After a chance meeting with SRA founder Don Williams, I joined the organization in early 1965, having just been discharged from the Army at Ft. Hood, Texas. Needless to say there was no spare money. I married my original wife Sandy in 1962 and we traveled from Ft. Hood back to California with our daughter Cheryl. But I saw something while on maneuvers with the aviation battalion at Ft. Hood. We were based on the desert near Bouse, Arizona when I saw a biplane fly over the area, heading west. I thought to myself what a lucky person that pilot was to be free and to be flying a biplane. When I met Don Williams I told him my story and he said, “That was me flying a Stearman west from Florida.” Photo 1 Don Williams (right) and Ernie Freeman (left) and the Stearman they ferried from Ft. Pierce, Florida to California. Photo 2 Don wrote their trip in a two-part story in one of his early newsletters.
After being discharged from the Army in November 1964, Sandy and I, along with daughter Cheryl, moved to Hanford in the central San Joaquin Valley. I didn’t have a job lined up but was able to work part time with Elmer Ruzicka in the small town of Waukena helping him with wood wing work. I was assigned a set of Stearman wings that had been recently recovered with Grade A cotton fabric but the owner didn’t like the wavy training edges and the original two piece leading edge. The wings were painted in yellow automotive enamel, so I had to cut the fabric and replace both leading edge and trailing edge metal, splice the fabric and return the wings to stock configuration. The customer was none other than Don Williams and the wings were for his Stearman NC1852M. I guess that is when I first met Don, in early 1965.
Photo 3 was taken from the 1964 SRA yearbook of founder Don Williams beside the flight engineer’s panel in an American Airlines Boeing 707. Don Williams was employed by American Airlines as a flight engineer on Douglas DC-6 and DC-7 aircraft and was immediately promoted to the Boeing 707 when American’s first went into service in January 1959. Don and Ruth Williams lived in the Newhall/Saugus area just across the road from Gene Autry’s Melody Rancho. They had a very nice spacious house and Don had a large shop building on the property. In and around that building were 3-stock Stearman and 3-Command-Aire aircraft, all purchased from J.R McDaniel in Fort Pierce, Florida and shipped to California via railcar. One of the Command-Aire aircraft that McDaniel owned was advertised in an SRA newsletter and sold by Don to a man in Connecticut.
Don invited me to the annual Merced Antique Airplane fly-in during the first week of June 1965. It was there I met several of the early members of the outfit – people like Bruce Kemper, W. John Phillips, Bill Mason and others. Photo 4 in this 1965 photo taken with Bruce Kemper’s 300 hp Stearman are from left: Sandy Lock, Johnny Mae Ruzicka, Ruth Williams and Beth Mason. I was a proud member of the SRA at age 26 with SRA number 27 in my name I was able to meet new influential friends who owned airplanes – the kind I liked – biplanes. Being just discharged from the Army, Sandy and I had moved from Gardena, in the Los Angeles basin to Hanford, in the central San Joaquin Valley. Photo 5 Mitch winds inertia starter on John Phillip’s beautiful stock Stearman. Mitch (I cannot remember his last name) worked for Bruce Kemper who kept his Stearman at the Santa Monica Airport. We would work together when Bruce bought his first Bucker Jungmann imported from Europe and I would contract to restore all the wood components and then cover the entire aircraft with Ceconite fabric. That was quite an experience, working on a Czech Jungmann. I did the woodwork in my shop in Hanford in an old beekeepers building on Beulah Street. Bruce would send me a postcard every other day saying, “Don’t get the fabric too tight because is will warp the wing trailing edge.” Photo 6 this is Bruce Kemper’s 300 hp Stearman taken at the 1965 Merced Antique Fly-in. I remember that show well because Bill Adams was there in his 450 hp airshow Stearman and I recall him completing a 3-turn snap roll at very low altitude, an unheard of feat in those days. Sandy and I were the “young people” of the group. Photo 7 A few years later when Bruce finished his first Jungmann, I was there at Merced when Bruce won Grand Champion for his Jungmann.
Photo 8 Bill Adams performing an inverted ribbon pickup. This is what I remember about Merced in 1965. Photo 9 Elmer Ruzicka setting out to deliver a set of new 4412 high-lift wings for an ag Stearman. I learned a lot from Elmer, both general knowledge and manipulative skills, even spar splices. I got to be pretty good. I built 3- sets of 4412 high lift wings for my uncle, George Baldrick who operated a fleet of 4-450 hp Stearman ships at the Hanford Airport. They were constructed using Elmer’s PMA, covered in Grade A fabric and finished through silver butyrate dope. Photo 10 John Phillips and his Stearman. I got to know this airplane when he flew it to Hanford and left it for a few days while I went through the rigging and tweaked it here and- there. I learned the fine art of rigging Stearman aircraft while working for George Baldrick when I was a teenager still in high school. Don Williams told friends that there was this guy in Hanford who could properly rig a Stearman so a few airplanes came to the valley and I re-rigged them. In 1966, Don approached me to construct a set of wings for a Command-Aire 5C3 biplane he had obtained from J.R McDaniel in Florida. In fact he had the remains of three of them lying around his place. For building the wings he would give me pieces of one airplane. He also cut a deal with a fellow in Deer Valley, Arizona to build up a fuselage and tail and he would give up the remaining ship to him. Here is an old photo of the two Command-Aire biplanes as Don and I hauled them to Arizona on my old trailer pulled by my ’62 Chevrolet convertible.
Photo 11 This photo was taken just as we were leaving – and yes, those are Stearman wheels and tires on the trailer that I had acquired from Elmer Ruzicka. In the background can be seen Don’s large shop building. Don owned three 1929 Command- Aire biplanes – NR996E, NR997E and NR998E along with three Boeing E75N1 ships – NC1851M, NC1852M and NC1856M. What happened to all this stuff? Photo 12 Well, here is my 1929 Command-Aire 5C3, NC997E at Joe Araldi’s place in Lakeland, Florida just after I test flew it on July 11, 1989. Joe would eventually acquire the remains of NR996E and I still have the remains of NR998E.
Photo 13 Well, here it is 2014 and I am no longer 26 – I am 76 years old! Fifty years is a very long time, but my career has mostly been fun. There are a few things I’d surely like to change but the water has flowed under the bridge and gone out to sea. I’ve been an aviator and a mechanic since 1956 and my experience has taken me from wood structures to advanced composites. From Sitka spruce to carbon fiber, from Grade A TSO-C15 fabric to most all the synthetic fabric processes including the old Razorback and Eonite/Eonex. The SRA was an early part of my rebirth to civilian life after the Army. And so I say, “thanks for the memories.”