“What…is…that?” That’s the normal reaction people have when they see the Wickham Model A serial #1 owned by Tim and Kate Davis of Auburn, Wash. The high-wing taildragger resembles an early model Cessna 170 at first blush but, when you take a second look, you realize you are looking at an entirely different machine.
“I do use a Cessna 170 as a reference when I describe it to people,” says Tim Davis. “It is very close to the first Cessna 170s. It was designed to be a four-place airplane around four 170-pound people.”
You could say the airplane is the shirt-tail cousin of the B-17, because it was designed and built by Jim Wickham, a Boeing engineer.
“Mr. Wickham started out with Stearman and when Boeing bought Stearman he moved to the northwest with Boeing. It took him seven years to design and build the airplane,” he explains. “He made six different designs, none of which were put into plans, none of which were mass produced. This was his number 1.”
The Model A was still under construction when Wickham moved to the northwest. The airplane made its first flight from King County International Airport/Boeing Field in Seattle on June 1, 1955.
One of the most striking aspects of the aircraft is the number of rivets on the skin.
“Mr. Wickham was on the military side of the Boeing house. His hobby was stress analysis, so I am sure the airplane has more rivets than are necessary. It’s built Hell for stout!” says Tim Davis.
The airplane, painted bright blue and red, is called “The Bluebird.”
“It’s our baby,” says Kate Davis, who is the pilot. “We fly it two to four times a week.”
“Kate has more time in the airplane than the previous seven owners,” Tim Davis notes with pride.
Katie estimates she has more than 1,500 hours, but for the most part doesn’t keep a logbook for herself. “The airplane has one,” she says.
The couple, who are members of EAA Chapter 26, acquired the airplane in 1998 through a tip from fellow EAA member, Cecil Hendricks, who told them that the rare airplane, in project form, was up for sale and in the Seattle area. The airplane had been through several owners and had been wrecked at least once. To the inexperienced, it looked like a pile of junk.
Tim Davis was determined to get his hands on it, but he had to persuade Kate, a lapsed pilot, to get on board with the idea.
“By then we had two kids in grade school and I was building a Q2, which is a little two-place foam and fiberglass design. The Q2 really didn’t fit our family,” Tim recalls. “When I brought up the idea of getting the Wickham, she said ‘forget it, you already have an airplane, go work on that.’ Then one day we were at a restaurant that happened to be near a local airport when a Cessna 172 flew overhead on approach. Kate remarked that she wished that she was ready to fly again, and wanted a four-place airplane. That opened the door for the acquisition of the Wickham.”
Assembly began in their backyard. “It was in pieces and parts,” says Kate. “There was the fuselage and the wings and hundreds and hundreds of small parts. He’d take a piece and a part and look at the holes and wonder where it went, then find the holes that matched it up.”
The airplane measures 33 feet wingtip to wingtip. The windows have a very angular quality to them, like a vintage car. According to the Tim, one of the more puzzling things about the Wickham was that the bottom of the control surfaces looked smooth and pristine. The top sides had small dings and divots on them. At first, they thought it might be by design.
“We finally figured out that it was hail damage!” he says with a laugh.
Construction was done by reverse engineering because Wickham didn’t record much on paper.
“That made it challenging,” Tim recalls. “I’d be working on it and Kate would stick her head out of the house and ask, ‘There are no plans for this, are there?’ ‘No, dear.’ ‘There are no drawings for this, are there?’ ‘No, dear.’ The closest we had was a three-view drawing on 8.5 x 11-inch paper showing a front, side and top view of the aircraft.”
As fate would have it, Tim was laid off from his job at Boeing and became a stay-at-home dad while Kate taught school. The airplane began to go together more rapidly and by 2001 they had it in the air.
“It’s a very nice flying airplane,” says Kate. “It doesn’t fly much different than a Cessna. It doesn’t break away in a stall, it sort of mushes. It is very forgiving but it is a taildragger so you have to be on your toes. It also has some quirks, like a tendency to veer to the right, but those are just endearing.”
Cruise speed is around 105 miles per hour. The airplane lands at 60 mph.
According to Tim, the Wickham originally had a Lycoming 235 engine, which was later replaced with an O-290.
“We think the gross weight of the original airplane was 1,900 pounds and he later upped it to 2,000 pounds,” says Tim.
The aircraft is certified in the normal category, which means it can withstand +4.4 gs, but the couple have it on good authority that it could take more.
“We know he built it to be strong,” says Tim. “He did aerobatics in it at a Canadian air show once and wasn’t worried about breaking the airplane. Wickham said that he built everything to withstand +10gs.”
The aircraft looks vintage from the outside and, for the most part, the same goes for the inside, says Kate, although they did get rid of the heavy tube radios and added a GPS and transponder.
“But the panel still looks pretty original,” she says, adding that she keeps a tight rein on Tim when he has ideas for “improvements.”
“He wanted to put vortex generators on it and I said no way, absolutely no!” she says, shaking her head. “I think Mr. Wickham would be happy that his airplane is still flying but a little sad that the instrument panel has been changed. Tim thinks that Mr. Wickham would want something better in the airplane.”
“He was an engineer,” Tim laughs. “He’d always be trying to improve something or upgrade when something breaks!”
Tim and Kate agree that creating a historically accurate color scheme proved to be a challenge, because most of the photos they found were in black and white.
Also, the original paint job wasn’t exactly up to modern aviation standards.
“Mr. Wickham painted it with a paint brush with paint that he got at the hardware store,” says Tim. “That kind of paint oxidizes in the sun. We actually found some of the color etched into the wing where the N number was and that helped us find a match.”
“We also had some pieces with scraps of paint on them,” says Kate. “We worked from that and it is now our Bluebird. It’s part of the family,” she adds, patting the cowl.