Lindbergh’s Trainer: The Brunner-Winkle Bird

The plane that taught Anne Morrow Lindbergh to fly is flying again.

During a July 2012 jaunt, pilot Bob Newhouse raises his hands to prove that Fichera, in the front cockpit, is flying the 1930s-era aircraft. (Robert Dawson)
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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.”

Fichera’s vision for the project—to have the airplane flying regularly—is almost complete. The Bird received its airworthiness certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2012, and flew again last July, with family friend Bob Newhouse at the controls. Now Anne plans to have Newhouse take the Bird to fly-ins for antique aircraft at Horn Point, Maryland, on May 18 and Blakesburg, Iowa, in August.

Paul Glenshaw, director of the Discovery of Flight Foundation, last wrote “Kings of the Air” (Feb./Mar. 2013).

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor and writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.

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