There are a couple of good reasons Gilbert and Barbara Pierce’s bright red 1949 Piper PA-16 Clipper occupied Space 1 on Row 1 of the vintage aircraft parking at this year’s SUN ’n FUN.
First, they were early arrivals and, more importantly, their aircraft is a past champion and always receives a prime display spot.
On the day before SUN ‘n FUN opened this year, the Pierces, from Germantown, Tenn., relaxed in lawn chairs under the wing of N5834H enjoying their front-row seating at the fly-in. They arrived the previous day after a more than five-hour lus flight from the Volunteer State.
“We’ve owned the plane since 1995,” said Gilbert, a retired Navy communications technician. “We restored it one wing at a time, one part of it at a time.”
That restoration was complete in 2005 and it was judged the Custom Classic Winner at SUN n’ FUN that year.
The Pierces and their plane are long distance flyers. In the past two decades they have flown to Alaska, across Canada, to Pennsylvania, Colorado, Sault St. Marie, Ontario, and Seattle. There were a lot of shorter trips in between.
“I first built a Kitfox,” Gilbert said, “but it was too small and too slow. I decided to move up.”
He got a good recommendation on the Clipper as a cross-country aircraft and bought his plane from a pilot in Seattle in 1995.
Gilbert credits his wife with helping him fulfill his ambition to be a pilot.
“I flew as an aircraft crewmember in the Navy,” he said. “Every time I heard a plane I looked up at the sky, so for Christmas in 1990 Barbara gave me a receipt for what it would cost to be a private pilot. Six months later I had my license.”
“But I created a monster,” Barbara quickly added. “He got the license and said, ‘now I need an airplane.’”
That led to his building a Kitfox and then acquiring the Clipper, which is the last plane the Pierces plan to own, according to Gilbert.
It would be an easy plane to sell, he noted.
“At Oshkosh, a guy came up to me and said he was going to buy my plane,” he recalled. “I told him it wasn’t for sale. He said everything has a price. I said I wasn’t selling because my wife said not to sell it. The fellow got mad.”
Another potential buyer pulled out his checkbook and asked Gilbert to set the price. “I had to tell him it just wasn’t for sale,” he said.
When Gilbert got out of the Navy in 1976 he returned to his university studies and graduated from Memphis State with an engineering degree two years later.
He began a second career as an engineer and also remained interested in aircraft.
He was able to document his extensive Navy aircraft maintenance experience and provided the FAA information on that and his aircraft building skills in constructing the Kitfox. As a result, in 2002 he received his Airframe and Powerplant license without formal study based on his work experience. He has since added the Inspection Authorization rating.
“Two of our sons are pilots,” said Barbara, adding she has no aspirations of becoming a pilot, but enjoys riding with Gilbert in their plane.
“The boys tell me they wish their wives would fly with them like Barbara does,” Gilbert said.
The PA-16 Clipper is a special aircraft, Gilbert noted.
“There were only 736 of them produced in 1949,” he said. “It cruises at 115 mph and is easier to land for me than a 172. The Clipper has a 30-foot wing and I find the wind doesn’t get under that as much as the 36-foot 172 wingspan.”
Gilbert said a trip to Denver in 2004 convinced him to install a larger engine than the O-235 on his aircraft when he bought it.
“We were over Kansas at 5,500 feet in 100° temperatures and a Tri-Pacer passed us and began climbing,” he said. “We couldn’t climb and I decided I needed a larger engine. But when I got to the spot where the Tri-Pacer had begun to climb I started up also. It was a thermal. But I still called my son Steven, who is an A&P, and asked him to find me an O-320.”
One was soon found and the plane now sports the 150-horsepower O-320 engine.
The panel on Pierce’s Clipper is a one-off design he did and had custom cut. He added a number of gauges to the standard instruments to more closely monitor engine performance. He has ECI exhaust gas and cylinder head gauges, an ECI volt and ammeter gauge.
“I also have an ICOM A-210 communications set and a King 270 transponder,” he said.
He fitted a Stratus 2 receiver under the panel for ADS-B In reception and has an iPad Mini using ForeFlight attached to the side of the panel to show the Stratus generated information. An external antenna improves the Stratus reception, he said.
Gilbert, 77, and Barbara, 72, say they will continue to fly long distance journeys. That will add to the approximately 2,200 hours he has logged as a private pilot.
And together the Pierces have reached an impressive number. Their next wedding anniversary will be their 54th. They haven’t settled on a flying destination to celebrate, but all indications are it will be someplace on the other side of the country.