Lindbergh’s Trainer: The Brunner-Winkle Bird
The plane that taught Anne Morrow Lindbergh to fly is flying again.
- By Paul Glenshaw
- Air & Space magazine, April 2013
(Page 2 of 3)
This time the airplane would wait 61 years to be restored. Fichera moved on to other things, including a job at the National Air and Space Museum’s restoration shop, the Paul E. Garber facility in Suitland, Maryland, where he restored some airplanes and compiled evaluation reports on others. He retired in 1984, but it wasn’t until 2001 that Fichera, at age 80, began the final restoration. He was remarkably matter-of-fact about the effort. “It mostly just needed new wings,” he told me. “The rest of it was just cleaning it up, new floorboards, stuff like that.”
But it took him 12 painstaking years, working almost every day. The only major component that needed replacing was the top wing. Fichera worked from original plans, and from the wing’s intact right half. Most of the other original parts could be salvaged—even Anne Lindbergh’s dusty seat cushion.
The five-cylinder, 100-horsepower Kinner engine was completely overhauled, but needed only new rings, valve guides, and “stuff that wears out,” Fichera said. The bent propeller was straightened out and polished. Only one instrument—the front cockpit airspeed indicator—was replaced. In his sole concession to modern materials, Fichera coated the airplane with a polyester finish called Ceconite to protect it from the elements.
Fichera replicated a brilliant Bahama blue he found on the landing gear—the color it was during the Lindbergh era—and determined that cream had been the color of the stripe and the wings.
The Bird has other Lindbergh traces: an extra storage compartment in front of the two-place front cockpit, and dial fuel gauges in both cockpits. Fichera had reproductions made of the lights that Lindbergh had installed on the wingtips and rudder. But the most personal touch is out of view. Before selling it back to the manufacturer, Lindbergh autographed the Bird on a piece of plywood inside the right lower wing walkway.
Like Lindbergh, Fichera taught with the Bird. Although several of his friends and colleagues toiled on the restoration, he welcomed newcomers, including two midshipmen from the nearby Naval Academy, who helped with some of the heavy lifting, and a 10-year-old named Gretta Thorwarth, who had a keen interest in airplanes. Her father, who worked on the Bird, brought her along to learn how to rib stitch. Gretta’s careful work, small size, and youthful, boundless enthusiasm enabled her to work inside and all over the Bird.
“I got to do so many crazy, cool things with him,” she says of working with Fichera. “Compression-checking a pile of valve springs, sorting through cylinders when he was picking out the best ones for overhaul, doping [by brush] the landing gear fairings, hooking up lines, instruments, safetying hardware, helping to fit new metal fairings, taping out numbers and letters for painting, painting in the red ‘Kinner’ letters on the fresh rocker covers.”
Now 17, she can’t imagine her life without the influence of Fichera, “an 80-, 90-some-year-old fountain of endless information from generations past,” she says. “You can’t find people like this anymore.”