Longtime pilot Ken Haenlein’s favorite flights are at the controls of his 1941 Boeing Stearman over the pine-covered North Carolina Sandhill region. But his professional flying has always taken him a lot farther from home.
Haenlein is owner and chief pilot of Time Saver Aviation, a Part 135 on-demand flying operation headquartered at Moore County Regional Airport (KSOP) at Southern Pines, N.C. Time Saver’s fleet includes a King Air B100, a B-36 turbocharged Bonanza, and a Piper PA-31 Chieftain.
Ken’s favorite aircraft, however, is Sophie, N62201, a meticulously restored PT-17 Stearman.
“I always tell people that I was an instrument-rated pilot before I was a pilot,” Haenlein said. “I was seven when I started flying with my grandfather Fred Keck in his Beech Staggerwing in New York. I couldn’t see above the airplane dash then. The Staggerwing was neat because it had a car style steering wheel.
“My grandfather would say maintain no more than 5° off course and within 20 feet of altitude,” he continued. “He was an attorney and he would read his papers while I was flying. He would look up and correct me. I could not reach the rudder pedals and he would do that for me. We flew out of Bayport Aerodrome near Islip MacArthur Airport in New York.”
“My uncle had three Stearmans in New York and also a P-51 Mustang,” Haenlein said. “I worked at the airfield and it was my job to get the Stearman we needed out. I started flying on my own when I was 14 and I got my license when I was 16 and got my instrument rating and helicopter rating.”
Haenlein, now 65, joined the Coast Guard at the height of the Vietnam War and his unit was sent to Vietnam to fly with the Navy.
“I was there for two tours in the 1970s,” he said.
During his time in Vietnam he was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart.
“I got hit by flying Plexiglas, which was shattered by gunfire,” Haenlein said. “I’ve got two stitches under my chin from that, but I tell people that I got shot at more in Vietnam by the U.S. Marines than the North Vietnamese.”
Back in the U.S. still on active duty after his wartime service, Haenlein suffered a shipboard injury on a Coast Guard vessel and eventually left the service.
“I lost my kneecap in the accident,” Haenlein said. “I went back to college and got an accounting degree.”
In 1980 he began working for a healthcare firm as a forensic accountant.
“We had just taken delivery of a Bell Ranger,” he said. “The doctor who was there told me he heard I flew helicopters.”
Haenlein described his injury in the Coast Guard to the doctor and explained that he had lost his medical because of the accident.
“The doctor asked me to do a deep knee-bend,” Haenlein said. “I did and he said do you want a first, second or third class medical? So I got my medical back.”
In the mid-1990s Haenlein made two important life decisions. He married for the first time in 1995. His wife Ellen is a North Carolina-born physician and they settled in the Tar Heel midlands.
“And I retired in 1996,” Haenlein continued. “I went to work for Corporate Airlines out of Raleigh-Durham and had a hitch with NetJets. The problem for me was that I wasn’t home that much.”
His last flying day on the NetJets job was Sept. 10, 2001, he recalled.
Haenlein didn’t remain on the ground for long. He decided to be his own boss and founded Time Saver Aviation, at KSOP — also known as Pinehurst Regional Airport — in Southern Pines near the famed golf courses around Pinehurst, N.C.
“The business started out with a 1987 B-36 turbocharged Bonanza and a Piper 31 Navajo,” he said. “We started to get more business from guys who had to go to Norfolk and Richmond or to Atlanta. We went all the way to Florida in the Navajo, but our clients wanted a faster aircraft, so in 2006 I bought a 1980 King Air B100.”
Haenlein splits his work days between Time Saver at Moore County and an avionics and aircraft maintenance operation he later purchased at Raleigh Executive Jetport (KTTA). During an average work week he regularly commutes about one hour by car between his two businesses while maintaining an active schedule of Time Saver flights.
But the flying he loves most is clearly low and slow in N62201, the Stearman that occupies the prime corner spot in his company hangar at Moore County Airport.
“Sophie was a Christmas gift from my wife Ellen in 2014,” Haenlein said. “There were over 10,000 Stearmans built and it is a unique aircraft. You got 12 hours in the Stearman way back when. If you couldn’t show you could fly it, you were out. This aircraft was used down in Texas as a trainer. It has a new airworthiness certificate because they rebuilt it so completely it got a new one. It was sold as war surplus to an attorney in Texas. It did some crop dusting. And it was in a hangar for about 15 years. We got all the documentation from day one.”
Sophie’s rebirth was the restoration project of an airline pilot.
“He wanted more than I was willing to pay for the plane, but he was in a middle of getting divorced and had to sell,” Haenlein said. “I said no to the price and offered him what I was willing to pay. He called me back much later and accepted and my wife Ellen said let’s get it. She is the one who bought the plane for my Christmas present. The plane was named after the previous owner’s mother.”
The sale was made and the aircraft flown to Burlington, N.C., where Bully Aero did additional work on the Stearman for Haenlein.
Also, the seats were custom fabricated and embroidered with the classic Stearman logo on new red leather, matched to the aircraft’s paint, and refoamed. The work was done by Carolina Avionics & Aircraft Interiors in Salisbury, N.C.
Haenlein also upgraded the avionics.
“We went to a Garmin 430 and a Garmin 330 transponder,” he said.
The original restoration project was done by BIPE, Inc., noted airplane restorers at Western Carolina Regional Airport (KRHP) in Andrews, N.C. That restoration is documented in a thick notebook describing the transformation of the plane from permanent hangar occupant to pristine show aircraft.
When he is over the Carolina countryside in his Stearman the experience is special, Haenlein said.
“For me to be up there on a nice calm day where you can see forever, it takes me right back to flying with my grandfather,” he said. “You are up there and wind is blowing in your face. You’ve got to fly the plane. It is not business. You get up there and sit back and enjoy — probably the most relaxing time there is. You see a lot of beautiful things when you are flying. It’s reminds you of how small you are and insignificant you are in the main scheme of things. It is a true honor to have learned to fly.”
N62201 is powered by a Lycoming R680E3B nine cylinder radial instead of one of the iconic Jacobs radial powerplants.
“I like the Lycoming 300 horsepower,” Haenlein said. “I don’t like the 450 horsepower. It makes the plane experimental. I also feel it is a little too much power. There is a sound to a radial engine that I love and is unique. It is like hearing a Merlin. Once you have heard it you will never forget it.”
Haenlein said he regretted the low number of hours he logged in the Stearman during 2017.
“I am so busy that I don’t get to fly the plane that much, so it sits,” he said. “I only flew it about 10 to 12 hours this year.”
His logbooks show more than 14,000 hours — “and that does not include my military time,” he said.
“I like to fly Sophie on weekdays as opposed to weekends,” he said. “I have some favorite grass strips, but I can’t take the Stearman there on weekends. I have to allot an hour and a half when I land somewhere to answer questions about the plane. The Stearman is one of the most recognized airplanes that are out there.”
Haenlein supports local veterans groups whose members include former military pilots, volunteering to take the World War II vets aloft.
“These guys kind of made aviation what it is today,” he said. “And they are dying out.”
“It is also important for experienced pilots to talk to younger pilots,” he said. “Take the time to talk to them. For example, you ask a younger guy how much time he has and he will say I’ve got 14 hours. You were there one time, too. Take the time to encourage him. He is the next generation of pilots and it’s important. When I was young I was able to use the advice of the people I talked with. They were mentors. Talking to them teaches you a lot.”