Ryan Lihs of Sioux City, Iowa, is an enthusiastic-yet-humble sort of aviator. When he flew his handsome black-and-gold biplane to Antique Airfield for the 2017 Antique Airplane Association Fly-In in Blakesburg, Iowa, this past Labor Day, numerous admirers were irresistibly drawn to it.
He happily shared the history of his 1929 Pitcairn PA-6. In fact, he enjoys doing that almost as much as he does flying it — and he did plenty of both during the fly-in.
Ryan, 37, has owned a J-3 Cub for about 10 years, which whetted his appetite for a real antique.
“I looked at a lot of Waco F-2s, but I love the history of Harold Pitcairn and the Pitcairn Aircraft Company, so I knew that this PA-6 was the one for me,” he said with a smile. “I’ve got a lot of historical pictures and information about it, which David Pitcairn helped me put together. 214H is the oldest PA-6 flying; George Jenkins of Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, also has a PA-6, NC548K.”
Ryan first heard about the PA-6 from Ben Taylor of Antique Airfield and Dallas Grimm of Redline Aviation.
“I called David Pitcairn and learned more about the aircraft,” recalls Ryan, “and then I flew to Pennsylvania for a week, met Mike Posey and stayed with David Pitcairn. I learned everything that I could from them.”
According to aircraft records, 214H (s/n 39) rolled out of the Pitcairn Aircraft Company on May 31, 1929. It had a 220-hp Wright Whirlwind J-5-C engine, an inertia starter, and an adjustable steel propeller.
Instrument boards included a tachometer, altimeter, compass, oil thermometer, gasoline gauge, bank and turn, airspeed, clock, oil pressure, and rate of climb indicator. It was also equipped with a first aid kit, fire extinguisher, and safety belts. 214H was outfitted with extra equipment, including a map pocket, pilot’s DuPlate glass windshield, cockpit heaters, and a crash pad on the passenger’s instrument board.
The PA-6 went through numerous owners throughout the years and, as was common back in the day, a few mishaps as well. In early 1933, Raymond de Voyes of Adirondack Aerial Advertising Company bought the biplane. A banner towing device was installed, but was later removed when the PA-6 again changed hands.
Fast forward, and by 1995, NC214H had become part of the late John Desmond’s Heritage Aircraft Collection at Chalfont, Pennsylvania.
“Desmond’s mechanics and Mike Posey restored this airplane over the years,” Ryan said. “Mike and his brother, Larry, finished the restoration in 2015 and I purchased it in 2016. Most of the instruments are original to the PA-6 model. We also put a GPS, radio, transponder, starter, and battery in it.”
Ryan and his PA-6 share something in common — they both know what it’s like to fly low over farm fields. In 1945, NC214H was converted into a crop duster. A hopper was installed just aft of the fuselage gas tank, along with an adjustable air foil under the fuselage, and a wind-driven agitator was mounted on the right wing. The PA-6 also had a metal turtle back fairing and a tail wheel (instead of the original tail skid) then. The dusting equipment was removed from NC214H and a front seat was installed in 1949.
If the hands of time were turned back, it could have been Ryan flying the PA-6 when it was plying the skies as a crop duster. That’s because Ryan, who started flying at 14 and soloed at 16, started spraying crops in a Piper Pawnee at 20.
He owns and operates his own aerial application business, Redline Aviation, with the assistance of his wife, Ashley.
Ryan still operates with his first ag plane, a Cessna A188B, as well as a turboprop AT-402 Air Tractor. He’s also type rated in Beech jets. Of his 10,000 hours total time, he has around 7,000 hours tailwheel time.
So his career neatly dovetails with his passion for the antique Pitcairn biplane and one facet of its history.
Back in the late 1920s, Harold Pitcairn founded Pitcairn Aircraft Company in Pennsylvania. The company manufactured several Mailwing models — including the PA-5, PA-6, PA-7 — to fly cross-country air mail routes for the United States Postal Service. Pitcairn Aviation (which later became Eastern Air Transport) had Contract Air Mail Route #19 from New York to Atlanta.
The Pitcairn PA-6 Super Mailwing and Sport Mailwing biplanes were both on Approved Type Certificate No. 92, dated December 1928. The Super Mailwing was configured with a pilot cockpit and a large mail compartment, while the Sport Mailwing could carry two passengers in the front cockpit.
The Mailwings quickly gained a good reputation in the air mail industry. Since pilots flew in extremely adverse weather conditions, the Mailwing was designed to be inherently stable in flight. The fuel tank was built into the fuselage instead of the upper wing as most biplanes of the era, which allowed the wing to be more aerodynamically efficient.
A mail compartment was in front of the pilot’s cockpit, and the PA-6 had nearly twice the mail cargo capacity of the PA-5.
The fuselage was built of square section steel tubing for extra strength to protect the pilot in the event of a crash, and the pilot’s comfort was enhanced by a windscreen and adjustable seat. Additionally, the horizontal stabilizer was adjustable in flight.
“One unique feature of the PA-6 is the zipper on the side of the fuselage, which allowed easy maintenance access,” Ryan said. “That was a priority for mail operations. The engine controls and fuel lines could be disconnected, and the entire firewall forward, including the oil system — called a Quick Engine Change system during World War II — could be removed and replaced.”
“Harold Pitcairn bought 214H in 1943 so that his son, Steven, could fly it around the country building hours for his airline pilot career with Eastern Air Lines,” shares Ryan. “A photo of Steven Pitcairn and the airplane is in ‘Legacy of Wings – The Harold F. Pitcairn Story‘ by Frank Kingston Smith.”
Pitcairn sold the ship in 1945. In 1946, it was purchased by Paul Mantz Air Services of Burbank, California.
“214H was owned by Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz, and in 1947, he flew this airplane in the movie ‘Blaze of Noon.’ Two PA-7 Mailwings were also in that movie — NC54W and NC95W. All three airplanes were used for one scene at the end of the movie, and you could tell every time you saw 214H,” elaborates Ryan, “because it has the forward exhaust and the square wingtips, where the PA-7s had rear exhaust and rounded wingtips.”
Mantz sold the PA-6 in 1948, and it returned to the East Coast.
Keeping History Alive
In less than six months of ownership, Ryan has logged more than 100 hours in his PA-6. Quite naturally, along with that flight time comes a bit of upkeep, such as learning the intricacies of care and maintenance for its 235-hp Wright J-6-7.
“I think it’s like most round engines. They all have their quirks. Mike Connor of Georgia did the overhaul on the engine, and I’ve been told he’s the best by all the Wright engine guys,” Ryan said. “I think the airplane’s not an ‘everyday flyer,’ due to it being so rare. Brent Taylor, president of the Antique Airplane Association, told me, ‘if you fly it, you will work on it.’ And he’s right.”
“But I do not want to park it,” he adds with a smile. “I want to fly it on special occasions and to fly-ins. I know I have to keep current in the aircraft, so I have to fly it!”
Ryan says the PA-6 cruises “at about 120 mph indicated airspeed.”
“I’m pretty green around the edges on flying antiques, but to me, it’s a very stiff airplane,” he says. “It goes straight and level like you can’t believe, but if you want to turn the airplane, it takes a lot of power at the higher speeds. At the lower speeds, it flies great, but at the higher speeds, the aileron input is very tough to me. Some other people have flown it and say it’s pretty common for airplanes of that era. It’s a very stable airplane and climbs out real well.”
“The history is so neat to me — it’s almost more fun than flying the airplane!” smiles Ryan.
Now that the warm flying season has passed, Ryan plans to display his PA-6, along with its accoutrement of historical documents, at the Mid America Museum of Aviation and Transportation in Sioux City, Iowa, for the winter.
Ryan is not only fulfilling his dream of owning an antique biplane, he’s also adding a new chapter to aviation legacy. His 1929 PA-6 is a flying tribute to Pitcairn Aircraft Company and Pitcairn Aviation, and also to the modern-day men who so beautifully restored it to award-winning status. NC214H was the Grand Champion Antique at the AAA/APM 2017 Fly-In.