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A Perfect Piper L-4
2016 EAA SWEEPSTAKES AIRPLANE (From Sport Aviation - November 2015)
By Jim Busha, EAA 119684
CARETAKER OF HISTORY
Colin Powers, EAA 65696, of La Pine, Oregon, was born in Northern California and grew up during WWII with a very limited view of the war effort because of his remote location, but that all changed one day on a secluded lake. “I was 7 or 8 years old,” said Colin, “and I recall seeing a B-24 Liberator that buzzed us, lumbering low over a lake that I was on, and my young eyes were locked on the four-engine bomber as I tracked it to the horizon. I can still visualize it today, and it really made an impression on me.”
After Colin graduated from college he worked for General Dynamics in tool design for the F-102 and F-106 programs and then got involved with the Convair 880 jetliner before moving into the electronics field as a mechanical engineer.
After retiring he volunteered at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum and worked on the Spruce Goose with 30 others and eventually became its director of restorations, working on some historic
pieces of aviation.
“The more I did it the more I got hooked,” said Colin. “I have my own Cessna 195 restoration but did it as a custom airplane. Although it looked good and won some awards, I felt that I did it all wrong and should have restored it back to factory original condition including paint, interior, and so on. So when I did my first L-4 project, an H model, I really dug deep into making it as original as I could because it was important for to me to preserve our nation’s history. (In 2005 Colin was awarded the Rolls-Royce National Aviation Heritage Invitational trophy for his L-4.) Little did I realize it at the time, over 20 years ago during that restoration, that I would find my next L-4 project basically right under my nose.”
Colin needed some parts for his H model and called a gentleman named Jim Hayden who had a J model in Idaho stored in his barn.
“The first time I laid eyes on that old L-4, I kept after Jim for the next 20 years trying to coax it out of his hands and into mine,” said Colin. “The more I learned about Jim’s J model the more I knew I had to have it. I was intrigued with its history; it was an airplane that had truly left the States during the war and [was] located in the combat theater of operations. Of the thousands of L-4s sent overseas, there are only a handful that survived the war. The ones that saw combat in Europe are rare, but the ones from the Pacific theater of operations are even a rarer find. I knew its historic significances and really wanted to turn the hands of time back to 1945 on that L-4.”
HISTORY OF PIPER L-4J SERIAL NO. 13800
Manufactured by Piper Aircraft of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, on June 19, 1945, it was accepted by the U.S. Army on July 3, 1945, and assigned U.S. Army Registration 45-5060. It was shipped by rail to Alameda, California, on July 13, 1945, and departed San Francisco by ship on August 2, 1945, and was sent to the Pacific theater of operations.
“The major battle on Saipan occurred from June 15 to July 9, 1945,” said Colin. “The U.S. 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and the U.S. Army 2nd Division invaded the island. Included on the island assault were the Marine Observation Squadrons VMO-2 and VMO-4 operating liaison aircraft. Even though the war officially ended in early September 1945, a group of 46 Japanese soldiers held out in the mountains until finally surrendering on December 1, 1945. Piper L-4J 45-5060 may have been used to drop leaflets to affect the surrender of the Japanese soldiers.”
Twelve months after the war ended it was declared surplus and sold to a Navy ensign for the sum of $400 via bill of sale dated September 18, 1946. The bill of sale indicated the aircraft was assembled but in poor condition.
On July 4, 1948, a letter was sent to the U.S. Department of Commerce from an L.C. Pleger, a U.S. Navy Reserve ensign, asking for help in getting L-4J U.S. Army Registration 45-5060 registered so he could fly it in the United States. The L-4 was initially assigned U.S. registration NC1227N, which later became N1227N.
“After returning to the U.S., Piper L-4J was registered by the CAA as a J-3C-65 and went through a number of different owners,” said Colin. “For a short time it was even converted to a tricycle gear configuration. Eventually they came to their senses and changed it back to its original tailwheel look.”
But the modifications continued as the original 65-hp Continental engine was replaced with a C-85, and it was then converted into a sprayer. With the addition of a hopper it was transformed into a crop duster. “That only lasted for 80 hours before the original 65-hp engine was placed back on it. It was flown around the state of Idaho until 1968 until the wings were damaged in a wind storm. It was acquired by Jim, and he basically stored it all those years until he got sick of me pestering him for it as he finally let me talk him out of it in 2011.”
SAVING A GRASSHOPPER
When Colin first saw his new purchase it was no more than a dust-covered bare-frame fuselage perched up in the rafters.
“The wings were a mess, but the tail feathers were all there,” said Colin. “The struts were there as well as the landing gear, but everything was disassembled. I knew this was a valuable artifact, an actual piece of our nation’s history during a time of great crisis, and although I paid top dollar for it, I thought it was worth every penny to help preserve this historic treasure.”
Acquiring the L-4 in 2011 Colin began with the restoration of the fuselage frame first.
“The original cowling was there, but it was a complete mess as it had cracks all over it,” said Colin. “I decided that all that original sheet metal was nothing but scrap, so I bought everything new that was made out of metal. New cowlings top, bottom, and boot along with a new 12-gallon fuel tank. I also purchased new wing leading edges. Most of the parts were purchased from Univair, with
some other parts bought from Wag-Aero. I also bought a new instrument panel from Clyde ‘The Cub Doctor’ Smith, and it looks factory fresh.”
As far as the wings went, Colin knew he needed everything new: spars, ribs, and tip bows. Colin bought the ribs from Dakota Cub. In selecting the spars, which are made from Douglas fir, he stayed close to home and bought these in Oregon. When Colin bought the project the fuselage had been sandblasted and primed.
“I took a small pick hammer along the lower longerons first, tapping away looking for any rust or corrosion,” Colin said.
“Finding none I primed it in olive drab and then began applying fabric to the fuselage—interior first and then the bottom and then the sides.
“I used the Stewart system of covering and really enjoyed that product because it’s nontoxic and was easy to work with. I chose a generic paint scheme with markings similar to when they assigned these airplanes to a battalion. They gave them a letter code of A, B, or C, so naturally I went with the letter C.”
With the fuselage done Colin manufactured new floorboards out of marine-grade multi-layer plywood. To add to his factory fresh theme Colin sent all the original instruments back to Keystone in
Pennsylvania and had those all overhauled.
“The throttles and brake cylinders were usable so those were cleaned and reinstalled,” said Colin.
With the original Piper L-4 material list in hand, Colin combed through it and ordered all new material.
“I used all stainless steel cables and all brand new AN hardware, which today you can only get in gold Alodine,” said Colin. “But back in the day it was class C type 2 plating, which is a silver color. So to try to keep it as original as possible I sent all the hardware over to an FAA-approved plating shop and had it re-plated to replicate the 1945 look.”
With the fuselage all covered with all new glass installed and the wings built, Colin turned his attention to the engine.
“The engine had been overhauled before I bought it,” said Colin. “It’s the same Continental A-65-8 engine that came with it from the factory, and when I bought the project it only had 1,100 total time hours on it. Before it was reinstalled it was overhauled again.”
Colin also purchased a brand new Sensenich wood climb prop, and when he ordered it he asked them to put the original decal on the prop that they used back in 1945.
“I also decided to place a telescoping antenna that was used late in the war as radios became smaller,” he said. “I found an original one on eBay, and it extends through the plexiglass—I have never flown with it extended as I didn’t want to take the chance of it vibrating and cracking the glass greenhouse.”
As the L-4 came together it was apparent that Colin was accomplishing his goal of originality so it was only natural that he went with the Desser remake of the smooth tire—again to give it its period look of authenticity. It also became apparent to his wife, June, that this project was all consuming as well.
“It actually took over my life,” said Colin, “because I wanted everything to look as if it was from 1945 right off the Piper assembly line. From a dull drab paint job, to making sure no tie wraps were used, to assuring that the safety wire is brass and all the screws are slotted—they didn’t have Phillips heads back then. It’s the devil in the detail. One unique thing I learned in doing this project was that all the feed-through holes in the firewall are packed with putty—the mechanics simply wadded a bunch up and packed it tightly around wires or hoses coming through.
“It’s a definite labor of love, but I could have never done any of it without the support of my wife, June. I worked on it almost every day at my shop, and she was okay with not seeing me for most of the day because she knew how much joy working on airplanes brings me.”
The project was finished and flown in May 2015 after a 47-year hibernation as Colin performed the test flight.
“For me it’s more about the journey; doing the research, hunting for parts, talking with historians, and laying my hands on these time capsules is more enjoyable than actually flying these airplanes,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong they are fun to fly, cheap to operate at less than 5 gallons of gas an hour, and insuring them is relatively inexpensive. But restoring them and making history come alive is what drives me. Now my biggest dilemma after finishing this airplane and watching it become the newest EAA sweepstake airplane for 2016 is asking the question, ‘What am I going to do now?’ Of course, the easy answer is find another project!
“My hope is that whoever wins this airplane will appreciate the history of it and quickly realize that they are not just an airplane owner but a custodian of our nation’s history.”
The introduction of the liaison airplanes and the contributions made by the brave men who flew them for the war effort was greatly overlooked, misunderstood, and generally dismissed by most. This attitude seems to go back as far as 1941 with the beginning of the program itself; the thinking was that is if you didn’t fly a fighter or a bomber, you were somehow less worthy. The attitude back then was simple; there was no way that the U.S. Army was going to employ a flimsy tube and fabric airplane as a frontline piece of equipment. But the war games during early and mid 1941 proved the naysayers wrong. In the summer of 1941, with a world war knocking at America’s door, the U.S. Army was itching for a low and slow observation plane. The Army wanted one that could not only loiter
near and over the hidden enemy, but when spotted the crew could then coordinate from above via radio with artillery units on the ground to rain destruction down upon their foe. During the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941, three of the big names in aviation, Piper, Aeronca, and Taylorcraft, showed up to play, each with a proven candidate, in hopes of winning a lucrative military contract.
Able to land and take off from improvised fields, roads, and pastures, the term “grasshopper” was adopted in Louisiana and credited to Gen. Innis Swift when he saw one of the lightplanes hopping and bounding off the uneven ground and remarked, “It looks like a grasshopper trying to take flight.” The name stuck and eventually the military was convinced it needed these airplanes as much as it needed fighters and bombers. During World War II, Allied liaison aircraft participated in every theater of operations with the United States Army being the primary operator of these utilitarian aircraft. From artillery spotting to forward observation platforms to VIP transports to flying ambulances, the L-Birds were called upon to fly a variety of combat missions.
Predominantly it was both the Piper (L-4) and Stinson (L-5) aircraft companies that supplied the vast majority of these frontline airplanes. Probably the best known of the group is the cute “little yellow J-3 Cub” that was turned into a killing machine when it wore a coat of olive drab. By far the Piper L-4 was the most widely used L-Bird of the war, and many of the liaison pilots were more than capable of raining down more destructive firepower on Axis troops than a group of B-17s or B-24s could. All it took was a radio call to the artillery positions on the ground.
One L-4 named Miss Me?! also participated in one of the last aerial victories of the war. Its pilot and observer, using their semiautomatic pistol, shot down a German observation plane in April of 1945. Not to be outdone, the crew of the L-4 landed next to the wrecked German aircraft and captured its flight crew. Try that in a P-51 Mustang!
So what do you think? Are you willing to step back in time and help preserve this nation’s history all the while enjoying the freedom of flight? The very same freedom men and women sacrificed their lives for more than 70 years ago. It doesn’t matter if you send one ticket or 100—although you increase your chances of winning this beauty with every ticket—it would be a crying shame to let these memories fade and miss out on the untold aerial adventures that lay ahead by not even entering the sweepstakes. Besides that, you would look pretty cool decked out in a leather flight jacket and silk scarf as you patrol the skies in search of pancake breakfast fly-ins and those lurking Cessnas and Pipers trying to attack you out of the sun!