ERIE, Colorado — The Spirit of Flight museum added a piece of air racing history to its growing collection with the delivery of a 1947 Art Chester design known as the Swee’ Pea. The museum plans to restore the plane to static condition to help tell the story of early air racing.
“We were contacted in August 2017 by the Peterson family of Walnut Grove, California, and they said they had the remains of a plane called Swee’ Pea (later named Sky Baby), which had been stored in a barn near Los Angeles since the 1950s,” said Gordon Page, president of the Spirit of Flight Center. “It took us a while to figure out what they actually had, but concluded it might be an Art Chester racer based on photos.”
The Swee’ Pea was the third design from Chester, who worked on the design of the North American P-51 Mustang during World War II.
The Swee’ Pea shared a similar short, mid-wing taildragger configuration with other midget air racers of the 1940s era. The aircraft was unique in that it used a V-tail configuration and a unique single cooling air intake through a large hole in the center of the spinner. The fuselage is welded tube steel with wood and fabric covering, and the wings are plywood covered.
The Swee’ Pea was introduced at the 1947 National Air Races and the V-tail performed poorly at takeoff speed, so it was replaced by a conventional tail for the 1948 Miami races. The top speed was reduced with a conventional tail, so the V-tail was re-installed.
Swee’ Pea could fly 180 mph using a Continental C-85 engine.
Art Chester sold the Swee’ Pea to his mechanic, Lynn Kauffold, shortly after the Miami races. It was later sold to Nancy Peterson’s brother, John D. Hardman, who put it in storage in 1957 with hopes of restoring it. It was never touched after it went into storage.
“Time certainly took a toll on the Swee’ Pea while it was in storage,” said Page. “The fabric on the fuselage is mostly gone, but you can still see the #7 that was painted on the wing for racing.”
The Spirit of Flight museum is seeking support to help restore the plane, and it hopes to take the completed project to EAA Airventure and other airshow gatherings.
“We are always on the lookout for unique aircraft and artifacts that you just don’t see,” said museum board member Dennis Ruch. “The Swee’ Pea is certainly unique, and I really like the original Sky Baby artwork on the nose.”
It will take a lot to restore Swee’ Pea back to static condition, but the V-tail midget air racer has emerged from a half century of storage and will be on display at the Spirit of Flight museum to tell the Art Chester story.
Founded in 1998, the non-profit Spirit of Flight Center facility features more than 1,000 aviation artifacts at its Erie Municipal Airport facility. Aircraft include a rare German Messerschmitt Bf-109, L-19 Bird Dog, and a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fighter jet.