While the provenance of the aircraft was known, its design contained some mechanical puzzles. For example, directional control came from a movable empennage, not from rudders, ailerons, or warpable wings. “We finally figured out that Stephens was trying to get around the Wright brothers’ wing warping,” says Eggert. “He wanted to compete for aeronautical patents.”
Having gained possession of the Steco, and one of Stephens’ 1909 cars, the homeless museum was forced to put the crates back in storage. Then, in 1998, the relic was lent out to be restored for the Heritage Halls Museum in Owatonna, Minnesota. When that didn’t work out, Eggert and colleagues retrieved the aircraft, disassembled it, and shipped it back to Blaine, where American Wings Air Museum offered 1,600 square feet of floor space.
That was in the winter of 2002. Since then, the Steco has been gradually metamorphosing into what the restorers believe was its original form. Last June, Eggert ran up the Steco’s Gnome Omega rotary engine half a dozen times. “It started beautifuly each time,” he says. In time, Eggert hopes to wheel the whole machine out, its “first time in daylight since 1914.”
A few businesses reside happily at Anoka-Blaine. Dan White runs a restoration shop. Today he’s winding up some work on Herrick’s Stinson Model A tri-motor, a low-wing monoplane wearing old American Airlines livery. “It took a guy seven years hauling the airplane out of the forest, using a Caterpillar and big skid,” says White.
White is in the middle of restoring seven Super Cubs, building new ones, and finishing up a Howard DGA. He learned the restoration art by rebuilding a Stearman for himself. How many airplanes has he done all together? “Oh my gosh,” he says, “probably 25 Cubs, over 20 Stearmans, then all these one-of-a-kind airplanes for Greg. Over a hundred. We can do anything. Most of the stuff that comes in doesn’t usually fly in. One guy brought in almost a whole airplane in garbage bags. A lot of this stuff is done strictly from blueprints. People bring me plans, I build the airplane.”
Helping White is 27-year-old Melissa Lund, who, he says, “is good on the English wheel,” which they use to roll sheet metal into complex contours like cowlings and wing panels. She did the Kreutzer tri-motor’s cowlings, which look like hammered silver.
In one of the smaller, older hangars, Mike Rawson, a compact, bearded man, is restoring an A-25, a rare Army version of the Navy’s Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. “The first bunch of fragments came out of Lake Washington, in Seattle,” Rawson says. “It’s the only one in the world right now. Hoping to finish it in three months.” It will be airworthy, but it will fly only as cargo en route to the Air Force museum in Ohio.
Patrick Harker, resident prodigy at Anoka County-Blaine, presides over the aircraft at C&P Aviation, another restoration shop housed in a huge structure that locals call the Cargill Hangar, after its corporate owner. This laid-back, 30-something connoisseur is said to be the kind of craftsman who finds tools that are no longer used to do things that are no longer done on airplanes that are no longer built. And what he restores, he flies.
On the gleaming floor sit a restored 1951 Grumman Albatross, a burnished aluminum L-13A with a wooden prop grained like a fine piece of furniture, a couple of Russian jet trainers, and a 1941 Waco UPF-7 biplane restored by Dan White. In a further cavernous room, a rare Boeing L-15 Scout, one of only a dozen built, waits to be recalled to life. The major work in progress is a P-82 Twin Mustang, which Harker figures will take him three years. “North American airplanes are easy to work on,” he says. “No fancy stuff. A Mustang, T-6, B-25—all have similar features.”
Doug Weske and his father, Paul, have fashioned another kind of warbird nest: a center for Russian L-29s and L-39s—jets that have won the hearts (and wallets) of American pilots. Paul Weske struck up a relationship with a retired colonel in the Russian air force and began importing L-29s. Now “people come here from all over for Russian airplanes and parts,” says Doug. “There are eight L-29s on the field.”