Whoa! What’s that sporty little airplane flying by? It looks like it’s flying right off the cover of the April 1935 issue of Popular Aviation!
Truth be known, it’s one of O.G. “Ace” Corben’s homebuilt designs, and detailed factory drawings for this monoplane were published in sequential issues of Popular Aviation that year.
The Corben Super Ace is a noteworthy example of the Golden Age of Aviation’s homebuilt sport planes. Having a philosophy perhaps similar to Henry Ford’s of building economical motor cars for “every man,” Corben was likewise a proponent of designing and building sport planes that almost anyone could afford.
Corben’s designs could be constructed economically from readily-available materials — and in this case, the plane was designed around Corben’s own aeronautical conversion of Ford’s Model A engine.
For the Fun of It
Those who fly airplanes like the Super Ace simply love the exhilaration of fun flying. Trent Davis, an affable young aviator, is one of them.
He had a great time flying NX17288 at Blakesburg, Iowa, during the Antique Aircraft Association/Airpower Museum Fly-In in early September 2017.
Lean and tall, Trent finds the single-seat open cockpit has adequate leg space. A compass and handhold are neatly fitted into the trailing edge of the wing, which happens to be precisely at the pilot’s eye-level, but that doesn’t really faze Trent.
“The visibility is actually not as bad as people think,” he said. “It’s like flying behind the radiator on my Model A Pietenpol — it’s easy to see down the left and right side of it. The only thing you can’t really see well is the horizon.”
“The Super Ace looks really racy on the ground, but it’s not,” Trent continues with a laugh. “Flying it is pretty comparable to flying my Pietenpol. It’s pretty light on the controls, but it has a shorter wing, so it doesn’t float as much. It cruises about 75-80 mph at around 1,925 to 1,950 rpm. It’ll climb out at 60 or 65 mph at a 45° angle at full throttle. It’s hand prop to start – just give it a little shot of prime, pull it through about four times, hit the mags, and it fires right up. This one has two 12 gallon wing tanks, and I flew it three hours nonstop from Brodhead, Wisconsin, to Blakesburg.”
Rare Bird and Rare Breed
The Corben Super Ace is a rare bird, and Trent Davis is one of the rare young breed who has a hands-on appreciation for the vintage-type homebuilts.
Ted Davis, commenting on his son’s accomplishment of getting his Pietenpol up and running with a Model A engine, smiles with a glint in his eye as he sums it up: “I told Trent that if he wanted the Pietenpol flying again, it was up to him to make it happen. You know, everybody’s got to go through all the trials and tribulations — it not only builds character, it builds characters! I’m proud of him.”
Trent smiles and shares, “I work for my dad’s restoration business and help give rides in the New Standard, and I love taking my Pietenpol up when it’s calm. It’s just a joy to fly! Flying the Pietenpol helped prepare me for flying the Super Ace. I’ve only seen three Super Aces that were finished and flying: Mark Lightsey had one, Alex Whitmore had this one, and Denny Trone had one, which is in Canada now. My dad flew that one when I was a kid. I’m 28 now and I’ve pretty much been flying my whole life.”
Building the Super Ace
Reportedly, Dave Warren and Curtis Corn of Oklahoma started this Super Ace project in the early 1970s, but didn’t complete it. In 1984, Alex Whitmore of Justin, Texas, purchased it and brought it to flying status.
“I was looking for something unique and wanted to build something that no one else was flying at the time,” Alex recalls. “Dave had completed, covered and painted the fuselage. The wings were mostly complete, but not covered. There was nothing firewall forward.”
“A builder friend took the project and covered the wings while I found an engine,” he continues. “I wanted a pressurized oil system, so I settled on a Model B Ford block. I sent it to an expert in Arizona and he modified the engine for a full oil pressure system. After the engine mount was built, the cowling was built and fitted to the airframe. ”
The fabric-covered Super Ace has a welded steel tube fuselage, wooden wing spars and ribs, and the main gear have spring shock absorbers and mechanical heel brakes. A tailwheel is currently in place of the old tailskid. The original plans called for two five-gallon fuel tanks in the wings, but Alex installed larger tanks.
He flew NX17288 to various fly-ins where it attracted many admirers and quickly joined the ranks of award-winning airplanes. He also recalls that plane was used as a static display in a movie about Pancho Barnes.
The Super Ace was “cover girl” for the first 1985 issue of the Corben Club’s Corben Courier Sport Planes and the June 1985 issue of The Vintage Airplane.
“After that, it was mostly flown locally. About 10 years later, I was flying it to a local fly-in when the seal on the water pump failed, causing a forced landing and subsequent left gear failure. It was a couple of years before it was repaired,” he says. “During this time we modified the engine mount by lengthening it eight inches, which required a new cowling. After flying it a while, we started having overheating problems. After a couple of engine failures it was determined that the engine block was cracked in the number one cylinder. In all, I probably flew it 250 hours. I kind of lost heart in the project and subsequently sold it. I am certainly glad to see it fly again. They did a beautiful job this time.”
Revitalizing the Super Ace
Current owner Steve Thomas of Poplar Grove, Illinois, has a strong affinity for vintage and historical airplanes, and loves to see them flying instead of languishing. He just couldn’t resist buying NX17288 in May 2015, and promptly set about making it airworthy.
“The Super Ace has the looks of early race planes, and like other early homebuilt aircraft, it represents an important, innovative time in aviation. Our work primarily focused on the Model B Ford engine,” shares Steve. “We discovered a cracked engine block, head, and the water pump was junk, as well as other issues. We found a serviceable engine block in North Dakota and purchased a ‘Lions Head’ — a billet high compression head allowing for eight spark plugs. We assembled the engine with ‘insert bearings’ and two new Slick magnetos. Once rebuilt, we tested the engine on the dyno at Poplar Grove Airmotive and selected a water pump from a snowmobile to be the best fit.”
All told, the engine and airframe work yielded pleasant results.
“Originally the Ford Model B engine produced 50 hp,” explains Steve. “During testing, our Model B for the Super Ace was producing a mighty 72 hp! A number of other airframe repairs and improvements were made, including replacing the propeller, wheels, tires, and installing carburetor heat. We also made some minor fabric repairs and painted the Ace. Hannah Taylor hand lettered the Corben logo.”
Steve made the first flight in the Corben Super Ace on Oct. 9, 2016, at Poplar Grove Airport (C77).
He’s immensely pleased with the Super Ace’s performance, and says “the ground handling is excellent. The engine is very responsive and smooth; it just purrs while burning only four gallons per hour. Like many early designs, the flight controls are not harmonized or balanced. The rudder is very sensitive, pitch is slightly less sensitive, and the roll is least sensitive. Although there is no elevator trim, it’s not needed. Once you have the feel, it flies fine, hands off, in smooth air. We’re having a blast with this retro vintage homebuilt!”
Trent heartily agrees. After all, Steve let him fly the Super Ace to Blakesburg just so people could see it.
“I work part time on airplanes at Steve’s shop, Poplar Grove Airmotive,” explains Trent, “so that’s how I got so lucky to be able to fly it. The Thomas’ are awesome people, and I’m fortunate to be working at such a great place as Poplar Grove. I simply wouldn’t have had this opportunity if it wasn’t for Steve and Tina. It’s cool having the Super Ace at Blakesburg, especially since Alex brought it here more than 30 years ago — before I was born!”