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)

1952 Cessna 195 Businessliner

Speedy and spacious, airplanes like the Cessna 195 were the Learjets of the late 1940s and 1950s. The 195 had that little, indefinable something extra—style. Right down to the identifying bumps on the engine cowl (which actually have a purpose—the cowl is so tightly streamlined that the cylinder rocker arms had to be accommodated in little bump-outs), the 195 says “luxury.” When Bela Havasreti acquired this Cessna 195 nearly three and a half years ago, the first thing he and his wife did with the airplane was strip off the paint. Havasreti learned two things from the experience. First, the aircraft is stunning in bare aluminum. Second, it is one of the most pristine of its type he’s ever seen.

The fact that the airplane had no evidence of repairs was no small thing. While 195s are today sought after for their great performance and stellar “vintage modern” looks, the airplane is not for beginners. “It can be a handful in cross-wind landings. I’m not wearing it like I did my previous planes,” says Havasreti. “It has my undivided attention all the time. You are not done flying it until you are sitting in a lawn chair half way through your first beer.”

Part of the reason Havasreti suspects his aircraft is so immaculate is that it was never used for corporate work. The pretty airplane was always in the hands of an owner who cherished it, and Havasreti is no exception. “I love this aircraft because it’s like riding in an old Packard,” he says. “The plane is roomy, fast, cool, has good performance, and it hauls a lot.” When asked how long he’ll keep it, Havasreti doesn’t pause for a second: “I’m going to keep this one until they nail me into a pine box.” (Photo: Josh Kaiser)

1950 North American T-6G Texan
It’s for Learning

During World War II, North American’s ubiquitous trainer helped develop the flying skills of hundreds of thousands of would-be Allied pilots. One of those many flying cadets was the father of this Texan’s owner, Dean Thomas. While other aviators went on to fly Mustangs and Corsairs, Thomas’ dad became an Army flight instructor. During the war, the cockpit of a Texan was his office.

Young Dean Thomas flew with his father for the first time at age 13 and promptly got sick. But the experience didn’t change his mind about aviation. Today, Thomas is a retired airline pilot with nearly 30,000 hours of flight time over 44 years under his belt. The prop-driven T-6 is better than the big jumbo jets he piloted with United Airlines in a multitude of ways, he says. “You have much more freedom in the Texan,” says Thomas. “It’s incredibly maneuverable and light.” Comparing the airliners he used to fly with his far more interesting T-6, he says, “It is the difference between driving a suburban and racing a Porsche.”

The trainer was built during the war and then completely overhauled at North American’s Dallas factory in 1950. After it did service with the Air National Guard, had a brief career as an air racer, and flew several trips across the North Atlantic, Thomas acquired the veteran Texan in 2012. Today, the aircraft is used by Thomas’ Pilot Maker Foundation as a tool to spark interest in flying. At shows, people can sit in the cockpit, go for a ride, or even get a little stick time. “Everyone loves it,” Thomas remarks. “How could you not?” (Photo: Courtesy Dean Thomas)

1945 Lockheed PV-2D Harpoon
Built for the Empire Express

Almost forgotten among the legendary air actions of World War II are the long-distance bombing raids flown from Alaska’s Aleutian islands to the northern tip of the Japanese empire in the Kuriles. Known as the Empire Express, the flights over that treacherous route fell mainly to the Navy’s Lockheed patrol bombers, the PV-1 Ventura and PV-2 Harpoon.

When Taigh Ramey found his rare PV-2 in 2010, abandoned in northern California, the big airplane wasn’t much more than a playhouse for ground squirrels. The new owner of the land where the airplane rested wanted the battered and bleached airplane chopped to pieces and gone. After much preparation, members of the Stockton Field Aviation Museum spent just 11 days on-site to resurrect the battered aircraft and get it back into the skies.

Only 35 PV-2Ds were built, equipped with a special nose section stuffed with eight machine guns to attack surface targets. The Navy’s order for more was quickly cancelled when World War II came to an end. When Ramey’s aircraft was sold for surplus in 1958, it had logged just seven hours of flight time. As a fire-fighting tanker, the airplane flew for another 800 hours before being left to the elements. Now, after more than three years of restoration, the venerable patrol plane looks almost the way it did when it rolled off the Lockheed factory floor in 1945.

Stockton Field Aviation Museum exhibits the Harpoon at as many airshows as possible to honor those who worked with this lesser-known aircraft type in wartime. Ramey, the museum president, uses the Harpoon to teach younger generations about World War II history. “You can learn so much more from touching, hearing, and seeing a plane like this than would ever be possible if she were sitting quietly in a museum somewhere,” he says. Ramey plans to have two pilots who flew PV-2s in World War II join him on his trip to the National Aviation Heritage Invitational in Reno this September. (Photo: Roger Cain)

1947 Cessna 140
Powder Puff Racer

When Josh Cawthra purchased this Cessna 140 in 2012, the idea of turning it into a showplane was the furthest thing from his mind. “It just checked all the boxes for me,” he related. “I wanted a flyer, older than 1950, a tail-dragger, and it had to be equipped with a radio. And this one was in decent shape.” He planned to fix only what he needed to and fly the airplane, a lot, just for fun.

But soon, simple maintenance ballooned into much more. Cawthra is a certified aircraft mechanic and he couldn’t help himself from repairing, improving, or overhauling nearly every part of the then 65-year-old Cessna, recruiting his family and friends to assist. “I had just the right skill set to work on it,” he admitted, “and what I didn’t know how to do, I quickly learned.” All the while, he was still flying the plane 100 to 150 hours a year. In the winter when the weather turned ugly, Cawthra rebuilt the plane’s Continental C-85 engine himself.

As his nearly unintentional restoration neared completion, Cawthra began to dig into the lost history of his Cessna and was startled by what he found. A pair of former Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) had flown his Cessna in the Jacqueline Cochran All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race, known as the “Powder Puff Derby.” On the race’s 1949 cross-country sprint from San Diego to Miami, his 140 had placed fifth.

Cawthra’s striking vintage Cessna was soon winning awards on the airshow circuit and now, because of its unique history, he plans to keep it. “If I had to sell it now, I’d have a hard time doing it,” he admits. “But I still fly the daylights out of it.” (Photo: ©LCLPhotography)

1942 WACO UPF-7
Splendid Introduction to Flight

This aircraft has come full circle. In 1942, instructors used this UPF-7 to teach people the basics of flying. And now more than 75 years later, the biplane retains its educational mission.

Immediately after leaving the Waco Aircraft Company (WACO) factory in Ohio, the UPF-7 joined the ranks of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), flying from a facility in Georgia. Countless nervous would-be pilots took to the skies for the first time in the WACO, which helped train a small portion of the more than 435,000 men and women who participated in the program before and during World War II.

After a long, sometimes tough life that included several owners, a few accidents, and many years of storage, Jeremy Young acquired the antique WACO in 2016. His flight school, TacAero, has 32 aircraft located at many facilities throughout the United States. The company specializes in teaching pilots how to land vintage airplanes with tail wheels—a task that has been the cause of controversy and consternation for decades. Clients who plan to buy biplanes use the vintage WACO to learn the nuances of handling taildraggers.

While there are many aircraft in the TacAero fleet, the UPF-7 has come to be one of Jeremy’s favorites. “As long as you take good care of the plane’s old radial engine, it’s a great-flying aircraft,” says Young. “It is easy to handle on landing and on the ground, controls nicely in the air, and it’s a trustworthy plane that makes a flyer confident.” He adds, “And, it’s a dazzlingly beautiful aircraft too.” (Photo: Courtesy Jeremy Young)

1945 Piper L-4J “Grasshopper”
The Littlest Combat Airplane

When Ken Schmitt purchased a bare fuselage, skeletal wings, and a few airplane parts in 2000, he thought he was getting what was left of an old Piper J-3 Cub. “It was a basket case,” he says and then corrects himself, “It was barely a basket case.” But Schmitt wasn’t intimidated; he’d done this before, reviving a vintage wartime Stearman trainer in his spare time.

As he dove into his new project, he was astonished to learn that his “civilian J-3” was actually a military model, an Army L-4J “Grasshopper.” “I was excited to rebuild another warbird,” says Schmitt.

Piper L-4s were used by the Army in every theater of war, spotting for ground units and ships, transporting men and supplies, and nearly always operating close to the front lines. Even on D-Day, Grasshoppers were in the sky, reporting to the Navy how to adjust the fire of the ships’ big guns. Schmitt’s airplane came out of the Piper factory in June 1945 and was sent straight to the Pacific. The Grasshopper flew from a base in the Ryukyu Islands, most likely Okinawa, and was later transferred to Leyte Island in the Philippines.

Schmitt took five or six years to get the airplane back in the air. “I could have done it quicker,” he explains, “but I’m meticulous and I always enjoy the work.” Now he takes the aircraft to as many shows as he can. He says, “I’m a veteran myself and the plane gives me a chance to meet people and hear about their experiences. The plane is an important part of our history.” (Photo: ©LCLPhotography )

1945 Vultee Stinson L-5G Sentinel

It’s such a cute little airplane that it’s hard to believe it was one of the most important combat aircraft of World War II. The Stinson Sentinel’s durability sent it on a wide variety of missions—reconnaissance, resupply, rescue, VIP transport, courier, and artillery spotting. Called “the Flying Jeep,” the L-5 could take off and land almost anywhere, including on platforms constructed in the trees of thick Burmese jungle. Its job was making connections between bases and ships and soldiers in the field.

Jan Johnson is the tenth in a long line of stewards for this unique Stinson ambulance. “It is my belief that we are never ‘owners’ of these rare antique aircraft,” she says. “We do all we can to keep them flying and in their best condition for the future—and for their next caretaker.” Johnson feels that role keenly because of how she came to own the L-5. Newly licensed at age 51, Johnson began flying her vintage Cessna to aviation gatherings across California, and she instantly knew she had found her clan. Among her new friends were Frank Huffman and the Stinson L-5 he had lovingly restored. Huffman loved to show off his airplane, which he’d rescued from the Nevada desert in 1987. He dreamed of one day showing it at EAA AirVenture, but he never got the chance. He died just months after telling Johnson about his dream. Johnson was shocked when she learned that Huffman had chosen her to become the L-5’s next caretaker.

Recently, Johnson became determined to make Huffman’s unfulfilled aspiration into a reality. She piloted the little L-5 from California to Wisconsin for AirVenture 2018. The 4,800-mile trip took 45 hours of flying time. At fly-ins, Johnson works to get as many kids into the cockpit as possible in hopes of sparking a love of aviation, and Oshkosh was the perfect place to inspire young flyers. She reflects, “I think Frank would have been proud.”(Photo: Roger Cain)

1959 Cessna 175 Skylark
One of the Family

The airplane’s name is Lucy. Not too many aircraft become family members, but owner Richard Torres says that Lucy is part of his. “She’d probably be at home in the great room next to us,” he says, if they could get her in there. The Skylark is named after red-headed television star Lucille Ball; it sports its original Skylark Deluxe paint scheme, complete with those stunning red highlights.

Lucy joined the Torres family when Richard, his son, and his girlfriend all three found themselves renting airplanes to pursue their costly love of flying. They had seen the vintage Cessna around, somewhat neglected, but never thought they’d get the chance to own it. “She was simply a hangar queen,” says Torres. “The plane was lonely.”

Then something amazing happened. “I’m up at the airport and walking through the office and I see the plane of our dreams in a sales flyer on the community board,” says Torres. “When nobody was looking, I ripped the ad off the wall,” he laughs.

The peppy four-seater cruises happily at 130 mph, and it just suits the Torres family. “In the past, the plane flew maybe eight hours a year,” he explained. “We have put more than 150 hours on the airframe in the last 11 months.” Lucy is loved. “We love just staring at this plane,” says Torres. “I cannot believe it’s ours.” (Photo: Roger Cain)

1939 Grumman Goose

The original customers for Grumman’s 1937 G-21 amphibian were wealthy Long Island businessmen looking for a comfortable commute to Manhattan. By the following year, military services began to buy, and the Royal Air Force, always expert at alliteration, christened it the Grumman Goose. It became a World War II phenomenon.

The lovely green and white Goose in the NAHI contest is, according to its pilot Gord Jenkins, the oldest Goose still flying. Its first owner was Lehman Brothers financier Robert Lehman. He sold it to the Royal Canadian Air Force, which manhandled it—gear-up landings, engine failures—from 1942 into 1946.

Later Laurentian Air Services of Ottawa had it rebuilt after a Fleet 80 crashed into it. (The Fleet pilot was hand-propping and didn’t know the throttle was engaged. It flew off unpiloted, straight into the Goose.) Its next owner, Trans-Provincial Airlines, had it for about 20 years, during which it sank twice, in 1979 and 1992. Only after it was retrieved from Rose Harbour at the southern end of the Haida Gwaii archipelago did it come south to its current U.S. owner Gary Filizetti. Says Jenkins: “It’s just fascinating to me that it’s still going after all that rough treatment.” (Photo: Courtesy Bob Kobzey)

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)

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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