 1960 when it stopped flying. We don’t know if it stopped flying because of an accident or pilot error because nothing was mentioned in the logbooks.”
All restoration projects are a learning experience, said Lorraine, but this one was even more so because they knew so little about Culver Cadets.
“The Cadets had Franklin engines. Ours came with three Franklin project engines but we opted to go with a Continental engine because we knew nothing about Franklins and they are difficult to get parts for,” she said. “We decided to stick with something we knew.”
Ken was in charge of designing new engine mounts and, with his father’s help, fabricated a new cowling.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Cadets is the manually actuated landing gear system. Plexiglas windows in the floor allow the pilot to check the placement of the gear. The lever and hand crank is located between the seats. Because the cockpit is so narrow, the pilot has to get fairly friendly with the passenger to activate the gear.
“At first it seems complicated, but after you do it a few times, it isn’t,” Lorraine said as she climbed into the cockpit to demonstrate the process: Pull up the knob, push it over to the side for up or down. Crank the wheel. Verify the location of the landing gear through the windows in the floor. Put the knob back and make sure it locks into place.
A hand crank on the ceiling actuates the trim. Like many trim tabs of the era, it looks like a car window handle. I could only imagine that trimming in flight would result in a motion similar to doing the air lasso thing over your head.
“How do you trim, deploy the landing gear and manipulate the throttle for landing at the same time?” I asked.
“You need three hands to land it,” Ken said with a shrug. “It takes some practice.”
Both Morris Cadets sport a yellow and blue paint scheme. There are scallops on the slightly elliptical wings and the N-numbers reverse in color, so that the numbers are blue on the yellow part of the wing and yellow on the blue.
Getting an authentic paint scheme was a challenge, said Lorraine, thumbing through the airplane’s “baby book,” which contains all their research.
“All the photos we found were black and white,” she said. “We know that they were blue and cream, blue and silver, orange and cream, or burgundy and cream and the scallops were a standard paint scheme. But we like blue and yellow. We decided to go as flashy as we could get.”
That “flash” extended to having the tail-number of the airplane embroidered on the yellow shirts they wear at air shows.
Unfortunately, the elder Morris could not be at last summer’s show because of a foot injury. “I flew his airplane up from Texas so we could display them side by side,” said Lorraine. In addition to the informational placard on his Cadet, there was a photo of him with his foot in a cast and a brief explanation of why he was not at the show.
“It’s necessary. A lot of people are asking about him,” Ken said.
“We send him updates from the show including photos at night via e-mail,” added Lorraine.
For more information: TaildraggerAviation.com.