It’s a grand day when your aircraft project rolls out of the hangar ready for its first flight. It’s an even bigger day when you fly your creation to AirVenture for the first time. Lon Dienst from Poplar Grove, Ill., sort of skipped the first flight phase because he was in such a hurry to show off his replica Art Chester Special at AirVenture in 2009.
“We’ve done some taxi tests but it has not flown yet,” Dienst said at that time, carefully placing a rope and stanchions around the single-place airplane that was on display in the vintage area of the annual show. “We finished it the Thursday before Oshkosh and trucked it here.”
A year later, Dienst flew the Chester Jeep to AirVenture, where it was treated like a rock star, with people swarming around the low-wing design, full of curiosity.
Dienst reports that by May of this year, he’s flown off the 50 hours required for experimental aircraft and he’s looking forward to showing the airplane again at this year’s AirVenture, which takes off July 25 in Oshkosh.
Not many people remember the design, says Dienst, noting that it was created by Art Chester during the Golden Age of aviation as a racing airplane.
“It was first introduced in 1932 and he continued to modify it over a period of five or six years,” says Dienst. “He made the wings longer, then shorter; lengthened and shortened the fuselage — anything to make it faster and more streamlined. The first race he did, the airplane reached 151 miles per hour. By the last race it did 251 miles per hour. This is the final version of it.”
The airplane is nicknamed “The Jeep” after Eugene the Jeep, a cartoon character from the Popeye comic strip. Eugene was a doglike creature that could change form and solve complex problems. He communicated through body language, but his only vocalization was the word “jeep!” During the 1930s and 1940s the word Jeep came to mean a person or a thing that was very capable and versatile, hence the name of the military vehicle that carries the same name.
“Chester had a thing for the Popeye comics,” says Dienst. “He had another design that he called ‘The Goon,’ which is another character from Popeye, and another design he named ‘Sweet Pea,’ which is also from Popeye.”
The Chester Special does look like something out of a cartoon, notes Dienst. One of the first comments people made when they approached the airplane at AirVenture was about its diminutive size. “They ask if it is a model,” Dienst says with a laugh. “I tell them it’s not. It has a wingspan of about 17 feet and from the tip of the spinner to the tail, it’s about 16 feet.”
Dienst has been working on the project for about 10 years. His brother Steve and son Eric helped, proving that it indeed takes a village to build an airplane.
The only other Chester Special that Dienst knows of is in the EAA Museum.
“There aren’t any plans available for it, so it had to be reverse-engineered,” he says. “I took measurements from the Chester Special in the EAA Museum.”
“This was all I had — this and a side-view picture of the airplane that I just fell in love with,” he says.
The registration number of the airplane is 12920. “I would have like to have had the original number of the airplane, 12930, but that’s not possible because the airplane that hangs in the museum still has it,” said Dienst. “My son was able to get us this number.”
The Chester Special is sheet metal and wood construction. “There were no composites back then,” Dienst notes. “The fuselage is aluminum. It was my first effort in hammering and welding. The hardest part was the nose.”
Since he intends to fly the plane, Dienst made a few changes for safety and convenience.
“The engine is a Menasco D-4-87. The original engine was a Menasco C4-S, which is an earlier version of the same engine. The modern engine is more user friendly,” he says. “For example, you don’t need to grease the rocker arms before each flight. The C4-S was supercharged because it was a racing airplane. Since this airplane isn’t intended to race, we went for a more user-friendly engine. This airplane also has a tailwheel and wheel brakes, which the original airplane didn’t have.”
“Getting into the airplane is easy because gravity helps you,” Dienst says, carefully demonstrating by lowering himself into the cockpit. “This is not a fly to California type airplane because your shoulders are up against the longerones. After about an hour you want out of it because it’s hot and cramped, but it was designed as a racing plane, not for touring. It almost takes the help of another person to get out,” he adds, struggling to extricate himself from the close quarters.
Dienst said at the end of last year’s AirVenture that he planned to truck the Chester Special replica home, then the “real work” of test flying the design would begin.
“We have to get to know the airplane,” he says.
If you plan to go to AirVenture this year, be sure to look for Chester’s Jeep in the vintage area.