I had owned N39WR for some 30 years and the poor old girl was showing age almost as much as her owner. Having recently retired from airline flying and being of not so sound mind, with absolutely no mechanical knowledge or skill, I logically decided to conduct a complete restoration. Further, I told my wife and everybody who would listen, that the project would take 2 years, working pretty much everyday. (Note that at the 2-year point, I recalculated the time for completion at 4 years and at the 4-year point I hoped that she might be flying before my passing). It does help to be within walking distance of 3 IAs, one of which was Jeff Byard, a great friend and one of the world’s experts on flying and restoring antique gliders. He knows wood, has done aircraft restoration and is an international captain for American Airlines.
The project was started at the San Luis Obispo County Airport on 27 December 2008, and after tear down, it was determined that new lower wings and the center section must be completely rebuilt. The uppers looked ok after minor repairs, a complete sanding and re-varnishing. New lower wing spars were purchased, but everything else was made from scratch. It was a slow process and I could make 1½ ribs per day using a high tech garbage can for soaking cap strips and then bending, gluing and nailing them in homemade jigs. Between airline trips, Jeff would critique my work, offer instruction and assign me the next task.
By July of 2010 everything was progressing normally, but at a very slow pace. Emphasis slow. It was a pleasant weekend day on July 7th and I was the only person in the hangar complex working on the center section, when I heard someone shouting “HEY, HEY.” Investigating, I discovered a young kid and his skateboard outside the chain link fence, which separated the general aviation people from all known terrorists (according to Homeland Security). “What are you doing in there?” he yelled. He seemed ok, so I made a command decision and opened the gate. Either I would have no tools in the morning or he was actually interested. His name was Raymond Smith and he came back almost everyday thereafter.
We made, fitted and glued the various center section braces and ribs and then started working on the bow and gluing it place. Then, more sanding and fitting. Installation of the 1/16” mahogany leading edge was a job. It had to be cut exactly, fitted, soaked for bending, glued and nailed. Get out the iron and soaked towels for forming. We used tie down straps and steamed our way inch by inch. Without Raymond I’d still be working on it. My helper was becoming invaluable and as a silent tribute, Raymond left his name and date on one of the braces.
The fuel tank passed its pressure test, but when Jeff inspected the baffles with a scope he found a lot of granular corrosion, necessitating ordering a new one. It’s only money. Putting the center section in the rack, we started on the fuselage: removing and preparing hardware for painting (green epoxy). Raymond started sanding the wooden floorboards and helped me remove the seats and instrument panels. Soon it was time for my helper to go back to school, but he would come out on each Saturday, often sanding my wooden square tip propeller in preparation for re-varnishing.
Raymond came from a broken family, being raised by his aunt and uncle, who were strict as well as very religious and often dropped by the airport, checking up on him as well as me. Sundays were for attending church. Raymond was becoming an icon among airport regulars and when he was not there, people would ask, “Where’s your helper?”
Raymond had summer school and other activities in 2011, but did manage to help stripping fuselage stringers, which was not the most exciting job of the project. But, during the summer of 2012, Raymond was back. It was now time for fabrication and rib stitching.
I opted to use the Poly Fiber process and having no experience, I read each step over and over again. Together Raymond and I cut, glued and shrunk the fabric on each top wing a then poly-brushed. Chalk lines were used for 2” spacing, reinforcing tape was applied, followed by punching holes for the rib lacing. Bill Kelly, local Stearman owner and SRA member, taught us the modified seine knot. Of course, Raymond picked up the technique in about half the time and proceeded to start before I could even thread my needle. Two things we learned: (1) it is slow work and (2) there are a lot of stitches. We finished the two upper wings and it was time for Raymond to go back to school.
He was in highschool now and was getting serious about his academics and athletics, eventually becoming ranked statewide in track. The workout regime was long and strenuous and he could not devote much time on the project, although he did come by to show me his report card, move wings or help with other things when needed.
The restoration was completed on August 8, 2014, when Jeff completed the final paperwork and we took an initial 36-minute test flight. An open hangar party followed, attended by friends, family and those that participated, including Raymond. As seen in the picture, the kid is now about 6 inches taller than me and still growing.
Raymond is now attending Cuesta Junior College working at the San Luis Jet Center, running track, and striving to attain his military pilot goal. Those who are religious might say that it was divine intervention when Raymond found and old man working on an old airplane and that in those few formative years he learned skills and discipline that kept him from wandering astray. This might be so, but from my perspective it was divine intervention that I got a helper that kept me going through it all. Thanks Raymond.