Special Report

Airplane of the Year

This September, at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, a couple dozen magnificently restored airplanes will gather once again to be evaluated by judges and admired by fans. Those who attend will be able to stroll among some pretty special aircraft, hear the owners and restorers tell their stories, and watch the presentation of trophies by aviation heroes. (In 2003, Bob Hoover, above at left, handed out a few.) They’ll also get the chance to vote for their favorite airplanes.

By all means, get to Reno if you can. But if you can’t, we invite you to read the stories of these remarkable airplanes (below) and vote for the one that strikes a chord with you. Whichever one receives the most votes will win the People’s Choice trophy at Reno and be named “Air & Space Magazine Airplane of the Year.” The winner will also star in a future Air & Space feature.

The competition for the best restored airplanes is run by the National Aviation Heritage Invitational (NAHI), dedicated to the preservation of the country’s rich aviation history. Executive Director Ken Perich (above, center) and the NAHI volunteers have for the past 20 years brought together some of the finest restored classic and antique aircraft in North America.

Voting begins September 3, when the full field of competitors will be revealed. Until then, here are some of the early birds enrolled in the contest. (Photo: NAHI)

1937 Stinson SR-9F Reliant
Elegance with Wings

RIchard A. Rezabek’s 1937 Reliant, NC 18425, is so carefully restored that it has won two previous NAHI trophies. It also won this voting contest in 2009. It’s a rare specimen, powered by the same Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. engine that was installed in 1951, and with its original sheet metal, cowls, wheel pants, fuselage, and landing gear struts. But the path that led Rezabek to buy this classic monoplane in 2005 went through one of the newest and most advanced fighters in the world.

Rezabek was Lockheed Martin’s chief engineer on its X-35 project from 1992 through 2001. Once Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract for what would be designated the F-35 Lightning II, he chose to spend more time indulging his passions. In 2002, he got his license to fly and bought a Stinson Voyager from a retired Navy captain.

His Reliant originally belonged to Katherine May Edwards, an owner of several Pennsylvania newspapers who used it to fly around the state to her various publications. In 1941, she was forced by the U.S. government to sell it to Wright’s Motion Pictures of Jamestown, New York, to aid the war effort, though she would buy it back again after the end of World War II, and after it had been owned for several years by Republic Aircraft, who used the Reliant to check out new test pilots.

Most of what Rezabek knows of his airplane’s early history comes courtesy of Edwards’ nephew, Sidney Dickson, who looked him up after he learned Rezabek had acquired his aunt’s old airplane and was eager to share its history.

Rezabek says it remains a showstopper at fly-ins. “I always let kids sit in the cockpit to try to get them excited about aviation,” he says. But adults who are already experienced flyers are eager to admire his Reliant too. (Photo: Courtesy James Lawrence)

1943 Howard DGA-15P
Damned Good Airplane

Airplane mechanic Dave Bole had a friend who got him hooked on vintage airplanes, but he never thought he’d be able to afford a Howard. “When fuel prices spiked [in the late aughts] the cost of gas-guzzling airplanes went down,” he says. He found his Howard—the beefier military variant with a Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial engine—in 2011 in Iowa City. The prior owner was an instructor, who accompanied Bole back to Seattle in the copilot seat and checked him out on the aircraft. “I had very little tailwheel time when I bought it,” Bole says. He’s averaged about 75 hours per year since then.

His Howard was one of 16 based at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii during World War II, where it was used as an instrument trainer. After the war, the Navy sold it for $633 to a private airline. From there it spent time dropping rat poison on sugar cane fields. A Navy Captain bought it and had it shipped to California in 1969, where it was restored in Santa Paula. After a crash in 1985, it was substantially rebuilt, this time in Wyoming. But it’s been flying for a lot more years than it’s been idle, and it looks it, its owner readily admits. “I fly it an awful lot,” Bole says.

That’s because the Howard DGA—for "Damned Good Airplane"—is fun to fly. “It has a tremendous amount of power compared to what I’m used to: a Bellanca Viking, various Cessnas, a Mooney,” Bole says. “It’s much heavier on the controls, but very stable in the air. I keeps you on your toes, both on takeoff and landing. There’s a lot of footwork going on.”

“It’s a 4,500-pound airplane. If you can get it trimmed out, it has high wing loading so it handles turbulence very well. If you get it up to 10,000 feet, it’ll cruise at 175 or 180 miles per hour, burning 22 or 23 gallons per hour.” Those fuel stops are often lengthy because someone always wants to come talk about his Howard.
“But it’s worth it,” Bole says. “The enjoyment of flying something that old and historic; that makes a lot of noise and draws a lot of attention, it’s worth it. Of course, if you make a bad landing, it ends up on YouTube,” he laughs. (Photo: Courtesy Jonathan Apfelbaum)

1945 Douglas A-26C Invader
Korean War Veteran

Steve Penning and Phil Gattuso’s Douglas A-26C Invader, serial number 44-34313, rolled off the assembly line at Long Beach in April of 1945, too late to see action in the conflict it was built to win. So it went straight into storage until Korea beckoned. Before being deployed, Invader 313 was converted into a glass-nosed “C” model, its .50-cal turrets replaced with a SHORAN (for “Short Range Navigation’) receiver-transmitter. via The instrument Measured the airplane’s distance from various ground-based beacons and enabled (relatively) precise nocturnal bombing runs, particularly in the early months of 1953. MiG-15s had mad daytime bombing very dangerous.

Invader 313 was nicknamed “Sweet Eloise II” and then “Junio” by various commanders in the 452nd Bomb Wing, 730th Bomb Squadron while stationed at Pusan East, South Korea. But by the time it was reassigned to the 17th Bomb Wing, 95th Bomb Squadron in 1952, its propensity for absorbing 40mm flack had earned it a less endearing nickname: “The Magnet.” With an all-black paint job to make it a less inviting target on night missions, Invader 313 continued to fly through the last day of the Korean conflict, having acquired 1900 combat hours over two years.

Like many surplussed military aircraft, Invader 313 knocked around a lot after the war. It had a brief career in cloud-seeding before it became, in 1960, the first B-26 of its type to be modified for firefighting operations, a mission it would perform for various companies for 20 years. The Canadian outfit ConAir donated it to the Reynolds Aviation Museum in Alberta, which in turn sold it to a private collector in Victoria, British Columbia. Invader 313 was part of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum for most of the 1990s, making occasional appearances on the East Coast airshow circuit. Once David Lane of Poway, California bought it in 1999, the B-26 often flew with the San Diego Wing of the Commemorative Air Force and was displayed at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Penning and Gattuso bought it in 2011 and spent seven years restoring it. It returned to the air in April 2018, once again wearing its circa 1952 markings.

It seems appropriate that 313, which fought fires for 26 years, would end up in the hands of a onetime firefighting pilot. (He’s a partner in a corporate aviation firm now.) “In the 80s I loved the warbirds, and all the firebomber guys were still operating military airplanes,” he says. “I didn’t get in the B-17 like I wanted to, but flew the C-54, and the P2-B Neptune a little bit. It was a dangerous job, but it was a lot of fun.” He’s sure that without those companies, Invader 313 wouldn’t still be flying. (Photo: Courtesy Steve Penning)

1931 Waco QCF
Early Success Story

Chris Galloway always liked the look of a Waco F series. His first flight in his 1931 Waco QCF was only about a year ago—August 24, 2018. He remembers the date because it was a long time coming: Three-and-a-half years after he bought the open-cockpit biplane, during which time he awaited a necessary soup-to-nuts restoration. “The airframe is still original,” Galloway says. “As original as an almost-90-year-old airplane can be.”

But stars can make people wait, and Galloway’s F series was a star before its owner had flown his first Piper Aero. It had won a prior owner, M.H. “Curly” Havelaar, the Oshkosh Reserve Grand Champion Trophy in 1979 (the year Havelaar completed his lengthy restoration of the airplane) and again in 1987.

Waco did not make a habit of its their prototypes, but it sold this one—whose test pilots gave it the endearment “Betsy”—to Continental Engines in 1931, where it became the test bed for what became the Continental R-670, the engine that powered thousands of Stearman Model 75s. Havelaar managed to locate and correspond with former Continental test pilot Paul E. Wilcox, who said he enjoyed flying it, a refrain on WACO’s 1930s marketing slogan, “Ask any pilot.”

Betsy remains a conversation starter at fly-ins today. “I’ve never seen anybody walk up to it who doesn’t want to touch it or take a picture or both,” Galloway says. “It flies as well as it looks, and you can’t say that about every airplane, that’s for sure.”

He’s reluctant to say what he’s put into restoring the airplane, but when it came to justifying its initial price Galloway found some unexpected help. Most Wacos have data plates indicating only their month and year of manufacture, but Betsy’s gives an exact date: April 4. This detail had escaped its new owner’s notice until he brought his wife—whom he had not consulted in advance of the purchase—to the airport to show her his latest restoration project. Thinking quickly, Galloway said, “Look, Honey! She shares your birthday.” (Photo: Courtesy Moose Peterson)

1962 Meyers 200B
Movie Star Speedster

Edna Gardner Whyte is not as famous a pioneering aviator as Amelia Earhart or Jackie Cochran, Bruce Mayes admits. One way he knows this is because he’d never heard of Whyte—four-time winner of the Women’s International Air Race, president of the Ninety-Nines from 1955 to 57, first woman to be admitted to the exclusive military-pilot Order of Daedalians, and a flight instructor whose career spanned 60 years—until he became the fourth owner of the 1962 Meyers 200B that Whyte had borrowed to fly at the Reno Air Races in 1968. She’d flown plenty of airplanes over the prior three decades, but she was just as seduced by the single-engine light sportster’s fleetness, ease of handling, and fetching lines as Mayes was. (The type's movie-star good looks earned it an appearance in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice.)

“Meyers only designed three airplanes,” Mayes says. “The first was a military biplane trainer. There was not a single fatality as a result of the airplane. Which in military training is almost unheard of.” In his third design, the 200,Meyers retained reliability with a sturdy chrome-moly steel skeleton, but the airplane was built for speed. The 200B cruises at 200 knots, but it’s the rate of acceleration, rather than the cruising speed, that struck Mayes when he first began flying it. “Once you put it into a slight descent, it really speeds up fast,” he says.

“The original interiors of these airplanes, they kind of look like 50s diners,” Mayes says. “He wasn’t as concerned about the accoutrements as about performance.”

Mayes’ airplane is one of only 17 B-variants built and is the second he’s owned. He crash-landed his first in a boulder-riddled field on his way to Oshkosh in 2016 and credits the sturdiness of the airplane with protecting him and his wife from more serious injuries. (Photo: Courtesy Bruce Mayes)

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