By ALEX NELON
When I met my friends Richard and Stan at Shiflet Field Airport (9A) in Marion, North Carolina, in the spring of 2012, I had no idea what I was getting into.
The airplane we had flown in to see was a bedraggled wraith with fabric nearly 50 years old and metal showing through the flaking paint on the cowlings. It had been through a recent annual inspection and the engine was newly overhauled, so I bought it on the spot — the engine, that is, and the airplane came with it.
Then I began reading the logbooks and got hooked. This is no ordinary airplane. It is one of a kind: The only Cadet built by the Call Aircraft Company of Afton, Wyoming, with their name on it.
The story began to get bigger and wider and at some point I fell in love with the idea of restoring it to like-new condition. Some people get carried away like that. I’m one of them.
If you want to know what it’s like to restore an airplane, there are a lot of airplane lovers who will tell you that it doesn’t pay to ask how much it’s going to cost or how long it will take. I had heard stories, I just thought it couldn’t be all that hard. It is.
First off, taking all the fabric off and disassembling the parts and pieces isn’t all that difficult. Malcolm Powell and Jonathan Bogert at Southern Aircraft Support in Zellwood, Florida, was able to do that in pretty short order, although I wasn’t able to keep up with the photos and cataloging.
One thing I learned from that: You can never have enough pictures and you can never place enough labels on all those bits. Cable routing and more is a challenge when you’re ready to start putting it all back together and you don’t have drawings or pictures to go by.
During the first year of my ownership I found a whole community of Interstate Cadet owners who were more than willing to share information. My Cadet is essentially an Interstate and shares the same Type Certificate number.
That’s a plus and a minus – an Interstate might be on a particular STC, but my airplane isn’t because it doesn’t bear the Interstate brand. There was a lot to sort out along those lines.
We first cut fabric in October 2013. The covering had been installed in 1966 and still punch-tested OK, a tribute to the durability of Ceconite when an airplane is stored in a hangar.
As the interior was exposed, we found, much to our pleasure, that the parts appeared to be in good condition. The wing spars were in great shape, as were the ribs, although some old repairs to a couple of ribs had to be re-done. Almost all the wing hardware was reusable after cleaning and painting. The fuselage tubing was generally in good condition.
The engine was placed on a stand and stored apart from the workspace.
After the first year, I was beginning to question just why I had thought this could be done, much less in a few months. True, my airplane was not the only one in the shop — they had to make a living somehow — and I didn’t see all the details that were being taken care of. At every major milestone — fuselage cleaned, primed and painted — there was this little shot of optimism that kept me going.
As it was, every weld, every fitting, every part of that airplane was touched and healed, one part at a time. The old wood was replaced with aircraft grade plywood and finished to a high gloss, meaning the window frames, internal formers, floorboards, and main door had to be completely rebuilt. Parts that no one will see in the course of normal operation are absolutely pristine. We were on our way to a better-than-new 1952 machine.
At the end of year two, we had a fuselage that was beginning to be outfitted with seat frames, a newly-sewn baggage compartment behind the rear seat, a ground plane and internal antenna behind the baggage compartment, new wood formers and provisions for shoulder harnesses. The wooden door and window frames were also just about ready. The flight controls were covered and ready for paint, then set aside for the time being.
About the end of year two of the restoration the boss and I sold our house and moved three states away, to Hendersonville, North Carolina, leaving the project to be completed without my interference.
I’m sure Malcolm and Jon breathed a sigh of relief. I, on the other hand, depended entirely on the feedback I was getting, usually by phone or email, but ultimately in the form of an invoice. It was alternately frustrating and exhilarating. Pictures were manna from heaven.
Year three was the busy year. That’s when the parts started coming together to make what Malcolm said was looking almost like an airplane. The internals for the fuselage were completed and put into place, then the fuselage was covered and primed through silver.
Stainless steel was ordered for the firewall, then fitted, and metalwork on the eyebrow over the original windshield was straightened and filled, then primed.
Original Cadets have a complicated piece of aluminum as an eyebrow over the windshield (as does my airplane) and that needed a lot of work.
The engine was reinstalled on the airframe and was equipped with a new Marvel-Schebler carburetor. I wanted the Marvel for its reliability and its mixture control for flying in the North Carolina mountains.
A new boot cowl and cowlings had to be made and fitted. The original nose bowl was salvaged, as was the spinner.
Every step took several intermediate steps to complete. I was beginning to catch on to the myriad of details as they were done (and done well). At one point, after the final coats of Federal Yellow had been applied, the merry pranksters in the shop taped a Cub logo on the vertical fin.
I was hoping to make EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh in 2016. That was the year the Interstate Cadets were featured and a host of them queued up to fly into the premier event of the year for experimental, antique, and classic airplanes. Alas, it was not to be. I was still nine months away from flying my airplane home.
The last nine months are the hardest when a project is aborning – ask any parent. That’s when all the bits and pieces, parts and assemblies of parts all come together in a perfect fit to make an airplane.
There’s always a bit of adjustment here, a tweak there, a disassembly and reassembly to do before it’s finished.
A local artist was enlisted to make the distinctive stencils for the sides of the airplane. Permission to use the Wyoming bucking bronco on the tail (as on all CallAirs produced at Afton) was granted by the University of Wyoming, the copyright holder, and applied in reverse silhouette, just as the originals were done.
It’s always helpful to have friends at the airport when it comes time to hang the wings. That was done in January 2017. Trimming and rigging, gap seals and connecting up all those heretofore free pieces meant the end was near.
The final engine work involved rebuilding the magnetos – three and a half years of storage means things like that have to be done.
At last, in April 2017, we did the engine runs and the first flight. We found a few things to tighten, adjust or tweak, and a week later, we paid the final bill and flew home, 450 miles away.
The airplane flew straight and true from the very beginning. I planned my trip to stop at strategic points along the way to gauge fuel and oil consumption and check for integrity. I was not disappointed.
In the coming weeks there were a few issues that cropped up, but we caught them before anything became a problem.
I’m always asked, “Would you do it again”? I’d say a resounding “MAYBE!” in a heartbeat.
I believe I’d prepare myself a little better, maybe do more homework, but when I go to the airport today and open those hangar doors, I can’t help but take a minute to appreciate the airplane, its story, and the Osteen and Parks families of Black Mountain, North Carolina, who gave me the chance to buy this one-of-a-kind piece of their history.
We had a little reunion last summer, the wives of the former two owners, their children (no matter their ages today), and the children’s children. They sent pictures of themselves when they were playing in the airplane while Papa visited with friends at the airport, as well as pictures of themselves when taken for airplane rides. We had a nice lunch and the docents showed everybody the airplanes in the Western North Carolina Air Museum in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
It was a great day, an opportunity to show them that someone took it to heart when their patriarch spoke in his last days of his airplane and his hopes that it would go to someone who would take care of it.
Alas, my own stewardship of the CallAir Cadet has to come to an end. The age thing makes it harder for me to get in and out of the airplane.
I will always be thankful that I had a chance to treat this special machine to a new life of flying and I hope the next pilot who takes over for me appreciates it as much as I do. The airplane is for sale.
Alex can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.